june 2020

6.1.20
If the world hadn't gone haywire a couple of months ago, today we would have been boarding a ship for a five day cruise following a weekend visit to one of the Orlando attractions, either Legoland or Disney. That's one of the many, many experiences that Will is missing out on, and even if those things eventually become safe to do again, I can't imagine that happening until at least a year from now.

Amidst people getting sick and dying, and after witnessing the continued police brutality towards black people in this country (Ahmaud Albert and George Floyd are just two of the most recent and most visible examples among countless others), a lot of people feel guilty about their sadness over the relatively small personal disruptions to our lives that we have experienced every day in some form since the social distancing, work from home, stay at home era began back in March.

But just because we rightly feel grief and pain and sadness over the sickness and death and hate that dominate the headlines doesn't mean that we aren't allowed to feel these other hurts, or that we should minimize that personal pain because someone else's pain is greater. We are all suffering, both from empathy for others and from our own losses, no matter how great or small that might be compared to other people. We're allowed to do both, and it's unhealthy to bury our personal pain because we somehow don't feel worthy of that pain in the face of greater suffering experienced by others.

Anyway. All of that is to say that Will is sad about missing a trip that he had looked forward to for months, and I'm sad for him, and I'm sad that Julie and I won't have those adventures with him. We're grateful that our suffering isn't worse during this time—we and our extended family have all remained healthy so far, we haven't lost our jobs, and Will has been great about adapting to virtual school and virtual summer camps (which is a big deal for him, given how naturally social he is and how much he loves being around other kids).

But our sadness is still there underneath our appreciation for our relative good fortune during these terrible times, and I don't want to forget the things we've lost.


6.2.20
I've been generally aware of the story and cultural impact of Hedwig and the Angry Inch since the movie/soundtrack was released back in the early 2000s, but I'd never actually had the inclination or opportunity to watch it. That changed a few weeks ago, when I stumbled onto a cable show midway through, just as they were starting the sequence where Hedwig sings "Wicked Little Town" in a donut shop with a backing band of Korean military wives.

I was immediately hooked (it doesn't hurt that "Wicked Little Town" is the best song on the soundtrack), and I watched it from there until the end. Then I noticed it was coming on again a few nights later, and I stayed up to watch it from the beginning, which gave me both the early parts of her story and better context for her relationship with Tommy Gnosis.

Since then, I've watched it three or four more times—every time I stumble across it, I find myself compulsively watching it, whether from the beginning or at whatever random point it happens to be on when I see it on the channel guide. The music is a big part of the appeal—it's a really solid soundtrack (which I eventually purchased) that somehow finds the perfect balance between classic rock, indie rock, and broadway show tunes—but what really draws me in is Hedwig's story and character.

She's simultaneously tough and vulnerable, loving and cruel, deeply insecure and incredibly confident, and flawed and fierce. She never seems more broken and more strong than when she's playing in front of a tiny crowd of devotees near the portapotties at a music festival, and she's a masterful performer in a series of gigs at a chain seafood restaurant where the patrons from city to city are uniformly indifferent or hostile to her songs and/or stage persona.

She is someone that you love because she's incredibly honest with herself and with the audience about her journey, her mistakes, and her weaknesses, and underlying all the oddities of her surface-level story we can each find elements of our own life narrative. You can't help but admire her, because few of us have the strength and self-awareness to acknowledge and overcome our own flaws and grow into something greater. And yet you know that Hedwig would love you and sympathize with your struggles no matter how successful you were in transcending them the way she has.

I can't recommend this story more; I'm trying to remember the last time a movie gripped me this way, and nothing in the past decade springs to mind. I know it was received incredibly well by the LGBTQ community when it was released two decades ago (it first gained fame as an off-Broadway theater production), but I'm curious to see how it has aged given all the changes in the outlook of that community regarding queer portrayals in the media during that time. I'll read up on that soon, but I can't imagine that this story of self-acceptance and empowerment wouldn't still speak very powerfully to members of that community.


6.3.20
I don't have a lot more to say that hasn't already been said about the inhuman murder of a black man by a cop in broad daylight in front of bystanders who were recording the act and begging the officer to stop crushing the victim's neck. But I will say this: as a white heterosexual American male, I recognize that this is a time when I need to continue to listen to the lived experiences of minorities, women, and other marginalized and oppressed groups in this country, especially those who I know personally. Even more importantly, I need to find constructive ways to act to address the inequities and systemic racism that has been baked into our society since before it was officially founded as a nation.

I am lucky to be in a job where we are asked to identify talent regardless of income, family and school support, neighborhood, and other resource inequities. It's a job that constantly requires my colleagues and I to think not only about own own biases but also the biases built into the supposedly objective data we use as part of our evaluation process, metrics like GPA, curriculum rigor, and standardized test scores. I am also fortunate to work in an office that has lots of staff members who come from many different socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender identity backgrounds, many of whom are willing to share their stories and experiences as we think about the challenges and biases that affect the students we work with.

