february 2017

My trip to North Carolina was pretty good, but hectic and short. My conference was on Thursday, so I drove up on Wednesday, arriving around 4:00 (I did the calculations, and from a time and money perspective, there was very little difference between me driving and flying, so I decided to avoid the airport). I stayed at a hotel on Franklin Street a few blocks from where the conference dinner was being held that night and a few blocks in the other direction from where the conference itself would take place, and while it was nice, it was weird because the last time I was in Chapel Hill, it just didn't exist.

And that was true of so many things on Franklin Street—the stuff I remember is gone, or moved to an entirely new location, and there's all sorts of new stuff that give the street a completely different feel. It's clear that the action has moved down towards Carrboro—that part of Franklin Street had a lot more restaurants and bars that seemed more popular with students than the section on the east side of Columbia has turned into more of a tourist trap area.

It was good to see some thriving new businesses, and some new locations for old ones (School Kids Records has now reopened in a tiny new space, and the Cat's Cradle long ago abandoned the old Post Office building that I remember for a new building solidly in Carrboro), but it was still decidedly odd. I've never offcially lived in Chapel Hill except for one summer during college when I was bussing tables and washing dishes for a local bar, but I had so many friends there during my high school and college years that I spend a ton of time there (not to mention the frequent trips back with my mom over the years—she is a UNC alum and goes back to visit as often as she can), and everything just feels so different now.

I know that's true of everywhere that I spend my youth, as it is for most of us once we get out of our 20s (and I am well past that time in my life). But it's still pretty disconcerting.

I did get to spend an evening hanging out with an old friend while I was in North Carolina—my friend Kirk (and his fiancee Jody). He was my best friend during my two years at NCSSM for our junior and senior years in high school, and we would have been roommates if 1) I hadn't gotten assigned a single during senior year or 2) if I had ended up going to UNC instead of Davidson.

I don't get back much to NC anymore, especially not the Triangle, so I hadn't seen him at all since our last high school reunion a few years ago, and I haven't really hung out with him for any length of time since the reunion five years before that one. He owns a bar near Chapel Hill now that does live music a few nights a week, which honestly fits perfectly with what I could have imagined him being happy doing. He's very creative, very loyal and hardworking, and he loves music—a lot of our adventures together in high school involved going to see live shows around Durham and Chapel Hill, sometimes by sneaking out after curfew and using the Duke-UNC shuttle buses to get over to Chapel Hill.

I had a conference dinner the first night I was in town, but I met up with Kirk and Jody after that. We went over to a local bar/arcade where they knew the bartenders (if you own a bar, I think you ended up knowing pretty much every other bar owner and bartender in town) where we had a couple of drinks before Kirk and I went on a walk to chat and so he could show me Carrboro. We walked over to the new location of the Cat's Cradle, and again, he knew the doorman so we were able to go in and watch the band for a few minutes (it was a band called Too Many Zooz that features only a trumpet, a sax, and a marching band bass drum with various other percussions elements attached to it) before heading over to another little bar where Kirk knew everyone.

The original plan was that I was going to connect with Kirk after my conference finished on Thursday and hang out with him at his bar before spending the night at his house, but my conference finished a couple of hours early, enough so that I could still do the drive home by dinner (originally it was scheduled to end late enough in the afternoon that I wouldn't have been home until long after Will had gone to bed). I hesitated for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do, but in the end I decided to do the drive home—I've been traveling a lot over the past couple of years, and I've come to miss being at home more and more.

I'm still not sure if that was the right choice—I always have a great time talking with Kirk, and it would have been cool to see his bar—but I'm hoping to make it back to Chapel Hill again before too long. Worst case scenario I should be back in August—Kirk and Jody are getting married this summer and are holding a celebration for their friends the first week of August, and I'm planning to attend.

Over the weekend Will did his first Pinewood Derby with the Cub Scouts, which he enjoyed tremendously. They did the competition by den starting at 10:30(with each den winner advancing to another stage of the competition), and Will's was the second to go, so we were hoping we'd finish in plenty of time for Will to make his basketball game at noon. But there were technical problems getting the track system set up (even though the organizers had several hours to get all the kinks worked out before the kids arrived), and his den didn't start their runs until around 11:15.

It's much more complicated (but much fairer) than the Pinewood Derbies I remember. It was still a six-car track, but instead of just racing once and having someone eyeball who the winner was, this was a timed track where it collected not only who won each heat, but also the speed of each car's run. The software also had an algorithm to make sure each car ran on each of the six tracks once, so that if there were an advantage to one lane over another, it wouldn't matter because only your car's best time would be used to determine the winner of that set of heats.

