Day 185: do not read this out loud

I want to tell you about a game my kids really like but I need it to preface this post by saying that no matter what we are doing, with the possible exceptions of swimming or eating ice cream, my kids would always rather be glued to a screen. I need to say this upfront because this game is so deeply wholesome and lo-tech that to say, “My children adore this game!” could come across as saying something like, “My darlings can’t abide screens! No, they have simpler tastes. Just give them a hand-crafted jigsaw puzzle or perhaps some fresh wildflowers to press, and they’re happy as lambs!”

This game is known in our household as the story game. I recommend it especially for an inter-generational-dinner-party type situation. La Bonavita introduced the game to us. He apparently played it with some patients in some kind of group therapy setting, but don’t let that put that off. It doesn’t involve lying on a couch or talking about your mother.

Here’s how you play. Give each player (I’d say you need at least three people and more is better) a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Set a timer for one and a half minutes. When the timer starts each person starts writing a story. When the alarm goes off, all the players stop writing and fold their piece of paper away from themselves so that all but the last line of what they’ve written is hidden. Then each player hands their paper to the person on their left. The timer is re-set for another ninety seconds and each person has to continue the story as best they can from the line they have in front of them. And then you repeat the process as many times as you like, but at least as many times as there are players. Whenever you decide to stop, each person unfolds the piece of paper and reads out the story, which is, inevitably, surreal. It should look something like this:

story game 1

The great thing about this game is that it’s one of the few things—like Ghostbusters or pesto—that we all agree is good. I was worried that the younger would be too inept at both reading or writing to really enjoy it, but, to my surprise, she is the game’s biggest fan: she just doesn’t write very much and tends to need some help with the reading part.

story game 2

A few nights ago, the younger was very twitchy. I was reading Charlotte’s Web to her in bed, but she wasn’t getting sleepy.

“Let’s just snuggle and we can talk about all the fun things we’re going to do while we’re on Iona,” I suggested.

I started us off, and soon we were whispering about sandcastles and millionaire’s shortbread and cowrie shells and Iona stones and treasure hunts.

Then the younger had an idea.

“We can teach Elo [my mother] the story game!”

“Ooh, yes, I think she’ll really like it!”

“She’ll probably use a lot of really English words like, you know, rummy, and bum, and, and … fiddle, and, and … tit …”

She trailed off.

“Tit?” I repeated.

“ …le …. tittle,” she continued.

“Tittle” I repeated. “Sure.”

“Wait is tittle even a real word?” she asks.

“Yes, tittle’s a real world, you know, like in tittle-tattle, like if you tell on someone you’re a tittle-tattle.”

“A tittle-tattle?” she repeated, frowning.

“Yeah, isn’t that what you say?”

We say a tattle-tale.”

“Oh. Huh.”

As often in this kind of situation, I felt suddenly unsure. Was tittle an English word? Perhaps, like titivate or enervated, it’s a real word but one that only seems to be actually used by Mum and me. Or maybe it’s a Tindal family word, like chittery-bite? Or maybe it’s just a phantom of the Kareemian imagination?

“Well, I think we say tittle-tattle,” I said finally. “But I might have made that up. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Elo uses it.”

I’ll keep you posted.



Day 116: ladies of science

The younger was mad.

We had tried and failed to find an adequate bed for her doll (shoebox? “Too small.” pillowcase? “Too soft”) a task which she had been determined to complete before bedtime.

“Well you need to help me think of something else I can do before stories, then,” she demanded, glowering at me.

I was all out of ideas. It was looking like we were headed for a full-scale tantrum when inspiration struck.

“I know.” she said. “I want to do an experiment.”

I felt my patience start to ebb away. “We can definitely do some kind of experiment tomorrow,” I said as carefully and evenly as I could, knowing as I uttered the words that this would not be an acceptable option.

“No. Now. I want to put those candies I don’t like in water and see what happens to them.”

I thought about it. It sounded pretty easy, actually.

“Oh, fine,” I said. We went to the still two thirds full bucket of Halloween candy and the younger plucked out the despised brand. The tablets looked like Tums. I filled a glass with cold water and the younger dropped the three tablets in the glass.

“We’ll see if they disappear or not by the morning,” she said.

Finally, she was willing to get into bed for story time.

