About Alice

I'm a part-time pediatrician and full-time mom of two boys and one girl.

Tickled Pink about Writing

We’ve been back from our vacation for just under two weeks. It took us about a week to get over jet-lag (worsened by illness). This past week we got back into the groove of school and activities and it felt good to return to a routine.

Overall, the school year is going well. The subject that I consistently agonize over the most is writing. I’m never completely happy with what we are doing. I have about four different writing “curriculums” and we’ve used parts and pieces of all of them at different points. I’ve flirted with Bravewriter for so long that I finally broke down this year and bought The Writer’s Jungle. I haven’t actually read it yet, mind you, but it’s sitting on my desk.

However, one of the projects we’ve done this year that I’ve been the happiest about was an extra writing/language project working with idioms. I made a list of 50 different common idioms. (There are tons of these lists online; I picked from one that was geared towards middle schoolers and that I thought had a good amount of expressions that my boys didn’t know.) The first week I gave the list to my boys (5th and 8th grade) and had them come up with definitions to see how many they already knew. Then we went over the real definitions together and discussed them.

The second week I put slips of paper with the idioms on them in a jar. I had them each pick five pieces of paper and write a paragraph using those five idioms. All three kids (2nd, 5th and 8th grades) joined in. The stories were hilarious. My 8th grader (who claims to hate writing) wrote a particularly funny story using the five idioms he picked correctly and also as many idioms as he could remember literally. There was a character who literally walked on eggshells, for example.

The third and fourth weeks we kept the slips of paper in the jar and played two different games. One was a game where everyone took turns drawing an idiom and then restating it in literal terms without using any of the words in the idiom. For example: “If you live in a house made of breakable material you shouldn’t throw hard spherical objects.” The other game was idiom charades. Both were a lot of fun and a huge hit with the kids.

When we do fun things like this I end up being glad and feeling like we should do more of this kind of activity in our homeschool. But then I start to worry about things like spelling and grammar and punctuation and the FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY. Right now, we are still using somewhat of a mish-mash of formal and informal writing approaches and it’s working ok. I have another writing project (on codes) planned, but got thrown off a bit by our travel. I plan on beginning that this coming week to add a little fun into our weekly routine.




Scenes from Paris


Part 2 of our Europe vacation was Paris. When we talked about taking the kids to Europe we narrowed it down to Paris or London. We knew we couldn’t afford a multi-country many week trip and wanted to concentrate on one place. We wanted to be based in a larger city with options for side-trips. We also wanted it to be fairly easy and comfortable for us. Both England and France were countries that we felt comfortable traveling to. H. did a study abroad program in England and we had both traveled there several other times, including on our honeymoon. The language barrier was obviously not a problem. Both of us had also been to Paris multiple times, including once with John at 15 months. I have very rusty high-school French but H. speaks the language well enough to get by and that made it an easier option than something like Amsterdam or Berlin or Prague.


We gave the kids the choice of London or Paris and everyone voted for Paris. I think they were at least partially swayed by our description of Paris which included “really good bread, chocolate, croissants, onion soup, coffee, pastries, crepes…”And we did indeed eat very well while we were there. dscn1894dscn2150

Because this was their first trip (or for John, the first trip he remembered) we concentrated on the big attractions: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur. The history and art provided a great contrast to the natural beauty and outdoor focus of the Iceland part of the trip.


We spent one day outside the city on two side-trips. In the morning we ventured to Giverny to see Monet’s Garden. It was beautiful. In the afternoon we went to Versailles to see a very different gaudier beauty.


Scenes from Iceland



We returned this week from a 10 day vacation in Iceland and Paris. We had wanted to take the kids to Europe for awhile and decided about a year ago that this was a good time to finally do it. We picked Iceland initially for the cheap airfares to Europe but then decided that we wanted to spend several days there as well.

The trip was amazing. Iceland was breathtakingly, ridiculously beautiful. Ruth said it best when she commented that “It’s hard to believe that it’s all real. It’s so beautiful it looks fake.”



We had about four days in the country, so only saw a small amount of what it has to offer. We rented a car (a must if you want to travel anywhere) and did a lot of hiking. Our longest and favorite hike was to Hvergardi, a hike that led to a geothermal “hot river”. After furtively changing behind a wooden screen into a bathing suit we enjoyed a fantastic swim in the naturally warm water. (Top photo is of a different hike to one of many waterfalls.)


The trip was full of firsts for the kids…”first time on a plane”, “first time to a different continent”, “first time bathing in a hot river”….A thrilling first for all of us was first time we touched a glacier. Just seeing it was pretty awe-inspiring.



