Saturday, September 30, 2006

Honey, I Numbed The Audience

I'd have been a lousy cow. I don't like lines, I don't like being herded, and I don't like doing anything in unison with everyone else. So Disney has been interesting, from that perspective.

The boys loved a 3-D show called "Honey, I Shrunk The Audience". Its a cute take on the movie series, and it has some funny surprises. But getting there was something of a non-conformist's nightmare.

Any cynic worth his salt and vinegar will know that when something is sponsored by Kodak, its best to run in the opposite direction. But here, they have you by the mouse ears. First, we were herded into a carpeted auditorium with several large video monitors. There were no chairs, so you basically stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the monitors. That's when they tell you the real show is through the doors to the left, but first they intend to show you something by its sponsor, Kodak. !%$#@! Too late to turn back now.

Dim the lights, and queue the sappy music - you are about to be numbed. It is virtually impossible to look away. Its like having cheese whiz shoved down your throat. And speaking of gagging, it was at this point that the family in front of us decided to share a moment of their lives, as they bent down to change a diaper.

When we'd finally had a sufficient dose of smarm, they herded us into the theater, told us what we could and could not do, where to sit, and when to put on our glasses.

Doin' the Macarena, Disney style.

Best laid plans...

I had it all planned out - lessons, workbooks, assignments. Schedule. And there is the problem. The teacher has been wholly unable to maintain schedule, on account of his being asleep during class. On account of his dragging his sorry, tired mass back to the hotel each night, barely able to take another step. So I've bagged the whole "homeschool roadtrip" concept, which was ill-conceived to start with. But you already knew that.

Truthfully, there is plenty of educational material in the parks. Rides about energy, communication, environment, conservation, human and plant biology. Most of which is over the kids' heads, but they seem to be soaking it up. One of the shows we watched was the Hall of Presidents. Here they had a "cast member" (disneyspeak for employee) talk for 15 minutes about the voting process, interspersing fun facts about presidential election issues of past and present. Then they had a show featuring 42 life-sized, animatronic dummies - er, presidents - on a stage. They began by introducing them all, in order. This was fun because we'd spent some time reviewing our "Browns Bridge Presidential Acronyms" the night before.

WAJMMQJBHTPZF - pronounced waj-mik-jib-hit-pizf
PIBLJGHGACHCM - pronounced pib-lij-gihug-ach-kim
RTWCHRTEKJNF - pronounced rit-witch-roh-tek-januf
CRBCB - pronounced "Alex, do you mean I have to wait another THREE years for the next consonant?"

It was awesome that we'd been able to list all the presidents correctly before seeing the show.

Anyway, there are many, many cheesy customs here at Disney. Like the term "cast members". And the way all those cast members say "Welcome Home" every time they see you. And the way everything here is called "magical".

On the second night we saw the fireworks display in the Magic Kingdom. Try as I might to come up with a description, only one word came to mind. Magical.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Cruel and the usual...

Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention states that no one shall be subject to "degrading treatment”, and “outrages upon personal dignity”.

Whoever wrote this has never met my In-Laws.

Having never experienced Disney, I'd been told that it had the power to make even the most jaded adult feel like a kid again. Big deal. My Father-In-Law has the magical power to make me feel like I'm 12 years old. Usually in front of a crowd of people.

God bless them, they mean well. Thank goodness there is relief, administered in doses of 750ml.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

¿Dónde está la cuchara?

What trip down Interstate 95 would be complete without a stop at South Of The Border? I mean, I think its the law to stop, isn't it?

I can't tell you the last time I was here, yet it is exactly as I remember it. Except that this time I see this place for what it really is. Tourist trap? Mecca for all that is cheesy? Monument to the excesses of capitalism?

Nope, none of the above. This place is photographers heaven. And unfortunately, I had no time to linger. Imagine that! Every other time I've been here I couldn't wait to leave, and this time I had to leave when I really wanted to stay.

We stopped only long enough to eat at Pedro's Diner. Its one of those places that makes you long for a shower after you've eaten. Its one of those places that somehow manages to make a sealed package of soup crackers seem... "sketchy". The boys ordered soup. Turns out that "soup" is Spanish for "bowl of tepid, gelatinous liquid with a spoon suspended somewhere inside it".

But we ate, and then spent the next 100 miles or so scouting the road ahead for good places to pull over to the side - quickly. Fortunately, this proved to be unnecessary.

