Do Brain Training Games Work?

Nurturing neurons

Nurturing neurons

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like RadiolabThis American Life, and Science 360  make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements from “brain training” companies that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similarly protective effects? Not even close.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some of this research is conducted by individuals or institutions with financial links to brain training companies.

And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with the BBC to launch the Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  (I’m going to be pretty old in 40 years. I bet you will be too.) It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit very realistic fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

act of Christmas kindness, heartwarming Christmas, poor helping poor on Christmas, lesson of giving,

Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Create Lasting Family History: 8 Ideas


My family, probably like yours, has only a few pieces of tangible family history. Receipts saved by a great great grandfather. A nearly illegible diary written 70 years ago by a young soldier. Recipes with notations in my grandmother’s handwriting.  Solemn photographs, many unidentified.

Still we recently managed to trace part of our lineage. We found it exciting to uncover a family tree reaching back dozens of generations. Maybe having a Nordic ancestor named Malcolm the Big Headed explains my protracted labor with our very-big-headed third child. But discovering the names of ancestors isn’t entirely satisfying. We want a wider glimpse. We long to know what sort of men and women these people were. How did they feel about the events of their time? What were the stories that made up their lives? What personal traits did they pass down to us?

Our ancestors may not have left us much to go on, but chances are we’re leaving even less for our own descendants. The richest details of family history come from sources that are rarely if ever utilized these days. Families once saved newspaper clippings, but there aren’t many local newspapers reporting the details of club meetings or family reunions. Few of us are avid letter writers with copies of our correspondence. The tradition of travel journals and daily diaries are largely forgotten. We may have extensive digital material but there’s no real assurance that our videos, photos, blogs, and social media sites will be saved let alone accessible in 100 years or more.

There’s a solution.

Create family memorabilia intentionally. This isn’t a one-shot deal, it’s a long-term approach. Working together on any of the following following projects not only promotes close ties, it adds to a storehouse of rich family memories. Choose the methods that work best for your family.


Write Annual Autobiographies

Each year help your young children make a new “All About Me” book. Start with a scrapbook or blank book. Include a self-drawn portrait as well as photos. Write about favorite foods, activities, and places. Use the same prompts each year such as “What makes me happy,” “What I am good at,” “What makes me mad,” and “What I want to be when I grow up.” Don’t show surprise or dismay over any answers, just help with writing, transcribing if necessary.

As your children get older, encourage them to keep up the tradition. These books are an invaluable record of growing self-awareness. You might write one of your own too.


Save Online Journals

Many of us post entries on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, blogs—well, you know. These regular updates are a form of journaling. They detail our struggles, joys, and interests—compiling exactly the sort of material family historians adore.

A simple way to preserve your blog or other online material is to turn them into books. Print out your most memorable posts on acid free paper and slide them into archival sleeves. Or bind them into books yourself (put the terms “book binding instructions” in a search engine). You may prefer to submit the pages to a custom book service such as,, or Consider making copies for each family member.


Keep a History Cache 

Designate a special trunk or storage container as a personal history cache for each person in your family. Use it to store photos, once-favorite toys, copies of medical records, a few baby teeth, letters, artwork, stories written by your child, special ticket stubs, whatever you deem memorable. Whenever possible put items into acid-free bags, wrap fabrics in acid-free tissue, and slip papers into archival sleeves. Add important items to this cache throughout the decades.


Pass Around a Family Journal 

Once a month or so, your family may enjoy adding entries to a large-format, acid-free journal. This journal might include hand-drawn cartoons and sketches, observations about current events, and diary-like entries. Consider lists such as “things I want to invent,” “places I want to go,” and “people I’ll be friends with forever.” Each family member can respond to the same journal prompt such as “my idea of a perfect day,” or “the best part of my week.” Keep this activity light-hearted and non-critical to ensure that kids of all ages continue to take part. Such journals provide a messy and charming look at our unique families.


