June 21, 2006

Oedipus and Electra

While we were walking into town for ice cream the other day, Nathaniel asked his mother to hold his hand. Camille did. He said, “No, like Daddy holds it,” and carefully put her arm through his.

Then he added “Now we're married.”

These moments are precious. At six and seven, the kids seem so often to push us away, to assert their independence, to establish their distance, that we really cherish the moments when they want to be close.

Pretending to be married to Mom is a paradox of independence.

On the one hand, Nathaniel is envisioning his adulthood. He's recognizing that someday he will be a man, possibly a husband. On the other hand, he's craving intimacy with his mother, a little jealous of her bond with Dad.

Jessica has recently learned how to wink. She hasn't mastered the subtleties yet. Her winks involve turning her head sideways and painstakingly scrunching the right side of her face while she stretches her eye open on the left, maintaining a furrow of concentration on her forehead all the while. But she's proud of the skill, and in her weaker moments even teases her big brother. “When are you going to learn to wink, Nathaniel? It's not hard. All you have to do is this. See? Mom, I wonder why Nathaniel can't wink. . . .”

At the table last week, Jessica winked at me. I winked back.

“Don't you wink at my husband,” Camille teased.

“Why not?”

“Because girls shouldn't wink at married men.”

Forbidden fruit is succulent, indeed. At every meal since, whenever there's been a moment of quiet, Jessica has remembered to wink at me.

“Look, Mom,” she says impishly, through a carefully contorted face. “Look! I'm winking at a married husband.”

(When I want to read about other children's antics, I check out the 25th Carnival of Homeschooling.)

June 17, 2006

Learn Geography by Taking Over the World

I learned my world geography from Risk. Military conquest over his father motivates a boy to learn a map, and I can picture the Risk game board to this day.

This learning strategy has a couple of problems, however.

One is that Risk's “countries” are archaic and imprecisely defined. The game's Siam is our Thailand. The game treats Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Siberia like three countries, but—if I understand rightly—Yakutsk and Irkutsk are actually a city and a territory within Siberia, which is a region within Russia.

Another problem is that Risk merges countries into convenient regions. On that embarrassing day in high school when I was unable to locate France on a world map, I really did know the location of Western Europe, a Risk "country."

Nathaniel's at the age where he would love Risk, and I wish the game were available with a map closer to the real world. Laying out all the countries of the Middle East as potential sites of conquest in an American board game might smack of imperialism, but it would be the most educational sort of imperialism.

Anyway, I don't believe all those hours of Risk ever infected me with a subconscious desire to colonize Irkutsk.

Recently I had a chance to try an even better game, Ticket to Ride, at Geeks and Gamers. It's devilishly easy to pick up, but the longer I played, the more new strategies I discovered. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The object is to build railroads linking cities across North America. The board is a map of the United States and a bit of Canada, with several city names on it.

Nathaniel would love it, but I wish it worked with all 50 states instead of a handful of cities.

Instead I bought 10 Days in the USA.

It didn't hook me at once like Ticket to Ride, but it's growing on me. It features a clearly labeled, brightly colored map of the United States. The object is to acquire 10 state cards that represent a 10-day "journey." That means adjacent cards have to be adjacent states. Some car and airplane cards are also included to let you work with states that aren't adjacent.

Playing the game with Camille has had a funny psychological effect on me. Now I feel a new affinity for states like Tennessee and Missouri, which border eight states each, but I'm uneasy about Maine—a state I used to like—which borders only New Hampshire.

10 Days in the USA seemed like an ideal teaching tool. Like Risk and Ticket to Ride, it teaches not only the names of places, but also their locations.

Unfortunately it's too hard for our kids. The box recommends it for children over ten. For children who are still struggling to locate the states and read their names, the rules and strategies are just too abstract.

The game board and the cards do provide a great tool set for creating our own educational games, however. What homeschooler wouldn't want a clear map of the United States with a corresponding set of color-coded state cards?

This morning the kids and I tried it with my own set of rules. Jessica won. They liked it. These are the rules we used.

