july 2020

7.1.20
After finally getting Will to watch the first Avengers movie, I decided to rewatch Infinity War and Endgame—I've watched Infinity War a few times, but I hadn't seen Endgame since I watched it in the theater a couple of weeks after it was released.

After watching Infinity War again, I decided to detour before getting back to Endgame by watching Captain Marvel, which was released between the two movies and which I had never seen. She has a couple of crucial moments in Endgame, so I wanted to better understand how she fit into the MCU.

And it was...okay. Brie Larson's low affect made her still seem alien even after we learn she's actually from Earth, and while there was nothing really wrong with the movie, the story didn't feel nearly as character-driven and vital as the other standalone films for MCU principles who were introduced post-Age of Ultron, like Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man.

The way she is used in Endgame demands further background/explanation, but this movie feels unnecessary other than fulfilling that purpose, and it's the closest I've come to feeling like Marvel was taking advantage of the MCU brand to generate more revenue on a mediocre product.

What I really liked about this movie was the background we got on both Nick Fury and the formation of the SHIELD organization that we know from the later movies (later in terms of their time period setting, not their release date—Captain Marvel is set in 1995, as opposed to the rest of the MCU, which is set in the 2010s and later (except, of course, for the first Captain America, which was set in WWII)).

Based on what I liked and disliked about this movie (and to be fair, I've never really liked the space stuff in both the MCU and Marvel comics), I would have preferred if this had just been a straight out Nick Fury film, and they either gave enough background on Captain Marvel to justify her inclusion in Endgame or they found another solution for the Captain Marvel's actions in the Endgame plot.

I think Will might actually like this movie though—he tends not to like the heroes who spend most of their time in their costumes, and there's a lot of scenes in this one where Carol Danvers isn't dressed up fancy and flying around, but is dressed in normal clothes and having somewhat normal human conversations and interactions. Plus there's a cat that plays a prominent role, and that's always a winner in Will's book.


7.2.20
Everyone around the country is waiting for K-12 schools and colleges to announce their reopening plans for the fall, and these announcements are especially relevant in our household: K-12 because we have a rising fifth grader who's supposed to be starting his final year at our beloved neighborhood elementary school, and colleges because I'm employed by one, and a significant drop in tuition and associated revenue (like housing and dining costs) could lead to pay cuts, furloughs, or, worst-case scenario, layoffs.

Given how poorly the US has handled Covid so far, especially in states like mine (Georgia), combined with the ongoing defunding of public K-12 education, I don't see how there's any way to think about reopening K-12 schools in person, even with a hybrid model that combines virtual learning with partial, limited attendance with small pods of students who might only be on campus for a half day a couple times a week as a way of limiting exposure and keep class sizes small.

The hybrid model looks better on paper than all-virtual (all-in-person is simply off the table if you want to keep kids, their families, and the staff and teachers safe and healthy), but it takes a lot more resources (cleaning supplies, cleaning personal, extra buses and drivers, etc.) to even begin to implement correctly, and schools are having their budgets cut, not expanded. Not to mention that a hybrid model is going to have variability in the schedule, which won't really be any better for working parents than the student learning in a 100% virtual environment.

K-12 schools in most parts of the country (and certainly in the south and the west where outbreaks are currently raging and where they are likely to get much worse before they get better) should and likely will be all virtual, at least to start with. And if we don't get a handle on things, you can forget about the entire fall semester, and possibly the spring one as well (and the spring one will almost certainly be delayed as any outbreaks by the winter will also overlap with flu season).

Colleges are a little bit of a different situation, because they have a lot more control over who they invite to campus, the requirements students must meet to live on campus and attend in-person classes, and the behavior that people must adhere to on campus. They can make sure that all students are living in singles, utilize various spaces on campus to create more and bigger classrooms that allow for social distancing, and more easily implement a hybrid model where half of a class might attend in person twice a week and then do the other sessions virtually while their non-pod classmates attend in person.

But even if campuses succeed in limiting the number of students who live on campus and attend in-person classes; in creating solid testing, contact tracing, and quarantining programs; and in making a true campus bubble where contact with people outside of the university is extremely minimal, I still think most higher ed institutions who don't go all-virtual to begin the academic year are still going to end up in the same place: canceling the on-campus experience at some point during the fall and sending everyone home to complete the semester virtually, just like they did in the spring.

No matter how many protocols and procedures you put in place, you're not going to be able to control the behavior of young people 24 hours a day, and even with a good testing protocol in place, there's still going to be a testing lag, especially for asymptomatic spreaders, and that's going to be enough to cause a significant outbreak at virtually every campus within the first few weeks of the term.

Many school districts around Atlanta have already announced their plans, and many of our higher ed peers have also announced how they plan to reopen and have an on-campus experience for students, but neither our school district nor my university have announced anything concrete yet. However, based on both organizations' handling of previous crises, I don't expect them to do anything radical compared to their peers. My best guess: virtual school year (at least to start) for our elementary school, and a shortened semester with a focus on first-year students being on campus for my university.


7.6.20
On Friday, some of our friends from Kentucky came to town to visit their cousins, and we decided to have a socially distanced dinner with them on our screen porch like we've been doing with Julie's mom every week. We saw them last year at our college reunion, but it's been well over a decade since we've visited them in Lexington, and they hadn't been to Atlanta since 2015. I don't think I would have taken the risks that they are taking—they are staying with cousins in a house that they rent out to two tenants (including, coincidentally, Will's piano teacher), so they were interacting with two separate households in a non-socially-distancing manner—but it was really good to see them in person (in a definitely-socially-distanced way) and catch up with them for a couple of hours.

