Mind Blowing Science Kit Makes Simple Chemistry Fun

When my almost-4-year-old announced the other day that he wanted to learn more about science (a side effect, perhaps, of watching Sid the Science Kid), we were only too happy to oblige. We had done some simple science experiments with him in the past — on the scale of freezing a small toy in a block of ice and then melting it to demonstrate states of matter, that sort of thing. But this time we decided to step it up a bit by getting a science kit.

We chose Scientific Explorer’s Mind Blowing Science Kit, which is aimed at ages 4 to 8 and contains all the baking soda, citric acid, polyacrylamide crystals, and test tubes you’ll need, along with easy to follow step-by-step instructions for 12 experiments. Yes, you could gather most of these ingredients and supplies without resorting to the kit, but it’s handy to have them all in one place, and the price for convenience is not too painful. (Between $14 and $20, depending on where you buy.)

Probably most useful to us were the experiment ideas. It was surprising to me (a non-scientist, it perhaps goes without saying) how many different experiments could be conducted with just these basic ingredients. There’s Dancing Powders, which demonstrates a chemical reaction; Acid or Base?, which tests exactly what the name implies; and Magic Ooooze, which creates a non-Newtonian fluid you can play with. Each experiment’s instructions come complete with a simple explanation of the principles behind it, so that kids can not only follow the steps (with help, depending on their age) but also gain some scientific understanding about what they’re doing.

Our favorite experiment so far is Giant Jiggly Crystals, which shows how polyacrylamide crystals absorb water and grow to several times their original size. The only downside to this experiment (and a couple of others in the kit) is that it involves waiting a couple of hours between steps while the crystals take a long “drink,” but we enjoyed checking on our growing crystals throughout the day and continuing to add water to make them get even bigger. They’re also fun to play with, as they are indeed quite jiggly and squishy.

Crystal before…


and after. (Photos by Ellen Henderson)

It can get a bit messy, but it’s nothing you can’t wash off your hands and wipe off the kitchen counter. Besides, for kids in this age group, getting messy can be part of the fun. In fact, the hands-on nature of the experiments is the best part, because even if my little guy doesn’t retain all the chemistry lessons, he’ll no doubt take away the impression that science is accessible and fun, and that’s a good start.

Explosions, Emotions and Excitement Fuel Phoenix Rising

I love superhero stories, but I’m not big on visual formats like comic books and graphic novels. That’s why I was so excited to review Corrina Lawson’s new novel, Phoenix Rising. It’s a comic book kind of story anchored in novelistic prose, so it’s definitely my kind of read.

Aside: After reading the review, check the end of the post to enter a free giveaway of the book.

To those who know him, Alec Farley is the closest thing to a superhero they’ve ever seen. He can move things with his mind, he can control fire with a wave of his hand, and he looks good enough to pull off a spandex ‘n’ cape ensemble (although he doesn’t wear one).

Trouble is, not many people know Alec. That’s because he’s been kept under lock and key for most of his life, “protected” from the world by his adoptive father, who just happens to be the power-hungry director of a shadowy organization called The Resource.

Beth Nakamora wants to change that. Herself a telepath — although her power’s been latent since her childhood — she understands what it means to be used for your power and given no choice about your life path. In the guise of a mental health counselor, she infiltrates The Resource and gains Alec’s trust, hoping to show him another way to live.

But things go a bit awry, and Beth ends up kidnapping Alec, which leads to a string of shootouts, desperate escapes, rebellions, and reversals. Oh, and there’s a radioactive dirty bomb heading for New York City, and Alec might be the only one who can stop it.

Phoenix Rising keeps up an intense pace and a gripping narrative. As outlandish as the characters may sound, they’re actually quite believable and relatable, and watching them come to terms with their powers and fight to make their own decisions — all while fending off bad guys — is endlessly absorbing, and in the end, quite moving. Alec in particular is a unique mix of tough-guy supersoldier and naive youth, and his emotional arc as he learns to think for himself is very compelling.

Vivid writing makes the climactic scenes incredibly visual — you can almost picture these fiery explosions and tension-filled standoffs as gorgeous full-page panels in a comic book. But I’m just as happy to have read them in print.

