R Names

Rick, Russ, Ron, Rodney, Ralph, and Randy: apparently the “Rs” were very popular in my extended family. Oh, I forgot Rex, so that makes seven of us with first initial R, last name Hilbig. You can only imagine our mom’s keeping us all straight, let alone how emails could get messed up!

In the 1950s, my birth decade, Rs weren’t as popular as I had thought. Both of my brothers’ names were more popular than mine. David ranked 5th, Richard ranked 7th. Ronald was 15th. You can find your own ranking online here: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/names1950s.html My honor is redeemed knowing that my middle name, James, actually ranked first during the 50s. In the top 100 popular names, Rs placed 11 times. Sorry Rex, you are 198th! A decade later, Ronald had dropped five positions to 24th.

I only caught on to this confusion of names recently after an email never arrived in my in box. Check your spam folder (I had) was the sender’s suggestion. His email had not bounced back so apparently someone, a recipient, had read it and discarded it— or it ended up in his spam folder. 

Emails are tricky that way; they aren’t case-sensitive but they do require a level of accuracy that my spelling can seldom attain. I’ve been plagued by the curse/blessing of auto correct on my iPhone. The “suggested” spelling can be over ridden, but I’m not always aware of it when it happens. (Shakes his cane)

I had given what I assumed would be an adequate amount of time to receive a letter. Four days had passed after a Monday holiday so I wasn’t too concerned not having received the expected correspondence. Luckily the sender reached out to me via text wondering about my reply, or lack of one as it were. He had asked for my home address and I (naturally) thought he had sent the information we were looking for via USPS. But I was wrong. 

The postal service will make a best guess and deliver your mail regardless if the address is missing a digit or the street name has been misspelled. But email doesn’t work that way. 

He had sent it thru email to my gmail account. Not “my” gmail account, as it turned out, but perhaps one of my relatives. There are quite a number of us whose first name begins with R. So I am guessing that one of them has received an unexpected and unsolicited correspondence. I have a thought to email him, or her, and find out. I’m not sure I want to learn if there are more of us Rs out there that I haven’t met! I know there is another Ronald Hilbig, who lives in Canada. We had already confused people on Facebook. Glad that was straightened out, though he could be a clone. I’m not doubting anything anymore.

Sincerely yours, but certainly not the only one,

Ronny James

Memories and Mementos

“What are we going to do with all of these pictures?”

“What pictures, which ones?” I replied.

“All of them: all of the pictures, photos, albums, frames, paintings, prints, just everything.”

Well, I hadn’t given it much thought, but really, what are we going to do with all of this stuff? We had downsized and moved from our single family home to a smaller townhome several years ago. In the process of getting that home ready to sell, I had taken down all of our pictures, photos of family and family vacations, and packed them away in plastic bins. Now nearly four years after that move we are still wondering what to do with many of these mementos and memories, most of them still packed away.

When I was younger and first started taking photographs, I concentrated primarily on landscape photography. Years before digital cameras became popular I would shoot slide film in my Canon AE1 and occasionally have enlargements printed, many of which I framed and decorated my apartment. The prints are long gone but the slide film still looks great, beautiful rich colors after more than forty years.

I switched to a digital camera, also a Canon, when they came out and began taking more pictures of family and friends, documenting our trips and vacations, birthdays and holidays. And that introduced the beginnings of what would be a lifelong challenge: how to share and display, or store for posterity, the many, many images a digital camera produced.

When I got my first iPhone I was all set. Whereas before, one had to remember to bring the camera (or leave it in the car, always at the ready) an iPhone was the perfect accessory: I never went anywhere without my phone and consequently my camera was always with me.

Still the problem remained, what to do with all of these images? Before cloud storage enabled us to archive unlimited amounts of data, and images, I would back up my digital images on the computer and eventually transfer them to CDs. Great for storing photos, not so great for sharing them.

I’ve since been uploading many of my photos to Shutterfly. They have sharing options and also print capabilities for cards, enlargements, even photo books. I have friends who use digital frames that act like mini slideshows; the newer frames allow uploading the images to the internet (cloud servers!) and as long as the display is connected to the internet, any family member can view the display. Bluetooth or wifi-enabled devices are another option.

