Apricot Prune Kugel

Here's a recipe for Apricot Prune Kugel for Passover. Baba said she isn't making kugel this year because she's making a turkey and stuffing it and the stuffing is just the same as kugel. So I'll make kugel.

I looked for the recipe and couldn't find it, so I asked on Twitter but no-one's suggestion looked quite right. (Kugel means different things to different people.) Then I looked in my cookbook again and realized the recipe was just formatted weird, and I actually do have it. So I'm posting it here for the interest of googlers everywhere.

Ingredients
  • 16 dried apricots
  • 12 prunes
  • 2 heaping cups matzo farfel
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup raisins
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 apple, grated fine
  • 1 cup orange juice
Instructions
  1. Soak the apricots and prunes in hot water (I don't know for how long) and then drain and chop them.

  2. Pour hot water over farfel; drain. Add oil and egg. Mix in fruit and all other ingredients.

  3. Turn into square baking dish. Bake at 350°C for about 1 hour.

Latest Update on the Gifted Saga

Since my last post on this topic I've met with Andrea, a friend of a friend who is an expert on special education and works at the TDSB. She very kindly allowed me to pick her brain, and I learned plenty. Apart from lots of advice and insight on how gifted education is handled in the TDSB, she had two concrete suggestions: to seriously consider the TDSB gifted program, and to ask Delphine’s teacher specifically how he is differentiating for her.

(Differentiated education is something they ask teachers to do these days, where basically every child gets their own special curriculum. It’s how they justify combining ages and abilities within one classroom: the teacher is supposed to assess the ability of each child in their class and provide each and every one of them with assignments and materials that suit their level. You might infer that I am skeptical as to the practicality of this system.)

We had every intention of getting Delphine assessed for giftedness, because you basically can’t ask for anything without having that rubber stamp. But from talking to other parents I got the impression that the gifted program, which is at a school a few neighbourhoods away, would not be suitable for Delphine. So we had written off the possibility of the gifted program and hoped that the rubber stamp could be put to use some other way. But Andrea urged me to be open-minded and check out the program ourselves. And she’s absolutely right; neither Delphine nor I know what the program is really like nor whether it will suit her in ways that she can’t even articulate. So we’re going to, at least, go and visit.

We met with Delphine’s teacher in November as part of the regular parent-teacher interviews, and I did ask him how he’s differentiating the program for her. He said something like, “I’m not going to offer her anything different until I’ve seen that she can do the assigned work to a better standard.” He doesn’t like the quality of her work — it’s messy and she doesn’t go the extra mile to produce really great work. She meets the requirement of the assignments without adding flair.

Of course this decision on the part of the teacher is deeply unsatisfying to me. An education that is suited to your ability is a not a carrot to be dangled in front of you as a reward for jumping through arbitrary hoops of the teacher's devising: tidy handwriting, sitting still, completing assignments to a level beyond that asked.

I guess it does make a certain, superficial sense; I've mentioned this to a few people and they've said it seems fair. But it isn't really, when you think about it. There's no real connection between being tidy, or putting a great deal of effort into an arbitrary tast, and needing (or deserving) to be challenged intellectually. Both of those are useful skills to have (the first probably more than the second) but neither of them have to do with being smart, and it doesn't make sense to connect one to the other. Just because she's not particularly strong in these areas is no reason to deprive her of stimulation in other areas.

And besides, an education suited to the student’s level is a legal entitlement in Ontario.

(We haven't even considered that she might not be completing the assignments to the teacher's standard because she's not really very interested in them — because they're too easy or because they're on a topic that doesn't interest her, or because she wants to save her limited energy for an endeavor that's of more interest to her. Of course the question of whether she can apply focus and determination and effort to a project which is important to her is another matter, and one which doesn't seem to be resolved within the traditional school system.)

This is one of the reasons we are interested in an IEP; because it's a document which requires that teachers offer her an education that suits her ability level, without having to adhere to the teacher's idea of what's suitable for a gifted child, or what should be required of a child before they get the education that they need. Of course this leads to the question of whether we want to establish an adversarial relationship with our teachers before we've even established any other kind of relationship.

The story continues but this post has been sitting on my hard drive for a while. More to come...

Cordelia Does Math

Lately Cordelia and I have been going through the folder of completed work her teacher sent home at the end of grade one. (She's four months into grade two at the moment; one day I hope to catch up.)

One of the exercises they did last year was to figure out how you can "make" particular numbers; that is, what two numbers add up to a number.

It took her a little while to catch on:

Make 7
2 + 5 makes 7. A red dancing yeti + 2 purple eggs makes 7?

Make 8
8 + 2 makes... damn. Okay, 5 + 3 makes 8.

Make 9
Ah, now she's got it. 6 + 3 makes 9; 1 + 8 makes 9!

Now it's time for her to do it by herself: choose a number and show how to "make" it two different ways. But Cordelia is Blake's daughter, so her additional challenge is to do that correctly while also doing as little work as possible. I think she nailed it:

Make 1


And here she is, this year:

Cordelia

What I Learned About Building a Natural Playground in a TDSB School

Frog sculpture

Sydney's Playground is the new natural(ish) kindergarten playground at Maurice Cody Elementary school. It's named for one of our kindergarteners, who was killed in a traffic crash while we were in the process of planning the playground. (This post isn't about Sydney, but it seemed weird to write about the playground without mentioning her.)

This post is about the process of designing and building a natural playground in a TDSB school. When we embarked on the process of building a natural playground at Maurice Cody there was very little guidance on how to go about building a playground, so I am writing this in the hope that it will help someone else.

The caveat is that your mileage may vary: I am not sure how consistent the TDSB is in terms of policies and processes, and for all I know your experience will be completely different. Even if it is, I hope this post gives you some idea of what's possible and what's likely to happen. But first...

