december 2014

My dad and stepmother were the only out-of-town guests we hosted for Thanksgiving, and they got in on Tuesday night and were able to spend Wednesday with Will while Julie and I wrapped up some work appointments (I view the people who set up meetings on the day before a holiday the same way I viewed professors who scheduled tests on those days, but, just as with the professors, there always seems to be at least one person who does this).

We've gone to see the holiday lights at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens each year since we've moved to the city, but we've always gone towards the end when everyone is trying to fit in a trip after Christmas, so this year we decided to go on the night before Thanksgiving, which we were hoping would be less crowded. There were still a lot of people there, but there were definitely fewer people than anytime we've been before—parking was no problem, and we didn't feel like we were moving along in an endless shuffle of people the whole night.

In past years, it's only been the three of us, but my parents were in town by then, so they came as well, along with my sister and brother-in-law. Logistics with a big group for experiences like this can sometimes turn into a headache, but the reduced crowds really helped in that regard—it wasn't too hard to keep everyone together, and the lines for things like smores station and the conservatory were almost non-existent compared to when we've been there before.

Another great experience, and one I'm sure we'll return to again next year.

On Thanksgiving itself, in addition to everyone who was at the gardens with us the night before, we also had over Will's godfather and godmother and their son, who is now 8. I've really gotten a lot better at Thanksgiving prep over the years—I did all of my side dishes the day before, and my turkey prep and cooking I've got down pat, so once I got the bird in the oven, I was able to clear out of the kitchen and let everyone else work on their side dishes (I'm not good at sharing my workspace).

In addition to the turkey, gravy, stuffing, and rolls, my sister made mashed potatoes and broccoli casserole, Julie made sweet potato casserole, our friends brought homemade cranberry sauce and greenbean casserole, and I had my collard greens and squash casserole from my prep the day before. It was a nice meal—everything was good—and we also solved the seating problem by having all of the adult males sit around the coffee table so we could simultaneously keep track of the football game (our dining room and living room are really one big area, so we weren't cut off from conversation—we were only about 5 feet away).

All in all I would say that this was one of the easiest, most relaxing Thanksgivings that we've hosted. It used to be that the stress of not having to travel was replaced by the stress of meal prep and hosting, but that part is far less stressful to me these days, so it actually felt like a true holiday this year.

Ugh. Sunday's Ravens game against San Diego was a heartbreaking loss, but it's one whose outcome really does determine the rest of our season. Not because we still don't have a strong mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but because our greatest weakness—our lack of playmaking in the secondary that let Phillip Rivers storm back with two back to back touchdowns in the final six minutes of the game—is one that is not fixable given our current personnel, and one which, if by some miracle we were to make the playoffs, would like see us exiting in the first round, because in the playoffs you're highly likely to see quarterbacks exactly like Rivers.

Yes, there was a blown call by the refs that likely cost us that second touchdown and the game, and yes, if the offense had converted a few of the red zone trips into touchdowns instead of field goals, the outcome might have been different. But the underlying problem would remain: our secondary can't control good quarterbacks and our pass rush isn't strong enough to get to the quarterback and force mistakes, especially by the time we get to the fourth quarter and everyone is tired. Four of our five losses have come as a result of good quarterbacks making big plays in the final quarter—if we had a solid secondary, our record would likely be 9-3 or better instead of the current 7-5.

It's really a shame—if we had won that game, we would have been the fifth seed in the AFC (the top wild card seed), and would have the easiest remaining schedule for the final four games of all the other teams that are in the wild card hunt. And although the offense was humming along pretty well—33 points is nothing to sneeze at (we only scored that many points three times all last season, and we've already had five games this year with at least that many points), it also missed opportunities to put more points on the board and/or keep the Chargers offense off the field, and that certainly didn't help our depleted secondary either.

Next week's game in Miami will likely end our season if we don't come away with a win—there are just too many teams in the hunt for those two wild card slots (including Miami) for us to have another loss. I wouldn't be surprised if that's the story for the rest of the season, either—we're likely going to have to win out our final four games in order to have a real chance of going to the playoffs.

