Category Archives: Conversations with Eli

Creativity Crisis Solved with an Alien City

Newsweek’s article on the “creativity crisis” has been making the rounds lately. It fits the usual template of such stories: extrapolation of a trend leads to prognostications of vague gloom. In this case, it’s that US kids’ Creativity Quotient scores have been falling since the 1990s.

The article is talking about a specific flavor of creativity, namely the ability to generate a lot of ideas, pick out and combine the most promising ones, and then follow through on them. The article contrasts problem-solving-based education that can foster this kind of thinking with US schools’ focus on rote memorization and test taking, and does a good job of citing research into creativity.

The article is less persuasive when it trots out the usual bogeymen of TV and videogames. The best videogames, and games in general, give you a set of rules and invite you to then solve the problems creatively, the kind of creative problem-solving that the article calls for in schools. And as fanfic and other transformative works show, people will watch TV and incorporate their stories into their own. The article approvingly notes that creative kids often make their own alternate worlds to play in. Can you get the same benefit from in part populating your alternate worlds with elements borrowed from TV shows? After all, most kids at that age are synthesists, creating those worlds from pieces of whatever stories they’ve heard, whether those stories came from books or TV or their family.

Programs exist to foster creative problem-solving, including Dr. Torrance’s Future Problem Solving Program. I’ll be interested to see if Eli and Liza’s schools offer such programs. But at least for now, I’m not that worried about them.

Eli’s Kindergarten Graduation was Very Wet

Last Thursday we celebrated Eli completing kindergarten.

Eli and his kindergarten teacher, Ms Vandiver

Some schools treat this as a full-blown graduation with caps and gowns and all kinds of formality. I am not down with that; I appreciate marking Eli’s transition from kindergarten to grade school, but it’s not really a graduation. Fortunately, Eli’s school didn’t do that. Instead, after everyone got their certificate, they went outside to have sponge races!

Eli runs with a sponge on his head

His class divided into two teams. Each team had a bucket full of water at one end of a stretch of ground and an empty bucket at the other. They had to transfer the water from the full bucket to the empty one using sponges. The first team to fill their bucket won.

Eli’s team didn’t win, but he didn’t care. He got to run a lot and get very wet.

You know, I kind of wish they’d done this at my doctoral graduation.

The Light! The Light!

We live near the eastern edge of the US’s Central Time Zone, which means we get light earlier in the morning. I’m sure it has something to do with relativity and perhaps warp drives. The upshot is that, in the summer, sunrise occurs at 5:30 in the morning.

Eli and Liza care nothing for arbitrary time zones. They’re on local solar time. When the sun rises, they get up. I know some of you don’t have children, so let me put this in a more familiar context for you.

Wandering Toddler Table

Before going to bed, roll percentage dice and consult this table to determine what encounter you will have in the early morning.

d% Encounter
01-20 At 6:00 Eli comes in to show you his latest Lego creation before going back to his room. You are Awake; saving throw before your 6:20 alarm ends.
21-40 Liza knocks on the wall to let you know she’s awake. Pass a DC 15 Bluff or Intimidation skill check to convince her to go back to sleep for a while.
41-60 Eli gets up and goes to the bathroom. When he returns to his room, he shuts his door loudly and wakes you up. You are Awake; save ends.
61-80 Eli pads quietly into your room multiple times. Each time he walks in, pauses, and then leaves. Each time you wake up. The fourth time, when you ask him what he’s doing, he says, “I’m seeing what time it is on your clock.”
81-90 You wake up to discover that Eli is staring at you in a very “Children of the Corn” manner. Suffer a surprise round, during which Eli will say, “Dad. Dad. Dad. Are you awake?”
91-99 Eli gets up and goes to the bathroom. When he returns to his room, he shuts his door loudly and wakes Liza up. Liza begins knocking on the wall. You are Awake; no saving throw permitted.
00 The sun goes supernova. You’re dead, but at least you got your sleep.

