december 2012

After we moved to Atlanta, I decided that, living in the heart of SEC country, I needed to develop allegiance to one of the conference's teams. I quickly narrowed it down to the two that are most popular in the Atlanta area: Georgia (the overwhelming favorite in terms of popularity) and Alabama (who have a smaller but just as dedicated following in the area).

To get a sense of each team's personality, I watched the first few games, and I eventually ended up liking Georgia better. Even when they were clearly the stronger team, they still played like underdogs, and they made enough mistakes to keep the games excited, even against overmatched opponents. And aside from their humiliating defeat at the hands of South Carolina (their only loss of the season), they also won.

Alabama is also a team that wins, but watching them play was not as fun. They were so competent that they were almost robotic; there was very little drama in their games, and even though they had some exciting players, it felt more like watching an NFL practice squad go up against college players. There was no need for their players to give their all because the team was so calmly dominant that there was little opportunity or necessity for heroics.

Still, my elective allegiance to Georgia hasn't had time to calcify into hatred for other SEC teams, and I was excited to see Georgia and Alabama face off against one another in the SEC championship, with the winner guaranteed a spot in the national championship game against undefeated Notre Dame. And although I would have liked to have seen Georgia win, it was a great game by two great teams, and in some ways (especially if Alabama ends up defeating Notre Dame), it was the true championship game. Even if you don't agree with that assessment, it's still pretty unlikely that the official championship game is going to have anywhere near as much action and drama as this year's SEC championship game did.

Lots and lots of Ravens' win streaks came to an end after their three point loss to the Steelers on Sunday: wins over Pittsburgh (3), regular season wins against the AFC North (12, with their last defeat also coming at the hands of Pittsburgh), wins when leading going into the fourth quarter (17), and home wins (15).

This was a game they could have won and should have won. They were up 20-13 in the fourth quarter when Ed Reed intercepted a pass in the end zone and ran the ball back out past the 30 yard line. All the Ravens had to do was march down the field, eat up some clock, and get some kind of score to make it very difficult for Pittsburgh to have a chance to make up two scores in the final few minutes. Instead, on the very first set of downs after the interception, Joe Flacco fumbled the ball while being sacked, where it was recovered by Pittsburgh and eventually turned into a touchdown that tied the game 20-20 with seven and a half minutes left to go in the fourth quarter.

Flacco couldn't lead his team downfield for another score, and the Steelers did exactly what the Ravens should have done: moved the ball into field goal range while eating up the rest of the clock, and then kicking the game-winning field goal as time expired.

These games are always close (7 of the last 8 meetings between these two teams have been decided by 3 points), but playing at home against a team that turned over the ball 8 times last week against Cleveland, the Ravens should have been able to have better control over the pacing and outcome of the game. Instead, Flacco looked like the Flacco of old, standing statuesquely still in the pocket for far too long and making bad decisions, throwing into heavy coverage instead of throwing the ball away.

Pittsburgh made plenty of mistakes, too, and the Ravens generally capitalized on those mistakes, but Baltimore had two chances in the fourth quarter to end the game with a win, and the offense faltered. It was heartbreaking to see Ed Reed's interception handed back over to the Steelers less than two minutes after the Ravens gained possession at almost exactly the same place Pittsburgh lost the ball, especially because Flacco should be experienced enough at this point in his career to realize that the pocket is collapsing and he either needs to get rid of the ball or hold onto it for dear life as he's being tackled.

The playoffs are still extremely likely for Baltimore, as is the AFC North title and at least one home game in the playoffs, but this loss and their upcoming schedule (Redskins, Broncos, Giants, and Bengals) make one of the top two seeds in the AFC (meaning a bye week followed by a home game) less likely. The game against the Broncos, who currently have the second seed in the AFC, becomes that much more important, as a win there has the possibility of adding a guaranteed extra week in the playoffs to the Ravens' postseason campaign.

