Standing in the Waves with Grandma

Learn all you can now so you’ll have time when you’re old to learn the things that haven’t been invented yet.
—Louise Kirn Oguss

Louise Kirn Oguss was my maternal grandmother, and that’s what she said to me when I was thirteen and resisting the idea that I soon ought to learn to drive.  I didn’t like the idea of piloting a two-ton machine that could kill people, and I wanted to leave my small town as soon as anyone would let me and live in New York City, where I wouldn’t need a car to get around.  Grandma explained that, although it was fine to avoid driving in my day-to-day life, having that skill in my repertoire could be useful in many situations–in fact, I might even save a life by driving someone to a hospital, and if I were ever called upon for emergency driving, everyone would be safer if I knew what I was doing.  I admitted that she had a point, and although I dawdled a little bit in learning to drive, I did get my license before I finished high school.

But by then, Grandma was gone.  She died of cancer just after my fifteenth birthday.  If she were still alive, today would be her one hundredth birthday.

I wish she’d stayed longer.  I never got enough time with her, even in the summers when I went without my parents to stay with Grandma in her wonderful old house in Far Rockaway, in the southeastern corner of Queens at the very end of the A train subway line, and we had adventures together all over New York City and at Silver Point Beach just outside the city.  I wished I could live there all the time!  Grandma and I enjoyed museums and people-watching and eating exotic foods and exploring buildings and neighborhoods and parks, and we never ran out of things to talk about.  She told me stories from all eras of her life, she told me things she’d picked up from her wildly varied reading, and she truly listened to me and made me feel fascinating and fully appreciated.  She knew how to listen to other people, too, and what questions to ask, so that we got to hear the stories of pizza chefs and cab drivers and a very old lady in the supermarket who had once been the pianist for the Rockettes.  Grandma had a gift for drawing out each person’s special traits and valuing them.  I wish I were better at that!

But I feel guilty complaining that I didn’t get more time with her, because I’m her oldest grandchild–one of my cousins wasn’t even born yet when Grandma died, and some were too young to remember her well.  I’m lucky to have known her as well as I did and to have so many memories of doing things with her.

I wanted to write a tribute to Grandma on her centennial, like I did for my other grandmother but better, explaining how very special she was to me and how profound an influence she has had on my life.  Three months ago I started turning over ideas, hoping to come up with some kind of structure so I wouldn’t just ramble on but could really convey her wonderfulness.  But then I was in an accident, and too much of my time and energy went into just getting by, and I’m still not fully recovered, and then in these last few days I’ve had big mood crashes and headaches just when I thought I was going to write . . . and I know Grandma would understand; I know she would say that the specific date is not important, that the most important thing for me to do is heal, that I don’t owe her a tribute anyway . . . but still, I felt that I was letting her down and letting myself down and that I’ve spent far too much of the past twenty-seven years regretting that Grandma isn’t with me instead of taking a positive approach like hers and being a better person.

Thinking about it this morning, suddenly I not-quite-heard Grandma’s voice in my mind: “But honey.  You’ve already written so many interesting things.”

She’s right.  I learned to do one of those things that hadn’t been invented yet: I write for the Internet.  I’ve published more than 600 articles!  Grandma would appreciate every one of them.  (Who knows–maybe she does?  Would it be heaven without wi-fi?)  It’s true that I’ve written almost nothing about Grandma herself, but my mission to tell people about Earth and all the great things we can do here is something Grandma would totally get behind.  She’d be thrilled to see how I can link my own articles together and link them to reference materials and other interesting stuff, and minutes later people in Australia and India and Holland are reading my words.  And in the process, I have learned to be braver about what I say and to decide when it’s good enough without calling someone else to read it for me.

Grandma meant so much to me that I can’t cram it all into one article.  Here is just one story that I hope will show you a little bit of what she was like and how she shaped me.

The first summer I went to Grandma’s alone, I was just six years old and not only shy but nervous and cautious by nature.  I didn’t know how to swim and hadn’t been near the ocean for two years.  On our first visit to the beach, I must have looked anxious as we approached the pounding surf.  Grandma said, “Now, here is what I like to do: We’ll go into the water up to our knees and stand, holding hands, and as the waves go in and out they’ll pull sand from under our feet, but we’ll stay put and see who can stand the longest without taking a step.”  We did this.  The water buffeting my legs was daunting, so much deeper when a wave came in and then sucking at me as it went out, and it was full of slimy seaweed and scratchy bits of shell–but I was safe holding Grandma’s hand.  I felt the sand being pulled out from under the edges of my feet, then more and more until I was standing on tiny narrow piles, and then one foot dropped and I was falling forward, face-first into the salty froth–and Grandma pulled me up and laughed and said, “Let’s go in two steps farther!”  Pretty soon I was in up to my shoulders and loving every minute of it.  I played exactly the same game with my son when he was six and made his first visit to the ocean.  Yes, it’s weird and wet and powerful–isn’t it great?!

