Monday, April 30, 2018

Spring 2018 Cub Scout Campout

My son's Cub Scout Pack had their Spring campout the weekend taxes were due, so I worked hard to clear the calendar. This time, we camped at the Washington Monument. No, not the one on the Mall in Washington, DC. This monument was built in 1827 and was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. Our visit to the monument will get its own post.

We arrived at the park Friday night and set up camp in the waning twilight hours. Fortunately, our tent is easy to put up and the kids (my daughter tagged along) worked on another project while I inflated our air mattresses.

Early camp setup

All they need is a tarp to make a tent

One of the excellent things about this campground is the nearby bathrooms. Just beyond the bathrooms we saw an old school bus that was redecorated in the sort of fun, sun-shiny way that made you think the occupants would be the serial killers if this was a low-budget horror movie. As it turned out, those guys were the park staff who made sure we had what we needed.

Bathrooms and bus

It was too windy that night for a campfire. To occupy the boys, we had a Snipe Hunt on a nearby field. The excitement was palpable as we tried to stay quiet and dark while clutching our plastic bags hoping to make a catch. The hunt was successful in that it used up a bunch of unscheduled time and wore out the kids. It was unsuccessful in that the kids were all hyped up and not ready to sleep.

We had good sleep that night (by "we" I mean "my children"--I had my usual first night of restlessness in the wilderness). My kids woke up early (6 a.m.). We walked up the hill to the playground to be noisy out of earshot of the other campers.

The way up

Field with playground in the distant left

The playground was popular all weekend but we had it to ourselves in the pre-breakfast hours.



More hanging

Sliding too fast for focus

More climbing

The sunrise

Breakfast was pancakes and sausages which we were happy to eat. The morning program was a hike up to the monument, which as I wrote earlier will have its own post. We came back for lunch (sandwiches and chips) and then rotated through stations in the afternoon.

Two candidates vied for the most popular station--knot tying and fire starting. Fire starting was the typical "light a fire without matches" routine that everyone loves. Knot tying started out typical. To spice things up, they made a practical demonstration of the knots by lifting willing participants into the air with a long rope. One scout would sit in the loop and the others (with some parents' help) pulled on the other end, hoisting the child into the air (the rope was thrown over a strong tree limb). Leaders were strategically positioned to avoid falls or too much pulling.

Getting ready to go up

In the air!

One of the leaders even took a turn.

How many scouts are needed to lift a den leader?

The cub master made a new sign for our camp site that our preschooler (who came with Mom for the day) was happy to pose by.

Our new camping sign

The favorite unscheduled activity was football. They played all sorts of variations on the game every time there was free time.


That night, my son's den had to cook something without using pots and pans. We'd planned ahead to make Silver Turtles (also known as foil dinners). We added some rice, veggies, and meat between two layers of aluminum foil. After wrapping those up, we made a mark on the top with mustard so we'd know who's foil pack belonged to whom. Then we put them in the fire for about twenty minutes (the meat and rice were precooked, so we were just warming them). They turned out very well.

Roasting foil packets

Obviously not a big broccoli fan

That night was the official campfire. The wind had died down. The only negative about the campground was the lack of a fire pit. We used one of the cooking pits for our campfire.

Start of campfire

We had the usual array of skits, jokes, and songs. Everyone had fun.

Webelos skit

My son's part of the skit

The evening ended with smores and dutch oven cobblers. Smores were a little tricky around the smaller campfire, requiring the scouts to go den by den to roast their marshmallows. We went to sleep around 10 and my kids actually slept till 7 a.m. (with one potty run at 5). I was amazed. We packed up the tent and had a quick breakfast before heading home.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

It's 1999 and the people of Earth send rockets to Mars. These trips aren't just scientific exploration, they are colonization. The first few expeditions run into trouble with the locals. Martians are telepathic (so no need for translators) and, in a classic Bradbury twist, benignly skeptical about their visitors. A mission finally succeeds when the Martians have disappeared. People flood away from Earth. They hope for new opportunities and escape from old oppressions.

