Scientific Go Fish

The Go Fish obsession continues. Someone plays with the kids every night, and they occasionally play together by themselves. We’ve yet to tackle a four-player game, though I’m not sure why. The kids don’t seem to eager for whatever reason, and so perhaps that’s why we haven’t tried.

Go Fish last night

Tonight, as I was playing with them, I stood to get something from the other side of the room, and I accidentally glanced at the Boy’s cards. (He has them spread out in a chair beside him, so the natural gesture to avoid seeing someone’s cards — looking down when passing — doesn’t work.) I did notice that he had a yo-yo (we play with a picture-based card set), and since I had a yo-yo, I thought I’d do a little experiment.

“L, do you have a yo-yo?” I asked during my next turn. E was set to go next, and I was ready for him to ask me if I had a yo-yo. He had been a little distracted, though, and asked instead, “L, do you have a yo-yo?”

L looked at me; I smiled back at her.

Afternoon reading

“E, I just asked her that,” I laughed. “You should have asked me that just then. Now, I’m going to ask you for it next turn.”

Playing with dough after dinner

He just smiled.

In Praise of Return

Coming back to school can be a relief for many of our students. They come from less than stable home lives, and the predictability of school is a comfort for them. These are often the kids that most often exhibit problematic behavior. Our principal sent us all an email to this effect. It read, in part, “Many of our students have experienced unrest over the break. Without their normal routines, meals, and social interactions found at school, they may need a readjustment period (and your grace) when returning.”

One of the things I’d decided to change in my class was to provide a mechanism for regular praise of students, both individual and group. The individual is easier: it’s just one person praising another. The group praise, though — lots of kids focusing on the good actions of one student. That was a tough one.

In developing the lesson, I thought we should spend some time writing and thinking about praise, so I prepared a Pear Deck for the kids (which allows them to respond to given prompts and see their and others’ responses projected anonymously. It’s a great way to have a real-time anonymous discussion), asking questions about when they were last praised, how it felt, when they last praised someone else, how that felt.

Some of the answers were telling, echoing the ideas in the principal’s email.

I asked students when they last remembered being praised. One student’s response was memorable:

The last time I remember being praise was when I manage to talk to people because I can’t really socialize with people. Another time I was praised was when I was working on something for a story and the person read it, and they said it was an amazing idea!

This young lady is one of the best students I’ve ever had: hard-working, kind, very intelligent, but painfully shy.

When I asked “How does it feel when you’re praised,” some of the answers really stood out:

  • It made me feel special and proud of my work that I have done. I barely get noticed on things so it like amazing to be praised.
  • I felt nothing because I didn’t care.

Finally, I asked students to consider why praise might be important, given all the responses they’d given and read. One showed that at least one student understand how much impact something positive can have: “For example, it could be one compliment that could save someone’s life…… They could be depressed and just needed someone to be nice to them and show them that people care about them.”

Contrast this awareness with how students so often treat each other, with insults and snide comments that are meant to build themselves up by tearing others down. I wonder if anyone else saw the irony. Smart kids — I’m sure they did.

Last Day of Break

“Daddy, I don’t understand. On Sid the Science Kid, the teacher calls all of the children scientists.” The Boy paused for a moment: he’s learned how to pause to heighten the moment just a bit. “That can’t be right! They can’t be scientists!”

We were on our way home from shopping, leaving the girls at home this last day of break. K stayed home because of a lingering illness, so we were together for the morning, but the Boy and I headed out after lunch to do the week’s grocery shopping.

“Why can’t they be scientists?” I asked, wondering what he had in mind.

“They’re just kids!”


“To be a scientist, you have to have a job. That’s your job. A scientist,” he explained still frustrated, though sometimes with him it’s hard to tell if the frustration is real or just pretend, as if he’s trying it on for size.

I thought about his definition and reasoning for a few moments, thought about why the teacher would be calling children scientists — obvious for an adult, not so much for a child.

“Well, E, it’s a question of scientific thinking. She’s calling them scientists because they’re behaving like scientists. They’re thinking like scientists.” This satisfied him for a few moments, but it didn’t satisfy me. I was wondering if he would ask what it means to think scientifically, hoping he would ask. He didn’t, so I prompted him. “Do you know what that means, to think like a scientist?”


“It’s a process. You observe. You think about why things happen. You make predictions about why things happen; you check those predictions…”

I fear a lot of Americans really have no clue what it means to think like a scientist.

The other night, while on a walk, I was listening to an old sermon by a religious leader, and he was railing against “intellectualism.” He never really defined it. He never really explained why it was so bad other than to say it was vanity. He was upset about how some Biblical scholars will spend so much time picking at the smallest little detail, and as he said that it occurred to me that he really didn’t have a firm grasp of what those scholars were doing, how they were examining the text, their methodology and the justification for it.

