april 2021

I'm all caught up on The Expanse on Amazon now—the fifth season started airing in December and went through January, which is about when I started watching the show from the beginning. There's one more season to go, which likely means that, regardless of where the book series ends up (the ninth and final volume is due later this year), the show will likely just have to hint at that future, since they won't have enough hours to tell the stories that remain.

Season four I liked, because it saw humanity utilizing alien technology to start to explore worlds beyond our own solar system. While there was still tension between the three major power centers of our solar system—Earth, Mars, and the colonies in the Belt—the possibility of an embarrassment of riches to choose from in terms of inhabitable worlds and the resources they contain was turning the focus of humanity from infighting to exploration and expansion.

However, season five is an analog to one of the books in the series (maybe the last one I read? although possibly the one right before the last one I read) that had two major problems: first, the four main characters who comprise the crew of the Roci are entirely separated for most of the season (one on Earth, one on a space station, one on Mars, and another on a rogue terrorist ship), and second the focus returns to infighting between human factions and entirely ignores the hope/threats that lurk beyond our solar system.

This is a major step back from season four, and while it was interesting to learn more of the backstory of each character, it doesn't substantially move the series forward in terms of the overall story arc about humanity moving beyond Sol's orbit (literally). It especially feels like a missed opportunity given that the show will only have one more season—the major events of this season could have been incorporated into some minor story arcs that ran alongside the larger story in three or four episodes.

The other disappointing thing about the season was the removal of one of the main characters that diverges sharply from the books. This isn't because the showrunners were taking the show in a bold new direction, but because of offscreen events: the actor who portrays that character was accused by some fans of inappropriate behavior (it doesn't seem to be sexual assault, but rather being aggressive sexually, which is still a big issue when you're talking about the power imbalance between a famous actor and young, adoring fans), and Amazon announced that he would not be a part of future seasons (season five had already finished filming when these allegations were made public).

And since he's not going to be back, they clearly had to find some way of disposing of him in the show, and it was pretty abrupt and shocking (in a bad way). They obviously tacked this on to the end of the season so they could use all the footage they'd already shot, but because they weren't leading up to it all season, there were no narrative hints that this was coming, nor was there an appropriate chance for the other characters and the fans to say goodbye to the character.

They have luckily set the stage for the character's story arc to be filled by one of two other characters who now seem to be in the crew's inner circle, but this will still be a major divergence from the books that will likely make the final season feel unsatisfying on many fronts no matter how well done it is. I'm still looking forward to seeing how they wrap it up, because the show really found its legs in season three and beyond, but this show easily could have gone on for two or three more seasons and told a more complete story of the universe in the books.

It's my birthday on Sunday, and as a special treat now that I'm vaccinated, I'm going to get my first professional haircut in over a year. My last haircut in a barber shop was in February 2020, and I was due for another when the Covid lockdowns began. I let it grow out long beyond where I would normally tolerate it, hoping that maybe we could get things under control and I'd feel comfortable going back into the barbershop in May, but when we got to late April and it was clear that we would be lucky to have the pandemic moderately under control by the end of summer, I broke down and bought my own clippers and started cutting my hair myself.

I always meant to reach out to my barber to see if I could send him payments every few months to give him the money he would have earned from me if I felt safe coming into his shop, but I never got around to calling him. So this time when I paid, I gave him a $200 tip, which is about what I would have paid him for the entire previous year. This turned out to be very good timing for him: I was literally his last haircut appointment before he was taking two and a half months off for a medical procedure and recovery.

I did a passable job cutting my own hair, but even my best attempt was a mess—the primary positives were that my hair was generally short and that it didn't look terrible from the front view, which is the only one that really matters in a Zoom-based world. But I was never really happy with cutting my own hair, and I'm so pleased that, due to vaccines (my barber had also been vaccinated, but the shop was still following pretty strict Covid masking and distancing protocols), I can now add this piece from the Before Times back into my existence.

