Coming Soon: A Bigger, Bolder, Better Us!

As some of you may have noticed, things have not been running all that smoothly in our corner of the blogosphere the last week or so. For the first time ever, we experienced a significant glitch and lost piles of data on our blog!  (Media. Nightmare.) Anyway, after coming to, we have been working diligently to restore the blog to itself. Please accept our apologies if you have been flooded with updates as we hammer away at our blog – it should be over soon.

BUT –  we couldn’t be more excited to tell you that these growing pains are a precursor to a bigger, better us!!  We are thrilled to announce that we are migrating to a new format which we hope you will love as much as we do. Don’t worry – all the great content that you’ve found here over the last five years will remain – it will just look better and be easier to find!

We can’t wait to show our new look to you but want to do it right :).  Please bear with us while we work as fast and as hard as we can to prepare for our transformation as we’ll be posting less frequently. Just know that this hiatus is temporary and all geared towards getting ready to launch our new site on November 1!

Thank you, as always, for being the amazing readership that you are. We are so happy to write for you and share your virtual company, and so we’re striving to make your experience here the absolute best it can be.

Stay tuned!  We’re coming back soon…

Multiplicity in Schools: Uniform or Free Form?

colour-pencils-450621_640Initially I didn’t think I had strong views about school uniforms, although so far I haven’t been interested in a school that uses them. I can see their advantages, which might most simply be distilled to the fact that they are, well, uniform. There’s something to be said for leveling the class playing field and for cohesion. But their disadvantages also distill to the fact that they’re, well, uniform. Because there’s something less to be said for sameness.

I’m not talking here about some assertion that one should be able to wear whatever one wants and bear no social consequences. This is, to me, absurd, since the truth for almost all of us is that we dress in ways that attend to how we want to be received by our world: whether to stand out or blend in or rebel or fade away.

Rather, I worry about how a school uniform can be limiting in more fundamental ways. It’s understood that boys wear one set of clothes while girls wear another and Nathalie has already spoken to how the sexism of this can be damaging. Also, especially somewhere like Canada, how is the bursting collection of diversity that makes up our population reflected in one type of pants or a knee skirt?

The constraints of the school uniform do not end there. I remember as a girl feeling so uncomfortable in skirts; I never felt like myself in them and would have hated to have worn a skirt just because I was a girl. More pointedly though: what about the children who don’t necessarily or always identify with the body they were born in, and certainly not to its allocated clothing?  Where do they fit into a school where there is no spectrum to express who a person might be, but only two discrete end points?

As it turns out, my problem with a school uniform isn’t only because it’s uniform, but because it’s binary. You are either a (specific kind of) boy or a (specific kind of) girl. A school uniform posits these two exclusive options, and basically I think they are too few. It excludes quite a few of us, for whom getting dressed in the morning becomes not much different than putting on a costume, except more painful.  Here the argument against a school uniform becomes an assertion not only of a person’s individuality, but of the right to be recognized as a whole person regardless of sexual and gender identity.

There may be times when the good of the many outweighs the good of the few(er). But the school uniform? I’m not sure it’s one of them.

Carol’s Parenting Hack: Get More Sleep

animal-931355_1280I can’t write here with any authenticity about an organizational parenting hack to help you get through the year. For this, you should listen to Nathalie or Beth-Anne, because those women have their act together, and you could learn a thing or two from them. But I do have a tip that I think would really improve the lives of almost everyone (and certainly every parent) I know, and that’s simply this:  Get. More. Sleep.

Simple, but not easy to do. I know, because I believe it, and often don’t do it either. And I have my reasons, same as you: chief among these being that I want to have a bit of time to myself, after the kids and house are finally tucked in for the night. Also, I’m usually not noticeably tired at my proper bedtime. I can easily stay up for a couple more hours, and I’ve often thought that what I really need is a 26 or 28 hour day.

Which is all dandy to muse about, but since the 24 hour day doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, I’m trying to adapt to getting closer to 8 hours a night. That this assertion is seen by many people to be luxurious, unrealistic, or even slothful, speaks to a strange culture that prizes more what we can “do” rather than how we feel or how we can “be”. Because I don’t know about you, but I am a lot nicer after a good night’s sleep, and I’m pretty sure the universe and everyone I know in it prefers that me to the red-eyed crab me who managed to steal time to read/write/craft/plan/watch-mindlessly-something the night before. And of course, I prefer that me a whole lot more too.

But waking time is precious, and we all need reminders of the reasons why we should not compromise on getting enough sleep.

