A Family vacation, Part I


As I noted in previous postings in this blog, 15-20 years ago I wrote a regular series of essays, most intended to be humorous. This one was written in the summer of 1997, during the course of a family vacation when my daughter, Elizabeth, had just turned 4. I was reminded of this over the last week when we went to New York (city) to celebrate Elizabeth’s 21st birthday. This earlier vacation had some very memorable moments….

Because the story is so long, I am breaking it into two parts. I will post part II later.

This was originally written as a travel diary, day by day. It is very typical of every vacation we have ever taken; and people wonder why I am such a wreck…

The Story


It has been 5 years since my last real family vacation — one where I ignored deadlines, didn’t have a business trip piggybacked on my travel, and where Kathy & I were both present in the same place at the same time. A lot has happened in that five years — our daughter Elizabeth was born, both my parents had bouts with cancer and my mother eventually succumbed to it, Kathy and I bought our first house, we sold my family’s house of 37 years (and thus, my childhood home), Kathy’s father died, I got tenure, I’ve been promoted twice, I established the COAST laboratory, I’ve traveled to Australia and Europe on business about 20 times, I’ve participated in the writing and editing of 4 major books, I missed being named one of People magazine’s “50 Sexiest People” every year running, and so on. You get the idea: a lot has happened, most of it adding to the stress level, whether the event was good or not.

So, after missing Elizabeth’s 4th birthday because of my travel, I decided it was important to get some family time away. Kathy and I thought about it and at Elizabeth’s urging resolved to go to Florida, to see Disneyworld and go to the beach.

I was not going to keep a journal because I thought the vacation would be uneventful and boring. Ha! I cannot be so lucky as to have something boring happen. Entropy swirls about me, and my life continues to fall, buttered-side down. Enclosed are my notes from the vacation.

Travel — July 28

Oddly enough, we got everything packed and accomplished in a timely manner. I even managed to get in to my office to dispose of some last-minute chores. The air conditioner didn’t break, as it did before my last trip. No toilets overflowed, as before my last trip (we have had a talk with Elizabeth about learning to use the potty — she does not need to contribute to global deforestation and plumbing problems by using a whole roll of paper each visit). In fact, everything was distressingly normal — an omen, if only I’d noticed.

Elizabeth refused to take a nap. In fact, she had not slept well for days because of all the excitement. She also had developed a cold. This, of course, was not good news. Kathy & I could imagine how enjoyable it would be to be on a plane flight with a child with a bad cold and plugged up ears, especially considering my history of difficulties in that arena. So, after a brief consultation with the pediatrician, we made some preparations. As we got to the airport, we gave Elizabeth a double dose of antihistamine and a few shots of nose spray — with her squirming, we believe some actually got in her nose.

We had gotten to the airport in a timely fashion (surprise!), and got on the plane with time to spare. Elizabeth asked for the window seat, and promptly pulled the shade. For the next 2 hours, she was more interested in pulling the shade up and down than in looking out the window. This about drove us nuts during the entire flight. Next time, she sits in the middle. Anyhow, on the advice of the pediatrician, we gave Elizabeth some bubble gum before the plane took off — the chewing is supposed to help her clear her ears. So, she chewed it for about 30 seconds, then swallowed it. Big help. She got a second piece after a long discussion about how to chew gum. Unclear on the concept, she now refused to chew. Sigh.

Other than that, the flight was uneventful. So was the landing, except for more lessons on chewing gum operation. However, thereafter we seemed to be prone to some misdirection. We waited a half hour for our luggage — only to discover that we had misheard the announcement about the luggage carousel, and had been waiting at the wrong place. So, we redirected ourselves and we then recovered our luggage. Then we went outside into the sauna of Florida to await the shuttle bus for rental cars. Because of construction at the pickup point and some poorly worded signs, we ended up waiting 20 minutes at the wrong spot. After seeing two buses drive by without stopping, we caught on. We relocated and got the shuttle.

So, we got to the car rental place, where another wait ensued. After some discussion, I got an upgraded car — a Chrysler LHS in Elizabeth’s then-favorite color: purple. We strapped her car seat in the back, and off we went. A drive across Orlando and two confused passes by the entrance to the hotel got us to the hotel where we were staying. Along the way, Elizabeth discovered the electric windows, so I had to engage the override lock on them to keep them closed. She also had been telling us during the whole car trip (about 30 minutes) how she was soooo hungry and wanted cheese pizza. Naturally, she fell asleep 30 seconds before I parked the car at the hotel office. So, I left Kathy & Elizabeth in the car while I went to register.

