Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Constitution of Carolyn

I’m visiting my sister Carolyn in California for ten days, enjoying a nice vacation from noise and some quality writing time. It’s marvelous. Hopefully I’m not driving her too crazy.

Carolyn’s birthday is also coming up, so she hosted a nerdy game night/party tonight in celebration. Trying to be a good sister, I volunteered to provide the cake.

The plan was that I would take a picture on a flash drive, hand it to an employee at a local bakery, and ask them to print an edible image of it for me. I would then take that sheet of printed edible frosting back to her apartment, slap it on a sheet cake, and declare victory. In Texas, I have done that several times at H.E.B., a jewel of grocery stores. It took 20 minutes to get Eric’s birthday cake image printed, last September.

So, last night (Friday evening), I designed a picture. When I did research about getting it printed, though, I realized that some bakeries might decline to run off a copy of a Monopoly board, since it might be copyrighted. At first I tried keeping the problem a secret, merely asking her for general suggestions about how to handle a possibly-copyrighted image of a game board. (She suggested I do a filtered search on flickr, and that almost worked, but not quite.)

I gave up and enlisted her help. “Carolyn,” I said, “I hate to ruin the surprise, but I need your intellectual property law expertise….” I showed her what I wanted to make, which included bold geometric designs with lots of red, some text, a Monopoly board, and a picture of her notes as the Recorder of Deeds the first time I ever played “Anti-Trust Monopoly” with her, two-and-a-half years ago.

“Monopoly was copyrighted in 1937,” she said, and then stared into space for a minute, in an eerie trance of infracranial searching. Then she typed on the keyboard for a minute and declared, “Here, use this.” She had pulled up a “vintage” Monopoly board and assured me that this older printing had moved into the public domain though more modern ones had not. In typical Carolyn fashion, she solved a problem I’d spent more than half an hour on in a sixth the time. (I’m still unnerved. Who the heck memorizes things like “Monopoly was copyrighted in 1937?” I knew it was during the great depression. I could have given you the correct decade. But… well, that’s Carolyn.)

I pointed out that most minimum-wage, frequently Spanish-speaking, bakery employees likely wouldn’t know the difference between an out of print “vintage” Monopoly board and a more modern one, but I offered that, as part of her birthday present, she could come with me and argue the point. Fun times!

How do these bakeries sleep at night? I don’t know how the bakeries in California can live with their consciences.  To think that the Bay Area bills itself as the center for bleeding edge tech, only to be superseded by a regional chain in Texas! We tried six honkin’ different bakeries today, and none of them could do what I wanted. Even the ones who would take the job wanted to make the cake themselves from scratch and get the final result to me on Monday.

Eventually, I pulled the plug on printing the design I wanted. I just bought a sheet cake instead and wrote her name on it. (Badly.)

Here’s a picture of the cake I designed:

"Carolyn: Keeping things fun and fascinating since 1987." The notes, written in Carolyn's hand, say things like "Kyle owns the light blues in name. Gail is a joint tenant with right of survivorship" and "The Corporation of Orange New Jersey: All shareholders have easements."

And here's a picture of the cake she got:

"Court of Carolyn, est. 1987"

Ah well. Time spent with a sister is never wasted.

(Aside: It was particularly impressive when I looked out the window at a run-down neighborhood of 1970s houses, each about 1000 square feet with small yards, and mused “I wonder how much THOSE houses cost?” -- 
“Eight hundred thousand dollars,” Carolyn answered promptly, then pulled up a map on Zillow to check. She was spot-on. I’m used to the idea that houses in the Bay Area cost 3x what they do in Texas, but these houses were nasty! I mean, if they were cute little bungalows from the 90s, I might understand it, but these had broken garage doors and peeling paint. Every time I think I’ve adapted, I get sticker shock again.)

I digress. It’s the thought that counts, right? I totally made her life easier by hauling her around to various stores for two hours today. In her car. She drove. What are sisters for? (I did try to do online research and call ahead, which helped to filter out some stores, but it was an imperfect effort. The Walmart 20 minutes south didn’t have a phone extension to its bakery, for example.) All for naught.

But never fear: I had an Ace in the Hole!

Last night I also contacted Carolyn’s boyfriend and enlisted his aid in a separate project. My thanks to Brad Jones for his assistance in editing and making some improvements, particularly to footnote 7, which is entirely his work. Any errors which remain are entirely my own; in particular, he recommended that I strike the language about “British common law,” but I just couldn’t resist.
Carolyn, I know Article III is inherently more awesome, since it deals with the judiciary, but it really didn’t work for what I needed. Sorry to relegate you to Article II, instead. And happy birthday! I loved watching you laugh when you read this. Thanks for letting me crash here!

