When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Robomania

I'm settling back into regular life this morning after spending much of last week away with Noah and his robotics team. We left last Tuesday morning, travelling over thirteen hours on a bus headed to St. Louis, Missouri, where the FIRST Robotics World Championships were being held. The four days that followed were an exciting and exhausting whirlwind of robots; there were more than 600 teams from around the world competing in the high energy event, and many thousands of people packed the stadium stands all day, each day to watch, cheer and marvel at the feats of engineering and the impressive performances of the machines and their teen builders and drivers, who had been guided throughout the season by helpful mentors. At the end of the competition on Saturday, our very tired team crawled back onto the bus and travelled another thirteen-plus hours through the night to arrive back home yesterday morning. As worn out as they were, I'm sure many of the kids spent yesterday wishing that their robotics season wasn't over yet. (I spent yesterday half comatose, trying to keep my eyes open and remember who and where I was!)

I had no idea before this year how exactly an FRC team works, and I'm so glad I had an opportunity to learn and be a part of one as a parent this past season. Helping to plan the trip to Worlds and being able to travel with the team gave me an up-close look at the truly inspiring enthusiasm, dedication, and skill of these robotics kids and the people who support them. We were up before 5am each morning during the competition, as the kids were determined to get to the stadium early and camp out in front of the doors in the hopes of securing the best seats for scouting once they opened at 7am. The team spent a minimum of twelve hours each day at the stadium, playing in matches against other robots on the field, taking scouting notes as they observed other teams' machines at work, troubleshooting, cheering, and building connections with robotics kids from around the world. After a late team dinner each evening, the kids often met again until 11pm to discuss strategy and to share funny stories from their day. The passion I saw in the students at Worlds reflected the commitment of the team throughout the build and competition season; they live and breathe for their robot and for their ability to accomplish something meaningful and amazing together.

Noah's team had a very successful performance at Worlds. By Friday's end, they had finished the qualifications round ranked second out of 74 teams in their division, which was thrilling for all of us. They made it through the division quarter finals on Saturday, and then were edged out of the competition during the semis, when one of the other robots in their alliance broke down during a nail-biting tiebreaker match. We were all so proud of our kids and what they were able to achieve with the machine they built with their own brains and hands. 

On a personal note, it was really nice to be able to travel with my oldest son on this trip, to catch a better glimpse of this world of robots he loves so much, to share in his excitement, to provide support for the hard work he and his team do by helping to feed them during the week. I appreciated the moments Noah spent enthusiastically explaining something to me about the various robots, or telling me how he was enjoying his experience. (I also really liked arriving home yesterday morning to a clean house, a batch of delicious made-from-scratch pancakes, and a vase of cheerful flowers, all courtesy of Matt and Will. It felt wonderful, in our worn-out state, to have such a loving support team waiting for us at home.)

I'm still feeling tired this morning, but like Noah and his teammates, that isn't stopping me from already looking forward to the next robotics season. I can't wait to see what these amazing kids will build next.

Photo credit: Team Dave

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Solid Investments


Earlier this year, Will started playing a stock market game as a math enrichment activity for school and at home. It seemed a logical next step for the boy who had started studying baseball and hockey stats and trading cards as soon as he could read on his own, and who, at age nine, would pore eagerly over passed on Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletters whenever his uncle was finished with them. We set up an account for him on the same stock simulator one of the local universities uses with its business students, and Will has been completely enthralled with the game ever since.

He's very, very good at it, too. He watches the stocks carefully, asks Matt questions about short selling and the difference between call and put options, reads investing tips from experts, and makes wise buying and selling choices. I don't know whether it's his highly developed ability to notice details and patterns, the advice he's absorbed from reading all those old newsletters, a stroke of good luck, or a combination of all of these that makes him so successful, but he's currently ranked eighteenth in the game, out of more than a thousand players of all ages from all around the world.

