Tag Archives: reflections & sketches

Snow Forts and King of the Hill

and How The Empire Strikes Back Brought the Two Together

Reviews, criticisms, predictions, and all sort of monologues, dialogues, and ramblings crowd the interweb these days regarding Star Wars. I’m not here to add to the chaff. Nope, I just want to scribble a few lines about the Battle of Hoth and how it inspired a bunch of grade school kids.

I’d ask you to go watch The Empire Strikes Back if you haven’t seen it, but I figure you already have if you’ve read this far. Your view of Star Wars may have changed over the course of last couple/few movies (I know mine has), but you have to acknowledge that the Battle of Hoth scene was, and still is, pretty freakin’ amazing (especially if you saw it for the first time in 1980 like me). I could go into detail about how well the scene was shot, the cinematography, the use of miniatures, and so forth but let’s just agree that pretty freakin’ amazing is a fair and just critical analysis. That Battle of Hoth and Han getting the carbonite nap are the two scenes that I distinctly remember near forty years later. I also remember spending an entire winter playing king of the hill many days after school on a series of snow forts we built on piles of snow the plows pushed to one corner of the school’s playground.

I have been entertained, informed, and inspired by many movies, but only one has given me reason to chuck somebody off a snow fort while making sounds like a tauntaun. Sometimes I think back to that winter of snow forts and king of the hill, and I feel sorry for the Star Wars fans that didn’t have the opportunity to relive the Battle of Hoth.


From Jackson to Chicago in 10 Hours

and 45 Degrees

Have you ever punched yourself in the face? I’m not talking about getting punched in the face, that’s a different kind of pain. I’m asking if you ever flat out punched yourself in the face? It may be an odd question but it sets the stage for the self-inflicted punishment of a 10 hour drive from Jackson, Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois, in January.

I’m a focused driver when it comes to road trips. I put the pedal down until there is a low fuel light and stop just long enough to tank up, down a red bull, and maybe water the daisies. I figured if I left Jackson after breakfast (where it was 50 degrees) I could get home to Chicago in time for a late dinner (where the forecast was for 5 degrees and snow).

Road Sign (P7000-edit)“Road Sign”–Took this the day before I left (it was in the mid-fifties).

Snow and cold are part of living in the Midwest, but that feeling of rolling out of Jackson on I55 wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and ten hours later exiting I57 near Chicago with windshield wipers working fast to keep the snow off the windshield lets you know what winter (and sometimes fall or spring) is really like in the Midwest.

Lake Renwick (#9-edit)“Lake Renwick”–Taken the day after I got home (it was a sweltering in the low twenties).


Out In It

The Midwest, Snow, and Man v. Nature

Do you brag or do you bitch about the snow? Midwesterners tend to have a hate and love to hate relationship with the snow. We hate it when it snows, but we also love to brag about how we were out in it and were bad asses.

When the forecasts roll in there is the usual bitching about how bad the snow will be, how the roads probably won’t be cleared in time for work, and how people forget to drive in the snow. There is the usual grumbling about cleaning snow off cars, shoveling driveways, and salting sidewalks. And there is always the complaining about how it will be worse than last year or the year before that.

Snowed In

Then the snow arrives and we brag about how we managed to get to work even though the streets weren’t plowed and how we dodged the idiots who forgot how to drive in the snow. We boast about how much we shoveled (we don’t mention the snow blower) and how we got it done in record time. Finally, we complement our own bad assery for surviving a snow that was worse than last year or the year before that (even if it wasn’t).

Not Driving

The snow and the cold in the Midwest may not be as bad as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” but we do like to bitch when it comes and brag about how we got out in it and survived.


What’s Worse Than Shape Shifting Aliens?

Shape Shifting Aliens in the Snow.

Imagine fighting a shape shifting alien while not knowing whether the people around you were friends or foes. Now imagine experiencing this life or death struggle in the snow. This is what John Carpenter’s The Thing presents to the audience.

The Thing works well as a horror movie with its shape shifting alien that inhabits the bodies of its victims. The sense of fear that runs through the movie is due, in large part, to the paranoia caused by not knowing who the alien has infected. But Carpenter’s use of the snowy landscape of Antarctica adds a visceral element to the horror story. The hostile environment created by the snow and cold adds a level of conflict (man v. nature) that any viewer who has experienced a harsh winter can relate to. Viewers have never faced off against a shape shifting alien but many have experienced snowy days when temperatures dipped into negative digits.

The snow and the cold of The Thing intensify the harsh experiences the characters endure while fighting a shape shifting alien. Carpenter’s use of snow and cold also provide a visceral connection for viewers who have experienced harsh winters. We may have to imagine shape shifting aliens but harsh winters are all too real (especially for those of us in the Midwest).


The Thing (1982) starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, and Keith David. Directed by John Carpenter.

