Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Saint Michael the Archangel Church, Silver Spring, Maryland

On a recent trip to Silver Spring, we visited our old parish of Saint Michael the Archangel. We were married there and our first two children were baptized there. We have many happy memories, including being part of the Neocatechumenal Way. We happened to visit on a Saturday morning inbetween activities and had the place to ourselves.

The front of St. Michaels

The church is fairly simple inside, without ostentation or distraction. It's home to a large variety of communities.

Nave

Sanctuary

From our wedding album

The baptismal font is also simple and straightforward. It seems like ages ago that we had our son and daughter baptized.

Baptismal font

Our son's baptism during Christmas

Our daughter's baptism a year and a half later

The church has a few statues. The one of Jesus (that looks new to me, but we haven't been there in over seven years) looks quite glorious and was the favorite of our kids.

Jesus

The sanctuary is flanked by the typical statues--Our Lady and Saint Joseph.

The Madonna looking tenderly on her child

Saint Joseph

They also have a nice painting of Saint Michael in action.

Saint Michael the Archangel

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dual/Duel Review: Azul vs. Sagrada

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here.

While at Dice Tower Con 2018, I wanted to try two similar games. Azul is a new game where players put together a tile mosaic in the medieval Muslim style. Sagrada is an older game (like a little over a year older, so not that old at all) where players put together stained-glass windows in the medieval Gothic style. Both are similar, but is one better? Are they different enough to justify owning both? Answers below...

Azul

Azul is a tile-collection and -allocation game where players take turns collecting sets of matching tiles and adding them to their individual player boards. The trick is that only one type of tile (red, blue, black pattern, etc.) can go on one row in a round, each row having one to five spaces for tiles. At the end of the round, when all the tiles have been drawn and placed, one tile from each completed row is moved over to the right, the rest go back into a drawing pool. Uncompleted rows keep their tiles into the next round. The round is scored for the number of tiles horizontally and vertically touching the placed tile.

Azul, individual game board--the bottom row was incomplete

If a player draws tiles and can't place them (or there isn't enough space), the extra tiles go in the row at the bottom of the board and count as negative points for the round. Once someone completes a row on the right hand side with all five different colors, the game ends. Final scoring includes bonuses for complete rows, complete columns, and for each set of five matching colors. For example, on the above board, I scored for the first column and for the yellow tiles with the red pattern on them.

The game plays quickly and is less complicated than it sounds. It can be frustrating to get locked out of tiles you need during a round, but rounds end quickly so there's always a chance of getting a better draw next round. The abstract mechanics of play don't really feel like you are an artisan working on a tile layout. The challenge is to set up patterns where tile placements score ever more points and complete the end game bonuses. The game delivers a blend of strategies and tactics, making a satisfying experience.

I played a "giant" version of Azul which doesn't seem much bigger in the pictures

Sagrada

Sagrada is a dice-rolling, -drafting, and -placement game where players take one translucent die at a time and try to build a stained glass window. Each player selects one of four stained glass windows to complete in the game. The windows are four-by-five grids of spaces that dice can be placed on. Each window has some colored places and some numbered places, so dice placed there have to match the color or number. The other blank spaces can have any other dice...except no two dice of the same color or same number can be placed orthogonally (up, down, left, right). Diagonals are okay. More difficult windows have more number/color spaces, but also provide more tokens to pay to use a tool. A set of tools (randomly drawn from a deck) give special powers, either by changing die numbers or moving already placed dice or whatever the specific tool says. Players draw individual secret goals (gaining points for all the pips on a certain color in the window) and some group goals are also drawn as scoring opportunities at the end of the game.

Board, secret goal, and leftover token

The start player draws several dice (two per player plus two extra) from a bag, rolls them, and then players chose one die at a time to place on their windows. The dice are selected "snake draft" style, with the first player choosing one die and other players choosing in order. The last player to select a die then chooses a second die. All the other players choose a second die in reverse order. So the first player gets the first choice and the last choice (with two dice left over, so there really is a last choice).

Dice are placed as they are drawn and must follow the rules of placement. After several rounds, the windows reach completion (though it is possible for a spot to remain empty if the wrong color or number is on the final die drawn) and scores are tallied based on the goals.

Another board and secret goal

I enjoyed the challenge of the game. Mostly it is multiplayer solitaire, though decisions can impact others indirectly. Each window has a unique set-up and some are more challenging than others. The more challenging ones provide more resources to use the tools, offsetting the difficulty somewhat. The components are beautiful and the end of the game is satisfying to me even if (when) I don't win. The result has always been satisfying (even if someone's result scored better).

Which game is better

Both games are arty and have great components (chunky resin tiles and translucent dice; colorful and functional playing boards). Both have good short-term tactics and long-term strategies. But the games do have differences.

