Whoops! Inappropriate Old Movie

Whoops, inappropriate movie.
That’s a whole different sort of entertainment. (CC 2.0 by Nadia Hatoum)

When my husband and I were first dating, we loved broad parodies like Blazing Saddles, Sleeper, and Airplane! We used movie lines as code between us (hardly the first teenagers to do so) and, a decade or so later, I had the lame-brained inspiration to revisit those movies with our kids.

It’s not till I watched these old favorites with a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old that I realized, to my surprise, they weren’t entirely kid-friendly. Racist jokes meant to lampoon racism? Jokes about sex-and-drug-crazed pilots and stewardesses, not to mention plane crash jokes? The Orgasmatron? Yeah, my kids haven’t let me forget.

In my defense, old movies (as well as old books) can be great conversation starters. True, sometimes these are conversations you weren’t ready to have just yet. But it’s downright fascinating to get a kid’s perspective on outdated social mores, especially asking where they draw the line between what’s funny and what is demeaning.

Apparently, I’m not the only parent whose judgment is memory-impaired when it comes to movies. My fellow GeekMoms have done the same thing.

We tried showing our then 5-year-old Home Alone over Christmas—it was definitely a different experience! We didn’t make it far. I was allowed to watch whatever I wanted when I was a kid (Blues Brothers was often on repeat), but I don’t think I have the same philosophy as a parent now!—Kelly

There was that one time when I let my eldest son, then nine, watch The Terminator with me when it was on regular cable. He wanted the DVD and I bought it for him. I totally spaced on the nudity that had been cut from the television version we watched. Oops.—Corrina

I think I watched a ton of inappropriate movies because a) I had an older brother by seven years, and b) we watched most of them edited for television, with commercials. As I got older, I could see how awkward and terrible the edited versions were, but when you’re small you’re oblivious. Here are the movie mistakes we’ve made with kids: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beverly Hills Cop, Romancing the Stone, Ghostbusters (I think I was 30 before I realized what that ghost was doing to sleeping Dan Aykroyd).—Jackie

My sons are 10 and 12, so we’re slowly dipping our toes into that zone. I just had a conversation about how PG in the early 80s (before the invention of the PG-13 rating) isn’t the same as PG now. This discussion came up while we were watching Romancing the Stone the other night. It had come up during National Lampoon’s Vacation (the 1983 version) too.

Right now, we’re on the Christopher Guest and company comedies. Our sons are *barely* old enough to handle the humor. We just finished Best in Show (full of innuendo!), and just started For Your Consideration. I want to show them A Mighty Wind most of all (they’d get a kick out of the music), and maybe This is Spinal Tap soon. We have yet to watch Blazing Saddles in front of the kids. Call me lazy, but we don’t feel like saying “Don’t repeat that” over and over and over.—Patricia

My kids, at 5 and 8 or so, really wanted to watch Mamma Mia, and they did indeed love it. But at the end, I was really glad nobody asked why she doesn’t know who her daddy is or what “dot dot dot” in the diary reading implied.—Ruth

Monty Python and the Holy Grail… my favorite comedy of all time… went do share with my oldest… totally forgot   “and then comes the oral sex.” Aye, aye, aye… oops.

My dad’s the most conservative of all of us and makes fun of me when I get embarrassed around him. The first time I saw Slapshot unedited, I was so embarrassed to be watching it with him while he’s cracking up at me. I totally forget about a few of those scenes. I mentioned in my Top Gear post having my then five-year-old ask what a bellend was… right in front of Grandpa. Three generations of awkward, but now it’s a running gag at our house.

We all love the Hanson Brothers, though. I’ve had to learn the hard way when you see a movie on TV the first time, make sure it hasn’t been too edited before sitting down to the full version with your kids. Of course, they all got treated to the Jackman butt in that last X-Men, but they’re at the state where butts are just plain funny, even Wolverine’s.—Lisa

We sat down to watch Ghostbusters with my son recently. I love this movie and was thrilled that he was really into it. Well, until it got to that part where Dan Aykroyd is having the… ahem… erotic dream. Hey, everyone… who wants popcorn??

Also, this wasn’t something we sat to watch, but the topic reminded me… one holiday season, my husband and son were out and I was watching Love Actually. They came in, so I changed it. My husband hit “return channel” button right to the scenes with Martin Freeman going through his “lines” to that girl… with all of the various porno scenes. Thank goodness my son’s back was to the screen at the time. (That actually made it funnier.) I was like… “change it back!!”—Rachel

Or maybe we’re overreacting.

Samantha says,  “Huh. I have or would let my kids watch any of these.”

Zucchini Hack: Make Your Own Gummy Worms

We're not kidding. Zucchini worms are not only healthy, they taste awesome.
We’re not kidding. Zucchini worms are not only healthy, they’re chewy and sweetly delicious. Photo: L.G.  Weldon.

It’s “Overwhelmed By Zucchini” time of year again. My family is all too aware that zucchini lurks in their omelets, their smoothies, their pizza, and their burritos. My neighbors are onto my little trick of leaving anonymous squash gifts on their porches. My friends are no longer fooled by Zapple Pie.

Time to turn to my trusty secret weapon: the Excalibur 3900. This miracle machine (a.k.a. a dehydrator) sits on our laundry room counter, churning out marvels all summer and fall. It gives me the power to convert a head of cauliflower, chopped and dried with salt and garlic powder, into crunchy snackable tidbits that fit in a pint jar. It lets me transform a peck of tomatoes into dried tomato slices that neatly fill a quart bag. It enables me to turn a sink full of peaches into dozens of flavor-packed fruit roll-ups.

Which brings me to zucchini. Yes, that monster zuke in your garden or CSA basket can be transformed into tasty gummy fruit. Not like the candy version; more like the health food store version of gummy fruit. Go ahead, give it a try. You can get through quite a few monster zukes this way.

Zuke Gummy Worms

You might want to change the recipe name, either to keep from fessing up to the main ingredient or to avoid comparison with those wildly colored and artificially sweetened candies. Maybe call them Zuke Fruits. (Zucchini is a fruit, btw.)


  • 6 to 7 cups of peeled zucchini, cut into thin strips*
  • One 12 to 16 ounce can of unsweetened juice concentrate, undiluted (apple-raspberry, grape-cherry, or pineapple are wonderful)
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup of water
  • Optional: flavorings, such as fruit extract or fruit oils (I use a dash of lemon or orange extract when using pineapple juice)
  • Optional: for a sweeter snack, add up to 1/4 cup honey or up to a 1/2 cup sugar

*Peel zucchini and cut out the core so that no seeds or sponge-y seed area remains. I cut the strips about as thick as my husband’s fingers. As long as they’re somewhat uniform, cut them as you please. Heck, make them into cubes if you like.

Make healthy zucchini candy.
Peel away the skin, then cut into uniform strips. Photo: L. G. Weldon.


Put all ingredients in a large, non-stick skillet. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. The zucchini will not be completely immersed in the liquid, but will soften as it cooks. Stir gently with a rubber or silicone spatula as needed to move the liquid around so all the pieces have time to simmer in the juice.

Continue cooking until all pieces are translucent. Chances are the liquid will be entirely used up by that time. Typically, it takes about a half hour but it can take longer. If the pieces still aren’t done, you may need to add a few spoonfuls of water. I often take out the pieces as they become translucent in order to let the others cook longer.

Spread the pieces so they’re not touching on non-stick dehydrator sheets and load in the machine. Put the dehydrator setting on “fruit leather” or “fruit.” On my machine, that’s between 115 and 125 degrees. Start checking for doneness after about 8 hours. It can take up to 24 hours, depending on the size of the pieces. I check by peeling off a smaller, more done piece and munching it. Testing is the fun part.

(I tried cooking a batch of these on Silpat sheets in the oven on the lowest temperature, 170 degrees. When they didn’t get to the dry chewy stage after about 9 hours, I got impatient and tossed them in the dehydrator. The fan in the dehydrator really accelerates the process.)

You’ll know when they’re done. They should be somewhat tough and quite chewy, keeping your mouth much busier than you’d expect. If they’re not chewy, they’re not done. Keep checking, since you don’t want them all the way to crisp! Because their moisture content won’t be as low as most long-term storage items cranked out by dehydrators, store them in an airtight container and use them up in a few days. Or keep them in the fridge (that’ll make them a dental challenge for sure). We haven’t chilled any we’ve made because they get eaten up too quickly.

These little snacks are remarkably tasty. They’re also (unlike actual gummy worms) very filling. Zucchini has fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and C, folate, choline, and even omega-3 fatty acids. It may lose some nutrients from cutting away the peel, but each piece is a highly concentrated package of tasty energy. It can’t be compared to the candy. It’s better. Not rainbow-colored, but sweet and delicious.

What a Dip: Delicious Dip Recipes for Every Day


Easy everyday homemade dips.
Easy, everyday dips. (CCO public domain Eisenmenger)

Dips and spreads aren’t just for parties. They make packing lunches easier and snacking healthier. If you toss them on the table while dinner is in the works, they’re also a great way to reduce pre-meal whining. Yours and the kids’.

Here are four versatile recipes: two sweet, two savory. Go ahead, tweak the amounts or add new ingredients as inspiration hits. For most recipes you’ll need a blender to achieve the requisite smoothness. I swear by my Vita-Mix (actually, it keeps me from swearing). When using a different blender you may need more liquid in the following recipes.

Healthy dip made with beets and pineapple.
Bright pink, still healthy. (Image: L. Weldon)

Tickled Pink Dip

You’ve probably never encountered this recipe before. It’s a bright concoction that doesn’t taste much like beets but adds lively color to your table. No one said you have to fess up about the ingredients.

1 small fresh beet peeled, chopped, and cooked until tender, about a quarter cup total (if using canned beets, make sure your product contains no vinegar)

1 20 oz. can crushed pineapple in juice, drained (reserve liquid) or 2 1/4 cups fresh chopped pineapple

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons honey, more to taste

Process all ingredients in blender until smooth. If more sweetness is desired, add additional honey.

Serve with fresh pineapple wedges, apple slices, or other firm fruit as well as bagels, toast or muffins.


VLUU L200  / Samsung L200
Bright color, bright flavor. (Image: L. Weldon)

Apricot Dip or Spread

Leave this recipe chunky or blend it to a creamy smoothness. Make it with other dried fruits, like cherries or mangos. You’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy it.

1 cup chopped dried apricots

¾ cup orange juice or apple juice

8 ounces cream cheese or mascarpone cheese

honey, optional

Combine apricots and juice in small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or more. If microwaving is preferred, combine same ingredients in large microwave-safe glass dish, cook at high heat for three minutes. Cool, then drain and reserve liquid.

Beat the cheese until smooth. This is easier if you warm it briefly first in the microwave or in a dish over hot water. Incorporate apricots, adding cooking liquid to desired thinness (up to 3 tablespoons). For a sweeter taste, add a few spoonfuls of honey. For a smoother dip, process in a blender.

Serve as a dip for apple halves, pear slices, and other firm fresh fruit. Try as a spread for small bagels, toast, pancakes, and muffins. You can also use it in sweet wraps: Just spread on whole grain tortillas or pitas, add sliced strawberries or other diced fruit, then roll the wraps and slice into rounds.


