Thursday, December 27, 2012

Concerts - 2012

One of the things I wanted to take advantage of in 2012 was the opportunity to see as much live music as reasonable. I did a pretty good job of that.

Eric Johnson and a Fender Stratocaster
The year started with an amazing Eric Johnson concert at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville in January. Then there was Willie Nelson at the Keswick in May. Both of these were firsts for me, and great shows.

There was a gap after Willie, but the Fall and Winter were good, with Rush at the Wells Fargo Center (3rd time) and Asia at the Keswick (2nd time, but 29 years after the first time) in October, and the Moody Blues in Atlantic City in November.

In December there is one more show ahead, with Little Feat coming to the Scottish Rite auditorium in South Jersey on Saturday evening. This is another band from long ago that I have always liked, but have never seen live. Dave saw them earlier this year at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and raved about them. He bought the tickets to this show and had extras, so I will be gladly tagging along. Feats don't fail me now!

From a concert-going perspective, if every year could be like this I would be very happy indeed. Going into 2013, I will renew my commitment to seeing as many bands as I can, especially as so many of the groups that I like are getting up there in years and there may not be that many chances left to see some of them.

In 2013 I plan to take advantage of any opportunities that come along, but high on my list would be seeing Yes again if the stars align... And Eric Clapton...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012

As always, Santa has been good to us this year. And the kids were kind as well, with Grace not waking up until 8am, at which time the festivities began.

Julia's favorite music is the soundtrack to Les Miserables (go figure), and with a touring company coming the Academy of Music in a week or so and the movie version starting today, this Christmas season for her has been all about wanting Les Miz stuff. She wasn't disappointed. Santa managed to get 3 tickets for the matinee downtown a week from Saturday, along with all sorts of books, CDs, videos and movie tie-in materials. She was in heaven. As I write this at 2:30 in the afternoon on Christmas day, she and Amp are at the movies. She doesn't even know she is also getting a Nintendo 3DS xl later, which will also make her very happy.

Grace got a kitchen set for her American Girl doll collection, some other doll odds and ends, an Otter Box to protect her already cracked iTouch, One Direction CDs, and a bunch of little things.

Amp got some clothing, a nice pair of boots, some music (Bruno Mars) and a few other things.

I was fortunate to get some music (all Asia; Phoenix and "XXX", and a live one from 2009), a couple of books (digital photography and a nice guitar how-to), as well as a new guitar toy; a Dunlop Crybaby wah pedal with power supply and extra cords. I need guitar toys like a need a hole in my head, but they are fun and I enjoy playing around with them. Perhaps some day my ability will come close to catching up to my purchases. Probably not, but you never know. One can dream...

I write this while killing some time waiting for 4pm to roll around so I can get an 8 lb standing rib roast into the oven. Nothing says holiday like a huge hunk of medium rare red meat.

Like Thanksgiving, it is also worth taking a moment to reflect and be appreciative of all that we have. We are more fortunate than most, and I recognize that. Very fortunate indeed.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

It's mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve 2012, and it's turning out to be a pretty lazy day. My wife's sister and her family are staying with us for a few days, which is nice, as it gives us a chance to be together and for Grace to play with her cousins. Later tonight we will head over to Anthony and Cathy's (our second family) and spend some time with them before coming back and getting the girls into bed.

Tomorrow will be presents in the morning, a late brunch, grazing on all sorts of goodies throughout the day, and then a nice heavy dinner of a standing rib roast to end the day with a food coma. My Mom and brother Chris are going to Brother Dave's house, which we will miss out on this year because of company. We'll have to catch up with them over the next few days.

Work has been crazy in December, and the down time is especially welcome. There will be some checking of the Blackberry this coming week but not too bad. I'm not going back into the office until January 2. The time with family will be nice.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Quality Time

It's nice to be able to spend a good chunk of time at home with family and friends over the holidays, and to be able to indulge my passion for cooking.

Grace is my constant companion in the kitchen these days, and I am thrilled that she is showing an interest in learning how to cook alongside me. She is my mixer, my stirrer, and where it makes sense, my slicer/chopper.

I am trying to make her understand that flames on the range are dangerous, as are boiling liquids, hot ingredients and sharp objects like knives. But I am also trying to teach her that accidents can be prevented by having the appropriate training in what to do, understanding how everything works in the kitchen and in the cooking process, and being respectful of the dangerous items. And proper adult supervision of course. She is a very attentive student and is very careful about things like where her long hair is, what is hot and what is not, etc. She's also learning a lot about ingredients, cooking methods, and what goes well together.

We have a lot of fun together, and it is great that she is the one asking me to be involved, rather than me asking her to help out with something that doesn't interest her. She makes me proud.
10 inch razor sharp chef's knife with proper technique

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dave Brubeck, Rest In Peace

I learned with great sadness that Dave Brubeck, one of the greatest jazz pianists (and musicians) of all time, died yesterday at the age of 91. I am a big fan of jazz music in general, and especially the era of the pioneers in the 1950's and 1960's. Brubeck would be front and center among the pantheon of giants from that era: Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, etc. Having played trumpet for many years, I have always had a special fondness for the great jazz trumpeters, but the melodic beauty and technical complexity of Brubeck's playing always struck a chord with me. A quick peek at the CD collection shows that I own at least 7 of his albums. Certainly the Time Out album containing Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk must rank as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. Most people wouldn't recognize the name (song or artist), but if you hummed the music from the Infiniti car commercials from a few years back, just about everyone would recognize the tune. And this is after Time Out sold a million copies on vinyl 50 years ago, and merited a jazz musician unparalleled commercial success. A quick read through some of the articles that a Google search turned up today helped drive home the point of how tremendously influential Brubeck was, and I am not enough of an expert to be able to judge that, but what I do know is that he created some truly wonderful music that sounds as fresh and alive today as it did the day it was composed. Farewell Dave.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Moody Blues, Atlantic City NJ, Fri Nov 30, 2012

As has been well-documented here in the past, The Moody Blues are one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite band of all time. I have seen them more times live than any other band by far (at least a dozen times beginning in 1982 at the Spectrum; Rush and Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler are a very distant second at 3 times each if memory serves). We were sitting around our kitchen table with Anthony and Cathy one evening a few months back when I got an email notification that they were coming to Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City. Anthony said that they were a band that he had always wanted to see, and I said that given their ages he should see them sooner rather than later. Before the evening was over, much to my surprise (and pleasure), we had four tickets to the concert, a pair of hotel rooms, and plans to do an overnight trip to see them.

Consequently, by 3pm on Friday, brother Dave's Darling Wife was at my house to stay with the kids overnight, and the four of us were on the road to AC. We arrived at Caesar's at around 4:30 after a quick and uneventful drive, freshened up, and then wandered around the casino killing time before our 6:15 dinner reservation. We wandered through the gaming areas (most of which I find fascinating, but don't know the rules), checked out some of the shops, and settled in for a drink at a place next to the restaurant.

Dinner was at Buddakan, a Steven Starr asian fusion place, and it was absolutely fabulous. All four of us appreciate good food, and this was a meal to remember. We all agreed to try the chef's tasting menu, and out of the 4 appetizers, 4 entrees and 3 desserts, ten out of the eleven selections were fantastic. And the one that wasn't fantastic was still perfectly fine, just not memorable. Especially memorable were the edamame ravioli, the asian "caesar" salad, the king salmon and the horseradish crusted filet. Even the side dishes of wasabi mashed potatoes and grilled eggplant were out of this world (ok, make that 13 dishes not 11).

