Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fall In 2010 - Lancaster, PA

I always look forward to the three big area wargaming conventions, Cold Wars in the spring, Historicon in the summer, and Fall In in the fall. Since Historicon had been moved from Lancaster to Valley Forge this year, Fall In was moved from Gettysburg to Lancaster to fill the void. Lancaster is within an hour of my house, so it is much closer, but I had gotten used to the idea of a yearly pilgrimage out to Gettysburg to see the show and stop at some of my favorite spots on the battlefield. Perhaps that's why I wasn't looking forward to the show quite as much this year, or perhaps it's just because I have been in a lull period as far as miniatures goes.

I couldn't get away from work on Friday to go this year, but I planned on putting in at least a token appearance on Saturday. I left bright and early to go on a geocaching barnstorm through part of Lancaster county on the way out (the subject of another post), and arrived at the convention before noon. I paid my daily admission fee, wandered around for a while, saw some decent looking games, but for the most part... felt nothing. The usual surge of gaming adrenaline I get just wasn't there. I'm not sure if it was the sparse turnout (not a ton of games, and not a large crowd by any means), or what, but it felt hollow.

Even wandering the dealers' area in search of new toys turned up nothing that struck my fancy. All told, I didn't spend two hours at the show, and didn't spend a penny other than my admission fee. That's definitely a first.

One effect that these conventions always have on me is the desire to paint something, and I do feel a little of that. Progress on my Ottoman army is creeping along at a glacial pace, but I did dig out a unit of janissary archers and put them on the painting table. We'll see if anything happens to them anytime soon.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lancaster Geocaching - 10/30/10

I knew I would be going out to Lancaster for part of the day on this Saturday for the Fall In convention, and as long as I was going to be out there, I figured a little geocaching would be in order. I didn't want to do anything too difficult, so I lined up as many "park and grabs" as I could, and planned a route that would take me by as many of them as possible in the shortest period of time.

The attached track shows the route I took to accumulate 23 caches (and 3 DNFs - Did Not Finds). The blue square is the first cache of the day in Cochranville, followed by 1 west of Atglen, 3 in Gap and 3 northeast of Gap on the roundabout way to Intercourse. Intercourse was good for 5 finds and a pair of DNFs. From there I headed south and got one west of Paradise, and then went west on route 30 to get 7 in the area around the Lancaster Host hotel, which is where the convention was.

My short stay at the convention is documented in a separate post, but didn't last long and was pretty disappointing.

After leaving the hotel, I went east on route 30 and grabbed 2 final caches around Paradise, before ending the day with a DNF (the green square on the track). There is something wrong about ending on a DNF, but this was the last cache I had planned on the route, and I was due to be heading home.

As it was, I was out the door at 7am, and walking back in at 3pm, so all this was accomplished in a total of 8 hours at a location 1 hour from home, so two hours was pure driving and 2 hours was at the convention. The 23 finds in a day make it my second biggest day to this point. More than the numbers, though, I had a lot of fun doing it.

Fifteen Authors

Dave did a Facebook thing the other day that said to name 15 of your influential or memorable authors, within 15 minutes, with no need to rank them (and presumably without editing or revision - at least that's how I did it). After providing his list, he tagged me to do it as well. I threw the following list together in about 5 minutes, but ran long as there are 17 authors here and not 15. The order is the exact order I scribbled them down in. Notes of course came later.

  1. JRR Tolkien - Still probably my best loved books of all time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is feeling like a kid again every time I re-read parts of them.
  2. John D MacDonald - Prolific writer of crime and suspense thrillers. Active from 1945 to his death in 1986. Stunning body of work. Wrote over 100 novels and many stories, almost all of which I read back in high school and college. Not widely known anymore, but wrote the book The Executioners that became the movie Cape Fear (once with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and later remade by Scorcese with Robert DeNiro in the Mitchum role).
  3. James Lee Burke - Another prolific mystery writer whose books transcend the genre.
  4. Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books (and one of my favorite movies). Who wouldn't aspire to be an Atticus Finch?
  5. Thomas McGuane - A favorite novelist and short story writer I began reading in high school and college.
  6. Philip Roth - One of the great novelists.
  7. Ron Rash - A newer discovery for me, but he has quickly become one of my very favorite authors.
  8. Steve Yarbrough - Contemporary southern novelist.
  9. JK Rowling - The Harry Potter series are tremendously fun books to read, and are not just for kids. The depth and texture of her world is a marvel.
  10. William Trevor - Irish master of both short stories and novels.
  11. Raymond Carver - A favorite short story writer from my earlier years.
  12. John Irving - One of the earliest "serious" novelists I read thoroughly. Missed much of his middle stuff, but have begun reading him again. Last Night in Twisted River was a gem.
  13. Peter Mayle - Light-hearted easy reads generally set in the south of France, both as comic non-fiction (A Year in Provence and followups) and fiction. I especially loved A Good Year, which also has a good movie version starring Russell Crowe. Each book feels like a vacation.
  14. Tom Robbins - Irreverent, satiric, comic novelist who is a perfect author to read in your late teens and early twenties. From Wikipedia: "His novels are abstract, often wild stories with strong social undercurrents, a satirical bent, and obscure details". That sums it up well. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life with Woodpecker are must-reads.
  15. Richard Russo - Similar to Irving, another serious novelist I started reading early on. I remember reading his first novel, Mohawk, which I believe may have been a Vintage Contemporaries paperback original. Probably best known for Empire Falls on HBO and Nobody's Fool starring Paul Newman.
  16. Tobias Wolff - Another great contemporary novelist and short story writer.
  17. Frederick Busch - Yet another great contemporary writer.