I’ve been printing photobooks now for years. They have taken the place of photo albums in our home. But like albums from our past, they have started to take up room on the book shelves. We visited friends recently and enjoyed looking through one of their old leather-bound albums, many of the photographs in black and white or sepia-toned. One could almost imagine the passage of time slowing down for a bit as we leafed-through and commented on their old family photos. It doesn’t feel quite the same when you scroll thru endless images on your phone!

I still don’t have a solution for the boxes of photos and albums we have accumulated through the years. We have thought about scanning all of the “pre digital” images. I am a little distraught over having lost or misplaced the CDs I used for “safe secure image storage” in the past. I have found several of the CDs I created have not held up well: the data has either become corrupted or otherwise unreadable. Perhaps storing the images on a DVD would work better. At some point I will probably upload all of our images to Shutterfly or some other third party service. I’ve put many images on a small external hard drive, not sure if that is my final answer yet or not.

What about you all? Is this a problem you have faced before? Any possible solutions you have tried successfully? If so, please share your success stories in the comments below. Love to hear from you!

Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman

He’s sitting leaning a bit forward in his chair—with his upright posture it could even be a stool. Though out of view, his hands are resting comfortably, naturally at his side, not fidgeting. The pose is classic three-quarter view, the head turned towards the observer. He wears a dark grey striped suit coat, red-patterned tie over a crisp white shirt, a small lapel pin the only piece of jewelry. A full head of graying, nearly silver hair, warm flesh tones, a slight smile. The umber background appears to lighten around his face, darkens towards the bottom of the painting. The size of the painting, and the intricate gold frame, indicate that this is a corporate portrait, too large to hang over the mantle in one’s home but not out of place in a lobby or a corporate boardroom. He is a Distinguished Gentlemen whatever  his occupation might have been. 

What is it about us that we will memorialize our presence in this manner, capturing our idealized selves for posterity with oil on linen canvas, known and yet unknown? I bought this painting at an estate auction, the artist and the sitter both strangers to me. I don’t know them but I know a bit of their history and they both take their place in a very long line of artists and portraits made of distinguished gentlemen.

Have you been to a wedding or perhaps been in that lineup of groom and his best man and groomsmen? “Where do we stand? Where do we look?” And most importantly, “What do I do with my hands?” Some portraits handle the problem of hands by not painting them in, giving us only a portion of the subject. Perhaps the easiest solution is that of Rembrandt’s: tuck the hand under your coat. I like Franz Hals’ clever solution: his subject holds onto a book (which he has written) and the composition forces us to consider the book as nearly an important element as the subject’s own face.

One would expect the face to be the center of attention in a portrait (portrait: a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph. from the Latin “portrahere,” translated as “to drag out, reveal, expose.”) Yet in several of these historical examples, the hands or even the costume appear to be the center of attention. Perhaps the purpose here is to reveal or expose the character and nature of the subject even more so than could the face. Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap” ca 1510, overwhelms us with his beautiful ermine collar. Likewise the voluminous red robe and white wig of Largilliere’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” nearly obscures the smiling face of the sitter, though viewed up close, the rosy complexion and red lips reinforce the color palette and sense of privilege. The portrait of Juan de Pareja by the Spanish painter Velasques from 1650 was shocking at the time for the identity of the individual portrayed. I wonder if perhaps the white delicate collar, contrasting with that beard and full head of hair, was also a bit of a shock? All of the portraits shown here include some type of shirt or collar of white separating the flesh tones from the darker clothing.

My favorite of the lot is also the most recent. Jamie Wyeth’s painting of Andy Warhol and his daschund Archie, from 1976 places the subject squarely in front of us. Shocking white wig, white face, white shirt collar, and an exposed arm with hands holding Archie who also stares right at us. Quite a portrait indeed.

