Posts tagged ‘family life’

Math Games to Amuse and Confound

Here I am, solidly in my fifth decade of life and it has never occurred to me to play, let alone invent, a math game (in fact, I started to write fourth decade, then corrected myself and still had to doublecheck with my husband. That’ll tell you something about the distribution of mathematical abilities in this house). My children, however, have inherited math genes from their dad and so driving home from school we have conversations like this:

Ben: Think of a number less than 100 but an even ten (ie, ten, twenty, thirty, etc). Don’t tell me.
Me: Got it.
Ben: Multiply that number by two.
Me: OK.
Ben: Add your original number.
Me: Done.
Ben: Now subtract your original number.
Me: OK.
Ben: Divide that by your original number.
Me (starting to lose track): OK…
Ben: Did you get two?
Me, surprised and impressed: Yes, I did!

So, obviously the “add your original number” and “subtract your original number” is a bit of fill, but I’m still kind of impressed that the boy is inventing number games like this since the trick would never even occur to me.

It was inevitable that Eli would want to get in on the act. Here’s how the math games go when Eli invents them:

Eli: Think of a number. Don’t tell me!
Me: OK.
Eli: Equals.
Me: Honey, equals doesn’t change a single number.
Eli: I know! I like equals, it’s so simple! So, come on, equals. Don’t tell me!
Me: OK, equals.
Eli (demonstrating): Now, with your left hand, hold up your pink and ring finger. And with your right hand, put up your pink and your ring finger. And your thumb. Your thumb!
Me (grateful I’m not driving): OK.
Eli: Add the numbers to the number in your head.
Me: Add five?
Eli: Don’t tell me!
Me: I won’t, I’m just checking which numbers to add; my fingers?
Eli: Yeah, add your fingers.
Me: OK.
Eli (losing interest): Now… what happens?

Maybe Eli will be a little bit more like me after all.

Sick Day

It’s been so long (thank goodness), that at first Eli hardly knew what to do with himself.

He was surprised when I told him he wasn’t going to school, but when I pointed out that he could barely lift his sweaty, feverish head, he nodded on the pillow and said ok. He rallied to eat half a bowl of granola, and then flopped on the couch sadly with me after waving Ben off to school. “Do you want to watch something on TV, buddy?” I asked him. “Is there time for a show?” “Oh, there’s time for whatever you want,” I told him; the boys don’t watch much TV (none during the week, maybe a half hour on the weekend) but on days like this, I think of my childhood sick days, watching back-to-back Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ movies, and I’ll queue up movies for hours if that’s what the boys want.

Except by this point, Eli was so cozily cuddled up, he didn’t want me to leave the couch to get a DVD, so our options were limited to a few Tivo’d kids movies: Curious George, Babe, Happy Feet. He managed ten minutes of Happy Feet before declaring it too loud, so we looked at the Tivo list again: movies; Oswald; Peep and the Big Wide World; Bear in the Blue House. We recorded these shows years ago, when Ben was a toddler, but my children are creatures of habit like I am; if a show was good when they were two, apparently it’s good when they are four and seven. Periodically we hear about new and interesting TV shows aimed at kids, and I’m briefly tempted to record something different, but then I think how I would miss the somber opening chords of the Oswald theme, or Peep’s jaunty tune, and I doublecheck that Tivo won’t delete these old shows before we’re ready.

We settled into Oswald. Then we watched a Peep. I was half-watching, stroking Eli’s head, and reading the New York Times magazine section. Life was good. But then Peep ended and Eli sat up. “I want to draw.” Really? We moved to the art table, he picked up a marker and laid his head in my lap. “Eli? Honey? I think it’s going to be hard to draw with your head in my lap.” “OK, let’s draw upstairs,” he decided. I wasn’t convinced he’d be able to hold his head up any better upstairs, but up we went — and then he spotted his bed. “How about we read some books instead?” I suggested. “OK.”

I got out a stack of favorites– The Bunny Planet trilogy; Library Lion; Bread and Jam for Frances; The Bunnies Are Not In Their Beds; Violet the Pilot– and we climbed into bed, and I read, and then I told him the story of the day he was born, and then I told him the story of the day Ben was born and eventually he was asleep, and I took a nap, too, and hours later when he woke he was still sick, but a tiny bit livelier, and I’m grateful for our day.


When I was about six months pregnant with Ben, Tony and I went camping up in Mendocino. It was part of our regular routine in those days, a couple weekends a year we would camp in Mendocino or the Anderson Valley, or the Santa Cruz Mountains. As I lay on my stack of thermarests that first night, thinking comfortably of the princess and the pea, I felt the clock ticking down a bit on this life, but I thought for sure we’d be in the tent again the following autumn with our new baby.

