My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Saga of the Toy Chest, Part 2

So there I am, a whole month of buffer time gone, and I have exactly ONE panel of the Pipsqueak's new toy chest ready to roll.  Not even a front or side panel... No, the bottom. As in, the part that's gonna be absolutely buried by all her stuff so those cute lil' Olaf faces will probably never see the light of day once she starts actually using her gift.

I realized that I had to get moving. Like, fast.

The largest, most exposed surface would be the lid, and I still had absolutely no idea what image to use. I had Olafs picked out for the front, the sides (same image, mirrored for symmetry), even the back -- but that big ol' top had me stymied until I had yet another brainstorm.  I'd bought a set of alphabet stencils to put Miri's name on the chest, why not just do it up a little fancier?  All I had to do was line up the stencils, draw gently around their edges with a pencil, ink over the lines... yeah, easy as pie.

That was the theory.  I laid out the stencils to test-fit the letters onto the lid, and discovered yet another totally unexpected problem.  Here's the uppercase M, here's the lower-case i, here's the... Uh-oh.

The stencils didn't line up.

I was going to have to measure each letter, figure out the spacing, and come up with some way to make sure they lined up properly, with no guides on the stencils themselves.  Since I had saved the long pieces of clean newsprint that had separated the Trogen panels in the box, I had a nice long piece of paper to experiment on so I set to work.

Two sweat-, anxiety-, and cuss-filled evenings later. I realized that This Ain't Gonna Work Either. Sitting on the living room floor staring at a long piece of paper covered with erasure marks and only three letters, I began to wonder if I should just go out an play in traffic when I flashed back to all those old penmanship notebooks from 3rd grade. Parallel lines, I thought, a baseline for the bottom of each character, another for the top of the little letters, and another for the top of the big letters. Half an hour later, I had my guide lines oh-so-carefully drawn (very lightly) in pencil on the top panel and was ready to begin tracing the letters from the stencils.

Then I realized the stenciling would be relatively simple but that I still had a whole bunch of Olafs to trace & color, and they would be more fun than the fakakte lettering... So I put aside all the stencils and began working to Olaf-ize the front, side, and back panels.

Being old enough to remember how messy carbon paper was, I thrilled at how much less smudgy the graphite paper was, and how easily it cleaned up with a pencil eraser. The real trick was holding the picture I was tracing securely enough to prevent any twisting or sideways motion that would distort or break up the traced image. Slowly, stopping every few minutes to just breathe and mop my brow or shake a cramp out of my hand, I traced over the printed Olaf image with a ball pint pen.  Slightly more than half an hour later, I carefully lifted all the paper away from the Trogen and marveled at the "penciled" duplicate of the Olaf I had traced.

Um... wait, why is part of his arm missing? And where's that 3rd coal button on his front...?!?  I realized that my mistake (yep, just one more in a long series) had been to print the images in black ink and trace them with a black ballpoint pen -- making it nearly impossible to see if I'd missed tracing over any of the lines.  Thoroughly annoyed with myself (again), I carefully carefully CAREFULLY! lined up the printed image with the transferred version, slid the graphite paper underneath, and added the missing bits. I took a short break, then took a really deep breath and prepared to draw over the faint graphite lines with the ultra-fine-point black paint pen I had bought earlier that day.

I primed the tip as per the instructions by pressing down repeatedly on a wad of clean paper, then began inking over the graphite lines with black paint. It only took a few lines for me to realize the point of the paint pen was too fine, because I was having to work hard to make some lines thick enough to cover the design properly. Then I noticed that the graphite was clogging the tip and paint wasn't flowing quite as well as before. When I went to re-prime the pen, it made a quiet little "blurrp" sound and left a biiig bubble of black paint wobbling on the surface of the priming page.  Amazingly, none of the paint soaked all the way through to the carpet... but the paint pen was dead and Olaf only had a bit of his head inked in. In desperation, I grabbed a fine point black Sharpie that was laying nearby and it did just as nice a job on large pictures of Olaf as it had done on little images of his head (plus angling the pen differently would give me the thick or thin lines I needed).

