Saturday, February 21, 2015

Nuggets - David Gilmour

I've never thought of myself as a big Pink Floyd fan. And then every now and then I stumble on something that reminds me that I am a very big David Gilmour fan. It seems that all the bits of Pink Floyd that I like the best (the ethereal guitar parts, mainly) are Gilmour.

A few nuggets courtesy of YouTube:
  • Murder, solo tune, 1984 performance. 
  • Wish You Were Here, unplugged live, sometime in the 2000's. Lovely.
  • Comfortably Numb, again, sometime recently-ish.
  • And lastly, Comfortably Numb at the O2 arena in London (2011), where Roger Waters is joined by Gilmour for only about the second time in 30 years.
If nothing else, Gilmour would serve to prove that you don't always need to be lightning fast to be something special...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fishman Loudbox Mini

Fishman Loudbox Mini
You can never have too many toys, and one of the things I have been looking at recently is an acoustic guitar amp to go along with the Epiphone EJ200-CE acoustic-electric guitar that I bought last year.

I have a Line 6 Spider IV modeling amp for my electric guitars, but amps for acoustic-electrics are different, and while I can plug the acoustic into the Line 6 amp and it works (sort of), it doesn't sound very good. I was browsing website reviews (Fender Acoustasonic was a contender), but decided it made more sense to ask if brother Dave, my resident expert, had a specific recommendation. I did, and he did. He said having done the similar research, he was going to get the Fishman Loudbox Mini, but then decided to get a small PA system instead. I read up on it, and it sounded perfect for what I wanted.

Fast forward to the end of a vacation day for the Presidents' Day holiday (kids are off, and we all had some nice family time), and I now have a Fishman Loudbox Mini in my living room. It is tiny but sounds AMAZING, and puts out enough sound to easily annoy everyone in the house (just in case the need ever arises). Guitar Center was having a nice not.

It has controls for gain, reverb and chorus, along with a phaser button (in addition to the usual master volume and low/mid/high adjusters). Additionally, so you can do the coffee house one-man-band thing, it also has a mic input and full set of controls.

With moderate gain and a little reverb, even I sound pretty good, and my Epiphone sounds more expensive than it was. I couldn't have a better initial reaction. Thanks Dave!

And now back to my lessons. And preferred chord fingering. And holding the pick properly...

[As an aside, while the family waited for me to browse and purchase, Amp (my wife Amparo) found great humor in the sign in the store that talked about "Selecting an Amp". We have filled the rest of the day with jokes about upgrading your Amp, finding a new Amp, problems with Amps, good qualities to look for in an Amp, etc... So technically I now have three Amps in the house, although not all of them have Master Volume controls, Reverb settings and Phaser buttons)...]

Shenandoah Plans

Old Rag Mountain
Being deep in the heart of winter (high of 14F today, with an overnight low of -2...and one partly frozen bathroom pipe...), it seems only logical to be dreaming of the warmer days to come, and with that the prospect of getting out on a trail to stretch the legs. The desire to get something on the calendar before schedules become too overloaded has been discussed among the boys recently, and while I was in Texas this week, emails began flying in earnest. The gist of which being that we needed to get something on the books.

Fast forward to today, and four of us have tentative plans in place to do a four day weekend in the Shenandoah valley in early April; basically as soon as the campgrounds open for the year. Exact details are still to be worked out, but just knowing that we have something planned makes me smile.

The others have been to the Shenandoah repeatedly over the years, and this will not be new to them, but the last time I was there with them was...about 1986/1987 to the best of my recollection (as I am 90% sure I was still in college at the time). Either way, it's been a very long time.

In the alternating year big-trip/littler-trip scheme of things, this should be a big-trip year, but one of our gang will be doing a 50th birthday trip to Ireland, rendering another big trip not very feasible. As an alternative, we will be trying to get in 2 or 3 little trips scattered throughout the year. Whatever we can manage is OK with me. Any trip, big or small, is a good trip as far as I am concerned.

As thoughts are being tossed around, the basic framework of the trip is shaping up to be something like this: leave on a Thursday evening after work, driving the 4 hours or so to get to a hotel near the campground and hiking locations. Good hikes Friday and Saturday. Campground Friday and Saturday nights. A briefer Sunday hike, and a 4+ hour drive home. Even if we rent a minivan for maximum gear hauling, this will be a very manageable and cost-effective trip.

Specific hikes being looked at include Old Rag Mountain; one of the famous ones. Old Rag Mountain is an 8 mile hike with 2,500 feet of elevation gain, tremendous vistas, and some good rock scrambling.

More to follow...