Make Collaborative Scrapbooks 

If you are one of the many talented scrapbookers carefully keeping photos and memorabilia, you’re ahead of the family history game. But make sure you include more than photos and themed decorations. To really capture the essence of your family you’ll want to include envelopes in your scrapbook pages where you can save letters (try having each member of the family write a letter to an older version of him or herself), lists, and notes about each child. You can also fill the pages with your child’s artwork and creative writing.


Put Together Family Zine 

A family zine or newsletter is a lively way to keep your extended family and friends up-to-date on your news. Include updates, inside jokes, funny quotes from the youngest ones, photos, family trivia (measure the circumference of your heads or all the proposed names for the new goldfish), memorable moments, favorite recipes. You may decide to create a monthly, seasonal or twice yearly issue depending on time constraints. Encourage each child to contribute something each time. Make sure you print out plenty of copies to save on acid-free paper.


Seal a Time Capsule

A time capsule is a great way to get to know what is important to each of your family members. Choose an airtight, heavy duty container if you plan to store it long-term. Ask everyone to contribute items they find personally and historically relevant. This might include photos, toys, artwork, coins, and magazines. For extra protection put each item into separate airtight acid-free bags, folders, or boxes. Include an inventory explaining the items; otherwise the significance of that plastic movie monster may be lost!

You may also choose to leave a written message for whoever will open the time capsule, even if it will be your own family in thirty years. You might want to write about an ordinary day, your concerns, your views on the news, current trends, and predictions for the future. Before sealing, toss in a few desiccant gel packages (these are often found in new electronic goods or vitamin supplements) to absorb damaging moisture.

It’s best to store your time capsule indoors. If it’s hidden, keep track of the location by noting its GPS coordinates. You may choose to schedule an opening at a special date or occasion, perhaps upon the birth of your first grandchild or New Year’s Day 2040. Send those GPS coordinates and plans to as many people as possible for safe keeping. Also, register your time capsule with the International Time Capsule Society.


Keep a Memory Jar

This is the easiest idea of all. Write the label “Memory Jar” on any large container and keep it visible. Or use a locked box with a slot. Encourage family members to scrawl memories, even a sentence or two, on any scrap of paper. Each one needs a date and name before folding it to tuck in the jar. Decide in advance when the jar will be opened. Once a year? After a few decades? Here are more ideas for keeping a Memory Jar.


As you work together on the projects you’ve chosen, you’ll find that making intentional memorabilia is fun. It’s also highly educational, builds family closeness, and creates irreplaceable resources for future enjoyment. Now that’s a legacy.


Published by Natural Child Magazine  March/April 2014

Leaving Little Love Letters

mother's love notes,

Image: Ebineyland

My mother regularly wrote little love letters to her children.  They started appearing on our pillows when we could first read, at least one every month or so. Sometimes her notes would reference something we did or said but mostly they simply gushed with affirmation. Her standard ran along the lines of, “You are the nicest, most wonderful seven-year-old in the whole world.”

Her one or two sentence notes were usually written on a scrap of paper. My mother made “scratch” paper out of junk mail and school fliers. She tore paper on the fold lines, getting three pieces out of a standard letter-sized sheet. This made the flip side of her little love letters unintentionally quirky, with references to bank policy or reminders about choir practice. My brother and sister got their own notes but we never mentioned them to each other. They were a private and cherished connection between mother and child.

By the time I was nine or ten years old I wrote little love letters to her too, hiding my notes in her shoe or tucked into her jewelry box. It was easy to tell when she’d found one. She’d dole out a big hug and whisper a line I’d written back to me.  It seems these notes meant as much to her as they did to me. After she died I ran across some of them stuffed into her favorite cookbook, effusive words penciled in my best handwriting.

I know all too well that family life sometimes scrapes us like sandpaper against those closest to us. We don’t talk enough about what amuses or delights us because we’re busy saying that the towels aren’t hung up, shoes are blocking the door, and food is left out on the counter. We may also be dealing with doubts kindled by worry and annoyances that can spark into anger.

