august 2018

Will had his open house at school today adn found out who his teacher was. He had one particular teacher in mind that he wanted (he though the others were "bossy"), but he didn't get her and instead got one of the ones he thinks is bossy (mostly because she's in charge of corraling the kids when aftercare starts and getting them to the appropriate activity). But he got a chance to hang out in the classroom for a little while and pick where he was going to sit, and he seemed pretty satisfied with his new teacher when he got home.

He always does well adjusting to his new teacher and classmates, but as is usual for this school, he knows almost no one in his class this year. They like to mix things up so that cliques don't form and get carreied over from year to year, but Will seems to be at the extreme end of the change curve, because every year it's like starting over socially. All of his best friends from the previous year are in other classes, and even among the acquaintance level friends, there's only one in his room this year.

Maybe he gets the worst of this social engineering because they recognize that he's friendly and outgoing and makes friends pretty easily, but it's still stressful and a little traumatic for him to have to start building his social connections from scratch at the beginning of each school year. Even one good friend in his class would make a huge difference, let alone simply being familiarl with four or five of his classmates.

I know he'll get through it fine, but it does make the first few weeks of school more difficult for him than they would be otherwise. Hopefully he'll find some new best friends and start to get into the rhythm of the new school year quickly.

Each year since Will has been in school, he's earned a voucher that gives him a free ticket to Six Flags that he can use anytime over the summer. We've gone the past two years, and he's always loved it, and today was supposed to be our day to go this year.

But it started rainy and it didn't look like it would let up substantially during the day, so we didn't end up going. Instead, we spent a quiet morning at home and then took Will out to see the new Teen Titans Go movie, and also let him get lunch at the movie theater (a surprisingly decent spicy chicken sandwich).

I didn't like the movie, but he did, and that's what really counts. If you've seen an episode of the animated series, then you know what the movie is like—they didn't deviate from that blueprint at all. And while I can sometimes find minimal enjoyment watching five minutes of the show, I can rarely take a whole episode, so it's no surprise that I couldn't take a 90 minute mega-episode on the big screen.

He was bummed about Six Flags, of course, but I think the blow was softened by the fact that he knows he's going to Disney for four days in a couple of months. His ticket didn't actually save us that much money (you still have to pay for parking and for the adult tickets), so I supposed in theory we could still go another weekend while the park is still open. But if we make our annual visit to the North Georgia State Fair then that, combined with Disney, will give him plenty of access to amusement parks this fall.

I didn't travel at all in July, which was nice after a jam-packed schedule in May and June, but I'm off again on Sunday for my last conference of the summer. I have to leave late morning on Sunday, so tomorrow is really my only day off. I don't mind traveling that much when it's spread out a bit, but it is tough losing weekends when the workweek is already so busy.

Will started his first day of third grade on Monday while I was away, but I called him after school and it seemed like the day went pretty well. We can already tell it's going to be more intense this year in terms of grading and homework, but he's rolling with it pretty well so far this week.

He was apprehensive about his teacher—she's not the one he really wanted—but I think she'll be a good fit for him. He does well when he has a teacher who is empathetic and caring but who also has high expectations and standards. Will's very social and likes to make people laugh, so in the absence of some discipline, he can turn into a distracted goof in the classroom pretty quickly. His best teachers have been those who appreciate the positives of his personality while creating a framework that doesn't allow it to override his academic performance, and it seems like this new one fits that mold.

My conference this week was up in Vermont (which I'm reasonably sure I've never been to), specifically Burlington (which I'm sure I've never been to). It was on the UVM campus, and I stayed in a hotel downtown that overlooked the lake, which was beautiful.

The downtown mall reminded me of an expanded version of the mall in downtown Charlottesville—very pedestrian-oriented with a lot of shops, cafes, and restaurants (it also reminded me of Denver's tourist area as well). The conference itself was fine, but I'm a little burned out on networking/socializing after all my travel earlier this summer. so I tended to call it an evening fairly early and get back to catch up on email or chill out with a book.

Two things that surprised me about Burlington: first, how hilly it was. I figured that being next to a lake would mean a pretty flat landscape, but in Georgia, and elevation changes would have been considered near-mountainous. There were trails next to the lake that were pretty flat, but once you got even a block away from the shoreline, you had to start climbing.

The other was how hot it was. I figured flying two and an half hours north would mean I'd get a reasonable reduction in temperature, but it was actually hotter in Burlington the days I was there than it was in Atlanta (the low 90s in both cities). The breeze off the lake helped a little bit, but the humidity from the lake balanced that out, and it definitely felt as hot as the south. The locals assured me this was an aberration—they said summer days typically top out around 80 and are pretty consistent for the whole season—but I guess I brought my hometown weather with me.

