december 2018

Busy, busy weekend, but lots of fun. On Friday night we went to my mom's house to have dinner with her and her friend Jane (who is also my godmother). Jane was in town to help my mom with the first few days of recovery from her latest surgery, this time on her knee, and she made a pasta dinner for us.

Saturday we did our annual trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts to see their recreation of the Rudolph stop motion animation show from the 60s. The past few years we've gone with a group, but this year it was just the three of us, which was nice—between all of the travel I've done this year and all the other holiday stuff we've had going on, it was good to have an outing that was a little lower key.

Sunday was a big day: I took Will to see his first Ravens game against the Falcons in Mercedes Benz. We got very lucky in that the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs a couple of weeks ago and the fan base is pretty disgusted (they were a popular pick to win the Super Bowl when the season started), so there were lots of cheap tickets on the resale market. I found a really good deal on club seats on the Ravens sideline, which not only gave us a great view of the field, but also gave us access to the exclusive club area below the stands and sideline standing areas behind the Ravens bench.

We got there early to see all the fancy club level stuff, which was a good decision. We went out to the sideline area while the Ravens were warming up, and we just happened to end up standing next to the sister and mother of tight end Hayden Hurst, who was our first pick in the 2018 draft. He came over to talk to his family, so we also got to say hi and get a couple of pictures with him.

It was a great game for the Ravens. It was the third start for rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson (I saw his first start two weeks prior in Baltimore) and his first road game, but since the Falcons fans were not in attendance that day, crowd noise wasn't really a contributing factor. He still had some problems with fumbling, but his unique style threw the defense off more often than not, and the Ravens D also had some key plays that helped make up for Lamar's inexperience.

We went back down to the sideline area after the game and got to see wide receiver Willie Snead, punter Sam Koch (who, in addition to being one of the best punters in the league, also threw a beautiful pass on a fourth down fake), linebacker Tyus Bowser, and safety Eric Weddle. It was a fun afternoon with Will—he's still more into the overall experience of going to a football game than the actual action on the field, but hopefully that will come with time.

Will loves decorating for Christmas, and the more colorful and ostentatious the better. I'm more into minimal, tasteful decorations, expecially the ones on the house and lawn. But two years ago Will talked me into getting a small Christmas penguin blowup for the yard, and then last year added a laser projector that does a pattern of red and green dots on the house. I wasn't a huge fan, but he got so excited about them that I gave in.

This year I realized that there's only going to be a limited amount of time that Will gets that excited about decorating for Christmas, so I decided to let him get a really big Christmas blowup for the yard. We looked through the options at Home Depot, and he found an 8 foot tall red and green dragon with a Santa hat that is breathing fire and holding a Christmas present.

He is totally loving it, and a couple of the neighbors have complimented him on it too. As long as he's this enthusiastic about decorating, I think I'm going to let him add one per year. I never envisioned myself as the kind of person who would have a yard full of blowups, but if he keeps this up through his teens, that's exactly what I'll become.

I'm very happy with my re-engagement with reading since I got a Kindle six years ago, but the vast majority of my reading has been restricted to three categories: sci fi (typically the more technical hard sci fi), pop culture commentary/histories, and non fiction history (typically in science). In late high school and college (where I was an English major), I read most fiction, and most of that could be considered on the more literary end of the spectrum, but I've had a really hard time getting back into books in that category since reading has become a daily habit again.

Every now and then I look around the best-of lists to see if there might be something that could serve as a gateway back into contemporary literary fiction, and that was how I came across Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists. The introductory hook of this novel is that four siblings visit a fortune teller as children, and she tells them the specific date of each of their deaths (though she doesn't tell them the manner in which they'll die). I thought this had enough of an oddball twist that it could help me bridge the gap between sci fi and more traditional literary fiction.

The book was a huge disappointment though. After the initial description of the children receive their expiration dates, the book then focuses on each one of the children individually, starting with the one who will die first and moving on through their successive deaths in chronological order. The writing itself was fine, and there were some great characters and descriptions, but where the book really failed me was in the payoff and the number of red herring ideas that were introduced but then abandoned.

