Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year, Old Habits

Every New Year's Eve I do it: I resist the urge to make resolutions. I once read somewhere that it's a bad time of year to try and change habits, but I think it might just be that I've never liked the idea of feeling forced/coerced into doing something simply because others are doing it. I'm a rebel at heart I guess. An armchair rebel perhaps, but a rebel nonetheless.

Let's face it, most resolutions are broken within a few weeks. But maybe there are some kind of resolutions that really could work at this time of year. I'm sure that if I decided to, I would be able to keep a resolution that had me increase my chocolate intake, hug my dog more often, go for more/longer nature walks, or play more board games with the kids. So maybe I've just been looking at New Year's resolutions the wrong way.

What resolutions are truly worthy of us? Of course, that all just depends. And, what is the best timing for making changes in one's life? For some, it might be September. For others, the spring might be best. And some changes are best accomplished now.

So once again, while others worry about such things, I am going to approach the holiday in a mellow state of mind. My family and I will pull out our shoebox full of this past year's memories--ticket stubs, brochures from outings, photos, programs, business cards, awards, etc. and reminisce about the past year. We'll either visit with friends or go see the local fireworks display, then we'll come home and toast the new year quietly before heading off to bed. And we will not feel guilty at all.

Happy New Year! May 2011 bring you health, happiness, love, peace and joy.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Frankincense and Myrrh: Gifts of the Wise Men

Most of us know what gold is, but frankincense and myrrh are not nearly so well known, at least not to most of modern western society.
Frankincense and myrrh are resins from trees found in the Arabian peninsula. They are commonly powdered and burned, often along with spices such as cinnamon, as incense. Both resins were highly valued, possibly worth as much as or more than gold as they held (and still hold) medicinal, religious and cosmetic value.
Part of the symbolism and importance of the story of the Magi is that even wise, learned men of the time easily misunderstood the nature of the baby Messiah. What would have been appropriate gifts for your average king held little true value for an impoverished infant, except, perhaps for the parents to trade for necessities. It is a reminder that items of material value often hold little spiritual (or practical) worth. On the other hand, the spirit of honouring and gift giving itself is of great value.

This reminds me of all sorts of spin-offs; The Little Drummer Boy, The Gift of the Magi, The Littlest Star, The Littlest Angel, etc. The moral of each of these is that the true value of gift giving lies in the love that goes with it. In these days of rampant consumerism, gift cards, etc., many of us would do well to remember these messages regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What Gives a Gift Meaning?

When our lives are filled with gift cards and ever-changing electronic gadgets, what kind of gift can we count on to have staying power, to truly make a (positive) imprint on the receiver's memory?

Most gifts find their way to the landfill within six months of purchase. Others maintain an impersonal sense of anonymity. Gift cards can help eliminate waste as the receiver can choose what they desire, but they are also an easy out, and require little thought.

On the other hand, no one wants to receive a time-consuming, hand-made gift that is unsuitable. There is a reason why the words "Christmas sweater" send chills through some people this time of year, and it has little to do with the weather! I used to receive scratchy slippers made from polyester craft yarn each year. Since I started knitting, I know those must have taken a few hours to make, but for the most part, they went unappreciated for years.

Some of the gifts I've found most memorable were less to do with the actual gift than the circumstances in which they were given. The new step-aunt who understood the needs of an adolescent girl, for example; the gifts that I received that weren't chosen from my list, but were so much better suited to me than what I'd thought to ask for.

To me, the ideal gift must be useful, something that the receiver wouldn't be likely to buy for themselves on an everyday basis ("special"), well-suited to the receiver, and both environmentally and socially sound. Sometimes politeness takes over for people, and a little detective work is necessary to find out if a gift was truly appreciated. The detective work is worth the time and effort as it means there will be less waste--time, money, materials and most of all, awkward feelings, particularly if it is a gift that might be repeated.

This year my solution is to give some gift cards or "tried and true" gifts--donations to favourite charities, food items that have in the past received favourable responses, etc. and add some smaller personal touches (a hand-made Christmas stocking, homemade ornaments, etc.).

Last year, having reached the same crossroads, I took the time to brainstorm possibilities, and added them to my website. You can find them, along with gift ideas for teachers and coaches, and stocking stuffers here. some child-made gifts that have gone to aunts, uncles, coaches and grandparents in previous years (along with instructions for making some yourself) can be found here.

I also usually make reusable fabric gift bags for most of the gifts. Those plus other creative wrapping solutions can be found here.

And, remember, there are alternatives to buying for each person in a larger family. You can draw names, only buy for the kids, or make charitable donations on relatives' behalf's. This way you are less likely to give and or end up with 15 self-destructing slap-chops or an ab master that you'll never use. It might be a little late to arrange for this year, but worth bringing up for next.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Fun Holiday Fact #1

From the "did you know" files...

What is a sugarplum?

Whether you know them from children's dreams in the poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" or from the exotic lands governed by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet, "The Nutcracker", you may have wondered, just what are these magical delicacies?

Well, a few years back my curiosity overcame me, so I did a little research. It turns out that a sugarplum is simply a candy made from boiled sugar, however, it can also refer to a small piece of sugar-coated candied fruit, or more generally, any kind of candy or sweet.

The fact that they were such delicacies that even relatively well-off children dreamed of them as a special Christmas treat says a lot about how rare they were, and how we've learned to take such indulgences for granted.

My favourite version involves fruitcake and marzipan and can be found on my nutcracker theme page here: It is very sweet, but fun to make and decorate.

An alternative version is to make fruit shapes from marzipan (almond paste) and paint with food colouring or dust with coloured sugar.

If you would like to make either of these but are concerned about potential nut allergies, you can use candy clay instead:

If you would like to try candy making experiments,(making candy from boiled sugar) see this page for a temperature guide.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Joy Without Greed

An Attitude of Gratitude Has no Room for Greed

Today is the U.S. Thanksgiving and many there and beyond are stopping to be thankful in various ways for various reasons. Feasts will be eaten by those fortunate enough to have them, families will get together, and traditions will be kept.

And then--there is tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of people will forget all of that and pull themselves out of bed at some wee hour of the morning to battle line-ups and crowds, sometimes even risking their own safety, in order to buy items at reduced prices. For some, the identity of the given objects is irrelevant; it is only the perceived savings and gathering of stuff that matters. Quality and need are concepts that lack relevance to the mob mentality that takes over. It is exciting, it is challenging. Who will get one of the 5 door-crasher specials? How many opening hour sale items will I be able to snatch? How many of my friends and relatives will I be able to impress with my purchasing prowess?

There is no denying that there is an energy there--a sort of holiday anticipation--that is catching. However, this energy has a dark side.

Even if you are OK with the labour issues in countries that make the goods we consume; even if you don't mind the "convenience" (aka "disposable") mindset that pervades our culture, and even if you are a climate denier, there is no refuting the fact that rampant consumerism is a huge problem in our society.

Happiness and inner peace do not come from a bottle or box store. Even the Grinch figured out that one. And no one loves you because of the gifts you give. They may appreciate them, but that is not the same thing.

The truth of the matter is that our greed and waste come at a high cost.
The environment suffers: the extraction and travel of raw materials, the shipping of parts, the travel of the finished product, the short useful lifespan of most products, the landfill waste, not to mention the toxic waste involved in every step of the product's life.
Workers suffer: our demand for lower costs leads to human rights violations in poorer countries all in the name of cheap labour. Pollution at every level affects human and planetary health.
Consumers suffer: along with the increase in personal debt, there is also an increase in spiritual debt that is caused when we try and fix our personal problems through consumer purchases. After the holiday rush, there is a let-down. We resume our regular activities, but now the bills come in and we have little of lasting value to show for it.

So how do we celebrate the holidays and enjoy them without becoming a bunch of miserly Scrooges?

1. Make a list. List those you will give to, and decide on what you will give. Stick to the list. If ideal gift ideas (things people need) do not immediately come to mind, try the following:
- ask a close friend or relative for suggestions
- consider going together on a larger needed item
- ask the person themselves what they need/want
- for those who have everything, consider a charitable gift on their behalf

2. For larger groups or families, consider drawing names for gifts and placing a strict limit on any money spent.

3. Give of yourself: gift your time and effort by either making some of your gifts, or gifting services, such as childcare or other skills. Be sure to give your time, skills, and/or donations to your community as well.

