october 2014

One other thing we did last weekend that I forgot to mention: on Friday night, we took Will to his first carnival/fair, the North Georgia State Fair.

It wasn't as big as the state fair in North Carolina that we attended every year when I was a kid, but it turns out that this is actually a regional fair, not the full state fair for Georgia. But it turned out to be the perfect size for Will right now—big enough for us to take half an hour to walk the length of it, but not so big and spread out that he was exhausted from walking before we got to see everything.

The first thing we did when we got there was ride the Sky Lift, which let you ride over the length of the fair. Will had never been on something like this before, and he couldn't stop jabbering while we were riding, pointing out all the rides and games and food that he wanted to try once we got down.

He really, really liked the rides, but because he's not quite 42 inches yet—the cutoff for many of the kiddie rides—his choices were limited. But we found a little caterpillar roller coaster and a flying bee thing that he could make go up or down that he liked a lot, so even though he's looking forward to next year when he should be big enough to go on some of the more adventurous rides for kids, he was pretty satisfied with those.

His favorite activity, however, was something that I've never seen or done before: they put kids into giant inflatable soft plastic hamster balls, sealed them up, put them in a shallow pool, and let them play bumper cars with one another. He had the best time—he got a few more minutes in the ball than he probably should have due to the timing of some kids leaving their hamster balls who went in just ahead of him, but he would have stayed in there a lot longer if he was allowed.

After a couple of hours of just Julie and me hanging out with him, my sister and brother-in-law joined us. We did a couple more rides with him, and then got dinner and dessert before staying to watch a few minutes of the Kenny Rogers show. But we could tell Will was getting exhausted (we got there around 4 and the concert didn't start until after 8), so we said goodnight and headed back to the car to begin the ride home.

We're definitely going to come back next year, especially because he should be tall enough to ride a lot more of the rides by then. Even after the crowds started to pick up it wasn't ridiculously crowded, and that was on a Friday night with a well-known artist giving a free concert, so I'm betting that if we came back on a weekday it would be an even more relaxed experience.

Another wasted season for the Braves. They were so streaky this year—it seemed like almost every month they'd reel off a ton of wins in a couple of weeks, only to follow that with an equal number of losses in the weeks after that.

At the end of July, they were still neck-and-neck with the Nationals for the NL East lead, but then they lost 8 in a row putting them permanently out of the conversation (by then the Nats had taken a four game lead that they never relinquished). Even when they went on an 8-2 run in the middle of the month, it wasn't enough—the Nationals were playing even better, and increased their lead to six games by then.

There was still hope for the wildcard, however—as late as September 6, they were tied for the wild card lead. But they had a truly horrendous month after that point, losing 15 of their next 18 games. They won their final two games of the season, but it was meaningless by that point—they finished 17 games behind the Nationals in their division (but still astoundingly tied for second place in the division, even with a losing record.) and 9 games out of the wild card.

The first half of this season held such promise, but it all fell apart at the end. They field a solid team year after year, and always seem to have a shot at the playoffs (the August/September collapse this year is very uncharacteristic), but they never go anywhere even if they get in—you have to go back to 2001 to find a postseason where they won a series and moved to the next round even though they have made the playoffs seven times since then.

I'm not sure if you can pin this on one specific issue, but the offense has to be a big part of the problem—in their 18 losses in September, they were shut out 6 times and scored 2 or fewer runs 14 times (and interestingly enough, in their 7 wins, they scored 2 or fewer runs 5 times). They cobble together a decent pitching staff, but even the most heroic pitchers need run support every now and then, and the Braves offense just couldn't deliver this year.

My parents are coming for a short visit this weekend, so I don't expect that our string of very active weekends will be broken in the next few days. And next weekend we're going back to our high school reunion and I've got plans with friends to see the Falcons-Bears game that Sunday. But I've got my fingers crossed for the weekend of October 17...

Not a whole lot to say about the Ravens game yesterday. It's pretty simple: if you keep your defense on the field for 40 of the 60 game minutes, you're not going to win, no matter how well that defense plays. And they played incredibly well, forcing four turnovers and stalling several red zone drives—if they hadn't mostly played an incredible game, the score could have easily been a thirty or more point difference instead of the seven point difference in the final 20-13 score in favor of the Colts.