In this environment, I've become increasing aware of the various privileges I enjoy by simple luck of my birth that are completely independent from my talent, work ethic, and passion, especially my white privilege. I recognize that there are likely many times in my life when I have benefited from these privileges, and I try to be acutely aware of when that might be happening on a day to day basis now.

But here's the thing about these privileges and the way that a beneficial bias is embedded into the fabric of this nation: I can't actually point to a specific event or moment when my white privilege has helped me. I know that it has, the same way that I know a fish living in the ocean benefits from having gills and fins compared to a human with our lungs and non-webbed appendages. There's no reason for the fish to ever think about or appreciate their advantages: their ability to breathe is the water is as natural and unsurprising as our ability to breath in the atmosphere.

Something that people who have a problem with the concept of white privilege (or any other sort of unearned privilege) don't seem to understand is that having that privilege because of which household and nation you were born into isn't something that you're supposed to feel guilty about. Having an awareness of your privilege isn't supposed to diminish or erase your own accomplishments and hard work. But it does mean that you can look at the hard data from broad research studies or hear the lived experiences of people you know and recognize that your day to day experiences are often very different than what non-whites in this country experience.

I have worked hard to create opportunities in my life and career and to take advantage of those opportunities when I encountered them. But I also now recognize that for people with a different skin color or gender identity or other factor of birth who are just as talented and just as hardworking as I am, those chances to move forward may have never appeared simply because of the bias of other people who, visibly or invisibly, are part of the matrix of events and decisions that coalesce into a life-altering moment.

I have consciously learned to listen to the experiences of others (over the past decade especially), but I need to continue to listen. It is not in my nature to be an in-the-streets activist, but I need to continue to find ways to act and make a difference, because it's becoming blindingly clear to me and to any other white person who is paying attention to how inequities in our society, especially racial and gender inequities, work to oppress others and often to empower us, even when we're not consciously aware of or consciously wielding that power.

There is so much work to be done in so many different areas that it can be overwhelming, especially in an era of pandemic when we're also subject to the unchecked power of a racist, misogynistic, small-minded, sociopathic, narcissistic fascist who stokes hatred and revels in violence and oppression. Anyone could be forgiven for quitting, for checking out, for ceasing to care about the things that don't affect them directly. But that's the one thing that we cannot do, because at this point, with all we know about the inherent unfairness of our society, indifference and inaction equals complicity.

We cannot all take grand actions every day, but every day each of us must take some action and be indefatigable in the face of a persistent and pernicious mindset that diminishes and destroys the lives of our fellow citizens and fellow members of the human race. The little things count, too, even the ones that are only known to you; they still move the needle, even if it might seem to be an indiscernible amount.

That doesn't mean that we will never engage in more impactful actions—that's always going to be a necessary part of substantive change. But collectively it all adds up and can lead to the change we need to see in this country if we're going to survive as a republic whose core founding value is that no person is intrinsically better than another simply due to the color of their skin, their gender, or their family circumstances.


6.4.20
After McMillions, I decided to watch another HBO documentary series that got a lot of press back when it was released in 2015: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. I know I'm coming to this one long after it was part of the contemporary cultural conversation, but it's still a very compelling, very watchable series.

Durst is a the multimillionaire heir to a New York real estate fortune who was pushed out of his chance to lead his family's company by his younger brother, and who seems to have carried that chip on his shoulder with him for the rest of his (still-incredibly-privileged) life. He witnessed tragedy early in his life when his mother committed suicide, and you can tell that this, his intelligence, and his incredible wealth created a worldview where he felt disconnected from other people and felt like he was allowed to live by a different set of rules than everyone else.

We know for sure he's a murderer: he admitted to shooting and killing his housemate in Galveston, Texas, where he was living anonymously and disguising himself as a woman. He was caught when, after dismembering the body in his kitchen, he attempted to dispose of the body parts by throwing them in the bay in plastic bags without weighting them down or poking holes in the bags, meaning that they were found floating near the shore the next day by law enforcement.

A scrap of a newspaper with an address printed on it that was found in one of the bags led them to the shared house, and eventually to his capture. Without wanting to spoil too much more, his story at that point becomes a story of his wealth and his ability to evade punishments that a typical person without access to the best lawyers in the world would likely have suffered with the same set of circumstances.

The subtitle refers to the deaths (plural) of Robert Durst, and that's because he's also suspected in two other murders: the first, the disappearance of his first wife, and the second, the execution-style shooting of a close friend of his who was suspected to have information about his wife's disappearance and who was using that information to blackmail him. There are various other crimes that he's suspected of as well, including threatening to kill his younger brother who he felt was wrongly elevated over him.

The documentary itself is well done—it was directed by Andrew Jarecki, who was pulled into Durst's world after he directed a fictional movie based on the disappearance of Durst's first wife—Durst actually reached out to him so he could tell his side of the story, which was the seed from which the rest of the documentary grew.

The interviews with Durst take up a decent portion of the latter parts of the series, and they are as chilling and fascinating as you would expect given the nature of the story. They are also where the viewer, who may have been able to talk themselves into feeling neutral or even sympathetic towards Durst, starts to see the inconsistencies and evasions in his own carefully controlled testimony that make you far more suspicious of his involvement in the deaths of his wife and his friend than the facts alone might (due to the lack of hard evidence).