I noticed the side of my hand was smudging the graphite lines a little, so I kept a clean piece of paper between my hand and the surface and that particular problem was solved. I stopped partway through to make sure I hadn't yet again led myself astray, and decided I liked what I saw; ten minutes later (by which time it was well into the wee hours of the morning) I had a complete line drawing of Olaf right where I wanted him.

I decided to color in the picture before proceeding with any others, so the next day I returned to the crafts store and bought a package of assorted colored Sharpie markers, plus a couple of individual chisel-point Sharpies in light blue and orange for Olaf's mouth and nose (the largest expanses of color) plus another couple of the fine point black markers.  After work that night, I tore open the package of colored Sharpies and, after some experimentation, discovered that lots and lots and lots of teeny-tiny minuscule little strokes (aided by the occasional on-purpose smudging with a clean finger) gave me even coverage of larger areas. By the time 4:00 a.m. rolled around, I was able to go up to bed with the satisfaction of having completed one complete Olaf image in full color.

The next day I had a brainstorm on how to avoid the "invisible tracing pen" problem. The images were just black-and-white line drawings, so I converted the digital files to greyscale, increased the brightness and decreased the contrast. Voila -- light gray lines that were plenty dark for me to trace but light enough to easily show if I'd missed tracing over any of them with my pen! Feeling like a real pro, I got the 2nd Olaf onto the Trogen's front panel, even finishing the task 45 minutes earlier than the first.

I went to bed thinking I'd just press through and Olaf-ize each of the other panels in turn over the next few nights, but woke up with the realization that I had no idea how the colored Sharpie ink might interact with the clear lacquer that would be covering everything -- so I pushed all the drawing supplies to one side, opened the front & back doors (I was getting tired of breathing paint fumes all the time), and sprayed on the first coat of clear lacquer.

Lookin' good, Dude.

I waited the recommended 20 minutes and gave the panel a close viewing. So far, so good... maybe a rough patch, over there, but nothing another couple of smooth coats of lacquer wouldn't fix.  I applied  the second coat, gave it a close review, and left it to sit for the recommended 20 minutes before spraying on the 3rd and final coat.

Lookin' good, Dude.

I grabbed a bite to eat, put a load of laundry into the washing machine, gave the can of lacquer another good shaking, and went to spray on the final coat.

Looking' g- What the hell is THAT...!?!?!

The "that" was the little rough patch I'd noticed after the first coat. Only it wasn't a little rough patch anymore. It was a region of white paint being lifted clear off the front of the Trogen by the lacquer as it dried, visibly growing in size as I watched.  (Remember at the end of my last post where I mentioned heartbreak? Well, there it was, big as life and growing like some unwelcome alien fungus.)

All of a sudden, I was regretting taking the shortcut of believing the "sticks to all surfaces" statements on the Krylon 2X cans and not doing any sanding of the Trogen.  I don't know what kind of kid-proof clearcoat IKEA uses, but it sure as all get-out was repelling my "sticks to anything" paint... and just putting the two Olaf images on this panel and spraying the one side with the clear lacquer had taken me three days.

I gave the panel a closer inspection and found more patches of the unwanted bubbling slowly appearing.  Luckily none overlapped the Olafs, so I decided to save time by spot-sanding and then spot-painting the patches instead of stripping the entire panel and starting over from scratch.

You'd think I would've learned my lesson by now, but nooo...  In my defense, I did mitigate this particular bout of insanity by deciding the first thing to do was carefully inspect every one of the Trogen panels by sight and touch to weed out any more "little rough spots" that might cause future heartbreak.  Spot-sanding the front panel would be a little tricky since it already had three coats of extra-thick clear lacquer, but all the others were just white paint so they would be easy (I thought).  A couple of nights' worth of inspection, cussing, sanding, cussing, and reviewing later, I had the photo below (there were more patches on the reverse side of each panel):

As you can see, there were more than just a few spots where I should've done some surface prep.  I spent an entire evening on each of the spots on the front panel, carefully scraping all loose paint from their edges, then sanding down the edges with three different grades of sanding sponges so there wouldn't be any sharp edges between old and new paint, then lightly sanding the paint outside the edges to ensure old & new sprays would blend seamlessly.