Another thing that was very different compared to my experiences as a child was the fact that Will was the primary designer of his car. My dad was really into projects like that—he used to build elaborate, detailed models of several-masted sailing ships—so my first Pinewood Derby, he basically built it himself and just presented it to me prior to the race (I do remember being able to watch him paint it, but he had a very elaborate design of red, white, and blue. For the second Pinewood Derby car when I was a kid, my dad still did the design and build but at least this time he let me help with the painting—I picked out a dark green metallica sprat paint that didn't coat very evenly. I'm sure my ultra-precise father was mortified, but I thought it was great, and he did let me apply it to his creation in the end.

I have neither woodworking skills nor tools, so Will's car design was a standard one that the troop leaders helped him cut at a workshop a couple of weeks before the race. He painted it himself—and you could tell—and then after that we stuck on enough weights to get it close to the weight limit. It was interesting seeing the other kids' cars, because it was a pretty clear who had a father like my father (there was a sleek, tricked out batmobile with fins and everything) and who had parents like Julie and I who were all about Will owning the experience as much as possible.

Will's car seemed to do okay during his six runs—he came in first once, second a couple of times, and third the rest of the time. The top 3 in each heat series got a medal or trophy, and we thought he had a good chance based on his finishing spots, but since the rankings are based on the best time for that car in the six heats it raced in, he didn't quite make it—it must have just been an odd bit of luck that he never placed below third in his races but still didn't finish in the top 3 overall.

He was really into the races, and really wanted to win, but he took not finishing in the top 3 in stride, and overall we had a pretty great morning. Assuming that he'll want to do scouts again next year, I'm sure we'll be back at this event.

Well, as a resident of Atlanta and a hater of the Patriots and Tom Brady, that was about as disappointing a Super Bowl as I'm likely to see in my lifetime. The only thing that could have made it worse if it had been the Ravens on the receiving end of that stunning comeback.

Luckily, I was somewhat able to steel myself for that outcome, so I wasn't as shocked as your average Atlanta bandwagoner. The Ravens have played the Patriots enough in recent years for me to know that no matter how far ahead you are or how well things seem to be going, you can never count that team out. Even in the games that the Ravens have won (except, surprisingly, the playoff win at Foxborough the year Baltimore won the Super Bowl), New England was always in striking distance and nearly came back to win more than once.

I have to say though, this outcome is entirely in keeping with the disgusting mess that we've gotten ourselves into with our new president. It's just going to one of those years...

Aside from the Super Bowl, it was a pretty active weekend for Will. On Saturday, he had his second-to-last basketball game of the season at noon, a birthday party at 2, and then went out to dinner with Julie before a dance recital for his first grade teacher's daughter, who is a teenager (he's actually gone to one before and really wanted to go to another).

Sunday early in the afternoon we all went on a hike around a nearby park with Will's Cub Scout den, and then we started to work on snacks for the Super Bowl when we got back. The main part of the meal was nachos with a black bean and onion concoction that I also use on mexican pizza, chicken that was boiled in southwestern spices, jalapenos (Will loves spicy food—he also eat sriracha on his pizza and chicken nuggets), and of course cheese. Will helped me assemble all of that on a baking sheet, and also enjoyed a sriracha salsa with spicy Doritos during dinner.

I don't know if he'll ever get into watching football with me—I never liked watching (or playing) sports as a kid myself—but he seemed to pay a little more attention to what was happening on the field that he usually does, so maybe I'll give him another shot at watching a Ravens game with me next season.

The most recent book I've finished was a collection of short stories called Science Fiction by Scientists, which was recommended to me by a physics professor who works at the same university I do. I met him at a faculty event hosted by my office, and asked him if there were any books he would recommend, and he suggested this one and a non-fiction work called How the Hippies Saved Physics (which I've just started reading). It may not come as a great surprise to you that one of the stories in the book was written by the professor who recomended it to me.

The premise of the book is interesting: working scientists each write a story where one of the central plot points involves some bit of science or technology from their field, and then writes an explanation afterwards to give their interpretation of the science or theory that drove the story. The great risk with a premise like this is that you are trusting these scientists to also be good and interesting writers, and that was definitely hit and miss.

Overall the writing was decent, but there were very few stories that held together on all fronts. Some were weak on plot; some had non-compelling or not well-drawn characters; a lot just didn't seem to have a point. Several of the stories seemed like sketches that could have either served as the opening chapter in a longer work or which could have been developed further into a more compelling narrative, and by the end, a lot of what I looked forward to with each new story was seeing how quickly I could figure out the scientific background of the writer (physicist, chemist, geneticist?) and then seeing what theory or process they were going to make the fulcrum of the plot.