The film ends with what appears to be a confession that is caught on a hot mic when Durst thinks he is not being recorded, and indeed, that evidence, along with another piece of evidence discovered by the filmmaker while researching the project, were enough to lead to Durst's arrest the same day that the final installment of this documentary series aired.

Despite the fact that the arrest took place in 2015, Durst's trial still has not happened. It was scheduled to start in March of this year, almost exactly five years after his arrest, but it has been delayed due to the coronavirus. Which is more evidence of the inequities in the justice system that we've witnessed recently: he wasn't arrested until 15 years after the murder took place, despite the evidence that he was eventually arrested for being available to investigators if they had bothered to look for it, and five years later he still has not had a trial.

It's almost impossible to believe that there won't be an addendum to this series once this trial is complete, and if he is found guilty, I wouldn't be surprised if he agreed to sit for additional interviews where, with nothing left to lose, he might be more honest than he was in his earlier interviews with the Jarecki.


6.5.20
Run the Jewels was scheduled to release their long-awaited fourth album, RTJ4, today, but due to the events of the past week, the politically charged record was instead released on Wednesday, a couple of days ahead of schedule.

Although it doesn't have any singles that outshined the strongest tracks of their previous three releases, it might be their strongest and most consistent overall album. The duo are always focused on injustice, inequity, and race relations (El-P is a white rapper from NYC and Killer Mike is a black rapper from Atlanta), but because of the George Floyd protests the record seems like it was made specifically as a commentary on the past two weeks.

Two of the tracks reference cops choking people out, and one of them uses the phrase "I can't breathe", George Floyd's final words, although Killer Mike was actually referencing the final words of Eric Garner, another black man who was killed by police while in a chokehold in New York City in 2014. The fact that an event from 2014 has an echo in an event that happened a couple of weeks ago just underscores how endemic and widespread the issue of police violence, especially towards black citizens, has been for many years.

In the same way that Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seemed like a direct commentary on the events of 9/11 despite the fact that the band finished the album long before September 11, 2001, this period of unrest in America is also being soundtracked by records that could not have anticipated the specifics of the world they would be released into.

For the boredom, frustration, sadness, and gallows humor of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns, we have Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters; for the unceasing everyday rage against the prejudiced machine of justice, we have Run the Jewel's RTJ4; and for the general anger, hopelessness, and desperate searching for a reason to live in Trump's dystopian autocratic America, we have Jeff Rosenstock's No Dream.

Having these records doesn't make all of this suck less, but it does give us a way to channel the extreme whipsaw of negative emotions and to realize that we're not alone in those feelings. We're searching for ways to move past what will undoubtedly be the weirdest and worst year (or more) of the lives of many of us across all generations, income groups, and ethnicities.

I still have no idea how we're going to come out of all this and return to an everyday baseline that resembles the world prior to 2016. But knowing that there are others who are just as despondent but just as unwilling to give up gives some small glimmer of hope that eventually we can overcome the extreme negativity of the past few years, and maybe even create a slightly better world on top of everything that has been torn down.


6.15.20
Last Monday we left for what will likely be our only vacation/family trip this summer, driving up to Ellijay in the north Georgia mountains and staying in a secluded cabin on a river about 10 minutes outside of town. It also happened to be Julie and my wedding anniversary (24 years married, 32 years together—we got married on the 8th anniversary of our first date).

We couldn't check in until 3:00, so we left Atlanta around 2:00 and got there right around 3:30. There wasn't much time to do anything after we unpacked the car, so we explored the house, picked out our rooms, and relaxed before making a quick trip into town to pick up dinner from a wood-fired pizza place.

On Tuesday we relaxed in the morning before heading out to try some nearby hiking trails. The first one we went to was called Fall Branch Falls, which we hoped would be less crowded because you had to drive a little ways on an unpaved Forest Service road. It was also a relatively easy trail—even though it had an elevation of about 200 feet, most of that was at the beginning, and it was only about a half mile hike to get from the trailhead to the falls. We ran into a few other groups there, but we were generally able to keep our distance, and when we couldn't, we would stop by the side of the trail and turn our backs until the other group moved past us.

The falls were beautiful, and we spent some time walking up and down the trails next to them before hiking back to the car. We had dodged the rain pretty successfully—it had been raining just before we got there, and it started raining again shortly after we got back to the car. There was still plenty of daylight left, though, so when we got to an area where we could pick up a cell signal again, I mapped out a route to an attraction I had stumbled across while browsing around for things to do: a swinging bridge over the Toccoa River.

According to various websites, the bridge is 270 feet long and is the longest swinging bridge east of the Mississippi. We again had to drive about 20 minutes on a Forest Service road to get to the trailhead, and from there it was a fairly leisurely quarter mile walk to the bridge. We were the only ones on the bridge when we go there, which was good because it's not really wide enough to for two groups to pass each other and keep any kind of social distance. We crossed and spent some time exploring a little waterfall on the other side before heading back to the car.

