Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mari on the Silks

At the end of her latest session, Mari shows off what she learned on the silks.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Spy Birthday Party for a ten year old

For Austin's 10th birthday this year, we had a spy themed party. It was sort of elaborate and we didn't take a whole ton of photos on all aspects, so I thought I'd try to document it here, in part for our memories and in part because we got some good ideas from other blogs and I thought it would be good to "give back" to the espionage birthday party reference that is the internet.

So, first off, my wife and I dressed up in evening wear (tux and evening gown) and introduced ourselves to the guests with our aliases, Natasha and Agent X. Natasha explained that they were not here for a birthday party, but instead they were here to train to be spies, and if successful, they would be sent on a mission.

We've found it's good to start with an open-ended craft as guests arrive at staggered times, so our first task was to have each boy make himself a passport with an invented alias. I made a template that asked for (false) given and family names, nationality, date of birth, a photo and had a space for a thumbprint.

(Here's a link to my fake passport.pdf you can print. Add another folded blank sheet, cover with dark blue construction paper and then staple together into booklets.)

I had already printed correctly sized pictures of the boys from class photos from the last few years. The photos were on regular paper, not photographic, which made the portraits a little fuzzy and allowed them to draw whatever glasses, moustaches, or any other "disguise" on their picture that they wanted. We also left out a book of flags of the world and told them to draw flags on their passport pages to illustrate where they've travelled.
Making passports
The boys were pretty creative with this, as we had aliases from Germany, Afghanistan, Britain, Australia and the Netherlands. They had also traveled all over, including South Korea, Ireland, France, and Sudan.

Also on the table for kids who finished early were some books about spying that I had gotten from the library. I think my favorite was Spyology, and it has a section on the Caesar code which would come into play later.

Natasha recorded all the names on a piece of paper for reference (and for future Thank You notes) and I pocketed the passports.

Their next task was also a creative one: invent spy devices from an ordinary object. Natasha passed around a bowl with pens, flashlights, a pin and other common objects and we gave them paper to spend time listing all the things their invention would be able to do. They had a lot of fun sharing their ideas with each other.

Then came marksmanship training. Natasha had set up targets (balloons) as well as taped off lines for a "shooting range." They took turns with Nerf guns hitting their targets.
Practicing firing Nerf guns
Meanwhile, I was making a pasta dinner (our original plan of ordering pizza was foiled by the blizzard -- no pizzerias were open).

After shooting training, we had etiquette class. Although spies needed to get down and dirty, they also have to be able to associate with billionaires and royalty, so these trainees needed to know their table settings. I showed them a few glasses and had them identify them. They learned to identify white and red wine glasses, as well as a champagne flute and a martini glass.
"Martinis are always shaken, never stirred."
I showed them what a place setting should properly look like (two forks, knife and a spoon) and then instructed them to set proper places for themselves. They were each given a martini glass and Natasha poured them a kid-friendly cocktail from a shaker -- Yoda Soda from the Star Wars Cookbook.

During and after the meal, we played a game of Mafia, slightly altering the context (rules here). We explained that this was a training exercise to determine if they could lie and see through others' lies. Instead of Mafia agents in a village, they were told that there were enemy agents among our spy agency. We had 9 kids with 2 enemy agents among them, which gave an advantage to the "good guys," and in fact, the closest the enemies came to winning was having an agent survive to the final 3. The first game, as is usual with Mafia, was a bit random and confused, but once they got the hang of it, they had a lot of fun and we played two more rounds.
"Morning and another agent lays dead. Who do you think is a mole?"
After dinner, we decided that they were ready for a mission. They needed to find a missing computer chip with nuclear arming codes before it fell into the wrong hands. But first: Passport control. I took out their passports and quizzed them on their names, nationality, dates of birth and their previous travels.

"How was China, Mr. Maines?" "I've never been -- that's the flag of Japan!"

"How old are you, Mr. Hunt?" "21." "What year were you born?" "1992."

Because a lot of their answers were so silly, this was a lot of fun for all of them.

"Mr. Buttock, you say you were born in 10 BC -- how old does that make you?"

The kids lined up at the entrance to our basement. Natasha explained that they would need to get through a laser field (which she had constructed using bells strung on yarn, criss-crossed on chairs) and then shoot a guard (a big stuffed teddy bear). The birthday boy chose a laser team and a shooting team (although they all eventually tried both).
Getting through the laser field
After taking out the guard, they found a classified file that led to the first clue in a short treasure hunt.
Taking out the guard, "Big Ted" aka "One-Sock."
The treasure hunt included a little bit of geography, knowing the name of the spider plant, a Caesar code and eventually popping a balloon that held an SD card.
Classified file from the trunk One-Sock was protecting
"The Spider, not the Snake!" (Snake plant not pictured)
Decoding the message.
The missing computer chip!
Mission completed, they headed back upstairs for cake. I encouraged the boys to look to see what was on the SD card and they found a file suggesting that one of their spymasters, Natasha or Agent X, was actually a double agent.
Never trust anyone over 30.