Full disclosure: Yes, of course, I know Corrina Lawson! She’s one of our fine editors here at GeekMom, and we’ve been friends and occasional critique partners for years. That doesn’t unduly influence my review, though, because the fact is that I only hang out with awesome writers. Cory’s definitely one of them, and Phoenix Rising is a terrific read. I’m looking forward to the next book in what looks to be a fantastic series.

To enter to win a copy of Phoenix Rising, just comment below and Corrina will pick a winner via random number generator. Winner will be announced in the comments on Tuesday of next week.

My Superhero Son vs. The Bad Guys

My super-kid: As fast as The Flash

Almost a year ago, I wrote one of my first posts for GeekMom. It was about my then-2-½-year-old son, my sense that he would soon be interested in superheroes, and my worries about how to explain supervillains to him. I wrote:

“… How am I supposed to explain good guys like Superman without getting into the evil-doing, world-destroying bad guys? How do I let him know that these stories depend on bad people trying to hurt other people — and indeed, that this happens in real life, too?”

Commenters on that post had some great suggestions, which I took to heart as I geared up have these “bad guy” conversations with my kiddo. What’s implied in some of those comments, and what seems obvious to me now, is that the best approach to handling this involves “leveling up.” You don’t start with terrifying psychopaths who want to murder innocents or blow up the world, you start with vaguely selfish and easily reformed bad guys who want to “swipe” things or maybe do some occasional hitting. At 3½, my son can handle that.

Super-glue ears. Also pictured: Stuffed friends Crabby (yellow) and Monkey (brown).

Handle it? Who am I kidding? He loves it. Playing “bad guys” is now one of his favorite activities, so I’ve spent many an hour practicing my bwah-ha-ha laugh and running off with toys before he swoops in to stop me by shooting a web or using his freeze power. We’ve started reading some of the DC Super Friends and Marvel Super Hero Squad early reader books, and he’s hugely satisfied by the bad-guy-goes-to-jail endings. And he recently drew a picture of himself that included weird lines coming out of his ears and told me the lines were streams of glue shooting out to “stick the bad guys.”

Obviously, he’s thinking a lot about villains, but oddly enough, he hasn’t asked me as much about them as I expected. He seems to understand that a bad guy does selfish or mean things, while we try our best to be helpful and kind, like superheroes. He even developed a superpower that transforms bad guys into good guys who can then help him root out other bad guys to be brought back from the dark side.

As in so many areas of parenting, I guess I was overthinking it. Turns out, villians aren’t so hard to understand, especially in a comforting context where the good guys always win.

Sea Life Aquarium Offers Cool Displays, Interactive Fun

Dino bones and sharks

A new Sea Life Aquarium recently opened in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. (In fact, it’s in the same Grapevine mega-mall that houses the Legoland Discovery Center I wrote about a few weeks ago.) There are Sea Life locations all across Europe and a few sprinkled around the U.S., so I thought I’d check it out and see what this 45,000 square-foot indoor aquatic center has to offer.

The short verdict: It’s pretty cool. My city already has the large and impressive Dallas World Aquarium, and this doesn’t compete with that facility’s excellent rainforest adventure. But Sea Life is well-crafted, and it has lots to interest and entertain the under-12 set. It’s really a great place for a short walk-through visit with a young kiddo like mine, so I wish the tickets were a little less expensive. But if your kids like to spend a lot of time exploring and watching aquatic life, you’ll likely get your money’s worth.

A few of the best features:

  • Aquatic life: Sea Life Grapevine has a nice collection of peppy stingrays, several smallish sharks, pretty clownfish (Nemo! Nemo! Nemo!), jellyfish, seahorses and more. It’s the greatest hits of the sea, with some interesting diversity thrown in.
  • Decor: The Sea Life folks have given it their all in the design department. Every display features an interesting setting, like the faux-stone “temple” of the seahorse display, or the sunken helm and anchor of the pirate shipwreck display (which also houses tropical fish and coral). My son was a big fan of the dinosaur bone displays in various tanks and the fossil-hunting station.

