Friday, April 10, 2015

Daily Nugget - Tommy Emmanuel

Tears in Heaven, by Tommy Emmanuel and Igor Presnyakov

Lovely.... There's just something about a sad song that always seems true...

Or for something more...hopeful... Somewhere Over the Rainbow...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stan Hochman

Stan Hochman
It was with great sadness that I heard that legendary Philadelphia sportswriter and columnist Stan Hochman died today at the age of 86 after a brief illness.

Angelo Cataldi and the morning team on WIP radio styled Hochman as "the grand imperial poobah of Philadelphia sports" and I guess in many ways that was true. Hochman was one of the old guard of local sportswriters that included such luminaries as Frank Dolson, Ray Didinger and Bill Lyon; a holdover from a time when people got their sports news and commentary largely from reading the newspaper. He wrote for the Daily News for over 50 years, and was a staple on TV and radio.

Up until just a few weeks ago, Hochman sill did a weekly call-in to WIP to give his take on the week's sports news. To the very end he was insightful, wise and entertaining. By all accounts, he was as good a man as he was a writer.

Rest in peace, Stan.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Dragon Magazine - Memory Lane

Dragon #70, February 1983
Now that we are playing some Dungeons & Dragons again after all these years, I was checking out some old D&D stuff on eBay, and ended up buying several good-sized cheap lots of Dragon magazines from the era of my adolescent days. When I got back from the short-circuited Shenandoah trip, I had a large and very heavy box containing almost every issue between #s 67-135 waiting for me (I did say large lots...all from the same seller). These issues are from late 1982 through July 1988, which would be basically high school and college.

This stuff certainly brings back memories, as I routinely bought or subscribed to this magazine through much of the very late 1970's and early 1980's (I sold all these magazines on eBay maybe 10 or 12 years ago...). In the few issues I have thumbed through thus far, I have already re-read some things I distinctly remember from back then. The issues numbered higher than about #100 don't look very familiar, so these are probably from after we stopped playing (and we all would have been in college so that makes sense).

Based on a very limited sample size of issue-flipping, some initial observations come to mind...

It is an interesting journey back into roll playing game history, as many of the authors of the articles in the early '80s issues are the "royalty" of Golden Age AD&D (some of whom are now dead): Gary Gygax, Ed Greenwood, Len Lakofka, Kim Mohan, Roger Moore, Lewis Pulsipher, etc.

The game, already in the early 1980's, was well on the road towards becoming the ridiculously over-complicated over-detailed monstrosity that it apparently became after we stopped playing back in the old days. The relatively new 5th edition we are playing now is very much a step backwards from the level of complexity and micro-detail that I am seeing even in 1982 and 1983 issues. For example, the issue I just set down (#70 - February 1983) has a article on NPC (non player character) smiths, and how many "smith" experience points they need for each level (there are 12 levels), and which levels can craft or repair which items, and so on and so on and so on. For 3 full small-print pages. I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to bog down in a level of detail regarding a smith other than "can I buy X, Y, or Z item from him, or can he fix this item?", but to each his own.

Some of the material holds up well conceptually, and can still be used as inspiration or food for thought to someone playing now.

A lot of the material is space-filling junk that I find of no interest other than as a historical footnote or as a vehicle for taking a trip down memory lane and recapturing a little piece of lost youth. In hindsight, some looks like little more than contributing editors banging out a few contractually required articles in order to cash a paycheck, or others simply filling the page count of the magazine, but I guess that is being cynical. Probably true though...

There is incessant dialogue about, warnings on, and clarifications regarding what is put forth in the magazine "for your consideration, Gentle Readers" (a phrase they seem to love) versus what is "official." The short version of which is stated bluntly and repeatedly: anything Gary Gygax says is directly from the mouth of god and therefore official; anything else is not. This is interesting in hindsight knowing that at a point in the not-too-distant future, Gygax, the primary creator of D&D/AD&D and its real driving force, would be ousted from TSR and there would be many years of acrimony following that. In the early '80s, we are still very much circled around the feet of the master, and are being told to worship accordingly. Blasphemers beware.

