august 2015

On Sunday, we got together at a local taqueria with some of the other families in the neighborhood who have kids starting kindergarten this year so Will could get to know some of his future schoolmates (and possible classmates). He's been a little stressed about going to a new school, having new teachers, etc., so we thought this might be a way to ease his anxiety.

He was very quiet and shy at first, as were most of the kids. He sat next to a little girl named Brooklyn, and they hardly talked at all during the meal. Afterwards, though, as the grown ups were talking, finishing their drinks, paying the checks, etc., all of the kids started to get more lively, and by the end of the night, Will was playing and chattering happily with a group of 2-3 other kids, including his tablemate Brooklyn.

I spend most of the evening talking to a dad who is in financial services for a private company, discussing Atlanta politics and Michael Lewis' two books about Wall Street, Liar's Poker and The Big Short. He was a nice guy, and it seemed like we had some interests in common, so hopefully I'll get a chance to get to know him a little better, even if his son doesn't end up being in Will's class.

Will doesn't have any school to go to this week—summer camp was over on Friday and his school doesn't start until next Monday—so I'm staying home with Will on Monday and Tuesday and then Julie will watch him the rest of the week. I have some ideas for fun activities we can do together, but hopefully I can have a couple of hours here and there to stay on top of work stuff as well.

I had a conference call at 11 yesterday morning, and some other work to take care of in the morning, so Will mostly entertained himself, but after I got off the call, I decided to take him to one of his favorite hangouts, the Fernback Museum of Natural History.

He had a ball, as usual. We ended up staying around four hours, which included having lunch, seeing both of the IMAX movies that were playing (one about the oceans from Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques) and one about robots, both of which Will loved), and going through all of the exhibits at least once.

It was a pretty good day, and I've got more excursions planned for today.

Yesterday I took Will somewhere he's never been before: the High Museum of Art, the main art museum in Atlanta. One of the few things that I miss about living in Baltimore compared to Atlanta is the amazing art collections nearby: not only did you have the Walters and the BMO in Baltimore, you had all the Smithsonians and the National Gallery, the Phillips, the Corcoran, the Hirshhorn, the Freer, and on and on. And Philadelphia's amazing museum also isn't too far.

If we were still living that area, I know I would have taken him to most of the museums in DC and Baltimore at least once, and I have a feeling we would be making day trips down to DC at least once or twice a month. But up here, the High is really the only game in town, and it doesn't really hold a candle to any of the museums in Baltimore or DC. It's a really nice building, and I guess occasionally have a decent temporary exhibit, but the permanent collection is nothing to write home about, and its the permanent collection of a museum that keeps you coming back month after month.

True, I've only been to the High once before, but the fact that it made almost no impression on me and that it's the only museum in town should tell you something. Still, I wanted Will to have some sort of experience going to look at art, so this was really my only option.

We started at the first level and worked our way up, eventually crossing over the bridge on the top level that led to the more contemporary wing and then working our way down. My only requirements were that we walk through every room, and that if he saw anything he liked that we stop and learn about it.

For the entire first floor and most of the second, we went through the rooms quickly, and the only things he really wanted to stop and look at were an elevator grate from the stock exchange in Chicago in the 30s, and a deluxe mirrored blue glass radio from the 40s. But then he finally stopped in a room full of paintings and said "I like this one" while I was still looking at works in another room, and to my great joy, the painting that had finally engaged him for more than two seconds was the only Rothko they had in the museum (in case you don't know, Rothko is far and away my favorite painter of all time).

After that he warmed up to the paintings a little more, pausing to look mostly at impressionist and post-impressionist works, and of course he really liked the Howard Finster room. We then made our way across the bridge at the top of the museum to the modern/contemporary wing, with its huge spaces and huge canvases/works, and he enjoyed that pretty well. We then made our way slowly down to the bottom of that wing, which ended with a special exhibit on Mo Willems, who writes and illustrates children's books. So that was a pretty good place to end our visit.