The Constitution of Carolyn
Article. II.
Section. 1.
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United Nerds. She1 shall hold her Office during a Term of Good Behavior.2
Section. 2.
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of Catan, and of the Military of the several Warmongering Games;3 she may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Players,4 upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and she shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United Nerds, except in Cases of Impeachment.
She shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Guests, to organize Games, provided two thirds of the Guests present concur.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess5 of a Guest, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.6
Section. 3.
She shall from time to time give to the Citizens Invitations to Nerdy Game Nights, and recommend to their Consideration such Diversions as she shall judge necessary and expedient; she may, on extraordinary Occasions,7 convene all Houses,8 or any of them.
Section. 4.
The President, and all Citizens or Guests, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, Cheating, Incivility, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

1 Surprisingly, there has been no major test case of this gendered pronoun.
2 There is no provision for term limits, and Carolyn has held this position for 29 years. Ronald v. Carolyn (2005) sought to challenge her President-for-Life status, but was struck down by the Jones court.
3 Recent legislation has enumerated that “Warmongering Games” includes Risk, Axis and Allies, Twilight Struggle, Seven Wonders, and any board game which includes reference to a military. Strict constructionists believe that Settlers of Catan is not a “Warmongering Game” despite the “largest army” card and the occasional removal of the bandit; a case challenging that interpretation is currently pending in the lower courts. Still unsettled in case law are non-board games such as RPGs and LARPs.
4 “Players” has long been considered to include both the singular and the plural. This understanding of “teams”, which hearkens back to British common law developed in the medieval period, is especially applicable in cases where underage children sit on a parent’s lap. See Haupt v. Homer (1981).
5 “Recess” has been defined by statute as “leaving the game early.” But a plurality of legal scholars believe it could refer to temporary illness or indisposition.
6 This is generally interpreted to mean that if a guest leaves in the middle of a game, the President may appoint another guest to take over game play for the remainder of that specific game. See Laurence v. Moody (2002). A fascinating case about recess appointments, involved a mother who left for three turns to deal with a screaming toddler, and then wished to resume normal game play on her return, but was told her younger brother had taken over her seat. This matter was settled out of court in 1999, so the question remains murky.
7 Per statute, “extraordinary occasion” includes such recurring events as fairly and usefully designated by the Guests to include, but not be limited to, annual revelries, convivialities, festivities, and frivolities – particularly those whose occasion are coterminous, but not consubstantial with, celebrations on the anniversary of one’s birth. See 17 UNC § 107.
8 Though untested, this would seem to indicate that Carolyn could convene simultaneous nerdy game nights in different locations, via skype.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Weeping, Angel, Princess, Dress

I hate crying in public.

And yet, the last several weeks at church, I've been an intermittent leaky spigot. One moment I'll be fine. The next moment I'll have water flowing everywhere. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible, but, seeing as how I'm surrounded by amazing, godly women full of charity and compassion and empathy, it's hard to hide. :(

I've known for years this would be an awful month. You'd think that knowing in advance would help me to prepare, but, sadly, no.

I'm coming up on Marian's 8th birthday, and the grief is hitting hard. I've been in a fog since mid-October. ("It's not supposed to hit me yet!" I kept arguing with myself. "It's only October. It's not supposed to get bad for another two weeks!" To no avail.) Though, predictably, the grief got a lot worse yesterday, on November 1st, at church . . .

I keep thinking about how, if she were here, she'd be attending her first math contest and getting baptized this month. Grandma(s) should be making her a beautiful white dress. She should be dancing around in excitement, negotiating details about the sash, the lace-covered bodice, the hair accessories, the princess look . . .

I've been making all kinds of mental errors: having difficulty prioritizing, organizing, tracking details, communicating coherently. "Impaired executive function," they call it. It's aggravating. When I visited Germany, I kept saying "I'm not an idiot; I just can't talk!" This month, I've been telling myself "I'm not an idiot; I just can't think!"


It hasn't been this bad in years. I'm trying to remember, now, what I did back then to get past the grief. I remember going to the Raleigh book sale and spending all day there as a distraction. I waited until the pain in my feet was worse than the pain anywhere else, and then I went home. What really helped, though, was service. After several weeks of moping about in self-pity, I got sick of feeling that way and decided that I needed to do something -- anything -- else. A wise friend who had also lost a baby said service helped, so I tried it.

I hate cleaning bathrooms. HATE it. (Even worse than I hate crying in public.) But there was a very poor family that was moving, and they needed assistance to get their security deposit back. I volunteered two hours, went to their tiny apartment, and scrubbed their bathroom. Looking around at their bare pantry, their supplies provided by the bishop's storehouse (LDS welfare agency), their meagre belongings, their limited opportunities, their paucity, I began to feel truly grateful for my own blessings again. It helped me get outside myself, and that made me even more thankful.

Baby loss is something everyone sympathizes with; while I don't want to talk about it in person, much, I know people understand. Now I'm trying to imagine someone in the ward who is going through something just as painful -- an unfaithful spouse, addiction, bankruptcy -- but who has no social support. I'm embarrassed at my weepiness, but I'd be even more embarrassed if I learned that I'd been unkind to someone who was suffering just as much, only with more dignity, more secrecy.

The thought that someone could be this -- forgive me for whining, but the word is "miserable" -- only without any support, especially if they don't have the Savior -- that's humbling. (It's even more humbling than realizing the previous sentence is a disaster. Remember what I said about impaired executive function? Even my writing is suffering. Disjointed disjuncture.)