Lots of people seemed to be registering at 11:30 in the evening, oddly enough. So, there was a delay of nearly 15 minutes. However, I finally got through to register. Then, I walked into the store at the end of the lobby where they had … a Pizza Hut! I ordered their last cheese & mushroom pizza, and said I would be back in 15 minutes to get it.

As I exited the store, I saw Kathy coming towards me. Odd, she was alone. She greeted me with those four little words I so long to hear from her: “We have a problem.”

It seems that Kathy found a nice radio station while I was waiting to register. The music partially awakened Elizabeth, who asked for her mommy. So, Kathy hit the switch for the power locks to unlock the door, got out of the front seat, and went around to the back to get in next to Elizabeth to sit next to her. Only to discover that the door was locked. In fact, all the doors were locked. So, the car is running (for the A/C), the radio is on, Elizabeth is alone in the car with the keys, and we’re locked out. (We later discovered that the lock switch was faulty and had a shorting contact — it would not reliably lock or unlock the door on a regular basis, and sometimes would lock itself. Wonderful behavior.)

Kathy & I went to the car, pounded on the window, and tried to shout to Elizabeth to undo her seatbelt and unlock the door. The combination of the hour (11:45pm), the antihistamine, the radio noise, and her being almost asleep rendered this futile. All we succeeded in doing was making enough noise to partially awaken her and upset her. She began crying and refused to open her eyes. Sort of like her father on Mondays before his sixth cup of coffee, actually.

Our shouting attracted members of the staff, who loaned us a flashlight (the car was parked at the side of the building where there were no lights). We tried to use the flashlight to get Elizabeth’s attention. Some of the staff joined us in shouting Elizabeth’s name to try to get her to at least open her eyes to look at us. All this succeeded in doing was to get her hysterical and crying much more. I’m sure that years from now she’ll have some dim memory of being groggy, restrained by straps, hearing odd voices calling her name, and bright lights shining in her face. In other words, she’ll remember being abducted by aliens.

I called the car company, and after a long delay via voice mail (“Press 73 if you are calling from Idaho and wish to talk to an agent who speaks Estonian.”) they said they’d send out a service person to pick the lock. Meanwhile, about 10 of the staff had congregated about the car, bending coat hangers and trying to break into the car. At the same time, Kathy was trying to get Elizabeth to calm down. However, all efforts only succeeded in making Elizabeth even more hysterical — she heard her mother’s voice, sort of, but the radio and her crying drowned out the words, and this huge crowd of maintenance personnel, tourists, passersby, and so on were all shouting at each other on the other side of the car as to how best to break in. With Disneyworld and Sea World closed at this hour, this was the biggest open attraction and was drawing tourists from across the state.

So after many, many, MANY minutes of this circus, the staff got the door unlocked using several coat hangers together with a screwdriver and assorted materials. There were apparently no talented car thieves on staff after midnight. Kathy & Elizabeth were reunited, and I went to call the rental company to cancel the service call. Of course, the truck arrived as I was dialing the phone. And then to top it off, the store with the Pizza Hut had closed during the episode. Luckily, the night manager of the hotel was there. He went into the store, discovered that there was an unsold pizza (not ours — no mushrooms), and gave it to us without charge.

By the time we had unpacked, had some pizza, and got ready for bed, it was 1:30am. Naturally, I had trouble relaxing to get to sleep. I also awoke with heartburn from the pizza twice in the night. Restful.

July 29

We got up at 9:30 or so, missing the complimentary breakfast from the hotel. By the time we got ourselves around, we ended up having brunch at a pancake restaurant down the road. I should say, Kathy and I had lunch. Elizabeth ordered pancakes, and proceeded to proclaim them “yucky” because they didn’t taste right. This may have been because she put 4 different kinds of syrup on them, cut them into little pieces, and built a structure on her plate reminiscent of the mashed potato structure in “Close Encounters.” After apologizing for the mess and paying hush money to the waitress, we traveled on to Disneyworld, arriving at noon. We rented a stroller for Elizabeth, and headed off for “Fantasyland.”

