Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Geocaching Lessons

Acadia
It seems I may have forgotten how to geocache. After finding one traditional cache, one earth cache, and two virtuals on our Maine trip last Fall, I hadn't done anything until the Washington trip last weekend. Finding even a few virtuals was fun, and logging them reminded me of a number of caches near to home that hadn't been dealt with.

Looking at my calendar of open dates (calendar dates having never found a cache), I saw that 4/21 was my last open date between now and the end of April, so I decided to get out and find a cache after work. I chose to go after one very close to where my own "Wide Open Spaces" cache used to be, since I know that this area gets very overgrown in the summer, and it would be much easier to get now rather than later.

I threw old clothes on. Drove. Parked the car. Got out. Fired up the GPS. Took a few minutes to remind myself how to actually use the GPS. Realized that the only caches loaded in it were 480-some miles away in Maine. And that the batteries were just about dead. Fired up the Geocaching app on the iPhone instead. Saw that I had 7% battery life on the phone. Found the cache easily enough. Realized I hadn't brought a pen to sign the log with. Felt silly. Started walking back to the car. Realized it was an ammo box, and probably had a pen in it. It did. Felt silly again. Signed the log. Went home.

I would update my stats if I remembered how.

Hopefully the next one will go more smoothly.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Washington DC Postscript - Georgetown Cupcakes

In my writeup of our trip, I managed to overlook Grace's favorite part; a not-so-quick side trip to Georgetown Cupcakes, where they film the TLC show "DC Cupcakes". Grace loves cooking shows in general, and baking shows specifically, and she has watched this show off and on (along with Cake Boss, Cupcake Wars and all the others). At the start of the trip she surprised us by telling us that the one thing that she really wanted to do was go to Georgetown and buy cupcakes. That sounded fine. Then she told us that because they are so famous the wait to get in the door is typically anywhere from 1-3 hours. Yep. Hours. That sounded less fine.
Almost in the door...

Having been chased out of the National Gallery by our bored kids, we had a few hours to kill before a planned late dinner (the aforementioned crying disaster), so a side trip to Georgetown by cab seemed reasonable. If the line was too long, we wouldn't stay, but at least we could look around the area a little.
Mission accomplished

The line, as promised was out the door and up the block, but didn't look too horrible, and we had been walking most of the day, so standing around resting for a while wasn't bad. In the end, the line didn't move very fast, but one hour and fifteen minutes later we were in the door and buying cupcakes.

The things we do for our children. (And the cupcakes were awfully good...)

Washington DC - Sightseeing

After seeing Julia Child's kitchen and then having a very good lunch, we spent most of the rest of the afternoon walking the Mall, seeing various monuments, memorials and other tourist landmarks.

The World War Two memorial is a very nice plaza. This one felt special, since Dad was a WW2 combat veteran. There was a central pool with fountains, around which was a ring of walls and pillars with the names of all the states, territories and allied countries that fought together, along with bronze vignettes representing all different types of troops and roles that people played.
Minions at the WW2 Memorial

I made it a point to find the Pennsylvania marker, as well as the one for the Philippines. We have Pennsylvania roots going back into the 1700's (that's a long time for Americans), and Amparo's family in the Philippines lived through the Japanese conquest and occupation, and had relatives who were part of the Bataan Death March. While looking around, we saw a plaque with a mortar gun team, which reminded me of a story Dad told, and used to laugh about. After completing basic training, he received specialized training as a mortar gunner at Fort Benning, Georgia (1944). After shipping out and arriving in France, he spent the rest of the war as an anti aircraft gun team loader, and never fired a mortar again after leaving the States.
Mortar Team

The Lincoln Memorial was the next major stop, and was a beautiful spot on a beautiful day.
Lincoln Memorial

It was crowded, as can be seen, but not bad by normal standards from what I understand.
East across the Mall from Lincoln

I have always admired Lincoln...
Lincoln. Big Lincoln.

And I think the Gettysburg Address is brilliant. Elegant. Powerful.
Gettysburg Address

My family had no direct involvement in the Vietnam War, and I was too young to remember the tail end of it, although I was alive at the time. That being said, it was impossible not to be incredibly moved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial is brilliantly conceived and executed, a simple wall of polished dark gray stone, carved with the names of all the fallen. The mirror like qualities of the highly polished stone make it surreal to behold, as if you can see through it, or into it.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall)

Lee Teter's famous painting Vietnam Reflections takes on even more meaning for me now, having been there and seen the inspiration.
Vietnam Reflections, by Lee Teter

As we wandered the monuments and memorials, I found three more virtual geocaches, bringing my total for the trip to five. If I had planned ahead of time, I am sure I could easily have gotten more, as the National Mall must be the motherlode of virtual caches. The three that me and the little cachers bagged were at the WW2 memorial, the Lincoln memorial, and the Vietnam memorial. Next time I'll plan ahead...

