april 2020

4.1.20
I started reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonarda da Vinci sometime last fall, but I only finished it recently. I got about halfway through before I got stuck/bored, but I picked it up again after finishing David Thorne's latest book, and I was able to pick up a thread of interest and finish it this time.

Walter Isaacson has also written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and probably most famously, Steve Jobs, and it was springboarding from the Jobs book that brought me to the Leonardo biography. I tentatively planned to read his other three biographies in the chronological order of their subjects' lives, starting with Leonardo before moving to Franklin and then Einstein, but that plan got off track when I got stuck halfway through the Leonardo book.

Looking back, I got stuck mostly because of the way Isaacson chose to structure the book—he spent a long stretch in the middle giving detailed, art history PhD-level descriptions of several of Leonardo's paintings. Lacking familiarity with the works and only having poor black and white renditions to reference on the Kindle, I just got bored and couldn't make it all the way through, instead shifting my attention to another book (which has honestly only happened to me fewer than 10 times in my book reading life).

I'm glad I finished it, and I definitely have a greater appreciation for both Leonardo's polymathic genius (his obsession with the flow of water influenced both his engineering projects and his painting) and the unique advances he brought to the field of painting. While I got stuck on the extensive descriptions of some of his works, I was interested in the stories behind the works that he kept with him until the end of his life (like the Mona Lisa), never finishing them and never delivering them to the patrons who paid for them, instead choosing to continually apply new touches and details for years (sometimes decades) after the principal work was completed.

The tough thing about biographies of historical figures like Leonardo is that, despite having significant evidence of their work and interests and the impact they had on their era, we don't really know much about their inner thoughts. Even though Leonardo left behind copious journals (now recombined from different sources and called by owner-titled codex names), these weren't journals in the way that we think of journals. Although he occasionally wrote essays that expounded on different technical subjects, they were mostly filled with art sketches and engineering diagrams, and very little gave us insight into his day to day life.

And in the end, what I've realized I'm looking for in a biography are those mundane details contrasted with the world-changing accomplishments of their subjects, something that the Jobs biography was able to deliver not only because Isaacson had direct access to and cooperation from Steve Jobs, but also because of the extensive record of interviews with both Jobs and the people who worked with him and called him a friend. All great biographical subjects were still just people who had to navigate the world the same as the rest of us, and it's that contrast between the everyday and the transcendent that really fascinates me.

In retrospect, Isaacson did about as good a job as you could do given the documents and other output he had access to, piecing together a solid historical timeline that detailed where Leonardo lived, who he owed money and/or art/engineering projects to, and who he had long-term professional and personal relationships with, along with solid insights into Leonardo's work in various fields. But you still don't really get a sense of the man, through no fault of Isaacson's; to enter further into Leonardo's mind would be pure speculation, which isn't what a good biographer is supposed to do (even though that type of writing sometimes produces more compelling, readable narratives).

I don't know that I'll ever read the Franklin and Einstein biographies, although if I do, I'm guessing if I do I'll like the Einstein book better simply because there are more of the kinds of sources that Isaacson had for Jobs for Einstein than there are for Franklin. But I won't be moving immediately to either of those books—even though I'm staying in the world of non-fiction, my next book is David Grann's The Lost City of Z.


4.2.20
We're in April now, and we're also now getting deep into coronavirus social distancing that, regardless of our governor's or president's desire, should not end anytime soon. The weather is getting nicer, people are getting stir crazy, and I'm really concerned about how even educated, responsible people will react as the isolation goes on and our natural desire to be outside and be around other people increases.

That's one of the insidious things about this virus: you can have it and have no symptoms, you can have minor symptoms that are easy to blow off even as you are contagious, and you can be contagious before and after you have symptoms (if you ever have symptoms at all). Our programming for pretty much every illness has conditioned us to believe that we can only be contagious after we are showing symptoms, and that once we start to feel better we can no longer spread the disease to others.

But with this disease, there are no stable feedback mechanisms to help guide our behavior, and without those guardrails, a lot of people are going to say "I feel fine, so I can go out and assume that everybody else who's out is fine, too, so we're not going to get other people sick or get sick ourselves." We're terrible at making good decisions when there is either a long delay on consequences for bad decisions or no consequences at all (at least to ourselves).

This is a disease where it's as much about protecting the vulnerable who may be several degrees of separation from you as it is about protecting yourself and your immediate household, and that's almost inevitably going to lead people to make choices where we're extending the lifespan of the virus and giving it access to lots of new potential hosts. I can envision a series of waves of this disease, as we get scared into doing the right thing, then see the positive impacts of those good choices and start to make bad choices again because we mistakenly believe the worst has passed.