Being cautious has its advantages.  Grandma never tried to talk me out of my essential nature.  She showed me how to feel just safe enough to have fun and, by broadening the range of things I felt safe doing, to work up the courage to try new things more easily.  That combined with fifteen years of her belief in my ability to do great things, and with the example of her own life, to support me in feeling able to do what I yearned to do: I left the small town for the big city (not New York, it turned out, but Pittsburgh), got a great education, had a lot of fun with some fascinating men, worked out a career and a home and a family that suit me, and found ways to help make the world a better place.  I’d still like to be kinder and more positive and better at asking people about themselves, like her–but I feel that if Grandma dropped in on me now, she’d be very glad to see what my life is like.

And she’d tell me to get off the computer when it’s giving me a headache.  Happy birthday, Grandma!  Good night!

GAME SHOW!! with math practice

My third-grade son and I came up with a game that was a lot of fun and valuable math practice and physical exercise for him, while being very easy for me and using only a few basic supplies that were easy to set up and clean up.  This is a perfect activity for families in which all available parents are still recovering from viral bronchitis (or similar debilitating illness) while one or more kids are fully recovered and going stir crazy, but it’s too cold to play outside.  It could easily be adapted for multiple players.


  • large supply of fake money, such as from a Monopoly or Life board game.  If you don’t have this, you can keep the kid busy with a preliminary activity of making fake money!  You want at least 20 bills in each of several denominations.
  • stopwatch.
  • area of clean floor.  Have the child sweep the floor before playing.  If possible, use an area at the foot of a staircase or outside one end of a hallway, near a couch or bed where the parent can be comfortable.
  • two receptacles of some sort, which can hold a handful of fake money or a small trinket.  I grabbed some Christmas stockings that are still waiting to be put away.  (We got sick right after Christmas….)
  • a few small trinkets.  These do not have to be anything actually exciting–you’re just going to pretend they are.  Another option is to cut some photos of desirable items out of an advertising flyer.

Prerequisite: Child should have at least one experience of watching a typical television game show, such as “The Price Is Right”, to learn the appropriate ridiculously enthusiastic behavior and when to deploy it vs. when to listen carefully to the game show host’s instructions.

Set Up: Scatter the fake money in a big, festive pile on the clean floor.  If desired, decorate the staircase/hallway/approach to the pile with some of the money along the edges of the path and/or with whatever tinsel garlands or anything you happen to have lying around.

How to Play:

  • Contestant [child] runs down the stairs/hallway while game show host [parent] enthusiastically announces, “Come on doowwwwnn, Nicholas!!!”  Contestant bounces next to the money for a moment of imagined applause.
  • Host announces, “Your challenge is to pick up . . . exactly . . . ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED FORTY-SIX DOLLARS!!  Go!!” and starts the stopwatch.  (Choose a number you’ll easily remember, like the last 4 digits of a familiar phone number.  You don’t want any confusion over what the number was.  If this is difficult for you, use a phone book or other printed source of numbers, and check off each one after use.)
  • Contestant scrambles to pick up the correct amount of money as quickly as possible.
  • Host stops the stopwatch and announces the time: “He did that in just twenty-eight seconds!  But . . . is it the correct amount?”
  • Contestant shudders in suspense while host counts the money.
    • If amount is correct, host announces, “Congratulations!!  You are the winner of one thousand two hundred forty-six dollars!!  YAAAAYYY!!” and tosses the money over the contestant’s head while the contestant does a victory dance.
    • If amount is too large, host is very shocked: “One thousand two hundred sixty-six dollars?  How greedy!”  Contestant shrivels in shame and pays a penalty equivalent to the difference ($20 in this example) from his previous winnings.
    • If amount is too small, host is sympathetic: “Aww!  One thousand one hundred forty-six dollars!  You are not a winner.  Better luck next time.”  Money goes back to the pile while contestant walks away sighing.
  • Repeat over and over and over again for as long as contestant and host can stand it.  (Of course, each round uses a different amount of money.)
  • About every tenth win, host announces, “You’ve unlocked the Special Bonus!!!  Which of these hidden prizes will you choose?”  Host holds up the two receptacles in which she has hidden the prizes.  Contestant chooses.  Host reveals the prize, for instance a card depicting Mickey Mouse: “You’ve won . . . free admission to Disney World!!  YAAAAYYY!!”  Contestant hyperactively celebrates.  Host then reveals the other prize: “But look at what you could have won!  This fine bottle of hand lotion!”  (You might want to make one prize really exciting and the other something of a dud.)
  • If anybody needs to get a drink, go to the bathroom, etc., host announces, “We’ll be back after these messages!”  (Set up the next Special Bonus when child is out of the room.)