Halloween of 2007, I incorporated my pregnancy into my Halloween costume. Wearing a medieval maternity dress -- I sewed the sleeves myself! -- I announced that I was Anne Boleyn, whose pregnancy had changed history.

Halloween 2007. Jon was Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer.
Eric and Daniel were knights.
I was Anne Boleyn, and Marian was Princess Elizabeth in utero.
At least I got to play dress-up with my princess one time.

I'm trying to be grateful for my blessings. To grieve appropriately but not extravagantly. To increase my compassion for others. To remember that suffering is not a competitive sport.

Just . . . be patient with me.

Anybody need help cleaning a bathroom?


Update: 11/3

I realized my post hardly mentions Jon. He has been wonderful and supportive, and he's grieving in his own way. He's just more private -- or at least, more successfully private -- than I am, and I don't presume to speak for him. Jon: I love you, sweetheart.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

[Earlier today on facebook, I asked "What kind of weirdo wouldn't want to hear the story about a creepy old drunk guy accosting me with bad poetry at a classical music concert when I was 17?" A kind reader duly expressed interest (after the first person to whom I offered the tale ignored me), so I am sharing. It is an accurate-enough version of what happened, though I admit it was almost 20 years ago. When I include this story in my memoirs, I don't want anyone accusing me of gross falsification. My particular thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh, peace and blessings be upon him. --ed.]
When I was in high school in Indiana, my ward's boy scout troop had a contract with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to set up tables and chairs for their weekly summer "Symphony on the Prairie" series.
The ISO would perform on a stage in a large landscaped ampitheatre on the grounds of Conner Prairie, a "living history"museum. There were different price structures: a basic ticket would get you admittance to the grounds, where you could set up a blanket and enjoy the music; a higher-price ticket would get you admittance to the museum as well, where you could spend an hour or so talking to the re-enactors, including the honest-to-goodness blacksmith plus actors playing the pharmacist, the school teacher, various farmers, etc.; and a top-tier ticket would purchase all that plus prime seating at a banquet table with a folding chair and "catered" (from the March grocery store delicatessen) dinner thrown in.
While the boy scout troop had signed the contract, they encouraged others in the ward to help. I went as often as I could, though I skipped a few concerts that looked annoying. Sci fi night, 4th of July with actual artillery during the 1812 Overture, Mozart, check, check, check. But Stravinsky/Prokofiev night? Meh.
The deal was that if I showed up and helped with set up, I could stake out a good spot for my tarp and picnic dinner, visit the museum, and enjoy the concert, provided I also helped with take-down afterward. Most scouts showed up just to earn money toward scout camp, but I only went if I cared about the concert. It was a nice family activity, and I even did this as a date a few times in college; it was a hit with the young men I took, especially Jon.
Just after I graduated from high school, there was a romance-themed night. After the concert was over, the rich "box seat" types in their "luxury" plastic lawn chairs lingered. The other youth and I disassembled as best we could, but had been instructed not to hurry them. One of the patrons, a fifty-something balding guy, almost but not quite old enough to be my grandfather, started chatting with me as I walked past.
"Are we keeping you?" he asked, and I answered "Take your time, sir."
He then asked my opinion of the concert. I commented that this "romantic" concert had not included many selections from the actual Romantic period. Clearly surprised, he condescended to express himself impressed at my musical acumen, then took it upon himself to atone for the deficiencies of the music by providing a little extra "romance" himself.
Grabbing my hand, he began spouting poetry at me. Bad poetry. I stood stiffly, eyebrows arched in amusement. While I did not wish to encourage the guy, I found the entire thing funny. Although I'd been talking to him for several minutes, it only then began to dawn on me that perhaps he was tipsy. (Remember, sheltered Mormon girl. I didn't have much experience with alcohol.) I wasn't too worried about the guy; he was slightly creepy, but there were plenty of people around, including several people at his own table. The woman sitting next to him looked particularly Unamused; I wondered distractedly if she were his date -- or his wife.
His rather lengthy recitation also gave me time to consider my options. While I was required to be polite to him about his seating arrangements, I had no contractual obligations to coddle his ego. Thus, when he finished his verse, he looked at me and asked "What did you think?"
I smiled tolerantly and said "You wrote that yourself."
"How could you tell?" he blurted.
"You switched between 'thou' and 'you' several times," I answered. "Also, your conjugation of archaic forms was inconsistent. It's a common mistake to switch -st and -th endings on words, like 'thou thinketh" or 'he lovest.'"
Nettled, he inquired if I were some kind of expert literary critic, and I responded that I was surprisingly familiar with the classics for a seventeen-year-old. I emphasized the "seventeen" as subtle "Beeep! Beeeep! Minor! Jailbait!" warning. It went completely over his head, but was not lost on other members of his party who were less inebriated.
"Okay, so you want 'real' poetry!" he said, stung that I had so quickly identified his stuff as third-rate. He began quoting [1]:
"Come live with me and be my love,
And we shall all the pleasures prove..."
He stumbled badly through the middle of Christopher Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," but finished up decently enough:
"If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love."
 When he finished, I smiled beatifically at him, paused dramatically...and then answered, archly:
"If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love."
Then I extracted my hand firmly and walked away -- grinning like a loon. I gave his table a wide berth afterwards.
A girl my age almost tackled me when it was all over. "Oh my gosh, Gail!" she said. "What was that all about? I can't believe he did that." And then, belatedly, "And what did you say to him? He looks...not crushed, but..."
"Deflated?" I suggested.
His group decamped shortly afterward. I noted that the woman with him was acting...cold.
Heh heh heh.
Then the inevitable after-shock. "WHY," I asked the heavens, "Why couldn't he have been twenty--and SOBER?"

