Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.

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Inventory before HMNS hits…

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…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

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We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

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When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

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Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

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Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

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…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

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Reverse Tetris begins…

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…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

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HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).

Get wet, go wild, or blast off with new Party Smarty birthday themes at HMNS

by Karen Whitley

Yikes! Is it May already? Time has flown by and now your child is about to turn another year older. Between work, school, dinner, errands, and that never-ending laundry, who has time to plan a party? Lucky for you, that’s what we’re here for! Not for the laundry (you’re on your own with that), but the Houston Museum of Natural Science is the place to call for giving your child a birthday experience he or she will never forget. We have hosted over 3,000 birthdays here at the museum, so we know a thing or two when it comes to parties. This year we are excited to announce that we are offering three new Party Smarty themes at our Hermann Park location: Shark!, wildlife, and Mars expedition!

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Sharks have always fascinated us land-dwellers, and they continue to hold millions of people across the nation in thrall each year in July. If you have your own shark-lover at home, now’s your chance to become the coolest parent around by throwing your kid aShark- Great White2 (2) birthday party with real sharks! Not only will they get to learn about great white sharks,
see the jaw of a megalodon, and actually get inside a shark cage, but they will also get the chance to touch live sharks in our Shark! touch tank experience. As an added bonus, each kid will get a one-of-a-kind button declaring that they touched a shark. Shark! will be leaving our museum in September, so make sure to grab this chance before it swims away!

Wildlife 7 (Swan Lake) 2Did you know that a ringtail cat is not a cat? Or that a bald eagle has 7,000 feathers? With our Texas wildlife theme, your birthday group will get the chance to hop along with robins and howl with coyotes as you explore the diverse habitats and wildlife that our great state Wildlife 8 (Ocelot) 2has to offer. From soaring falcons to roaming American buffalo, there are more than 250 types of animals in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife! Will you be able to find the flying squirrel? Now you and your guests can experience the American wild from dawn to dusk as you listen to the calls and sounds of our animals with the rising and setting of the sun.

Looking for something special for your pre-teen or teenager? Our Expedition Center theme is a great way to get them away from their video games and into a thrilling simulated flight to Mars! This is no pleasure cruise: your teen and friends will have to work together to Expeditionsuccessfully complete their mission to land on Mars. From piloting and navigating to building probes, experiments, and so much more, everyone will have a blast on this voyage into uncharted territory.

For more information about all of our basic and deluxe Party Smarty themes and packages, visit us here.

Go green in March with a Party Smarty birthday party special that’ll make you want to celebrate

You don’t have to wait until St. Patrick’s Day to start thinking green. All month long, we’re offering $100 off our regular Party Smarty birthday parties at both the HMNS Main and Sugar Land locations.

What does that mean to you? That means members can book for $200 instead of the usual $300 price for the entire month of March, while non-members can make their kids’ birthday dreams come true for $250. (Please note: Our $800 deluxe parties are not eligible for discount, nor are parties that have already been booked.)

Party like a Smarty with HMNS!So why not treat yo self this March and let HMNS’ party coordinators do the heavy lifting? From treat bags to decor to activities, we’ve got you covered.

Choose from an entomology theme you’ll go bug-eyed over in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a dinosaur theme your guests will totally dig in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, or a soiree that’ll get you starry-eyed in the Arnold Space Hall.

For more information or to book your next party, click here!

Be the Party Smarty: Fuse this time-tested childhood craft with HMNS birthday fun

Creating a fuse bead masterpiece is a different feat at 25 years old than it was at 10. I’d never realized how handy having tiny digits had been until recently, as I fumbled with slippery, miniscule beads to create one of our most popular Party Smarty crafts.

Kiddos who book their birthdays with HMNS get a variety of extra-special extras, but our included craft time is something to be enjoyed by both the young and the young at heart.

I got in touch with my inner child with some good old-fashioned Perler beading. (You can find tubs of these infernal little buggers at Hobby Lobby or Michael’s. These days they even have sparkles.)

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First, carefully place your fuse/Perler beads on your stencil. It pays to work from the center out (for obvious reasons), but if your imagination runs wild and you envision your dinosaur with spots or your butterfly with chevron wings, by all means, don’t let a little thing like common sense get in the way.

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Check out these beauts by our Party Smarty staff and yours truly. Guess which one was by the amateur? (Hint: The answer’s not visible to the naked eye, but it took me twice as long to make the dino at bottom.)

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Next you’ll iron the beads onto the mold with medium heat. Put a piece of parchment paper over your creation and make sure to use a dry iron, keeping the iron parallel to your surface and moving in circular motions. (This craft is recommended for children 7 and up, but Party Smarty staff will assist with this part.)

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We find that it’s best to iron both sides for durability.

Once the beads are fused, as below, gently peel the fused plastic off the mold, cover it once more in parchment paper (which you can reuse, unlike wax paper) and iron again.

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Whether you decide to make your creation into a magnet, a barrette or a creative holiday ornament, you’ll have partied smartly at HMNS.

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