Because Nicholas was the only contestant, we weren’t keeping score; he was just enjoying the challenge.  He made only three mistakes in nearly two hours of play; usually, he was able to scoop up the correct amount, even though he completed every challenge in less than 40 seconds and some in as little as 7 seconds.  I’m impressed!

With multiple contestants, you could set aside the winnings–or add up a running total on a scoreboard so that you can return the money to the pile, as well as getting addition practice–and see who gets the most money.  You might incorporate the time in the scoring, too.  If contestants are at different ability levels, give the younger one simpler rather than smaller amounts of money, like $3,000 while the older one has to find $2,917.

This homemade game show worked for me!  Visit Mom’s Library for more activities to do with kids!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more low-cost do-it-yourself activities!

Fluxx: A Fun Card Game for Everyone!

If you’ve never played Fluxx, this holiday season is the time to start!  It’s now easier to buy and less expensive than ever before.  A new edition of Fluxx has just been released in Target stores, and until December 8, 2012, it is on sale for only $4!  After that, it will be $10, still a bargain price for a great game.

I’ve been a fan of Fluxx since the first edition was released in 1997.  Since then, I have met the inventor and spent many happy hours demonstrating Fluxx and other Looney Labs games at conventions, plus even more happy hours playing various editions of Fluxx with my friends and family.  I am not being compensated in any way for writing this post–I’m just thrilled to share the news!

Any version of Fluxx is easy to learn (and the edition of Fluxx being sold at Target is simpler than most) and fun to play in social situations where conversation or distractions prevent you from really focusing on strategy–because strategizing only goes so far in this game of ever-changing rules.  When it’s your turn, simply draw a card and play a card.  The card you play may change the rules.  Pretty soon, you could be drawing 4 and playing 3 on every turn while trying to get the Cookies and Milk…or the Rocket and Moon….

Fluxx is officially for ages 8 and up because the instructions on the cards are written at about a third-grade reading level.  However, anyone who can read that well can play it, and a child who can’t read the cards can play on a team with an older person.  My son started playing Fluxx when he was 2!  We played at one of my family reunions with people ages 6 to 78, and a good time was had by all.  Older people have very little advantage in this changeable, mostly-luck-based game.

Fluxx holds up well to repeated play, so it’s great for trips when you can fit only one game in your luggage.  Every round is different!  A game might last two minutes or nearly an hour.  It might have several people almost winning and being foiled at the last move, or someone “accidentally” winning because someone else had to play a certain card.

Even now that Looney Labs has hit the big time and gotten one of their products into a major chain store, all editions of Fluxx are printed in the United States to support our economy.

Here’s my review of Pirate Fluxx (and two other Looney Labs games!)

Living on the Flip Side

The sky is so blue today.  The sun is so bright, the leaves are still green, and the birds are singing.  It’s a beautiful day, just like the eleventh of this month eleven years ago.

I remember walking home after my office closed early on September 11, 2001, thinking how impossibly wrong it felt that something so horrible could happen on such a nice day.  I am one of the lucky people who easily survived the terrorist attacks and didn’t know anyone who was directly affected.  But of course we were all emotionally affected, and for me the moment when it really became a day of horror was when I saw (replayed on television) the sickeningly rapid, thundering, smoldering collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

And I thought, Oh, no, no, no–WE ARE ON THE RED SIDE OF THE CARD!!! Read more…

Welcome to Earth Suburb.

Read more…

FREE computer game: Hall of Heads

My partner Daniel joined a group of computer game programmers who wrote 38 interactive fiction (text adventure) games in tribute to the 20th anniversary of Apollo 18, the They Might Be Giants album with 38 tracks.  Each game has the same title as one song on the album.  Daniel wrote “Hall of Heads”.  That is, he made up the puzzles and did all the programming of the game.  The reason I have co-author credit is that I helped a lot with the main concept and the opening scene of the game.  What does the Hall of Heads look like?  Why does it exist?  Why are you there?  I helped to answer these questions, and it was my idea that you, the player, should be able to swap your own head with those you find in the Hall.  For some reason I just sort of knew how this should work, what it would feel like to switch heads.  I also felt strongly that the lyrics of the song should give hints for winning the game.  After a couple of late-night sessions of spouting ideas, I left Daniel to do the actual programming.