The last major piece of the trip, before returning home in time for Easter Sunday, was a trip to the National Gallery. The kids were tired (somewhat) and bored (definitely) by this point, but I hadn't been in years, and Amp and I wanted to at least take a couple of hours to quickly cruise some of the 19th and 20th century galleries. Cole, Bierstadt, Homer, Eakins. Gaugin, Cezanne, Matisse. Pissarro and Monet. Van Gogh (including a new "green wheat field" acquisition reminiscent of Starry Night, but in greens and in daylight). The time in the museum was fantastic, sullied only by the more or less constant backdrop of "are we done yet". Next time perhaps we do a day trip (without kids) and spend the whole day here. I could very easily do that and love every minute of it.

The last part of the trip was a badly bungled dinner at the restaurant at the hotel (Fire and Sage at the Marriott Metro Center), which we ended up getting mostly comped for, but not before Julia (tired and cranky to begin with at this point) was brought to tears by a half hour (additional) wait for cheeseburger sliders that came out raw, got sent back, forgotten about, asked about, sent back out raw again, and got sent back again with a "check, please" as the final result. How hard can it be to cook sliders beyond the darn-near-raw stage? If you put a tiny little beef patty on a grill, it almost instantaneously becomes "medium", doesn't it? I guess not. Anyway, Daddy and Mommy get very angry when you make our little angel cry. Next time we stay at the Grand Hyatt, like we did the first time. The hotel itself was fine, but unfortunately will go down in family history as "the place the made Julia cry at dinner." Zero stars out of five

The plan had been to sleep over Friday night and come back Saturday late morning, but after the dinner fiasco, it was agreed that we would bail on the last night and sleep in our own beds. We left the hotel at 8:30pm and were home by 11. Kids were asleep by 11:10 I think. Maybe 11:05. And we got to watch an episode of Game of Thrones. So a good trip with an unexpected, but OK, ending. We all woke up after sleeping in Saturday morning refreshed and remembering the good stuff.

I really enjoy these Washington trips. We have done 5 days in two stays over the past couple of years, and have still barely scratched the surface of everything there is to see. And there are certainly advantages to going in the Spring or Fall rather than summer, when the temperature (and humidity) are much more manageable.

I already have a list of things I would like to see next time we go.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Washington DC Day 2 - Julia Child's Kitchen

Since we had decided to make this trip relatively spur of the moment, not a tremendous amount of planning went into what we would do once we got there, other than "see the sights". But as we were taking a quick look at the various museums to see what they had to offer, one thing jumped out at both Amp and I as something that we really wanted to see: the Smithsonian Museum of American History had Julia Child's kitchen. Not a replica or a recreation. The actual kitchen.
Sink side with oven

In 2001, three years before her death in 2004 at the age of 91, Julia donated the entire kitchen from her Cambridge MA home to the Smithsonian. Everything except the flooring was taken apart, brought to the Smithsonian, and reassembled as part of a "Food in America, 1950-2000" exhibit (ceiling, walls, pots, pans, knives, gadgets, everything). This is the kitchen in which they filmed most of her shows over the decades, and there were still metal rails along the tops of the walls in a few places where they used to hang the TV lights during filming.
Stove side

I've been a foodie for a long time, and have always loved Julia Child. I was too young to know her from the French Chef days of early food TV, but I'm very aware of what she meant to food, wine, and home cooking in America. Everybody cooking on Public Broadcasting channels, Food Network, or anywhere else on TV owes a huge debt of gratitude to this pioneer. And she was hilarious, intentional or not.
Far side with books

The kitchen itself, viewed through Plexiglas windows and doorways, was familiar from some of her later shows (which I did watch regularly in the 1990s), and was entirely utilitarian. Other than the fact that it must have been considerably larger than most kitchens of its day, it had very little in common with today's modern high end kitchens. Knives and tools were hung up on simple racks, or stood in jars. Pots, pans and various other things were hung from pegboard which had been mounted on the walls. It some ways, it looked more like a workshop than a kitchen (which I guess in some respects it was).
"Batterie de Cuisine"

It was especially neat to see the small bookcase near one of the doorways, filled with a variety of cookbooks, including many of her own (with "Kitchen" handwritten on the spine), as well as video tapes, phone books, and the other paraphernalia of everyday life.
Julia's own books

Having already been to this museum on our last trip (to see the Star Spangled Banner flag, etc), after touring the Food exhibit and a couple other things, we went to lunch (fantastic Vietnamese food out of a food truck), and then spent the rest of the afternoon with more sightseeing... [more to come]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Washington DC Day 1 - Mount Vernon