We again got very lucky with the rain—it was raining almost until we reached the parking lot, and it started pouring almost immediately after we got back to the car. We drove back to the cabin Julie fixed Sloppy Joes, broccoli tots, and baked beans for dinner. Afterwards I decided to give the hot tub a try because Will had already fallen in love with it and he really wanted me to try it too. It was actually very relaxing, and it became our end-of-day tradition for the duration of our stay.


6.16.20
It was raining again on Wednesday morning, so we hung around the house and relaxed (I mostly read and and napped), but it cleared up a bit in the afternoon, so we decided to head to a place called Lilly Pad Village (the extra "l" in lily is their misspelling) to do some gem mining. We chose this largely because they were one of the only tourist attractions that had a notice about their Covid procedures on their website, specifically for their gem mining operation: they had two outdoor flumes, and would only allow one group at a time at each flume.

However, when we got there, it looked like there were at least two groups at each flume, there wasn't six feet of distance between members of the different groups, and no one—not even the staff—was wearing a mask. We drove around for a little while to see if it might clear up, but when we came back, two other cars pulled up with two other large groups with no one wearing masks, so we left again.

I had given up on going that day, but we drove around a little more so we could come back just as they were closing to ask if we could reserve a time the following day when they could ensure that they wouldn't have another group sharing our space, or at least to find out when they were typically the least busy during the day. But as I was explaining our situation to the woman in charge (who was named Karen and was very nice despite the pop culture connotation that name has right now), she offered to stay late and let us do some gem mining right then and there when there would be no one else around.

So we donned our masks (she put one on for us as well), got our bucket of dirt, and started to look for our gems. Karen stayed almost 45 minutes after they closed (we gave her a nice tip) and helped us identify our gems and told us about the history of the attraction and where they got their dirt from. She couldn't have been nicer, especially given that she was working overtime but probably not getting paid overtime wages for it. We really appreciated it, and we'll definitely go back there if we return to that area (hopefully when Covid is no longer an issue and we can really enjoy it with other people).

On the way back home, we passed by a little park surrounding Mineral Springs Creek that had some nice little walking trails and decided to explore it. It only took about half an hour to walk all the way around it, and it we didn't see a single other person on our walk. It was a nice way to end the day before heading back to the cabin. I was so happy the gem mining thing worked out—as much as Will enjoyed the hiking trails, he was superexcited about that activity, and he would have been really bummed if we hadn't found a way to do it safely.

We picked up dinner from El Burrito to Go, which was really good and surprisingly cheap. I loved the kid behind the counter, too—when I asked if he was a fan of Rick and Morty after spotting a Rick refrigerator magnet on the industrial fridge behind him, he blurted out, without any further prompting: "Yeah, I swiped that from a Spencer's down in Kennesaw. They wanted $5.99 for it! Crazy!" Funniest and most honest thing I've heard in a long time.


6.17.20
Thursday, our final full day at the cabin, was the only day where it didn't rain. It turned out to be a gorgeous day, with blue skies and temperatures in the 80s most of the day. We decided to head to another fairly remote trail (it was on another unpaved Forest Service road) that led to Long Creek Falls. We had though about going to Amicalola Falls, the tallest falls in Georgia, but it's relatively easy to get to and we figured it would be packed with people.

Even though the last few miles were on a Forest Road road, it was relatively flat with long straightaways, so we made good time compared to the other unpaved roads we'd driven on that week. This hike was longer, and the elevation was about 300 feet (compared to almost 200 feet for Fall Branch Falls), but it didn't seem as intense a climb as Fall Branch Falls because it was a longer trail and the uphill parts were more evenly distributed.

We got a little worried when we saw the number of people heading back on the trail—we saw several groups of people with two or three distinct families in each group—but by the time we got to the falls, there was only one older couple there with their grandchild. We stayed for a while, exploring the falls and relaxing on a large flat rock with lots of carvings and drawings on it. On the hike back we saw a few more people, but it was still pretty light compared to the crowds we saw on the way in.

Amicalola Falls wasn't too far from where we got back on paved roads, and it was getting close to the end of the day, so we decided to go by and see how crowded it was. We weren't going to do the full hike up and back, but there was a parking lot at the top of the falls that was only a short walk to an observation deck, and another lot a little bit down the mountain where you could walk a .3 mile handicap-accessible trail that led to a bridge that went directly in front of the falls.

We drove to the top first, and although no one was wearing a mask, we were able to keep our distance from people and stand at the top of the falls for a few minutes. We then went to the other trail and had a little better luck there—still no masks, but people were waiting their turns and not crowding each other for the best spots on the bridge to look back up at the falls.

We got pizza from a Brooklyn-style pizza place that night and then enjoyed one last session in the hot tub after dinner. I was surprised at how much we used that, but it was really nice to have a beer and relaxing in the hot water for a while after spending the afternoons hiking. We left the next morning right at 11, and we were back in Atlanta in time for lunch. We'll definitely do this again sometime, and hopefully we'll be able to get this cabin again.