I had hoped that there would be strong connective tissue between each of the siblings' stories, and at first, it seemed like this might be the case: the first story focuses on Simon, the youngest, but it also includes his sister Klara, who is fated to be the second to die. And in her section, it is revealed that she can receive morse code-like messages from Simon in the afterlife, which tantalizingly teases a tie in to the immortalists of the title.

But that doesn't go anywhere after Klara dies—the remaining siblings don't have any kind of psychic connection to their dead brother and sister, and the stories for the two remaining siblings are less interesting and compelling than the first two. The book feels like one big denoument that doesn't follow up on the magical realism premise. It's a straight up literary novel that masquerades as something more intriguing, but all of the stuff I was eager to delve more deeply into ends up being treated as unconcluded red herrings by the author.

Julie's mom is here for a visit this week, which she usually does because she doesn't typically come for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. One thing I love about Will is that he loves all his grandparents equally, even though they have very different personalities and engagement styles. He's just so thrilled to hang out with each of them.

We don't have to worry about making long trips to visit my mom anymore since she has moved relatively close, and Julie's mom could follow suit sometime in the next year. She doesn't have many ties left to the community where she has lived since she was in her 20s, but we're not leaving Atlanta anytime soon and Julie is an only child (and therefore Will is her only grandchild).

She'll be staying through early next week, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is her last visit before she moves here permanently—she's been on the waiting list for a place not too far from us for the last couple of years, and she's next up when one of the current residents moves out.

I've been sick since Tuesday with something that's like the flu but probably not the full blown flu—fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, etc. I've been able to keep up with work from home for the most part, but it would be way too much energy to make it to the office, so I'm taking a couple of sick days and working 3-4 hours a day in 30-45 minute spurts.

It's not great timing—we have a major decision release next week, and then there are a ton of projects to wrap up before we break for the holidays—but things are also going very smoothly this year, so there aren't as many day-to-day operational things that require my attention.

It would be nice if I could just take a couple of days and completely ignore work to rest up, but that's not really how it works this time of year. Hopefully I can rest up some this weekend and be back to 100% before Monday.

I mostly rested over the weekend while Will and Julie did stuff out of the house with Julie's mom, but we did all go to the Emory women's basketball game on Saturday night.

They're still in preconference play (they won't start their conference games until January), and they always do well in this part of the season, but I'm starting to see the team they will be later in the season and I think this might be the most effective unit they've had in several years.

My big event over the weekend was going to the MLS title game on Sunday night, where the Atlanta United took on the Portland Timbers. We once again broke the MLS record for attendance with just over 73,000 fans in Mercedes Benz, and about 71,000 of those were Atlanta fans. The mood was celebratory from the beginning—even without a championship, the United's story two years into its history is remarkable—but when Atlanta scored first, the noise in the stadium was as deafening as anything I've heard at a sporting event.

We went on to win, of course, and it was such an exhilirating feeling being amongst all the other fans and being part of the celebration in person. We were lucky enough to get seats in our same section only a few rows behind where we normally sit, and all five of us who have season tickets together were together for this amazing game to end the season. There's always a lot of electricity in that stadium, but it was amped up even further for this game, including a stadium-wide tifa that seriously almost brought me to tears.

I've been very fortunate as a sports fan in that I've been alive and been a passionate, active fan for pretty much every team I follow (I've seen UNC win several NCAA national basketball champtionships, I was a huge fan of the Braves when they won the World Series in 1995, and I was a dedicated Ravens fan when they won their second Super Bowl after the 2012 season), but I've never been there in person when my team won it all.

It was so special to be there in that stadium, with that crowd, watching that team bring Atlanta only its second pro title, and its first in more than 20 years (the first and last being the aforementioned 1995 Braves World Series victory). This city has really embraced this team and vice versa, and I know the players were just as excited to bring the cup to the fans as we were excited to see them earn it after two incredible seasons.

There will be lots of changes next year—our coach is leaving to coach the Mexican national team, and we're losing one of our superstars and crowd favorite Miguel Almiron to the UK's Premiere League—but I expect they will maintain their style and keep some core parts of the team (like team and league MVP Josef Martinez). They might not win another cup next year, but I bet they will be in the playoff hunt every year for years to come as they continue to set a new standard for what soccer can be in America.