In reality, this thing is not likely to go away as a day to day concern until we either have a vaccine (where we can truly be safe again) or at least have a treatment that drastically reduces the number of people who need to be hospitalized and/or who die from the disease. Sure, we can hope that the disease might magically mutate and become less dangerous and/or less contagious, but as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy. And for now, the only strategy we do have—staying away from one another and foregoing all the social interactions that we are hardwired to love—is one that we are likely to be fantastically bad at adhering to at the herd level.


4.3.20
Early this morning Julie woke up feeling nauseous, and she threw up a few times. She also developed a fever, and out of an abundance of caution, she called the Emory coronavirus hotline to see what she should do, and they recommended that she self-isolate for seven days or until she has been fever-free for three days, whichever is longer.

So she's set up in the bedroom now with her laptop and other things she needs to entertain herself and do some work. Even though it seems likely that this is food poisoning, she still has a fever and isn't feeling well, so Will and I won't see her for at least a week and we'll be monitoring ourselves for symptoms as well.

Even though I know rationally that 1) she likely does not have the coronavirus and 2) even if she does, she's statistically unlikely to develop severe complications, it's still terrifying to think about the worst case scenario. I'm a worst case scenario kind of person anyway, but so far my reaction to the coronavirus has been the sort of generalized, abstract (although still severe) anxiety. This focuses all of that fear in a very concrete way, and I can't imagine I'm going to be able to sleep or work or do anything else very well until Julie starts to feel better.


4.6.20
Julie is still self-isolating, but fortunately this doesn't seem to be anything serious. She hasn't had a fever since Saturday, and her appetite slowly returned on Sunday and is mostly back to normal now. She's still going to stay quarantined in the bedroom until Friday per medical advice, but the worst seems to be behind her.

Since she can't come out of the room, I've turned into her butler, preparing her meals, putting them on a tray, and leaving the tray at her door for her to pick up when I've walked away. Every day or so the tray will come back with  all the dishes from the previous day, which I need to immediately wash just in case there are any germs or viruses.

I've moved to sleeping on the couch (I'm too lazy to clean off the bed in the guest bedroom, which has turned into a storage area) and taking my showers in Will's bathroom. Aside from on trip (masked up and being very careful about cleaning surfaces and washing my hands immediately afterward) to gather toiletries and clothes to last me for a week, I haven't been in my own room at all.

Will has been calling her on FaceTime, and luckily this week is Will's spring break, so neither of us has to worry about overseeing his schoolwork this week. It's very weird, but now that the panic part is (hopefully) over, we're adjusting to this new routine and figuring out the modified rhythms of work and play.


4.7.20
It was my birthday on Saturday, and although this was going to be a less than ideal year to celebrate given the restrictions from the coronavirus, it was an even less celebratory day because Julie was in isolation and still showing the same symptoms she had on Friday.

It was also a little sad because I had originally planned to take most or all of this week off to go on a trip with just me and Will. My plan was to go to Birmingham, AL, and do a lot of the fun things I did on my visits there when my friend Regan lived there—going to Sloss Furnace, climbing the Vulcan statue, going to a Barons minor league baseball game, touring the Golden Flake factory, etc. It would have been a fun few days having adventures with him, but instead we'll just be sitting at home, just like we have the last few weeks and just like we will for the foreseeable future.

Despite being quarantined, Julie did arrange a couple of surprises that made the day much better. One was talking Will over Zoom through making a batch of brownies for my birthday cake—the first time he's ever made anything by himself using the oven. She also had Kristy Kreme delivered for breakfast and had already ordered a present for Will to give me—a Lego version of Boba Fett's ship from Star Wars, the Slave I.

The biggest surprise, though, was that she arranged fo several of my friends that I regularly do trivia nights with—eight of them in total—to get on a Zoom call and have our own trivia night. My friend Steve made up several rounds of questions, and the other eight of us broke up into teams of two. You would text with your partner to come up with your team's answer, and then you would email Steve with your answer and points you risked, and each round of regular questions was followed by a bonus question.

It was totally unexpected, and it really helped lift my spirits (along with the fact that as the day went on, Julie's fever went away and she was generally starting to feel better). This day undoubtedly would have been better if we weren't under lockdown—we could have gone out to a favorite restaurant, we could have celebrated with friends and family in person, etc.—but that Zoom trivia night was a truly unique experience, and one that I won't ever forget.


4.8.20
Our church stopped doing in-person services the week of the lockdown, instead broadcasting from the chapel with the rector, and associate rector, and the music director, but then the bishop closed all church buildings in the diocese and they moved to doing the services over Facebook Live and Zoom broadcasting from the homes of the officiants.

