Avengers Assemble!

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the on-line Marstall family… newsletter… holiday message… thing.

First of all: no, we didn’t do one last year. We don’t remember why now, but somewhere around the start of December someone asked if we were going to whip one out really quickly and the answer was an exasperated sigh and a glare that would have melted tungsten. We must have been up to our eyeballs in something or another that felt really important and draining at the time, but a year later and I have no idea what it might have been. So, we’ll use this edition to span two years and call it even.

Let’s start with the extended family. They’re all mostly fine. Probably. Doesn’t really matter, because some of them get really upset if I mention their names on an unsecured web page. Concerns about identity theft or cyber terrorism or hyper-intelligent lizards or something. Or maybe they just don’t want to be associated with our family in a public forum. Can’t blame them, I reckon. Anyway, they’re all good, except for the ones that packed on a couple too many pounds over the last year. Yeah, that’s right, we said it.

OK, on to the meat of the newsletter, let’s start with the new addition to the family. No, not that. No more of those – we’ve taken “steps”.

What we did is get a new dog. Her name is Tilly, short for “Chantilly”, and she is a sheepadoodle, which is totally a real thing and not something I made up to screw with you. Honest. A sheepadoodle is half old English sheepdog and half standard poodle, so you get a large, kind of rangy dog that doesn’t shed, and one which does not know whether to herd or hunt… in Tilly’s case she just kind of stands around with a dumb look. She’s about a year and half old now and might start to show signs of calming down in another year and a half or so. Until then, it’s not a good idea to leave anything that you don’t want chewed on anywhere within six feet of the floor.

Tilly by the lake

Samantha is doing quite well in pretty much anything she puts her mind to. She is in the gifted and talented program at her elementary school and is excelling in all of her subjects. She’s become very active in the school government and was chosen as a patrol this year, which is a pretty prestigious post that is only awarded to two kids in each class. Additionally, she petitioned the school to start a school garden in a disused area of the campus by spelling out a plan for the area along with some suggested ways that the various grades could participate – from kindergarteners making labels for the crops to the high school wood shop fabricating benches. The principal was impressed enough to ask the county to fund the project, which they did. To get this rolling, Samantha chairs the after-school gardening club, called the “Green Beans”.

Captain Samantha

Outside of school, Samantha plays volleyball in the spring and fall, and is on the Chantilly travel basketball team this winter. Much to her father’s joy, she has taken up cycling in a big way: most weekends, she and Pat will go on a multi-mile trail ride to various parts of the county, usually stopping for lunch at a new place each week. In what little other free time she has left, Samantha plays saxophone in the school band and also piano.

Alex is a sophomore at Chantilly High School, where she is doing nicely. Last year she was part of the Show Choir, where she learned how to apply far, far, far too much makeup and twirl around while singing… skills that she was well-positioned for as it turns out. This year she had to make a serious choice between volleyball and choir and chose the former – her elective this year is “sports medicine”, which will culminate at the end of the year with a visit to a local teaching hospital and an encounter with a cadaver. Odds of her fainting or keeping her feet are currently a 43:4, and given that she has gotten woozy at the sight of a paper cut, those are some optimistic numbers.

Alex at the lighthouse

Most of Alex’s time is spent with volleyball. Physical training for the Chantilly High varsity team starts the first week of August, and the season ends just before Thanksgiving. Club volleyball season starts just after Thanksgiving and runs until the first week of July. So for 49 weeks out of the year, she practices around twelve hours a week and plays in a multi-day tournament about every third weekend.

At just shy of 6’2”, Alex is very sought-after for local teams and she plays for the premier club in the Northern Virginia area, NVVA. This year she is on the 16-1 ICE team, which is about as good as you can get for the area. During this year’s season, the club will be traveling to Omaha, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas for national-level tournaments, not to mention the “local” tournaments in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.

Outside of volleyball, Alex does… well, let’s be serious here: beyond school and volleyball, Alex doesn’t have a whole lot of time. She has somehow managed to find time for a boyfriend here and there, however.