A Little About Natural Playgrounds

A natural playground is a playground built with natural elements instead of artificial play structures. They are desirable for various reasons:

  • Being in a natural environment has been shown to improve concentration and learning

  • Unstructured play elements are better for imaginative play in much the same way that plain Lego blocks are more demanding than Lego kits with funny shaped blocks and instructions

  • Natural elements like logs and rocks are theoretically less expensive than manufactured play structures

What The TDSB Will Do For You

Our school is one of the few in the TDSB that's growing, and a couple of years ago the school board built a second playground for the nine kindergarten classes. When I say "built" I mean they fenced off an area, built some stairs and put down some mulch. You may not realize this — I certainly didn't — but the TDSB is not in the playground-building business. Despite having your 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in their care for six hours a day, and despite the massive importance of outside play and gross motor activity for early childhood development, the TDSB does not build playgrounds. They do landscaping, hence the fencing and mulch, but they don't do playgrounds.

That's up to you, the parents. You have to decide to build a playground, you have to guide and help manage the consultation and design process and you have to raise the money.

So there we were with the outline of a playground, and since I was eco-committee chair at the time I suggested we should take the opportunity to build a natural playground. The idea was greeted with various degrees of enthusiasm; I think mostly people were just glad someone was doing something about what the kids had named "the nothing playground".

I'm going through the years — literally — of emails on this topic and I think I had better give you the condensed version. (I sent my very first email about the natural playground in January 2010, and we finished the playground in August 2012.)

So here's the compressed, idealized process, with advice.

1. Get Your Ducks (And Your Dollars) In A Row

First you need to decide you're going to do it. You'll have to sell your parents, your administration and your teachers on a natural playground. (I didn't have any trouble with that up front, although there was some pushback later when people realized what a natural playground actually meant, and I had to explain the concepts over and over.)

Next you need to meet with your community — teachers, parents, staff — and talk about what you want from the playground. Both from a high-level, philosophical angle and also about the specifics of what you want: A slide? An outdoor classroom? A sand box? Make sure everyone has been included and that you all roughly agree on what you want. You have to do this before you come to the table with the TDSB playground designers.

This was one of the most frustrating parts for me, because I didn't feel we were in any position to make these decisions: we didn't have either a landscape architect or a playground designer on our team and we had no idea what was possible or desirable. But the TDSB wants you to have met, discussed and agreed before you come to them.

They also want you to have $10 000. Or at least, that's the sum we had to pony up to prove that we were serious about funding a playground.

Once you have expressed your interest in building a playground, there will be a meeting with the TDSB groundskeeping staff, the school administration, and representatives of parents and of teachers. This meeting tripped us up because the kindergarten staff just sent whichever random teacher was available, and that teacher hadn't been to any of our previous meetings. So she had no clue what the concept of a natural playground was and I spent half the meeting explaining it to her and telling her why we didn't actually want those bouncy spring toys or another playhouse. As a result we looked like we hadn't consulted at all, and we got a stern talking-to from the TDSB designer. She didn't want to hear from us again until we had consensus on what we wanted.

Don't make the same mistake. Make sure everyone involved understands what you want.

2. Get To Know Evergreen

You know Evergreen: they're the people behind the Brickworks, where you go for fresh organic produce (or waffles and French fries, if you're me) at their Farmer's Market, to fix your bike, and where your kids can look for turtles and make stuff in their natural playground, Chimney Court.

But Evergreen also works very closely with the TDSB to do schoolyard greening and playground development. I'm not sure exactly how their relationship works, but several people we worked with seemed to be employed by both Evergreen and the TDSB.

Evergreen is also a source of grants, through their Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds School Ground Greening Grants, which is available to pay for plants and certain playground elements.

3. Be Flexible

Once you have furnished the $10 000 and convinced the TDSB you have some consensus on what you want, they will assign you a landscape architect (no, you don't get to decide who your landscape architect is) and you'll meet with them. By now I think a few schools have attempted to build natural playgrounds, so you shouldn't have to spend too much time explaining what you want and why. But when you're going through the design process, keep in mind what a "natural playground" means to your team, and be prepared to be flexible about what yours will include.

Rope climber

For example, a playground needs a climbing structure, to help develop balance and upper-body strength. Some natural climbing structures are, for example, really large rocks and trees. There is no way we could afford really large rocks, and trees freak out teachers. So we ended up looking for a manufactured climbing structure. At one point during our design meetings we had to choose between an abstract rope climbing structure and a "fort". Neither are natural, but we chose the rope structure because it satisfied our requirement of being abstract and, for want of a better phrase, narratively neutral. It can be a tent, a rocket, a tree... The fort might be a castle or a house but it's always a building — a manufactured simulacrum of a manufactured structure.

Even after we had been working with the concept of a natural playground for a long time, some members of the team didn't get it. At one point the quote for the playground came back much higher than we anticipated, and we had to look at cutting some elements. One of our team members was very put out that we would only have "two pieces of equipment" in the playground, meaning the slide and the climber. Those, of course, were the two manufactured elements. She was overlooking the retaining walls (a.k.a., balance beams, fortresses, tightropes), the log benches (a.k.a., balance beams, dragons, mountains, blast shields), the sand box, the rocks (a.k.a., icebergs, dinner tables, space ships, go-carts), and everything else that didn't come in a big box labelled "fun play equipment".

4. Think Long-Term

One important consideration was the expected lack of maintenance. Basically with a TDSB playground, it gets installed and that's it until it's time to take it down and put up something else. Of course the staff will repair things when they break, but you can't include a cool willow tunnel or anything that needs a lot of attention as it grows, and if you put in planter boxes you'd better be damn sure someone is committed to maintaining them. Bear in mind that even if the current community of parents is committed to maintaining the playground, the next generation may not be. You don't want to install something that's going to become a liability or an eyesore.

5. Try To Keep Your Patience

Working with the TDSB was frustrating at times. It's such a large, cumbersome organization that there doesn't seem to be good communication even within it, let alone with the rest of the world. Three examples of this:

  1. It's hard to figure out which playground equipment suppliers you can use. At one point we tried to get a list of TDSB-approved suppliers, and it seems there is no such list. But you can't purchase equipment from just anyone. What we ended up doing was giving pictures of stuff we liked to the landscape architect, and she sourced similar elements from providers she knew were approved.