Flash forward seven years. Tony and both boys have camped overnight at Slide Ranch a couple times, and the Tony and Ben have also gone on father-son camping trips with Ben’s school. But I had not yet been back in the tent, and it was time.

So when a friend suggested that a group of us go camping, and actually pushed us to look at our calendars (and then even booked the campsite), there wasn’t much left for me to do but make some lists. Mine was on Google docs (natch; if you can organize 45 writers into a book this way, why not 4 families for a camp-out?), and listed everything from dish sponge to cocktail shaker. Ben’s was in his notebook: “Radio, Compass, Flashlight, All Available Snacks from Home, K. Kaplan Koala, Monkey, Racoony, Books I Will Choose Later, Drawing Pad, Markers.” Eli tucked patch blanket and Moosie into his backpack and we were, with a few other odds and ends, ready to go. I was surprised and pleased that all the gear, the food, and the children fit into the car.

And it turned out to be incredibly relaxing. 7 adults and 7 boys (ages three to eight). 4 tents and 2 picnic tables — one set aside for the boys’ art projects, one reserved for meal prep and cooking. The boys played with sticks and wooden airplanes, they slid down a dirt hill on their butts, they made up baseball games with the badminton set, they colored, they climbed up onto tall tree stumps and jumped off. They got very, very dirty. When they were hungry, we fed them.

Meanwhile, the adults read and talked and led the boys on a short hike while some others napped; we made several great meals, drank cocktails, and read some more.

We all ate many s’mores.

And we are already planning for next year.

Mama at the Movies: Rivers and Tides

I have unabashedly, and with great success, manufactured an interest in the artist Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture in my children this summer; soon I’ll post pictures of our trips to see Spire, Stone River, and Storm King Wall. But in the meantime, here’s my latest Literary Mama column about watching the film about Goldsworthy’s work, Rivers and Tides:

My family has spent a lot of time in museums lately; both boys love to draw and paint, so we often take them to see works by other artists. We don’t stay long, but we’ll look closely at a painting or two, talk about what materials the artist used, wonder whether the painting was made outside or in a studio. I lift Eli up so he can see better, and we stop in the gift shop for a postcard of our favorite. But San Francisco is the home of a different kind of artwork, too: sculptures by a Scottish artist named Andy Goldsworthy that offer a quite different experience. The boys have reached their arms around his tall redwood Spire, climbed up and over Stone River, walked like tight rope walkers, arms outstretched for balance, along the path of Drawn Stone. We’ve sat in the dirt beneath Spire with a gathered pile of sticks and built our own miniature version; we did the same with pebbles at Stone River. These pieces are alive and accessible to them in a way a painting can never be; and for a pair of energetic kids, they’re just fun.

And so it occurred to me to show my kids the beautiful documentary about Andy Goldsworthy’s work, Rivers and Tides.

You can read the full column at Literary Mama; I’d love to hear your comments.

image credit


When I was a junior in college, I spent a year studying at Oxford University. I read (and read, and read), produced two twenty-page essays every week which I then read aloud to my tutors, attended lectures, drank pints of Pimms, ate quantities of curry, rowed on my college crew team, and spent hours around the kitchen table with my four housemates, taste-testing the various grocery store brands of wheatmeal biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spreads.

When we decided to meet Libby and her family during their first week of her summer teaching program in Oxford, I tried to think about what I knew of Oxford which might suit the kids. Biscuits and chocolate: yes. River (though not in a four-person scull): certainly. But the libraries and the lectures and the curry and the Pimms not so much. Googling “Oxford + kids” led me to a link for a multimedia show called the Oxford Experience, which sounded pretty awful. So Tony bought a map (a 3-D pop-up map that Ben popped up and down so often before we arrived that it was starting to get too creased to read) and I figured we’d have a nice, four-day country idyll, punting on the river and wandering the gardens with family before heading home.

Except it was so hot, we hardly wanted to leave our air conditioned apartment. And for the first time on our trip we had downstairs neighbors we needed to be mindful of and suddenly all the boys wanted to do is run, hard, up and down the hall. And wandering around lovely gardens is not really the boys’ cup of tea; for instance they chose to picnic here:

instead of here:

And were understandably more than a little put off by how many and how much of the gardens are just for looking:

Still, the boys loved Oxford because of the glittery linoleum floor in our bathroom (“Treasure!” said Eli); our apartment was equipped with a big kitchen (complete with china tea set!); some of the taxis illustrated the Periodic Table of the Elements (Ben’s new interest):

But most of all, they loved Oxford because they were reunited with their cousin Mariah, who lived with us through the winter and spring:
And despite the heat, an ice cream cone tragedy, the general whininess and travel-weariness, we enjoyed the river:

And a terrific playground:

And the amazing Pitt-Rivers Museum:

which is full of rocks and bones and other cool things, many of which the kids could touch:

And on the last night, I even got my Pimms.