One morning last week, Noah sent Will an urgent text from the high school hallways asking for some quick advice before the bell rang for first class. Some of the older students on the robotics team had coincidentally signed up for a stock market game a couple of days earlier, as an opportunity for some friendly competition amongst team members, and Noah was joining in. Will thought for only a few seconds, then frantically typed in his stock buying suggestions before he had to leave for school himself. Noah followed his advice to the letter and catapulted into first place amongst the robotics team players by the end of that day.

Every school morning that followed included a similar exchange of texts between the two brothers; Noah would ask Will what he should buy that day, and Will would confidently type back his responses. One morning, though, Will decided it would just be easier to give his brother advice over the phone instead of typing everything, so he called him at school. Noah was in the hallway with some of the robotics team members at the time, and he had to put Will on speaker phone to convince them that it was actually his little brother he was getting tips from. His friends were certain he had a "fifty-two year old stock advisor cousin" who was helping him win. Will and I heard them all burst into incredulous laughter when they realized it really was a twelve-year old boy who was guiding Noah's stock choices (and I had to explain to a somewhat miffed Will that they weren't laughing at him, they were laughing in amazement over him.)

The hour after school every day has been filled with highly animated stock portfolio chatter between the two boys; I can barely get a word in. They are thrilled that there is a P.D. day this Friday, so they can spend their time together plotting the best strategy to make sure Noah will be in the winning position when the robotics team leaves for World Championships in St. Louis next Tuesday morning, the previously decided upon end point of the group's stock market game. There will be no complaints of "I'm bored!" around here on Friday, I'm sure of it.

I think Will's successes when playing such a difficult numbers game are pretty remarkable. But what makes me most proud is watching him and his brother get so much enjoyment out of spending time together, bonding over shared interests and a mutual respect for each other's strengths. This loving investment in a relationship will certainly bring each of them the very best returns throughout their lives.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A (VHS) Window to the Past


The summer I was fourteen, I travelled to Asia for a couple of weeks with my dance teammates as part of a cultural exchange program between Canada and Japan. We visited several different cities while we were there, staying in youth hostels and the homes of welcoming Japanese families, meeting local dancers in each location for social activities and to perform together in joint showcases, so that we would all have a chance to learn from one another and develop new friendships. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a young, dedicated dancer like I was, and I still remember vividly many of my experiences during that trip.

While sorting through storage boxes in our garage last summer, I came across an old VHS tape with a recording of some of the Japan trip events, including dance performances, backstage footage, and the highlights of a few social gatherings. I didn't do anything with the tape just then, but I filed its existence away in a near part of my brain, to be easily accessed when the time felt right to remember it. This past Saturday, after spending an enjoyable afternoon watching Will perform in one of his dance competitions for this season, I felt a strong desire to get out that old video tape and watch it. I'm not sure what I wanted to find in it, other than maybe an opportunity to show my son what dancing was like when I was young like him, and maybe some pleasing proof that we were actually as good at performing as my nostalgia-laden memories had suggested we were back then.

Watching that video opened up a deep well of emotions in me, some of which are difficult to even put into words. (The least of these was utter disbelief that the nearly thirty-year-old VHS tape actually worked, and I was able to watch the entire thing!) I found it unsettling in a way, and powerfully touching, to really see my fourteen-year-old self in something other than a photograph, to watch my body language, to hear my own younger voice, and to suddenly remember with such clarity just what it felt like to be that tender age.

The footage showed scenes of shared laughter and comfortable friendships amongst our large group of girls and one boy, friendships created through so many hours of our lives spent learning and working hard together in the dance studio over the years. There were moments where we offered each other encouragement as we rehearsed in an unfamiliar place, weary from heat and jetlag, and there were glimpses of us girls helping each other backstage, pinning an umpteenth bobby pin to secure each other's French braids while our restless feet tapped out rhythms on the tile floor, the older girls helping the younger ones with stage makeup. It surprised me to realize how many of the steps I somehow still knew as the songs for each of my own routines played and I watched our group perform in perfect unison, and how strongly I could still feel the exhilaration of our well-executed leaps and turns, as if I was actually doing them again myself at that very moment. I was pleased, too, to realize that we really were as good at dancing as I had pictured in my carefully guarded memories.