Looking over this list, I am very happy with it. If I were to take the time to think about it and revise it, I don't know that I would make many changes...if any.

Additions (11/5/2010)

OK, I couldn't resist mulling this over a little more to see if I would make any changes, but instead of making changes to a list of 15, I would just add a few people that should go on a short list for me but weren't included above.

  • Russell Banks
  • Richard Bausch
  • Dan Brown - I don't read much page-turner stuff, and think what you will of the whole premise that the book is written around, but The DaVinci Code is one of the single most entertaining reads ever.
  • James Crumley - Wonderful little-known detective writer.
  • Norman MacLean - On the strength of A River Runs Through It alone.
  • Ross MacDonald - Great early noir detective stuff.
  • Dashiell Hammett - Classics
  • Marilynne Robinson - Housekeeping and Gilead...
  • Elizabeth Strout - Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge are both fantastic.
  • John Updike - For my taste, more the short stories than the novels, but I haven't read the Rabbit books, which is a gap to be sure...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Same Thing... Different Decade

or, Marching Band, and I Can't Believe We're Losing to Ridley... Again

Tonight was the one game of the year when Julia's cheer squad gets to go to the high school football game and spend part of the first half cheering along with the big girls. She was very excited, as you would expect, and to tell the truth, I was too. And for more reasons than just seeing my girl have such fun.
I graduated from high school in the mid-1980's, and played trumpet in the marching band all the way through. I would have to say that all the band and orchestra memories are the single largest bunch by far. I don't remember our band being tremendously serious in terms of practicing non-stop and entering all sorts of competitions as some do, but we took it seriously enough.
Fall meant marching band, and marching band meant football games. We started practicing in August before school resumed, for many hours in the heat. Once school started, we were on the field every day that there was band, and came back after school several days a week for evening practices. These evening practices were generally a lot of fun, working on our routines, but especially socializing with friends. And girls. Cheerleaders and rifles and flags, oh my!
The two kinds of events we performed in were parades, which I generally hated, and of course the football games which made it all worth while. Doing the routine at halftime was fun, but the good memories come from so much more. The whole atmosphere of it. Goofing around in the band room beforehand, or the bus ride to the away games. Scrambling to find some misplaced bit of uniform. The tall fuzzy hats. The uncomfortable wool and plastic uniforms that managed to accomplish two diametrically opposed things at the same time: completely unbreathable in hot weather and providing no insulation value whatsoever in cold weather. Cold metal bleachers. Trying to find a warm place to keep my mouthpiece on those frigid days so that when it came time to play a song you could actually do it. Being a trumpet player and getting to stand on the very top row of the bleachers when the band was in the stands (the "position of honor" as us trumpet players liked to think of it). Marching into the "stadium" before the games. Being turned loose and on our own between the end of the halftime show and the beginning of the fourth quarter. And the rides back from the away games, late at night, on dark buses. Ah, to be young again...
Somewhere in and around all that fun there actually were football games, although I don't remember us paying too much attention to them as they were happening. It was enough that their mere existence gave us a reason for being. And we generally weren't all that good back at SHS. Which brings me full circle back to last night. When we walked into Garnet Valley's field for the game, everything looked so familiar it was like stepping back in time. The kids hanging out having fun, the inadequately lit field, the big bleachers on the home side and the little bleachers on the away side. Everybody bundled against the cold. This was the first high school football game I had been to since leaving high school, and it was kind of surreal.
Before the teams took the field, I was standing by the fence watching everybody get ready, and I turned to the guy next to me and asked who we were playing. He said "Ridley." Wow. Ridley was Springfield's big Central League rival when I was a kid. Although I use the term loosely I suppose, since they beat us every year for many many years running, and probably wouldn't have had any idea of the importance we placed on that game. We were rivals in the sense that a windshield and a bug can be rivals, with the bug thinking "maybe this will be the time I come out on top." It never happened. So last night, we stayed through the end of the halftime shows, then left to get my cold girls home and into bed. When we left, the score was Ridley 19, Garnet Valley 0. Some things never change.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Elk Neck State Park, MD, Part 2 - South

Following my nice hike in the northern section of the park, I hopped in the car and made my way to the southern, or lighthouse, section. Parking in this section is just inside the park boundary, and the hiking was a good bit different here than in the other.

The northern section was single track dirt path through the woods. This part was 15 foot wide dirt and gravel road, accessible to just about anything but a wheelchair, which is understandable given the level of foot traffic the lighthouse must get. A very different feel though. I didn't see a single person in the first part of the morning, and was never really by myself in the second half. As can be seen on the map, the second part of the morning ended up being a 2.5 mile walk, slightly longer but much easier than the earlier hike. Parking is at the top, with the "lollipop" being clockwise this time. Detours, as always, are for retrieving geocaches.