4. Give experiences, such as movie, theatre or sporting event tickets, restaurant vouchers, memberships, etc.  Avoid the box stores and shop at small businesses to help boost your local economy

5. Spend your time with someone by treating yourselves to a day at the spa, a ski day, a lunch out together etc.

6. Play together. Seriously. Plan low-key days in the holiday season where you let loose and just play with your friends and family. Be it an old-fashioned neighbourhood snowball fight, a board games evening, or a hike in the woods, make a point of doing something together with the ones you love. And: don't worry about the housework or upcoming board meeting that day!

7. Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy food, in healthy amounts at healthy intervals. Exercise regularly, preferably outdoors.

8. Keep visits with family members who do not get along well as low-stress as possible. Consider getting together on neutral ground--a skating party, or restaurant dinner perhaps--and be polite. Try and be open and allow for people to grow and change. At the same time, don't raise your expectations too high--holiday stress doesn't always make for the best time to mend rifts in relationships. Keep the get-together short to reduce everyone's stress.

9.  For larger parties and get-togethers, don't forget to consider the kids. You may find it worth your while to hire a teen to help them throw their own mini-party. Try not to force the kids away though--there is a delicate balance between considering their needs as children and banning them from the "bigger, more special" party. Be sure to discuss it with them ahead of time so they will know what to expect and can help decide what they want and need from the day.

10. Don't stress about the little things. Christmas cards are nice, but an email can also show people you are thinking about them. You can skip the coleslaw, and most won't even notice. Learn to value cleanliness over orderliness. There is a reason that closets have doors.

For more meaningful gift ideas, including charities and homemade gift ideas, try here.

Let the holidays begin!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

What Makes The Holiday Season Special for You

As the kids get older and become less awestruck with the season, I get the idea that much of their enthusiasm is mainly to humour me. I find myself becoming a little--well, OK, a lot, sad at the loss.

Maybe I never grew up, but I can always muster that Christmas anticipation, the awe that goes with the season. The time when miracles could happen (and I don't mean finding the latest trendy gadget sitting under the tree either). Yes, it sounds schmaltzy (is that a word?), but maybe we need a little schmaltzy now and then.

Still, with a dwindling number of local extended family members, and kids growing older and more sophisticated, I find Christmas is getting a little routine.

I saw this coming last year, so I took a few measures to ward it off. We were doing better than many financially, so I volunteered us to adopt a family. I was hoping the whole family would get excited about it, but it became my project. Still, it filled a void, and if you can do it, I highly recommend it. Although we never met the family, I found myself getting excited about how I thought they might react. Since they published a strict policy of allowable money spent (to keep things equal between recipient families), I was careful to look for sales and was thrilled when the dollhouse I thought would be perfect went on sale within the spending limit.

I did look into other ways to volunteer in the community, but it seems everyone wants to volunteer at holiday time, and many organizations prefer to keep their "regulars".

Sometimes something simple, such as a winter walk in the woods, or a visit to a pioneer village to think about historical celebrations of Christmas can provide a little holiday perspective.

How many of us have a glass of orange juice in the morning, but never really taste it? 150 years ago, an orange was probably the best gift you would get. It was something to anticipate, something to cherish and enjoy. It was a source of vitamin C that was difficult to come by during the dark winter months. Every part was used--even the rind was candied and treasured. I'll bet that those oranges tasted a lot better too, if only due to their well-deserved appreciation.

Another tradition I started when the kids were young was to hand-make some of the gifts we give. A hand made gift shows the receiver that they were thought about in advance, and that they are worth the time and effort. You don't have to be a Martha Stewart type to hand make a gift for a loved one. Try here and here for some meaningful gift suggestions.

Where does the season's magic lie for you? Do you have a special Christmas/Holiday tradition, or a single event that holds meaning for you?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Manners--Not Just for Kids

In the past week, I've seen several Twitter links flutter through the cyber-ether all regarding teaching kids manners--esp. table manners. I've also seen complaints about people taking babies and toddlers to restaurants, and even restaurants that outright ban babies (can you imagine if they did that with any other group of people?!).

Now I feel it is time to weigh in on the issue. The reality is that many adults are at least as guilty, and usually much more so than children, of behaving offensively. The only times I have been disturbed by children in restaurants are instances where the needs of the children have been ignored or denied by the adults around them--adults who should know better. Period. However, I have more than once been offended by adults in ways ranging from someone wearing excessive cologne/perfumes to the point that I could not eat my meal, to the public rowdiness of a bachelorette party held in the middle of a restaurant.  I've even seen an adult sneeze into a buffet table. Fortunately, so did the staff, and the dishes were quickly replaced with new ones, to the expense of the restaurant owner. What a waste!

We are so quick to find fault in children, especially other people's children, yet often overlook our own faults. If it is bad manners to point out flaws in other adults, why do we allow this to happen to our children?

Moving on to table manners...
I have relatives who set an example for my children and have taught them more about polite eating than I ever could though didactic means. The examples were negative, and I never had to say a word (a good thing, as I have a philosophical aversion to pointing out the negative in others).

There are the basics--not letting people see your chewed food, waiting for everyone to be seated before starting, not reaching across other people's spaces, etc., and then there are the more subtle but at least as important manners regarding appropriate dinner conversation. Insults, gossip and putting others on the spot in a negative way are at least as off-putting as conversations about insects and bodily functions.

Now, none of us is perfect, and I've been known to place the glasses on the wrong side of the plates on occasion. But the spirit of good manners--keeping things pleasant and making others feel comfortable (as much as is reasonably possible)--is our goal, and it is one that I certainly wish some of the adults I know would learn to follow!

If children are a regular part of the family dinner, they will learn from example what is appropriate behaviour. If they are brought to restaurants, they will learn how to eat at restaurants. They will learn what is socially acceptable in a variety of situations. Sadly, kids today are often shipped from program to program, with quick, rushed meals, and then hide away with the latest electronic gadget. Eating is for physical sustenance only. If we take time to eat together though, we can mend broken social ties and model proper behaviour. We might get in a bit more "real" food in the process too. Laurie David says it better than I here.

I remember a story about Queen Elizabeth. She was entertaining a group of international dignitaries, when one of them sipped from the finger bowl (understandable mistake for someone from a different culture), so she did the same. No one would dare to insult the queen's manners, and she made what could have been a very awkward moment much more relaxed. Now that, my friends, is what I call good manners!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembrance Day: Have We Missed the Point?

Remembrance Day

Lt. John McCrae fought in World War I. World War I was also known as "the war to end all wars". The horrors of modern warfare caused a generation to seriously reconsider the implications of war and to renew their commitment to peace. Only a threat as horrifying as Hitler's Nazi movement could bring about another full-scale war as soon as two decades later. The goals there were clear: stop the Nazi occupation.

Every year when I see the poppies and read “In Flanders Fields” I can't help but wonder if we've missed the point entirely. What would John McCrae think if he could see how little we've learned about peace? Would he believe he and his fellow soldiers had fought and died in vain?

My country has abandoned its respected role as international peacekeeper in favour of supporting rampant greed. Our forces fight in a war that is more about oil and exploitation than human rights. Moreover, in sending our troops to fight in Afghanistan, we have enabled more US troops to fight in Iraq. While we have not dirtied our hands in that “illegal” war, our actions have supported it indirectly.

Along with these wars comes the war on the environment. An excellent article about this can be found here: In our quest for eternal economic growth, we are destroying our very life support system. Our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels is leaving many of us hungry, homeless and desperate.

In essence, our actions as a nation and as a wider society have not been particularly peaceful in recent years.

I find at some Remembrance Day celebrations that the focus is less about peace and more about honouring veterans. We do tend to forget and take for granted these people who have sacrificed their lives for their beliefs, some of which I share. We could do much better in providing support for these people and their families after they have served. Too often our governments use them for political purposes then forget them—toss them out with the trash so to speak when they're finished with them. But I have to admit that I am torn even on this point. How much support do I really have for those who willingly sign up to kill others in the name of oil? I only have to hope that their individual motives are somewhat more honourable than that, and remind myself that the policies of our government and attitudes and greed of the larger society are the true problems.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe”

Who exactly is the foe? Who is the enemy we face? So often we are lost in political agendas spurred on by corporate interest that we no longer clearly see what it is we are supposed to be fighting, what the goals are. How can we even know if we've won or lost? How do we know when to stop? What are we fighting for?

The worst Remembrance Day ceremonies I have seen are the ones that glorify war. War is legalized first-degree murder. No war has ever been fought that did not involve loss of civilian life. Some wars have been fought in the name of human rights and freedoms. Today our wars are fought for purposes of material gain. The economy is revered above life.