“Once upon a time there was a little girl,” I began, not having the remotest idea what would happen next.

“I want all the stories to be about girls who are scientists,” the younger interrupted.

“OK!” I said, grateful for direction.

“Her name was Ada,” I said. She gave me a funny look. “No no, this isn’t what you’re thinking, this is about a real scientist called Ada!” I said.

“Wait,” she said. “Is it Ada Lovelace?” she asked, her face scrunched up skeptically.

“Yes!” I said.

“Wait, she was a scientist?”

“She was a brilliant mathematician,” I said. “And her father was a famous poet called Lord Byron.”

“What’s a poet?” asked the younger.

That’s what Ada Lovelace probably asked Baroness Byron, I thought to myself. Also: how is it my daughter knows the word “scientist” and “mathematician” and not the word “poet”? Am clearly failing in inculcating respect for the humanities.

“Oh, it’s just a person who writes poems,” I said airily. “Anyway, she worked with Charles Babbage who was another scientist and they … well they did stuff, math, that helped make it possible to …. to make computers.

“Did they make a computer?” she asked.

I hesitated, suddenly aware that my grasp of the historical facts was dim.

“No. Well. I don’t know … I don’t think so? I think maybe they made some kind of … machine? But I think they mostly did a lot of math?”

I vaguely remember that Thomasina in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia was based on Ada Lovelace, and wrack my brains trying to remember the plot; but all I can remember of Thomasina is her waltzing with Septimus (n.b. swoon) and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t important to the math part.

“Yeah, so they did a lot of math and made important discoveries that helped us have computers.”

The younger looked bored. “All right, what’s the next story?”

“OK,” I say, determined to do better, “the next story is about this woman called Rosamund, I mean Rosalind. Rosalind … something. And she was a …. a biologist. And she helped discover something called DNA that is like, that is like a kind of code, a message written in your cells.”

I don’t feel that this is the most confidence-inspiring opening.

The younger interrupts. “I know what cells look like. Cells, like red blood cells, they’re little red dots in your body. Is DNA red? What does it look like?”

“Umm ….” Yes, I do know about the double helix, but somehow the word spiral momentarily eludes me and I can’t think how to describe it.

“Do you need a microscope to see it?”

“Yeah, you need a powerful microscope.”

“What does the message say?”

“It says. OK. Well, basically it’s a message in every single cell with instructions telling you to be you. So everyone’s DNA is different and in my DNA the message tells every cell how to be duck-rabbit-cells and in your DNA the message instructs all of your cells how to be younger-flopsy-duckit cells.” I feel conscious that a) as with Babbage’s Analytical Engine, I’m pretty fuzzy on how DNA works b) I don’t really know what Rosalind whatsherface’s contribution was and c) that the story is not terribly gripping.

Clearly the younger feels the same.

“OK, the next one should be a pretend scientist,” she says emphatically. “A pretend scientist called Moomoo.”

“OK,” I say, “so Moomoo was this little girl who made a rocket to go to …… the moon. And she made a new discovery about what the moon is made of.”

“The moon is made of rock,” declares the younger, authoritatively.

“Yeah, but remember this is pretend,” I say testily. The younger gives me a long-suffering look.

“Is she going to discover the moon is made of blue cheese?” she asks wearily. I am affronted.

“Yes, I said. Yes she is.”

“Fine,” says the younger.

The final story of the night is always a “childhood” story. This night I tell the younger about the “experiments” I conducted as a child – which I also referred to, at the time, as “experiments.” I would conduct these experiments in the attic, where there was a sink because it had originally been fitted up as a separate attic flat. I would pour various colored inks in bowls of water, dip paper in them and then hang them up to dry. In my memory it is always late afternoon when I do these experiments and sun streams through the window illuminating the ink-stained papers that I have hung up to dry. I think they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  I definitely don’t think of them as art; I think of them as scientific experiments about color.


The next morning the younger is eager to observe the results of her experiment. The tablets have not completely dissolved but they have tinted the water. She is extremely pleased with the results.

“I need to do more experiments,” she says. That is exactly what a real scientist would say, I think to myself. Bloody scientists. So bloody dogged.

“Also I need to taste it.”

I about to protest that doesn’t seem like a standard part of the experimental method when I remember all those 17th-century dudes who ate their experiments, like Robert Boyle and his bloody phosphorescent veal.