While we were waiting eagerly for our bowls of tepid, gelatinous liquid, I noticed the festive illustrations on the menu. In fact, they were so interesting, I concocted an eleborate scheme to "steal" one of these menus. First, I pretended to unwittingly drop it on the floor. Then, I inadvertently slid it across the floor as I crossed my legs. This placed the menu directly below Josh's chair. He of course noticed it right away, and bent down to pick it up, whereby I kicked his leg and told him - under my breath - to leave it there. This exchange caught Diane's attention. She scolded me for trying to steal a menu, then kindly asked the waitress if we could keep one. This exchange caught the attention of the In-Laws, which prompted a lecture about setting a proper example for Josh and Kyle.

At any rate, I got the menu. As we continued our drive, the illustrations provided for an excellent lesson in cultural stereotyping. During this lesson, I discovered that Kyle believes all fast-food workers are "oriental". Clearly, I've unearthed an issue. Got some work to do there.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Report from the head office:

Hot Water Heater Replacement Complete. Cost: $1,300

What's so frustrating is that if I'd been home, I could have easily done the job for $350.

Suddenly, this all-expense-paid trip is getting to be very expensive....

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Down the drain...

I am SO lost without my Paint Shop Pro and my high-speed Internet connection. The withdrawal has produced almost flu-like symptoms.

Anyway, it took some doing, but I was finally able to subdue my evil hot water heater. Of course, getting someone out to the house to replace an oil-fired hot water heater on a Sunday was an interesting exercise. I've always thought that plumbers, in general, were an ill-tempered bunch. But I finally found a way to make them laugh. Hysterically.

So the only thing I could do was subdue the beast, and schedule a replacement for mid-week. Since there are folks staying at the house while we're gone, it couldn't very well wait until we returned. But here was a real surprise - the hot water heater was installed without a shutoff valve! That's such a surprise because, you know, everything else in our house was constructed with such care and forethought.

In order to stop the onslaught of water, the only thing I could do was shut off the main water supply - obviously this was no solution for those folks staying at the house. So I had to do my own emergency plumbing operation to get a shut-off valve installed. This involved cutting out a section of pipe and soldering in a new valve.

So now I could shut off the water heater and leave the main water supply on. Great. Beckett dumped a to-do list a mile long on my lap, and now, after several trips to the hardware store and an hour or so of work, I could finally start on it.

First, the two inches of standing water. See, here's the problem with that. There's this drain in the floor in the middle of my basement that should have prevented this whole mess. But of course, it wasn't working - since the previous owners had the care and forethought to cover it with glue-on tile, layered over with glue-on carpet. After a couple hours work with hammer and chisel, I'd exposed the floor drain. Which was filled with flooring glue.

To make a long story short, after a heroic effort, I decided to call the plumbers back to see if they could at least come out and clear the drain. This might have worked, except they were still laughing too hard to talk. Humorous bunch, those plumbers. So I bought a sump-pump and got the water out of the basement.

Having just installed wall-to-wall carpet, it would have been very easy to get discouraged. But I couldn't stop thinking of Katrina's victims, still trying to recover. Things didn't seem so bad after that. It will all wait 'til I get home. be continued.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


So this is how our Disney trip started at 5:00 am this morning. I walked to the basement and landed in two inches of standing water. Ha!

The hot water heater (a.k.a. "Beckett") deposited two inches of water in the basement. I ran into the furnace room to shut it down, grabbed the hot water heater manual, and quickly flipped to the first page. I swear, for a moment I saw, in bold faced letters, the following:

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold.

I dropped the manual, recoiled in horror and sobbed "Why? WHY?! What'd I ever do to you man?" That's when Diane walked in. Awkward moment.

So apparently we are NOT leaving today. The water heater must be replaced, the water removed, and... what else... hm. Oh yeah, remember all that new carpet I just installed? Ha!

More on this later. I gotta job to do. Beckett must die.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hitting The Road

One day is all that stands between us and the open road. Two weeks in Disney World. Its not what I'd have picked, but sometimes you gotta take one for the team.

If I have Internet access in the hotel, I'll try to post about the trip. So much to do. As midnight approached, I realized I wouldn't have the time or the energy to post today, so I thought I'd just get a quickie in.

First, let me just say this - when you have dry clothes, life is good.

I also finished the basement this evening - this project was way more work than I'd anticipated. I wanted to get this done before the trip so that Amy and the girls can move down there while we're gone. So I turned the keys over this evening. I lost a schoolroom, and gained some sanity. Good trade.

