Saturday, March 17, 2018

Caught In the Camera Eye

Few would now be found to deny the claims of photography to rank among the fine arts when skillfully used and properly controlled, and the contention that it was only convenient for use in the reproduction of already existing pictures, in scientific and historic records, reproductive printing and kindred subjects, would only find favor with a small minority. The photograph of today is something more than a mechanical reproduction. The individuality of the photographer is being expressed in his work almost as much as in that of the painter, and while critics are discussing if there be art in photography, photographers are settling the question for themselves.
A Lecture on the Application of Artisitic Composition in Photography. The Photographic Times, Vol 37, p361 (1905)

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 82mm, f/6.3, 1/160, ISO 100.   Photo RGH

I have previously written about how I'm not much of an artist. My writing is more technical and "scholarly" than entertaining. I have taught myself a few songs on the guitar, but would never be confused with an actual guitar player. And when it comes to my photography, I am a technician (unlike Kari who is much more intuitive behind a camera). I hesitate to call myself a photographer, and I certainly do not consider myself an artist. I'm just a guy with a camera.

Photography, just as in any other art medium, is about the way someone sees and presents his subject. A Photographer is a composition artist. Without good composition, it doesn't matter the subject or how well it's exposed. The "art" in photography lies in how the photographer manipulates light, composition, and emotion. It's this last aspect where I struggle. I have an idea of what I want to photograph and what I want to exclude, and I have a pretty good idea how to bring out the highlights that I want, but trying to get my photos to tell a story or project a feeling is tough. I find it hard to define what is "great" about a photo that someone else took, so I find it doubly difficult to create that feeling in my own.

When Kari and I first picked up our "grown-up" camera, we had no idea how to manipulate its various functions. We basically left it in "Auto" mode and used it like a point-and-shoot. Quell horreur! As a result, most of our pics from that time period are pretty much crap. Still, we managed to put together a few frames that have stood the test of time. We gradually started taking more control of the camera functions, to the point where we both now shoot in full manual mode (except for some very specific circumstances where we let the camera control one or two aspects). While that control has helped to improve our photography, our ability to frame and compose an image has had at least as much influence on the increasing quality of our photos. I have seen a clear improvement in the photos I have taken over the past year, and Kari feels the same way about her own photography. There is no substitute for getting out and taking pictures, and while having a great camera helps, we have noticed that even our cell phone pics are much better as well. It really isn't about the camera equipment that we use, but the vision of the person shooting.

Since leaving New Zealand, our lives have become exponentially more complicated. As a result, our ability to get out and shoot has been limited. Still, we have managed to put together a small number of photos that stand out above the others.

Nikon D750 + AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR @ f/3, 1/250, ISO 400.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR @ f/14, 1/160, ISO 100.   Photo: RGH

Adding to our ever-growing collection of lenses, we recently picked up a used Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR Micro lens. Kari does a lot of macro work, and getting her a dedicated lens was one of my goals. Incidentally, it’s a really good portrait lens. The biggest issue I have been having is that I have to get right up into people’s grills with this one. It’s a proximity I’m not super comfortable with ... and I’m sure it’s not so comfortable for those of whom I am taking pictures. We have spent quite a bit of time with some good friends lately, and Nate has been a really good sport about letting me shove my camera in his face.

It is a macro lens, so we have been trying to learn how to put it to that use, too.

Nikon D750 + AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR @ f/3, 1/200, ISO 100.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR @ f/3.5, 1/2000, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Kari and I have reached a point where we are both often carrying a camera. That’s a set-up that doesn’t work out so well when we only have one camera to share, so our plan was to buy a second camera body before moving back to New Zealand. Back in November, the camera I had been thinking about purchasing went on sale at a ridiculously low price and I couldn’t pass it up. I made my first ever Black Friday purchase and we are now the proud parents of a Nikon D750. We bundled it with a Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens. Now, Kari uses the D810 and I use the D750. We have 4 lenses to choose from, and once we pick up a 300mm prime lens, we’ll be done with new equipment for a while.