Despite all the snow this winter, the kids still had off from school all week for Spring Break, so we decided to take a short trip to Washington DC from Thursday through Saturday, making it back in time to have Easter at home. We had gone down for a three day weekend two years ago, and barely scratched the surface of what there was to see.
Mansion eastward across the Bowling Green

The tentative plan was to leave Thursday morning as soon as we got up and got going, and drive straight to Mount Vernon in Alexandria Virginia. There we would meet up with my sister in law and her family who were staying with relatives in Silver Spring, MD. If all went well we would tour Mount Vernon with them and then grab some dinner in the city before checking into the Marriott Metro Center near the White House. As it would turn out, they would never make it to Mount Vernon on Thursday, but we would meet them in Silver Spring for dinner with family.
Mansion (landward West face)

The trip down was uneventful, if longer than normal due to an accident on I-95 resulting in all lanes being closed for a while, which cost us almost an hour of sitting with nowhere to go.
Mansion (river side East face)

With a brief lunch stop, we arrived at Mount Vernon around 1:15pm. I was a little surprised to find that Mount Vernon was not owned by the government and therefore not run by the National Park Service. It was apparently bought by the "Mount Vernon Ladies Association" within a few decades of Washington's death in 1799, to keep it preserved and from falling into disrepair. They have owned and run it ever since.
Potomac view

I love historical sites, and it was a beautiful Spring day, perfect for wandering around outside. Later in the year the multitude of gardens would have been better to look at, but it also would be much hotter and less comfortable. It would probably be more crowded in the summer when kids are off from school, but it was fairly crowded as it was.
Greenhouse, slave quarters and Upper Garden

Things were pretty well preserved, and there was a lot to look at, with a large farm estate like this being in many ways its own small village, with a variety of tradesmen, services and all sorts of gardens and crops. The location of the house itself, on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River, was spectacular.
Lower (kitchen) Garden

The mansion house was nice, and contained many original artifacts, such as Washington's study desk and chair, as well as his deathbed. One thing I wondered about was the structural integrity of the building itself. All the roof lines and various other supposedly straight edges were saggy and wobbly. Of course this could be just settling and other similar issues over the course of 250 years. Or it could be that the place is falling apart from the inside out.
Cedars, sheep paddock and garden walls

We took a short half hour "Slave Life at Mount Vernon" tour that was an informative overview. Especially interesting was the complicated subject of Washington freeing the slaves he owned after his death. The complicated part being that he only owned about a third of the 350+ slaves that lived on the multi-farm 8,000 acre property at the time of his death. The rest were"dower slaves" that had come to him through Martha's side of the family at the time of their marriage (the Custis side). Any slaves of Custis origin, and any children of female Custis slaves, were property of the Custis side of the family, and not even Martha necessarily. It seems that any children of slaves belonged to the owner of the mother, as that was the one part of the parentage that was without question. Freeing slaves in a such a complicated web of relationships was more difficult than it might seem.
The old family vault

Another convenient thing is that there were two virtual geocaches on the grounds of the property, so I was able to find my first geocaches since the Acadia trip in September of last year. I will have to finish logging those now so that I can log these and the others we found on Day 2 on the National Mall.
New family vault with Martha (L) and George (R)

After filing through the mansion house at our allotted time of 5pm, we were back in the car and on our way to the hotel to check in prior to heading to Silver Spring for dinner with relatives.

Day 2 will be sightseeing in the city.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Q1 Hobby Review

The first quarter of this year was probably more active for me in terms of painting, terrain making, and general hobby activities than any other similar period in a long time. I think I also did not play a single game (non-solo), not even at the Cold Wars convention that I attended very briefly. So...some good and some bad, I suppose. Although if this continues at this pace for too much longer I might have to change the blog header to say that I am a figure painter instead of an actual wargamer.

As far as accomplishments go, I ended the quarter with... (more or less):
  • 18 German knights painted (including some refurbished ones)
  • 10 French Hundred Years War crossbows painted
  • 6 Ottoman akinji light horse painted
  • 13 buildings painted
  • 18 more German knights half painted but not finished
  • A few hundred figures from various periods "brightened", highlighted and otherwise touched up
  • Several hundred figures rebased entirely
  • A few hundred bases flocked, edge painted, or otherwise cosmetically completed
  • A few more modular terrain boards begun but not completed
  • At least a hundred figures prepped, primed and made ready for painting
  • Other miscellaneous small terrain projects
The actual painting output seems modest, although it was very very good for me, especially considering the amount of work/time spent touching up older figures to a much nicer standard.

