Second Chances

I know, I know. I said that we were downsizing. And if that means anything, it means decreasing what we own and definitely NOT buying more stuff.

But since I discovered online estate sales last year, I have definitely taken a turn for the worse.

Today I went through my invoices to see exactly what all I have been bidding on (and winning). I’ve lost out on any number of things by not bidding high enough to secure them as the timed-bidding ran out. But I’ve won quite a bit, some things of value; some things I think (or thought) I needed; some items I just thought would be fun to have.

A few things, after I’ve picked them up from the home where the estate sale was being held, turned out to be, shall we say, not quite what I had expected. To be sure, nothing online has been misrepresented and for all of the auctions we have followed, there has been an in-person preview period. Those I generally forego as I don’t want to drive the distance twice. But wheels have needed to be replaced. A Nikon camera I bought wasn’t a digital format, that one is on me. The deer-antler-handle carving set was a win.

Over the past year it looks like I have concentrated on indoor furnishings, vintage furniture or decor. But more recently I have looked for garden tools, garden furniture, cement planters or garden sculpture. There is a wide variety of just stuff available through online estate sales. The company we have been bidding through will list everything in your home, from the contents of the silverware drawer to everything found in an outdoor shed. And under the deck as well. And the linen closets.

I’ve come to realize that, while there are many good deals to be had (we just recently picked up an unused toaster oven), there are also things that have left me scratching my head and wondering. Why? Why did l bid on that? Hmm?

The savvy collector will seek out comparable items to determine the worth of an item. I found myself bidding on something when luckily I was outbid and thought, “Did I really want to spend that much for a used item?” and Heaven help you if you have bid more than what an item is worth new because you hadn’t done your homework. But I’ve also let a few things get away that I hadn’t set an appropriate upper limit to my bid. Bids generally increase by $2 but at some point that increment can jump up to $10 or more. And I have lost out on something by $2 simply because I had set my max bid too low.

Over the year I’ve bought several mahogany picture frames, an antique Lane cedar chest, an antique Victorian mahogany wash stand which I refinished; several tables; a couple of wingback chairs; a beautiful sleeper sofa which we ended up taking to the dump; binoculars; a handpainted floor lamp; a metal detector that needed a new set of batteries; concrete garden planters; iron garden table and chair set; garden carts and a wheelbarrow and more I’m sure.

Have your participated in any online estate sales? Or perhaps have been thinking that a sale (really it’s a silent auction format) would be a great way to downsize? I look around at all that we have and shudder when I think how little our stuff might actually be worth. On the other hand, I’m pretty excited to get a nice garden cart–in need of new wheels– for only $15. It’s all relative.

A few of the fun things I’ve purchased over the past year. The gorgeous Victorian mahogany frame is still waiting on a decision to paint it or leave it natural. And I have a couple of tables that are waiting on refinishing, other than that we are in a good place. But maybe it’s not quite the time to really downsize.

Learning to Drive

Taking the tractor for a spin

When did this happen?

I’ve been watching carefully, noting the approaching birthdays on the calendar, celebrating holidays and vacations away, attending ballet lessons and cheer practice. But somewhere, at some point, our first granddaughter seems to have grown up. 

This year she turns 15. I don’t think we will celebrate a quinceanera, we will likely wait until next year and celebrate that Sweet Sixteen party. But at some point between this fall and next spring, she will likely begin driving lessons. 

The thought is at once intimidating and liberating.

I was 15 when I began learning how to drive. My Dad had a 1960 Chevrolet pick up truck, three speed manual transmission on the steering wheel column (remember those? Classic H pattern). I doubt that it could do 60 mph on a good day but it was a work horse. When it wasn’t outfitted with the camper shell, we would use it to haul firewood back from the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long stretches of gravel roads were an opportunity to learn how to steer a truck without the distraction of other vehicles on the road.

We practiced parking in the vehicle storage lot that my Dad had access to on the weekends. That, and driving in circles to kick up a little dust really was the extant of my supervised learning. Again, no distractions and I seriously don’t remember if the truck even had a radio at the time. I never took a driver’s training course in school since that would have been an elective. And who had time for that?

Dave and the red Corvair

My older brother Dave purchased and drove a Corvair after high school graduation. Later, after he had joined the Army, he left us the vehicle. It’s unclear whether or not we were “gifted” or sold his car; I don’t believe money was ever exchanged but I drove that car throughout our high school years as did my younger brother.