    The 360° Ocean Tunnel. Yes, my kid is wearing Spider-Man gloves.
  • Drama: The 360° Ocean Tunnel is a neat display, and the Shark Walk lets you stroll out onto glass floors and look down at the creatures swimming below you. Although the aquarium is set up on a unidirectional-flow plan, there’s a loop that allows you to skip the Shark Walk if it’s too intense for your kids — a thoughtful touch. (However, my 3-year-old ate it up and was only disappointed that we wouldn’t let him jump around on the glass floors.)
  • Interactivity: There’s a rockpool display at the end that allows little ones to touch some of the creatures, but there are also interactive aspects all through the aquarium, like the pop-in bubbles in some tanks that allow kids to be “immersed” in the displays. The tanks in all the displays are thoughtfully positioned for easy viewing by little tykes.
  • Education: We didn’t take the time (or spend the money) to try the Behind-the-Scenes tour, and we skipped the Dive Discovery Cinema, but I liked that the aquarium offered more in-depth information for those who were interested.
One of the pop-in bubbles

Things to note:

  • Adult tickets are $19 at the door, $16 if purchased online in advance. Kids’ tickets are $15 at the door and $12 online. There’s a $12 online special on midweek after-5 p.m. tickets. (Plus tax on all of those.)
  • You can purchase a combo ticket that allows admission to both Sea Life and the Legoland Discovery Center that’s right next door. ($31.40 for adults, $24.90 for kids 3-12, tax included)
  • There’s a play area at the end, so don’t forget socks for the kids if they’ll want to use it.
  • Yep, they do birthday parties. And yes, there’s a gift shop to get through at the end.

Get Cooking — George R. R. Martin Style

If you’re a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series (recently made more popular than ever with the HBO series Game of Thrones), you’ll want to check out two fan sites that are dedicated to an unusual aspect of the books — the food. Specifically, they’re dedicated to recreating the dishes mentioned in the books.

The Inn at the Crossroads delves “deep into the world of Westeros and far over the Narrow Sea to explore the mouthwatering cuisines favored by the fantastic cultures in the book.” The site’s creators (Sariann and Chelsea) and its followers also cooked up a plan to deliver baskets of Ice and Fire food to Martin himself at various stops along his recent book tour. And you can’t beat the site’s slogan: “In the Game of Food, you win, or you wash the dishes…”

Cooking Ice and Fire takes a more methodical approach. Creator Adam Bruski aims “to cook every dish mentioned and described in A Song of Ice and Fire and explore the history, real world references, techniques, and science behind each.” (Excepting a few of the more outré items like dog sausages.) There are also great pictures to go along with every dish.

Bon appétit, Martin fans!

A Look at Grapevine’s Legoland

The toddler-friendly Duplo Village has Lego sculptures and lots of large, squishy blocks

Even before I had a kid, I wanted to go to Legoland. The California theme park has dozens of rides and attractions, a water park, and acres and acres of amazing Lego sculptures. And there’s a new one opening in Florida, too. But since it will likely be a few years before my family can make the trip to either one, I was intrigued by the opening of a much smaller version of Legoland right in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We decided to check it out.

Legoland Discovery Center in Grapevine, Texas, is an indoor attraction that’s attached to the supersized Grapevine Mills Mall. It’s not a theme park, but it is a pretty decent attraction, and it provided some solid family entertainment. (Note: It’s a good thing I do have a kid now, because the Discovery Center does not allow adults who aren’t with kids.)

Here are some of the highlights from our visit.

