july 2007

I decided not to get an iPhone on Friday, but we did go up to the nearest AT&T store on Saturday to ask a few questions and see if they had a demo model we could play with. They didn't really have any answers for my questions (I was curious if, when a better model comes out in a year, we could transfer the first generation iPhone to Julie's account for the remainder of the contract), but they did have some demo models, so Julie and I both played around with them for five minutes or so.

They are totally awesome. If iPhones were only $300 apiece, I would have gotten one for both Julie and I. If iPhones didn't have the network issues (AT&T's data network is slower than many of its competitors), I probably would have gotten one at the $600 price, and I still might when the demand eases up a bit and they're able to keep them in stores (even the podunk AT&T store near us sold out of their stock within 45 minutes of putting them on sale). But whether I get a first generation iPhone in the relatively near future or I wait until version 2 sometime next year, an iPhone is definitely in my future.

I finally got my new Mac set up at work, and it is fast. I was thinking that maybe I could hold out on getting a machine for another 9-12 months, but after seeing how much more responsive this machine is and how much faster it runs the latest software, I might have to move up the time table a bit.

We had my brother and one of my coworkers over for July 4 yesterday, which turned out pretty well despite the sporadic rain. The plan was to grill out and have dinner around 7 or so, and then sit out on the porch and watch the neighbors set off their fireworks with the hope that they would be as good as they were last year.

Our guests got to our house relatively early in the afternoon, so I grilled up some sausages for lunch since we hadn't eaten yet, either, and then we got them to help us take down a panel on our shed that was rotting and nail up a new one. The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on the back porch listening to music, chatting, and enjoying the weather.

As we got further into the afternoon, though, we saw more and more ominous signs of storms, until finally the rain started coming down. The first dose lasted for half an hour or so, after which we dried things off and went back outside. Another burst forced us inside for a bit, and then a larger shower hit just as we were preparing to have dinner. So we moved back inside to eat, hoping that by the time we finished it would slack off again and we could go outside to watch fireworks.

But it didn't really ease off for more than a few minutes at a time, and for a while we were worried that we wouldn't get any fireworks at all. (Even if we didn't, hanging around the house was still a better decision than driving somewhere to see fireworks—if we had done that, we would have either come home anyway or been soaking from the rain.) But during one of the short breaks in the weather we heard some fireworks going off, and we got a few good minutes in before the rain started up again and forced us (and presumably the people setting off the fireworks) back indoors.

That happened a couple more times, where the rain would stop just long enough to set off a couple of rounds of fireworks and then start up again, and even though it would have been much nicer to be able to sit outside and enjoying them in clear skies, we still got our fair share of them eventually. I'm still sold on the idea of not going out to see fireworks next year; I much prefer not having to fight the crowds and to be able to go inside if we need to get out of the weather.

Even though it's the beginning of the weekend, and even though I'm only working a half day to make up for the time that I spent working last Friday when I was supposed to have the day off, today is still a stressful day for me. There are a lot of things going on at work that I can't talk about, things going on in my personal life that I'm not ready to talk about, and things I need to get finished for class next week.

The class thing is less stressful because, well, it's just a class, but I still need to finish it and do well, and right now I've got a lot of work to do and no clear direction. But one way or the other, by next Friday, I'll be done with it, and it won't be taking up mental space anymore. The other two issues are unlikely to be resolved by then, but hopefully I'll at least have a clearer picture of how and when they might get resolved. So I'm hoping that next Friday I'll be in a much better place than I am on this one.

Grrr...stupid Peabody library closing on the weekends for the summer. Getting the books I need to write my paper for class is going to be much more problematic now...

Sick yesterday, and not feeling too hot today either. I either ate something that didn't agree with me or there's some sort of stomach bug going around.

Since I've been sick the past two days and unable to do any real work on my paper, and yesterday was the day I had planned to take off to finish it, I'm taking today off instead. I also need to make sure to continue to study for the listening quiz, which we'll take right before handing in our papers.

I have a pretty good path to follow to finish my paper on time, but it's all been so rushed that I don't really have a feel for how good it is. Same with the quiz—I've done a serious amount of listening and studying my notes about the pieces, but I'm just not sure how hard he's going to make this. Either way, it's all over tomorrow and I can get this stuff off my plate and out of my head for a few days.

Oh, and there's definitely a bug going around—one of my coworkers was sick with the same thing over the weekend and another was out yesterday and today with the same illness.