I chose the D750 over another D810 or the just-introduced D850 for a couple of reasons. Certainly price was a factor ... the D750, even without the deep discount, retails for $1000 less than the D810, and $1500 less than the D850. But to be honest, I would have picked the D750 even if the prices had been the same. As I’ve started doing more street photography, I thought the articulating rear display would be helpful. I also shoot a lot of Little H’s sports and the D750 seemed to be a better set-up for this. Finally, the D750's reported outstanding low light performance has certainly proven to be true. It was just a bonus that it was also a slightly smaller and lighter camera than either of the other two, and when I am carrying it hand-held for a long period of time, it's noticeably more comfortable than the D810.

Nikon D750 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO 8000.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 4000.   Photo: RGH

Little H starting playing volleyball in New Zealand and really enjoyed it. On our return to the U.S., we looked for a team for her to join. At first, she wasn’t nearly as happy as she was playing with her friends in New Zealand, but once her team’s skills improved and they started playing well together, she started having a lot more fun. Club volleyball involves quite a bit of travel, and that has fallen primarily to Kari to sort out. I was fortunate to be able to get to one of the away tournaments. I didn’t think much about shooting the games before I got there and found it quite challenging once I started. The game moves quickly, it’s hard to follow the ball through the camera lens, and the lighting inside of high school gymnasia leaves a lot to be desired. I shot over 200 pictures in the course of the day and only had about 7-8 that were even usable. I have since spent quite a bit of time online, reading about how to shoot indoor volleyball, and I was excited to put my new knowledge to the test. Unfortunately, the season is over and I never got that second chance.

Immediately after we returned to the U.S., and before our lives got turned upside-down trying to renovate our house, Kari and I spent a little bit of time photographing in and around Murrells Inlet. Driving home from the hospital in the mornings, the light was always amazing. On my way home, I stopped a couple of times to watch the inlet awaken. Another morning, Kari and I went to one of our local state parks to shoot birds.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 180mm, f/5.6, 1/8, ISO 64.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/6.3, 1/1250, ISO 400.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/6.3, 1/1250,  ISO 400.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 52mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Even Little H has decided to get in on our new hobby.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 42mm, f/4, 1/30, ISO 1000.   Photo: Little H

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 78mm, f/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1000.   Photo: Little H

Each year, our hospital Christmas party is held at Brookgreen Gardens, one of our local cultural centers. Initially the private residence and gardens of Collis Potter Huntington and his wife Anna Hyatt Huntington, it is now a sculpture garden and wildlife preserve that covers over 15 sqmi. The area features over 1400 sculptures by Anna Huntington, her sister Harriet Randolph Hyatt Mayor, and other American sculptors. The Nights of a Thousand Candles event is held every December and features more than 5500 hand-lit candles. It is truly a magical place on those nights. Unfortunately for the night of the Christmas party, the weather did not cooperate. Little H dubbed it the Night of 1000 Unlit Candles. It was cold and drizzly, and the candles weren't lit, but it still made for a pretty cool walk.

Nikon D750 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 32mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 8000.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 24mm, f/4, 1/30, ISO 2800.   Photo: RGH

My brother and SIL live on a lake northeast of Toronto. Summer and winter visits are generally pretty low-key, although we do try to get out and enjoy the land and the woods. We make the occasional trek into town for supplies, but mostly we while the days away doing as little as possible. This year we were fortunate to have 10 days off after Christmas to head up for an extended visit. We had the misfortune of going there during a stretch of record low temperatures. As a result, sojourns outside were necessarily brief.

Nikon D750 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 50mm, f/5.6, 1/3, ISO 100.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 26mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 100.   Photo: RGH

Nikon D750 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 29mm, f/4, 1/500, ISO 100.   Photo: RGH

With all of the options available to her, Kari seems to have a preference for the 24-120mm f/4G ... it’s her “go-to” lens of late (it’s probably my favorite, too). She spent a few days in Delaware with her friend, Kelley. Then, when my SIL was visiting, they spent a day at Hopsewee Plantation. While these weren’t dedicated photography outings, she has started to make a habit of taking a camera with her, even on short trips.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 58mm, f/4, 1/3200, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 120mm, f/4, 1/60, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 31mm, f/14, 1/50, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 120mm, f/13, 1/40, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Nikon D810 + AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR @ 100mm, f/4.5, 1/40, ISO 64.   Photo: KAH

Living in New Zealand, I tried to sling the camera over my shoulder whenever we walked out the door, a habit I have fallen out of since returning to the U.S. I think we sometime see the places we live as being somewhat mundane, boring, and not really worth photographing. In New Zealand, everywhere we went, we took along a sense of wonder and adventure. I think we had that same impression when we first returned to the U.S., but we quickly fell back into familiar patterns. My goal over our few remaining months here is to try to see this place with bright and wondrous eyes.

