Saturday, 29 November 2014

That Fetal Pig - What a Slice

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Lena's experience with ABC Ottawa Take-off.  This morning was Lena's last dissection class and parents were invited to sit in for the the dissection of a fetal pig, which had actually been started the week before with the removal of their brains.  As we walked into the class, the young women who were leading the session were pulling the de-brained ungulates from the pail of formadehyde.  A good thing I hadn't eaten breakfast, because the sight of their tiny empty craniums made my stomach lurch.  I wasn't sure I would be able to sit through this but I didn't want Lena to see my discomfort.

This initial visual tableau of brainless pigs descended into the bizarre as the instructors began to tie the little pickled piglets spread-eagled onto the little steel dissecting tray in a scene of "Fifty Shades of Bacon".  The instructors explained that this would make it easier to make the incisions and poke around inside in the abdominal cavity.  They reminded the students how to make the incisions, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, differed based on whether they had a male or female pig.

Then the kids got to work.  I stayed near the back of the class watching the kids dig into their specimens and gradually moved closer as the class went on, fascination quelling my initial queasiness.  The teachers circulated among the three groups explaining what they were seeing and how the various organs worked, as well as offering tips on how to excise the various pig parts (I couldn't believe how big the livers were compared to the other organs).

Once the dissection itself was done, the little fetal pigs were disposed of and the serious business of a trivia competition began.  Two teams of three vied for prizes and, more importantly, bragging rights.  The only two girls in the class were paired together along with one other boy.  The questions covered the whole five-week class.  In the end, all the kids got very thoughtful prizes, the instructors having listened to each and determined their interests and getting a relevant gift.

This class way exceeded my already high expectations.  The instructors were by far the best Lena has had in ABC, both young women doing degrees in Biochemistry - one at the undergrad level and the other in graduate school.  They kept the atmosphere light while packing in a lot of knowledge and managing to keep control of the class.  Indeed, watching the trivia contest I was surprised at how much information the kids retained from the very first class to the final one.  I was also glad to see two women teaching the class, not only to be good role models for the two girls in the class, but also as a good role models for the boys since I believe having boys understand that girls and women have as legitimate a role to play in science as boys and men.

This was an excellent class and I applaud ABC Ottawa Take-off again for offering it and the myriad other fascinating classes.  High value-for-money in all the courses Lena has taken so far.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Making Stuff at Lee Valley Tools

Some of my favourite time spent with my daughter, Lena, is making stuff with her, whether pyrohy for Christmas dinner, putting together K'nex, or working away in my shop.  This past year, Lee Valley Tools, purveyor of, among other things, fine woodworking and gardening tools, has put on a number of seminars that provide opportunities for children and their parents work on a project together.  The cost is nominal at around $35 and all the materials are supplied, as are two Lee Valley staff members to guide the participants.  I can't imagine the company makes much, if any, money off these seminars but they do build a lot of good will and generate a lot of enthusiasm for woodworking and gardening, ensuring a loyal current and future client base.

Lena and I attended our third parent/child workshop this past weekend where we (well, really she) made a Christmas stocking hanger.  This was a little less a woodworking project than a decorative painting project.  All the wood was pre-cut and the knobs for hanging the stockings were supplied as was the milk paint with which to decorate all the parts and all the parts were assembled after they were decorated.

The two staff members, Mick and Brian, were very efficient and helpful, especially after Lena and I realized right near the end that she had decorated her piece upside down.  Both the guys sprung into action, redrilled some holes. used a heat gun to dry some paint and we were back in action.  In the end, we ended up with a beautiful project that Lena will hopefully have to hang her kids' stockings on.

Lena painting the knobs for her stocking hanger.

Lena showing off the final product.