I think that if John McCrae were here today, he'd agree that most of us have missed the point.

So today, I honour all of those who have the courage to speak out and act for what is right, to listen to your hearts and never give up, no matter how hard it gets. Whether you are a soldier or diplomat, a caregiver, activist or educator, if you remain true to yourself and fight in your own way to make this a better world, you are my hero, and it is you who I will honour today.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Great Christmas Search

Every year the same thing happens at our house. My older son makes his Christmas list, and the top item is inevitably something that a) doesn't exist b) is not available in this country, or often, not even on the continent c) exists but won't be sold for several years as it's still in development d) no longer is sold in stores and is either not available on Ebay etc., or has gone out of our financial reach due to its rarity e) never existed, but he wishes it did.
In past years, it has been elusive model train parts, books that are out of print, videos or music selections that are no longer recorded, discontinued Playmobil pieces (the outlet store in Mississauga eventually helped with that one!), and a spare dedicated camera battery that took us seven weeks to find. Other families have trouble finding stock of popular items, but our problem is usually the opposite!

My younger son used to ask for "interesting" things too--like the year he wanted a Beluga whale--not a "zoo adoption", not a toy, but the actual real thing. Thankfully, his desires have become a little easier to appease over the years!

The item of interest this year is actually more of something we already own. This should be easy, right? Nope. The plain painted dominoes that are perfect for building domino runs are no longer made by Melissa and Doug. When we emailed them, they directed us to their numbered domino set. This is a completely different item. Ebay doesn't have any now either.

My sons spend hours building complicated domino runs. Sometimes the runs are part of a larger Rube Goldberg machine (see here for more on Rube Goldberg machines), and sometimes they stand alone. For the past four (five?) years, they have been the most played with item in our house, even beating out house favourites such as Crazy Forts, Snap Circuits, Lego and K'nex. I love how such a simple toy can lead to so much creativity.

I originally purchased them on a whim at Winners. They were likely being discontinued at the time. I know others use dominoes like this, but aside from an incredibly expensive version made in Germany, I have been unable to find a source.

They are simple wooden blocks that should be easy to cut, sand and paint ourselves, right? Except they use hardwood that is a little more challenging to work, and the exact uniform size of the pieces is critical. Some of the transition pieces are pretty complex as well, at least, they are for unskilled carpenters such as my husband and I. Making some will be our last resort.

I have to admit though that I have actually come to enjoy the treasure hunt associated with these requests. I suspect this is something that I will miss in a few years, so despite the stress associated with it all, I am determined to enjoy it.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Taking Time to Read

Last weekend we took the kids to the Ontario Science Centre. Like every other time we've visited, there was the inevitable run-in I've come to dread.

This time it was a father and his son who looked to be about five years old. We were at a table with a ramp. There were two discs on the table. One was a solid wood disc and the other was a metal disc with a hollow centre. They had the same circumference, and for those of us who could be bothered to read the large sign, they had the same mass.

The idea was to send them down the ramp together to see which moved faster, and try and figure out why that was. There was an explanation at the bottom of the sign as well.

This man, like so many other parents and kids I've seen there, just guessed what it was about (wrongly) and told his son it was because the metal was heavier. I actually interrupted this time and told them that according to the sign the discs had the same mass. He just said "is that so?" in a rather rude and incredulous tone and continued pulling his son through the exhibit hall.

Maybe he had a reason for his behaviour. Perhaps he was illiterate and really could not read the sign. But surely the majority of the visitors are able to read. So why don't they?

Is it really a wonder so many people blindly accept pseudo-science when they can't even be bothered to read two sentences on a sign? Why do people even bother going there if they aren't willing to take the time to actually look and experience what is on offer? (Are these the same people who get all of their news via television?) And yet, sadly, many people do just that.

Was this man's son not worth the effort to get the facts right? Was the dad just putting in time until the outing was over? Will the son remember the trip, and if so, what will he have gotten out of being rushed from display to display without ever really getting a chance to check any of it out himself?

I have the same gripe when I send out emails. There are people (admittedly not nearly as many) who insist on only reading the first line or sentence in an email. Even when I start out with an opening such as: "I have two questions for you:" certain people will just jump ahead with the first, sometimes not even reading that one thoroughly enough to answer what I've actually asked.

The problem isn't limited to rushed parents either. When my youngest went to junior kindergarten (very briefly!), the teacher would hold up a "big book", and instead of reading it aloud to the kids, she'd play the book tape and turn the pages. When parents and teachers don't bother to read with their kids, should we be surprised when those kids themselves fail to see the value and joy of reading?

Maybe it's just a symptom of a larger problem. We're always rushed--with increasing demands on our time, and advertising everywhere we look that promises quick and convenient solutions, many of us have lost the art of living in the moment. We continually look ahead, but have difficulty clearing our minds enough to concentrate on the immediate.

Today is voting day. I always hope people will read the candidates' platforms thoroughly before casting their vote, but as I grow older, I wonder: since many don't/won't bother to read, perhaps election signs with names alone are sadly just as effective. We've been trained to respond to quick, flashy images to become voracious unquestioning consumers, and it shows.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Great Green Halloween Tips

I love this time of year--the fall colours and crunchy leaves underfoot, comfort food from our backyard harvest, the early evening family read-alouds, the dramatic fall skies, the absence of mosquitoes on long forest walks, and especially Halloween!

Halloween has gotten a bad name due to the greed/candy obsession that has replaced the old traditions of apples, pears and baked goods, and a friendly visit with the neighbours. I'm talking here only of Halloween, not "Devil's Night" on the 30th--that's a different subject!

While the rumours of razor blades in apples are just an urban myth, many adults still won't let their kids eat fruit collected from strangers. Peanuts are also likely to cause parents grief as more and more kids are diagnosed with peanut allergies.

It was especially sad when kids were getting mugged for their Unicef boxes and Unicef changed their program. Now there are other community initiatives in place though. Some groups in our community put up signs on mailboxes a week ahead telling people that instead of collecting candy, they will be collecting unperishable items for the local food drive. Not many people are willing to mug someone for a box of KD, at least not in a country as fortunate as ours!

Halloween is one of many big marketing opportunities for the box stores, but we don't have to run out and buy cheap single-wear costumes made thousands of kilometers away. Nor do we have to purchase tons of plastic-wrapped corn-syrup and sugar laden "treats" in order to do the holiday justice.

For costumes, you can search your closet for a truly creative and unique costume. Some great closet costume ideas can be found here. If this doesn't work, consider borrowing costume components from a friend or relative, or purchase items from a local thrift shop.

For handouts, people often try and replace all that candy with plastic toys. While the following suggestions might not be absolutely perfect, they are an improvement on Tootsie Rolls TM and chips.
  •  if you have saved the plastic eggs from Easter (we don't buy them, but always seem to end up with lots anyhow!) you can use those as containers for homemade playdough, slime or silly putty (recipes can be found here). You can also use zip-lock baggies if you must. Be sure to label these so they aren't accidentally eaten, or thrown out because they were an unknown product.
  • you can design and print your own bookmarks (to be greener, print them on recycled card stock); add a yarn tassle to the top to make it fancy
  • small, fair-trade chocolate bars instead of larger amounts of lesser quality candy
  • small bottles of soap bubbles
  • a flower bulb (tulip, daffodil, etc.) along with planting instructions
  • print out some Madlibs, word puzzles, etc., roll them up and tie off with a ribbon (you have my permission to reprint and distribute these as long as you leave the website url line on the bottom of each)
  • pencils (not quite as popular or original as some of the above, but my kids still like getting them!)
  • a talented balloon sculptor on our street used to make balloons to order for all the neighbourhood trick or treaters--and she used the kind that quickly biodegrade
  • Annikin publishes tiny paper picture books that can be purchased in bulk and includes many of their more popular titles--you can promote early literacy while giving out treats!
  • super-bounce balls, while still pretty much in the realm of  "junk toys" still tend to see much more use than the other "junk toys" found in loot bags etc.
  • tennis balls and skipping ropes are also more likely to see long-term use than plastic toys
Alternatives to avoid:
  • toothbrushes are not likely to make you very popular with the kids, and attaching ads/business cards to goodies is just plain tacky
  • artificial sweeteners are unhealthy at best and are particularly risky for children--sugar is actually a much safer option
  • avoid anything that has partially hydrogenated oil (some chocolate and most chewy taffies), hydrogenated oil, BHA or BHT (most chewing gum) as these are particularly unhealthy bordering on dangerous to consume
Please add your own suggestions to the comments, or email them to me and I'll post them here and give you credit. There has to be a better way than all the waste that usually happens at Halloween!