Saturday was Independence Day, so Julie's mom came over for her weekly (socially distanced) visit to have dinner and watch us set off fireworks. Normally we walk to Decatur to watch the fireworks there, but like most place, the city canceled them this year because of Covid, so we had our own backyard celebration with a big box of assorted fireworks that Julie found at the grocery store. They were essentially giant glorified sparklers—no explosions, just lots of sparks—but considering that, they were pretty impressive. Some of the more elaborate ones went through different phases with different colors and types of sparks, and created fountains of sparks that were six or seven feet high.

On Sunday we went to visit my mom, where she gave Will his early birthday presents (his birthday is this Friday). We've been trying to see her at least every other week since we started doing socially distanced visits with people again in May, and we'll probably go see her again next weekend—not only will it be good to visit again for Will's birthday weekend, but she also has a longtime friend (and my godmother) coming to visit her from DC.


7.7.20
The workday/camp schedule in our small house can sometimes get complicated: Julie tends to work at our dinner table or on our screen porch unless she's doing a call with a client, in which case she sets up in our bedroom and puts a white noise machine outside the door. Will is generally either in his room with his iPad for virtual camps or, more often, sitting at the other end of our dinner table using our oldest functioning iMac, a machine we got in 2012.

Lunchtime can be particularly complicate. For a while I asked for everyone else to be done with lunch by 1:00 so I could watch one of my DVR'd shows while I had my lunch, but recently that hasn't worked so well—Julie usually has lunch earlier, sometimes before noon, and Will's camps the past couple of weeks have been picking up their sessions again at 1:00, meaning he needs to be on the computer at the dinner table (our living room where the tv is, the dinner table, and the kitchen are one big open space in the shape of an L).

Since I haven't been able to eat lunch at noon (because that's usually Will's lunchtime), and I can't watch a show at 1:00 upstairs, I've taken to bringing my lunch downstairs to watch an older tv that we watch when we're using the treadmill. The problem: this tv isn't connected to our DVR, so I can't watch one of my recorded shows. Instead, it has a Roku box connected to it, so I've had to pick a show from one of the streaming services we subscribe to.

I tend to watch reality shows during lunch (like the gold mining or crab fishing shows), but I didn't immediately see any like that on the streaming services, so I watched movies or things like Space Force. But then the Netflix suggested ribbon featured The Great British Baking Show (which I guess is called The Great British Bake Off in its native UK), and I decided to give it a try.

I do like cooking competition shows as well, but I'm not particularly interested in baking. I started with the most recent season on Netflix (Netflix calls them "collections"), and I almost instantly fell in love. It's so ridiculously British in every way, and in this day and age, it might as well be taking place in an alien culture based on Mars—it's so quaint to see people caring so much about just how long they should proof the dough for a loaf of bread in contrast the world we are living in now, where there are so many huge problems that all of us have to think about every day that it feels like we aren't allowed to care about non-essentially problems anymore.

I'm particularly smitten with host Noel Fielding, a pseudo-goth and dark-hearted comedian who was part of Amy Winehouse's hard-partying circle of friends. He's just as British as the rest of them, but he seems so perfectly and charmingly out of place on a baking show. His clothes are sometimes the most interesting thing in the show, and I was particularly taken with his outfit on the second episode of the most recent season: a sweater recreating the cover of Dinosaur Jr.'s 1994 album Without a Sound. Brilliant.


7.8.20
Poe is still not happy about the new kitties, Jasper and Wolfie, but she's showing signs of coming around. There aren't a lot of interactions, but when they do happen, she'll at least let them get close to her and maybe feel each other out in close quarters before dismissing them with a hiss and running downstairs.

She's getting better every day, and I hope that she'll be completely used to them in a week or two, but she's still angry and a little depressed—she growls most of the time when we pick her up, and she hangs out a lot more downstairs, sometimes underneath the furniture. She also rarely wants to sleep in Will's room anymore, even if the door is closed so the kittens can't get in there.

It's sad to see her this way—before the kittens came, she was the absolute queen of this house and had no fear of anything. But her behavior now is very similar to the way Junie reacted when we adopted Poe, and they get along fine now. And Junie, incidentally, seems to have learned from Poe coming into the house that we're not going to love her any less—she is dealing with the kittens fine, and we've even nicknamed her Aunt Junie because of the maternal affection she sometimes shows them.


7.9.20
I really enjoyed Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (not so much the movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt), which used a found media concept to tell snippets of personal stories that combined let you piece together what the world looked like after a massive outbreak of a zombie virus and how humanity battled to reclaim the world. So I was looking forward to his new book, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Ranier Sasquatch Massacre.

It tries to use a similar framing, this time in the form of a diary of a witness/victim, to take us through another commonly-used supernatural/horror trope, this time humanity's encounter with Bigfoot. But there are several changes to the framing that make this far less successful, the main one being that this is primarily told from the point of view of one person and all the events take place in a pretty limited timespan (about three weeks in the fall). There are occasional asides from other people, namely a relative of the main narrator and a forest service ranger who discovered the village post-attack, but they don't really add anything substantial to the narrative. I also don't particularly like  the main narrator, which is a problem with many recent fiction books I've read—there's no one I really like or am rooting for, so when bad things happen, I don't care as much, or worse, I think they deserve what happened to them).