Geocaching - using expensive electronics to find Tupperware in the woods.

The scenic highlight of the park is the lighthouse itself, situated 100 feet above the water level on the bluffs overlooking the junction of the North East and Elk Rivers. It was built in 1833, and was the highest lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, measuring 135 feet above the water. The lighthouse and an adjacent outbuilding remain, although the lighthouse keeper's residence that stood nearby has been demolished. The park's website is here. As an aside, the two people on the bench with the dog would introduce themselves later on my hike with the question: "Are you a geocacher?" I said... "uh...yeah... hiking and geocaching, why?" The woman said, "because every now and then you stop and look at a GPS and a map and you don't follow the same trails everyone else does." Heehee. Guilty as charged. Nice people, and I am glad to have met a couple of geocachers from south Jersey.

A sentimental favorite view - the mouth of the Sassafras River from atop the bluffs - home away from home. More time than I can remember as I was growing up was spent at my grandparent's summer house on the Sassafras, and to this day there is not a place on Earth that holds more fond memories of my childhood than "The River".

While much of the path down here was a road, the western section of the Lighthouse Trail loop was a woods path, which was nice because none of the other foot traffic seemed to want to go here. That suited me fine. All it took was a few strides down this path and I had regained my solitude.

At the far western end of the Lighthouse Trail, the path dropped down off the bluff to the water level on the western side of the peninsula. A man and his son were fishing off the seawall, and we talked for a few minutes. They were bottom fishing for catfish, and unfortunately were not having much luck. It was very nice to be by the water on such a lovely day.

And you really can't be by the water and not get wet, so here I am dipping my toes into the waters of the Chesapeake. Ahhhhhh...feels good. I'm not sure exactly what precipitated this little quirk of mine, but any time I am around water, I have to put my feet in it, even if it is just to dip the toes of my shoes in the water. I suspect this ritual is in remembrance of all the times as a kid that Leo and I would be off in the woods somewhere, getting wet and having fun. It just doesn't seem right somehow for me to be near water and not get some on my shoes...

On the way back to the car, I was able to get this good shot of the side of one of the bluffs to give an impression of their steepness. I couldn't help thinking as I looked at this view that if I had just a little more time, I would've liked to go scrambling down there... It may be a good 30 or 35 years since I first discovered how much fun it was to slide down an embankment like this, but I haven't forgotten. Not yet. And speaking of Leo... I'm sure if he had been with me we probably would have found the time to do just that.

I really couldn't have been much happier with how the day worked out. I was able to get out early, get all this done (9 caches total and almost 5 miles of walking) and still be home to the family by 12:30. As much as I love my family and the time I get to spend with them, there is something to be said for some solitary time in the woods. Maybe this is just my introverted nature coming out, but hiking gives a sense of peace and contentment, and recharges my batteries in a way that is hard to explain. Others who love the outdoors will understand.

When I first left the house this morning, I was a little bit disappointed in the prospect of doing this alone. In retrospect, I think it was just what I needed. Being out in nature and enjoying some alone time is not a bad thing, and in this case, I think it worked out perfectly. There is still one part of the northern section of the park that I haven't done yet, from a geocaching perspective, and I'm sure on the return trip I will be able to find some company to tag along. Dave is on his way back from an aikido trip to Seattle as we speak, and we exchanged a few text messages this evening. He was asking about my Elk Neck hike. I was asking about his Washington state cache finds (which make me EXCEEDINGLY jealous, by the way - so far west and so far north!!). I told him that I didn't have the time to get all the caches in the park, and I know that the last time he had been hiking down here I had not turned him into a geocacher yet. So I do sense a follow-up trip in the future. Maybe not real soon, but we'll get it done.

Elk Neck State Park, MD, Part 1 - North

It was very disappointing to me that last week's Elk Neck hiking plans fell through. Fortunately, today's weather proved to be just as nice, mid-60's and sunny, and while I didn't have company for my little jaunt, it was nice to get out and get into the woods.

As planned, I wanted to do a combination hike and geocache run, which is exactly what I did, especially since I was alone with no non-geocachers (aka Muggles). I ended up doing a two-part hike, one part in the northern section of the park, and one in the southern part, with a short car shuttle in between. This is unavoidable given the way that the actual park itself is split with a housing development in the middle...

Up at 6:30am and on the road shortly after 7:00 had me at the park by 8:15 or so, including the mandatory Wawa stop for coffee (at which I forgot to buy any Gatorade or water, a fact which I would not realize until later...), and grabbing one virtual cache along the way. The virtual cache was cool, requiring a stop at a sign explaining General William Howe's landing of the British army on Elk Neck, which was followed by the march to the Brandywine battlefield (September 11, 1777) where Washington's army lost (as it pretty much always did), and the subsequent loss of Philadelphia.