  2. We had one really fantastic meeting toward the end of the design process. All the interested parties were there: designer, grounds staff, administration, parents, teachers, and Sydney's father. It was the meeting where we made all the final design decisions, including the specific elements and colours we wanted. We had two design principals: to keep the playground visually natural, and to incorporate pink, which was Sydney's favourite colour. We chose a pink slide and complemented it with a green frog sculpture. We also chose red for the climbing structure (because red is kind of like pink?), and tan for the rubbery safety surfacing around the slide and climber. Lovely, right?

    Red climber, red surface, clashy clashy

    Well, it turns out the TDSB only uses a brick red colour for the safety surfacing, at all their schools. We didn't find that out until they installed it. You can imagine how great brick red looks with a pink slide and red rope climber. If we had known that — if the TDSB staff who was at the meeting had known that — we would have made different choices for the colours.

    (Incidentally, when the frog arrived she wasn't green, she was grey. I don't know where the screw-up was: was she ordered wrong? Was she manufactured wrong?)

  3. I wanted logs. Logs are such an obvious element in a natural playground. But the TDSB Grounds Team Leader didn't like logs. He said they attract carpenter ants and wasps, they're a liability and no-one wants to pay to have them removed when they rot. I had visited a playground which was built 15 years ago and had no problems with their logs, but he was quite adamant that logs were not an option. We ended up looking at fake logs made out of cement.

    Logs, bark still on, not on gravel

    And then suddenly, after months of no logs, logs were an option. I'm not sure what changed, but at that same meeting when we decided on the colours, the Grounds Team leader said that he had a source for nice hardwood logs that wouldn't rot. He said they remove the bark from the logs, and if they install them on gravel so they're well-drained there's no concern about rotting. Great! Let's have logs! I was really happy about the logs.

    And then the logs were installed. As you can see, they do not have the bark stripped from them, and they are not installed on nice, well-drained gravel. I have no idea what went wrong there, but obviously the Grounds Team leader's specifications for logs were either not communicated, or not met. I'm not even sure if the logs were from the same provider he was thinking of.


So did we end up with a natural playground? Kind of half-and-half. The playground has lots of natural elements, including the trees which were already there, some new shrubs we planted, the problematic logs, rocks, wooden landscaping elements like retaining walls, stone seating, and a slide built into a natural slope in the playground. We also have some unnatural elements, like the surfacing, which is required around the slide according to safety regulations (even though the slide is at ground level!) and the climber. And we have the frog, which is kind of emblematic of nature and just really sweet.

Slide

Between the safety considerations, the limitations on providers, the lack of maintenance, and the lack of understanding of the concept of natural playgrounds, it would be very hard to have a truly natural playground in the TDSB. But if you communicate the concepts behind a natural playground clearly to your school community and convince them it's a good idea, you can get pretty close, and you can definitely install a playground which provides a rich, natural environment for your children to learn and grow in.

Please feel free to contact me if you want more information about building natural playgrounds or if you would like a tour of Sydney's Playground.


Cleaning out your Firefox profile.

For a while now, I’ve been having problems with my Firefox profile. To be fair, it’s mostly because of random about:config tweaks I’ve made, but still, not being able to test the new SocialAPI stuff was pretty annoying. So I decided to try resetting my profile, to clear out all the junk, and hopefully even make it a little faster.

But, as the page I linked to just up there mentions, resetting your profile will lose your open tabs, windows and tab groups, which kinda sucks, because I have 57 open tabs, in various groups, and I really don’t want to lose them! Fortunately, I’m a programmer, so I hacked on Firefox to get it to save and restore my tabs, and now I’m a happy camper!

A couple of days later, one of my co-workers had some similar problems, and also wanted to re-set his profile to try and fix them. I hadn’t saved the results of my hacking, so I had to re-create it for him from a combination of memory and the documentation. The new code I came up with looked something like this:

var x = gBrowser.tabs
var rv = "var tabs = [\n"
for (var i = 0; i < x.length; i++) {
  rv += '  "' + x[i].linkedBrowser.contentWindow.location + '",\n';
}
rv += '];\nfor (var i = 0; i < tabs.length; i++ ) {\n'
rv += '  gBrowser.addTab(tabs[i]);\n}\n'

To run it, first open about:config, and make sure the devtools.chrome.enabled preference is set to true (double-click it if it isn’t, and it should switch automatically), then go to the Tools » Web Developer » Scratchpad menu item, which should open up a small new window with some javascript comments in it. While that window is focused, click on Environment » Browser, to make sure that you’re running the code in the browser’s chrome (instead of in the page’s content). Paste the code in, and click Execute » Display.

That should result in a bunch of code in grey surrounded by /* and */ that looks like:

var tabs = [
"http://weblog.latte.ca/blake",
"http://breakingtheegg.tumblr.com/",
];
for (var i = 0; i < tabs.length; i++ ) {
  gBrowser.addTab(tabs[i]);
}

Copy that out of the scratchpad into your favourite editor, remove the /* and */, and run the profile reset.

Once you’re done resetting your profile, you’ll need to change the devtools.chrome.enabled preference to true again, and then re-open the Scratchpad, paste the new code you saved back in to it, click on the Execute » Run menu item, and shazam! All your tabs should be back (although they won’t be in their original tab groups. If anyone needs me to figure out how to do that, just let me know, and I’ll give it a try).

Letter to Delphine's Teacher Re: Reading Log

Here's a letter I wrote to Delphine's teacher about the daily reading log he has asked us to have the children fill out — the children are supposed to read for fifteen minutes a day, and the parents are expected to initial the log on a daily basis.

Mr. F——

Delphine has not been filling in her reading log. I admit I haven't been encouraging her to -- I want her to read for as long as she wants to for pleasure and knowledge, not to a clock because she's been told to. Delphine is a born reader and we have no problem getting her to read or to challenge herself.

I can assure you with a great deal of confidence that she has read for at least fifteen minutes every day this September, and indeed probably every day since she learned to read four years ago. I can also assure you, with almost the same degree of confidence, that she will read for at least fifteen minutes a day for the rest of the school year. I'm so confident of that that I would happily pre-initial a year's worth of reading logs right now. However, I expect that would defeat any other purposes of the reading log that you have in mind.

