Christmas 2010

Christmas photos! Had a great time with my mom and sister in town for the holiday. The girls got tons of loot, including a bike for Sam which she cannot ride due to the foot of snow outside but which she loved nonetheless. Click the photos to embiggen.

Sam the Science Kid, Experiment #1: Card Trick

As 2010 draws to a close it comes time to pick my blogging project for 2011, and I’ve decided to return to writing about my kids. Wait! It’ll be a bit different than before.

One of the Christmas gifts I bought Samantha this year was a book containing a bunch of science experiments for kids. All the experiments are pretty simple and can usually be accomplished with stuff you can dig out of the trash and junk drawers. I also bought Sam a white lab coat with a name tag reading “Dr. Samantha” –because hey, you have to look the part. Over ninety percent of science is just looking dapper. To round things out, she also got a journal and a sparkly pen –again, science demands fashion sense– to take notes about the experiments and write up the results. The goal this year is to do one of these experiments with Sam each week and then to write about it.

One of the reasons I’m doing this is to help teach Sam about science in general and the scientific method in specific. You know, a good foundation for a mad scientist girl genius. When she finally gets her weather control machine working and starts making demands of the world’s governments, you’ll know who to thank.

I started off Experiment #1 with an explanation that scientists look at things in the world and do the following:

  1. Make up explanations for those things based on what they know
  2. Guess at what’s supposed to happen according to those explanations
  3. Collect information to see if those guesses were right
  4. Share those results with others
  5. Repeat

Some of the finer points may be missing, but it’s good enough for a six year old. In addition to learning the fundamentals of science, having her write in the journal should have the added benefits of getting her to practice her penmanship and translating her thoughts into words.

Future mad scientist in training.

For example, consider Experiment #1, which had to do with air pressure. I explained that I was going to take a shot glass, fill it to the tip-top with water, place a playing card on top, then flip the glass and card upside down before letting go of the card and holding the glass in the air a foot above the table.

Today's science experiment brought to you by Kappa Delta sororoty.

I asked Sam what she thought would happen, and she immediately said, “The water will fall out and make a huge mess!” This seemed to be a delightful prospect to her, especially since I’d be the guilty party for once. At any rate, I instructed her to write down her prediction:

I think it will spill out.

(FYI, I’ll be posting Sam’s journal contents verbatim. I’m working with her on her spelling and grammar, but I don’t think it will be worth interrupting the flow of the activity to get things perfect.)

So I filled the glass, put the card on top, and flipped them. Here’s what happened:

Sam was confused but fascinated, so I explained about air pressure –how air was pushing up on the bottom of the card harder than the water was pushing on the top. I also told her about how air always tries to go from where there’s more air (high pressure) to where there’s less air (low pressure), and that if we gently pressed down on the card enough to let a few bubbles in, the pressure dropped to the point where the card fell and the water dumped out. I then instructed her to record this observation in her journal:

What hopind: The card stayed up.

So, like I said, I’m starting off simple but I hope that Sam keeps her interest level up so that I can task her with writing more detailed predictions and explanations for why she predicts what she does. Next week: we grow mold! Who doesn’t like mold?

She makes this papa geek proud…

Earlier today Sammy and I S-ranked (100%’ed, FC’d, whatever) Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 on the Xbox 360. All the red bricks. All the gold bricks. All the students in peril. All the crest pieces. All the character tokens. “True Wizard” on every level. All the achievements. All the secret levels. EVERYTHING. BEHOLD THIS UNDOCTORED PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE:

100 Percent Perfect Potter. Click to embiggen.

This is a feat that took us several months of effort. She and I would play this game together for 30-45 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a week, usually between dinner and bathtime. It’s the kind of thing that flies in the face of outdated attitudes towards video games as mindless time wasters played by people incapable of anything requiring social interaction. Full completing the game with another person playing cooperatively required imagination, communication, logical thinking, persistence, long-range goal setting, and a lot of fun. Sam learned all the mechanics involved, ranging from simple platforming to cataloging which characters had which special abilities that were required for what situations. She and I would sometimes talk about the game when we weren’t playing it, and she often wanted to engage in imaginative play with her sister, pretending to be characters from the game. And it has continued to feed her interest in reading the books.