The northern part of my hike ended up being 2.3 miles of gently rolling terrain, and I was able to grab 4 caches along the way, including my 400th cache. In the map below, I parked at the blue square at the southern end of the "lollipop" and hiked in a counter-clockwise direction. The 4 black squares are the caches, with the one in the NW being #400. As always, little errant sidetracks show up in the hiking tracks. After caches 1 and 2 (the southern pair), I followed the White Bank trail further to the east, but it soon became apparent that the trail was not going in the direction that I needed to go, so I backtracked a bit and set off cross-country (follow the arrow!!). I have to say that the $3 park trail map that I bought at the park store on the way in wasn't any help in this regard - about half of the trails that were actually in existence were actually reflected on the map. Unfortunately, this is fairly typical of state park maps, where only the most major of trails are shown, and the rest is often either skipped or out of date. I spent much of the day hiking on trails that according to the park did not exist. I would consider the park map to be a nice souvenir, but pretty much useless beyond that.

This part of my hike was a very typical stroll through mid-Atlantic forest, with mostly deciduous trees with just a few evergreens mixed in. Leaf color was good (but probably two weeks short of peak), and many of the leaves were still on the trees, so it had a nice "closed in" feel to it as I walked. The walk was refreshing and energizing. And finding regular and small sized geocache containers in the woods is a nice change of pace from micros in the suburbs.

While I was spending way more time than one would expect finding a difficulty "1" (easiest on a 1 to 5 scale) cache (the one that turned out to be my 400th), I heard a tremendous racket, which turned out to be a wild turkey. I took it as a good omen that I got to see and hear a turkey while hiking on Turkey Point. Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough on the trigger to get a photo. And good thing for the turkey that there is no hunting on Sundays in Maryland state parks. Come Monday, he should be more quiet.

The one thing that I didn't have the time to do this morning was take the trail down off the bluffs to the beach. Next time...

Next...Part 2, the southern park section.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review - Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Another all-day session at the hospital today gave me plenty of time to finish Philip Roth's hot-off-the-presses novel Nemesis. The novel is touted as another of Roth's recent run of shorter novels that deal with dark questions such as "what kind of choices fatally shape a life?" and "How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance."

The book, weighing in at 280 fairly light pages, tells the story of 23 year old Bucky Cantor, a playground director from the Jewish Weequahic section of Newark in 1944. Bucky already has guilt that he isn't fighting alongside his friends in WW2 because of poor eyesight, and things get much worse for him when a terrible polio outbreak begins to decimate Newark, and his neighborhood in particular. He questions his ability to protect the children under his care when more and more are stricken, with some of them dying. Further compounding his issues, he decides to take a job at the summer camp in the Poconos where his fiancee works. Even though the Newark playgrounds are subsequently closed, Bucky is now saddled with yet more guilt in the form of the feeling of having abandoned his neighborhood for the relative safety of the Pennsylvania mountains. When polio puts in an appearance at the summer camp, Bucky sees his failure as complete.

The novel deals with themes of duty, honor, faith and guilt (among others), and was a good solid read, but not great. Roth spends a good deal of time with what I would consider to be a fairly superficial examination of the religious aspect of "why does God let horrible things happen to good people?", but it never really goes anywhere. And the structure of the book is a little odd, where the first 80% or so of the book is told in current time of 1944, and then the last part is told from a completely different perspective of "what happened to Bucky later in life" many years later. The effect of this last part of the book being a separate coda to the book rather than being an organic part of it didn't work well for me.

3.5 stars out of 5. A solid but unspectacular book.

Books read in 2010: 23 [totalling 5,282 pages]
New authors: 14 [unchanged]
Published in 2010: 14 [including this]
Classics: still 3

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Music Review - Alison Krauss

I love music of all kinds (ok, most kinds), but country is one genre I just don't know much about and haven't had that much exposure to. There are certainly some country acts that I know and like, although they tend to be more the country/pop crossovers like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. Or more "old school", like Johnny Cash and some of the instrumentalists like Chet Atkins. As an aside, the whole family loves the Dixie Chicks, and a Chicks concert a couple of years ago at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia was one of the best concerts I have seen in years.

Having been exposed to a bit more country music recently, and liking just about everything I have heard, I made an impulse purchase at Target the other day of Alison Krauss's A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection (2007). I'm not 100% sure what made me buy this, but I was poking through the country music section while picking up some necessities, saw this CD, recognized the name from her collaboration with Robert Plant (2007's Raising Sand), and thought "what the heck".

I have had this CD in the car for the last several days, have listened to it all the way through a couple of times (two hours a day in the car 4 days a week gives you plenty of listening time), and have to admit that I'm not completely sure what to think. Krauss's voice is amazing; crystal clear and distinctive. It has an ethereal other-worldly quality that is hard to describe, but the best I can say is that if I were to think of angels singing, her voice is like that. The Amazon review of Raising Sand calls her "Nashville's most hypnotic song whisperer", and I think that hits the nail on the head. Hypnotic she is.

But that may also play a bit on the negative side, given my mood at any given moment. The songs on this disc tend to be laid back. Very laid back. If you are in a contemplative, introspective frame of mind, this will come across as a thoughtful relaxing listen. If you are not in that kind of mood, it may come off as so low-key as to be mind numbing and sleep-inducing. And honestly, in the two different run-throughs I have had, I experienced one of each.

The songs themselves tend to be of a spiritual leaning in many cases, and death is a recurring theme. Again, depending on frame of mind at a point in time, this can be a good or a bad thing. The third song on the disc, "Jacob's Dream", gives me chills each time I hear it, and I am not sure it's in a good way. For whatever reason, for me, this is a powerful song. As a father of two girls, the thought of two children wandering off in the woods and freezing to death is... chilling. But music done well should affect the listener, and this certainly does that.