But there are many, many other problems with the book. First, which is a common issue with horror stories: once they realize that there is a wild pack of giant wood apes who are capable of dragging them from their homes and EATING THEM, why don't they just leave? There are lots and lots of narrative excuses early on, like they don't really believe the evidence they're seeing and that a road is blocked that prevents them from using their cars, and later on they insert a subplot where someone does leave and that doesn't work out, but honestly, even after that point, there's nothing preventing them from using their cars to outrun any possible early pursuit and then hiking out to a main road once they reach the source of the blockage.

Worse, it's hard to believe many of the events in the book, and not because it involves sasquatches (the depiction of a tribe of wood apes is actually one of the most realistic elements of the book). Like after one of the nighttime raids by the beast where more than one person was killed, the narrator, instead of worrying about getting out or making weapons or fortifying her home, is sitting down to write the very lengthy journal entry that we're reading and spending as much time mourning her trampled garden as grieving over a dead neighbor (which also further reinforces her unlikability).

My other criticisms would give away even more plot points, so I'll refrain, but there's very little in the village's collective and individual decision-making that you can feel like would be at all realistic if this situation were to actually occur. And the overarching message, that humans are the real monsters, which is supposed to come as a sudden shock of recognition as we get to the end of the story, is telegraphed a little too early and too obviously with the use of framing quotes before each section that give anthropological comments on primate groups.

I had high hopes for this book, but I was so disappointed that I turned away from the other sci fi books on my list and went back to nonfiction. The elements of a story worth telling are there (and I won't be surprised at all if someone turns this into a movie), but it could have been told in a much better fashion with more realistic characters and responses.


7.10.20
It's Will's 10th birthday today, and since we can't have a big party, we're trying to make it up to him in other ways. He'll still get presents (from us and from relatives sent through the mail), but Julie decorated his door so he came out this morning through a wall of transparent streamers to have his special breakfast, chocolate glazed doughnuts that I went to pick up from Krispy Kreme before he woke up.

He's doing a Minecraft camp through the Atlanta Museum of Design where he and his friend's built a theater in Minecraft and then performed a play for other campers in the Minecraft world, so we didn't do anything during the day. But Julie's mom came over for (socially distanced) dinner and birthday cake while Will opened his presents. We also got calls from all the grandparents and (most of) the aunts and uncles.

Our big present to him was a Sphero, which he's been wanting for a long time, specifically a Sphero Bolt. I think he had a pretty good day all told, and we'll do some other special stuff this weekend too. Plus we're planning a Zoom birthday party with all his friends and one of his favorite magicians in a couple of weeks, which he's really looking forward to.


7.13.20
We talked about taking Will to a drive-in theater as part of his birthday weekend—there is one in Atlanta that has been in continuous operation since the 1940s and it was playing The Goonies on one of the six screens—but it was pretty hot over the weekend and we didn't want to sit in a hot car with no air conditioning. It didn't occur to me that the Leaf might be a good option—we should be able to run the AC the whole time and still have plenty of battery to drive back home, plus we won't have any emissions from idling—so we might give this a try some other weekend.

Instead, on Saturday night we watched Hamilton on Disney+, which none of us had yet seen. Will's Christmas gift last year was tickets to see Hamilton at the Fox Theatre in April, which was moved to August because of Covid, which was then moved to August 2021 thanks to our state's/country's terrible handling of the pandemic. He was really bummed about this, but he was really excited about still getting to see some version of it this summer.

Seeing it on Disney+ obviously doesn't make up for that lost experience, but since it was originally scheduled to be released to theaters in 2021, it was nice of Disney to make it available much earlier for free to anyone who subscribes to the service. Will really enjoyed it, even if a lot of the political and interpersonal machinations went over his head—hopefully he'll grow in his appreciation of it as he gets older and has a fuller understanding of the full story. But he liked the singing. And the cuss words.

On Sunday we went over to my mom's house for a socially distanced dinner and to see my godmother Jane, who my mom has known since they were in college together. She drove down from DC to visit with my mom, and even though they joined their bubbles somewhat, we maintained social distance from both of them bringing over an extra chair for Jane to use on the patio and setting her up about 10 feet from where we usually sit.

We try to visit my mom every other weekend, but we've been seeing her more than that recently, which is a good thing—Will doesn't get the same kind of quality visits with people that he used to get, so upping the quantity is the next best thing. Plus my mom can't really get out of the house on her own (nor should she—out in Loganville, they seem to all think the pandemic is over or never happened, because you almost never see anyone wearing a mask unless they are at work and their employer mandates it), and I know she really loves to have visitors.


7.14.20
I've been watching Space Force, starring Steve Carrell and John Malkovich on and off for the past couple of weeks, and I finally finished the first season a couple of days ago. And it was...okay. It's still a series that could get better—there were some moments that are worth building on, and the cast could find their rhythm now that the writers have a better sense not just the characters as they exist on paper but how they have been inhabited by their actors.

Any half hour sitcom starring Steve Carrell as a semi-competent manager (he's the general in charge of Space Force) is inevitably going to be compared to The Office, and sometimes it feels like both Carrell and the writers were reacting to that pressure by veering sharply away from anything that was too much in the Michael Scott wheelhouse (even though how well he played that character is precisely why Carrell was hired for this role).