But the video recording opened up another, less rosy set of recollections and feelings, too. I looked at my tiny, fourteen-year-old frame on the screen and remembered that there were moments then when I actually believed I was fat and needed to lose weight to be a better dancer. I felt once again the pressure of competition between individual classmates, and the sting of hurtful whispers and insensitive giggles amongst teenage girls who could be someone's most exuberant supporters one minute and her harshest critics the next. For me, at least, those awkward early adolescent years at the dance studio were full of insecurities and shifting friendships as I tried to figure out who I was and with what values I wanted to align myself, while still seeking acceptance from others.

Re-living a small part of this pivotal time in my life made me keenly mindful of my two boys, who are now very close to the age I was in the video. It made me hope for just a moment that their early teenage years might be a little kinder, a little gentler for them than I remember mine being. At the same time, I recognized that it was finding my own way through the challenges, disappointments, and hurts of that time, with the always present love of my family, that were likely the most powerful building blocks of my true character, and allowed me to grow into the adult version of myself that I am and appreciate today.

In the end, the lingering feeling I'm left with after watching that old video is one of gratitude for the experiences of that trip and that particular time in my life, both the wonderful and the difficult moments, and all that I gained from them. I wouldn't want to be fourteen again, but I'm thinking fondly this week of the many unique dancers with whom I shared time, space, and valuable learning opportunities back then, as we were each growing into our own person. I sincerely hope that wherever all of these women and one man are now, they're well and living lives that make each of their hearts dance joyfully.





Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Dreaming of Classes and Busses


I am a high school student on my first day of classes, and in my hand I hold a timetable, the details of which I cannot completely make out. I am scheduled to attend a class located in a building that is far away from the one where my last class just ended, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why things have been set up this way, when there are just five minutes between classes to get from one place to the next. The realization that I'm going to be late, due to circumstances that are no fault of my own, upsets me. I have no directions to get to this other building, so I walk, briskly, anxiously, down a path that twists and turns and always ends up at a place other than the one I am supposed to find.

Somehow I keep ending up back at the beginning again, walking a different path that leads to a different building that is still not, is never, the correct one.

On one attempt, I finally find the building where my class is, but the class is not the one I signed up for. It's a cooking class, and everything I try to produce in that kitchen fails miserably. I make lame excuses to my teacher for my ineptitude, explaining that I'm used to baking gluten-free and that the recipes just don't make sense to me, that they're not what I'm familiar with. It seems to matter a great deal to me that my teacher understands this, and doesn't think me useless.

***

I am in a bus in an unfamiliar foreign city, trying to get somewhere, though precisely where I can't remember. I do not have a good understanding of the city's layout or the bus routes; I chose the bus based only on my best guess, and I have no idea where it's actually going. The bus driver is no help; he seems angry with me for asking too many questions. At one point along the way, I somehow suddenly know that the bus is not going where I want it to take me, so I ring the bell to stop it, and when the bus slows and then comes to a halt, I leave it. I stand alone in the middle of a strange sidewalk, looking this way and that as the noisy traffic rushes by, trying to figure out how I'm going to get back to where I started and try a different bus instead. I ride many buses after that one, but the destination I'm supposed to find remains ever elusive.

***

Last month I watched a fascinating CBC's The Nature of Things documentary about sleep and dreaming. One segment highlighted the work of a psychologist who sees a continuation between what happens during our waking hours and what goes on in our dreams, and it made me think about the meaning of these two dreams I had on two recent consecutive nights. Where in my life am I trying to go that is unfamiliar and challenging to get to? Why do I care so much about what other people think of me along the way?

The truth is, the fear of failure or of disapproval from others has been a recurring theme in my unrealistically perfectionistic waking life for as long as I can remember. It has often held me back from trying exciting-scary things that might encourage mistake making, or might see me ending up somewhere other than where I had carefully planned to go. 