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review - Closing Arguments

Being out of town all week in Dallas at my company's 2015 National Sales Meeting (at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine) kept me very busy, but a little bit of wind-down reading time before bed each night got me through Frederick Busch's Closing Arguments (1991, Ticknor and Fields, 288 pages).

This is the story of Mark Brennan, a Vietnam vet lawyer practicing in upstate New York. Brennan is dealing with what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder, a troubled marriage, and children struggling to find their way in the world. This all comes to a head when he is asked to defend a young woman accused of murder, and who claims that the death was an accident as a result of consensual rough sex that went too far.

The reader is brought along for the somewhat predictable but nonetheless compelling descent into darkness as Brennan tries to outrun the ghosts of his past while making a mess of the present. And as Brennan notes, "the innocent are not protected."

This was my fourth Busch book, and was a good read, although not as good as his novel Girls (1997) or his short story collection Rescue Missions (his last published work before his death in 2006). The Night Inspector (1999, a PEN/Faulkner finalist) was also very good.

3.5 stars out of 5. Very solid. Not spectacular, but it did keep me turning the pages.

Books this year: 5
Total pages: 1,692
New authors: 2

Unlearning Guitar

As the last few years have gone by, I have become less interested in going into a new year setting specific goals. When I first began blogging, I went into every year with the obligatory post(s) on plans for the year ahead. More often than not, I either didn't achieve those goals, or in some cases, didn't even try as my interest-du-jour wandered off to something else (as it tends to do).

Now, having said that I don't do goals for the year, here's my goal for 2015: I will put in enough real practice time to get better on guitar, at least to the point that I can better justify owning four of them. And to better justify buying such things as the Fishman Loudbox mini acoustic guitar amp that I plan on getting soon...

The magnitude of the task ahead of me came into better focus when I stopped by brother Dave's this afternoon to see his new basement PA system set-up (excellent!), ask him some questions, and play around a little bit. [This isn't news to me; I just try not to think about it]. I asked about suggestions for an online course, and he recommended Justin Guitar, available both on YouTube and on My comment to Dave was "this is going to be rough - I have 35 years of bad habits to unlearn." Everything from holding the pick incorrectly to improper (or at least non-optimal) fingering of certain chords. Such as my G chord (with fingers 1-3 instead of 2-4). There's nothing wrong with my G chord - it covers the right strings and makes the proper chord - but it makes shifting between the G and C much more difficult than the proper way. Using the better way, I could start at G and then shift easily to C, but when I tried to shift back to G, my fingers tripped over each other and I really couldn't do it. I also tried holding the pick properly, and that felt about as natural as strumming the guitar with a pork chop.

So I have gone back to square one, or perhaps even square zero. This afternoon, after getting home, I have done the first bunch and a half of lessons in Justin's Beginner Course. Most of the first batch, prior to playing anything, is really basic, and stuff I already know (and am not doing wrong - except the holding the pick thing). In the first set of "playing" lessons, there are 3 chords taught (D, A, E) along with the preferred way of forming each of them. Check on the D. Not on the A. Not on the E. Sigh. Which doesn't mean I can't play them fluidly (which I can), just that it may be preferable to re-learn them.

All this is a daunting task, but one that seems worth it. I am continually amazed at the guitarist Dave has turned himself into over the last few years via a lot of hard work and practice, and a shadow of that would make me pretty happy indeed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the basement. I have D, A and E chords to work on. While attempting to hold the pick properly...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Last Day of Christmas and First Day of Spring

A couple of fun things happened today, one being the official end to Christmas 2014, and the other being the first harbinger of Spring.

As for the end of Christmas, the postal fairy arrived today with the out-of-stock-but-now-back-in-stock copy of my Christmas present from Brother Dave and his Darling Wife: Jimmy Page, by Jimmy Page (Genesis Publications, 2014). Amazon describes this oversized bundle of classic rock goodness as "the photographic autobiography and visual history of the world's most iconic guitarist". Amen to that, and then some.

This monster of a book is 512 oversized pages of the backbone of classic rock history; Jimmy Page's life before, during and after Led Zeppelin. When I first picked up the Amazon box, I thought Amp had ordered a block of lead. It turned out to be Led Zeppelin (so I was close)... Amazon says the shipping weight is 6.4 pounds. That's a lot of book.

It is a story told primarily in pictures, and flipping through it is a joy, both in terms of bringing back memories of growing up to the sound of Brother Dave playing Led Zeppelin (and Aerosmith) albums on Dad's living room stereo, but also seeing how the history of Page and Zeppelin are interwoven with the whole era of the 1970's and the other rock artists of the time.

Of no less interest to anyone interested in guitars and related equipment, it is fascinating to go through all the pictures and see which instruments he is playing at various times in his career. Some of them are surprising...