As I said, this was the third project we did at Lee Valley.  The first two, a tool box and a bird feeder, were actual woodworking projects.  All the components were ripped to the proper width and rough cut to the approximate length.  The kids had to do all the measuring, lay-out, hand-sawing and assembly according to the provided plan on their own (with the occasional assist from the seminar leaders or mom or dad).  The projects are useful and provide the kids with an opportunity to try their hand at a practical craft, develop manual skills and provide them with a real tangible sense of accomplishment when they finish the project while hopefully building a lifetime love of craft in these young people.

Lena's previous two projects from Lee Valley seminars - a toolbox and bird feeder.

As always, hats off to the folks at the Ottawa location of Lee Valley for a job well done.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Winter Doldrums

I have a confession to make.  I hate winter.  The season just sucks the life right out of me.  Every flake of snow I see falling from the sky fills me with dread.  As I write this on November 17, I am looking out my window watching it come down.  Snow, to me, makes everything more difficult - driving, running, shopping, walking.  And during the winter, the snow seems to come just about every day.  Thankfully, we pay someone to clear our driveway, but I still have to shovel our walkway, keep a path clear to the back yard, shovel the deck so we can get the dog in and out and when we get less than 5 cms, I still have to scrape down the driveway.

Throw into the mix the idiot that clears the snow next door and who sees absolutely no problem with blowing the snow into my driveway and the problem is even worse.  Last year, I went out to ask him not to and he flipped his lid, which caused me to flip mine.  So, this has just led to further stress at a time when our family has enough to deal with.  So, the prospect of having to deal with him is provoking no small amount of anxiety.

Many have suggested I take up skiing or snowshoeing.  But to me, that's like suggesting someone with a severe allergy to dogs to work as a pet groomer.  I seem to remember as a kid in suburban Montreal that we would be afflicted with some winters where a lot of snow fell, but I also seem to remember a lot of winters with sparse snowfall.  Since moving to Ottawa, though, we seem to get snow just about every day.

When the days start getting shorter, I also seem to suffer profoundly from a lack of energy.  As bad as it is with the depression, the problem seems much worse during the winter.  During my runs, I feel like stopping and just lying down in the middle of the street for a snooze.  My limbs feel like they're made of lead.  The expression "tired to the bone" resonates.

On the upside, Christmas comes in the winter and our little girl's enthusiasm for the season is very infectious.  She seemed to shift into Christmas mode last week and her mood is starting to rub off a little bit.  I hope I can hang onto that for another month and a half to keep things at least a little manageable.

Well, the snow is piling up, I better think about going out with the scraper and keep things neat.  Hope to see you all in the Spring.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Making Models and Knitting

My original purpose in starting my blog was to chronicle my attempts at trying a variety of handcraft and DIY projects in areas that were both new to me or where I had at least some experience.  From my very first post, though, my intent was subverted by other issues and events in my life and has taken a largely different direction.  That's fine with me but I do like to do the occasional post related to my original idea.  So, Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to tackle two projects:

A few years ago, my wife, Kate, and daughter, Lena, bought me a plastic scale model to do.  A couple of days ago, I dusted off the box and have since began gathering the tools I'll need to get started. I haven't done one since I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to getting going on this.

A scale model of the USS Hancock CV-19, an American WW II-era
aircraft carrier.

The other craft I will be trying my hand at will be knitting.  I know, not a very macho hobby to pick up, but I've long since passed the age where I cared what other people think about my interests and past-times.  I have to admit, though, that knitting isn't overly interesting to me but I partly feel an obligation to learn because my grandfather was reputed to have been handy with a pair of knitting needles - out of necessity.  Also, just this morning Kate was reading one of the cancer blogs she follows that cited and summarized a number of studies that show positive impacts of knitting on mood and health.  So, I am curious to see if a pair of needles and ball of yarn can accomplish what dozens of very expensive cocktails of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, stimulants and sleeping pills have been unable to.  I have to be honest, though, that I tried to learn under Kate's tutelage, after I quit smoking more than 15 years ago.  Let's just say that experience was less than relaxing for all involved.  But I'll give it a better try this time around.

A knitted throw Kate has picked up again after it lying neglected for
more than 15 years.  Something for me to aim for.