VLUU L200  / Samsung L200
Super flavorful. Make sure to blend it well. (Image: L. Weldon)


This uniquely flavorful Mid-Eastern dip always includes walnuts and red pepper. Many recipes call for breadcrumbs, onion, and pomegranate molasses. This version is quick and tasty.

1 cup (half pound) shelled walnuts

1 8 oz. jar roasted red peppers, drained (or one small red bell pepper, roasted)

2 cloves garlic, minced (raw or sautéed)

½ to 1 teaspoon ground cumin (I like to roast whole seeds, but ground is fine)

½ to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon salt

2 or more tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil

½ tablespoon lemon juice

either 1 teaspoon honey, or 1 teaspoon black cherry concentrate, or 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses

Dump all ingredients in blender container and pulse until mixture is smooth. More olive oil or a dash of water may be needed to blend well.

Serve as a dip with pitas, flatbread, or crackers. Use it as a dipping sauce for raw or grilled veggies, kebabs, or hot sandwiches. Thin it to serve over tomatoes and avocados as a protein-rich salad dressing.

Hummus and variations. (image CCO public domain Tohma)
Hummus and variations. (Image CCO public domain Tohma)


The variations on hummus are unlimited. Try one or more of extras such as curry powder, chopped spinach, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh parsley, or green onions. Replace the garbanzo beans with black beans, lima beans, adzuki beans, or fava beans. Replace the tahini with almond butter, cashew butter, or peanut butter. How about a hummus tasting event?

2 cups cooked, drained garbanzo beans

2 to 3 cloves raw garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2-3 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)

salt and pepper to taste

Process garbanzo beans, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil in blender until smooth. A few tablespoons of water or additional oil may be needed. Add tahini and blend until it is incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Hummus is often served in a low dipping bowl. It’s often topped with oil, a dash of paprika, some fresh parsley and lemon slices on the slide. Scoop hummus with pitas, flatbread, or crackers. Scoop it with celery sticks, grape tomatoes, and carrots. Roll it up in wraps with meats, cheeses, or veggies. Serve it with a chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, red onion, and mint leaves. You pretty much can’t go wrong with hummus.

Promote Authors You Love. Please.

Do your favorite authors a favor.
Share the harvest. (CC by 2.0 jaci XIII)

Those of us who are authors know it’s great to hear “I love your book!” from readers. Fantastic, really. We politely say, “thank you.” But what we want to say in response is, “GO TELL OTHER PEOPLE TO READ IT! PLEASE!” Boy, do we ever.

We live in a culture that shows us how to love celebrities and athletes. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives (rarely considering how strange it is that we’re obsessed with particular celebrities).

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (except the most commercially promising ones) to shoulder the work of book marketing. Authors are expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, all forms of writing live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and promote the authors you love. Here are some tactics I use.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and wherever you go to check reader reviews. Short on time? Make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars plus a one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, or whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant book quote or line of poetry (crediting the author). It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or by Skype. To locate local authors, check the database at Poets & Writers, listings offered by Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and your state’s art council.

Recommend. Create your own list of your favorite books on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. (Oh, if only my recent book appeared in a list such as “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…”) While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthdays, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when you think a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions, but also to share the joys of reading.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, and biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put such request forms online; other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian with these requests.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to art for kids.

Link. A writer’s insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading, recommending books I think friends will like. I urge them to read memoirs, from the sublime to the hilarious, like A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. I beg them to read beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. For those who enjoy the worthy indulgence of animal books, I suggest The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. I urge sci-fi fans to check out The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi, and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read it aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read, already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself; you’ll never defeat your inbox. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery in Peninsula, Ohio, sells copies of my poetry book.)

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers; the mail will be forwarded. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions, readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days, I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Step Away From My Newborn. Right. Now.

Let new parents bond with newborn.
The first few days are especially vital for bonding. (CCo public domain, gaborfejes)

I am dedicated to our extended family on both sides. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law lived with us for 10 years, my kids make handmade gifts for relatives, and I continue to host most holidays. But I learned to warn others to leave us alone for at least a full week after a baby’s birth. I became fervent about this after my husband’s grandmother ignored my plea to let us have this time to ourselves.

It went down like this.

Three days after our first child was born, she left a voicemail. She was coming over. Right. Now.

My husband and I were just settling in to the new circle we’d made of mother, father, and baby. Benjamin was a wonder to us with eyes that hinted (I swear) of ancient wisdom. This time was our initiation into family life. It felt sacred to me in the way that life-changing experiences can. I didn’t want it muddied with polite conversation or awful clichés like “you look great.”

I was also exhausted and overwhelmed, as many first-time postpartum moms can be. We wait three-quarters of a year to see the baby we’ve been gestating. Plus we’re dealing with sore nipples, interrupted sleep, and estrogen levels that drop 100 to 1,000-fold in the first week after giving birth.  I knew plenty of other new mothers who thrived on connecting soon after birth. Not me. I wasn’t feeling remotely sociable.

When my husband’s grandmother arrived, my resolve melted a little. As she leaned over to kiss our baby’s cheek the gentle wrinkles on her face twanged my heartstrings. She was looking down at her descendant, a boy who would grow up into a world beyond her time. My tenderness, however, instantly evaporated when she snatched him out of my arms with a thief’s deftness. Her perfume-doused wrists cradled him closely. He started to fuss almost immediately but she refused to hand him back.

“I know babies,” she said, surely trying to reassure me. I was not reassured.

His eyes crinkled in pre-cry mode. She hoisted him to her shoulder, his precious face against her sweater which had, I kid you not, fake rhinestone decorations pressed against his skin. Immediately I reached out for the baby but instead of handing him back she turned and, bouncing him up and down, walked to the other side of the room. The baby was now crying for real. Squalling. Those desperate cries that activate every nerve in a new mother’s body.

The hair on my arms stood up and my scalp prickled. My mouth swung open and growl in my throat threatened to roll out. I’d never experienced such a primal reaction, a surge of energy that transcended emotion. I hustled up to her with the ferocity of a mother grizzly bear and managed to sputter a few words instead of actual growling.

“I need that baby back RIGHT NOW,” I said, “or I can’t be responsible for what I’ll say.”

She, who had bestowed the fond nickname of “sweet little girl” on me when I first dated her grandson, looked shocked. She had no idea that, in this moment of postpartum rage, I was close to sinking my teeth in her arm.

I grabbed my crying son, hustled off to the bedroom, and closed the door. Adrenaline still coursed through me. Nursing him calmed us both, but not entirely. I stayed there until she was gone. When my husband carefully turned the knob and slid the door open just a bit, I realized even he was a little afraid of me.

I’m sure I could have handled the situation better. Honestly, she could have too. I know the incident taught my husband that he needed to do everything possible to preserve our family boundaries in a newborn’s early weeks—skills that were essential as we had three more children, some with serious medical problems. It also taught me that nothing is more powerful than a new mother’s impulse to be with her baby.

I guess there is a moral to my story. Don’t visit a newborn if the mama urges you, even politely, to stay away. She means it.

What would you like visitors to know during the first week of your baby’s life? 

Lumosity Craposity

brain training is a scam,
Let’s not oversimplify memory and learning. (CC0 Public Domain, pixabay.com.)

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like Radiolab and This American Life make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across lots of people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements for “brain training” businesses that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similar protective effects? Not really.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some are conducted by those who have a financial link to brain training companies. And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with BBC to launch a Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at the individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit those very real fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Would You Let Your Kids Play With Fusion?

The boy who played with fusion,
Taylor mixing methanol and sodium hydroxide in a biodiesel production experiment. (image permission: Wilson family)

Science is basic to who we are. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “I can’t think of any more human activity than conducting science experiments… every child is a scientist. And so when I think of science, I think of a truly human activity—something fundamental to our DNA, something that drives curiosity.”

Some kids are driven to push that curiosity ever farther. Or maybe their parents and other adults foster curiosity in a way that lets them take it as far as it will go. That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about physics prodigy Taylor Wilson. At age 14, Wilson became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and, later, radioactive projects. But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school-aged children in the U.S., that’s about 6 to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, affording very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not limited to Taylor’s accomplishments. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father was able to access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

Taylor’s parents were also able to connect him with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development - but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today's educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)
Most pioneering and high-achieving adults say that having a mentor was important to their development, but meaningful mentorship opportunities are scare in today’s educational environments. (image permission: Deanne Fitzmaurice/National Geographic)

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interest without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.”
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. In Taylor’s case, most of these resources that gave him hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector for use in securing borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a 2-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?  (image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
How comfortable would you be with radioactivity?
(image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

GeekMom received a sample for review purposes

Bring Back Obsolete Words

influence word choice, bring back obsolete words,
No blood, just vocabulary. (CCO public domain wilhei)

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have given informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

My son worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort of person who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed on one habit: avid reading.

My son used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results were in. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.


You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary, while at the same time smiling on the inside.)


Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Basically, you get people to say funny words.


1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, or friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,” and “tarnation.”)


This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly, but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you may choose to insist it is back in style. Or you may use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging the Human Experimentation of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance our world as we know it.


See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.


Have you gotten subjects to say funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind. BTW, my son’s co-workers were all using the word “dagnabbit” within the month. Oh yeah, humans are easy prey for experimentation. I’ve read enough dystopian novels to warn you: don’t take this knowledge too far…

Eccentrics R Us

 are you eccentric,
Not just another apple off the tree. (iblushay, cco public domain)

I met Betty years ago. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes, who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor, she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked that day.

We hit it off immediately, riffling on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite), Betty would have none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question, she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honesty was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example, Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days, Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly, even though her poor sight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000s, the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up, she toured him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps because she gave him a homemade remedy for insomnia, she was never cited for those unruly gardens.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time when we’re far freer to be who we are. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse, yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper 15 percent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility,” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary A Different Drummer highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others, but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums, who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics, my friends are orchards of eccentricity, and maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

50 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day & Every Day

Home  (image: nasa.gov)
Home, lets celebrate her this Earth Day! (image: nasa.gov)

We live on a giant whirling rock of wonders. Our planet offers clouds of migrating Monarch butterflies, fresh strawberries, giant squids, seasons, bumblebees, well, everything. All too often we don’t pay much attention. A little appreciation for Ma Earth isn’t just nice, it’s essential.

Here are some ways we can celebrate Earth Day or any day.

Learn about leaf respiration. (image: Kelly Knox)
Learn about leaf respiration. (image: Kelly Knox)

Science  Investigations

Learn about leaf respiration with these two experiments easy enough for a preschooler.

Make a crystalized Earth using pipe cleaners and borax.

Go outside with tools to investigate like a magnifying glass, sketch book, and binoculars.

Look up to learn more about clouds and find out how you can become cloud collectors.

Let yeast blow up a balloon. Have kids write their names on balloons with a permanent marker. Using a funnel, let them fill each balloon with 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon dry yeast. Add a little warm water to each balloon, tie shut, and shake to mix. Then put them outside on a hot sunny day. Check to see how big the balloons have gotten every ten minutes or so. Guess what might happen to balloons that get too big.

Experiment with different ways to grow plants from food scraps.