By the time dinner was over, it was time to make our way to the "Circus Maximus" theater for the concert. I was very excited, but also a little apprehensive, to be honest. My heroes were getting pretty well up there in years, and I was unsure as to how they would sound. Since this was Anthony and Cathy's first show with them, I hoped they'd sound good. The theater was small, perhaps a few thousand seats, and was completely sold out. By my count, we were in the 21st row, a little off to the left of center. Great seats. The band took the stage a few minutes after the 9pm show time, and launched into a setlist that, having researched it on the internet ahead of time, looked to be a greatest hits show (not surprisingly).

Having seen them the number of times that I have, there is a lot of live experience that I have to draw on by way of comparison, and my initial impression was that they sounded good from an instrumental standpoint, but that Justin Hayward's voice sounded strained. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but I just got the sense that he was struggling somewhat. I began to believe that this was true when they began to skip some songs compared to the expected setlist that I had written down from shows earlier in the week. One of the things about the Moodies is that they tend to be very predictable on tour, rarely straying from that tour's setlist on a night to night basis. If the prior shows' posted lists can be trusted, they ended up skipping 5 of the intended 20 songs, making for a fairly brief hour and a half show.

The exact setlist they did perform was (and you can bet the house on the accuracy of this...):

  1. Gemini Dream
  2. The Voice
  3. Steppin in a Slide Zone
  4. You and Me
  5. Tuesday Afternoon
  6. Peak Hour
  7. I Know You're Out There Somewhere
  8. The Story in Your Eyes
  9. Your Wildest Dreams
  10. Isn't Life Strange
  11. Higher and Higher
  12. I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band)
  13. Late Lament / Nights in White Satin (actual YouTube performance video linked)
  14. Question (video the night before)
  15. (Encore) Ride My See Saw (video also the night before)

If the prior shows' setlists are to be believed, they dropped 3 songs between Tuesday Afternoon and Peak Hour (Gypsy (video from the night before), Nervous, and Say It With Love), as well as two songs later in the show (The Other Side of Life, and Driftwood). I have to admit, these drops disappointed me. Having seen the band as many times as I have, and taking into account the fact that they generally play a very similar list these days, it is the few nuggets from days gone by that they add in that are the special treats for me. For this show, I was looking forward to Gypsy, Nervous, and Driftwood. I hadn't heard any of these 3 songs live since the 1980's (as best I can remember), and hearing them again after all these years would have been the icing on this particular cake. Each of these, as they were skipped, was a tiny little dagger in the heart. Gypsy is a great up tempo song from the late '60's that has always been a favorite of mine, Nervous is a very good song from 1981's Long Distance Voyager album, and Driftwood is one of Hayward's best (but lesser known) love songs (from the "reunion" Octave album of the mid '70's). On the plus side, Peak Hour (1967) and You and Me (1972) were both old chestnuts that were a live first for me.

My overall impression of the concert, once I had some time to reflect, is that it was a good show. Not great by any means, but good. Anthony and Cathy said they loved it, which is also worth something. That being said, I had a hard time not comparing it to all the other shows I had seen from them before, and this made it hard not to feel a touch of melancholy. There were some songs where they sounded great (Nights in White Satin among others was certainly a highlight), but also some where they sounded more like a remembrance of what they have been. Perhaps this is unfair, but life, and the aging process, isn't fair.

Writing this reminds me of a couple of appropriate lines from Moodies songs. In the poem Late Lament, which leads into Nights in White Satin, Graeme Edge says "...senior citizens wish they were young...". And in Never Blame the Rainbows for the Rain, Hayward says "...the last whispered wish of age is to live it all again". Amen.

I should remind myself to see the glass as half full. Justin Hayward is 66, John Lodge is 67, and drummer Graeme Edge is 71. And they are still touring, sounding pretty good, and making me feel young. So there is something to be said for that. Something pretty important.

If they come around again, I'll be there...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Refurbishing Normans

Following up on the jolt of wargaming adrenalin that a convention always provides, I got home and pulled out troops to set up a Day of Battle game using the Imperial German and Papal Italian lists. The figures I have to do this are somewhat of a mismatch, but not horribly so. For the Germans I will be using primarily Germans and generic types from the Liegnitz; Mongols in Europe range by Old Glory. Standing in for Papal Italians will be Normans (also Old Glory). In the early to mid medieval period, I have Germans and Hungarians from the Liegnitz range, and Normans and Crusaders (1st and 3rd), so Normans and Crusaders have a tendency to stand for English, French, Italians, or anything else I need.

Normans Before
Every time I do pull out my Normans (and to a lesser extent the Germans too), I am struck by the same thing; these are some of the earliest miniatures I either painted myself or had painted for me, and they are not up to the standard (or style) that newer parts of my collection are. It's not that they are old and worn; they are in fine shape. It's just that they were painted in a much more drab style. The aren't as colorful as they would be if I were painting them now. While the more muted colors and the predominance of earth tones are probably more historically correct, they just don't look as good. Part of the fun of miniatures is that they look great on the tabletop, so I am willing to take a few liberties and paint them perhaps brighter than they might really have been. As they are now, most of the cloth areas, for example, are painted with darker shades and then have been washed with a brown wash for shading. The end result tends to be dark and dull.

With that in mind, before embarking on a game, I have opted to take time to selectively refurbish some of the figures. Specifically, as a first pass, the six stands of Norman knights and six stands of German knights that I need for the game I am setting up.

Normans After
I don't intend for this to become an exercise in repainting the figures completely, as they don't need that (nor do I feel like investing the time), but is more an exercise in highlighting and brightening. I am going to:

  • Repaint flesh brighter
  • Highlight the armor and metal parts with silver
  • Clean up straps and belts, etc, with more contrasting brown colors so that they pop a little more
  • Highlight all cloth areas, brightening where needed and repainting entirely in a few instances
  • Repairing any places where there are chips or other minor damage.

Here are a few samples of before-and-after Norman cavalry. They don't completely look like they would if I were painting them from scratch these days, but they are much closer. More importantly, they  do look much better on the tabletop than they did before. Some of the highlighting looks a little severe in close up pictures, but I am more concerned with what the figures look like en masse on the table than what they look like if you pick one up and study it, and I have learned that going a bit "cartoony" actually looks great at the distance they are normally viewed at.

I am happy with these and am almost done the six stands of Germans as well.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fall In 2012 Convention recap

Nice looking beach landing game
November 2-4, 2012 was the annual Fall In convention in Lancaster PA, and I was especially looking forward to taking the day off on Friday and going up for the day Friday and Saturday. Since Historicon moved to Fredericksburg VA this past summer and I didn't attend, it has been since March that I have been to a show. And while I have done a good bit of painting this year, I have played almost no actual games. So going to the convention would be a good thing to get the juices flowing again. If nothing else, these conventions always spur a flurry of activity afterwards.

With all the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy in NJ, NY and CT, attendance was definitely down. Tournament areas were not as full, some dealers normally in attendance were not, and there seemed to be many less games. Still a good show though with plenty to do, and no bad weather messing up the drive.