Sure, I would never want gaming to comprise 100% of her leisure time, but I can say without a doubt that this game (and others) have given she and I an experience that both of us will remember fondly for the rest of our lives.

And I got her Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Wii for her birthday. I can’t wait!

Happy 4th Birthday, Amanda Rene Madigan!

Mandy recently had her fourth birthday, which she announced by marching up to me and declaring “Today, I AM FOUR” with all the requisite solemnity. Which is to say, none at all. We had a small party for her with her grandpa and Aunt Joy, during which there were many toys unwrapped. She got a lot of great stuff, but the big hit was probably the little electric buggy, which goes forward, backward, and BEEP BEEP BEEP! I think Sam was as amazed as anyone by this magical device, and it took her approximately four seconds to try and commandeer it like she was auditioning for the next Grand Theft Auto game.

Mandy was given her choice of cakes to order, and she elected for My Little Pony for some reason. There’s just something undeniably appealing about pink horses. I guess. At any rate, she seemed delighted to see it.

December, 2010 Snowfall

Boy, you know what’s fun? Getting woken up at 6:30 am on a Sunday morning with shouts of “WOAH! SO MUCH SNOW!” and then having a shrieking six year old yank open the blinds to your bedroom so that the blinding white brilliance can illuminate the back of your skull even though your eyes are closed. I suspect, though, that the only reason Sam and Mandy are so delighted by this particular form of precipitation only because it means we get a lot more free with the hot chocolate.

On the other hand, snow always makes for fun photo opportunities!

Book Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, thanks in large part to the simultaneously self-deprecating but smug humor in his collections of personal essays like When You are Engulfed in Flames, and Holidays on Ice. This new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a decidedly different turn, though.

The book is essentially a collection of fables with animals standing in for people in a way that allows Sedaris to write short, pithy illustrations of human foibles, shortcomings, and absurdities. Sedaris said once in an interview that using animals in his stories allowed him to cut right to the heart of what he had to say without bothering to establish characters’ back stories or personalities. They’re animals; we know the relevant traits off the bat (pardon the pun) and Sedaris can fill in the rest to get us where he wants us to go. This works really well, and not coincidentally for the same reason that many of Aesop’s Fables work well.

The Migrating Warblers, for example, shows us how we can inadvertently dabble in racism and cultural superiority for the sake of entertaining a crowd, while The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck shows how looking down on that kind of thing belies a double standard for what constitutes admirable versus admonishable behavior. Sedaris also gets a bit topical, like with The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, in which he skewers the claptrap of The Secret and new age self-determinism by examining what happens when a lab rat gets injected with carcinogens despite its pathologically upbeat outlook on life. This is all pretty funny and incisive stuff, and Sedaris isn’t above spinning tales like The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig for the sole sake of closing it with a punchline in the form of a groan-worthy pun.

But I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk have a much darker edge to them as well. Cautionary stories like The Motherless Bear and The Mouse and the Snake go into some very grim places for the sake of illustrating the perils of self-pity and unconditional love. And the eponymous squirrel and chipmunk turns out to be a bittersweet story about how time magnifies lost opportunities born of closed mindedness. These stories are not possessed of the trademark Sedaris funny, so be ready for that.

In fact, on balance the book is not nearly as laugh out loud funny as the author’s other works, but it is decisively clever writing and conveys some great insights about human behavior, even though it’s all about chipmunks and squirrels.

Book Review: At Home

The full title here is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in it historian/humorist/homeowner Bill Bryson aims to explore the history of domiciles through a tour of his own aged home in pastoral England. Bryson structures the book by dedicating a chapter to each room or area in the house and delving into historical topics associated with that location. For example, Chapter 6, “The Fuse Box” lets him discuss Thomas Edison’s contributions to in-home electricity and lighting while Chapter 8, “The Dining Room”, gives him a chance to talk about eating habits and how the concept of meal times evolved over the ages. Other chapters and topics include The Kitchen (the spice trade, cooking), The Garden (landscaping, public parks), and the Drawing Room (furniture making and decorating).