Reno didn’t have any freeways back in the mid-60s. Heck, we didn’t even have an overpass until 1968 from what I remember. But somehow I learned enough to be able to negotiate the mountain roads around Northern Nevada, the long empty stretches of desert highway out to Pyramid Lake, and eventually the freeway traffic of Sacramento and San Francisco in California. I survived all those miles, and years, with a minimum of tickets and I believe only one minor traffic accident. But the traffic here in Northern Virginia? Oh that is something else.

Copilot

I’m looking forward to one day being driven around by our granddaughter, my sitting in that copilot’s seat watching her take the curves. I no longer have the PT Cruiser convertible but I think we will find something fun to drive. Somehow it feels like I’ve come full circle.

What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up

Cowboys

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or maybe the question was, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

Thinking back on our conversation, I’m not really sure I heard the question correctly, or maybe I just heard what I thought was being asked. Nevertheless, I found it an odd question to ask someone who had recently turned 70. So I answered as truthfully as I could, that I am who I wanted to be when I grew up.

So is the question, if asked of a much-younger me, what do you want to Do with your life? Or should the question more appropriately be, what kind of person do you want to Be when you’ve “grown up,” at whatever age that seems good to you?

A Fireman. A Doctor or Lawyer. A Soldier. A Pilot. A Pharmacist. A Cowboy. A Rancher. A Teacher or a Counselor. We have at least one of these professions represented by someone in my extended family. But that really isn’t the question to ask anymore, is it? Because we all know that these professions don’t often last a lifetime, that our career paths may change at some point, and that wanting to be a Fireman as a young boy might actually lead one to a career as an EMT. 

But what do you want to Be when you grow up? that is really the question we try to answer for ourselves if we are at all self-aware.

Recently my wife and I took a communications course through our church. If you haven’t been exposed to the temperaments vs. personality discussion before, I can not more highly recommend this course. Information about the workbook along with accompanying videos are available online here, but I would say, take it with a group through your business, church, or other social group. 

I Said This, You Heard That” really helped me begin to understand some of the differences between personality (that which is changeable and often what we present to the world) and temperament, that which is hard-wired in and not changeable.

I bring this in to the discussion because what we do, and who we are, flow from our temperaments more than our personalities. So for instance, I am sanguine: I am an extrovert who enjoys people more than tasks. But for a great deal of my career I was employed in creative, yet very task-oriented professions. For years I had thought that the “what do you want to be” question could only be answered with a “what do I want to do” statement. I want to Be an Artist is not the same answer as I want to do art. 

So back to my friend and the question over our Starbucks. My answer to him was essentially, I am who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be kind, caring of others, not entirely focused on myself. I want to be a person who knows Jesus and the scriptures, who has a desire to lead others in their discovery of Him. I want to be a person who cares about the environment, and politics, and upcycled furniture, and flowers in the garden, who enjoys the world God created. I want to be a person who is generous with his time, knowing that all that we have is a stewardship and not owned by us. 

Have you given it some thought what (or rather who) you want to be when you grow up? Where are you on your journey of discovery? Or are you at a place in your life now where you want to pivot, less doing and more being? I raise my vanilla latte to you and say, all right, let’s talk!

Hand Made

I was in 10th grade when I first started to make hand-lettered signs. Professionally that is; before that I had been your go-to guy for all types of posters and blackboard art in school. But it was in high school that my career, as it was at the time, really took off.

My journalism teacher at that time and her husband helped out at the local Little League baseball field. He may have been a coach though I don’t really recall much other than boxes of sporting equipment in their garage and station wagon. My job however, was hand lettering the many advertising signs that were mounted to the fence surrounding the playing field. 4ft x 8ft plywood signs, mostly painted white, hand lettered with your business name, perhaps a logo, and a phone number and an address. Occasionally we would put two businesses on one board and the text got a bit smaller, but overall it wasn’t a difficult job making four inch letters look legible from the outfield.

That skill helped me quite a bit when I took a job after college in San Diego. Working at Robert Keith Giant Inflatables, I was part of a team of artists who hand painted logos on twenty foot tall vinyl beer bottles and cans. (I wrote about that previously here.)