When I took art history in college, and later saw great art in person, I was always struck by the discrepancy of size. Paintings reproduced in books or viewed as film slides projected in a classroom gave no indication of their incredible power when later viewed up close in a gallery. Many of them were quite large, far larger than the 8”x10” framed photographs of family that many of us have in our homes. Even those seem to have shrunk down a bit as they have been replaced by images viewed online or in a digital frame.

As an artist I’ve never done a portrait, not even a self portrait. I had any number of life drawing classes in art school but the subject matter never really captured my attention. Perhaps at the time, if I had seen one of Chuck Close’s paintings up close, and really discovered his use of texture, then I might have attempted the challenging genre. The best of portraiture reveals more than surface texture, paint colors swirled across stretched canvas. It can reveal the subject, a psychological study perhaps, but great paintings also reveal the artist. I don’t know which takes precedence, we do after all want our portraits to at least resemble the sitter; but we lean in even closer when we feel we are reading the mind of the artist, following his thoughts.

Portrait of Ron, smiling with arms crossed

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4 ESV

Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman, by Stephen Craighead

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, by Titian ca. 1510
Portrait of Samuel Ampzing, by Frans Hals 1630
Rembrandt Self Portrait, 1636
Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez 1650

Portrait of a Gentleman, by Nicholas Largilliere, about 1725
Portrait of the Artist, by John Vanderlyn 1800 
Portrait of the Artist, by Charles Loring Elliot 1850
Portrait of Andy, by James Wyeth 1976

Ron With Smile and Arms Crossed, Owen Mills

All That Remains

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:13

The first season of HBO’s series The Last of Us has just concluded with a ferocious, though not-entirely unexpected ending. If you are not a fan of dystopian, apocalyptic survivalist dramas, then this show probably has nothing for you. But after watching this season’s nine episodes, I wondered if it had left behind many of it’s ardent fanbase, those who have played the game it is based on and were expecting more of the same.

I have not played the video game but am familiar with the first-person action genre: the goal of surviving hazards and shooting and/or killing as many of your opponents for high scores is not my cup of coffee. But I am interested in the world-building and dramatic choices that go into creating these immersive environments. Granted that an episodic television series can not deliver the same level of adrenaline rush that games can, I wonder where the series can excel apart from recreating or mimicking the gameplaying source material. And it seems to me that the television genre, because of its ability to control the physical environment, pacing, and character development, manages to give us an experience that transcends the game.

Here is where many of the online comments, hundreds if not thousands in numerous blogposts, took issue with the show: it is too slow, and there aren’t enough of the infected (this world’s version of zombies) to kill. The show lacks the very thing that made it exciting, engaging. But its ability to create deep space, a world in which recognizable characters can interact, make choices, and experience the repercussions of the choices they make, I think vastly outweighs its deficits.

That being said, the world (or societies) that writers Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have envisioned post-apocalypse is deeply disturbing. Societies are either fascist, violently revolutionary, or ravenously monstrous. It struck me as odd that the only safe spaces are inhabited by couples (Bill and Frank; Marlon and Florence). The juxtaposition of enduring relationships, developing ones, and doomed relationships such as Henry’s and Sam’s gives the show depth that a video game can’t. It remains to be seen whether the community in Jackson WY can endure as a welcoming environment or not: Silver Lake and it’s small community led by the show’s only apparent man of faith, and the Fireflies’ group in Salt Lake City, proved to be exceedingly dangerous to the show’s protagonists.

In a world absent of faith, where hope is expressed as “endure and survive”, love really is all that remains. In “The Last of Us”, the cost of love is exceptionally high. Joel and Sarah; Joel and Tess; Ellie and Riley; Bill and Frank; Henry and Sam; even Kathleen and her brother Michael (resistance leaders or brutal Hunters) are all doomed relationships. Perhaps the story of Joel and Ellie offers more than merely surviving, but the cost, at least to others, has been significant so far. Season two is expected in 2025 and hopefully will be filmed again in Alberta, Canada. At least the landscapes are impressive.

Post-Apocalypse Now

There seems to be no end to “end of the world” movies and TV shows recently. A twist in the plot here or there but they all share similar DNA. Whether it’s an individual (“only you can save the world!”) or a group of survivors just trying to make it to the end of that night’s episode alive— they all explore how we might react under the harshest of conditions.

