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26Nov/09Off

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde

Note: This is #46 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

If you're looking for a good example of a film that represents the cultural zeitgeist (double word score!) of its era, In the Heat of the Night would be a good candidate. It tells the story of Black Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who is at first accused murder while passing through a small Mississippi town, then grudgingly recruited by the bigoted local police force to help solve the crime. Along the way, Tibbs --who has a stick up his own bum-- has to learn to work with sour and semi-bigoted Police Chief Bill Gillespi (Rod Steiger) while overcoming prejudices of his own.

The movie works well enough as your basic murder mystery, with your list of suspects, motives, forensics technobabble, and detective work. But marbled through all this are unmistakable messages about Black/White relations and bigotry on both sides of the race card. Gillespi and the other police officers are suspicious of Tibbs, who seems disdainful, cold, and uppity. Tibbs, for his part, has a huge chip on his shoulder (albeit for understandable reasons), and does things like let his own preconceptions lead him to mistakenly suspect the town's biggest racist of the crime. What I like is that it's largely a movie without clear-cut villains. Well, except the obligatory lynch mob of rednecks wielding baseball bats. They're clearly villains. And the guy who actually committed the murder that touched this whole thing off. I guess he's pretty clearly a villain, too. Okay, so so maybe it's more that it's a movie without clear-cut heroes. Except that's not quite it either. Well, you know what I mean. All the heroes are flawed. Or something.

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24Nov/09Off

Week 304: hairs and hares

Man, what is it with Mandy and her hair? Not only did she hack a good chunk of it off that one time, but any time you try to do so much as comb it lately she completely freaks out. If I suddenly hear shrieks of absolute horror and rage coming from her bathroom, I can usually be pretty sure that either the hyenas have breached our defenses again, or Geralyn is trying to put Mandy's hair up in a simple pony tail. Usually it's the latter.

Sam's new thing lately is learning to spell words by repeatedly sounding them out. Only she sometimes gets stuck on the first sound in the word, which can be annoying if you're trying to have a normal conversation and end up feeling like you're talking to Porky Pig on a bad day.

I recently also blew Sam's mind by introducing her to the concept of homonyms. The realization that "light" (as in from a lamp) and "light" (as in not weighing much) are said and spelled the same way, yet meant completely different things literally shorted out her brain for a few seconds as it tried to make the least bit of sense out of this. Then I drove it home by telling her about homophones, like "know" and "no" or "tale" and "tail" or --OH MY GOD!-- "to," "too," and "two." I decided to pull back and not bring up heteronyms, though.

The funny thing about this is that it reminded me of how god-like adults sometimes appear to children in their wisdom and power. Sam was just starting to get her brain around the ways that letters fit together to make words, much less the idea that "row" is always spelled the same, but can refer to either an argument or something you do with boat depending on how it's pronounced. Now her favorite thing is to have me toss out more and more of these linguistic oddities like some kind of language magician, and honestly I'm starting to run out.

Ooh, wait, I just thought of another one: bass (fish) and bass (instrument). Good one. Oh! And I can throw in "base" to really mess with her. Heh heh heh...

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20Nov/09Off

Game Review: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360)

I think that technically the full name of this game is Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfare 2 or I may just be confused by some rebranding sleight of hand but who cares? The game sold 50 hoojilion copies in its first day, and for an understandable reason: developer Infinity Ward's last entry in this series was really, really good and Modern Warfare 2 is too.

It's a first person shooter set in what feels like a military setting that's just futuristic enough to feature weapons of war that are amazing but not quite at the science fiction level. The plot is like the drunken love baby of Tom Clancey and Michael Bay and is even more over the top than the first game. All hell breaks loose as various worst case scenarios from a war with old school Superrussia blow up in your face, plus there's big explosions, gravity defying snowmobiles, sneaky sniper assassinations, nasty urban warfare in a surprising setting, and the an inverted version of the shower shootout scene from The Rock. In general, the worst thing about the game is Infinity Ward's inability to tell a coherent storyline, as your hopscotching from one cast of character to another is often befuddling and the motivations and even actions of the major characters go without sufficient explanation. All this because Infinit Ward is doggedly exchews cut scenes and thus delivers its storytelling through rapid-fire in-game dialog and little sequences of images during the loading screens between levels. It took me two playthroughs to get a grip on what the heck was even going on, and even still there are several things that remain mysteries to me.

