Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Robinson Nature Center Play Area

The Robinson Nature Center in Columbia, Maryland, has added a play area for the younger visitors. My toddler enjoyed playing after we dropped off the older kids for a nature adventure camp (no pictures from that, so no post--sorry!).

Nature Place at Robinson Nature Center

 Our first stop was at the board games, featuring outdoors checkers and tic-tac-toe.

Trying to make some checkers magic happen

A musical area features a large xylophone. We couldn't find a mallet and had to improvise with a stick (which may be what visitors are meant to do). 

Playing music

Further in, we discovered a play-cooking area that is perfect for mud pies and stick stews. The weaving loom at the back was tempting, but not nearly as tempting as the hammock chairs.

Cooking up something good

Hanging out

Trying another hammock

A nearby log was hollowed out and ready for climbing through, though not completely ready. Once my boy made it to the other end, he discovered a spider web the hard way. Happily, he didn't freak out.

Looks like a fun trip

About to hit the wall, almost literally

Another area has a huge pile of blocks for building whatever a young imagination can think up. He had fun making stacks and knocking them over again.


On our way back to the car, we visited the wood beehive sculpture. My toddler loves climbing inside, which he isn't supposed to do. We managed to sit and enjoy a break from the sun before we headed back home.

Enjoying the shade

Monday, August 21, 2017

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Inspired by Will Eisner's Fagin the Jew, I decided to read Dickens's novel Oliver Twist this year. I've seen the musical Oliver! a few times on stage and on VHS (and maybe I'll revisit it on DVD--our local library has it) and liked it a lot. Eisner's book is based on the idea that Dickens's portrayal of Fagin reinforces a negative stereotype, specifically that Fagin is very often referred to as "the Jew" who is a scheming ne'er-do-well with no positive traits at all. So I came to the book with a lot of baggage.

The story follows the young life of Oliver Twist, an orphan born out of wedlock and left in a workhouse where he is raised by the local authorities under abysmal conditions. He's apprenticed to an undertaker, which does not work out (though plenty of comical and tragic events happen to Oliver there). He flees to London where he is taken in (both literally and metaphorically) by Fagin, who organizes young boys to pick pockets and commit other minor thefts on busy London streets and has a few young women (Nancy and Bet are the only ones Oliver meets) who are prostitutes (though they are never explicitly identified as such except in Dickens's introduction to the third edition.). He works for them until he comes to the house of Mr. Brownlow, who provides for his physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs. An unfortunate incident puts Oliver back in Fagin's gang. Fagin loans Oliver out to his compatriot, Bill Sikes, who is less the schemer and more the housebreaker. He and Oliver head to the outskirts of London to rob a home where more complications happen. The story eventually comes around to a happy ending for the good characters and a bad ending for the evil ones.

Only a few of the characters show growth or change through the book. Oliver is preternaturally good and remains true to his honesty and virtue, in spite of the influences of the workhouse where he grew up and the criminal gang where he spends a lot of time. He has good influences in his life too but they reinforce his good traits, they do not create good traits. The main villains, Sikes and Fagin, show little change. Both are rotten to the core and stay that way until their ends, though the hardness of their fates elicits some sympathy. Nancy is a bit more dynamic but remains true to her tragic course.

The narrative is a bit long and meandering. I found the first 300 pages slow going. The story started moving more quickly and the action became more exciting in the last 200 pages, especially when the focus switches from Oliver to Sikes or Nancy or Fagin. Some sections are slowed down by the narrator speaking in the first person about dramatic style or making wry, ironic comments about the situation and characters. While such prose is entertaining, sometimes it goes on too long. I have similar feelings about the unabridged Moby Dick--a bit of judicious editing would improve the narrative without sacrificing the point of the story.

Eisner's complaint about the novel is fairly justified, though Fagin is very different in the musical version of the story. There he has more joviality and considers going straight several times, something left ambiguous by the ending of the musical.

On the other hand, the novel is very frank about the squalid conditions of London and of the whole "workhouse" system. The high contrast between the better off and the poor is all the more shocking seeing the ease with which someone can fall or rise due to uncontrollable circumstances. The story is entertaining and sobering at the same time, not a small accomplishment.

I recommend it with the caveat that parts are slow going. Endurance pays off.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review: Amulet: Book One The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet: Book One The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

A young family loses the dad in a horrible accident. Two years later, the mom moves the two children (Em and Navin) into an old family home in the middle of nowhere. The home was owned by great-grandfather Silas Charnon who disappeared mysteriously from that very house. As they clean up and explore, Em discovers the hidden library where she finds the eponymous amulet. Late one night they hear noise in the basement (yeah, the creepy house has a spooky basement). Upon investigating, the mom is sucked into an alternate dimension. The kids, inspired by a voice from the amulet, follow her into the alternate dimension to save her. Naturally they find Silas, an inventor who has several helpful and whimsical robots who help the children on their adventure to save their mom.

The book is a very imaginative take on a standard start. The world inside the basement is interesting and the story moves along at a good pace. I am excited to read more!


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Chocolate Lava Cake

After making Baked Alaska, we thought we'd try something Hawaiian--Chocolate Lava Cake. Now this isn't really a Hawaiian recipe but volcanos are Hawaiian, right? It's a dessert and it's chocolate, both great bonuses.

We found a recipe on Food Network by Ree Drummond from The Pioneer Woman show.

The ingredients are basic:
  • Cooking spray for the ramekins (or other small baking/serving dishes)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 ounce semisweet chocolate
  • 1.25 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • Vanilla ice cream for serving
The first thing we worked on was separating the eggs.

