A thoroughly empty nest

Chuck and I finally made it up to Monica Meadows while the larch trees were in full golden glory
Fiona’s commute last summer made it easy for me to do weekly bike rides over the pass, a gorgeous 52 km one way trip


We’ve had piles of barred owls nesting around our property lately
The grocery-shopping rig
Summer Symphony video recording on location. Final videos here.
The productive end of last year’s garden, which did fairly well given the heat dome
Upgraded my mountain bike to this much lighter sweetie
Still knitting in spurts of obsessiveness punctuated by long fallow periods

As mid-2022 approaches and we are facing the likelihood of not having any of our four kids “home” for the first summer ever, it seems we really are empty nesters now. We still have an unbelievably ancient dog though, if that counts. Limpet is almost 17 and a large breed mix whose life expectancy was originally pegged at somewhere around 12-13. She’s completely deaf, fairly arthritic and both forgetful and anxious, but is leading her best life under the circumstances. She takes an interest in the cat, and her dinner, and in going out to inspect sights and smells in the yard dozens of times a day.

This elderly canine keeps us fairly tied to home, as if COVID hadn’t already done that. Thanks to an attentive house-sitter we did get away for a week for visits-with-ageing-mother-and-mother-in-law last fall, but most travel dreams are still on hold. There is also still staffing uncertainty at the health care centre. Chuck is working solo 10-15 days a month, then three half-days a week for the remainder. Contracts are tentative, in flux, so recruiting new people is difficult at the moment.

So we — me, especially — have pretty much been at home for the past two years. At home meaning on the property, rarely even going to the village for errands. Thankfully the kids have continued to adultify beautifully and find ways to live their lives despite the pandemic.

Erin got tenured at the Calgary Philharmonic and as such has felt secure throughout the pandemic even with stretches of minimal to no performing. The first year consisted of occasional carefully-managed small-format live-stream performances. But as the pandemic has waxed and waned the orchestra has been able to do more, culminating in a return to full live programming last month. She spent a good chunk of the first two COVID summers here in the Kootenays with us and with Fiona, since the orchestra is always on hiatus for July and August, and helped out last summer at our modified Suzuki Institute.

Noah landed a full-time job with EA Games early in the pandemic, and has been working from home of course. His warm, diplomatic interpersonal style seems to bring him to the fore when online project/team communication issues arise and he feels like he is doing well not only in his personal work but in navigating the HR environment. EA has a massive flagship campus in Burnaby with piles of cool tech/rec amenities, but he has not yet even stepped through the doors despite “working there” for two years and living just up the road. They finally mailed him his security ID badge about six months into the job. Maybe someday he’ll use it!

Sophie never did go to England to take up the job she was offered with Arup in London. The start date got soft with the economic downturn and travel restrictions at the start of the pandemic, and while waiting for the provisional January 2021 start, she interviewed with Tesla and got offered an immediate position that was much more lucrative. So she’s been living in the Bay Area for the last 18 months and is working on the power-train for the Tesla Cybertruck. She’s living life as a California girl, with lots of UBC engineering alumni friends among her co-workers and friends.

Fiona is doing a double major in animal physiology and bioethics and this year is living off-campus with a couple of friends while working part-time in a molecular genetics lab. Last summer she came back home to BC, commuting to a nearby community to work as a veterinary assistant. But this summer she is going to increase her work hours at the genetics research lab and stay in Toronto.

Last summer was a big growth year for the garden. Not so much in terms of production, though that increased substantially as well. But mostly in that I managed to finally pretty much beat the goutweed, and did a lot of soil remediation and double-digging, so that by the end of the fall I had more than doubled the available cultivation area. This year is looking like it will involve a lot less spading and forking and screening. Phew!

We became landlords last spring, renting out the Nelson house to a nice trio of young adults, friends of our kids. That lease is now expiring, they’re moving away, and we’re looking at putting the place on the market. I loved living part-time in Nelson when Sophie and Fiona were in school, but it makes little sense to keep the house now.