However most of my graphics career was spent in the screenprinting industry. The billboard posters I printed had a handshake relationship with old-school lettering in that the projected image of text was drawn by hand and then a stencil was cut by hand using an exacto blade. Those paper stencils were used to produce hundreds of identical prints, whether they were yard signs for elections or 30 ft billboards for casinos in my hometown of Reno. The screenprint produced a much cleaner, sharper image of text than my admittedly shaky brushwork ever could. 

All of which brings me to our recent visit to Tennessee and the opportunity to enjoy two vastly different exhibit experiences which showcased basically the same material. 

The Museum of Appalachia twenty miles north of Knoxville in Norris, TN is a wonderful collection of relocated early American frontier buildings, from one-room log cabins to sheds and barns filled with memorabilia. Several larger new structures are jam-packed with an overwhelming assortment of photographs, personal items, home goods and cottage industry crafts, guitars, banjos, dulcimers and small exhibits devoted to favorite sons such as SGT Alvin C. York (WW1). 

Much of the collection appears to be pre-industrial revolution items or shortly thereafter. But what captured my attention wasn’t the time period or the quality of craftsmanship displayed: it was the sheer quantity of materials they had on display! And nearly everything came with a simple hand-lettered caption label. So much stuff! All labeled! Beautiful, shaky, fading-to-grey black ink on sepia colored cardboard labels. Admittedly they were hard to read, but they looked like letters or postcards from a forgotten era.

The next day we toured the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend TN. A beautiful structure with engaging exhibits, the Center appears to be well funded. The exhibit casework is new and reflects our current design trend of color-coordinated thematic divisions. Essentially a book-on-the-wall exhibit experience, it is clean minimalist design. All the body text and object labels are printed (likely off a digital printer, those having superceded screenprinting technology) and there is a curated sense of purposeful arrangement to the items on display. The overall sense here is one of Story, what do these objects tell us about the past and the people who lived here.

The two locations are only 50 miles apart. They couldn’t be farther apart in their differing approaches to presenting and helping us to understand the past and how we are related to it. For all the years I spent in the museum exhibit design and production industry, I have a built in bias towards the clean uncluttered presentation style of the Great Smokies Visitor Center. 

But I have to say, those hand-lettered display signs and labels on all that stuff at the Museum of Appalachia really have me reminiscing. And who doesn’t like the thrill of discovering something tucked away, much like going through an old trunk or your Grandmother’s photo album, only to find pictures of…you?

What Goes Up

There is a general adage, perhaps an aphorism, that aptly describes much about our modern life. “What goes up, must/will/eventually come down.”

The price of gas goes up one week; it comes down, a little, a week later. Unemployment goes up, gradually it comes down. Home prices in our area seem to be the exception, and there are perhaps other exclusions. But what strikes me is how dependable the phrase is. It doesn’t just describe our experience with gravity: watch the kids on a trampoline, for instance. Thankfully they always return to the ground and don’t go drifting off into space somewhere. What goes up invariably comes down.

During my lifetime I’ve seen a number of things go up, buildings primarily, and for the most part they are still standing. But that’s not always given. Growing up in Reno I watched a small town transformed into an entertainment destination, not on the scale of Las Vegas, but still impressive. After having been away for several decades, I was amazed at the number of new hotels which were built during the boom years of the 80s.

But not all of those are still standing. I’ve been following the story of Harrah’s Hotel & Casino in Reno. Opened in 1937 as a small venture, Harrah’s eventually grew to a billion dollar entertainment corporation with more than 15 venues across the US. While the rest of the corporation’s investments seem to be doing well, the original building in Reno was closed permanently in 2020 and is now being converted to apartments and retail-office space. 

I was in grade school when the original Park Lane Mall in Reno was constructed. In the 70s, following the pattern of many outdoor malls, it was roofed over and became an enclosed mall. But times and peoples’ shopping patterns change. In 2018 the mall was demolished and paved over, eventually to be revitalized as an urban living construction named the Reno Experience District RED.   https://redreno.com   From what I’ve seen, it closely parallels our One Loudoun urban community. Change. What goes up. 

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River was begun in 1958 and finished in 1961. The original bridge, that is. I wasn’t here for that project, but I was living in Virginia when it was torn down and the new  twelve lane bridge began construction in 2000, completed in 2009. More change https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodrow_Wilson_Bridge

All of which brings me to today. 