So, with the basement finished, and the dryer working again, we're ready to hit the road.

Josh and Kyle are SO not looking forward to this.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Blair Witch

What is it about writing that is so scary? Of all the subjects I unleash on these guys, none strikes fear into their hearts like writing. I suppose its the tedium. Can't say I blame them for that.

So today was no exception. I suspect they were on to me based on my reaction to their efforts yesterday. They seemed to know it was coming.

We started school late today, on account of... well, I can't really remember, but we didn't get started until around 11:30. I tried to soften the blow of the impending writing assignment by playing paper-wad basketball to start the day off. I got it all set up and began feeding them paper wads. After a couple of minutes, I stopped and asked them a question. If we were to keep official score, what would we need to do - what would we need to create? I was hoping to get something to the effect of "creating a chart", but before they could respond I blurted out "Oh, crap!" and ran from the room to check the time.

As usual, I completely forgot that the second session of Fall President's Physical Fitness Challenge was scheduled for today at 1:00 pm. I swear, since I quit working, I can't keep track of a thing. No really, its only since I stopped working. Really.

I scrapped the school session and began preparations for the Challenge. As it turned out, I only had two participants in addition to Josh and Kyle, but we had a lot of fun.

Afterward, back at the ranch, there was no time for games. So here was the drill: write an entire line of each letter of the alphabet, in perfect form.

I must digress for a minute here. Yesterday's project with the broken dryer didn't go so well. I mean, I don't think even Jason, our robotic pool vacuum, which does just about everything, and might even have some electro-cosmic connection to laundry machines, could have resuscitated this clothes dryer. So it is now resting peacefully in a scrap metal recycling bin at the Sandy Ridge landfill. I digress here to point out that the teacher, after having doled out the assignment, had to bolt to the store to get a new dryer. So I told the boys they'd probably need half an hour to complete the assignment, handed the reigns to their older brother, and headed out the door.

When I returned an hour and a half later, with no clothes dryer (but again, that's another blog entirely), I found the boys just finishing up. What they lacked in speed, they made up for in form. They actually did a great job. And I suspect they had a diversion or two while I was gone. So I have this vision for a new bumper sticker on my truck:

Anyway, to recap the writing fiasco, here is where we were at around the mid-point last year...

And here is where we began this year...

And here is today's effort...

So we made a left turn, circled back around, pulled a U-ey, backed up a little bit, stalled, and now we're cranking it back up. Sounds like my dryer shopping excursion.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rube Goldberg

I feel a special affinity for Rube Goldberg. More and more, my projects around this house have begun to resemble his work. Need an arduously complex solution to a simple problem? I'm your man.

The boys' pre-school chore this morning was to sweep the deck and skim the pool. This 20-minute exercise dragged on for more than an hour. In the boys' defense, it was windy this morning. As time dragged on, the questions came quicker. "How can we finish this when the wind keeps blowing more leaves into the pool?" "Why do we need to skim when the pool has a filter?" "Why doesn't Jason (our robotic pool cleaner) do this job?" "How LONG is this going to take?"

Finally, I unlocked the chains and granted freedom. Freedom from the endless questions.

When we began school this morning, we went online and reviewed Rube Goldberg's work. We'd spent some time on his work last year. I was once again pleasantly surprised when they remembered who he was. So I gave them each a large tablet, a marker, and 15 minutes to come up with a Rube Goldberg solution to the leaf skimming problem. I gave them a choice of problem:

a) leaves falling into the pool
b) leaves in the pool

In other words, they could either come up with a solution that prevented leaves from getting into the pool, or a solution for getting the leaves out of the pool. Fifteen minutes later, they had... not much. I gave them some suggestions. It helped when I reminded them that the solutions should be overly complex to the task, and virtually impossible to implement. Like, maybe they would involve an elephant, or an alarm clock, or something of that nature.

I liked what they came up with.


leaf(a) falls into pool(b), activates sensor(c) which trips alarm clock(d), waking rooster(e) which crows, tipping brick(f) off top of head. Brick falls on leaf, driving it onto spring(g) on bottom of pool. Spring sends leaf to pair of robotic hands(h) that crush it up and deposit it on top of wind-up car(i). Car drives leaf to drain(j), where it tips over from the suction and the leaf is pulled in.


leaf(a) falls into pool(b), activates sensor(c) which triggers scissors(d), cutting rope(e) which causes fork(f) to drop, "porking" (Josh's word) elephant(g) on the rear. Startled elephant leaps into pool. Resulting tidal wave(h) ejects leaf from pool.