Sittin' in the mornin' sun.
I'll be sittin' when the evening comes ...

Sunday, March 4, 2018


There’s closets in my head where dirty things are kept
That never see the light of day.
I want to drag them out, go for a walk
Just to see the look that’s on your face.
- Neil Finn / Crowded House Love You ‘Til the Day I Die

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) - Huntington State Park, Murrells Inlet, SC

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been five months since my last confession blog post.

We left New Zealand in September 2017 with a plan to return home to Myrtle Beach, put our house up for sale, and move back to NZ permanently by April or May of 2018. There were a lot of steps that needed to be accomplished to bring that plan to fruition. Getting our immigration sorted was going to be the most time consuming and cumbersome. We needed to get my permanent NZ medical license approved to then put in an immigration screening application. Once the screening application was approved, we would have 4 months to complete the full application. When our immigration is approved (still waiting), we can put the house up for sale. To get the house ready to be sold, we would have contractors in and out of our house for about 4 months; but before we could do that, we needed to replenish the savings we plowed through during our year away. Simple, right? Yeah, right. Neither simple nor easy. Every one of those pieces was a project in and of itself.

We actually started the process before leaving New Zealand by getting my Medical Council application started. I thought we had all the pieces in place before we left, but for the next 2 months there seemed to be an endless stream of requests for clarification and reams of paperwork. During our year in NZ, I complained constantly about the enormous percentage of my paycheck the staffing company took as their fee. I would almost be willing to pay it again just to have someone else deal with this bureaucratic nightmare. We were told it could take up to 6 months for my Medical Council approval to come through, but on Dec 3rd I received a letter informing me of my acceptance to a provisional vocational scope of practice with the Medical Council of New Zealand. Things were finally starting to happen.

I immediately started to work on our immigration application, and in the mean time we had put enough money away to start having our contractor come by. When we bought our house, we did so as a one day auction on a short sale. No inspection, just a walk through and a decision. We had been looking at several houses, and there was a smaller one that I actually preferred, but we loved the entranceway and light streaming into the great room, and this one was Kari’s favorite. In the end, we placed a bid for $1000 over asking price and that night we were informed that we had won. Unfortunately, the house came with a lot of things that needed work ... some minor and some anything but. We were lucky to find a contractor who has been with us every step of the way over the past several years.

Our home just before we bought it in 2011

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
- Talking Heads Once in a Lifetime

As you might already suspect, nothing we do is simple, easy, or straightforward. While we bid on the house in March 2011, took possession in May, and moved in June, we didn’t actually own it until January of the following year. That’s right, we were squatters in our own home for about 8 months. The short version is that the former owner had been foreclosed on so couldn’t stay in the home. When we showed up, it had been empty for the better part of a year. We needed a place to stay, and we had a key, so we moved in even though we didn’t own it. We had a contract but couldn’t close the sale because of some legal problems with the previous owner. While we had to keep up with paying the utilities while we were living there, we didn’t have a mortgage (yet) and we weren’t paying rent. We did little things to fix stuff, but I wasn’t going to invest any money in the house until I had the title. The worst part was that our air conditioning / heating died in August. I’ll be damned if I was going to spend $8K to replace it when I didn’t own the house, so we sweltered through an Indian summer and used extra blankets through the winter. When we finally closed on the house in January 2012, nearly a year after we “bought” it, we started fixing things in earnest.

Those of you who know us well are probably aware of our clothes problem; we own more clothes than any two people should really have. It’s so bad that Kari will occasionally find clothes in the closet that she forgot she bought years ago, still with the tags on and never worn! When you have all that stuff, you need somewhere to put it. Even with a large walk in closet and two chests of drawers, Kari still had a “walk-on” closet (the floor on her side of the bed on which she stacked clothes). When we moved into the house, the closets had those white wire closet storage racks/hangers. From the sheer weight of her clothes, the anchors would occasionally fail and the whole unit would rip out of the wall, dumping her clothes on the floor. I finally got tired of constantly repairing the racks, so decided to do something about it. My plan was to build permanent shelves and cabinets.