  • Kingdom Quest: This is Legoland Grapevine’s featured attraction, and it gets prime real estate just past the main entrance. It’s a knights ‘n’ castles-themed ride that snakes a four-person car slowly through a winding path. Each rider is given a laser gun and encouraged to shoot goblins, spiders, and trolls that pop up on large video screens on the walls. The scary parts were a bit worrisome to our 3-year-old son, and he didn’t want to ride it again, but it didn’t really upset him. Two older kids (5 and 6) in our group had a good time blasting their enemies and saving the golden dragon eggs.
  • Merlin’s Apprentice: The other ride at Legoland Grapevine is a pretty standard cars-whirling-around-a-center-axis deal. Each car is a two-seater, and each seat comes equipped with pedals that control your vertical position (i.e., the faster you pedal, the higher up your car goes). This one was a big hit with all the kids in our group.
  • Legos Studio 4D Cinema: We enjoyed this 15-minute 3D film about Bob the Builder and his attempts to make a roller coaster out of building bricks. It’s short enough that kids won’t fidget much, and there are nicely paced popping-out-of-the-screen effects that wowed the young audience we were with. The “4D” comes in when water is spilled in the movie — a fine mist of water sprays over the audience, an effect that caused plenty of giggles. There are also some wind and snow effects.
  • Miniland: This one may interest parents more than kids. It’s a room full of tiny Lego buildings and structures, mostly replicas of Dallas and Fort Worth landmarks. They’re wonderfully crafted, and for fans of miniatures like me, they’re fascinating. But despite some cute motion effects here and there, it’s not that exciting for most kids.
  • Lego City Play Zone: Honestly, this is just like any other play center climbing structure. It’s big, and kids like it, but it’s nothing special.
  • Other attractions: We didn’t check out the Princess Parlor (we had all boys with us), we bypassed the Lego Racers track (too crowded), and the Duplo Village warranted only a stop-by (although it’s a good place to chill out with a toddler). The Lego Factory is only accessible when you first enter the Discovery Center, and it’s just a brief look at a few cartoon-y machines that supposedly make Lego bricks, accompanied by cheesy narration from a supposed Lego “scientist.” Honestly, we were so ready to get inside that this part just felt like an annoying delay.
Lego replicas of Dallas’ Fair Park in Miniland

Things to note:

  • Tickets are $19 per person, with a 15% discount for buying online. (You also get to go to the shorter entry line with online tickets.) It’s free for kids age 2 and under. Everything is included in the ticket price except food and whatever you inevitably purchase at the gift shop on the way out.
  • There are height restrictions for the rides and for some attractions, and kids must wear socks to go into the Play Zone. (They’re very serious about the socks, and will do a sock inventory on your party before you enter, and will sell you socks for $1 if you need them.)
  • There’s a Lego Cafe selling drinks and snack foods, but no one was visible manning the counter when we sat down at the adjacent tables for a break, so it was lucky we’d brought our own snacks. (Note: Outside food and drinks are officially not allowed. But we were not busted for passing out juice and crackers! Go ahead and bust me now, Legoland — I dare you!)
  • Yes, you can do birthday parties there — they have some dedicated rooms behind the Cafe.

If you’re not already in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I wouldn’t say Legoland Discovery Center is a reason to travel. (And there are similar Discovery Centers in Chicago, Atlanta, and Kansas City that might be closer to you.) But if you happen to be in the area, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours with the kids — especially when the Texas heat makes anything indoors feel like an air conditioned dream.

A Connection to the Past in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

You’ve probably heard of the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in France. I’d read about them and had seen some photos of the images painted on their walls so many thousands of years ago. What I didn’t know was that the Lascaux caves have been closed to visitors since 2008 because the presence of so many tourists — and the air conditioning and lighting systems that were installed for them — caused fungus and mold to grow on the cave walls, partially obscuring the paintings.

I also didn’t know that in 1994, another cave complex was discovered in France — this one in pristine, untouched condition thanks to a rockslide that sealed it off during the Ice Age. It’s called Chauvet Cave, after one of its discoverers, Jean-Marie Chauvet. Chauvet Cave is the subject of a recent documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog called Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The documentary is special for a number of reasons. First, because of the lessons learned at Lascaux, entry into Chauvet is strictly controlled. That means very few people have seen the beautiful and fascinating artwork it contains. It also means the filmmakers dealt with some serious restrictions — limited time for filming, access only down a narrow walkway, and the use of only battery-powered cold lights. The fact that they were able to make such a breathtaking film given these parameters is amazing. And, oh yeah, it’s also in 3D.

I was frankly a little dubious about the 3D aspect going in. It seemed like a strange attempt to cash in on the current 3D craze — an odd choice for a respected documentarian like Herzog. Then I saw the film and realized the cave walls’ intricate topography of bumps and bulges and folds is an integral part of the artwork, and the 3D renders them beautifully.