Paper turned in finally. If I read it in a week and it's not horrible, I'll post it here. I think he'll give me a good grade for it, since I actually did some solid research and I also tackled two of the most demanding pieces that we studied while most of my classmates stuck with the safe and easy Copland and Gershwin pieces. I aced the quiz, too, so I'm feeling pretty good about my overall grade for the class.

We have another Orioles game tonight. We've pretty much given up on even coming close to having a winning record this season, much less a chance at a playoff appearance, so the games just aren't that much fun to go to despite the unusually high number of wins we have personally witnessed this year. But tonight is also fireworks night after the game, so at least that's something to look forward to.

Friday night's baseball game was actually pretty good. It was a great pitcher's duel between Eric Bedard, who is developing into the Orioles great young ace under the tutelage of Leo Mazzone, and Mark Buerhle, one of the better pitches in the league. The O's won on the strength of two solo home runs by up-and-coming fan favorite Nick Markakis and outfielder Corey Patterson, which were Buerhle's only real mistakes—even though he lost, he still pitched a complete game.

There were three rows of drunks in front of us, but they were in front of us, not behind, and they were happy drunks despite the occasional lecherous looks that the old men in front of us gave to the college girls in front of them and one completely random act of aggression in the form of a tub of popcorn thrown at the group of youngsters. But they were all very enthusiastic Orioles fans, which is a rare thing these days, even if their enthusiasm was enhanced by a lot of alcohol.

After the game they had a fireworks display, which as pretty cool. It lasted about 20 minutes, and it made up for the hit-and-miss neighborhood fireworks on July 4 this year that were hampered rain.

So far they've only lost one game while we've been in attendance. Given their lousy record and presumable desperation for anything that might give them more wins, no matter how crazy...well, I'd be open to some free tickets if someone was giving them away. Club level, third base side would work fine.

It's been over a month since we took our trip to Charlottesville, but I have a few final notes from that trip.

After we left Prospect Hill, the bed and breakfast where we'd had our rehearsal dinner, we headed up 29 towards home and we decided to stop in at Barboursville, home of Four County Players, an amateur theatre company at which I had volunteered for a few seasons while I was in grad school at UVA. I have very fond memories of that place, and although I didn't really expect to find anyone there I knew, I still wanted to stop in and see the place, more to make sure it was still around than anything else.

The main production I was involved in during my years there was the annual Shakespeare performance, which we staged outdoors a local vineyard. The backdrop for our stage was the ruins of a mansion owned by Governor James Barbour (i.e., the guy who Barboursville is named for) which was designed by Thomas Jefferson. The house burned down in 1884, but the largely brick remains have stood the test of time well, and we always built our stage in front of what used to be the back porch, using the Roman columns and the brick façade as a backdrop for our performances.

I was the stage manager for three of these plays—Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and The Winter's Tale (which contains the best stage direction in the history of western theatre—"Exit, pursued by a bear.")—and although I stage-managed a few other things and even had a minor role in one play, the Shakespeares were far and away my favorite. Part of it was the vibe—there's really nothing to describe the experience of putting on a great play on the grounds of a vineyard with the ruins of a 150 year old mansion as your setting while people sit having picnics in the grass and sipping cold wine on a warm summer evening—but the best part was the cast and crew, especially my director for the first two, Sarah Smith.

She was a spry, lean woman in her 50s who ran her plays like a captain runs his ship. She had a stubborn, insistent will coupled with a kind, generous heart and a sharp intelligence—she was definitely someone that you wanted to have on your side, or at the very least, not working against you, because you knew that she didn't lose many battles and that those who chose to go to war with her often regretted it. There was a vague sense that she had money, and I knew that she was a major financial contributor to the theatre, but she was absolutely egalitarian—she was direct and genuine and honest with everyone. She reminded me of a younger, more outspoken amalgamation of some of my many southern aunts: warm and welcoming, but with the ferocious tenacity of a bulldog and fiercely protective of the people she loved.

I got involved with the theatre when my roommate decided on a whim to try out for a part after seeing a notice on the local public access channel, and I came along with him because, well, I was new in town and I didn't have any money or anything else to do. Joe got a part; I got asked to be the stage manager. Without knowing a scintilla about what the job entailed and without any prior theatre experience, I signed on, because Joe was the only person I knew in town, and if he was going to be spending half his nights each week for the whole summer hanging out at a theatre, then so was I.