[1] It might have been "She walks in beauty" or "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" or a host of other famous poems. I honestly don't remember. I DID quote Sir Walter Raleigh at him, though, and in the proper spirit.

[Below: Random internet photos of Symphony on the Prairie picnickers.
Top left: from the stage looking out at the "prime" table seating.
Top right: from the tables, looking at the stage.
Center: Wider view from the audience, in the "camp chair" section. (In the "good old days" of the 90s, people brought blankets.)
Bottom: REAL percussion for Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Every July 4th, brought to us by the Evansville First Batallion 163rd Field Artillery. With howitzers.]


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Math Club: Stuffed Animal Venn Diagrams

My stuffed animals LOVE to come to math club.

Unfortunately, they're so enthusiastic that they get...overly rambunctious. This means I only let them come about once a semester.

("But we'll be angels this time, we swear! It was the kids! The kids made us do it!")

Uh huh.

Still, when they DO come, everyone has a blast. Here are some pictures from one of my very favorite activities last year, involving elementary set theory.

First, I selected which animals were invited. This led, naturally, to some arguments. ("No fair! Scheherezade got to go last time!" and "I feel the unicorns are over-represented whilst we non-magical ruminants are being ignored".)

Sadly, due to space constraints, I was forced to select along specific criteria, with preference going to mammals, reptiles, and magical creatures. While there were a token frog, fish, and bird or two, I apologize to the categories left cloistered in the closet who felt slighted. Their comrades told them later that being squished at the bottom of a laundry hamper for several hours was really not fun, but I'm not sure the excluded arthropods believed it.

Above: "Me, me, me! Take me!"
Below: "Can't...breathe...squashed..."

When it was time for our activity, I presented a short lecture about basic set theory. Venn and Euler, intersection versus union, subset and superset. The right side of the board, below, is relevant. The left was from our earlier practice problems that day.

Then the fun part. Let loose the stuffed animals! ("Freeeeeeedom!!!!")

[I note, sardonically, that the stuffed animals have, in theory, been "free" for five years, now. (They have declared independence and set up their own "government" but they have yet to ratify, or even write, a constitution.) That didn't stop them from acting like sailors on a rare shore leave spree. --ed.]

It was inevitable that the animals and kids would play together and ask for introductions. The children were sociable. ("Miss Gail, what is this mouse called? Oh, hi Reepicheep.") The critters, however, being severely self-centered, seemed to see the kids more as objects than people. Tsk.

I brought out several different colors of yarn and assigned the kids to make large circles on the floor. Then I had them sort stuffed animals by various criteria. This took some time since I had to compete with distractions: barks, oinks, loud conversations, fights, children whose eyes had just been clawed out...

We got there eventually.

Below, you see "animals with wings" in the red circle, animals who can fly in the yellow circle, and the intersection of those two sets in the center. Left to right: Opus the penguin; two dragons and Hedwig the owl; and Rasputin the reindeer, who moonlights for Santa. I also see and Season the sea serpent, but he really shouldn't be there, since he swims but doesn't fly. (Either one of the kids snuck him in incorrectly, or I'm remembering the criteria wrong. It could be animals with wings and magical animals, but there were more magical animals than that....

Yes, I should post these things when they're still fresh. Mea culpa.)

Here's another picture.

It looks like we had magical creatures on the right and maybe non-magical creatures on the left? I think that's right, but it looks like this picture was taken before we adjusted the circles so they didn't overlap.

I recall some charming arguments over which animals were, or were not, magical. The unicorn was obvious, but the kids were dubious about Tecumseh the skunk. I tried to offer a short--short! two sentence!--explanation from American history, but I don't think it penetrated. Fortunately, his impressive cloak swayed the doubters. Or something.

One of my favorite moments involved an argument about Hedwig. Some of the kids thought she was obviously magical, because she's from the world of Harry Potter. Others claimed that she might just be an unusually intelligent "squib" owl. (In Harry Potter, a squib is someone who is born and raised in the magical community but who doesn't possess magical powers.)

It's driving me nuts, now, that I can't remember for certain what our selection criteria were.

I do definitely remember Bear and Teddy being loud, obnoxious, and disruptive, though. They were so bad I was forced to put them in time out. (So, like every other day of math time.)

This picture below looks like "all animals" as a super set and "mammals" as a subset. More Euler than Venn.