My parents left on Saturday to drive back home, so we actually got a full weekend after the holiday was over before we had to go back to work. I feel like we haven't had a lazy weekend in a long time, so I tried my best to get one in now. The rest of December looks to be pretty packed for us, so it might not be until that week between Christmas and New Year's that I feel like I really have some days off.

Well, a win in Miami (not to mention a trip to the playoffs) just got that much harder for the Ravens. Our secondary has been on the ropes for months, and two of our best offensive players (Forsett and Torrey Smith) suffered injuries last week that will likely limit their effectiveness this week, but now Haloti Ngata, the veteran Pro Bowler and anchor of the middle of our defense, has been suspended for the remainder of the regular season for using Adderall.

I really don't know what to say about this—I'm sure the coaches and GM are fuming about it too. Ngata has been around long enough, and is getting paid good enough money, to know that you can't take that kind of risk, especially in the midst of a big playoff push. It was going to be an uphill climb even if everyone was in perfect health, but his absence (he'll be replaced by a rookie who has not yet started a game) means that we'll have a major hole in one of the few bright spots for the team this year: the run defense.

I thought Ngata would retire a Raven (we're the team that drafted him), but with this serious lapse in judgment and the fact that he has a whopping payday due to him next season. Cutting him may not be an option due to the way the contract is structured, but if there is a bright spot in all this, it's that the Ravens may be able to use the suspension as leverage to get him to sign a long term deal that is more favorable to the team and will free up more short term money for other signings.

But this is really just a bad situation all around. The Ravens have already suffered through a nasty season, with the Ray Rice suspension and eventual dismissmal, a season (and possibly career) ending injury to our top tight end, Dennis Pitta, and the loss of our star cornerback Jimmy Smith for the rest of the season due to a foot injury, and this just adds to the pile. In the same way that their Super Bowl season in 2012 felt in some ways like a fairy tale/miracle season, this one is beginning to feel like it's going to go in the books as a cursed season.

If there's one thing the Ravens are good at, it's giving you hope. Despite a dismal offensive showing last year, they still managed to be in the playoff hunt until the final game of the season, and even though I knew they weren't really a playoff-caliber team despite being defending Super Bowl champs, until the whistle blew on the final game of the season, they were still in the running.

This year has been full of similar ups and downs, but overall the team has seemed a lot stronger, especially on offense. But they still lost at critical times, such as last week's crushing loss in San Diego where they lost a 10 point lead with six minutes left in the fourth quarter and put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. But on Sunday they went on the road and won in decisive fashion in Miami and put their postseason destiny firmly in their own hands: no matter what anyone else does, if the Ravens win their final three games, they get at least a wild card slot and end up in the playoffs.

In the first quarter, it looked like it was going to be the last game that mattered this season when Miami took a 10-0 lead and the Ravens started with three consecutive three and outs. And even when Baltimore put together a decent drive in the second quarter, Joe Flacco threw an interception in the end zone, his first in four games. But the defense held up, the Ravens got the ball back, and after going for it on a fourth-and-one on their own 35 yard line, Baltimore marched down the field and got a touchdown just as the half was ending to make the score 10-7.

They added another touchdown in the third quarter while Miami went scoreless, and then put up two more in the fourth while Miami could only manage a field goal, making the final score 28-13. I'm so used to the Ravens starting out hot this season and then fading as the game goes on, so it was nice to have that reversed in this game, where both the offense and the defense got stronger the longer they played.

The really mysterious thing about this game is why the Dolphins didn't do what every other team that has beat Baltimore this year did to win the game: throw the long ball against our awful secondary, which was further weakened on Sunday when they lost two more cornerbacks, Anthony Levine and Danny Gorrer. They haven't been playing particularly well, but neither has anyone else in the secondary, and at this point we just need bodies on the field. But Miami never took a long shot downfield, sticking to short passes and the running game, but Baltimore's defense was dominating up front and the Dolphins never got anything going after the first quarter.

Now they've got a home game against the worst team in the NFL, Jacksonville, followed by a final road game against Houston and ending with a home game against Cleveland, where they will face rookie Johnny Manziel at quarterback. These are all very winnable games, even with our banged up secondary, as long as the offense continues to hum and the d-line can keep getting to the quarterback.

