Monday, December 31, 2018

Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens 2018

We went again to the Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens (see the previous trip here). We went on the Saturday before Christmas and had to wait quite a while to get into the parking lot. Perseverance paid off and we wound up in the smaller lot right next to the train display. That became our first stop.

Conservatory at Brookside Gardens

The conservatory is a big greenhouse, so they had plenty of plants on display. We only stopped to look at one since we wanted to catch the trains.


The train display was more or less exactly the same as previous years, but that's okay since it's a fantastic display.

Big train table!

Other end of the table with a conservatory replica


The side display recreates a trolley route from Washington up to the Cabin John Hotel.

Georgetown Car Barn (with Exorcist stairs!)

Band and dancers at Glen Echo!

Cabin John Hotel

We wandered through the outdoor lights, which were delightful as usual.

Just outside the conservatory

Loch Ness Monster recreation

A fox

A turtle

Some trees and teepees

A dragonfly

At the Visitors Center, they were serving snacks and had entertainment. The band was The Eclectiks, a Celtic-inspired group that did pop classics and more traditional tunes. Naturally, they played Christmas favorites in their own style.

The Eclectiks

The garden is celebrating fifty years of existence and commemorated that in light!

Birthday lights!

The visit was fun and we will probably go back next year!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) directed by Rob Marshall

About thirty years after the original Mary Poppins movie, grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recent widower with three children. He struggles to make ends meet, since he's had a hard time adjusting and his wife was the one to do the books. One day, some lawyers from the bank come knocking on the door, threatening to repossess the house. He's an employee of the bank as was his father. Little clemency is offered by bank head Wilkins (Colin Firth). The family owns shares in the bank but can't produce the certificate to prove it. If they could find it, they'd keep the house. In this time of crisis, who should show up but Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). Can she restore the joy of youth to the kids (who have had to take on too many adult responsibilities) as well as to Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), who fights for workers' rights much as her mother did for women's suffrage?

The movie starts off a little slow and dark but soon hits its stride. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack, who basically serves the narrative purpose that Burt (Dick van Dyke) did in the original film. He's an everyman who knows Mary Poppins and spends most of his time joining her and the kids on adventures. The Burt/Mary romantic undertones are completely gone because Jack is interested in Jane Banks. Jack is a fine dance and duet partner for Mary Poppins. The low energy of the first few songs gets washed away by much stronger material in the middle and the end. Blunt does a great job as the title character. The fantasy sequences are amazing to look at and fun. Naturally, the movie has an upbeat finale that really shows the joy Mary reinjects into the Banks family's lives.

While it's not great like the original (which is an almost impossibly high bar to reach), this film is a lot of fun and worth watching. The songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable and the plot is very familiar but still enjoyable.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Book Review: Raid of No Return by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Raid of No Return by Nathan Hale

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, American morale was extremely low. On the other hand, Japan's morale was high, though not a high as it should have been, given that their declaration of war was supposed to happen just before the raid. Some of the Japanese military found the attack to be dishonorable without a clear declaration. The Japanese government did deliver an ultimatum, but it was late and not exactly a declaration of war. America did declare war quite quickly afterwards.

In order to shift the levels of morale, a secret bombing mission was planned. A small group of bombers would attack the Japanese homeland. The daring plan would have planes launch from aircraft carriers 500 miles from Japan. They'd do their bombing run and continue on to China since the ships planned to flee after the launch. The operation was headed by James Doolittle, a stunt flyer and test pilot who signed up when war was declared. The mission was mostly successful but the planes didn't make it to the China airbase. The raiders were scattered over the mainland, a few making it as far as Soviet territory.

The story is very exciting and became a movie in 1944, before all the airmen had even returned! This book is another in the series of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, told by American spy Nathan Hale to his executioners before he is killed. The Revolutionary War characters provide some commentary and jokes along the way. The book is surprisingly accurate and detailed. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's dedicated to Colonel Richard E. Cole, last survivor of the raid (he turned 103 years old in 2018).