Highlights of the show for me:
Villers-Bocage (Fireball Forward game)
  • Spending some time chatting with Chris Parker, author of the Day of Battle rules, and a friend and great guy. I picked up his new Norman Conquests supplement, which looks really nice. Some good DOB conversation has me working on my Ottoman army after my return from the show, and thinking about events we might be able to do at Cold Wars in the spring. Very nice to see his brother David as well.
  • Watching, at length, Leo play in a Fireball Forward WW2 game of a German attack on the railway station in Villers-Bocage, defended by Brits. I have read through much of the rules for this and it seems like a fun, playable, WW2 game. Leo recommends it highly. After watching for a while, I know I would enjoy it.
Purchases were kept within reason, and included:
  • A bunch of Gale Force Nine pre-cut bases for more medievals and for my Seven Years War order that is currently in Sri Lanka getting painted. I prefer Litko's plywood bases (you can write on the light colored bottoms), but I wanted the instant gratification purchase and Litko doesn't come to shows any more (presumably because they have a suitably established client base). Cheap. Quick. Done.
  • Fireball Forward rules and the Panzer Lehr at St Lo scenario book. I am a sucker for rules, and this scenario book makes sense for me because I have Americans and Germans and have much of what I would need to play many of these scenarios.
  • Day of Battle supplement Norman Conquests as noted above.
  • Three bags of Old Glory medievals very cheap at the flea market. All Hundred Years War, and exactly what I was thinking about buying retail. Sometimes you get very lucky.
  • Extra Impetus 3 supplement for the Impetus rules.
It was a fun couple of days, and if nothing else, it has done the usual, which is to re-energize me and cause of burst of activity. I am assembling and prepping a few more bags of Ottomans, and am devouring all of my new rules and supplements. Next weekend I want to set up a Day of Battle game and actually push some figs around and roll some dice.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Well, Superstorm Sandy has come and gone, and we are ok. But there are a great many people hit much harder than us, and many of whom are still suffering through the aftermath on what is now day 5...

Monday 10/29 - Due to the impending weather, I worked out of my home office on Monday, and had a fairly productive day, at least until the mid afternoon. We had gotten the call from the school district on Sunday that everything was closed Monday and Tuesday, so the kids were more excited about the time off than anything. They had some questions about the storm, primarily because of all the TV coverage, but weren't very concerned. For them it was more of an adventure at this point than anything.

As the day wore on, a dreary and ominous sky gave way to increasing rains and increasing winds. By late afternoon, it had that "freight train in the yard" sound and the rain was hammering the house hard. At one point I noticed that the wind-blown rain driving into the front of the house was coming through a large window over our front door in the two story foyer. Water was running in small rivulets down the wall under the window, bubbling the paint and soaking the drywall. Once I noticed this, it was easy enough to take care of by getting out a ladder and placing some rolled up beach towels on the window sill, changing them once an hour, to prevent more damage to the walls.

We had a simple dinner of reheated leftovers, figuring that if we were going to lose power for a while, we might as well use up some of the food in the fridge while having a hot meal at the same time. After  dinner, we lost TV, internet and phone service, but the power stayed on. After checking a bunch of things, I figured out that the garage outlet that ran power to all of the Verizon FIOS services was on the same GFI circuit as the outside lights, and something had tripped that circuit and prevented it from being reset. Once I figured out what the problem was, a few extension cords solved that problem. You can't not have internet after all...

By bedtime, the wind was howling, but we got the kids showered and into bed with some difficulty. Grace especially was milking the "I'm scared I want to sleep in your bed" angle. Unsuccessfully. The lights flickered off and on throughout the night, but stayed on until we had turned in at around 11:30. The wind was hammering the house hard now, and at 11:55pm, the power went out. The wind noise made it impossible to sleep, and I could see exactly when the digital alarm clock went out. Despite the noise, I eventually fell asleep sometime after 2am (according to the last time I checked my cell phone).

Tuesday 10/30 - I first woke up sometime after 6am, and it was still raining hard, but the wind (which had peaked in the 11pm to 2am timeframe) had died down noticeably. It was chilly in the house, and with no particular reason to get up, we stayed in bed and dozed off and on until near 9am. That part at least was nice; I can't remember the last time I stayed in bed that late and wasn't sick. We got up, got the kids up, and had a cold breakfast. As we were figuring out what to do next, the power came back on at around 10:30am. Text messages and work emails were going around with people checking on each other. My boss in New York state and one of my team in north Jersey were both without power, but doing ok. As we watched TV updates, we were able to see how bad New Jersey and New York city had been hit. Much worse than us. It continued to rain throughout the day, but we were dry and safe. As emails went around, I learned that our Madison NJ headquarters was flooded and without power, and might be without for days.

With the whole area seemingly in limbo, we had a relaxing day around the house, watching the news of the rest of the area. We got the news that schools would be open Wednesday, but going in two hours late. The rain continued, I kept monitoring leaks, but other than that it was a fairly normal day. This will be a vacation day for me.

Wednesday 10/31 - The kids got to sleep in because of the delay, and the power went out again overnight (but came back). Minor inconveniences, but nothing compared to what others are going through. We still have some leak concerns, but the rain is winding down, and we have power, food, etc... An employee of mine in north Jersey was still without power and was being told it might be Monday before they had it back. Ugh. No heat, no power, gas stations running low on supplies, and hot meals hard to come by... Madison is still out. This will be a second vacation day for me.

Thursday 11/1 - School is back to regular schedule. I go into work at normal time, and it seems like a usual day. For all practical intents and purposes, Hurricane Sandy is over for us. My team member still has no power (she will get it back Saturday, but gas stations will be rationing and/or out of gas). It seems tremendously petty, but I start to wonder whether Fall In, the hobby convention scheduled for this weekend in Lancaster PA, will be affected. This is a very minor thing, but here in this neighborhood, we are back to worrying about minor things... in other words... completely back to normal.

By Friday, it's like nothing ever happened, and I take my scheduled vacation day and drive out to Fall In...


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Aspiration vs Inspiration

I was reading (belatedly) through the huge 300th issue of Wargames Illustrated the other night when something in one of the articles got me to thinking. It was an article on model building that brought up the idea of aspiration versus inspiration, and how the focus of wargaming magazines has changed over the years.

Part of the author's point was that in the "olden days", much of what was shown was model building that few people had the time or talent to build, and that the focus was therefore aspirational, in the sense of "ooh, I wish I could do something like that!" Today he would contend that there is much more inspirational material out there, in the sense of "hey, I can follow those step by step how-to articles and now I can build that too."

This got me to thinking about what it is I am looking for in hobby magazines, websites, blogs, etc. And the short answer, for me, is that I am still looking for the aspirational most of the time. This isn't to say that I don't appreciate a good "how to" article, but I am more interested in the eye-candy; the large demo games, the beautifully painted armies of thousands of figures, the things that I wish I could achieve. But short of hitting the lottery or joining an active club that can accomplish something like this collectively, these things are never going to happen for me. Which doesn't mean that I don't like to flip through the pages of Wargames Illustrated, or White Dwarf, or Battlegames, and look at the pictures and think "maybe someday."