I still haven’t played very far into the game myself.  It’s tricky!  I’m not an experienced computer-game player, and I need more hints.  But I got far enough to say that it’s got just the mood I had in mind–creepy, but not too horrifying.

Here is the index of Apollo 18 tribute games.  In the left sidebar are handy tips for playing interactive fiction.  If you already know how, click here to jump right into the Hall of Heads.

Helping to write the occasional creepy computer game works for me!

Daniel has written two previous computer games that are available for free: Ka is interactive fiction (also on the creepy side) and The Sand Boxes has graphics.

All-Ages Game Night: A great community event!

I ran an All-Ages Game Night at my church last month as both a social event for our members and a way to connect with our community (and maybe attract some new members).  It was easy to do, extremely inexpensive, and lots of fun!

My family loves games and owns enough to fill a large chest of drawers, so we simply brought about half of our games (see list below), the ones that are easiest to learn and don’t take a really long time to play.  We didn’t serve snacks at Game Night–food is distracting and expensive and gets the cards sticky–but we did serve ice water and lemonade using our real glasses.  It was a hot, humid evening, and our parish hall is not air-conditioned, so we set up fans. Read more…

3 Fun New Games for All Ages!

Well, maybe not all ages, but children as young as 3 can play Seven Dragons.  This card game with beautiful art includes modified rules for preschoolers.  It’s not just for kids, though; it’s a great game for parties because it’s easy to learn and involves some strategy without being stressfully competitive.  Seven Dragons debuted at the Origins Game Fair two weeks ago, and my six-year-old son Nicholas and I never got tired of it during four days in which we lost count of how many rounds we’d played!  It’s a picture-matching game in which each player tries to connect seven pictures of the dragon shown on his secret goal card. Read more…

When life gives you wet socks, make a matching game!

Well, gee, I finished writing this article and then discovered that this week’s Works-for-Me Wednesday asks writers to submit our most important post of 2010.  This isn’t it!  And my lunch break is almost over!  I don’t have time today to write about the most crucial lesson I learned in 2010, which is that the misery of migraines can be reduced and sometimes eliminated if only I use my migraine treatment right away instead of making some excuse about why I shouldn’t–I’ll write more about that soon.  Meanwhile, I’d say my most important post of 2010 is It’s Only Monday.

This week, I’ve been grateful that the big blizzard bypassed Pittsburgh so that my relatives were able to travel to and from our house safely and conveniently, and while they were here we had just exactly enough snow on the ground to call it a white Christmas!  I’ve also been reflecting on the big blizzard that did hit us in early February. Read more…

My kid can play IceTowers!!!

My five-year-old son has learned several new things this month.  He learned how to ride a bike in an impressively short time, and he learned on the same little bike I rode as a kid, so that was a proud and sentimental milestone.  He taught himself to make pizza box stained glass.  But last weekend, at the Origins game convention, I taught Nicholas something I didn’t think he was ready to learn, and he caught right on: He learned to play IceTowers! Read more…

Rambling Sprawl Estates

Due to the troubled economy on Mars, you’ve decided to break into the Earth pizza market. You’ve developed an assortment of brands that are nontoxic and nicely inconspicuous…you think. The next step is to test-market your wares in a controlled area where you can closely observe the results.

Thus, you have dispatched families of Martians to construct an Earth Suburb to attract humans. Each Martian family will then live in the suburb, masquerading as humans, and sell pizza to the Earthlings.

Your marketing division has developed a scheme for laying out and naming streets that’s guaranteed to produce a suburb with Earthling appeal.  Just find a flat surface, start building, and let the Earthlings move in and start buying pizzas! Read more…

Two Easy Indoor Games

Here are two games that are easy to set up, use minimal materials, and are fun for kids about 2-10 years old at a party or holiday gathering.  (See also these knee-bouncing games for entertaining younger kids!)

Pass the Parcel
You will need a bunch of small toys, costume jewelry and similar trinkets, coins, and/or pieces of wrapped candy; a bunch of tissue paper or used-up gift wrap, in at least two different colors; and a source of music. Read more…

Knee-bouncing Games

These two games have been enjoyed by little children in my family for at least three generations.  They worked for me when I was little, they’ve been favorites of my four-year-old son since he was about nine months old, and I look forward to trying them on his younger cousins this Thanksgiving!