My two favorite moments from the show were both based around characters expressing themselves through music when no one else was watching. Malkovich had his turn playing a solo piano version of "What a Wonderful World" where he changed the lyrics to be about his current crush, a moment that revealed a deeply human and deeply vulnerable side to a character who, up until that point, had been mostly dismissive and sarcastic.

Carrell's music interlude was even better, and it anchored the first episode of the show, again giving a little humanity and depth to a character who seemed lacking in both due to the military bluster that he used to mask his insecurities. It happened when he was about to order the early launch of a rocket that his scientists were telling him might not make it into order without further preparation, but which he was under pressure to launch by the president and a visiting Congressional delegation.

He orders everyone out of his office to clear his head, but instead of taking a drink of whiskey or smoking a cigar, as you might expect for a career military man, Carrell's General Mark Naird instead starts singing and dancing to the Beach Boys' 80s hit "Kokomo". It's absurd and endearing and feels so sincere—the writers aren't mocking the character, they're reminding us that all of us have our quirky, private ways of dealing with stress.

It was overall a very uneven season, but the cast was generally pretty good, and assuming that they renew it for at least one more season, the writers should better know how to write scenarios and lines for the characters knowing how the actors will play them. The one thing that really got under my skin: we learn fairly early on that Naird's wife (played by Friends star Lisa Kudrow) is in prison for something, but they never ever tell us what.

Which is pretty weird: what kind of stuff could the decades-long wife of a prominent general have gotten involved in that would get her sent to prison for the rest of her life? They don't even give us a hint, which means it's either really important (in which case they're being kind of jerky for not telling us), or it's not important at all and they're just messing with us. Which is also kind of jerky.


7.15.20
Cloud Nothings recently released a surprise record called The Black Hole Understands, an album that was recorded at home primarily by frontman and main songwriter Dylan Baldi, and it's easily my favorite release from the band since their 2011 album which was the record that made me fall in love with them. And that's not exactly a coincidence—though it's a bit mellower and recorded with a bit more finesse, they are both record that Baldi wrote at home and recorded using DIY, lo-fi techniques, and they both use his rapid-fire, angular chord changes in the service of tuneful punk-pop played at breakneck speeds.

The one difference between the way the two albums were created is that Baldi (who was a solo act when the 2011 record was made) handed off the drums to be recorded remotely by his bandmate, Jayson Gerycz, and despite Gerycz's greater expertise as a drummer, the way the drums are actually recorded is one of the weaknesses of the record. While the drums on Cloud Nothings had a real punch to them, on Black Hole it sounds like they are being played on cardboard boxes, which minimizes the moments when they could have a real impact. It also doesn't help that they often seem to be played slightly out of sync with the rhythm of the guitars, presumably owing to the difficulties of remotely collaborating between two home studios.

I don't mind it being a little fuzzier around the edges than the band's recent releases, which have reached near-robotic levels of precision in the service of hard-edged songs that lean more toward ascetic metal than the homebrewed punk of my favorite releases, but the drums seem to veer too far off course, making it feel more like a set of demos than a proper album, despite the strength of the songwriting and an otherwise welcome return to the band's roots. Their less-pop-oriented sound reached its apex (or for me, its nadir) on Attack on Memory, which was his first album recorded with a full band after touring with that group for a year.

Interestingly, it came immediately after the record I loved so much, and it seemed like an intentional hard left turn meant to show off the skills of the full band than a natural successor to the catalog Baldi had built by himself at that point; since then, their records have been a blend of the two styles, with the overall sound increasingly trending back towards more melodic and hook-anchored tracks. This culminates with The Black Hole Understands, which might have only made its way into the world because Baldi was once again on his own and writing and recording without worrying too much about writing a record that showcased the whole band (it's telling that he only included the drummer on this collaboration).

Given a choice between the two styles of the band, I would obviously choose the pop punk side, so I'm pretty happy with this record. It will be interesting to see what they do next though—once the pandemic is over and they are back together recording as a unit, I would be surprised if we see a similar lurch back to the harder, less hook-y sound that we saw in the transition from Cloud Nothings to Attack on Memory.


7.16.20
Last night our power went out around 1:30 a.m., and the lack of white noise (from the air conditioning, the refrigerator, etc., actually woke me up from a light sleep. I checked the Georgia Power app on my phone to make sure it had been reported, and it had, with an estimate that the power would be back on by 4:30. I didn't really sleep, just tossed and turned and occasionally read my Kindle.

We got to 4:30, and the power still wasn't on despite several power trucks heading down our street in the interval. The estimated restoration time had also been replaced by a very vague "Situation being assessed" message. I was finally able to get some fitful sleep, but when I woke up a few hours later to start my workday, the power still wasn't on, and the restoration estimate had been changed to 12:30 p.m. We had been very careful not to open either our fridge or our downstairs freezer, but we were beginning to get concerned about the perishable food.

Julie and I made it through the morning by tethering our phones' cell signals to our iPad/laptop, and while I couldn't work on big projects, I could at least keep up with email and Slack that way. The power finally came back on around 1:30 in the afternoon, about 12 hours after it went out, and I immediately measured the temperature of the food in our fridge to make sure it was safe to keep and eat it (it was).

Julie and Will went on a walk in the morning to see if they could find out what was going on, and it turned out that a huge branch from an old tree had fallen and crushed part of a house and also knocked over a telephone pole (our neighborhood still mostly has our electricity coming in our wires going from pole to pole, although in the next year they're supposed to bury a lot of the wires). So when the electric company replaced the transformer that blew as a result of the lost pole, it immediately shorted out again until they discovered the real source of the problem.