You know what, though? That's my only complaint about the game. That's IT. The gameplay itself and even the big picture are just fantastic, with one magnificent set piece after another with absolutely no fat or filler. There's nothing about the game that's inappropriately paced and nothing gets a chance to feel old before being replaced by something of equal but different awesomeness. There are some rumblings out there on the Internet about how the single player game is only about 5 hours long, but it's the best 5 hours of gameplay I've had in a LONG time. I definitely got my money's worth, especially since it's good enough to go back into and play again.

And even once you do beat the single player game, Modern Warfare 2 has an incredible multiplayer to go with it. You can play "Special Ops" mode in co-op with a friend, which mostly takes segments of the single player game and challenges you to complete them under new circumstances, like killing a certain number of enemies or holding off wave after wave of attackers. It's a lot like the challenge rooms from Batman: Arkham Asylum, except you can play them co-op with a friend.

But of course, most people going online with this game are doing it for the competitive multiplayer, and while I haven't played that much of it I can tell you that so far it seems really robust and a lot of fun. The carrot on a stick mechanic of leveling up your multiplayer character and unlocking new weapons and abilities is still there, and it gives you a great sense of momentum and "just one more unlock..." motivation to play game after game. Even if you lose a given match, you feel like you're accomplishing something. As you proceed you can select new buildouts with different weapons and attachments, plus you can select "perks" that give you special advantages on the battlefield, like the ability to hide from thermal scopes or faster running speed. The game also features "kill streaks" where you can unlock REALLY powerful abilities like calling in heavily armed helicopters or missile strikes if you can score a certain number of kills without dying. Fun stuff, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that this is where the longevity of the game will be.

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18Nov/09Off

Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde

Note: This is #46 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Here's a pretty accurate plot summary of Bonnie and Clyde: Bonnie and Clyde fall in love, try to escape the Great Depression, commit violence, get famous, die in a hail of gunfire, leave beautiful corpses.

That's pretty much it, but there's a lot more if you look beyond the plot. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is a bored Texan waitress who meets Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), an ex-convict fresh out of jail. Both are faced with a meaningless life in the grip of the Great Depression, so after introductions are made Clyde sweeps Bonnie into a life of bank robbers and other crimes, but she comes willingly since she sees it as a means of escape. The movie strikes this weird tone that straddles light hearted love story and violent crime drama as the two try to assume some populist Robin Hood stature in the eyes of sharecroppers and other folks made destitute by the Depression. Both clearly announce their identities at the beginning of each heist and even pose for pictures and send in bad poetry about their exploits to the newspapers. They even accumulate a posse in the form of a like-minded but none too bright gas station attendant C.W. Moss plus Clyde's older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his harpy of a wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons).

The Barrow Gang, as they are called, achieve the notoriety they're after, and even some amount of respect from the common man. But as the film progresses both the characters and the audience start to see them as doomed. "You best keep running," says Bonnie's mother in their final meeting. It's fascinating to see how this group, which is tied together by circumstances of their own making, evolves and reacts to each other. Bonnie and Blanche hate each other, and everyone becomes frustrated by C.W. Moss for continually screwing up and putting them in danger. In a very existential fashion, they must all deal with their inevitable doom by making use of what time they have, and to their credit Bonnie and Clyde make a go of it. They enjoy a brief flash of happiness, escape, purpose, and love before they're killed violently in a trap of their own slow making. Roll credits.

I also feel that there's probably more going on with the cinematography and direction than I'm capable of appreciating, since the film really looks and feels different than anything else I've seen in this little experiment. But it's something that seems just beyond my ability to recognize and appreciate. Still, it's good enough just as a character drama.