We set up Will with an eight year old iMac on the dining room table (which is in the same big open plan room as our couch/tv area and our kitchen), so we stream the service on Will's computer and then cast it from Chrome to the Chromecast we have plugged into the back of the tv. We sit together on the couch and follow along with the electronic bulletin on our iPads.

One of my favorite annual events that our church did was to do our march from the Decatur post office through downtown Decatur to our church on Palm Sunday, carrying our palm branches as we went. But since we couldn't meet up for the march, and couldn't even get real palms, they told us to get green branches from trees or bushes in our yards and hold those during the online service, so Will went out and gathered some, including one he left for Julie outside the bedroom door so she could have one as she followed along in quarantine.

It's strange, but it's also comforting to see this community adapt to this situation the same way all of our social and business communities have had to adapt to being at home all the time. Will's pretty good about not squirming too much and not getting too distracted, and in some ways I feel like he follows along better in this format than he does when we attend in person.


4.9.20
Everything that I had on my schedule from both a work and a personal perspective from mid March until early summer has either been canceled, rescheduled, or moved to an online format.

The Hamilton performance in April that was Will's big Christmas present? Moved to August. A professional conference in Nashville in June that was going to double as a family trip? Canceled. An April Waxahatchee concert at Terminal West? Rescheduled for September. A conference in DC in May? Reimagined as a series of online webinars. A June caribbean cruise that was going to be our big family vacation this year? Rescheduled for late July (and highly likely to be canceled altogether). Another conference that we were going to host our our campus in May? Condensed into a five hour webinar.

The only things that still remain on the schedule are the Peachtree 10k that attracts tens of thousands of runners on July 4 each year, and a Wilco concert scheduled for August. It's hard to see how an event as big as the Peachtree is going to stay scheduled for early July given how things are going right now, but I'm hoping by August things will be stable enough that both this show and the rescheduled Hamilton performance will happen.

But honestly, we know so little about this virus at this point that we have no idea whether we will have lowered the infection and hospitalization rates to a point where we can safely go out in public again by June or July, whether we will have an effective treatment that will make hospitalizations less frequent and less deadly, and whether we'll have testing and tracing in place to make it easier to know who has it and how to isolate them quickly to prevent further spread and outbreaks.

I wouldn't be surprised if we're able to resume a somewhat normal existence by August, but neither would I be surprised (especially if the federal and state governments bungle our response the way they have so far) if this drags on into next fall.


4.10.20
Julie ended her quarantine today, a week after she felt ill and had a fever and self-isolated on the advice of a nurse on the coronavirus hotline. She hasn't had a fever since the day after she first had symptoms, and she's had no respiratory issues, but the medical advice was to stay isolated for three days after the last sign of fever or seven days, whichever is longer.

We had developed a nice little routine—I would bring her the same breakfast every morning and leave it outside her door. take her order for lunch and make that, and then we'd all have dinner at the same time (but in separate rooms) before she would give me her dishes for the last day or two. Will would talk to her frequently over FaceTime, and she was able to do her work from her room (but was sometimes bored due to the lack of a tv in the bedroom, although she could watch streaming services on her laptop).

But it's good to have her back and reestablish our normal household routines. To celebrate, we're ordering takeout for dinner and watching Pixar's Onward, which came out on Disney+ last Friday but which Will and I decided to hold off on watching until we could all watch it together. Julie is very excited to be able to move around the rest of the house and take outdoor walks again, and Will is thrilled to have his mom and daytime work partner back (Julie and he both spend the work/school day on separate computers that have been set up on the dining room table).

We're so thankful that it, whatever it was (I still suspect food poisoning), she didn't develop any really serious symptoms and that we were able to get through one of us being isolated without too many hiccups.


4.13.20
Sunday was Easter, which was simultaneously a weirdly empty experience without the normal routines and markers of that day, but also strangely impactful, because the odd circumstances led to a lot of introspection about life and death that was very appropriate for the season. We attended church virtually, which is what we've been doing for the past month, and then we had calls with family in the afternoon.

It has become a tradition for the Easter Bunny to hide dozens of plastic eggs that each contain a piece of candy or two, so that happened after Will went to bed. Will has gotten pretty good at ferreting them out—he has a great memory for the strange places the Easter Bunny has hidden them before—but there are a few I've seen that he hasn't spotted yet.

Every year it seems like there are one or two that evade detection for weeks (sometimes months) before Will accidentally stumbles on them, and as much as he likes finding as many as he can, I think he likes those unexpected surprises even more.


4.14.20
Sunday night (Easter Sunday) was predicted to have some of the worst storms that the region has seen in decades, so when the tornado alert went off on our phones at 3 a.m., we all headed down to the basement for a half an hour just to be extra safe. The storms weren't that bad in our region, although there was lots of thunder and lightning and heavy winds.