Having already experienced the phenomenon of overspray, I knew I'd have to protect the two Olafs when I reapplied the white paint.  I spent part of one evening reading about different types of masking tape online, then spent close to an hour in the paint supply aisle of the local Home Depot reading all the fine print on the labels of every. single. type.  of masking tape they had available. I bought a roll guaranteed to not damage painted surfaces, not leave any residue, and not react chemically with any paints (a bargain at $8.49) and headed home with high hopes.

I carefully applied the tape as lightly as I dared, covering each of the Olaf images a tiny bit at a time, until I was certain I could protect the rest with a piece of paper. I checked the alignment of the tape one last time before spraying, and noticed one piece wasn't where I wanted it.  I carefully, gently, nervously lifted the inch-long piece of tape to reposition it...

...and completely, totally, thoroughly broke my own heart (again). Where the tape had been was the bright yellow original surface of the Trogen, and the white paint (with colored bit of Olaf) that had been there was stuck fast to the back of the tape. All too late I realized that the patches I had oh-so-carefully prepared for repainting were not the only ones where the spray paint hadn't adhered to the surface I had left unprepared -- they were simply the most obvious.  NONE of the white paint had adhered to the surface of the Trogen, and as I began removing bits of tape with increasing speed, anger, and ferocity, the two Olafs were nearly obliterated.

By the time I'd stopped yelling(!) at the panel in front of me and had all the tape I'd used balled up in my hand, it was obvious even to my fevered mind that the one, the only, the absolutely necessary way to continue with the project was to START ALL OVER AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING.  (I think the phrase actually appeared in the middle of my living room, floating in bright neon red a couple of feet below the ceiling until I blinked it away.)

I took a few minutes to get my heart rate back down into double digits and looked around.  There were patches of powered white paint scattered around the living room carpet where I'd been doing my sanding.  There were Trogen panels leaning against the rail in the entryway, Trogen panels sitting on boxes in the living room, and Trogen panels leaning on the wall in the dining room.  There were assorted sanding sponges, stencils, markers, pencils, rulers, and other tools all over the place... Everything but the completed toy chest I had been expecting to be looking at by now.

With a knot in my stomach, I consulted a calendar.  I had started the project with almost three months before the deadline, then had a total fail with Version 1.0 ( the Apa boxes), and now had a total fail with Version 2.0 (peeling paint).  The sanding and long-overdue surface prep was going to take a lot of time and effort; I only had enough space to paint a couple of panels at a time; each coat of paint needed time to cure before I could spray over it; each Olaf would take an hour or more to complete; and I still had no idea how to space out the stencils for the top panel...

...and I was into the last week of May, with Miri's birthday looming on June 20th.

NEXT: In which our hero overcomes adversity, battles insomniac insanity, repeatedly begs forgiveness from a six-year-old child, and eventually achieves his goal while feeling only slightly wiser but a whole lot older...!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Saga of the Toy Chest, Part 1

A while back, I mentioned that I had been working on a birthday gift for the Pipsqueak and would write about it... and the time has finally come for me to stop editing and hit "Publish," so here we go...

The saga begins in my sister's living room, where Miri's toys have completely taken over what used to be the neatest of the family's abodes. For some reason, one day I suddenly realized that many of the containers were open boxes and baskets that occupy as much space as what they're holding without any additional function (like seating, or table space).

That proverbial light bulb went on over my head.  I had been trying to decide what to get Miri for her birthday, and decided that instead of getting her more stuff I'd get her something in which to keep all the stuff she already had -- and help my sister recover a few square feet of her living room. That lightbulb was quickly followed by what I can only think of as a sudden burst of insanity: instead of buying a toy chest, I'd make a toy chest for my niece. (Readers should insert their favorite dramatic ominous music here.)

I even knew exactly how I could save all the money I didn't have in the first place:  I was going to use my Apa boxes.

IKEA used to sell wooden storage boxes called "Apa" that could double as benches. I had bought two of them, along with a few cheap pillows, to use as a storage bench for linens at the foot of my bed. Unfortunately, when I upgraded from a double bed to a queen bed the extra length turned the Apa pair from storage bench into choke point moving in & out of my room. Even worse, the oils in the wood made them useless to store linens. Somewhere in my fevered imagination I could clearly see them painted beautifully inside & out, holding scads of my niece's toys & games while also providing surfaces to use either as occasional tables or seating (even a 100+ lb adult could sit safely on one of the boxes if they sat gently).