So, stay tuned as I delve into these projects.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembrance Day, 2014

I try to honour Canada's veterans every year on November 11 - and on other days.  I think most reading this know why we take the time - many of us for the same reasons and many of us for our own personal reasons.  Many of us know people who have served, who are serving and who have given their lives while serving.  The following are past blog posts about my Grandfather who served as part of the Australian Imperial Force in WW I, and who served at home as part of the Veterans Guard of Canada.  Also one post about my Uncle Steve who was killed in action in 1945,  My mother's brothers, Bill, Mike and Peter Kazuke all also served in various Canadian regiments during WW II.

Alfred Burrows WW I

Alfred Burrows in The Veterans Guard of Canada

Stephen Kazuke

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Workshop Renovation

I have been slowly chipping away at my shop renovation (See my first post on my shop renovation), though a lot of what I have done is hard to see.  I started by going through everything in my shop and putting what I didn't think I would need into a couple of big boxes.  I had my fellow woodworking enthusiast and good friend, Darren, over so he could pick out some stuff, which he did.  My other buddy, Dave, came over and took the rest.  That's a lot of stuff gone.

The current state of my shop.  Still a long way to go, but I am making progress.

In my sorting process, I also started putting like things together, and began emptying the old dresser I use for tool storage (and which will eventually makes its way out of the house) and consolidating in my father's old tool chest.  I have also started putting stuff up on my "tool wall", beginning with my carving and shaping tools and my chisels.  I particularly enjoyed making my little holders for my spokeshaves.  Next up, a rack for my not unsubstantial collection of handsaws and my egg beater-style hand drills.

Organizng stuff into my Dad's old tool chest.

My "Tool Wall" with carving and shaping tools up, as well as all my chisels.

Cute little racks for holding my pair of spokeshaves.

Though the overall focus of my efforts is thinning the amount of stuff in my shop and organizing what's left, I couldn't resist a little garbage-diving a couple of months ago when I came across a very nice table with cast iron legs sitting at the curb in front of a neighbour's house.  This will come in handy for a variety of shop tasks - assembly and finishing, tool sharpening, clamping portable power tools (scroll saw, planer, spindle sander) among others.

An incredible work table I scavenged from a neighbour's garbage.  The cast iron legs
retail new for about $240 at Lee Valley Tools.

So, while progress has been slower than I had originally thought I have nonetheless made some progress.  Once I get my hand drills and hand saws up on my wall, I will start some more significant (and fun) construction projects.  In particular I will build a rack to hold sheet goods and two or three tool chests to sit under my bench and another to sit under the tool table my drill press is attached to,  I think once these project are done, I'll be close to done the shop reno and I'll be able to move onto actually tackling real projects.

That's about it for now.  I'll try to post about more progress in three or four weeks.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Ottawa-area journalist and blogger, Sonia Mendes, recently posted on her blog a recipe for a delicious-sounding spaghetti squash casserole.  So, I have been inspired to post a very simple recipe of mine for a curried butternut squash and apple soup.

As the weather begins getting colder in the fall, few meals take the chill off like soups and stews.  Plus, both the squash and apples used in the recipe are in season.  I came up with this very simple recipe a few years ago and it has quickly become a family favourite.  Serve with a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread for a hearty meal.

1 large butternut squash
5 large cooking apples (e.g. MacIntosh, Courtland, Granny Smith)
3 tbsp. canola oil
3 tbsp. butter
2-3 litres sodium-reduced chicken broth
1 cup apple cider (optional)
Curry powder (optional and to taste)

Sour cream to garnish.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

While the oven is heating, cut squash in half lengthwise, removing seeds and stringy flesh around the seed cavity.  Place the squash halves on a baking sheet and roast in oven until a fork goes easily into the flesh, about one hour.  When done, remove from the oven to cool, about a half hour.  With a large spoon, scoop the flesh out of the skins into a separate bowl and set aside.

