A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Needs Improvement

Every winter solstice, I try to reflect on the past year and share a few highlights with my nearest and dearest, utilizing whatever literary form seems most suited to my recent experiences, my mental state, and general level of competence.  Thus, this year the Annual Holiday Letter is presented to you in the form of a Third Grade Homework Packet.

Have you eaten an adequate quantity of nutritious snacks?  Are your pencils sharp?  Remember, in keeping with the Official Homework Packet Scoresheet (conveniently provided herein), I’m not only going to be checking your answers, but also evaluating your attitude.

You don’t want me to have to circle “Needs Improvement” do you?  

 I thought not.  Then you’d better get started.


1) Ten years ago -- in March 2004 -- Nancy, Jay, and seven other grownup friends finished building their cabins (inasmuch as cabins are ever “finished”), and launched a community.  At the time, Robin was four, Jacq was zero, and Molly and Lizzy were negative three. 

a. If Nancy was 31 back then, how ancient is she now?  ____________________
b. What is negative three plus ten?  Show your work, based on experience, in degrees Fahrenheit.  ________________

Writing to explain
c. If there are 85 third graders at University Park Elementary School and 83 of them do not live in communes, how come you do? _______________________

d. Why did you make Daddy wear a skirt in this photo? No, I mean seriously, WHY? ____________________________

2) Assume Nancy can pedal her bike around the trails at an average rate of eight miles per hour.  Okay, now assume she can bike at six miles per hour if she is attached -- via a jury-rigged bungee cord -- to a fifty-pound child on skis. 


a. How far could Nancy bike alone in four hours? _______________

b. How far could Nancy drag a small child in 73 hours? __________________

Writing to explain

c. What might happen if, purely hypothetically of course, Molly allowed the bungee to stretch to its greatest possible extent, and then suddenly let go?  _____________________________________

d. What is the phone number for Social Services? _________________________________

3) Sixty-five racers competed in the White Mountains 100.  Some were snow-biking, some were skiing, and some were running one hundred miles.  The winner finished the race on a bike in 8 hours.  Jay finished the race on a bike in 11 hours.  Nancy finished the race on a bike in 13 hours.  Corrine finished the race on skis in 32 hours.

a. How much faster was Jay than Nancy? ________________
b. By how many hours is each of your parents a loser? _____________________
Writing to Explain:
c. Why did Dr. Leistikow buy a snow bike this year? _______________________________________

d. Nancy bought and sorted all the race checkpoint food, and also organized and cooked for the post-race party.  Suppose each racer brought one guest, and 20 volunteers also attended.  Each attendee ate ¾ cup of bean soup.  This pot holds ten gallons.  The ladle holds 12 fluid ounces.  Why the hell don’t we use the metric system for this sort of thing? _______________________________

4) Thirteen children attended Molly and Lizzy’s eighth birthday party.  

a. How many layers high was the human pyramid?  Show your work (but please hide any scars.) __________________
b. If ten of these children were tied to their neighbor at the ankle, how many bandannas were needed?  ___________

Writing to Explain:
c. Hold on, hold on – what happened to the other three children? __________________

d. A subset of parents decided to walk from the park to HooDoo Brewing Company in the middle of the party.  If three parents left, but only two came back, and there are 124 U.S. pints in a keg, how many… oh, to heck with it.  Just tell me if it’s three o’clock yet. ______________________________

5) Up to 30 buses pass each day during the peak season in Denali National Park, and each bus contains 20 tourists. 

a. How many people said, “Those parents have a few screws loose”? _________________
b. How many minutes can you take to pee before the next bus comes by? _____________

Writing to explain
c. If the campground host gave you firewood and s’mores fixings just because you were the crazy people biking in the rain, what valuable life lesson did you learn? ___________________

d. Go for a private hike behind the campground.  Look for treasures.  Try to figure out why Mommy can’t stop laughing when you show here the funny-shaped little pipe you found.


Wait, you’ve used up the eraser ALREADY?  Okay, fine, here’s an extra one, shaped like a giraffe.  The butt part erases best.  Ready now?  Okay.