Today was our first major decision release of the year, and it went very well. I'm still waiting for the panicked text or Slack message that something somewhere went wrong, but I really don't expect that to come—we've got such a well oiled machine and established process at this point that I have real confidence in our checks and balances leading up to sharing decisions with applicants.

There's still another week and a half to go until the break, but even though we once again expect to have a record applicant pool, we're in really good shape to meet our reading goals in advance of our three other major decision release points. It's kind of exciting to have the mental space and resources for my team to be doing something other than putting out fires related to the reading process every day—it should allow us to tackle some big research and systems projects that we've had to put on the backburner in prior years.

Last night we took Will to see his second official concert: Rufus Wainwright at the Atlanta Symphony Hall. I've been trying to focus on artists or groups that prominently feature piano since that's his instrument, and of course Rufus falls firmly into that category. It helped too that this was the Poses 20th anniversary tour, meaning he was only playing the best songs from his first to records (still his best and also the ones I'm most familiar with).

We brought my mother, too, which involved some logistical maneuvering—she's still in a wheelchair for anything more than a few yards. Complicating things further was that my sister intially agreed to bring her into the city yesterday or Tuesday, but then had a medical issue come up and couldn't do either day, so I had to take off work early to go get my mom before the concert. All in all it went pretty well, though, and as a bonus that Will was very happy about, my mom is staying over tonight and having movie night with him while Julie and I go out.

The concert was really solid—I've never seen him perform live, but if anything his voice is even richer and more expressive than it is in his recordings. It was also the last night of the tour, so he was very relaxed and chatty with the audience between songs. It was a pretty theatrical performance too—lots of costume changes and storytelling preludes to the songs.

Will had a great time, just like he did at his first show (Belle and Sebastian), so I'm definitely going to be on the lookour for more shows to take him to next year.

Last night while my mom hung out with Will, Julie and I went to my office holiday party. In past years this has just been a White Elephant gift exchange in our big meeting room with a catered buffet lunch, but this year, my boss wisely decided to take it offsite and after hours and allow us to bring significant others.

We went to Wahoo Grill, a couple of miles from the office and pretty close to where we live. I'd never been there before, but they had us in a little space that I bet is typically used for warm weather events, but they kept it pretty warm using those tall propane heaters (it looked like there were at least two other holiday parties being hosted there that night, which probably explains why we didn't have a more conventional space).

The room was big enough for all of us, but the main problem was that they decided to have us eat at two tables that stretched the length of the room, which meant there was limited space to circulate before dinner, and moving back and forth between the buffet and your seat was also complicated. It probably would have made more sense to have two or three food stations and then several small standing tables where you could put your glass and small plate while you chatted.

I have limited tolerance for social events (although it's probably an order of magnitude higher than it was when I was younger), but it was fun to see people outside of a work context and get some family and non-professional context for their lives. As a bonus we won one of the raffle items at the end of the night, a box of Godiva chocolates.

On the heels of his second concert, Will got to attend his third over the weekend: a benefit concert given at a local school by Atlanta natives the Indigo Girls. The benefit was to refurbish Druid Hills Middle School, which is the school Will is slated to attend in a few years. It used to be Shamrock High School, and it's where both members of the Indigo Girls went to high school.

The concert was in the gym, and the sound was just awful—the acoustics were terrible, of course, but their pro equipment was too much for the space even for their act (they are an acoustic duo in case you're not familiar). I actually think it would have sounded better if they had foregone speakers entirely, or at least used a more minimal setup, since they play and sing pretty loudly already.

It was a cool experience for Will, though, and it was interesting to see them in such a casual setting. Julie and I have seen them only one other time before—one of their siblings attended our college, so they came to play a show while we where there. Mostly what I remember about that first show was that we were in the second row of the balcony, and I was sitting direclty behind the only person in the balcony who was so into the band that she felt the need to stand and sway the entire set.

So I guess the visuals for this show were better, but the audio for the first show were definitely better. Still, it was a fun night, and cool to see some of the history associated with Will's future school.

My most recent read is The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams. This book tells the story of the fossil trade, particularly dinosaur fossils, through the narratives of a fossil hunter in the US who was trading in illegal Mongolian dinosaur fossils and a Mongolian native scientist who led a global campaign to prevent their sale at legitimate auction houses (there is no doubt still a thriving trade on the black market).