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

War of the Christmas Novelty Ales 2018

The tradition continues! I explore some special brews made especially for the special Christmas season. Here are the lists from previous years:

  • Winter Cheers by Victory Brewing Company (6.7% alcohol by volume)--The bottle says, "Luscious NOTES OF FRUIT AND SPICE make this celebratory WHEAT ALE the perfect brew to chase winter's chill and fuel festive times." The fruit and spice are quite subtle (what's with those caps, bottle labeller?). The ale does taste more like a lager than a wheat ale, which counts against it. This is a surprisingly average beer.

  • Big Moose Winter Ale by Saranac (5.7% alcohol by volume)--The bottle has no write-up, just the picture of a moose wearing Santa's hat. On the website, it says, "The Moose is on the loose. An American Pale Ale brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, and Citra hops for a fresh floral and citrus hop character. Look out reindeer ‘ cause Big Moose is coming to town." They call it an American Pale Ale, and it is much like an IPA, so naturally it's not to my taste.

  • Blizzard of Hops by Troegs Independent Brewing (6.4% alcohol by volume)--The label says, "We created this Winter IPA to toast hop growers around the world for another successful harvest. This storm of hoppy citrus and pine notes is a bright reminder that the end of the Hop Cycle is only the beginning." So it has the IPA going against it. On the other hand, the citrus isn't bitter (more orange than grapefruit) and the hint of pine, which sounds terrible for a beverage, is actually rather interesting. This may be the best IPA I've ever had, or at least the one I enjoyed the most. But it's probably not going to win the war.

  • Winter Warmer Cinnamon & Nutmeg Holiday Ale by Harpoon Brewery (5.9% alcohol by volume)--According to the label, "'Tis not the first snow that falls or the first holiday song. "tis that seasonal aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg drifting from the brewhouse that heralds this season of tradition, wonder, and the overuse of ''Tis.' We've been brewing Harpoon Winter Warmer since 1988. This is our holiday tradition." The beer has a lovely ruby red color and just the right amount of spices to flavor and not overpower the drink. I can see why the brew has lasted for thirty years. A very strong contender!

  • Bourbon Barrel-Aged Adoration by Brewery Ommegang (11% alcohol by volume)--From the label: "Brewed with coriander, mace, cardamom, grains of paradise and sweet orange peel, then aged in bourbon barrels for at least six months, Bourbon Barrel-aged Adoration continues the Belgian tradition of spiced Noel ales. This is a beer to be shared and sipped with friends and family, whether across the table or by the fireside. May aromas of oak, bourbon and spice, and rich, layered flavors haunt your house pleasantly." This beer is very flavorful in the most delightful way. The spices make a show, then the bourbon flavor kicks in. The blend is great and the taste is wonderful.

  • K-9 Winter Warmer by Flying Dog Brewery (7.4% alcohol by volume)--The label says, "Now is the winter of our content. In the bosom of the rug of the bear, warmed by the blaze of the fire, the idle pleasures of the night speak to you. Entertain the fair well-spoken days. Then, embrace the prophecies, libels and dreams of the longer nights." Very poetic, but not very descriptive. The flavor is a bit flat and bitter, like eating baker's chocolate. The flavor is not awful like that of baker's chocolate. On the other hand, it doesn't have any particular positive qualities, either. I'm always willing to give Flying Dog a chance but so far have not been impressed by anything I've had from them. This is another "meh" beer.

  • Hofbrau Winter Spezial by Hofbrau Munchen (8.4% alcohol by volume)--The label is pretty bland: "A Hofbrau Brewery Specialty brewed with roasted Munich malt; therefore appearing dark brown up to black color. Large, persistent light brown head. Taste is intensely malty and toasty." The taste does have toastiness along with some caramel. It has the right amount of bitterness and spice to make it flavorful on its own. While it's not especially Christmasy, it is a very nice beer.