1) Read the following passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and answer the questions:

But it becomes me well enough, does't not?
Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I
hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs
and spin it off. (1.3.16)

a. Using context clues, what do you think the word “distaff” means?  ____________________

b. No, come on, really.  ________________

c. Why did Mommy think it was a good idea to sign you up for Shakespeare summer camp? ________________________

d. The program for this summer’s performance of As You Like It listed Mommy as “Forester/Props Mistress”.  Using context clues, describe how each of these three words is related to “distaff”.


Remember, a well-written piece of fiction includes memorable, realistic, and finely-drawn characters; narrative tension; and a significant central problem that is resolved in the dénouement.  However, you are a third-grader.  You may be as redundant, pointless, and insipid as you like, so long as you use correct punctuation.

1) Write a story about your dead dog.  Be sure to mention that she was 18 years old.  What is that in dog years?  If you are eight, would you be old enough to get the senior discount at Value Village, if you were a dog? Why is the concept of dog years biologically ridiculous? 

2)Write a story about your new dog.  Be sure to mention that he ears flop around, he sneezes excessively, he came from the pound via the North Pole dump, and he likes to eat poop.  Also mention your dead dog.

3) Write a story about the other dog.  

4) Write another story about dogs.  Insist on reading it aloud to your mother five times.


1) Science is fun!  Mommy is a scientist.  She does scientist stuff all day.  She answers all kinds of interesting questions.  Asking questions is fun.  So is answering them.  Read the passage below and answer the following questions:

Monozygotic twins are formed when a zygote splits.  They are genetically identical.  Dizygotic twins are formed from two ova and two spermatozoa.  They are no more genetically similar than singleton-birth siblings.

a. Explain this is detail to your best friend on the playground.  Be sure to define all terms and elaborate on all underlying processes.  What does your friend think? ______________________

b.  What does your friend’s big sister think? _______________________

c. What do your friend’s parents think? _______________________

d. “Hey, Lizzy, how come you’re so short?” _______________________

2) Average summer rainfall in Fairbanks, Alaska, is about 5 inches.  In the summer of 2014, about 12 inches of rain fell.  

a. Using only duct tape and Tinkertoy, perform the exciting experiment depicted in this photo on the “trail” to your home.

b. Attempt to explain what, exactly, is going on in this experiment. ___________________

c. Buy more duct tape.

3) Try this fun experiment while on an exciting hike and camping trip on the Granite Tors trail.

a. Climb the highest rock outcropping available.

b. Wait until the grownups notice.

c. Laugh mockingly, while gusts of wind blast your hair--and entire fragile body--sideways.

Note: Be sure to bring along a buddy, in case you need ballast.  With this purpose in mind, try to cultivate friends who weigh a bit more than you do.


1) Many types of sugar are added to foods.  These include corn syrup and other syrups.  Find six foods at home that have Nutrition Information labels.  


a. For each food, record how many grams of sugar it contains per serving.  ________________

b. Read the ingredients and list each type of sugar you find. _____________________________________

c. Now just give Mommy the Hostess Frosted Donettes, okay?  Mommy is running a marathon over a mountain in the rain.  MOMMY WANTS DONETTES.

2) Growing bodies need vitamins and minerals.

a. Which vitamin does your body make when exposed to sunshine? __________________

b. It’s December.  When did you last see the sun? ____________________

c. Why are you licking that snowdrift? ______________________

Social Studies 

1) These people were featured in the local paper for competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

a. How long is the ITI? Yeah?  How long is that in METRIC UNITS, kid?  _____________________________________

b. Which part of Daddy was most sore after the race? ________________________

2) This person was also featured in the local paper.  

a. Why, for heaven’s sake?  WHY? __________________

b. Are you old enough, yet, to be horribly embarrassed by your mother? ______________________________

c. If not -- as with so much else -- there’s always next year. 

Happy 2015, to all!  In honor of the festive season, not only will we all be allowed to wear our pajamas to school and eat popcorn and candy for lunch, but all assignments submitted on time will automatically receive an “H”.*

Peace.  Love. Joy. Fulfillment. Cookies.


* Trust me, an H is really good.  It’s better than an “S” and far superior to an “N”.