I was a good match for Sarah. She liked to keep strict notes about every change to the text (for brevity's sake, we almost always had to cut non-essentially passages) and every shift in the blocking; keeping track of the script and updating the blocking diagrams were two of many jobs during rehearsals, including giving out lines to actors who hadn't completely learned theirs yet, standing in for actors who weren't able to attend (reading their lines, running through their blocking, etc.), and making sure everyone said "either" and "neither" the same way (seriously). I make a good lieutenant; I don't mind being in a leadership role, like a project manager or a team lead, but I have no desire or ambition to be the CEO or the general. Or the captain of a ship. Sarah was my captain, and I was perfectly happy to be her first mate.

Those were some of the happiest times of my life, even though there was lots of stress otherwise: during the years I worked at the theatre, I was also getting engaged and getting married (those are happy things, but planning a wedding is always stressful, especially if you're not fond of crowds or being the center of attention like me); dropping out of grad school and getting a low-paying cubicle job while I figured out what to do with my life; and losing one of my best friends to madness and pharmaceuticals (the aforementioned Joe, who I haven't spoken to in over a decade although I think of him almost daily). I defy anyone to work on a play and not feel completely exuberant when, after weeks of rehearsal and interpersonal drama and feeling like you're never going to be ready by opening night, the show goes up and everything somehow magically comes together and you know you've helped to create something truly extraordinary and unique. There weren't many shows at Four County Players that didn't make me feel that way, and certainly the Shakespeare runs with Sarah were the best of all of them.

This is going on a bit longer than I expected when I started writing, so I'll conclude tomorrow.

Anyway. Back to the present-day.

We stopped in at the main Four County Players office on our way out of Charlottesville, hoping to find someone there who might at least know some of the people I'd worked with (and I was secretly hoping that they might be in rehearsal for this summer's Shakespeare play). There were only a couple of people there, but one of them was the current director of the theatre, and he was pretty generous with his time, taking a half hour or so to show us around the renovated playhouse (bigger stage, better backstage area, new changing/makeup area downstairs, new restroom facilities, a curtain that closed automatically, and more).

He was also able to fill me in on what had happened to some of the people I'd worked with, a few of whom were still active with the theater, including Sarah. She didn't actually run anything at the theatre anymore, but she was still supporting it financially, and the office secretary, an elderly British woman who must have started working there just after I stopped, still went out to her house occassionally and promised to pass along my business card to Sarah. There was also a couple who I'd worked with on Evita (he was the director, she was the star) who weren't really a couple when I knew them because he was still married, but in the intervening years, he had gotten divorced and they had gotten married. I remember she worked at a home furnishings store when I knew her, and we've still got the UVA beer mugs and crystal champagne flutes she gave me as thanks for stage managing and as a wedding gift respectively.

The current director also told me that Randall, who worked with me at Michie and who was in every Shakespeare play (in small roles, because he wasn't really an actor), had died of a heart attack a couple of years earlier, after he had served some time as chair of the theatre board (the last I knew of him was when I left Michie, and he had just started serving on the board as a general member). In a weird way, he's part of the reason I am where I am today—he helped Joe get a job at Michie, and then I followed in Joe's footsteps a couple of years later after leaving grad school (we all worked in the same department). It was that job that allowed me to put HTML development—which at that point in time was just being able to write simple HTML code—on my résumé, which eventually, in combination with other serendipitous occurences, led to my employment with Sycamore, which is what pulled us to Maryland.

The new director also told me that they were not going to be performing at the Barboursville ruins for the first time in the history of the Shakespeare production because of concerns from the vineyard owners that the crowds were doing too much damage to the property. That's really too bad—seeing the performance at the ruins is really what set that production apart from a normal theatre staging of a Shakespeare play, and I think they're trying to compensate for not having that advantage by performing a modernized version of Shakespeare with contemporary costumes, etc. (one of Sarah's edicts when I worked with her is that we always had to wear period costumes, even the crew). I had such warm feelings from revisiting the theatre that I was half-planning to return for a Shakespeare performance later this summer (I never got to see one as just an audience member), but now that it's not going to be at the ruins, I don't think I'm going to be quite as motivated.

So that was pretty much it for our trip to Charlottesville. It was a good visit, almost making me nostalgic for the place even though there were plenty of things about the town that irritated me when I lived there. But I guess that's true of just about anyplace you live, and while I'm not actively looking to move back to Charlottesville, if an opportunity came up there, I don't think I'd automatically opposed to the idea.