The film is nothing short of mesmerizing. There’s plenty of expert analysis and historical background provided, which is interesting on its own, but frankly I could have just stared at the paintings for an hour and a half and been thrilled. They’re simple monochrome line drawings, and yet they’re gorgeously detailed, filled with movement and life. Staring at them, you can’t help wondering about the people who created them, how different they must have been from us, and yet how similar in their quest to record and communicate something about their world.

The fact that this record survives today is genuinely marvelous, and that Herzog and his team have managed to capture it in such a gorgeous way is invaluable.

Scott Adams Advocates Ignoring Petulant Women and Other Problems

I just got caught up on the recent controversial blog post made by “Dilbert” creator and geek icon Scott Adams and the resulting Internet fallout. For catching-up purposes of your own, here are some handy links:

In summary, Adams wrote a humor piece that purported to side with men’s rights activists, only to pull the rug out from under them by telling them to stop whining. Okay, fair enough, I suppose. It’s not the most original or interesting joke in the world, but hey, it’s a blog post, not a masterpiece.

I’m not going to dwell on the outrage brought on by the terminology Adams uses, which doesn’t exactly compare women to children and/or the mentally disabled — it just says that women should be dealt with like children and/or the mentally disabled. I do think his “What? You’re upset?” response is disingenuous when such language seems designed to cause a stir. After all, if I quoted some statistics about how much more likely men are to batter their wives than vice versa, and then said that men should be dealt with like rabid dogs, I imagine that would spark some controversy. (And for the record, I don’t think that — I’m just using an comparable outrageous example for illustrative purposes.)

But the most irritating part of the brouhaha, to me, is Adams’ “get over it” approach to the issues he’s discussing — issues that are important to both men and women. In his self-defense post, he states that he thinks readers “benefit by exposure to ideas that are different from whatever they are hearing” and that he was trying to “add diversity to your portfolio of thoughts.” But at the same time, he’s shutting down all discussion of the issues in question by telling men — and by extension, ostensibly women, too — to give up and shut down.

That seems to be the guiding principle of the post: If something seems unfair, or someone’s argument seems irrational, or someone has a very different viewpoint from you — just ignore it. Don’t bother trying to take the other person seriously and give respectful thought to his/her ideas, don’t spend any energy trying to find common ground, don’t attempt to expand your mind to see things from someone else’s perspective. Just blow it off, roll your eyes, and carry on with your day.

Humor piece or not, how is that helpful to anyone? In this time of intractable red-state/blue-state divisiveness and rampant anonymous Internet vitriol, why would you want to take the position that closing yourself to mind-broadening empathy is the correct answer? Especially when your stated purpose is to expand our minds?

Look, I get that not every battle is worth fighting. I’ve stopped trying to convince people that romance novels should not be blanket-condemned as trash with Fabio covers. Not worth it. I don’t argue with my mother about religion. Not worth it. I don’t even make book or movie recommendations to friends unless specifically asked to do so — there’s no point in becoming invested in whether or not someone else reads or watches something I like. It’s not worth it.

But men’s rights and women’s rights? Real concerns that touch almost every aspect of our lives? How is that not worth it?

And I don’t buy the argument that these issues are too sensitive to talk about rationally with the opposite sex. I have sympathy with a lot of men’s rights issues — I don’t think it’s fair that only men are subject to the draft, and I do think fathers face an unfair bias in custody battles, to name just two. And I’ve known plenty of men who are able to rationally discuss women’s rights issues with me and can accept, say, that the equal pay for equal work dilemma is not completely encapsulated by Adams’ reductive “men go for it more” argument.

But Adams seems to think this kind of dialogue can’t exist, and that’s frankly depressing.

Adams continues his dismissive attitude in his blog post responding to the furor. He wrote the original post because he “thought it would be funny.” People didn’t get it because they weren’t his “specific sort of audience.” There’s nothing to get upset about in what he wrote because he’s “not trying to change anyone’s opinion.” And — my favorite — if you got offended by the post, it’s because you didn’t get it. “No one who understood the original post and its context was offended by it.”