Walk-in closet, partially completed.

The first step was to get shelves and a clothes bar installed (Left-hand side in the photo above). That bought me time and space to get the much bigger projects going. Kari has quite the collection of cowboy boots and calf/knee-high boots and I wanted to get them up off the floor, so the back wall was built with boot racks up high. Room for 16 pairs of shoes was then added. A chest of drawers completed Kari’s portion of the closet. The old wire rack system was initially left in place on my side. The shelves and racks on the left went up in a week or two. I have a full-time job, and it’s not as a professional carpenter or cabinet maker, so the boot/shoe racks and drawers took another several months.

Life then got in the way and very little progress was made on the closet. At one point, our garage was so full of things we had brought up from Texas that I couldn’t get to my shop tools for almost 18 months. Once I could get to my tools, other household projects always seemed to take precedence. Then we left for a year. All told, the closet project stalled out for almost 4 years. I would make half-assed efforts to get some work done, but if I told Kari I was going to spend the week-end in the garage working on the closet, what I really meant was “I’m going to spend the week-end playing with my power tools and spending money on oak panels, but don’t expect me to actually accomplish very much.” With our return to the U.S., and our plan to put our house up for sale, the closet needed to either be torn out or completed. I set my sights on a surge of completion.

Three rooms piled into one.

Scaffolding and spackle.

Renovating a house while you are still living in it is a bit of a logistical nightmare. Our plan was to do one or two rooms at a time, moving everything out of those rooms and piling it into a couple of others. By constantly shuffling things between rooms, and starting on the second floor, we had hoped to minimize the disruption in our lives. Oh, the best laid plans. Regardless of whether the contractors were working in the spaces in which we were living or not, having them tromping through our lives every day was every bit as disruptive as we were hoping to avoid. Add in that I work nights and sleep during the day, and my “down time” was anything but restful.

Prior to us moving in, the house had been empty for almost a year. South Carolina’s Low Country in the summer is humid place and the sheetrock, dry-wall, etc absorbed all that moisture. After running the air conditioner constantly for several months, things started drying out and the cracks appeared. Many of the dry-wall seams and almost all of the ceiling seams started to show buckling and cracks. Our house was put up during the housing boom and the ceiling sheet-rock was put up with nails (faster) rather than screws (better but more time consuming). As the underlying wood dried out and contracted, the nails started to back out. The entire ceiling was sagging in places. Cosmetic stuff. Everything was structurally sound and there were no leaks, so we did nothing about it. We just don’t care much about aesthetics. Well, you can’t sell a half-million dollar house in a gated golf-club community as a “fixer-upper” so suddenly we had to care. I initially tried doing the work myself, but the outcome was less than professional, it took me days to do just a small section, and I made a terrible mess in the process. We sucked it up and brought in the professionals.

Master bedrooms ... upstairs and down.

Garage Shop is open for business.

Leaving it to the professionals turned out to be the best idea in terms of time, efficiency, cleanliness, and outcome. And it allowed me to take on a couple of projects of my own. The first step was getting the garage cleaned out, re-organized, and setting up my wood shop again. I was going to be spending a whole lot of time in there over the next several months, so I made sure the garage refrigerator was stocked, tuned the radio to my favorite station, and dusted off the heater ... that garage is damned cold on winter mornings and late at night.

I wanted to get started on the closet, but first we needed to empty it out and have somewhere to put everything, and that meant the upstairs master bedroom had to be finished. So, I set my sights on a more immediate and manageable task. When Kari and I moved to Washington DC after med school (2006), we had a bunch of mis-matched furniture from our previous living arrangements. We had no outdoor furniture, so we bought an teak outdoor table and 6 chair set. We had nearly nothing to our names, but we had a sweet outdoor dining area! That table and chair set hosted countless crawfish boils and survived 2 years in DC and 3 years in Iowa City, including 3 Iowa winters. We dragged it with us to South Carolina where it baked in the sun. It hadn’t seen the rough side of a piece of sandpaper or a drop of oil for 12 hard-worn years and it looked every bit as damaged as you imagine it would. I was all for scrapping it and buying new. Kari pointed out that we didn’t have the money to buy new and that we needed it to not look completely trashed when it came time to show the house.