Some people go to Windsor to visit the castle, but when you have a boy who loves Lego and knows how to use Google Maps, you might just find yourself promising a day at Legoland. And it’s a fine place to spend a day, although I have to wonder why, when every ride has a wait of at least fifteen minutes, and you can set out big long Lego tables so that the kids can play while waiting on one of the lines, you wouldn’t put them at all of the lines? Just wondering.

We still rode a lot of rides, and we played mini-golf (where I nearly expired of heat exhaustion), and then — fortified with slushies and lots of cold (but not ice; we were in England, remember) water — we wandered around Mini Land, and that was my favorite part.

Mini Land is definitely pretty random; London is well represented, of course, plus we found the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris (which is where we stayed), Sweden (where one of Ben’s friends is spending the summer), and (most random of all) the NASA shuttle launch pad and astronaut training center. We even got to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Lego-style, complete with tinny recorded music, which is good because we were not going to wait in line to see it for real:

Tate Modern + London Transport Museum = A Day without Whining!

Maybe it was the Tube ride, the first since we arrived in London three days ago (why did we wait so long?!). Or maybe after almost two weeks away from home we’ve all finally figured out the rhythm of outing-downtime-outing. In many ways, our day didn’t seem any more or less ambitious, any more or less scheduled than any other day, but this is the one day that kept everybody happy all day long: no whining, no sniping, no dragging.

First stop, the Tate Modern, which offers kids’ activities on Sundays. We went straight to the Family Desk and loaded up on activity books and a big sheet of heavyweight paper for the boys to take into the gallery and draw what inspired them. Tony and I took turns, alternating supervising the kids and wandering the fabulous galleries. Ben was delighted to find a gallery in which he could identify every artist (Rothko, Monet, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock). The boys explored, drew, and folded their big paper into funny hats.

Next stop, lunch:

Why yes, we are feeling peckish, thank you, and the cafe did very well by us. Not having planned in advance to get reservations anywhere interesting (oh, River Cafe! we’ll see you another time), not to mention the fact that the boys are beyond restaurant-weary by now, this is the most delicious meal Tony and I eat in London (orecchiette with summer squash and broad bean pesto for him, grilled vegetables on ciabatta with a good, vinegary caponata for me). Meanwhile, the boys eat their most elegant monochromatic meal of the trip: plain penne, chips, olives (some color there), and a vanilla/honey smoothie. Tony and I drink a glass of wine, the boys color happily, we watch a big rainstorm blow past.

Next stop, the London Transport Museum, with its fabulous interactive collection of exhibits on all aspects of London bus, boat and tube travel. There are vehicles to board and drive, passports to stamp, light-up, interactive maps and displays. It’s the only London museum at which we paid an admission fee (one more reason to love London: free art!), and it’s worth every penny.

We walk home through Covent Garden, eating ice cream on the way, the boys looking forward to leftover rice for dinner, and feeling happy about our two-museum day.

Greenwich Mean (Whine and Complain) Time

You can get to know a place by climbing a tall thing (or riding one) and looking down, by visiting the grocery store, or by taking a boat ride. In Paris, we rode the Batobus; in London, we rode a boat down the river to Greenwich to visit the Royal Observatory. The boys sat a table drawing elaborate diagrams of imaginary subway systems, while Tony and I enjoyed the ride and took some pictures of sights we’ll visit another time:

There’s no way to capture how beautiful Greenwich was on this day — one camera isn’t big enough to embrace the wide, wide lawns sweeping up from the river to the Royal Observatory, the fragrant, blooming chestnut trees, the blue blue sky, the delicate gardens of lavender and roses winding around iron fences. Also, there’s no way to convey — in words or pictures — how distracted I was by the supreme whining of travel-weary Eli, who by this point is subsisting (not well, clearly) on peanuts and ice cream, and flagging whenever a walk exceeds one block. We jolly him along with scavenger hunts and games of I Spy, or take turns carrying him. I joke at one point that as soon as we start to walk anywhere, he seems to get out his complaint book and page through it, looking for the appropriate grievance. He tells me he has lost his happy book, and I’m dejected, second-guessing this entire ambitious journey, but then he continues that he has a happy book, a laughter book, a silly book, a crying book, a screaming book, a whimpering book… And as the list gets longer and sillier, we both start to laugh and the moment is redeemed.