After the High Museum, I took Will out for lunch to the Varsity, one of his favorite places to eat (mostly likely because of the ambiance and because we don't go there all that often than the food, although he has been on a little hot dog kick recently). He kept trying to guess where we were going, like the snack bar at Lego Land or to a movie theater, but he was very happy when he figured out it was the "V" (his name for it because of the giant V logo).

He ordered two hot dogs and onion rings, both of which surprised me, but it surprised me even more when he ate both hot dogs and a decent amount of onion rings. When he was eating one onion ring, he said, "This is how Aunt Carrie eats them," nibbling some of the batter off the outside, and then said, "And this is how I eat them," biting all the way through the ring (my sister hates onions in any form but likes the crust on onion rings sometimes).

To finish off the day, we went to the little bakery that I had wanted to go to on Father's Day but which we couldn't go in because it was closed. Sometimes I get a very intense craving for a brownie, especially since I'm still on a pretty lean diet most days, and I've been searching for a bakery that sells good ones. This one got good reviews online, so I wanted to give it a try.

So I got a brownie, and Will got a cupcake. The brownies were unfortunately only okay, not great, and I got the sense from Will's reaction to the cupcake that he felt the same about his dessert. But we had a great day together, and then I handed him off to mommy for adventures with her the rest of the week.

Julie and Will did tons of fun things during their time together this week, including orientation at his new school (where he got to meet his teacher, see his classroom, and meet some of his classmates—his pal Brooklyn will be in his class), a trip to the Georgia Aquarium, and an afternoon at Stone Mountain.

Will also went for his annual checkup at the doctor, and he got a clean bill of health (he was also happy to learn that not only did he not have to have any shots this year, he doesn't have to have any boosters until he turns 11).

I can't believe he's already five, and I can't believe he's already starting kindergarten—it's all happened in the blink of an eye. I love the little person he's turned out to be, and I'm so excited to see him grow and become whoever he's going to be as an adult.

Will had another get together with some other kids from Fernbank on Saturday, and hung out with a neighborhood friend who's just back from spending the summer in California, but otherwise it was a pretty low-key weekend.

Today he officially starts kindergarten. I can't believe he's old enough to be going to elementary school now, but I'm so proud of who he is—smart, outgoing, talkative, and generally unafraid of new experiences. I'm not expecting him to adjust immediately or like his new school and classmates on day one as much as he liked his pre-K school and classmates after three years, but he seems more excited than worried about starting school, and that's a big deal for him given how attached he was to the Clifton School.

Will had a pretty good first day of kindergarten—Julie did the dropoff and said he was a little nervous, but then he saw a girl he knew from summer camp and everything was fine. He was a little tired at the end of the day when I went to pick him up, but otherwise in good spirits.

We let him choose a place to go out to dinner to celebrate his first day in a new school, and he unsurprisingly chose the T. Mac in Decatur, which he calls "the game place" because they have a few video games in a room in the back. They also have one of those grabber games where you position a hook and let it drop over prizes to see if you can haul one back, and although we NEVER let him play this because they're just so hard to win, I decided to spend a couple of dollars as an extra treat.

This did not go exceedingly well. I ended up spending four dollars (it's fifty cents per turn) because Will kept on pressing the button to drop the grabber before we had it positioned (at least twice he dropped it before we moved it out of the starting position). On a couple of the tries where he didn't accidentally press the button early, the claws almost picked up a stuffed parrot but couldn't quite haul it back, and I think coming close to getting it upset him even more than the complete misses. He was just so tired and easily frustrated that there was almost no way it wasn't going to end in a meltdown (short of winning a prize, which seems to be impossible), and that's exactly what happened.

Still, it was overall a good first day. I'm sure there will be many adjustments and a few not-so-good days in the coming weeks, but I'm proud of his ability to adapt to new people and new situations, and I have confidence that it will only be a matter of weeks before he's just as happy in his new elementary school as he was for his three years at the Clifton School.

I went to see the new Mission Impossible movie with a friend last night, and it was—and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible—as devoid of meaning and content as any movie I've ever seen while still being enjoyable to watch and not feeling completely hollow. It was a perfect summer popcorn movie, simultaneously making the second and third entries in this series seem like art films but also exposing how clumsy and empty similar summer franchises like Transformers are compared to this film.