I think this is a common thread in America, this anti-intellectual position, and it’s directed at all sciences. People dismiss all sorts of things they, were they taught like Sid the Science Kid to think scientifically, they likely wouldn’t dismiss, and they accept things that, were they taught like Sid the Science Kid to think scientifically, they would dismiss out of hand.

So I was very pleased when E later spoke of thinking scientifically. And as he played Go Fish with the girls, it occurred to me that here is a perfect opportunity for some basic critical thinking: observe (listen to what others are asking for); test (ask for a few things in a systematic way); repeat.


The plan was simple: we were all going to bed early. Waiting for midnight on December 31/January 1? In the grand scheme of things, an arbitrary time in an arbitrary day? Whatever for? But L, who’d napped yesterday because of a lingering illness, really wanted to stay up.

What happened to my early bedtime? I decided to have a beer and watch another episode of The Same Sky, a great German mini-series set in Berlin during the Watergate crisis. There’s an East German spy, there are interrogation scenes in Hohenschönhausen, the main Stasi headquarters, there’s a family dealing with the effects of the East German doping sports machine — everything you could want in a series about East Germany. L appeared at the top of the steps and asked plaintively, “Can we stay up together?”

Of course, I agreed.

We went to the living room and spent the last forty minutes watching a bit of a documentary about the Russian revolution. Stalin got a mention early in the film, and I pointed out that he’s one of the most destructive figures in history.

“I know,” she said simply, explaining that in one of the books she recently read, Bombs for Hitler, one of the characters is Ukranian. And if anyone knew how evil Stalin was, it was Ukrainians at the end of the 1930s.

About ten to twelve, we began looking for live coverage of the ball drop in Times Square, but since we never watch network TV and don’t have cable, I’m really clueless about what local channels are, and we couldn’t find anything. By the time we decided it was no use, it was 11:59. Off went the television, and we waited for a few moments. Hugs, kisses — “Happy New Year.” And now it’s time for bed.


“I want a flat egg. No, no, I want a bagel and some Cheerios. And some milk.”

The Boy’s breakfast decision process is similar almost every day. I feel fortunate that we are in a position to provide him with so many choices, but at times, it exhausts us.

This indecision spills over into all parts of the Boy’s life. When given a choice for clothes, he can dither similarly. When given options for how to spend the afternoon, he can flip-flop similarly. It’s only a mild inconvenience, and probably common for his age. I can’t remember L being like that, but perhaps that’s just selective memory.

His indecisiveness comes into full bloom (to thoroughly mix my metaphors and split my infinitives) when he as a little money to spend, which has been the case for the last few weeks. He’d earned money with various chores and received some from aunts and neighbors, so for the last few weeks, he’s been playing out his options for how to spend his $30.

“I think I want a new log truck,” he said one day.

“But you had a log truck, remember. You lost all the logs, and now you don’t know where any of it is.” That probably wasn’t quite accurate: don’t know those things are, which is not to say that he doesn’t know.

“Well, still, I think I want a new one.”

A few days after that, it was a new Nerf gun.

“Son, you have two Nerf guns.”

“But they don’t fire that well.” Don’t they? I wasn’t aware of that.

He toyed with a few other ideas, but when we went to the toy store tonight, he’d finally settled on a Nerf gun.

And then he had to choose which gun…

Christmas 2017

So often in life, things come to an end and we don’t even realize that we’re living through last moments of this or that. Someone might lose a job and the whole family leaves, and you never see them again. More tragically, someone might pass away unexpectedly, and we regret deeply that we didn’t know that the last time we were with that person.

When an end comes and we know it’s the end, then we tend to savor it all the more.

Friends are moving to Connecticut. Good friends, for the last several years. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween we have always been together for the last several years. And tonight was the last time we’ll all be together for Christmas, perhaps for good. Sure, we talked about going up to Connecticut for a visit, but the chances of that happening, of us all being together like that, are quite honestly very slim.

It added a gray lining to the rest of the evening.

Wigilia 2017

Down at the bottom of the page, there are posts about the last several wigilias. How many? K and I were counting this evening after the food had been put away, the dishes washed, the presents opened. Thirteen together with Nana and Papa, which would make fifteen together as a couple. I stop and think about it: that would make the first in 2002. Surely that’s not right. We got married in 2004, and we were engaged in 2003. I check my photos from that period and sure enough, there are the pictures of K preparing food at the table where this summer she sat with Babcia in the morning chatting over tea.

Fifteen years. Fifteen times we’ve put up a Christmas tree together, cooked and cleaned for wigilia together (though K has done the vast majority of the cooking), bought gifts together.

We began all this a couple of years before the students I currently teach were born.