So...I aspire.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Pumpkins

The annual ritual of pumpkin carving is getting a little more fun these days as Grace gets old enough to do more than just stay for the first two minutes and then walk away, leaving all the work for me. Amp had seen a picture of a neat idea for a pumpkin, and we tried to replicate it. It looked ok, but the pumpkins weren't quite the right size to get the effect we were looking for. Next year, I think we will try this again, having learned what to do and what not to do this year. The girls really liked the idea of the pumpkin skull coming out of the pumpkin head, we just need to get the right size and shape of orange pumpkin for the outside. The other pumpkin is Grace and Mom's traditional pumpkin.

Pumpkin skull explosion before:

Pumpkin skull after:


Grace's Pumpkin:

We certainly aren't pros at this by a long shot, but it is a messy good time.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Jinx is On

Well, since making fun of Hurricane Sandy a few days ago, the storm has slowly been making its way up the coast, offshore, but is set to turn sharply northwest. Inland. Right at me. It is being called a hurricane meets a nor'easter meets a full moon high tide... making for what they are calling a storm of potential historic proportions, with unprecedented flooding. Lovely. The most recent predicted storm track I saw had the eye shifting a little south of what they were previously estimating. I think it now passes directly over my house sometime Tuesday morning.

School has been cancelled Monday and Tuesday already, they have declared pre-emptive states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The governor of PA and the mayor of Philadelphia, among others, are urging evacuations from all low lying areas, and that all non-essential emergency personnel stay off the roads. The amount of rain we could get in one day would equal five feet of snow. Yikes.

For those in the US of a certain age, I am starting to feel like the person in the margarine commercial (many years ago) who fooled with Mother Nature.

I don't consider myself a big-time weather worrier, but they have been talking this up enough the past few days that I am prepared to camp in my house with no power for days if necessary. Some of that backpacking gear might come in handy after all if we need to rough it in our own house. Non-perishable food stocks, water and juice and Gatorade, water filtration, all laundry done, battery supplies full, everything charged, cars gassed up...

An overcast rainy and breezy day today is supposed to deteriorate tomorrow throughout the day, peaking overnight and into Tuesday morning. But where and when the storm actually goes, nobody knows.

And now we wait.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Frankenstorm?

Well, the weather forecasters are happy. A combination of Hurricane Sandy coming up from the south, a big storm coming out of the west, and a blast of cold air coming down from Canada sets up the possibility (yet again) of the world coming to an end sometime late this weekend or early next week. Last I heard, we could get 3 feet of rain followed by 10 feet of snow all the while getting winds that will knock down any tree taller than me. In addition to canceling Halloween, we may have power outages lasting through Thanksgiving and jeopardizing the Christmas holiday season. Needless to say, the kids are not pleased. I have assured them that everything will be ok and that we will almost certainly be able to leave the house by New Years, provided of course that our french toast supply holds out.

I would stay and write more, but I need to get to the store and buy eggs, milk and bread before they sell out.

[PS (Fri 10/26/12) - Why do I have a bad feeling that we are now going to lose power for days?]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Asia - Keswick Theater - 10/20/2012

I had the thrill of seeing Asia live last night for the first time in 29 years, and it was a great show. Amp and I had originally intended to see the show with The Neighbors, but after buying the tickets months ago, they realized they would be traveling and unable to go. Brother Dave and Leo filled in admirably, and all seemed to have a good time.

Steve Howe
This was only my second time to the Keswick Theater in Glenside, but it is a nice place to see a show - an old 1,300 seat theater (with a bar) where no seat is a bad seat or too far from the stage. One of the things that had me especially excited about this concert was the fact that we had seats in the sixth row, dead center. They turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped they would be. And the thought of seeing one of my favorite bands from my teen years brought back a lot of fond memories. This is the 30th anniversary tour, and all four original members were on board: Steve Howe (from Yes) on guitar, John Wetton (from King Crimson) on bass and lead vocals, Carl Palmer (from Emerson Lake and Palmer) on drums, and Geoff Downes (from Yes and the Buggles - Video Killed the Radio Star, the first ever video played on MTV) on keyboards and backing vocals.

After buying the tickets, I did some digging into what all these guys had been doing in recent years, and learned a bunch of things I didn't know. Apparently, Asia for the most part never ceased to exist in the 1990s and 2000s, but continued on with a wide array of non-original members coming and going. Albums that I had never heard of were released; people I had never heard of were in the band. But in 2008, the original lineup released an album (Phoenix). And toured some. And then released an album in 2010 (Omega), and toured some. And now have released a third new album ("XXX"). So they have actually put out more material and toured more in the last 5 years than they did back in the day. All while mixing in Yes albums and Yes tours, and Emerson Lake and Palmer reunions, solo and other small group projects, etc.