Predict the weather using pine cones.

Draw the solar system with sidewalk chalk.

Investigate solar power. Make solar prints by arranging objects on photo-sensitive sheets in a SunPrint Paper Kit, then set outside to print like magic. Build a solar-powered cockroach using these Instructables directions. Assemble your own solar cooker and make lunch using only the sun’s rays for heat. You can find all sorts of plans here.


Collect old sneakers for recycling. (image: beart-presets Public Domain)


Recycling Fun

Save worn-out sneakers to donate to a recycling program. Heck, start a Stinky Shoe Drive so your family can work toward a goal of 25 pounds of shoes or more. Here are organizations that recycle them.

Upcycle broken crayons into new shapes and layers. Or collect broken crayons and send them off to Crazy Crayons recycling program.

Collect cardboard boxes and make a day of robot-building with ideas from Welcome to Your Awesome Robot.

Find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Re-use bottle caps by making a perpetual calendar.

Repurpose empty glass jars by painting them to make vases and artful storage containers.

Make instruments out of recycled materials for a little child’s band.

Use cereal boxes and magazine pages to make blocks.

Set up a swap party with friends and neighbors. It’s a great way to clear your home of toys, movies, games, books, and other items your family is no longer using while getting “new” amusements.


Take a walk. (image:  phaewilk CC by 2.0)
Take a walk. (image: phaewilk CC by 2.0)

Outdoor Fun

Plan a nature scavenger hunt. You might have to make tree rubbings, spot a certain bird, collect rocks, and so on. For toddlers, try a color hunt.

Make your own bubble solution.

Go hiking. Before leaving, decide what each of you will keep your eyes open to see. Your son might decide to look for things that fly. Your daughter might decide to look for what’s blooming. It’s interesting how much more cued all of you will be to your surroundings when really looking.

Play tic-tac-toe on a stump or the front step using just sticks and rocks.

Designate an area of the yard where kids can play right in the dirt. They might want to use it to build mountains and valleys for their toy dinosaurs, cars, or action figures. They might want to dig holes, perhaps looking for archaeological finds using Hands-On Archaeology: Real-Life Activities for Kids as a guide. For a real mess, give them enough water to make a mud pit. Your status as an epic parent will linger (so will the stains).

Spend time outside after dark. Take a full moon walk, hang up a sheet and shine a light on it to make a shadow puppet theater, play flashlight games, and more. Here are 11 delightful ways to play outside in the dark.

Draw from an up-close perspective. (image: Lisa Kay Tate)
Draw from an up-close perspective. (image: Lisa Kay Tate)

Artful Ideas

Learn about Georgia O’Keeffe by making your own drawing of blossoms, up close.

Make homemade sidewalk chalk.

Paint a fingerprint tree.

Use tea and coffee as natural paints.

Even the smallest toddler can put together a nature collage on a sticky board.

Make miniature “stone” carvings.

Twist a paper bag into a tree sculpture.

Mason bee home (image: National Wildlife Federation)
Mason bee home (image: National Wildlife Federation)

Planetary Kindnesses

Make a mason bee home.

Put together an Audubon approved bat shelter kit.

Pick up litter in your neighborhood or wildlife area. It’s safest to do this wearing gloves and using a pick up tool or a reacher. Put each piece of trash in a box or garbage bag, then recycle or throw away when you’re done.

Cook up some birdseed cookies to hang in the trees or make birdseed holders out of oranges.

Make seed bombs.

Make a worm tower or indoor worm farm For more information, check out Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.

Set up regular unplugged time, say every Sunday or every evening from dinner to bedtime. It spurs your family to get moving and connect with each other.

We share the tastiest way to eat dandelions. (image: Frauenglauben, CC public domain)
We share the tastiest way to eat dandelions. (image: Frauenglauben, CC public domain)

 Nom-able Fun

Start a dandelion-munching tradition with these recipes.

Cook a whole meal outdoors. Everything tastes better whether on the grill, over a fire pit, or over a real campfire. Slice a few inches open on an unpeeled banana, stuff in a dollop of peanut butter and a few chocolate chips, then grill till it becomes a warm pudding in its own banana container. Bake brownies or cake inside hollowed out oranges over a fire pit.  For more ideas check out Campfire CookingScout’s Outdoor Cookbookand Easy Campfire Cooking

Arrange fruits and vegetables pieces into edible flowers. While you’re at it, plant any of the dozens of real flowers that are not only edible but beautiful.

Cut tortillas into earth shapes like leaves, insects, or clouds. Brush with olive oil and bake until crispy, then serve with salsa. Here’s how.

Go to a farmer’s market and pick your next meal based on what you buy.

Put together the classic snack, Ants on a Log. Just spread nut butter on celery stalks and line up raisins for “ants.” We also make Ants on a Picnic, pretty much the same thing except using apple slices instead of celery.

Make burp juice. Show kids how to mix a quarter cup or so of juice concentrate (undiluted) into eight ounces of unsweetened seltzer water. Adjust to taste with more juice or seltzer. Add ice cubes, then drink. It has the same carbonation level as soda without sugar or food coloring. We call it burp juice in our house because quick gulps bring on burps.

Kids drawings become plant markers. (image: L. Weldon)
Kids drawings become plant markers. (image: L. Weldon)

Gardening Projects 

Make plant markers out of spoons using your kids’ drawings.

Grow an indoor meadow. It may be a good place for toy dinosaurs to roam.

Make a fairy garden together, better yet, geek it up with miniature robots or superheroes.

Plant extra seeds and share the plants.

Grow sprouts. It’s a speedy way to harvest a windowsill crop and perfect year-round to add sprouts to salads, sandwiches, and stir-fries.

Let each child plant one “crop” in the garden that is his or hers to tend. Fast-growing plants like sugar snap peas, radishes, and green beans are ideal. Let the kid farmer in charge be the one to check regularly for weeds, watering needs, and harvest times. For more ideas check out Gardening Projects for Kids and for those of you without yards or community garden plots, try Kids’ Container Gardening.

How To Raise Word Geeks

word nerd, word games, dictionary games,
Dictionary, unplugged. (CC0 Public Domain, pixabay.com)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out, my oldest threw a fit.

It is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads hang out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently, it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. I figured we didn’t need it once my kids got older, what with Google attached to our fingertips and all. According to my son, I was wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds—the power to create word nerds.

Here’s How

First off, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant, but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words; I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired wordplay. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into four categories:

Bet You Don’t Know This Word: Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word for the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used, the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition: There are better ways to play this, but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page, find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word for the rest of the day.

Three-Word Challenge: Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.

Blackbird: This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then, open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury,” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me if faced with one more pet in this house.

Additional Tactics

  • Leave a dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do. For game purposes, there’s something more alluring about a print copy than an online dictionary.
  • Tsk-tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Don’t impose word games. Enthusiasm is mortally wounded when learning is mandatory.
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox, or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse, they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.

How to Learn New Skills From Experts Near You

learn from experts,
There’s nothing like learning hands-on. (CC by 2.0 flickr.com/photos/alancleaver)

Successful societies have always respected what the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn from people whose grasp of any subject is well beyond our own, in part because our culture doesn’t emphasize the extraordinary benefits of person-to-person education.

I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Passion for a subject becomes a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there, what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.

If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, make pasta by hand at Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, let my kids partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Libraries, colleges and universities, museums, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes too.

This can happen more informally as well. As homeschoolers, we’ve found it doesn’t hurt to ask people to share a little of what they know.

  • The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums crafted there.
  • A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program.
  • A potter shared his thoughts about the nature of clay, taught us how to form vessels on a wheel, then invited us back for the opening of his kiln to see our creations emerge.
  • An archaeologist invited us to spend the day at a dig where we worked along with a team of grad students.

We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Surprisingly, we’ve gotten all this expert instruction for free. People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes.

If someone possesses knowledge or abilities you’d like to gain, try asking. And don’t forget to look close to home. Your own contact list is also a knowledge network just waiting to be activated. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn cake decorating from your sister the caterer, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, pick up horse-racing lingo from your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined.

Of course, there are all sorts of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.

DIY and Maker movements along with Maker Faires are popping up in more and more places. (Not in your area yet? Check out the Mini Maker Faire Starter Kit.) Find hackerspaces like NoisebridgePumping Station OneNYC ResistorTechShops, and Artisan’s Asylum. Or start your own hackerspace.

Trade School is a barter-based learning space, meaning you don’t have to pay to learn. You might barter for a class with a homemade pie or art supplies or research help. The founders describe it as “a global movement for community, connection, and educational justice.” The first Trade School was started by three friends in a NYC storefront in 2010. Now self-organized Trade Schools are opening up or running in places like Milan, Cologne, Virginia, Oakland, Singapore, New Delhi, and Paris. Want to start one in your community? Here’s how.

FreeSkools are created by participants. There’s no central organizing manifesto on one site or in one book. Some are informal gatherings to share knowledge, others are active networks meeting in parks, living rooms, and community centers. All are devoted to learning freely. You’ll find them in IthacaSanta Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Check out piece in Shareable about how to set up a FreeSkool.

Skillshares are similar to FreeSkools, built around the experience and skill offered by people in the community. They may be set up as a one-time session, an annual event, or ongoing program. Here’s how to start one.

The School of Life is teeming with great stuff. They feature secular sermons with big thinkers talking about big ideas. Classes by experts with titles like How to Have Better Conversations, and Finding a Job You Love. The place is also teeming with activity beyond the sit-still-and-think variety. There are engaging programs with transformative potential and weekend adventures developed by scientists, artists, and others. So far there are eight locations including London, Melbourne, Paris, and Amsterdam.

Citizen Circles are small groups of people who meet to learn together for a limited period of time with an emphasis on collective learning and action. There’s no fee. Some Citizen Circle topics have included women as social innovators, systems dynamics, exploring indigenous knowledge, and design thinking. There’s plenty of information to help you start your own.

In addition, there are all sorts of inspiring methods you can use to construct a more hands-on DIY education—many of them free. If you know of other resources, share it in the comments.

Now go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, or car engine as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.

Buy Bookish Stuff. Build a Library.

EthopiaReads.org, GoneReading.com, literacy, library in Ethopia,
Gebeta Community Children’s Library, funded by GoneReading.com (image:ethiopiareads.org)

When I read, I’m gone. I disappear into a liminal world where I don’t notice pesky details like nagging family members, deadlines, or boarding calls.  From my earliest memory, reading has opened me to stories and ideas from every part of the world. I can’t imagine life without it.

But there are 785 million people on the planet who can’t read. That’s one in every five of us—two-thirds of that number are women.

This is where the philanthropic e-commerce site Gone Reading comes in. Founders Brad and Eileen Wirz have joined forces with READ Global and Ethiopia Readsorganizations with an excellent track record of partnering with local communities to develop new libraries. Remarkably, Gone Reading is entirely volunteer run and donates 100% of its after-tax profits, so every single dollar they raise goes to help to advance the magic of reading. Good Reads has already funded its first project, the Gebeta Community Children’s Library in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.

When you make a purchase from the curated selections offered by Gone Reading you’re not only buying a wonderful gift: You’re sharing the gift of reading with the world at large. Here are some of our favorite offerings.