My 50th birthday fell on the same day as Easter, so we started the day with a visit from the Easter Bunny and the accompanying egg hunt. What I really wanted to do for my birthday was go on a hike somewhere I hadn't been before because it looked like it was going to be a really nice day to be outside. We decided on Arabia Mountain State Park, which Will and Julie have been to before but which was new to me. There was supposed to be a small parking area where you could take a path to the top of the mountain which overlooked a lake below, and that was where we planned to go.

But when we got there, the parking lot was full, and there were a ton of people on the trails and paths coming from the larger parking area down the road. We are still very cautious about being around people due to Covid (because of Will—Julie and I are both fully vaccinated), and it just felt too crowded to me. So we decided to go grab lunch from a nearby fast food drive thru before checking out our backup plan, Panola Mountain State Park.

This was where the day spiraled out of control for me. I had intentionally tried to pick low-key, easy things so I wouldn't get frustrated or have a disappointing day, and I thought a hike at a park and fast food would keep things as simple as possible. I was already frustrated by the experience at Arabia Mountain—I don't know if it was so crowded because it was a nice day or because of some Easter-related celebration there—but I still hoped we could grab a quick lunch and find another park to salvage the afternoon.

So we pulled up to the first fast food place we came across, a Bojangle's, and got in the drive thru line. 10 minutes later the line hadn't moved at all, so we deciding to try a nearby Zaxby's. That turned out to be closed for Easter, but the way you found out was that they had a traffic cone where you pulled up to place your order. So then I decided to keep things really simple and go to a McDonald's, where we also waited another 10 minutes in a double line to get to the ordering station (and of course the other line moved faster than the one I randomly chose).

I tried to place my order, but the person on the other end said they couldn't hear me. I was right next to the speaker, and I was speaking loudly, clearly, and slowly, but they still said they couldn't hear me. I tried three times, getting louder and speaking more slowly each time, until finally I'd had enough and I pulled out. We gave Bojangle's one more try, but it was the same experience—almost no movement after 10 minutes. So I decided to call it quits and head home.

Overall, we spent nearly three hours driving out in the car, not getting anything to eat and not getting to walk or hike anywhere. I was in a pretty bad mood, so I just wanted a little bit of time to pull myself together when I got home, which Julie and Will used to go out and get some food for us. We then went for a mini-hike to a neighborhood park before celebrating with cupcakes and presents (Will picked out some art and crafts by local artists from a store in Decatur where we often shop for gifts).

The end of the day turned out fine despite the disappointment and frustration of the earlier part of the day, but I'm really looking forward to our trip up to Ellijay later this week, where we'll get to do some real hiking and spend a few days away from work and school.

I lost a lot of weight several years ago, but after getting down to my lowest weight since at least college, I started to gradually gain it back. It was about a pound a month, but after a couple of years, that starts to really add up. And the things I did to lose the weight in the first place stopped working, or I stopped doing them as well as I thought I was doing, so by the time the pandemic hit, I was about 50 pounds over the lowest weight I had acheived.

The pandemic didn't help with this—running is my best way to burn a lot of calories, but I hate running in the cold, and because of Covid, I wasn't able to use the indoor track that's where I usually exercise in the winter. I still exercised every day for at least half an hour on the treadmill, but I don't like to run on the treadmill, and the extra daily movement that comes with going to an office, like walking around campus, walking to and from the parking lot, etc., all vanished.

Add in stress eating and drinking way more often than is typical (3-4 times a week, as opposed to my normal 3-4 times a month), and by late June I had gained an additional 8 pounds and was now dangerously close to where I was when I had made my big push to lose weight after Will was born. So I did some research on new strategies I could try, and starting July 4, set a goal for myself to get to a certain (somewhat arbitrary) weight by the time I turned 50 nine months later on April 4.

I considered the much-advertised Noom app, but the more I researched it, the more it became clear that it was just a calorie counter with video pep talks. There are plenty of free calorie counters out there, and I figured I could do my own research to find low calorie foods that I enjoyed to substitute for some of the higher calorie foods I was eating. I settled on MyFitnessPal, which is in the same ecosystem as MapMyRun, the site I use to map and track my runs.