I do like the surprise of not knowing what a band is going to play at a show, but I was curious enough about this one that I cheated and looked up set lists online a few days before. What I could find for the prior few shows was pretty consistent from one to the next, so I jotted down the most recent one and took it with me. With one exception on Howe's acoustic solo original piece, it was dead on. So this is exactly what the show was, with my notes and comments (all songs are from the first album, Asia, unless otherwise noted):
Downes and his U-shaped 3-tier stack of keyboards
  1. Only Time Will Tell - This was not one of my absolute favorites from the first album (although I liked everything), but it was a terrific song to start the show with. Downes started in with the classical-ish intro, Palmer led Wetton in to establish a solid base, and then Howe came in over the top with an ethereal guitar line. It sounded just like... Asia. Probably my biggest "I wonder..." coming into the show was how the vocals would hold up. Their sound was primarily defined by lush keyboards and multilayered harmonies on the choruses. As performers age, the first thing to go is generally the voice, and I wondered how badly that might be the case here (as their ages run from 60 through 65). I was pleasantly surprised, and would continue to be throughout the evening. Wetton's voice was clear and strong, and range was not too much of an issue as his parts were never typically very high (so less upper range to lose). The harmonies were interesting (and very effective for the most part), and I am still not 100% sure how they did it. The only band member singing backup was Downes, but it sounded like more than one person. He was typically singing into a pair of mics, and I am guessing that they ran the signals through electronics that varied the end result just enough in tone and effect that one person became like several similar but slightly different people. Howe had a stand mic, but I don't remember ever seeing him use it. Palmer was singing along at times, but didn't have a mic. It worked fine.
  2. Wildest Dreams - A favorite and very well done. 
  3. Face on the Bridge ("XXX") - The first of three songs from the new album, and I liked it a lot.
  4. Time Again - Perhaps my favorite song because of the complicated instrumentals. I loved it. By this point, several songs in, I had lapsed into focusing primarily on Steve Howe. Being about 30 feet from him, I could see every move of his fingers with perfect clarity and detail, and I was completely mesmerized. We could see every little detail of everything down to the level of who was wearing what kind of rings on which fingers. Very very cool. The term that kept coming to mind watching Howe was "spider fingers" - long thin fingers dancing effortlessly up and down the fretboard. "Awesome" is an overused word, but I think it really can be called "awe" when your mouth is literally hanging open.
  5. Tomorrow the World ("XXX") - Another good new song.
  6. Ride Easy - This is an early track recorded along with the first album, which according to Wetton's intro, they wanted to include on the first album but the record company people told them not to. Wetton thought the record company people were wrong, and I agree. I have this on a 1990 "best of" CD and have always liked it a lot.
  7. (something Vivaldi) - Steve Howe acoustic guitar solo part 1. Stunning classical guitar piece, with Howe seated alone at center stage. He later said that this was Vivaldi, but I don't know what specifically.
  8. Bach Chorale Prelude - Acoustic guitar solo part 2. More beautiful classical.
  9. All in the Course of a Day - Acoustic guitar solo part 3. An up tempo contemporary piece. Fast and clean. I know I saw Dave watching with rapt attention through this part...
  10. I Know How You Feel ("XXX") - Wetton/Downes duo part 1. The third song from the new album, and another winner. Looks like I will be getting this album. Wetton singing by himself with only keyboards behind him showed that his voice was still nice and clear, if ever so slightly challenged in the higher range.
  11. Don't Cry (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 2. Wetton jokingly introduced this as the most popular song the band had ever done, and the one that broke them up back in 1983. I don't know the full story behind the breakup, but I do know that despite pretty much the entire second album (Alpha) having been written by Wetton and Downes, Wetton left the band prior to the tour for that album. The famous "Asia in Asia" concert video in Japan has Greg Lake on vocals and bass instead of Wetton. Whatever the full story is, and whether or not you can read anything into this song being performed by only the two that wrote it, it was another nice duo arrangement of a good song. 
  12. The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 3. This started out as a duo, but partway through the other two returned to the stage and finished up the song as a full band like on the album.
  13. Cutting it Fine - I remember this as being one of the less memorable songs from the first album, but the live version was really strong, driven by a good guitar line. I have to go back to this on the album and give it another listen.
  14. Holy War (Omega) - More new-ish music. This was probably my least favorite of the five newer songs they did, but it was still pretty decent.
  15. (Drum solo) - Palmer is known as one of the better drummers out there, and is famous for long solos with lots of acrobatics, and we certainly got one of those. We got tricks with sticks, gong playing, crowd interaction, and some fabulous drumming. The crowd loved it. I remember him doing something similar way back in the day, and I don't think he's lost much of anything in the intervening years. He seemed to be having an absolute blast performing.
  16. An Extraordinary Life (Phoenix) - Another newer song, and another really nice one. At this point I am planning on buying myself some newer Asia albums for sure... probably all three of them. This is the last of the newer material and it has all been good.
  17. Here Comes the Feeling - Back to the first album.
  18. Open Your Eyes (Alpha) - A longer song from the days of "everything will be 4 minutes long for MTV and the radio". Very typical Asia in terms of soft vocal bits interspersed with driving full-band bits. The difference between soft and loud is one thing on an album, but I absolutely love that feeling in the concert hall when a soft part dives back into something louder and you can feel the contrast through the air, through the floor, through your chair... The song had a nice long instrumental crescendo building to a climax before the band left the stage.
  19. Sole Survivior - Encore part 1. The crowd was on its feet for much of this, and the band really sounded great. I loved watching Howe on this as he played pretty much the whole song using a wahwah pedal. Great song. Which led us inevitably into...
  20. Heat of the Moment - Encore part 2. Not necessarily my favorite, but there was probably no way that this wasn't going to be either the first or last song of the show. The band really seemed to be enjoying themselves (Howe even looked up from his guitar I think...), and the main part of the song led into a house-lights-up audience participation segment. Cutesy, but a nice way to end the show.
Asia in 2010
And with that the concert was over. Two hours end to end, and I was thrilled; if nothing else, it reminded me that the kind of music that I liked in my youth is pretty much still the kind of music I like now. Songs with a nice melody, but also songs that can be musically complex and technically impressive in the execution. Now, as well as back then, Steve Howe is the single biggest thing that makes this band for me (much the way that he is a major reason I always liked Yes). In addition to being a fabulous technical guitarist, I like the way he fits into the band(s); he is not a standard play-chords-through-much-of-the-song-and-then-solo-a-little guitarist. There is chord playing of course, but much of his time is spent playing primary or secondary melody lines, descant parts, background soloing, riffs and fills, all of which make the music much more interesting to me.
Bleached out pic from my seat - close!!

Guitar notes - Other than the acoustic section and a few bits where he played a few bars on a second guitar (with effects) on a stand, Howe played the guitar in the picture above for the entire show. I don't know what it is... but I have seen pictures of him playing this exact guitar in much much earlier Yes pictures, so he has had it for a very long time (or an identical one). He used one Line-6 cabinet with two mics in front of it, and a few pedals and stomp boxes, but for the most part relied on a clean bright sound with minimal extras.

Great show, and you know what? I do feel young again... :-)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Moody Blues - Never Comes the Day...

Anticipation. I have tickets for my wife and I and our friends from across the street to do an overnight trip to Atlantic City to see the Moody Blues at Caesars Palace at the end of November. Having been to a concert last Friday (Rush), and another on tap for tomorrow night (Asia), I am very much in a live music frame of mind.

The Moody Blues have been my favorite band since high school, and I have seen them live at least a dozen times, dating as far back as 1982/1983 when they toured for The Present, and the opening act was Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. It has been a few years since I last saw them (at the Tower Theater I believe), and I am anxious to see them while they are still touring.

A few recent YouTube clips of concert footage from this year:
It is odd to see my musical idols in their twilight years, a little saggy and with a pot-belly here or there, but that they can still do this in the vicinity of their 70th birthdays is amazing to me (Justin is 66, John 67 and Graeme 71). They might not be what they were, but when I close my eyes it is still Justin Hayward and the Moody Blues. It works for me...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Guitar - Observations

Having spent a decent bit of spare time noodling around on my various guitars recently, I have come to the following conclusions (some relevant, some less so):
  • I'm not very good. Not very good at all...
  • ...but I do have a good feel for music. I just need to practice enough to turn that aptitude into the ability to play.
  • I have so very much to learn...
  • ...but I want to learn.
  • My Strat is a very very very nice guitar (yep, it's worth at least three verys).
  • The Les Paul is a very nice guitar.
  • The ES-335 copy is what I hoped it would be after all. Thankfully. Dreams die hard...
  • My technique stinks. I hold the pick wrong, put my fingers in the wrong place, hold the neck wrong in the left hand... some of which can be fixed... some of which, after 30 years of bad habits, will need to be accommodated for. On the bright side, watching YouTube concert footage of some of my guitar idols seems to indicate that their technique isn't text book either. This is a good thing.
  • I am thankful for Dave's experience in being ahead of me on the learning curve (way way ahead). He can drag me along with him, at least a little bit...
So... I am grateful for Dave, and for YouTube lessons, and just wish I had more time....

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rush - Philadelphia - 10/12/12

Rush is one of my favorite bands, and I have been fortunate enough to see them twice before, both at various times on the Snakes and Arrows tour for their last album. They are touring this fall in support of their newest album, Clockwork Angels. The new album is somewhat of a concept album, and going into the show last night I liked it, but didn't love it the same way that I have the previous album. It is musically complex and interesting to listen to, but it is far from a "catchy tune singalong album". When this tour was first announced, Dave and I discussed going, as did my neighbor Anthony, but I was already lined up to see Asia next weekend at the Keswick, so concerts on back to back weekends seemed perhaps too much of an indulgence.