This year we are setting up a driveway "Mad Science Lab" with dry ice, lots of mystery flasks etc. and a mix-your own slime (the silly putty recipe at the link above) station. I'm wearing one of my mom's old lab coats that I've made some "explosion burn holes" in. I'll be teasing all my hair up and back, and donning safety glasses. With the safety glasses on, I'm sprinkling some black tempera paint powder on my face so that when I take off the glasses it leaves their silhouette on my face. a pocket protector, pens, test tubes, calculator etc. finishes the outfit. Halloween lab sound effects (bubbling potion, explosions etc.) will add to the effect. Total purchase price: free, as I already owned all the components.

For dry ice tips, tricks and very cool experiments (bad pun intended), click here.

Happy Haunting!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Discipline with Humour and Song

If you're like me, you really don't enjoy nagging at your kids for the same old things day in and day out. I've tried many different ways to "be heard" above the natural parental tune-out children seem to gain at an early age. One trick that seems to work, not only to get a point across, but also to lift everyone's mood is using humour, and the most effective mode of delivery is through music.

Ok, well, perhaps calling it music is stretching things a bit. I have not been blessed by either a beautiful voice or a musical ear, so my efforts are less than tuneful even when I'm trying for "serious". But that's the beauty of this: out of tune is even better! What I do is choose a random song, then invent appropriate lyrics to that tune to fit the situation. My kids often roll their eyes, but they have also been known to take over when they've had enough of my own inventions. When still in their preschool years, they invented the "leaving" song:

"Get your coats and boots on,
and get into the car
Get your coats and boots on,
and get into the car

We are late
so don't delay
and put your coat on

We are late
so don't delay
and put your boots on

Put your coats and boots on
and get into the car!"

Bad rhymes, words that don't fit the song rhythm--that's all a part of the fun. And even with all their moaning and complaints, it nearly always brings smiles and diffuses what ever situation is brewing, at least somewhat, when mom belts out a "tune".

Lately, I've found that singing "You Light up My Life" by Linda Ronstadt is very effective, especially when the kids get pouty or jealous. Who can stand that one off key and still stay pouty?! And I don't even have to change the words!

I do wonder though, if that might be pushing things a little too far. Can singing be considered a form of child abuse? It does lighten things up a bit, but will there be long-term psychological scarring? Or will it become a cherished memory, of the times, however few, when I lightened things up and shared with them the gift of humour?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Purpose of Education

Is the purpose of education solely to enable us to become wealthy?

It would seem that as a society, we have bought into this idea and have forgotten many other valid and valuable reasons for education. Students increasingly flock towards subjects that they perceive will result in the highest paying jobs, regardless of their personal interests. In the U.S., bright students are more likely to enrol in business programs than in the sciences. I don't know what the statistics are here in Canada, but I do know that many have a greater respect for an MBA than a PhD.

Not all of us are meant to be cut-throat business people, and thank goodness for that. Surely, the idea of following your interests and passions in choosing your career path is something we should all consider. Yes, we all need to make a living, but since when did "making a living" turn into just making money? Once our basic needs are met, which is more likely to make us happy--more "stuff"? A bigger investment portfolio? Or working on something we believe in and enjoy? What will bring us the greatest enjoyment and personal fulfillment? What can we do with our lives so that when we look back at the end of our lives we can say with conviction, "I have no regrets, I lived and loved well"?

In the end, the only real currency is time, and it is our choice how we spend it. Best to use it well!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

War, Peace and Morality

Many people have "Support our Troops" magnets on their cars these days. Just what does that mean? Does it mean that they support the use of our troops in the war in Afghanistan? Does it mean "support our troops--bring them home because this war is ridiculous and not worth the loss of lives"? Or does it mean that they gain security in knowing that we have young people willing to sacrifice their lives to go and kill others that the government has decided, for better or for worse, are the "bad guys"?

I have a great deal of respect for the veterans of WWII. Hitler and his cronies needed to be stopped. Perhaps this could have been accomplished sooner, with less loss of life, but I am no military strategist, and hindsight is 20/20. However, one thing is clear: there was a moral imperative (genocide) that made this fight necessary. There was a clear goal, and once that goal was achieved, the war came to an end. Yes, there were some financial benefits, and perhaps that did motivate some leaders to participate, but in the end, World War II was about stopping a tyrannical, murderous regime bent on genocide (well, also in recovering from the effects of World War I, but this is long enough without getting into that here as well!).

I would argue that the threat of genocide is grounds for military action when other, more peaceful means have been exhausted, or when the threat is so immediate as to eliminate that possibility, such as in Rwanda. Remember Rwanda? When the threats became real, not only did the international troops stationed there fail to respond; many countries actually evacuated their troops. It is estimated that the genocide could have been avoided with the addition of more troops, and that this could have easily and quickly been achieved had western countries responded. But there is no oil in Rwanda, only people, and not very wealthy ones at that.

Afghanistan? This is all about revenge on an entire region for the events caused by a small group of individuals. The financial benefits for a handful of elites seem to be as much a part of the incentive as anything else. In the name of "freedom" (for whom??) and "women's rights" (a side effect that hasn't truly come to be), we are asked to continue to support a war that can neither be won nor lost. People seem surprised that the Afghans often feel scorn for western soldiers, but how could they not with so much turmoil, so many civilian deaths, and so much assumed "control" by those with very different agendas than their own? There is a cultural arrogance at work here when elected officials are thrown out of office because the foreign armies simply don't like their politics. No, I am not referring to the Taliban.

It is not lost on many of us that the involvement of Canada's troops in Afghanistan has and continues to free up more US troops to fight the pure oil greed war in Iraq. Many like myself are frustrated that so much is wasted on that effort--lives, money, materials, time etc. that could better be used towards more sustainable ends--ends that would decrease or perhaps eliminate the need for foreign oil. While no one alternate energy solution is likely to do that, the combination of what we can do now as well as research into improved efficiency and technology, and better consumer education (better yet, revolution), can quite possibly do the trick. Much human energy is wasted in arguing various strategies against each other--we need to use it all: wind, solar, geothermal, true energy pricing, biomass, government incentives, relevant taxation, elimination of oil and gas subsidies, adoption of renewable energy subsidies, investment into efficient mass transit, overhauls in the food industry, investment into renewable and sustainable infrastructure, etc.

Capitalism, as unchanged and powerful as we have let it become, has grown into a religion, a political force, and a huge stumbling block to progress. It has become an entity unto itself that threatens our future. We have given corporations levels of power and rights that far exceed the powers and rights of citizens. There is a difference between the free market and the market that becomes God. We have lost sight of our economy as a tool for trade and have elevated it to the status of the ultimate goal of our society--beyond those of the rights, freedoms and happiness of our citizens. We are a society increasingly ruled by fear, and we are more concerned about security now than in building our own cultural identity. We invest more and more into war and security and less into education, health, science, non-military research, arts and culture. We are so bent on protecting ourselved that we are losing anything worth protecting. In our dealings with foreign nations, we have become tyrannical and greedy, therefore creating a cycle in which increasing security and military measures become necessary. It is a vicious cycle from which we cannot easily escape. Capitalism, as practiced by western nations (esp. in North America), has stagnated. It is time to review our options and improve the system. We are smart enough and able enough to do better. We owe it to ourselves and future generations.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out: Living Life in the Landfill?

I was originally going to write about food today, but in thinking about it, this also applies to much of life: when we put garbage in, we can expect to get garbage out.

When we make a habit of putting processed junk food into our bodies, we shouldn't be surprised to find that our health deteriorates. We become lethargic, depressed, and are at a greater risk for disease. Our immune systems, along with all of our other systems, become overtaxed. The environment suffers too, from "convenience-sized" over-packaging, mono-culture produce grown in dead soil laced with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and transportation of goods over thousands of kilometres.

We know this, and yet by the evidence of what our grocery stores keep in stock, it seems the message is lost in the name of, well, in the name of what exactly?

Convenience? Marketing? Habit? Lack of skills in planning and cooking meals?