I just finished a great book called The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Johnson, who worked for the US government in Iraq, is best known for founding The List Project, a non-profit organization that helped Iraqis who aided the US miliary forces get permission to come to America since they were no longer welcome in their homeland.

Johnson started The Feather Thief after leaving The List Project and taking a writing sabbatical to figure out what to do next. It is a strange but fascinating book whose origins are as important to the story as the tale it tells. The key element in all of the human narratives that are woven into this text is obsession, and so it's fitting that Johnson's own obsession began innocuously enough with a conversatiion with a fly fishing guide while on a get-away-from-it-all daytrip.

That guide gave him his first taste of the robbery of the Tring Museum, a facility in suburban London that housed hundreds of thousands of specimens that had been collected by naturalists and explorers during the heyday of the British empire in the 19th century (the museum housed many specimens collected by the best known of these, Charles Darwin).

But it wasn't just anything that was taken from the museum: it was specifically bird skins with their feathers intact. And they weren't just taken for any reason: they were taken to feed a black market of tie-fliers called the Feather Underground who were obsessed with tying flies with the same materials that had been used when that art form was at its peak and the feathers required for the most elaborate ties were in relatively abundant supply.

To tell this story, Johnson has to tell many other stories, and its this mosaic of historical narratives and people that make up the first half of The Feather Thief. Discussing everything from a detailed biography of Alfred Russel Wallace (whose collections ended up mostly at the Tring) to women's fashion trends in the 19th century (the initial demand for rare and exotic bird feathers came from milliners who used them for hats) to the story of a failed scion of the Rothschild dynasty, Walter, who founded the Tring as his own private zoological museum in the end of the 19th century.

This is where the book is at its best, hopscotching from one seemingly unrelated person or topic to another before weaving them back into the main story. I found every bit of this as gripping and compulsively page-turning as a thriller; when I had to put the book down, I couldn't wait to return to it.

Having set the stage for both the history of Victorian-era fly tying and the Tring's collection, the second half focuses on the heist itself, spending considerable time on the backstory of the mastermind of the theft, Edwin Rist, a man who, in additional to being one of the premiere fly tiers in the modern world, is also a renowned flutist who was a young prodigy at both activities.

It's satsifying to finally get the details of the heist after all of the backstory and buildup, but the book lingers too long on interviews with Rist and an accomplice. On a meta level, it proves the book's point—that obsession can drive us beyond a masterful, controlled engagement with a subject or task and into a world of bad choices and worse outcomes.

I don't think this was Johnson's intenation, but his need to know every little detail, which leads him to conduct multiple interviews in shady circumstances with unreliable subjects, none of which dramatically change our understanding of the facts, demonstrates vividly Johnson's own obsession, and becomes one of the many object lessons in this book about going too far.

This is a great book, though, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in natural history or stranger-than-fiction non-fiction stories. It was a true joy to read, and I can't wait to see what Johnson becomes obsessed with next.

On Saturday Will got to go to a birthday party of a friend (a recent one that he met in summer camp this year, but one who he's been thick as thieves with since then), but on Sunday we all three did something new with another family: an escape room.

We've known these folks since their daughter was in preschool with Will, and they're part of a group of families that have stayed in touch since then (although we very rarely all get together at the same time, almost everyone does individual or smaller group playdates with everyone else). There are lots of escape room places in Atlanta, but the dad for the other family had been to this one before as a team building exercise at work, and he thought it would be fun to try one of the other rooms.

The theme for ours was Alcatraz—you were part of a gang that was escaping from the prison, and the others had left behind clues for you to follow. The staff were watching you on camera, and you had a walkie talkie so you could speak to them, and you got three hints you could use during your hour if you got stuck.

I won't spoil any of the puzzles, but they were pretty doable once you took a second to think about them, and even the kids were able to help figure out some of them. My main problem was the chaos of six people (including two eight year olds) running around and talking all at once—because there were multiple puzzles to be solved in each room, not everyone was focused on figuring out the same obstacle.

We made it out in just under an hour, so the kids were really happy about that. It was pretty fun overall—I'd definitely be open to doing one again with friends. I'm not sure I'm ready to inflict it on my team as a team building exercise, but if my team wanted to give it a try, I'd find room in the budget for a session.

One of the advantages to having too much vacation time and not enough real ways to spend it is that you can occasionally take a couple of days off for no good reason, or for an otherwise not so great reason. And that's where I've been the past couple of days: taking two of my vacation days to stay at home and play the newest expansion pack for World of Warcraft, the only video game I've played consistently over the past 10+ years.

