Saturday, 24 October 2015

Normal service resumed

It's been two weeks since my sister left.  Two weeks of having to take responsibility for my own child's welfare and entertainment.  The DVD of Finding Nemo is almost worn out!  Luckily my parents have arrived, so Pete is back to happy, attention-filled days and I'm back to Baileys at breakfast time.  Natural order has been restored.

Whatever it is, it skips a generation.

Maybe Mum and my childcare techniques aren't so different...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Pumpkin Spice Girl

I don't get invited to many birthday parties.  Probably because, at my age, a "wild night" involves reading past 10pm, possibly with a small glass of wine (but never a second, otherwise I have to get up in the night to pee).  Thank goodness for having a child of my own!  Today Pete got invited to Claire's birthday party, down on a pumpkin farm.

I might have been invited to this one anyway, given that Hannah and I were the first visitors to the newborn Claire seven years ago in Berkeley.  Seven years!  In my mind she's still that bundle of chubby joy, rather than the tall, willowy, self-possessed young lady she's actually become, whose only wish is to own "a real live phone."  Her parents have already stated that she'll have to wait several more years before that wish is granted.

The party was on Cox Farms where they're holding their Fall Festival.  We don't really have pumpkins in the UK - they occupy the same box in my mind as desert islands, dragons, and unicorns, so I still get quite excited when I see them.  And on this farm there were 90 acres of the things!  There were also goats, rabbits, tractor rides, all-you-can-drink cider (note: in the USA this very disappointingly means apple juice) and, of course, a massive birthday cake for Claire.

But then, alongside all the normal stuff, very strange things were going on.  Aliens appeared from their crashed ship at one point on the tractor ride, as did Supergirl, and a troll wouldn't let us under her bridge unless we answered a maths question.  There was a school bus with an ultraviolet spinning tunnel inside, and dinosaurs, and a giraffe.  I started to wonder if I'd ingested a pumpkin of dubious origin.

None of this bothered the assembled kids, who ran around like loons and enjoyed a lunch consisting solely of pumpkin pretzels and the aforementioned cake.  Were birthday parties this fun when I was young?  I did have one at a McDonalds once.  Anyway, Pete is already begging to go back, and in a few weeks it's Pumpkin Madness when they take all the pumpkins that are left and let you smash them!  Maybe you're only as old as you choose to act.

All little pumpkins grow up into big pumpkins eventually.

Classic family-ish photo, with no one looking the same way.

Guess who Uncle Andrew will be hosting on his dairy farm in Wales next summer!

And what does every farmer need?  A pair of these (thanks to JJ for this particularly spectacular hand-me-down).

Listening to the country music.

Time for our tractor ride - an exclusive trailer for the birthday party, please note.

Someone's hoping for a roll in the hay! an alien arrived and started running around.

Here's the maths-problem-spouting troll I mentioned.

A good warning...

...because these ones certainly did, although mostly on the cake.

The birthday girl!

Just a small slice.

Can you spot the cold and distant British child that refused to look at the camera?

Off to the big slide.  Vince commanded a platoon in Iraq, which he says was easier than getting this lot in order.

From the top.

And from half-way down.

More essential farm equipment.


Straw man.

Off into the maize maze.

This was in the maze, inside that old school bus.  I'm not kidding.  I started to wonder if I'd spent too long in the sun.

A crooked house, with rubber scorpions on the walls.  Also part of the maze.

And a giraffe.

We escaped the labyrinth and popped into Goat Village.

The Lincoln Memorial, with a bunny rabbit.  Because at this point, why not?

Pumpkin head.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Compassionate leave

Regrettably, my sister had to be returned to England.  It was fantastic to see her.  Of course, there were the usual trappings of a family holiday - recriminations, tears, food-throwing - but only when she was tired or hungry, or awake.  The rest of the time she was fairly well-behaved.

Ever since Pete was born I've been struggling with the deja vu that my son is almost identical to my sister at his age.  "Do it myself" was the first sentence from both.  There's also the worryingly ginger tinge that both sported as toddlers.  I had wondered if being around two short, ultra-independent individuals might be too much even for such a calm and mature older sibling as myself, but (inevitably) Pete and Em got along like a house on fire.  I was only left to tidy up after them.

So goodbye Emily, and come again as soon as British Airways lets you back on a flight.  I told you not to mix vodka miniatures with air sickness tablets, but you wouldn't listen...

Last supper, at The Cheesecake Factory, naturally.

A Cheesecake Factory that was in a casino!!  Pete was too small to go onto the gaming floor himself (what draconian Maryland laws are these?) so we sent Aunty Em in and watched through a window.  Her dollar disappeared pretty quickly.  I guess not everyone in the family can be born a winner.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Visiting Big Brother

The National Security Agency, domestic spying programs, Edward Snowden's shocking revelations, Wikileaks - there's been quite a bit of argy-bargy about it in recent years, and it turns out that the scary, shiny NSA building that you see on all the news reports is just up the road from us.  It's an ultra-secure monolith to mass surveillance of Americans in a time of fear and paranoia.  And it has a lovely visitors' centre and gift shop, so we decided to stop by.