The coastal landscape reminded me in places of Cornwall (where H. and I spent our honeymoon). I absolutely love  this kind of scenery: rocky cliffs falling to the ocean. All in all, I was surprised by how much I loved Iceland. Obviously, we visited at an ideal time as far as the weather was concerned. But even so, I told H. that I thought the country was made for me: Sparsely populated, rocky landscape, ocean, abundant hot rivers/lagoons for bathing. Not to mention that it’s a country of readers and people who love books and has a culture of swimming (outdoors, year-round…but more on that in another post).

Stay tuned for photos from the Parisian part of our trip tomorrow.


Two Great Reads.

27276428 I loved Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book: The Gene: An Intimate History. It’s a comprehensive and fascinating look at the history of Genetics from Aristotle to Mendel and Darwin to Watson and Crick to the modern day study of epigenetics.

I did wonder about who the intended audience was. It’s fairly dense science. Genetics was one of my favorite classes in college and medical school and a lot of the historical information was familiar to me. I’m not sure it would be as readable if it was the first time I was encountering plasmids or recombinant DNA or the ins and outs of fruit fly mutations. Still, it’s a marvelous read. In addition to the history, Mukherjee uses the lens of his own family’s history of mental illness to talk about the clinical application of inheritance and genetics.

Mukherjee is strongest when retelling the history of genetics. Morgan, Franklin, Watson, Mendel and Berg come alive and almost jump off the page. The personal thread also helps to make the science seem more relevant and bring to light some of the ethical questions regarding genetics today. If there is a weakness, it’s in Mukherjee’s discussion of these ethical questions. He doesn’t really go into any kind of depth here and I was left slightly disappointed.

On a completely different note, but equally unputdownable (it should be a word) was Liane26247008 Moriarty’s new book: Truly Madly Guilty. If you’ve read any of Moriarty’s other books you’ll recognize a lot of what is in this book: secrets, memory loss, upper middle class Australian families that feel like a Southern Hemisphere doppelganger to suburban American families, multiple perspectives, and more secrets. I can’t put my finger on what it is about her books but Moriarty has found a way to take the same basic formula and make it unresistable again and again and again.

As a warning here are he things that I neglected in order to read this book:

Making dinner, homeschooling my children, cleaning my house, exercising, packing for vacation, prepping for a co-op class, feeding the dog, and sleep. Not to worry, I did eventually get all those things done.

But I finished the book first.

Stretching the Limits of Credulity

Sometimes I find when I watch a movie or read a book that there is one small annoying detail that bugs me and leaves me feeling like the whole story is implausible. The weird thing is that often those small details aren’t really that important or pale in comparison to much larger plot holes that I’m happy to overlook.

This weekend David, Ruth and I watched Cheaper by the Dozen (the Steve Martin version) while H. and John were on a men’s road trip to NYC with guys from our church. I had no problems with all of the crazy things that happened in the movie. Kids running amuck with barely an injury…sure! Coach Dad having football team practice in his backyard…no problem! Family of 14 with a salary large enough to live in a mansion in the Chicago suburbs…okey dokey! The sappy sweet ending…awwww!

But the one detail that got me was Bonnie Hunt’s character’s outfit on the day that they move into their new house. She’s supposed to be a Mom of twelve and what does she wear on moving day?

A pretty pink floral skirt, matching pink cardigan and heels.

No. Never. Nope.


Summer Reading, Plus Some

It’s been a long time since I posted a book list (April). I could just post about what I’m currently reading but that would cause havoc in the part of my soul that also cannot leave a list half checked-off and can’t stand it when the eggs in the carton won’t line up symmetrically.

So since last posting I’ve read the following:


What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyemi
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangel
Reader, I Married Him (Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre) edited by Tracy Chevalier (audiobook)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (audiobook)
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino (read for Amy’s Newbery Challenge)
Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell (audiobook)
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King
Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

Of these the ones I will probably remember most are The Heart and The Luminaries. The former for its unusual look at all the people involved in a heart transplant and for its beautiful language. Even translated French somehow sounds more musical than English. I spent most of the summer listening to The Luminaries. I’m not sure I would have stuck with it as a written book, it never grabbed me and it was so long. But it was definitely unusual in story and structure and I wasn’t sorry that I did stick with it. Towards the end I realized it was a book that probably would be better to be read than listened to as I think there was a lot that I may have missed in the intricate structure.