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17Nov/09Off

Week 303: Cleanup, Bible Quoting, and the Future

One of the lessons I've had to learn about being a parent is how hard it can be to play the bad guy and how necessary it is. I love my kids and want them to love me, but I often have to do things that REALLY piss them off. This seems to be coming up mostly with Mandy lately since she's at that age where she will just mess with you for the sake of messing you. But the other night I had to endure making Sam hate me, even if it was just temporary.

She and Mandy had been playing "let's take everything out of everything else and put it everywhere" in their bedrooms, and while this is fine they have to clean up. I set Mandy to picking up in her room, but for some reason Sam started moaning and crying.

"Sam," I said. "What the heck? Clean up."

"Help me."

"No, you made the mess, you clean it up."

"Daddy! Whenever I have to clean up alone it makes me feel sad inside."

"Oh, I am totally not buying what you're selling, Sam. Get over it and clean up."

Maybe 10 minutes of crying and floundering followed, during which I sat on the edge of her bed and occasionally poked her with the butt end of a hobby horse.

Finally she sat upright and glared at me. "You're not my friend anymore!"

This actually stings every time she says it, but I stuck to my guns. "Uh huh. Clean up."

"But you're really hurting my feelings."

"Because I'm asking you to clean up the mess you made? That should not hurt your feelings. You need to suck it up and get tougher feelings and CLEAN UP."

"But my blessings book says God knows how I feel."

"He also said 'Obey your father and mother.' BOOM! OWNED! I had more years of Bible school than you can count, Sam. Clean up."

This went on for some time, and I only finally got her to clean up by letting Mandy sit in Sam's coveted deep end of the bathtub. But still, GEEZ.

(And lest you think I'm some kind of monster, I did try several times in the course of this to hold her and calm her down, but she was having none of it and wouldn't even let me sit next to her. This one had to be ridden out.)

The interesting thing about conflicts with Sam and Mandy is that they kind of roughly map on to how conflicts played out between my parents and me and my sister (hi Shawn!). Like Samantha, Shawn would be much more likely to directly lock horns with you, arguing and fighting head to head to get her way. I, on the other hand, was more like Mandy in that I would most often ignore you completely or mutter something noncommittal if I had to, then just go and do whatever the hell I wanted as soon as you turned your back. People who know us might say that these traits persisted into my and Shawn's adulthood, so I guess I know what I have to look forward to in my own kids.

Of course, this means I have advance notice for the purpose of planning and scheming.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
15Nov/09Off

Review: Secret of Monkey Island SE (iPod Touch)

It's one of my great shortcomings as a gamer that I never played any of the original Monkey Island adventure games released by Lucasarts in the 1990s. This is a shame, because those games and their SCUMMy ilk essentially created the "exploration and rubbing things together" blueprint for adventure games that dominated the genre for a long time. It's also unfortunate because they were genuinely funny and entertaining, but with the recent release of The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition I decided to correct that.

What's special about this Special Edition is that the developers completely redid all of the art (in a hand-painted style) and recorded sounds, music, and voice acting that wasn't in the original game. But other than modifying the interface to work on the iPod Touch (or the Xbox 360 controller), the gameplay is completely untouched. You guide Guybrush Threepwood, a new arrival on Monkey Island who wants to become a mighty pirate. This is pure graphical adventure game material, so you walk from location to location, talk to characters, pick stuff up, and solve problems by combining, activating, or using items in your inventory.

The gameplay, well ...it has not aged particularly well. The puzzles aren't as nonsensicle as in some of the genre's entries, but at the same time they're not always entirely intuitive and you resort to just rubbing everything in your inventory against everything else. Either that or you can do what I did: make liberal use of the game's built-in clue system. Just shake the iPod/iPhone and it'll give you some text that nudges you in the right direction. Shake it again and it'll flat out tell you what to do. Pride be damned, I used it whenever I got stumped. It's a lot easier than hitting GameFaqs.com.

Fortunately the real strength of the game is in the writing, the dialog, the characters, and the environments. Those are all top notch and they still hold up really well. TSoME isn't bust a gut funny, but it IS consistently charming, amusing, and smile inducing. I wanted to keep playing if for no other reason to see what would happen next. It also made a great portable game, since no puzzle or interaction will take more than a few minutes.