If the reading log serves to give you some idea of what students are reading, would it be acceptable for Delphine to provide you a list of what she has read? She's also willing to write a report on what she's read once a month or at some other frequency if that would be helpful.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this in person -- I'm available before and after school most days.

Hopefully he will respond favourably. I think the only eventuality I didn't cover in the above letter is that he wants the kids to fill in the reading log because he wants them to get used to doing bullshit paperwork. This is a defense which comes up frequently when this matter is under debate. "They're going to have to do mindless busywork at some point, better get them used to it!" I don't buy it. They're all going to have to, say, wear glasses at some point (unless they die before middle age), but no-one advocates making all children wear glasses.

And it's not like doing bullshit paperwork is a sophisticated skill you have to start working on in childhood, like playing classical piano or doing gymnastics. You can pretty much pick it up in half an hour.

Anyway, Mr. F—— strikes me as an intelligent and thoughtful teacher, so I don't think he's going to go for the bullshit paperwork angle. We'll see how it turns out.

All of Summer 2012 in One Giant Post

I was looking at old posts and wow, I can't believe how much I used to post. And how much I love reading old posts about the girls when they were littler, and the things we used to do. I hate that I'm so busy I don't have time to blog any more.

I need to get less busy. I don't know how. That's my leitmotif these days.

But I wasn't too busy to have lots of fun with the girls this summer. This is what we did.

High School Reunion

The day after school ended we got on a plane to Saskatchewan. I have a Simplenote to myself called Summer Plans/Notes/Ideas that includes the line, "Don't leave the day after school ends", but this year I had to ignore my own advice because my twentieth high school reunion was the weekend immediately after the end of school, and Friday was the only sensible day to fly.

We rented a car (a Kia Soul, which drives exactly like the giant cardboard box it resembles although it's very comfy and spacious on the inside, as long as you're not transporting more than four cubic feet of stuff) and drove to Prince Albert, where we stayed with my friend Debbie.

Debbie was my best friend in grade nine and maybe grade ten (it's kind of a blur), and then I drifted into another group but we stayed on good terms. She's now basically the only person I still talk to from high school. (Oh, and she's also the person who introduced me to Guns n' Roses, with a cassette of Appetite for Destruction which she might have copied from her brother's copy.)

Debbie lives with her hot husband and her gorgeous kids in an adorable bungalow in a suburb-y division of Prince Albert. (There isn't much of Prince Albert that isn't suburb-y.) She has a lovely back yard with groomed lawn and tidy garden beds, a variation on the same play structure we have, and a back gate which opens on to a park with a playground. My kids get along with her kids (they are still talking about them) and they spent hours playing in their inflatable pool. Debbie and I still get along — good chemistry never fades — so it was a terrific visit. We'll definitely stay over at their place again.

Debbie didn't actually come to the reunion — they went to a cottage instead, but they let us use their house (and their babysitter!)

The reunion started with a tour of the high school. It was strange for me because most of the tour was to parts of the school I hadn't actually spent much time in: the pool, the gym, the art room, various technical shops and the music room. I took almost all academic classes — the only technical class I took was Electricity and Electronics, and the only arts class I took was choir. (I thought I recognized the music room from choir, but it turns out they moved it since I was at school, so I recognized it wrong.)

The girls thought the school was pretty awesome, especially all the shops. It's a comprehensive high school, so there is a wood shop, a welding shop, a mechanic shop, a pottery studio, a cosmetology classroom, and on and on. I kept on thinking, "I should have taken this in high school!", especially in the drafting and CAD studio. I missed so many opportunities because I was so fixed on a particular idea of myself and my future.

The next part of the reunion was a dinner and dance at the Prince Albert Golf (and Curling?) Club. There was only a handful of people there — we were a graduating class of three or four hundred, but apparently we mostly don't care to see each other any more. But I got to hang out with some people I thought were pretty cool in high school (still pretty cool) and some people I don't remember, didn't recognize, but liked anyway.

One of the guys I chatted with was pretty awesome in school — he got great grades and was a super athlete, on all the teams. Contrary to the athlete stereotype, he wasn't good-looking or popular but he was well-liked. But when we got to the cafeteria part of the school tour he said that he had never eaten in the cafeteria because he was afraid he wouldn't find anyone to sit with. We were all so stupid and neurotic in high school. (Some of us still are.)

Anyway, the food was good and the company was good. The next morning Blake and I and the girls enjoyed an incredibly comprehensive breakfast buffet (omelettes! sausages! pancakes! chicken! lasagna! pie!) at the same venue with a couple of reunion moms and their kids. (No other dads at that breakfast, not sure why.) Sadly the other kids were all boys — Delphine and Cordelia were quite unimpressed with their antics — but down at the grown-up end of the table we had some great conversation. (I observed that conversations about money in Prince Albert are exactly the same as conversations about money in Toronto, except the numbers are half or a quarter the size. "I can't afford $150 000 for a house!" "They're renting that place for $800!")

Big River

The rest of our stay in Saskatchewan was uneventful. My usual Big River fixer — my mum's friend who takes us fishing and arranges trips to farms — was sick, so we didn't have the usual adventures, but we did take lots of walks through a lovely new waterfront trail. (Big River is amping up their tourist attractions because they haven't had any industry there since the lumber mill shut down.) We found an old tree fort, and the girls figured out how to climb it. Debbie brought her kids up and we had lunch at the nice cafe. I read lots of books and watched all my mother's police procedurals. The girls were bored. We found a new beach and met some potential future playmates.

There was a bit of an adventure trying to work out how we would get back to Saskatoon to catch our plane home. It's a three-hour drive, and usually my mum's friend takes us. Since there is no public transport of any description up there we had no plan B. Nothing. (Well, my mum knows an older guy with a ponytail who lives in one of the trailers who she figured would probably take us. So, no plan B.) What ended up happening is that my mother drove us an hour south, and Debbie drove up from Prince Albert to pick us up, then all the way down to Saskatoon to drop us off, and then back home to PA. Saint Debbie! Thank goodness, and it was so much fun getting to visit with her on the way.

(Next time I'm renting a car and keeping it the whole visit.)