After the first expeditions, the book focuses on the odd and interesting individuals who come to Mars. The political and technical situation is entirely secondary to the stories. The threat of a global atomic war on Earth looms in the background, but there's hardly any mention of government on Mars, other than a story where a man recreates Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher. The construction is deemed forbidden and offensive by the Moral Climates Department (an unfortunate import from Earth) and the eccentric homemaker gets his night of glory before the house is destroyed. The Earth war eventually breaks out, the main effect on the story being a rush on the luggage store (whose owner was ready) and the collapse of a hot dog stand (whose owner was not ready for the weird feedback he gets). And the depopulation of Mars.

The book is anachronistic, with actual Martians who have built cities on Mars and boats for the water-filled canals. Some readers will be put off by that, which is tragic since the stories are so full of imagination and wonder. Bradbury's style is very poetic and draws vivid pictures of people and places. The writing is fun, thoughtful, and generally optimistic.

Highly recommended for those who can stand a bit of fiction in their fiction.

Also, the book is discussed on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast, which inspired my re-reading of this classic.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: She Hulk Vol. 1 by M. Tamaki et al.

She Hulk Volume 1: Deconstructed written by Mariko Tamaki, art by Nico Leon and Matt Milla with Dalibor Talajic and Andrew Crossey

Jennifer Walters is a brilliant lawyer and cousin to Dr. Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk. She got a blood transfusion from him once upon a time and now she can change into She-Hulk. Classically, Jen has control over when she changes and she retains her personality as She-Hulk. This story takes place after the Civil War II event in Marvel Comics, during which She-Hulk had a fight with Thanos that put her in a coma. Jen has recovered, gone back home, and started work at a new law firm. She hopes to leave the difficult past behind. The firm gives her all the freak clients, including a woman who has clearly been transformed physically by some accident. She's being evicted from her apartment wrongfully. Jen agrees to look into it without promising anything concrete (she is a lawyer, after all). Meanwhile, she blows off some superhero friends who come to check on her. She struggles to keep her alter-ego from emerging during stressful moments.

The story moves along at an even pace, delving into this new persona for Jennifer Walters. Previously, she was a fun-loving superhero who hung out with the Avengers, did a stint with the Fantastic Four when The Thing dropped out for a while, and was her own muscle during legal cases. Now she's very subdued. While in the coma, Bruce Banner was killed, adding to her hardships. So she's dealing with that as well as the other issues in her life. The story is interesting but very low on action and not the rollicking good time of earlier She-Hulk stories. I enjoyed it but found it very average.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Movie Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

A Quiet Place (2018) co-written and directed by John Krasinski

The Abbott family survives in a post-apocalyptic environment of sorts. Some aliens have crashed or invaded (it's not really clear which and it's not really relevant to the story--there's a lot of stuff they don't bother explaining). The aliens go about killing people but can only find them by hearing the sounds they make. The Abbotts have a deaf daughter, so they already know American Sign Language and have adapted quickly to a very new and very difficult lifestyle--making no noise as they live on a farm on the outskirts of a small town. They live a meager, terrified existence as best they can.

The simple premise is smartly executed. The family has some minor internal conflicts that make the situation more dramatic and them more human. Their close bond is the heart of the film. The parents are especially engaging as they struggle with their roles as providers for and protectors of their children (along with teaching them to be independent, which conflicts with the first two roles). Their focus on people other than themselves is the best attribute of horror-movie heroes. The actors all give great performances, especially Emily Blunt as the mom. The aliens aren't fully explained but enough information is given to make them believably menacing. The filmmakers follow the Jaws tactic of not showing the monster till the middle or the end, which works very well here.


Parental Warning: This movie is rated PG-13 and is at the top end of the rating. The movie is mild on the language and sex fronts. On the other hand, the movie is loaded with frightening and intense scenes, some with blood. Children are menaced a lot (my wife will never be able to watch this movie). Also, the mom is pregnant and is stalked by an alien as she's undergoing labor! Very intense.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

School Concerts

The past week we had a double-header of school concerts. The concerts were at a local high school, the same venue as the Fall concerts.

The first concert was the Spring Orchestra Concert at 6:30. The concert is a major part of the students' grades, so attendance is mandatory. Naturally, parents and siblings come along as well, barring other commitments. We had our whole family there.