It had all the stuff you would expect—cool action set pieces, great visuals, etc., but when it came to the plot, it's like the filmmakers just and said, "You know what? Everyone knows that Cruise's Ethan Hunt isn't actually going to die no matter what kind of situation he's in, so let's give up and not try to introduce any drama into the plot." The whole point of whatever might be loosely categorized as plot elements is just to move Hunt from one action sequence to another, and if it got to hard to do that in an organic way, the movie just moved to that place abruptly, without any explanation or apologies.

I've really enjoyed some of the big action blockbusters that have come out this summer—the Avengers, Terminator, and now Mission Impossible—when I'm usually far more critical of franchises like this, even when I'm going to see them expecting them to be popcorn experiences. I don't know what has changed about my ability to experience these without as much judgment, but sometimes it's nice to go see something that's supposed to be relatively mindless entertainment and have it be exactly that.

I've finally gotten back into Mad Men after not really watching any episodes since the end of season 6, which was over two years ago.

The final season, season 7, was split into two 7 episode half-seasons that aired a year apart, and it was nearly a year between the end of season 6 and the beginning of season 7. When I tried to watch the first episode from season 7 when it was about halfway through the first half of the first season, the long delay between seasons and the knowledge that this season wouldn't actually come to a conclusion for more than a year from when I started watching it left me sort of indifferent to the show; it had lost too much steam, and there was still too much road ahead for me to really get into it again.

I tried a couple of more times to start season 7, especially in the lead up to the airing of the second half of the season this year, but I could never make it past the first episode or two, even when the show had wrapped up and I had all 14 episodes from the final season just waiting for me on the DVR.

I'm not sure what has changed, but when I gave the show another shot a few days ago, I got into it again and it's like the preceding two years of false starts never happened. Very curious to see how this show wraps up—I haven't read any of the spoilers, but the high level critical reaction is that this is one of the best series finales in recent memory, so I'm encouraged that the quickly-approaching conclusion will be very satisfying.

So Will has now finished his first week of kindergarten, and given all that it entailed, he is doing remarkably well. Still no budding best friends that we're aware of, but he does mention new kids that he's playing with all the time, and he LOVES riding the bus to and from school every day (something that he won't be doing once the construction of his new school is finished—that facility is only a few blocks from us and so we'll be walking).

He seems to be adjusting to the new routines, the new people, and the slighly longer days pretty well, although he is much more tired at night—on the one hand this is good because he falls asleep almost as soon as he gets into bed, but on the other hand it means that he can be a bit more volatile and prone to outbursts or tantrums. But overall (and especially given his strong attachment to routines, people, and places, all of which have been completely disrupted in the past couple of weeks) he's dealing with the change very well and is still his normal happy self most of the time.

I realized over the weekend that I haven't written about any books I've been reading in a while, so that's what I'll be doing this week.

I don't think I've talked about books at all since finishing Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle last August, but I definitely haven't stopped reading. Here's a list, in roughly chronological order, of what I've read since then:

Breakfast of Champions—Kurt Vonnegut

The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones—Jon Ronson

Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie—Jon Ronson

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—Brad Stone

The Martian—Andy Weir

Cloud Atlas—David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks—David Mitchell

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions—Randall Munroe

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation—Blake J. Harris

Off to Be the Wizard—Scott Meyer

Spell or High Water—Scott Meyer

I'll Go Home Then, It's Warm and It Has Chairs—David Thorne

The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Online Evil Genius—David Thorne

Look Evelyn, Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades, We Should Get Them—David Thorne

So You've Been Publicly Shamed—Jon Ronson

Internet Adventures—Karl Smallwood

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs—Lori Majewski

Reamde—Neal Stephenson

Daemon—Daniel Suarez

Freedom—Daniel Suarez

Redshirts—John Scalzi

Old Man's War—John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades—John Scalzi

The Last Colony—John Scalzi

Leviathan Wakes—James S.A. Corey

Caliban's War—James S.A. Corey

Abbadon's Gate—James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn—James S.A. Corey

Nemesis Games—James S.A. Corey

Consider Phlebas—Iain M. Banks

Revelation Space—Alastair Reynolds

Redemption Ark—Alastair Reynolds

So out of this I've come up with four basic categories: authors I've read before, authors who are similar to authors I've read before, non-fiction, and the deep, dark black hole of space opera sci fi (in which I'm still currently trapped).