Although I must admit that we do "shop from the centre of the store" from time to time, the majority of our family's meals are cooked from fresh produce and "whole foods" (foods with only one ingredient listed on the package, if in fact, there even is a package). I am not an overly domestic person. I even opted out of home economics (yeah, I'm old enough to have had that option) in school. And yet I find I am able to cook a decent meal with little effort. My family all take turns cooking as well, including the kids from the time they could measure flour into a cup. Cooking a decent, balanced meal can take as little as 10-20 minutes, especially if everyone helps a little. Frozen lasagna takes longer to heat, even in the microwave. Veggies are healthiest when eaten raw. If you don't like cutting up veggies, you can buy frozen ones every now and then and toss them into a soup or casserole. Barley, rice, and other grains can take a little longer to cook (up to 45 minutes), but if you cook two meals worth at a time and refrigerate the rest, the next meal will take little time at all.

Surely if our family can do this, so can others!

Garbage in, garbage out doesn't only apply to food, but to everything we do. The more effort and enthusiasm put into a project, the better the outcome is likely to be. Sometimes you need to look beyond the immediate for motivation. This is a skill we seem to be losing as a society. So many of us are concerned with only "now" and the short term that we sell ourselves short of accomplishing what we are truly capable of.

Living in the moment is a great idea and something that we need to remember; it does not mean sacrificing quality for immediate convenience, but rather in enjoying all of the steps along the way. Savouring the actual work involved in a project we believe in and taking pride in doing our best, allowing ourselves to take risks to push our own limits and see what we are truly capable of--these are what is meant by the phrase "living in the moment". If we allow ourselves to take the easy way out, and make this our habit, we cheat ourselves of personal growth and accomplishment. We become stagnant and unfulfilled. Procrastinating steps that are difficult only serves to make them more difficult when we do get to them, or if we manage to completely avoid them, robs us of the chance to accomplish, grow and learn.

We have one life here, one chance to live. Let's live it beyond the landfill.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Chocolate Frog Boxes are Here!

Harry Potter fans, rejoice! Along with Lemonade's famous popping chocolate frog recipe (sorry, as a Muggle I couldn't quite manage the actual "hop" part), I have now managed to finally post the plans for the pentagonal frog box.

Check it out here.

On the same page, you can also find some other favourites, including firewhiskey (safe for minors), butterbeer, cockroach clusters, acid pops, wizard cheeseball, potion soup, wizard cakes and lots more.

Be sure to check out the related games, activities and novel study pages as well.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Chocolate Frog Box and Cards

I have debated about sharing this, and about posting this on the website. It took a lot of work to design and make, and even then, I ended up printing each box twice--once for the background colour, and once for the cutting and folding lines. I also had trouble lining up the fronts and backs of the wizard cards, and used a cardboard cutout traced rom the bottom of the box as a stencil to manually draw in the lines.

To share them would mean realigning things, and I am *not* very skilled at this.

So to those who have emailed me for directions, please know that I have not forgotten you and that I'm trying to develop a reliable way to fix those problems. I also have some copyright issues with sharing some of the cards, so when I post these, I will only include the few I designed completely myself, then dig up the link to the others that I used.

I hope this will help! I will do my best to have what I can up on the site over the next few weeks.

I ask that you respect all of the work that went into these, and use them for personal use only. Aside from any legal copyright implications, it is just morally wrong to financially benefit from someone else's design. My views about this are much like those mentioned on The Leaky Cauldron website. Sure, you might not get caught, but that doesn't make it right.

If you really want to use them for any other purpose, please contact me with the details, and we'll see if we can come to an arrangement.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Advertising on Lemonade

I recently read a post from a fellow blogger about how she was tired of people asking her to advertise on her blog, in ways that were not completely transparent. Without getting into the details of her post, it seems it may be time to clarify Lemonade's advertising policy.

Advertising is not something I am proud of, but it is necessary in order to allow Lemonade to continue. Maintaining a large website is time consuming and costly. Most of the time, the advertising does not cover all of the costs, but it does help offset them somewhat. I am determined to offer the resources for free so that those who need them most can benefit. I have also not included a donation button (which may happen in the future). Each of the experiments and resources has been tested by our family at least once. In addition, I have created/developed many recipes, crafts, games and experiments completely from scratch.

Although it is not entirely ideal, I only use Google Adsense, mainly because I find it easy to deal with. I spend a lot of time filtering out advertisers who I find unsuitable, such as formula companies, diet/weight loss schemes, diet supplements, religious recruiting, etc. While I can shut out ads by category, there are limits to the controls I have with Adsense, and occasionally I miss some.

One thing I promise to do, however, is to keep all advertising as transparent as possible. I will never embed ads for items in the text on the blog or website; anytime I mention a brand or product (which is very rare!), you can rest assured that I do so because it works for the project I am describing where others may not. I have never been reimbursed in any way for recommending a product, and I refuse to do so in the future.

All ads on Lemonade occur on the sidebar or in the header or footer area. On the blog, they also occur between posts. Each advertising box is labelled as google ads. I also have a google search bar which can bring in revenue if someone chooses to do a search, follow an external link from my site, then make a purchase. On my blog I also have an Amazon sidebar, but no one has ever clicked on anything there. The books featured are ones I have chosen, and the only compensation I will receive will be if someone chooses to buy from that link.

If you have any comments or suggestions regarding advertising on Lemonade (or anything else about this blog or website) please share them below, or email me.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The French River

We recently paddled on the French River. It took many years for us to get there--other places called loudly to us, and the motorboats and cottagers tend to cramp our style. But there is a certain history there, and after our travels in eastern Canada, and especially Montreal and Ottawa, it only made sense to take the kids on the French River where the voyageurs once travelled.

Although we went during the week, it was still mid August, so I expected crowds. Luckily I was wrong. We did see several other groups each day, but the rugged nature of the area dominated. The landscape was as if Temagami, Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park all got together and had a party. The wind was favourable, and we even let the kids paddle us around our island campsite out on Georgian Bay. We saw a water snake, a giant muskie, many frogs, several turkey vultures, golden eagles, terns, and cormorants, just missed a bear and saw lots of evidence of elk.

The kids had fun exploring the geology of each site and along the shore as we travelled. Some of the stunted trees by the bay looked similar to the tuckamore we saw in Newfoundland.

Although there is much history, between the Voyageurs, the Couriers de Bois, logging camps, the Group of Seven, fishing lodges, cottages and kids' camps, as well as various man made dams that came and went over the years, the area was still very rugged and natural, and I had the impression that nature was dominant. Within the history that echoed throughout the glacier-scraped landscape, human activity was a mere punctuation mark.

As we crossed Wanapitei Bay at the end of our trip on Saturday, more and more motorboats began to clog the waterways, and I could tell that we had timed our trip well.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Importance of Personal Integrity

Integrity is something I value highly.

In a world full of media messages and standardized tests, where screen time dominates and routines and structure are the rule, how many of us forget to take the time to reflect on our own personal paths through life, to evaluate our choices and actions against our own personal values? How many of us can still hear our own personal beat amidst the hubbub of messages and frenzied activity around us? How many of us have lost our own sense of self in the rush for more, for better, for faster, for easier, for the need to fit in at any cost?

This sort of personal alienation is something we can control.

Can you teach someone personal integrity?

I had an excellent history and "man in society" (I'm dating myself here!) teacher who had each of his students write out their own personal credo. A credo is a creed, which according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary means:
"1: a brief authoritative formula of religious belief
2: a set of fundamental beliefs; also : a guiding principle"

In this case, I refer to the second definition listed.

My grandmother used to tell me to always "remember who I am". My fifth grade teacher told us to keep our good names (reputations). But it was the act of actually writing a credo that brought the idea home for me.

Since my eldest child  is headed into the "big, bad world" of institutional education, I thought it would be a good time to have him start thinking about his own personal credo. I have told him that showing it to me is optional; it will be himself he has to answer to when his values are challenged.

This is all sounding rather preachy, but what it all boils down to, for me, is this: at the end of my life, when I look back on my choices and actions, it is myself that I will need to answer to; only I will truly know if I have lived a good and full life, and it is my own value system that will be my measuring stick. True satisfaction and accomplishment comes from following my inner compass, although my path and yours may be quite different.

My credo has served me well over the years.

So I am passing this tool on to my son, with the hope that it will help guide him the way it has helped me. Perhaps you will also find it useful.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Back (or not back) to School

It's that time of year again, when notebooks full of empty pages bursting with endless possibilities crowd the aisles of department stores and supermarkets. When the summer has soothed our kids, sunburned, mosquito-bitten and well rested in ways only kids can truly know. When the paddle and glassy lake call louder than ever. It is the middle of August.

