The Expendables

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I read enough reviews about this movie that I couldn’t get past the intrigue… Take a bunch of aging actors and/or old action stars (Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Li, Austin, Rourke, Roberts) and make a drama movie!  Well, of course not.  Make an action movie!

The Expendables Picture

With my son and his best friend in tow, we ventured into the Saturday night testosterone zone.  At the end of movie, we were shaking our heads about the time we wasted.  This was the type of 2:00 a.m. summer movie they stream from Netflix and laugh at for all the wrong reasons.

This movie is predictable from start to finish and lacks any measure of believability – exactly what I liked about action movies in the 1980’s.  Release the fury!  Kill the bad guys! Like in Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, First Blood, Total Recall, Double Impact, Hard to Kill, Sudden Impact…

The only problem is, they forgot the humor.  With so much potential for star-studded deprecating low blows and cheap shots, there was only one line in the movie that made me laugh.  This was rather early in the movie and related to a cameo scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  After that?  Stallone pursues the action as if it was 30 years ago, and as if he was 30 years younger, and as if this was, ahem, a serious action movie.  Body sculpting aside, no.  Let it go.  This could have been a thunderous answer to the overrated and thoroughly grating Tropic Thunder.  I mean, The Expendables.  It’s the perfect title for a different movie.

Other than its genre and aging workforce, the more conspicuous nod to the 1980’s was a refrain from reality-bending special effects.  There are ample explosions that go “boom!” and bullets that go “zing” and necks that go “crick,” but other than gore inducing bullet hits, computer generated graphics aren’t a notable factor in the movie.  And how refreshing is that?!. 

Sadly, when Bruce Willis continues to make the best “shoot ‘em up” action movies (see Live Free or Die Hard), it’s sad that a new generation of B to A- actors isn’t out there mining the familiar excesses of the genre.  There’s obviously a market for it.  Besides, my son needs his own remembrances of action movies when he relives his childhood – not mine.

 1 of 5 STARS

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Dukes of September Rhythm Revue – Alpharetta, GA

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I attended this concert as a result of reading the news online.  I certainly didn’t go looking for it because I never would have recognized the name of “the band.”  A large banner ad popped up and several names of interest briefly appeared before the ad minimized.  For once, I actually clicked on a banner ad and found myself staring at third row tickets on the TicketfeeMaster site – notably, a month after tickets had been on sale.  I’m a sucker for a concert.

The Dukes of September are primarily three stars from yesteryear – Donald Fagen (Steely Dan, solo career), Boz Scaggs (Silk Degrees, anyone?), and Michael McDonald (who probably gained most notice the few years he was with the Doobie Brothers, followed by a solo career).

But first, the venue.  Even though it is in its third year, this was my first visit to Alpharetta’s Verizon Amphitheater.  Thankfully, parking and traffic arrangements were fully considered when it was built, a notable distinction above Atlanta’s two other major amphitheaters.  On the other hand, it loses this inherited goodwill due to sandwiched seats that require sitting at an angle to your neighbors.  Still, it remains the most convenient concert venue to where I live and work, and that will have to suffice.

Arriving crowd.

An ironic drawback is that the first 10 or so rows are not optimal for watching a concert… at least when the band plays 15’ or more behind the front edge of the stage.  The “Pit” seating area is a full 6’ below the stage level, and, well, here was my view of Michael McDonald playing piano.

Michael McDonald, white hair blazing in the spotlight.
I know.  3rd row and I’m whining.  Actually, were it not for the music stand, I guess it’s not so bad.

In any case, the music was not just about the three main stars – it was a celebration or, perhaps, a 21st century retrospective of R&B songs from years gone by, mixed with a sprinkling of their own songs.

The supporting band was expansive and included a three person brass section, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, and two female backup singers – with enough recurring members to be considered the 2010 edition of Steely Dan’s road band.  They began the concert with an extended version of “Sookie Sookie,” an opening nod to the era of music that would be focused upon during the evening.  Whether those in attendance expected to hear songs mined as deeply in the category of "favorite songs by the artists" is doubtful, and even with a crowd primarily 50+ in age, many of these songs were simply obscure.
Stage. Fagen out of view to the right.