Last summer, with Fiona needing my car full-time, I ended up using the e-bike as my primary means of transportation (awe had originally bought it to help Sophie and Fiona get around for work and school when they were too young to drive.) When Fiona handed back the car keys at the end of August, I decided to see if I could continue to manage without driving. I made a resolution to not use the car for local travel and see how far into winter I could manage. It’s now April and I still haven’t broken the resolution. I have driven the car to Calgary and Vancouver to pick up / drop off the various kids at their various airports and apartments. And I’ve driven it to Cranbrook four times for symphony gigs. I had a couple of appointments in Nelson that I drove to. And twice I have driven out of town for meetups with friends (once to ski, once to bike). I lent the car to some friends for a few weeks. But around town, all the grocery shopping and local errands have been done on the bike with round trips of 7 to 20 km and with 200 metres of climbing on the return leg. It can make for quite an expedition mentality if a parcel arrives or a meeting is scheduled on a snow day or after a melt-refreeze cycle. But it has been a great challenge, and every time I logged bike mileage equivalent to a tank of gas, I spent the money on better winter cycling gear. That has made all the difference. For next year I would like to get at least one studded tire, and I have my eye on a nice big weather-proof tote to fit into the rear rack.

Am I at the point of selling the car? No, not quite. I would likely have to give up symphony playing, and there wouldn’t be a good solution for getting the kids here for holiday visits. (Erin and Noah don’t drive at all, Sophie lives a 20-hour drive away so flying is more practical for her, and Fiona also needs to fly, with the airports 4-8 hours away.) Chuck does not have the same interest in active transportation, so he would not be amenable to using the eBike for work for a couple of winter days if I, say, had to take his Tacoma to Calgary for an overnight to pick up Erin and Fiona for the holidays. Unfortunately the nearest car share or car rental place is more than 100 km away with only a weekly public transit connection, so that’s not a practical solution in our rural situation.

But maybe, if he is working less in the future, he could do without a vehicle the few days a year when I have to drive somewhere. We have pretty much decided that the long game is to trade both our vehicles in on an EV that we can share, and equip with a utility trailer for occasional runs to the dump or to haul bikes, appliances, furniture etc.. We’re just not quite at that point yet.

Other things I’ve been doing:

We’re hoping to get off propane for heating the house in the next year by moving to heat pumps. So I got a home energy audit done and am researching ways to retrofit our funky slab-on-grade-log-rectangle-melded-to-various-differently-constructed-additions home. Ideally we will find a system that allows us to remedy the kitchen-is-always-so-freakin-cold problem. (All my jackets end up with sleeves gunked up with oil spatters and stains from wearing them while cooking.)

Despite her consistently conscientious public health habits, Fiona brought omicron with her when she flew from Toronto to Calgary en route to family Christmas. We rapid-tested her due to a slightly scratchy throat the morning after her flight, at Erin’s place in Calgary. This meant that we avoided bringing it back to the Kootenays to infect the rest of the family, which was super fortunate since Chuck was covering the ER, the medical clinic and the nursing home on his own at the time. It kind of ruined Christmas, though. Erin and Fiona never did make it home, and I only managed to get two days around New Year’s with Sophie and Noah. Better than nothing though!

I joined the board of an organization that is creating a community workspace: office co-working, meeting and storage space for non-profits and community social groups, a commercial kitchen for food production and catering, as well as the possibility of hosting workshops, pop-up restaurants and other events. It’s crazy complicated and a million-dollar project but we are getting close to full implementation of our larger vision. In the meantime we’re administering temporary shared spaces.

The Suzuki institute continues to iterate out each summer according to public health restrictions. There is definitely a lot of momentum that has been lost and it is possible that due to personal/life-stage changes amongst the faculty and administration it is nearing the end of its life cycle. We’ll see how things feel after this summer.

I’m still working away at piano and Japanese with persistent inefficiency. I’m getting close to halfway through Duolingo Japanese and I can play Doctor Gradus al Parnassum by Debussy passably at 132 to the quarter note. Even middling daily work eventually produces some progress.