7.17.20
I've been watching Martin Scorsese's Netflix film The Irishman on and off over the past few days, and it's...not great. It stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, which would have been a dream team to star in a mob movie directed by Scorsese...twenty years ago.

The titular character is Frank Sheehan (De Niro), a truck driver turned hitman who works for a Philadelphi mob boss (Pesci) and eventually becomes a bodyguard/confidant to Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). This is supposedly based on a true story, told by the real-life Sheehan to a biographer before his death, and it's really the story of Jimmy Hoffa, who is the central character around whom most of the big events revolve.

The movie is long, slow, and plodding, and it's not helped by the fact that, for most of the movie, all three of the topline actors are playing characters who are typically 30+ years younger than the actors' actual ages (De Niro, for example, is nearly 80, but the film is set during the period of Sheeran's life when he was 40-55). State of the art special effects are used to de-age them, but the state of the art still isn't what it needs to be: iall of the de-aged actors have an uncanny valley look that makes the age disparity even more obvious, especially when combined when their still-very-old-man-ish body movements.

This film was a real disappointment. Imagine a parody of a Scorsese mobster movie played by actors parodying De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino as very old men trying to play much younger men, add an obscene runtime, occasionally unclear time shifts, and a story that doesn't have any new revelations or insights into the world of crime that we haven't already gotten from Scorsese's true classics, and that's what you end up getting with this film. Everything about it is a pale shadow of something we've already seen in much more vibrant form, and there's really no reason to watch it, no matter how big a fan you might be of Scorsese or any of the lead actors.


7.20.20
There's not a whole lot to do on the weekends these days given how ridiculously out of control Covid is in our state and how risk averse we are to introducing it into our household, so our noteworthy activity this weekend was Will's Zoom birthday party with a bunch of his friends that was hosted by a local magician that we've seen several times and that Will has taken classes with (both in an afterschool club back in the normal world where students actually went to school and in virtual summer camp classes this summer).

We've tuned into one of his general virtual shows that you pay for, but this show was just for Will and his friends, and Will was often allowed to be onscreen (virtually, of course) with him and participate in the tricks. Will had a great time, and was excited not only to see another magic show but also to be the center of attention for a little bit. He's really done a pretty good job of enduring through this pandemic and being trapped at home with us for so long with only Zoom or Minecraft interactions with his friends.

He's had his outbursts for sure, but they aren't that much worse or more frequent than pre-Covid, and while I realize that they probably are in some way a displaced response to the the stress and weirdness of these times, they typically aren't directly about his unhappiness with our current state of existence. He's still mostly positive and happy, and he still gets excited about little things the same way he has his whole life. And having two new little kittens (who are very sweet and love being cuddled) certainly doesn't hurt.


7.21.20
After the disappointing Devolution, I decided to jump back over to non-fiction with Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale, a former resident of Athens and now a history professor at the University of Virginia. It attempts to trace the origins of the artistic, specifically music, scene in the late 70s and early 80s that gave birth to bands like Pylon, Love Tractor, the B-52s, and, most famously, R.E.M.

It succeeds fairly well with recounting the birth of the scene and linking it to other artistic and cultural movements, specifically Bohemian culture, DIY folk art/music, and the Factory scene of Andy Warhol's New York. It's not as analytical and well-researched in that regard as something like Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces, which does a convincing job of linking the Dada art movement of the early 20th century to the punk movement in the 1970s. But she does do a good job of describing the history of the art department at the University of Georgia, the faculty and students of which helped lay the groundwork for a creative and experimental culture in the 1960s that eventually became the fertile soil where the punk-inspired bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s could grow and thrive.

There are fewer first-person accounts from the main bands she focuses on, but she herself was a resident and college student in Athens as the town was becoming nationally known for its music scene, so she supplements her first person accounts with other witnesses to the scene that she knew personally, including those who were there before her and saw the true beginnings that led to the later national acclaim. Where the book occasionally falters is when she makes impassioned arguments for the uniqueness of that time—not just for the city itself, or the nation, or our century, but how it was unique in a truly historical context. This can become grating when she tries to insert herself into the narrative, writing at length about a food/music venue that she owned and a band that she was in that were part of the scene in the late 80s, when the 80s part of the story was pretty much over and the next wave, centered around the Elephant 6 Collective in the mid to late 90s, hadn't even started to coalesce yet.

I get that this was an important, transformative time in her own life, and it would have been fun and inspiring and joyous to be part of something so special even if you were coming in as it was dying and morphing into something else, but a lot of the material that's included post-1985 seems extraneous to the truly important story she's trying to tell. And while I do acknowledge that this period in Athens' history is worth documenting and was special, it wasn't as special as the author makes it out to be when you look at the big picture of art/music/cultural moments. Similar moments were happening in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Chapel Hill in the 80s and 90s, and New York is home to a seemingly endless cycle of them—two easy examples are the late 60s/early 70s when the previously referenced Factory scene in New York was in its prime, and then again in the early 2000s (a period chronicled in Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom).