This week I drove past a building in Ashburn where I had once worked. Back in the late 80s, Ashburn was still a small village surrounded by turf farms and the beginnings of new suburbs. AOL (remember them?) moved to Loudoun County in 1996 and began the transformation of Loudoun County into a Data Center empire. Years later, AOL abandoned the property. In 2015 AOL was acquired by Verizon and eventually all of their properties here were sold off, later to be developed into data centers. But in 1990, there was virtually nothing out here other than acres and acres of fields.

The properties along Beaumeade Circle remained undeveloped for years. When Explus moved from Fairfax County out to Loudoun in 1990, we were the first tenants to occupy the large concrete-walled structure. I bought a townhouse nearby in Sterling the same year and was able to watch our building go in, from the initial pouring of the concrete floors to the final installation of the HVAC and the buildout of the interiors. I worked with the company for a total of thirteen years, most of that time at their third location closer to Dulles Airport.

Christian Fellowship Church purchased the property in the mid-90s, added a worship center, classrooms, and a gym for their school, parking areas and recreational ballfields. In 2018 we started attending CFC, 28 years after I watched the same building go up. In 2020 the church sold the building and moved to a new location in One Loudoun. The old building stood empty for two years until recently when demolition began in preparation of constructing another data center. What goes up, inevitably comes down.

Frame It!

This past year I became enamored? Infatuated? Engrossed? In online estate auctions. I know, it seems counter intuitive to be buying things we likely don’t need when our goal these past several years has been to declutter and downsize. But really, who can’t use another hall tree or hat rack, and maybe a beautiful Panama hat to go with it? But I digress. 

What I have found to be a lot of fun is bidding on vintage and antique furniture in need of some repair or refinishing. There might be an opportunity for resale at a later date, but that isn’t why I’ve been buying Victorian walnut washstands (original marble top!) or mahogany side tables. Or antique shaving mirrors.

Growing up, I remember Dad had a tool shop in our garage where he would occasionally turn out small projects. It was on his Shopsmith lathe that I first learned how to turn wood for candlesticks, and his table saw is what I used to make the frames for stretching canvas for my paintings during college.

For many years I was employed in the exhibit industry and the woodworkers who created the custom exhibits and cabinetry were always very supportive of my small “homey” projects. So I’m not unfamiliar with wood and the growing community of DIYers and refinishing/repurposing trends. 

Antique mahogany frame

But these Victorian frames that I’ve been buying have me a bit confused. What to do with a 22”x24” frame composed of three separate moldings, that framed a portrait of  someone long deceased? The two companion frames that I bought at the same time came from an estate sale in Culpeper. Other than cleaning, they are in great shape and all I need to do is find a more suitable image to place in each before they go on the wall.

But this one has been a challenge. I repaired some of the missing molding by taking an impression with DAX modeling clay of a matching section of frame, then glued on the new pieces. Rather than take the entire frame apart to “resquare” it, I left it as I had found it, somewhat warped at a jaunty angle, but showing the passage of time. The Victorians seem to have placed more emphasis on the size of the frame than what went in it. Very peculiar to our modern preference for pencil-thin frames and large scale artwork.

After doing what I could do refinish the frame and repair the missing moldings, I decided to paint it. I took design inspiration from the wildly over-the-top decor of The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs WVA. Nearly 80 years after Dorothy Draper redesigned the interiors of the resort, I’m amazed at the effect bold colors and large patterns can achieve. I cringe when I see things painted white (so many colors and you chose…white?) so I settled on a bright blue. It’s a statement piece, for sure. But I’m still at a bit of a crossroads; what to put in the frame? 

Get a Map

Virginia’s 57,867-mile state-maintained roads system is divided into these categories: Interstate – 1,118 miles of four-to-ten lane highways that connect states and major cities. Primary – 8,111 miles of two-to-six-lane roads that connect cities and towns with each other and with interstates. Secondary – 48,305 miles of local connector or county roads. Frontage – 333 miles of frontage roads. (VDOT)

And Google maps (Apple maps) has most of them readily accessible on your car’s navigation system or smart phone. 

But there are just times when only an old fashioned printed map will suffice. Or save you from wandering endless backroads thru hills and hollows without internet reception. 

A weekend drive to a recommended winery gave us an afternoon of exploring some of the most pastoral landscape I’ve yet seen here in Virginia. Climbing hills, green pastures outlined with white-painted fences, cattle at rest in the shade of oak trees or standing belly deep in a pond, a tiny church across from a well-tended cemetery—the type of scenery you might only come across in a Charles Wysocki 1,000 piece puzzle. 