6.18.20
We got back home on Friday, and on Saturday we drove out to have lunch with her (socially distanced as usual) and to pick up two new members of our family: two kittens that were part of a litter that were born in March, just as the pandemic lockdowns were getting underway.

My mom started leaving out food for the neighborhood cats last year, and when it got cold, one very friendly stray starting coming inside and spending the night in the house. But my mom didn't officially adopt her and take her to the vet for a check up and to get her fixed, so of course, she got pregnant and chose to hunker down to give birth in my mom's house. She had four kittens, so my mom had five cats total, but she was planning to give away all the kittens and get the mother cat (Jingles, who was named by Will) fixed so she wouldn't have any future kittens.

We weren't planning on taking any of the kittens—we had three cats already, one of whom had health issues that took a lot of attention—but while the kittens were growing up, our sick cat passed away, and so we figured it would make sense to replace him with one of Jingle's kittens. As we got to know them, and as we came to realize that none of them were promised to anyone yet, we thought it would be a good idea to take two so they could grow up together and would likely be able to adjust easier to a household that already had two adult cats.

We've had them since Saturday afternoon—before we even took them home, we took them to their first vet appointment to get a check up and determine their sex (they're both boys)—and so far things are going pretty well. They're incredibly sweet natured and cuddly, they've been very good about using the litter, and they've become tentative friends with our oldest cat, Junie. The only hiccup has been with our other cat, Poe—she's very territorial and protective of the house, and she's also devoted to Will, so she has been less willing to have two interlopers in her house and sitting in her human's lap.

We're paying lots of extra attention to her though, and we're pretty sure it will be fine in a couple of weeks—Junie acted the same way when we brought Poe home, and now they get along fine. We're pretty settled on the name of one of them—he's a tuxedo with a white chin and jawline and a broad area of black around his nose, which makes it look like he has a dog nose. We're calling him Wolfgang, or Wolfie for short, and it really seems to fit him. The other one is still in flux, but we've been temporarily calling him Poe Jr. because his markings (they are both tuxedo cats as well) are almost exactly the same as Poe's.

I'm glad we adopted them—not only do they seem like a good fit for our cat family, I'm pretty sure my mom would have kept all of them if we hadn't wanted to take a couple. She's definitely keeping at least one of the other two, and I have a feeling unless there's a trusted household that really wants the other one (someone like us), then she's going to end up keeping him too.


6.19.20
While we were in the mountains, there was a lot of time to relax and read, and I made my way through four books (one of which I had alreadystarted before we left). The first two were Network Effect by Martha Wells and Providence by Max Barry, both in the sci fi genre.

Network Effect is subtitled A Murderbot Novel, and it's the fifth story built around a machine/human hybrid who hacked the computer part of his brain in order to free himself from his corporate owners who hire him out for mercenary and security contract work. Murderbot is his nickname for himself, but the humans he travels with (who are aware of his rogue status and help keep him hidden from corporate and governmental entities that would want to re-enslave him) refer to him as SecUnit.

The first four entries in the series were all short stories/mini novellas, and my main criticism of them was that they really should have been bundled as a single book (I mostly had a problem with this because, after the success of the first story, the rest were priced closer to the cost of a full novel at $10 rather than the $2-$4 that you usually pay for short stories or novellas on the Kindle). Since this was billed as an actual novel rather than a short story or novella in a continuous series, I expected a bit more from it than the previous stories, but it didn't really deliver—it didn't feel any more substantial in terms of length or narrative heft than the previous entries in the series, but it was priced like a full novel at $14.

Other than that, I enjoyed this just as much as the previous entries. I still haven't gotten tired of this narrator, and Wells does a smart thing by bringing back one of the best characters from the previous stories, and AI-powered autonomous ship he named ART (for Asshole Research Transport). There were a few too many indistinguishable human characters to keep track of—Wells doesn't spend too much time developing their personalities, and the entire narrative was from SecUnit's point of view—and the plot seemed to have some filler in it, but SecUnit's voice makes these flaws a lot more tolerable than they would be from a lesser narrator.

Providence is set in a universe where the Earth has made first contact with its first alien species, and that contact went disastrously, with all members of the crew on the first contact ship being mercilessly slaughtered with no provocation and no attempt at communication from the alien species. In the aftermath, the Earth comes together to build a small fleet of AI-powered battlecruisers to take the fight to the aliens' home territory, wiping them out hive by hive.

The book tells the story of the crew of one of these ships (Providence refers to the class of the ships, and although several others are named, we are never told what the name of this particular ship is), but they're not a crew in the traditional sense: despite the massive size of the ships and their intimidating amount of firepower, there are only four humans on board, and the AI really runs everything.

Even though there is a captain, a gunner, and a technician (plus an obviously superfluous PR officer), they don't actually do anything, even in battle: the ship selects its own targets, chooses its own navigation paths, and directs all the batteries of weapons during the battles. What the human crew is there for, they all eventually find out (and the readers are told fairly early on), is to provide the near-future equivalent of Twitter updates to Earth to keep the people there engaged with the war, since it is so remote and so costly. They provide the human face for the war, and besides that function, they are not necessary.