Each of these periods is worth capturing and linking together (which is partially accomplished by Michael Azzerrad's brilliant Our Band Could Be Your Life), but an author/researcher who had looked beyond the boundaries of those individual scenes would recognize that these explosions in creativity and community were happening in multiple places, and continue to happen in cities and towns large and small even though most of them will not produce works as brilliant and lasting as the ones created by the bands that Athens was lucky enough to host/give birth to.

If you have any interest in the bands that were part of this scene, especially the B-52s, Pylon, and R.E.M. (I really wish there had been more about Love Tractor), this is still a worthwhile book—my issues with some of Hale's attempts to make herself part of the scene and make the scene take on outsize importance do not diminish the overall narrative. This was an incredibly important cultural period that continues to have lasting impacts not only on the music of today, but also on how bands can exist and sometimes even thrive through hard work and a DIY ethos, which has become even more prevalent in a world where every laptop can be a recording studio.


7.22.20
I haven't seen any of my friends in even a socially distanced capacity in person since early March, but we've felt comfortable enough with the setup we've used with Julie's mom's weekly visits that I decided to see if any of them might want to come over for a one-on-one visit using the same configuration (outside on our screen porch with one of us sitting at one end and the other sitting about 10 feet away on the other side).

My friend was a natural first invitee, since he lives right around the corner from us and only has to walk about five minutes to get to our house. He brought his own flask and entered using the outside door to the porch; I brought my drink from inside the house and used the house door on the opposite side. He stayed for a couple of hours and we just generally caught up about work, our kids, and other stuff going on in our life.

His big thing is that he's still waiting for his fiancée to get clearance to come to the US. She's a citizen of the Phillipines, where they met a year or so ago when he went back there for an extended vacation (he did two years of missionary work there when he was younger). They were at the final stage of her visa process when Covid hit; the only thing she has left to do is the in-person interview at the American embassy.

The problem is that the embassy has been closed since March and they have no idea when it's going to reopen again. They had planned to be married by now; if things had gone according to schedule, she would have gotten her visa in March and come over no later than April. It really sucks for both of them, not being able to start their life together and, like everything in the Covid age, not having any clear sense of the timeline for when things might move forward.

It was good to see him again in person, even though we never got closer than six feet and always had our masks at the ready just in case. Hopefully I'll be able to start doing this on a regular basis with him and some of my other friends (not all at once, of course—just one at a time). It won't make up for not being able to go to a pub with them and win free drinks playing trivia, but it's far better than not being able to see them at all.


7.23.20
After Cool Town, I stayed in the nonfiction music genre with Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements by Bill Sullivan, who was the band's roadie for most of the 80s. Lemon Jail was the band's nickname for their first touring van, named for its lack of reliability and how much time the band had to spend in it going from gig to gig.

I've already read a more typical biography of the band, Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys, and given that the tone and the perspective of this one is similar to Waiting to Derail, the road diary book about Ryan Adams from his former manager, I expected it to have a few more wild stories. But it didn't give me anything out of bounds from Mehr's book or from the apocrypha about the band that's passed around from fan to fan.

That doesn't mean it was a fun read—Sullivan keeps the narrative moving, and in addition to Waiting to Derail, it also reminds me of Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook's books about his two bands and the Hacienda, the club they jointly owned in Manchester. If you have any love for the Replacements, this is a great read that adds a few more anecdotes to the arsenal, focusing almost exclusively on their road exploits and live shows. Trouble Boys is a more complete history of the band, but this is a nice addendum.


7.24.20
I've been catching up on things that have been on my Netflix to-be-watched list during the pandemic months, and a recent one that I've been meaning to watch for years is Quentin Tarantino's Django, which focuses on a slave who is rescued, freed, and trained to be a bounty hunter by another bounty hunter.

The narrative eventually takes them on a quest to buy Django's wife from her current owner. This scheme predictably ends in disaster that requires a lot of cinematic violence and artfully shot blood sprays with what initially feels like a satisfying ending where most everyone gets what's coming to them, good or bad.

But the more I thought about the movie, the more problems I had with it. It was released in late 2012 (with a wide release in early 2013), a few months before Black Lives Matter movement became part of the zeitgeist, and certainly long before it came to the prominence that it has achieved in the past few months following the murder of George Floyd. With its graphic portrayal of violence against black slaves, its constant, casual, but still almost-always demeaning use of the n-word by both white and black characters, and its romantic portrayal of the antebellum south (the film is set in the years immediately preceding the Civil War), I doubt that it could be made today, but I also question whether it should have been made then, especially when it was written and directed by a white filmmaker.

Much of the tone and art direction is guided by classic Western films from the 50s and 60s, and Tarantino himself described it as his version of a Spaghetti Western. But that description only fits in a very surface way for a very limited part of the film; otherwise, this is really a classic Tarantino revenge plot (like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds) except this time its a slave taking revenge on his former masters and the white overseers and black house slaves who enforced the hierarchy and structure of the plantation.

In addition to the issues with the movie I've already listed, particularly the constant use of the n-word and the glorification of antebellum plantation life, there are two other major issues I have with the way the story played out. The first is the event that triggers the mass murder by Django of pretty much every white person on the plantation where his wife is held: Waltz's character, Dr. Schultz, having successfully negotiated the purchase of Django's wife from the plantation owner (albeit for a much larger sum than he originally hoped once the plantation master, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was clued into the relationship between the couple), decides to risk his own life and that of Django and his wife when he had an opportunity for all of them to escape cleanly.