Sure, we linger over tender moments that we wish could last forever. We praise the effort (as all those relationship experts tell us to do). But there’s something special when we take the time to write down our very best feelings for one another.  A note is a tangible expression unlike any other.

I won’t kid myself that I’ll ever write as many tiny love letters as my mother wrote in her life. But today I’ll be writing a few sentences to my loved ones and hiding those notes where they’ll find them. I know there’s a sense of completion when we say what’s in our hearts.

We Warp Time

slow time down, live each moment,

Remember sitting in third grade watching the minute hand move so slowly that dismissal time seemed weeks away?  Remember how your ninth birthday took almost forever to arrive? Yeah, that was childhood. Now months zip by with such speed that it’s becoming clear our elders hang on to handrails because time is practically knocking them down as it whips past.

This concept is brilliantly depicted at Wait But Why.

See how our perspective of time changes as the years go by?

Researcher Robert Lemlich studied the way we perceive this. According to him, 80 year olds have gone through 71 percent of their subjective experience of time by the age of 40, making the years between ages 60 and 80 seem like 13 percent of their lives. By his calculations, when we’re 20 years old we’re halfway through the felt experience of our lives, meaning that 60 additional years will seem to pass as quickly as the first 20. That’s a nasty blow.

It makes me wonder how the youngest among us sense time. If a baby cries when a parent leaves, does it feel like an eternity of sorrow to him? If a toddler’s plaything is grabbed by another toddler, does that frustration seem to stretch out forever? Maybe that’s not far from the truth.

It illustrates why our experience of time isn’t entirely explained by the proportional theory. If we think about it, we realize our perception of time has a great deal to do with what we’re experiencing. Time actually warps. Notice that it moves grindingly slow when we’re in physical or emotional pain. Time also elongates (far more wonderfully) when we’re fully present,  making even the most ordinary moments—a child’s squeal of laughter or a sip of cool water—into something larger. It stretches even further when we’re immersed in a wholly new experience—say first love or scuba diving or public speaking.

Far too often, our personal time warp goes the other way. It gathers speed because we’re busy, we’re multitasking, we’re in a rut, and thus less mindful of the passing moments that make up our days, weeks, and years.

We can get all quantum-y about it. There’s an experiment that seems to explain why time moves slower and faster according to our perception. But we don’t really need to study entangled photons to figure it out. We want to fully live the time we’re allotted on this planet.

I’m working on making my time more warpable. How do you stretch your sense of time?

slow down time, perception of time,

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”  ~Albert Einstein

Lollipop Epiphany

child's near death experience, choking on candy, end of life vision,


Jennifer took the second-to-last Dum Dum lollipop in the bag, root beer, leaving me the lime green one. Lime was my least favorite but I didn’t say anything. I pretended to flick open a lighter and held that invisible flame to the end of my lollipop. Jennifer did the same, exhaling around the side just like teenagers did with real cigarettes. We wanted to be older that badly.

Like all the other fourth grade girls we knew, she and I exaggerated. When we walked we went on for miles. When we were thirsty we drank gallons. So of course she said that her older sister Mary Beth would die if she found out that we were not only listening to her records but had also finished the candy. Happy to be playing in Jennifer’s basement, dying was the last thing on my mind.

Jennifer and I danced, whirling around as we sang, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” Suddenly the round green lollipop I was sucking on separated from its cardboard stick. It hurtled to the back of my throat and lodged in my windpipe.

I couldn’t breathe.

My arms flailed as I tried to inhale, make a sound, get Jennifer’s attention. Still, no breath.

Quickly my body slid into a state I’d never experienced. The music played on and Jennifer danced on, completely oblivious. That abstract concept, time, lost meaning as I looked around me. Everywhere there were details I’d never noticed. The texture of the cement block walls, the colors in a blanket tossed over a worn couch, the beauty of my friend. It was all tender perfection.