As it is, I have barely begun to devour this book, and will require a lot more time to do so thoroughly. I have found myself bogging down in looking up some of these guitars... (for example, the most iconic guitar of them all...Page's cherry red Gibson sort-of EDS-1275 double necked 6 and 12 string almost-SG). In addition to this being the live Stairway to Heaven guitar, I also think of it as the Don Felder Hotel California guitar. But I digress...

As for Spring...I officially declare (calendar notwithstanding) today to be the first day of Spring. I know this to be true because today was the first day I was able to grill dinner on the deck in just enough fading daylight to do so without the aid of artificial light (and without eating dinner at 4pm). Yay!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review - A Spot of Bother

A Spot of Bother
After reading a series of new (2014) books recently, I went back to the shelves and dug out something that I had been meaning to get to for a while: Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother (2006, Doubleday, 354 pages). Haddon first hit the radar screen with the critically acclaimed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I would also like to read, but don't have (making the whole reading thing much more difficult). Which brings us back to A Spot of Bother...

The book is described as a "disturbing yet amusing portrait of a dignified man trying to go insane politely." It is the story of George Hall, a very proper retired English businessman, and his family. His daughter is getting married (and has relationship problems). His son is gay (and has relationship problems). He is aware that his wife is having an affair with an old colleague (and so he has relationship problems). In the midst of all this, George finds a spot on his hip and decides, all medical evidence to the contrary, that he is dying of cancer. And then things begin to fall apart, and in time, come back together again.

It felt a little contrived at times that everyone in the family was going through a parallel experience of "relationship falls apart and then gets pieced back together again" all at the same time, but I enjoyed the characters and the situations, and there were many times that I found myself laughing out loud. That doesn't happen too often. And the 354 pages went by very quickly.

"Jamie had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging his life precisely as he wanted. Work. Home. Family. Friends. Tony. Exercise. Relaxation. Some compartments you could mix. Katie and Tony. Friends and exercise. But the compartments were there for a reason. It was like a zoo. You could mix chimpanzees and parrots. But take the cages away altogether and you had a bloodbath on your hands." (p. 33)

A very solid 4 stars out of 5.

Books this year: 4
Total pages: 1,404
New authors: 2

Next up is Frederick Busch's Closing Arguments.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Year Ahead - 2015

Having written at length about the year (somewhat) recently ended, it's impossible not to think about what the year ahead might hold.

Fates willing, Grace will enter Middle School and Julia will be a Junior in high school. Julia will be more actively involved in job training in preparation for what happens after school. Amp and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I will end the year teetering on the precipice of 50. Both of brother Dave's girls will be in college. Mom may elect to the have the hip replacement (or two) that she needs to feel better, and get around better. At the very least, let's hope all that happens.

Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV
On a personal level, I think I can sum up my hopes for the year with the simple statement of "I want to do more." Go places. See things. It would be overly melodramatic to say that the clock is ticking. But...the clock is always ticking. That's what clocks do. And that's why they come up with sayings like "seize the day", "live your life like there's no tomorrow", and all that other nonsense. Nonsense that seems to make more and more sense as the years quickly roll by.

In the first half of my lifetime, I traveled to Europe about 5 or 6 times. I've been to France (three times), Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Hungary, West Germany and East Germany (back when there were two), Belgium (three or four times), Holland, England and Greece. Plus Canada. I spent four weeks doing the Eurrail Pass thing with two friends (1985). I spent a summer in Greece working on an archaeological survey in 1986. In the second half of my lifetime, I have traveled to the Philippines twice to visit Amp's family, and that's it (and the more recent of those two trips was 13 years ago). There are reasons of course. Career. Family (kids); traveling with little ones is hard. But not impossible. And they haven't been little for quite some time now, so that excuse ran out a while ago.

We have discussed the possibility of going to England this year while Amparo's older brother is still stationed in London. It's easy to list the reasons why we won't actually go - not the least of which is that it's very expensive to fly four people to London. Three out of four of us need to renew (or get) passports. We all need visas (or whatever it is that we do need...). We suck at planning ahead. And did I mention it's expensive?

But not all travel need be overseas or far far away. We've done a better job the last few years of doing some day and weekend trips. We can still do a lot better, and I expect we will. We've also gone away for a weekend without the kids and (shockingly enough) the world didn't end. More of that would be nice.