At the conclusion of the sale, Candie insists that, in addition to the signed contract between the two of them, Schultz must also shake his hand to seal the deal. Rather than engage in this simple, pointless act, Schultz instead indulges in what he might call "honor" or "pride" but which could accurately be labeled as the most extreme form of white privilege by instead murdering Candie in a room full of his loyal lieutenants, immediately endangering Django and his newly freed wife despite numerous signals from Django (who sees what's coming) to stand down and focus on getting them all out alive without bloodshed.

The second big issue came with actions that Tarantino scripted for Django himself: toward the end of his ordeal on the plantation, after he has quickly and efficiently dispatched dozens of white men who were part of the oppressive structure of the plantation, he decides to reserve his one act of torture not for the plantation owner, his overseers, or the particularly cruel lackey (played by Walton Goggins) who was going to castrate Django, but instead for the calculating, self-preservation-minded chief house slave Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson). For some reason, Django ascribes more evil to Stephen's acts than to all the white men who were actually responsible for slavery and all its ills, which are really weird, twisted examples of both blaming the victim and the powerless attacking each other instead of those who actual hold and wield power.

Look, I can watch pretty much anything that features Christoph Waltz reading Quentin Tarantino dialogue, and there were many parts of this film that were as enjoyable as anything Tarantino's ever done. But as well-crafted as it is (the art direction, casting, and acting are near-perfect), I don't know that I'll feel comfortable watching this movie ever again, and I suspect that this is one of Tarantino's few movies that will not age well despite its initial positive reception critically.


7.27.20
Pretty quiet weekend this weekend. We went out to visit my mom for another socially distanced dinner, and also had Julie's mom over for her weekly socially distanced dinner.

The next two weeks will be pretty hectic at work as we prepare to welcome a limited number of students back to campus and start our recruitment of next year's class, but then we'll be taking another trip to the mountains like we did back in June. We had wanted to do this for Will's original last week before school started, but when we looked after our June trip, all the cabins we were interested in were booked already.

But when they moved the start date for school back two weeks, we immediately went online to search for cabins that were available the week of Aug 10. The one we used in June was unfortunately already booked, but we found a few others that looked like good possibilities, so we booked one and surprised Will with the news. He's very excited.

In addition to being a reward for Will before school starts (it will be all-virtual for at least the first month), we're also taking this trip because my institution re-implemented their max vacation accrual restrictions that were suspended in April, and now I only have until the end of August to use up all my vacation that's over the cap so I don't lose it.

I'm not sure why they chose now to do this—given the situation here in Georgia and in our nation as a whole, it's not like we've gone back to normal and had time to book typical vacations and time off. And I'm not the only one affected either—several people in our office who have been with the university for a while have all suddenly had to book a week off to try to get below that cap (including more than half of my direct reports), and even a full week is not going to be enough for me and some other folks—we'll have to take another couple of random days off just to use up the vacation we have accrued since the beginning of the pandemic.


7.28.20
After Django Unchained, I decided to try another quirky, arty take on the Western genre with the Coen brothers' Netflix anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This is a collection of six unrelated stories set in the Old West, filled with a lot of quirky elements characteristic of the Coen brothers' filmmaking/storytelling. The tone reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou, but unlike that movie, this is a true anthology—there is no overarching narrative tying the stories together, just a vague setting of life in different parts of the Old West.

As you would expect, the art direction and cinematography are at an incredibly high level, and the visual elements are sometimes the most compelling aspects of the stories (particularly Meal Ticket, which features Liam Neeson as one of the worst people in the entire anthology). There's also a lot more explicit framing than usual, both in the stories themselves and in the device—a collection of short stories—that serves as the closest thing to a shared continuity between the various stories. If you had shown me this collection without telling me who made it, I could imagine that it could belong to Wes Anderson.

But the visuals aren't enough to save the individual stories, and I ended up only liking about half of them: "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", "Near Algodones", and "All Gold Canyon". And there are issues with the first two; the only one I really loved was "All Gold Canyon", and that's mostly because it stars Tom Waits, who's always fascinating to watch in his very limited forays into the world of acting. The other three stories all have their bright spots, and of those "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is the most compelling. "Meal Ticket" and "The Mortal Remains" telegraph their depressing endings pretty early on, and they seem more focused on visuals than characters.

All in all it's a worthwhile collection, but if I were to rewatch it, I'd probably focus on the best three or four stories—I just don't know what I'd gain from watching the tedious "Meal TIcket" or "The Mortal Remains" ever again. What I would like to see is "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" expanded into a full-length movie: it's the first story in the series, and when the anthology began, I had hoped his character would serve as a kind of uber-narrator who would bring some unifying perspective to the collection. Alas, that was not to be, but there's no reason they couldn't still do that in another film.


7.29.20
Last night I had another friend come over for a socially distanced visit. Like Clint, my neighbor who came over last week, Steve was a regular member of my group of friends who used to meet up for trivia at Thinking Man in Decatur back before Covid. I've known him for years—his daughter and Will were in preschool together, we're always invited to his annual New Year's chili dinner, and we even have season tickets to Atlanta United games together. We've also often gone to music shows together.

I don't remember too much about what we talked about, although I know we talked about how our respective workplaces are handling the pandemic and discussed the movies, shows, and books we've watched/read over the past few months, but as with Clint's visit, it was more about being able to have a reasonably normal (but still socially distanced and safe) interaction with someone that isn't mediated by Zoom or some other kind of remote technology.