Fast forward to last week, when Anthony raised the idea again, to a somewhat lukewarm reception on my part. I wanted to go but still didn't know if I wanted to do another concert. Then we all went to the Bull Riding event at the Wells Fargo center last Friday, and they were advertising upcoming events heavily, such as Rush... We talked. I caved. We bought tickets on StubHub. And last night, off we went...

Show time was 7:30pm, which we both found unusual, so we left home a little after 5:30, and headed down to the arena. We got there before 6:30, and had time to listen to some Rush on the car stereo and have a beer or two before heading in. We grabbed a quick meal of stadium food (decent but ridiculously over priced, of course), and got to our seats promptly at 7:30, just in case they started on time. We were on the short end of the arena, second level; pretty far away but facing the stage head-on, which for a Rush show is perfect given the amount of video that they show on the huge screens behind the stage. Section 207, row 10, seats 8 and 9 to be specific.

The band took the stage after their usual pre-show video, and launched into Subdivisons, followed by Roll the Bones. Neither of these are favorites of mine on the studio versions, but both are very good live, especially Subdivisions, with Geddy Lee rolling through a nice fluid base line while playing keyboards and singing. I'm not sure how he does it. My jealousy knows no bounds... The rest of the ten-song (65 minute) first set was a mix of older stuff, such as Grand Designs, The Pass, Force Ten and The Analog Kid. One of the highlights for me was the last song, Far Cry, off of Snakes and Arrows.

One bit of between song banter from Geddy had the band promising a long night, and after a 15 minute intermission, they returned to the stage for the second half of the show. We had looked up a set list from a recent show to get an idea of what else the band had in store for us, and there were another 12 or 13 songs in store before an encore. The whole first part was basically the vast majority of the new album (nine songs by my count), backed by an eight piece head banger string section. It was a cool sound, and funny to see violins, violas and cellos rocking out behind the drum kit. As I said, I wasn't totally in love with the new album before the show, but I am after. It was amazing to see practically the entire album done live. The remainder of the second set was Dreamline, Red Sector A, a drum solo, and then two highlights of any Rush show, YYZ (their best live song for my money), and Spirit of the Radio.

After Spirit of the Radio, they left the stage for less than a minute, and came back to do a 12 minute encore of Tom Sawyer, followed by three parts of the 2112 Overture; Overture, Temples of Syrinx, and the Grand Finale.

As always, I left the show in absolute awe of the talent of these three guys, and the amount of sounds they can put out. It was well worth paying more than face value for the tickets, and I am very glad we made the decision to go at the last minute. My only complaint, if there is such a thing, is that they didn't do two of my old favorites, Limelight or Freewill. Or Closer to the Heart for that matter. Or The Trees. Or Red Barchetta. I'll stop there. The first two I saw on the last tour... The other three I have not yet seen live. Maybe someday.

Now that I am playing more guitar, and own too many of them, I watched what Alex Lifeson was playing with a lot of interest. He is a 100% Gibson guy. The majority of songs were played on a black Les Paul, sometimes with a whammy bar. A number of other Les Pauls were trotted out, including natural finish and a dark cherry red. For Far Cry at the end of the first set, he used a bright white hollow body, that judging from the picture here (under "Variations"), may have been an AL-355, or something similar. From what I remember noticing, Geddy use two different Fender Jazz basses, a black one most of the time, sometimes switching to a dark turqouisey blue one. I seem to remember way back in the day that Geddy used Rickenbacker basses, but not any more.

My sister in law posted a link to something on Facebook the other day that could never be more true than right now: nobody ever spoke their last deathbed words as "I went to too many concerts..."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vampire Counts - Black Knights

This unit of skeleton cavalry is the third complete unit for my Vampire Counts fantasy army. They were completed a month or so ago but I never posted a picture. I have enough figures to make another unit of these, and will paint those in a much darker color scheme. I like the way these turned out; I was going for more of an ethereal and ghostly look rather than a dark and forbidding look. The next batch will go for dark, dingy and dirty.

The completed part of this army now includes 10 crypt ghouls, 5 dire wolves (pics coming soon) and these 5 black knight cavalry.

A few more units and individual figures are in process, including a unit each of zombies and skeletons, another unit of dire wolves, a vampire lord to lead them, and a wight king special character. I have figures stockpiled after that...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Warhammer - Empire Knights

I have been painting a lot recently, but not posting much. I'll try to fix that over the next few days and post some pictures of what I have been working on.

Last night I put the last highlights on this small unit of 5 Empire knights for Warhammer fantasy. As I've said before, I like to mix in some different things beyond my normal historicals, and painting Games Workshop figures is enjoyable because of the tremendous detail on the figures. These obviously aren't painted as any particular unit as shown in the Empire army book, but I felt like doing a blue scheme with yellow and red details for interest, so this is what I ended up with. They were a lot of fun. I assembled these a long time ago and did the first stage of base coating and then stuck them in a box. During that time I apparently forgot something that I didn't notice until it was too late for me to want to do anything about it. They come with shields that I was supposed to glue on at some point in the process (after I had done the basic painting in the areas that the shields would make inaccessible). By the time I remembered it didn't seem worth the trouble.

Looking at the pictures, I will probably go back and add some highlighting to the flag, which I am not happy with yet, and maybe highlight the visible parts of the horses a little better. It's funny how the brutal honesty of a high resolution close up photo makes me want to paint better, or put in just a little more effort.

My next Empire unit will probably be 5 Pistoliers. I should do a block of foot, but I like painting the small units of mounted troops better. Or maybe a great cannon and crew. Or maybe the mounted general. Or maybe...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rodeo Weekend

Friday night, I did something I had never done before. And then Saturday night, I did it again.

Julia's teen group was going on an outing Friday night, and this time around they were going down to the Flyers' arena to see Professional Bull Riding on tour. When Julia was little, she used to love bull riding on TV, and there used to be one channel where she could find it fairly regularly, so she was very excited at the prospect of seeing it in person. Grace liked the idea as well, so we picked up three tickets cheap on Stub Hub and decided we would go separately. While I can't say as though this is something that has any real interest for me, any chance to get out with the family and do something different is always nice.

We dropped Julia off at 6, and grabbed a quick dinner on the way down for the 8pm show. In the car on the way, we laughed when we got a text message from our good friends across the street asking whether we thought our kids would like a cowboy hat. We texted back something to the effect of "we know where you are going tonight!" When we got there and got to our seats, there were maybe only 5,000 people in the 20,000 seat arena, and we could see Julia a few sections to our left and our friends directly across from us. We all had a good laugh at that, waving at each other like little kids.

As for the event itself, it was different, but fun. The bulls were amazing, and the riders were impressive. The riders were from the expected parts of the US (TX, OK, CO and NC), with many others from Brazil and Australia. I can't imagine how hard it must be to do what they do. They are the best in the world at this, and the vast majority couldn't stay on the the full eight seconds to register a score. There was one bull toward the end that was astounding. Most bulls seemed to fall into two general categories, at least to the untrained eye; the "buckers" and the "spinners." The bull at the end that had the crowd gasping did something I wouldn't have thought possible. It came out of the chute, bucked once or twice, and then jumped straight up in the air several feet off the ground. Vertical. Straight up like on a pogo stick. I still can't believe it. That was Grace's favorite (and mine!). She also like the rodeo clown.