The biggest problem I have with this book is that I don't particularly like any of the characters, and I feel like the way information is doled out to the reader is just to give the semblance of a plot until we get to the final showdown with the alien species, which takes up about the last third of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the four characters, which is another way to slowly tease out a plot: there are times when one character clearly knows something that would further our understanding of events, but we're not in that character's head at the moment, so we have to wait for a later reveal.

I think I would have like this book more if I liked one or more of the characters, but since we're reading the story in their voices, not liking them detracts from the overall narrative. Other than the commentary on the role of social media in our lives now and in the future, this was a fairly standard space opera type book, the kind of story I can enjoy well enough when I'm in the right mood. But there are lots of other books in the genre that I would recommend before this one.


6.22.20
The second kitten finally has an official name: Jasper. I offered up three names for the family to choose from on Wednesday of last week: Huckleberry (Huck for short), Jasper, and Dooley. Julie liked Huckleberry the best, I was favoring Dooley, and Will liked Jasper, and Jasper was Julie's and my second choice, so it ended up winning. Now that he's been wearing it for a few days, it really seems to fit him.

Saturday night Will let me pick any movie I wanted for movie night, and I chose The Avengers. Will has been really resistant to any pop culture IP that's very popular (like Harry Potter, the MCU, and to some extent Star Wars), so it's like pulling teeth to get him to watch superhero movies. But when he has watched them, he's liked them, even though it's sometimes tough to get him to admit it. We've watched Iron Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Ant-Man and the Wasp multiple times, including some times when he requested them.

But he continues to say when you ask him that he doesn't like any superhero movies and is very resistant to watching new ones. So while let me pick, he was grumbling about it until the movie started. And then, as with pretty much every other Marvel movie he's watched, he seemed to get really into it, especially the scenes with Iron Man and Hulk. Afterwards he said it "wasn't as bad as it could have been", which for him is basically admitting that he liked it.

I'm hoping I can springboard off of this one into more MCU movies: Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier before Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther before Infinity War and Endgame (I find the Thor movies less essential to the overall MCU story that culminates with Infinity War and Endgame, but if he really got into it, I'd certainly watch those with him too).

Sunday was Father's Day, and Will surprised me with a slideshow he made that was set to songs I like, and Julie went out and got brunch for all of us. Julie also looked at some fun things we could do that day—a drive-in movie or a trip to Howard Finster's Paradise Garden—but I just felt like being lazy and hanging around the house (although we'll definitely take a trip to Paradise Garden sometime soon). Will also got me an internet-connected digital picture frame that he can upload new photos to from his iPad.

Julie's mom came over for her weekly dinner, and we got sushi (although we got her chicken teriyaki and white rice because she doesn't like sushi). For dessert, Will and Julie made vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips and cookie dough chunks. It was a nice day, and a pretty relaxing weekend overall.


6.23.20
The other two books I read while we were in the mountains were 88 Names by Matt Ruff and This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. These are both classified in the sci fi genre, like the first two I read, but 88 Names was more of a geek/nerd book (it involves VR video games) and Time War was almost more of a fantasy book where some of the events happen to take place in the future (its mix of fantasy and sci fi reminded me of another co-authored book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Garland).

The 88 in 88 Names is not a white supremacist reference (H is the 8th letter of the alphabet, so 88 is code for Heil Hitler), but instead refers to the number of characters the protagonist in the book (John Chu) has in a popular VR game that is basically World of Warcraft. He's a professional sherpa in the game, someone who leads a crew that helps other characters get in-game gold, items, and experience for real-world money. The plot involves a new customer who, through a series of clues and internet sleuthing, Chu comes to believe is actually North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

As a World of Warcraft fan, I kind of enjoyed the bits where he described the game, but I figured out the plot twist less than halfway through the book. In fact, it was even more disappointing than when I normally figure out the twist in a mystery that early, because the ending I envisioned was actually more interesting than the watered-down version the author came up with (maybe he thought he was being clever by making the obvious end to the twist into a less obvious, but less compelling, one?). This is not a book I'd recommend, even to people who like gaming culture and MMOs specifically. It was a quick read, at least.

This Is How You Lose the Time War was by far the best-written of the four books I read, but it was also intentionally much more of a literary effort. It's the story of Red and Blue, two agents for different outcomes for humanity far in the future who each travel back to different timelines (called threads) to manipulate events so that their world (one with cyborgs and hive-mind tech, one with an organic orientation) is the one that will become actualized.

It's an epistolary novel, with each chapter being comprised of a letter that one agent leaves for another in a timeline where they have successfully pre-sabotaged the other, and their mutual respect for how good each is at their craft eventually leads them to fall in love with each other. The letters of one agent were written by one author solely, and although they started with a rough outline of the plot and where they wanted to end up, they wrote it by actually trading chapters, so they were as surprised as the characters and the readers about what they were reading, and used that as inspiration to write the next, reactionary chapter.