I honestly don't know when we'll get back to being able to hang out with friends, go to bars, and go to sporting events and concerts like we could six months ago. I have resigned myself to the high likelihood that this won't be until we have a safe and effective vaccine that can be administered at scale, and even if the current promising results from several vaccine candidates pan out, that likely won't be until at least a year from now. Which is really depressing to think about given how hard these past few months have been.


7.30.20
After Lemon Jail, I read another book in the nonfiction music genre, this time Liz Phair's memoir Horror Stories. Like most indie-leaning music fans, I fell hard for Phair's stunning debut album, Exile in Guyville, a double concept album that was conceived as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. I was also a huge fan of her second record, Whip-Smart, which remains one of the most underrated albums of the 90s.

After that, things started to get dicey. Her hugely anticipated Whitechocolatespaceegg was a big disappointment to me—it felt meandering and unfocused, and reflected its turbulent development, with multiple producers and rewrites, and the opposing pressures of maintaining her indie cred/audience and her record company wanting her to take a big step towards mainstream stardom. That's a step she would fully take on her next album, Liz Phair, which aimed towards the teen pop market (despite Phair being in her mid-30s at that point), which singles produced by The Matrix, a collective known for working with Avril Lavigne, Hillary Duff, and Britney Spears.

There was only one song I really loved on Whitechocolatespaceegg, so by the time Liz Phair arrived five years after that, with its teen pop orientation and interviews where she made various statements about making money being more important than making good music, I had moved on from her as a musical artist; after listening to clips that validated that the punitive Pitchfork review that gave that album a 0.0 was more accurate than not, I didn't even think about buying the record. Her 2005 major label record Somebody's Miracle was similarly ignored, and she hasn't had a proper release since then.

So when her Horror Stories memoir was released in October 2019, I didn't have much interest—at that point, it had been 25 years since she had made music I had any interest in, and nearly 15 years since she'd officially released any music at all. To the extent that she still wandered across my news feed, it was to announce yet another tour rehashing the golden years of Exile in Guyville.

But while browsing for new books to read after the musically-oriented Cool Town and Lemon Jail, Horror Stories started showing up in my recommendations, and after reading the universally positive reviews, I decided to give it a try. And a bit to my surprise, despite the enthusiastic critical reception, it's a very well-written and worthwhile read whether you like/know Phair and her music or not.

It's similar in some ways to the memoir by another Chicago icon, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, whose 2018 memoir Let's Go (So We Can Get Back): while referencing elements of the music-oriented aspects of their lives, neither book is a chronology/history of their songwriting, recording sessions, or tours. They are truly memoirs about the fullness of their lives, and the musical aspects are referenced in the same way that any memoirist would talk about whatever their career happened to be.

Where Phair differs from Tweedy, however, is in her fearlessness and her willingness to share multiple instances in her life when she was either scared, obnoxious, doing the wrong thing, or incredibly vulnerable, sometimes hitting more than one of these categories at the same time. She also acknowledges that imperfection of memory and our innate skill at editing our own histories, saying that the other people in these stories may not remember them exactly the same way that she does, but they are her truths, and her remembrances of these events, these people. these moments, and her perceptions of them continue to shape the way she sees herself and the world around her.

And despite the gravitas of many of these stories—she tends to focus on seminal, life-changing events like the death of a loved one, giving birth, getting a divorce, and engaging in multiple affairs while in an committed, monogamous relationship—it's an incredibly readable and ultimately positive book. By taking a pretty unvarnished look at her successes and her failures, her strengths and her flaws, and her noblest impulses and her basest instincts, she becomes an incredibly human and empathic figure we can all identify with despite living in a social and financial bubble for most of her life that very few of us have experienced.

This is a highly recommended read, and foreknowledge of Phair's music and/or pop culture presence is not required. This is an engaging and engrossing set of stories from a gifted, insightful writer who doesn't flinch from the hard truths even when the subject is herself. I didn't have high hopes that this would be a book I would enjoy despite the positive critical reception, but it would be a remarkable effort even if my expectations had been sky-high.

And if you are a fan, even a lapsed fan like me, this book will counterbalance the one-dimensional 21st century narrative of Phair as a money- and fame-oriented former artist whose talent has abandoned her. Despite her lack of quality output as a musician and recording artist this century, she has continued to live a creatively-oriented life that manifests itself in less obvious ways than a commercial product we can all consume.


7.31.20
Just before the start of the truncated MLB season, the Braves were offering the ability to purchase a cutout that would sit in the seats on the lower levels between the dugouts for $50. I was actually on the page when it was live, but hesitated on whether it was worth it or not, and by the time we decided to do one for Will the next day, they had sold out.

But then, thanks to the success and popularity of the initial offering, they expanded it and opened it up for more cutouts that would be placed away from the prime background viewing angles. But despite not know where Will's cutout might end up and whether we'd ever see it in the background during a game, we signed up as soon as the page opened for new purchases again, hastily assembling an outfit for Will with his Braves jersey and hat and getting his picture uploaded to the site.

It will take a few days before we know if his image is approved (there shouldn't be any reason why it won't be), and then presumably another few days before the cutout is produced and placed in the stands. I don't know if they'll ever tell us what section his cutout is in or whether we'll ever see it, but Will is super excited about being at the ballpark in some small way this year. Plus they're supposedly going to allow us to come pick up the cutout at the end of the season, and he's pretty psyched about having a life-size version of himself to decorate his wall.

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