The temperature was about 95 F, with high humidity. There were huge crowds, little shade, and no breeze; late July is not an optimal time to do things outdoors in Florida. About the only thing missing to make it perfectly hellish was some form of blood-sucking parasite, such as mosquitoes, leeches, or politicians. Actually, there was a close approximation — the vendors. Everywhere you turned, they were selling T-shirts at $20-$36 apiece (note: these were 1977 prices), stuffed dolls, or other souvenirs. What was especially galling was the price for bottled water or soda. $2 or $2.50 (depending on location) bought a 24oz bottle of chilled liquid. Considering that the heat and humidity were such that 24oz was approximately the volume of sweat exuded in 10 minutes, this was clearly a moneymaker for the Mouse Empire.

We spent the remainder of the day in basically the following pattern: park the stroller because it was not allowed inside attractions; stand in line for 45 un-airconditioned minutes, and 5 minutes with some partial A/C or breeze at the end; spend 5 minutes on the ride or exhibit; stand in line for 10 minutes to spend $5 for more water to replace what we lost in the previous hour; drag Elizabeth (or Kathy) away from several nearby vendors of overpriced merchandise; spend 10 minutes hunting for the stroller with our tag, parked amidst 100 other strollers; walk 100 ft to the next attraction; lather, rinse, repeat. We broke the monotony by making potty stops and once spending the equivalent of Elizabeth’s weight in gold for a hot dog and a small bowl of grapes as a snack. Clearly, Disney makes the movies to get kids to con their parents into visiting Disneyworld so Disney can perform this slow motion mugging.

An observation based on people watching. Very warm temperatures are uncomfortable. Therefore, people tend to try to dress in a fashion to keep from overheating (except for the Muslim women wearing full, black burkas or chadors — how they kept from bursting into flame from the heat is something that defies physics as we know it). Thus, it would seem to be a field day for a dirty old man in training such as myself. However, two factors came into play: (a) as the heat index rises, so does the level of babe-itude necessary to provoke a second look and the associated expenditure of calories (and the risk of a bat upside the head from the spousal unit), and (b) the 5% of the population that looks outstanding in short shorts and a bikini top other97.jpgis more than offset by the 25% of the population that does not but still abuses Spandex to the point of criminal offense (and structural failure). In general, it is not A Small World After All, but some people haven’t quite come to that realization. It shouldn’t take a trained scientist such as myself to deduce that the reason some women had hair standing on end and their ankles puffed out and draped over their sandals was not because of some odd genetic flaw, but because they had somehow crammed a size 16 body into a size 4 maillot. Not that the men were all that much more clueful — for instance, guys whose strong gravitational affinity would pancake a stout horse should not be allowed to purchase (let alone wear) Lycra bicycle shorts.

Despite all this, we had a good day visiting attractions. Elizabeth got her picture taken with Minnie, Pluto, Chip and Dale, Ariel the Mermaid, and Goofy (the Disney character, not her father). We also stayed for the 9pm parade of characters and floats, which was spectacular, and the 10pm fireworks.At this point, the heat, the excitement, the walking, and everything else caught up with poor Elizabeth and she basically collapsed. After we got to the stroller return, I had to carry her. In 95 degree heat and 200% humidity. For miles. Standing in line 30 minutes for the ferry back to the parking lot. Then to the car. Imagine carrying a 35 pound hot water bottle around your neck and chest for an hour in such heat, and you get the idea. By the time we returned to the hotel (midnight), I was done in and dehydrated.

July 30

Arose around 9:30 (again). Once again, a late start and breakfast at the pancake place. Again, we got to Disneyworld around noon. Only today, it was about 5 degrees hotter, and 150% again as humid. So, the day was like the one before, only more so.

Today, we decided to dispense with the stroller. We spent more time yesterday chasing after it than actually using it. So, we start off with the train ride to Adventureland, where we visited Tom Sawyer’s island, had lunch, and took the cable car to Tomorrowland. There, Kathy went to Space Mountain while Elizabeth and I visited the video arcade. Elizabeth played a “Whack the Alligator” game (she’s surprisingly good), and tried SkeeBall. She was only able to roll gutter balls, and that after abut 10 tries, but she felt it was a great accomplishment. As it kept her occupied and away from the Super Ninja Motocross Space Warrior Interactive Mayhem games, I was happy — I was tired of explaining that her feet wouldn’t reach the pedals, and she’d need to wait another year or two to send atomic photon torpedoes into targets resembling hungover mutant bunnies. Time enough for that when she’s 8. I plunked some quarters into a crane game to fetch her a stuffed purple bear (I’m good with such games); the bear has not left her grip in the 3 days since then, either. Then we sat at the Space Mountain exit to wait for Kathy. Elizabeth took a short nap — she hadn’t slept well the night before, and the heat was really getting to her.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on rides and at attractions in Tomorrowland. As evening fell, we went to Toontown, where Elizabeth finally got to meet Mickey (after 45 minutes in line). She also got to go on a small roller coaster. Then, we decided to leave before the fireworks to beat the rush to the exits. We left the park at 9:50 and got in line for the monorail to the parking area. We got to the top of the ramp as the nightly fireworks show started. We let people walk around us to get on the monorail as we leaned over the rail and watched the fireworks. Then we boarded the monorail and went to the parking lot. We stopped at a burger place for some food (we had skipped dinner), and ended up getting to bed slightly before midnight.