Hey, want to hear something scary? Alex gets her learner’s permit in April.

Andrea is still teaching at Centreville Elementary. She is currently the lead English as a Second Language (ESOL) teacher there, and spends more and more of her time doing administrative projects. Centreville Elementary is a “model school” which regularly hosts visitors from other schools, other counties, other states, and other countries as they seek to pass on “best practices” in various ESOL techniques. This year, Centreville hosted a large delegation from Korea, including the Korean Minister of Education.

Andrea and Samantha

Outside of school, Andrea struggles in vain to keep a house full of teens, pre-teens, and mentally-still-a-teen from falling apart. She spends most of her free time ferrying Alex to and fro and the remainder ferrying Samantha hither and thither. She somehow still finds time to yell at Pat and walk the dog, sometime concurrently!

Andrea enjoys the occasional quilting or sewing project, such as Samantha’s colonial outfit for the school’s Colonial Day festival, or the new drapes for the kitchen. If a spare afternoon presents itself (like when Pat and Samantha are off biking), Andrea will pour over her gourmet cooking magazines and prepare a “culinary adventure”, usually on a Sunday afternoon. A good half of these turn out to be excellent; the other half range from merely “meh” to causing the kids to beg for death.

Pat is still working for Qvine corporation, which has more than doubled in size over the past year. Pat leads a division of about fifty people now and has gone from a programmer, to a program manager who tells programmers what to do, to a project manager who tells program manager what to tell programmers to do. It all sounds quite impressive, but effectively he’s a middle manager.


At home, Pat earns his keep as a taxi driver, where all of his fares are his own children and none of them actually pay him anything. The amount of miles he puts on his car traveling back and forth from various practices dwarfs the number of miles he spends commuting back and forth from work. Speaking of which, Pat is an avid cyclist who tries to spend at least one day a week commuting the 25 miles (round trip) to and from work on his trust bike rather than driving. In the winter he’s got the full nerd-cyclist outfit, complete with tights and the ski-mask thing that causes the guards around his workplace to finger their side arms nervously when he speeds down the road towards them (they’ve only actually drawn their guns twice, so it’s cool).

Pat has any number of useless hobbies, but his woodworking seems to be the most productive. Every summer and winter he adopts a new project: in the last couple years it’s been a raised garden, an arcade cabinet, a lazy Susan, and a closet shelving unit. Very few of these projects have rusty nails sticking out in inconvenient place, so it works out nicely for everyone.

All right, enough bragging. You want to hear a disastrous yet humorous story, and we want to write one.

Um. Well, I’m sure we have one around. Did you hear about “Snowmageddon”? Oh… you all went through that too, huh? Ooh! There was an earthquake about a year and a half back! No, we weren’t affected by it at all, but it was cool; the ground shook.

Eh. The truth of the matter is that most of our stories involve volleyball. Here’s one of the better ones:

Last Spring, Alex was on the NVVA 15-2 ICE team. It’s one of the better teams in the region, but it’s still the “B” team in a club that fielded seven teams in the 15 age group. They played passably well, but they didn’t manage to take a berth in the prestigious national tournament held in Columbus, Ohio. Instead, they qualified for the less-prestigious year-end tournament in Orlando, Florida.

Alex hitting

Now, this year this would be a big thing. All the top college coaches go to the tournament in Ohio and they send their assistant coaches (if anyone ) to Orlando. As a sophomore, you want to be in Ohio so that those people might start looking at you as a scholarship prospect. But last year, as a freshman, there wasn’t as much stress: few colleges look at high school freshmen.

So we weren’t too sorry to be spending a week in Orlando in early July rather than Columbus. I’m sure it’s a nice city and all, but at the end of the day Florida > Ohio, right?

Looking at the finances, we quickly determined that we could either fly to Orlando or stay in a nice hotel, but not both. After dithering about it for a while, we decided to drive and get reservations at the Mariott World Center hotel. This meant that we’d need an extra day to get down there and an extra two days to get back.