Camp

After we got home and caught up on Frappuccinos and playdates and family visits, the girls had two weeks of day camp at Harbourfront. Delphine did theater camp; they put on a short version of Disney's musical Alice in Wonderland. They also worked on vocal techniques, costumes, set design, headshots, and other theatrey things; Delphine loved it, and she got to play Alice. Well, she was one of four Alices. (She was the sweetest.)

Cordelia was in Canoe Camp for the first week. I like canoe camp because they learn some basic canoe skills, and because they canoe over to the island and get to explore some of the little bays and inlets. It seems like a very Toronto camp. For the second week Cordelia was in an unthemed day camp (also at Harbourfront) and she enjoyed it, too. They went to a park, and they went swimming (ironically they have to bus them to a pool because you can't swim at Harbourfront) and to a beach.

While the girls were at camp I did some work and ran some errands; I went to Ikea with my new neighbour Aimee, I got a dress fitted for Kat's wedding, I looked after my friend Tanya's cats, I got a massage.

On July 30, Delphine and I went to the mall to get her a dress for Kat's wedding while Cordelia spent the day with cousin Charlie for his birthday. Delphine and I love clothes, so we had fun (especially since Sears has formal dresses for $35). She tried on six dresses before picking her favourite (which of course wasn't my favourite). We also hit H&M for some entirely gratuitous accessories: shiny gold shoes for Cordelia and a black hat for Delphine.

My Birthday

On my birthday (I remember when my birthday used to get an entire post of its own) Blake took the day off to hang out with us. I went and got my toenails done in the morning while everyone baked me a cake, and then we went to the Windsor Arms for afternoon tea. It was lovely even though we had to sit outside. (Apparently you have to call weeks in advance to get a seating inside.) Afternoon tea was delicious. The food came on a tiered plate stand, of course. The bottom plate had big, fluffy scones with clotted cream and some slightly dubious homemade jam. (The strawberry jam was greyish. Tasted fine, though.) The middle plate had three kinds of sandwich, but I can't remember what they were. And on top there was, I think, a little chocolate cake and a little lemon tart and two other things. It was all tasty and we were stuffed. (I always mean to bring the scones home and then I forget and eat them first.)

After tea I made everyone walk down Bloor with me and window shop. We went into Pottery Barn Kids, and looked at incredibly overpriced tea towels at Williams-Sonoma. We went to The Body Shop and I got some much-needed makeup and some not-really-needed-at-all lip glosses.

Blake and the girls baked me a birthday cake, and we had KFC for dinner. In retrospect afternoon tea and KFC and birthday cake was probably overdoing it...

Kat's Wedding

Two days after my birthday was Kat's wedding, another event which deserves a blog post of its own. I've been friends with Kat for ten years and seen her go through a procession of boyfriends and quasi-boyfriends of varying levels of disappointingness. I was pleased when she finally found someone kind and good and patient and interesting. (Though not as pleased as she was, I'll wager.)

The wedding was fantastic, especially considering Kat just about whipped the whole thing together in a month. The ceremony was a quick city hall affair, well-attended by a large contingent of Kat's relatives and friends, as well as a few of Joel's family from Saskatchewan.

The reception was at Currie Hall, a beautiful old room with high ceilings and huge leaded windows. It's part of the National Ballet School and still has brass barres on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful, as were the drinks and the speeches. My favourite part was Joel's trombone solo for Kat (instead of a speech). Apart from the fact that I'm generally in favour of music instead of speeches, it was a beautiful and touching performance.


The day after the wedding the girls went up to the cottage with Baba and Zaida for a few days. Blake and I were invited, but it's hard to say no to a few child-free days in the city. We had a nice time but spent a lot of money on movies and eating out and buying books. (When you don't like to be outside, there aren't a lot of free ways to have fun.)

Centreville

The day the girls got back from the cottage I took them down to Centreville. (It was the only day that Ursa was going to be able to go; I thought maybe they would be tired out from the cottage, but they were raring to go.) It was a watershed year for them: Ursa was exactly "tall enough" and also "short enough" to ride everything — she was the precise height which you have to be shorter than to ride the little-kid rides (like the bee ride), and taller than to ride the big-kid rides (like the bumper cars). So of course all the attendants let her go on their ride — she got to ride everything! That was very cool for Ursa and infuriating for Delphine because she's still too short for the "tall enough" rides. (She's shorter than everyone, apparently.)

We hope that Delphine will grow enough to ride the bumper cars next year.

At Centreville we also met up with Kat and Joel and their ridiculously adorable niece (and her mother). It was nice to hang out with Kat and Joel before they disappeared back to SK to do more wedding stuff.

Fort York and a Boat Ride

One of our summer traditions is a take a boat ride down at the harbourfront. Several different companies offer harbour tours on numerous boats, and this year I decided to take the girls on the Kajama, a sailboat.

I also wanted to go to Fort York, a site I had never visited despite having lived in Toronto for over fifteen years. Since Fort York is close to the harbour I figured we could visit it in the morning, then walk down to the harbour in time for our boat ride at 1:30.

Fort York is kind of hard to get to by transit — we took a bus down Bathurst and then walked past a lot of condo construction and a large parking lot to finally find the front gate. I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to see there; I figured it would be one of those rather dry historical sites with a few restored bits and pieces and a bench or two, but Fort York is staffed up the wazoo with tour guides and reenactors. There was a small group of high school and university students in full (wool) uniform who marched around playing fife and drum tunes and occasionally doing a specific thing. While we were there they raised the flag and did a musket firing demonstration. We took a tour of the officers' quarters and ate piece of period cake baked in the period kitchen by volunteers. (Apparently they're putting together a cookbook — I look forward to that.)

I had only allotted an hour for Fort York, but we could have spent another hour there and gone on another of the many tours. It was worth the trip.

Then we walked down to the harbour, unwittingly following in the footsteps of Isaac Brock. I don't think he stopped to play on the undulating sidewalk and have an iced coffee, though. When we got to the ship it turned out that we were half-an-hour early, due to my inability to read my own calendar, so we hung around the harbourfront a bit and played on more undulating sidewalks. (A baffled tourist: "What are they for?")