I didn’t ski much this winter because of my local-driving moratorium. But I have continued to do a fair bit of virtual cycling. My first smart trainer got broken in an early pandemic moving accident, but I managed to replace it with a Tacx Flux S the following year, and that kept me going through the winter. Despite the year off, I’ve put almost 20,000 virtual kilometres on my Zwift app account since I starting using that platform. Our community gym just reopened this week for the first time since the pandemic began, and I hope to use it to augment my endurance cycling with some strength training which I figure, since I am nearing 60, is important.

I have had to stop dreaming about travelling, as the frustration of unrealized dreams was wearing me down. Hoping that someday I can’t start dreaming again, but I’m no longer counting on “soon.” I’m trying for a road trip to Northern California for some cycling and to see Sophie, but I had originally planned this for last October and circumstances have continued to interfere every month since.

COVID-19: the first six months

I had a haircut scheduled. Fiona was supposed to be doing her driving road test in a few days. It was March 17th, 2020.

A week later my hair was longer than ever, and it would continue to grow for another 12 weeks, and Fiona was still a student driver. And then, with gloves for gas stops and 48 hours’ worth of food packed for each trip, I was driving first to Calgary to retrieve Erin and then to Vancouver to retrieve Sophie. Erin’s career as an orchestral violinist was over for the time being. Sophie’s graduation with her Mechanical Engineering degree became a bit of a non-event with everything moved online. Fiona moved home to New Denver, being between/after jobs anyway. Noah stayed in Surrey to maintain access to tech tools and high speed internet, but the rest of us were home together, and we were a family of five suddenly.

And so it stayed, for many months.

Sophie got a summer job. Erin got a partial income sorted out. Fiona decided on a university (Toronto), knowing everything for the fall was in flux. And we stayed home together, and almost nothing happened.

I began writing long emails to my extended family again regularly, if only to give my mom, and perhaps, I confess, myself something to look forward to every few days. And so in Sent Items I have a journal of sorts. It speaks of pandemic ‘adventures’: learning to use Zoom, knitting and more knitting, trying to share rural internet out amongst five people all with their meetings and interviews and lessons and lectures and collaborations, buying normal amounts of toilet paper while trying to avoid feeling judged for potential hoarding, nurturing the offspring of Noah’s sourdough starter to daily fruition, growing seeds on the windowsill and then a garden that beat out last year’s by a mile, spinning almost a kilogram of yarn, braving the grocery store those first couple of times with a shopping list that I hoped would last a week but never would because who is used to cooking for five adults — not me!, sewing masks, so many masks, from fetching fabric prints featuring colourful germs, and learning how to be a family again with kids who are actual adults, but don’t have actual adult lives. Because COVID. It went surprisingly okay.

And of course we cancelled SVI, which created a massive space in my life called “summer.” Who knew? It was outrageously  relaxing! But also sad and empty. I’ve finally relinquished the last of my violin teaching because our internet really isn’t up to the task of Zoom lessons, and my orchestra gigs are gone. I’m really missing all the music.

I have kept plugging away at filling the space. Cooking for all those people. Gardening as much as I can manage in the space and season available. A few epic mountain adventures (up to the New Denver Glacier and also to Idaho Peak, both self-powered from the bottom, both longstanding personal dreams/challenges). I’ve joined a few committees and action teams: for local road-biking, for trail-planning, for virtual Suzuki institute guidelines and best practices, for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Suzuki world. I keep plugging away at online learning of my own, like UofA’s Intro to Indigenous Studies and Japanese language learning for no particular reason. I practice piano (Bach’s 5th French Suite for the win!) with enduring inefficiency. And I dedicate a pile of time to the BC home learning network, which has seen astronomical growth thanks to panicked parents pulling their kids from schools due to fear or elevated risk factors.

Also, we have a greenhouse!

In my mental life-plan travel was delayed until after university, and then until after student loans, and then until after babies, and then until after homeschooling, and then until after Chuck could extricate himself from 24/7 practice. Which he did, last year. There was a trip to Ontario in September 2019, and a trip to Baja in November 2019 (both with bikes!), and there were gestating plans for Utah (road and MTB) in spring 2020 and onwards from there to places like Majorca and Croatia and who knows where. I own the bike travel crate! I have the lightweight bike bags and gear!