Hints of what’s under the cover. gonereading.com


Paperback perfume oil, redolent with the scent of ink and paper plus a hint of romance. These 3″ tall glass bottles hold 8.8 ml of delicately scented oil. $9.99

Your books look like they’re hovering in the air. gonereading.com


The Doublewide Floating Book Shelf holds a maximum load of 30 lbs.  All hardware included, along with easy-install directions.  The shelf itself measures 15″ wide x 1″ tall x 5-3/8″ deep. And it looks like it’s floating!  $17.99

Beside yourself with bookish delight. gonereading.com
Beside yourself with bookish delight. gonereading.com

Picasso’s “Two Girls Reading” 200 piece puzzle makes a terrific family activity or gift for the young readers in your life. Comes in a decorative hinged tin, perfect for gifting and for storage. $16.99

Quaff from a freethinker mug. gonereading.com
Quaff from a freethinker mug. gonereading.com

The Kurt Vonnegut mug  is covered with original imagery, artwork, and quotations from the writer’s life and works. Microwave and dishwasher safe.  Arrives in its own colorful gift box.  $12.95

Soak, sip, luxuriate. gonereading.com
Soak, sip, luxuriate. gonereading.com

Bamboo bathtub caddy is a luxurious way to hold soap and wine, plus a fold-able book support for your book or eReader. Heavy-duty construction from real bamboo, a richly textured and renewable wood. Designed by Argentinian designer Luciano Lorenzatti.  $49.99

My happy place. gonereading.com
My happy place. gonereading.com

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay is a 92-page book featuring photos and text that chronicle the beauty, grandeur, and simple realities of libraries old and new. Contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Isaac Asimov, Amy Tan, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, and many more.  Includes a foreward by Bill Moyers and afterword by Ann Patchett. $35.00

Elizabethan imagery as medieval icon. gonereading.com

Secular Saint candle features the Bard, a.k.a. the patron saint of “Cross-Dressers, Star-Crossed Lovers, and Upstart Crows.” This heavy glass candle measures 8-1/4″ tall for many hours of illumination. $12.95

A toast to the greats. gonereading.com
A toast to the greats. gonereading.com

Great Drinkers of Literature shot glass set features the likenesses and quotes of six literary greats (who were also great drinkers) including Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Charles Baudelaire, and Winston Churchill. $16.95

Textural artistry. (gonereading.com)
Textural artistry. gonereading.com

Pride & Prejudice book text poster is designed using more than 18,000 words from Jane Austen’s classic novel. It’s printed on archival, vinyl-infused paper that resists tearing and moisture.  Available in both color and black and white version: 24″ tall x 18″ wide. $24.00


Shopping for gifts just became another way to help others discover what it’s like to be gone reading no matter where they call home.

When Toys Seek Revenge

toy revenge, toy retaliation,
Maybe they’re all plotting to get back at us. Photo: CC by 2.0 Jason Scragz‘s flickr photostream.

I once wrote about a child who is growing up without any purchased toys, a boy whose childhood is remarkably rich. That doesn’t mean I’m all that high-minded myself. The sheer volume of Lego bricks contained in my home is proof. I also take a childlike delight in buying ridiculous toys. In fact, I still glow with pride at finding a bagpipe figure to give my bagpipe-playing son. It’s decked out with authentic looking kilt, sporran, and pipes, but the real thrill is the button that makes it emit a better-than-whoopie-cushion-sounding fart.

But looking at it from a toy’s point of view, being a plaything probably isn’t all fun and games. First, the strain of adoration in the form of grabby little hands and screams of “mine” followed, inevitably, by weeks or months of inattention. Or maybe that’s just how The Velveteen Rabbit felt about it.

No wonder toys tend to get back at us. You’ve experienced this. A Barbie turns up on the passenger seat in an awkward naked pose just when you offer to give your boss a ride. Lego bricks are suddenly underfoot when you have bare feet. The stuffed animal with Velcro paws that somehow snags your one decent silk shirt. Who among us hasn’t been a victim of toy retaliation?

Here are a few of our Revenge of the Toy tales.

Ruth: I work from home and often on our third floor, which seems to be The Land of Creepy Noises. One day, I heard a voice downstairs. That is not a good feeling to have when you’re home alone on the third floor, and we’d had break-ins before, although in another house, but as a result I’m a bit sensitive about hearing people who don’t belong in my house! I crept down the stairs and waited, listening at the bottom. Eventually, I heard talking again, but I couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. I got brave and went looking. Found nothing. Absolutely nothing. For days, I would occasionally hear this voice. Reasonable conclusion: I’ve lost my mind. It wasn’t a toy voice. It was a human voice. At the end of the week, we discovered that the kids had left a book open. But not just a book. The kind of book that grandma can record her voice reading to you. All week, I’d been creeped out by my mother-in-law’s tales of Mater and Lightning McQueen.

Laura: We had a toy called The Insultinator which, as you might imagine, spewed mild insults such as, “You’re a gross slimy weasel,” at the press of a button. Yes, I bought it. I’m so easily amused that I bought another and gave it to friends as a perfectly relevant wedding anniversary gift. Their son discovered it a few years later and couldn’t be parted with it, which explains why it was in his carry-on as the family went through airport security. As he put the bag on the conveyor, the thing went off. Suddenly, the guards could hear someone saying, “You’re a giant ugly obnoxious jerk.” With stern faces, they pulled the bag off the conveyor. That joggled the toy again, and it said, “You’re the ultimate big sloppy loser.” It took several explanations just to get permission to take The Insultinator out of the bag. The whole line behind them backed up as various security officials kept pushing its buttons to make each other laugh.

Sarah: This weekend, we bought our youngest a Poppity Pop Musical Dino. It wreaks havoc if you forget to turn it off. When you walk past it a little too heavily, plastic balls start spitting out at you. We moved the furniture around last night and when I dropped the couch, I had to duck behind it to avoid getting hit by all the little balls

Judy: I was home alone a few years ago (a rarity in itself), and I was enjoying the nice quiet house to get caught up on some writing. I kept getting this creepy feeling that someone was in the house. Every time I’d go take a lap I’d find no one, but swore I was hearing someone talking. Then, suddenly, as I was quietly contemplating the last paragraph I’d written, I heard a very distinct voice say, “Where are you!?” “Where are you?!”

I literally jumped out of the chair and spun around. My heart was racing as I dug through the stuff on the office shelves until I found it… a little Waldo doll that probably came in a Happy Meal, one that repeated phrases when it was bumped. It spoke in the creepiest voice. I don’t like scary movies or being scared, so all it took was a tiny Waldo to creep me out!

Patricia: As a military family, we have to move every 2-3 years. It becomes second nature: Remove the batteries, light bulbs, candles, and cash from your belongings before the movers come to pack things up. It’s a standard practice to minimize theft and damage. On one move, I had to remove over 200 batteries from the kids’ toys! We would hand-carry the batteries and re-install them at our new location. On our 2008 move between North Carolina and Nebraska, I must have forgotten to remove batteries from some of my sons’ wooden Thomas the Tank Engine cars. I could hear two Troublesome Trucks giggling mischievously as the box was dollied out of the house in North Carolina, and again when it came into our new house in Nebraska.

Corrina: The Nintendo 2DS got lost the first week of December. Had no idea where it went. Concluded the son lost it at school or on the bus. When I went to take down the Christmas tree, I found it *inside* one of the boxes with unused Christmas decorations. No, I have no memory of how it got there. At all.  I certainly didn’t put it there. I blame the cats.

Ruth: A few weeks ago, we were at my cousin’s house. Our collection of children was playing with a pair of walkie talkies. My husband and I had *just* watched the episode of Doctor Who with the creepy little boy in a gas mask walking around asking, “Are you my mummy?” We played a game with them where we’d hide one walkie talkie, and they’d use the other one to find it. They went in the other room, we hid the walkie talkie, and despite the fact that he was totally asleep in another room when we watched it, my three-year-old’s voice came out of that walkie talkie, “Are you my mommy?”

Sarah: When our friends moved houses, it unsettled their couch. They realized there was a toy stuck in the mechanism somewhere that they couldn’t reach. Every time you’d flop down on it, you’d get to listen to a nursery rhyme.

Laura: My husband and I were lying in bed one night after I’d just nursed our baby to sleep. We heard a faint and intermittent scratching sound on, or was it in, the wall under our window. Because the baby was sleeping in a bassinet right next to our bed, we kept asking, “Did you hear that?” in the quietest whispers we could manage. After we confirmed that we weren’t imagining it, we couldn’t sleep. As you know, once you attune to an annoyance it becomes vastly more annoying. We eliminated possible causes like tree branches (weren’t any) and heating system (wasn’t on). My husband and I both slipped out of bed in the dark room, crawling along the floor with our ears to the wall. Whenever we did, there was no sound. Once back in bed, it started up again. We decided it had to be a mouse or squirrel trapped in the wall. That made it worse.

I couldn’t help but imagine those desperate scrabbling little paws, the frantic black beads of the small creature’s eyes. “Back up,” I said to it with my sleep-addled mind, as if I could send it thought messages. “Breathe out to make yourself small.” The man I loved next to me clearly wasn’t on the same page. “It’s trapped,” he whispered. “It’s going to die in the wall and stink up the place. I should kill it now.” He discussed various methods of death and extraction while I, in a heightened emotional state of postpartum exhaustion, decided I’d married the wrong man. It was suddenly obvious I’d vowed to spend my life with some kind of monster. Using poor judgment, I shared that thought with him. Then we lay awake, me weeping with sorrow in the quietest way possible and he fuming. In the morning, we discovered the real source of the sound. Our son’s remote control car was under a rocking chair in our room, right next to the window. Intermittently, it picked up enough random radio signal to scoot back and forth slightly, scraping its antennae against the wooden chair seat. The creature that threatened our marriage didn’t exist. Yeah, we felt silly.

Stay strong, remember toys are supposed to be fun, and share your Revenge of the Toys tales with us in the comments.

Should I Dye My Hair Pink?

image insecurity,
To pink or not to pink, that is the question. Image: L. Weldon.

I may be geeky, but you can’t tell by looking at me.

I live in a resoundingly conservative area. A few years ago, I painted galaxies on my shoes, thinking I could get away with wearing them at work. After all, only a few star clusters showed at the hem of my pants. My boss almost passed out. That’s just one of the reasons I mostly live under the radar. As much as I’d like to create an art car spackled with oddities, I drive a car so boring it’s hard to find in parking lots. (I console myself by covering my visor with pins like, “Get out, I need to go to my mind palace” and “Why not ask a cephalopod?”). And as much as I’d like a yard adorned with robots made out of junk, so far I’m sticking to a single large mosaic I made out of broken dishes. (Although even that inspired my mail carrier to ask if we were devil worshippers.) Instead of a geeky tee, I’m more likely to wear a necklace made of up-cycled electronic components or a steampunk locket by GeekMom artist Brigid Ashwood.

But I’m considering pink locks, even though I haven’t seen anyone with non-standard hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.

I was shopping alone, wearing what’s too often a uniform for me: black sweater, jeans, clunky boots. I heard a stranger, at some distance, call out to someone.

Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I ignored her. I assumed she was hailing another person in the store. A moment later, that stranger hurried up behind me and as I turned she said, “Oh, I thought you were my mom.”

I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartner or I look really old.

The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”

Raised to be polite at all costs, I smiled reassuringly at her. Wouldn’t want this stranger to feel badly about herself would I? (Fist shake at my Nice Girl upbringing).

Wait, it gets worse.

I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “mom.” Her mother was clearly 20 years old than I. Wearing stretch jeans. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.

Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments, despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.

I’m not mocking my elders; hell, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). Yes, keeping my more unusual side under wraps in Small Town America is one thing. But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.

When I was younger, I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now, I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by store windows, noticing a short woman in the reflection. Who is she, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a 14-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some middle-aged lady wearing a scarf.

I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life, too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious 14-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.

Raising Science-y Kids on the Cheap

raising science nerds, raising STEM kids,
Electron microscope image of an Arabidopsis thaliana leaf. It’s all how you see it. (CC by 3.0 CSIRO)

I’ve gotten a little weary (and wary) of STEM-promoted toys, kits, classes, and camps. I’m sure they’re wonderfully engaging but they make it seem as if parents have to spend a lot to raise kids who love science. That’s not the case. I’ve raised four very science-y kids while scraping along on a not-so-great income.

My husband and I don’t work in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard. Instead it’s about saying “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. This sort of curiosity-driven learning can’t be contained in a kit or prescribed by a class. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says,

Parents come up to me, “How do I get my kids interested in science?” They’re already interested in science. Just stop beating it out of them…We tell them to shut up and sit down after spending a year telling them how to walk and talk. We teach them how to walk and talk, and they start touching things — “Oh, don’t touch that, Junior. Sit down. Stop making noise. Stop banging on the pots and pans.” Every one of those is an experiment.

When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, but right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity heading in all sorts of directions. He’s the four-year-old who, learning that bones have Latin names, became obsessed with memorizing them. He’s the eight-year-old who inspired our friends to save all sorts of broken appliances and equipment because he liked to take things apart. He’s the twelve-year-old who insisted on joining a model railroad club even though all the members were decades older than he was. He developed the passions, we simply facilitated them.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then grabbing handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied. (She’s now a biologist.)

When my third child was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and sometimes unintentionally left fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warning about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn. It also helps to know you can find out what you want to know, even about scary stuff, in the presence of a parent. (He’s now a year’s classes away from a geology degree.)

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened. One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one. (He’ll soon be graduating with honors as a mechanical engineer.)

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

raising kids to love science,
A glorious backyard arachnid/ (image: L. Weldon)

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbocharged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family.

Then there’s the front yard. A headstone leans by the garage door. It’s not left over from Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural.

Handmade Trumpet Man, yes, still wearing a Santa hat. (image: L. Weldon)
Handmade Trumpet Man, yes, still wearing a Santa hat. (image: L. Weldon)

Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. We call the resulting sculpture our Trumpet Man.

And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. (Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.)

Sure, my kids have known from their earliest days that I have a bias toward learning. They know I’m much less likely to nag them if they’re reading or working on a project of their own because I don’t want to mess with anyone’s state of flow.  My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable Makers and doers eager to get their hands into whatever they want to learn.

Raising Citizens of the World

Raising kids on a small farm has left us without the time or the means to travel. But we want our children to be global citizens. We want them to truly understand how fully they are linked to their fellow beings on this beautiful blue/green planet.

When they were small, we read the stories, ate the foods, played the games, and celebrated the festivals of far-off lands. As they got older, we paid close attention to a rich variety of in-depth materials that helped us discover the global fibers that run through history, art, science, literature; really through any field of interest.

More than any materials we introduce, the connections my kids find most pivotal are those they make on their own, person-to-person across any distance. For example, one of my musician sons got interested in acoustics. He joined special interest forums to talk with fellow aficionados around the world about the technical details of repairing historic microphones, the artistic nuances of found sound recordings, and other topics. Friendships developed. Now they converse about everything from politics to movies. Some day, when he travels overseas, he plans to take them up on their offers to stay in New Zealand, Finland, Brazil, and elsewhere. Already he’s visited friends made online in the U.S., finding the rapport they developed holds fast in person as well.

Belarus, mapped. (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most important connections any of us can make are lasting, caring relationships with people who live far away. For our family, one of the most enduring relationships we made was with an effervescent girl from Belarus named Tatiana. She came as part of the medical program Children of Chernobyl. Even in her first week here, the strength of her personality more than made up for the few words of English she knew and our poor pronunciation of Russian words we thought we knew. Tatiana was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained! Like anthropologists to our own culture, we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, we bought kids’ fast food meals for the prizes, and went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas. Tatiana displayed her brilliance in many ways, typically beating any of us at the board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned. Tatiana lived with us for five summers. She became a member of our family, a family which feels to us as if it extends to Belarus.

Each relationship made of understanding and caring warms our planet—but in a good way. Which leads me to recommend two excellent books to help you raise global citizens.

Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World by Homa Sabet Tavangar is packed with enrichment ideas, games, service activities, and resources to help raise children with the world in mind. Here are some great ideas from Tavangar’s book.

  • Boost cultural understanding and fun by listening to pop music from around the world.  (I suggest using online translation to figure out the lyrics.)
  • Talk about the origins and trading routes of products used every day in your home. Try tracing back a chocolate bar or T-shirt.
  • Discover what foods are said to heal common health conditions. Lime juice in armpits is recommended in Paraguay to solve odor, ginger and green onion tea is recommended in China to cure a cold.
  • Learn about practices for welcoming newborn babies into the family and community. Consider adapting customs to commemorate a new arrival in your family.

For a vigorous “go there” perspective, read The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education by Maya Frost. A cure for any but the worst helicopter parents, Frost shows how learning in other countries best prepares today’s teens for the real global workplace. That means choices resulting in self-reliant, confident, and bold adults.

Here are five important things you can gain from Frost’s book.

  • Real-life accounts by young people who live and study abroad. Frost calls them “bold statements” and they offer invigorating examples of what travel can provide.
  • Why the Rotary International Youth Exchange program offers the best exchange programs. Frost says it has to do with the network of volunteers around the globe providing support to families and students, the affordable price, and the commitment to humanitarian work.
  • The stage of life between 15 and 20, when pivotal life skills are being developed, the reach of our young people tends to be limited. As Frost writes, “They zero in on the fit of their jeans rather than on the fit of a cultural identity within a larger population, and they devote hours to enhancing the clarity of their skin instead of the clarity of their thinking. They are digging into a plate of pettiness because that is precisely what we’ve served them. They deserve—and are ready for—so much more.”
  • How to arrange study abroad credits outside of university-affiliated programs for more freedom and frugality.
  • Ways to connect with helpful people in countries around the world.

Want more ideas?

May your children become global learners. May our shared home be one of peace and goodwill.

Safe & Warm Car Seat Solutions: 7 AM Enfant

7 am Enfant, safe car seat warmth,
Olivia safely snuggled in her car seat. (Photo: Nikole Weldon)

We now know that putting little ones in a car seat when they’re bundled in puffy winter coats or snowsuits can be dangerous. That’s because the fluff of outerwear changes the way car seat straps sit on a child’s body while also making the straps seem correctly tightened when they aren’t. If a crash occurs, it can significantly compress the material, flinging a child forward or even ejecting her from the seat entirely. The forces on a child during a 30 mph collision are akin to jumping out a third story window to the pavement.

The Car Seat Lady site (actually the work of three very dedicated women) has been instrumental in teaching parents about safe car seat installation as well as the importance of finding alternatives to winterwear “fluff.”


The Car Seat Lady worked with 7 AM Enfant, a parent-responsive design company, to create warmth that’s safe for on-the-go babies and toddlers in the car and also useful in a stroller or baby seat. 7 AM Enfant offers more than a dozen car seat cover choices, complete with videos to demonstrate how they’re used. Here are a few options:
Pookie Poncho (7amenfant.com)
Pookie Poncho (7amenfant.com)

Pookie Poncho, for ages newborn to four years, comes in five colors. It has two interchangeable hoods for maximum usability.

Cygnet (7amenfant.com)
Cygnet (7amenfant.com)

Cygnet comes in five color combinations and, thanks to adjustable features, it fits children from newborn to 4 years.

Nido (7amenfant.com)
Nido (7amenfant.com)

Nido is an adjustable wrap with leg areas for room to grow. It comes comes in five colors and two sizes, small for newborn to 6 months of age and large for 6 months to 18 months of age.

Cocoon (7amenfant.com)
Cocoon (7amenfant.com)

Cocoon slips simply over the car seat with a snug, elasticized contour. It comes in nine colors and is suited for newborn to babies 12 months of age.

Easy Cover Fleece (7amenfant.com)
Easy Cover Fleece (7amenfant.com)

Easy Cover Fleece comes in three colors. Size small fits children 12 months to 3 years, large from 3 years to 6 years. This design has front sleeves to keep a child’s hands free plus a kanga pocket for warmth.

The youngest member of our extended family, one-year-old Olivia, has been testing out the Nido car seat cover. She settles happily into her car seat, gets strapped in, then the Nido’s comfy softness is wrapped over her. It keeps her snug and warm even in this winter’s frigid temperatures. Her review? A big toothy smile, often followed by a peaceful in-transit snooze.

GeekMom received a sample of this product for review purposes.

Hack Your Candy Conversation Hearts

conversation heart hacks,
Hearts can say whatever you want (CC by 2.0 1lenore)

Valentine candy conversation hearts don’t have much to say. Unless “Be Mine” is exactly the sentiment you’re trying to get across. And really, who wants to eat what tastes like flavored chalk? Here are some ways to subvert upgrade the conversation hearts experience.

1. Sand off the unoriginal words with a microplane. Then on the other (smooth) side,  use food markers to write more unique messages.

2. Consider a metaphorical message. Carefully arrange a whole bag of candy hearts into one heap resembling a large heart and bake it in the oven. It will fuse together in a bizarre you-melt-me sort of way. Unless you don’t follow the instructions exactly, in which case your heart will break before it ever cools down completely.

3. Use candy hearts to write your sentiments where everyone can see them—on the sidewalk. These candies not only taste like calcium supplements, they also work as somewhat usable chalk although the colors (disappointingly) aren’t really noticeable.

4. Turn them into a rebus message. Glue a few conversation hearts on some sturdy paper and write between them, incorporating the hearts’ words into a larger message.

5. Devote some kitchen time to making homemade conversation hearts. This way, candy hearts will actually have the size and flavors you choose. You can also cut them into any shape that warms your geeky heart: Minecraft, Pac-ManStar Trekninja, or zombie. Make them big enough, and you might have room for the perfectly geeky Valentine quotes suggested by GeekMom Lisa Tate.

6. Toss them. Do it with some maker flair by flinging them across the room with a craft stick catapult. Here’s a version that’s easy for kids to make, or construct a catapult clever enough to take to the office.

Get all heart-melty. (CC by 2.0 oskay)
Get all heart-melty. (CC by 2.0 oskay)


We Love Language Maps

Hear a word in dozens of languages. (wordmap.co)

I’m a word geek. You may be one too. Common symptoms include large vocabularies, the tendency to laugh at grammar jokes, taking delight in obscure terms, and yes, ostracism in some social situations. Many of us also, for word-ish reasons, adore maps.