So, Lucasarts, if you're listening: give me more of these remakes! I will give you more money in exchange! More Monkey Isalnd would be great, though I also haer good things about Day of the Tentacle, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle, and Sam and Max. Any of those would be fine.

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13Nov/09Off

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller technically fits into the science fiction genre and the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, but at the same time it's different from other books that might share those classifications. The closest thing to a a main character that spans the book's considerable timeline is actually a monastery in the blasted remains of the Southwestern United States. The monastery's order is dedicated to Saint Leibowitz, an electrical engineer who helped establish an movement dedicated to preserving scientific and cultural knowledge in the wake of a cataclysmic nuclear war. Actually, while the nuclear armageddon was bad, the real impediment to civilization's survival came in the form of "The Simplification" which was a world-wide backlash against all scientific learning that had led to nuclear weapons. Books were burned, knowledge was willfully destroyed, and pretty much anyone who could even read was put to death. Leibowitz, who engaged in "booklegging" in an attempt to preserve human knowledge, was martyred by the "Simpletons" and inspired the same goal in the residents of the monastery featured in each of the book's three sections.

Interestingly, the monastery's story spans thousands of years and several casts of characters. Things start off many years after the nuclear war when a young novice discovers holy relics of the not-quite-yet-canonized Leibowitz, including a shopping list and an impenetrable electrical diagram. This is during a new dark age possessed of only primitive technology and ruled by barbaric power mongers. Eventually civilization and scientific knowledge begin to knit themselves back together with the help of a few brilliant minds and the materials saved by monks in charge of Leibowitz's legacy. By the end of the book it's thousands of years later and mankind has once again employed science and technology to bring comfort and civilization, but it has also proven unable to resist reasserting its mastery over the atom in the form of nuclear weapons. Fearing the worst, a group of Leibowitz's followers prepare to depart for the stars in order to escape history's vicious cycle.

In a classic science fiction manner, Miller plays a lot with this theme of civilization's self-destruction and rebirth, and it seems pretty clearly to be the central point to the book along with the evolving tension between science and religion. In the beginning the Catholic residents of the monastery work to preserve and eventually redevelop scientific knowledge, but over time a tension develops between religious faith and secular progress through science, culminating in a heated and complicated debate between the Order's abbot and a doctor about how to best deal with human suffering in the victims of terminal radiation poisoning. These kinds of themes are played with on several levels.

It's fascinating stuff, even if Miller's style is a bit sterile in spots. And while the book lacks the traditional structure of a novel (it's more like three related novellas, really) this is one of the reasons why I liked it. It's different, yet retains that same great science fiction focus on big ideas and fundamental questions about human nature.

Filed under: Books 1 Comment
12Nov/09Off

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Note: This is #45 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Man, I'm really of multiple minds on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On the one hand, it can basically be summarized as "Two crazy, spiteful people are horribly mean to each other for 131 minutes; local couple taken along for the ride." But on the other hand, the film makes a dark counter-point to the idealized American dream and the 1950s concept of the perfect American family living out a quiet and happy life. It's also interesting if shocking to see these characters at work on each other.

The story, such as it is, focuses on George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), an aging couple living in a small New England college town. It's evident pretty much immediately that they hate each other. George is an Associate Professor and Martha mostly goes on about how she's the daughter of the University President. The movie opens on the couple at 2:00 a.m. as the couple stumbles home from a party and Martha announces that she's invited a couple of fellow party-goers back to their house for a night cap. The young couple, Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive and quickly get pulled into the vortex of spite and cruelty inherant to the older couple's relationship. What's more, the venom spreads between the four characters and by the end of the movie everyone hates everyone else and is doing their utmost to hurt each other. Badly.

And man, what performances. While Elizabeth Taylor is the butt of many jokes here in 2009, she gave an incredible performance in this role, only eclipsed by Richard Burton as her husband George. These two in particular REALLY sell their crazy hate for each other and draw you in; you can feel the spite so palpably that it's often uncomfortable and the movie actually takes effort on the viewer's part to watch. What's better (or worse, depending on your perspective) is that this isn't the kind of over the top farcical crazy where you can just write it off as "Oh, that's just a character in a movie exaggerated for effect." No, you get the feeling that this is how two wicked, cruel people who really, really hate each other and who despair for their life's lost potential would act if they didn't know or care that you and I were watching. It's horribly good.