Today is supposed to be the day we get our house back. I'm excited and hopeful, but after three weeks of "We just need a couple more days", I'm not holding my breath. Fingers crossed, though...

Six months into my new job, and I'm still not as settled as I'd like to be. I'm making progress, but after a decade at my previous institution, where I knew exactly how everything worked, I had built a team that could do anything I needed, and I knew all the people you needed to know to get things done, I feel almost powerless here and unable to deliver results as quickly and with the same quality that I'm used to.

I know that will change—I'm getting a team put in place (this institution didn't have anyone like me or my team before I arrived, so I'm pretty much starting from scratch), I'm getting to know the various factions and personalities around the university whose work intersects with my own (and who I need to understand in order to get things done), and I'm understanding more and more about our systems and processes every day, but before starting here, it had been a long time before I walked away at the end of most weeks feeling like I should have accomplished more, even though the delays and hold-ups are pretty much beyond my control.

I'm still very happy I made the move—it's nice to have these kinds of challenges, and if I can bring about the change here that I think I can, I will feel a lot more confident about my abilities knowing that I was able to do good work for two different institutions, which expands the horizons for my future career options (although I would be perfectly happy to stay at a single institution for the rest of my career, and I know I want to stay here at least as long as I was at my previous school). And while I don't know for sure what would have happened if I hadn't made this move, the stories I hear from my former colleagues don't paint a rosy picture, and I think there's a good chance that I would not be pleased with the changes happening there if I had stayed.

But I'm waiting for the day—maybe it's three months from now, maybe it's six, and hopefully it's not more than that—where I walk into work knowing exactly what I'd like to accomplish that day and having enough confidence in my tools, my team, and my relationships that I know I'm going to make it happen.

Sunday is the new target date for the completion of our basement renovation, and Monday will be exactly one month from when it was supposed to be done (that's the day we actually moved into the house). I think we've been pretty patient through this whole process, but I am quickly losing the small reserve that I have left. I want our house back, I want to be able to unpack, I want to be able to begin to set real patterns and routines around our space.

And that can't happen when there are still people coming and going at random times doing different finishing touches. I swear, there can't be more than three or four hours worth of work left to finish off everything (well, except hauling away the trash, but that stuff is all outside), and I really hope it gets done this weekend. I feel like we're just waiting for this process to be completed so we can start our real lives in Atlanta.

Damn it, Ravens. I could write a lot more about yesterday's game (and I just might later this week), but that's really all I can say right now.

Okay, so I was going to wait for a few days to cool off before writing about the Ravens again, but now there's actually some good news: the Ravens have fired Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator who I (and many, many other fans) think is at the root of our inability to become an elite team on offense. The Ravens don't have a talent problem, and they don't have a work ethic problem, but they are terribly inconsistent on offense. And you never have that sense like you do with the elite teams and elite quarterbacks that you better not give Baltimore the ball back with two minutes to go because they're going to score and win the game. That actually happens reasonably often, but it's not something that opponents are afraid of, because just as often the offense will stall and go three and out and the game will be over.

Which is exactly what happened with both the Pittsburgh and the Washington losses: although the defense has to share the blame for letting those teams score on their final drives, the defense really shouldn't have been on the field in the first place—if the offense had just been able to keep possession of the ball at the end of those games, moving it down the field and running out the clock, both of those games would have been victories and we'd be repeating as AFC North champions at 11-2 with a very good chance of getting a bye week in the first round. Instead, even though both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lost on Sunday, which would have meant the AFC North crown with a Ravens win, we still haven't even clinched a playoff berth, much less the division title or a top seed in the conference.