It's not a clean read in terms of plot, and the prose can get a little Victorian purple at times, but I very much enjoyed this book. It took me a bit to figure out which side Blue and Red fought for, and to get a sense of their respective cultures, and I'm still not entirely clear on exactly how they manipulated events to get to the ending (a re-read would probably help in that regard, but it might also take away some of the wonder of discovering the lives, personalities, and cultures that the agents live, have, and come from).

But again, I very much enjoyed it. I'm not sure who I would recommend it to—it might be a little too literary for a lot of sci fi readers, and a little too out there for more literary-minded readers—but if you love good characters and good stories and are willing to be patient with a slow-developing sense of what the book is about, then you might want to give it a try.


6.24.20
After I watched the Robert Durst documentary The Jinx, I watched another documentary about a superrich scumbag, Netflix's documentary about Jeffery Epstein called Filthy Rich. It focused on several women who have come forward in the past few years to say that they were raped or sexually assaulted by Epstein when they were minors (some as young as 14), typically in one of his private mansions, including several incidents on his private island in the Caribbean.

The story is as much about the power that comes with money as it is about him being a sexual predator whose prey is young females, because without all that money and power, not only would he not have been able to put so many vulnerable young women in to positions where he could coerce them into sexual acts, but he certainly would have been prosecuted much earlier than the 2019 arrest that led to his imprisonment and suicide.

It turns out that the local DA in the county where he resided in Florida (where many of these assaults took place) had built a case against him, using testimony of many of his victims (including a few featured in the documentary), and was preparing to go to trial with the feds took over, specifically Alexander Acosta, who shut out both the victims and the local DA from the investigation, eventually coming to a plea deal that let Epstein off with a 13 month sentence that he was allowed to serve in the private wing of a local prison and where he was allowed "work release" for up to 12 hours each day (so he basically only slept there). It also granted complete immunity to four co-conspirators—the women in his inner circle who helped procure underage girls for Epstein and his friends to abuse.

This was such an egregious (and possibly illegal) dereliction of duty that Acosta was forced to resign from his position as Trump's secretary of labor after Epstein's later arrest in New York, when it became clear to a larger number of people that, had Acosta not let Epstein off more than a decade earlier, not only might he have been brought to real justice sooner, but it may have prevented an additional 10+ years of abuse towards dozens (possibly hundreds) of additional victims.

There's a lot of other salacious stuff in the documentary—there are outright allegations against Prince Andrew and lawyer Alan Dershowitz (who was on Epstein's legal team defending him against the original Florida charges that he got such a lenient sentence for) were part of his group of friends who also sexually abused some of the girls Epstein acquired (including direct testimony from women in the documentary detailing numerous non-consensual encounters with each man), along with intimations that people like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton could have been involved as well.

Overall it's a solid if depressing series, and it especially deserves praise for giving victims a direct voice, some of who have been waiting for a chance to tell their stories for nearly 20 years.


6.25.20
To this day I consider myself a pretty big Julian Cope fan, but when I looked back at my collection of records from him, I realized I hadn't bought one of his releases since 1995's 20 Mothers—25 years ago. Part of that is because his releases after that period tended toward the abstract and psychedelic, when it was his acid-twisted pop and folk that appealed to me, and part of it was because the couple of more pop-oriented albums that he released this century were so overpriced (twice as much as normal releases even though they weren't double albums) that I couldn't bring myself to pay the price.

But that all changed a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled up on Skellington 3 (which was actually released in 2018). As the title suggests, it's the third album in his Skellington series, all of which were recorded in just two days, meaning they're relatively stripped down, both in terms of instrumentation and song length. Skellington 3 is much more what I want from him than his other releases, which makes some sense—Skellington was released in 1989 and Skellington 2 was released in 1993, the same period where he released his best work.

His voice sounds as pure and clean as ever, and his droll sense of humor is still intact, although with a more world-weary perspective of a creative manchild who realizes he's moved beyond middle age, even in these days where the Boomers want to believe that 65 is the new 50 (Cope is 63). Some of his best lines: "I used to think nothing of a 12 mile hike/And I don't think much of it now" from "Times Change"; "Revolutions erupt in the middle of flower shows/Ask David Cameron, he'd know" from "That Don't Make a Revolution"; and the blunt "Stop harping on about the way life used to be", which is also the title of the song it comes from. There's also the delightfully goofy "Seel Street Waltz", and the maudlin and a bit saccharine "Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away" that's actually a veiled criticism of British colonialism and entitlement.

There's a lot of complexity in Skellington 3's simplicity, and it makes me wish Cope was still interested in making albums like this. Because his creativity is relatively undiminished over the two decades plus since I last bought one of his records, he's just pushing it to places that don't speak to me. But I'm glad he's out in the world doing his thing and being Julian.


6.26.20
One of my favorite books that I read in 2019 was the debut novel from Sue Burke, Semiosis. It tells the story of a colony of human settlers on the planet Pax as they develop a new society and slowly learn that many of the plants on Pax have neurons and animal-like cells, and that many of them are sentient. As the generations progress and they learn to live in peace and even symbiosis with the plants, they also encounter the remnants of yet another colony of settlers—who are not from Earth.