How would they know which of us was a real spy?

The cake was going to be the giveaway.

Well, I ate my piece of cake with my hands which showed I didn't have proper spy etiquette. Clearly, I was the double agent!

They passed their final test! For that, we handed out some goodie bag prizes, including invisible ink black light pens.

After cake, we watched a James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. (Originally, this was going to be a movie party, then we decided on For Your Eyes Only because Austin has been skiing and there's a great ski chase, and then it became a spy birthday party. The evolution of party planning.)

All in all, it was a successful party, and we all had a lot of fun. The boys set and cleared their own dinner settings, learned a few flags of the world, got to be creative and cooperative, and made their own take-home gift (the passports). Who could ask for more?

Toasting the birthday boy

Monday, January 07, 2013

Sudan blog

So, I mentioned that I'm going to Sudan in two weeks or so. Here's a blog written by the project director Geoff Emberling. See if the blog has better photos and more exciting anecdotes in later January while I'm there. Or perhaps, he will write about unnamed miscreants who are hindering his productivity. Could go either way.

Monday, December 10, 2012

2012 Year in Review

2012 was a big year for us -- it seems like every year is packed with activity now, but I'm surprised at how much happened over the past 12 months.

We visited Mary and Joe in Florida in January and, between swimming and visiting, discovered sea beans. Sea beans are seeds that have been transported over the ocean and could still germinate. They come in many shapes and sizes and colors and are available for those with eagle eyes.
Jellyfish on the beach!

In February, we spent a little over a week in Nicaragua. A pediatrician at Julie's clinic, Dorchester House, has been working with an NGO called Superemos in Esteli in the northwestern hills of Nicaragua for many years and Julie was invited to join him. The medical team gave advice and assistance to local public health workers and saw hundreds of patients in this rural area. Meanwhile, the kids and I spent time helping paint a mural, worked with clay, learned some Spanish, visited a local school, looked at all the fruits and spices available in the market, met a local artist, and went on hikes. A highlight for the kids: riding in the back of a pickup truck! For me: seeing all of our tropical houseplants growing in a native environment!

Mari and friends dancing

A highlight for all of us was meeting our new friends Alba Ena and Rico and spending our last weekend in beautiful Grenada, the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the Americas.

Jumping into a Nicaraguan lake with freshwater sharks

Back at home, we had our basement redone and now it's a great place playroom and guest room for visitors. Just ask Vera and Stephen, Val and Emma, Amy and Aaron, or Steve and Heidi (or come visit yourselves!). (Using scrap materials, Austin and Mari helped me make a little clubhouse in the backyard but you have to ask them for an invitation to that.)

We coordinated a visit to Toronto with my sister's family and had a lot of fun with the cousins at the Science Center, ROM, Centre Island and lots of delicious Chinese restaurants. On the drive back to Boston we all stopped in LeRoy, NY to visit the Jello Museum! An educational experience for sure.
An electroencephalogram of Jello is the same as a brain!
Still a mystery: why anyone would take an EEG of Jello
This summer we went west to visit Edie, Bill, Maia and Lucy, and Wendy, Pete and Parker, and to attend Rich and Amy's wedding in Colorado! It was so picturesque, much of it made it onto our Christmas card:

A&M outside Rocky Mtn Nat Park, J & A on Mt Washington,
A pointing out a dinosaur bone on Dinosaur Ridge,
M & me at the wedding, M at circus camp
Highlights included a horseback trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, adding Mentos to Coke, touring the Argo Mine, swinging on Walk-e-Woo leashes (so strong we trust our kids on them!), and of course, the wedding, the wedding, the wedding. Austin was an usher and Mari and cousin Lucia were flower girls. It was in Washington Park on a gorgeous day and it was great to spend time with family and friends (new and old!). 

Julie went on a few trips this year, including visiting her niece Lucia in Pittsburgh. She took Mari to New York City one weekend and they saw The Lion King on Broadway! Another weekend was spent with Austin in New Hampshire climbing Mount Washington, highest peak in the northeast! (Meanwhile, back at home, I took Austin to Fenway Park for his first time, and went with Mari to Circus Smirkus.)
Julie continues to work at Dorchester House; she won a grant to initiate a program to oversee nurse practitioner training, and she still teaches communication skills to medical students at BMC and is active in communication in health care. She completed her third Hale triathlon this year and is co-coaching Austin's Destination Imagination team.

Austin is now in the fourth grade. He played Little League in the spring and summer, and soccer in the fall. He's also a great tennis player and skier and he loves hiking and making up jokes. He really liked the Avengers movie, and has been enjoying watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with me.

Mari tried softball and soccer this year but preferred going to Moody Street Circus' summer camp and will be taking classes there this winter. She's in the 2nd grade and loves making art, writing poems and knitting with her friend Ann. 