  • Shiner Holiday Cheer by Spoetzl Brewery (5.4% alcohol by volume)--The label has a really long paragraph about the beer! Here's the highlights: "....We hope you enjoy Shiner Cheer, an old-world Donkelweizen brewed with Texas peaches and roasted pecans. The malty flavors of this dark wheat flavored ale are enhanced through the use of malted barley and wheat. And Krausening ensures a smoothness that makes the subtle peach and pecan flavors all the more satisfying." Read about Krausening here. It's basically an alternate way to get carbonation and some extra fermenting in the bottle. Usually fruit flavor is a huge problem for beer (at least to my way of tasting) but this is surprisingly satisfying. It's more peach than pecan, and neither is a particularly Christmas flavor, but I like it.

  • Rude Elf's Reserve by Fegley's Brewworks (10.5% alcohol by volume)--According to the label, "After being pestered by crazy worksop elves and celebrity reindeer, the Rude Elf found his true calling in Santa's brew house. Ye kept his edge and brewed a new Christmas legend for us all. Cheers! The fegley family." Yes, the Fegleys were too modest to capitalize their own last name (in striking contrast to Victory Brewing Company's all caps earlier). The brew is quite nice, with a nutty Belgian flavor and a fun bit of holiday flavoring. A nice and satisfying drink for a cold winter's night.

This year's winner--Bourbon Barrel-Aged Adoration by Brewery Ommegang!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Book Review: Spiritual Excellence by Alban Goodier

Spiritual Excellence: How to Make Progress in Prayer and Love by Alban Goodier, S.J.

This book has seventeen short essays of practical advice to improve one's spiritual life. Goodier covers a wide range of topics, from our attitudes towards God and others to how best to pray and act in daily life.

Even though it was written a century ago, the advice is surprisingly timely and fresh. At one point, he talks about the need to judge others in truth rather than assumptions. Often we judge others by appearances which don't always reflect the whole person. Goodier describes how we often fear strangers but when we get to know them, nine times out of ten they are much better than we imagined. The much worse assumption is thinking someone is saintly just judging by their outward appearance. A more close examination often brings disappointment. "When, then, we make up our minds about a person, let us give both ourselves and our victim a fair start. The chances are that every man we meet is a human being and not a portent; and every human being has his weaknesses as well as his good points. No one is wholly bad; very few are wholly good." [p. 161] It's an attitude that is sorely needed in our political realm. Probably in our personal realms as well.

The advice on prayer is also eye-opening. Rather than focus solely on lots of rote prayer or solely on spontaneous, "from the heart" prayer, Goodier teaches the value of balancing the two in order to make progress. Both are required for attaining a rich spiritual life. Each has its problems, which he describes and gives guidance on how to handle such situations.

Highly recommended--it's a quick read and has lots of profound and useful insights.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Holidays at the Library 2018

My prescholar and I went to some events at our local library for the festive season.

Frosty the Snowman visited a story time and stuck around for picture taking. We also got to do a craft that made a snowman with only three snowflakes!

Frosty dances to his own song!

Working on the snowman

Maybe we needed some more snowflakes?

Smiling now!

It's cool to high five a snowman

Waving to some other camera

The next week, Santa came to visit story time. He came and danced like Frosty did, but we were unable to get good pictures. We did do a Christmas tree craft and the photo op with Santa.

Practicing for putting together our home tree

Finished product!

Sitting with Santa!

Just before Christmas, they had a "Hello Winter" story time (I guess to fill out the last week?) with no celebrity but with a craft. We decorated a pair of mittens. I had to do the tying together part of the project. They make a nice ornament!

Purple on purple, huh?

On the tree

Friday, December 21, 2018

Book Review: Asterix and the Secret Weapon by Albert Uderzo

Asterix and the Secret Weapon written and illustrated by Albert Uderzo

Cacofonix, village bard, has sung too badly and the women of the village hire another bard to come and teach the children properly. But the new bard isn't just any bard--it's a woman from the big city of Lutetia (present-day Paris). She has some revolutionary ideas and gets the women of the village wearing pants and taking charge. As the men are slowly driven out of the village, Julius Caesar sends a secret weapon to conquer the last remaining unconquered Gaulish village. Who will win out in the end?