Which brings me full circle. I think I like this CD. I think; I'm not sure. But I suspect that there will be days when I know I will not be in a mood to listen to it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Painting Table - Medieval cavalry

One way to help clear the backlog off of the gaming table is to actually finish some of those little painting projects that have been started but never finished. With an hour or so of free time last night, I was able to put the last few touches on two more bases of medieval cavalry. These are Old Glory 25mm Teutonic sergeants from the Mongols in Europe range. They are excellent figures to use as generic heavy or medium cavalry over a fairly wide time period; just what I need more of. Bases still need flocking and finishing...

The new boys are the two stands on the right, joining their previously completed comrades on the left. This block will make either a 3-stand unit for Day of Battle 3, a 4-stand unit for the draft of DoB 4, or two units of 2 stands each for Medieval Warfare. Nice and flexible.

Next up...if I am ever going to be able to do Nicopolis (1396, western Europeans vs Ottomans), I am going to need more mounted knights. I have a bunch of stock figs of various nationalities from Old Glory's Hundred Years War range, and these can function as almost any western European army I would want them to stand in as. Time to prep and prime.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Things I Don't Get

A Fall 2010 installment...
  • Silly Bands - I know...I'm an adult, and I'm not supposed to get it I'm just supposed to pay for it. But my kids, who wanted these as much as most other kids, also don't get it, but they still wanted them. The Pet Rocks and Mood Rings of a new generation. Which isn't to say I don't wish I had the idea first...
  • Reality TV - One of the signs of the apocalypse. The total creative energies of the television entertainment industry have devolved to the point where most of what we are being presented to watch falls into one of two categories: remakes and ripoffs, and reality TV. I can see the allure of reality TV from a production perspective. Get a few cameramen and technical staff, find a bunch of emotional/psychological train wrecks, stick them in close quarters and wait for the fireworks. No thought required, and not much expense. Just make sure they've signed the waivers and signed away their rights so that no matter what kind of stupid and embarrassing things they do you can still legally show them to the world. And apparently many people find these shows entertaining (which may be another sign of the apocalypse). I'm thinking primarily of The Bachelor and it's ilk. [You know what an ilk is, right? A big deer...]
  • The Porsche Cayenne - a Porsche crossover? Really? Wasn't the Mercedes station wagon enough?
  • White Zinfandel - Full wine snobbery in effect here. Yes, Sutter Home, I'm talking to you. If people don't like wine, don't drink wine. This alcohol kool-aid is an affront (I did give you the snob warning). That reminds me, do they still make Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers?
Disclosure: It would be unfair not to point out my own hypocrisy on one of the above items. I watch very little TV these days other than the occasional movie or sporting event, but one of the shows I do watch with my wife would be classified as a reality show - Project Runway. It is part reality show and part fashion design contest. I find it hilarious. Mindless, but hilarious. And it has Heidi Klum as the host so it can't be all bad.

Wargaming Gridlock

I have done very little hobby-related work recently, and the picture here shows part of the reason why.

Little projects have gotten started, then tabled (literally).

We had house guests, which necessitated the temporary dismantling of my painting table in order to protect the contents from small children and vice versa. So that all ended up on the gaming table and hasn't made its way back to where it belongs yet.

I have also been making sporadic progress on the ton of basing that I have gotten behind on. Not great progress, but a little bit. All of that work in progress is here too, represented by trays containing large parts of my Hundred Years War and Wars of the Roses collections.

Lastly, the game of LaSalle that we played back in the summer energized me on 15mm Napoleonics, so I pulled out all my stuff. Rebased some. Finished others. Inventoried everything. Bought a few packs of painted stuff from Gajo. Sent a bunch of stock to Fernando Enterprises to have painted, which have since returned. All of this is now heaped on the table as well, in disarray, since I do not have the proper base sizes to base the figs. I have grown accustomed to Litko bases, and no longer have the desire to cut my own, so these have sat while waiting for me to figure out what I need and place an order.

Hopefully, I will be able to begin breaking down the backlog soon. I placed the order with Litko a couple days ago, which will make it easy to finish up the Napoleonics and get them out of the way. A little more organizing after that and I should be able to use the near half of the table to set up a small game, which I am very anxious to do since I have Chris Parker's new rules draft for a revised edition of Day of Battle. He has some great ideas and I am excited at the prospect of playing around with them. But first I need to find the space, and maybe posting this picture will motivate (or shame) me into doing so.

The Year Without Golf

A thought occurred to me the other day. It's mid-October and I haven't played a single round of golf in 2010. I haven't even swung a club at a driving range for that matter. This has happened before, but not recently. Prior to maybe 4 years ago I had gone about a decade without swinging a club, and kinda missed it but not too much. None of my friends are rabid golfers, and Dave had fallen off the golfing wagon also. When we started playing again a few years ago, I really enjoyed it, and got out between 5 and 10 times a year. Not a whole lot, but enough. Given that a round of golf is a 5-hour time commitment, that is about all I could reasonably expect. Plenty of other interests and plenty of other things going on.