So there I was, starting a quick and simple project in early April with a deadline of late June. Piece of cake, right?  I took my time figuring out what I'd do, settling on a white chest with lots of pictures of Olaf on it. I went to far as to try figuring out if I should use a brush, or a roller, or spray paint; bought several different types of paper to experiment with methods of transferring designs onto the white paint vs. glueing pictures vs. tracing images (I knew better than to depend on my ability to accurately draw Olaf freehand.) Eventually I decided I'd start painting the box and choose the images later. A  quick test with regular spray paint showed me I needed to use a good primer, on the slightly oily bare wood... and I made Big Mistake #1. (Probably #2, if you count deciding to make the darn thing in the first place.)

I bought a couple of cans of Kilz, which I've successfully used on all kinds of surfaces... completely forgetting that it does not leave a completely smooth surface. After blithely giving the box a good coating of Kilz inside and out, I realized that spray paint can be kinda expensive so I used an entire can of bargain-brand white enamel.

And then another.

And another.

And did some unplanned sanding, and used another can of paint.

And realized, after spending more than a week choking on paint fumes (I was doing all this indoors, of course), that This Ain't Gonna Work. No matter what I did, I was left with a surface too rough to draw on, and the paint was emphasizing every single imperfection in the surface of the box. Worse, I had so many coats of paint on the darn thing that the top could barely fit into place -- and I belatedly realized that it was perfectly designed to catch and crunch Miri's fingers.  After two weeks of fighting with paint fumes, sanding blocks, and three brands of increasingly expensive cans of white spray enamel, I had a rough-surfaced, vaguely white Apa that smelled of aerosol paint and that looked less like what I was trying to make the more I worked on it, with a top that didn't fit.

Time for Plan B.

Um... Oops. I didn't have a Plan B. The whole idea had been to use something already on hand so that I wouldn't have to shell out lots o'bucks while finishing the project in time to present a finished product to my niece on her birthday. Still thinking IKEA, I remembered seeing a toy chest in the warehouse during one of my visits (a nice, sturdy one with an attached lid that featured slow-close hinges specifically to avoid pinching small fingers).

Problem was, I didn't remember how long ago I'd seen the darn thing -- it could have even been back when I actually worked at IKEA roughly a decade earlier. (Side note: I was part of the crew that opened the College Park, MD store; my decorated hard hat sits atop a bookcase in my bedroom, and I still use the steel-toed boots & safety glasses we were required to wear during construction when I work in the yard. So yeah, I have a soft spot for the place.)

Swallowing my pride (and ignoring the whimpering of my wallet), I headed back to IKEA to buy the remembered toy chest... only to findit had long ago followed the Apa box into apparent extinction. Wandering around the store, I decided to see if there were any cute stuffed animals in the Children's department... and discovered the Trogen storage bench.

It's small enough to fit in AJ's living room... has a slow-close lid and cutouts to give little hands & fingers plenty of room... doubles as a relatively sturdy bench... and has a nice, smooth surface with lots of room for pictures of Olaf. Okay, the darn thing only comes in day-glo yellow, but that's what paint is for, right...?

About $80 and an hour later later I happily unboxed the new target of my spray-painting aspirations and began figuring out which Olafs would go best on which surface. I added at least one or two coats of clear lacquer over the designs to my painting plans, but had already spent so much on cheap paints with no love given in return that I decided to use more expensive spray enamel -- and also discovered that I could easily transfer line drawings onto the surface of the chest with graphite paper (like old-fashioned carbon paper but erasable like pencil). I bought a few cans of Rustoleum 2X Ultra Cover (Also bonds to plastic! No primer needed!) and got to work.

And made Big Mistake #2 and Big Mistake #3. In no particular order, I started spray-painting in the entryway of my house with a tarp on the floor but nothing protecting the nearby walls, railing or furniture -- and decided to save some time and money by skipping any surface preparation steps beyond making sure it was clean. I managed to turn one panel from bright yellow to a nice, smooth, even semi-gloss white...