The offense looked like last year's weak, ineffectual, bungling unit. They only converted a single third down and didn't take advantage of the multiple turnovers the defense handed to them while simultaneously giving up three turnovers to the other team. They also gave away points, including not being able to punch through to the goal line on two straight plays and ending the drive on a sack of Flacco (and it certainly didn't help that the offensive line had its worst game of the season—Flacco was sacked four times this game, one more than his previous total for the entire season).

The Ravens have got to learn how to be a road team again, especially with three of their next four games taking place away from Baltimore, including next week's game against Tampa Bay. If they revert to the sort of offensive team they were on the road last year, it doesn't matter how strong their home victories are—they're going to end up hovering around 8-8 again and likely missing their shot at the playoffs, especially given the strong competition in the AFC North.

After finishing Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, I was still in the mood for sci-fi tinged material, so I turned to Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I bought awhile back and temporarily forgot I owned.

The only other book I've read from Gaiman was American Gods, which I don't remember a whole lot about other than that I thought it started out strong but I was unsatisfied with the ending. I read it eight years ago, so I have no idea how I might feel about it now, but I do know that after I finished it I wasn't actively seeking out further work from him. But I started following his Twitter feed a couple of years ago, and I've become quite fond of him as a person, so when he released the book last year, I purchased a copy for my Kindle but never felt moved to start it.

I'm glad I did, though—I was very pleased with the writing and the story, and I think now I will read some of his other books. I don't know quite how to describe it, but there was a sweetness to it despite the dark themes, and lurking underneath it all was a paean to books, both as physical objects and repositories for ideas and imagination. It was told from the point of view of a child, and there were a lot of lines in there that reminded me about how I felt about the world in general and adults in particular when I was young, so that really resonated with me.

It did seem very, very short, though, and since I had the digital edition I don't know for sure how it might have felt in hardback or paperback. But I do find it amusing that it was subtitled "A Novel" when it's a novella at best; a little bit of trimming and it might have even been able to be the centerpiece of a collection of longer short stories.

We're going to our 25th(!) high school reunion tomorrow, so no more posts til Monday. Busy, busy weekend again, but hopefully we'll have a couple of quiet ones after this.

Our 25th high school reunion didn't take place until Saturday, but we decided to drive up on Thursday to have a mini-vacation, especially because other plans on Sunday meant we had to come back home on Saturday afternoon after the main reunion events were over but before the evening gatherings around town.

The trip up to Durham took a little longer than expected—a little over 7 hours when I was expecting it to be fewer than 6—thanks to a small wrong turn early in the trip and reasonably heavy truck traffic and occasional lane closures on the interstate between Atlanta and Charlotte. But we got to our hotel and got checked in shortly after 5, and then took Will out to dinner on 9th Street, which was where we used to hang out when we weren't on campus at NCSSM back in the day (it's also near Duke's East Campus, which is the freshman campus, so there were always lots of shops and restaurants for us to haunt even though we had no money).

We ended up eating at Bahn's, a Vietnamese restaurant that is one of the few remaining establishments from our time at NCSSM 25 years ago. The food isn't amazing, but I think that was the first place I ate spicy asian food and liked it, so I have a strong sentimental attachment to it. After dinner, we walked up and down the street and got gelato from Francesca's, which was another place that remained from our high school days (although it was in a different place on the street—the new location is much bigger and nicer).

The next morning we drove to Chapel Hill to take Will to the planetarium, which I have fond memories of going to with my mother and sister when I was very young. Will hasn't shown a real interest in astronaut/space stuff yet, but he loved that, especially seeing the movie and star maps in the dome. We got him a popup book about the solar system as a souvenir, and then took him to a newish hot dog place on Franklin Street that's where the beloved but recently deceased Pepper's Pizza once was (although that was not the original location that I knew from my time spent in Chapel Hill in the early 90s).