The director M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out, Knock at the Cabin that updates the biblical End of the World story. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and this isn’t really a movie review, but it’s premise and themes are oddly tracking with a show that I am watching, The Last of Us, over on HBO. While the one is about ushering in or preventing the Apocalypse, the television series is about living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world structured around a quest narrative. Love, loss, sacrifice, vengeance, judgment, and hope are some of the big themes both shows work through in varying ways.

However, before we compare and contrast these two shows, I want to take a side trip. For the past several months I have been reading and hearing ALOT about AI and ChatGPT. So in the interests of trying something new I thought I would interview the bot and let it (he/she/them?) write my blogpost today. The results were very…interesting. My questions below in bold type, the Chat’s answers follow.

I asked the Chatbot to write a paragraph describing the similarities in the apocalyptic worldview of the movie “Knock at the Cabin” and the HBO series “The Last of Us” and the presence, or lack thereof, of hope.

Both “Knock at the Cabin” and “The Last of Us” present a bleak and devastating world, post-apocalyptic and characterized by the collapse of human society due to a catastrophic event. The movies depict a world where survival is the main priority and people are struggling to make ends meet while facing various obstacles and threats, including mutated creatures and hostile human factions. Despite the grim reality, there is still a glimmer of hope in both stories, as the main characters work towards rebuilding and preserving what’s left of humanity. However, this hope is often fragile and uncertain, constantly tested by the harsh realities of the new world.

Overall, both works present a similar bleak worldview of a post-apocalyptic world but with a nuanced portrayal of the presence of hope.

“Knock at the Cabin” portrays the four figures of the Apocalypse demanding a sacrifice. How does this subvert our normal reading of the Four Horsemen?

“Knock at the Cabin” portrays the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as demanding a sacrifice, which subverts the typical interpretation of the Four Horsemen as symbols of destruction and judgement in the book of Revelation in the Bible. In the movie, the Horsemen are not just passive symbols of the end of the world, but active agents who require a sacrifice to be made in order to bring about the end. This shift in the role of the Horsemen adds a new layer of meaning to the story, as it emphasizes the idea that the end of the world is not just a inevitable outcome, but something that can be actively brought about through the actions of human beings.

By presenting the Horsemen as demanding a sacrifice, “Knock at the Cabin” challenges our conventional understanding of the Four Horsemen and their role in the end of the world, suggesting that the end is not just a matter of fate but also a result of human agency.

Are there any biblical themes in “The Last of Us” show on HBO?

Yes, “The Last of Us” series on HBO draws on various biblical themes. For example, the story of a father-daughter relationship and the theme of sacrifice, can be seen as references to the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible. The concept of a pandemic bringing about the end of the world can also be interpreted as a commentary on the biblical notion of judgement and the end times. Additionally, the idea of a chosen one or messiah figure, who must sacrifice themselves for the greater good, is also a recurring biblical theme that appears in the show. These themes add depth to the story and bring a spiritual dimension to the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in “The Last of Us.”

If the character of Ellie in The Last of Us” is portrayed as a messiah figure, what would be her likely future?

If Ellie in “The Last of Us” is portrayed as a messiah figure, her future would likely involve her making significant sacrifices and facing significant challenges in her quest to save humanity and bring about a better future. In such a portrayal, Ellie would be seen as a symbol of hope, who brings about change and redemption in the bleak and desolate world of the post-apocalyptic setting.

However, her journey would also likely be fraught with difficulties, as she would face resistance from those who are unwilling to change, as well as the harsh realities of the post-apocalyptic world, such as the threat of infected creatures and hostile human factions.

Ultimately, the future of Ellie as a messiah figure would be shaped by the choices she makes and the sacrifices she is willing to make in the pursuit of a better future. Whether she succeeds in bringing about a new dawn or not, her journey as a messiah figure would likely be one of struggle, sacrifice, and ultimate redemption.

If the character of Ellie in “the last of us” is accurately portrayed as being immune from the cordyceps infection, how would her condition be exploited by the ruling authorities?