It's also worth mentioning that this is the most vulgar movie I've come across yet in this experiment --indeed it's the only one to date. But true to the spirit of keeping it terribly real, the script is filled with pages of "God dammnits" and "son of a bitches" as well as all manner of crude innuendo. Apparently it was a bit of a controversy at the time, even if it seems relatively tame now.

So, this is a hard one. I'd recommend seeing the movie, but warn you that you're in for something that smacks of a stage play ported to the big screen (which it was). You've got to be in it for talking (and screaming) heads and to experience the characters and the drama, because that's the territory to which it sticks. But the performances are amazing.

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9Nov/09Off

Week 302: The Incident in the Laundry Room

Just a quick update this week, but I do feel compelled to mention one incident which has so far set the high water mark on my children's miscreant behavior.

The other night I was watching the kids when I turned my back just long enough to watch a short segment of a TV talk show. The girls disappeared into the laundry room, which in addition to the washer and dryer is inhabited by our cat and his litter box. I swear, not more than a few minutes had passed when I realized that they were being too quiet, which is NEVER a good sign. Hearing laughing and cries of "Bad cat!" I tracked them down to their hiding place, opened the door, and promptly flipped my lid.

Most surfaces up to four feet high in the whole room were smeared with clotted kitty litter, and the girls were busy rubbing the gunk into the hapless cat's fur. Sam had apparently filled a bowl with water to aid in this fiendish alchemy, and the stuff was EVERYWHERE. Upon seeing me, Sam immediately shouted "Mandy did it!" even though I COULD TOTALLY SEE HER WITH TWO HAND FULLS OF GUMMY KITTY LITTER.

Like I said, I flipped out and started screaming at them. Realizing that this kind of reaction was on a WHOLE other level than my typical admonishments, they both bolted and headed for higher ground (i.e., upstairs) while I continued to scream at them and the newly crusty cat looked up at me with a kind of "Where the hell WERE YOU?" expression. Hearing the promotion, Geralyn ran up from the basemen to ask what was going on, saw the laundry room, and then she flipped HER lid.

In the end, the girls had to clean up everything (under protest, natch) while I hosed down the cat in their bathtub. The cat, I believe, was mostly praying for death. Not necessarily his own.

Filed under: Parenting 4 Comments
7Nov/09Off

Movie Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music

Note: This is #44 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, THAT was certainly wholesome.

Where to start? Well, Julie Andrews plays Maria, a young woman with a terrible haircut and aspirations to become a nun. But Maria is really bad at being a nun, what with all the skipping vespers in favor of singing and prancing the hills of Austria. As a way of letting her sew her wild oats (or getting rid of her, if you take a more cynical view), the Mother Superior sends Maria into town to serve as a nanny for the seven children of an Austrian naval Captain who has lost his wife and replaced her with a huge stick up his bum.

Initially the children are bratty and try to put the new nanny in her place, but after singing some songs and making them some truely horrendous clothes out of curtains, Maria gets on their good side and begins taking them out to cavort and play. This puts her at odds with their father, as the loss of his wife has left him wiht a dearth of humor and a surfeit of discipline. He also, however, has retained his love for Austria and a disdain for the Nazis, who were trying to shoulder their way into the country on the eve of World War II.

As you could guess from the title if you didn't already know, The Sound of Music is a musical, with lots of tunes and lyrics by the famous composers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Again I was struck by how many of the songs I recognized and kept saying "That's from this?" every few minutes. There are a few pretty iconic numbers in there, like "Do-Re-Mi," "Edelweis," and "Climb Every Mountain" and it was entertaining to see where they had originally come from before seeping into popular culture at large.