July 31

Real misadventure day. It started okay, but the weather was similar to the days before. We once again missed the complimentary breakfast by arising after 9am. This morning, instead of going for pancakes, I went to the hotel store and got a few snack items. We had a quick brunch and made it to the MGM theme park by 11:30.

Today was not as hot as Wednesday, but hotter than Tuesday, so it was still unpleasant. Luckily, this park was not so crowded. We traipsed around from attraction to attraction. About half of the things were not very interesting for Elizabeth — they were about movies or TV and had references to things she didn’t know about. However, she appreciated the air conditioning in most of them. She also liked the Little Mermaid show, the making of George of the Jungle show, and the backstage tour exhibits. Kathy & I enjoyed most of the other exhibits, too. Elizabeth loved the Muppet 3-D show. So did I. We even went through it a second time, taking Kathy along (Kathy had gone on the Star Wars simulator ride while we saw the Muppets the first time). Actually, of all the things I saw in the 3 days there, it was the most clever and entertaining. Afterwards, we all had lunch at Pizza Planet (really!), and saw more attractions.

Poor Elizabeth was simply exhausted by evening. I had to carry her about half the time, and she was getting awfully whiney. So, we decided to call it a day earlier than before, and started to head out around 7:30, after Kathy had taken the ride on the “Tower of Terror” (no relation to the Math/Science building at Purdue). However, at this point, Elizabeth declared that she was hungry and wanted to eat at the park. So, we went into the Brown Derby (this is the same as the ones in Hollywood). We had an outstanding meal, marred only by the fact that Elizabeth was extremely fussy and wouldn’t eat. With various bits of coaxing, threats, and assistance from our waitress, we got her to eat half her fish — the half that didn’t make it to the floor. We emerged from the restaurant right on cue for the fireworks to start.

If you visit Disneyworld at certain times of the year, there will be fireworks at Disneyworld, at Epcot, and at MGM Studios. I don’t know about the fireworks at Epcot, but the MGM fireworks were clearly better than at Disneyworld. They lasted longer, had more effects, and they choreographed them to classic movie tunes. It was really magical. We loved them.

We left the park and headed back the hotel, determined to get to bed by 11pm so we could get up, have the complimentary breakfast, and check out by the 11am deadline. We planned to drive through the Everglades to our next stop the next day.

As I was making a left turn into the access road to our hotel, a small Suzuki Samurai driven by a local resident sped through the yellow light and right into our car — she came from behind some traffic stopped at the intersection and I never saw it coming. The driver told a bystander that she had sped up to make it through the yellow (and then changed her story when the police arrived). The Samurai totaled the front end of our car, then bounced into a van waiting on the cross street. We were unhurt, except for bruises from our seatbelts. I was burned along both arms from the airbags going off (an altogether interesting experience, but not one I wish to repeat). We are so thankful that we suffered nothing other than friction burns from the seatbelts.

No one in the van was injured, either. However, in the Samurai, there were several injured people who had to be taken to a hospital. The back seat held two young children — neither in a child seat — who received some facial injuries, including one with a broken tooth. More seriously, in the front passenger seat was a teenager who was not wearing a seatbelt — he went headfirst into the windshield and sustained head, neck, and face injuries. He was taken out of the car on a backboard with a cervical collar in place. I have no idea what his condition was/is.

The police came and spent the next 2 hours writing up the report, calling in tow trucks, etc. The Suzuki and our car had to be towed off — they were both pretty much in ruins. Despite 2 or 3 witness claiming that she ran the yellow or red light, she claimed it was green, and the officer didn’t give her a ticket. However, he did indicate to me he was probably going to ticket her for not having child seats, and he might ticket her for not having the front passenger in a seat belt.