I had set a goal to lose a pound and a half per week, and the initial few months went really well—by the end of October I was well ahead of schedule, and I decided to see if I could loosen my calorie restrictions through the holiday season and at least maintain the weight I'd achieved (in part so I could enjoy holiday celebrations more, but also to see if this was a viable long-term strategy for maintaining my goal weight once I reached it).

That went pretty well—I was within a couple of pounds of where I was in October when I started actively trying to lose again in January, and it didn't take long to get back down to a new low weight. But then I stalled for a bit after that, and in a last ditch attempt to reach my arbitrary April 4 goal, I set a lower daily calorie threshold and upped my exercise minutes.

And I almost got there: a few days before my birthday, I was within 3 pounds of my goal weight, but I didn't want to push myself to unhealthy levels of restriction just to reach this arbitrary goal, so even though the OCD part of me was disappointed, I'm overall very pleased with what I was able to do in 9 months: I got my weight back to a BMI that is officially at the top end of the normal range, I lost 20% of my body weight, and I have a strategy that I think will work for me long-term.

I still want to ideally lose another 20-25 pounds to end up a little below my lowest previous weight from when I first lost a lot of weight five years ago, but I don't have a firm timeline for that: as long as I'm making progress and losing it bit by bit and not gaining back, I'll be happy, even if I only lose a pound or two per month.

Last Wednesday we left for a multi-day trip back up to the mountains near Ellijay, renting another cabin in the same general area as the one we rented last summer. This was our third trip up to the Georgia mountains since the start of the pandemic, and we've really enjoyed getting to know the area around Ellijay and the multiple great trails that are nearby.

Before we headed north, however, we went east to Loganville to visit my mom and godmother, Jane. My godmother and my mom have been friends since college, and they have made a point to see each other at least once a year during that time (we used to do our summer vacations with Jane and her kids). Jane has done the bulk of the heavy lifting given my mom's recent health issues that make it harder for her to travel, and this was the third or fourth time she's come to visit my mom since my mom moved to Georgia.

Everyone was vaccinated except for Will, so we decided for the first time to all go maskless, including Will, and allow hugs and other close interactions. My sister (who is also vaccinated) came over to visit as well, and she and Will had a really great time hanging out. It took a little getting used to, but I'm looking forward to this hopefully becoming the new normal with family and friends (and maybe even in public places like restaurants, etc., but that's going to take a lot more people stopping their nonsense about the vaccines and going to get their shots).

We grabbed lunch for everyone from a nearby Popeye's, and we still ate outside even though current CDC guidelines say we could have eaten together indoors if we wanted to. After lunch we said our goodbyes and got on the road to our cabin near Ellijay. It made more sense to take backroads most of the way instead of driving all the way back to Atlanta and running up 75/575, and we got to the cabin around 5 in the afternoon. We were tired and still full from lunch, so we just fixed ham sandwiches for dinner and hung around the cabin.

This was the most remote one we've stayed at so far—the others were definitely in sparsely populated areas, but we had neighbors who we could see (and who could see us). Here there were a couple of other houses nearby, but we were perched up high on a hill with lots of trees between us and them, and we could barely even see a distant porch light from the closest of them.

The first full day of our vacation we went to nearby Fort Mountain State Park, which we discovered on our previous trip last August. Our favorite spot there is an overlook, which we've visited each time we've gone, and there are a few different ways to get there. We chose the Stone Wall/Stone Tower trail, which takes you about a mile up crude stairs made of large blocks of stone. There's a stop in the middle to view the remains of an ancient stone wall, likely made by Native Americans centuries before Europeans landed in the Americas, and then the trail continues to one of the highest points on the mountain where they have erected a stone fire watch tower.