There was also a three-circle problem with "real", "mammal", and "extinct". Jon's wooly mammoth Fred--you can tell my engineer of a husband named him instead of me--fit at the intersection of all three sets.

More awesome arguments from the kids:
"Dragons aren't extinct! They're not real!"
"No, they're like the dinosaurs. They belong in the yellow circle."

I tried not to interfere. Instead I just grinned and enjoyed the moment. Sadly, I don't have pictures of that one.

Meanwhile, younger siblings played happily with extra animals in the corner.

My imperfect memories and imperfect pictures are frustrating. I think I was so busy "teaching" (okay, fine, playing) that I didn't adequately document stuff.

Obviously this means we should do it again, right? --But only if the animals PROMISE to behave. No fights! No eating each other! No biting the kids! No loud grunts, growls, moos, and neighs while the teacher is talking!

("We swears. On the precious!")

Okay. Seems credible. Let's do it. ;)

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Julie Kimball, who handled it calmly that day when I showed up on her doorstep looking like a maniac with my hair in a wild, lopsided, fraying bun atop my head. I rushed around frantically for a minute, babbled incoherently, dropped off Littles, and then asked "Do you have any yarn?"

She rose to the occasion beautifully, taking my insanity in stride and producing a skein of cheerful yellow yarn within seconds.

Thanks, Julie. You're a real pal. :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Math Club: Origami

We did this activity on January 21, 2014.

Simple but fun! I invited kids to bring in square paper, origami books, and any origami creations they were particularly proud of. One kid brought in some amazing origami dragons with wings that flapped! Other families brought in gorgeous paper and awesome resource books. I love how supportive everyone is.

We did our regular 60 minutes of problem solving, and then for the last half hour, I just turned them loose. It was pretty unstructured, but kids chatted and experimented and tried new "recipes" and played with beautiful paper.

It might not seem like a very educational activity, but I believe that kids learn through play and experimentation. This was "applied" math, where kids hopefully observed, and intuited, some relationships among different kinds of shapes and ratios of lengths.

We did discuss things like "isosceles triangles" a little, as a sop to my conscience. But really, sometimes it's okay to keep things simple and just enjoy the social aspect of math club.

Behold, pictures:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Math Club: River Crossing Animal Puzzles

There is a category of logic puzzles called "river crossing" puzzles. Sometimes they involve "missionaries and cannibals" or "foxes and hens" or "jealous husbands."

I took a few and adapted them for stuffed animals.

My stuffed animals were delighted to participate, of course. They love outings! Getting that many passports processed was a nightmare, but the silly beasts brought that problem upon themselves when they declared independence in "the velveteen revolution" five years ago.

Gail: An omnivore bear goes to a special market at a Renaissance Faire, where he purchases a carnivorous predator animal, an herbivorous prey animal, and a sack of magic beans. To transport them all back home, he needs to cross a river, but he has a very small boat which can only fit one item in addition to himself. Only the bear can pilot the boat. Also, the carnivore cannot be left alone with the herbivore, because--
Kids: He would eat it!
Gail: Yup. He'd stand trial for the murder later, of course, but that would be too late for the poor victim. Also, the herbivore can't be left alone with the beans for the same reason.
Kids: It's not murder if it's a plant!
Gail: Right. ANYWAY. What's the most efficient way for the farmer bear to get all his purchases across the river without anything or anybody getting eaten?
[The kids form small groups along the river and divvy up the animals.]
Kid1: I want the dragon! She's a predator!
Kid 2: Awwww. What's the zebra's name? She's an herbivore, right?
Bear: You know, I could swim across. And I think I'll try eating just one of the magic beans...
[Note: Bear ALWAYS disrupts math time. --ed.]
Gail: Now, be gentle! If you pick someone up by the ear and toss him around, you'll probably lose a finger or two. It's happened to kids at church. Bitten clean off. And don't blame me. I'm just sayin'.
Kids: [Giggle]

Here are some pictures from that day, in early December of 2013:

The kids loved the activity. The animals loved it too, but I'm afraid they kept getting distracted. After entirely too much roughhousing with each other, I told them sternly that if they couldn't behave, they wouldn't be invited back. That settled them down...mostly.

It took some kids longer than others, but eventually everyone worked out a good solution. The "boats" were just sheets of paper, but it helped the kids to model the problem tangibly and visually. ("What if we send the bear and the beans, come back! The tiger is eating the unicorn! Well, what if we put the bear and the unicorn in the boat...?")

Okay, fine. There were also distracting gruesome chomping noises and dying screams and an argument about the unicorn fighting back with her horn in there, too. So they didn't always stay on task. That's part of the fun! ("Nomnomnom!!! Aaaaaargh!!!" [Scuffle] [Death rattle])


Once that was over, we worked on another one all together:

"Three carnivorous, predator animals, and three herbivorous "prey" animals all need to cross a river. They have a boat which can fit at most two animals at a time. At no point, on either shore or in the boat, can the carnivores outnumber the herbivores, because then somebody would get eaten. The boat cannot cross the river un'manned'. What is the most efficient way to get everyone across the river without anybody getting eaten?"