The two I probably enjoyed most were both somewhat modern takes on classics. Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare Series) is Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Wilde Lake is heavily inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, although not exactly a retelling. What I found interesting in both was that they forced me to look at issues in the originals that I respond to differently than I would in a modern work and wonder why that is.


The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
One in a Billion: The Story of Nic Volker and the Dawn of Genomic Medicine by Mark Johnson

The clear standout here was Bonhoeffer. A lot of the summer was spent with him and it was well spent. It’s become too much of a cliche to compare anything we don’t like in modern times to Nazi Germany. So I’ll just say that reading this book at this time in history was somewhat spooky and strange.

With the Kids: 
We read less together in the summer than other times of the year because our evenings are busier. However, we’ve begun reading Harry Potter together as a family and that’s been loads of fun. This is Ruth’s first time through the series and it’s so fun to experience it with her. I might have coerced her a little into letting me read it out loud instead of having her read it on her own. We are currently on book 2 and we’ll probably take a break after that for awhile since they start to get scarier.

Up Next/Currently Reading
I’m reading The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I can’t say enough good things about it. Love, love, love it. John and I are also reading Sense and Sensibility for school. I’m enjoying it as a reread and enjoying discussing it with him. David is reading Maniac Magee for a co-op class. I’d like to read the books he reads in that class so we can do more literature discussion together. I also have Liane Moriarty’s latest book Truly Madly Guilty out of the library. It’s like a decadent dessert sitting on my nightstand waiting for me after I finish my main course of genetics.


Scenes from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts





The kids spent this past weekend at my parents. H. and I had a lovely, if much quieter than usual, time together. Quiet didn’t mean boring. We ate well, saw a couple of movies, golfed (him), read books (me), did some school planning and thinking (me). We also saw two excellent exhibits at museums: The Greeks at the National Geographic Museum and a retrospective on the work of Kehinde Wiley at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (all the photos above are from the Wiley exhibit). I would highly recommend both. The Greeks was fascinating and full of really remarkable artifacts. (Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to just believe me on that or, even better, go see for yourself.) I knew nothing about Wiley going into the exhibit at VMFA but I came out feeling like I had learned a lot. Both exhibits are around for just a bit longer so if you are in the area consider checking them out.

This Week in Books

Our first week of the 2016-2017 school year is under our belt and we’re on our way. It was a good week, fairly light but just enough to get us back into the groove of having a little more structure in our lives.

I think one of the best finds of the school year is going to be Mystery Science. I have become a believer in doing interest-led science for elementary and middle school aged kids but I’m not always sure how to do it in practice. I love science and maybe because of that I tend to be more critical of formal science curriculums. So I think about doing more informal science, but then it ends up getting pushed to the back burner. Mystery Science looks like it will be the perfect solution. The lessons are organized in units by topics and then each lesson is a short video that presents a mystery. The videos are well done and walk the kids through making hypotheses and thinking about the answers. Then there is a short hand-on activity for each lesson. I’m using it for my 2nd grader and 5th grader. This particular video was below the grade level of my 5th grader but it’s fairly easy to add in books and other resources as you need. And as a bonus, Mystery Science is currently offering a one year membership free.

Ruth picked plants and flowers to do as our first unit. The lesson (video plus activity) took about an hour total to do. We then also read A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move by Joann Early Maken. Both were excellent. I especially recommend any of the Aston/Long books as beautiful poetic scientific non-fiction for kids.

200256Ruth and David and I are also embarking on a year of American History study. We’ll use this series by the Maestros as a spine. We read The Discovery of the Americas this year as a beginning of a unit on Native Americans. We also will use some of The History of the US by Joy Hakim and of course, lots of other picture books and other books. John is going to be doing a year of Civics this year. He will use We the People as his spine and also do some Boy Scout merit badges (all the Citizenship ones). In addition, we’re hoping to go to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Philadelphia as a family and use lots of the resources here in DC as well.


As his first book of the school year, John (and I) are reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This might seem like an odd choice for a fantasy loving almost 13 year old boy. And in many ways it is. However, one of my main goals of his 8th grade year is to push him a bit with his reading. He is an excellent reader and loves to read. But he also loves to stay in his comfort zone of middle-grade and young adult fantasy. He reads a lot of books that are fairly easy for him, not just in vocabulary but easy in terms of ideas. So when I heard that Sense and Sensibility is coming to the Folger Theater in DC this year I decided to get student tickets and have him read the book first. So far, so good. He enjoyed the first week assignment and seemed to understand it fairly well. We did watch the movie version first, breaking my normal Book Before Movie rule. I thought that for this particular book it would help him enjoy the book more to have some idea of the storyline first.