  • Azul has one player board layout that everyone uses (though players can flip it over and use a blank board with a bunch of extra rules); Sagrada has a good variety of boards of varying difficulties. More experienced players can choose something more challenging while first-timers can pick easier boards, evening the playing field when there's a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Plus to Sagrada.
  • Azul plays more quickly, easily under half an hour with focused players. Sagrada is more complicated and moves more slowly, but still clocks in around forty minutes. Plus to Azul.
  • Azul has scoring throughout the game which can be good in a tight game but also can be bad if one player is scoring a lot more each round or one player is performing very poorly. Sagrada leaves the scoring to the end, so there's less pressure on the players. Also, the secret goals can help swing the final score. Plus to Sagrada.
  • Azul just won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres, Germany's top board game award. Sagrada was not even nominated in 2017 when it came out. Plus to Azul.
  • Azul's theme of making an Moorish mosaic feels tacked on. Sagrada's dice placement and use of the tools gives a lot more thematic resonance. Plus to Sagrada.

Sagrada is the better game.

Are they different enough to justify owning both

Both games are visually appealing but in different ways. The mechanics are different. The randomness (drawing tiles from a bag vs. drawing and rolling dice from a bag) is different enough to give each game a different feel. If you can afford it (money-wise, storage-space-wise, and play-time-wise), I think it is okay to own both. For me, I'd rather have Sagrada than Azul, though both are awesome games.

Winner--Sagrada



Loser--Azul




Monday, August 13, 2018

VBS 2018

We still go every summer to the Vacation Bible School at our old parish because they do such a great job (and we were out of town for the VBS at our new parish). For the past few years, they've run the VBS with a neighboring parish, St. Francis. St. Francis hosted the event this year, transforming the parish grounds into the location of Shipwrecked - Saved by Jesus.

Happy VBS campers with St. Francis

VBS main area

The main area undecorated, just for comparison

More decor

We enjoyed every day of the program, with daily activities including arts and crafts, stories of saints, dancing, prayer time, snack time, etc. The crafts had a wide range and followed the theme nicely.

A bookmark (okay, not so thematic)

A lighthouse is totally thematic

A guy in a life preserver 

Castaway's journal, pencil, and raft

As in past years, they collected school supplies each day for a needy school in Baltimore. Daily totals were made for each group and the one with the most items got prizes. My daughter's group came in first one day and she chose a slinky from the prize basket.

She's been too busy running around with it, so this is all I got to show you

Once the program was done, we had one last event. The kids gathered a half hour before the 5 p.m. Saturday evening Mass for dancing and singing to the songs one last time. Our preschooler was a little reluctant so his big brother went up with him. They had fun.

Preschooler just watching the first time

Catching up on the choreography

Almost in sync

All together!

We had a lot of fun and look forward to next year's VBS!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Movie Review: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise


Amy is the daughter of Ollie and Alice Reed, the couple married off at the end of Cat People. Ollie was originally married to Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian woman too obsessed by the folklore of her Serbian ancestors. The folklore said she was descended from the ancient Serbs who rejected Christianity and became the Cat People, who could turn into fierce felines when angered or jealous. Irena did in fact turn into a panther-like cat a few times in the previous movie, though she died tragically at the end.

In this film, Amy is a friendless six-year old in Tarrytown, New York (of Headless Horseman fame). She has an overactive imagination and dreams up a friend to keep her company. The local kids don't hang out with Amy because her parents are overprotective and Amy's fantasy life makes her unpopular. So she sticks with her imaginary friend, who looks just like Irena! The ghost is benevolent though her presence causes no end of trouble for Amy. Her dad doesn't like her fantasies and wants to hear nothing about them. Her mother is more sympathetic but just as skeptical. Amy also befriends a reclusive, aging actress, Mrs. Farren, who lives under the care of her daughter Barbara. This mother-daughter relationship is strained because Mrs. Farren claims her daughter died as a youngster and this woman is not her daughter. Mrs. Farren's kindness to Amy only drives the (understandably) exasperated Barbara further into frustration.

As a sequel, this movie is a bit bizarre. It has the same characters further along in life. Irena's ghost is more like a guardian angel to Amy than the titular curse. Any jealousy or malice is removed from the character. The parents are typical suburban parents with some overprotective parenting, perhaps the real curse. The horror is downplayed for the most part. The Mrs. Farren/Barbara plot at first seems shoehorned in to add some spooky atmosphere (their house is pretty creepy) and tension to an otherwise mundane family drama.

A little reflection makes the purpose more obvious. Amy has difficulty telling reality from fantasy; Mrs. Farren has the same problem. Their family members have a hard time coping with the fantasies that Amy and Mrs. Farren have embraced. The parents have some support (friends, each other, Amy's teacher) to help them deal with Amy's imagination more appropriately. Barbara seems trapped in the house with little other than her mother's constant denials. She's always edgy and occasionally angry with no way to release the pressure. The movie is able to show two possible outcomes for the same situation.