My plan was to disassemble the table and chairs down to individual slats. I (mostly) succeeded and ended up with a pile of wood fit only for the fire pit. I set to work with sander and teak oil bringing those tired scraps back to life. The pieces would never look new again, but the battle scars, crawfish stains, and sun-cracks gave history to the pieces, and they are better for it. As much as I hate to admit it, Kari was right. The table and chairs look great and I am happy to pack them for the trip across the pond when we finally leave. Ten years from now, though, I’m buying new.

My wood looks great after rubbing some oil on it.

Finally, the upstairs master bedroom re-do was complete. New floor laid, seams taped and mudded, and fresh paint slapped everywhere. We moved ourselves upstairs so the contractors could start working downstairs. While they were doing that, I got into the downstairs master suite walk-in closet and demo’d the wire rack system. I was glad to finally be shut of it all. The damage to the underlying dry-wall was extensive, so everything had to be repaired, sanded, and painted before I could start building the shelving, cabinets, and drawers for my side.

Closet demo’d. You can see the original work I did for Kari’s side. The ceiling is 10’ high, so the high shelves are at 8’. The tall sections at the back are for boots. There’s room for 16 pairs of shoes, and the drawers are deep.

3/4” Oak boards are expensive ... about $9/ft for the 12” x 3/4” boards that make up most of the closet ... so, the backs for some of the drawers are made from glued-up scraps. A channel is routered into each board for the drawer bottom.

The backs of the drawers are planed down to 1/2” and installed using a rabbett joint. 

Dove-tail joints connect the front and sides for each drawer.

Eschewing modern hardware, each drawer rides on a hard-wood rail, lovingly lubricated by rubbing in bee’s wax wood conditioner.

Et, voila!

Finished product. Kari has a high rack on the left for dresses and such, room for 14 pairs of boots and 16 pairs of shoes, and a chest of 8 drawers, the bottom two of which are extra deep. I have two shorter racks (one up, one down), a cabinet of shelves, a chest of drawers, and a small tall rack for sport coats and such. I also have a shoe rack (6 slots) and a boot rack (7 slots).

Working on the project only sporadically, it took almost 5 years to complete. I spent untold hours in the garage and the materials cost is something I don’t even want to think about. Each piece was measured 5 or 6 times before cutting (measure twice, cut once doesn’t work out so well in my shop). Even with that care and meticulousness, I made endless mistakes. After measuring, cutting, and sanding, the pieces were clear-coated. Sanding was in 4 parts ... 80 grit, 120 grit, 180 grit, and 220 grit. Each piece has four layers of clear coat, sanded between coats with 400 grit and 600 grit. The last coat is wet-sanded with 1000 grit paper for a smooth, glassy finish. Every time I needed to learn a new technique, particularly with joinery, I would take on a mini project for something else so I could work out the steps and the kinks before committing it to oak.

I learned a lot of specific wood-working techniques along the way, but I learned a lot of lessons, too. The first was patience. Rushing any step inevitably led to destruction, frustration, and an expensive do-over. I also learned how to fix minor mistakes, hide them, or incorporate them as a “feature”. I am my own worst critic. I look at this project and I am proud, but I also see all the tiny little things that went wrong (and there are many).

I am both sad and excited to see it finally completed. I will definitely take on something like this again, but I think I will do it with cheaper wood ...

Shop pics that I really liked but couldn’t figure out how to incorporate into the story.

Our house is a very, very, very fine house ...

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Planes, Trains, and Autombiles

I am Arthur, king of the Britons. Whose castle is that?
King of The Who?
The Britons
Who're the "Britons"?
Well, we all are. We're all Britons, and I am your king.
Didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy ...
- Monty Python and The Holy Grail

Happy kids after getting stuffed at Geno's. Photo RGH

Leaving NYC turned out to be easier than we had imagined. We were staying in Midtown, 1.5 blocks from Times Square, and I was a little concerned about the next part of our journey. So far, our trip had involved several long-haul flights, and a bunch of train rides. We used Uber to get to and from the train station, but had not spent any significant time in a car. After New York City, the rest of our trip to South Carolina would be all by car. Kari had gone online and found a car rental only two blocks from our NYC apartment. My first thought on hearing this was fear and trepidation. Here we were in midtown Manhattan, picking up a car after not driving at all in a month and not driving on the Right side of the road in a year. Getting out of the middle of the city was likely to be a bit of an adventure. Surprisingly, it actually went fairly well.