The advertisements for the then-current products (and their prices!) are as much of a walk down memory lane as anything.

Some of the artwork is pretty cheesy and cartoonish, but some is very good.

All told, this is looking like it will be an entertaining minor expense, costing less than half the sticker price of the magazines when they were new 30 years ago. And I'm sure a few ideas culled from here will make it into our gaming sessions.

Overall, there is more junk in here than not, but interesting nonetheless.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Old Rag Mountain

April 3, 2015, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

This was the best part of my abbreviated Shenandoah trip. Being out in the woods is a good thing, no matter what.

Friday morning 8:45am, we arrive in the parking lot for the trailhead. It is overcast with intermittent sprinkles of rain. The forecast is for rain off and on in the morning, with chances of thunderstorms throughout much of the afternoon and early evening. Winds are gusty and persistent, and are supposed to get even stronger as the day wears on. Temps begin in the high 50's and are supposed to get into the low 70's in the afternoon.
Weakley Run

This hike is on National Park Service lands for Shenandoah National Park, and this is such a popular hike that there is a ranger shed at the parking lot for collecting fees. We pay the $15 weeklong pass per car, and make sandwiches. This is a very popular hike, and the parking lot, which is quite large, routinely fills up. Between the crappy forecast and the fact that it is Good Friday, there are only a handful of cars in the lot when we set out at around 9:15.

The first 0.8 miles of the hike is up a paved (but largely unused) dead end road that ends at the real trailhead. We bear left up the hill on the Ridge Trail, which will rise gently for a little while before switchbacking up the shoulder of the mountain. Over the course of the first three miles of this 8 mile loop, there will be some hard climbing, rock scrambling, and hand over hand climbing before attaining the summit. The views from the top are supposedly worth the routine crowds, but with today's overcast skies and rain, there might not be too much to see.
More Weakley Run

As we start up the Ridge Trail, I notice almost immediately that while my legs feel good, I have no wind whatsoever. I am not a great climber under any circumstances, but this is noticeably unusual. Not in the sense that I am worried about having a heart attack or being in any kind of distress, I am just very tired and find it hard to catch my breath. We are only perhaps 1 mile up the real trail when I decide that I need to do what is right for me, and tell the group that I will hike the easier loop around the bottom of the mountain and meet them somewhere on the far side.

We have seen few people to this point, but as I hike back down toward the trailhead I pass 7 or 8 groups of people, averaging 3-5 people per group, who are going up. I am feeling fine now that I am not climbing, but I am coughing some, so I am starting to think maybe the cold I had earlier in the week is lingering.
Stone cairns

Back at the trailhead (0.8 miles from the lot), I head the other way around the loop on an old fire road that is the Weakley Hollow Trail. The first mile of this parallels the banks of Weakley Run, a picturesque mountain stream. Knowing I have time to kill while the others do the tough work, I spend a decent amount of time rock hopping around the stream and taking pictures and video.

Further up the trail, the stream veers off and the hiking gets quieter. Ted has given me one of a pair of his walkie talkies, and somewhere on the lower Weakley Hollow Trail, I get an announcement that they have reached the summit.
Yet more Weakley Run

The hollow I am hiking through has signs of settlement from long ago in the form of rough stone walls and stone cairns whose purpose I cannot fathom. They are rectangular in shape, made of the same fieldstone as the walls, but are not hollow like foundations would be, and seem to be solid up to a height of several feet. Curious. I like old stuff like this. Which I guess explains the Archaeology college degree.

About 2.5 miles up this trail, the Saddle Ridge trail goes up the other side of the mountain. The guys will be coming down this way. I'm feeling OK going slow, so I will go partway up and meet them. Somewhere around this time I get another announcement that they reached the actual summit. In the overcast, they couldn't tell that the first high point they reached was a false summit, and they had another section of difficult trail and climbing to reach the real summit.
Saddle Ridge Trail, toward Skyline Drive

On my side, I climbed a little ways past the Old Rag Day Shelter (a small open sided picnic hut), and sat on a large boulder and had a peaceful wait for the others. After a while, they came down the trail, and we did an uneventful 3.4 (ish) miles back to the car, arriving at about 2:30pm.