And so we shall see what actually comes to pass. No goals. Just hopes. Happy. Healthy. That's enough.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ice Hockey - Penn State versus Vermont

I wouldn't normally have been in attendance at the "Philadelphia Faceoff" college hockey game between Penn State and Vermont, but this year (the third annual) was different; Grace and the Garnet Valley 5th grade and Middle School choruses were singing God Bless America and the national anthem.
3rd annual Philly Faceoff

We were to arrive at the Wells Fargo Center at 11:00am for a 1:00pm game. The kids would be escorted down to the ice for an 11:15am sound check, then brought back to a waiting area to kill time until 12:20, when they would be taken back downstairs to the non-public concourses under the arena to wait for their big moment.

At about 12:30 the college teams came out for their fifteen minute pre-game skate, and then the Zambonis cleaned the ice.
Pre-game skate

At 12:55, the lights dimmed, the teams were announced, and then our kids came out to do their thing. In a professional arena that seats 20,000 for hockey, there were maybe 7,000 or 8,000 fans in attendance, which is not bad all things considered. We had about 100 kids crammed onto a few strips of carpet, but they sang well and got a nice ovation.
Garnet Valley sings the national anthem

Unfortunately, Amp and Julia were at the practice for Oliver at the high school, so it was just me and Grace, but we had a very nice time.

As for the hockey game itself, Grace got bored near the end of the second period, and it having been a long week, we left our seats with the score tied at 0-0. As we were making our way toward the exit Vermont scored to go up 1-0. As we were a little further around the concourse, Vermont scored again to make it 2-0. As they were announcing the goal scorer of the second Vermont goal, the horn went off again for another goal, this time by Penn State to close the gap to 2-1 Vermont. After watching 50 minutes of game time and seeing no goals, we heard three in the 5 minutes it took to exit the building. Go figure. (Sports kharma, I know...never leave a game before the end...).

Driving home in the car, and talking about it afterwards, Grace was pretty excited. Which is good. Not everyone gets to stand on the ice surface of a 20,000 seat arena and sing the national anthem. She said it was a little bit scary, but a lot of fun. I'm glad. This should be an experience to remember.

Friday, January 30, 2015

13th Annual Garnet Valley Cheer Challenge

(Back on Saturday January 24...)
It's that time of year again. After weekly practice sessions throughout the Fall and Winter, the Brandywine Youth Club Spirit Squad of special needs girls, with Julia cheering (and Grace as an assistant coach!), performed in their first event of the season.
Julia (back row nearest) and Grace (front leading nearest)

As usual, they started off with the home event, which is the Garnet Valley Cheer Challenge (the 13th annual) at our own high school. Attendance was down due to a few teams pulling out because of an overnight snowstorm, but it was a great event as always.

As has been the case in prior years, our squad performs first, gets medals and a trophy for being first in their "division", and then gets to hang out and watch other squads perform.
Julia and Grace (end of back and front rows)

The sequence of events, no matter how routine it has become in the several competitions that our girls perform in every year, never fails to choke me up; a gymnasium full of cheer squads and parents from all over the area giving our girls a standing ovation. Some total strangers, in no way connected to our girls, having tears running down their cheeks.

It reminds me of the Special Olympics motto: Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

If ever there was something to lend credence to the old adage "winning isn't everything", well, I guess this is it. Sometimes winning is just showing up...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review - Everything I Never Told You

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

And thus begins a terrific book. A couple weeks after finishing Anthony Doerr's fabulous All the Light We Cannot See, I now already have another 5-star book in 2015 - Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014, Penguin Press, 292 pages). This is a debut novel, and one of the best I have read recently.

This is a powerful story of the oriental and mixed-marriage experience in the 1960s and 1970s, the failures and disappointments of parents, the expectations parents impose on their children, the crushing weight this brings to bear, and the damaging secrets kept within families.

Given the captivating opening line, this wasn't about what had happened, but about why. It is both tragic yet perhaps hopeful, and powerful because it rang true to me. It was predictable in places, surprising in others, and kept me turning pages until I was done in three evenings.

"Stunned, Lydia fell silent. All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders; that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that - like snow - drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight. All the words were right, but in this new Nath's voice, they sounded trivial and brittle and hollow. The way anyone else might have heard them. Already her brother had become a stranger." (pg. 263)

"...she had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be - afraid that, one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. Ever since that summer without her mother, their family had felt precarious, as if they were teetering on a cliff. Before that she hadn't realized how fragile happiness was, how that if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it. Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid." (pp. 272-273)

5 stars out of 5. I loved it.

Books this year: 3
Total pages: 1,050
New authors: 1

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review - The Laughing Monsters

The second book this year is The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 228 pages). The dust jacket blurb calls this a "high suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game." Meh.

I have read some of Johnson's previous works and enjoyed them, but I found this to be good but not great. The story is that a Scandinavian intelligence agent (or not?) returns to west Africa to meet up with a former associate to do...I'm not sure what. There was talk of Uranium, money making schemes, marriages, visits to the Uganda-Congo interior borderlands, CIA involvement, and more...stuff.