Perhaps He Will Be the Next David Cage

This morning Eli spent a fair amount of time inventing a new video game. The game starred a Lego version of Perry the Platypus, from the cartoon Phineas and Ferb.

Eli with his Lego version of Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb
Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb

For reference, here’s what Perry looks like in the cartoon. Man, that’s one sweet hat he has.

Anyway, in the game Perry has to dodge bad guys like the turtles from Super Mario Brothers and he can walk on the ceiling to avoid baddies and every once in a while you have to solve a math puzzle to continue and at the end of each level Perry fights Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, also from Phineas and Ferb. As he elaborated, I realized that he was creating the video game answer to Axe Cop.

I nodded along, until he said, “And the loading screen would be my face, and my eyes would get wider and wider until the next level loaded.”

That’s right — Eli re-invented Heavy Rain‘s loading screens without ever seeing them. I can’t wait until he independently re-invents God of War’s gameplay.

Eli Loves Technology, while Liza Gets Specific

I’ve joked before that Eli is a child of technology. For instance, he doesn’t understand why only some TVs can serve up hot and cold running Imagination Movers. He does read books, but he views even that activity in a computerized light. He was engrossed in a book one morning, and I had to tell him, “Eli, it’s time to go to school. Put up your book.”

“Okay,” he said, putting it down while open, creasing the spine and making certain breeds of book-collectors wince. “I’ve paused my book.”

On Monday Geof visited and brought his new iPad. He was brave enough to let Eli play with it, and in minutes he was selecting pictures, zooming in on them and panning like a high-speed Ken Burns, before he discovered he could play Bejeweled on the iPad. I’d heard people joke that the iPad interface was simple enough for a child to use; now I’ve seen that that’s true. I guess that’s why Geof bought on. Ha, zing! Take that, Mac-lover!

Liza is doing well, though she’s going through a spell of night terrors. We’ll hear her knock on the wall, and when we go in she’s crying and whimpering. Thankfully she settles down quickly.

She’s reached the first age of defiance, which I understand should last until she’s 90 or so. She’ll ask Misty a question, like “Where are we going?” If I say, “We’re going to Ari’s house,” she’ll say, “Nooooo, dad, I’m asking mom. Mom, where are we going?”

That bothered me for a while until Misty told me what Liza said while I was at work. “I miss dad,” she said. “When I’m scared he makes me feel better.” So I can’t provide information, but I can make people feel better.

To Eli on His Sixth Birthday

It only took us three years, but we finaly found the best place for your birthday party: Kidventure. It’s an indoor playground with an inflatable slide, a climbing wall, skeeball, and a pirate ship. We had the entire place to ourselves, and they let us bring in our own food, which meant that the parents got to eat something other than pizza! In previous years your outsourced parties have run like Mussolini’s trains, with the staff hustling us from play time to dinner time and out the back door. This year you got to play some, then eat some, then play some more, then eat the awesome robot cake, then play even more. This turned out to be a recipe for fun and not, as I had feared, vomiting.

Eli blowing out the candles on his awesome robot cake

Speaking of the awesome robot cake instead of vomiting, your robot cake was awesome. It was our friend RenĂ©e’s gift to you. It had a jetpack and a data tape coming out of its mouth that read, “Happy birthday, Eli!” You showed how thankful you were as only a newly-minted six year old can: you asked her, “Couldn’t you have made me a Pac-Man cake instead?” Fortunately you ended up loving the robot cake, probably because robots are awesome and jetpacks are awesome and together they are quadruply awesome.

This year marks your first year of school. You’re attending a wonderful school. It doesn’t hurt that you love your teacher and she loves you back. I wasn’t so lucky, and didn’t have a very good time that first year at school, so I’m glad that you love kindergarten.