All told, I hiked an easy 9 miles at a leisurely pace, according to the GPS. The others did about 8 miles, but a much more difficult hike to be sure.
Old Rag Mountain from Skyline Drive

I'm happy that the guys had some visibility at the top of the mountain and were able to get partial views off the mountain. Not completely clear views, but certainly better than the total overcast and zero visibility they could have gotten.

As for me, the idea of summiting a mountain isn't the be-all and end-all of a successful hike, but I do hate missing a good vista and the related photo ops. Fortunately, I also like streams, rocks and laurel thickets, and I got to see plenty of those.
Old Rag Mountain - Part of my hike

Notes on the hike track: Parking lot is at upper right. The gray area is the 0.8 miles to get to the actual National Park Boundary and the start of the real hike. I forgot to turn on my GPS, but the first mile or so of the Ridge Trail goes almost due south from where the gray and green areas meet. It switchbacks up onto the ridge line, and then climbs west/southwest up to the summit (at 3291 feet; the elevation gain from parking is about 2510 feet). From the summit, it drops west/northwest along the ridge line to meet up with my hike track. The loop is typically done clockwise, as the guys did. In total, it is listed as an 8 mile loop. My linear out and back shown here is about 3.5 miles each way, with an added 1 mile out and 1 mile back that is not shown. Total for me is therefore around 9 miles.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shenandoah and Bust

I would like to say that the above should be a rallying cry of Shenandoah or Bust!, but unfortunately for me, the title, as it stands, is accurate. I went to the Shenandoah. And it was a bust. Perhaps "bust" is too strong a characterization. Other trips have certainly had their challenges, but this was the most disappointing.

Earlier in the week leading up to our Thursday afternoon departure, I had not been feeling well, and had been running a fever a few days prior. By Thursday, I was feeling mostly back to normal, and the biggest concern I had was for an unseasonably chilly and possibly rainy forecast.

Sun and clouds over Shenandoah National Park
Thursday afternoon we got on the road in two cars earlier than expected, leaving Dave's at about 4:45pm. Including a brief Wendy's dinner stop, we were at the Quality Inn in Culpeper Virginia, half an hour from Friday's planned hike - Old Rag Mountain - by about 10pm. Old Rag Mountain (Ridge and Saddle trails) is one of the more difficult (and popular) signature hikes of Shenandoah National Park.

Friday was a rainy forecast, but the desire to do Old Rag Mountain not on a Saturday, due to potential crowding on the trails, had everyone in universal agreement that bringing rain gear and making the best of it was what we needed to do. I will post my day's hike separately, along with a partial GPS track and some nice pictures, but the short summary version here is that everyone else went up and over the summit of the mountain and down the other side (an 8 mile loop with some very difficult climbing) while I went up the first 1.8 miles, and then spent the next 7.2 miles backtracking, looping around the base of the mountain and meeting them on the other side, then backtracking again to finish the loop with them. I'm not a good elevation climber to begin with, but I just didn't have any wind at all. That's unusual even for me. So at 9 easy miles, I actually put in more mileage than they did (they just did all the difficult and fun miles).

Stream below Old Rag Mountain
Friday night. The day's intermittent rains continued, and the breeze picked up noticeably. Setting up tents was a comical interlude of windblown tent pieces flying around, but everything was eventually set up and firmly staked down as best we could. The forecast for the night was rainy, cold and very windy.

Despite the chill and the damp, it wasn't safe (or practical) to light a fire because of the high winds, and a charcoal fire to cook steaks, potatoes and veggies wasn't going to work either. So we swapped planned dinners and used the camp stove to reheat frozen turkey chili. It was a serviceable dinner in lousy conditions. It was around this time that Phil's "party tent" (pavilion thing) caught an especially strong gust of wind and did a Mary Poppins off into the underbrush, hopelessly bending its aluminum frame [And thus a veteran of many many trips over the years found its final rest in a dumpster].