So it’s no surprise that my word nerd friends and I are enthused about Word Map. Enter any word you’d like and a salmon-hued Google map populates with the word’s translations. As it appears over each country you can hear it pronounced in dozens of languages including Hindi, Swahili, Arabic, Dutch, Mongolian, Javanese, and Urdu. Once the map is filled, lines connect countries with common languages. Click on any of the spellings and a pop-up box appears with information about the region and language spoken there. It does a great job with common words like “mother,” not so well with less common words like “bumfuzzle.” No matter, it’s still fun.

Here are a few more alluring sites, in case you love language maps too.

Lexicalist scans through millions of words shared on the net, analyzing the way different demographics talk and what they talk about. This information is broken down into three kinds of demographics: age, gender, and geography. By typing in the word “inspiration” I discovered people in the U.S. are talking about inspiration 42% more today than they were a few weeks ago, on average using it once every 21,275 words (although they use OMG once every 1,822 words). I also learned that “xióng māo yǎn,” which means “having dark under eye circles, eyes like a panda,” is trending among women in China.

Joshua Katz created amazing visualizations based on research conducted by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder in the Harvard Dialect Survey. Here are 22 maps showing linguistic divides in the U.S. Do you belong to the “crawdad, crayfish, or crawfish” part of the country?

Take the NYT dialect test, also based on the above research. Your personal dialect results show up with each answer you provide to questions like the one asking if you use two syllables or three to pronounce “caramel.”

For additional word wonders, check out “The Best Language Maps,” a list compiled by high school teacher and author, Larry Ferlazzo.

How to Get Kids Involved in the Community

active role
Here’s how we do it. Image re-do: L. Weldon.

I figured that my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits, these elders were more alert and in better moods. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

I contacted a nursing home around the corner. The administrator was enthusiastic. Then, I talked my Le Leche League friends into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. They were somewhat wary, but agreed to give it a try. Finally, I got a local store to donate a carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. We were ready. We were also apprehensive, although our concerns were quickly eased.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. Our babies grew into toddlers, the elders became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, and even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. We were awed. Something as simple as our presence, sitting on the carpet playing with our children, made a difference to people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited, too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. And we noticed how our toddlers completely accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace.

I’m still not sure why the very old and young are kept apart from life on the commons. Vital and engaged communities are made up of all ages. And children have fewer opportunities to take an active part than almost any adult. This shortchanges everyone.

Throughout history, the young of our species have learned by getting involved. Children long to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions. This is how they advance in skill and maturity. That is, unless we restrict them to child-centered activities.

Young people are also drawn to seek mentors. They want to see how all sorts of people handle crises, start new enterprises, settle disputes, and stay in love. But today’s young people are largely kept from meaningful engagement with the wider community. They’re segregated by age not only in daycare and school, but also in most spheres of recreation, religion, and enrichment. When we keep kids from purposeful and interesting involvement with people of all ages, they are pushed to find satisfaction in other (often less beneficial) ways. Meanwhile, our communities are deprived of their youthful energy and innovative outlook.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to reconnect children with our communities.

Involve young people by giving them real input and responsibility in civic groups, churches, co-ops, CSAs, arts organizations, clubs, and neighborhood organizations. What about a child who is a dedicated rock enthusiast, but the local lapidary club only accepts adult members? Propose a joint adult/child membership, giving that child the same (age factored) opportunities to build social capital in the club. A similar approach can be taken with organizations that refuse to take youthful volunteers. Offer to give your time in partnership with the child, a two-for-one volunteer bargain. Adult advocates are often necessary to pave the way for genuine youth involvement in many groups.

Give kids contact with the workaday world. They need to know people with a range of hobbies and careers. Seek out those who are passionate about chemistry, bird watching, farming, the Civil War, engineering, astronomy,  geology, blacksmithing, wood carving, well, you get the idea. Something vital is transmitted when one person’s enthusiasm sets off a spark of interest in a child. We’re rarely turned down when we ask to learn from others. People who love what they do can’t help but inspire kids and, they often tell me, the kids reignite their hope for the future of their work.

Help local businesses tune in to children’s interests. For example, a bakery might hang children’s art on the walls, make meeting space available for a kids’ chess club, host Invent A Cookie contests, open the kitchen for tours, offer apprenticeships to aspiring young pastry chefs, teach parent-child baking classes, invite speakers to explain the science of yeast and flour, give cupcakes as prizes for youth community volunteer hours, etc. Businesses that are truly engaged in this way inspire loyal customers, they also enliven the community.

Create age-bridging partnerships, as we did with babies and nursing home residents. Non-profit organizations are great places to start. One successful program called Girlfriend Circle started due to complaints. A group of women at a senior center often told a volunteer that they had no hope for the future because children “nowadays” are rude. The volunteer offered to set up a tea party for the ladies that included her daughters and their friends. At that first event, the girls were seated between their older hostesses. Everyone enjoyed a lesson in napkin origami. Then they took part in a Q&A to learn about one another. After sharing refreshments, both age groups were eager to meet again. The Girlfriend Circle met bi-monthly for several years, finding their friendships instructive and rewarding.

Include young people in civic affairs, giving them genuine input into programs and policies. This works in Hampton, Virginia. Young people take leadership roles by holding conferences and open forums, advising municipal divisions, and helping to run the Hampton Youth Teen Center. City administration also includes a Youth Commission, with 24 youth commissioners, 3 youth planners, and one youth secretary–all high school age.

Develop a tradition of service starting at an early age. Need ideas? Here are 40 ways kids can volunteer, toddler to teen.

This comes full circle for me, right back to dogs and volunteering. A boy who had been a pint-sized member of the playgroup we held at the nursing home talked his family into raising puppies to be trained as service dogs. By the time he was 12 years old, this boy gave promotional talks about this program to clubs and schools. I attended one of his speeches. He started off with some anecdotes about exasperating puppies. Then he went on to describe the generosity and hope his family felt each time they attended graduation ceremonies for fully trained dogs, ready to serve. I tend to think community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with this boy’s smile.

Portions of this piece excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Hide Your Spoons

playing spoons, musical spoons,
Spoons incite us to tap them. Image: L. Weldon.

If anyone in your household is lured into the obscure art of spoon playing, beware. You may have to give up soup, cereal, and other comestibles best eaten using that humble utensil. That’s because spoon playing is surprisingly addictive. All it takes is a sense of rhythm and a pair of ordinary spoons.

First an aspiring player needs to test out spoon pairings for sound and hand grip. Backup spoons as well as spoons with different tones may also be filched from your supply. Such favored spoons will never be relegated to the lowly silverware drawer again. Cheap, instrument-wise. Annoying, hunger-wise.

Spoon players themselves, if YouTube provides a representative sampling, seem to be passionate aficionados well out of the mainstream. You know, geeks of the music world. Consider this bit of evidence:

Of course, those with actual geek cred play the spoons too. Sylvester McCoy, fondly remembered as The Seventh Doctor during his tenure on Doctor Who as well as Radagast in the Hobbit films, is a spoon player.

Spoon-shaped objects used as musical instruments go way back in history and are still part of folk music in many parts of the world. Playing the spoons is an art kids can master. In fact, kids under 10 regularly win the junior division of various competitions, each claiming to be “world” championships.

How-to videos tend to be basic. Like this one:

Some are a bit more complex, but still encouraging:

What inspires potential spoon thieves musicians at my house is this strange vintage video with a spoon player tapping on other people’s heads.

Now go hide your spoons. You’ve been warned.

Gift Guide to Offbeat Valentine’s Day Surprises

Wild about you. Photo: etsy.com/shop/BossysFeltworks.

Say it with Sasquatch. ($45) An adorable needle-felted Sasquatch made by the women of Bossy Feltworks. They’ve got two different versions of this tiny hairy handmade guy, including My Heart is Yours and I Brought You Daisies.

A toast! (gonereading.com)
A toast! Photo: gonereading.com.

Great Drinkers in Literature from GoneReading.com. ($16.95) Drink with the great writers and great drinkers of literary history, including Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats. There are many more enticements offered by GoneReading.com, including literary action figures, journals, book lights, and games. Better yet, 100 percent of their net profits are donated to reading-related charities.

Give these with a nice bottle of something. (amazon.com)
Colorize the relationship. Images Archie McPhee, Dover Publications, CreateSpace, and Plume.

Coloring Books. ($3.99 to $9) What, you don’t expect coloring books for Valentine’s Day? They’re a hoot. Pour some drinks, grab some crayons, and color together! Boy, do we have recommendations. Try Unicorns Are JerksThe Existential Coloring Book, Super Awesome Coloring BookMer World ProblemsColor Your Own Classic Movie PostersSea Monsters Coloring BookArt Masterpieces to Color: 60 Great Paintings from Botticelli to PicassoSteampunk Designs Coloring Book, and Coloring for Grown-Ups: The Adult Activity Book

Molecular adornment. (etsy.com/shop/MoleculENecklacE)
Molecular adornment. Photo: etsy.com/shop/MoleculENecklacE.

Oxytocin. This is a hormone that’s got a lot to do with the neuroanatomy of intimacy. Now you can wear a necklace version ($48), thanks to the Etsy shop MoleculENecklacE.

Photo: etsy.com/shop/Theresa Pytell.

DNA Earrings. ($58) Or say how precious a loved one is to you with pair of beautiful DNA earrings handcrafted by Theresa Pytell, whose Etsy shop also offers gorgeous bracelets, rings, and other jewelry inspired by science and nature.

Because we all get grumpy. (gund.com)
Because we all get grumpy. Photo: gund.com.

Grumpy Cat Plush. ($15.30) This may actually cajole your partner into believing grumpy can be adorable.

Astronomical adornment. (uncommongoods.com)
Astronomical adornment. Photo: uncommongoods.com.

Milky Way Scarf.($65) What better way to say “you mean the galaxy to me” than with a Hubble Telescope Milky Way scarf? Digitally printed with a vivid Hubble telescope image of the Cat’s Paw nebula, this featherweight wool scarf is a stellar gift.

Create the trendiest drinks at home. (molecule-r.com)
Create the trendiest drinks at home. Photo: molecule-r.com.

Molecular Mixology Kit. ($34.95) Bite into a layered martini, add lime foam to tequila, make mojitos in a bubble that will burst in your mouth with the Molecular Mixology Kit. Science plus drinking, what could go wrong?

Say it with a tattoo. (litographs.com)
Say it with a tattoo. Photo: litographs.com.

Literary Tattoos. ($5 for a set of two) Inscribe your feelings on your flesh, temporarily, with Litograph literary tattoos.

Share a love of cephalopods. (bkartonline.com)
Share a love of cephalopods. (bkartonline.com)

Octopus Books. ($23 each) Find mutual fascination with the steampunkery of Victorian adventuress Victoria Prismall and her pet land octopus Otto. Brian Kesinger’s collectible ink-on-paper art is now available in delightful hardbound books, Walking Your Octopus: A Guidebook to the Domesticated Cephalopod and Traveling With Your Octopus.

Because you are one. (Diamond Publishing)
Because you are one. Photo: Diamond Publishing.