A kind of knowing completely filled me. Even as my awareness expanded my vision dimmed. The room began to darken. Without making any choice at all I loosened my hold on living. It felt easy, right, and wonderfully peaceful. Just past letting go, I knew a sort of bliss. The body slackening toward the floor no longer seemed like my own.

The last image flickering in my consciousness was my mother’s face. That glimpse activated something I couldn’t explain. Although my mind no longer seemed connected to my limbs, a sensation of strength came into my legs. Instead of dropping to the floor, those legs churned up the stairs as if powered by an engine I didn’t drive. I was outside myself, watching as I wavered at the top step, nearly falling backwards.

Jennifer’s mother appeared just past the door. She took a look at my blue face and bulging eyes. In one swoop she turned me upside down, smacking my upper back hard and repeatedly.

The lime green Dum Dum rolled across the floor.

I gasped.

There were no words for that moment, although I was bursting with emotion. So, like any other fourth grade girl, I said dramatically, “Wait till Mary Beth finds out.”

Jennifer’s mother told me to be more careful about dancing with candy in my mouth. Jennifer put another record on. What had been an ordinary day continued, though I’d seen the veil between worlds.

I never told anyone the last thing I glimpsed back in that basement. Unable to breathe, I saw my mother already grieving my death. No exaggeration, that moment woke me to the rest of my life.

near death experience, child's near death experience, child choking,

Image: Steve Snodgrass

We Need Hidden Worlds

When I was very small I liked to climb what I called a tree. It was actually a sturdy shrub. I sat between branches less than a foot off the ground, sure I was hidden, feeling mysterious as creatures that speak without words. I also used to retreat to the coat closet with my younger brother. We sat companionably in the dark under heavy coat hems, talking or just enjoying the quiet together. And we made pillow forts, draped sheets over furniture, and played under the folded leaves of the dining room table.

My favorite hidden place was in the woods behind our house. There was a small rise no bigger around than two desk tops. Tall trees grew at either side and a creek bed, dry most of the year, ran along one side. The whole area was covered with leaves. I tried to walk there soundlessly, as I fancied Native Americans walked, not cracking a twig or rustling the underbrush. I tried to identify plants I could eat or use if I lived in the woods, as the boy did in My Side of the Mountain . I’d sit alone in completely silence, hoping if I did so long enough the woodland creatures might forgot about me, might even come near. I snuck food out of the house to make that place a haven, as I’d read about in Rabbit Hill but I always came back to find the iceberg lettuce and generic white bread I left remained

Once I became a preteen I found a hidden world right outside my bedroom window. I climbed on a chair and hoisted myself up on the gently sloping roof that faced the back yard. When I started college at a large urban university I’d just turned 17. My hermit soul craved time to be alone and still. The only place I found was in a bathroom on the upper floor of the oldest building on campus. I’d retreat behind a heavy wooden stall door, close the antique latch, and meditate on the wood grain of that door until I felt restored. A necessary refuge, although hardly ideal.

Most children seek out small places to make their own. They find secret realms in couch blanket forts, behind furniture, and in outdoor hideaways. There they do more than play. They command their own worlds of imagination away from adult view, often listening to silence by choice.

Perhaps retreating somewhere cozy harkens back to our earliest sense memories, first in the sheltering confines of the womb and then in the security of loving arms. Yet at the same time, hidden worlds are also a way of establishing our independence. Children have surely always slipped out of sight in the cool shadows of tall cornstalks, the flapping shapes of sheets hung on clotheslines, the small spaces under back steps, behind furniture, and inside closets.

There are all sorts of tiny retreats that can be purchased for kids. Plastic structures made to look like ships or cabins, tiny tents, pre-made playhouses. These things lose their allure. Children want to discover hidden places on their own or long to create them out of materials they scavenge like fabric, cardboard, scrap wood, whatever is handy. (The benefits of this play is described in the “theory of loose parts.”) These places tend to be transitory, lasting for a short time or changing into something else. They’re special because they’re unique to the child. These places contain the real magic of secret places.