I sat back and let the kids do all the work. Well, I refereed a little like "Let Gertrude tell her idea", but I let them do all the thinking. They got that one, too!

Obviously, this coming school year, I will need to try something more...tricksy.

I wonder if I could adapt the Konigsberg bridge problem for stuffed animals....?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Letter Game: Eric

Dear Mom,

War was declared recently. I found out last night. I decided to join the army because we’re poor and the job pays well. Dad joined as well, leaving you with my six younger brothers and sisters, and no relief parent. Poor mama, how she suffers. I’ll send you my pay. I hope you stay sane.



Richard, you sneaking scoundrel! Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Your father has always been a ne’er do well – you know I don’t try to hide that, because I believe in being brutally honest  -- but I had hoped for better things from you.

I haven’t scrimped and saved all these years to keep you in school so that you could throw it all away in a stupid civil war! And you didn’t even tell me which side you’ve joined! And if you HAD to encourage your father to run away from home, couldn’t you and he have joined OPPOSITE sides? That way the family would hedge our bets. If our village changed hands several times, we could tell the occupying forces “Oh, I have a husband in your army” or “I have a son in your army”. And, that way, we’d be guaranteed that at least one currency would be worth something when the dust settles.

“You’ll send your pay.” Oh, joy. Do you have ANY IDEA what confederate greenbacks were worth at the end of the American Civil War? Of course you don’t, because you never paid any attention to your teacher, no matter how many times I screamed at you to do better, and yelled at him to be more interesting. I despair, I really do.

You’ve joined the communist rebellion, haven’t you? Aaargh! Did it occur to you to think about this at all, first? They’re communists. They don’t like money. They don’t have a stable government, they don’t print their own currency, they can’t pay their fighters. They’re probably getting funding from Ruskya for supplies, so hopefully you’ll get free food (some of the time) and a working gun, but how that will help me and your siblings? And even if you got paid in rublern, it’s not like I can use it locally!

Also, I’m worried you’ll get yourself killed. And if that happened, it would encourage Mitchell to follow suit.

I will keep the farm and family going as long as I can, but if things get bad, I will take them and flee to Shock Rock.

Also, remember to change your underwear frequently. And make sure the latrines are always placed far away from the water supply! More soldiers die from disease than from combat. That’s another you thing you’d know if you’d ever paid attention in history class. Or science. You’re hopeless at science!

I hope you know I love you. Even though you drive me crazy and I yell at you a lot. It’s only because I’m worried about you. And – oh, just  quit the army RIGHT NOW and come home and be a doctor!

Your furious mother

Dear Mother,

I would like to clear up a few misunderstandings.

First, I paid more attention in school than you realize. Sure, I got bored and distracted at times, but I still learned a lot. You act like I learned nothing, which is totally incorrect.

Second, I didn’t join the communists. I joined the loyalist forces, under King Fredrick of Chrenyin. I’m not entirely sure which side Dad joined, or why you want me to come home and be a doctor, sorry.

Also, the army is somewhat boring, and to entertain, I told my tentmates stories about your childhood, which I heard from my grandmother. I realized later that those stories were very embarrassing, and I regretted telling them. How can I ever make up for what I’ve done?



Cpt. Chen
32nd Company, 2nd division, Loyalist Forces

Dear Sir:

I hope my boy isn’t causing you too much trouble. I know he’s lazy and immature, but I’m sure you’ll beat that obnoxious streak right out of him. It seems impossible that anyone could make a real man out of him, but maybe the army can do it. Remember not to coddle him! If he complains about blisters or heat exhaustion or dehydration or a stomach ache or a broken wrist or any other minor ailment, just ignore him. He whines a lot.

But can you please check and make sure he eats his vegetables? I’m afraid he’ll be so homesick he’ll lose his appetite. You might need to get his messmates together and have them force food down his throat. Remember the stewed turnips! He claims to hate them, but I know they’re secretly his favorite food.

Now, for the reason I’m writing: I’m concerned about his embarrassing habit.  I so hate to embarrass my son, but I feel that national security is more important. I don’t want the deaths of his comrades upon my conscience, and he’s so sensitive, he might neglect to mention it.

He’s always been a sleepwalker. Once, on a camping trip, he started trying to climb a mountain in the dark in only his underwear. When his buddies tried to wake him up, he freaked out and started fighting them. They were lucky to restrain him before anyone suffered a serious fall. That was frightening, of course, but it was really weird how he yodeled the entire time.

What if he did something similar near enemy lines?

Probably the best thing you could do with him would be to re-assign him to a support position deep behind the lines. Maybe if he were put in on latrine duty? That would be a good job for someone of his limited intellectual abilities. If you must keep in with the forward infantry, may I respectfully suggest you put a leash on him and gag him at night?

I hope I can count on your discretion about all this. Whatever you do, please don’t show this letter to his buddies. I would hate for him to get teased about all this.

Thanks for your time and attention.