In a world where the majority of the population is affected by the cordyceps infection, a person who is immune would be considered a valuable asset. For example, the ruling authorities might try to use Ellie as a source of information and research to better understand the nature of the infection and find a cure. They may also try to use her as a weapon, forcing her to venture into infected areas to gather information or carry out dangerous missions.

Additionally, the ruling authorities may try to use Ellie’s immunity as a means of maintaining control over the population. By exploiting her condition, they could manipulate the public into following their rules and regulations, or even use her as a propaganda tool to promote their own interests.

Overall, if Ellie is portrayed as being immune from the cordyceps infection, her condition would likely be exploited by the ruling authorities in a variety of ways, as they would see her as a valuable asset in their attempts to maintain control over the world and find a cure for the infection.

If the cordyceps infection controls the victims brain, and if Ellie is immune, would examining her brain likely reveal clues to her immunity?

Yes, if the cordyceps infection is portrayed as controlling the victim’s brain and Ellie is immune, examining her brain would likely reveal clues to her immunity. As the cordyceps infection takes over the victim’s brain, it would likely leave its mark on the brain’s structure and function. By comparing Ellie’s brain to the brains of infected individuals, researchers could potentially identify the differences that confer her immunity and gain insights into the mechanism of the cordyceps infection.

This information could be crucial in developing a cure for the infection, as understanding the basis of Ellie’s immunity could provide a starting point for developing a vaccine or other treatment. Additionally, by examining Ellie’s brain, researchers could gain a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying the control of the cordyceps infection, which could be applied to developing more effective therapies.

Overall, examining Ellie’s brain would likely be a valuable tool in gaining insights into the cordyceps infection and developing a cure for those affected.

So a likely scenario would be the sacrifice of Ellie, her resulting death, in order to save the rest of the population?

It is possible that a scenario could emerge in which Ellie’s death is seen as necessary in order to save the rest of the population. If her immunity is crucial to understanding the cordyceps infection and developing a cure, the ruling authorities or scientific community might believe that the only way to obtain this information is to sacrifice Ellie through dissection of her brain or other means.

Such a scenario would likely be a difficult and controversial decision, as it raises ethical questions about the value of one life versus the potential to save many others. It would also likely have a profound impact on the characters and the world of the story, as the decision to sacrifice Ellie would be a significant turning point in the narrative.

Ultimately, the outcome would depend on the specific details of the story and the motivations of the characters involved. While a sacrifice scenario is possible, it is not guaranteed and could be challenged or avoided altogether by the characters in the story.

My interaction with ChatGPT raised a number of ideas regarding both the movie and the TV show that I had not considered initially. The amount of agency and control over their individual destinies the characters exhibit and how their decisions could possibly affect the outcome of the scenarios was very intriguing to me. Both shows present similar End of the World viewpoints. However “The Last of Us”, perhaps because it seems more grounded in real-world (recent?) or plausible events, holds out a hope for the future that I was not expecting, especially from an adaptation of a video game. What do you think? Is there hope at the End of the World?



Images copyright their respective copyright holders, taken from their websites.

25 TO 50

Magic Kingdom opened October 1, 1971. EPCOT Center opened on October 1, 1982. Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened May 1, 1989 and was the third of four theme parks built at Walt Disney World in Orlando FL. Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998, and was the fourth–and to this date the last new theme park built at the resort. They have expanded and added on to their existing properties, closing some or adding on to favorites.

Cape Canaveral 1976

My first visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom came during the summer of 1976 during my month-long bicentennial bus tour of America. DisneyWorld had opened just five years previously and at that time, only one park was completed. I remember the weather in June was hot and wet. The park was fun, affordable and my friends and I enjoyed it for the day before we took a bus to Cape Canaveral and the Space Center there.

Over the next 21 years three more parks opened, the final one, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opening in April of 1998. 

My wife and I stayed at one of the resorts for our honeymoon in January of 1998. We only have few pictures from that time, and truthfully my memories are somewhat dim, but I know we had a great time visiting the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood-MGM Studios (as it was named then). I remember there being virtually no crowds in January of that year. 

