december 2017

My stepmother's more conservative approach to treating the issue she was hospitalized for wasn't having the hoped-for effects after a week, so on Tuesday she finally decided to have surgery to fix the problem. The operation took a while, but it had a good outcome—she has improved every day since the surgery, and she's hoping to come home from the hospital sometime this weekend.

When she is released from the hospital, she will likely need to stay with us for a day or two to make sure everything's really okay before she and my dad make the long-ish drive home, so they will likely end up being here for about two weeks by the time they leave. That's far and away the longest visit we've ever had with them, but we don't feel like we've seen them at all.

We see my stepmother for no more than an hour a day (and sometimes not at all if she's not feeling up to it), and every day or so we might see my dad for a bit while he pops in for a shower, a change of clothes, and occasionally a meal—otherwise he's at the hospital with my stepmother, sleeping there most nights as well even though our house is only five minutes away.

We probably won't be making a visit to see them at Christmas this year either—the holiday period is very short this year given how the days off fall, we will have seen all the grandparents at some point in December (Julie's mom is coming next week, and my mom is coming right before Christmas), and we also want to make a trip to Wilmington to visit my sister after she has her baby in January.

I was a bit of a homebody this weekend, but Will and Julie were very active. On Saturday we all walked over together to the hospital to visit my stepmother, and then my dad walked with us down to Emory Village for dinner befure he walked back to the hospital and we walked back home.

On Sunday, Will's Sunday school class did some service projects (wrapping presents for children living in a homeless shelter, writing Christmas cards to prisoners), and then that afternoon he had a birthday party at a classmate's house (a magician was the featured attraction).

After the birthday party was a Cub Scout meeting, and then the annual St. Nicholas church service, where the priest dresses in an old-timey Santa outfit that looks more like religious vestments and the kids leave their shoes outside the service and find them filled with chocolate coins and oranges once the service is over.

Finally we went to visit my stepmother in the hospital, where she continues to improve day by day. We're hoping she gets released tomorrow; she's definitely ready to get out and get back home.

I haven't written about my sports teams for a few weeks, so here's what's happened with UGA and the Ravens in the last few weeks.

UGA came off their only loss of the season at Auburn to win their last two regular season games, crushing both SEC rival Kentucky (42-13) and Georgia rival Georgia Tech (38-7). Those wins really weren't important, however, except to keep burnishing their credentials for a possible playoff bid. But those hopes all came down to the game this past weekend: the SEC championship game, where they once again met Auburn, the only team that had beaten them so far this season.

This time UGA was a completely different team, especially on the defensive side. The odd formations no longer fooled them, and although Auburn felt dangerous the entire game (especially after they scored a touchdown on their first possession), it was a dominating performance by UGA: they scored three touchdowns (including a two point conversion on one of these) and two field goals on offense, while the closest the defense came to letting Auburn score was a missed field goal in the third quarter.

They will now be one of the four teams playing for the national championship in January, which is thrilling in and of itself, but which could be really exciting if they win their semifinal game: the championship game will be played in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz stadium this year, the same field where they won the SEC championship game and where they should have a strong home-crowd advantage.

The Ravens have also been doing well recently. After their bye week, they have won three games, at home against Green Bay and on the road against Houston and Detroit. As has become typical for them in December, their playoff fate is in their hands: if they win out, they are in the playoffs, and while they aren't necessarily out if they don't win out, the situation becomes a lot more complex if they lose a game, and potentially very complex if they lose two.

Their record is 7-5 right now, and while their remaining four games are all potentially winnable, their real test will come this Saturday when they play the Steelers in Pittsburgh. If they win this game, they could still potentially compete for the division title; if they lose, their margin for error becomes razor thin, and winning those final three games becomes imperative.

Their offense has been playing much better, and their stellar defense has been more consistent, but both of those trends will need to continue in order to not only compete for a postseason birth, but also to go deeper into the playoffs than a single game.

My stepmother got out of the hospital yesterday afternoon and was able to spend the night at our house, and she was doing so well that she and my father decided to drive back home this morning after Will went to school.

And the timing was pretty good, because Julie's mom arrived this afternoon for a visit that she's been planning for the past couple of months. We have a pretty small house and only one guest room, so it would have been tight if my parents had needed to stay another day, but we could have made it work.