So they drew these out, and pleased as I was with their "inventions", I knew right away that we had developed a severe deficiency of illustration skills. Well, not so much developed it - its always been there, and I've never done anything to help them overcome it.

I mean, that is one pissed-off looking rooster. I suppose Kyle was studying my face as he drew it. Anyway, we'll have to work on that. The drawing that is. Not my face.

Next, I had them label all the key elements of their inventions: a,b,c,d, etc. Then I asked them to write out how their machine worked, just as I did above. Half an hour later, we had some horribly messy scribbles on two writing tablets. It looked more like the territorial scratchings of some kind of rabid animal. Hm. K. Got some work to do there. I can see where we'll be concentrating our efforts in the next few weeks.

At this point, the "fun" part of our day was over. Sigh.

So, we did some math review - long addition and subtraction. That went pretty well, and they actually enjoyed it.

Finally, some geography.
We reviewed the concept of latitude and longitude. Its funny, I've always distinguished the two by the lyrics to the Jimmy Buffet song "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes". The further south you move toward the equator, the more laid-back it is, presumably. I launched into an animated version of a Jimmy Buffet explanation, and when I'd finished, they sat there blinking back at me. You could hear crickets in the background.

Finally, with a little help, they looked up a couple of countries based on the coordinates I gave them, and that was the end of the school day. It was time for me to move on to my next Rube Goldberg project. Like... fixing the broken dryer.

Sounds like a job for Jason.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Counting Blocks

With a new family living in our house (that's another blog, entirely), its a tad crowded. Which is why I've been hunkered down in the basement the past three weeks, trying to finish a bedroom so that one of the families can move down there. The sense of urgency increased as we neared Labor Day and the school year was due to start - it would have been impossible to conduct school amidst the chaos that is our home.

I nearly completed the room by Labor Day, but the carpet delivery was delayed. Anyway, here is the room.

OOPS! That's the before picture. Here is an after picture of the room, minus the new carpet.

So, until the carpet is delivered, the room is serving us very nicely as a temporary schoolroom. We can draw on the floor and everything!

So this week has been all about review. I was a little worried as the first day of school approached, and I started quizzing the boys on certain topics, like math, geography, etc. The questions would generally elicit a blank stare, followed by a twisted lip, furrowed brow, finger in mouth, inexplicable curtsy motion, and a long "ummmmmmmmm..." My fears were unfounded, however, as I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly they picked back up.

I brought a hundred lego blocks to the schoolroom today, and started out by tossing them all into the air. As they cascaded down around us, the boys looked at me as if I had lost my very last marble. But the exercise that ensued was a lot of fun.

Basically, I asked the boys - one at a time - to count the blocks for me. Josh began by stacking the blocks as he counted them. I stopped him before he could finish, and pointed out the benefits of his method. Then it was Kyle's turn. Not to be outdone, he grabbed his journal and wrote down the individual totals as he created the stacks. Beautiful.

Then I re-schmangled the blocks around randomly, and asked them to count the blocks without touching them. Of course, just as with the previous days' exercise of counting 892 hornet egg cells, they quickly got confused, lost count, and restarted numerous times. So that's when we started talking about counting methodologies.

I asked them to try a second time, thinking through what might make the job easier, and reminding them about the toothpick exercise with the egg cells. Always one to hang on a technicality, Josh ran from the room and returned with gloved hands - ha! Sorry bud, no deal. You can't touch them, even with gloves. Thinking again, he said he wanted to go get some toothpicks, but I reminded him that our entire toothpick collection was busy just now, maintaining steadfast count on 892 egg cells. Oh... yeah. Try again. He struggled for a while until I handed the reins back over to Kyle.

He went looking for a toothpick substitute, but I overruled the method and made him find another approach. He got a magic marker and began circling individual blocks, writing a "1" inside each circle. Too cute! I pointed out that the approach showed promise, but it had an obvious flaw. We expanded on it and began drawing circles around groups of 5 blocks, without writing the actual number "5" in the circles.

So we discussed the two most important principles of counting. First, you must keep track of what's been counted, and what's not been counted. As an analogy, I used an aquarium, and how the attendants must keep track of who's been fed and who's not been fed. One thing they might do, for example, is keep a journal with tank, date, time, quantity, etc. The second important principle is not losing your count. A huge problem for scatter-brained individuals like myself.