“Also we need to make a special room for my experiments,” she says.

“All right,” I say, “let’s say that the bathroom is your experiments room.”

“Not the bathroom!” she says in a disgusted tone. “That’s already its own room. We need to make a special experiments room.”

I sigh. I feel exhausted just thinking about the idea. “Well how are we going to do that?” I ask in a defeatist tone.

She thinks. “We can use the tent.” I sigh again. I just don’t want to be arsed to put up the bloody Ikea tent in the middle of the room so it can be a holding ground for jars of fetid water.

“Seriously?” I am the world’s most unenthusiastic research assistant.

She is fixed on the idea. I put up the tent. In addition to the first experiment, there are now three additional water-filled vessels, each carrying its own despised form of candy.

Per the younger’s exact instructions, and because I don’t want her carrying the very full glasses of water into the tent herself, I carefully set up the glasses inside the tent on the shoe box, which though deemed unfit as a doll bed has proven to be an excellent workbench.

The younger is extremely pleased.

Yesterday the kids went to their dad’s house. This morning as I’m hurrying about trying to get ready to come in and teach Keats, and picking up stuff off the floor in advance of my cleaning lady coming, I remember that the glasses of candy water are still inside the tent. When I go inside I actually exclaim, “oh!”

I am struck by the prettiness of the assemblage: jars of pastel colored waters against the backdrop of the grey-stone patterned interior of the tent. I hesitate to throw them out. In the end I decide to take pictures; that way if the younger complains when she comes back and finds her experiments room shut down I will at least have photographic evidence of the results to show her.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”:



Day 92: Beware the vegimal.

Last week the younger and I were walking home from preschool. She was talking about Phineas, as usual.

“Are you friends with anyone else?” I asked. “Are you friends with any of the girls?”

She stopped walking and looked at me, perching herself on a wall thoughtfully and shrugging her shoulders up to her ears.

“Well, it’s like, I’m kind of a serious person?” she stated, her intonation rising with a perfect SoCal inflection while her hands simultaneously rose in a what-can-you-do? shrug.

“The girls aren’t serious,” she continued.

“What about Phineas?”

“Yeah,” she said in a tone that said “duh, Mom.” “Yeah, we are both serious.”

“What do you mean ‘serious’?” I asked.

She looked at me impatiently, “well, you know, like, if someone falls down, we’ll go over and see if they need help … maybe we’ll tell the teachers …” she says, making a spiraling “and so on and so forth” gesture with her hand.

“And what about the girls, wouldn’t they do that too?”

“No,” she declared flatly.

“Well, what would they be doing?”

“Oh, you know—” and here she broke spontaneously into a dialogue by way of explanation, a dialogue she performed in two high-pitched voices:

“‘I wanna be a fairy-princess!’

‘And I wanna be a brave knight!’

‘Well, you can’t be a brave knight because you’re a girl!’

‘Girls can be brave knights too!’

‘No they can’t—’

Here she broke off and shot me a look that said “so unbelievably tedious, right?”

“Don’t you ever play those games too?” I asked. “You like pretending too ….”

“No, because I wanna do serious stuff.” She paused. “She’s right though that girls can be brave knights,” she observed. “That part’s actually true.”

As we were crossing the road she turned to me.

“Mom, what was in the spell apart from the mouse droppings?”

“What was in the what?” I asked.

“The spell!”

I was at a loss. “What spell?”

“The spell from last night! To stop things turning into ice!” She looked at me incredulously. “Remember????”

“Oh, right, I remember!” I said finally.

It was from the last story I’d told her in bed last night. I remembered it only vaguely now.

The origins of the current iteration of the bedtime ritual are now lost in the misty sands of spring 2015, but at some point in the last few months it became Established Protocol at Mom’s House that after reading the regulation three bedtime stories, I would then, in addition, make up four stories that I would tell after turning the lights out.

I dread this every night. I don’t know why I ever agreed to it. It’s a kind of mental torture to generate narratives when you’re already knackered. And yet resistance is futile. The prospect of proposing some alteration to the current regime seems infinitely more exhausting than simply submitting to it.