But on the way back, looking for another winery we knew to be located nearby, the road we had previously traveled seemed a little unfamiliar. Had we turned left at that intersection? Have we already gone past the farm with the two llamas out front? Did we go across this narrow bridge, I don’t remember following a stream (ooh that looks great for fly fishing!).

All the while the late afternoon sun is hidden behind a grey overcast sky and the road has continued to narrow. When the pavement turned to hard packed gravel, I knew it was time to turn around. “We’re not lost,” I thought, “just exploring the backroads of Virginia!”

I grew up with a map in my lap, calling out turns, intersections, bridges and land features as my Dad or Mom drove the family car on our family vacations. Long before an interest in aerial photography and the layed-out landscape would lead me to Army cartographic school, I was fascinated with the relationship between the constructed landscape and the natural. The patchwork of farmlands we drove thru as a youngster resolved into magnificent tapestries of colors and shapes bounded by roads or water features when I finally saw them for the first time from an airplane window. Those patterns and colors eventually found their way into my pencil drawings and water colors years later in college art courses.

Learning to drive, or rather, to navigate with the digital map on my iphone has been challenging. In the Boy Scouts and later in the Army, we were taught to orient the map to Magnetic North, then find your location and proceed. I find it confusing then to be following the moving locator on the screen’s map, it heading towards the bottom of the screen, when I am driving forward (up on the screen?). When my wife calls out a turn to the left or right, I’m tempted to ask if the map (digital screen) is oriented properly. My left? Your left? The iPhone’s left? I’m confused!

With a full tank of gas I’m not as concerned as I used to be with directions-eventually we’ll get there. Though in the case of the winery, well, we are saving that for another day. But I am concerned about my friends who drive EVs.

I talked on the phone to my brother the other day about his Tesla. Don’t you get Range Anxiety, I asked him? After a long discussion about batteries, the dual motor capabilities, the growing number of charging stations, and the rundown on their last bi-state road trip, he replied: No. His vehicle gets about 326 miles when charged up (nearly the same mileage as my Nissan Frontier, truthfully). Surely that’s sufficient to glide along any of the backroads of Virginia without worrying about a fill up, I thought. But still, aren’t you concerned about your onboard map/guidance system? What if the satellite coverage drops out? What if line-of-sight is obscured by mountain driving? What if, what if? From their website, I take some reassurance: As updated maps become available, they are automatically sent to Model S over Wi-Fi. To ensure you receive them, periodically connect Model S to a Wi-Fi network. OK.

Thinking about our transitioning to the new, all digital age: does anyone remember getting letters in the mail? Finding a collection of old letters carefully ribboned together and saved in shoeboxes, perhaps for generations? They were our maps and guide to the past, connecting us to people and places a text or an email never can. I’m looking at you, Major Sullivan Ballou (https://www.nps.gov/articles/-my-very-dear-wife-the-last-letter-of-major-sullivan-ballou.htm)

I wonder what we will leave behind in the way of ephemera, love letters, birthday cards, train stubs and such. Or will our future be one of the now, driving along our digital highways and not looking back. Never lost, always here.


If you are a map or data junky, Virginia Roads website has an amazing set of tools designed to create apps, or maps which incorporate their data. Again from their website: Build exciting new apps with no code. Story Maps are a great way to share your message interactively. Quickly combine your maps, analysis and data int a purposeful app – with no code!

That’s pretty exciting for me to see, the cartographic world was just beginning the transition to digital environment when I left the Army in 1986.

Upcycled

Upcycled, recycled, DIY makeover, finished, refinished, trash-to-treasure— call it what you will, the “don’t throw that away” movement is definitely here to stay. With the cost of new furniture, and shipping problems continuing to be an issue, it only makes sense to repurpose what you have rather than buying more. But what if what you have isn’t quite right or isn’t working for you anymore?

I’ve seen and read a crush of articles recently extolling the virtues of shopping the second hand market for furniture, or salvaging a piece from someone else’s trash before it becomes landfill; but most of those projects end up all looking alike. The paint-it-grey urban farmhouse style has a firm grip on today’s design world. Much like the all-beige world of the early 90s, trends can really take ahold of our consciousness.