So, if you’re upset, it’s your comprehension/lack of context problem, not his. Don’t talk to him about it. He’ll be off rolling his eyes and ignoring you like the four-year-old you are.

I’ve always liked Scott Adams and “Dilbert.” I read The Dilbert Future years ago and enjoyed its thought-provoking ideas. None of my previous exposure to Adams’ work led me to think of him as this dismissive and arrogant. Because of that, I’ll try to keep my mind open and hope that this was a one-time stumble from a usually smart and entertaining guy.

Ellen Henderson is a novelist and web strategist. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son.

Old Man’s War: Read the Book, Wait Impatiently for the Movie

oldmanswar-199x300I’ve been a fan of John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, for a while now. In fact, I’d been reading and enjoying posts there for quite some time before it hit me like a slap to the head: I hadn’t actually read any of the man’s books. What in the world was wrong with me? I set out to remedy the situation, and boy, am I glad.

Since I like doing things in order, I started with Scalzi’s first published book, Old Man’s War, which came out in 2005. It tells the addictively readable story of John Perry, a 75-year-old widower residing on a future Earth, who decides to give up the life — and the body — he’s known and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces. Basically, he’s going to get a 20-year-old’s genetically amped-up body and some training, then spend a few years kicking alien butt to defend humankind’s off-Earth colonies.

Following Perry along on his journey through modification, training, and wartime is sheer pleasure. Yes, there are heavy themes here, and lives lost, but Perry’s resilience translates through the first-person narration and gives the book if not a lighthearted feel, at least an optimistic one. And the book has some really lovely things to say about marriage, friendship, and love. As a Heinlein fan, I enjoyed detecting the homages to that author in Scalzi’s pages, and I finished the book feeling a satisfaction similar to what Heinlein’s books have always given me — and a similar urge to go read everything else Scalzi has written.

I’m currently midway through the series’ second book, The Ghost Brigades, and I have The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale in my reading queue. They won’t be waiting long.

And in a case of delightful serendipity — for me, anyway — it was just announced on Wednesday that Old Man’s War has been acquired by Paramount Pictures for a major motion picture, with Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm, Troy) slated to direct. As I read the book, I couldn’t stop imagining how it might be adapted to film, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

GeekMoms take note: These are books you’ll enjoy, and you might be able to share them with your older kids, too.

Ellen Henderson is a novelist and web strategist. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son.

Language Learning Through Earworms? Ja!

Even if you’ve never heard the term “earworm,” you’ve had one. You know — one of those songs or tunes or fragments of melody that gets stuck in your head for days on end, so that you find yourself muttering “if you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where fashion sits” over and over again, in the shower and in line at the grocery store and at your desk and aaaaaarrrrgggghhh make it stop!

Yes, earworms. Everyone hates them. So when I heard about a company that was trying to use the power of the earworm for good, I was intrigued. And skeptical. And a little afraid.

But that’s just what Earworms MBT (Musical Brain Trainer) intends to do — teach you foreign languages by using music integration and rhythmic repetition in a series of audio lessons. You can get these lessons on CD, in downloadable audible.com files, or by buying an iPhone app. There’s also a free trial app that gives you a taste of what you’ll get in twelve different languages, including Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Polish, and more.

After sampling the free app, I decided to dive in with the full Volume 1 of a specific language and really see what this kind of language learning could do for me. To make it a fair test, I wanted a language I had very little familiarity with, but one that wasn’t completely alien to my eyes and ears. I settled on Dutch. Like all the Earworms apps, the download cost was $9.99. (Disclosure: I received a reviewer’s promo code.)

The learning experience wasn’t what I expected. I thought my audio teachers would choose some Dutch words and phrases and sing them, making up little songs that I would then carry through my day. This made sense to me, as I tend to learn songs very quickly and often pick up all the lyrics to radio tunes without even trying. But that’s not how it works. Instead, each lesson has a fairly subtle musical background — genres range from folk/pop to country to dance club ump-che ump-che — with a man and woman conversing over it. There is some attempt made to repeat phrases in time to the beat, but it’s not anywhere near as rigidly beat-centric as I’d anticipated.