With no more shelter outside of the tents, and continued rain and gusty winds, we adjourned to our tents for a little makeshift reading and sleep. The sleep part ended up being problematic. I was cold to begin with, and not feeling all that well. I wore long johns and sweatpants to bed, along with thick wool socks, a thermal top and tshirt, and a wool cap. The gusty winds were extremely loud and buffeted the tent mercilessly. I'm almost amazed that the tents stayed up properly through the night, which is a testament to how well they are built. There was rain off and on until probably after midnight, and when the rain and winds finally subsided, the temperature dropped. A lot. [The car thermometer the next morning at 8am would show 35 degrees F]. I know I slept off and on throughout the night, but my main memory is of shivering, shaking, chills and chattering teeth. At one point I put my heavy fleece jacket on and it didn't help much. When we got up in the morning, I felt terrible and couldn't get warm. I would have put my winter coat on, but my extra warm stuff that was in the tent had all gotten wet. We found out later that the ground cloth under my side of the tent had blown out of place, and the wet ground was wicking up through the floor. Shoes, coat, gloves all soaked through. Swell.

Remnants of days gone by
Saturday morning. Over a cup of coffee around the picnic table, we had some snow flurries. Clearly, Mother Nature was mocking me. We then went to the little restaurant down the road from the campground and had a hot breakfast, which didn't interest me much. We went back to the campsite to prepare for a hike, which I didn't feel up to at all. There was talk of breaking camp later that day and doing the last night in a motel (Saturday night was forecast for clear but just as cold if not colder).

Saturday. Ultimately, once we figured out that 3 people and the necessary gear would fit in one car, I loaded all the non-essential stuff into my car and drove home. The views along Skyline Drive leaving the park were amazing, as it had mostly cleared overnight, and I took a few decent pictures. The drive home was uneventful, but not particularly pleasant, as I was still having chills and was very tired. I stopped in Warrenton VA to get a drink (and a convenient geocache in the parking lot), and was safely home by 4:15pm. I think this was a better choice than to have everyone change their plans to accommodate me.

So, as my daughter Grace would say, epic fail. Or if not Epic, at least Fail. Not that it was a total loss, insofar as the camaraderie is always great, and the hiking for me on Friday was still pretty nice. Bailing on your comrades totally sucks though. In wargaming terms, this would be best described as a unit reaching its Break point and then executing an extended Rout move (off the table and out of the game entirely).

Sunday postscript. Sleeping in my own (warm) bed was certainly nice, but I am definitely sick, so I guess I can soothe my wounded pride with the fact that there was more at play here than just being out of shape and not liking the cold. Small consolation...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shenandoah Plans part 2

...or lack thereof.

Back on February 16 I posted a quick blurb on plans for the guys to do some hiking in the Shenandoah on a long weekend in early April. Now five weeks have gone by, and I pretty much haven't given this any thought since. Not that I am not excited about it, but it has been a very busy late winter/early spring, and the continued cold and snow stretching into March (we got 5 more inches on March 20) doesn't exactly have me in an outdoors frame of mind yet. But I better get there quickly, because there is almost no time left.

Plans as of now: Leave Thursday early evening in 2 cars (insanity, but I am the only one that seems to think so). Drive almost all the way and stay in a motel. Hiking and campsite Friday. Hiking and campsite Saturday. Short hike and drive home Sunday. In other words, unchanged and with no real added detail since we booked the dates. Others seem to have not had this at top of mind either...

Motel has been booked. Car rental is not needed. Hikes have been thought about a little, but not selected nor determined in terms of which days to do what. Food has not been addressed at all.