  1. Enjoy Better Physical Health. While sleeping, your body repairs itself and works toward healthy brain function. Sleep also helps to maintain hormone balance and sustain a healthy immune system. Skimping on sleep means slowing down your body in all kinds of ways, and makes you more vulnerable to illness. Basically: you’re stressing your body out. And if you keep at it, you can burn your body out.
  2. Think Smarter. As in, you’ll be better able to problem-solve, multi-task and prioritize. The brain fog you’ve gotten used to may actually lift if you get enough shut-eye.
  3. Remember Things. There is a direct correlation between lack of sleep and impaired memory. Remember what you could remember before you had kids?  I can’t either. But if I get enough sleep, I might.
  4. Eat Less. Sleep helps balance your hormones, and when you don’t get enough of it, you secrete more of the hormone that makes you feel hungry. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that I absolutely eat more when I’m sleepy. It’s like I’m trying to get energy from somewhere, and food’s all I have, and I’m not usually reaching for the kale. Not helpful.
  5. Live Safer. I’m suspicious that in the parent set, there are quite a few of us who have driven when really quite sleepy, and when we really shouldn’t have been. Some studies liken driving while sleep-deprived to driving while drinking. I have made the former mistake before, and I committed a long time ago to not making it again. If I’m sleepy, I don’t drive.
  6. Improve Your Mood. If you are even a little prone to depressed moods, or even if you aren’t, you are much more likely to experience the blues if you are sleep-deprived.
  7. Increase Patience and Compassion. It is very difficult to have give positive energy to the vagaries of the people around you (unpredictable children, for example) if you scarcely have any for yourself. One sure way to lower my patience as a mother of young kids is to eat into my sleep. It’s almost never worth it. Tame the lunatic within with some zzz’s.
  8. Have More Sex! Of course this one gets an exclamation mark! How are you supposed to channel your inner goddess when all she wants to do is nap? A sure libido killer is fatigue. There are many complex reasons why your sex drive may wax and wane over time, but go for the low-hanging fruit first and see if getting adequate sleep does the trick.

Seriously, do yourself (and your spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, boss, employees, fellow drivers and general strangers everywhere) a favour, and go to sleep. It could change everything.

How to Make Crab Apple Jelly (With Your Kids)

carol1One of the hallmarks of the coming of fall and school’s return in the city of Toronto is sidewalks lined with crab apples trees in full array. Walking home from ice cream at Ed’s Real Scoop, I saw two such trees at our local park, just groaning with fruit. It was late afternoon, my boys and I had nothing calling us anywhere, the time was ours.  And I thought of crab apple jelly.

The timing is perfect – school is back, which means packing lots and lots of lunches. We need jams and jellies to go with our peanut butter substitute sandwiches. Good quality jams and jellies are expensive, especially if organic, and these organic crab apples would just fall and go to waste if not snapped up for jelly-making. Plus a quick look on my handy dandy phone revealed that crab apples have natural pectin so jelly can be made without commercial pectin (which I didn’t have anyway).

It was decided. The reusable bag I try to keep in my backpack was actually there, and my boys and I set to filling it. I lifted my littlest to pick a few crab apples, but as they were otherwise out of his reach and the capabilities of my back, he satisfied himself by playing at the park. But with the help of a bench and some climbing skills, my two older sons could reach many more. They picked and picked until our bag was bursting, motivated equal parts by the promise of jelly and the pleasure of the task.

Making the jelly itself was pretty easy as far as these things go.  You only need crab apples and sugar.

This is what you do:

    1. Wash the bounty.  Admire.carol2
    2. Remove leaves, stems and blossoms at the bottom of the crab apple. (You can leave the stems and blossoms on, but this will darken your jelly. I wanted mine to be pretty!)
    3. Halve or quarter the apples.  This step is more important when you have larger crab apples. Ours were mostly about an inch in diameter, so I suspect we didn’t have to do this. But I had three crew members eager to wield knives, so I wouldn’t dream of skipping this step. My four year old insisted he could cut a crab apple with a butter knife and he could, with satisfaction, I might add.  He happily chopped away alongside his brothers and their paring knives.carol3carol4carol5
    4. Put crab apples in a large pot and barely cover with water (if the apples are floating, there’s too much water).
    5. Bring to a boil and then simmer until crab apples are soft (for us, about 25 minutes). Try not to overcook, as this can reduce the natural pectin in the crab apples.carol6
    6. Strain juice from pulp. Cheesecloth would be ideal for this, but I didn’t have any so I used a clean muslin cloth over a fine mesh sieve, which worked great. Various recipes said to strain overnight but most of my juice was strained in an hour. I couldn’t imagine much more dripping out after that.  The recipes were pretty unanimous that one should not mush down the pulp in hopes of getting more juice because this will make the jelly cloudy, so I didn’t go there.088
    7. Return pot with juice to stove and add sugar.  You will need about 3/4 cup of sugar for every cup of juice.  Stir until sugar is well dissolved.carol8
    8. Boil hard until jelly reaches 220 degrees. Note: it took a considerable effort for my biggest gas burner to reach 220 degrees, and only after I finally listened to my son who told me to put a lid on the pot. I thought a couple of degrees cooler wouldn’t matter, but they do. The  juice only gelled at 220 degrees.  If you don’t have a thermometre, or even if you do, you can test the juice for readiness by putting a teaspoon of juice on a plate that’s been sitting in the freezer for awhile (or the top of a clean frozen orange juice can, as the case may be). Put the plate/can back in the freezer for a minute, and then push the edge of the juice with your finger. If a skin forms on the juice, it’s ready to become jelly.
    9. Ladle the juice into sterilized jars and wipe clean any drips on the lip of the jar. For the first time in my canning life, I did this using a canning funnel and one of those magnetic wand thingies that picks up jar lids. Oh man, is there ever something to be said for these not-strictly-necessary-but-so-wonderful-tools. No cussing during this canning project, nope. Easy peasy!carol9carol10
    10. Place jars in a water bath canning pot (or other pot that can do the job) and boil for 10 minutes (that’s the appropriate time for me in Toronto – canning times can vary depending on altitude).