But it was not to be. I regret my deferred-gratification approach to travel. Chuck did a fair bit of travelling as a young adult. I got my first and only passport stamp last November entering Mexico. I was ready to fill those pages!

So instead we have a greenhouse.

I won’t complain. It is an amazing greenhouse: like a cathedral dedicated to the glory of plants. I am so stoked to make use of it next spring. And I love where we live. And I love that we got to spend an unexpected five months with our three girls.

Now they are gone, though. Sophie is off adventuring with friends, in a COVID-responsible way of course, while continuing to investigate employment opportunities. Hopefully abroad, but anything international has its challenges these days. She has a job, supposedly, in the UK in the New Year, but who knows… Erin is back in Calgary, doing occasional small chamber music performances with the CPO. Noah is working full-time at EA Games, making a grown-up living. Fiona did finally get her driver’s license. She has now headed to Toronto for some sort of weird new life at University there, studying things vaguely health-science-oriented.

Who would have guessed that the finally empty nest would arrive this way? I had long made my peace with staying local, with enjoying the natural environment right here where we live. That was how it was for almost three decades and I was okay with it. In the back of my mind, though, I was quietly dreaming of a day when the world would open up for me. It is hard to keep waiting.

Back to the garden

Although I’ve kept herbs and occasional greens growing next to the deck, I haven’t grown a proper garden since (checks blog archives… ) 2008. That must have been the point at which the water line broke, and I started taking on more of the summer Suzuki institute administration, and the kids were losing interest in growing things.

A lot can happen in 11 years. Especially in the realm of goutweed. Somehow this vegetation from hell sneaked onto our property with the gift of some rhubarb about 20 years ago, and with me not beating it back on an annual basis it has taken over. It’s not quite kudzu or Japanese knotweed, but it’s got to be close.

The trench: it’s a lot deeper than it looks!

The effort to reclaim some sort of a garden began months ago when I started digging a trench for a replacement water line. It had to be deep enough to facilitate winterizing, and it had to go under and through countless tree roots because … well, the forest. So it was quite a slog.

Next, the fence. I figured I could do the first bits of planting and fence immediately afterwards, but the dog-who-digs had other ideas. So the fence had to be completed first. I dug a few posts, stretched some salvaged fencing, banged things together.

My quick-and-dirty greenhouse, April 28

And then one day at the end of April, with a few tomato and pepper starts languishing on the dining room table, I looked out at the frame from the old trampoline and the liner from the ice rink and thought “those could be a greenhouse!” So I set to work. Within 48 hours I had a passable greenhouse. I used some scrap poles and lumber, and bits of garbage ABS pipe, and some rebar scraps and a webbing tie-down strap and some 3M house tape.

Greenhouse interior, May 4

The only money I (eventually) spent was $15 on a zipwall doorway that I cut into one side of the tarp. The greenhouse is definitely not pro-quality: it’s fairly large and not insulated or at all air-tight and therefore doesn’t really do much to protect plants from the cold at night. And because the tarp is white rather than clear, on overcast days it doesn’t get all that warm. But it has been so much better than nothing, and it took my little tomato-starts from spindly 3″ sprouts to bursting out of gallon pots begging to be planted in the space of three weeks.

My beautiful eggplant with it’s purple-veined leaves and pretty flowers

I’m especially pleased with my eggplant since I had never tried to grow one before, knowing they need a long warm season. I bought it as a seedling as I hadn’t had the forethought to plant one in late March, not having had my greenhouse epiphany by the point. I’ve nurtured it along, and it is doing really well. It is now setting fruit. In June already!

It’s a tomato jungle in those tiny beds. June 21.