It turned out that the trip down there was spectacular. We left a t 4:00 AM the first day and drove all the way to Savannah, GA, stopping for a couple hours at South of the Border, which was far nicer and more amusing than Pat or Andrea’s childhood memories indicated it would be. Savannah was absolutely beautiful – we got rooms in a hotel right on the riverside and spend the afternoon walking through the historic old town and watching the massive cargo ships float slowly past.

The next day, we set off a little later and stopped for an hour at Jacksonville Beach. It was a nice, easy way to do a long trip and very pleasant. At least until we hit Florida.

Five minutes after we crossed the Georgia/Florida border, it began to rain.

Now if you’ve ever been to Florida in the summer, you know that it rains almost every day. Sometimes it rains for fifteen minutes and sometimes it lasts for an hour or so. Wait a bit and it goes away. No big deal.

This was something else, however. This was tropical storm Debbie. Far from strong enough to be a hurricane, Debbie was simply a massive, huge, gargantuan rain storm. And she moved up the Florida Gulf Coast at a sedate pace for a day or two… before deciding to sit tight on a spot about fifty miles off the coast due west of Orlando. For about five days.

There was never, never, NEVER a forty-five minute period during the five days we were there that it was not raining. Oh, it would stop every once in a while for a half-hour or so, and once the sun shone through a break in the clouds, but mostly it was rain. And rain. And rain.

The buildings, equipped to handle Florida’s frequent downpours, were ill-prepared for the foot of rain that dropped on them during that week. The hotel spring many leaks in the massive atrium. The Orlando convention center, where the volleyball tournament was held, actually had to put up sandbags to keep from flooding. Each court in the venue (there were ninety-eight of them) had a set of towels, and in between rallies, one of the girls assigned to be the “work team” had to run onto the court and wipe up the puddles from the leaks in the roof.

Our hotel was incredibly nice. It had a series of three massive pools with waterside bars, slides and waterfalls. We could tell they were awesome because we were sometimes able to see them through the rain-streaked windows and blowing sheets of torrential rain.

All right, let’s take a break from the main story and do some math. Say you’ve got a convention center with ninety-eight volleyball courts. Each court host two “waves” each day – one in the morning, one in the evening. There are four volleyball teams assigned to the same court for each wave. On average, each team has eleven girls on it. These are high-end athletes, so we can say with near 100% assurance that each girl has two knees. In volleyball, you wear a kneepad on each knee, and these pad are made from a spongy cushion covered in fabric. If you work it out, that comes to 17,248 knee pads.

OK, you’re thinking: yeah, that’s a lot of knee pads, but so what?

Well, this was a week where you’ve got near-constant rain and pretty much 98% humidity in July. You’ve got a bunch of teenage girls wearing those 17,248 knee pads for eight hours each day and no way to wash them overnight. Do you think you can picture the smell in your mind? You cannot. This smell was pungent. This is the type of smell that they would use in Special Forces training exercises to inoculate the elite troops against the shock of chemical attacks. This is the type of smell that can cause PTSD.

Anyway, there was five days of this. Rain and sweat-stink and dripping ceilings and traffic, traffic, traffic. You’ve got like three million people who came down to Orlando for a vacation that week, and every single one of them was looking for something indoors to attend… and they had to drive to get there.

After the tournament was over, we drove north. About three miles from the Florida/Georgia border, it stopped raining. Ten miles into Georgia, the sun came out and it was sunny the rest of the eighteen hours home. We stopped in Charlestown, SC, which is a really pleasant little city with some great restaurants. We stayed at a hotel that used to be an indigo factory back in the days when indigo was a major source of cash for the state. Really cool.

So there you go. I’m sure lots of other things happened over the last two years. Pat got a new used car. Samantha got glasses. Pat was pretty close to being hospitalized with pneumonia. Alex got her braces off. There was other stuff too, probably, but most of it was mind-numbingly dull.

Which is fine, really. We’ll take dull and safe over terrifying any day.

Have a great holiday season and may your year be as dull and safe as you want it to be.

The Marstalls