Like what? How about the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street?”  Sung by Fagen, it blended with the overall tone of the night.  McDonald’s cover of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes?”  A definite winner.  The O’Jay’s “Love Train?”  A perfect fit for the band.  Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” – perfect (and enlivened by a very enthusiastic Donald Fagen).

For those who favor music that never found the pop charts, a three song sampling from The Band were likely a great inclusion.  Each singer took a turn through     “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “Rag Mama Rag,” and another song I couldn’t place.

The misses?  Well, Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” was one.  Despite a very capable lead performance by backup singer Carolyn Escoffery, it didn’t get people off their feet (to be fair, despite the overall groove of the evening, very few songs did).  Still, the lyric is very repetitive, and it didn’t connect.  Another misfire was Scagg’s cover of  Mink Deville’s “Cadillac Walk.”  This may be one of his personal favorites, but it lacked any familiarity and seemed to have little traction.  Similarly, Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO” certainly fit his voice and the mood, but, hey, what about “Lido Shuffle?”  That’s the song people really wanted to hear.

Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald covered a good sampling of his better known songs, including “Takin’ it to the Streets,” “I Keep Forgetting (We’re Not in Love Anymore)”, and “What a Fool Believes,” the last of which was a vocal challenge in the upper registers.  He was at his best on the older covers, such as the duet on “I’ve Got News For You” (Ray Charles) sung in a forceful, clenched fist delivery.
Boz Scaggs

Boz Scaggs, at age 66, remains as smooth in concert today as he did on vinyl in 1976.  I imagined him more as a vocalist or perhaps a pianist, but he proved himself a more than capable guitarist throughout the night.  “Lowdown” was awesome, but a major disappointment of the set list was their failure to include “Lido Shuffle.”  Still, he sang and played with great versatility.

Which leaves Donald Fagen, who took on the role of Master of Ceremonies, providing the introductions and a small amount of banter.  Other than his share of the cover songs, he sang only Donald Fagen“Reelin’ in the Years” and “Green Flower Street” from his personal repertoire.  He is a very animated artist, and it was obvious that he was fully enjoying the music and being part of this band.

There was a also a certain freshness to the evening as well.  While I would guess that there is a measure of joy in playing songs other than those they’ve been expected to play night after night (and year after year), it was obvious that not all of the songs were yet familiar.  Members of the band were checking the music from time to time, and even the headliners appeared to make certain of the words or music.  This isn’t to imply that the band sounded unrehearsed or were somehow flawed.  There was great energy around all the songs, and the musicians were all very good.

The encore began with a gushy cover of the Beach Boy’s “Help Me Rhonda,” which (strangely?) worked to get the audience involved and singing.  This was followed up by the aforementioned “Them Changes,” formidably delivered but misplaced at the end of the show.  "Lide Shuffle's" lyric “one more for the road…” would have been a more logical and appreciated cap to the evening.   Nevertheless, the crowd cheered as the singers exited with a final wave, and the band reprised “Sookie Sookie” as exit music.

All in all, it was a great performance and a quality departure from the annual “greatest hits” reruns coming to an amphitheater near you... as long as you knew what was coming.

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Disappearing Car Doors

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Yep, blog filler. Thanks to Rainnie for forwarding to my attention.

May I present tomorrow’s technology, posted 3 years ago.  This might be a bit sketchy when it’s raining, but it would serve everyone well to clean out their cars regularly for fear of public indecency. 

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Hipstamatic

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To Apple’s delight, I’m an iTunes App Store troll.  There’s always something new that looks interesting, meets a need (or tries to create one I didn’t know that I needed), and has enough favorable reviews to warrant trying it out.  Most have free versions to try them out, so there’s no real harm.  And to be fair, I remove the majority.

Within the photography category, I keep trying Apps to help out the limited camera abilities built into the iPhone.  To be fair, the upgrade to the iPhone 4 from the 3G upgraded the camera significantly above “because it’s the only camera I have with me” usage.  Most of the photography Apps feature a photographic editing package that lets you tweak each picture to make something better out of it than it was originally.  These are intended to be quick fixes, as a phone doesn’t quite lend itself to Photoshop (Adobe has its own post processing iPhone app – it’s okay). 