Something has shifted for me this year, though, and I am both thrilled and pleasantly terrified about a big project I've been working on. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I never felt I knew enough or was good enough to actually pursue it. In some moment of enlightenment (delusion?), some part of me finally decided that whether I know enough or am good enough right now isn't the point; the point is to discover the things I don't know, and to see how much better I can become as I explore the unfamiliar. 

I've found myself often in recent weeks feeling as though I really am wandering that twisty path to the hard-to-find class, or riding a bus that goes to confusing places. I can only give a best guess as to what I'm supposed to do in this new endeavour, and the old fears about people mocking my insufficiencies resurface frequently. Just as often, though, I've felt an uplifting sense of accomplishment, pride, and palpable enjoyment as I've found my own way to each next small step. It feels good to realize that I'm more capable than I allowed myself to believe, even if I don't actually get to where I hope this particular project takes me.

Next stop: who knows, really? Wherever it is, though, I know that I will have gone somewhere in a positive direction, and there's something to be said for that.




Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Weekend Away

We took a road trip to Ottawa over Easter weekend to spend time with family. Mother Nature was kind enough to get her freezing rain storm out of the way on Thursday (and to give the boys an extra, extra long weekend with the resulting school closures that day), so we were still able to make the drive on Friday as planned. The weekend was everything we'd been looking forward to: a chance to reconnect with loved ones, play, eat good food, and give our minds a change of pace and scenery as we begin to shake off winter and look to the promises of spring.

We put together an entire 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were spread out on the kitchen table when we arrived at my sister-in-law's house, inviting us to accept a challenge. (Well, actually, it was Matt, with his patience and calm, steadfast nature, who put together most of the puzzle; the rest of us helped here and there, adding pieces sporadically while we all chatted animatedly together.) We all went to cheer on my nephew at a hockey game he was playing in one morning, and I spent some time making Shrinky Dink jewellery with my niece and reading her bedtime stories, a favourite activity that I hadn't even realized how much I'd missed since our boys outgrew it. The kids played a lively game of baseball in a park one sunny afternoon, and we adults shared details about the worries and glad moments of our separate day-to-day lives. We helped the kids colour real Easter eggs, and watched them race around the house finding filled plastic ones and baskets stuffed with cheerful surprises. There was delicious chocolate, and scrumptious shared meals, and we spent a beautiful Easter Sunday afternoon walking on a trail in the woods, where the chickadees came and ate birdseed right out of the kids' hands.











As we rolled down the highway back towards Waterloo yesterday, Matt and the boys and I all agreed we were very glad we had made the long trip. It was a wonderful weekend. There are few things better than driving for hours and landing in a place where you still feel so much at home.





Friday, March 18, 2016

March Muffin Madness: Nut Butter, Banana and Jam Muffins (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

Today I'm sharing a recipe as part of a March Muffin Madness event that kicked off earlier this week and is hosted by my friend Shirley of Gluten Free Easily. Every day through April 5th, Shirley will be highlighting a delicious new gluten-free muffin recipe created by one of the twenty-two participating bloggers. (That's a lot of new muffin recipes for those of you who love muffins or who have kids who love them as much as mine do!) In addition, she's rounded up an amazing collection of prizes to send out to some lucky winners, both through daily giveaways and in a grand prize giveaway at the end of the event.

Find out more about March Muffin Madness here.

This was a perfect week for me to work on a new muffin recipe, as my boys have been home every day for the March Break, looking for things to do and things to eat! Will put his creative energy to good use and came up with the concept for the nut butter, banana and jam muffins featured here -- he thought the combination of his favourite breakfast flavours would make a great anytime snack. I agreed with him, and all four of us were super happy with the scrumptious muffins that resulted when I turned his idea into a recipe. These nutritious gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free muffins are versatile, too: they can be made with any kind of jam or nut butter to suit different preferences.