The main problem with Cameron is that he can't adapt during the game. Sometimes his gameplan is great, and the defensive coordinator for the other team doesn't make adjustments and we end up dominating. Sometimes the gameplan doesn't work at all, and the whole game feels like one long slog of three and outs where defense and special teams end up scoring all the points. But more often, his gameplan will work intially, but then he won't make adjustments to keep the opposing defense on its toes. They get better and better at figuring us out, first keeping us from scoring and soon keeping us from even getting a first down, and whatever lead we may have built from the initial success of the gameplan is slowly eroded. (Of our 14 games so far, 8 have had the final points of the game scored in the last two minutes and have been decided by three points or fewer, and that's way too many close games decided way too late in the contest.)

Firing Cameron was a long-overdue move, but it was a gutsy one coming at the end of a season in which the team is likely going to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive time. But just getting to the playoffs is not enough for this team: we need to win the division and win one of the top two seeds every year, and we need to have an offensive unit that can go toe to toe with other playoff juggernauts (and again, we have the talent, we just fail on execution and playcalling, both of which are ultimately the offensive coordinator's responsibility). I'm sure plenty of fans who are cheering Cameron's ouster will criticize Harbaugh if his replacement, quarterback coach Jim Caldwell, doesn't lead us to strong offensive performances over the remaining three games, but it's still the right move. Cameron is not a good fit for us, and we know that. By letting Caldwell take the reins for the final few games, we'll be able to see if he's a good long-term choice for us or if we need to start from scratch and interview outside candidates during the offseason.

Last day like this until January 1, 2101. And I'm going to spend almost all of it in meetings and a two hour long vendor demo...

My friend from Athens was in town for shopping and a holiday part on Saturday, so Julie, Will, and I met her for breakfast near the house and then I hung out with her before she did her Christmas stuff. We went to the High Museum, the main art museum in Atlanta, which I had not had a chance to visit yet. The collection was odd, but it was solid enough that I'll likely want to return and I may even consider becoming a member (they've got the same pricing scam that most museums have these days, where a basic membership is cheaper than two visits for two people over the course of a year).

In the permanent collection there was a Rothko, but the palette wasn't really to my taste. There was, however, a lovely little Georgia O'Keeffe, however, an orange flower on a deep green canvas with a half-halo of light burning through the left side of the bloom. There were also some nice pieces from artists whose names I can't remember in the modern wing, and a series of photographs from Robert Rauschenberg that I liked much, much better than the sculptural canvases that he's best known for. I was also quite taken with a weird space light hanging sculpture that was bursting with painted flourescent bulbs of different lengths. It was exactly the kind of piece that people like to call out when criticizing the nature of modern art, but I fell in love with it immediately.

The best part of the visit was a temporary exhibit that we stumbled into by accident while looking for the exit. It was called Fast Forward, and it highlighted works from major art movements from 1913-2013. There were a lot of great pieces, but the one I remember the best was a block-y, almost print-like painting from O'Keeffe in blue and white that was of a door at Stieglitz's retreat at Lake George. I was drawn to it from across the room, and I had no idea it was an O'Keeffe until I got close enough to read the label.

Yesterday was the holiday party at Will's school. Will loves school, he loves his teachers, he loves his classmates, and he loves parties. But this was not a happy day for him, for reasons completely beyond our control.

As part of the holiday party, parents can sign their child up for a gift exchange, and every child in Will's class opted in. Parents had a few weeks to get a gift for the child whose name they had drawn, and were sent several email about it, including one the day before reminding everyone to bring in their gift the next day. We got our gift more than a week ago, and we had no doubt that everyone who signed up would fulfill their obligation.

I'm sure you're already able to guess how this story ends. When it was time for the gift exchange, one teacher would take each gift, give it to the child who had brought it, and then that child would present it to the recipient. Will was so excited to get his gift that he followed this teacher around for fifteen minutes, waiting for his turn to come, but when the teacher got to the last gift, it was for another boy in the class.

Will was completely heartbroken. What had been a fun celebration up until that point—juice boxes, cupcakes, and playing with his friends in the big common room—instantly turned sour and sad. We couldn't do anything to console him, and he kept asking for his present. The only way that we could calm him down was to promise to take him out to buy a toy of his choice, which we had to leave immediately to do.