As for Q2, I'm not really very goal-oriented with regards to my hobby time anymore, but I'll tentatively throw a few out there anyway:
  • Play games
  • Complete the basing and photography of my Hundred Years War English
  • Paint some Ottomans
Sounds simple enough.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Apr 5 - Powder Room

Painting time this weekend consisted almost entirely of powder room remodelling (sadly, or not, depending on your point of view). The last of the patching, caulking, sanding and prep work was completed. Color swatches on the walls were tested then painted over. An ugly oval builder's mirror was pried off the wall, patched and prepped. Two coats of flat white paint on the ceiling. Three of bright white semi-gloss on the trim. Cutting in around the walls, with three walls of a lighter blue, and one accent wall of a darker turquoise-y blue. Two coats rolled on all the walls. A lot of work for a tiny little room.
Caulk, test colors, and no more mirror

It looks great now that it is finished, but a powder room is always more hassle per square foot than any other room (except probably a kitchen). All things considered, I'd much rather paint a bedroom many times the size. But it does look great, and crown molding always looks nice. One room at a time, we'll end up with nice trim work in every room. The color of this room is a bit of a departure for us, as most of the rest of the house is in neutral colors and earth tones (like the sage green that this room started with). I like the brighter colors. They look cheerful and happy. And they pull out some of the colors from the "ocean mosaic" mirror that inspired the new room.
Working on ceiling trim and cutting in

Actually, I'm not completely done yet, as the window trim hasn't been painted yet, and the baseboards need another coat. And I guess I should finish putting the light fixture back together. But the end is in sight though, so I am willing to claim victory in advance.
Almost completely done

Julia's room comes next. Then the master bedroom... But first, I get to work on those medieval knights that have been waiting patiently while I goof off doing housework. The next room can wait a little while longer...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Epiphone EJ-200CE

Question - What does a hack guitarist who owns four guitars and can barely strum a few chords need?

Answer - Another guitar, of course.

In fairness, to say I am a total hack would be an overstatement of my ineptitude. "Competent beginner" might be better. That being said, it is still hard to justify owning four guitars on any other grounds than I really really like guitars. So adding a fifth was, well, completely necessary. From a certain point of view.

Epiphone EJ-200CE acoustic electric
in vintage sunburst
Of the guitars that I own, the one that gets picked up the most often, because it leans against a chair in the living room, is a beginner Yamaha acoustic hand-me-down that Brother Dave was kind enough to give me. It is a very basic guitar, with some fret buzz and a tendency to not want to stay particularly well in tune. It's fine for what it is, but it is a beginner guitar and nothing more. But there is definitely something special about an acoustic versus an electric, and I love picking it up for a few minutes here or there and just noodling on it. So it's been a blessing and a curse; great to have, but leaves me wanting a better one.

Which is where the new guitar comes in. I have been wanting an intermediate level acoustic for a year or more, but have found it hard to justify. In the meantime I have spent a lot of time researching, reading reviews online, and trying out various things in my price range at the local Guitar Center. Having sold a bunch of hobby related stuff, I finally felt like I could get a new guitar since I could make it a net-zero proposition. I settled on an acoustic-electric Epiphone EJ-200CE, their version of Gibson's legendary J-200, a classic guitar known as the "King of the Flat Tops". It's a jumbo sized guitar, but I don't have any intention of taking it anywhere, so size doesn't matter (fill in your own joke here). I like the versatility of an acoustic electric-compared to a plain acoustic, and I like the cutaway shape versus a dreadnought shape for better access to the higher frets (I can't play Brown Eyed Girl on a dreadnought...).

Having decided what I wanted, I remembered that Brother Dave had bought an Epi acoustic-electric a while back, in a pale blonde "natural" finish, so I went back through his guitar blog to see what his was. To my surprise, I had selected the exact same guitar. While that made me feel lacking in originality, it also gave me some confidence that I had picked a good one, as Dave knows a lot more about this stuff than me.

So on Friday after work, I went to Guitar Center for a capo (to play Whiskey Before Breakfast in "D"), and came back with a new guitar instead. In a beautiful (!!!) vintage sunburst finish. It sounds fabulous. And gets picked up and played up a lot. Strangely enough, I sound better already.