As for what happened this year, I'm not quite sure. I never made a conscious decision not to play. I thought about it from time to time, and several times said to people "I haven't gotten out this year...we need to play." But it just never worked out. Obviously, if I had the burning desire, it would have been an easy thing. So I guess my level of interest this year just wasn't there. In a way this is odd, because when I stop and think about it, I really do want to grab my clubs and go.

One thing that is a mental hindrance at this point is the knowledge that the next time I do go out I will be rusty, out of practice, and the potential for disaster is high. Avoiding it won't help though, so I need to go into it with the proper attitude - I will be terrible but can have fun anyway. There is time left in the year. Maybe...who knows.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review - Chemistry and other Stories

After finishing one novel yesterday during the day, I finished Chemistry and other Stories by Ron Rash last night. All that time cooped up in the ER does give you time to spare...

This collection, published in 2007 and a PEN/Faulkner award finalist, was an interesting contrast to Rash's more recent story collection, which I read and reviewed recently. The stories here would certainly be described as gritty and a bit on the dark side, but were nowhere near as dark as those in Burning Bright, which were gloomy to the point of depressing. As with all of Rash's other works, at least those I have read, they are set in the Appalachian (western) end of North Carolina, across various time periods, and reflect the lives of the rural poor who inhabit the area. Often very poor. Drinking, drug use, unemployment and the other trappings of poverty play heavily in these stories.

Two stories in particular were of interest to me, and not because of what they were, but because of what they became. "Speckled Trout" was an O. Henry award winning story in 2005, and is contained here in its original form. That story would be greatly altered and expanded to become the 2006 novel The World Made Straight. Likewise, the story "Pemberton's Bride" from 2007 would go on to become my favorite book of 2009, Serena. In both cases, it is fascinating to me to see the seeds of ideas from which two very good novels grew.

4 stars out of 5. Very good.

Books read in 2010: 22 [totalling 5,002 pages]
New authors: 14 [unchanged]
Published in 2010: 13 [unchanged]
Classics: still 3

Book Review - A Visit From the Goon Squad

As I mentioned earlier, after a real bummer of an attempted novel, I got back on track with a very entertaining one, A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (2010). 8 hours in the emergency room gave me more than ample time to finish the last half of this.

This wasn't a book that I found myself noting pages or quotes on, but it was a very fun read. The book rambles around a bit, or seems to because of the way it is constructed. The story is told from the point of view of many different narrators, and jumps back and forth in time and place with no warning. Each chapter is told from a different perspective than the last one, and it takes a little getting used to. The characters are all related in some way, but the connections are sometimes difficult to remember (at least they were for me), and the timing takes some figuring out.

Once you get used to the narrative style, it is easy to get lost in the characters, which are a wide assortment of different people. Egan does a very good job of building a fascinating set of people, and it is interesting to have your knowledge of them be gained through a mix of inside-looking-out and outside-looking-in. The "goon squad" referred to in the title, and several times within the book, is the passage of time and its effect on people. The jumping around in time and different perspectives help illustrate that well.

4 stars out of 5. Entertaining. An author who I would gladly read again.

Books read: 21 [totalling 4,772 pages]
New authors: 14 [including this]
Published in 2010: 13 [including this]
Classics: still 3

The Best Laid Plans...

The weekend has come and gone, and my much-anticipated day at Elk Neck State Park didn't happen. Sunday morning dawned cool and beautiful, exactly as forecast. It also brought a call from home, where a neighbor was phoning me to tell me that she had been fetched by Chris because Chris couldn't wake my mom. She was able to get mom to wake up, but she was extremely confused and disoriented. Something like this had happened back in the summer, and that had turned out to be caused by a UTI. I wouldn't have thought a UTI would cause that kind of disorientation, but apparently it is fairly common in older women, and is a common side effect.

I called Dave, sent Leo a text cancelling our hike, and hurried to mom's house to get her to the ER. The scariest thought that goes through your mind is a stroke or something of that nature. At the end of a full day in the ER, a multitude of tests showed nothing unusual, but they decided to admit her and keep her overnight for observation. So she spent the night on the same floor as dad, a couple dozen rooms down the hall. Go figure.

As for Elk Neck SP... maybe next weekend.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Got My Reading Groove Back...

After breaking my good book streak with the disaster that was Room (see below), I have quickly renewed my faith in modern literature. I am currently about halfway through two different recent books: Chemistry and other Stories by Ron Rash (possibly my favorite author) and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. A great story collection and a great novel. Reviews of both will follow shortly. I love to read (obviously), and I find one of life's simple pleasures to be finishing up the night's activities and heading up to read for a while before sleep, knowing that there is a good book waiting for me...

Elk Neck State Park Plans

I have done a lot of geocaching recently (just ask my family), but I haven't done a real hike in a while. Inspired by brother Dave and the boys' trip to Great Smokey Mountains National Park and having done some serious hiking last week (a post on jealousy may be forthcoming), and with the weather Sunday forecast at 64 degrees and sunny, we (Dave, Leo and I) are planning an afternoon of hiking (and geocaching) at Elk Neck State Park in Maryland. It is a beautiful location, between the Elk River and the Susquehanna basin, and has a number of hiking trails that cover several different types of terrain, including water side bluffs, inland forest and swamps. In the two main sections of the park, there are also 16 geocaches. Hee hee. What a coincidence...