My favorite photographic App, however, is Hipstamatic ($1.99, plus expansions at $0.99).  Rather than editing photos afterwards, Hipsta pretends to operate like a vintage camera.  Several “toy” cameras are provided, with lenses that affect the photo image.  These can then be matched with various retro-films and flashes which further alter the look of the photo.  The App automatically converts the photo to a square picture and adds a border just like all those old photos in what my generation remembers as picture albums. 

Hipsta requires some practice.  Shortly, you start to think you know what effect your combination of options will generate, but you never quite know.  This results in possible frustrations if:

  1. You’re in a hurry.  You may not get the picture you wanted.  Hipsta is better suited to when you have time to play with a subject or are otherwise confident in your selection.  Completed photos can be viewed in a scroll within the App, which is helpful to see what camera/film/flash generated each look.
  2. You demand an instant result. I don’t know why, but Hipsta takes a solid 20 seconds to process each “print” – an eternity in the digital age.

For me, though, these negatives become part of the fun of the App.  It’s not perfect every time.  It takes a little thought, practice and repetition.  Is that such a bad thing?  Examples?  Well, here’s one.

IMG_0882

Compare this to a photo taken directly with the iPhone camera (not a true comparison as the sunlight suggests.  It was taken about 30 minutes later when I thought it might be useful for a comparison – good ideas don’t always come as quickly as you need them):

Back Camera

Below is an assortment of photos I’ve taken over the last several months, none of which have been retouched in Photoshop:

 hipsta collage

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Shannon McNally – Live at Smith’s Olde Bar

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Maybe Atlanta doesn’t like Shannon McNally, or maybe Shannon McNally doesn’t like Atlanta.  But it’s not working out so well.

The first time I saw her was at Summerfest, an annual crafts and music festival featuring a number of bands throughout the day.  A year or so after the release of her critically acclaimed CD, Geronimo, she somehow got saddled with starting the show in the midday Atlanta heat.  No one really knew who she was, and of the 50 or so there, most were at the rear hugging shade under the trees.  I didn’t know who she was, but she sang her heart out and tried to work some enthusiasm into a crowd not long past their morning Starbucks.  She outclassed her band, but I gambled $15, bought an autographed CD and became a fan that day.

A couple years later, she revisited Atlanta at Center Stage supporting Marc Broussard.  His band was a significant step up, but the challenge of playing to a crowd that was ready to dance and acoustics that muddled her vocals were barriers too great to win an audience over, despite an inspired effort on her part.  McNally has a voice that can lend itself to blues or country, but the nuances in her pronunciations are what makes her special, which potentially makes any live setting difficult.

McNally plays in Atlanta frequently, and Friday, she was back, this time at the venerable Smith’s Olde Bar but sandwiched between two other artists... which translates to a disappointingly limited hour and 10 minutes of performance.

The opening act, Julie Gribble, took the stage with personality to spare.  Judging by the snapshots taken, she seemed a candidate for “the Next Big Thing.”  Many in the (small) crowd came to see her, and while her songs didn’t clearly belong in any mainstream category (thus dropped into alt-country or Americana classifications), she clearly had an effusive, if not flighty, stage presence.  Her songs are fairly compact narrative or romantic tales, and her voice has some likeness to Natalie Merchant.  Based on her expansive chat between songs, she possibly assumed the audience was solely hers, a notion reinforced in that she never bothered to introduce herself. 

Julie Gribble

After a brisk change of drums and guitars, McNally tuned her guitar behind the curtain then leapt into her opening number, “This Ain’t My Home.” (I think). What followed was a very quick set primarily covering songs from her latest CD, Coldwater.  As concerts go, this is expected, except…

  • Coldwater is no Geronimo, from which there were no songs.  
  • Her backing band’s name, Hot Sauce, is catchy but not descriptive.  With a stoic lead guitarist that doesn’t travel from the tried and true, they sound more of affordable, competent accompaniment.  Granted, “Mayonnaise” as a band name probably wouldn’t inspire ticket purchases.
  • A failure to connect with what politely should be called an intimate audience.  Why not chat at least a little? There was no indication that McNally wanted to be there, and she did nothing outside of the music to win any fans. Live music at its best requires both a give and take between performer and audience, so it was disappointing to see her go through the motions.
  • Had someone not shouted “One more!” after she abruptly concluded the set with a “Thanks Atlanta,” I doubt there would have been an encore (which was an energetic delivery of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, Ornery, and Mean”).