In addition to the usual puns and word play, the story has a fun "battle of the sexes" vibe that's executed appropriately for a kids' comic. It's another fun and comic adventure with Asterix.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) directed by Morgan Neville

Fred Rogers is the creative genius and star of the long-running and wildly popular Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. One central question about him is whether he was the same in person as what he portrayed on television. This documentary examines this question along with what his message was.

The documentary shows that Fred Rogers was what he portrayed in his show. But there's more to the story, because there's more to what he portrayed. He's not just the gentle sweater-wearing man who listens attentively, behaves graciously, and acts kindly. Rogers also performed most of the puppets, including the cat Daniel, who was very vulnerable, simple, and honest. He also played King Friday, the occasionally overbearing authoritarian who wants his way all too often. From interviews with his wife and children, it's clear that bits of the man were in all of these characters. Of course, the overall show is very upbeat, gentle, and affirming. He was no tyrant at home because, as his wife says, he was never allowed to express anger in words as a child, something that stuck with him throughout life. He certainly knew what he wanted and took direct approaches to get it.

Fred Rogers was more than a TV personality. He had been studying in seminary when he first saw a television. He was amazed by the possibilities of the medium and took some time off from school to work in the medium. He eventually finished his degree and was deeply influenced by the child psychology of the time. He used his Christianity and his training to make a children's show that was extremely simple on the surface but with surprising moments of depth.

Rogers always engaged in important issues, though often subtly. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, he had a show where Daniel asked what the word meant. That started an honest and kid-appropriate conversation. When 1960s racial tensions had bigots throwing blacks out of public pools, Rogers invited his neighborhood's police officer Clemmons (who was black) to share his foot pool. Rogers even shared his towel for drying off. His belief that people should be treated with dignity and respect permeated all of his work. He didn't dumb things down for children but found a way to talk to them as intelligent, feeling, and inexperienced persons.

And that's the way he treated everyone--on the show and in real life. He was the same person and a great role model of gentleness and honesty that is severely lacking in this day and age.

Highly recommended.

Parental warning: This documentary is rated PG-13. There is some mild profanity from one or two interviewees; one person mooned Mr. Rogers' camera and we see the photo briefly; another person discusses his homosexuality a few times and how Rogers reacted to that; footage from 9/11, the Challenger explosion, and the Vietnam War are included. Unlike the TV show, this documentary is not for little kids.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Book Review: Mystery of the Magi by Dwight Longenecker

Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men by Dwight Longenecker

The story of three camel-riding kings from distant lands following a moving star into Bethlehem where they worship an infant in a stable is both popular to the general public and scoffed at by historians and biblical scholars. It sounds too fantastic and theatrical. Is it just a fun story to make Jesus look more divine, like Santa Claus lets us give presents to each other or the Easter bunny lets us eat lots of chocolate?

The original text in Matthew's Gospel is very spartan, with few details about who these men were and what motivated them. Longenecker's book is an investigation of the story of the Magi, trying to find the kernel of truth buried under layers of elaboration and fabrication. He describes how the story had details misconstrued or added. For example, the Magi are simply described as "from the East" which for Israel would mean Arabia. As the center of Christianity moved north, "The East" was more naturally Persia, which had a strong tradition of astrologers and sages. Of course, astrologers and sages could be found at virtually any court of any country at that time. Also, the Magi are never numbered in the Gospel, only that they brought three gifts. It might be natural to assume three gifts meant three gift-givers but the text doesn't say that. The text doesn't mention camels either though it does mention the Magi meeting the mother and Child in a house, not a stable.