Using the egg separator


After pre-heating the oven to 425 Fahrenheit, we put the butter and chocolate in a bowl and melted them in the microwave (about one minute).

Unwrapping the butter (which we let go to room temperature)

Butter and chocolate, yum!

Out of the microwave, we whisked the mixture to make sure the chocolate was melted and well combined.

Whisking the chocolate

The sugar came next.

Adding sugar a bit at a time

The final batch

The eggs went next, then the vanilla, then the flour.

Final addition

Next, we divided the mixture among our dishes. The recipe is supposed to serve four but we thought we'd try some larger and some smaller dishes and wound up with five.

Filling the big cups

Careful work

After baking for 13 minutes (check that the sides look firm but the centers soft), we took them out to stand for a minute.

Fresh from the oven (use a cookie sheet to avoid spills inside the oven)

Close up

We inverted the dishes on a plate and the cakes fell out easily. Both sizes came out well which surprised (and delighted) us.

Lava in the cake!

Gooey goodness

Delighted cook/taste tester

Good to the last drop!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Swim Meet 5, Novice Meet, and Swim Banquet, 2017

Swim meet number five was at a yard pool (Roland Run), so everything was measured in yards instead of meters! Timing was bound to be off. Since our kids aren't competitive swimmers, that was okay for them.

Warming up at the pool

Roland Run has a fabulous kids' pool which didn't open till the middle of the morning. They also have a separate pool from the racing pool that was opened to everyone so we all could cool off in the very hot and very humid weather. My family took advantage which meant fewer pictures since my camera isn't waterproof.

Kids' pool before opening

My daughter swam the 25 yard freestyle in 40.19 seconds, not a new record for her (unless we start tracking yard records). She disqualified on the 25 yard backstroke. She was put in a mixed 100 yard freestyle ("mixed" meaning two boys and two girls) and the team finished in 2:23.13.

Finishing the freestyle

My son had a slow day with the 50 yard freestyle--58.12 seconds. He completed the 25 yard backstroke in 29.33 seconds. The 200 yard freestyle relay finished in 3 minutes 29.54 seconds for his team.

Freestyle dive

About to turn for the second 25 yards

Both children received placement ribbons for their team efforts.


Two days later was the Novice Meet, for those who did not qualify for the Divisional Meet. It was held at the largest pool in our division, Wynnewood, which made sense since many people were coming from the many teams in our division.

My son made 1:04.63 seconds for the 50 meter freestyle. His 25 meter backstroke was a fine performance, finishing in 31.58 seconds to improve on his previous personal best, 34.89 seconds.

About to go


Finishing his 50 meters

Getting ready to backstroke

My daughter finished very close to her record time (43.34 secs) in the 25 meter freestyle with 43.76 seconds. Her 25 meter backstroke was also slower with 55.36 seconds versus her personal best of 51.40 seconds.

Launching into the freestyle

Launching into backstroke


The meet was canceled two-thirds of the way through due to lightning. My children missed their breaststroke events. Maybe next year?

The next day was our swim team's banquet where all the kids received awards in the form of drink bottles. The organizers said they have a shed full of unreceived trophies and wanted to give something that people could use. The kids also have water bottles from Vacation Bible School and from their elementary school, so we have plenty at home!

My son getting a high-five from the coach

My son's age group

My daughter getting a high-five from the coach

Getting the bottle

My daughter's age group

Special awards were given to some of the children. My son got the "Hardest Worker" award for his age group. He is a very hard worker and we were very proud of him for all he's done this summer.

Special awards in the 9-10 age level

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Swim Meets 3 and 4, 2017

Our children's third swim meet had a 1980s theme. My daughter dressed up but only got a picture at home.

Dressed up with somewhere to go

The meet was at another pool (Wynnewood), famous for its concession stand. They serve pit barbecue meats which were indeed delicious. But we really went for the swimming.

My daughter was able to improve her 25 meter freestyle from 46.72 seconds to 43.34 seconds!

On the block

Flying through the air

Her 25 meter backstroke was slower, 56.32 seconds this time, while her personal record is 51.40. She disqualified in the breaststroke (which apparently is a common occurrence).

Backstroke launch

Stroking the back way!

Breast stroke

My son was a little slower with the 50 meter freestyle, coming in at 58.84 seconds. His personal record at the time was 56.46. His 25 meter backstroke had a big improvement from previous record of 37.80 seconds to a new record of 34.89 and 6th place in this competition.

Backstroke launch

Stroking backwards

He also competed in a 200 meter freestyle relay with three other boys. They had a total time of 4:19.81.

On the block


The next boy starts his run as my son tags up

The facility was quite spacious. It had volleyball, cornhole, basketball, multiple covered pavilions with grills, etc. Our children gravitated toward the swing set.

Pushing little brother on the swing

A happy toddler

Ribbons from the meet

The fourth regular meet was at home against the Crofton Cats. The theme was Luau which had our coach in a grass skirt!

Coach about to lead the team in to the pool

Assistant coach leading a team cheer

Kids splashing at the end of a cheer

My daughter had a rough time with the 25 meter freestyle, finishing in 54.09 seconds. The backstroke at 52.25 seconds was much closer to her personal best.

On the starting block

Nothing but splash

Doing the backstroke

My son was just about a second off on his 50 meter freestyle at 57.71; he beat his personal best (34.89 seconds) in the backstroke with a 33.90 second finish.

Standing on the block

Hitting the water

Turning at the wall

Breathing on the way back

End of the backstroke

We had one more meet to go before the final week of lessons and the end of season competitions.