After lunch, we headed over to Raleigh to visit my grandfather, Will's great-grandfather, and his wife. Will is named after him (although he goes by Bill), and he's 90 years older than his great-grandson. He can't travel anymore, so the only time those two get to spend together is when we're in the Triangle, which isn't very often these days, so it was great to see them hanging out for a few hours. Will has a lot of his personality—a clever sense of humor and a complete lack of shyness around people—and although he'll never know my grandfather like I know my grandfather, I'm happy that Will is now reaching the age where he is making permanent memories, and that his great-grandfather will exist in his mind as a real person who he really knew, not just someone who I tell him stories about.

We had dinner at a mall food court and let Will wander the mall for a bit before heading back to the hotel so we could get a good night's sleep before the reunion activities the next morning. Well, Julie and Will did anyway—after dropping them off at the hotel and saying good night to Will, I headed over to a semi-official pre-reunion gathering at a local brewery...

The brewery event started at 9, but I didn't get there until shortly before 10. I wasn't sure how many people I really wanted to talk to would be there, but I figured I'd get one beer and hang around as long as it took to drink it if there weren't a lot of people there who I'd known.

The first person I saw was a classmate who was on my hall senior year and who lived in DC while we were in Baltimore, so I wandered over to say hi to him and see who else was in his group (they all had their backs to me), and it turns out he was with a bunch of people I was excited about seeing. As I entered the circle and realized who was in the group, I exclaimed their names: Greg! Dan! Tom! Lydia! (Lydia was an especially big surprise—she is very dear to me, and she was actually in the class one year behind us, but it turns out that she now lives only a couple of blocks from the brewery, so she stopped in to say hi to her seniors).

I talked mostly to Lydia and Tom until Lydia had to go, and then chatted mostly with Dan, Chris, and Eugene the rest of the night, and spent a lot of one on one time with Chris talking about books and movies and how our lives had changed since high school. He serves a particularly interesting role in the way my life unfolded: he was a friend of mine before I met my wife, and they way I met her was when the two of them dated for a few months when we were juniors (in fact, the first time that I really remember having a conversation with my future wife was when I tagged along with the two of them and another female friend on a Saturday night in Chapel Hill where we all went out to dinner at the Rathskellar and then went to see a terrible movie—the Anthony Michael Hall vehicle Johnny Be Good). They eventually broke up and Julie and I went on our first date a weeks later, right before the end of school.

The last time I had seen Chris five years ago at our 20 year reunion, he had recently been through a messy divorce and was still trying to recover from that. It made me sad—even though our friendship our senior year was sort of awkward because of me dating Julie, I always appreciated his positivity and his energy, and I didn't like that he wasn't in a good place at that point in his life. But fast forward to the now, and he's remarried with two children by his new wife, and he seems very happy. Despite the challenges that life threw his way, it all turned out okay.

And that's the thing that really struck me about revsiting all of my former classmates and learning about their lives 25 years later: we've all been through a lot, but we turned out okay. I really loved these people, and they made a huge difference in my life, and seeing them all make it through their personal wars just like I did gives me some small hope that maybe this world isn't so bad after all.

One year ago today, I started an exercise and diet routine that has led to me losing more than 50 pounds, slightly more than a pound a week for an entire year. This was spurred on by a weigh-in for my annual physical that left me shocked by how heavy I was and by a five-week campus initiative to encourage healthier lifestyles. I've also lost 6 inches off my waist and can now comfortably fit into size Large shirts and jackets (I've been wearing XL since college). This is the least I have weighed in about 20 years, including when I got married more than 18 years ago—I have to wear a spacer on my wedding ring so it doesn't fall off my finger.

The campus initiative asked participants to exercise at least five times a week for 25 minutes, and my initial goal was to work out for 30 minutes five times a week. I alternated between isometric strength training for one session and then a cardio workout that consisted of walking at a fast pace on a treadmill the next. I also became much more conscious of what I was eating in terms of snacking and portion sizes during meals, and I quickly began to see results.

Once the five weeks was over, I continued the routine, and as I started to lose weight, I increased both the intensity and duration of my workouts, adding crunches and more reps to my strength training sessions and switching from walking to running for cardio, so that by January I was working out for at least 35 minutes at least five times a week, and I've been able to keep that up now for an entire year. This led to even more dramatic weight loss, and by the spring I decided to make it an official goal to lose at least 50 pounds in the first year, a goal I reached more than two weeks ahead of schedule at the end of September (and this was despite a lost month in June when I couldn't really do any cardio and didn't lose any weight due to a foot injury).