So, as another method, I showed them how we could group the blocks into smaller sets, by color, and use the journal to record the number of blocks by color. This would provide a solution to both counting principles. As an added bonus, they had to do it in Spanish - mwahahahaha.

Again they got confused, so we discussed how we needed to apply the "keeping track" principle to the smaller sets as well. We accomplished this by starting in the same area of the room for each counting pass, and walking across the room in the same direction - that way, we knew that whatever was behind us was already counted.

Using this method, we each counted the blocks separately - resulting in three counts, two different results. That's when I launched into a lecture about the importance of checks and controls for consistent results.

And that, of course, is when I lost them.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hornet's Nest

We kicked off the school year by removing a large bald-faced hornet's nest that had terrorized the driveway all summer, forcing residents and guests alike to seek alternative ingress and egress. I recall a couple of incidents in particular that were less like egress and more like haulin' butt.

Testing the nest was necessary before we could attempt to remove it. Kyle suggested whacking it with a big stick, kind of like a pinata. Josh preferred a water hose at full blast. These two test methods assumed, of course, that the tester would be myself. I chose a less intrusive method - climbing a ladder, I shook the branch lightly back and forth. When no activity ensued (save for a curious yellow jacket that scared the crap out of me), I took my snips and deftly cut it down. Josh stepped up to accept the trophy, and here he holds it like a man who is not the least bit intimidated by his prey. Actually, it wasn't so much the nest that scared him, it was those darn hornets.

You can see that the nest is as big as his torso. Being home alone at the time, we procured some scientific instruments from the kitchen:

- Cutting Board
- Serrated Bread Knife
- Toothpicks

Field Note - when using expensive items from the kitchen, never leave them in the driveway for spouse's return.

Anyway, we cut the nest in two, revealing quite a complex structure. At the core are the honeycombs that house the queen's eggs. There were several layers of perfectly hexagonal cells, each built in succession under the previous layer, attached as a sort of pod.

Surrounding this amazing high-rise nursery are the paper walls. These are constructed from, well... hornet spit. They chew wood and mix it with saliva and spit the solution out to create a lightweight (but strong) paper-like substance.

The walls are 9-10 layers deep. A small hole near the bottom permits entry and exit, while allowing them to guard the nest. This nest had a large hole in the back, presumably created by a predator as the hornet colony waned and the hornets died off.

The queen begins the colony by building a honeycomb, depositing her eggs (not sure where they come from - ask your parents) and sealing them in. They hatch into larvae, mature and break out of the cell to become slaves of the colony. You simply can't find good help these days, unless you grow your own - ask Josh and Kyle about this.

As the colony grows, the structure grows. Workers actually eat the inner walls and redeposit them on the outside of the structure - kind of like reframing a house to make it bigger. Except, its a lot grosser.

As the summer nears its end, the queen begins to lay the eggs of fertile males and females. For extra credit, can you guess which of these is expendable? Hint: the males die off. The females fly off as the colony nears its end, and "hibernate" for the winter. In the spring, they will start new colonies.

We made a project of counting the hexagonal cells. Man, the boys were PSYCHED! Counting egg cells - woo hoo! Anyway, we devised a method to keep track of our counting by inserting toothpicks into the counted cells.

Josh and Kyle lost interest at about 13. I kept at it though, and eventually counted 896 cells. Hey, what else do I have to do? Anyway, that's a lot of babies! Just think of all the nighttime feedings - tired parents pacing, burping, changing diapers. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

This one section of honeycomb contained 452 cells. When I'd finished, it looked more like a porcupine than a hornet's nest!

You can find some good information on bald-faced hornets at

About Browns Bridge Academy

Browns Bridge Academy. What's it all about?

Short answer—BBA is about preparing students to face their futures as strong, confident, full-partner participants. More specifically, it's about empowering them to be the center of their education, to take ownership of their education and their futures. It's about students making deliberate decisions about what to study and what to learn outside the classroom at an institution that has earned national recognition for excellence and is recognized by the nation's most prestigious academic honor societies.

It's also about some very basic concepts—like integrity and community. Our honor system is an integral part of the experience here, and it permeates everything from each student's sense of security to his or her sense of personal responsibility. And it's about being at a place that welcomes diversity and encourages a sense of belonging.

It's also about tradition. BBA is proud of its heritage as a premier educator, proud of its prestige as a challenging academic institution, proud of its history and traditions, and proud of its long list of successful alumnae.

We are also proud of our beautiful campus located in a residential section of Highland, Md.

Ok, for real? Its about Josh and Kyle.