And I bought the capo too...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Michael Jackson The Immortal Tour - Cirque de Soleil

Desiree Bassett (non-Cirque de Soleil)
Julia goes to various events with one of her teen groups, and the most recent one was to see Cirque de Soleil's "Michael Jackson the Immoral Tour" last night in Philadelphia. None of us had ever seen a Cirque de Soleil show, but everybody seems to rave about them, so we all got tickets and went.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but assumed there would be lots of acrobatics and costumes involved. As it turns out, that much was true, but it was different than that; better in some ways but a tiny bit disappointing in others. On the plus side, it was a live music concert with a full (and very good) band of perhaps 12 musicians. The costumes were nice overall, and in some cases very cool (such as LED light-up suits in the dark). The acrobatics were excellent, but somewhat predictable and got a little boring after two hours. The stage show was OK, with some bits that were pretty flat. The show relied very much on a ton of video shown on screens, dropdowns, pop ups and sheets all throughout the show. In other words, it was a Cirque de Soleil show. Despite a few lulls in the show, I can certainly see why people have so many good things to say about these productions.

Desiree Bassett in costume
The best aspect of the show for me was a terrific live band, with a very good lead guitarist (who I looked up after the show and found to be a 22-year old young lady named Desiree Bassett). I wouldn't say I am a big Michael Jackson fan, but there is no denying the amount of "everybody knows that song" music that he created, and certainly there were no shortage of great songs for them to pick from. It was Greatest Hits in a way, and performed very well, with a singer who sounded very much like Jackson.

I don't think I would have minded at all if they skipped the video, the costumes and the acrobatics and simply did the concert piece with the band front and center (instead of behind screens and in the dark much of the time). I understand, of course, that my take on this would be different from pretty much everybody else, who would not pay a lot of money to go to a Cirque de Soleil show and then hope that the acrobats and other performers would get out of the way of the musicians. But...

As for Desiree Bassett, there are a ton of YouTube videos out there of her playing with all sorts of famous people from about the age of 15 on. She certainly seems like a very marketable package; a very good musician with nice stage presence, not to mention attractive (although I can't say that the furry headdress thing from the show is really my thing).

A few video clips of Desiree Bassett:
  • Performing Layla in 2008 (at the age of 16)
  • Performing Peace of Mind with Boston in 2011 (at the age of 19)
  • In the 10 minute long Cirque de Soleil promo video (this clip also gives a terrific overview of what this show was all about). Bassett and her crazy fake hair are shown clearly, if briefly, during the Billy Jean segment of this video at the 9:30, 9:50 and 10:15 marks. Also shown in this sequence is Mariko, an electric cellist who was also amazing.
Despite being a late evening for the kids, they both loved it, as did Amp and I. We all had different favorite parts, but it was well worth the expensive tickets.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 22 - Ceilings and Walls?

This week's update is a brief recap of a few different things, mostly not hobby related...

Crown
On the painting table this week is...a powder room remodel. OK, so that's not exactly the usual painting table update, but it is what's up next from a painting perspective. A while ago I started putting crown molding up in our first (ground) floor powder room, but never finished it. Over the last couple of days I have been spackling and sanding and installing some additional molding so that I can finally finish painting the room. This is the least fun part of the job (which is why it still hasn't been done after all this time), but we are nearing the end. The additional chair rail type molding as a band below the crown molding is something we decided to do to help hide the fact that the ceiling in this room is something akin to a potato chip. After having the bright idea of adding the crown molding, we realized that the ceiling and walls are not the slightest bit even or level. This creates bad corners and joins that will be harder to hide if the bright white trim is adjacent to the darker walls. The solution is to do a treatment similar to what the builder did in the living room and dining room - put an additional band of molding partway down the wall, and paint the drywall in between the two pieces of molding the same bright white semi-gloss as the trim work.

Crown with accent molding
By the end of the weekend, the trim is all up, spackling is mostly complete, and all that remains is some caulking and then the painting. The ceiling will get a fresh coat of flat white, the trim work will get a nice bright white semi-gloss, and the walls will get...we don't know yet. Before repainting the walls we may pull out the sink and toilet and re-tile the floor. But that is still to be determined, since we have never done tiling. But you have to learn somewhere, I guess...

We also have an older piece of artwork in a frame that is coming apart at the seams, so we made a new frame and have been staining and sealing that as well.

On the hobby front, there isn't too much to report, other than that the work on the last batch of German knights is proceeding (if at a snail's pace). I have assembled, primed and begun color-blocking a handful of lance-armed figures to go with the old ones with hand weapons.

I have also begun taking some old pieces of N-gauge model railroad track and roadbed and turning them into WW2 scenery pieces. They look OK so far, and they make use of some odds and ends that I probably would have simply thrown away otherwise.

Lastly, Grace and I have started to carve some hill pieces for my modular terrain boards. When in doubt, make more terrain...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 15 - More Buildings

Urban Sprawl
I haven't done much in the way of hobby stuff in the last week or so, but since I had the paints and larger brushes out from having painted the batch of buildings posted last week, I was able to plow through the seven new buildings I bought at Cold Wars last weekend in short order.