The Kajama was pretty nice. It's a beautiful ship, and also has a working kitchen so you can have lunch (and beer!) on board. I was sufficiently impressed by this that I decided we should eat lunch on the boat, but it detracted from the boat ride — we were so busy with our fries and chicken fingers that we didn't pay attention to the lake and the scenery.

There wasn't a tour guide yakking on the Kajama the way there is on all the other rides we've been on; I missed the chatter and the probably-apocryphal stories about the Canada Malting plant and the Redpath sugar factory and the Islands. I suppose it should have been a nice soothing ride but, I dunno, it didn't work for me.

They raised the sails partway into the ride, and lowered them toward the end, but it was a still day and I don't think they ever turned off the motor. That was disappointing, too.

After the boat ride I think we just headed home. Union Station is under construction in a big way, and they're also doing track work or something along Front Street so there's no streetcar from Union to Queen Quay and the Exhibition. Worse, the bus that's running in place of the streetcar drops you off in some weird spot halfway to King Station (except not, because then you could just walk to King) so you have to double back and cross Front and Bay at an intersection that's a mess of temporary barriers and pylons and confusion. We had to do that several times this summer and every time I thought one of my children would get run over for sure.

Distillery District

The day after the boat ride I had to meet with Greg Wilson about something. I thought it would be cool to meet with him at the new Underpass park. The park is in Greg's neighbourhood, it looks cool and it's got an undercover place for the girls to play. It had just opened to much media fanfare; I thought it would be awesome.

Then we couldn't find it. The website says it is between this street and that street, south of here or there — we went there and all we could find was a lot of construction. (We saw lots and lots of construction of various kinds this summer.) We wandered and wandered and finally gave up and decided to meet Greg at the Distillery District. (Apparently Kat knows how to find it, but we never did get a chance to go. Next summer...)

The Distillery District was fine and the girls seemed to enjoy it (I don't know why, it's not much fun for kids). We had some excessively sophisticated ice cream from Soma (should have gone to Greg's — Greg's Ice Cream, not Greg Wilson's) and then we got caught in the rain. There is no bus route that goes to the Distillery District (transit in this city is so stupid sometimes!) so we got wetter and wetter as we hunted for a functional bus or streetcar route.

We finally got on the King car, and then I dragged the girls down to Raindrops under the Royal York to get a proper umbrella. I've been meaning to buy a good umbrella, one that will last, for a while now and this seemed like a good opportunity. I was pleasantly surprised at the prices: I walked in ready to pay $125 for an umbrella and found the good ones were available for $60 or $70. So I bought the girls each a birdcage umbrella as well.

(Of course after I spent $100 on umbrellas the rain stopped and didn't return for two weeks. You're welcome.)

The Ex

The Ex is the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto's pompously named summer fair. It's mostly a giant midway, with a token gesture towards agriculture and crafts. I went when Delphine was fifteen months old and I could carry her in the BabyTrekker, and it sucked; it was hot and crowded and boring. I've avoided it ever since, instead taking the kids to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which is about the same but without the midway, with way more agriculture, and in winter so it's not ridiculously hot.

But now Delphine is nine and Cordelia is six and they're not such a pain in the ass to take out places. They also talk to other six- and nine-year-olds and apparently everyone goes to The Ex. (However, apparently also everyone goes to Disney World and Montreal.) So I thought I would brave it one more time and see how it went.

We had Kat to guide us this time; she spends at lot of time at the Ex because her band marches in the "Mardi Gras Parade" that runs every day at 5:00. She gets free admission every day, so she is able to wander the grounds without the pressure of seeing everything in one visit. She pointed us in the direction of the kids' midway and the appalling food, which is really what I was there for.

It was actually okay. The kids' midway had lots of neat rides which were different from the rides at Centreville, but was still small enough to not overwhelm. We were there on a Wednesday towards the beginning of the fair (it goes on for weeks) and so it wasn't crowded at all.

Cordelia and Delphine ate a slushy and an entire funnel cake each, and I had a deep fried Jo Louis and bubble tea. It was excessive — I think we didn't eat dinner.

The Beach

Another adventure later that same week was a trip to the beach. Toronto boasts several beautiful, clean beaches and I like to have at least one day at the beach every summer. This time we went to Ashbridge's Bay. Once again we met up with Kat (it's great having a friend who's a teacher) and once again she acted as tour guide — she grew up in the Beaches. We spent some time on the beach and then dragged the reluctant children along the boardwalk to look at real estate. Then we doubled back along Queen Street where I bought straw hats for myself and the girls ($7 each!), got ice cream from Ed's Real Scoop (coffee toffee!) and visited the library.

Next year I'll plan to spend longer at the beach. The girls could basically spend the entire day on the beach, so I'll pack lots of reading matter and a large hat.

I think next year I might also separate the "Beaches neighbourhood" adventure from the "beach" adventure. There's a ravine called Glen Stewart just north of the Beaches which according to Adam Giambrone is pretty spectacular. So we can start at the north end of that, walk through, and then finish with ice cream and window shopping on Queen. And go to another beach another day.

ROM

Blake took a week off at the end of summer to get a taste of our fun. He wanted to see the dinosaur exhibit at the ROM, so we did that on his first day off. The exhibit was spectacular, and we had a nice time reacquainting ourselves with favourites in the museum. (We haven't had a membership for a while.) There's an indoor beehive in the children's section which has a little tunnel out a window so the bees can go in and out — the bees had also built themselves an outdoor hive on the window! And we spun the "what animal are you" wheel and everyone got "insect".

Painting

The other exciting thing we did while Blake was off was paint the house. When we moved in I picked out this tasteful putty colour for the walls, thinking it would be sophisticated and interesting. It turned out to be cruddy and depressing; it just looked like decades of nicotine stains. I gave it five years to stop sucking and it never did, so we painted over it with Benjamin Moore's Cloud White. (Yes, white! The problem with the putty colour is that it never looked like a colour, just like a dingy, dimly-lit white. Now the walls are actually white and I'm much happier. And our art looks excellent.)