10 Days in the USA—Little Kids' Rules

To acquire five state cards depicting adjacent states.

The Alaska and Hawaii cards are removed from the deck: these are not used. All the other cards are shuffled and left face down in a pile.

Players take turns, beginning with the youngest.

A player begins his turn by picking 1 card and turning it face up in a common pile.

If the card is a car, the player discards it and picks 2 more cards instead.

If the player chooses, he can return any number of cards from his hand to the common, face-up pile.

If the player sees 2 or more face-up cards depicting adjacent states, he can choose to take those cards into his hand.

Play proceeds to the next player.

Airplanes are wild cards. An airplane can represent any state that is the same color as the airplane. For example, a yellow airplane could be used in place of Illinois or Utah.

The cards in the player's hand must always be contiguous so that you could draw a line through them without passing through any other states. For example, a player could have Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas in his hand, but could never have Illinois, Missouri, and California in his hand.

The first player to acquire five adjacent cards (including any airplane wild cards) wins.

June 02, 2006

Amusing Moments in Fatherhood

Chalk scribbles covered the driveway. Within this asphalt spaghetti I recognized many instances of Jessica's name, several flowers, and that four-armed robot guy from the recent Star Wars movies. Closer to the house were a skull and crossbones with a curse: "Do not inter or you will be destroyd." It was signed "KKK" in giant, careful letters. I made a mental note to investigate, but inside I discovered mud tracked all over the floor and immediately forgot.


At bedtime, Jessica and I were reading to each other, side by side on our backs. I read my pages (on the left) and she read hers (on the right). The tale was yet another Junie B. Jones adventure. Since she's read each book in this series five or six times by now, I occasionally tease her by changing the words. I ad-libbed a T-Rex into a scene in Junie B's kindergarten.

Jessica didn't pretend to complain like she usually does. Instead she quietly closed the book, set it on her nightstand and pointed at the door. "If you're not big enough to read with me," she asserted quietly, "you have to go."

I apologized, but she stuck to her guns. I had lost my bedtime story.


In one volume, Junie B. is upset because she received one valentine fewer than her classmates did. She's trying to figure out who stiffed her. Then her teacher approaches.

"Junie B.? I have some good news for you!" she said. "Guess what I just found in the bottom of the valentines box?"

I sat up real quick.

'Cause guessing games are my favorites, of course.

"A meatball," I said.

We lived that moment recently. Camille was reading something to the kids at the dinner table and the word occupation came up.

"What's occupation?" asked Jessica.

"An occupation's a job," said Camille. "Daddy's occupation is software engineer. What's grandpa's occupation?"

Grandpa's been a high school teacher for—let's see—over 65 years now. Jessica knows this. He talks about school all the time. She's been to his school.

"Dentist," she said, immediately and confidently, although the only dentist she's ever met is her own, a young woman.


The entire roll of toilet paper had been carelessly unrolled, then very carefully rerolled in an attempted cover-up. At once I suspected Nathaniel, who holds zealously that rolls of toilet paper, like Q-Tips, exist primarily for play and secondarily for hygiene.

I met him in the hall. He had cardboard wings affixed to his arms and long pieces of masking tape attached to his hair.

"You're frozen!" he said.

"What did you do the toilet paper?" I seethed.

"I'm a gorgon. You're frozen!" he said.

"You better tell me what you did to that toilet paper right now, or . . . "

"I didn't do anything. Talk to Jessica." With a flap of his wings, he was off.

After locating Jessica, I repeated my inane question.

She burst into tears: "By accident I played with it?"


The kids were chalking up the driveway again. Nathaniel was dutifully inscribing another threat in front of the door: "Beware! Go bak or meet thy doom!"

"This is a pirate warning," he said proudly. Then he added "KKK" with a flourish.

"What are the Ks for?" I asked.

"They're your DOOM!"

I threw up my hands helplessly and waited.

"It means cutting your throat." Impatiently he drew his finger across his throat and made a guttural sound: "Kkkkk . . . ."