...and while admiring my handiwork, realized that I was also turning the oak railing that separates the foyer from the living room a nice, smooth, even semi-gloss white as well. A quick dive into my paper recycling boxes and lot of masking tape later, I had the railing & couch protected. It wasn't pretty, but it allowed me to start painting "for real" and I went to town.  Using small boxes to hold the various panels up off the floor, over the next several days I slowly turned the yellow Trogen into a white Trogen.

Now it was time to try getting Olaf onto the Trogen. (Hey, at least they share a vague geographic commonality!)  Having spent about $20 on samples of different paper I was going to use to either glue pictures onto the wood or to create my own stencils (yes, I actually thought I'd create my own stencils at one point, as if further proof of my insanity was needed), I shelled out a few dollars more for a fine point paint marker and a full set of reusable alphabet & punctuation stencils.

All supplies on hand, I selected & printed a few Olaf images from some coloring pages I'd downloaded for last year's "Frozen" themed party and got ready to trace them onto the various Trogen panels. I decided to start on the front, so after vacuuming a part of the carpet to make it extra-clean I laid everything out and... hey, what's that...?

The "that" was a series of rough spots I could feel as I ran my hand over the panel. Holding a flashlight parallel to the surface, I found several patches where all that lovely white enamel guaranteed to stick to almost anything without primer had unstuck itself from whatever magical kid-proof enamel IKEA used and had formed patches of bubbles, totally unsuitable for drawing on and guaranteeing later failure of the paint job. Rueing my decision to not go through the usual surface preparation before applying paint, I began sanding down the rough spots. (Did I mention the $15 I spent on various grades of sanding sponges?)  No big deal, I thought; I'd re-spray, let it dry & cure for about 12 hours, and get back to Olafing the chest.

I decided to run a couple of tests during the wait, so I pulled the first sheet of graphite paper from the pack, grabbed the panel that would be the (usually unseen) bottom of the box, and traced a few Olaf faces onto it. Gorgeous!  The four small images taught me what I needed to know about handling the paper & gave me some ideas to make the tracing easier... so now let's see how that fine-pint paint marker works, shall we...?

It worked, all right -- but the "fine point" turned out to be a chisel point that made drawing thin detail lines absolutely impossible no matter how careful I was.  Whilst saying numerous very impolite things to no one in particular, I noticed a plain ol' black Sharpie marker on the table nearby-- and it worked like a charm.  Since this was the bottom of the box, I wasn't too worried about one Olaf face being nicely detailed while another looked like a cave painting and two others were unfinished.  It worked, and that was all that mattered at that point.

By this time I was a little gun-shy about all things spray enamel, so I couldn't be sure the Sharpie ink wouldn't run when I sprayed clear lacquer over it. This resulted in delay until I could get to the store and buy a can of the stuff to test it with. (Have you noticed how many purchases I've made for my "cheap" project so far...?) Amazingly, the clear enamel worked exactly as advertised, so after all my work I had... the bottom panel completed, and a living room that smelled like spray paint and was filled with unassembled panels without any artwork on them.

And "early April" had suddenly become "early May" and the clock, it was was a-tickin'...

Next: How to Draw Olaf and Break Your Own Heart! 

Friday, October 16, 2015


Remember back in my September 29th post where I said I was sick as a dog?

Well, I started feeling better... And then started feeling worse. And worse still

I finally broke down and called my doctor early on Thursday, only to be told he was really busy, but a nurse practitioner could see me... tomorrow afternoon.

I went to my usual Plan B (the nearest Righttime clinic) and came home with a diagnosis of...

Pneumonia.  Freakin' PNA, fer cryin' out loud.

I also came home with four different prescriptions with a pill or puff count and schedule so involved, I've had to create a checklist to make sure I take the right thing at the right time.

So if you'll excuse me, I may miss a few more days before my next post. Hopefully I'll see y'all soon...

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Not So Simple After All

When we as adults look back on our childhoods, we tend to say things like, "it was all so simple then," or maybe "life was a lot less complicated."

Some years back I began thinking that was more a function of memory than a function of fact. Parents tend to shield their children from the uglier, more complicated aspects of life, and it usually takes us many years of growth & development to get to the point where we can truly grasp the form, shape, attributes, complications, etc. of any issue or situation (and now I understand why Heinlein invented the word "grok").