I was as angry as I've been in a long time. This was completely voluntary—there was no one forcing these parents to sign up. And not only did these parents not bring a gift for Will, they also didn't let the teachers know at drop off in the morning that they had not purchased a gift—otherwise the teachers could have come up with a plan B to make sure that Will wasn't giftless during the party. Hell, if we had known, we would have gone out and gotten a gift for him to open at the party.

And because this is how life likes to work sometimes, we actually drew the child of the parents who drew Will's name, so it was us and Will who were responsible for making sure that their girl wasn't without a gift while all her friends were opening theirs. In the grand scheme of things, this will end up being a minor disappointment in Will's life. But life will offer plenty of disappointments without anyone creating them on purpose, and as a parent, I can't imagine being this thoughtless, selfish, and irresponsible, and causing unnecessary sadness and tears for a child, especially when there's no real way to explain to the child that they didn't do anything wrong.

What's worse is that these parents have not contacted us to offer an apology (all the parents in each classroom are on a mailing list, so we know they know how to contact us, especially because we've been in contact with them before when they accidentally took Will's blanket and stuffed toy home with them one weekend). They didn't even call the school to let the teachers know that they weren't coming and didn't have a gift—when the teachers realized that they had not brought the gift they had signed up to bring, one of them called the mother, and she offered no explanation except that she wasn't going to have time to come to the party and that she hadn't gotten a gift yet anyway. (In another bit of irony, it was all of the other parents—the ones who had all gotten the gift that they were supposed to get, and who had all shown up to share the experience of the party with their child—that took care of their child in their absence since neither parent showed up.)

I have written several drafts of letters that I'd like to send them, but I'm going to hold off a couple of days to see how this plays out. There's really nothing they can do to make up for it at this point, and no excuse they can offer short of being in emergency surgery to save someone's life (and they're not doctors, so we know that's not the case), but I'm going to give them a couple of days to act somewhat adult and offer an apology.

I don't even care about the gift at this point, (we don't even really want it anymore—we're hoping Will has forgotten about the incident, and bringing him a gift now would just remind him that he was left out at the party), but acknowledging that they fucked up big time and showing some remorse for their thoughtlessness would at least allow me to believe that they have some tiny shred of decency. If they can't even manage to do that, I'm going to leave them some kind of note early next week. I just hope by then I'm calm enough to keep it short and relatively non-inflammatory. Because that's definitely not what the letters I've written so far are like.

I can't even contemplate the horror that happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary. This kind of thing would have had a major impact on me even before we had Will, but now that I have a child of my own, this kind of thing hits me in a much more visceral way. It makes me sick every time I think about it; I can't even watch the news because that's all they've been covering since Friday.

I cannot imagine how the parents of the dead are coping. I can't even imagine how the parents of the children who survived are dealing with it. If something like this were to happen at Will's school, I don't know how I'd bring myself to let him leave the house ever again. If something like this happened to Will, I don't know if I could ever come back from that.

The Ravens have made the playoffs again, but it's not due to anything that they've done over the last three weeks to actually earn it. They lost another home game, and lost it badly, against the Denver Broncos, but later that afternoon, Dallas beat Pittsburgh (after beating Cincinnati last week), which gave the Ravens just enough of an edge for the season that they're going to at least take a wildcard slot. Lots more good streaks came to an end on Sunday, however—not losing two home games in a row, not losing a home game to a non-division rival, not losing three games overall in a row—and we're now officially on a bad three game losing streak.

Last year three teams from the AFC North—the Steelers, the Bengals, and the Ravens—made the playoffs, and even though all three teams are playing much worse than they did last year, up until this past week that was still a possibility. If either the Bengals or the Steelers win their last two games, they will also make the playoffs, because one of those games is the two teams going head to head, so it's impossible for them both to win out the rest of the season. And the AFC North title isn't out of reach for Cincinnati if they beat both the Steelers and the Ravens in their last two games.