It's also noteworthy that I watched this one with my wife and two young daughters (age 5 and 2), and the kids were mostly transfixed by the movie. They loved the songs and the scenes with the von Trapp children, especially if they were singing. The music is good and recognizable, and the movie is not bad if you don't mind something so saccharine. With Nazis.

Filed under: Movies 6 Comments
2Nov/09Off

Book Review: Death From the Skies!

Death From the Skies!

The full title here is Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End, and in it astrophysicist (or something along those lines) Phillip Plait takes on the bombastic topic of global annihilation. Specifically, he looks at all the ways Earth could destroyed by threats from outer space, dedicating a chapter to each threat. Topics include being hit by an asteroid (or meteor or meteorite or whatever it would be called at that point), blasted by a too-close supernova, having our electrical systems fried by a particularly obnoxious solar flare, being immolated when our dying sun gives out a final cosmic belch, being yanked down into a meandering black hole, and perhaps most strangely the eventual heat death of the entire universe.

After presenting each apocalyptic scenario in the form of a small vignette, Plait takes you through the hard science associated with such things, usually accompanied by generous use of scientific notation in an attempt at giving you a proper sense of scale. So you learn about the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth and how those could be screwed up in the event of a huge solar flare, for example, or what Einstein's theories have to say about the event horizon of a black hole. The author even poses some crazy solutions to problems that straddle the line between science fiction and fact, like the idea of millennium-long endeavors to move Earth to a more distant orbit to save it from an expanding sun. It's all really interesting for a nerd like me, and Plait does a pretty good job of keeping it high level and sensational enough so that you don't have to solve any equations. It's not necessarily light reading, but anybody with a decent high school science education and some imagination can follow along well enough to get the point.

You might think that this all serves to play on some grotesque fascination with planet-wide (or solar system-wide or galaxy-wide, or even universe-wide) death and destruction. There's some of that, particularly in the chapters on asteroid collisions and monster solar flares, both of which HAVE happened and WILL happen again . But those two events aside, Plait quickly moves on to events that are next to impossible (e.g., being zapped by a nearby gamma ray burst) or guaranteed to happen only after a few billion more years (e.g., our sun running out of fuel). It's on topics like these that Plait just shrugs his shoulders and says "Yeah, but what the hell it's fun to conjecture, so let's just go for it."

And he's right --it IS fun to move the decimal point a few places in our probability estimates or fast forward the clock by trillions of years. Mental problems aside, you're not going to lie awake at night wondering if you're going to fall into the supermassive black hole in the middle of the Milky Way, but Plait is a good enough popular science writer to make it fascinating to hear about what would happen if you did.

Filed under: Books 1 Comment
1Nov/09Off

Week 301: Halloween

We had a pretty good Halloween this year. As you can see below, Mandy was a fairy type thing complete with wand/cudgel, and Samantha was Supergirl. The best thing about Halloween was the pose Sam struck below, which pretty much captures every picture of Superman I've ever seen. She's surprisingly easy to direct.

When we went out to hit the houses, Mandy started by going up to doors, screaming "I GET SOME CANDY!" and then lurching for the candy bowl if the unsuspecting homeowner let it anywhere near her. Seriously, if the person was distracted at all, Mandy would end up literally raking candy into her bag. We had five tons of candy at the end of the night, and here's a fun fact: our children can't be trusted to stay away from it. The morning after, Geralyn found a cache of candy wrappers behind some furniture, evidence of the girls' clandestine trips to the top shelves of the pantry where we had stashed the sugary goods. So we punished them by not taking them to donut breakfast on Sunday morning. There.

We had carved our own pumpkins earlier in the week, and this was some fun. Mostly because of the way Mandy reacted with horror upon learning what kinds of things are actually inside a freshly punctured pumpkin and how those things smelled. Hilarious. Sam and Mandy ended up painting their own little pumpkins, which amounted to slathering every color in the rainbow onto the gourds, but they had a blast.

There was also cupcake decorating on the day before Halloween, and Geralyn went all Martha by topping them with candies like gummy worms (with cookie crumb "dirt"), gummy brains, gummy pumpkins, candy eyeballs, and more. We even let Sam do some of the piping, with pretty good results.

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