I can't really recommend this book to anyone, even if that premise sounds appealing to you, but it wasn't nearly as terrible as you can imagine it being, so if it ever drops to less than $5 on the Kindle store, it might be worth downloading. I'm interested to go back and discuss it with my professor buddy, but very few people are going to have that personal connection to the stories, and judged purely as works of science fiction, most of the stories are pedestrian at best.

Julie and I have faithfully watched every season of Survivor, but somehow our DVR missed the latest season that aired last fall, Gen X versus Millenials, so by the time we realized a new season had started, we had missed four or five episodes. I recorded them anyway, just in case we ever decided to jump in the middle of the season and watch them, which seemed unlikely given that we don't watch that much tv together and can barely keep up with our few shared shows like Top Chef.

But a few weeks ago I was bored, sick, and couldn't sleep, so I decided to watch one episode to see if I liked it at all. There was enough to keep me watching that I didn't immediately delete the rest, but I did change my approach to watching the episodes: I skipped all the competitions, about half of the scheming chatter in camp, and occasionally some of tribal council (just until I figured out what the themes were and who the two likely targets were, because there are always at least two on that show).

I would slow down if it looked like someone got hurt or was finding an idol or if something else unusual happened, but watching them rapid fire like this made the structure and patterns of the show stand out pretty starkly, and I really don't think I missed much that was important.

This made it so I could watch an entire episode in less than 20 minutes, and I ended up polishing off the 10 or so episodes that we had recorded by watching two or three at a time over the next few days. The problem now: if Julie wants to watch the next season, I'm not sure I can bring myself to sit through so much of what is clearly non-essential material.

It is Julie's birthday today, but since her main present is something that she won't be able to experience for another couple of months (more on that below), we made sure she had lots of reasons to be happy today.

It started last night when I gave Will $20 and let him take her out to dinner, just the two of them—she told me he was so proud to pull the money out of his pocket and give it to the cashier. Then this morning I got up early to head over to Revolution Doughnuts, a local artisan doughnut shop, to pick up a half dozen and get them back home before Julie walked Will to school.

I then did some work at home in the morning before taking her out to lunch at General Muir, where we both got the amazing (but messy) beet reuben and split an order of the poutine. After that we went to a matinee showing of Arrival, which I had seen in December during one of my late night solo movie outings, but which I thought Julie would like. She did enjoy it, and I think I liked it better the second time through. Even though I already knew how to solve the puzzle box of the timelines, I was very impressed with how well-crafted it was—there's really very little wasted space in that movie. Every scene, and virtually every moment, counts and adds to the story in some way.

Because we had done so much already, Julie decided she wanted to stick to our standard movie night, so we watched The BFG, an animated movie directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a Roald Dahl story. I had picked up Will early from school the day before so he could go shopping for her, and he picked out a large copper butterfly on a post to put in the garden and three smaller insects (two more butterflies and a dragonfly) to make a little family around the bigger piece.

I got my present for Julie a few weeks ago, although we won't be able to experience it until April. I go out to concerts a lot, but there are only a few bands that Julie gets excited enough about to go out to see, especially on a weeknight. Her favorite of those bands is the Decemberists, and we've probably been to a dozen of their shows at this point (for our anniversary one year we had third row seats to see them play a show at Merriweather Post accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and when they played a two-night stand in Atlanta two years ago we saw both shows).

They're coming to Atlanta again in April, but this time they're offering a special upgraded package that gets you seats in the first ten rows and an invitation to an intimate pre-concert performance where they will play two songs for you and everyone else who bought the enhanced package (I'm guessing between 75-100 people). I was frantically reloading the page when the tickets were set to go on sale, and at first I thought I had missed my chance because there didn't appear to be any left. But then I kept refreshing, and finally a pair of seats came back up for purchase: two front row tickets that included the pre-concert performance and a poster autographed by the entire band.

It was expensive enough that it will be my birthday present from Julie as well, but I'm really looking forward to it. It becomes increasingly difficult to get a really unique, really special present for someone who you've spent every day with for more than 25 years, so I'm thrilled that I was able to make this very special night happen.

Will finished his first season of basketball on Saturday, and although he still had some focus issues (as did many of the boys on his team admittedly), he was much more engaged with this sport than he ever was with soccer, and there was a definite improvement in his skills and his interest by the end of the season. There was even one night when I forgot about practice (5:45 on Tuesday nights), and he reminded me at 5:40 and insisted that we still go even though we were going to be a little late.