The walk and the whining have made us miss Greenwich’s big daily event–the big red ball that drops down a short spire on the roof of the Royal Observatory to mark 1 PM–but we take a picture of it anyway:

We order lunch at a cafe at the top of the hill, and laugh about the most polite Keep Off the Grass sign we’ve ever seen:

Then we enter the observatory to look at the Prime Meridian of the World:

and take the obligatory picture of the boys straddling the meridian line:

The building is full of clocks and sextants and telescopes and other navigational equipment which is a little bit over the boys’ heads (it’s frankly over my head) but it’s cool to look at, and maybe we can come back in a few years and it will all make more sense to us.

We stop briefly in the Queen’s House, simply because I want to see the Tulip Stairs. I’m not allowed to take a picture, but others have:

Isn’t it pretty?

And then we go to the National Maritime Museum, which has just enough good, hands-on activities (like a ship’s radio and a boat simulator) to keep everybody happy for well over an hour.

Our walk to the train station is interrupted by a huge thunderstorm — the kind where the thunder is so close and loud it makes you jump; the kind my children have never encountered in San Francisco — and we take shelter in the lobby of a drugstore, buy a few packs of HobNobs, and pass the time, feeling grateful that we hadn’t planned to take the boat back to London. The shop owner eventually, apologetically, asks us to leave (it’s closing time) but not before giving us a cast-off umbrella from the back. We accept it gratefully and make our way to the train station.

Back in our hotel, the boys and I settle in for the evening while Tony scouts Gerrard Street’s dozens of Chinese restaurants to find us some take-out for dinner; it takes him a while to find one that doesn’t scatter pork bits in everything, and the boys don’t love it (we wind up rinsing all the sauce off the broccoli and green beans), but the meal comes with about five pounds of rice, so not even the pickiest child goes hungry at the end of our long day.


The London Eye may be a huge tourist trap, but when you visit an unfamiliar city, there are two ways to get to know it: visit the grocery store, and then get up as high as you can: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York. (In San Francisco you only need a good hill, though we walk our house guests over to the de Young museum’s tower). Here in London, we sail up high and back down again; the boys adore the ride. Our hotel room has a view of Big Ben, so the boys say good night and good morning to it every day, counting up the low-flying airplanes, jetting in and out of Heathrow, as they sit by the window.

The Last Day of Paris

I get Ben to choke down some Tylenol — he’s feverish and sore-throated, but he doesn’t want to rest in the apartment any more than I do. We forge ahead to L’Orangerie to visit Monet’s enormous water lily paintings, hung in their own two oval rooms. Oval skylights, covered with a linen shade to diffuse the sun, light the room; the effect is watery and beautiful.

Walking through the Tuileries gardens after we leave the museum makes La Villette make more sense — the huge scale, the geometry — La Villette’s designers were clearly referencing this space. Even though La Villette has grass, the Tuileries’ stone buildings and dusty pebbled paths feel warmer and more accomodating than all of La Villette’s concrete and sharp edges. I may not like it any better now, but I’m happy to understand it better.

the boys with Henry Moore

a view of tall things

There’s a carousel, so we buy the boys a ride, and then as we continue down the path we notice — hurray! — a small pond with a man renting sailboats. It’s wonderful serendipity to make up for the lack of sailboats at the Jardin du Luxembourg earlier in the week. Plus, these boats are gorgeous, true works of art with hand-quilted sails, all different colors and textures of fabric. We rent boats for each of the boys, and then the man drops a third in to the water — “Just for fun” he comments — and then a fourth, and then he gives us a third stick to push them all around.

Then, another lucky break: an easy time at the Louvre. We sail right in via the Porte de Lions entrance, walk down the long (long) hallway to the Mona Lisa, pay our respects and leave. Eli has no particular interest in the museum, but he’s delighted to do a naked baby scavenger hunt: naked babies with wings! naked babies with arrows! He’s never seen so many cherubs in his life.

And then our happy luck runs out. We’re close to Angelina’s, famous for its hot chocolate, and decide to get the kids a treat. Except we’re not really close enough (they’re exhausted by the time we walk there); it’s too hot for hot chocolate; we really just need lunch. There’s nothing on the menu the boys want, and I don’t want to risk spending 20 euros on a meal they won’t eat, anyway. We should really just cut our losses and leave, but we’ve come all this way… So, we order ice creams for the kids and a salad and omelette for Tony and me to share. The food takes ages to come and we’ve left the boys’ coloring materials at home so they’re cranky and bored. We couldn’t be luckier, sitting in a beautiful cafe, surrounded by gorgeous food, but nobody’s happy. We eat quickly and head back to the apartment.

While the boys get their downtime, I get one last outing, visiting a friend who lives in the Belleville neighborhood. We walk in a park that reminds me of San Francisco’s Buena Vista park — a beautiful, overgrown hill rising out of a transitional, arty neighborhood.

It’s good to see another side of Paris — less touristy, less polished. Last year we stayed in Paris’ Union Square, this year we’re in Paris’ Noe Valley; maybe another time we’ll stay here.