Will's finishing up his second week of school, and although he's liking his teacher, he does seem to be having more trouble adjusting to the social part of school this year, which is doubtless exacerbated by the fact that he (once again) knows very few kids in his class).

He always has some anxiety about going back to school, and it manifests iteself in different ways every year. Usually he's over it within a month, and he did seem to have a better week overall than last week, so hopefully everything will turn out fine. But I hate to see him struggle, especially because I know some of this is artificially imposed on him by the decision to put him with a completely new group of kids every year.

Last Friday night we left Will with his favorite babysitter and headed over to City Winery to see a concert with five other friends (seven of us total). One was a neighbor from down the street who was married to someone we went to high school with (they got divorced last year), two were parents of a girl from Will's preschool that we still do stuff with, and two were one of my college roommates and his wife (who also went to our college).

When I bought the tickets, our group of seven ended up surroudning one lone seat that was already taken when I made the purchase, and I was really curious to see who ended up there. A superfan who loved the artist so much he was willing to sit right at the edge of the stage? Someone who didn't quite get what the City Winery experience was about? A lone weirdo?

It turned out to be someone who appeared to be traveling with the headliner, Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller. He sat and watched the opening act, but once they were finised, he set up a video camera in the back of the room and taped Miller's entire performance, seemingly with the permission of the venue and the artist. He didn't come back to the table once during the main set, which left a little extra room for our group.

The show itself was alright. I owned a couple of the Old 97s records from early in their career back in the 90s, but I haven't listened to them or bought any of their more recent records (or Rhett Miller's solo stuff). But three of our group are pretty big fans, and they seemed pleased with the song selections. The performance was pretty frenetic for a guy playing solo with only an acoustic guitar, and it was easy to see why these songs were better suited for a more traditional rock setup.

But the evening wasn't really about the show—it was about getting to hang out with a bunch of our friends and hear some new music. It was a bonus that both the opener and the headliner were great musicians and fun to listen to, but I've seen artists I actively dislike in this venue and it's still a great way to spend an evening with friends.

I'm a big fan of Los Campesinos, a band from Wales who don't put out records very often these days and tour even less, especially in the US. This year is their their 10th anniversary as a band, and to celebrate they're doing a short tour of the US. The only problem is that, like the last time they toured a few years ago, the closest they're coming to Atlanta is DC.

I have a coworker who is also a fan (he came with me the first time I saw the band, which just happened to be at the DC venue where they're playing this year), and I Slacked him jokingly that we should get tickets and fly up there to see them. And even though he was interested, I figured it would dissipate due to cost and time. I bought two tickets anyway just in case, figuring I could resell them later when the plans failed to materialize.

But we continued to think about it: the show is on a Saturday night, which means we wouldn't have to miss work, and if we got plane tickets at the right time, they wouldn't be too much. Plus there was a Ravens game the next day in Baltimore, and since I already had clearance to go see them on the road in either Carolina or Nashville this season, I figured I could roll the hotel costs and the football ticket costs from that trip into this one and help offset things a bit.

My friend got a budget for the flight and a football ticket, so I found a really great deal for seats about 8 rows from the field on the 35 yard line and booked a hotel. The plan is we'll fly into BWI Saturday morning, get our stuff to the hotel, head to DC for the concert, watch the game on Sunday afternoon, and then fly back Sunday night. No work missed (although I will probably take Monday off), and I get to see the Ravens at home in front of a friendly crowd instead of away.

I'm really shocked that this all seems to be working out so far. I would be pysched getting to do either of these events, even if I had to go by myself, but it will be really fun to do them both in one weekend with a friend.

Our office has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years (even with a five person reduction in force and two other positions that we didn't backfill, we still have 10 more salary lines than we did when I came here six years ago), and we've finally run out of space.

There are no easy solutions to this: to rehab our current space to make it a better fit for our staff size would be in the low seven figures and we'd also have to find someplace else to live for a year, and there are no empty spaces anywhere on campus we could use as an annex to house more staff. So we're left with the options that no one will be happy with: making shared offices and adding more cubicles.

The best case scenario for this will be that you keep your existing space, but more than half the office will be getting a downgrade: either moving to a small office, moving to an office you have to share with someone, or moving from an office to a cubicle. Once we implement this and it's the norm for new people coming in, it won't be as big a deal, but people who have been here for years and have had their own solo office the whole time are going to be resentful about this until the day they are able to get back to that kind of situation.