We had a 10 o'clock appointment to pick up the car, and true to from, we were a few minutes late. At the car rental agency, there was a line. Several people had been waiting 30-40 minutes when we arrived. As the line got longer, so too did the wait. Imagine being in a small rental agency office with poor air conditioning on a hot New York morning. Now pack that office with a bunch of New Yorkers who have been waiting over an hour to pick up a car. The tension in the air and the comments flying around continued to ramp up. When I finally got to the counter, the poor clerks were more than a little harried. They were running low on cars and offered me a Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger. Not exactly large family cars suitable for long distance travel, but I wasn't going to turn down the chance to drive a muscle car through the streets of Manhattan. Alas, when they brought the car out, it was a Ford Fusion. Probably a better option for our trip, but I can't say I wasn't disappointed.

Getting out of Manhattan proved all too easy. We drove down half a block, made one turn, then had a short drive to the Lincoln Tunnel and New Jersey. Once we were under the river and into New Jersey, we set the cruise control and made our way to Collegeville, PA. Our destination was the home of two of our oldest and dearest friends. Jim and Amanda have been a part of my life for over 20 years, and good friends to Kari from the moment she met them. We have travelled together and made multiple pilgrimages to each other's homes. We couldn't wait to spend a few days enveloped in comfortable friendship, and Little H couldn't wait to spend a few days playing with their kids instead of hanging out with us. Of course, as long as we were near Philly, we needed to play tourist. Kari had never eaten an original Philly Cheesesteak, so we included that in our plans.

Only one kid was keen for a photo shoot. Photo RGH

Carpenter's Hall. Meeting site of the First Continental Congress 5 Sept - 26 Oct 1774. Photo RGH

Independence Hall. Site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4 1776. Photo RGH

Pat's claims to be the originator of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, while Geno's claims to be the best. Photos RGH

Legend has it that Pat and Harry Olivieri created the Philly cheesesteak sandwich at their hotdog stand in the 1930s. Today, the restaurant is located at the site of their original hotdog stand. Geno's was established in 1966, directly across the street from Pat's. They didn't invent the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but they claim to have perfected it. I had tried the Pat's sandwich many years ago, so this time we ate at Geno's.

From Philly, we were off to Washington, DC to meet up with other friends. Scott and Anita split their time between DC and Denver. We were fortunate that they were in town. They both work in theatre and are putting in some long days, so we were only able to catch up with them in the evenings. During the day, we played tourist. We lived just outside of the beltway when Little H was first born but haven't been back since. After having been to Philly, we had a chance to connect the origins of the US government to its current iteration. We also spent time in the National Gallery of Art and the Natural History Museum. The great weather continued to follow us from New York and PA.

Little H was excited to hear that we were going to the mall, until ...

And she was less than thrilled to be spending more time looking at "boring" paintings ...

We finished our friendship tour by heading to the beach and the home of another good friend. Once again, the thought of leaving DC and tackling the beltway caused me great anxiety. Fortunately, we left late enough in the day and were only on the beltway for a short piece, so the drive was much easier than I anticipated. As we headed further south, the skies continued to warm, and by the time we made it to Bethany, it was shorts and t-shirt weather. We spent just a little time at Kelley's, then headed for the beach. Thanks for the wine, lobster, and hospitality, Kelley!

Girls' day at the beach. Photos RGH

Kari and Little H stayed behind to spend another couple of days with Kelley while I made a beeline south. I have to work in a few days and needed to get back to get our US life back in order. There was one more surprise waiting for me, though. On my arrival back home, I walked into a house with a stocked refrigerator. Our friends think of everything. It is the friends who we have visited along the way, and those awaiting our arrival, that truly made this a homecoming. Thanks to each and every one of you.

Welcome home ...