The book does a great job with the difficult task of describing three entire different cultures/species and showing how their interactions change each other and the planet over the course of generations. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a key member of each successive human generation, which helps you not only get an in-the-moment view of critical, society-changing events, but also helps the book cover over a century of time without needing a massive number of pages to tell the story.

Burke published the sequel, Interference, last October, and I finally got around to reading it—I was really looking forward to it, so I wanted to make sure I was in just the right mood to appreciate it. And unfortunately, it was as flat and dull as its predecessor was innovative and intriguing.

The first mistake was trying to copy the structure of the previous book, with each chapter being told from the point of view of a different character. That worked for the previous book because it was a good way to introduce us to each generation and tell a long story that spanned decades.

In Interference, on the other hand, the majority of the events take place in a fairly short timeframe—about a month of time—about 100 years after the end of Semiosis. Aside from a prologue and epilogue (which give us some clues about what has been happening on Earth since the Pax colonists left), it all takes place on Pax, and combined with the short timeframe, there's really no reason to have so many narrators.

This is made all the more obvious when you look at how long each chapter is—there are 8 chapters the make up the just over 300 pages, and fully a third of the book is contained in a single chapter, told from the point of view of a sentient plant whose reach allows him to essentially be omniscient and recount a variety of different events in different places at the same time.

There are a couple of other damning factors that hurt this book as well. One is that, despite the plethora of narrators, I don't like a single one of them. And that includes the sentient plant, Stevland, who was also the narrator for one of the chapters in the previous book, and whose voice I liked then. The structure really worked well in the first one because all of the narrators were likable in their own way, but here an omniscient neutral narrator would have served better to tell the stories of characters who are generally at least two of these three descriptors: dumb, mean, or boring.

The other is that we don't really learn much new about Pax. Part of the joy of reading Semiosis was the slow world building, where we started to have suspicions about the plants at the same time as the colonists, so we were going on that journey of discovery with them. In this one, there's not a whole lot that we're allowed to discover, and those discoveries don't really have any significant long-term impacts on the the settlement.

There are some intriguing hints that could be mined for a third book, but that's also a problem. First, if there's going to be a third book, this novel felt more like an extended setup for that story than a story worth telling on its own. Second, the series is called the Semiosis Duology, which implies that this pair of books is all we're going to get. Either way, this wasn't a great book: it's not a worthy sequel to the brilliant Semiosis, and if it's the last book in the series, it's a terrible way to remember a fairly unique story of first contact and human colonization of the galaxy.


6.29.20
Will has a live online session hosted by the people who make his favorite podcast every Friday night at 7 p.m., so we've moved our family movie night to Saturday. Last week he agreed to watch a Marvel movie for Father's Day (The Avengers), and this week he surprised us again by agreeing to watch Pixar's Coco, a movie that we saw in the theaters together once but which he's refused to watch again because of his acute fear of dying.

It always broke my heart that he got hung up on that aspect of the movie, especially because the movie is really about the power of family and music, two things that are very important to him, and the topics of death and dying are spun in a positive way in the movie, where both family and music can help us create links with both our past and our future, and help create the living threads that, woven together, make up the fabric of human history and culture.

He still freaked out a little a couple of parts—the idea that even in the world of the dead, you could still die a "final death" when no one in the living world remembers you anymore (which goes against the larger message of the movie in order to provide a time-based motivator for the characters) and the parts where it is revealed that one character murdered another character—but overall he engaged with it (aside from some snarky commentary early in the movie, which he always does when he's a little reluctant to watch something). I think he might even be open to watching it again (especially after he spotted a Mac Classic on a bureaucrat's desk—he's been obsessed with all things Apple the last couple of weeks).

We had been planning to go out to my mom's house on Saturday, but rain put us off (we sit outside on my mom's open-air patio when we visit so we can be socially distanced, so rain has become a major obstacle to our visits), so we had Julie's mom come over for lunch on Sunday (she usually comes over for dinner) and then went out to my mom's for an early dinner.

Even though we're very careful when we visit, I'm still pretty worried about her catching the virus—she has a few neighbors and caretakers who drop in on her at least a couple of times a week, and I don't think many (if any) of them are practicing consistent wearing of masks and washing of hands when they come into her house. I also think that not many of them are practicing good social distancing and mask wearing habits when they aren't in my mom's house, which means they are much more likely to be carrying the virus and much more likely to spread it to her if they do have it. This includes my sister, who does not wear a mask when she goes into my mom's house and who in the last month has had guests from Florida(!) come stay with her for the weekend, had a pool party with multiple people not in her household, and taken a trip to Florida herself.

I also gave myself my second quarantine haircut on Sunday, and it came out better than the first. When I did it the first time back in early May, I had only cut Will's hair once, and my hair was so long that I wasn't in the mood for nuance—I just wanted short hair. So I cut my hair the same length all over. This time I've not only had that practice but I've also cut Will's hair again, so I cut my hair short on the back and the sides with the clippers, but left it longer on top and didn't just buzz vast swaths, using my fingers as a guide to make choppier cuts like my barber does when he cuts the top of my head with scissors.

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