If you are free from the confines of school and office during the coming weeks, you may wish to take advantage of warm water and less crowds and do a little paddling and/or camping of your own. See here for some tips and tricks, recipes, etc. to help you on your way.

If school is your child's destiny, then you may find some lunch inspiration here.

For school supplies, you don't have to be (as) wasteful anymore. You can find recycled paper products at mainstream locations including Zellers and Staples, as well as pencils made from recycled wood, binders with recycled covers, recycled notebooks, and pencil crayons made from recycled wood. I can recommend the recycled pencils which don't break easily and sharpen well as we have been using them for a year now. Watch out for greenwashing too though! Be sure to check the amount of post-consumer content in recycled materials, which tells you how much has been reclaimed after use.

One more note to parents (and teacher too, who should definitely know this!): recent (and some not-so-recent) studies have shown that students do not benefit academically from homework and in some cases can burn out from "too much work, not enough play". Be especially wary of worksheets, numerous fill-the-blank activities and sheets of math problems (especially all of the same type). Once your child firmly grasps a concept and can complete a few problems, there is no benefit to be had from such repetition. Occasional finishing of project work would be fine, but this should be an exception rather than the rule.
If you find your child has homework each night, this should be a cause for concern, and should be taken up with the teacher immediately. Kids in primary grades (grades 1-3, or 5-8 years of age) and younger have no need for any homework at all. Learning and development at these ages especially needs to come from the child's own experiences in free play. There is much learning that comes from unstructured children's play and this is an essential part of child development.

If you would like to read more about this, including the actual studies, refer to Alfie Kohn's website.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Case for Summer Vacation

While stuck in a supermarket lineup recently, I noticed the cover of Time Magazine which featured an article about how summer vacation was bad for kids as they tend to "lose" their year's learning. This article is my own personal response.

The Case For Summer Vacation

First of all, I would like to examine some of the assumptions the article blurb seems to make:
1. School/academic learning is superior to other experiences and kinds of learning
2. Children need to achieve academic success in a predictable, steady manner
3. Summer vacation time is wasted time
4. Children do not need time to "recharge their batteries"
5. Unstructured play is not a valuable and necessary component to child development
6. That politicians, parents and other influential adults know better what kids need to learn
7. That children should be subjected to political and corporate agendas to an even greater degree
8. That homework, busy work, form-filling, following rules without question and having the right answers are what we want to call "learning"

I could go on and list all sorts of studies that contradict the essence of these assumptions, but I will spare us all that agony. If you are interested, you are welcome to do your own research.

Think about this: how many parents are concerned about the serious learning deficits of our children regarding the natural world? Surely a lack of familiarity with the local flora and fauna all around us should be a huge concern for all of us. Some elementary kids cannot even identify 10 different local native species--flora or fauna, or (perhaps more importantly) explain on a very basic level how their local ecosystem works. They do not get outdoors, experience fresh air and sunshine, play freely with other children without adult intervention, or explore the natural world. These lessons cannot be replaced by standardized classroom "learning".

As it is, we tend to jail our children in institutions at a young age, force them to learn/memorize/regurgitate curriculum that is determined more by politics and convenience than by valid research, and deny them their own personal creativity and joy for learning. We create a one-sized-fits-all assembly line system of "education" that is easily measured, but only serves to create a zombie-like population at best. We compare them to others based on narrow scales of standardized tests and consider them to be "behind" or whatever label is in vogue if they do not completely conform to the "average" that is expected. We hold back the creative, the bright, the imaginative and we marginalize those who might do better. We presume abilities and are quick to pidgeon-hole students in an attempt to make them conform to our standardized expectations. We bore the bright and we bore the challenged.

I've heard parents whose children attend school groan about summer (or winter, March break, etc.) vacation because they don't know how to "keep their kids busy". They are afraid of letting their kids experience boredom. "Keeping them busy keeps them out of trouble" is the popular mantra of the day. This isn't strictly true--some kids will make trouble despite where their carpool takes them. It does restrict their freedom, all in the name of lazy parenting.

Some might find that offensive, but working hard to spend money so your child's world can be completely structured is much less work and takes much less emotional and psychic energy than becoming a role model, mentor and guide to help your children develop their own set of values and ethics. And when they turn 18, we let those who haven't had that opportunity loose on society, having not had the chance to mature properly. Or they realize that they aren't ready to make their own decisions, having had little or no opportunity to develop such life skills, so they live with mom and dad a little longer, or go to university or college where they take courses paid for by the parents, chosen by the parents, in dorms where their meals are prepared and their bedding changed for them, coming home on weekends so mom (or dad, but let's not kids ourselves too much here!) can wash their laundry.

We keep our kids from flying when we constantly clip their wings.

I would argue that kids need time to take charge of themselves and their time, to learn how to structure (or not structure) their own time, to amuse themselves, to test out their own interests, creativity, and values. They need freedom in order to grow. This freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, to try out their own ideas, find out who they are and what brings them joy. Kids need freedom in order to learn how to think for themselves and develop good judgement. We need to remove our own magnet from their moral compasses and let them learn to find their way. We need to guide them and support them without smothering or controlling them. We need to respect their individuality so they can become their own people. These are not likely to happen easily for the child who spends 5-6 hours in school, several hours in daycare/extra curricular programs, weekends in further structured environments, and now summers full of either structure, or the other parental pitfall, video games and other "screen time".

When kids are always told what to do, when to do it, what to think and how to rate themselves against others on a numerical scale, when the media is welcomed into the home to take the place of personal interaction--when these things become the mainstream norm, as they certainly are now, this is the time to push back and work to reclaim the rights of our children.

They deserve better--we all do.

I will leave you with some very interesting related links

Valedictory address by Erica Goldson

What you really need to know

How finding your passion changes everything

What are your life goals? Maybe you're already there

Monday, 2 August 2010

What do you stand for?

I've been having some important conversations with my eldest son over the past two days.
To summarize, I've been asking him to try and sort out what is most important to him--what values define who he is.

Admittedly, this is pretty tough stuff. Many adults I know would be hard pressed to answer. Yet, when it comes down to it, knowing who you are can help define your actions and reactions and even possibly the path you take in life. It can be a comfort, and provide a sense of constancy when the world around you becomes unpredictable. A strong sense of self can help you ride out whatever life throws at you.

Where did the conversation start?

I was surprised to hear him mention making some choices that, while fairly "mainstream" do not match those ideals I tried to impart on him. Impart on him...those words don't sound so great to a mom who believes that kids need to learn to make their own decisions and develop their own judgement. Yes, I will admit that I took this quite personally, and that I had to work hard to step back and find out more. Did he not agree? Were these ideals not his ideals? Is this a moment in which he is experimenting to find out what his own personal values might be, or has he outright rejected these values for himself? How do I know when to let go and let him act for himself? Where do I draw the line when he's busy figuring out where to draw his own lines? How do I know the difference between the effects of peer pressure and the development of his own personal value system? How does he know the difference?

Then he mentioned trying to hide behaviours (in this case, vegetarianism) that others had ridiculed him for. So we discussed it on two levels--did he want to continue to be a vegetarian himself? And, either way, did the others have a right to judge him for it? Were they seeking more information, or were they behaving hurtfully? Just as others have a right to religious and political freedom, he also has a right to his own personal value system. But in order to know how to respond, he will need to know where he stands--what does he himself believe to be his highest ideals?

It can be tough when one's own value system doesn't follow the mainstream. People often find differences personally threatening. Yet, by learning about the options, world views, background, etc.--the reasons--these encounters can become an opportunity for growth, or at the very least, tolerance and understanding.

Acquiescence in order to avoid conflict, "fit in", or just avoid offending others robs people of these opportunities. And yet, people often respond unfavourably, sometimes threateningly, to anything that is remotely different. Explanations can fall on deaf and stubborn ears. All we can do is remain true to ourselves, but it is important that we do remain true to ourselves! Each time we fail to stand strong (such as repeating "this is true for me" or "this is what I believe" etc.), we lose a little self respect.

So it is important to know what you stand for, and to remind yourself of this often, letting your words and actions reflect your strongly held convictions, while listening to and respecting those of others.

I hope he understands.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Canoe Tripping Styles

The family canoe is in the shop getting a new set of well-earned gunwhales, thwarts, fabric and paint. In the meantime, I have recently been reading about a cross-continent canoe trip the Shepardsons made with their two young children back in the early 80's.