As you can tell, this was not my favorite book, mostly, I suppose, because I am not sure what the point was. Which in fact, may have been the point - that the fragmentation of society in modern west Africa, and the resulting "every man for himself" attitude, has turned the region into an unpredictable mess. If that was the point, it made an OK but unspectacular read.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Books read this year: 2
Pages: 758
New authors: None

Best book of the year so far - still All the Light We Cannot See.

Looking ahead, I am deep into another book that is shaping up to be a fantastic read...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review - All the Light We Cannot See

As far as books go, I have begun 2015 with what will probably end up being a strong contender for my favorite book of the year, no matter how many more I read. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014) is a captivating 530 pages.

Set primarily during World War 2 and the years leading up to it, the book traces the lives of a handful of different people, and is told from each of their varying perspectives. It is a compelling page turner full of well developed characters, and is constructed in a very interesting way. The book is comprised of a multitude of short chapters, generally not more than 2-3 pages each. The chapters bounce from person to person, and jump backwards and forwards on the timeline. Working your way through the story gives glimpses of the climax, the beginnings, and the development of the plot, all intermingled. It is like reading a 500 page puzzle where the pieces are placed for you, one by one, in a seemingly random but actually very calculated manner. While you are given glimpses early on of where things are headed, and it is relatively easy to make certain deductions, it is the unravelling (the journey to get there) that helps to make the book so fascinating.

The characters are compelling and include French civilians (prewar and occupied France), as well as Germans who begin as children in prewar Nazi Germany and end up as soldiers. Eventually all the pieces come together in occupied St Malo, France in 1944. It is about people being molded by the time and place in which they live. About some people taking advantage of war, and others being taken advantage of by it. It's about fear, duty, obligation, perseverance, love, kindness and cruelty.

Brilliant book. Very highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5. A National Book Award finalist for a very good reason.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Years Day Hike

Well, it's 15 hours into 2015 and purely by chance I have taken a step toward addressing a few things I would liked to have done more of in 2014 - I went for a hike and found 5 geocaches along the way.
Ready to set out

Dave texted me yesterday that he and Leo were planning on trying to get in a day hike today somewhere not too far from home and asked if I wanted to go. We didn't have anything specific planned at home, so I said "sure." Within a few hours of that we had a plan to meet at my house at 9:30 this morning and drive an hour down I-95 to Susquehanna State Park in Maryland, where we would have a number of different trail options to choose from to cobble together a 6-8 mile hike, and still be home by 3-ish.
Along the Susquehanna River

After a little New Years Eve celebrating last night and getting to bed at around 1:15am, I was questioning the wisdom of my choice, especially given that the high was only supposed to be around 35 degrees.
Beaver damage

As it turned out, the excessive layering options I brought along weren't necessary, as it was a sunny cold day, but not Arctic by any means. The first 2.5 miles or so were along the banks of the river on an old rails-to-trails trail that was like walking on a sidewalk. The gurgle of the water over the little sections of rapids was peaceful. At one point there were a grove of trees with obvious beaver damage, but they looked older and not very recent.
Giant American Beech

Getting away from the water, the remainder of the hike was on parts of the Deer Creek and Susquehanna Ridge trails, along with some of the connector trails. Plain forest in the winter (with the occasional glimpses of roads and civilization) isn't always the most beautiful kind of hiking, but it was great to get out.
Even bigger White Oak

Highlights of the hike (besides for the river views) were a pair of amazing old specimen trees; a giant American Beech and a 200+ year old White Oak. Gorgeous.
Ridge top river view

When all was said and done, we had covered a fairly leisurely 7.0 miles, found five geocaches including an earthcache, and were back home at my house by 3:30pm. It was a very nice day, and a good start to the new year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Review 2014 - Distractions and Diversions

Having covered the most important stuff - family - in an earlier post, I'll cover the remaining odds and ends here...

Hiking and Outdoors
I spent less time doing short little hikes around home than I have in any recent year, but there were two very good trips that did happen. The first was an overnight trip to Rickett's Glen State Park in northeastern PA in April, and the second was a three day trip to West Virginia in June.

Rickett's Glen was a two day trip, the second day to actually hike the park, the first day to drive up. Dave and I left early and did a bunch of geocaching on the way to the hotel, which was one of my more interesting caching expeditions of the year. The hike itself was truly spectacular, and everything it was hyped up to be.
Rickett's Glen

The West Virginia trip was also memorable for the scenery, the companionship, the hikes, and the marvelous campsite with a view of Sunset Rocks.
Sunset Rocks WV

The Sunday we spent hiking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness was a hot and grueling day, but the scenery was some of the prettiest I have seen in the East. I would gladly go back to that area again.
Dolly Sods Wilderness WV

With one of our regulars planning a big trip to Ireland for his 50th, there will not be a big trip this year, but the plan is to make up for that by squeezing in a few long-weekend trips, like West Virginia was this year. There are a multitude of nice places to go within a 4-5 hour driving radius, and I'm sure we can come up with something good.