I used the same range of craft paint colors, so the new buildings fit in with the previous batch. Since the "village" was still sitting on the corner of the table from when I had taken a picture of it last week, I placed the new buildings around the edges and re-took the picture. The new buildings are five of the intact single buildings at left, right and foreground. Two new rubbled buildings for WW2 are in the back.

The biggest hassle with this batch was the fact that some of them were JR Miniatures buildings that were cast in a very plastic-y resin that wouldn't hold primer or paint very well. I think I can honestly say that this was the only occurrence I have ever had in all my years of painting where I couldn't get the primer to stop flaking off the pieces. I scrubbed with soap and water, I even used Goo Gone, but there is just something about this resin that is problematic. Eventually, by being very careful and glopping on primer and base coats, then sealing, then painting, then sealing again, I think they might be OK. But on the other hand it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the paint flakes off the first time I try to use them for anything...

This is a shame, as I really love the JR Miniatures buildings, but will now be hesitant to buy them in the future unless it is obvious that the resin has been changed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review - The Realm of Last Chances

Another book bites the dust. Steve Yarbrough is an author who I enjoy very much, and he published a new novel last year while I wasn't paying much attention to fiction books. The Realm of Last Chances (Borzoi/Alfred A Knopf, 2013, 272 pages) is the story of Cal and Kristin Stevens, a middle aged couple struggling with a failing relationship, career prospects that are spiraling downward, and a move from California to New England.

I liked this book quite a bit, and got through it in a few days. Yarbrough is always an easy read, and this was no exception. Thematically, it is very similar to his other works that I have read, and that, if anything, would be my only complaint. The flawed characters and their struggles were familiar ground, and while the setting may have changed from the deep South to Massachusetts, it didn't read very differently.

I always find Yarbrough's writing to be full of telling observations and finely crafted passages. The Realm of Last Chances did not disappoint, although I was too intent on reading to note pages...

"The process by which small pleasures had lost their power to deliver happiness was as mysterious to him as ever - maybe even  more mysterious, since their value now seemed so essential that only a fool could fail to grasp it." (p. 148)

Even if the material was similar to his other stuff, it was a great read. And what's the point in having favorite authors if you can't be pretty sure you are going to like their next work.

4 stars out of 5. Very good.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Les Miserables at Garnet Valley High School

Some videos have been uploaded from the Les Miserables shows last weekend. I think they are pretty good for high school (but I am biased)...

Master of the House

One Day More (Julia is in this one, back right...in a big bonnet, over Marius's right shoulder [Marius's' right, not camera right]...)

Proud papa...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cold Wars 2014

The HMGS East spring convention, Cold Wars, in Lancaster PA, was about as brief a "fly by" for me as I have had at one of these. If it had been more than an hour from home, I wouldn't have gone at all.

As mentioned previously, this weekend is all about Julia and Les Miz, with shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, and a Saturday matinee. Not perfect timing for Cold Wars also on Friday and Saturday, but a trade I would make any time. Having put in to take Friday off long ago (for the convention), I figured I would still have time for a shopping expedition if nothing else before returning home in time to help around the house while Amp and Julia went to the performance. And that's pretty much what happened. I left home at about 11am, arrived at noon, paid my daily entrance fee, shopped and chatted for two and a half hours, and was on the road home by 2:30.

I cruised the dealer area in search of something that struck my fancy, and in the absence of that, made a few useful purchases. From Old Glory, I bought a few bags of various figures (Janissary archers, and Hundred Years War militia, mounted command and mounted crossbows). From another booth I bought a half a dozen 15mm European buildings, both intact and rubbled. Per my prior post on painting buildings this weekend, you can never have too many buildings, especially bombed out ones for WW2 games. [The buildings I bought are separate from the ones I painted this weekend]

As is always the case, one of the nice things about the show was running into some old friends. I probably spent half my time at the show chatting with Ed Wimble of Clash of Arms games and Chris Parker from Day of Battle. That, and stopping by the Fireball Forward! game that I knew Leo as playing in at 2pm, just to say hi. Ed asked me to go out to Tempe AZ with him in May for four or five days to attend a board gaming convention and play a La Bataille de Dresden game against the original Martial Enterprises crew. As attractive an offer as that is, I doubt it is feasible. Bummer.

All in all, it was a nice five hour investment of time. Not exactly the optimal convention experience, but better than not having a chance to go at all...