I'm slowly making my way through this most recent half-season of Walking Dead, and I'm feeling like it has the possibility of being the best composed series of 8 episodes in the series' history. It's all going to depend on the payoff, but it started with a bang, and it's now evolving into a completely different storyline (in past years, I feel like they would have dragged out the conflict with the Terminus group for at least the rest of this half season).

But I'm not quite sure how I feel about this new habit they've gotten into since they left the prison of spending an entire episode on one group, then the next episode on another, etc. so that it takes two or three episodes to get caught up on what everyone was doing during that timespan—especially because this is twice now that the two episodes from the past year where Daryl has gotten the most screen time have also been the slowest, least interesting episodes (his episode last spring with Beth, which should have been titled "Getting Drunk and Talking About Nothing in an Abandoned House with a Teenage Girl", and his episode this season with Carol).

I mean, I get it—we all love Daryl, and including him makes it so that we're willing to watch these otherwise dull episodes. But wouldn't it be a better idea to, you know, dispense with the boring episodes altogether so we can see Daryl get back to doing the stuff that makes us love him in the first place?

I think I have two episodes left, and if I space them out right, it won't seem like the endless eternity that it normally does between the end of the fall half-season and the beginning of the next one in early February. This show is just so good overall, though, that I wish they would think about bumping up the season order to 20 or 22 episodes—an extra month of Walking dead every year would be a big plus, epecially because it's one of the few dramas I watch anymore.

Curiously, my wife has also gotten into the Walking Dead recently, first binging on Netflix to get through the first four seasons and then starting to catch up to me on season 5 on the TiVo.

I didn't think she would like this show because I didn't think she'd be able to get past the gore and violence, but she took to the characters pretty well (and I also forgot how relatively little gross stuff there is in the first two seasons compared to the more recent ones, where people stick knives into shambling decaying corpses' eye sockets as casually as they would shake someone's hand in a normal show).

I almost feel like she's missed out on a key part of the Walking Dead experience, though—the interminable waits in between seasons and half-seasons where you wonder about how the cliffhanger is going to be resolved for months before you get the payoff. I mean, remember how long it took for the Shane situation to get resolved? It felt like FOREVER watching it in real time, but in my wife's experience, she got to that episode in her third week with the series.

But it's about to hit her hard now. In the last six weeks or so she's watched just about every episode that's been made so far, and she'll have to go through her first mini-withdrawal while waiting another six weeks or so for the second half of season 5 to start. And that's just a taste of what it will be like waiting for season 6, which will likely premiere about six months after the final episode of season 5. Then and only then will I consider her to be a true Walking Dead fan, because that's the most agonizing part of being a watcher of this show.

We finally got our Christmas tree over the weekend, and had quite a time getting it set up inside. We usually get a tree between 6-7 feet tall, but the lot we chose this year (a local church in Decatur) had run out of trees in those sizes, and only had trees in the 7-8 foot range left.

I knew the ceilings in our house were at least 8 feet high (8 feet, 3 inches as it turns out), and they assured us that none of the trees was more than 8 feet tall, so we figured we would be fine. But even after they cut about 6 inches off the base, we couldn't get it to stand upright without chopping off the very highest branch (where we would normally put the star). And even then it took us awhile to get it properly balanced in the tree stand—it was just so big that even a little bit of lean made it very unstable.

But we eventually figured it all out, and I put the lights on while Will was having dinner so he and mom could start decorating. It's by far the biggest tree we've ever had, but Will loves it—hanging ornaments is a favorite activity, and this year we had enough room to take all of them out of the boxes and find a space for them on the tree.

Julie's mom has been visiting us for the past couple of days, and Will is having a great time with her. He's such a sweet little guy—all of his grandparents have different styles, but he doesn't have any favorites—he loves all of them so much, and he's always so happy to see them.

We went out to dinner at his favorite restaurant (not his favorite because of the food, but because they have a little arcade that he likes to go and play in) the first night she was here, and tonight we'll do movie night, which has become a pretty reliable Friday night tradition for us over the past few months. She's here through Sunday, so we'll likely exchange Christmas gifts with her sometime over the weekend, but other than that, it should be a pretty low-key couple of days (although Will does seem to be pushing for a trip to Legoland and/or the Fernbank museum).