This all really started about five years ago, when I decided to stop drinking sugared sodas and to cut out as many non-whole-grain carbs as possible, meaning no more white bread, white rice, potatoes, etc. This wasn't easy for me—Coke is probably my favorite drink in the world, and I'm very fond of salty potato products like fries and chips—but I've been able to keep that up for over five years now in terms of the sugared sodas (I drink diet drinks when I have soda now, but I try to drink water and unsweetened ice tea with lemon as much as possible). I do occasionally indulge in fries or white rice when we eat out, but I don't keep chips in the house anymore and we eat nothing but brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole wheat pasta at home when we eat carbs for meals.

My goal with the start of this five years ago was not necessarily to lose weight, but simply to get healthier, and so in addition to cutting out sugared sodas and switching to whole grains, I also started exercising for at least 25 minutes for at least 3 times a week. I did attempt running after a few months of just walking on the treadmill, but I never got over the five minute hump—I just couldn't run for any longer than that before I had to revert to walking (since around December of last year, I've been able to run for more than half an hour straight, and I could certainly run longer than that if I weren't constraining my workouts to 35 minute sessions). I definitely got healthier, and I did lose some weight, but given that I was still snacking throughout the day and I wasn't really working on portion control at meals, the lightest I got was around 35 pounds heavier than I am right now.

These routines went completely out the window two years ago when we moved to Atlanta, and given that it took us almost a year to really get settled in—we lived in a small rental house for our first six months here, and we didn't really get unpacked all the way in the house we eventually bought until last summer—it was almost like starting over in terms of the exercise routine when I started working out again a year ago.

I'm very, very happy with all the progress I've made, but I'd still like to lose another 25 pounds or so. In another 10 pounds I'll be in a normal BMI for my height and age, something that I haven't been since at least college and possibly high school, and then I'd like to lose more on top of that. If I can keep up my current pace, I should reach my final goal next spring and be able to invest in a new wardrobe just in time for the weather to start warming up (other than my pants, which I've been buying two pair of every time I go down another two inches, I've decided to suffer through wearing my older oversized clothes for the most part, because I don't know exactly what size I'll end up at and I don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on clothes that I might end up only wearing for a few months).

Everyone's weight issues are different, but for me it really was sticking to the basics: exercise regularly, eat healthier, and eat less. And although I know not everyone who does this will have the same results I did, I do know that everyone who does this will be healthier, and that's really the key here. The weight loss is a great motivator, but I know I'm in better shape now than I've been in years, and that's what's really important to me: I want to make sure that I can be around for my wife and son for a long, long time.

Wow. That might have been the most explosive, action-packed season premiere for the Walking Dead yet. I actually expected to spend the first 2-3 episodes (at least) resolving the Terminus conflict, but they blazed through and (seemingly) got the group throught it in one session.

The flashbacks to the beginnings of the Terminus group and the trauma that led to their current state could mean two things: either we're going to see further flashbacks and get to know this group a bit because the interactions between Rick & Co. and that group are not done, or they were meant to contrast the different paths and philosophies the groups followed, likely in anticipation of more hard choices that Rick will have to make this season (say, in the quest to find Beth, who was kidnapped by unknown person in the second half of season 4).

While I appreciate the quick resolution (which is uncommon for the series, and therefore makes me suspicious as to whether or not the Terminus issues have really been resolved), the fact that it climaxes a story arc that was building for most of the second half of season 4 makes it feel more like the end of a season rather than the opening of one; I actually have no idea what will happen the rest of this season, and that's kind of exciting.

Slightly related rant: like many viewers, my DVR cut off a few seconds before the end of the episode, just as the mysterious masked man was removing his mask to reveal his identity. The internet told me who it was, but this happens ALL THE TIME, and it's frustrating that, given the always-in-sync nature of our internet-connected devices, the clocks that the DVR companies use is off by about 3-5 seconds from the clocks that the networks use. Someone ought to be able to get these in sync, or, barring that, the content creators should learn not to put anything important in the last 10 seconds of airtime, because they have to know at this point that a significant portion of their audience will not see it.