Mei Ling Chiang

Dear Mother,
That letter was extremely embarrasing. [sic]

And Captain Chen took it seriously! I was lucky to convince him not to transfer me to the 17th company. Also, the captian’s [sic] second-in-command/assistant saw your letter and decided to tell his freidns [sic] that embarrasing [sic] story about me climbing a mountain in my underwear. His freinds [sic] told their freinds [sic], and soon the entire COMPANY knew a garbled and far more embarrasing [sic] version of the story.

A few days later, the second-in-command resigned. He said he couldn’t bear the guilt of having told such an embarrassing story. I might have been promoted to replace him, but the captain didn’t want a complainer as his second-in-command. And that’s what he thougt [sic] I was, having read your letter. So instead of me, some guy named Ming got the position.
You’ve ruined my career. I might recover, but not while you send embarrassing letters. So try to be more tactful next time. And please, THINK IT THROUGH before you send another letter!

Your humiliated son
P.S. You never said how to make up. Also your letter was wrong about a few things. I’ll explain later.

Dear son,

Welcome to the army. I KNEW it would involve hazing and humiliation. I was just trying to teach you that lesson earlier rather than later. (Well, I HOPED I would succeed in getting you away from the front lines, but I knew that was a long shot. Public disgrace was plan B.)

You’re far better off abandoning your delusions now. It’s much better to be a clear-eyed realist when facing short rations, awful sanitation (and smells), mayhem, gore, and death. I have done you a favor, in the long run. You’ll thank me some day.

There’s an old saying: “Eat a raw toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Of course, your current embarrassment is nothing compared to siege and starvation, capture and torture, but I can’t help that. I’ve learned that I’m better off not obsessing about things I can’t control.

By the way, remember to brush your teeth every day! I don’t want my boy coming home—assuming you DO come home—with missing teeth. It would make it even harder for you to find a nice wife, which would make it harder for me to acquire grandbabies to spoil rotten. I’m trying to be positive, though. Since you’ll probably come home—assuming you DO come home, alive—missing some other body parts. A few fingers, a nose, maybe even a leg or two. Compared to that, a few missing teeth will be nothing.

Still, ANY missing body parts would make it harder for you to find a wife. And I doubt you’ll meet any nice girls in the army. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of beginning negotiations on your behalf now. If we can get some kind of contract signed, it will be harder for Jun Kwong to wiggle out of the engagement after you return maimed. You remember Jun Kwong, right? Such a nice girl. A few years older than you, of course, but still well within child bearing years! I’m surprised nobody else has expressed an interest in marrying her; she’s so strong and truthful! She’d be a real worker, someone who could deliver a baby at noon and be back to helping you with the hay harvest three hours later. She reminds me a lot of me. SUCH a nice girl.

As to ruining your career, I don’t believe it. You might be promoted to sergeant without an education, but then you’d hit a dead end. If you wanted to be an officer, you’d need to finish school.

Now, as to how you can make it up to me that you told embarrassing stories about me to your tentmates? Are you really that dense? That letter to Captain Chen was my revenge! How do you expect to get promoted when you have no sense of strategy or tactics? Oh, right. You expect to get promoted precisely because you have NO understanding of strategy, or tactics, or realism, or how the world works. I despair, I really do.

All that effort, and I’m afraid you haven’t even learned your lesson. No wonder you did so horribly in school, you dolt! Now come home right now and study to be a doctor!

Your loving mother.

P.S. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU LOST YOUR FATHER???? He may be a ne’er do well drunken spendthrift who never supported his family or listened to me, but I am rather attached to him. But I just remembered what my herbalist said about staying positive and not obsessing about things I can’t control. Deep breaths.  I’m sure it will be fine.

But have you tried looking in all the local bars? Oh, speaking of bars, remember to practice your ukulele every day. That is, until you lose your first few fingers.


Dear mother,

You have a good point, but it will take a bit more than that to get me to quit the army.

Also, about Jun Kwong, why on Earth would I want to marry her? She gave me cooties when I was 7 and again when I was 9. And my best friend refused to invite me to his birthday party because I had cooties. And also, when I was 15, my buddies and I pulled a prank on our teacher and Jun Kwong told on us even after we swore her to secrecy. No way will I marry her.

Another thing. Why do you want grandbabies? You still have 5 kids at home. Besides, I’m a little young to be getting married.

Dear Son,

Well, your father finally dragged himself home. He was in a state: bedraggled and filthy, with lice swarming through his matted hair. His arm was in a sling, which helps to explain why he had abandoned all attempts at personal grooming, but still, I found it very unattractive. He tried to claim the broken arm was a heroic war wound, but I suspect he was injured in an inglorious bar brawl. He’s probably AWOL from the army, too, which means soon enough we’ll have constables here harassing us.

Speaking of unattractive people, I’m so happy to hear that your objections to Jun Kwong have nothing to do with her appearance. It’s so shallow to judge people because of things they can’t control, like huge feet and disfiguring smallpox scars. Sadly, most of the other boys in the village think she’s ugly, which I find sad. She’s a beautiful person inside, and I’m glad you recognize that. This is your chance to capitalize on an under-valued asset. (I’ve been reading up on financial investments. Since your father will never support his family, it falls to me to provide the cash necessary to get your siblings an education.)