Painting Table Saturday - March 8 - Buildings

This weekend has revolved around Julia's involvement in Les Miserables, and we have house guests staying with us (with small children) which necessitates take-down and storage of the painting table, so this week's update is somewhat of a change of pace. Since I don't have my usual painting table with access to all of my paints, I needed to find something else to make progress on other than the medieval knights I began last week.
First dark tan stucco base layer

Buildings are the perfect answer to this. I generally have some unpainted ones lying around, and since they are basically an exercise in layered dry brushing, I can do this in little ten minutes chunks at the dining room or kitchen table, in and around other things, with only one or two containers of craft paint needed at any one time.
European village

This group of 5 buildings is an Old Glory set from ten or twelve years ago, plus one JR Miniatures (old Architectural Heritage) building from their Bavaria or Prussia line. The Old Glory set was a "European Village" set that I bought and began painting about ten years ago but never finished. A few weeks ago I over-sprayed the set black to start over. The set consists of three blocks of three joined buildings each, plus a church. They are of a style that can be used for anything from the Seven Years War through World War II. Very useful to have lots of these lying around...
...and again

I would estimate that this group took a little over an hour to paint in total, which occurred in lots of 5 and 10 minute increments between Saturday morning and late Sunday afternoon. I used cheap craft paints for these, and probably used no more than 7 or 8 different colors. The stucco is a dark tan base with a couple layers of lighter dry brushing. The gray walls are two colors of medium and lighter gray. The roofs are dark brown highlighted with reddish browns, medium browns and tans. The same range of browns and grays was used to do the flagstones, grave stones in the church courtyard, and the yard areas in the different building sections.

The only thing that remains to be done before these can be considered completely done is to flock portions of the yards and then coat the whole thing with matte sealer for durability.

Not bad for an hour's work (ok, maybe an hour and a half...).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Do You Hear the People Sing?

Last night was opening night for Julia's high school spring musical - Les Miserables - so Amp, Grace and I were in the middle of the first balcony row (my seats of choice) for a prompt start at 6:30pm. These kids (...young adults...) have been working tirelessly since the Christmas holidays with after school practices and long weekend sessions. It has also pulled in Amp, who has spent lots of hours with the costume ladies, sewing, altering, distressing and revamping/re-purposing costumes and bits from previous shows (I will spare you all a picture of me modeling Thenardier's wedding banquet costume...). Despite having missed almost a combined two weeks worth of practice time due to all the snow storms and school closings, what we were treated to last night was simply amazing.

Bystander #2
There are only four shows in total; Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday matinee and Saturday night. The "Garnet" cast with the #1 leads performs Friday and Saturday nights, while the "White" cast performs opening Thursday and the Saturday matinee. As good as the "B" team was last night, I have a hard time imagining highs schoolers doing too much better than what we saw. And in six or seven group scenes, always on the right side of the stage, was my little angel, "bystander #2". Dressed in grubby peasant garb (hand crafted by Mom). And in the runaway cart scene, shouting out her one line: "Watch out!".

I should have prefaced all this by noting that the whole family loves music and musical theater, and that Les Miz is everyone's favorite (by far). Amp and I have seen the show three times in Philadelphia and once on Broadway (with Craig Schulman as Valjean one of those times). In January of 2013, we took Julia to see it with us in Philly (our time #4) when a touring company came to town after it had closed on Broadway. She tends to latch onto certain things, and Les Miz is one of those; it has been one of her favorite things for years now. Seeing it in Philly was a real treat for her, and when we found out the high school was doing it in her first year there, it seemed to good to be true. She knows the entire show by heart, and wanted to be involved. It has been a tremendous experience for her, and despite all the hard work, she has been on cloud nine for a few months now.

Some memorabilia
As for the actual show, I was anxious to see it, but wasn't quite sure what to expect. It's a long show, and not an easy one to do. The "school edition" turned out to be only the removal of a couple of lines in a couple of the songs. Other than that it was the full two and a half hours - not an abridged version by any means, and leaving most of the bawdy parts intact. Overall, I was amazed at the quality of what we saw. The sets looked just like the last time we saw it in Philly, the costumes were terrific, and the singing and acting was very good for high school. OK, so Valjean wasn't quite Colm Wilkinson, and Javert wasn't quite Philip Quast, but if they were, they'd have dropped out of school and been starring on Broadway at the age of 16 or 17. Sure, there were a few pitchy moments, but in general, it was fantastic, and exceeded my expectations.

And Julia nailed it. She hit her marks. Did all the right things. Played her tiny little part perfectly, and in the process enjoyed herself tremendously. I couldn't have been more proud, and happy for her. There is nothing like watching your child have one of those special moments, and last night was about as special a night as you could have. Brother Dave and his Darling Wife attended and brought flowers. She got flowers from us as well, and her Spirit Cheer squad coach dropped by in the afternoon before the show to drop off a third bouquet. Over the course of the next three shows there is a long list of others who will be going at least in part to watch Julia, so she is feeling like quite the little superstar. Which is how it should be.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review - This Dark Road to Mercy

I finished a terrific novel a few nights back by someone who is a new author to me. The book was Wiley Cash's This Dark Road to Mercy (2014, 230 pages). This is Cash's second novel. The first, A Land More Kind than Home, received very good reviews, and if it is anything like this one I can understand why.