Shannon McNally & Hot Sauce

It wasn’t bad, though.  I was just hoping for much more.  McNally’s vocals were typically strong, and it’s not as if her seeming disinterest caused her to back off from her performance.  She’s also an increasingly confident guitarist, tackling solos and, at times, seeking her inner Neil Young (electric Neil, not acoustic…).

Shannon McNally

McNally seems to be at a crossroads in her music career.  Her tour dates are frequent, but her creative output (or Atlanta audience size) isn’t trending up.  But maybe it was just a bad day.  She was apparently in a much better mood just three days prior as evidenced by the videos below.  The latter clearly shows that her talent doesn’t demand a band to shine.

And a great acoustic song from Geronimo:

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Cottage Industry Models – The Business

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Though finished pieces are featured throughout his home, William Blackmore (see prior post) currently has two rooms devoted to his plastic model kit business.  Design and model assembly/finishing are done in a carport that was enclosed for that purpose.  Manufacturing takes place in a detached garage converted in every way to a workshop.  And, it should be mentioned that fiscal matters, as well as a boatload of support and encouragement, are provided by his wife and best friend, Judy, whose contributions happily stop short of cleaning up his shop.

But before we get into the manufacturing details, it’s important to remember that models are scaled down replicas of the originals.  To that end, research is required, with plans from various sources, including even the Department of the Navy.  Blueprints are a great help…

To make model kits, molds are needed to repeat the design with consistent dimensions and quality.  To make molds, each individual piece of the model first has to be crafted from scratch.  This is usually made from wood, metal or other non-porous material, including not just the finished shape but also the desired detail.  Silicone rubber is usually poured around the part in two stages, each for one half of the object.  Fitted molds are often necessary so that the part can be removed without destroying the mold.  You-tube videos and other internet resources are available describing this process, from which you can learn about fill holes and air holes and so on.  Here is half of a mold for a ship hull:

IMG_2989

Consider the number of major parts required for each model kit, then multiply that by the number of product offerings, and now you’re in the storage business.

After making the mold, making a part is not as easy as filling it with resin. First, the resin hardens quickly after it is mixed with a catalyst, usually less than 2 minutes.  Air trapped in the resin can cause problems with the finished part, so pressure pots typically running up to 50 psi are needed to force the oxygen into suspension while the liquid resin turns into a solid casting.  Or, conversely, you might need a vacuum chamber depending on the type of part molded.  There goes more workshop space:

 

Not all molds are for big pieces.  Following are numerous small model parts cast in sheets, each of which must be trimmed.

After cutting them free, the parts are seen more clearly:

Where might such parts be used?  How about support trusses for a flight deck?

But that’s just plastic parts.  One of William’s larger scale models includes two pounds of metal parts.  Sure, maybe painting plastic with silver might look close enough to metal, but there is a difference.  Where do the parts come from?  Consider adding your own spincaster.  William has two, one of which is homemade.

The same casting theory applies.  You first have to make the part you want, and form molds.  The difference is that rather than just being filled and left in a static position, the mold is spun so that R-8, a form of pewter, is fed to the outside cavities of the mold by centripetal force, a very advantageous process for making small detailed parts.

IMG_2996

Another option is photo-etching, which is useful when parts are so small and intricate that they would be difficult to cast, such as ship railings.  William designs his photo-etched pieces, but currently sends them to another company for manufacturing.  For the moment.  These parts are usually made of brass.  Below is a small plane made of photo-etched parts.

Kits range from $20’s to the hundreds of dollars.  So, what does the customer get?  First, instructions.  I didn’t take a picture, but William’s manuals do not just have a picture with arrows pointing where parts should be glued.  They include a history of the vessel, illustrations, and detailed written instructions on how to mimic his own finished models in all of their finer details.

Ironclad models are fairly straightforward, and here’s a picture “inside the box.”