Warm Boots, Quiet Nights, and Medium Format

or The Satisfaction of Shooting in the Snow

Snow is part of life in the Midwest. We expect snow. We get snow. But the snow often comes when it isn’t expected, and it’s seldom that we get the amount that was in the forecast. It’s this unpredictable element that makes shooting in the snow a satisfying experience.

There is a wonderful quiet that comes with a snowy night. Streets empty and the general background noise of the city fades away. The snow changes the landscape. Prospective subjects present new perspectives when covered with snow. The forecast may not call for snow but it’s important to be ready for it. When the snow starts to fall it’s time to get the camera ready (my go to winter camera is a Mamiya 645), lace up a pair of warm boots, and wait for it to get so quiet you can almost hear the cold.

Snowy Street with Lights (#111-edit-scan)‘Snowy Street with Lights’

Snow in the Midwest is a given (it just not always predictable). This means there are always going to be opportunities to get out and shoot in the snow if you are prepared. Snowy nights can make for some great photographs if you are ready and willing to get a little cold.


Where is the Scare?

Searching for a Real Scare

Halloween is the one time a year when we search out scares. The rest of the year we avoid them. I started the month of October with a few scary movies, a couple of suspenseful stories, and one haunted house without any real scares. I’m not saying I haven’t had a few startles and jumps, but I haven’t had a, “What’s that in the in the shadow, under the bed, in the closet?” kind of scare in quite a while. Is this because I’ve grown immune to the standard scares provided by movies, stories, and such? Have I been overexposed and desensitized? Has it all become too cliché? Maybe I’m in the minority but I do enjoy a good scare once in a while so this Halloween season is not off to a good start. Then I got to thinking about what used to scare me.

One source of a few childhood scares was a graveyard next to the grade school I attended. I was a latchkey kid (do people still use the word latchkey these days) and on my way home I either walked around or through that graveyard. One cold and rainy fall day (I’d like to say it was during October but my memory isn’t what it was) in third grade a few friends and I were sharing scary stories toward the end of the day. They were rather typical Scooby Doo style scary stories until an eighth grader decided to join the conversation. Most of the common school stories about the graveyard were a bit over the top and populated with demons, ghosts, and other various monsters. These things still scared me a little but I was at that point in my life where I knew they weren’t real. The story the eighth grader related to us was different. Although it is a pretty standard urban legend I didn’t know it at the time. He told us the story of a group of teenagers who drove a car into a tombstone while trying to leave the graveyard after a night of drinking. All of the teenagers, save one, gathered around the damaged tombstone, mocked the deceased, and laughed at the damage they caused. The teenagers drove off and were in another accident, this time hitting a telephone pole. All the teenagers, save the one, died in the accident. A couple of friends and I cut through the graveyard to verify the eighth grader’s claim. There was a tombstone near the access drive that was damaged. We didn’t say much the rest of the walk home. I lived the farthest so those last three blocks alone in the cold and rain were an eerie kind of quiet. That quiet was broken by the sound of skidding tires on wet pavement and the sound of metal on metal. A fender bender in light rain was a simple coincidence, but for a nine-year old it was enough to make me sprint that last half block and turn on every damn light in the house.

I visited my mother yesterday and took her hound dog for a walk. We took a roundabout way through the neighborhood and cut through the graveyard on our way back. The tombstone is still there (and with 35 years of life experience I realized the damage was from weather). But as I stood before that tombstone my heart began to race. For a brief moment I felt that fear, maybe not the fear but the memory of the fear from that afternoon in third grade. H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” As we grow up and gain life experience less and less remains unknown so less and less remains scary.

I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of unknown out there for me to be afraid of, but for now I’m thinking back to those original scares, that time when there was a little more unknown than known. Instead of movies, stories, and such that simply rehash the known, I’m going to revisit the ones that made me turn flashlights toward the shadows, check under the bed, and keep the closet door open. I’m hoping to bring back some of those old scares. Tonight is Jack Nicholson in The Shinning. What are you watching?


What if You Don’t Like Campfires or Rain?

or Why You Should Attend a Performance by Leslie Goddard

Even I find campfires and rain a bit much at times. The former can dry out your eyes and the later can soak your socks. Sometimes I want to sit in a chair and have and entertaining experience that leaves me with a greater understanding of history. If you are of a like mind, may I suggest that you attend a performance by Leslie Goddard?

Audiences are transported through time and space for an hour of living history during Ms. Goddard’s performances. In the past year I’ve watched Ms. Goddard bring Louisa May Alcott, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grace Kelly to life. In each instance we, her audience, are made to feel as if we are welcomed visitors in the homes of these great women. Her performances are both entertaining and insightful looks into the lives of important figures from our past. The audience leaves with a greater understanding of the woman presented and her role in history. Ms. Goddard is the embodiment of living history. If you don’t want to smell of burnt wood or wet wool then I suggest you visit Ms. Goddard’s website and see if she if performing near you.