The tower is unfortunately locked, so you can't climb up and see the view from the top, but there's a nice sitting area at the base, and we paused for a little rest and chatted with another family for a few minutes. We then took a pretty short trail down to our overlook, had lunch, and walked back a different path to the car. It was still pretty early in the afternoon, though, so instead of heading back to the cabin, we drove to another part of the park to walk a trail that led to a waterfall.

This trail, the Big Rock Nature Trail, starts close to the lake (which we hiked around last time we were here), but goes the opposite direction and winds back to a very cool multilevel waterfall. The trail is a loop, so when we ended up back close to the car, we decided to hike around the lake again, a pretty level walk but an interesting one. It was a good day in the park, which remains one of my favorites.

We put in a lot of miles that day, so we treated ourselves to a takeout dinner from the River Street Tavern in Ellijay. I got their house special Bear Creek burger that had caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms, and it was incredibly good. We finished off the evening with a soak in the hot tub, which was out on the deck under the stars.

On our second full day in the mountains we went back to another area that we discovered last time around Carter's Lake, but we started with a new trail there. It's called the Amadahy trail, and it was about four miles and stayed pretty close to the edge of the lake. We stopped in a little inlet to have lunch, and then stopped at another area a mile or so later that let you easily walk down to the shoreline (even though most of the trail ran next to the lake, it was usually pretty hard to get down to it.

That was the warmest day we experienced during our trip, in the 80s, and Will really wanted to go swimming for a minute. Julie checked online to see if this was allowed (her phone got a weak signal) because there weren't any signs one way or the other, and it seemed like kind of a grey area—it was specifically prohibited, but they seemed to encourage people to use dedicated beach areas (which we never saw any of). There was no one around, on the lake or on the trail, so we decided to let him.

He stripped down to his underwear, but he was a little nervous about going out deeper than his shins even though I could tell that he really wanted to go out further. So I stripped down to my underwear as well and joined him, and even though I mostly stood with the water up to my waist, that was enough to get him going, so he went out a little deeper and swam and splashed around for a few minutes. The water was FREEZING, which is exactly what you'd expect from a lake in the mountains in early April, but I briefly went in up to my shoulders to Julie could take a picture of us swimming together. We didn't stay in very long, but that swim was definitely the highlight of Will's day, and might have been the highlight of the whole trip for him.

Even though that was a pretty long walk, we still had some energy when we got back to the car, so we decided to revisit another nearby trail, Tumbling Waters. This is another hike along the edge of a different part of the lake, but it ends at a big waterfall, and it was one of our favorite trails last time. The water was a lot higher than it was the first time we visited—the place where we sat last time was completely covered in water—but we got as close to the edge as we could and had a little snack while we rested.

For dinner that night, we went up to the fire pit near the house and used our started log along with a small bundle of wood they had left us and grilled hot dogs. We followed that up with toasting marshmallows for s'mores, and then lingered by the fire until it was mostly out. It was a really nice end to a pretty great day.

On our third and final full day at the cabin, we returned to yet another trail that we discovered on our last trip. This one was called Bear Creek Trail, and it's home to the Gennett Poplar, the second largest known living tree in Georgia. The water was higher than last time, and since there are several creek crossings, it was a bigger adventure, but we made it across all of them without falling or stepping in. After visiting the tree for a few minutes, we decided to walk further up the trail and take a different fork than we'd taken last time.

But after only a short walk up this new trail, we came to a creek crossing that we couldn't navigate with the high water (it had rained all day; we weren't able to find a break in the weather to go out for a hike until late in the afternoon), so we turned around and went back on the fork we had walked on last time. That fork led to an old mountain service road and looped back to the parking lot, but it was a longer walk than going back the way we came and it was starting to get dark, so we walked a little ways on the service road before we went back the way we came.