In reading this, it has become clearer to me that there are some very different ways to approach canoe tripping!

On our trips we travel in a much more luxurious fashion than they did. We carry a serious water filter (Katadyn Combi), a single-burner camp stove, and ALL of our food. We decide which sleeping pads to bring not whether to bring any at all. We carry internal frame packs, not Duluth packs (I've never even tried using a tump line!). We generally carry 2 or maximum 3 sets of clothing each, plus extra socks and underwear, all packed in drybags, and rain gear. We have not yet done a trip in which we stop along the way for supplies, nor do we hunt or fish. Our focus is different. So are both the length and intensity of our trips.

They're much more traditional in their approach, more like modern-day Voyageurs than vacationers. We are much more casual. Both are valuable, but very different sorts of activities!

The places we go tend to be overstressed by human activity as it is--we do our best not to add to the problem any more than the long drive up and our travel along the portage paths.
I know many see fishing as a crucial part of canoe tripping, but we have had no need. Perhaps if we were in a more remote area and in emergency conditions we would fish. Some lakes near us are artificially stocked for weekend anglers. We've found fishing line left draped over bushes, and some still use lead weights which further pollute the waterways. I do not wish to contribute to this practice. Instead, to keep the packs manageable, we grow and buy local produce and dehydrate it ourselves.

There is a can and bottle ban in Algonquin Park, where we first started our canoe tripping adventures. This has shaped our food planning by forcing us to repackage items, and in doing so, reduce our weight and bulk for portaging. It also helped us on our way to learning to pack well for backpacking trips. We hang all our food before bed each night, and whenever we leave any behind on our site while exploring. Nuisance bears are common in the well-travelled places we paddle, but I wonder if our precautions don't serve more to entice them than dissuade them. Still, we have been fortunate to have avoided theft by bear when camping, and the family canoe still has indents where a bear rolled the canoe to get at food packs underneath during one of my father in law's trips. Raccoons and red squirrels on the other hand can climb well and are appreciative when you hang "their portion" in the relative safety overhead. Red squirrels (and chipmunks) thank you by chattering and clucking and dropping well-aimed cones and twigs where you are working.

I now make up bannock mix in pre-measured baggies (just add water and oil) and we cook this on sticks over the fire, usually on the last night. I also measure out portions of dried hummus in baggies (add water, seal bag, knead with hands then cut off corner of the bottom of the bag to squeeze it out). More camping food ideas can be found here.
Yes, the baggies are an environmental blemish on our trips. I'm working on it. We no longer double-bag items, and reuse resealable packaging when we can. It's not perfect, and suggestions are welcome!

If we are travelling more remotely (or more likely, off season in normally well-travelled places that are now deserted), we carry a camp saw rather than an axe. It's much lighter to carry, and we generally use smaller sticks of wood (rather than logs) anyhow. But carrying a camp stove reduces our need for wood. Wood is our backup plan, and we do plan one fire/trip to appease the kids who love to practice their pyromania. The eldest can start a fire from a single ember left by previous campers, and has done so several times now. It's a little alarming to see how quickly it can grow, all from an inadequately extinguished fire, and usually just from material within arm's reach of the fire pit!

Many times people who canoe trip are focused on their distance, esp. distance travelled each day. We are slow movers, slow paddlers, and very slow portagers. This used to bother me, but once we had kids, I learned to accept and embrace that. On trips marked for 4 days, it is not unusual for us to take 5 or even 6. But for us, the trips are vacations, so relaxation is an essential element. The kids need time to build dams and waterways, follow insects, float sap-powered leaf boats, etc.

As the kids are getting older though, I see that the relaxation is becoming a little more like laziness. Last year in the Barron Canyon the kids gave us a little peek as to what they are capable of, and I'm going to be hard pressed to keep up this year! It's amazing to me how strong and efficient they've become. They can set up and strike down camp themselves in minutes. They carry appreciable loads now on portages, and when they paddle, the boat gains considerable speed. They are truly comfortable with nature, which I'm sad to say is a rare phenomenon with kids these days.

We have never run any whitewater with the kids. Our own skills are a bit lacking in this area, and we've only really dealt with class I or II in the past, so this is probably a wise decision. Having said that, I believe it is time for us all to take a clinic then practice the skills. There are rivers calling, and the kids are old enough to appreciate safety and still young enough not to have lost their nerve yet. They can cheer on their over-cautious parents!

I absolutely love the Lady Evelyn River (the site of our honeymoon), and hope to return soon. Aside from the "interesting" portages on the south channel, I think we would be able to manage it later one season (once we've done a more laid-back lily-dipping lake trip to warm us up). For the south portages, it will just be grin and bear it, and try not to fall on the steep scree slopes. Luckily, the kids are part mountain goat. Here's hoping that recent reports about the increasing traffic and degradation of sites are overstated.

Am I ready to canoe across the country? Nope. While many areas call to me, I know that I'm (way) too soft for huge expeditions like that. 2 weeks seems like a more attainable and enjoyable goal for us.

There are some rivers--the Nahanni, the Tatshenshini, and several in Quebec that sound pretty interesting. Our skills and fitness levels aren't up to those yet, but perhaps it's time to set a goal!

Thursday, 22 July 2010


A fellow Twitter user recently posted, attention is valuable; be careful where you spend it.

I always promised myself that I would never be owned by things. So often, when people become attached to material possessions, they lose a bit of their freedom. The item must be cared for, maintained and protected. We invest our time and attention to the item. It gains value through our own personal investment. In doing so, we can lose objectivity and forget what is truly important and worthy of our time and attention. Sometimes the care of our possessions becomes more than we can handle, so we must recruit others to help. In doing so, we also lose privacy.

Let's take cars or instance. I use this as an example because I am not a big car fan, have little if any emotional connection to any particular car, and generally find them annoying, somewhat necessary evils.
But others see it differently. Some wash their cars weekly, inside and out. They wax them, buy accessories for them, even "soup up" the engines. They buy air fresheners to simulate the vinyl and synthetic upholstery off-gassing smells of a new car. They buy fancy stereo systems just for car use.
In spending so much time and effort, they become owned by the car (or substitute your choice of material obsession, because the idea here can apply to most material things).
We all have our weaknesses.
My own weakness is my website. I spend an inordinate amount of time and attention on it, and need to apply a little discipline to return to a more balanced place.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of our things. Maintaining our belongings can help them last longer and reduce waste. It is when we go beyond that line that we get into trouble.

In one of my child development classes, my professor made a point of reminding us about how these material obsessions of ours appear to children. He had some examples of how children made poor choices about their own safety based on their perceptions that certain material items were worth more (at least to their parents) than they were. I will spare your the examples here, but some were tragic, and the parents weren't greedy obsessive monsters, they were ordinary people acting much like any other people in our society.

How many times do we admonish kids not to touch a cherished item, or worse, spend as much or more time maintaining an item than playing with the kids? Or even just make them wait until we are finished doing so before it is their turn for our attention? This sends a strong message to kids. They learn that "things" are important and that they come second (or later) in importance.

In fact, this is a message that resonates through society; often we make choices that work towards our own material gain rather than the general benefit of humankind. These choices do not bring us joy or happiness, nor do they always reflect our true values. From financial investments, health care (esp. mental health care), immigration policies, foreign aid and development programs, low income housing issues, taxation, education reform, even wars, these obsessions accumulate and begin to shape our larger decisions and value systems on personal and national levels in subconscious ways.

It's time for a wake up call! I'm making a personal commitment to become aware of where I spend my time and energy so that it reflects the values I hold dear. I challenge you to do the same!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Lemonade Energy Pages are Up!

The Lemonade energy pages are up now. There are dozens of energy-related experiments and activities to try out.

The categories are divided into electrical, solar, wind (including a sub-section loaded with experiments on air pressure), kinetic/potential energy, chemical, and insulation/conductivity.

The activities include lots of interesting and diverse concepts from practical tips for building your own Rube Goldberg machine, to making endothermic and exothermic reactions, building your own solar still and using a balloon to light a florescent light tube. You can see how energy can be stored in a flywheel using your own bike and see just how heavy a sheet of newspaper can be (you may not even be able to lift it!).

I chose these particular activities because they are hands-on, lots of fun, and memorable. They also lend themselves well to group work as well as further exploration into the given topic.

This time there are a couple of experiments that we didn't pre-test that are external links (stomp rockets and elephant toothpaste). When I get to these, I will provide any feedback if needed. I usually try and pre-test everything that goes onto the site before posting. If you have tried either of these, (or any other activities on the Lemonade site for that matter!) I would appreciate your feedback so I can make the site as useful as possible for all visitors.