Nut Butter, Banana and Jam Muffins



For the jam:

2 cups fresh or frozen berries (I used a combination of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and dark sweet cherries)
1 tsp coconut palm sugar
1 tbsp ground chia seeds

For the muffins:

2 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1/2 cup certified pure oats, ground
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup natural nut butter, melted (I used cashew butter)
2 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
2 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp ground chia seeds mixed with 3 tbsp water (stir and let stand for a minute or two to form a gel)
2 medium sized ripe bananas, mashed

For the crumble topping:

1/4 cup certified pure oats
1/3 cup chopped nuts (I used cashews)
1 tsp coconut palm sugar
a pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp natural nut butter, melted (I used cashew butter)

To make the jam, pulse the fresh or frozen berries in a food processor until they break down into small pieces. Spoon the berries into a saucepan and add the coconut palm sugar. Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook the berries for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Gradually stir the ground chia seeds into the hot berry mixture. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook for another 10 minutes, continuing to stir occasionally. Remove the thickened mixture from the heat and allow it to cool slightly, then spoon the jam into a lidded glass container and place it in the fridge to continue to cool and set.

If you're pressed for time and would rather not make your own jam, you can use a good store-bought version instead. The homemade jam makes these muffins especially delicious, though!

Preheat the oven to 350 F, and fill a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. To make the muffins, combine the almond flour, ground oats, baking powder, and sea salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the melted nut butter, almond milk, maple syrup, and vanilla extract in a smaller bowl. Add this mixture, the chia seed gel, and the mashed bananas to the dry ingredients and stir until everything is well combined.

Spoon muffin batter into the prepared muffin tin so that each paper cup is just under half full. The batter will be thick, so press it down a little with the spoon so that it fully covers the bottom of each paper cup. Add a spoonful of the jam in the centre of each muffin.


Divide the remaining muffin batter between the twelve cups, using a spoon to spread out the batter so that the jam is covered.

To make the crumble topping, combine the oats, chopped nuts, coconut sugar, and sea salt in a bowl. Drizzle the melted nut butter over this mixture, and use a fork to mix the nut butter evenly into the other ingredients. Spoon the crumble topping over the tops of the muffins. Place the muffin tin in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the muffins from the oven and let them cool.


These nut butter, banana and jam muffins are sure to be enjoyed by anyone who wants to try a long-time favourite flavour combination in a new form.

Here's something else I think people will like: the grand prize giveway for March Muffin Madness has some exciting prizes for the lucky winners, including a half-gallon of Hidden Springs Vermont organic maple syrup, a 5-lb bag of Honeyville almond flour, a USA Bakeware 12-cup muffin pan, a Cuisinart ice cream maker, a Paderno World Cuisine vegetable slicer/spiralizer, a Crockpot casserole slow cooker, and an Instant Pot pressure cooker. The super grand prize is a Blendtec Designer 625 with Wildside+ and Twister jars! Take a look at all of the prizes and enter using the Rafflecopter box below for your chance to win -- you can enter daily. You can also earn additional entries for the grand prize giveaway by leaving a comment on any of the participating posts during the event. (There is a maximum of one comment entry per person per post.)

a Rafflecoptergiveaway

Lastly, head on over to Gluten Free Easily every day from now until April 5th to discover a yummy new muffin recipe and to enter the daily giveaways for cookbooks, resource books, subscriptions, and meal plans. March Muffin Madness indeed!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday afternoon hurdles

It was a pretty ordinary Sunday afternoon around here. I was in the kitchen testing out a new muffin recipe I'd developed, while Matt was upstairs assembling a vanity for the bathroom that's currently under renovation. Noah was building a prototype of an electric car out of Arduino, Lego EV3 parts, wires, nuts, bolts, and string, and Will was sprawled out nearby him on the living room floor, dreaming up ideas and mentally problem solving for the game he's programming using Scratch. At one point, Matt called out, "Hey, who wants to see some track and field implements for cats?!" He was holding up two small hurdle-looking structures made out of wooden slats and plastic supports, meant to be used as dividers in the new vanity drawer.

The next thing I knew, this was happening:



Yep, just an ordinary Sunday afternoon around here!

May your kids' March Break be filled with fun adventures, big or small. :)