Anyway. Great first episode that sets a high bar for this season. Looking forward to seeing if the show can meet those expectations.


I'm getting things a little out of order chronology-wise (I still have to write about the final day of our reunion trip and then coming back to Atlanta to see the Bears-Falcons game with a friend), but I just have to comment on the last two Ravens games.

The first, on the road against Tampa Bay, was an absolute blowout, with the offense scoring on five touchdowns on their first six possessions (and scoring a field goal on the sixth) and Flacco setting an NFL record for the least amount of time to throw five TDs (16:03, with four of them coming in the first quarter). The defense was very strong, too, especially rookie and first round pick C.J. Mosely, who is looking more and more like the defensive rookie of the year.

But these strong performances came against the Buccaneers, who were 1-4 before the Ravens set them back to 1-5; yesterday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, who had the league's number three rated offense, would be a better test. And again the Ravens prevailed in dominating fashion, with the defense notching five sacks and utterly shutting Tampa Bay down, while the offense put Baltimore ahead 20-0 heading into the fourth quarter. The only small complaint was that the offensive drives stalled a couple of times (Flacco had two passes intercepted in his own end zone, turning what should have been at least six points into none) and settled for field goals a couple times more when they were well within touchdown range.

But those are small complaints. This team is 5-2 and sitting alone atop the AFC North. Their biggest test of the season will come next week when they play the Bengals in Cincinnati, the same team that won the division last year and beat them in Baltimore week 1. If they come away with a win and can go 6-2, they'll be at the halfway point of their season and solidly in control of their postseason destiny.

Saturday was the offical reunion day, and we had to head back to Atlanta that night, so we checked out of our hotel in the morning and drove over to campus to spend the day revisiting our school, teachers, and classmates.

There were a lot of people who didn't make it the night before, including my best friend from those two years, so there was a whole new set of people to catch up with. We also took some time to see our class slideshow and walk around to show Will the places that had existed when we were there and all the new things they had built after we left.

One thing that I really enjoyed showing him was a huge mural that I painted with a dozen or so of my friends during out senior year. See, when I attended NCSSM, every year we had something called Special Projects Week (which I sadly think they got rid of years ago), in which you proposed something outside of your normal course of study, engaged in that project for a week without going to any classes, etc., and then presented a paper on it. For my junior year, I ran DNA gels with a friend who went on to become an MD and pathologist, but for my senior year, I participated in a big project to paint an underground hallway that was a very sad grey color into a mural with all sorts of characters from books.

I wasn't one of the prime movers on the project—I wasn't responsible for any specific section's design—but I moved around from area to area, painting whatever other people needed on their sections (I remember doing a lot of the color blends from one story scene to the next). There was a mermaid, a pirate ship, dinosaurs, the Nautilus and a giant squid, Where the Wild Things Are, The Hobbit, and Dr. Suess (and maybe a couple more), and it was all painted on a wall that was dozens of yards long and 8 feet high in a single week. And somehow, 25 years later, it's all still there, mostly intact and now complimented by a mural on the opposite wall that looks like it was completed a couple of years ago. That place meant so much to me, and it's nice to see that some visible sign that I was once a part of it still remains.

We got on the road to head home around 4:30, and the trip back was much easier—even with a stop for dinner, we were back in just under 5 1/2 hours.

The reason we couldn't stay at the reunion for the Saturday evening dinner and leave to drive back home on Sunday was because I had made plans with a friend who is a Chicago Bears fan to see the Bears-Falcons game with him on Sunday without realizing that it was the same weekend as the reunion.

I had taken Will to see a preseason Falcons game a couple of years ago when the Ravens came to town, but I had never seen a regular season game before. My friend was able to pick up tickets in one of the endzones about 10 rows back for a pretty reasonable price, and we took the Marta in and got there early enough to see the pregame warmups, etc.