Music and Concerts
I didn't get to see as much live music as I would have liked this year (not counting musicals and special events with the family). Anthony and I saw The Musical Box in Wilmington in January, and I saw Justin Hayward again in Wilmington in May.
Justin Hayward in Wilmington at the World Cafe

The Tedeschi Trucks Band near home in Aston in June was the last concert of the year.
Tedeschi Trucks Band in Aston PA

2014 also saw the arrival of yet another guitar in the house, an Epiphone EJ-200CE acoustic electric. I'm still a hack, but perhaps a little better than before. Actual practice would improve that, but for whatever reason, it never seems to happen. So you get what you get. And speaking of getting - no more guitars. Probably.
Epiphone EJ-200CE

As always, I read a ton this year, with only the tip of the iceberg getting documented here. Fifteen fiction books (posted about separately), lots of short stories, lots of history and wargaming materials, and lastly (and quite unexpected) I think I read through an entire file box of old Dungeons and Dragons stuff I had kept from years ago. That jaunt down memory lane sure brought back a lot of fond memories.

Blogging would also have to be considered a hobby unto itself given the time and effort put into it. All told, across three blogs, I have written more than ever before. This will be post number 138 for this, my main blog, and I have also managed to squeeze in 28 posts on the D&D campaign blog and 19 more on the food blog. Perhaps I should do more and write less, although I certainly do enjoy the writing on its own merits. It's a balance I guess. Most of these posts are fairly easy and quick to write, and it has proven very nice to be able to go back and reread posts and look at pictures from as far back as 2009, when I first began.

Dungeons and Dragons
From a hobby/fun-time activity perspective, this is the year I remembered how much I loved playing D&D as a kid, and started playing again as an adult. Five of us have played four sessions beginning in October, and may get one more in over the holidays. I love the pure unfettered creativity of it, and we all seem to be having a good time, which is all that counts.
Kingdom of Alsberg

I may not have blogged about too many recipes, but I think I probably did a better job this year than usual in actually trying new and different recipes out of all the cookbooks we have accumulated over the years. Most used book of the year was without question Giada at Home by Giada de Laurentiis. Every one we make turns out great so we just keep trying more. Grace continues to show some interest in cooking, so it is nice to have a helper in the kitchen with me sometimes.
25 Year Old Easter Treat

It's pretty safe to say that I have become an occasional geocacher at best. I still enjoy it, but more often than not it's really only something that hits my radar screen when I will be traveling to someplace new or unusual and have a chance to grab a new state or a new county. The modicum of interest that the kids had in the first year or two that I did this has worn off for them, and they have no interest in going out with me, so that limits my interest in going out just to go out. Geocaching as a solo endeavor doesn't hold much appeal anymore, although if I have an opportunity to get out in the woods for a walk somewhere, I would still rather pick a place that has geocaches than not. I guess in that regard, I have become a geocacher very much like brother Dave has always been. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Geocaching our way to Rickett's Glen

Perhaps the best part of writing these year end posts is not in the remembering of what has gone before, but to begin to think about the future; not what have we done this year, but what experiences are yet to come. Places to go. Things to see and do. Interests to explore. In other words, life to live.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Year in Review 2014 - Literature

After reading almost no fiction at all in 2013, I got back on that particular horse and managed to get in a decent amount of fiction reading this year.

At the halfway point of the year, posted in summary here on June 30, I had read 11 books by ten different authors. Over the second half of the year I was mainly reading history and wargaming stuff, but did mange to get in 4 more fiction books, all by authors I had read before.

Total books: 15 (by 11 different authors, including 6 new ones for me).
Total pages: 4,386.

Best books of the year for me in 2014 (in order):
  • The Painter by Peter Heller. A marvelous work by someone I hadn't read before. My only five star book this year.
  • The Son by Philipp Meyer. Another sensational (and big) book by the author of American Rust, one of my favorite books of 2009.
  • A terrific pair by Wiley Cash (another new author for me); This Dark Road to Mercy and the almost equally good A Land More Kind than Home.
There were other good books, but these were cream of the crop this year for me.