So, I'm going to spend the rest of the week going over each of these categories.

Authors I've read before: this would include Kurt Vonnegut, Neal Stephenson, and Jon Ronson.

I've been periodically returning to Kurt Vonnegut, who was my favorite author as a teenager, in recent years and been very happy with revisiting his best works after not reading him at all for close to two decades. I'm pretty sure I read Breakfast of Champions two or three times after borrowing it from the Amazon Lending Library—it's one of his darkest, bleakest, cruelest, but also funniest books, and it's the one where he seems, as an author, the most untethered from the responsibilties and expectations of being what he had by then become: a famous writer speaking for an entire generation even though that's not at all what he was intending when he wrote the books that made him famous. It might be his masterwork, but it's a masterwork that only makes sense in the context of the larger universe he'd created (sort of like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, although only in certain ways).

I returned immediately after that to Jon Ronson after going through a period of reading most of his published works a year before, picking up anything new from him, but the first two were short works that left me mostly unsatisfied while the final one, which came several months later, was a proper length for a book but which also left me unsatisfied.

And of course, after a long break, I finally returned to Neal Stephenson, who has quickly become my favorite contemporary fiction writer. I've mostly read his stuff that is almost historical fiction—the chapters set in the 90s in The Cryptonomicon are the closest thing to a contemporary or near-future setting I've read of his—so this was a bit of a change of pace for me, since it's conceivable that everything in this book could take place in the next decade. But it retained much of the swashbuckling action pieces that Jack was usually at the center of in the Baroque Cycle, which demonstrate Stephenson's mastery of that style. The characters themselves were quite as compelling as the best characters in the Baroque Cycle, but it was still a fun read that I would definitely recommend.

Authors who are similar to authors I've read before: this bunch is pretty diverse and includes some sci fi (Daniel Suarez, Andy Weir, and Scott Meyer), humor (Randall Munroe, David Thorne, and Karl Smallwood), and David Mitchell, who is somehow related to a lot of the more sci fi stuff I've been reading but who I wouldn't technically put in that genre (much like the Baroque Cycle, which is really historical fiction that happens to be obsessed with technology and monetary systems but which isn't really sci fi in any traditional definition of the genre, but Neal Stephenson wrote it so that's where it gets placed).

(The authors in the space opera category—John Scalzi, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and James S.A. Corey—could have also been put into the related sci fi category, but since they have taken up so much of my time in recent months, I'm keeping them in their own group. But I did discover them through the other sci fi books I read this year)

Of the sci fi guys, I definitely enjoyed Any Weir's The Martian the best, and I'm both pleased and terrified that it's being made into a movie starring Matt Damon. If they nail it, it's going to be one of the best movies that comes out this year, some weird hybrid of Castaway and Apollo 13 but with more humor from the protagonist. But it would be really easy to screw this one up, too, so it could easily be one of the worst movies released this year. I've got my fingers crossed that Hollywood won't screw this one up though.

The Daniel Suarez books (which could also be appropriately classified as techno thrillers) had a lot in common with the forward-looking Neal Stephenson books I've read (Reamde and Snow Crash), and they were obviously influenced by Stephenson. And although I quite enjoyed them, there were many moments when I wish the more nuanced, deft hands of Stephenson had actually written them; the characters were not nearly as compelling and well-developed as in Stephenson's later works, and this made it harder to love them even as I like the universe the author created. Scott Meyer is pretty lighthearted, and his books made for a fun read compared to almost all the other sci fi I've read this year, so they were a nice break. He's a young writer, and you could tell that from the beginning, but pretty enjoyable books for anyone into MMO gaming like Warcraft.