The trouble is that he needs to keep at it to continue to get better, and from what we can tell the YMCA only offers their league once a year. I'd be open to putting up a basketball goal for him at the house, but there's not currently an easy place to set one up without endangered cars and/or windows, and while his elementary school used to have a few courts behind the building in a play area, those went away when they built the new structure that has been in place since he started attending.

But given how quickly he took to it, I don't want to wait another year, so we'll have to figure something out. Our neighborhood is pretty hilly, so I don't really even know of any neighbors who have a goal we could use, so we might just have a to take a chance with the windows and set up something in our little patio outside the kitchen.

We're doing a pretty low-key Valentine's Day because we did so many things last week for Julie's birthday, but we're planning to order one of those heart-shaped pizzas from Papa John's for Will and then have sushi for dinner ourselves after he goes to bed.

I'm off to a conference for the rest of the week—it's in Atlanta, but it will still result in longer days for me (my commute will now be 45 minutes instead of 5, and I'll also have to spend my evenings catching up on email, etc.). So I won't be posting again until next week.

The Emory women's basketball team had a long stretch of away games, but they returned home over the weekend for two of their final three games of the season. We were able to go to both games, although the Sunday afternoon game we had to leave a little bit early because Will had a birthday party to go to.

The Friday night game was fun—not only did Will get to wear the away jersey of his favorite player, Shellie, but they won by a pretty good margin, so Coach Christy let him come back to the locker room with the team for the post-game celebration.

They only have one game left—senior day on Saturday—and since Shellie is a senior, this will also be her final game every. Will is a little sad about not seeing her any more after she graduates, but there's a chance she could still be in Atlanta for one more year, so we're hoping for that outcome.

Having conferences in the town where you live is weird—you're still out of the office all day which means you spend the evening catching up on email and trying to stay in the loop. But your evening isn't spent in a hotel room where you have no other responsibilities or distractions—it's spent at home where you still have chores to do, you want to spend time with your family, and you want to have your normal routines, which do not typically involve two hours of email.

I thought I would enjoy not having to do a big trip to go to a conference, but I didn't like this at all—I had no private place to retreat to in the longer breaks between sessions, I had to drive to the conference every morning (my normal commute is no more than ten minutes; this was down near the airport, so it took me at least 45 minutes each way), and again, I still had all my home responsibilities and my work responsibilities to take care of in the evening. It was way more of a grind than when I have to travel to a conference.

One of my colleagues at the conference told me that when there's a conference in her town, she actually does stay at the conference hotel for just these reasons. I don't think I could sell that in my house—I'm staying in a hotel for two days while Julie has to rearrange her schedule so she can pick up Will from school—but I completely understand why she chose to do that.

Will still hasn't learned to ride a bike, partly because our neighborhood is so hilly that it's not much fun for casual riding, but recently Julie had the pedals taken off his bike so he could use it like a balance bike. She's been taking him down to a relatively flat street on quiet dead end to let him practice, and after only three or four sessions, he's pretty much ready to put the pedals on and start to try to learn that part of it.

We originally intended to take his bike to the beach a couple of summers ago and teach him how to do it there, on the hard flat sand where it wouldn't hurt if he fell, but that was the summer he broke his elbow a week before we went to the beach. And by the next summer and our next beach trip, he had outgrown his bike and we hadn't gotten him a new one year.

I don't remember when I learned how to ride a bike, but since I don't have memories of that process, I'm guessing it was younger than Will is now. The earliest bike I can remember owning was bumblebee yellow with black trim and a cream banana seat, which I'm guessing my mother picked out—she's was very fond of yellow at the time and I never have liked the color. Biking was always the way I got around that neighborhood, but in the place we moved after that, I don't remember using my bike at all, and I haven't owned one myself since going to college.

The last time I remember riding a bike for any length of time was when Julie and I went up to West Virginia one summer and rented bikes to ride all day on a trail that had been coverted from an old train line (which meant it was never steeper than a 2 1/2 percent grade), and man, were we sore and tired after that—our bodies were so unused to using those muscles (not only because we didn't bike regularly, but because at that point in our lives we didn't do any kind of regular exercise).

We're going to Hilton Head again this year, which has tons of bike trails, so Julie and I will probably rent bikes so we can ride around as a family. I'm excited to do that with him—it will be a good motivator to get him to do something besides the beach, especially if we tie it in with biking to get dinner or dessert nearby.

I think my wife's most frequent and critical use of the Apple Watch I got her for Christmas is pinging her phone to figure out where in the house she left it.