Ta Da!! You now have jars of beautiful and delicious crab apple jelly (and if you used organic cane sugar like I did, you can slap an organic label on there too). And if you manage to make this with your kids, they will have a different relationship to it than the jar you bought from the store or even the farmers market, and share the pleasure of it along with you.

Enjoy all year long, or as long as supplies last!carol11

ps. The white canning lids are made by Tattler.  They are reusable and BPA-free. I had read about them before and was pleased to see them for the first time at Canadian Tire.  So far, they seem to work perfectly, which means a safer and more eco-friendly way to can. I don’t think they look as nice as the metal lids for gifting though, and you probably wouldn’t get them back which defeats the reusable bit (unless gifting to a canning friend!). So I stuck with metal lids for the jars I thought would be gifts.  I don’t think I’m going to have any to gift though, the boys are loving this jelly so much.  Luckily we have more crab apples in the fridge for a second batch.

pps. If your jelly does not set after 24 hours, Google says no big deal, you can just redo the process – dump out the contents of your jars and start again. What the — ? A canning redo is a big, big deal for the likes of me!  If it is to you too, make sure you get your juice up to 220 degrees or have some commercial pectin as a backup plan. They also say that working with smaller batches is easier when it comes to setting the jelly. The batch I made produced 6 cups, and you probably don’t want to work with anything bigger than that.

Before Summer Slips Away

476I had a whole post lined up for today, a post that celebrates productivity and finding bounty all around us.

And yet I find myself not quite able to post it. I still want to share it with you, but maybe not today.

The truth is, on what is basically the eve to the start of the new school year, I feel pretty bluesy. Good old fashioned dread has reared its head when thinking about the unrelenting school schedules, the details I can never remember, and all those lunches and snacks. Yes, dread has settled in but not quite enough to prompt me to re-stock the reusable lunch containers or fill the pantry with things that will make day-to-day school life manageable. Because if I did that, I’d be looking at the end of summer right in the eyes, and I don’t want that. I’m looking away and hoping to go unnoticed.

I want to hang on to summer to the very end, and put productivity on pause just a little longer. Don’t get me wrong – the end of a summer’s day (and sometimes its middle) has me crashing into bed – but summer has been so good in so many way. If you don’t mind, I’m just going to hail her one last time before she finds my gaze and slips away.





Overnight Summer Camp – Our First Experience

512aI said I wouldn’t do it, and then I went and did it. I sent my barely 9 year old boy to overnight summer camp.  For two weeks.

I really get that for many people, this is just not a big deal. I’m not any of them though, and it was a huge deal for me. Why? Let me explain.

1.  I come from good immigrant stock (Asia, if you’re curious) which means, if you’re first generation, there is positively, absolutely no camp of any kind.  Firstly, there’s nowhere near any money for this – camp is expensive, and overnight camp tops the summit of extracurricular disposable income. Secondly, sending your kids off to be cared for overnight by strangers is a foreign and kind of unseemly idea. My older sister was never allowed to attend sleepover parties away from home. I was permitted such luxuries only because I’m 8 years younger, and my mother was both more acclimatized and worn down when it was my turn to ask.

2.  I am taking a leave of absence to spend time with my children, not to send them away.  Also: not working means not bringing in any income to pay for overnight camp. It’s like not having any cake, and not eating it.