I've recently been directing the Clemente Course, the humanities program I've been teaching in for over a decade (!). This year, I have also been working on illustrations for a final report on a dig in Syria and I'm preparing to visit Sudan in January on another archaeological project. I coached Austin's soccer team in the fall (having volunteered to be an assistant) and went from apprehensive to panicked to actually really enjoying the experience -- the boys and their families were easy to work with and I had a lot of advice from friends.
Clemente faculty and graduates
The whole family is still active in the Newton Family Singers. I continue to play in the band (and blog), and Mari, Julie and Austin had solos in our December concert. Our raspberry patch was bountiful this year and we had a great time trying to keep up with the fruit. Julie and I taught the kids to play Settlers of Catan and we've since spent many an enjoyable evening around the game. One of our favorite books to read together this year was Wonder because it was funny and touching and dealt with fitting in and had a really nice message that boiled down to: Choose Kind.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Financial Advisor

I'm looking into talking with a financial advisor, just to get an objective opinion on where our assets are, how we're investing, how much we need to save for college, etc.

We're looking for a fee-only advisor (paid hourly, not on sales commissions) but haven't gotten many personal referrals. If you know of anyone in the Greater Boston area, comments with contact info would be appreciated.

Meanwhile, as a placeholder, I wanted to make sure I remembered these two sites:

National Association of Personal Financial Advisors


Garrett Planning Network.

I found them through links on the NYTimes Bucks blog.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Photobooth 2012

This summer's photobooth entry. We misjudged the last two (meant to be kids only, and then with me and Julie).

Other photobooth photos from this blog can be found here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Every Day is Father's Day

Every day is like Father's Day with Mari around. Here are some sample random notes that she leaves me:

Thanks for being the best! Here is a co[u]pon for a free hug! Just hand it in and I'll check the back.

Dad, you know how you said I'm creative? Well, I think you're creative, too! So from now on, I'll be Creative 1 and you can be Creative 2. Love, Creative 1

And even, when I was having a very bad day and was very grumpy:

For Dad
My heart [accompanied by a drawing of a heart]
You don't
know how how
bad I feel.
You burnt nuts [I was making candied pecans].
I bet I'll still like them.
You hit your head.
I hope it feels better.
Our lunch was unhealthy,
I [k]now I'll have a better dinner.
So that's all I wanted to write.
P.S. I'm
really, really, really,
really, really, really
really, really, really,
really sorry about
your day.
your favorite dau[gh]ter, lov[e]ly toasted,
and friendly girl,

That one made me feel better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Music ... sharing

Looking at Jonathan Coulton's site, I stumbled upon the internet sensation that is Emily White's (NPR intern) commentary on (not) buying music, followed by David Lowery (yes, the guy from Camper van B and Cracker!)'s response.

The best part, though, is the editor's note about deleting comments on Lowery's page. To wit:

Lately though we’ve adopted some totally random rules to cut down on the sheer volume.  If your IP address has “23″ in it we immediately delete w/o reading.  If your wordpress handle has “girl” or “free” or “media” or “Tech” we delete immediately.  If you start with foul language or are extra angry we delete.  Unless of course we want you to look stupid then we publish your comments.   Today  we searched  for all comments that contained the words “market” “zero”  or  ”marginal” and bulk deleted. This was specifically cause we don’t really want to explain that fixed costs really do matter and no matter what you heard from some idiot on the internet. If you play bass we delete.    Also “”McPherson”: bulk delete. The use of the words “consumer” , “ointment” , “dude”, “gatekeepers” and “dubstep” also resulted in a fair number of deletions. We are only joking about some of this.   If you feel that this somehow infringes your freedom  you have the whole free internet out there to express we’ve infringed your freedom.
Sorry Sir Paul, we delete bassists. 

Batman thoughts

I'm somewhat excited about the upcoming Batman film -- not as much anticipation as I had for Avengers, but still want to see it -- but I'm kind of getting tired of the megablockbuster aspect of comic book movies.

You know what would be really cool? Take $30 million of Warner Bros money and offer it to half a dozen or more filmmakers to make 10-20 minute short films about Batman (or Gotham City). It would be the equivalent of the Batman: Black and White comics anthology but on film. (Those are 1-5 page stories by leading comic book writers and artists, many of whom would never otherwise be hired to write or draw a "regular" Batman comic.) Share the same actors for the same characters  -- or don't.

Instead of taking a comic book and painting it on screen with CGI, use filmmaking ingenuity to make cool shorts. You could even tick off the genres: horror movie, detective movie, heist movie (starring Catwoman?), street level human interest movie, a film strictly from Alfred's POV, a story from Batman's retirement.

All the films would be different styles. Imagine a Tarantino, or John Woo Batman. Or a Michael Mann Batman. A Lena Dunham Gotham city girl obsessed with Batman? A Wes Anderson Alfred cleans up the Batcave ( through stop-motion animation?)!

Do it with a relatively low budget, shoot them down and dirty, and release the best 90 minutes in theaters, include the rest on DVD. Will it make a billion dollars? No, but a profit would be guaranteed.

Couldn't do worse than Green Lantern.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012