Sure, sure, she uses it to track her exercise, and it's a much more elegant on her wrist than the grotesquely oversized FitBit she used to wear (which also had a color that didn't match very much in her wardrobe), but at least once a day I hear her phone responding to a request from her watch to identify itself, and I no longer have to hear the question "Where did I leave my phone?" multiple times a day. Worth every penny.

Will's Cub Scout troop had their first annual talent show last night, and it went reasonably well. Every den had to give a group skit, and not only were about half of them actually reasonably entertaining, they were also all short.

Then came the solo part of the show. Will found out that one of his classmates who is also in his den was going to sing a song, so he impulsively told her that he wanted to play the kazoo. He didn't mention anything else about it, though, until I picked him up from school yesterday and he immediately told me he needed to find his kazoo for the talent show. And not only did he get up and perform by himself, he was also the very first solo act—so brave and outgoing compared to me and his mom at that age!

The song his classmate sang was the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine", and when he got to the chorus, the audience of adults started to sing along with him. It was completely spontaneous, and it was so beautiful. It actually made me a little sad at the same time—the last time I saw my friend Sarah, who died just about a year ago, we went to her daughters' talent show at their school.

When I got back from that trip, Will got in the habit of FaceTiming her daughters every week or so, and their calls always ended with them singing "Penny Lane" to him. So I started thinking about that and got pretty sad, and then got happier again when I thought about how proud Sarah would have been of him of getting up there all alone and belting out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on his kazoo.

It was a pretty fun night, and Will had a ball. We really need to get that boy into some drama classes.

Because he played in the YMCA basketball league that was sponsored in part by the Atlanta Hawks (their uniforms were modeled after the Hawks), Will got two free tickets to go to a Hawks game, and we used those (and purchased a third) last Friday at their game against the Miami Heat.

The seats were in a pretty similar seat to where we sat for the only other Hawks game we've been too, and Will was just as thrilled with this experience. They constantly play music, even during the game, and every time there's a timeout or tv break of any length at all, there's some sort of activity on the floor: a light show, people shooting t-shirt cannons into the crowd, a remote controlled blimp flying around the arena, and this time even people dropping stuffed Chik-fil-A cows with parachutes from the rafters. He also liked the plastic noisemakers they handed out—there was a row of drunken young people behind us, and not only did one of them give theirs to Will, they also mostly left them behind when they left, so Will collected them all and took about half a dozen home.

He seemed more engaged with the game this time too, even though the Hawks were getting killed, and he insisted on staying until the very end. I've never been that into pro basketball, and so it's always seemed overpriced, even (and perhaps especially) for the rafter seats that we can afford—the action is so far away that you feel disconnected from the game. But since Will really seems to like it, we'll have to keep our eyes out for bargain tickets and see if we can go to at least a couple of games a year.

We went to another basketball game this past weekend: on Saturday, it was senior day for the Emory women's basketball team, and it was their last game of the season, which also meant that it was Shellie's last game ever.

It was a pretty fun night though—we sat with Shellie's parents (who we had never met before), her brother (who I had met when I took him and Shellie out to dinner when I was in their hometown on a business trip), and her boyfriend John (who we've met several times before—he comes to a lot of the home games and he's been over to our house for dinner once with Shellie).

Will got to wear her away jersey, and he insisted on sitting with John, who is a really nice guy and is like a six year old in a 6 foot 3 inch body. The team had taken pictures of all the seniors and had them made into little heads on a stick for the crowd to wave around, and John had a giant version of this. When Shellie would make a basket, Will would hold the giant head up and then John would raise Will high in the air, which Will thought was about the greatest thing ever.

It was a solid win against a team that they have struggled against—the win broke a six-game losing streak, meaning the last time they won against this team was when Shellie was a first year student—and Shellie especially had a great night. She scored 20 points and likely would have scored more if she hadn't been benched for a bit because of foul trouble, and she was very aggressive with her shooting—she took a lot of shots that she normally wouldn't have taken, but she had the shooting hand that night, and a lot of them fell in for points.

There's still a possibility that Shellie could be in Atlanta for another year after she graduates—she and John are trying to live in the same city next year and they're figuring out where they can both get internships/job opportunities—but even if she doesn't, we're going to try to hang out with her a little more now that basketball season is over.

I don't think it's really sunk in with Will yet that she's not going to play anymore—he kept on saying things like "Maybe she'll decide to come back one more year"—but it's been so great getting to know her, and her affection for Will is obvious. Even if she moves to a different city, we're going to stay in touch with her and hopefully see her when she comes back for alumni events.

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