Julie's mom usually comes to visit in early December because she has other family traditions for Christmas and we don't always make it up to North Carolina for Christmas (and we definitely won't this year). This is her chance to have some one-on-one time with Will and to an early Christmas with him. She'll be here through Sunday, and then we have about a week with no guests before my mom arrives.

I recently finished reading Lou Reed: A Life, by rock critic/writer Anthony DeCurtis (an editor at Rolling Stone). I'm a huge fan of Reed's work with the Velvet Underground and certain selections from his solo catalog (Transformer and Magic and Loss, and to a lesser extent New York), but I'm more familiar with stories about his music than I am with the music directly.

It was a pretty readable, compelling book, especially because his career has intersected with so many trends in rock and with other significant artists, and if I was a real fan, I bet it would have been an even better read. But surprisingly, I don't feel compelled to seek out his music after reading it. Despite very generous assessments of Reed's work (as is typical for these kinds of rock biographies, each album gets several pages of analysis in between the biographical narrative passages), I feel like the albums I have are the ones I'm most likely to enjoy.

Reed was a contrarian by nature (that's probably his defining personality trait), even when it came to his own work—he followed up Rock n' Roll Animal, a live album that resurrected his career, with Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of grinding industrial noise that seemed intentionally designed to alienate both his new and his longtime fans. This is the most extreme example, but many times throughout his career he would follow a more traditional rock/pop album influenced by his beloved 60s doowop groups with something difficult to digest without any discrenible commercial prospects.

One thing I really enjoyed about the book was comparing it to Meet Me in the Bathroom, another rock history I read this year that documents the New York alt/indie music scene in the first decade of the 21st century. That narrative puts the Strokes at the center of all important activity and treats that period as a very unique one in both the history of music and the history of New York. It's funny then that the Lou Reed book speaks with similar reverence of the mid-60s through mid-70s, when Warhol's art collective was at the center of a lot of creative pursuits in the city and which DeCurtis paints as similarly unparalled before or since.

The truth to me seems to be that New York is constantly at the hub of some major artistic revolution or another, but each time it happens, the people experiencing it and making it happen don't have the context of being part of it the last time it happened, so they naturally view it as something altogether different (and of course more significant and meaningful) than the stories they might hear from the old timers.

I can't fault people for having that attitude; that sense of destiny and distinctiveness is what fuels revolutions, in art or anything else, and New York tends to be a hotbed for the cutting edge and the new across many different life pursuits, so it probably has a revolution in some sector every other year. But it is funny to find essentially the same story in two different books documenting two very different musical movements separated by several decades.

Anyway. The Lou Reed book is exhaustive, honest, readable, and worth your while if you have any interest in his musical career. Despite how close he was with Reed, DeCurtis doesn't pull any punches with some of the more difficult periods in his life (long stretches of significant drug use, etc.) and his personal flaws, even as he lovingly portrays the positive aspects of Reed's personality.

Did we learn nothing from Snowpacalypse? No, apparently we did not.

Atlanta was roundly mocked for the snow event in January 2014 where a couple of inches of snow shut down the city for a couple of days. What the mocking news accounts from outside the city don't tell you is that the real problem wasn't the amount of snow that fell, but 1) the utter lack of road treatment before and during the snowfall; and more importantly, 2) the completely boneheaded decision not to cancel work/school the night before, but instead waiting until everyone was at work and school and then announcing at noon that everything would shut down at 1:00 exactly.

This meant that pretty much every vehicle in Atlanta—including the school buses, public transit buses, and private shuttle buses for places like Emory—were all on the road at the exact same time as every commuter in the city right as the snow was beginning to fall and accumulate on the roadways. I live a little over a mile from where I work, and because everyone who works at my campus all left at the exact same time, what is normally a five minute drive for me turned into an hour and a half nightmare of gridlock where it took me nearly an hour JUST TO GET OUT OF THE PARKING GARAGE.

This time, they government, the schools, the businesses, etc., were very clear that the expected snowfall was not going to be significant or have any impact on the roads, and they all committed to going about business as usual. Until they didn't. Somebody chickened out and canceled things in the middle of the day, and the dominos quickly fell from there, and soon we were right back in the same mess: the entire city trying to get home from work or school within a very narrow window.

Even though the city didn't learn this time, I sure did. I left my car in the parking garage and simply walked to my son's school to pick him up and then we walked home together. That took me about 40 minutes total, whereas coworkers I talked to told me that just like in 2014, it was taking over an hour just to get off campus before being thrown into similar gridlock on the real roads.