Full year summary (new authors for me in italics):
  • 5 - The Painter (Peter Heller)
  • 4.5 - The Son (Philipp Meyer)
  • 4.5 - This Dark Road to Mercy (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - A Land More Kind Than Home (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
  • 4 - The Realm of Last Chances (Steve Yarbrough)
  • 4 - Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather [Stories] (Gao Xingjian)
  • 4 - St Burl's Obituary (Daniel Akst)
  • 3.5 - Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
  • 3.5 - The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • 3.5 - There Must Be Some Mistake (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 3.5 - The Brothers (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 3.5 - Drown [Stories] (Junot Diaz)
  • 2.5 - Two Against One (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 4.5 - The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle) 
I was fortunate enough to get a pair of fiction books for Christmas that I have been looking forward to reading, and I am partway into one of those but will likely not finish it before the end of the year. (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - absolutely terrific so far).

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Year in Review - 2014 - Family

December is winding down, and my thoughts wander back across the year that is drawing to a close. First and foremost, the girls (all three, big and little) are healthy and happy. I could stop there and consider the year a success.

But that would make for a very short year end post, so I will soldier on....

High School and Musicals
Julia is in the middle of tenth grade and doing well. She is beginning some preliminary job training, and is involved in a lot of activities. She's a very busy young lady.

March was probably the highlight of her year, being involved in the production of Les Miserables, her favorite thing of all time.
Les Miz - Makeup call for Bystander number 2

I am especially proud of the amount of time and work that she put into the play, and equally happy that despite all the work she wants to be involved in all the musicals going forward. This continued with The Little Mermaid in December where she was a chorus fish in the Sea Chorus, which included a new part time career for Amp as a costume designer and seamstress.
Les Miz Opening Night w/Uncle Let

Julia also puts a lot of time in cheerleading with the Spirit Squad, and competes in three or four local area competitions every Spring. I should also note here that we are all very grateful to the local Whole Foods Market and the Whole Foods Foundation, which made a very generous donation to the squad to cover uniforms and other costs.
Spirit Squad

Julia also continues to compete in Special Olympics bowling and swimming, where Grace is a "unified partner" and swims relays with her sister.
Special Olympics Bowling

Wrapping up Elementary School
Having a daughter the age that Grace is now is a constant (and somewhat unwelcome) reminder of just how fast kids grow up. It seems like just yesterday that we were carrying her around because she was so little and she couldn't keep up. Now I can't keep up with her.

She is doing very well in school, but one of the more gratifying things for me is that she is involved in a lot of musical things, and shows a very good aptitude for it. She is about one year into piano lessons, and her teacher calls her "my little prodigy." She is also now in her second year of clarinet and is doing well enough that her teacher recommended that she move up from the starter (plastic) clarinet to a real wooden one. Have I mentioned how expensive real musical instruments are? Egads. Anyway, as much as I love music, that is an expense I'll gladly deal with. Between the instruments and chorus, there is something musical going on at all times (which is how I would choose to have it).
Casted ankle - January

Gymnastics continues as well, along with the periodically gimpy ankle that comes along with that. Six weeks in a walking cast seems to have helped some, but not completely. Apparently, this is something that they believe she will just grow out of. Fingers crossed...
Glasses in August

I couldn't possibly be more proud of both of them.

Around the House
Having been in this house 17 years now (really?!?), there are no shortage of rooms that we would like to re-do and other projects that need addressing. Grace and Julia both some new pieces of furniture this year, and I am in the middle of finishing up the crown molding in Julia's room and then repainting it. The main floor powder room got a complete cosmetic reno including crown and trim moldings and a repaint.
Printer table

Lastly, we put some power tools to use and made some new custom furniture for ourselves. Julia got a modified version of a console table, and I got a perfectly sized printer stand and end table for my office. I still have a hard time looking at the printer table and believing that I made it with my own two hands (it looks too good).

Getting Out and About
One of the commitments we have made to ourselves is that we will try to expose the kids to as much culture as we can, and hopefully do it in a way that they will enjoy. This year we got them to see a Cirque de Soleil Michael Jackson show in Philadelphia, Stomp at the Dupont Theater in Wilmington, Aladdin on Broadway, and Mary Poppins in Philadelphia to round out the year.
Aladdin on Broadway

We also got to Washington DC again in the spring (to see Mount Vernon) and Avalon NJ in the summer (for the beach), as well as many trips to our in-laws in New Jersey.
Mount Vernon

Thinking about what all we did this year makes me start thinking about what we can do in 2015. Most of all, I just hope that everyone stays happy and healthy. That would be plenty.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Gifty Goodness

It was primarily a book year this year for me in terms of gifts. Trolling Amazon identified a likely list of candidates, and these are the ones that ended up making the cut.
Christmas library additions

The history books are a pair by Desmond Seward (The Demon's Brood; A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty and The Warrior King and the Invasion of France - an Agincourt campaign book). The first is new in 2014, the second is a new 2014 edition of a 1988 book. There is also The Hundred Years War; A People's History by David Green and The Greatest Knight (a life of William Marshal) by Thomas Asbridge (both new in 2014). I have read some of Seward before, and have read Asbridge's Crusades books as well as Green's Poitiers book, so I am pretty sure I will like all of these.