David Mitchell gets a category unto himself, because I was just blown away by both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I can't really describe them but they are both wildly inventive books, with interlocking stories that span decades and centuries. The writing is without question some of the best I've seen from a contemporary fiction writer, and he has a way of making you feel at home in these sometimes very unfamiliar settings by constantly bringing touches of the everyday that anyone can identify with into the narrative. Most writers would consider either of one these books to be an unparalleled masterwork, and here he's gone and written two in a row. I can't recommend these highly enough no matter what genres of literature you're into.

Nonfiction: this group of books includes everything from a book about 80s music to a history of Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos, from the battle between once-dominate game console makers Nintendo and Sega to a vaguely science-based book from the writer of the XKCD online comic strip.

The 80s music book was pretty good, if a bit centered on the British scene. The best thing about it compared to some other books like it that I've read before was the personal accounts from the artists themselves, not their managers or friends or assorted hangers-on.

The Amazon book reinforced what I already knew about Jeff Bezos and what he's recently come under more public fire for: he's an asshole who burns through employees like tissue paper and is less human and more alien intelligence here to take over our world by selling us stuff. It gave me further pause in my use of Amazon and its services—but not enough to make me stop shopping there. The thing that was most disappointing about Bezos (and which stands in stark contrast to another guy I would never want to work for, Steve Jobs) is that he doesn't really seem to have a passion for anything except efficiency and money.

Bezos didn't get into the book business because he loved books and wanted to find ways to get them to customers faster and cheaper; he studied several industries where he could start selling things without really having to know the business or make anything himself, and the book industry was the one that seemed easiest to make inroads into with online sales and direct-to-consumer distribution. Compare that to Steve Jobs desire to get into the music business, which was driven entirely by his passion for music, and which includes not just the iTunes Music Store, but also the iPod, both of which led to the main revenue drivers of Apple's current business, the App Store and the iPhone.

The Sega/Nintendo book could have been really good—it had the cooperation of key executives in the companies when they became juggernauts—but the author seemed way too interested in making the execs feel good about themselves and wanting to make them come off as likable people than he did in telling a compelling narrative. The content, once you got past the writing and the framing devices (there were lots of made-up conversations and dialogues that were fabricated using pieces of various people's accounts), was intriguing for anyone who grew up as part of that generation, but the writing was really hard to get past.

The book from the XKCD guy could just as easily been put in the humor category in a previous entry, and suffice to say, if you're into science and math and you like the XKCD strip (and I'm guessing the Venn diagram for those two groups would overlap almost 100%), you're going to love this book. If you don't like this book, I'm not sure we can be friends.

The space opera black hole: I've been stuck in here the past few months, and I know I should get out, but I keep going back for more even though I know it's bad for me.

It all started with John Scalzi's Redshirts, which isn't really in the space opera category but which was listed among the best sci fi titles in Goodreads. It was only okay—it's the story of a crew that are real people who are trapped in the universe created by the writers of a Star Trek-like show and how they attempt to change their stories so they don't die.

But it led me to Old Man's War, which in turn led me to the sequels to that book (there's a new one just out that I haven't read yet), which led me to try other multivolume series: The Culture, Revelation Space, and The Expanse.

Most of these are only okay—I didn't much care for The Culture after reading the opening book despite a strong recommendation from a friend, but Revelation Space is decent (but the books are soooo long), Old Man's War is entertaining, and The Expanse is actually pretty good (in terms of a plot-based page turner with some interesting sci fi ideas). And The Expanse series definitely gets better as it goes along—the first book is a little bit of a slog, but after that it just zips right along.

I know I need to break this habit, even if it's just to return to one-off books from authors I've already read (Ernst Cline and Neal Stephenson both have new books that I haven't read yet, and David Mitchell has one on the way this fall), but it's a hard habit to break. I'd like to finish off Revelation Space, and then I'll probably read the latest in the Old Man's War series, but after that I'm going to try to move away from multivolume titles for a little bit.

Will has finished two weeks of kindergarten now, and things are still going pretty well. He seems to be making friends and getting the hang of the daily schedule, but he's completely exhausted by the time he gets home. It used to be that he would sit up in bed and read or play for an hour or so after we tucked him in, and now he's out like a light within 15 minutes of getting under the covers.