That's Not All

We did lots of other things this summer: we went to the Tuesday farmers' market at Davisville Park, we met up with friends at Oriole Park, we shopped for ballet clothes, we had playdates (okay, mostly the girls had playdates), we went to the Science Centre, we decluttered the porch and tidied the girls' rooms, Cordelia learned how to ride a bike.

It's almost outrageous how much fun I have in summer. I love planning our adventures, hanging out with the girls, seeing new parts of the city, and the long idle days of exploring and watching them play.

Sometime in the middle of August I started to get anxious because I hadn't done as much work as I had hoped to in summer. Then I realized that in five years Delphine will be fourteen; she will be hanging out with friends or working or doing camps. She definitely won't want to spend the summer going to the beach and the island and the park with me. And when I look back at these last few years I won't wish I had spent more of my summers working. I have half a lifetime to work after my children are grown, but these long summer days are fleeting. I will enjoy every minute of them.

By Request: Some Quick Meal Ideas

A friend of mine recently asked what I do about dinner, since I somehow manage to work (during school months, at least) and do lots of volunteer crap and also feed my family reasonably well. She wanted some meal ideas.

There's no real trick to cooking half-decent (quarter-decent on bad days) meals, just a series of habits which I've developed over the years.

Meal Plan

Once a week I make a meal plan. "Meal plan" is actually too grandiose; I write down five dinner ideas. I don't like to spend more than an hour preparing dinner (apparently pretty typical) which limits the weekday dinner repertoire, but we still have a pretty good list to choose from.

After we (I usually solicit ideas and opinions from the rest of the family) pick the five dinner ideas I make a shopping list based on those meals. We typically do one big shop on the weekend and then an auxilliary shop mid-week for milk and other perishables.

With the meal list in hand I also decide which dinner we're having which day, based on what ingredients will spoil first, which days are rushed, when we're having company, etc. Knowing what meal I'm preparing each day also tells me when I'm making something which requires prep earlier in the day, like a crock pot meal or roast.

Other Meal Habits

Most days we eat at 6:00, which means I try to be home and cooking at 5:00. (It usually doesn't actually take an hour of work to make dinner, but I started giving myself an hour when the kids were small to allow for interruptions, and now I just like to have the time if I need it.) Knowing we eat at 6:00 and I cook at 5:00 helps me make decisions about playdates and activities; i.e., we don't schedule them for those times if possible. (As the girls get older and their activities are more "serious" I find it's harder to control what time they're at, but I try.)

If I know I won't be able to be in the kitchen at 5:00, I plan a crock-pot or other make-ahead meal and "borrow" that hour from earlier in the day.

Some Meal Ideas

Here are seven of our favourite meals, with ingredients and instructions.

Bean Burritos: tortillas, can of black or red beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, sour cream, rice.

Drain the beans and put them in a pot with some water (enough to barely come to the top of the beans) and a generous pinch of garlic powder. Throw in a teaspoon of chicken boullion powder. Let it all simmer for twenty minutes or more, mashing the beans occasionally. Serve in a nice bowl.

(Optional classy version: use chopped fresh garlic, and chicken broth instead of water and boullion.)

Meanwhile cook the rice, chop up the lettuce and tomatoes, and grate some cheese. Warm the tortillas on a plate in the oven or wrapped in a clean tea towel in the microwave. Get a kid to set the table, put out all the food and let everyone assemble their own burritos.

Chicken and Salsa: skinless chicken parts (thighs are nice), salsa, rice, salad or crudites.

Either throw the chicken and the salsa in the crockpot around 2:00 and cook on high for the rest of the afternoon, or throw them in a dutch oven-type pot at 5:00 and cook at 350°F for about 45 minutes with the lid on. Serve over rice.

Serve with salad or crudites. (Bagged salad is just fine.)

Big Salad: lettuce, baby tomatoes, cheese, deli meat, eggs, cucumber, green onion, baguette.

Boil the eggs. Cut up the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and green onion. Grate the cheese, slice the deli meat into little strips. Once the eggs have cooled, quarter them.

Either put the lettuce in a bowl and arrange everything on top, or serve everything separately in little bowls and let everyone assemble their own (perfect for picky eaters, but make sure everyone eats something from all the food groups). Serve with a good dressing, like Renee's (or homemade dressing), and chunks of baguette and butter.

Macaroni and Cheese: macaroni, milk, butter, flour, sharp cheddar cheese (we buy the cheap stuff you can get in great big slabs).

Cook macaroni.

While it's cooking melt about two tablespoons of butter in your favourite sauce pan. Add about the same amount of flour and whisk them together. Cook over medium heat until it smells like shortbread. Add a little bit of milk and whisk together — don't panic as it turns into a lumpy mess. Add a bit more milk, whisk together, warm gently until it gets all lumpy again. Repeat until you've added about two cups of milk. (I don't know if you really have to mess about with all the adding and mixing, but it's kind of fun.) Heat until hot, then remove from heat and add a little salt and pepper and whisk in some mustard powder. Stir in two or more cups of grated cheese.

When the macaroni is cooked, add the cheese sauce and serve. Alternately you can drain the macaroni when it's not quite done, put it in a casserole with the cheese sauce, sprinkle some bread crumbs and grated cheese on top and heat it in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes.

Traditionally we serve this with sliced apple, but go ahead and add your favourite side-vegetable.

Tuna Pasta Salad: short pasta, tuna (2 cans), tomatoes, green onion, mayo or italian dressing.

Cook the pasta. While it's cooking, cut up the tomatoes and green onion. Drain the tuna. Once the pasta is done and drained, mix everything together. Serve warm or chilled.

Spaghetti and meatballs: spaghetti, tomato puree, garlic, onions, homemade or frozen meatballs, salad or crudites.

Here's one that you can spend as much time as you like on, because you can buy the pasta sauce and the meatballs and just throw it all together, or you can hand-make one or both of the sauce and the meatballs.

Here's how to make sauce: chop up the onions and garlic and saute them gently in olive oil — not too high heat or you'll burn the garlic, and there's no recovering from that. Add the tomato puree — either one of those bottles of Italian strained tomato or a can of pureed tomato — and let it simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, or longer if you have time. (Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.) If you're using frozen meatballs, you can add them to the sauce after it's been simmering a while to cook them — follow the instructions!