The story centers on the Quillby sisters, Easter and Ruby (ages 12 and 6), who end up in foster care following the death of their drug addict mother. They are taken from their foster home in the middle of the night by their father, a troubled man they barely know, and who had signed away his parental rights. In addition to being on the run for taking his children, he is also being pursued by a hired gun for something else he had been involved in. The plot is at times predictable, but then again most are.

It's a compelling story, told from the rotating vantage of three of the main characters. In some ways it reminded me a lot of James Lee Burke, or even John D MacDonald from back in the day (both Grand Masters of the Mystery Writers of America) - plot that pulls you in and keeps turning the page, an easy style that makes for an effortless read, and believable flawed characters that often ultimately end up likable (with a heartless evil guy thrown in for good measure). It is also reminiscent of another North Carolina author, and one of my favorites, Ron Rash. This is a thriller in a sense, but one that simmers rather than boils (if that makes sense), and I almost hesitate to call it that because thrillers often have the stigma of being less of a book than something that has pretentions to being "literature." No matter what you call it, this is a fine book.

4.5 stars out of 5. This supplants "...Oscar Wao"as the best book of the year so far in the early running.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Painting Table - Knights, Step 1

I managed to make some progress on these figures this weekend. I have blocked in new colors on all the horse trappings and riders and begun cleaning up some other areas. There is a lot of work left to do - shading, highlighting, horses, metalwork, detailing and heraldry - but this is a start.

In most cases, I took the dominant color of the old figure and selected a brighter shade of that color, picked a complementary color, and painted riders, shields and horse trappings in those two colors.
Step 1 - Color blocking

At this point, they already look much better than they did before I started, and are no longer the random mess of different colors they were.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 1 - Last of the Knights

When I repainted some of my older German medieval knights last month, I broke apart all the old stands so I could pick which figures I wanted to use first on the new stands I was making. That left me with the last nine of the worst looking ones lying on a tray on the corner of my gaming table. I would much rather be painting Ottoman sipahis right now, but I really don't feel like packing these guys away in a box somewhere to be half forgotten about, so I have decided to dive in and deal with them now.
Group 1

The paint jobs on these guys, the color choices and combinations, the terrible attempts at heraldry and some old chipped paint combine to make these a truly wretched lot. And the pictures make them look even worse than that. After inspecting them, and then taking and seeing the pictures, I actually contemplated throwing them away. That would have dealt with them very quickly. But I can't do that. So I'll be doing a complete and total repaint instead.
Group 2

Step 1 will be to block in new colors on every non-metallic surface. While I am doing that I will decide whether the armor is worth saving by touch up, or whether I need to repaint the metallic bits black and start over from scratch. Or I guess I could always strip them down to bare metal and start over... Hmm.
Group 3

While I am at it I should assemble some brand new lancer figures to add to these. And maybe a leader and banner...

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Little Things

The haul (part 1?)
Oftentimes, or perhaps most of the time for that matter, it is the little things in life that make us happy. This weekend (Thursday through Sunday) they are holding an annual used book sale at a mall very close to home. It's a fundraising event for the American Association of University Women, and is a little slice of book-dork heaven that I look forward to every year. They always have a lot of stuff in all sorts of categories scattered all over the mall, and priced very reasonably (most fiction hardbacks $3-5 and trade paperbacks $2-3).

I managed to run over there for a short time last night to go through the fiction section before it got picked over. Given that books probably need to be leaving the house and not entering it, I promised myself (with fingers crossed perhaps) that I would be more...selective..than usual in my buying. I managed to stick to that, and was still very pleased to find a handful of books that I will gladly make room for by thinning the existing herd a bit. The short stack of five hardbacks and three paperbacks pictured cost a total of $26 (5,5,4,3,3,2,2,2).

These are all quality additions. Six of the eight either won or were nominated for major awards, or are by writers who have won major awards for other works. The James Lee Burke "Dave Robicheaux" series novel is a page turner by the only page-turner-author I make it a point to read. The Salzman book is the one flier in the bunch, as I thought the name rang a bell. I guess it did because his books are highly rated on Amazon.

Good stuff. And only nine more inches of shelf space. Ugh.

The real temptation problem is after Saturday night at 6pm and on Sunday morning, when you can buy a paper bag to fill with whatever you want for $5...