Peel, core and slice apples.

Heat oil and melt butter together in a large pot over medium-high heat.  When butter foams add apples, stirring occasionally until the apples are soft and golden brown.

Add squash to the apples cooking in the pot.  Add the chicken broth making sure that the broth covers the squash and apples.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, double checking to make sure all the squash and apples are soft. 

Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to speed cooling. 

Use an immersion blender right in the pot until the soup is smooth, or blend the mixture in batches in a regular blender.  Return the pot the stove over medium heat until the smooth soup is simmering. Taste the soup - if you want it to boost the apple flavor, add apple cider and add curry to taste, simmering for about five minutes until curry powder is fully dissolved in the soup.

Place soup in bowls to serve, add a dollop of sour cream and garnish with apple slices or roasted squash or pumpkin seeds.

The recipe can be altered in many ways.  Sometimes I want the soup to be little more fruity tasting, so I add more apples, or more apple cider.  You can adjust the thickness of the soup by either adding more or less liquid.  Even after the fact, if you find the soup too thin, you can simmer it for a while until it reaches the desired consistency.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Dissecting Animals at ABC Ottawa Take-Off

Last Saturday morning, our daughter, Lena, was looking every bit the pre-teen fashion plate:  a green and blue tartan shirt over a pair of grey leggings; a mod pair of glasses perched on her nose, her long golden hair pulled tight into a ponytail at the back of her head.  Incongruously, one of her latex-gloved hands was wielding a razor sharp scalpel, poised ready to reveal the inner anatomy of the perch lying on the desk in front of her.  Welcome to ABC Ottawa Take-Off, an organization devoted to advocating for the needs of bright and gifted children, including providing a range of extra-curricular classes on a diverse range of subjects in the arts, sciences and engineering fields.

This is Lena's second experience with the ABC program.  A few years ago, she signed up for a music appreciation course and an art and poetry course.  This year, she decided she really wanted to take "Discovery through Dissection".  Over the five weeks that  the class runs, the seven or eight children in the class will dissect an earthworm, a fish (the perch mentioned above), a frog, a fetal pig, and a group project on the last day - a shark!  I was a little surprised that our little girl, who runs screaming at the sight of a little spider, could be so enthusiastic about slicing open little dead animals, but there you go.

Her reasoning for doing the class was twofold:  she has a genuine interest in biology in general and animal biology in particular, and she, at least for now, aspires to be a veterinarian and figures this would be an opportunity to test her tolerance for the icky-squishyness she may need to pursue that profession.  So far so good - she has enjoyed the earthworm and perch dissection, though while working on the perch, one of the instructors noticed her fish had a much larger stomach than the other specimens.  So, everyone gathered around as Lena cut into the distended sac and two smaller, partially digested fish oozed out.  She had no problem excising all the various fish organs, but this, for some reason, freaked her out a bit.  She is also concerned about the fetal pig - apparently eviscerating cute animals may require steelier stuff.  We'll see how it goes.

The classes offered by ABC are really quite varied and challenging.   Topics include fiction writing, a variety of crafts, juggling, model rocketry, forensics, chess, programming MineCraft plug-ins and guitar to name but a few.  Don't be put off by the "bright and gifted" labels - all comers are welcome.  The classes tend to be fairly small in size and are taught by very enthusiastic volunteers.  Be warned, though, that many  of the offerings are very popular and to have a decent chance of registering for the course your kids want you have to arrive early - VERY early - on the evening of registration at a local community centre.  Lena and I went two and half hours early and we were the 16th in line.  We had no trouble getting the course she wanted, but as soon as we stepped into the line to pay, they already announced that the MineCraft plug-in class was full.

The courses are given at St. Paul's Catholic High School in Ottawa's west end, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Lee Valley Tools and the Pinecrest shopping centre for parents who are looking for something to do for the hour and a half their kids are engaging in pretty cool stuff.  While the fall courses are already underway, there are usually offerings in the new year as well.