The game itself was a travesty for the Falcons (my friend loved it, though—this was his sixth time seeing the Bears on the road, but the first time he had ever seen them win), but since I'm not emotionally invested in that team, I was more disappointed with the crowd. First, there were the people we were unlucky enough to be seated behind: two rows up there was a guy—a very tall guy—who didn't stand the entire time, but who bounced up and down so often that it was just easier to stay standing to be able to see over him. This led to the two people immediately behind him (and immediatley in front of us) standing for most of the game as well, which meant that we stood most of the game and spent a lot of it apologizing to the women behind us, season ticket holders who clearly preferred to enjoy the game from their seats.

Now, I don't have a problem with the crowd standing during games—at EVERY game I went to in Baltimore, the crowd stood the whole game, and was also very animated and into the game, even from the nosebleed sections. At the Falcons game, however, even 10 rows back from the endzone, the crowd was only marginally engaged, and even the folks in front of us who popped up and down the whole game did things that were mystifying: cheering loudly when the Falcons had the ball (crowd noise is generally not helpful to the offense), staying silent as a tomb when the Bears were on a scoring drive, leaving five minutes before halftime even though the Falcons had the ball and were attempting to score, not coming back until well into the second half even though the Falcons started the third quarter with the ball and had their only touchdown drive of the game on that posession.

By the end of the game, the numerous Bears fans in the crowd, who seemed to understand how fans are supposed to behave and support their team at an NFL game, realized that they were starting to outnumber the home crowd, so they started making noise when the Falcons had the ball, and that's when it really got sad. It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic, but unfortunately, it's pretty reflective of sports fandom in Atlanta.

It was a fun experience, though, and I also prayed that if Atlanta could be that inept on their home field, they would be at least as bad when they hit the road the following week to play my Ravens in Baltimore. Which they were, so I appreciate that.

I take it back. Looking at the calendar, I don't think I'm going to have any weekends with no events on the schedule until at least early next year.

Leaving on Sunday for an out-of-state conference for a few days, so no posts until sometime next week. Normally I don't mind going on work trips as long as they only last a couple of days and I'm going with a coworker that I like, but this trip is going to end up taking me away from my family for four days and none of the other folks from my office who are going are ones that I know well enough to feel comfortable hanging out with after hours, especially for so many days. Maybe I'll get to know some of them better, but I'm anticipating a lot of solo walks around the city and reading books quietly in my room.

So glad to be back home. The conference was pretty good, but Las Vegas just really isn't my kind of town. I also never really got off east coast time, so I woke up most mornings around 4:30 and read until it was time to get ready for the earliest conference sessions, and I was usually asleep in bed by 10:00 at the latest.

I didn't do any gambling, but I did have a couple of nice dinners with some colleagues I haven't seen in a while, and I ended two of those evenings watching three or so shows at the Bellagio fountains. I also loved the view from my room: we were in the Aria, one of the newest hotels, and I had a room facing the strip on the 18th floor. I slept with the curtains open every night, and awoke pre-dawn every morning somewhat amazed at how many lights were still flashing and showing ads when almost everyone who was still awake was doubtless inside one of the casinos, not out on the strip.

No problems with my flights this time, and on the way back I sat next to a guy who owns a tech company that worked out a way to send voicemail to mobile phones directly through the carrier, so you never get a phone call, which avoids the federal regulations about people on no-call lists. It also has the added advantage of being able to tell their customers which phone numbers are mobile numbers and which are landlines. It seems like this might be the kind of business with a short shelf life, in that if it gets too popular laws might start appearing that prohibit it, but in the meantime, it sounds like they're making pretty good money.

Halloween today. We carved our pumpkins last night, so for once we're reasonable ready. Will is going to be a jellyfish this year, wearing a very clever homemade costume that Julie put together after scouring the internet for ideas. It's basically a clear vinyl umbrella covered with a shimmering, translucent fabric with tubes of a similar nature hanging down for tentacles. Inside the umbrella are two strings of battery powered blue LED lights, which make the whole thing glow, and then the umbrella is put into a backback so Will can just wear it around while he trick or treats.

We're going to do the Halloween parade at his school in the afternoon, and then come back home to have a quick snack before starting the walk around the neighborhood around 6, and I think my sister and brother-in-law are going to come along as well. It should be fun, but I'm really looking forward to a lazy weekend the rest of the weekend—I'm still all out of sorts from the Vegas trip, and I could really use a day or two of downtime.

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