I am aware that no one wants OUR stuff, especially the kids! And that includes our collectibles, knickknacks, souvenirs, and other space wasters and shelf hogs. However, we all want YOUR stuff if it is vintage, antique, or can be painted and made to look like new.

Many online sources have chronicled our obsession with old=new again. 

In an article from early in the pandemic (Oct 2020) Vox noted how people’s choices to buy used furniture created new opportunities for some, yet at the same time previewed hard times ahead for some retailers. It could be an early indicator of a market shift, or just a temporary reaction to supply shortages and high prices at a time when folks were reticent about going out. Time will tell. 

Online articles will tell you how to clean second hand furniture, how to detects pests (bedbugs in the sofa?), what not to buy second hand (mattresses, again…bedbugs), where to score great mid-century modern furniture (estate sales and auctions, especially in MCM neighborhoods such as Mantua in Fairfax), and of course there is Pinterest for how-to ideas once you have your new/old piece. 

Lately I have become a bit obsessed with online estate sales. Well, auctions, rather than sales, and that is an important point to remember. While you might rejoice over the initial low bids on a particular piece of furniture, the bidding can quickly ratchet up past your limit in the final hours of a sale. No one wants to get caught paying more for a piece than it’s worth!

On the other hand, I’ve bought a beautiful Victorian walnut washstand for $23; a mahogany sidetable for $10 (I kept the legs and threw away the damaged top); and a nifty dresser shaving mirror in mahogany for $40 which I will be refinishing soon. The mirror, along with a couple of very old picture frames, came out of the Hill mansion in Culpeper. Just getting the opportunity to walk through the mansion to pickup my treasures was worth the trip!

I’m having a lot of fun trying out a few new techniques. The two Victorian-era picture frames that I bought are in need of some repair. One of them is missing the cast plaster molding in a corner. I’ve cast a new corner piece from a mold I made out of DAS modeling clay. Fingers crossed that the finished project turns out!

The kids may not want our stuff, that’s true. But I’m still looking for projects to refinish!

A Wonderful Life

The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah

If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/

Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version)
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.

The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.

It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.

Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.

Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.

I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.

This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.

George Bailey returns a changed man. “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”

Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin

Changed My Mind

First, an apology to all of my woodworking friends, craftsmen, and fabricators and finishers who create extraordinary pieces of furniture from walnut, mahogany, cherry and other woods. The rich gleam and subtle play of light accenting texture and grain  in your pieces are unmistakable.  The deep colors of walnut or an ebonized finish are striking. 

But I’m afraid, most older pieces of furniture (vintage, antique?) leave me wanting to grab my paint brushes and get started. Painting. Covering up those wood grains with a bright coat of gloss white enamel or lacquer, or maybe even a distressed crackle finish with a rubbed-in patina. 

Lately I’ve been partial to painting furniture with a whimsical collage of colors and patterns —think of Mackenzie-Childs, though with a more muted color palette than their hot pinks and spring greens or black and gold patterns.

Estate sale side table.

When I found an antique table available on a recent estate sale, I knew it would look great as a table base for one of my hand painted faux finish table tops.

A few years ago, Deb and I drove over to The Greebrier in WVA for lunch and to have a look around at their world-renowned interiors. The main rooms were especially colorful over the Christmas holiday and I remember how striking the decor seemed. Originally designed by Dorothy Draper and now maintained and refreshed by Carlton Varney, the bold use of color and over-sized patterned wallpaper really caught my eye. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I loved those huge black and white checks, striped wallpaper, and painted tables. 

A settee in bold pattern, flanked by gloss black side tables.
Grey, blue, or citrine yellow for the table base?

It was in the spirit of the over-the-top Greenbrier decor that I expected to paint the legs for my blue marble table. Not black. The legs already looked black from aged varnish. Maybe bright white or a pewter gray to complement the greys and blues of the painted top. Or perhaps a vivid citrine yellow. But definitely color. 

While sanding through that almost-black finish, I discovered that the table base was red mahogany. Surprisingly I’m rather partial to mahogany. I’m not a big fan of the lighter finishes of woods such as ash or maple; definitely not a fan of the current gray-washed everything. But I love walnut and mahogany, especially with a satin finish or a hand rubbed look. 

So, my apologies to my woodworking friends for all the shade I’ve thrown your way over the years. This past week I bought a can of tung oil with my sandpaper. 

You can see the results below.