The cats sometimes get freaked out by storms, so we didn't think too much of it when Oliver, our second-oldest cat who has been suffering with some serious stomach issues for the past few years, didn't appear for breakfast. But I still hadn't seen him by around 10 in the morning when I remember a dream I had the night before: I dreamt that I was down in the basement (well, a dream version of our basement), and he came down and tried to go into a (non-existent-in-the-real-world) hole near where I was sitting.

I saw him heading for it, and I caught him and pulled him out, but then he somehow communicated to me that he needed to go there because he was getting ready to die, and he was seeking an enclosed dark space as cats do when they are sick or dying. So I let him out of my arms, and he went to the hole and curled up just inside. Remembering that, I started to panic a little bit, so I asked Julie and Will if they had seen Oliver since the night before, and when they both said no, we started a search around the entire house.

Julie found him downstairs curled up near the treadmill, which was one of his favorite places to sleep (the treadmill itself—there was something he really liked about the way the jogging platform felt). Rigor has already set in, so it's possibly he had already passed away when we went down to the basement to shelter from the storm. It was very sad to lose him, but he's been suffering for the last couple of years, and it's gotten worse over the past few months, so we at least knew that he wasn't in pain anymore. Will took it really hard, but it helped when we were able to get him cremated so Will could keep his ashes and a small memorial that included a tuft of his hair and an imprint of one of his paws (something we've done for all our cats that have died since Will was born).

The dream was a very strange thing. I don't really believe in the supernatural, but this isn't the first time I've had a dream about someone dying a day or two before finding out that that person had passed away. On the rare occasions that happens, I am always reminded of this passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions:

Like all Earthlings at the point of death, Mary Young sent faint reminders of herself to those who had known her. She released a small cloud of telepathic butterflies, and one of those brushed Dwayne Hoover, nine miles away.

That image of telepathic butterflies going out to people who you knew and loved has always stuck with me, and that's very much like what the dream about Oliver felt like: him reaching out one last time to say goodbye. It still makes me sad to think about it, but it also fills my heart with love to think that this is what happened, and that I was able to have some connection with him in his final moments even though I wasn't physically with him.

He was a good, sweet cat, and while it's hard to say goodbye, I'm glad he's not suffering anymore and that when he passed, it was peacefully in his sleep.


4.15.20
We watched Pixar's Onward on Friday night to celebrate Julie's release from self-quarantine, and although I should be in a relatively sweet spot in terms of audience (played D&D growing up, have been a regular World of Warcraft player for years, and still have great affection for tabletop gaming even though I don't really get to do it anymore, along with being a huge fan of Pixar films), my response to the film was kind of lukewarm.

Part of what I considered in terms of how I connected with it was whether seeing it in the theater would have made difference, but I don't think that would have helped much. The story just didn't have the depth and resonance of Pixar's best movies. There was nothing wrong with the characters, but the whole thing is premised on a MacGuffin that I never really bought into, and that made all the events the flowed from that original motivator seem forced and inauthentic, two words that I don't often use in conjunction with Pixar movies.

In terms of the overall ranking of Pixar films (and I'm not including the Cars films here, because these seem more like they belong with kinds of movies that Disney Animation started to make after Disney and Pixar merged and John Lasseter oversaw both studios), it's probably my second-least favorite Pixar film: not as bad as the dreadful The Good Dinosaur, and either slightly better or slightly worse than Brave (perhaps not coincidentally another film that references traditional medieval fantasy tropes).

I'm sure we'll rewatch it again in the coming weeks, so I'll see if it grows on me. But that's not usually something that has to happen with Pixar films—they usually hit, and hit big, the first time.


4.16.20
With my purchase of the 11 track album Thank You by Black Dresses, I now have exactly 28,000 items in my iTunes library.


4.17.20
It was my dad's 75th birthday yesterday, and to celebrate we did a phone call with him and all the siblings and their families. We called in with Will, my sister called from her home in Georgia, my brother called from Ohio, and my other sister was there in person, bringing over her husband and her son for a family dinner.

It was a chaotic call—my brother has three children and a middling internet connection, so there's a lot of noise and frantic running around on his video feed, which is compounded by Will's very enthusiastic and loud desire to be the center of attention at any gathering, virtual or otherwise. But for a landmark birthday like that, we would have all tried to be there in person in normal circumstances, so it was good that we were able to do something with him.

I'm of two minds about my sister and her family being there in person. She lives nearby, and before the pandemic they saw each other pretty much every day. Both households say they've been practicing good social distancing and isolation, but to my knowledge, no one from either household has been tested for the coronavirus or antibodies to know for sure if they are infectious or if they might have immunity.