It’s not that I’m obsessed with how much time has passed. I used to be that way, but I think it was youthful sentimentality that I eventually outgrew. It’s not that the time has passed but that I no longer really notice it. Not like I did when I was so eager to be somewhere I wasn’t at that moment, when I looked ahead instead of looked around, so eager to be older, beyond where I was, not who I was. Grown. And truth be told, I never really felt that way — grown — until things became serious with K, when the future began to take definitive form. But since then, with our move to the States, the birth of our children, the purchase and eternal remodeling of our house, the pressures of our jobs, and all the other things that pack our days and nights, I don’t often give it much thought.

That’s the greatest gift of wigilia: a pause, a step out of time with the rest of our lives, a ritual that calls us to reflect and remember the past and appreciate the present.

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We have the same preparation rituals, the same cleaning. The one change: the involvement of the kids increases. The Boy eagerly helps with anything; the Girl, not so much, but that is changing as she matures. She’s eleven now, nearing what promises to be one of the most challenging and rewarding period, her teens. Wigilia always provides a metric for growth, both in the amount of help she provides and the willingness with which she eats some of the things she’s not really crazy about.

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We eat the same foods with little repetition. Barszcz z uszkami, pierogi z kapustą i grzybami, jakaś ryba. Zawsze tak samo. It’s the ultimate comfort food, recipes that have passed through generations with little change. I sometimes wonder what L and E might do with their families after we’re gone. Will they take these recipes with them? Will they find themselves reminiscing on Christmas Eve about how different their Christmas Eves were as children?

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.We follow the same script with little repetition. A nativity story, usually from Matthew. We sing a Christmas carol, usually “Silent Night.” We share the opłatek. And our wishes for each other never change, always involving health in one form or other. Is there anything else we need to worry about? Is there a greater or more important wish we could have for others?

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. We even give the same gifts (a photo yearbook of the previous year’s adventures). It’s not the most fiscally generous gift, but it’s what everyone really wants. “We always look forward to getting it,” K’s sister-in-law once told us, and in truth, K and I truly enjoy making it. It’s a challenge to narrow a year’s worth of pictures (approximately 12,000 in 2017) to a selection to fit into roughly 150 pages. And for me, it’s always the same: a bottle or two of some libation. We’re all so easily pleased.

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing. We end the same way, sitting around drinking coffee, listening to carols, watching the kids play with their toys. This is something that will eventually change. L no longer gets toys, not in the sense of something she can play with. E will reach that point too. In ten years, L will be in college, E in high school, and what gifts will we be giving then? Lego won’t be so very special, but we’ll figure that out. Hopefully, the gift of just being home — the Girl coming home from her junior year of college in ten years — will be enough.

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Ever. I end the evening alone, drink at hand, chewing on a cigar (and it’s even been the same cigar for the last few years, I would bet: a Partagas Black Label — a dark, earthy, rich, strong nicotine kick in the pants to end the evening), with Christmas music playing (this year, Chanticleer’s Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas), working on pictures taken throughout the day, then writing about it all — writing the same thoughts.

Nothing ever changes in wigilia. Nothing.

And yet there are all the little changes, little jewels of growth and change that make this year different from last. The Girl, singing soprano in the children’s choir under the direction of a new choirmaster who, looking for a change, has come through a miraculous chain of events from the Vatican where he was assistant music director at the Sistine Chapel to our little church in Greenville and has made the music of Mass positively angelic. The Boy, trying so hard to be a man, agreeing to change into more formal clothes because K explained that I would be doing the same. K, realizing she doesn’t have to do everything every year — notice: no kapusta z grzybami or zupa grzybowa on the menu, and only two deserts — and having a much more relaxed day as a result.

We’re all growing.

The truth is, everything changes every wigilia.


Wigilia Eve 2017

It should really have been a different few days. These last few days before Wigilia have always been filled with baking, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and anticipation.

There has been some preparation, to be sure. We’ve done the usual cleaning. But somehow, it just doesn’t seem possible that tomorrow is Wigilia. The build-up is somehow just not there.

Given the stress that it can cause K, perhaps that’s a good thing. Definitely.


The Girl turned eleven today. Babcia called to wish her well.

Santa and Mrs. Claus dropped by with pecan pie and presents.

And the gifts — almost all cash, as the Girl is saving for her own iPod — came pouring in, relatively speaking.

Eleven years she’s been with us. Just over four thousand days.

And they seem to have disappeared in a flash.

Now Taking Orders

The Girl is creative: there are no two ways about that. She’s always making something, recycling something, inventing something. Sometimes, it comes about after some searching for DIY methods; sometimes she just thinks of something.

Her latest obsession is stress balls — balloons filled with various items. Rice, flour, slime, sugar (white and brown), quinoa. Whatever she can find. I think that’s the experimental part coming out.

Kids at school have asked her to make them their own stress balls. Or perhaps she just offered to make them. At any rate, she was buzzing around the kitchen in the afternoon, looking at the notes she’d made, filling orders for rice stress balls and flour stress balls and sugar stress balls.