I was hoping for the same kind of experience as I had with The Feather Thief, which used the obsessive pursuit of rare bird feathers for tying Victorian fly fishing ties as the pivot point to explore several quirky niches of history associated with that hobby. And there stretches of the book where I got what I was hoping for, but overall it was a bit of jumbled mess that barely hung together as a coherent narrative.

I had two main criticisms. The first was that the author wisely chose to hang the narrative on a Eric Prokopi, who has been making a good living finding and selling fossils since he was a teenager, but were too many times when the contemporary part of the narrative shifted too far away from him in a way that was disruptive to the rhythm of the narrative.

The second is this: So. Many. Footnotes. It seemed like at least a third of the book (and maybe more) was in footnotes, which were expansive and typically at least a paragraph of descriptive text long. This was also disruptive to the narrative, especially if you missed them when you were reading (easy to do with an ebook). She should have either found a way to incorporate these bits into the main text or discarded them.

The positives for the book were that it was pretty well researched in terms of the history of fossil hunting and it was an engaging (if at times frustrating) read. And I definitely want to find out more about historical fossil hunters like Mary Anning and Roy Chapman Andrews.

So how to sum this one up? I don't know, honestly. I don't regret reading it—I got enough good information out of it to make it worthwhile—but I'm having a hard time recommending it as well due to some poor structural and editorial choices.

I fell madly in love with of Montreal and frontman Kevin Barnes a back in the mid-2000s when they were in the midst of their career-defining stretch of records from Sunlandic Twins to Skeletal Lamping. I've faithfully bought every release since then (which is no small feat given that the prolific Barnes has released a new album or EP pretty much every year since 2004, but it's been a long time since I've fallen an album (or even a song) like I did during that period.

I was intrigued by their 2018 release, White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, because before I even heard a single track, I knew it was going to be weird, and Kevin Barnes has done his best work when he's been at his weirdest. It was also promising because this was the first time he'd playing all the instruments and done all the recording himself instead of with a band in a formal studio, and that method is also what produced his most compelling work.

How did I know it was going to be weird? Those of you who aren't familiar with the band might think the title alone was a giveaway, but that's actually pretty standard fare for of Montreal album/song titles. No, what made this one weird was that, instead of a twelve track album, it was only six tracks, but each one was composed of two distinct songs that flow into and play off of one another musically and thematically.

It took me a while to warm up to this record—I struggle with longer song lengths, and the songs here average about 6 1/2 minutes each—but there are a lot of great hooks and ideas in each song, and once I was able to stop my conscious mind from focusing on something that was ostensibly seven minutes long and instead experience it as 2-4 shorter song sequences strung together without a break, I was able to finally experience the album properly.

Anyway. All of this has just been a prelude to me evangelizing this record to a friend of mine who was also a big fan back in the band's most impressive era, but who is much less forgiving of bands when they start to slide than I am and who I (correctly) guessed hadn't listened to one of their newer releases in years. While we were chatting about it via texts, he mentioned that part of what also turned him off the band was the 2014 documentary called The Past Is A Grotesque Animal, which is the centerpiece track of their best-known record, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

I hadn't seen it at that point, but it turns out that it's on Amazon Prime streaming, so I sat down and watched it the next night. And man, do I understand why my friend had a more negative view of Kevin Barnes after seeing it—he does not come off as a good or nice person. And I think they actually only scratched the surface of his bad behavior—most of the testimonial about his controlling, demeaning, and selfish behavior was given by people who still clearly had a lot of adoration for him and his art and were downplaying their own pain in a Stockholme Syndrome kind of way.

Some insightful quotes from the Amazon reviews (by people like me and my friend who love the band but who were repulsed by some of Kevin's actions):

"Sometimes, it's better to know less about the artists you love and admire. I still love Of Montreal, and I think Kevin Barnes is a musical genius, bordering on savant, but I came out of this documentary liking him a little less."

"Great to watch especially as a long time fan. Warning though; you may not like Kevin Barnes so much after this..."

Some examples: Recording an album by himself and presenting it to the rest of the group when it was time to rehearse it for a tour. Removing band founding band members from the group for no real reason except that he was bored and wanted to try something new. Abandoning his wife and newborn daughter in another country for months because he felt he just wasn't ready to be a father yet.