They would have been better off just canceling the night before like they've done a couple of times since then, but because the wintry weather didn't start to accumulate on the roads until after the workday was over (it didn't drop below freezing on the pavement until after midnight), there wasn't the same epidemic of people getting stuck. etc. But it was still messier than it needed to be, and all of the inconvenience could have been prevented with a little more foresight and better communication between the various municipalities that make these decisions for the Atlanta metro area.

We were very late getting our Halloween decorations up and our pumpkins this year, but we're a little more on top of it for Christmas. And getting snow on Friday night into Saturday morning certainly helped set the mood—we got our tree late last week, and we were lucky enough to be able to decorate it with snow on the ground outside the window.

We also took Will to see the Center for Puppetry Arts annual production of Rudolph (which is based on the old stop-motion Rudolph special from the 60s), and we were joined not only by Julie's mom but also by Will's friend Evie (they were in first grade together last year), her little sister Annika, and their father Clint, who I have become friends with (we go out for an occasional beer and we've also been to a couple of concerts together).

Since we had so many, I did the math on a family membership to the Center and what the discounts for this show would save us, and it turned out that we'd only have to visit the Center one more time to make it a positive for us, plus it would mean we'd get to sit in the first few rows that are reserved for members. It was a great experience—Evie and her sister had never been, and Will enjoyed it as always.

I also discovered that at 7 p.m. that night they were having a special showing of the old Jim Henson Christmas special Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, which I hadn't thought about in years but which used to be one of my favorite shows to watch when I was a kid. The tickets were free for members, and since they were sold to non-members for $12 each, that put us over the top for saving more money than we spent on the annual membership. So I got those too.

Unfortunately there were only four tickets left when I got to the online checkout, so Evie and her family couldn't come with us, but we went out to dinner with them at a nearby Chik-fil-A between the Rudolph and Emmet Otter showings. The quality of the video for Emmet Otter was pretty poor, but it was a very pleasnt nostalgic experience, and Will loved it (I have since found it in Amazon's video library and purchased an HD version of it).

Julie's mom left Sunday morning, and we dropped Will off at a friend's house for a playdate. The house was only a five minute walk from Emory Village, so we walked from our house to pick him up, walked to his new favorite restaurant, a Japanese place called Wagaya, for dinner, and then walked to the parking garage at Emory to pick up my car, which I'd abandoned there on Friday when Snowpacalypse Jr. happened.

It was a good weekend all around, and set the tone for what I hope will be a good and relaxing holiday season.

I never had any intention of watching Kong: Skull Island, yet another reboot of King Kong and one of the movies in Legendary's attempt to create a "MonsterVerse" similar to Marvel's Cinematic Universe, of which Godzilla is the other principal monster. But it has been airing on HBO for the past few weeks, and one night it happened to be starting as I was sitting down to watch some television, so I got sucked in and watched the whole thing.

That's not an endorsement of it being a good movie or anything—that's more a commentary on my boredom and lack of enthusiasm at that moment for 1) more intellectually taxing activities or 2) anything else on the tv or DVR. But it was compelling enough popcorn fare (if fairly obvious in its plot points) with its pointless-but-somtimes-cool deaths of the disposable members of the army unit, its monster battle scenes, and especially its visuals.

I know a lot of this was done with CGI and/or green screens, but it had some incredible cinematography for a throwaway movie, which I think speaks more to the elevated quality of all big-budget movies in that area than because this one stands out as special or unique. But it definitely made the viewing experience better given that I did not get invested in the characters even one bit.

I did like the less serious tone than its companion Godzilla film, however—while that one had some enjoyable parts (and again, some great visuals/sequences), it was trying way too hard to be Important and Meaningful. This one had a lot more fun with its legacy, and as a result it was a lot more fun to watch.

I read good reviews of Ant Man when it was in the theaters, but since that was a character who wasn't part of the Marvel universe when I was reading the comics, I never got motivated enough to go out and see it. But it was on tv a few weeks ago, so I DVR'd it and finally got around to watching it a couple of nights ago.

I'm not a huge fan of Paul Rudd, but he was PERFECT for this role, in the same way that another actor I don't particularly care for, Ryan Reynolds, was perfect for Deadpool. This movie has another big similarity with Deadpool—the hero (or antihero in the case of Deadpool) spends a lot of time cracking jokes, although Ant Man has a decidedly PG-13 sense of humor compared to Deadpool.