Eli pretending to be dead

I do not love kindergarten, and it’s not just residual bad feelings left over from that time when I was five and another kid peed on me. I do not love kindergarten because I now have to get up early enough to take you to school on my way to work. I used to be a morning person long ago, but now I am not, and this enforced early wake-up time is killing me. You, of course, wake up at 5:30 or so because God listened to my parents’ prayers that I would have a kid who was just like me. But even though you wake up so early, you don’t spend that time getting ready for school. Instead you’re busy making Lego robots and K’Nex robots and Lincoln Log robots, which I guess means you’re into pre-Steampunk Steampunk. Woodpunk? Anyway, we figured out how to make you get ready faster: turn it into a competition. Every morning we race to see who’s going to be ready to go first, me or you. The winner gets to do the Taunting Dance to the loser. Then we race to see who will be the first to get in my car and buckle up. You usually win, because I am old and slow and can only win through trickery like leaving my car locked until I’m at the drivers-side door and ready to get in.

Eli with a spoon on his nose

Did you know they don’t make you take naps at kindergarten any more? I spent the better part of a year pretending to nap at school, and now they’ve removed that vital part of the curriculum. That’s undoubtedly good for you, since you don’t nap any more. On the occasions when you’re at home all day you spend “quiet time” in your room with the door closed, where by “quiet time” I mean “dad gets to play Xbox 360 time”. You’re not actually very quiet in there, since you have to make loud pew pew pew vrrrm whoosh noises for the Lego and K’Nex and Lincoln Log robots, or else what’s the point? Besides, if we ensure that robots always make pew pew pew noises then Skynet can never sneak up on us.

I love your creativity. I am so excited that you tell your mom, “I want to work on a project. I want to do a craft.” You doodle. You cut out paper shapes and glue them together. You draw. You tell stories that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Axe Cop.

Eli in his preschool graduation regalia

I also love how you read. Sometimes you take a break from making robots and pull books off of your shelf to read. You’ve taken to reading stories to me at night, which I encourage by deliberately mis-reading the books you give me. It turns out that most of my parenting tricks involve annoying you until you do what I want, which I’m sure will win me the Parent of the Year award. We’ve taken to reading longer books, like the Magic Treehouse books. You’ve loved reading Toy Dance Party, giggling uncontrollably at the parts which involve me making groooonk noises.

You’ve got a complicated relationship with Liza. You play together better than ever before, mainly because you’ve discovered that she’s a loyal follower. She gets to play with her big brother and you get someone to boss around…for a while. You play dress-up with her, which has given us so many pictures to show your future dates. The two of you push toy shopping carts around the house like a miniature consumer-oriented Shriners parade. You make robots together.

Eli hugging Liza

Liza’s also teaching you how important it is to negotiate, though you’re still not great at it. A lot of your negotiation involves you making ridiculous demands, like, “Liza, if you don’t do what I want, then I’m leaving!” It’s all part of learning to deal with your storm of emotions that appear and recede with the suddenness of a summer downpour. You’ll clench your fists and say through gritted teeth, “That makes me so angry.” I’ve struggled with anger my whole life; I hope you don’t have to do the same.

Videogames continue to be a large part of your entertainment, especially since we got you a Didj for your birthday. A Didj is like a Nintendo DS, only the handheld console costs far less than a DS and the games are “educational”, which means every once in a while the game stops until you answer a math question. It’s good that you’re really young and don’t know how annoying those games are, or how cheap your parents are. Next I’ll start you on Pitfall so you can learn the true lesson that videogames have to teach us: everything is futile.

Eli playing with his Didj while Liza looks on

The other day we were driving home from choir, We got home and you ran outside into the darkness. When I asked you what you were doing, you said, “I wished on a star.”

“What did you wish for?” I asked.

“My own robot.”

Every night I tuck you into bed, and a few hours later I come back to check on you. You start out sleeping under your much-loved space blanket, but soon you wind yourself around and on top of it, clutching the stuffed ladybug that has become your favorite animal. I untangle you and stretch the blanket back over you. Some times you wake up and smile at me before sinking back into sleep. When I put you to bed you hug me tight and say, “I think I’ll keep you here forever.” I know that can’t happen, and I know it shouldn’t happen, but some times I wish it were true.

Eli and me at the US Space and Rocket Center

Everything is Different Now

As usual we spent our Christmas vacation in Arkansas. You may recall that Liza had her first milkshake last year in Arkansas. Her reaction?