For our 25th anniversary we went back to DisneyWorld. Much has changed since our first visit and, due to their new reservation system, we weren’t able to visit two of the parks. We did enjoy Epcot and the Animal Park. 

In 1997-98 DisneyWorld was celebrating their 25th anniversary; it’s a bit of symmetry that our 25th was celebrated while the parks were still decorated for their 50th anniversary, our silver and their golden. This time I took plenty of photos and we brought home an assortment of mementos and commemorative knick-knacks. Added them to the box labeled “wedding stuff” but I guess I need to update the label.

We’ve visited the parks twice before with family, for my 60th and then my 65th birthday. In 2017 Pandora-the World of Avatar had just opened and we were able to experience an area that looked remarkably like the landscape from the movie Avatar, as if the movie set had been brought to stunning life. When we visited again this year, the wait time to ride either experience (Flight of Passage or Na’vi River Journey) was two hours. We had dinner in the canteen, shopped the offerings in Windtraders store.

I have seen and read so much about the Star Wars-themed area in DW Hollywood Studios (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge) and the new Galactic Cruiser immersive experience (hotel) I was really excited to see them. However, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios remain their two most popular theme parks and reservations were not available during our stay. Just as well: when I saw the cost of staying in the Galactic Cruiser for two days, I was pretty shocked. It seems like it would be a fun place to bring the grandchildren, very immersive experience. But as I talked it over with my friend Dave later, the family could spend a week at a “fully immersive” Dude Ranch in Colorado for half the cost. Something to think about when planning our next adventure. Galaxy’s Edge, or riding the range in the mountains of the Old West? Got plans for the summer?

Fading Away

Mark asked me why I took so many photos of places, landscapes, trees, buildings: was I planning on being a professional photographer when I got out of the Army? Really. I hadn’t really given it that much thought. “Why do you take so many pictures of people?” I asked him. Thirty plus years later, I think I am beginning to know why.

My time as an enlisted soldier stationed in Heidelberg, Germany during the mid-80s was a great time to get out, see the world. Who knew if I would ever be back there again? As circumstances have played out, I haven’t returned. But my brief two years there were filled with work and travel. England, France, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein: these were all a bus tour or train ride away for a weekend visit or a four-day vacation.

Fading away. It’s not just the photo prints that are beginning to fade. Mark convinced me to switch from print film to slide film. The slides from that time still look bright and crisp; the prints have begun to fade, the colors blending towards yellow. Scanning and a bit of photo editing has brought back much of their original color, I think, but I’m not sure.

No, it isn’t just the colors that have begun to fade. It seems I never was one to label things or write on the back of photos (thank you Mom for the photos you captioned years ago!) Looking back, younger Me must have thought he would always remember the names of places he went and the people he went with. And certainly he would have remembered those dates! Not so, not so.

Since the advent of the iPhone, I have used its prodigious data collecting capabilities to help me remember where and when my photos were taken. With facial recognition it helps me search for pictures of my granddaughter or other family members, even geocoding where the picture was taken. 

Like many people, I upload quite a lot of photos to a third party site “in the Cloud.” I have been using Shutterfly not primarily for photo storage but to print out photo books of our trips and family events. For me they have replaced the ancient slide carousel (remember those?) and the boxes of prints that seemed to never make it into a photo album. The books are piling up on a shelf, and I know the children will likely throw them out when I’m gone, but for now they help to stave off the effects of fading memory. Our trip to Spain is up there on the shelf as is my 60th birthday celebration at DisneyWorld. Well, my 70th birthday is also up there,  but who is counting birthdays anymore?!

Old photos fade, memories fade, events recede in time and eventually fade from our recollection.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8

Baking Christmas Bright

By no means do I consider myself a “baker.” In fact, on my list of culinary skills, I would probably put baking near the bottom, perhaps just above “candy making.”

But there is something about the holidays and having grown up with a “we’ll just bake a few pies for Thanksgiving” Mom, that I tend to feel overconfident when it comes to Christmas in the kitchen. 