The one thing all these elements have in common, however, is that in every choice he made, even the ones where he bore the bront of the painful consequences, he was putting his art first. And he didn't use the documentary to try to whitewash this—he owned it, even when it made him look like a narcissistic, sociopatic prick.

In a weird way, that makes me appreciate his art even more, because even though many artists behave this way in their private lives, very few will allow documentary evidence of their behavior to be put out into the world so that it could negatively affect their public persona. But Barnes doesn't shy away from accepting blame in this film, even if he's also not compelled to change his behavior. He knows he's not doing the right thing from a human relationship perspective, and he knows most people won't see great art as a trade off that somehow forgives that behavior, but that's the choice he's making and he's standing by it even when a very bright light is shone on it.

It sucks for the people around him—I feel so sad for the people who gave him so much and were summarily dismissed when they were no longer useful to him (and this includes his now-ex-wife, about whom his best songs are writtten). I wouldn't want to be one of those people, but as someone who has the luxury of only experiencing a very limited form of interaction with him, I have to give him some grudging acknowledgement that he's not trying to hide who he is or pretend he's something other than what he is for the cameras. You see the good and the bad in this flim, and it's one of the least whitewashed band documentaries I've ever watched.

The title becomes deeply meaningful after absorbing all this. The Past Is A Grotesque Animal was the easy choice for a name because it's the key song on their signature work, but it really embodies the world that Kevin Barnes has chosen to live in. He's not sentimental about the past, either the positive or the negative things. His whole life orientation is about looking forward and pushing himself to new areas of exploration, and anything that he sees as holding him back he discards.

Anyway. Love this new album, despite my misgivings about what kind of person he is after watching the documentary. So what kind of person does that make me?

So the Ravens are in a familiar spot right now: two games left and if they win both, they have a high percentage chance of making the playoffs and an outside chance at winning the division (they are half a game behind the Steelers going into this week's games). And if they lose either game, they are likely out, coming desperately close for the fourth year in a row.

Their remaining opponents are the Chargers in LA and Cleveland at home in Baltimore, and neither game will be easy, especially the LA game: while Baltimore is on a short week (they played on Sunday and their game against the Chargers is on Saturday) and they have to fly out to the west coast, LA has had a mini bye week because they played their last game last Thursday and they're playing at home. And they're, you know, one of the best offenses in the league this season.

If the Ravens can somehow manage to escape that trip with a win, they return home to meet the Browns. Two (or three, or five) years ago, Ravens fans would have salivated at the idea of ending the season with a home game against the Browns, a team that they had only lost to twice since 2008 until this season. But the Browns are finally on the upswing after going 1-31 the last two seasons—the have beaten the Ravens once already this season, and they are the same kind of hot streak as the Ravens, winning four of their last five, most of them in convincing fashion.

I'm prepared to be disappointed yet again, but I won't have the same bitter feelings as I have the past few years even if we don't make the playoffs. This has been an incredible second half of what could easily have been a lost season: going into the bye week, we were 4-5, had lost four of our previous four, and our Super Bowl MVP quarterback had injured his hip and we had to start a rookie, Lamar Jackson, who was expected to sit for at least a year before taking over the reins.

In the intervening five weeks the team has gone 4-1 (and the one loss was to the Chiefs, arguably the best team in the AFC this year, in their home stadium, and even then we took them to overtime), and they're playing with an energy and intensity I haven't felt in years. The defense is closing out games. The offense is doing all the things they need to do to win with an unconventional offense and an inexperienced quarterback. And most importantly, they all look like they're having fun.

No matter the outcome of this season, for the first time in a long time I'm genuinely excited about what this team could achieve next season when they have a whole offseason not only to improve on Jackson's weak spots, but also to build an offensive scheme and supporting cast to maximize his unique talents.

The Christmas holidays are finally here (or the Winter Recess as they call it at work), and I'm hoping to get some quality downtime. We'll do our traditional Christmas afternoon dinner with my sister and my mom, and we'll likely travel to NC for a couple of days so see my brother who's driving down from Ohio with his brood, but other than that, we really don't have a lot on the calendar.

I hope this year ends well for everyone, and I'm trying to be optimistic about the good things 2019 might have in store for us. See you then.

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