The best films in the MCU (which Deadpool is not currently a part of) always mix in some humor with the Big Serious Stories, usually via Robert Downey's Tony Stark, but this was the first time we have a main character who deals primarily in the language of humor as a defense/deflection of his own insecurities rather than a flexing of his intellectual muscle/confidence. Again, Rudd's low-key everyman typecasting is exactly what was needed for this character, and I'm glad to see that a sequel is already in production.

I had almost no expectations or preconceived notions for this film, but it was a fun movie, and one of the few that really stands alone in the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy is the other good example of this—all the other films are too entwined in the overarching Avengers storyline), and it would be nice to see more movies like this. Although we're probably going to get less of it instead—both the Ant Man characters and Guardians of the Galaxy are going to have prominent roles in the next two Avengers movies, which will tie together all the stories and characters from this initial phase of the MCU.

Today is the day we have our first significant decision release of the year, where we will end up enrolling over a third of our first year class for next year. It's also coincidentally opening night for the new Stars Wars movie, The Last Jedi, and so for the first time in many years, I won't actually be in the office when the decisions go out.

This wasn't intentional—I got the Star Wars tickets months ago before we'd officially set a date for this decision release (we usually go out on December 15, but that's a Friday, and we don't usually do releases on Friday), and the tickets are to a special double feature at one of the fancy theaters with reserved seats and recliners where we'll see The Force Awakens at 3 and the premiere of The Last Jedi at 6.

I wish these two events didn't overlap, but it's not just me that would be affected if I skipped the movie to tend to what will likely be a very uneventful decision release—Julie is going with me as well, and we've arranged a babysitter to pick up Will from school and watch him unitl we get home.

I have a lot of confidence in our process and in my team, so I don't expect any frantic text messages or phone calls. But we don't release decisions until 6, which is exactly when the movie starts, so I'm going to be really torn about leaving the theater to check in if my phone starts buzzing during the show.

Julie and I went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi last night as part of a doubleheader where we saw The Force Awakens immediately beforehand. I won't talk about it in detail now—there's so much to process—nor will I say anything even remotely spoiler-y, but I'm going to have to see this one again to figure out where it fits in terms of quality and importance to the Skywalker saga.

There were some really great visuals, and a lot of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) callbacks to the original trilogy, but the pacing was too slow in some places, it was too jokey sometimes, and I'm not sure how to interpret some of the plot developments in the context of the universe the George Lucas created 40 years ago.

It's a fun movie to watch—I suspect it will likely appeal more to people with a passing familiarlity with the series than with those who are more invested in the Star Wars universe—and I do like the direction they take with some of the old and new characters. And I really have no idea what's going to happen in the final film of this trilogy, which I guess you can take as good or bad: usually by the end of the middle act you have some idea of the main conflict that will be resolved by the third act, and here the cliffhanger is that we as an audience have absolutely no clue about what's coming next.

I will definitely be seeing this one again (likely several more times), and I'm sure my opinion about it will evolve through repeated viewings. But I was excited to see it on day one, and it's certainly better than any of the prequels. But whether it ranks above or below ROTJ and TFA (which are sort of tied for third and fourth in my rankings of the Star Wars Skywalker films) will only become clear once I've had more time to consider it.

I belong to one of those points/rewards programs for the movie theater that I see most movies at, and every now and then they email me with offers for free passes or sneak previews of new movies. I haven't been interested enough in any of them to see what's involved, but a few weeks ago I got an offer to see Paddington 2 a month before its official release in the US, and so I put my name in the hat and was fortunately granted three passes.

I didn't really care for the first movie, but Will liked it, so I was willing to give the second one a chance if we could see it for free. Will was SO excited when I told him—he really wanted to see the movie itself, but he LOVED the idea of getting to see it in secret before anyone else. We got to the theater as early as we could with Julie's work schedule, but we got there in plenty of time to get good seats.

I was very pleasantly surprised, and I will say that I would endorse this as a kids movie even if I hadn't gotten to see it for free. It didn't seem nearly as forced in its hijinks as the first one, and it had some very odd, very British plot points that appealed to the slight Anglophile in me. Plus there were some really cool Wes Anderson-like miniature sets that I also adored.