So on the one hand, this is something that we wouldn't choose to do at this point (even though we did offer Julie's mom the opportunity to move in with us, but that would have been a one time thing where she joined us for the duration of the pandemic, not where she would be able to visit a few times a week). We're being very careful, choosing an abundance of caution over likely-safe-but-still-riskier behaviors like interacting with family or close friends who don't have symptoms.

But on the other hand, we don't know how long this will go on, and we've seen several other people in our social circle starting to engage in pod behavior where two families practice social distancing but interact occasionally with one another for playdates and meals. I think this is risky because those interactions are likely indicative that other social distancing/household-isolating guidelines are being violated, but if you really could ensure that people were being very responsible in the pod context, it might be an acceptable risk.

Those sorts of interactions are certain a boost to the mental health of all involved, and I'm sure that, as long as no one is infected, it's going to be good for my sister, my parents, and my nephew to be able to see each other again. They're not in an area that has a large amount of cases per capita, so that balance of risk/reward is one that makes sense for them given all the circumstances.

I wish we were in a place as a nation where testing was more widely available so people could get tested regularly and have a better assessment of their risk to others, which is one of the reasons we haven't interacted with anyone outside our household, including my mom and sister (who live about 45 minutes away) and Julie's mom (who lives about 10 minutes away). Maybe that will change, and we can take some tentative steps towards normal interactions again, but for our situation, Julie and I just aren't quite there yet.


4.20.20
Julie and I finally finished watching Game of Thrones (my second time, her first), and it was interesting watching these last two seasons with her long after their original air dates.

First, there wasn't the unbelievable amount of hype before each episode and the ridiculous amounts of analysis each week in between each episode (a process that I actually enjoy and participate in for the rare shows that I'm obsessed with AND that I watch as soon as they air). This allowed me more to just enjoy the shows as entertainment and not some puzzle box to be unlocked. I already knew how it all ended, so I was able to see more clues and patterns that led to that result.

Second, Julie's much less critical than I am about plot holes and stupid decisions (which abound in the last two seasons, especially the final season), so when we would talk about them afterward, it was with someone who by default focuses more on the things she likes rather than the things she has problems with  (which is sort of my default way of engaging with the world).

But even given this distance and a less critical partner in watching the episodes, I have to say the final season is still a big disappointment. All the problems that were noted by the obsessives as the episodes were airing are still perfectly legitimate criticisms of the decisions made by the writers and showrunners. You can be happy for Jon Snow that he finally gets to live the life he's always wanted, off with the Free Folk/wildlings beyond the wall and beyond the reach of the politics and power grabs of the Targaryen half of his bloodline, but hardly anyone else that we were rooting for has a journey that ends in a satisfactory way (i.e., with them alive and in a relatively stable life).

I guess you can make a case that the people who ended up on the council were okay, but even those people have been through immense trauma and have lost so many people they cared about that it's hard to believe they'll ever really be happy, especially given the immense amount of work it's going to knit the confederacy of kingdoms back into some sort of functional enterprise. All in all, no one is really living the life they want to live other than Jon, and no one besides Jon is going to ever really escape the power struggles that consumed their lives during the various wars and coups that preceded the supposed peace that we find at the end of the series.

I don't know if I'll ever watch this show again—as good as the early seasons of the show were, it's going to be hard to watch them and still care as much knowing the flat ending that's coming. I'll probably read the books if George R.R. Martin ever finishes them (I place those odds at approximately zero during his lifetime, and only slightly better than that for my lifetime depending on what age I am when he finally dies), and I'll likely watch the Game of Thrones prequel series if it ever makes it to air. I'm still invested in that universe and those characters, I'm just not buying the rush job that the showrunners did with the last two seasons, wanting to move beyond this franchise so they could sign their $200 development real with Netflix.


4.21.20
I finally got around to watching Tiger King, the Netflix series that people have been raving about for the last month or so. To be honest, part of the reason I waited so long was because of the constant hype from the internet and my circle of friends—it was so relentless that the contrarian in me didn't want to watch just to be different.

The contrarian in me was also kind of hoping that it wouldn't be as good as all the reviews said it was, but I have to admit that it's one of the most compulsively watchable pieces of entertainment, documentary of otherwise, that I've seen in a long time. It's gripping from the very first scene, and there are very few dead zones, even as the story transitions from the stories of the parks to the uniformly twisted stories of the people who run them.

I'm sure you've either watched it or read about it at this point, so I won't spend too much time on the details, but it centers on people who have set up parks on private land to hold their collections of big cats (primarily tigers). Some of these people bill them as zoos, some as sanctuaries, and some as private collections, but what they all have in common is that they allow people to pay money for access to the animals, and that ends up being their primary revenue stream.