Part of it is the longer day—because he has to take the bus to the temporary facility while they finish building his new school, he leaves at 6:45 in the morning—and that will get better once the new school is ready because it's only a five minute walk from our house, so he'll go from having to get up at 5:45 to being able to get up around 7 and still get to school on time.

But part of it is also having no nap/quiet time like he did in pre-K, and also a more structured day that doesn't include as much free play. That he's just going to have to get used to, but hopefully that adjustment won't take more than a few weeks.

Facebook reminded me today that a year ago today we were on vacation in Hilton Head. That has been our pattern since we moved to Atlanta, but we had to change it this year because Will started kindergaren in public school, and they start back in Atlanta in early August. So we took our beach vacation in June this year, but it was so long ago that it feels like we didn't have a vacation at all, and here we are ready to plow into another admission cycle at work and I feel like I haven't taken any time off since this time last year.

So thanks Facebook—that was a terrible way to start the week.

Got tickets to take Will to see the Ravens play a preseason game against the Falcons in Atlanta. It sucks because it's the final game of the preseason, which means we won't see much (if any) of the starters, but it's the closest I've been able to come to seeing the Ravens in person since we moved down here (I also took Will to see a meaningless preseason game the first summer we were down here).

I'm hoping I can maybe piggyback on a conference for work in DC in November and come up a couple of days early to see a Ravens game in Baltimore, but that's still a little up in the air. I've luckily figured out a solution to be able to stream the games live without DirecTV, who refuse to let me buy the streaming-only NFL Sunday Ticket package despite the fact that I have several 50+ foot tall pine trees blocking line of sight to their satellite, so at least I'm able to see the games. But I sure would like it if at some point their away schedule would take them within a reasonable orbit of Atlanta—say, Atlanta itself, or Charlotte, where the Panthers play.

Last night there was a PTA meeting and a meet and greet with the teacher's at Will's school, so we decided to something we've never done before so we could both attend: get a babysitter who's not a family member.

The meeting itself was pretty standard: we got information about various school groups and activities, an update on the construction of the new building, etc., and then we got to go to Will's classrom and see where he sits and go through his daily schedule of activities with his teacher.

The babysitter was a 14 year old girl who lives right around the corner who moved into the neighborhood a few months ago. She came over for a preliminary visit to meet Will and let us meet her over the weekend, but we didn't leave her alone with him. She seemed very nice and mature, and her reference confirmed that she had done a great job with her children who are younger than Will, so we decided to give her a try.

It seemed to go pretty well. Will shooed us out of the house when she arrived, eager to enjoy his pizza party with her, and this morning he said that he missed her. So we may use this a springboard to doing more parent-only activities, like going out to the movies or dinner, and we could even think about doing that on short notice sometimes because she lives so close.

August did not exist. It cannot be September already.

To celebrate my brother-in-law's recent birthday, we went with my sister and him to Medieval Times with Will. We've never been before, even though we also lived within half an hour of one when we were up in Maryland, and it took a while to describe the experience to Will: fighting horses inside a mall and food that you eat with your hands.

He really liked it, thanks in no small part to the crazy light up sword that Julie got him and the Shirley Temple in a glass with flashing lights on the bottom that my sister got him, but he was pretty engaged with the show, and also did a pretty good job with his food.

For me, the show was a little longer than it really needed to be, but I had a couple of beers while we waited for them to open the arena (we got there early so we could get decent seats, so there wasn't much else to do for an hour or so) and that definitely made the experience more pleasant. But either I've gotten more used to experiences like this through doing them more frequently with Will or I'm just getting too old to care about crowds, etc., that bothered me more when I was younger, because it really wasn't that bad. And Will had a ball—he's already asked when we can go back.

He also loved the rest of the mall, which we walked around after the show (we went to the 5:00 show on a Saturday, so we were done by 7). He has a laundry list of other activities he wants to do at the mall: a cookie store, two jumpy places, a donut store, a Dave and Buster's, an ice cream store, a giant trampoline bounce, a blacklight indoor minigolf course, and probably a couple of other things I'm forgetting. So I have a feeling a return trip to that mall is in our future, Medieval Times or not.

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