I was bored and irritated by the first one, but I found this one a lot more engaging, even as an adult. We might even go see it again once it's officially out next month.

Okay, it was brutal losing that close game to the Steelers two weeks ago, especially given that they ended our playoff hopes on Christmas day last year with a similar late-game push, but the Ravens took care of business with the Browns and once again hold their playoff fate in their hands. If they win at home against the Colts and the Bengals, they are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.

Back when they were 4-5 heading into their bye week, a lot of the coaches and players on the team were talking about going on a six or seven game run after the bye and ending the season with at least 10 wins. That sounded crazy at the time, but now they're 8-6 and have two home games against teams with losing records (one of whom they shut out in week 1).

This team has taught me so many new and painful ways to experience rage and disappointment over the last few years that I know better than to really get my hopes up...but I'm doing it anyway. God help me, I've started to believe in them. I know I shouldn't, but this is how fandom gets you: even when you're fully aware of your folly, you embrace it for the love of the team.

I will spare you all the metrics I've latched onto to help provide some sort of rational justification why this team will not only go to the playoffs for only the second time since they won their second Super Bowl after the 2012 season, but make it past the wild card round and beyond, because I know it's crazy and I know there's still a good chance they're going to break my heart again this year. But if they don', will I be excited to see what this team can do in the postseason.

I picked up Artemis, Andy Weir's first novel after his stunning debut, The Martian, the day it was released, and read it after the Lou Reed biography. I was trying not to set expectations that were too high for this one—I loved Ready Player One, the debut novel by Ernest Cline, but I absolutely hated the follow up, Armada—but I was very eager to read it and see if Weir could capture lightning in a bottle again and give us something that was a worthy successor to The Martian.

I wouldn't say that it was quite as good as The Martian, but it definitely wasn't a disappointment. Part of the reason it wasn't as memorable as The Martian is because the setting was less distinct—The Martian takes place in a very-near-future world and was very reality-based (there was no tech in that book that we don't already possess), whereas Artemis takes place several decades from now and is set on the first lunar colony (which is where the title of the book comes from).

This setting, combined with the narrator/protagonist's tone and the murder mystery style plot, make it into a much more generic sci fi novel, a version of which I've read many times before. It was a pretty good example of its type, but if you hadn't told me it was by Andy Weir, I might have guessed many other writers before I would have put his name forward as the author.

One thing I've noticed about contemporary sci fi now that I've gotten back into the genre over the past few years: like fantasy writers have done for decades, they almost never write a book without thinking about 1) how it could be turned into a movie or television show and 2) how to extend this particularly piece of intellectual property into a minimum of a trilogy if its successful.

The Martian, being a debut novel from an author who originally self-published it as an ebook, did not carry these burdens: it was a standalone story that I had trouble imagining as a flim (even though it was made into a very good movie that captures the tone of the book and the character of the protagonist very well). But Artemis clearly does, especially in the wake of The Martian's success in both the publishing and cinematic spheres.

And that hurts it a bit: like many of his peers, Weir is using this novel as a worldbuilder and a way to introduce us to a cast of characters that he can (and likely will) return to, which means this particularly story doesn't have to be as good as long as it's good enough to set us up for more stories in this universe. So while I enjoyed it and I will likely read the almost-inevitable sequels, I won't recommend it to friends (especially non-sci-fi-loving friends) the way I did The Martian.

Lots of Christmas stuff over the past week: we made our visit to see Santa and ride the Christmas train at Atlantic Station last Saturday (Will liked this even more than usual because he has gotten OBSESSED with The Polar Express movie this year), Will got his letter from Santa postmarked from the North Pole, and Will practiced for the Christmas pageant at church (he got upgraded from one of the nameless sheep in the flock to the Sheep with Curly Horn, which is not a speaking role but which still lets him walk down the aisle solo and stand closer to the manger). Will also got to play three Christmas songs at a holiday concert that his piano teacher set up at a local assisted living complex (the same place he played a couple of months ago).

My mom got here today, and she'll be spending a few days with us before heading to my sister's on Christmas Eve (we do Christmas morning with just the three of us, but in the afternoon we head over to my sister's for dinner and presents with her, my mom, and one of our cousins). We're not going to travel this year, but we will end up spending time with all of the grandparents in the month of December, so I think we're covered in terms of family holiday time.

This will be my last post until I go back to work in January, so enjoy your holidays and I'll be back in 2018.

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