The goutweed is still the bane of my existence. I’ve dug out kilos of rhizomes, double-screened a lot of soil, organic-mulched large areas to a depth of 6 inches (only to have the damned stuff grow through without a second thought), plastic-mulched the crap out these same areas, and in this year’s reclaimed beds I’ve dug and pulled and weeded and mowed and mulched and yanked and mowed and pulled. And still I feel like I’m only making minor headway. I have two small beds for my (very crowded) tomatoes and peppers, and another for some horseradish, and that’s it. And every day I pull dozens of goutweed sprouts from those same beds that I’ve dug over and screened so meticulously. Although the sprouts are looking increasingly anemic, which I take solace in.

For their first year the bloobs are doing pretty well! We should get enough for a wee tart.

I also put in a new garden in the lawn between the fruit trees for some strawberry plants, and blueberry, raspberry, blackberry and haskap bushes I bought.  I had put together a berry plant order from a distributor with some other locals. A lot of people jumped on board: I ended up taking delivery of almost 200 bushes late one evening! Thankfully they were mostly for other people.

In the kitchen garden area I’ve got the usual herbs and greens going but also some pretty things. So that area is kind of attractive again too.

Because I didn’t imagine my way to a greenhouse until almost May, I missed the boat a bit this year. And the fencing, goutweed-from-hell and water line slowed things down a bit. Hopefully next year I’ll be that much further ahead and will be able to make more of a go of things. For this year it looks like we’ll get some fruiting nightshades, that blueberry tart and not a whole lot else. But it’s pretty. And it’s progress.


Are we done raising children? It almost feels like it.

This is the third year with all three older kids living and working far from home. Fiona turned 16 this week and is incredibly self-sufficient, living 90 minutes from home. She finished her high school graduation requirements last week, though she’s taking a couple more courses this semester to fill out her year. She’s not financially independent yet of course, but she rarely needs her parents otherwise. We bought a eBike last summer, a fat bike with decent cargo capacity. That allowed her to be much more independent through the summer (when she was working in New Denver full-time) and fall (when she was able to zip around to grocery shop and get to social events and activities across town regardless of elevation gains. Now that it’s winter she’s back on foot, using public transit or begging rides from older friends, but she gets along pretty well.

I’m spending one overnight a week in Nelson to touch base with Fiona. I always get in a couple of bike rides (fall & spring) or nordic skis (winter) while I’m there. But mostly I’m home in New Denver with Chuck which is a nice change from the past few years. We eat meals together, we’ve been skiing together on occasion, and basically we’re just in each others’ lives a good bit more.

I’m also finding myself a bit more involved in community life than I have been for a while. I’ve got a friendly motley crew of older ladies I ski with once or twice a week in New Denver, and I have a bunch of cycling friends in the area whom I ride with and occasionally travel to events with during the warm part of the year. I’ve started doing adult-things rather than parent-things: workshops, movies, ordinary volunteering, social stuff. I did a women’s mountain bike clinic in the summer and I’m involved with the Nelson Nordic Masters Wednesday Ski Nights, as well as volunteering with the club in various capacities. I’m thinking about putting in a proper garden again for the first time in many years, since I’ll actually be here to care for it, though this depends on whether we get the water supply sorted.

Add to that a bit of violin teaching, practicing, my symphony schedule in Cranbrook, the Valhalla Fine Arts board of directors and website work, and SVI administration, as well as dabbling in a bunch of sedentary hobbies (spinning, knitting, Japanese, piano) and I feel like I’m pleasantly but not overwhelmingly busy.

What I really wish for is travel. I have a beautiful bike and most of the bike-packing gear I’d need. I just have to wait for Chuck to extricate himself from full-time-and-a-bit practice at the clinic here. He hopes to segué into something more part-time or intermittent, but governmental health-care management is making it virtually impossible to attract another doc to the area right now. Hopefully things will shift within the next year though. And after that of course I’ll have to convince him to do something other than putter around the property when he actually gets time off. That may prove to be the bigger challenge!

My big kid’s big job

Erin was poised to finish her Masters in Violin Performance at New England Conservatory this past May. We anticipated that she would eventually land a full-time orchestra position, but the classical music world being what it is, we knew that would likely take several years of auditioning, taking stop-gap fellowship positions with training orchestras, freelancing, teaching students here and there, subbing where possible, trying to make connections and keep building a resumé. A stressful life without much security, but it’s typical.