The series focuses primarily on the conflict between a man who calls himself Joe Exotic, who has a large big cat zoo in Oklahoma, and Carole Baskin, a woman who has set up a big cat rescue sanctuary in Florida, which grows increasingly hostile over the years. Carole wants to shut down operations like Joe Exotic's, making it so only sanctuary settings like hers are legal, even though she still makes money showing off the animals to tourists just like Joe Exotic does, and Exotic responds to this existential threat by ramping up the rhetoric until he's making death threats against her.

I won't spoil the details in case you haven't watched it, but it just gets more and more bizarre the more they did into the backgrounds of the big cat zookeepers. Everything from sex cults to arson to slaughtering animals to murder to insurance fraud to suicide to hit men end up becoming part of this unbelievable story, and it becomes one of those car crash narratives where you want to look away but you have to see what happens.

The amazing trick that the filmmakers pull is slowly pulling a bait and switch: it starts off with you thinking these are all decent if weird people who all care deeply for these animals but just have different points of view on the regulations around how they should be displayed and what their interactions with people should be. But then, through a series of increasingly shocking reveals, changes into a story about deeply flawed people, most of whom are incredibly shady with a criminal past, and who seem willing to go to any extreme to protected the lifestyle that setting up big cat parks has brought them.

I know I'm like the millionth person to tell you that you have to watch this show, but you have to watch this show. You will not be disappointed—it's one of the few entertainment products over the past few years that lives up to the incredible expectations.


4.22.20
As a state, Georgia is about to be used as a GOP petri dish that will inevitably cause the loss of more life. Our governor, Brian Kemp (who stole the gubernatorial election against Stacey Abrams by rigging it in his favor as Secretary of State to the previous GOP governor, using highly biased methods of throwing tens of thousands of likely-Democratic voters off the voting rolls in the three years preceding his run and closing polling stations in African-American areas) has decided to open the state on April 30, far earlier than even Trump's own guidelines suggest opening. First in line for opening: the headscratching combination of salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors, and…bowling alleys?

All of these places are great places to spread the virus, and none of them is essential to the functioning of our society. Salons and barbershops are the ones that come closest to that designation, but they aren't really necessary—as irritating as it can be to have your hair out of place, honestly, who are you fixing it up for right now? Most people aren't going to work, and they shouldn't be going out otherwise for anything beyond groceries and medications. And even if you are encountering other people, they're all in the same boat—no one has their perfect hairdo right now.

My hope is that organizations like Emory will continue to recommend that their employees work from home, and that people simply won't go out to these non-essential businesses (and that the businesses themselves will see the wisdom in staying closed for a bit longer because there won't be the customers to justify staying open). But that won't be everyone, and there will inevitably be some bad outcomes here that endanger not only the public health in general, but the individuals who aren't doing their own research about how this virus spreads, and then the healthcare workers who will subsequently have to care for them once their stupid decisions get them hospitalized.

The only small moment of pleasure from this debacle is Trump's response to Kemp's announcement. In typical Trump fashion, he and Pence called Kemp yesterday after his announcement to praise him for moving to open the state early (again, contrary to the guidelines about how and when to reopen issued by the White House), only to then turn on him in a national press conference the next day, saying that he "strongly disagrees" with Kemp's decision to reopen, and that if it was his decision to make, he would wait to start reopening those businesses (funny how when a Republican governor does something that Trump supposedly disagrees with, it's completely their decision to make, but when a Democratic governor goes against him, he threatens to use an unspecified and non-existent power to overrule them).

I don't know why the GOP rank and file or the GOP leadership (governors, House members, and Senators) continue to be loyal to Trump—he's shown time and time again that he's an unreliable idiot who will turn on them on a whim no matter how much water they've carried for them, and do so in the most publicly humiliating fashion possible. Whenever this all ends, the Republican party will be a shadow of its former self, and it's already in tatters despite it's current power—they are only holding on by the thinnest of threads, and that's all due to their constant manipulation of the electoral process that has so far been able to keep their minority in power. But the tide will turn someday soon, and it will turn quickly—no matter how much they engage in voter disenfranchisement and unbalanced power in favor of older whites, the demographic tide will eventually swallow them.


4.23.20
Will's music school has a big honors recital every year, and this year they changed the format. Last year each instructor chose their 2-4 best students (sometimes based on talent, sometimes based on hard work) to participate in the recital, which is held in a big fancy setting (last year it was at the Druid Hills Country Club).