Hidden worlds are made with blankets, indoors

or outdoors.

They’re found in cardboard boxes



natural play place, loose parts play,


and under trees.

They’re made out of old logs

old plywood

or branches.


The hidden worlds I cherish these days have more to do with a quiet sense of peace found in moments of solitude. What’s paradoxical, these are also times when I most often feel the oneness that connects everything.

Maybe growing up with the freedom to retreat within hidden worlds, no matter what was going on, helped me to access this in myself. Hurray for blanket tents, for treehouses and spaces under tables, for all hidden worlds that let us gather up what is fragmented in ourselves and feel whole again.

How do you make time, and space, for hidden worlds in your child’s life and in your life?

Not My Real Name


We learn early on that our names are serious business.

  • One of the main questions we’re asked as toddlers when out in public is “What’s your name?”
  • As we grow up, our parents tend to address us with nicknames or endearments, unless we’re in trouble. Then, full name at top volume.
  • Once we go to school we put our names on assignments and tests day after day. Sometimes classmates use our names to taunt us too.
  • Our names are right there for the world to see on diplomas and resumes and emails.
  • The names we’re given can affect the way people perceive us and even our career success.

Sometimes I feel as if the potential our parents saw when they breathed our names aloud for the first time is diluted by sheer overuse.

So I play with my name. If I don’t absolutely have to give my real name I use any other name that occurs to me, entirely on an inspiration basis.

When leaving a name for reservations at a restaurant, I usually make one up. It adds a little levity to my life. It’s also a decent short term memory exercise. If I’ve given the name “Snape,” I have to remember they’re talking about us when they call, “Snape, party of six.” Not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time. My default name for restaurant reservations is Ferdinand, in honor of the classic children’s book about a peaceful bull. It’s a quiet homage to the book and, of course, a secret acknowledgment that the name I’ve given is technically bull.

I use alternate names for mail order items, too.  Sometimes I give myself a new first or last name, sometimes an item comes addressed to one of our farm animals or dogs, sometimes I use a name I’ve made up. A magazine subscription comes addressed to Sarcasm Collective, Netflix envelopes arrive for Angelic Presence, and catalogs arrive under all sorts of use a pseudonyms such as Canning Whoop Ass and Ms. Procrastinator. It’s a remarkably effective way to track who is selling your information. For example, when ordering a piece of camping gear for one of my kids, I gave myself the first name “Spelunker.” The next few months I got camping gear advertisements addressed to that name, as expected, but also advertisements for motocross racing, yoga supplies, and silk underwear.

I bestow my love of alternative names on others too. My friends and family are accustomed to getting a card, package, or voice mail with something added to their names. At last month’s food co-op, the treasurer complained that her kitchen drawers seem to be taken over by twist ties.  When I sent in the check for my order, the envelope was addressed to her in care of Institute For Twist Tie Preservation. Not the best example, but the most recent. I’ve sent packages to my son’s college mailbox with odd name changes as well. (You may want to avoid this if your loved ones aren’t likely to appreciate or at least tolerate it.)

I also find it provides a moment’s amusement to use nonsensical names, fictional names, or the names of long-dead luminaries when writing something non-essential. I’ve recently signed for packages as A. Earhart, Scout Finch,  and Hubert J. Farnsworth. I filled out a farmer’s market poll as Susan B. Anthony. I added myself to a mailing list for local arts events as V. Woolf. The name I most recently put a waiting list was Ima Wench.

Maybe my name games are a reaction to the stress we all face in an uncertain world. Or maybe I simply find that a little silliness keeps me more gruntled than disgruntled.

Just remember, if you’re meeting me for dinner I’ve probably given the name “Ferdinand.”

School Violence Led Us To Homeschooling

bullying leads to homeschooling, school violence, guns in school,


We became homeschoolers suddenly. One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home right before the first class of the day. The teen who’d been harassing him had just showed him a gun, saying it would be his last day to live.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but remove him directly from his classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year my son told us what he heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed. I assumed they were baseless.