This is scheduled to take place in early September, but the plan is final. I will be moving offices myself, although fortunately I still get to have a single space. I'm working with my team members who will now be in shared spaces to enhance their flex schedules so that they might only overlap with their new officemate one or two days a week, but that's still an imperfect solution—even though they are all very self-sufficient, I still like having them in the building together for conversations and collaborative projects.

It seems like everything that's happening in Atlanta in September post-Labor Day is happening on the weekend of September 21-23. Here are some of the things we're trying to decided between:

    • Concert
    • 5K on the Runway
    • Altanta United game
    • Latern Parade on the BeltLine
    • North Georgia State Fair
    • Scouting event

Will really wants to march in the Latern Parade this year, and it would be tough to try to do both that and the ATL UTD game. So unless we can convince him to only be a spectator this year, that will likely be our primary goal, which means we'll miss out on a lot of the other things. The fair is probably his second biggest want, so we might do that on Friday or Sunday and focus on the parade on Saturday. But it would have been nice if these things could have been spread across at least a couple of weekends.

Today was a work day, but I didn't go into the office. Instead, I joined four of my colleagues on a trip out to Athens to visit the UGA admission office to exchange ideas and look at some of each other's key projects.

I drove three of my coworkers and the fourth met us there. We had a good couple of sessions with their team that lasted until around 12:30, and then we took a nice walk around downtown on the way to lunch at The Last Resort, great little place with an upscale spin on southern food. I ended up getting the quiche, which was okay, but honestly was probably better when it was first made—the flavors were good, but the consistency of the quiche itself and the crush seemed like it had been put in the microwave for 30 seconds before they served it to me.

We left Athens around 2:30 and I was back home around 4 after dropping my colleagues off at work. One of the things I'm terrible at as a manager is arranging not only work-related field trips for my team members but also just fun outings as a reward for all their hard work. This excursion reminded me how enjoyable those can be—I've got to be better about getting these on the calendar.

This weekend our big trip was taking my mom to see the Winnie the Pooh exhibit at the High Museum. She's still in a wheelchair (although she is making slow but steady progress with her PT), but we've gotten pretty used to getting her in and out of places, and most everywhere is wheelchair accessible these days.

I had just joined the museum to get early access to tickets for the upcoming Infinity Mirrors show, so not only were Julie, Will, my mom, and me free (we got a family + caretaker package), we also had six guest passes, so we invited Will's friend Evie, her sister Anika, and their dad (who I hang out with sometimes) to go with us.

The Winnie exhibit wasn't nearly as kid-friendly as advertised (although there were tons of kids there and Will and the girls seemed to have fun), and I was disappointed to find that almost all of the rest of the museum was closed because all of the permanent collection galleries were being renovated for the first time since 2005. There was one other exhibit open, however: Outliers and American Vanguard Art, a collection of works by American outsider (self-taught) artists that was mostly on loan from DC and New York museums.

I love this kind of art. Baltimore has a whole museum dedicated to it, the American Visionary Museum of Art, and when we lived there we would go at least once a year (they typically had one major temporary exhibit that would be up for 11 months). I didn't recognize many of these artists, and most of the works seemed more mainstream-influenced than the stuff I remember seeing from AVAM, but I still enjoyed it. And of course there was the obigatory piece from Georgia artist Howard Finster (who you might know from the album covers he did for R.E.M. and Talking Heads in the 80s).

This exhibit was a nice surprise, and even though I wish more of the museum had been open, it was still a good day and the kids had a lot of fun. And now that we're members, we have an easy excuse to go back there in October when all the permanent collection galleries reopen.

I haven't written about football very much since the crushing blows that ended the seasons of both my NFL and college teams. But I'm still excited about the upcoming seasons for both.

The Ravens missed the playoffs in one of the most heartbreaking ways possible: playing a New Year's Eve game at home with the lead and a guaranteed trip to the playoffs if they won, they allowed a 4th and 12 play with 44 seconds left on the clock to turn into a 49 yard touchdown that gave the other team a four point lead. To make it even worse, the other team was a divisional rival playing a meaningless game—no matter whether they won or lost, they weren't going to the postseason.

The Georgia Bulldogs had a fantasic year in their second cycle with Kirby Smart, winning the SEC Championship and making it to the national title game (which was played in Atlanta this year), but they lost in another heartbreaker to rival Alabama (who I am obligated to argue didn't even belong in the postseason since they were the only team in the postseason who didn't even make it to their conference championship, much less win it, basically giving them an extra week off) a little more than a week after the Ravens loss.

UGA had a 10 point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but Alabama scored 10 to tie it and send the game to overtime. Each team scored a field goal on their first possession, which meant the next score would win the game. And Alabama scored another field goal to seal it.