Robes. ($48) Oh yes. DC Bombshell robes will be available through specialty comic book stores (find one near you). The robes feature some of the leading ladies of DC Comics such as Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, and more in a collection of colors representing each character. Available in small/medium and large/x-large sizes.

What would yours say? Photo: converse.com.

Custom Converse. Converse now has a customize option on their shoes, making them even more fun to wear. These customizable shoes range from $50 (for kids’ sizes) to $100, although most fall into the $75 to $80 range. This includes the high-top Chuck Taylor with DC Arkham City canvas options. One of the best parts of this is the option to personalize these on the heel stripe (up to 10 characters); it’s ideal for a name or a simple “I love you.”

Dark brown and yummy. (columbiaempirefarms.com)
Dark brown and yummy. Photo: columbiaempirefarms.com.

Poop. ($5.99) Give a gift handcrafted in Oregon on sustainable Columbia Empire Farms. Naturally, we’re talking about chocolate hazelnut toffee packaged as poo. You can get all conventional with Cupid Poop or Lovebirds Poop. Or branch out a bit with Cow Pies, Bigfoot Poop, or any of their other varieties.

Make and name your own hot sauce. (storey.com)
Make and name your own hot sauce. (storey.com)

Hot Sauce Book. ($10.50) Need a hot idea for the hot person in your life? Try Hot Sauce!: Techniques for Making Signature Hot Sauces, with 32 Recipes to Get You Started by Jennifer Trainer Thompson.

Calibrate your own heat. (amazon.com)
Calibrate your own heat. Photo: amazon.com.

Or grab the Some Like It Hot! Make Your Own Hot Sauce kit ($37.99) with everything you need to make three of your own blends.

Tie on some equations. (ties.com)
Tie on some equations. Photo: ties.com.

Mathematics Silk Tie. ($23.95) It’s red, 100-percent silk, and riddled with tempting equations.

Photo: weiofchocolate.com.

Chocolate isn’t really negotiable. Try something a little different, like the Wei Delightful Organic Dark Chocolate Gift Box – Red ($32) with 16 pieces of organic, Fair Trade chocolate including Himalayan pink salt infused, peppermint infused, extra dark, and citrus infused. It’s a reasonable indulgence, since each one has only 2 grams of carbs and 30 calories per piece.

Get it for the tin. (BostonAmerica.com)
Get it for the tin. Photo: BostonAmerica.com.

Wii Candy. ($8.45) Get whimsical with a peppermint gum-filled Nintendo Wii Controller candy tin. Once the contents are chewed, the tin is great to store all those tiny things that get away.

I want to consume you. (bostonamerica.com)
I want to consume you. Photo: bostonamerica.com.

Candy Brains. ($2.99) Or avoid sweet sentimentality with Refleshmints, a zombie tin packed with pink brain-shaped mints.

Read the best parts aloud. (Baen Books, CreateSpace)
Read the best parts aloud. Photo: Baen Books, CreateSpace.

Books. Let those eyeballs linger on romantic words—lots of them, in book form.  Yes, we have recommendations.

For historical romance, the Brother’s Sinister series by Courtney Milan. For fandom in-jokes and castle-y romance, the Castles Ever After series by Tessa Dare. For historical/fantasy romance try Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones. For spies, Napoleonic wars, and romance try The Spymaster series by Joanna Bourne.

For sci-fi adventure with great romantic subplots, try the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. For sci-fi try Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi and Line and Orbit by Sunny Moiraine. For fantasy (including amorous gods!), try The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

Our best book recommendations, however, feature romance-tinged adventure written by our own founders, Natania Barron and Corrina Lawson.

Steampunk meets goddess worship. (candlemarkandgleam.com)
Steampunk meets goddess worship. Photo: candlemarkandgleam.com.
Natania’s Pilgrim of the Sky follows love stories through alternative worlds with plenty of adventure. A little steampunk, a lot of sexy allure.
So, so sexy. (samhainpublishing.com)
So, so sexy. Photo: samhainpublishing.com.
Corrina is the author of several imaginative, action-packed, and quite erotic series. We’re talking Phoenix Institute, The Steampunk Detectives, and several alternative-history timeline books. The Phoenix Institute series stars people with extraordinary abilities, from telekinesis to ghost-walking, who find themselves tasked with doing whatever it takes to make a difference. The Curse of the Brimstone Contract is her first book in The Steampunk Detectives series, which revolves around magic, love, and plenty of smart sleuthing. And don’t miss richly her richly evocative books Freya’s Gift, Eagle of Senecaand Dinah of Seneca.

Oddest Place You’ve Changed a Diaper

There's no putting off a dirty diaper. (CC by 2.0 Thorsten Trotzenberg's flickr photostream)
There’s no putting off a dirty diaper. (CC by 2.0 Thorsten Trotzenberg’s flickr photostream)

When my third child was eight months old, I took him along with his two older siblings to do some errands. We weren’t going to be gone long. Yet in a short time, my darling baby managed to blast through all the diapers I had with me as well as through all the outfits I’d stuffed in the diaper bag.

There we were in a store aisle when suddenly this adorable baby was unspeakably befouled. I had no supplies left to diaper or dress him. So I cleaned him up using what seemed like several hundred wipes, then went up to the counter to ask for a shopping bag. I cut leg holes in the bag and put his naked little butt in it. My older kids were scandalized. The baby, however, was thrilled. He wiggled and kicked his legs in the car seat all the way home just to hear his temporary garment crinkle.

When I shared this diaper confession (or diaperless confession) on the Free Range Learning community page people admitted the strange places where they too had been forced to change a diaper. My fellow GeekMoms also had stories to share. So here’s a sample of location-challenging diaper changing places. Please share yours in the comments!

Felicia: Cat exam table at the vet’s.

Lydia: Steps of the Harvard faculty club.

Carrie:  On the forest floor when hiking and camping.

Caroline: The park, under the slide.

Betty: On the floor at Hearst Castle.

Misty:  Squatting on the Santa Cruz pier with the baby on my knees. The bathroom was too dirty to even step inside.

Brisja: On the top of the most sacred mountain in China.

Mindi: On a rock in Bryce Canyon park.

Liaan: On a mat on the side of a ski slope, sunny day.

Rebecca: Bon Jovi concert.

Mary: On my lap at my daughter’s wedding.

Ariane: On my lap while sitting (fully clothed) on a toilet in the bathroom because there were no changing tables.

Cathe: In the car trunk.

Sarah: On the table of a Tim Hortons just outside of Bangor, Maine. They had a power cut so no lights, AND no changing table in the bathroom. In a booth at a Burger King, because they didn’t have a changing table in the bathroom! In the trunk of my car. This becomes a normal place in the summer. On a big boulder in Acadia National Park. In a Radio Flyer wagon while at a ten-mile yard sale in Northern Maine.

Lisa: Every roadside overlook between here and California one year…. Her first car trip, and it was like clockwork almost on the hour.

Patricia: In a Maya sling on an airline seat back tray, flying from Orlando to Atlanta. Baby did not exit the sling the entire trip, which was a combination of wonderful and strange.

Jackie: On the floor of a hipster Brooklyn restaurant bathroom (Brooklyn doesn’t seem to believe in changing tables). In the patterns section at JoAnn fabrics. On the grass next to Stonehenge. Right on the other side of airport security after her diaper exploded as I carried her through. I tried to be a genius once and change her in her car seat, but she just ended up upside down and super confused.

20 Quirky Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day

quirky Valentine's Day celebrations, heart art, commit anonymous good deeds, give Valentine's experiences,
Un-cliché your Valentine’s Day. Photo: public domain, morguefile.com.

Valentine’s Day may be about love, but it’s too often expressed with clichéd sentiments and perfunctory presents. Last year, U.S. Valentine’s Day spending was estimated to be $17.3 billion. Yes, billion.

I propose other ways to celebrate. That doesn’t mean giving up on cards, chocolate, and flowers, if these expressions truly touch your heart. It means we can do more with the love we feel for people, our communities, and for the natural world—any day of the year. Consider adding one of these 20 ideas to your Valentine’s Day celebration.


Find hearts everywhere. You can stop by a gallery or museum, finding hearts and other representations of love. Or challenge yourself to photograph hearts you see in nature and everyday objects.

Make original hearts. Create a heart out of something unexpected. Try Legos or charger cables or red peppers. Then photograph it. Send it out via social media or print the image on cards. For a wealth of inspiration, check out Monday Hearts for Madalene.

Learn about symbolism of the heart. This shape has been painted on cave walls by Cro-Magnon people, showed up in ancient Minoan art, and appeared on 15th century playing cards. Assign loving symbolism to some other shape and use it as your secret language.


Appreciate people in your community. Use children’s drawings as wrapping paper, tucking inside each one a piece of wrapped candy or other goodie, along with a note like “thanks for being so nice” or “you made my day.” Then, stay on the lookout for a cheery cashier, helpful librarian, or kind friend and hand them the surprise package. Find more ways kids can perform community service, toddler to teen, here.

Put dollars to work. Hand money out to your family and friends, with a caveat. Challenge recipients to do as much good as they can with $10 (or whatever denomination you choose), then report back with the results by a certain deadline. You can even set up a Facebook event page for this, so their ideas are shared. (There are side benefits. This boosts the happiness of the givers, too.)

Say thanks. Get in touch with Great Aunt Betty to say you appreciate the advice she gave you decades ago, send a note of appreciation to a teacher who made a difference, or call your parents to share a sweet memory from your childhood. (Again, side benefit, gratitude boosts your own health.)

Volunteer. Walk dogs at a shelter, assemble backpacks for homeless people and hand them out, or deliver Meals on Wheels. For more ideas, check out VolunteerMatch.

Commit good deeds anonymously.  Valentine’s week is also Random Act of Kindness week. Ideas? Smile at five strangers, leave quarters at the laundromat or in the change slot of vending machines, do someone else’s chore secretly, pay the tab for the next customer, or clean up someone else’s mess.


Make a scratch-off card. It takes paint and dish soap; that’s it. Make a love list card or one that reveals a surprise or come up with your own design.

Give gift certificates from locally owned businesses and organizations like a greenhouse, restaurant or coffee shop, massage therapist, art gallery, sports shop, or bookstore. Or pay for a few hours for a local worker who specializes in home repair, house cleaning, or landscaping.

Give experiences. Go to the theater, take tai chi or weaving lessons, go horseback riding, attend a concert of music new to you, take a city tour, head to a skating rink, or rent a houseboat.

Give gifts for a good cause. There are all sorts of nonprofit stores and charitable shopping sites. Try Water.org, One World Futbol, FreewatersSerrvGreater Good, Ten Thousand Villages, and ASPCA. Or get a gift from the gift shop of a nonprofit in your area.


Plant something. Start seeds indoors for your garden. You can even start extras to set up a seed or plant exchange.

Get out there. Picnic outside no matter what the weather, hike somewhere new to you, or go outside after dark to look at the stars.

Build together. Make a fairy house in the woods using nearby sticks and rocks. Build a snow fort. Make a hideout in the attic, backyard, or anywhere you can enter the magic of hidden spaces.

Re-experience childhood delights. Swing on the swings, climb a tree, run a footrace, cook marshmallows over a campfire, or play outdoor games.