So imagine my surprise to get a text from her even before she actually graduated saying “So, I just won a job.”

She had flown back to Canada for the international audition round with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and … won it! Straight into a real full-time lucrative position from grad school. And a position that puts her closer to home (7 1/2 hours’ drive) by far than she has been since she was 16.

She had a summer fellowship at Tanglewood which she fulfilled because why not? … she had done it the previous summer and knew it would be an awesome experience (and some of it in the concertmaster’s chair) with some great repertoire, an would fill her summer until the CPO job started after Labour Day.

At the end of August she flew to Calgary with her violin and two suitcases, having shed all other possessions, and started apartment-hunting. She doesn’t drive and doesn’t have any interest in getting a car; Calgary is a ridiculously car-oriented city and I wasn’t sure how easily she would find a walkable situation. But she did! Her apartment is fifteen minutes’ walk from the concert hall, near a park and a library and shops and cafés, a ten-minute jog from the riverfront network of running trails, and not too far from public transit routes.

The base salary is more than generous for a newly-graduated single young adult, and there’s a fair bit of additional work (and pay!) available what with competition festivals, ballet gigs, livestreams and so on. Naturally she is picking up some chamber music gigs on the side as well.

Jeff & Theresa P., Sophie, Miranda, Erin, Noah, Chuck and Fiona

Last weekend we all went to Calgary to meet up with her. Sophie and Noah flew in from Vancouver, and Chuck and Fiona and I drove (through the night on the eastbound journey!) from the Kootenays. We stayed at a cool Airbnb loft suite and did a sort of family Thanksgiving weekend together, minus the turkey, and plus the Plotnicks. The weekend’s symphony program was Disney stuff so we didn’t bother going to hear them play. We’ll do that another time when there’s a more enticing program.

It was great to have everyone together for the first time in almost two years. And to see our musician ensconced in a self-sufficient, rewarding, stable situation. Who’d have guessed, so soon?


I bought a little spinning wheel. It’s about the size of an SLR camera and weighs a fraction as much. It came from a Kickstarter campaign I backed. I paid about $50 and like my other favourite Kickstarter reward, it delivered not just on time but early! It runs off DC power with a tiny little motor. Years ago I spent a couple of days experimenting with a borrowed treadle spinning wheel and some (in retrospect) appallingly poor-quality fleece. The result was some ‘rustic yarn,’ and the sense of gratification was short-lived. This time around I have used proper spinning-quality roving I purchased, and have made more of an effort to finesse my skills. I am doing much better, and am entirely smitten with the process. What’s most fascinating to me is the way the colours meld.


This shows the first stages of the progression. I start with a big pillow of fleece dyed in swaths of different colours, some quite bright and prominent. As I spin one strand at a time onto the bobbin the colours take turns, sometimes blending a bit as they do. Then, when I ply the strands together into a ball of yarn, the dark and light colours entwine each other as often as not, and the brights become tempered.

And then, finally, when the yarn is knitted up into a small project, the knitting creates even more blending and muting. This Scrunchable Scarf ended up being an amazing dapple of forest colours: moss, leaves, humus, lichen, bark and twigs. I would never have guessed how muted it would turn out from looking at the bold brights in the original roving.

When I chose fleece for my second project, I decided to try for something a bit lighter and brighter. I found some fun glittery stuff, but I could tell from my previous experience that the purples were likely to overwhelm the lighter oranges, pinks and silvers. So I paired it with half as much plain sunflower fleece. Here are the pre- and post-spinning results. It looks like an awful lot of yellow:

But here’s the result: still predominantly purple-pink, but with proper yellows peeking out from time to time. It is just about what I was expecting!

Here’s another thing: I YouTube-taught myself to solder, in order to install a reverse switch. The original way to reverse the direction (necessary for plying) was to put a figure-eight in the drive belt, but that was causing a fair bit of friction and was unnecessarily fiddly. So I Amazon’d me a DPTP switch and got all the wires going to the right places. And … it worked!