For our current family read-aloud we are reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ruth was ready to read it on her own but I convinced her to let me read it aloud instead. It’s fun as it’s one of the few books we’ve read that is equally enjoyed by the 6 year old and 12 year old. In the car we are enjoying Gregor and the Marks of Secret. This is the second time we’ve listened to Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles and it’s just as great the second time around. 18774964

Me? In addition to Sense and Sensibility I’m reading two other books: David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. The first is enjoyable and interesting but really dense. The second is predictable but no less charming for that.

So, all in all, a good bookish first week of school.

How about you? Are you back at school yet? Reading good books?

First Day of School


Another school year began for us today. Since we homeschool we can pretty much start when works for us and the past few years that has been mid-August. We’ve pared down our first day of school traditions to a few favorite things. We take first day of school pics with a sign. They pick a special breakfast. This year was ice cream sundaes. We do a treasure hunt in the house. The clues usually relate in some way to things we will study or do during the year and the treasure at the end is just fun school supplies (gel pens, goofy pencils, extra post-it notes, stickers, etc). Last year I left out the treasure hunt because I thought they were tired of it and getting older and less excited about it. I learned my lesson when they all complained bitterly so we brought back the tradition this year.

We do a bit of school in the morning and then do some kind of fun adventure in the afternoon. This year H. and the kids went to the zoo. They enjoyed the animals and enjoyed the sprinklers that the zoo has even more.

A  more serious and newer tradition that we’ve done the past two years is to have each kid write down three goals for the year and three things they want to do more of in school. It was kind of a spontaneous idea last year but I found it helpful. The things they wanted were fairly easy to implement. I had expected elaborate requests but they were things like “more bike rides” and “more time with my brother”. Ruth asked for more glitter, easy to do from day one. It was also helpful to look back at the end of the year and show them how they had each met their goals from the beginning of the year. They wrote down goals again this year and then I met briefly with each of them to talk about my goals for them (not always the same as their own) and also how I thought each of them could help to make our school year successful.

It was a good beginning.

Living like a GPS

So one of the posts I’ve had rattling around in my brain this summer is the idea of how life is like a GPS. That’s not a particularly original idea. I first heard it from a speaker at our homeschool co-op who pointed out how often during the day she hears in her head a voice saying “recalculating”. That idea struck me as true and funny at the time. Since the spring I’ve thought about it over and over again as I’ve been faced with sudden changes in plans and heard that little voice in my head: “recalculating”.

It’s true on a day to day basis and long-term. People stop by unexpectedly. Appliances break. Kids get sick. A school program that worked for one kid and that I planned to use over and over just won’t work for the next kid. Decisions are made at work that change my schedule and my responsibilities. Friends move away.

IMG_1276I was reminded again of this idea this week. The boys are away at camp and Ruth was signed up for a ballet camp every morning. She loves this small excellent camp run by friends of ours and it was a good way for her to have something special to do while the boys were away. Plus, having the house to myself every morning meant I could get lots of school planning and organizing done. Fantastic!

Then Tuesday night she jumped out of a tree at a friend’s house and landed hard on one foot. Thankfully, it turned out not to be broken but she was unable to walk on it at all the next day. We thought she was out of camp for the rest of the week. And that was ok. We recalculated. We planned some special activities. She was disappointed but understood that sometimes things just don’t work out.

Then one of the counselors from the camp called and said they had figured out a way for Ruth to still be in the end of camp show if she was interested. Interested? Ha! She was thrilled. We were actually driving to a local theater performance that I thought would  help make up for the disappointment of missing camp when we got the call from the counselor. So we got off the highway, turned around and headed back to camp. Recalculating. The camp show was a version of the Nutcracker and they gave Ruth the role of Clara. Mostly she sat on the stage and watched the performance. They started by having one of the counselors play her mother and give her a teddy bear and she had to act happy and then pretend to fall asleep and wake up later. She embraced her role wholeheartedly and did a beautiful job.

I feel like over the years as a parent that I’ve learned over and over that the best gift I can give my kids is the ability to be flexible and resilient. In other words, to know how to recalculate. I feel like if they can learn that they will be successful in life. This is not the same as just “going with the flow”. I’m a planner by nature and so is H. Our kids are pretty much doomed to be checklist checkers, schedule followers and planners. I think that’s a good thing. It’s good to have a plan but it’s also good to be able to adjust when things deviate from the plan. To stick with the GPS metaphor, not having a plan would mean you get lost from the beginning. Having a plan means you start out knowing how to get where you want but you’re willing to try a different route if the original one is blocked.