We all had a good time. The music was loud, everything seemed pretty informal, and the crowd was treating it more like a party than anything, and most importantly the girls had fun.

Saturday ended up being something similar. The neighbors were going the Unionville country fair, not far from us, and we decided to go as well. The highlight of that show was to be the second annual Willowdale pro rodeo circuit event at 6pm. Unlike Friday, this event had 7 different kinds of things, including steer wrestling, calf roping, bucking broncos, team roping, women's barrel riding and bull riding (again). As the announcer kept reminding us, these were the best in the northeast US at these events, but on this particular night, the animals came out on top by a very wide margin. Steers wouldn't go down, calves wouldn't get roped, barrels wouldn't stay up, and riders couldn't stay on anything that was moving fast or unpredictably. It was still fun, although it was chilly and the sight lines at the temporary arena weren't very good. If anything, it made me appreciate how good the guys on Friday night had been after not a single rider in this event could stay on for the full eight seconds.

So... Forty plus years of my life with no rodeo, and then two rodeo events in two days. I can't say as though I am a convert by any means, but it was nice to do something completely different. The kids had fun and have asked if we can go again when they come back next year. I guess that a year from now, I just might be ready.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guitar Lessons

Dave and I have been wanting to get together and play for a while now (since immediately after the last time really), and schedules worked out such that I could get over to his house for a couple hours this afternoon and goof around. I was anxious to get together with him for a couple reasons; first, he hadn't seen my new baby in person yet and I was anxious to see what he had to say about it, and second, the last time we got together he was able to teach me a lot (that stuck) in a fairly short period of time. I was also hoping that he would be able to make a couple of minor adjustments that I felt the new guitar needed.

I will preface my comments on today's session by admitting that I have been happy with the new guitar, but that there are a few things I have had minor reservations about. I expected the tone to be warm, bright and clear. At home it sort of was, but seemed to be missing a little something. This might have been a case of burdening one "copy guitar" with a lifetime of musical expectation that perhaps even the real $2500 version couldn't meet, but I couldn't help feeling that something was missing. String bending was a little difficult, and there seemed to be a lack smoothness, for lack of a better term. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but something just didn't feel as wonderful as I expected it to feel. Not that it was bad, but it was good and not "wow". I kinda had my heart set on "wow".

Prior to showing up at Dave's, I asked for a good general purpose string recommendation, and he said to buy D'Addario "tens", which I did. When I got to Dave's, I proudly unveiled the new purchase and he was suitably impressed (good brother that he is). The first thing he did was plug it into his Bugera tube amp, and I had my first "a-ha" moment. My baby did NOT sound like that at home! Same guitar, same strings, same cabling, nothing changed... but when he plugged in and strummed a few chords... I heard "wow!". I love the amp I have at home (a Line 6 Spider IV hand me down courtesy of Dave) that has all sorts of cool modelling effects (phasing, delay, drive, etc), but for pure clean sound I am now convinced that a nice simple (high quality) tube amp has a special something in terms of sound. This has the very likely possibility of turning into an "oops I did it again" moment in the not-too-distant future...

The remaining hour and a half or so that we spent together today was a combination of a lesson on chords and some pointers on different chord shapes and their use up and down the fretboard, and a chance for Dave to polish his guitar maintenance skills. The strings that came with the 335 looked discolored in places, which is a sign of age and exposure, and I had some questions about the action of the 5th and 6th strings. Dave had no issues with the action (just relax and don't strum so hard!), but the strings did need replacing, which he did. He also raised the low side of the bridge a little just in case, but it probably didn't need it. Before he replaced the strings, he also cleaned and oiled the fretboard, which was surprisingly dirty. After doing so the feel was much smoother, and closer to what I had hoped for and expected.

While Dave worked on my 335, I had the chance to noodle around on a couple of guitars - his Casino and the newly arrived Epiphone SG, which he recently picked up on eBay. The Casino is a true hollow body that is otherwise similar to the 335, and the SG is the signature guitar of Derek Trucks (among others), a fairly recent musical man-crush. The Casino is warm and rich, and I loved the SG. As Dave had mentioned to me earlier, it is incredibly neck-heavy, but sounded wonderful. And an absolute steal at the price he was able to get it for.

All in all, a fun couple of hours. Productive in terms of learning and also a revelation about what a tube amp can sound like. By the end of the session, I had learned some valuable things, but more importantly, Dave had put the "wow" back in my holy grail guitar. Not bad for two hours on a Saturday afternoon...

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Holy Grail... Sort of...

Epiphone ES-335 Pro
I did a very very silly thing today. In a moment of weakness (or was it strength?) I took the plunge and checked a holy grail item off the list. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been playing a lot more guitar recently and have made some strides toward actually being able to play some things passably well.

One of my favorite bands growing up was the Moody Blues (still is for that matter), and Justin Hayward has always been one of my favorite singer/songwriter/guitarists. His signature guitar is a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow body. In cherry red. The guitar of Nights in White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon and most other classic Moodies tunes. The guitar that I have seen live in concert at least a dozen times. The guitar that probably more than any other made me want to learn how to play the guitar, or at the very least make me wish I could.

Since a very early age, that guitar (along with Eric Clapton's black Fender Stratocaster "Blackie") has been on the short list of "someday I need to own a guitar like that, even if it's just decoration". It's a very short list, perhaps including only those two plus a Jimmy Page classic sunburst Les Paul and (much more recently) a Derek Trucks red Gibson SG.

Before kids, I checked the black Strat off the list in 1993. Today, after some eBay watching, I went to the local Guitar Center store and bought a little piece of my adolescence. Specifically, an Epiphone Custom Shop Limited Edition ES-335 Pro. Epiphone is Gibson's second brand, and the usual Epiphone version of the ES-335 is referred to as "the Dot" because of the distinctive dot pattern on the fret board. The ES-335 Pro is a limited edition of the Dot with upgraded volume knobs that allow push-pull switching of the pickups from single coil to double coil mode (and rectangular fret inlays, not dots). This has the effect of making the guitar sound more like a Gibson or more like a Fender depending on the setting. The difference is substantial, and a tribute to modern electronics.

The Whole (electric) Gang
I haven't had much of a chance to play around with it yet, but it has a wonderful warm rich tone that is very different from both the Strat and from the Les Paul copy. It could use a minor 5th and 6th string action adjustment to remove a tiny "fret buzz" on the middle of the fretboard, but that is a simple adjustment that Dave can help me make.

Do I need a third guitar (four if you count the hand-me-down Yamaha acoustic)? Of course not. I barely play well enough to justify one nice one, let alone three. And the Strat from twenty years ago is still qualitatively the best of the three instruments, probably by a fairly wide margin. But that misses the point for the most part. Or misses the point entirely. Life is short. Love of music can manifest itself in many ways, not the least of which I suppose is a middle aged guy with a small guitar collection. So I see nothing wrong with indulging a fan-boy moment. Does owning this make me Justin Hayward? Sadly, no. That takes talent, ability, hard work, dedication, luck, a voice, songwriting ability and a time machine. But it sure does put a smile on my face, and there is something to be said for that.