But I burned the motor out after just a few weeks. It’s a known issue with this little wheel if the uptake tension isn’t kept very low, exacerbated by the figure-eight drive belt issue I mentioned. They’re sending me a free replacement which is great, and I think I can avoid problems now that I have the reverse switch and know to minimize the tension. I hope it gets here soon; I’m missing the daily meditative colour-play.

Also, it’s obvious I need a full-size traditional wheel as well. Need. Yeah.

Ex-runner? Cyclist?

I’ve become whatever the female equivalent of the mamil (middle-aged man in lycra) is. I am obsessed with cycling. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since my last cycling-related post exactly a year ago. At that point I was all set up on Zwift and enjoying riding my aluminum tri-bike regularly, noting improvements in strength and endurance. I was hooked, but it was early days.

As usual my fitness program took a nosedive in July and August when the routine of the school year falls away and SVI work kicks into high gear, but with the exception of peak summer, I’ve been riding consistently, and hard. Although I did a bunch of fun big outdoor rides in the spring and late summer, the structured workouts and training programs I’ve done have been indoors. They have been based, as everything cycling is these days, around watts. My Stac trainer has a power meter which measures the work I’m putting out moment by moment and also allows me to derive the all-important FTP (functional threshold power), a measurement of the maximum watts I can average over an hour. Watts per kilogram of body weight is the most useful metric for estimating cycling performance potential. See how wonderfully geeky this is? A perfect fit for me!

Power output now (dark purple) vs. 9 months ago (light purple). My biggest improvements in sprinting (high power, short duration) but there are other gains too.

My FTP was about 130 watts when I started on Zwift, which at the time worked out to 2.24 w/kg. Now I’m at 176 watts, and being a bit lighter, that works out to 3.20 w/kg. This isn’t an amazing improvement compared to some people, as I was actually pretty fit when I started on the bike thanks to my running, but it’s a significant change. It has moved me from the lowest quartile among the Zwift women’s community to somewhere just above the middle overall. Which I figure isn’t bad for someone who is almost 55.

I’ve done a 6-week beginner FTP improvement program, bits and pieces of a 12-week program, a ton of semi-competitive group rides and group workouts, a 6-week time-trial team challenge and I’m almost done a challenging 4-week FTP booster program for more advanced cyclists. The most fun though was the Zwift Women’s Academy program during September and October. For the really talented but as-yet-undiscovered cyclists, Zwift Academy gave them a shot at a spot on a pro team. But the larger group of lesser mortals were welcome to participate as well. The program had a series of prescribed workouts, as well as the requirement that you participate in a couple of races and a bunch of group workouts.

ZWA Grad cap, worn proudly, alone, in the basement

The ratio of men to women on Zwift is probably still almost 10 to 1. There was a Zwift Men’s Academy running concurrently, but it didn’t get as much uptake: only about 4 times as many participants signed up in the Men’s Academy as the Women’s. And the men’s graduation rate was only half as high as the women’s (13% vs. 26%). There was some kind of magic at work amongst the women. The sense of community and mutual support that sprang up was pretty awesome and motivating. I earned my graduation cap and ZWA sparked my biggest improvements in power.

I upgraded my bike last spring to a used custom-built carbon-frame Norco Valence. (I sold the cute Felt tri-bike to a friend to help fund the upgrade.) And gradually I’ve kitted myself out with a bunch of other stuff that makes cycling even more fun, comfortable and enjoyable. I now have multiple sets of bibshorts, real road-biking shoes, a smart little Wahoo Bolt cycling computer mounted on my handlebars, an under-seat bag of tools and parts, prescrption cycling sunglasses and a couple of nice jackets for wind and rain protection. I ordered a fair bit of stuff from AliExpress, so it hasn’t been insanely expensive. Rather than paying close to $200 for a pair of bibshorts for example I’m paying $25. Since I ride several days in a row, and they’re worn without undergarments during a wickedly-sweaty activity, I need 5 or 6 pairs to avoid having to do laundry every night and to ensure that when I do run a load of sportswear laundry, I have an extra pair while the rest are hang-drying their thick gel-chamois. I’ve also discovered Nuu-Muu dresses which I love for outdoor rides (indoors I’m less modest) … and they work for almost anything: music performances, XC skiing, running, casual wear. They aren’t cheap, but I’ve gradually accumulated a collection.