One thing I noticed about all our hikes this time compared to last August: I had a lot more stamina and energy and the trails weren't nearly as tiring as they were last year. Obviously the fact that I've lost a pretty significant amount of weight since then was a big factor, but my recent return to running a few times a week (coinciding with the return of warmer weather since I didn't have an indoor placer to run this winter) also likely helped. It was a really nice bonus though: trails that I remembered getting really tired hiking last time were pretty easy, and at no point did I really get exhausted or out of breath, even on the steepest uphill parts of trails that I remember giving me issues before.

For dinner we made our third trip to El Burrito to Go, a little burrito place in the parking lot of a gas station that's cheap and very, very good. It's the only restaurant we've visited each time we've gone to the mountains, and it's one of Will's favorites even though he doesn't generally like burritos. Since we had to leave relatively early in the morning, we packed up most of our stuff that evening, then had one last soak in the hot tub before turning in.

We left around 10 the next morning, so we were home by noon and had most of the day to reacclimate to home and get ready for the work week. That doesn't mean the same thing in the pandemic era that it did in the Before Times, but it was still nice to have a little buffer of non-work home time before we went back into work from home time, especially after being completely away for the better part of a week.

I'm one of the service project coordinators for the Atlanta alumni chapter for my college alma mater, and back when we could still gather in groups, one of my favorite organizations to work with was Open Hand, which cooks, packs, and delivers meals to people around the Atlanta metro area, typically lower-income elderly people who don't have great access to fresh, healthy food.

We haven't been able to do any projects with them as a group, but yesterday I finally did something I've been meaning to do since last summer: volunteer for a shift driving around and dropping off the prepared meals to the people who need them. They were pretty good about Covid protocols at their facility—you drive up, check in with a masked person, they give you the app login for your route that day, and then they load the meals into the back of your car.

Each meal was labeled with the name and address of the person it was to be delivered to, and there was a companion app that had your route programmed in based on your login. You tell the app which map application you want to use, then click on the first person's name and it sends the address to your map app. When you arrive, you check in on the app, call the person, and deliver the meal. You finish by marking the delivery as complete and marking your departure time.

I had about 12 or 13 people to do deliveries for, and they were usually within a five minute drive of each other. The app did a good job of clustering them together—there were times when I had three deliveries on the same street and they took very little time. Most people just wanted me to drop it off and go on my way, but I ended up having nice conversations with two or three folks. Only one person wasn't home, but that added an extra 15 or 20 minutes to my time because I had to take the undelivered meal back to Open Hand instead of going straight home.

It was really pretty easy, so I'll try to do this a couple of times a month as long as my schedule allows (which it should as long as we're still working from home 100% of the time). It's not the same as being together with a couple dozen of my fellow alums and having conversations while we're packing meals, but it's contributing to the mission of Open Hand, which is what it's really all about.

On Saturday, Julie and Will went on an overnight camping trip with the Scouts (one of her close friends, whose son is Will's age, is our den leader), which means I had the house to myself for a whole 24 hours for the first time in well over a year. I didn't really do anything—watched a couple movies, ate when I felt like it, and slept when I felt like. It was so quiet compared to having two other people in the space 24 hours a day, one of whom is a very expressive 10 year old, and it was really nice to sleep as long as I wanted without being woken up prematurely by someone else moving around or watching tv or doing chores.

This wasn't a common thing even before the pandemic, but I at least had quiet days when I would work from home and Julie was at her office and Will was in school. We may return to that situation again next fall, but for the foreseeable future, we'll all be in the house together as Julie and I will likely be working from home through the end of the summer and Will, even if he goes back to school in-person for the last month of school, will be on his summer schedule soon enough.

After several less-than-compelling forays into sci-fi, I went back to non-fiction with Spice: A History of Temptation by Jack Turner. As you may have surmised, this is a history of spices, particularly the spices from India and southern Asia that made their way to Europe in the Common Era.