Liza, tired yet still drinking on her milkshake

We didn’t go back to the Purple Cow, but we did go to Cheeburger Cheeburger, another retro diner that serves milkshakes. What was Liza’s reaction this year?

Liza still loves milkshakes

At least Eli did different things this year.

Eli in a dog cage

I hope your holiday season was full of exciting new experiences as well!

Advanced Negotiations, An Ongoing Series

From time to time I’ve mentioned Eli’s futile attempts to threaten his sister by saying things like, “If you don’t do what I want, I’m leaving!” He’s moved on from that; instead, now he tattles. He tells us every thing Liza does that’s wrong, where “wrong” is defined as “things Mom and Dad have said are bad, and also things I don’t like”.

My dad harnessed this childhood trait for his own nefarious ends. Every year we traveled from Arkansas to Alabama for Christmas. Our tradition was that, on Christmas morning, we woke up and ran into the living room, where all of our presents were displayed, unwrapped, just as Santa had brought them. This meant that dad had to pack the car with our unwrapped presents.

One year he hit upon a brilliant stratagem. He took me aside. “Stephen,” he said, “I’ve put some of Andrew’s presents in the car. I need you to make sure he doesn’t go near the car and find them.” I agreed, so he then found Andrew and said, “I’ve put some of Stephen’s presents in the car. Make sure he doesn’t go near there.” We watched each other like hawks, ready to tell dad if one of us got within twenty feet of the car.

I haven’t figured out what I’m going to use Eli’s tattling for yet. Eli doesn’t have that problem, though. He’s sure he can use it in negotiations. We’ve started asking Eli and Liza to work out their own disagreements, so tonight, when Eli yelled, “Liza hit me! And it wasn’t for any reason, either!” I asked them to figure out how to resolve the problem.

“Liza, please don’t hit me,” Eli said. “Or else I’ll tell dad again.”

Liza Loves Bugs; Eli Loves Puzzles

Liza still loves her some bugs. These days she has her pick of them, as we’ve had so much rain that beetles and cockroaches have fled indoors to escape it. More fools they, as that puts them at Liza’s mercy. Liza finds them, picks them up, and carries them around by one of their teeny legs. She’s like a giant toddler God to these bugs. When she’s done playing with them she lets them run away, so I can only imagine the religion that has sprung up around these events.

“The God lifted me high into the air, and I heard peals of laughter like thunder!”

“You failed to sacrifice a bread crumb to Her yesterday! Be glad She did not crush your pitiable carapace!”

She found one in the kitchen this morning. All the way from our bathroom I could hear her yelling, “Buggy is running! He’s hiding from me! Come out, buggy! Come out!” A few minutes later she wandered into the bathroom. The beetle she’d found waved its legs feebly, trying desperately to pull one leg out of Liza’s grasp.

“This is buggy! He says hi!” Then she said, in a voice even more high pitched than normal, “Hi, daddy! I want to watch a show!” “Buggy wants to watch a show! He likes Dora!” she added in her normal tone of voice.

“How lucky he likes the same shows you do,” I told her.

Eli, meanwhile, is obsessed with escape-the-room games. He’s grown bored of Kingdom Hearts II: The Cut-Sceneing, so I’ve turned to free online Flash games to occupy him at night. He enjoyed titles like Little Wheel, but it’s the escape-the-room games that have captured his heart. He can’t really help with them, but he loves seeing me struggle to find the hotspots that, when clicked, will show a lever that, when pulled, reveals a substitution cipher that I then must solve.

In playing these games, I’ve filled sheet after sheet of paper with codes, ciphers, and doodlings. The other night he came up to me and said, “I have a piece of paper here. It needs to have codes on it.” So off we trundled to Jay is Games to find an escape-the-room game that wouldn’t frustrate me too much. I’m afraid if I get too stressed out I’ll only be able to calm myself by stepping on all of Liza’s bugs and hearing them pop like bubble wrap.