So after a first listen, I was more skeptical than ever. If they weren’t going to teach me in song form, how was this ever going to work? Also, as an admitted nerdy overachiever, I had a bit of a problem with the program’s instruction to not try. That’s right — you’re specifically advised to “sit back, relax and groove along to the melodies without trying to concentrate too hard.”

Still, I’m nothing if not a follower of rules, so I did my best to obey the instructions. I spent a couple of weeks listening to my Dutch lessons during my morning and afternoon commutes, repeating the Dutch words out loud but otherwise not straining to memorize or recall the phrases I was learning.

And… it worked. A week and a half in, I found myself popping Dutch phrases into my everyday speech, just for fun. Someone would say thank you, and I’d say “graag gedaan.” (Literally — “gladly done.”) I could picture myself in Amsterdam, telling a waiter that “ik wil graag een biertje, alstublieft” (I’d like a beer, please) or directing my taxi driver to take me “naar het vliegveld” (to the airport). I caught myself rhythmically counting to 20 in Dutch, savoring the pronunciation of fun words like “zeventien” (17).

And here’s the weirdest part — it stuck with me. After that intensive two weeks of listening, I kind of wandered off, and as of this writing, I haven’t listened to my Dutch lessons in a few weeks. But I still remember a lot of what I learned. For all the Dutch I’ve referenced here, I only had to refer to my lessons to find the correct spellings — the words themselves, and their correct pronunciations, were still in my head.

Now, I can’t swear that it was the music that did it. Maybe I’d have learned and retained as much from plain old audio lessons with no catchy riffs or toe-tapping beats. But the fact remains that a few weeks ago, all I could say in Dutch was a simple “dank u,” and now I know how to ask for a “gemengde salade” (mixed salad) — and I don’t even particularly like salad!

So, what’s my verdict on Earworms language lessons? As the Dutch say, “heel goed!” (Very good!)

Ellen Henderson is a novelist and web strategist. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son.

Twelve New (and Geeky) Astrological Signs

Illustration by Ellen Henderson with stock images from Stock.Xchng and Microsoft Office

The web is abuzz over an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that says the zodiac is off and we all need to change our astrological signs. According to a follow-up post on CNN’s “This Just In” blog, we really don’t need to do that, after all. But since many of us don’t give much credence to the whole astrology thing in the first place, I think this is a great opportunity to just make up some new signs. Herewith, my all-new, all-geeky zodiac chart:

  • Jan. 20-Feb. 18 – Libervermis (The Bookworm). Characteristics: Knowledgeable, kind, slightly out of touch with reality
  • Feb. 19-Mar. 20 – Draco (The Dragon). Characteristics: Passionate, scaly, fond of treasure
  • Mar. 21-Apr. 19 – Magus (The Wizard). Characteristics: Magical, wise, may shoot fireballs
  • Apr. 20-May 20 – Bellatorius (The Warrior). Characteristics: Powerful, hot-tempered, may inadvertently crush things
  • May 21-Jun. 20 – Sacerdos (The Priest). Characteristics: Serene, introspective, prone to chanting
  • Jun. 21-Jul. 22 – Spectaculus (The Four-Eyes). Characteristics: Intelligent, squinty, avoids full-contact sports
  • Jul. 23-Aug. 22 – Ewokius (The Ewok). Characteristics: Cuddly, chirpy, may annoy others
  • Aug. 23-Sep. 22 – Scientiatus (The Scientist). Characteristics: Skeptical, analytical, fond of beakers
  • Sep. 23-Oct. 22 – Monstrum (The Orc). Characteristics: Angry, smelly, proficient with weapons
  • Oct. 23-Nov. 21 – Ordinatio (The Organizer). Characteristics: Orderly, disciplined, fond of spreadsheets
  • Nov. 22-Dec. 21 – Tribblius (The Tribble). Characteristics: Gentle, fertile, must avoid Klingons
  • Dec. 22-Jan. 19 – Machinatus (The Gadgeteer). Characteristics: Quick-witted, quick thumbed, perpetually preoccupied

Ellen Henderson is a novelist and web strategist. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and son.