We have several friends who have taken cookie baking and decorating to new heights, an Olympics-level of skill that I could only hope for in my wildest dreams. Jennis, Leigh-Ann, and Jennie seem to effortlessly produce art with flour, sugar, and butter and their decorating often leaves me in awe. Whether birthdays, weddings, celebrations or holidays, they constantly amaze me with the photos shared on social media. My “Groovy 70s” cookies were made by Jennis Horn and they were a highlight of my birthday party. Her Christmas cookies are always amazing, you can see more of them on her FB page here.

But I digress. I stay away from cookie baking much like I would avoid trying to create French macarons. But I have found that simple quick breads are more my style. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve made nearly two dozen mini pumpkin spice breads; throw in a couple of pies for Thanksgiving and I might begin to consider a career switch. Along with a few packets of instant hot chocolate mix they have made great gifts for our neighbors. 

With Christmas approaching I’m considering switching up my recipes. Flipping through my copy of The Joy of Cooking” cookbook, I found a few handwritten recipes from over thirty years ago. My sister-in-law had shared a Bishop’s Bread recipe that might be fun to try again. There is a cranberry walnut bread that sounds like it would make a great appearance on a Christmas buffet table. I would love to find something pepperminty, though I suppose I could just sprinkle candy cane pieces on a chocolate-chip bread. That sounds tasty! 

Happy Holidays friends. Whatever you make, it’s better shared with friends. And don’t forget the neighbors! 

The Forbidden Forest

Harry Potter, A Forbidden Forest Experience is currently engaging fans and friends of the Wizarding World at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. It’s hard to imagine the scale of the amount of effort that has gone into this production, from creating the animated props to laying gravel paths lined with Bose speakers, fog machines, and theatrical lighting through the forest of the park. 

As we walked thru it, all I could think of was, hats off to the designers and other creatives (and the IT Department!) who had managed to produce something this massive, involving so many people and cross-disciplines, during the time of Covid.

The Forbidden Forest Experience operates on two entirely separate levels for me. There are enough vignettes—Hagrid looking out into the dark night with his dog Fang next to him for instance— that a fan of the books will be happy, lead along the trail hoping to discover what’s next around a bend or over a hill. But I’m more drawn towards the production side of the experience. LED lighting in the trees, gobos along the paths, the enchanting lighting effects of the field of mushrooms for instance. 

Walk-thru experience have become more common recently. Christmas lighting displays are hugely popular and have grown in complexity the past few years. And really, aren’t we all fans of dinosaurs and the recreations of them? The Jurassic Encounter (https://nova.thejurassicencounter.com has plenty of dinos but they are the main attraction, not the environment.

The aspect that sets the Forbidden Forest Experience apart from any other outdoor adventure I’ve experienced lately is, literally The Forest. There are activities, vignettes, owls, spiders, centaurs and unicorns placed along the trail for everyone to enjoy. But it is the forest that becomes the main character in this drama. Dark, spooky, mist-shrouded or brightly lit in reds, greens, and blues, fallen trees or clustered oaks, white sycamores etched against the moonlit sky: the Forest is the King here. Playing throughout the experience is music from the movies and it really enhances the overall effect.

After searching online for the design group responsible for this adventure,  I came across Thinkwell Group. The tagline on their website really spells it out, “creating custom, content driven experiences in the physical world.” Lighting effects were created by Adam Povey Lighting. I was surprised to learn that there are several other locations of the Forbidden Forest Experience currently available to see, one in Westchester NY; one in Cheshire UK at Arley Hall and Gardens; and one in Belgium.

There is food available and a merchandise tent at the end of the trail— it is Harry Potter and Warner Brothers after all.  This isn’t a recreation of the Harry Potter World at Universal Studios (no theme park rides) but you can get butterbeer and a souvenir mug, t-shirts and hoodies, and of course adorable stuffed animals. We took home one of the Nifflers; keep an eye on your jewelry! If you consider going, ticket prices seemed a little high for what we are used to, certainly cheaper than Wicked tickets at the Kennedy Center, but more than what you would expect for an experience where you are doing most of the work, or at least the walking. There are family ticket prices. Take a lot of pictures: many of the participants came in costume and really added to the excitement. It is a non-cash event (credit only), something they do announce on their website. The parking lot as well as the road leading into the event area was well marked and well lit. Parking was an additional fee.