Camp Chef Gear
To Be Done: Gear is a personal issue for the most part. As is usual, me and brother Dave will share his 2-man tent. Standard gear doesn't require much thought. But someone needs to play quartermaster, and in recent trips that has been me (ok, so it plays to my anal detail-oriented strengths...you are what you are). I also am a big proponent of the fact that we are a bunch of 50-ish guys who are car-camping and not backpacking, so why not eat well and have some good beverages on hand. So in the coming days, I will bang out a meal plan that will cover Friday lunch and dinner, three meals on Saturday, and Sunday breakfast and trail lunch. None of this should be too tough, but my basic nature makes this lack of prep with little more than a week to go seem...unprepared.

As was the case for our West Virginia trip last year, now that I have a good camp stove and related gear, I will probably aim for the two dinners to be one fresh grilled something and one pre-made frozen "thaw it and warm it up in the pot" kind of dish. But we shall see. Claiming (perhaps presumptuously) the role of camp chef, it will be a matter of pride that we eat well.

So I trust that it will all work out.

The more I type, the more excited I find myself becoming. I do love these trips. In the meantime, I will hope for warmer weather than we have now, and go think about what we might eat...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review - Inherent Vice

(First edition cover with added "NYT...")
I have never read anything by Thomas Pynchon before, but seeing something about a movie for Inherent Vice coming out soon reminded me that I had that book sitting on my shelf. Since I was in the market for something to dig into next, I dug into it (Penguin Press, 2009, 369 pages).

Honestly, I had not been in a hurry to read anything by Pynchon since attempting Gravity's Rainbow back in high school. This is a long, dense, difficult piece of post-modernist fiction. While it has been hailed by some as the greatest post WW2 American novel, suffice it to say that it is not an easy read. To say the least.

Inherent Vice was different. To briefly summarize, it is a story of a drug-addled private investigator looking into a number of ultimately related events in Los Angeles at the tail end of the 1960's. It is not a difficult read (as are most of Pynchon's books), and the only distracting things are the persistent "groovy" dialect of the '60s. While correct from a period standpoint, it almost reads cartoonish.

All in all, this wasn't a bad way to spend 369 pages, but if you wanted to read a California noir period piece, you might as well read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, et al. A worthy read but nothing special.

3.5 stars out of 5. Solid but not earth shattering.

Books this year: 6
Total pages: 2,061
New authors: 3

Next, I am partway into Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise (his final novel before his death).

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Spring is Coming

Soon.

But apparently not today.

[Final tally: 9 inches of snow and two neighborhood kids with a snowblower]

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Sing-Off Live Tour at the Grand Opera

Last night, seven of us (us and the neighbors) went down to Wilmington for dinner and a concert: the Sing-Off Live Tour. The Sing-Off is a competition singing TV show featuring entirely a cappella groups. It has short "seasons" every now and then that are more like a miniseries (or in the case of this year, a single long episode). Every sound they make (and the percussion and other sounds are amazing) are entirely done with voice. This is one of the few shows that everyone in the family likes, so going to see the show seemed like a natural choice. We like any kind of live music, this would be something different, and we try to expose the kids to as much as possible...

In addition to a brief appearance by a collegiate group from Vanderbilt University, the bulk of the show was made up of approximately half-hour sets by The ExChange (from this year's single episode season 5), VoicePlay (from season 4) and Street Corner Symphony (from season 2). The concert totaled 2 hours across the various groups, and was interspersed with a bunch of mix-and-match combined numbers. Each of the three main groups had 5 or 6 members, and generated an amazing amount of sound.

All of the groups were terrific, and we all loved the show, including the kids. The kids liked the fact that many of the songs were arrangements of pop tunes that they knew. The vocals were terrific, they had good stage presence, and there was a good amount of humor and crowd interaction mixed in between the actual songs. Especially hilarious was the mixed number where the "percussionists" from each group got together on stage to play a phantom game of ping pong. Hilarious and impressive stuff...

We bought a CD from each group on the way out of the theater.

They said this was 10 dates into a 60 date tour, and anyone who likes this kind of thing would do well to see them if they come to a venue near you.

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 sale...so...why 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 www.Justinguitar.com. 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