Concert stage

My daughter plays cello and had a seat near the front so we could see her as she played. We were able to get some good video as well.

My daughter in the middle

The concert was fun and ended by 7:00 (I left the older grades' performances out of the video, sorry!).

My son plays saxophone for Band, so he was in the Chorus and Band Spring Concert at 7:30. His concert included the chorus and the rhythm rockers group, which I did not record. They were excellent. My son came in after those two groups along with the horde of other players. The school was celebrating its 25th anniversary, so a lot of local alumni (mostly middle- and high-schoolers) came to play along. My son was seated farther back so I only caught a picture of him walking in. He did introduce one of the songs, which is faithfully presented in the video below.

Walking in

With all the extras, the second concert lasted till 9 p.m., which was pretty late for our preschooler. He had a fun time anyway.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Federal Hill Park, Baltimore

After visiting the Maryland Science Center, we went after a nearby geocache, Guns to Bear on Baltimore. The cache is located on top of Federal Hill in the aptly named Federal Hill Park. It's only a five minute walk from the Science Center, so the trip was easy, except for the cold, damp, windy weather.

Federal Hill, Baltimore

The steps

The climb was not too hard but leg-length definitely made a difference for how fast the kids got up the hill.

First to the top

The cache was fairly easy to find except that it was not for the vertically-challenged or immature. I was able to spot it and just about reach it.

Nearby is a statue dedicated to Samuel Smith, a merchant and politician who served in America's Continental Army during the War for Independence from Britain. He served as major general (his highest military rank) during the War of 1812 when he organized the local defenses during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. He also served as a congressman and senator before and after the War of 1812, finishing his political career as mayor of Baltimore (1835-1838). He died in 1839.

A patriotic composition

Samuel Smith

Smith's view of the Inner Harbor

Another memorial is dedicated to George Armistead. He was the officer in command of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and led them through the bombing that inspired Francis Scott Keys to write The Star Spangled Banner.

Armistead memorial

Off to the side of the hill is a fancifully-decorated American Visionary Art Museum. Maybe we will visit it someday.

American Visionary Art Museum

Another view of the Inner Harbor (Science Center on left)

The hill was made into a fort in 1861 to keep the pro-Confederacy part of Baltimore's population under control. The fort had 42 guns and could house a thousand soldiers if needed. Only one gun remains today.

Our little regiment

Gun's eye view

Vintage flag from the War of 1812 days--fifteen stars!

The park also has a very nice-looking playground. The cold and damp kept us from playing there, but surely when we visit the Science Center under better weather we will try it out.


Walking back to the car, I saw some neat local buildings. Living in this neighborhood would be fun but probably very expensive.

Row houses that go all the way back

More modern construction--I would be on those roof-top viewing areas all the time

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Review: Green Lantern Earth One Volume One by C. Bechko

Green Lantern Earth One Volume One co-written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, art by Gabriel Hardman, and colors by Jordan Boyd

Hal Jordan is an ex-NASA astronaut working with a small company surveying asteroids, hoping to find a valuable and sizable chunk of metal. He and partner Volkov stumble upon something even more valuable than raw metal--a space ship that crashed seemingly hundreds of years ago. A large, broken robot is inside along with a desiccated alien corpse who has a ring on his finger and a glowing lantern nearby. Jordan and Volkov take the lantern and the ring as proof of their find. As their small ship goes to dock with their larger mothership, Volkov slips on the ring and accidentally destroys their ship. Jordan winds up with the ring just as the robot comes blasting off the asteroid. The ring keeps him from dying in space and gives him some powers that he doesn't know how to use. He barely survives a fight with the robot. He wakes up on another planet where an alien with a ring becomes his first ally in discovering what the ring and robots are all about.