The tow truck driver, with the car in tow, gave us all a ride back to our hotel. It was almost amusing at the gate — showing the security guard the parking permit that had been in the car and telling him we’d only be a few minutes. We explained to him that it was best not to criticize Mickey Mouse when at Disneyworld — he has a mean temper. Kathy & Elizabeth went inside to go to bed (now at 12:30), and I went with the tow truck to the rental car office on the other side of Orlando.

At the office, I filled out some paperwork and was given a brand new LHS. I mean, really new. It had only 9 miles on it. And the locks worked correctly. I then added another 23 as I drove it back to the hotel. I managed to get to bed about 2:30. Luckily, Kathy had called the hotel manager and arranged a late checkout for us.

Continued in a subsequent post.

Another kind of attack on science

A few months ago, I wrote about some of my concerns with anti-science behaviors and beliefs. I received several responses I did not approve for posting, from people who displayed the same ignorant biases I wrote about. I received only a few items in support. That may be a reflection of my readership, or it could be further evidence of the problem.

In the months since then we have had a number of things pop up that have reinforced my concerns. One example was the amendment  introduced by Senator Coburn to the Federal budget that curtailed some of the funding for the NSF in social sciences. Another is the recent indication that Representative Smith is trying to change the fundamental mechanisms of funding for NSF to exclude science he (or his political cronies) don’t understand or don’t like. Many other bloggers have written about the attacks on science, such as this one in Slate.

There is now news of a much more insidious attack, and one that represents both the increasing cultural hostility towards inquisitiveness and extreme paranoia about “terrorism.” See this article and this article for an overview of the details. In summary, a young woman tried an ad hoc chemistry experiment, based on something she viewed online. An older version of this would have been putting baking soda into vinegar; this version was some toilet cleanser and aluminum foil. It basically popped the container it was in. Some school administrator saw this and called the police. She was charged with felonies similar to what one might use against a terrorist, and expelled from school — all for something that most of us have done as children.

There is a petition open at change.org on this issue. I have signed it. I encourage you to consider also signing.

However, I went a step further and sent email to three of the decision makers in the process: the school principal (Ronald Pritchard), the school superintendent (John Stewart), and the Polk County Sheriff (Grady Judd). My letter is enclosed. You might wish to send your own letters. Or not.

[Update: the email address for Grady Judd does not appear to work any more.]

My letter:

To: Ronald.Pritchard@polk-fl.net, pio@polksheriff.org, john.stewart@polk-fl.net
From: Eugene H. Spafford <spaf@purdue.edu>
Date: May 2, 2013
Subject: What a terrible message you are sending….

Gentlemen, I am a senior faculty member at Purdue University. I hold patents and international awards for my research. I have been an advisor to the President of the US and testified before Congress.

As a child I was interested in science, particularly in chemistry. I conducted ad hoc experiments in my yard, and via my school. Those activities encouraged me to ask “why” and investigate further, leading to a career of science-based activities.

What you have shown, with your blind application of law and regulations to Mr. Kiera Wilmot, is not only a significant lack of common sense, but a lack of appreciation for curiosity and initiative. This was not a case of someone with a handgun shooting up the school, or creating an explosive device out of a pressure cooker. It was a young girl trying (perhaps unwisely) an experiment she found online. This is barely different from experimenting with combining baking soda and vinegar in a pill bottle — something you yourself may have done as children.

Ms. Wilmot’s curiosity suggests potential for a future in a STEM discipline — and our country (and the world) need more experts in these fields. Ms. Wilmot, as a minority female, is especially rare among my colleagues in the sciences. Your actions not only may quash her interests, but serve as a severe inhibitor of curiosity by any other young people in your area. Rather than being educators and promoting your community, you are serving to stamp out curiosity, ambition, and learning.

Your proper course of action would have been to explain to Ms.Wilmot the dangers of trying such experiments without permission (and presumably, without safety considerations, such as goggles), and then used the incident as a teaching opportunity for her and her peers. Not only would you have deflected other such ad hoc activities, but you would have been directly addressing your mission of education…if indeed that is the mission you see for Polk schools.

Simply stated, you have overreacted in the extreme and made yourselves the butt of pointed comments around the world. You have also hurt that young woman and her future, and initiated a ripple of damage to your community. Shame on you.

You still have an opportunity to make things right: rescind the expulsion order, drop all legal charges, and make an effort to encourage Ms. Wilmot’s interest in science, rather than to punish her for curiosity.

Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D., Sc.D
Professor and Executive Director
Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, ISC^2, ISSA

Disclaimer: Purdue University is listed for identification purposes only. My opinions do not necessarily represent any official or public position of the university or any of its personnel other than myself.

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