When we were there the evening temperatures couldn’t have been better. It was the day before the full moon in early November and a light jacket (wizard robes) was all we needed. The flashlight I had brought was unnecessary and the path could easily accommodate strollers. 

Seeing Double

We lived in several houses growing up in Reno. Until my parents divorced we lived near Wooster High School. Later after my Dad remarried, we lived in a small home off Peckham Lane in the Smithridge area. 

In the living room of both homes we had a fireplace and over the fireplace hung a painting. George Carter painted many Nevada scenes during his lifetime, some of which may have been inspired by Nevada magazine covers. The view of desert and mountains that we have was purchased from him in 1964 while Mom worked at Brundidge’s in downtown Reno. It now hangs in our guestroom and of all the paintings, photos, and memorabilia—this painting most reminds me of Nevada. The dark layering clouds over snow-covered mountains, mountain peaks catching the light, the scent of sagebrush in the dry air.

In my Dad’s home we had a different painting hanging over the mantle. Painted by my stepmother’s sister, Maxine Randall Peters, it depicts a red barn surrounded by gold-leafed trees in autumn, snuggled up against the foothills of Mount Rose. It’s a readily identifiable location in Washoe Valley. It appears Maxine had painted a lake or pond up close to the building in order to reflect the brilliant yellow trees and that gorgeous red color. 

The two paintings capture two very different views of Northern Nevada, one looking possibly towards the Sierra in the West, the other a view of the foothills from Washoe Valley, both areas I was familiar with growing up.

Though I now live in Virginia, my wife and I return often to visit family in Reno. I’ve joined a number of Reno and Nevada-interest Facebook groups, most of which feature photos of the amazing landscapes for which the state is known. Some of the sights are new to me (wild horses seem to be everywhere now, rarely seen when I was growing up there); other photos are of familiar areas such as Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River, or Lake Tahoe.

But I stopped immediately when I came across a familiar image on Facebook last month. Incredible! The red barn from my aunt’s painting, pictured in all the golden glory of fall, in a group of photos by an FB group member. Impossible! Maxine had created her  oil painting back in the 60s. The barn was old then, how could it still be standing?! I’ve framed the photo and it now hangs in my Nevada-themed guestroom. It’s a brighter version of the scene Maxine painted years ago; the cottonwood trees dominate the image and nearly obscure the barn at the center of the photo. The barn isn’t red like our painting; perhaps it never was, maybe that was just another embellishment of the artist. I like it.

While I was searching online for more photos by Lee Molof, I came across another painting by George Carter dated sometime during the early 1960s. And then another. A third and now a fourth.

All five images bear striking similarities: the pyramid-shaped mountain in the middle ground, mountains to the left of the image, sagebrush in the lower right foreground. All of them are overshadowed by immense cumulonimbus clouds. Of the four, I prefer the overall coloring in ours: the coral-tinged mountains are a little closer to the viewer; the arroyo or dirt road in the center has a slate grey that mimics the snow covered mountains in the distance. Orange flowers dot the foreground and place the image as perhaps early spring, snow hasn’t yet receded from the mountain peaks.

I’m curious to find the original location that Carter used as reference material. If it is indeed from a Nevada magazine I would like to get a copy of it, perhaps a nicely framed photo to go with our painting. If civilization and the expansion of Northern Nevada suburbs haven’t destroyed the view, I think it would be great to pair the photo and the painting in the same room. It’s a bit of Double Vision, a nod to the past as well as the present. I like it.

Just to be clear, I don’t own the four paintings in the collage above. All of them were found on online art auction sites. In most cases, Carter oil paintings sell in the mid $500-800 range. Mom says she paid $30 for ours and bought it directly from George Carter when he would come in to Brundidge’s for art supplies or to have paintings framed.