This year, because of the increased number of students who are taking lessons at the school, they did auditions with music instructors who are not affiliated with the school, and those who scored the best were given an invitation to the formal recital. Will started practicing his two pieces—some of the most complex he's every played—in January for the March auditions, and he really put in a lot of time and effort to get them right.

By the time the auditions were supposed to happen, however, the coronavirus lockdowns had started. But they were able to do those auditions, as we were all forced to do so many things that we used to do in person, over Zoom—we set up Will's iPad on a chair next to his piano and he played his pieces live for the judges. He did a great job, and he was selected for the honors recital.

That was scheduled to happen in April, and back in mid-March, I think we all still had some hope that we might be able to return to some semblance of normal by the time the recital was supposed to happen, but we now know that was never going to happen, social distancing measures or not—it's just not safe yet to have large groups of people gather together in an enclosed space for a couple of hours. So the director of the school made the hard choice to cancel the in-person recital and record the performances of the participants so that she could then share them with everyone in an online setting.

An unfortunate side effect of this was that each student only got to perform one song, so all the hard work Will put into one of his pieces never got to be shared with the intended audience. I recorded him playing his other piece and sent it to the director. Unfortunately she uses a platform that doesn't allow you to get embed code for a video unless you are an administrator, but it was a really great performance.

I'm so proud of all the work he has put into learning piano over the past couple of years, and I wish he could have performed his pieces in front of a crowd, because he really lights up when he gets to be on stage. But I'm glad there was some recognition of his work, and honestly, for him, being on camera and in a video on the internet is almost as good as performing live.


4.24.20
I guess it's Friday, but the days just all bleed together now...


4.27.20
I somehow pulled a muscle in my right calf on Tuesday or Wednesday last week, and then ignored, not stretching and doing my normal exercise routine and also doing extensive cleanup of the basement before putting down new vinyl tiles on the concrete area that we most frequently walk on.

By Thursday it was so painful that I was walking with a bit of a limp, and it got worse on Friday when I couldn't find a comfortable sleeping position and didn't get much sleep the night before. It was so painful that I started to get paranoid that it was something more than a muscle pull, especially in light of the recent research that has associated blood clots with the coronavirus.

It felt like a muscle pull, and I've never had any circulation issues before, but that's one of the things about this virus: it seems like almost anything can be a symptom of the virus in addition to what it might have been when you have experienced it in the past, and I went through a few hours of high anxiety that something serious was going on and wondering if I should go to the hospital.

I calmed down after that, and focused on what I should have been doing since I first pulled it: stretching at least once an hour, and occasionally taking Tylenol and treating it directly with ice. This helped a lot, and by Saturday I was again sure that it was just a muscle pull. It's still a bit painful—I haven't returned to my normal treadmill routines yet—but it's definitely getting better every day, and I have a feeling it never would have gotten this bad if I had paid attention when my body first started sending signals that something was wrong.


4.28.20
After finishing Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I moved on to David Grann's Lost City of Z, a history of the search for a fabled city in the Amazon jungle that explorers have searched for in the late 1800s and the early 1900s (and beyond) based on reports from 18th century Spanish explorers who claimed to have visited. The book is essentially a biography of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who made several trips to the Amazon in search of the city, eventually vanishing never to be heard from again.

The Lost City of Z was based on an essay Grann wrote for The New Yorker, which was primarily how he was published before he wrote this book: a decades worth of essays in relatively high profile publications, mostly the New Yorker. The only other book I've read by Grann is a collection of most of those essays titled The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. I remember liking it—the loose thematic element was that the essays were about people with extreme (and sometimes illegal) obsessions, from baseball player Rickey Henderson to the men who have been digging tunnels for a new water pipeline to NYC for decades to a French serial impersonator who claims to have developed hundreds of false identities.

After Fawcett disappeared (along with his oldest son and his son's best friend), many expeditions were launched in the succeeding decades, most of them search as much as or more for the the lost explorers (or some evidence of their final fate) as for the City of Z itself. These searches continue through modern times (early in the book we are told of another father and son who went searching for clues to Fawcett's fate in the 1990s), but so far no one has anything but rumors and tall tales, and many of those are likely embellishments from native tribesmen who know what the searchers are looking for and are just telling them what they want to hear.

As a biography of Fawcett and a history of the Lost City of Z and the search for both the man and the city that ensued after his disappearance, this is a solid read and well worth your time. The only area where it goes astray is Grann's attempt to insert himself into the narrative: despite the fact that he is an overweight middle aged man who has never been camping (much less on a serious jungle expedition), he describes his preparation for and trip to South America to try and retrace Fawcett's steps and discover his fate.