I got my paper back from my summer course already. I got an A, which isn't that much of a surprise—this professor is known as a generous grader for these courses, because he's really more interested in seeing you take a serious interest in the music and endeavoring to read some commentary on it than he is in original thought or perfectly written and researched papers. As it happens, I think my paper was pretty well written and researched, and I think it could have earned an A even with a harder grader, but I guess all that counts is that I got an A one way or the other.

What I found really interesting was a portion of my professor's comments on the paper:

you write well—sometimes redundant—always engaging—competent sources

That just might be the most succinct description of my academic writing style I've ever read. The "sometimes redundant" comment is especially apt, as I've always felt that applies to almost all of my writing, and to my speaking style as well. It's a bad habit that shows two things: a lack of faith in my audience to get what I say the first time I say it, and/or an excess of good phrases to describe something, so instead of picking the single best description, I cram three or four together.

Anyway. I guess that's just who I am as a communicator, and since I've got no compelling reason to change at this point, that's likely who I'm going to continue to be.

I've done my best to avoid any hints, spoilers, or even speculation about the final Harry Potter book. I haven't been to any of the fan sites since they released the cover of the new book, I definitely didn't try to download any of the illicit images of the book that were posted to BitTorrent sites earlier this week, and since those images went up, I've avoided message boards like the plague. I want this experience to be as unpolluted as possible, which means that I want to get the book as soon as it comes out and I don't want to go on the internet or watch any television until I finish it, just to make sure that I don't stumble across any info from the book before I've read it for myself.

The problem is that our normal World of Warcraft Friday raid goes until 1:00 a.m. on Friday nights, and although several book stores are having midnight release parties in our area, I doubt that any of them will still be open at 1:30, which is probably about the earliest I could get there, and we don't live near any 24 hour Wal-Marts or grocery stores (yes, even the grocery stores in our area are stocking this book).

I still might try to get one at midnight, either by begging out of the raid early or by finding someplace that's still open when we finish, but if I can't do it then, the local grocery store opens at 5 a.m., so I could grab a few hours of sleep and then go pick it up then. Either way, I'm hoping I can finish by Saturday night so I can get back to interacting with other forms of media.

Julie and I were both able to take the night off from our regular raid on Friday night, so we decided to attend one of the midnight sales for the new Harry Potter book. I called ahead just to see if there was anything special we had to do, and there was: if you didn't have a preorder, you had to come in and sign up, which would give you a ticket and a blue wristband (people with reserved copies got gold wristbands, all of whom would be allowed into the store before the blue wristbands).

We chose a Barnes and Noble that was about 20 minutes from us, but which was the farthest one from Baltimore that was still in the Baltimore area. It was in a small shopping center that was near some residential areas, but not really an overly populated area, so I thought there would maybe be three or four hundred people with reserved preorders and then another hundred or so people like me. I figured if we got there around 12:15 or so, we'd probably be out of there no more than half an hour later.

Boy, was I wrong. The number of people with preorders was closer to 1500, and that's just wristbands; sometimes this meant an entire family went with that one wristband. The tickets for the preorders started with the number 1000; by the time we figured out what was going on (a little after 12:30), they were calling everyone with a ticket of 1800 or below. When we first arrived, there had to be well over 2000 people standing outside of the store, and several hundred more still inside winding their way through the line (they started you on the side of the four farthest away from the cash registers and made you wind back and forth between all the shelves to the back of the store, following a line of tape they'd put on the floor; then you crossed to the other side of the store and repeated the zig zag until you got to the cash registers).

It was amazing how fast they went, though—by the time they were calling the last batch of yellow tickets about half an hour later, there was a noticeable difference in the size of the crowd; one employee we overheard said they sold about 1100 copies in the first half hour. We were among the first 10 people in from the blue group, and even though we got in shortly after 1:00 a.m., we didn't get to buy our copy until close to 1:30. By the time we left, there was no one left outside; everyone who had been behind us (both the remaining blue tickets and the people who had shown up without any sort of preparation) were already in the store, working their way through the line.

We were home by 2, and I immediately started reading while Julie went to sleep. I was able to read for about 2 1/2 or 3 hours before I fell asleep, and when Julie woke up at her typically early hour, she started reading and caught up to me. I woke up and started in again just before lunch, and by 5:00 that afternoon I was finished. Because we had some other things to take care of that night, Julie wasn't able to finish before she fell asleep, but by the time I woke up Sunday morning, she was done as well.