An especially beautiful sight, as seen below, is the old lighthouse on the very tip of Turkey Point.

The map below shows the two main sections of the park, with a residential area in between. One thing that we will need to be mindful of is the fact that it is hunting season, and properly permitted folks may be hunting in the park, so wearing some bright colors and a large sign that says "I am not a deer" may be warranted. I don't think I would look all that great strapped to the hood of someone's pickup.
The majority of the geocaches are strung along a relatively small area in the center of the northern park section. I don't have a trail map for the park, but I would bet that these are all very close to trails, and a carefully crafted plan of attack will have us walk right by all of them (in which case it would almost be rude not to stop and pay them a visit...).
All kidding about the geocaches aside, the main purpose of this little jaunt will be to get out on what looks to be a fantastic fall day with a couple of my best friends, stretch the legs, and see some sights. Dave has hiked some, if not most, of this park before and has recommended it highly. I can't wait...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review - Room, by Emma Donoghue

Well, my string of very good books has come to a grinding halt. The most recent book I have tried to read is Emma Donoghue's Room. Room was published recently, and is one of those books I picked up based solely on the Amazon Best Books of the Month recommendations, as well as good customer ratings. The book is told from the point of view of a 6 year old boy who knows nothing of the world other than the "room" that he and his mother live in (or are imprisoned in, for a reason that is not explained early on). He has never been outside this room, and the only things he knows of the outside world are gleaned from a modest amount of television watching. The story sounded like an interesting premise, and was reviewed well.

So everything sounded good, until I actually tried to read the book. The book starts on page 3, and I got to page 21 before I just couldn't take it anymore (and it took two different nights to get this far). The "voice" that this novel is written in is an incredibly annoying faux-childish mishmash of intentionally bad grammar and sloppy word choice. I couldn't shake the feeling when reading it that this was an adult's impression of what a child would write; it never felt in the slightest like something that any child actually would write. In the limited number of pages I forced myself to slog through (and it was a slog), there was a disconcerting feeling that the boy was at times incredibly bright and at other times incredibly dense. This may well have been the author's intent, but the scant 18 pages that I managed to get through felt so much like work that I just couldn't bear to keep going. I read for fun and this was anything but fun... Ugh.

Out with the Old, In with the New

My 2001 Ford Taurus was a great car. It drove well, was comfortable, safe and never stranded me anywhere in the 9 years and 147,000 miles that I drove it. But it had come to the end of its useful life, even before the windshield incident last week. It was having maintenance issues that would cost more than the value of the car to fix properly, and was pretty far out of date in the way of features, including some things you begin to take for granted, like the ability to connect an ipod rather than shuffling cds in and out of the car.
So, this morning, the Taurus went to live on a farm upstate and was replaced by this, a 2011 Honda Accord. Yay! I looked at a bunch of other sedans, some with fancier nameplates and significantly higher price tags, but for a combination of features and price, this 6-cylinder EX-L has basically everything in it that Honda makes other than their navigation system (which I didn't want) and still ended up way less expensive than some of those German cars' stripped down versions, even after I added a 100,000 mile all-inclusive warranty.

I've only had the car for about an hour, but it drives like a dream and has already found its first geocache. We have had such a great experience with the Pilot we got for Christmas 2008 (and the Scott Honda dealership) that when it came time to look for a new car for me, the Accord had to be in the mix. I haven't had a new car for me in a very long time. To say I'm pretty excited would be an understatement...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Geocaching in North Carolina

I was in North Carolina for a couple of days this week, and my schedule was flexible enough that I was able to see a friend and get some geocaching in both days I was there.

Wednesday October 6, 2010
Between daytime appointments and a dinner, I had a few free hours, and my geo-friend Chipmunx was able to meet me, take me around to see some sights, and grab a bunch of geocaches. In a whirlwind tour of the western Raleigh suburbs, I was able to grab 8 of her 10 geocache hides, stop by the barn where she stables her horse, Duke, and make a few more finds before heading back for dinner. If Grace had been with me at the barn to meet Duke, I don't think she ever would have left. I know she would have gotten a kick out of an ancient little horse named Toby. Grace loves horses, and the place would have seemed like heaven on earth to her. Which, now that I think about it, it seemed awfully nice to me too.

After dinner, I got back to the hotel and was able to catch the last half of the Phillies opening game of the NLDS series, and was amazed to see Roy Halladay throw a no-hitter. This on top of the perfect game he threw earlier this season.

I was tired at this point, having gotten up at 4:30am in order to make my 7:00am flight, but as I was getting ready for bed, I got a text from Chipmunx that a new cache had been published right near where I was staying. I loaded the coordinates she gave me into my GPS, put shoes on, and hot-footed it across the hotel parking lot to be First To Find on a cache hidden in a light skirt. When I pulled out the log sheet, I laughed out loud to see the name of the cache was "Glad You Came to Visit", published by her for my benefit. I feel a little cheesy about the FTF, but hey... Everyone should be lucky enough to have such thoughtful friends, and all hotels should have a cache in the parking lot for the travelling geocacher.