At least equally important, and likely playing an even greater role in the belief that everything was simple as a child,  is the human tendency to gloss over small details, unpleasant events, and mildly negative emotions in memory. Also playing a role is (at least in my mind) the fact that it's so so very easy to become overwhelmed by all the complications, repercussions, and results of all that we deal with as adults that we tend to look back at a time we didn't have to deal with all that "stuff" with rose-colored glasses.

In any case, regardless of the how & why, things really aren't always all that simple, worry-free, and zen-like in a child's thoughts. Links are made between events and ideas just as in the adult mind -- it's just that children tend to lack the vocabulary & other tools necessary to communicate all that's going on inside those not-so-simple minds of theirs.

Take, for example, an exchange the Pipsqueak had with her Grandma early this evening.

Mom got a call from our aunt letting her know that Uncle M (Mom's kid brother) had been admitted to a local hospital for observation & tests after experiencing some rather strange symptoms.  All week, when they spoke on the phone, Mom had been telling him "you don't sound right" and was put off with "you always say that," or, "I'm just really tired" each time so the news packed an extra wallop for her.

Unfortunately, Miri was at the house when the call came in and, no matter how hard Mom tried to mask what was being spoken about, speak in another room, use coded language, and so on, Little Miss Radar Ears very quickly picked up on the fact that her second-favorite uncle was in the hospital.

Mom had barely hung up the phone when the interrogation began. Why was he in the hospital? What was wrong with him? Would he be okay? What were the doctors going to do? The questions came fast & furious, and Mom spent a long time trying to explain the situation as best she could, trying to hide her own concern.

When Mom had finally finished tackling the last of many questions, Miri was quiet for a minute, and then...

"Grandma, how old is Uncle M?"

"He's 75, honey. Not really very old at all."

"Oh." Long silence. "Grandma?"

"Yes, honey?"

"How old was Cousin Jonathan when he died?"


The conversation that followed lasted quite a while as well, and ended with Miri saying, "I miss Cousin Jonathan."

Like I said, not so simple after all.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Trip to Pennsyltucky

Okay, we really went to Pennsylvania, but Dad's called it "Pennsyltucky" so many times over the years, I just had to use the word.

For the last couple of years, we've accompanied the Pipsqueak to the Dutch Wonderland theme park near Lancaster, PA. Last year, Miri's BFF and her mom joined us, and we all had such a good time that this year AJ tried to work out a plan that would include more of our MIT(1) families. Since the kidlings and their folks all have increasingly complex schedules, arrangements dragged on through July, then into August... and after doing a little pre-emptive online research, I had to tell AJ that a decision had to be made NOW or there would be zero hotel accommodations available. (Seems my sister forgot that the last few days before most public school systems started would be a time many other families would try to close out their summers at the attractions in the Lancaster area.)

To make a very long story (plus bunch of emails, texts and phone calls) short, we ended up with the same crew as last year, with Mama N plus 2 hoping to join up with us on the 2nd day.  I spent the next three days becoming increasingly desperate as hotel after hotel showe up online as "no vacancies" or just enough room for half our group, or only having rooms with a single king-size bed. I kept widening my search area and glommed onto the last two appropriate rooms at the Hampton Inn Lancaster, less than ten minutes' drive time from the DW front gate.

To borrow a Pennsylvania Dutch saying, on the day of departure, the hurrieder we went, the beholder we got -- so we got to the hotel about two hours later than planned. (And yes, we had periodic bursts of, "Are we there yet?" from the Pipsqueak. Oh, yes indeedy we did!)  We got our stuff into the rooms as quickly as we could while continuing an ongoing series of text message checks with Mama H and daughter, who thankfully were also running a bit late -- but the timing was right for them to meet us at the park for the free evening preview, so we immediately piled back into AJ's van and headed to the land of DW... where we promptly discovered they were re-engineering the parking lot so it took as long to get from the gate to a parking spot as it had to get from the hotel to the gate.

All odd little glitches aside, we all had a pleasant evening, with Miri and BFF S getting a chance to enjoy many rides, some several times in a row, while I kept the Pipsqueak's grandparents company or tried to catch the goings-on with my camera. (I'm still getting used to the differences between my old camera and its replacement, so I keep doing things like turning it off when trying to find the zoom button.)  I think everyone had the most fun with the Turtle Whirl ride, either riding (multiple times) or watching. There was the usual bargaining in the gift shop on our way out, and then we drove a short distance to the Hershey Farm Restaurant & Inn where we all happily stuffed ourselves nearly immobile at the excellent buffet. (Also a repeat from last year.)