I'm usually not a fan of reboots of characters but this one works really well. Instead of just transplanting a hero's story to modern day, this volume moves the story into a credible future. Jordan's character is more disgruntled than hot shot, a nice twist from the standard version of Hal Jordan. A lot of the usual Green Lantern history is woven into the story (the planet Oa, the Guardians, the Manhunters, other individual Green Lanterns, etc.) with enough twists and wrinkles to make the story fresh and interesting. I didn't think anything could top Geoff Johns's run on the Green Lantern comics but this is a very promising start.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) directed by Taika Waititi

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is desparate enough to prevent Ragnarok (the Asgardian apocalypse) that he'll do just about anything. He fights fire demons, threatens to behead his brother, and tries to save his father Odin from shuffling off his apparently mortal coil. His evil, imprisoned sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death, is released and causes pandemonium on the planet Asgard. Thor gets tossed off the Bifrost (the bridge between Earth and Asgard) and falls to a dump of a planet where unloved things go to be exploited. He's reunited with more than the Hulk as he schemes his return to Asgard and save the day. Because that's what heroes do.

This movie is a classic case of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. The story ranges all over Asgard and a bit of the universe. The movie is dripping with CGI spectacle. Jokes are ubiquitous and aimed at practically everyone. Visual references and gags aren't limited to the Marvel Cinematic Universe--everything from Willy Wonka to Lord of the Rings gets a nod, homage, or rip-off. The frivolity is only occasionally tempered by dramatic moments, though many of those can't keep a straight face for very long. The tone is very frivolous, almost to a fault. The actors do a great job and keep the movie from becoming too cartoonish. This is not great storytelling but entertainment for entertainment's sake.

Recommended, though it is very light-weight and visually overblown. This movie is possibly the exact opposite of the dreary and self-important DC superhero movies coming out in the past few years.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: A History of the Church in 100 Objects by Mike and Grace Aquilina

A History of the Church in 100 Objects by Mike and Grace Aquilina

The Catholic Church has existed for nearly two thousand years. Its history is rich and varied. Mike and Grace (his daughter) Aquilina provide an interesting overview of that history. They look at one hundred different objects spanning the time from the first century AD (a Jerusalem paving stone, item #2) to 2006 (a Polish bank note featuring John Paul II (#98)). Each item relates to a significant event or person in the Church's history.

The objects run a wide range. Some are famous, like Gutenberg's printing press (#52) or the American Declaration of Independence (#70). Some are obscure, like flasks and holy water bottles (#22, 24, 32, 44, 77). Some are great works of art, like Michelangelo's Pieta #57) or the Rose Window of Notre Dame (#43). Some are mundane tools, like pins (#97, 89), pens (#83), and parking passes (#92--the ones used at Vatican II since Roman parking was at a premium). They all provide a rich way into the story of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is the oldest and most physical of the Christian Churches. It has survived persecutions (see Peter's Chains (#9) or a guillotine from the French Revolution(#71)) and heresies (#18--a Ravenna mosaic that shows Christ as merely a man according to the Arian heresy). It clings to the Faith that Christ is still physically present with us in the Eucharist, a trust that has only been more refined and more certain through the ages (witness the earliest First Communion cards from the 1910s (#82) after Pope Pius X encouraged parents and pastors to allow young children to receive communion; he also encouraged frequent communion by all the faithful as spiritual nourishment and medicine). This book mirrors the historic and physical reality of the Church in a beautiful way.

The book is also an easy read. Each object gets a full-page picture and two or three pages of text, detailing the object's history and significance. It reads well as individual bits or as larger representations of an age. I learned lots of little bits and made some larger connections between things. Each item also has two books as recommended reading for further study of an item, issue, or age.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Daughter's Art on Display (Again!)

See my daughter's previous art display here.

My daughter's school art made the grade and is (or was, depending on when you read this) on display at The Mall in Columbia. The mall hosts a Spring Student Art Exhibition from the county schools, so there is a lot of art on display from all the elementary, middle, and high schools. Oddly, the high school displays had few people wandering around them. The middle and elementary school displays were mobbed on the night we went (which was the reception night, featuring free juice and cookies for the kids).

Middle school display with middle-sized crowd

The cookie and refreshment sign

My daughter and her work

Little brother picks a drink at the reception

The local community college also made a pitch for student to come to their summer camps and programs. The school's mascot, a red dragon, was there to draw the children closer. He was happy to give high-fives and hugs to visitors. And then hand them a brochure.

Waving to our young one

Slap me five!

The display is up through April 23, so go quickly if you want to see the fabulous art. The cookies were a one-day-only deal, so don't expect them.