There were some pretty interesting bits in here about the history of the spice trade, the battle for control over the sea and land routes that brought them from East to West, and the often-peculiar story of particular spices (many were limited to extremely small geographic areas, often certain islands, and preventing them from being smuggled out and germinated in other locations was a huge part of controlling the trade). This is what I thought the book would mostly focus on—a history of the cultivation, transport, and use of certain spices, similar what The Drunken Botanist did for common ingredients used to make and flavor alcohol—but unfortunately the book moved away from this approach fairly early on and turned to a less compelling one.

Most of the rest of the book is a somewhat random, disorganized history of the use of spices in Europe from the time of the Roman Empire through the Renaissance, and it makes the same two contradicting arguments over and over: spices were everywhere and were used heavily in dishes, or spices were hard to find and considering decadent and forbidden. Most of the sources for these assertions come from citations from literature, and although the book appears well-researched from that perspective, there are also times when it feels like the author performed a Google search on all texts from the birth of Christ through the 1800s in English and methodically entered search terms for things like "spice", "pepper", "cinammon", etc., and then found a way to write something about every result he got back.

There's really no organization: it's not organized by spice, or origin location of spices, or a certain time period, etc. There's probably a good book waiting to emerge from the extensive research, but this feels very much like a PhD thesis where the author wasn't sure what his thesis was so he was hoping the review committee would be impressed with the depth of his sources and give him a pass. I can't say I'd recommend this book despite my interest in the subject and despite the obvious effort the author put into tracking down sources across so many categories of writing (histories, plays, poems, cookbooks, etc.). Overall it was a disappointment, and by the end it felt like it was just repeating itself and not bringing any new insights to the table.

I had my second in-person lunch with a work friend since being vaccinated: my friend Nancy, who I've had a standing twice-monthly lunch meeting with for the last seven or eight years, came over yesterday and we had lunch together on my screen porch.

We've been doing Zoom meetings during the pandemic, but once we both had our vaccinations scheduled, we started talking about when we could get together in person, and yesterday was the day that worked out—it was our normally scheduled meeting day, and Nancy was on campus to pick something up (I live very close to campus). She picked up some food from Zoe's on the way to my house, and we had a nice meal in the lovely spring weather.

It still wasn't the same as when we used to meet at one of the restaurants near campus, usually Rise 'n' Dine (which has sadly closed) or Wagaya (which is thankfully still in business). But it was definitely a big improvement over our Zoom meetings, which we're all sick of by now even if they're with someone that we enjoying talking to. Hopefully this will continue both with my meetings with Nancy and with my other more casual lunch meetings with work friends, although I'm really looking forward to a time when we could actually meet at a restaurant again.

After finishing season 5 of The Expanse, and since I was still in a sci-fi mood, I decided to give the third season of Westworld another shot. I started watching it soon after it came out, but I only made it to the fifth episode ("Genre") before I gave up, mostly because of the "Genre" episode itself. The episode title comes from the name of a drug that one of the main characters takes that makes you experience the world as if you are starring in different genres of movies, like a film noir, a love story, an action movie, etc. I just found the conceit too cute by half and didn't see how it really furthered the story, so I didn't even finish that episode.

There were some interesting developments in season 3, but overall it was kind of mess and the big reveal in the finale was a letdown. It was intentionally hard to tell who was a good guy and who was a bad guy (among both the humans and the hosts), who was a human and who was a host, which host's brain was in which host's body, etc., etc. These choices by the writers to obscure motives and do a slow reveal of what was actually happening weren't done as a way of immersing us the point of view of a character or characters and having the truth of the world unfold for us as it was unfolding for them (although you could almost make that argument for the primary new human character, Caleb Nichols), but rather as a way of creating a fake puzzle box that just wasn't that fun to unpack and won't be any fun to live through on a rewatch after you know what's happening.

This was a major problem with Dolores, who we're supposed to identify with most of the time, but it's clear that she understands from the beginning everything that is revealed to us throughout the season, and therefore all the times we're guessing at her motives could have been explained if they had let us inside her head just a little bit. After season 2, we're supposed to suspect her motives and potentially view her as the bad guy, so I kind of get that, but again, once the writers allow us to know all that she knows, that gets a lot harder to do (although many of her actions still did leave to many unnecessary and unnecessarily gruesome deaths, many of which happened to innocent people).