I'm not going to give away any details of the book yet, but I will say this: it is a great book, and well worth the wait. It's strange that this series is finally over, but I think J.K. Rowling has completed her epic in a more fulfilling and satisfying way than any of her peers in the sci-fi/fantasy multi-volume story genre, including Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc. This might be the most anticipated book in the history of the written word, and I have to say that it lives up to expectations. I need to re-read it again soon, because I'm sure there were details I missed in my rush to find out how it all ends, but she did an amazing job with this final book, and I don't think that any of her fans are going to be disappointed.

Today's either going to be a very good day or a very bad day at work. But whatever happens, I have an Orioles game with a free Cal Ripken bobblehead to look forward to tonight.

Another long, slow pitcher's duel for the Orioles last night, and another game they've won while we've been in the stands. That makes them 8-1 in games we've attended this season, which means that even if they lose every one of the five games we have left, they'll still end up with a winning record for our particular ticket package. Which is, you know, a damn sight better than their actual record will be.

It was Cal Ripkin bobblehead night in anticipation of his formal induction into the Hall of Fame this Sunday, so we got an extra ticket for Dodd and got there early enough for each one of us to get our own bobblehead. We saw tons of people walking in with the cheapest tickets, grabbing a bobblehead, and walking right back out, presumably to list them on eBay. It's kind of crass for them to not even stay for the opening ceremonies to honor Cal and listen to his brief remarks, but whatever. I guess that's how cynical your fans get after nearly a decade of losing seasons.

By the way: not a very good day at work yesterday. It's amazing how one person can fuck up an otherwise very positive work environment.

I'm getting things all out of order here, but a couple of weeks ago I went to see the new Harry Potter movie with Dodd and Julie. It was kind of an impromptu decision—we were talking during the intermission for the Decemberists show with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and we just kind of decided it would be fun to go to a late showing of Harry Potter afterwards.

Since it was opening weekend, I thought the theater might still be a bit crowded, but when we walked in to get our seats, there were only three other people in the theater, and by the time the movie started, there were a few dozen, but it wasn't full by any means. It was one of the best theater experiences I've had in a while—no cell phone users, no screen talkers (people who feel compelled to add their own narration to the film), and no kids running around, which I was pretty much expecting since it's essentially a kids movie.

The movie had a dark, gritty tone which suited the increasingly grim subject matter, but it left out so much of the book. That isn't unusual with the movies, but with this one in particular, not only did we not see much of the bond between Harry and Sirius explored on-screen, there also wasn't much of the whimsy and magic that all the previous movies have included—the filmmakers were too busy moving the plot foward to give us those nice little moments that can really add a lot to the overall texture of the movie. The Prisoner of Azkaban probably did this the best, and it remains my favorite movie translation of the series so far even though it's not my favorite book.

There were some nice set-pieces—the final battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore at the Ministry of Magic was a great sequence, one of the best of the series so far. And although the portrayal of Umbridge certainly captured her sickly-sweet book persona, I didn't get a real feel for the isolation and personal torture that Harry went through in the book—it was almost as though her cruelty were just an annoyance here, because he had the support of a large group of friends throughout, some of whom even seemed to be suffering through the same punishments with him, whereas in the book I feel like Harry was singled out more and had to bear more on his own. That change might actually be more reflective of the overall message of the series—the value of friendship and the strength you can draw from it—but it wasn't really true to the book.

Back to the issue of reduced fat ice cream sandwiches: I tried another brand, Breyer's, and that wasn't too bad, and then I tried Skinny Cow, recommended to my by my friend Jeff, who probably likes ice cream more than anyone I know. The Skinny Cow was definitely better out of the box than the Breyer's—it's intially smoother, although the difference is negligible if you give them a couple of minutes to soften.

My one complaint with light ice cream sandwiches: for some reason, they all come in circular form. I want the rectangles I remember from childhood, damn it.

I got my official grade for my music class in the mail the other day: an A, just as I'd expected based on my paper grade and my performance on the listening quizzes. Now I just have to figure out whether I want to write a thesis or take one more class and do a portfolio for my final project. Either way, I should be done with this program by next spring at the latest.

Harry Potter's birthday. Those of you who haven't finished to book yet had better hurry up, because I'm going to post about it soon. Honestly, if you haven't found time to finish it by now, how have you avoided spoilers without completing disconnecting from the internet? And how much would you really care if you did come across some spoilers at this point?
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