Side note: I did pre-test the tempera paint stenciled t-shirts that I posted here on the blog earlier, but my most recent batch ran when I washed them. I suspect I did not use a hot enough iron this time, or it could be that I accidentally used washable tempera. If you try this one out, you may want to try out a piece of test fabric first.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Summertime and Newfoundland

After 2 weeks vacationing out east with my family, I guess I've stayed on vacation to some degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing--I've been enjoying the kids and the summer. But it means that I haven't been keeping up with posts!                                                                                                                                    
I am a person who is drawn to natural places. Places I loved as a child have been destroyed, and I am dismayed when I hear some speak of soccer fields and golf courses as "green spaces" (green in colour maybe, but that's about it!). Places of wild beauty, like Temagami and Clayoquot Sound (and most of Vancouver Island that still hasn't been raped and pillaged) own huge chunks of my heart.
This year my family and I went out east and I met: The Rock.
Newfoundland spoke to me. The land is dominant in a way that took me by surprise the moment we drove off the ferry. I suddenly understood why the Newfoundlanders I have known are the way they are--strong, tough, kind, resilient, non-judgmental, warm and caring. The bleakness of the tuckamore sweeping out to wind-scraped meadows of caribou moss and wildflowers--strong, tough, beautiful and nurturing--shows just how much a land can shape its people. It is a place devoid of material excesses. You won't find a Tim Horton's or McDonald's every few kilometres (except in Cornerbrook or St. John's perhaps). You're more likely to be invited into someone's home for tea. It seems like Newfoundlanders would prefer small villages to towns or cities. Historically this has led to many "resettlement" plans, but the small villages (sometimes less that 100 people, not often more than 600) seem to have a staying power that defies conventional economics.

So often, in my semi-urban existence in southern Ontario, the land becomes something to cross, build upon or manipulate as if it were put there purely for human convenience. From where I sit in my comfy house with A/C and all modern conveniences, it appears to be the people who shape the land.

Don't get me wrong--the ancient white pine forests that once adorned NFLD are long gone, and the fisheries may never recover as the larger fisheries continue to break laws, cross boundaries and fish in completely unsustainable ways. Offshore drilling remains a constant environmental threat.

But there is a resiliency there, perhaps borne of the wind and climate of the place, maybe from as far back as the massive geological collisions and retractions that formed the island, that speaks of a land not easily tamed.

In NFLD, the land still speaks, and it calls to me.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Weird Musings About Time

In a much earlier post, I talked about my relationship with science. If you happened to have read that, you will know that I am not a scientist. I am interested in science, but don't really speak the language or have any formal training, and as such, my musings are pretty much for my own entertainment. This usually comes at times when I am overtired and cannot sleep, so my thoughts are not usually very coherent!

I once read a piece--I think it may have been written by Robert Fulghum--in which the author explains that whenever he meets a new person, he asks them if they know the answer to the meaning of life (assuming 42 isn't it). He explains that while it may seem odd, he'd feel pretty silly if he met someone who knew the answer but he had missed the chance to find out because he neglected to ask. After all, the stupidest question is the one left unasked.

In this spirit, I am going to ask/speculate here about a few things I've wondered about regarding the physics of time.

Perhaps you will be able to clear these up for me and allow me to gain a good night's rest.

1. What happens to time as temperature falls towards zero degrees Kelvin? At zero, does time actually stop? This goes along with another question, which is, how can we accurately measure time? An atomic clock is the current best accuracy we have, but it would seem that the fall of temperature would distort the measurement when taken to this extreme. Any thoughts on this?

2. This one is from my 12 year old son from a conversation we had tonight at dinner (yeah, we talk about this sort of stuff over dinner!): what if the explosion of the big bang was not spherical, but rather cone-shaped or bi-conical (like lighthouse lights)? What might that mean in regards to time in our universe? Could it predict a parallel universe? Could our lack of symmetry (particle and anti-particle imbalance that allowed our universe to form without particles immediately canceling out) be counterbalanced by a universe on the "other side"? How about 3 cones, or 4?

3. If we could step outside our universe to view it, what would it look like? Would time not exist there, and if so, how would that affect our view? Would the universe become invisible as light takes time to travel? Can there be light outside of time? If we could see it, would we see all of past and present for the universe happening at once? Or would it "appear" as a giant black hole? Could we detect anything at all from it?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these, or any other similar "imponderable wonderings" you yourself may be having.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Power Pages

Coming soon to a website near you: the power pages full of energy-related activities and experiments.

A sample of some of the activities I'm working on:
- make your own solar still, solar cooker and solar dehydrator
- explore the effects of high and low air pressure
- make a glow in the dark geyser
- explore the role of colour and light in heat absorption
- use edible insulation to bake ice cream (this is already on the site)
- make hot ice and use household items to create heat as well as cold
- explore potential and kinetic energy with marbles and your own Rube Goldberg machine
- make your own rubber-band powered vehicle
- make your own balloon-powered vehicle

There will be lots more there too. This should be up and running by mid July.
Can't wait? Here's a chemistry quickie:

Easy Endothermic Reaction
citric acid (sold to keep cut fruit from browning and also in craft stores for making bath bombs--The Bulk Barn sells it in containers that look like spice bottles)
water (warm but not hot)
baking soda
a spoon or stirring rod
a heavy glass container or mug
a thermometer (one with a probe-like end works best)

Dissolve a teaspoon of citric acid powder in 3-4 teaspoons of water and insert a thermometer. After a few seconds, record the temperature. Slowly add a teaspoon of baking soda a little at a time. Record the temperature, then wait 3 seconds and record it again. Repeat every 30 seconds or so for about 5 minutes. What do you notice?

Now, for the interesting twist my son discovered yesterday:
Wash off the thermometer, then leave the mixture out for an hour or so. Record the air temperature, then stir the mixture and measure it's temperature. Wait 30 seconds and measure again, then another 30 seconds and measure (and record) yet again. Now remove the thermometer and wait 30 seconds are record the air temperature again. What do you notice?

Chemical reactions that cause a drop in temperature are called endothermic. Exothermic reactions create heat.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

It's the Diversity that Makes our Country Great!

Canada's greatest strength has always laid in its diversity, yet it was only a few decades ago that Pierre Trudeau opened immigration to allow for true multiculturalism. Perhaps the wait was a good thing, because we are fortunate that rather than becoming a "melting pot" where cultural identity is lost, we have become a cultural mosaic in which we have grown into a globally minded national community. Tolerant is not the right word, because it isn't that we just "put up with" differences among our people, but rather that we celebrate the richness that such diversity brings.
Of course, there are those among us who think differently, and it is clear that we still have quite a long way to go before such ideals are a reality for every Canadian, but I would argue that although the going is slow, and we suffer setbacks now and then, that on the whole, we are headed in the right direction and I have faith that we will in fact get there, if not in my lifetime, then most definitely in the lifetime of my children.

And while I'm discussing diversity, it it worth mentioning that 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity.

If you're like me, when you hear the word "biodiversity" you immediately think of the Amazonian Rainforest. But I'd like you to turn your thoughts closer to home (assuming you live in Canada--if not, turn them northward for this post).

Canada is a vast country that has it all--tundra and rainforest, prairies and mountains, wetlands, lakes and ocean vistas. We have boreal forests that span the country and more fresh water than any other country on the planet. Unfortunately, we also tend to lack an appreciation for what we have, and have shown an alarming tendency to pillage it in the name of profits.

Recently though, there have been some very favourable signs of hope that we are starting to appreciate and value the land, waterways and oceans and the flora and fauna.

A significant conservation agreement was recently ratified by a group of forestry companies and environmental groups in order to protect a vast amount of Canadian boreal forest. This agreement means everything for the native caribou who now stand a much more favourable chance of recovering in numbers. It is also important for the innumerable other boreal species whose habitat will be saved.

If that wasn't enough for some of us, the Queen Charlotte Islands, now renamed back to Haida Gwaii, has been named as Canada's first Nat'l Marine Conservation Area Reserve. This is important because it is the first time Canada has created a protected area that spans both land and sea.

We may have a long way to go, but we're headed in the right direction!

Oh Canada, Glorious and free!
Boreal forests, old-growth pines, coastal rainforests--I stand on guard for thee!
Diversity, global vision, basic human rights--I stand on guard for thee!