And this seems to me to be a pretty good row of hooks on which to hang a series of historical musings, but once you get into it you realize that Bryson doesn’t so much hang his topics neatly on the appropriately labeled hooks as he tosses things all over the place. The chapter on The Nursery, for example, is largely about the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Because, I guess, the poor had a lot of kids? Maybe? Or take the chapter on The Cellar where the author recounts the construction of a canal to link a young New York City with the Great Lakes region. Because both cellars and canals involve concrete, maybe? Or consider the discussion of the great locust plagues of the Central Planes that happens during the chapter on The Study because …well, honestly I’ve got no idea. And just about any chapter is apparently fair game for an extended discussion of architecture.

But you know what? That’s all okay, because this is Bill Bryson, and the man could make interesting reading out of a cholera outbreak. Which he does. In the chapter on The Bathroom. Because of the poop. At Home possesses every bit of Bryson’s trademark charm and wry humor, mixed with interesting stories of people you’ve never heard of and new angles on people you have. I’ve said before that Bryson’s greatest gift is that he can so effortlessly entertain and educate at the same time, and this book is another clear example. He also has a great way of communicating the absurdities of the age, particularly Victorian England and Colonial America, which are the two time periods that account for the bulk of the book’s historical scope. Discussions about things like poisonous wallpaper, wigs made from one’s own hair, and welfare institutions that offer worse fates than those they rescue children from are abundant and fantastic.

If I had one complaint, it’s that even Bryson’s cursory approach to structuring the book around different rooms and associated topics leads to a lot of zig-zagging around history. There’s no sense of progression or perspective as you move from one era to another. Instead, you just get lots of tangentially interconnected vignettes and by the time you get to the back third of the book Bryson is regularly saying things like “it was he, you may recall” to link recurring characters back to events he described a hundred pages earlier.

But that’s easy to shrug off, especially if you take each chapter as more or less self contained. If our school’s History textbooks were written more like At Home and its science texts more like A Short History of Nearly Everything then I think a lot of kids would find studying for tests much more appealing.

November 2010 Photo Dump

A quick dump of photos for November. This includes, of course, Thanksgiving for which we got to experience both hosting and traveling out of town to visit relatives. We had dinner on the day of for Geralyn’s dad and godmother, the latter of whom brought the children the gift of a three-quarters sized stuffed white tiger. We can only assume that on Christmas she will return to complete the set with two flamboyantly glittery magicians. Prior to that, Mandy’s preschool had its vaguely racist “First Thanksgiving” recital where she and her classmates wore traditional garb of painted grocery bags and construction paper feathers. Or as the Indians called it, “maize.”

The day after Thanksgiving we piled into the minivan and drove to Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit my mom and sister. The act of simply pulling into my mom’s driveway exhausted half of the cold-weather attractions that Tulsa has to offer, but we did manage to break away one day to visit a local “children’s museum.” Which is as much a museum as anything built in space annexed from the neighboring self-storage lot can be. As far as I can tell the proprietors slapped some brightly colored paint on the cinderblock walls and then raided the toys section of every Goodwill store in town before charging people $6 a head to visit. Oh, and they had a blacklight room, but I’m pretty sure one of the employees was smoking weed in there just prior to opening up for the day.

Well, to be fair, they did have one nice attraction: one large room had a stage complete with microphone, curtains, and a backstage wardrobe department. Mandy is turning out to be a bit of a ham and willing to oblige requests for song and dance in more mundane settings, so she took to the stage right away. Sam, to her credit, was willing to act as Mandy’s backup dancer, though on the one occasion where she tried to stand in the limelight Mandy burst in on the scene and set her straight. Drama!