As a fan, I believe absolutely in my heart that both teams are poised for great seasons this year, but UGA is probably in better shape. Although Baltimore's defense is returning all of their starters and they have a new, more aggressive defensive coordinator who hopefully won't automatically revert to zone coverage every time we have a lead in the fourth quarter, the offense is still a huge unknown quantity, with only a single receiver returning from last year (and he was a role player with only 18 catchest).

The Bulldogs lost a lot of talented seniors, but they are still loaded for bear. There aren't many teams that could lose a running back combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (taken in the second and first rounds of this year's NFL draft respectively), but witih rising stars D'Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield (son of boxing legend Evander Holyfield) and some blue chip prospects, their running game should continue to dominate.

The first college games are this Saturday, and UGA is doing a warm up against Austin Peay. The real fun will be the weekend after that: on Saturday UGA will play an away game against conference rival South Carolina (who are always tough for the Bulldogs) and the next day the Ravens will open the season in Baltimore against the Bills. Even though I was devastated by the way both teams ended their campaigns last year, I can't wait for this new season to start.

I haven't been to the movies since I saw Deadpool 2, but other movies I wanted to see this summer included Solo, Ant Man and the Wasp, and Mission Impossible: Fallout. It's probably too late now for Solo and Ant Man, but maybe Fallout is still playing somewhere. But it's highly likely that I'll end up watching all three of these on my television, so now the real question is: buy digitally, rent on a streaming service, or just wait for them to come on one of the movie channels next year?

I'm not a big fan of horror movies, but the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It was on HBO a few nights ago, and I decided to give it a shot.

Where to start with this one? First, let me say I was really impressed with this one, but not because it had great suspense, etc. No, instead, it was the art direction, costumes, and overall feel of the flim that really got me. In terms of how it presented the characters and the setting, it was a cross between Stand By Me (another King adaptation), Stranger Things, and the Goonies (but instead of being on a quest to find pirate treasure to save their homes, they were on a hunt to kill a murderous clown to save their classmates and themselves).

I was just blown away with this aspect of the film, especially because it's so easy to hit false notes when you're trying to recreate the certain feel of 80s films by directors like Spielberg (and his proteges) and Rob Reiner. The only thing that felt really off to me was the years they chose: this felt a lot more like the early 80s, around 82-84, and not the 88-89 time period that was explicitly referenced as the years these events took place.

Now for the parts that sucked: like, everything to do with the scary stuff, which was supposed to be the whole point of the film. Sure, the cold open where we first see Pennywise in the sewer is pretty creepy, and they do a good job of building tension, but we see Pennywise in all his forms so much that he quickly loses his power to shock and so many of the scenes either become trippy effects sequences that it's easy to distance yourself from or fight scenes which are even easier to check out of.

The worst thing is that the plot is moved forward exclusively by characters who we are otherwise supoosed to believe are smart and resourceful continually making the worst choices possible. Is there a dark creepy basement with weird noises and mysterious glowing eyes in the corner? Proceed solo without a flashlight. Know that your adversary is trying to separate you so it can pick everyone in your group off one by one? Make sure you all go into rooms ahead of the others or linger behind in the hallway all alone where you can easily be cut off from your friends by magic slamming doors (this happens over and over and over again). Scared of clowns? GO INTO A ROOM FULL OF CLOWN DOLLS BY YOURSELF IN A SPOOKY HOUSE INHABITED BY A MURDEROUS CLOWN. I mean seriously, how in the world does that choice logically get made?

Also: I'm not going to talk about how much this movie ripped off the Nightmare on Elm Street films. I don't even think anyone who has seen any of those would argue that point. And this movie was clearly designed with a sequel (and likely two) in mind: without really giving us any clue about what Pennywise is, they make it clear that he will be back in 27 years and these characters will be back to fight him again (the end credits label the film as It: Chapter One). That's always irritating, even though those who have read the book (I haven't) would know from teh start that it's going to take more than one film to cover all the events in the novel.

It was worth watching, because I liked the characters and it was very well made. It just wasn't very scary, which is supposed to be the whole point of a horror movie.

We don't have any specific plans for the long weekend, but it will be nice to have an extended weekend. We're about to enter our busy period at work, plus we have eight new people who have just started or are starting soon, and there's a big office reshuffling that's happening next week. So I could really use a solid break there before entering the fray again.

I'm not traveling as much this fall as I did in May and June, but I do have a conference each in September and October, and I have to do my normal travel to my territory at some point before November as well. There shouldn't be any further travel until sometime late next spring, but the holidays and the end of the year are going to be on us in the blink of an eye, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity for downtime just so I can get through it.

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