Revive the mix-tape tradition. Put together a collection of tunes that says what you feel. In this instance, sappy is good. For an even better reaction, put together a sexy playlist.

Do something that scares you, together. Go bungee jumping or rock climbing or whatever gets your heart racing. Even a scary movie can be good for the love life.

Talk about first loves. Maybe just first crushes. It’s a way of tenderly exploring the inner world of your partner’s earliest years.

Make date night fascinatingly unexpected. Try an alternative identity date. Make up your own triathlon (for example—competing in air hockey, tongue twisters, and onion-ring eating). Participate in a mud run. Here are 35 ideas for never dull dates.

Scarf From Hell

Beauty can be deceiving. (image: L. Weldon)
Beauty can be deceiving. (Image: L. Weldon)

I’m all about buying handmade things. I like the idea that my money supports people who pursue their passions. It’s a feel-good way to buy lovely gifts and grab some loot for myself. I’ve always been happy with my purchases. That is, until I came across the Scarf From Hell for sale at an urban pop-up craft fair. Its softness was devilishly enticing and it came in all sorts of lush colors, with a hand-written tag noting the yarns were spun from reclaimed silk saris. Definitely my kind of thing. I bought two, one to give as a gift and one for me.

I mailed one scarf to a friend as a birthday present. She got back to me with effusive thanks, no hint that the scarf had yet wreaked havoc in her life.*

I didn’t break out the other one until I was leaving for a weekend conference. As I put on my black wool jacket I thought, in a last minute inspiration, I’d wear my new scarf.

After a few hours of travel time I got to the conference. I talked to a keynote presenter and greeted fellow attendees. I may have registered a few what’s-wrong-with-her glances but attributed them to my own overactive insecurity. Before the first workshop started I dashed off to the restroom. I gasped in horror as the mirror revealed the depths of my scarf’s treachery.

Hundreds of tiny, vividly colored yarn bits had pulled away from the scarf and were clinging to my coat like burrs. As I leaned over the sink more yarn confetti fell. These shreds were also in my hair and clinging with static determination to my neck. Picking them off successfully meant grabbing one strand at a time. I did what I could to clean up, then folded my jacket over my arm hoping I’d have time later to de-fuzz it. When I left the bathroom, scarf tucked into my tote bag, I noticed that a trail of yarn detritus marked every step I’d taken. The conference hallway looked like a knitter’s Hansel and Gretel re-enactment.

It was a long weekend. The cold weather meant I couldn’t go without my yarn-spangled jacket. Every time I thought I’d nearly picked it clean I found more lurking under the collar, inside my pockets, even clinging in strands to the sleeve undersides. The yarn invasion was so drastic that fibers were even evident when I blew my nose.

Strangely, I haven’t thrown the scarf out. It still lurks in the yarn-wrecked tote bag. I may need a secret weapon some day. This is fair warning. Don’t mess with me or I’ll pull the Scarf From Hell out of hiding to wrap around your neck.


*My friend insists her scarf is fine. I’m guessing she either suffers from a serious case of politeness or she’s so traumatized by her own Scarf From Hell experience that she’s repressed all memory of it.

Celebrate Slacker New Year’s Eve

Party by unpartying. (CC by 2.0 davejdoe's flickr photostream)
Party by unpartying. Image: CC by 2.0 davejdoe’s flickr photostream.

Slacker New Year’s Eve is a tradition we started years ago. No more loud, crowded events. No more babysitting nightmares. And no more driving back home in the early morning hours on icy roads. What a relief.

Instead, we stay home with the kids. We put lots of goodies on the table, including snacks that are rarely seen in our fussy-about-nutrition household. We get out amusements like board games and videos, build a fire in the fireplace, and basically slouch around together. It’s fantastic. After all the holiday rush, it feels downright indulgent.

A key element of Slacker New Year’s Eve is the no-bedtime promise. On this one night, we’ve always told our kids they can stay up all night if they want. For years, our kids have tucked us in bed not long after midnight, then done their best to stay up until dawn. A few times, they’ve made it. Then, they sleep in at least till noon. That tends to result in a nice quiet New Year’s Day morning for mom and dad.

Tonight, I’m looking forward to warm jammies, chilled champagne, and hanging out with the people I love. This isn’t about renouncing anything. Slacker New Year’s Eve lets the old year slide out without a fuss and celebrates the upcoming year without effort. Ahhh.

Ads on Pinterest, Sigh

Will Pinterest put ads on your boards? (image: business.pinterest.com)
~It’s hubbub free. No personal dramas. No time-draining conversations. Pinterest has such a peaceful vibe it’s like moseying through a quiet gallery where the pictures wait to tell you more with a click.
~It’s built entirely out of widely varied enthusiasms. Your own pins can help you find the article you saved about gut microbiome, the DIY chandelier you want to make, and the song that teaches your kids about the periodic table. Going through other pinners’ boards is like flipping through magazines made of each person’s delights.
~It’s a way of sharing who we are while at the same time, by organizing what appeals to us, we make it easier for other people to find interesting ideas and images.
A look at the everything front page indicates that users aren’t necessarily on Pinterest to share consumer recommendations, although there are plenty of tempting pins for fashion and home décor products. They’re using it to share inspiring ways to live: with more humor and less angst, with beauty found in an evocative landscape, with clever ideas for raising kids or making dinner or building a garden shed. This in itself makes Pinterest seem like a blessed relief from the endless marketing found online.

That is, until now.

Pinterest is opening its boards to advertisement from major consumer brands, specifically from companies that can cough up commitments in the range of one million to two million. It’s not entirely clear if sponsored pins will appear on users’ curated boards. During very successful beta testing, ads only appeared in search results and category feed, not on individual boards. Yet according to a recent New York Times article, these ads will appear on relevant boards.

For example, a Promoted Pin from Kraft Foods, one of Pinterest’s early partners, could show up on a Pinterest board of chili recipes collected and browsed by someone who is on a mobile phone while grocery shopping.

I’m not thrilled to think that my board robots made of junk might soon include an ad for Rust-Oleum, my board of gardening hints might include a promotional pin for Round-Up, or my collection of articles on learning might be spattered with ads for educational apps. It remains to be seen if advertising will change the Pinterest experience. But I find it heartening to see how responsive Pinterest is to their pinners. They’re even soliciting feedback from pinners. Tell them what you think!

Hidden Gems Are the Perfect Appetizers

Extra-crunch version made with almond meal. (image: L. Weldon)
Extra-crunch version made with almond meal. (image: L. Weldon)

Life is full of appetizer moments. Parties, potlucks, birthdays, holidays, and those events that have no name but yet persistently land on the calendar as if your social life were an ongoing Doctor Who series. I’m here to offer you a panacea—an appetizer you can customize for every event. It’s crusty, savory, and durable. Better yet, you can make it in advance. Even freeze it in advance. Just imagine the culinary possibilities.  “Mmm, I wonder…Aha!”


Hidden Gem Appetizer 


Appetizer Ingredients

35 stuffed olives (garlic-stuffed olives are particularly excellent) patted dry OR other filling*

1 cup flour (white or gluten-free mix or almond flour**)

generous dash salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 teaspoon paprika

dash cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cups grated cheese, try sharp cheddar or gouda

2 Tablespoons butter

1 egg, beaten

dash Worcestershire sauce or hot sauce


Dip Ingredients

3/4 cups sour cream or veggie dip

2 Tablespoons chipotle in adobo sauce or hot sauce



Roll olives or other chosen filling on a dish towel or paper towel to dry.

In a food processor or with a pastry cutter, mix flour, salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne. Add cheese and butter, cutting in till mixture resembles crumbs. Mix in egg and sauce. If you have time, chill this mixture.

Coat a jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with non-stick spray. Taking about 2 teaspoons of dough, use your hands to roll it into a rough ball, flatten the ball, then form the dough around an olive or other filling of your choice.  Place each one on the prepared pan, cover, and chill for an hour or up to two days. At this point the pan can be wrapped tightly and frozen if desired.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake trays of appetizers until they’re golden brown and crusty, about 20 to 25 minutes. It’s best if you flip them over with a spatula halfway through the baking time.

Mix the dip ingredients. Serve appetizers hot, with dip in the middle of your serving tray. You might want to double the recipe. They warm up nicely the next day or two as well. Hidden gems really are amazing.


*Try 1″ pieces of andouille sausage, smoked tofu, cooked mushrooms, chorizo sausage, artichoke hearts, shrimp, or anything you’re inspired to roll in a pastry crust. (Cheese isn’t a satisfactory choice, sorry to say, because it likes to ooze out of the dough.)

**Almond flour is a great choice, especially for low-carb folks. The dough tends to slump a little rather than hold its shape in this recipe, but it tastes even better than the flour versions. Both pictures here show appetizers made with almond flour.


Hidden Gems, ready for the oven (image: L. Weldon)
Hidden Gems, ready for the oven (image: L. Weldon)

Cooper, Hunter, Parker: Vocation Names For Boys

Cooper? Hunter? Parker?  (CC0 public domain pixabay.com)
Cooper? Hunter? Parker? (CC0 public domain pixabay.com)

I’m fascinated by connections between disparate things. It’s the curse of a strange mind and has gotten me into many improbable discussions. So I may not be on to anything here. But it strikes me that popular names for baby boys are increasingly names of vocations. Nearly all these occupations are obscure or long gone, so we don’t associate them with the work they once described.

Names have a powerful effect on a child’s future. I wonder if we’re unconsciously hearkening back to a time when a man was known by what he did, known for his expertise and good reputation. In a time of warp speed change and uncertainty, these are indeed strong names to send our boys into manhood.

Here’s a partial list, along with definition and popularity rank. (Keep in mind, even names without current rankings may be trending.) How many names are becoming more common among kids you know?

Baxter: bread baker
Banner: flag bearer
Barker: lumberjack, carnival announcer
Booker: book binder
Brewster: brewer

Chandler: candle maker (429)
Cooper: barrel maker (84)

Deacon: church official (441)

Ferris: iron worker
Fletcher: arrow maker, arrowsmith (790)
Foster: woodsman (937)

Gardener: gardener
Granger: farmer, overseer of farm laborers

Harper: harp musician (660)
Hunter: huntsman (36)

Jagger: wheel maker  (698)

Marshall: groomsman, farrier, high military rank (328)
Mason: brick layer, stone worker (4)
Miller: miller, mill owner (943)
Major: military rank, mayor (366)

Palmer: palm bearer, pilgrim
Parker: park guard, gamekeeper (74)
Porter: carrier of loads, gatekeeper (385)
Prentice: apprentice to tradesman
Pryor: a prior, leader of monastery

Reeve: bailiff, senior official, manager
Rex: king (632)

Sadler: saddle maker
Sawyer: wood cutter (120)
Spencer: steward, shop keeper (251)
Stewart/Stuart: steward, estate manager
Sumner: officer who summons people to court

Taylor: tailor (371)
Tanner: leather worker (197)
Thatcher: roof builder (992)
Tucker: clothing maker (180)
Turner: wood turner, wood worker (886)
Tyler: tile maker (63)

Vance: thresher (866)
Warner: warden, guard
Weaver: weaver
Wilder: woodsman