The rocker plate

I also built myself a rocker plate for my indoor trainer. Since I’m putting 6000+ kilometres a year on my indoor trainer, I was persuaded by the rocker-plate aficionados in the Zwift community that from a comfort, realism and frame-strain standpoint allowing bike and trainer to sway just a little side to side like when it’s is being ridden outdoors was a good thing. I braved the lumber yard on my own, tied some decent rope knots to get two half-sheets of plywood home on the roof of my little Subaru, ordered pillow bearings (yeah, I had no idea what they were either until I started this) and sourced a hardened steel rod, and then set to work in the basement of the Nelson place with just a jigsaw and a hand drill. After a quick trip to Walmart for truck-bed spray paint and two playground balls, it was done. I’m pretty pleased with how it feels: it’s definitely more comfortable and realistic, something I appreciate for rides of more than an hour.

On an even more exciting note, the geeky Canadian engineers who invented and produced my Stac bike trainer have come up with an upgrade that will convert it to a controllable trainer. This is the feature that most Zwifters swear by. It means that when the virtual world presents you with a hill, the trainer automatically increases resistance proportionally, and the experience becomes, as they say, “truly immersive.” They tell me there is no going back once you’ve ridden a controllable trainer. They say Zwift (which I love as-is, as you might have guessed, even though all that happens when my avatar hits a hill is that her speed drops dramatically) is nothing without a controllable trainer. So I am really excited. I’ve pre-ordered the upgrade, and it should arrive sometime in the summer or early fall.

Throughout the past two winters I’ve also been XC skiing regularly, having bought a season pass at the club just outside of Nelson. Finally, after more than 20 years of wishing, I found some cheap (ex-rental) skate-ski gear and did a set of beginner skate-ski technique clinics. I still ski classic when terrain and conditions are more conducive to that style, but I do love skate-skiing. I’m not all that good at it yet, though I feel like the latter half of this season I’ve made some real progress. But I do love it! The feeling is so flowy and enjoyable.

Hello “spring!” Is it time for shorts yet?

So, running. My knee, which flared up for no particular reason in November 2016, had basically stopped me from running entirely by January 2017. The focus on cycling was an effort to deal with my grief and frustration over that reality. I finally went and saw the sports med doc in September and the verdict was as expected: age-related wear and tear with probably a bit of cartilage damage that might or might not get better spontaneously but wasn’t likely to benefit from arthroscopy (thankfully the big study that cast arthroscopy out of favour for knees like mine had just been published). So I pretty much stopped running. Maybe once every week or two I’d do an easy 5k, but the knee was always a bit sore and swollen for a couple of days afterward. I knew it would be foolish to do more.

During my first winter of skate-skiing, I could tell my knee was not all that happy with that motion either. This year, though, it didn’t seem to mind. I have a lot more strength in my upper leg muscles thanks to all the cycling work (my slim jeans don’t fit comfortably over my thighs any more, even though I’ve lost weight). So I started running semi-regularly again: twice a week, sometimes two days in a row, sometimes 10k instead of 5, sometimes a bit faster than “easy pace.”

Wonder of wonders, I think my knee is okay! Not perfect, but much improved, such that I can run regularly again. With winter abating I’ve gone out and run my old route near home recently and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fast I am. Without even pushing myself hard I have bested two of the times I set during the months I was training for the Vancouver Marathon that qualified me for Boston, when I was, I thought, in the best running shape of my life.

So maybe there’s hope that I can be a runner again, rather than an ex-runner. I love cycling too much to give it up so I imagine I’ll just mix the two.

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!

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!

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 3.39.02 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 3.36.44 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 3.40.32 PM
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.

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.

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.