As for the fiction, I like Johnson, and the Anthony Doerr book is one of the best regarded books of the year. I think I read one of Doerr's short story collections a few years back and liked it. As I write this, I am 45 pages into All the Light We Cannot See.

I also got a few packs of miniatures to fill in gaps in some periods, and hopefully will make some painting progress on some of those before too long (house guests leave for home tonight and I can put my painting area back together again). These new packs include muslim infantry and archers, Bedouin light cavalry and Arab armored cavalry (all of which can be used for Crusades or southern Italy) as well as a couple packs of early crossbowmen and German foot knights (mainly to be used as commanders on bases of common infantry).

Watching the kids enjoy the holidays is by far the best part of the season, but getting some presents is always nice too.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Another Christmas Day is winding down, and we have a house full of content people. Us, kids, in-laws and nieces. And of course Uno, their dog.

We have been stuffed with good food (a light Mediterranean Baked Cod last night to give us room for the meat-fest of standing rib roast today) and good drink.
Christmas Eve - Mediterranean Cod

Gingerbread houses have been made. Fresh Santa cookies have been baked, laid on the hearth, and were gone this morning. I bet Santa liked them a lot.
Cookies for Santa...or just playing

Shockingly enough, not a peep was heard from the girls until 7:45 this morning, which I think must be a new record. Despite a few moments of less than ideal behavior, Santa did come again this year, and pampered the kids as he usually (always) does.
Christmas Morning - The Calm before the Storm

Toys and games, video games and clothes for Julia. A new iPod Touch, Beats headphones and some books for Grace. Plus footie pajamas, a surprise gift request (but you do have to love footie pajamas...). Tennis stuff and some clothes and books for Amp. Books for me (4 history, 2 fiction). And a new iMac for the house, to replace the old slow PC in the basement. No more fighting for the one good Mac. (Mine mine mine.)
Footie pajamas!

It was a very relaxing day in which we were able to do absolutely nothing but sit around the house and relax in the company of family, capped off by an easy but excellent 8pm dinner (prime rib roast, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy and ratatouille).

Everybody had a great day, especially the kids. By the time dinner was done and the dishes taken care of, and after a few glasses of wine and 45 pages of reading into one of my new books, I dropped off to sleep, a happy Daddy.

Not having to go back to work until Monday January 5th doesn't hurt either. Ten more days off. But who's counting...

Mary Poppins at the Walnut Street Theatre

With the kids having enjoyed the Broadway shows we have seen in the past, and with us looking to do something different for the holidays (rather than seeing the Nutcracker again), Amp got us tickets to see Mary Poppins at the Walnut Street Theatre on Tuesday December 23.

In short, the show was terrific. It was true to the screen version with all of its famous songs, but had enough additional music and variations to the plot that it made for a sense of seeing something familiar and yet new at the same time. The playbill lists 7 new songs added for the stage production, a few of which (along with Chim Chim Cher-ee) provide the recurring musical foundation of the show. The central theme of saving Mr. Banks is also more of a direct focus of the stage show, including an additional important character that helps explain some things.

The show was in two acts, each about an hour and a quarter, with a 20 minute intermission in between. All told, it started a little after 8 and ended a little before 11. The kids loved it (we all did), but it was a long evening for them, being about 11:45pm when we got home (with holiday house guests having arrived while we were out - so more excitement for the kids).

The cast was terrific, with David Elder as Bert, Jeffrey Coon as George Banks, Rebecca Robbins as Winifred Banks, and Lindsey Bliven as Mary Poppins. Nobody can match Julie Andrews, but Ms. Bliven came very close. She had an amazing, bright and clear soprano voice. Remarkable.

The sets were straight forward but very nicely done, the effects were very good, and the song and dance numbers were great. It was also fun to see Mary Poppins fly, although given the relatively small
stage of the WST, there wasn't a ton of room to work with for that effect. My understanding when this was on Broadway was that she actually flew over the audience a little bit, but that wasn't possible in this little old place.

The Walnut Street Theatre itself had a lot of charm, and is billed as the oldest theater in America. It was on the small side, with cramped lobbies, stairways and aisles, but had that wonderful charm of an old building.

A great evening and a highly recommended show. It will make you feel young again!