The acting is superb all around. Ann Carter as Amy gives a surprisingly nuanced performance for a child under ten, especially with her in most of the film. Elizabeth Russell as Barbara gets a lot of mileage out of the minimal screen time she has and just oozes creepiness while she also gets sympathy.

Recommended--don't expect it to be more of the same from the first film. This could have easily been a stand-alone film without any "Cat People" connection.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book Review: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 3 by Hiromu Arakawa

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 3 by Hiromu Arakawa


The hunt for the Philosopher's Stone continues as brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric make it to Central City. Before they get there, they stop off at their home town for some repairs to their replacement limbs (or in Al's case, his whole body since his soul is magically cast into a suit of armor). After the upgrades (and some back story), they head to town only to discover the library with critical documents has been destroyed. Luckily, one of the librarians "wasted" all her time reading everything there and has a photographic memory. The key text is written in code. Can they crack it in time to craft their own philosopher's stone and get their original bodies back?

The story moves along at a nice pace. The librarian character is fun and the story provides a surprising amount of philosophical and theological discussion (anything above zero is surprising to me, so don't expect a treatise). The story is fun and intriguing with a cliffhanger ending, so I have already ordered Volume 4 from my own library.

Recommended.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Cute Kid Pix July 2018

More photos that didn't make their own blog post...

We started going back to the library after our Florida vacation. We went to a pajama time. The older kids did not want to join in, which was appropriate since all the children there were under five. Our youngest loved it. Later in the week, I took him to Picture Book Parade where we made a craft. The word of the week was "Imagine" and we made a very imaginative craft--an ice-cream cone puppet!

Opening the glue, always tricky

Coloring the cone

Mint chocolate chip is a new favorite flavor

We went to my old stomping ground, Silver Spring, for the Saturday morning famers' market. We had fun walking around, looking at displays, and admiring street performers.

Silver Spring's farmers' market

We bought a snack at the Greek bakery stand. We had a honey cake called Ravani and a walnut honey cake called Karidopita. The guys at the booth liked our kids and gave us an almond cookie as a bonus!

Greek artisan bakery

Super yummy snacks!

We meant to buy pita breads from them later, but our route back to the car did not bring us by their stand. We had our snack at the splash fountain, which wasn't on at 10 in the morning.

Splash fountain

We saw a mobile outdoor office space that looked cool.

The most "open" cubicle farm ever!

Even more cool was a juggler we stopped to admire along the way.

Dotting the "i" in Chipotle

Savage Mill hosted a "Where's Waldo?" scavenger hunt through most of July. We found him in several stores and went to the big party at the end of the month. The used book store hosted the party, which featured a trivia contest, the grand prize drawing (we won one of the secondary prizes), and a visit from Waldo himself!

Meeting Waldo

Drawing for the grand prize

Mom had a business trip which meant we had to drop her off at the airport. Near the airport is a playground which is just across the street from the end of a runway. The kids got to play on the equipment and occasionally see a plane taking off overhead.

Ready to slide

Done sliding

Climbing up for another slide?

Ready to swing

Swinging from a branch

One of a half-dozen planes to fly by

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Book Review: The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and others


H. G. Wells's classic novel is wedded to Orson Welles's classic radio broadcast in this two-for-one book. The book has the complete script of Welles's show and a CD with the show and some clips of Orson Welles commenting on the show (including a meeting between Wells and Welles!). The complete Wells novel includes the art that accompanied the serialization of the novel in Pearson's magazine back in 1897.

Both are well worth revisiting. H. G. Wells's story of an invasion from Mars at the end of the 19th century in England is an exciting tale of one man fleeing from the attack. He describes what he sees of the Martians, and more interestingly, what he sees of the locals' reactions. At first, people are mildly curious if not completely aloof. Once the Martians make it out of their crater and start causing mayhem, people flee and civilization starts to break down. A lot of time is spent describing people trying to escape from the trouble. The main character reflects on the superiority of the Martians and how humans are to them like ants are to us--easy to squash and in no way equals. He also hints that the British are a bit like the Martians in their attitudes towards the conquered. The science is outdated but is not the main point of the story anyway.

Welles's broadcast was more an experiment in entertainment that turned into a panic. The broadcast starts with a music program that is interrupted by news bulletins of the aliens invading New Jersey. Listeners took it seriously and many fled their homes. It's easy to say from nearly a hundred years later that it sounds too implausible to be believed, but even today people are falling for fake journalism that is much less well-intentioned. And this book chronicles many other subsequent imitation broadcasts in America and abroad, some of which did inspire local panics. This also is still relevant today.

Recommended.

The H. G. Wells novel is discussed on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast #188.