The trip ends with an encounter with a native tribe and a Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist who has spent significant time in the jungle documenting the tribes and searching for evidence of a larger pre-contact society that could provide evidence that a city like Z could have existed, or even proof of Z itself. Grann ends the book terribly by repeating vague assertions from Heckenberger that impressions and mounds he has found near a location where Fawcett believed Z to be located are evidence of a thriving city that could have supported thousands of citizens and supported more advanced technology than what would have been documented by explorers from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Aside from Grann's insertion into the story, it's a really good book with compelling stories that you likely haven't heard before. And the parts that I disliked are so minimal and slight that they're easy to overlook; it's just a shame that one of those sections is the last chapter of the book ends the whole enterprise on a sour note that's not fair to the rest of the work.


4.29.20
Fiona Apple releases don't come along very often—aside from her first two records, which were released a relatively quick three years apart, her other albums have had gaps of six years, seven years, and now eight years between them. The eight year gap is between her 2012 record, The Idler Wheel, and her just-released Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a surprise release that no one really saw coming.

I've enjoyed all of Apple's work since getting obsessed with her second record, 1999's When the Pawn, but even amongst a strong oeuvre, Bolt Cutters has some truly standout moments. It begins with one of the strongest four song sequences from any album in her career: "I Want You to Love Me", "Shameika", "Fetch the Bolt Cutters", and "Under the Table" could each be standout songs on any album, and hitting us with those one after the other right off the bat leaves us floored before we've even gotten halfway through the album.

The middle four songs that follow "Under the Table" are all less compelling to me, although they all have some great moments that make them worth repeated listens even if they aren't my favorite songs. But the record finishes strong: the final five songs tune back into the weird, fierce energy of the first few songs, and while none of them is quiet as strong as those first four tracks, they are all really good and they leave you want to replay the album as soon as you've finished it.

I have no idea what people who don't like Apple's music will think of this one: it could be that it's way too strange, and that if you didn't like some of her more popular, conventional songs, there's no way you'll like these. But it could have the opposite effect: the songs could be so unexpectedly unique compared to what else is happening in popular music that they pull you into their orbit regardless of what you might think of what you've heard from her before.

If you're already a fan, you undoubtedly already have this record and are in love with it, but if you're not, give it a listen. I really believe that there are a lot of people who've never given her a chance because of her early success when she was packaged as a teen femme fatale/Lolita by MTV and her record label. This is your chance to go beyond that false image by hearing something so out of left field that you'll be able to overcome whatever preconceived notions you might have about her and discover something without an analog in today's music scene.


4.30.20
I finished watching season 2 of Westworld, which I started watching last year when it first aired but never actually finished. I think I probably saw five or six episodes before I gave up on it—the episodes after that point all seemed very new to me, even though there was a lot of stuff I missed or had forgotten in the episodes that I had strong memories of some elements of.

I'm going to try to keep the momentum going and pick up on season 3 now, but it's tough. Although there were some satisfying moments and payoffs in season 2, there was a lot of it I didn't understand until I read the recaps afterward. The narrative time shifts in season 1 were done well enough that when they were revealed, they made immediate sense of some of the muddled timelines. In season 2, by contrast, the narratives were so convoluted that even after the supposed reveals, I still didn't really know what was going on, and only barely understood the order in which the events had actually happened.

To put it another way: the timeshifts in season 1 served the narrative in a very useful way, but in season 2, it felt like they were there just to follow the pattern of season 1 without having the same rationale for doing so. Some would argue that it's more integral to the narrative in season 2, since much of the story is told from Bernard's point of view, and we're given to understand that he purposely scrambled his memories so that anyone looking at his raw data wouldn't be able to easily make sense of what he had experienced either.

But I still hold that if an attentive, intelligent viewer needs multiple writeups just to make basic sense of the events, it's not very good writing. I honestly don't see any reason why the story couldn't have been told in a more linear fashion and still achieved the same ends without all the confusion.

It also didn't help that Dolores was a sympathetic figure who had real depth to her personality and her emerging understanding of what she was and what kind of world she lived in, but she is decidedly not that now. Both she and Maeve have been reduced from complex, nuanced characters to one dimensional chess pieces (Dolores as a vengeful murder with a single aim to free herself from Westworld and dominate the real world, Maeve as a cult-of-personality leader without a clear long-term goal who manipulates those around her to survive).

I'll give season 3 a chance, but there are very few likable characters left, and it's hard to strap in for a densely structured puzzle box when you aren't rooting for at least one of the characters. One of the reason the mostly-dreadful final season of Game of Thrones was tolerable was because everyone had people they were rooting for (for me it was Arya and Brienne, and to a lesser extent the Hound, Tyrion, and Varys), but besides the confused and unreliable Bernard, I'm not sure if there's really anyone whose motives I understand and whose goals I want to see them achieve.

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