I have a limited range of stories. Most fall into two categories: animal stories and knight stories. The knight stories always center on a quest; I’m not reinventing the wheel here. The animal stories typically involve a peripeteia in which the child-protagonist suddenly discovers that its seemingly ordinary animal companion is in fact a creature with magical powers including the power of human speech. Oh, la! Or else, it’s about an animal with a counter-intuitive learning deficiency. The pigeon who didn’t learn to fly. The giraffe who was afraid of heights. I do a nice line in those.

But last night the younger had had enough.

Not. Another. Fucking. Animal Story. She said. OK, well, she didn’t say it like that, but that was what she meant.

“Fine,” I said. “once upon a time there was a knight.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. She didn’t literally say that either, but that was what she meant.

“All right, all right,” I said.

I dug deep and came up with a story about a princess who has a curse put on her that means everything she touches turns to ice. I didn’t say it wasn’t derivative. In all honesty, I haven’t actually seen “Frozen,” but evidently its cultural saturation is such that I can spin a variation on it without even consciously knowing the plot of the original.

Anyway, in my version, the princess wants rid of the spell, and so she asks her wise mother for help. Her mother isn’t a witch, but she does have a lavish library, and she’s amazing at tracking down obscure books, so she speedily locates the book containing the spell that will break the curse.

So they cast the spell and the curse is broken and they live happily every after.

Towards the end of the final story I typically start nodding off. This sometimes leads to non-sequiturs and surreal particulars. When it came to the casting of the spell, without really knowing what I was saying I found myself declaring that one of the necessary ingredients in the magical potion was “mouse droppings.”

“Mouse droppings!” repeated the younger. “What’s ‘mouse droppings!’”

“Oh, it’s … it’s just mouse poo,” I explained.

“Why did the spell to break the freezing curse need mouse droppings?” the younger asked.

“That’s just what it said in the spell book,” I snapped.

“Well OK,” said the younger doubtfully.

I thought that was that. But then, today, in the clear light of day, the younger confronted me. What else was in the spell, she demanded to know.

I couldn’t remember.

Well how did they do the spell, she pressed me.

I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I’d said the night before, so I improvised.

“Well, they put all the ingredients in a cauldron … and then they stirred it with the magic wand and said the magic words and then ta-da, the curse lifted.”

“Who stirred it?”

“The princess?” I suggested, hopefully.

She shook her head.

“That wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?” I asked, a little testily.

Because,” she said, “when the princess picked up the wand it would have turned into a brine-icle.”

“A barnacle,” I repeated, completely flummoxed, “why would it turn into a barnacle?”

“No no, not a barnacle,” she said, “a brine-icle.”

I smiled a little condescendingly.

“I think you mean a barnacle,” I said. “There’s no such word as brine-icle. But, in any case, I don’t see why it would have turned into a barnacle. That makes no sense.”

“It is a word,” she said stoutly.

“Fine, what does it mean?” I asked.

“It’s an icicle that grows underwater,” she explained. “And when the princess touched the wand it would have turned to ice in the cauldron. Like a brinicle. Because they hadn’t done the spell yet.”

I considered her hypothesis.

“Well, that’s a good point about the wand turning to ice when she touched it,” I conceded. “I didn’t think of that. I suppose you’re right,” I admitted.

“But,” I continued (and here I contemplated the word “brine-icle”; it was clearly a portmanteau of brine and icicle … clever … too clever for a four year old to come up with, yes? But also … fake sounding, right?), “I still don’t think ‘brinicle’ is a real word, but I’ll look it up later.”

“It IS real,” insisted the younger. “Because it was on Octonauts, and everything on Octonauts is real.”

“OK, that is not true,” I said, feeling on surer ground.

“Yes it is!” she said.

“Not it’s not!” I exclaimed. “The vegimals! The vegimals are not real. That is not a real thing, a ‘vegimal,’ half vegetable, half animal.”

“Vegimal,” indeed! Bloody Octonauts and its cute portmanteaus deceiving preschoolers everywhere into believing in the existence of these hybrid abominations of nature. Like “vegimals.” And “brinicles.”

Later, I typed “brinicle” into Google.




“a long, tapering vertical tube of ice formed in the sea around a plume of very cold seawater produced by a developing ice sheet.”


I have only one more thing to say. Beware the manxome vegimal, my friends. Beware the vegimal.