Given that a real Gibson ES-335 goes for $2,200 rock bottom minimum, this is almost certainly as close as I will ever get to my dream guitar. But it's close enough for me.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

All the Comforts of Home

Matching Living Room Set
Ever since I made a doll bed for Grace's first American Girl doll last year, I have gotten periodic requests to make something else. Actually, to be honest, I get bombarded with requests to make more things ranging from the simple ("Daddy, make them a remote for their TV"... i.e. a little rectangular block) to the utterly ridiculous ("Daddy, let's build them their own house"), and everything in between. Ever since she figured out that I could do a pretty nice job of building things for her, she seems to like the idea of homemade better than buying store bought pieces. Which is fun, because it is something that she and I can work on together. She helps draw/design what she wants, I figure out how to engineer things, and then she helps me as much as she can with the construction.

The gang making themselves comfortable
While on vacation this week, Grace requested seating for her ever-growing collection of American Girl dolls, now numbering four (and staying at four...). So over a few hours yesterday and today, we whipped up the sofa and pair of chairs shown here. Grace wants them painted, which we haven't done yet, but the construction is finished.

Our pieces tend to be angular and blocky, but I'm not breaking out the router and other assorted goodies for doll furniture. Not yet anyway. That being said, it's pretty cool what the two of us are able to accomplish with a bunch of 1" clear pine boards of various widths and a compound miter saw.

The matching coffee table, entertainment center and flat screen TV are in progress. Yep, I'm serious.

A New Family Member

As brother Dave's guitar playing has flourished, the urge to upgrade and expand his collection of instruments and equipment has obviously been strong. I have been the beneficiary of this in the past, with a beginner Yamaha acoustic and a Line-6 modelling amp to show for it. Dave's most recent purchase was a very nice Epiphone Casino hollow body electric (Gibson's second brand version of the Gibson ES330). The Casino is perhaps best known as the guitar used by all of the Beatles at different points, and by John Lennon for most of his time with them. The Casino is a true hollow body, and very light, but otherwise similar to my "holy grail guitar", the Gibson ES335 semi-hollow body (in Justin Hayward cherry red of course...). But I digress...

Apparently, a strong request made around Dave's household was that if a new electric guitar came into the house, one of the existing ones should leave, therefore maintaining... balance... shall we say. Dave mentioned to me that he was going to keep the Fender Telecaster and put his Epiphone Les Paul copy on Craig's List.

At that point, it seemed an awful shame to lose a member of the extended family, so I purchased the guitar from Dave, and now it will live with me. In a way, this is a bit of silliness, but I can say that I have been fooling around on my guitar more than I ever have, and have gotten myself one step above total hack status, so what the heck. At the very least, it gives my Strat someone to commiserate with; the two guitars can hang out in the basement and bemoan the fact that they were not blessed with a more talented owner.

Dave brought the Les Paul over this past weekend and I played it for a while with Dave using my Strat. He taught me some things, and a few of them actually clicked. It was very productive and energizing.

So between the two of us, we now have a Statocaster, a Telecaster, a Casino and a Les Paul copy. Plus a bass. And three acoustics. And amps. And electronics. Oh well, so much for balance (but it is a lot of fun!).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Little Sous Chef

Dredge... dip... fry...
One of my favorite things, but something I rarely blog about here, is my love of cooking and good food and drink (there is a separate cooking link...). Far removed from my day job, the things that interest me the most in my spare time are almost all outlets for creativity; wargaming (the building things part...), cooking, writing and music.

With that in mind, it gives me great pleasure that Grace has very much taken to the idea of cooking. She watches Food Network and its spin off The Cooking Channel. She will also go out of her way to help me in the kitchen with whatever she can. Even as an elementary school kid, I have relished getting her involved in the kitchen. As we say, everything tastes better when you cook it yourself. I am on vacation this week, burning some time off with the family before the kids go back to school next week, which means I have time to cook. Yesterday, shopping for dinner at Whole Foods, Julia noticed some beautiful locally grown eggplant in the produce section and requested one of her favorites, eggplant parm, for dinner tonight. I shopped for the ingredients today, and Grace and I made it for dinner.

...and turn when properly browned
Grace has gotten pretty good at basic kitchen tasks like stirring and whisking, and has developed good knife skills for someone her age (or any age for that matter). She knows to flatten one side of something she is cutting to make it stable on the cutting board, and can do a large dice, medium dice, fine dice or rough chop without too much guidance. But the most important thing is that she enjoys it and it is something that we can do together.

Tonight, I was in charge of prepping the eggplant so that she could be the one to fry the slices in the skillet prior to assembling everything in the baking dish. I prepped and sliced. She dredged, dipped and fried. Her attention to detail on the safety aspects was good to see; not splattering hot oil by turning the slices the proper way and other details that make for a safe cooking experience. We had a blast.

Oh... and it was delicious.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Julia Meets Ryan Howard

Ryan throws out the first pitch
Julia had a special treat today, and I was fortunate to be able to take a day off from work to see it; she met Phillies superstar slugger 1st baseman Ryan Howard.

We had gotten an email a couple weeks ago that Ryan Howard (or the Phillies, or someone...) had been  put in touch with the Challenger League, a group of special needs kids playing little league softball, and that Ryan Howard would be coming to a special game there were organizing. The plan was that he would show up, take some pictures, say a few words, and then hang around for an hour or so while the kids played.

Julia was excited, and concerned that it would be rained out, but we got lucky with a nice warm but not overly hot day, and it was somewhat overcast which made it not seem too bad under the sun for a few hours. Ryan was on time, the event went off in a pretty organized fashion, notwithstanding all the extra people that had come out of the woodwork for this particular game. He came out, said a few words, threw out the opening pitch, and then stood around on the field chatting with and encouraging the kids.
Julia leads off the game

The challenger league games are non-competitive, with each player on each team getting to bat once in each of the three innings. Everybody gets to run the bases, and everybody scores. Obviously, they don't keep score and it has nothing to do with winning and losing, but just having fun and being active with their peers.

Julia - pleased to be at third base
This special occasion was a one inning game. Julia was the very first batter, and grounded a sharp single to right field. She had a blast. Somehow in and around all the adults taking pictures, they actually managed to finish the one inning, and then there was some time for pictures before Ryan had to leave.

It was a very nice day for Julia (and the rest of us). Ryan is a big big man. And very nice with the kids. It is often overlooked how much time some of these guys spend in the community doing things like this, and it is nice to be able to recognize those who do. I also have to admit that Ryan has been my favorite Phillie for years now, and while I think my days of hero-worshipping athletes are long since past, it was still nice to get to say hi to him. Thanks, Ryan, for coming out to the game!
Julia with Ryan Howard

As an aside, the Phillies are playing the Braves tonight at home, and Ryan crushed a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning... He is coming off a ruptured achilles tendon last fall, and missed much of the season this year, but he is back playing now. He doesn't look great yet, but he's getting there. He did have a very noticeable limp at the event today. Hopefully that gets better with time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Selected Pictures, July 28, 2012

Mercury 7 capsule

Apollo 11 command module

Me262

SBD Dauntless

F4F Wildcat

Spitfire Mark VII

P51-D Mustang

bf 109 G-6

A6M5 Zero

It's good for the rest of us that there are those select few crazy enough to ride a tiny hunk of metal into outer space, perched atop enough combustible material to blow up a small city...