The AFC North crown will belong to the Ravens for the second year in a row if they win just one more game. Of course, with the way they've been playing, and with the opponents they've got left (the Giants and the Bengals), that's not guaranteed. Honestly, it wouldn't be a terrible strategy at this point to roll the dice and play the B squad (or even the C squad) for the final two games to give their starters, especially the exhausted and banged up defense, time to get rested and healthy for a playoff run. A bye week is out of the question at this point even if they win their division, their traditional home field advantage hasn't played much of a factor in their last two home losses, and there's not a whole lot of difference between the fourth, fifth, and sixth seeds in the division round—even if they play their hearts out and rack up more injuries to officially clinch the AFC North, they're still not going to be in a better position than they would be if they coasted into the sixth seed, except by accepting the possibility of a sixth seed they might take the field with more of their starters.

The only thing that could salvage this season at this point is a Super Bowl victory—anything short of that and the fans are going to look back on this as a year of missed opportunities where injuries to the defense and an inconsistent offense kept us from ever being a team to be feared. Coming out strong in the first round of the playoffs could make a big statement, and it could help build some momentum that might carry us through three games to the Super Bowl. True, an AFC North victory would mean a first round home game, but at this point, with the team in the state it's in, I think it's a bigger risk to go all out the final two games and still end up losing the division crown and at least one home game, and then also have your best players that much more injured and unable to perform at their best during the playoffs.

This was the first Survivor season in a while where I could have been happy with anyone in the final four winning, and also the first one in a long time when the person I thought should win, Denise, actually won.

Given the venom directed towards Denise at the final Tribal Council, I actually thought former Facts of Life star Lisa Whelchel was going to win (I never thought returning contestant Michael Skupin had a chance no matter who ended up in the finals with him), but it looks like Denise had a near-sweep, with Michael and Lisa each garnering a single jury vote.

I still find this show entertaining, although it's so dependent on the casting that it's not reliably good. I wish they would try at least one season without any gimmick casting—no celebrities, no returning contestants from past seasons. Just get back to basics and give us a season where no one knows any more about each other or how to play the game than anyone else does.

Today will likely be my last day posting this year, as I tend to take a vacation from posting when I'm on vacation, and I won't be at work again until January 2. We're actually going to spend Christmas morning in our own home for the first time in our marriage (and we've been married 18 years)—previously, we would always do Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with Julie's mom (and her dad, too, of course, when he was still alive), and then drive to my mom's side of the family in the afternoon and spend a couple of days with them. (This will actually be the first time Julie hasn't spent Christmas morning at home in her whole life, which is pretty remarkable).

We are leaving tomorrow morning for a long weekend in Raleigh to vist my grandfather, who is 92 and hasn't seen his namesake Will since last Christmas. My mom, my sister and her husband, and Julie's mom will join us, along with possibly my other sister for an afternoon, and that will be the closest thing to a big family Christmas we have this year. We're going to spend the week between New Year's and Christmas getting the house unpacked and set up so it feels like an actual home rather than a collection of old furniture surrounded by lots and lots of boxes.

It's been a weird year—it feels like we've been homeless for most of it, since the process of transitioning to Emory really begain for me late last January when I made my first trip down to Atlanta and started to seriously consider the possibility of taking a position down here. It would be another couple of months of visits and negotiations before we felt comfortable really committing to this change, but once it was a realistic possibility, I feel like I put my life on hold, and I'm just now starting to feel like I'm getting some semblance of a life back.

But it was a good change, and one I don't regret. I don't like being unsettled, and I still feel unsettled here even as I approach seven months of this new job and two months of this new home, but both the job and the home feel a little bit more normal every day, and I know that someday soon I'm going to wake up and not consciously think about how this life is different than my life before; it's just going to be my life, and it's going to feel right.

december 2012
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