You can also make meatballs yourself. I like to make square meatballs, which is just meatloaf cooked in a lasagna dish (so it's really shallow and flat) and cut into little squares.

"Moroccan" beef and cous cous: stewing beef, onions, garlic, a dozen dried apricots, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, canned diced tomatoes, cous cous, plain yogurt.

Chop up and brown the onions in your favourite cooking fat; add to crock pot or dutch oven. Brown the beef, add them to the onions. Halve the apricots and add them to the pot along with the garlic, apricots, cinnamon (1 tsp), cumin (1 tsp), cayenne (1/2 tsp), and tomatoes, and some black pepper. (There's probably enough salt in the tomatoes but add some more if you like.)

Cook in the crock pot all day on low (check it mid-afternoon -- if it's really done-looking turn to "keep warm") or in the dutch oven at 350 for... I guess an hour, hour and a half? (I don't think I've ever made it in the oven.)

Serve over cous cous with yogurt on the side, and your favourite side veg.

(I call it "Moroccan" because it seems Moroccan to me but I actually have no idea if this is the kind of thing they eat in Morocco. Probably not.)


So that's how I bastardize the cuisines of the world; I expect this post will drive away any snobs who might read this blog. I hope these ideas are useful for the rest of you! While you're here, why don't you add your favourite quick dinner to the comments below?

Happy Birthday To Me, 2012 Edition

As I get older I expect less from my birthdays. As a child I was doted on and showered with presents, all of which I loved. (I think kids love presents more because they can't buy anything for themselves, so any material things seem wonderful.) Now that I'm older and more averse to stuff, particularly not the very specific stuff I want — in a 1200 square foot house there's no room for things that are lovely but not quite right — getting stuff is not as thrilling as it was.

But I still like that feeling of being special and adored, and fortunately my family is good at providing that. Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday, and we all took the day off to enjoy it.

After breakfast the girls and I walked to the grocery store for a newspaper and a bouquet of flowers. (I don't know why I don't buy myself flowers more often — they were only $10.) Then I took my paper and went off for a pedicure in preparation for Kat's wedding, while Blake and the girls baked me a cake.

Cake baked and nails painted, we fancied ourselves up for an early afternoon tea. Delphine is still good at putting together outfits; she wore a black twill skirt with rickrack trim, and a tropical print top with ruched bodice and puffed sleeves. She topped-and-bottomed it with silver ballerina flats and her new black trilby with sparkly trim.

The rest of us looked pretty good too.

Tea was at the Windsor Arms. (We've tried the teas at the King Edward and the Royal York.) Apparently if you want to get seats inside you have to call weeks in advance. I called last Friday, so we sat outside; if you know Blake, you know what a sacrifice that is. I had to make sure, when I called, that there would be shade and that they haven't been having trouble with wasps. They seated us at a fairly shady table; I took the sunniest spot, and the sun soon moved behind a tree. (We had one black-and-yellow visitor, but we all remained studiously calm and he soon moved on.)

Tea was delicious. We started with a tiny goat cheese quiche, then pillowy white scones with clotted cream and jam. The middle plate was a selection of tiny sandwiches, rolled sushi-style: smoked salmon, chicken, and cream cheese with sundried tomato. Finally, four miniature desserts, and just when we thought we couldn't stuff in another bite, the waiter brought round little pots of strawberries and cream.

If I could offer advice on not overstuffing oneself, I would say eat only one scone, or maybe even half a scone — they're huge and filling, and also very easy to take home. I was too full to really enjoy the desserts. (Or I suppose you could eat the desserts first.)

The girls had mango and apple tea, iced; I had darjeeling and Blake had oolong. All delicious.

After tea we walked up to Bloor and window-shopped in Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. I thought about getting some new tea towels at Williams-Sonoma, but I can't spend $38 on a pair of tea towels. I also had a good laugh at their "found" pottery table; crap from garage sales comically marked up. There was a four-ounce dish with some old brand name on it for $78, and a nondescript brown half-glazed pot for $237.

Then we went to the Body Shop and I took advantage of the birthday goodwill to get some new makeup: powder since I have gone all greasy lately (the weather? some kind of hormonal change?) and bronzing powder to fill in the gaps in my tan for Kat's wedding. (Their #01 bronzing powder is uncannily identical to my tanned colour.) I also got some lip glosses, because you can't have too many lip glosses.

Then Delphine had a little meltdown because it's not fair that I get to get all this stuff I want and she can't get anything because she doesn't have any money because we haven't given her allowance for ages. She's right about the last part — all of us, kids included, are very lackadaisical about their weekly allowance, and we probably owe them about $20 each at this point. So I gave her a tenner and promised that we'd come up with a system to make sure they get paid every week from now on.

After we had had a little rest in the coolth of the Manulife Centre we walked up to the Reference Library, which the kids haven't been into before and I haven't been into since they built the new entrance. We went all the way to the top and admired the view, then walked down the stairs. Delphine and I planned to come back when she's older: she will study and I will work.

Then home, where I spent some time on the couch while Blake cleaned the kitchen (oh bliss). At 7:00 we finally decided to get my traditional birthday KFC, although Blake and I weren't really hungry. (In retrospect, high tea and KFC in the same day was excessive.) After the dirty chicken we had a thin slice of birthday cake each and then all went to bed.


I don't have any profound thoughts on being thirty-seven, except that I don't have that usual sense of panic about how I'm getting old and I haven't done anything interesting with my life, I'm a failure aaaaah. It's nice. I like my job, I like my kids, I like my husband and the rest of my family, and my friends. I don't really like my house much, but I don't hate it and it's certainly more and better house than I have any right to expect, considering the global average. So I'm grateful for that, when I remember to be.

Thirty-seven seems kind of old; I've joked about being old on past birthdays, but this year I'm not really joking. (I will look back and laugh when I turn fifty-seven or seventy-seven, inshallah.) Thirty-seven is not an age for moping about your life, for complaining that things aren't working out or that the world is unfair; it's an age for getting on with it, for figuring things out and doing them. It's a grown-up age.