After identifying the source of the many elaborations around the Magi story, Longenecker digs into the economic and political history of the time to search for a more plausible explanation of the Gospel text. Relatively recent archaeology (the last hundred years or so) has uncovered the Nabatean kingdom based out of Petra. The ruins of Petra are not very far from Jerusalem (100 miles in a straight line). The Nabatean trade routes ran through Judea, so they would be wise to have good relations with the neighboring kingdom. King Herod was a prickly fellow, who had played both sides of the Caesar vs. Antony and Cleopatra war and was certainly willing to betray anyone who had betrayed him. The king of Nabatea probably wouldn't go to celebrate a new king of the Jews (just to be safe) but surely he'd send envoys with gifts. When the Magi found out their mistake (i.e. the new king was not from Herod's line), they wisely went home by another route to avoid an awkward and possibly life-threatening encounter.

Longenecker goes into more detail that is fascinating and persuasive. The most persuasive part is how Longenecker acknowledges his work is speculative, i.e. it's based on both facts and logical guesses based on those facts, so new information could change things. He insists on the importance of getting facts because the gospels do record actual history (though that is not their intended aim) and the historicity of the New Testament is part of the truth of the Christian faith.

The book is a quick read (about 200 pages, including the notes, index, and bibliography) and is written for a non-academic audience. Reading this is well worth the time and especially good for the Christmas season.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Home Game Version of Great British Bake Off

One Saturday morning we decided to issue a challenge to the children, a la the technical challenges of The Great British Bake Off--make muffins for breakfast! They had to make three varieties with six muffins each. Bonus points would be awarded from adding other things like eggs to the breakfast offering, with double points for bacon!

The kids got to work right away. They made lemon muffins, pumpkin muffins (we still had an unused can from Thanksgiving), and banana muffins.

My daughter made a special glaze from the lemon muffins.

Artistically glazing the muffins!

Ready for the next batch!

To gain the extra credit (something you can't do on the Bake Off), she made both scrambled eggs and smoothies. Yum!

Cooking up the eggs

Pouring the smoothies

The only task left was plating the pastries in a delectable way. Big brother helped out, arranging the muffins in layers and making sure any "seventh" muffins were taken care of.

"I demand a recount!"

The spread was quite delicious and we were happy to have the kids take a hand in making breakfast. Feel free to use this scheme on your kids!

A fine presentation

Monday, December 17, 2018

Game Review: Exit the Game: Dead Man on the Orient Express

Exit the Game: Dead Man on the Orient Express designed by Inka and Markus Brand

See my review of previous Exit the Game games here.

The Exit the Game series is a bunch of at-home escape rooms in a box. Designers Inka and Markus Brand craft various puzzles that players have to solve in order to complete the mission or story in the game. In Dead Man on the Orient Express, they give a new twist to the final puzzle.

As the title suggests, the game is inspired by Agatha Christie's famous novel Murder on the Orient Express. The game's story includes the iconic train and has a "master detective" (named Achilles Pussot). He was solving the murder of Edgar Ratchington, a lone traveler on the train. Unfortunately, Pussot has disappeared in the midst of his investigation but has left many cryptic notes that should lead to the murderer's identity. Eight other passengers are on the train, all claiming to have alibis and having no relationship to the victim. Of course, someone is lying.

Play proceeds like most other Exit the Game games until the final puzzle. In order to find the code for the final puzzle, players have to identify the killer. Clues are found on various game components and can be put together to narrow the field of suspects down to one.

Various game components

One new and different component is the train compartments which are opened individually as the game proceeds. The compartments reveal more puzzles and more evidence for the murderer's identity.

Inside the compartment from the components above

We enjoyed all the riddles and were very close to discovering the identity of the killer. One small detail went unnoticed by me so I accused the wrong passenger. I was glad that I put together other clues that supported the other passengers' alibis. If it wasn't for one detail, I would have solved it completely. Even so, I enjoyed sifting over the evidence and coming to conclusions, even if I was ultimately wrong.

Highly recommended, especially for Agatha Christie fans and gaming fans.