The Ravens eeked out a win over the Jaguars in a game that the pundits had predicted would be a blowout, but a win is a win, and if the playoffs were to start today, the Ravens would take the sixth and final seed.

As yesterday's game showed, there is nothing guaranteed in the NFL, especially with a team like Baltimore that always seems to want to do things the hard way, but their remaining schedule is very favorable: a road game in Houston against one of two unproven quarterbacks (they lost their top two quarterbacks to injury last week) and playing a team that our offensive coordinator coached for the previous eight seasons, and a home game against Cleveland which will likely feature Johnny Manziel in his third start (his first start was yesterday, and it was an unmitigated disaster).

The Ravens can even clinch next week if both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lose their games (which isn't out of the question considering that they are playing Kansas City and Denver respectively), but no matter what those teams do, Baltimore will make the postseason as long as it wins those final two games, and it even has a chance to win the division. A first round bye is out of the question at this point, but winning the division would give the Ravens home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs, which would be huge.

This season has gone by really fast, probably because the AFC North has been such a tight race all year that every week has felt like a must-win in order to reach the playoffs. I'm still concerned about this team if we do reach the postseason—our dominating pass rush against weak offensive lines and inexperienced quarterbacks has been able to paper over our severe problems in the secondary, especially at the cornerback position, but if we get to a point where we're facing a strong offensive front and a franchise quarterback with experience in the playoffs (guys like Brady, Peyton Manning, Luck, and Roethlisberger, all of whom we're likely to have a game against) in the first two rounds, our secondary is going to be exposed and we could get lit up just like we did earlier in the season.

We released our first round of Early Decision letters yesterday, and it went off without a hitch. Every decision release is nerve-wracking, but especially ED1—it's not only the first decision release of the year, the first one where you get to see whether all the changes you've made since the previous cycle actually work, but it's also where you fill a third of your freshman class.

I've never been part of a decision release that hasn't gone well—this is my fourteenth season in admissions, and so far all of the releases I've overseen have been done correctly. Every year, though, one of the big names manages to mess up some part of their decision release, and this year it was Johns Hopkins, the place I worked for a decade before coming to my current institution. I feel bad for them—I still have a lot of ties to that school—but at the same time, I know their systems, and I know that this absolutely shouldn't have happened. Also: it seems like their apology kind of sucked, which just compounds the problem.

Ugh. Seems like I've caught the bug that's been going around the office. I thought it might have skipped me this time, since it's been around for the past couple of weeks and

For the first time that I can remember—maybe the first time ever since I went away to college and was truly living away from my parents—we will not be traveling for Christmas this year.

We used to have a very complicated holiday schedule that involved staying with my wife's parents for a few days before Christmas through Christmas morning, and then driving two hours or so to Raleigh to spend the afternoon and a couple of days after that with my mom's side of the family, including several aunts and my grandfather. Occasionally we would also work in a trip to see my father, but we typically spent Thanksgiving with him, so that wasn't every year.

After Will was born, we made the decision to celebrate Christmas at home with just the core of our little nuclear family, but we still spent several days prior to Christmas traveling to North Carolina to spend time with my mother and my mother-in-law, so even though we technically spent the holiday itself at home, we still spent a good bit of our time around the holidays traveling and visiting.

Going to visit my grandfather and going to see Julie's mom were always big drivers of our North Carolina trips, but this year things were a little different than normal: we saw my grandfather in October, my dad and stepmother were here for Thanksgiving, Julie's mom came to visit a week or so after that for several days, and I'm driving to get my mom on Saturday and she's going to stay with us for a few days before my sister picks her up to take her to North Carolina for Christmas.

You don't ever really get lazy days at home with a high-energy four year old, especially one who isn't burning off tons of energy by playing with his friends at school (tomorrow will be Will's last school day until after the new year), but not having to travel anytime over the next couple of weeks (other than my solo trip to pick up my mom) will make this as close to a stay-at-home vacation as we've had in a while. And while I'm sure there we'll do plenty of things outside the house, I'm also hopeful that with that much time at home, we'll find at least a couple of days to stay in and not do anything.

Going to take a bit of a break from posting over the holidays. I hope to take a bit of a break from everything, really, so I can start off the new year refreshed. See you in 2015.

december 2014
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