And the box:

There are numerous individuals who make model kits.  What separates William and others from the corporate manufacturers (such as Revell, Hasegawa, Tamiya, AFV Club) is that they build for a smaller market who seek models that are not otherwise found, in scales not offered by the mass manufacturers, and in details not intended or needed by consumers who want kits suitable for skills by age groups.  Plus, as a small business, William invites questions from his buyers if they find themselves uncertain of an assembly step, and he’ll replace any part for free, even if the customer damaged the piece.

See his model kits at Cottage Industry Models.

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Cottage Industry Models – The Background

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The difficulties of moving from one place to another have much less to do with the places and things than the people left behind.  When I left SC for VA after the ninth grade, I left behind numerous friends, but there was one “best friend” far and above the others.  We were a little different from the others in our class.  Mainly, we weren’t embarrassed to to talk about our fondness for Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or anything else sci-fi related.  Today, I can’t help but wonder how many of our classmates now find their more interesting entertainment within the sci-fi realm.

We kept in touch regularly at first, trading recorded cassettes instead of letters for a couple years as long distance phone bills might invite parental lectures or worse.  Inevitably, the friendship grew distant.

About 10 years ago, I met with my friend in Charleston, SC, where he and his wife lived.  We, and mostly he, used to make spaceships out of left over plastic model parts, Styrofoam, and anything else that might not be missed by parents.  My interest in models waned, even as I had heard through the grapevine that he had continued making them.  If you heard that, you might expect that someone buys a kit of a ship or a car or something that they like, and over time, learn to keep the glue inside the joints or paint in a little more detail.   Not so in this case.  Models were being made from scratch, with astonishing skills.

He has since returned to Greenwood, SC, and I was able to visit with him during my recent school reunion there.

First, it should be noted that hobbies are messy things.  As paralleled with my wife’s glass fusing interests, becoming good at a hobby begets a desire for a new piece of equipment, a new process, a new challenge, and, hopefully, a new accomplishment.  Repeat this several times, and artistic endeavors turn into business pursuits to support the weight of what is now an infrastructure.  They require spousal support and space.

My friend’s name is William Blackmore, the proprietor of the aptly named Cottage Industry Models.  His reputation as a plastic modeler grew locally in Charleston, but also nationally at conventions held by the International Plastic Modelers Society (IPMS), where he frequently won 1st and 2nd prizes.  His cutaway view of Robert Bushnell’s “Turtle” submarine received the most attention, with many disbelieving that it was a plastic model rather than wood.

Bushnells Turtle

Following are some examples from William’s workroom.  Let’s begin with the USS Arizona, 76” long, 1/96th scale:

It’s a big ship for a small picture.  Let’s zoom in for a closer look!

WWII ships were his forte for a time, with several on display at the USS Yorktown in Charleston, SC. 

The Arizona can certainly command a room, but William’s work room has many more.  Below are an assortment, many of which he sells as kits to others.

Nearby is the North African Xebec pirating ship:

Again, the details are worth a look:

Details of another ship:

 

William presently and intermittently is working on the USS Langley, originally a coal ship which was converted into America’s first aircraft carrier in 1922.  The model has not yet received its flight deck, which will sit on top.

This may look like an overly large plastic model, but it’s not all plastic.  And, as is the case of the USS Arizona above, it’s not intended solely for static display, but for radio-controlled maneuvers.  A look within the wooden hull:

  

William was increasingly commissioned to construct finished models for paying customers.  This worked well for artistic fulfillment, but detailed models take many hours to construct and are not exactly a gateway to riches.  Fortuitously, The CSS Hunley was raised from the Atlantic’s depths, and a renewed interest was given towards the first submarine to successfully sink another ship.  What followed were examinations of the ship which altered preconceptions and misconceptions of the ship’s design and dimensions, swiftly rendering all previous models inaccurate.  Consider: Civil War buffs hold significant buying power.

hunley

William quickly entered the plastic model business, constructing unfinished kits which he sold through Mt Pleasant, SC’s iconic Randy’s Hobby Shop, as well as directly.  Since then, his manufacturing prowess has expanded, and he offers standard kits of other Civil war vessels (submarines and ironclads), artillery pieces, and even scale sized nautical rope.

William Blackmore, in his element.

Next:  The manufacturing business.