Now, as to your other objections, I am rolling my eyes. You know I try not to interfere with your life, but really! If you think you’re old enough to run away from home, join the army, and –ha!—become an officer, you ought to be old enough to give up ridiculous notions of cooties. And even if she did have cooties, you should be man enough to handle it! Your father has HEAD LICE, but you don’t hear me complaining! I suffer in silence!!!

As to Jun Kwong being a tattletale, I assure you she’s outgrown that. Be charitable of the mistakes she made in her youth. After all, do I still hold grudges about all the idiotic things you did when you were that age? Do I sit at the ladies sewing circle and whine about how, when you were fourteen, you told your best friend our strategy for the village “capture the scarf” game, and he betrayed you to his team, and we lost horribly for the first time in THIRTY YEARS? Do I continue to blame the entire thing on you, five years later? Of COURSE not. I forgive you for being young and stupid, because that’s what mature adults do. Besides, Jun Kwong was acting out of conscience, trying to respect the teacher.

Also, you’re never too young to get married. Just look at me! I married your father when I was sixteen, and we’re still going strong.

Since you don’t have any substantive objections to Jun Kwong, I’ve gone ahead with the marriage negotiations. If you came home right now, you could get married promptly. I could be a gram within a year! In fact, your child could grow up with his or her aunt or uncle. Because, just between you and me, I think I will be delivering another sibling for you, in about eight or nine months. Hopefully THIS time your father will stick around and deal with his responsibilities.



P.S. I hear there was an outbreak of dysentery or cholera or typhoid or whatever they call it. Something awful involving diarrhea, anyway. Please be careful in camp and wash your hands scrupulously, especially before you eat. Of course, if you’d ever paid attention in science class and studied medicine like I wanted, you’d already know that.

Dear Mother,

I don’t care what you say, but I stubbornly refuse to marry Jun Kwong.

But anyway, you said you were pregnant. How miserable you must be. When you were pregnant with my baby sister Rowen, you were vomiting all over, and it was brutal. That might have been a one-time thing, but I don’t think so, given what happened with my little brother John. I know you think it impolite to complain about those things, but it’s fine. Really.



P.S. The outbreak was of typhoid. You couldn’t identify it, but I could, so I’m better than you at medicine. Ha.

Dearest darlingest Richard,

I can see that I pushed too hard about Jun Kwong. I’m sorry that you felt threatened and emasculated by my harmless suggestion. (But really, if you weren’t interested, whyever didn’t you just SAY SO in the first place? You men are so passive aggressive, I despair, I really do.) You know I’m not the kind to flail the undead horse with nagging. That just causes maggots to feed on an unhealthy relationship. So we’ll just forget the whole thing.

Also, don’t worry about hurting Jun Kwong’s feelings. I’ve talked to her – SUCH a nice girl – and she said she understands. She said she’s “probably happier being alone than married to an immature guy who wastes my considerable dowry on gambling.” So mature. She would have been delighted to use her dowry to assist us in our penury (SUCH a nice girl, and so non-judgmental about your father running off AGAIN), but she appreciated your honesty and has moved on, so you don’t need to feel guilty about breaking her heart or abandoning us to abject poverty again. Though, really, it’s actually easier when your father isn’t around, because then at least he doesn’t waste the meagre funds I earn from taking in washing.

Now, about typhoid, of COURSE you could identify it better than I could since you’re on the scene. You probably overheard some of the field nurses discussing it. Not to say that you couldn’t be a great doctor if you tried. I’ve been telling you that for years.

Though if you really wanted to be a doctor, you could come home and take care of your ailing mama. You’re right about this pregnancy being miserable. I vomit several times a day, and it’s so frustrating. If I’m not going to keep anything down, I shouldn’t waste it. I should instead parcel out the nourishment among your younger siblings. But then, I think of the baby, and I think I should try to eat for its sake. I want it to grow up healthy and strong like its oldest brother.

Speaking of which, when you put your foot down about Jun Kwong, I realized that you really are all grown up, mostly. I guess it’s time to let go and admit you’re an adult and back off. If you MUST be a soldier, just make sure you’re a really good one. Except don’t go on any insane berserker charges to the front because you could get killed that way.

Actually, your example of decisiveness has inspired me to divorce your father. I’m better off without him. It’s not pretty, but it is a resolution. I’m sorry if this news distracts you from your mission of patriotism or whatever it is you’re fighting for.



P.S. Please forgive any bloodstains on this letter. I’m afraid my knuckles are raw from all the laundry I’ve been doing. I guess we’ll all just need to get used to that. You just focus on being the best soldier you can and don’t worry about us.

P.P.S. I just heard a rumor that you’ve won a major victory and the war will soon be over.

P.P.P.S. It's true! I'm so relieved! Oh, now you can come home and help out with all the young'uns. Unless you'd rather go to college, of course. I expect there will be a program to help soldiers get through school. There's a very promising medical tech program at the local university...