Thursday October 7, 2010
Thursday was another beautiful early fall day, with cool temperatures, sunny blue skies and a nice breeze. After getting more of those pesky morning appointments out of the way, I was able to get back out with Chipmunx for some more geocaching. Knowing that I only had a few hours before catching a dinnertime flight home, she suggested that we do a section of the American Tobacco Trail that she had not done yet. This trail is a wide flat cinder-paved trail through pine forests and cedar swamps. The trail, which extends well beyond the 4 miles we planned to do, has caches placed at near minimum separation (1/10th of a mile, or 528 feet), which means maybe 7 or 8 caches per mile, all located very close to the trail. It would give me the opportunity to blow away my biggest caching day in a very short amount of time. On the way to the trail, we drove through downtown Apex (such as it is) and got a webcam cache for me, my first.

The stroll on the trail turned out to be a wonderful walk, with good company and conversation, and about 25 geocaches. Almost all were small "bison tubes" hanging in trees. Most were fairly easy to find, but some were a pretty good challenge. The trail itself was very nice, and it was fun seeing the sights, scrambling up and down embankments, darting in and out of state game lands while making jokes about not getting shot, and just generally having a great time. After completing the trail section, we drove along a nearby road picking up 5 more park n grabs so that I could have a day of over 30 finds (my total ended up being 31 - my previous high had been 12, accomplished twice, including the day before).

Even with the caching, I had enough time to return the rental car, catch my flight easily (on board Southwest's "Shamu" plane, painted like a killer whale) and be home shortly after 8pm. It was a good trip. I got all my appointments in, and still had time to spend some very nice time with a good friend, and get 43 caches in 2 days to boot. I found it hilarious when I got home that after logging all my finds, NC has become my second best state in terms of finds, beating Delaware at the moment, 43 to 41. I think Delaware needs more caches closer together.

Thanks to Chipmunx for the hospitality.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Thankful for Small Things

It is said that you should always remember to be thankful for the small things in life, and that you shouldn't take things for granted. I got a reminder of that yesterday in a strange way.

By lunchtime yesterday it was a beautiful cool fall day. Two days of heavy rains had finally let up in the morning, the skies were blue, and all that was left of the storm was a persistent strong wind. I had a few errands to run at lunch, and these errands happened to put me on Route 100 along the west bank of the Brandywine, heading north. Getting to Smithbridge Rd, my way home was blocked by a road closure due to flooding. I continued up route 100 through the woods, until I got to a spot where the road dipped down into a low spot that was completely flooded out, complete with stranded car in about 2 feet of water. I turned around and went back south on 100, knowing I could cross down by Brandywine Creek State Park, which was where I had gotten over to this side in the first place. Detours and traffic problems had now turned a quick couple of errands into a rush to get back to my office in time for my next conference call.

So a very specific set of circumstances conspired to put me at a particular spot on route 100 southbound, hurrying to get home (probably faster than I should have been going), at a very specific point in time. At precisely that moment, travelling about 35mph around a curve, something was blown out of an overhead tree and with a sound like a gunshot, exploded my windshield on the passenger side. Badly startled, the car swerved a little to the right, and I could feel the tires on the right side going onto the shoulder and starting to slide. I was able to get the car back under control, and could see well enough out the driver's side to find a place to pull over and calm down.

I guess it wasn't exactly like the cartoons where you are walking along the sidewalk and a piano falls on your head, but it was close. If Smithbridge Road weren't detoured, I wouldn't have been there. If route 100 weren't underwater, I wouldn't have been there. Even if I weren't then in a bigger hurry, I wouldn't have been there. But I was.

So life is weird, coincidences are real, and I have a few small things to be thankful for. I am thankful for the small 2 or 3 feet that remained between my car and the guardrail before I was able to get the car back under control. I am thankful that my small 10 or 12 foot swerve went to the right onto the shoulder and not to the left into oncoming traffic. And at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I am grateful that I am here in one piece to write about it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review - Burning Bright by Ron Rash

I finished Ron Rash's newest story collection, Burning Bright (2010) last night. I love Ron Rash in general, and some of his novels are among my favorite books, including Serena, which I thought was the best book I read last year. This bunch of stories left me feeling empty though. I guess that is partly the point, given his choice of topics and subject matter, but it does not make for a satisfying or uplifting read. As always, the stories are all firmly rooted in the western Carolina mountains, with the settings ranging from Civil War days to the current. The characters are mostly broken people in bad situations. As observant readers of prior reviews will know, I like sad stories and tragic situations as much as anybody, given the dramatic opportunities they present for a good writer, but this book seemed to me to be universally devoid of hope, even implied hope. And I guess that's why I am left feeling very ambivalent about it, which surprises me given my love of Rash's work in general.

The book is 205 pages of fairly small format "light" pages, so it is a quick read. Rash's prose is very fluid and easy, so it is not a large time investment to get through this book. I am somewhat hesitant to recommend it strongly, although I would recommend it. But readers should be forewarned; this is dark stuff and will not suit everybody's tastes.

3.5 stars out of 5. Well written but dark.

Books read in 2010: 20 [totalling 4,498 pages]
New authors: 13
Published in 2010: 12 [including this]
Classics: still 3