My son’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kid. My son used sarcasm as his defensive weapon. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to the taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted my son told me these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if groups of teens assembled, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down, admitting that it might be safer if we homeschooled. My son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. Plus, I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our four-year-old already knew how to read but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced homeschooling kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how profoundly they are motivated by their own interests, and how those interests translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold. The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

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This piece originally appeared on Wired.

For A Fresher & Juicier Experience, Mix It Up!

This doesn’t bode well. I’ve been talked into a day-long workshop and I don’t know where to go.

There are two large conference rooms at the Cleveland Marriott. Their doors open across the hall from each other. There are also two different groups convening today, but someone has neglected to post signs at either one.

Now, to figure out which group is mine.

On one side waiters roll in carts of muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee. A tray of bright red strawberries passes tantalizingly close to me. I long to taste just one from the tray, but show uncharacteristic restraint due to the press of people entering that conference. Through those doors walk people who are impeccably dressed. Not only suits on the men but shined shoes, not only dresses on the women but elaborate hats. The attendees are all African-American.  I spy a few Bibles.  Seems to be an evangelical gathering of some sort.

On the other side there’s a lone table with water pitchers and glasses.  Folks are moseying in slowly. Their clothing is more diverse than their skin tone.  I spot Indonesian, African, and Japanese prints.  In front of me a man with long gray hair in a pony tail is saying something to a companion about “passing through a portal of enhanced energy.” I assume he is making an ironic comment about walking through such a blandly generic doorway, but he goes on to remark that this was the name of a workshop he’d attended in Phoenix recently.  Yup, this is my side of the hallway.

I find the friends who invited me and silently promise myself to sit still. (I’m not much for staying put.) Music starts, we sing, and I’m ready to have my consciousness raised.

I’ll give her this, the speaker is interesting.  She sets off my “Oh sheesh” meter a few times thanks to her quasi-scientific quantum physics references, but I already agree with what she’s saying. Each of us can be light workers who spread hope, and ultimately greater peace, through our daily words and actions.  We participate in group meditations, activating ourselves to take on greater responsibilities for uplifting others.  While not new, her message is certainly valuable.

But all that time we’re stuck in a meeting room. I don’t know how anyone can sit that long. I tend to wiggle and my mind wanders when my body is uncomfortable. I wonder how our brethren across the way are faring. When the fidgets get the best of me I excuse myself for a hallway ramble. I notice through open doors on the other side of the hall that those participants are also chair-bound, staring straight ahead with the glazed look that comes from hours of immobility.  Likely we are gathered in both conferences for similar purposes—-to enliven our spiritual lives and bring greater harmony to our bit of the planet.  And surely the experience is enriching.  But both meetings could be so much more if only we weren’t locked into a school-like format.

We humans learn as we make discoveries and face challenges. We learn by translating our experiences into story, song, art, into something created.  We learn through the wisdom of our bodies. We don’t learn as fully when passively sitting still and shutting up for long periods of time indoors. Opening conferences (and any educational venture) to more direct involvement lets the lessons sink in deeper, making whatever we’ve learned more easily applied in our real lives.

I’ve worked for years teaching non-violence techniques to teachers and community groups (and I hope making the workshop experience a lively one).  A key ingredient is finding common ground with those you perceive as dissimilar to yourself.  Connecting with others leads to rich possibilities.  The new combinations can be awesome.

Returning to my chair I can’t help but remember an old 80’s advertisement for candy.  Chocolate and peanut butter collide and find that together they are more delicious, creating a whole new confection that the world loves.

I imagine the doors to both conference rooms bursting wide open and the participants merging. Meditations combining with prayers.  Affirmations mixing with hymns. Our mutual dislike of sitting too long in these chairs turning into a joyous celebration that dances beyond the doors.  How much we all have to share with each other.

And yes, maybe I do imagine tasting those strawberries at last.