I don't know exactly when the girls fell asleep -- or how only two young girls can make so much noise! -- but we all got up in time to have a relatively leisurely breakfast. Of course, Miri & S thought it would be hilarious to avoid Uncle Brian's camera, so I ended up with a lot of pictures like this:

We got some good news as we prepared to return to DW -- Mama N and her two kids were on their way, well within striking distance, so we'd all be able to meet up at the park. Since we had eaten a relatively leisurely breakfast, by the time we got to the park there was actually very little parking available anywhere near the entrance (definitely a problem for our folks, who were having a tough enough time walking from ride to ride). We noticed a small area with a couple of open spots behind one of the main service buildings, and just as AJ finished squeezing her van into the last (tight) spot one of the park's security guides came walking over. I took one look at his face and said, "We're not supposed to be here, are we?" and he laughed and said, "Not really." He then shocked us by going on to explain that someone had forgotten to block off the employee parking area so it wasn't our fault and would probably be OK -- and when we showed him the handicapped placard and said there weren't any HC spots left near the entrance, he made a call on his radio and said not to worry, he'd cleared it with The Boss and we should all go on into the park and have a great time. (Mr. Dutch Wonderland Security Guard, we were all too shocked to get your name -- but thank you, thank you, thank you!)

Within minutes all three families were through the door, past the temptations of the gift shop, and through the gate for a very tiring but overall very happy day. With four young kids there were a couple of meltdowns, but they were actually very minor; the weather was nearly perfect (even though we ended up missing the water park again); and all but one of the day's glitches were nothing more than a passing inconvenience.

We had fun at the silly "Dragon's Tale" diving show (and wisely sat a couple of extra rows outside the soak zone)...

Got the kids pony rides, re-visited the dinos on Exploration Island (and yes, I know pterosaurs were only distantly related to dinosaurs)...

And just generally had a good time with all kinds of rides & events!

I decided to stay dry this year and avoided the "log sploosh" but let all the mommies get wet. There was a "you go, guy!" moment when the youngest & smallest of our four kids turned halfway up the slide and worked his way back down, but our concern that he'd become too frightened by the height turned to laughter when we realized he had decided he wanted his own burlap bag to ride (instead of piggybacking with his sister) and once properly equipped happily bulled his way right back up to the top to rejoin the girls. There was a scary moment when one of the girls get her hand caught in a closing gate, but no damage was done and the park staff's response was so fast & comprehensive that it almost bordered on overkill. (The ride was completely shut down until they could determine the problem had been the gate, not the ride -- and it was kept closed until a mechanic checked the gate and gave the go-ahead... while the poor girl running the ride was politely but firmly reminded of all the things she had to keep her eyes on while working.  Too bad she forgot to turn on all the lights when the ride started back up...!)

All good things must come to an end, but we didn't physically pass through the main entrance on our way out until the park had officially been closed for at least half an hour. There was a quick stop at a nearby Friendly's for dinner...

...and then a housing issue came up. I had tried, with zero success, to find hotel accommodations for Mama N and her two kids before the trip, and all the smartphones were kept busy during dinner with an equal lack of success. It had been a long, tiring day and none of us wanted her to try the long drive home without a good night's sleep. We decided to see if the Hampton Inn's front desk staff could help us out, and they came through in spades. After a couple of quick checks with their competitors came up empty, I asked, "Is there any way they could legally just share our rooms with us?" and got a big, happy, "Of course -- no problem!" Even better, when I asked what the fees would be so I could take care of it right then & there, I was told we already had the rooms booked and I'd already paid when we checked in, so "of course" there would be no extra fees -- and did we need any additional bedding?

We were all blown away by this display of unexpected hospitality (under the circumstances, they could've soaked us for the cost of another full room and more), and I was so surprised that about 20 minutes later I padded barefoot back out to the lobby to ask again, just to make sure -- which the young gal at the desk thought was really nice but way too much worrying on my part.