The National Cryptologic Museum is fantastic, detailing the work of code makers and breakers throughout the history of American conflict.  Again, I'm not sure why the media has got so hung up on revealing all these "secrets" of government spying when they could have come here and read about it in easy-to-understand displays.  And entry is (again) free.

As you would expect, any museum about code machines had plenty of buttons to press, and Pete has plenty of fingers.  Just inside the entrance is a huge diorama about hobo symbols that were used during the depression era, and it has working lights in the houses and a train that runs and whistles.  Pete was in his element, but his boring old dad made him leave it and do things like type on a WW2 Enigma machine.

My favourite section was the room in which old NSA supercomputers have been dumped.  When computer hardware moved away from knobs, dials, and flashing lights, something was lost.  They even have a Cray, a machine so large that it has a built-in sofa.  One of the museum staff assured me that the smartphone in your pocket now has more computing power that this behemoth (unless you have an Apple product).

We stayed until the museum shut, mostly playing with trains but also watching a robotic tape storage machine do its stuff - an 8ft x 10ft cylindrical monster that could store the equivalent of a USB stick and showed results on a text-only green screen.  Pete will never know the romantic era that he missed.

After that we wandered to the not-at-all-provocatively-named Vigilance Park.  It has an outdoor collection of old spy planes and sits in the shadow of the NSA building with signs warning that any photos you take may be searched and deleted.  They'll be confused when my Dad turns up with his 35mm camera.

The longer we stayed the more I couldn't help feeling that someone was watching, and as we drove away I kept checking the mirror to make sure a large black SUV or stealth helicopter wasn't following us.  It's not that I've got something to hide, I just like to protect my privacy.  Which is why I write down everything I do on this blog...

I'm here to fix that leak.

Want to see anything else in the museum?  No?  OK.

This is the correct size, shape, and lighting for a computer.

Apparently the most secretive organisation in the world has a National Geographic film about it.

Robotic tape storage - not very portable.

The secrets inside!

Please hold, I'm just calling in a drone strike.

 I think it's a shame that computer design has moved on from this.

I think it's a shame that men's fashion has moved on from this.

Now he'll be able to send messages to Grandma that I can't decode.

Ah, some proper code-breaking history: a piece of the UK's Colossus!

Remember - it's always for your safety.

Toddlers present, remain vigilant.

Are you following me?

To be honest, most of the photos on my blog are unacceptable...

Monday, 5 October 2015

Going postal

Ah, the US Postal Service, where the fine American traits of free-market efficiency, customer service, and cheap goods disappear the moment you step over the threshold.  A visit to the post office requires a level of physical and mental preparation akin to running a triathlon or sitting a university exam.  Will I stand around for 45 minutes then be handed the wrong parcel and have to prove that it's not my name and address on the front, like some lost scene from Kafka?  What random number between $5 and $50 will the machine choose today, to allow me to send a $2.99 packet of M&Ms to my brother-in-law in the UK?  On a scale of one-to-ten, how surly will the workers be, and will I get the special extra-grumpy one?

So it was with much trepidation that Pete and I accompanied Emily to the National Postal Museum in DC.  There was a special exhibition that my sister wanted to see, and despite now being an adult I'm still compelled to do whatever she tells me.  It's always the youngest that's the troublemaker.

But all my fears were unfounded as the place was fantastic - and free!  Things like a huge mail delivery truck that you could pretend to drive and baskets that you had to throw packages into (not to mention the many touchscreens) kept the 2-yr-old in the party entertained for hours.  Emily got to see the exhibition she wanted: PostSecret, where people send their secrets on a postcard to an artist who displays the best ones.  I think he writes them all himself, but Emily told me not to be so cynical.

Downstairs was dedicated to delivery, upstairs was all about the stamps, and Grandpa (a lifelong philatelist) has already asked if he can be delivered there in the morning and picked up at the end of the day.  The collection is vast, and we got to see the rarest stamp in the world, valued at $9.5 million.  Suddenly the cost of international postage doesn't seem so high...

The museum begins with the cute and heartwarming story of Owney the mail dog, who was the postal service mascot in the 1880s.

And then you get to meet Owney.

Could you lend me a Benjamin?

On a railroad car where mail was sorted as it moved.

Long Distance Clara (and helper).

Yay - touchscreens!

I didn't realise Hannah had written to the PostSecret exhibition.

But she was one of many!

If my sister-in-laws dressed like this it might be true for me too.

Won't we all.

Remember that amazing, totally original film about the crazy high-stakes adventures of mail inspectors?  No, nobody does.  And then they made a sequel.

I'm allowed to throw these packages?  Amazing!!

OK, now things get really exciting.

Maybe we can leave Grandpa and Pete here all day together!

The museum is right opposite Union Station.  Adding lunch and trains into the mix made it the perfect day for someone, as you can see.