3.  My son is still really young, just 9 years old. I was open to being persuaded that overnight camp could happen to us. My husband started overnight camp when he was 7, and recognizes it as possibly the strongest and most positive force in his youth. Okay, okay. Maybe later.

Then, slowly, over the course of the last school year, I found myself turning. And I can tell you intellectually what got me to that point: a sense during the school year that my son needed something else, something more; a great friend attending the camp for the first time too; moving endorsements of the camp from parents; recognizing opportunities for mentorship that my husband and I couldn’t otherwise provide on our own.

Still, I was partly baffled to find myself in a car with my boy a few weeks ago, complete with sleeping bag and duffle bag stuffed with outdoorsy things labelled with his name.  Driving him to God knows where, to leave him with God knows who, to do God knows what.

493 496Then we arrived. A teenaged boy greeted us at the entrance and directed us to the right cabin, where the cabin counsellor met us with a smile. The camp directors appeared out of nowhere to give my son a warm welcome and call him by name (they didn’t know mine, delighting me with their priorities). The campers were energetic, but focused; the camp rustic, but well organized. Smooth sailing all around.

I was wide-eyed and wanted to see more, maybe attend the tour for the campers? Um, no. My son was okay (sort of) with me helping him get settled in the cabin because he knew other parents did this, but mostly while unpacking he pretended I wasn’t there or that he didn’t know me. The tanned cabin counsellor (16 years old? 18?) smiled again and said, “He’s just excited”.

Which was a kind thing to say but not true. My son knew his adventure had started, and that it did not include me.  I reluctantly took his cues and walked out of the cabin after a crummy, sideways non-hug. I wandered around the camp a little bit to address my curiosity. I left feeling satisfied and calm. My son would be fine here, I thought. He wanted to be there, and the camp knew what it was doing.

I didn’t even miss him at first. Then, maybe on day four, I was driving alone in the car and gripped the wheel. “This is what it’s going to be like when he goes to university,” I seethed. I was not worried for his well-being, or even that he was homesick. I was not worried about anything. It just finally registered that he was gone.  I recovered from this episode, but still my body kept wondering where he was, and it mattered not that my mind knew.

I checked the mail everyday. One day, this arrived:

photo (8)

It was my only contact with him for two weeks. I was satiated completely.

On the day of his return, he got off the bus looking dirty and tired and older.  He had an amazing time. Also he was happy to be home. Filled with stories, he would soon give me a better sense of the camp than any tour could do.

We’ve got one more week to adjust to the reality of returning to school which, let’s face it, is a whole other kettle of complicated fish. But when we do finally arrive at the schoolyard, it will be with the learning experience of this summer under both our belts, and it’s about as equipped as we can be. Let the new year begin.


End the Summer with Volunteer Work by Anne Cooper

volunteer travel 1
Some Rights Reserved, puck90 via Flickr Creative Commons

August is often the most dreaded month of the year for children as it reminds them that summer is coming to an end. To make those last few weeks really count, it might be a good idea to take the family on one last hurrah, but instead of taking them up to a cabin by the lake or on a Disneyland adventure, consider doing some volunteer work. Unlike your regular vacations, these philanthropic trips are much easier to plan, as many specialized tour operators such as Projects Abroad tend to organize details such as flights, accommodation and the itinerary itself. Plus, it makes your vacation a little more meaningful and one the whole family will remember.

Volunteering has always been recognised as a great way to give back while strengthening family bonds, but throughout the school year some families struggle to fit in charitable activities because of their busy schedules. With child sponsorship programs and other nonprofits expanding their scope of operations by providing opportunities for volunteers rather than just accepting donations, this kind of vacation can really open up you and your kids’ minds to a whole new world.

Although there are plenty of options out there that your family will enjoy, one destination that you should consider is the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Angel Canyon, located north of Kanab in Utah. Run by the Best Friends Animal Society, this place is an animal refuge for almost 2,000 homeless animals, from sheep to dogs and cats. The sanctuary allows animals to heal from illness, neglect and abuse, and with the help of volunteers from around the world, the animals thrive and eventually find loving homes through adoption programs. Best Friends Animal Society welcomes volunteers to stay at their many on-site cottages and cabins. They also have RV sites for families on road trips.

volunteer travel 2

All Rights Reserved, Troy Snow via Flickr Creative Commons

Daily activities at the sanctuary include tours and looking after the many animals, so depending on the preference of your kids, you will have an option to work with specific types of animals, doing things like preparing meals, grooming and socializing. Despite all the hard work the kids will have to put in to taking care of these sick animals, the family will benefit from these beautiful memories in the long term, and hopefully you’ll want to continue doing volunteer work in the future.

volunteer travel 3

Some Rights Reserved, Kim Piper Werker via Flickr Creative Commons

This post was contributed by one of our partners.