Secure in the knowledge that everyone would have a good night's sleep, the kids proceeded to do their best to postpone it, moving back & forth between our rooms uncounted times with uncounted excuses (sometimes just for fun), and keeping their room's noise level suitably high well into the evening. Eventually even the most active members of our party fell asleep, so we were all only mildly groggy at the morning's wake-up call. Instead of going home, we planned to take the kids to the Crayola Experience in "nearby" Easton, PA, so after another round of Look Out Uncle Brian Has His Camera and buying discounted tickets online, we formed up into a small caravan and hit the road.

You may have noticed that I put quotes around "nearby" in the preceding paragraph. To make a long story short, we found that we were actually several hours' drive away -- an even longer trip for the five of us, since we became separated and AJ's GPS took us via a route that had us reach the attraction within minutes of everyone else despite us driving nonstop while they all actually stopped for a snack and some shopping. There wasn't anything we could do about it, so we piled into the building for some of the last shows & demos of the day... and had a surprisingly good time. (One of the girls even got called to the front of the room to help with one of the demos!)

Watch out for falling giant crayons!  :-)
What it says... and it IS big, at least as large as a WWII torpedo.

Miri tries her hand at creating "live" electronic art for projection on the wall.
The astronaut with the "B" on his helmet is mine... who says little kids have to have all the fun?
Mom poses with her creation...
...while Dad proudly points out his own!

After the kids (and sometimes the grownups) had a chance to play with an interactive exhibit showing how shipment by boat & barge works, make different kinds of art with melted crayons, create & wrap their own custom crayon, create digital artwork & email it home, and a whole bunch of other stuff, it was near closing time and also time to get some food before heading home. We got directions home from one of the Crayola staff and set out to find dinner before the long drive home. Since it was getting late on a Sunday evening, we drove back & forth through parts of downtown Easton, noting some interesting old buildings until finding a Cheeburger Cheeburger that was still open. AJ volunteered me to parallel park the van for her (I had lots of practice in Brussels), and did so well I was then volunteered to try to do the same with Mama H's big ol' pickup -- and finally had to give up when everyone agreed the spot was no bigger than the truck, while the vehicle itself stubbornly refused to fold in the middle.  Mama H found a good (easy!) parking spot maybe 100 feet away, and we managed to get into the restaurant just before the kitchen closed. There were some glitches with the orders & the bill but all in all it was a successful end to a long but happy day.

Everyone went their own way, and I have to admit I dozed off almost as often as the Pipsqueak on the way home. Still, it was a very long drive after a very long weekend, so we've decided that in the future we'll schedule the most distant destination for the start of the trip, instead of the end. I was also glad I still had a charge on my iPhone -- during dinner I double-checked the directions home the young gentleman in the Crayola store had given us, and discovered it was a nice, short trip to his home in Hagerstown -- but an extra 2-3 hours' road time for us. AJ's GPS didn't weird out this time so we were able to find our way back to familiar territory... but we'll still check a map and travel times before choosing the order in which we visit different destinations on our next road trip!

And there you have it, this year's last big pre-school road trip. (It feels weird to type "pre-school" since the Pipsqueak's now in first grade, y'know?)  We're thinking that this might have been our last trip to Dutch Wonderland; all the kids are getting older, and they've already outgrown a number of the rides they went on last year. We have lots of good memories of the park and its people, but knowing the level of sophistication Miri and her buds regularly surprise us with, we're thinking that Road Trip 2016 will be to Hershey Park instead... Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, I'm still nursing a bad cold and have been up most of the night typing this, so I think I'm going to see if can can fall asleep between the coughs... See y'all soon!

[1] No, no one in the group (as far as I know) took classes at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Going back about a dozen years or so, when all the families were caught up in the early stages of The Wait and were just getting to know each other, most of the mommies weren't actually mommies yet. As the group jelled and friendships formed, several of them took to calling themselves the "Moms In Training," or "MITs" for short. (For a short time the name, "Underground Dragons" was bandied about, but that's a whole 'other story I'm not going into here.) Since my fingers stumble every time I try to find a shorter version of the phrase, "our group of fellow adoptive families" or even "our adoption friends," I've decided it's long overdue that I use the group's informal name here as well as when we talk together.