These are the type of game that you play by bouncing a child who is sitting on your knees.  That means that the child needs to be old enough to sit up but lightweight enough not to hurt your knees.  It also means that you can play these games anywhere you can sit, with no additional equipment.  They’re great for sitting around at holiday parties, waiting in the airport or bus stop or doctor’s office, etc. Read more…

Try my card game!

Many years ago, I came up with an idea for a game in which you build a map of a suburban area using cards/tiles depicting segments of street. I made a rough prototype, and then my friends the Looneys helped me make a better “alpha deck” on some extra blank cards they happened to have. The next step was to figure out what game to play on the completed map.

You see, although I and a few other people feel that just building the map is excellent (almost addictive) entertainment, most people’s reaction is, “Okay, but what’s the point? What do you do with the suburb once it’s built?” Read more…

Growing a Gamer Geek

Daniel and I are gamer geeks. Our first memory of spending time together (we met gradually, both being members of a fairly large student organization) is a party where we played Nomic.  We started to hang out together more when I came to the game nights he and his housemates hosted. Attending a gigantic game convention is one of our default annual activities and sometimes our biggest vacation of the year. So, of course it’s important to us to raise a child who likes to play games! Read more…

When Kids Show Up at Your Demo

I wrote this article in 1999, when I was not yet a parent but was noticing that many adults I knew were very awkward when relating to children or actually tried to exclude children from fun activities rather than figure out how the kids could fit in.  I mentioned this to Kristin Looney, whose company makes games that are fun for both children and adults but focuses its marketing on adults, and she immediately appointed me to write an article for their Mad Lab Rabbits (the name used at that time for fans who promote the games) suggesting ways to appeal to kids when demonstrating the games at trade shows, in stores, at parties, or in public places where people stop to ask what you’re playing. Read more…

Come Here! Go Away!

My dad used to play this game with me when I was little, and now I play it with my son:

Place your child in a swing and stand in front of it.  Frown.  Say, “Go away!” and push the swing.

Now open your arms and smile.  Say, “Come here, Nicholas!” [or, for best results, substitute the actual name of your child] and look really eager to see him until he gets to you . . . Read more…

An Everyday Educational Game

As we walked along our neighborhood’s main street this afternoon, my four-year-old son asked me about a strange-looking contraption on the sidewalk.  I explained that it’s for the safe, sanitary disposal of cigarette butts.  Sadly, Nicholas knows all about cigarettes, even though nobody in our family smokes them, because in our urban habitat we routinely see people smoking and butts scattered over every outdoor surface.  Before he could talk, he was pointing and gasping in shock at smokers dropping burning things on the ground and just walking away.

Today, after completing his inspection of the contraption, Nicholas was about to resume walking when he demanded, “Well, if that’s the place to put cigarettes, then what’s that doing there?!”  A butt lay on the sidewalk less than six feet away. Read more…

The Way I Usually Do It

A couple of weeks ago, we were making one of our family’s favorite dinners: beans, guacamole, diced tomato, and chips.  As usual, Daniel was Mexicanating the beans while I made the guacamole.  Nicholas decided, for the first time, that he wanted to help with the guacamole instead of the beans.  I showed him how I remove the stem from an avocado, put the point of the knife into the stem hole, cut all the way around, and then twist to separate the two halves.  I handed him one half and used the other to demonstrate how to squish the avocado pulp into the mixing bowl.

Nicholas said, “Well.  Mom.  This is the way I usually do it.”  He grabbed an uncut avocado and began sawing at it with the paring knife, narrating in an instructive tone.

My first instinct was to laugh.  Read more…

Some Word Games

On the way back from Fairfield to the Chicago train station, we stopped at an Iowa truckstop restaurant called Gramma’s Kitchen.  One of the puzzles on the children’s menu was this: “How many words can you make out of the letters in GRAMMA’S KITCHEN?”  I glanced idly at it and thought, gram . . . ram . . . am . . . mask . . . ask . . . skit . . . kit . . . it . . . itch . . . hen . . . and then I was hooked.  I grabbed a crayon and spent the rest of the meal covering the page with words.

Suddenly, a whole new vista of puzzling is open to me!  I can take any phrase and amuse myself for 40 minutes or so finding all the words in it.  It makes me feel so clever!  It’s probably good for my brain, too. Read more…