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Little Legs

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I returned recently to my hometown of Greenwood, SC for a Cambridge Academy reunion, which I attended from 7th to 9th grades.  I have great praise for my High School in Virginia, but Cambridge was the place where I first became challenged to think and expected to learn.  Everyone who has had a particularly gifted teacher knows that good ones make a difference, and Cambridge had more than their share.  The learning environment was also intimate in that there were a total of 30 students in my grade, and we progressed through the subjects each day as a single class. 

And now it’s 31 years later.

I’ve visited Greenwood several times over the years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to drive around just to re-explore the old and no-longer-familiar.  My first stop was at Cambridge, which memory did not help me find due to surrounding development.  It seemed… smaller than I remember it, even though the school has been expanded since I attended.  But I have a vague recollection of a lengthy uphill walk in the hallway between the “upper” and the “lower” school wings (not named by their relative elevations, obviously) before continuing to the lunchroom, gym, or the Headmaster’s office.   I have to attribute this to the effect of shorter legs because, as an adult, the place isn’t so big.

Similarly, the neighborhood that I grew up in wasn’t quite “out in the boonies,” but it was far enough that friends’ parents didn’t volunteer to take me home.  Having now lived in Atlanta for close to 20 years, I’m accustomed to spending at least two hours to do just a couple of errands when they exceed a 5 mile radius from my house.  Everyone knows the story… lots of cars begets lots of traffic lights, which keep us safe while bleeding us of our time.

In Greenwood, I completed my entire sight-seeing tour in the time that it would take me to visit Home Depot and get a drive-thru lunch where I live.  I didn’t expect to find Atlanta traffic, of course, but in my mind’s eye, Greenwood should have been a bigger place.  When I was a kid, it took forever to go to the library, or the church, or anywhere else, and I could recount the minute details of everything we passed.  Repetition, repetition, and repetition from the back seat will do that. 

Many of those details likely remain, but I could hardly pay attention because, *snap*, I was already “there” (and, of course, because I was driving).  Still, in the two-hours I would use for errands at home, I visited Cambridge, my elementary school, my church, my old neighborhood (twice around), the college where my Dad taught, the downtown area, a highway where most industries have located, a (still) undeveloped road that had been part of my school bus route, and two major commercial roads.

Spring Valley is a looped neighborhood, approx. one mile in length.  It was a great place to grow up, with plenty of kids my age, a creek that we would dam to form a swimming pool, a ravine that we would play in, a forgotten graveyard that we would skirt, a pond for homemade rafts, paths to bicycle, a small river for fishing, a train trestle on which to flatten pennies, questionably constructed tree houses/forts, a dumping area where we would collect spent shell casings, pastures to sled when we had ice, a Mrs. Morgan to hand out fresh baked cookies, and many, many houses with doorbells to ring in the middle of the night when camping in a freind’s backyard (obviously, we spared Mrs. Morgan).  If my son should read this, please understand that we didn’t walk miles to school each day in the driving snow, uphill both ways like my parents did.  Still, it may surprise you that th norm was that children played outside).

I remember I asked my mom to play at a friend’s house, probably when I was 5 or so.  She resisted because we had to go somewhere, but still she gave me an hour to go play.  An hour!  That was ample time to have fun.  Leaving my house, this required going down the hill, walking past two houses, then past a distracting small creek/ditch that often had crawfish and tadpoles, and up a hill to reach his house on the right. 

It’s a cliché today to talk about how fast time flies by.  But, time was slower then.  And hills were bigger.  Little legs experience distance differently.  Here’s that “hill” from my very specific memory.

His house was just out of sight past the pine trees on the right. 

I don’t necessarily miss being a kid, but I do miss the sense of wonder derived in just a very short time while immersed in anything at hand…  the same things now generally considered to be the old, the familiar… the mundane.

On a different note, thanks to whoever lives in my old house.  It was great to see that it is as well maintained as any in the neighborhood. 

And here’s a picture of our most frequent target for late night door bell ringing visits (Note: if you ring the bell repeatedly, people know that it’s a prank.  If you ring it just once, they’ll come to the door).

We called the house above “the chicken coop” for obvious reasons.  Architecturally, it was a misfit for the neighborhood, and it just seemed like a natural target.  Today, the addition of the UGA flag in the yard should firmly cement its place in the crucible of natural selection. 

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