The were two other significant issues I had with the season. The first, and the more minor of the two, was that the show has become almost entirely detached from its title: we almost never visit Westworld in this season except through flashbacks (and a brief visit by Bernard), and even some action that appears to happen in the areas of the park focused on periods besides the American Old West (like feudal Japan or WWII Europe) were not actually happening in the park, but instead in a simulated environment meant to simulate the park.

The other, more important issue is that I really don't like Caleb Nichols, the human protagonist who we're supposed to identify with. Part of it is that I don't like the actor who plays him, Aaron Paul (to be fair, I've never watched Breaking Bad, which is probably what most people know him from), but I aside from the fit issues with the casting, I found Paul's portrayal to be overly melodramatic and thick-headed for someone whose supposed to be incredibly savvy and able to read situations quickly and accurately. Most of the time it seemed like he was just along for the ride with Dolores, only occasionally pausing to ask questions about what they were doing and why they were doing it before continuing to follow blindly along like a puppy.

There's also the big reveal, which was a major disappointment. There were hints throughout the season that we could be building to a big paradigm shift that sets up the fourth season, but instead we got a warmed over rehash of a plot that puts Caleb somewhere between John Connor of the Terminator universe and Neo of the Matrix. Except I can't find it in me to root for him in the role, and I also don't see how the character is suited for it in any way, shape, or form.

Season 4 has been greenlit, and it's hard to know where they intend to go from here. It doesn't seem like they've left a lot of room for further exploration of Westworld or the artificial life forms that inhabit it, and without that, the show just becomes another man vs. machine narrative without a lot of nuance. They presumably have something in mind with more depth than what I've described, but I fear it will be more red herrings of distraction than substantive, engaging revelations that expand the world.

I became a big Braves fan in 1992, when the team was very early in its historic run of 14 straight division titles, and although I don't follow baseball nearly as closely as I used to, the Braves are still the team I root for. I didn't actually live in Atlanta when I became a fan—my roommate at the time, who was one of my best friends for a few years, grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and was a huge fan of the team. I started watching games with him, and within a couple of years, I had become a bigger fan of both the team and the sport than he was.

It's been cool being in Atlanta for the past few years and being able to see a game whenever we wanted, and I loved being able to take Will to see my favorite Braves player of all time, Chipper Jones, play a game in his final season. But even though I feel more connected to the team since moving here than I had since the early 2000s, the team is making itself increasingly difficult to love and support.

The first strike happened when the team decided to move from the not-very-old and perfectly functional Ted Turner Field near downtown Atlanta (across from the previous location of the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was the Braves first home in Atlanta when they came to the city in 1966) to a new stadium and entertainment complex that had several things going against it from the fan perspective. First of all, it's not even in Atlanta, it's outside the Perimeter in Cobb County. Second, it's at the intersection of three of the busiest commuter highways around Atlanta, which means that getting there in time to see a 7:00 game on a weeknight means sitting in rush hour traffic for at least an hour. And third, the Cobb County people blocked an extension of public transportation to the area, meaning the only way to get there is by car.

The next big issue is with the increasingly problematic use of Native American iconography in the team's name and branding. While the more generic term "Braves" is to me less problematic than the former extremely racist name of the Washington NFL team and teams like the Cleveland Indians (both of which have announced that they are moving to new names not based on Native Americans), and more on the level with teams like the Blackhawks that use a tribe name or like the Chiefs in that they are using a name that, while explicitly associated with Native Americans, is meant to have a positive connotation, I—a white person of European descent—am not the person who should be deciding what should and shouldn't be offensive to Native Americans. Even though this has been the name of the team since 1912 when they were based in Boston (the name followed them when they moved to Milwaukee and eventually to their current home in Atlanta), I would have zero problems with them changing it to something more appropriate for our current era.

They seemed to acknowledge this a couple of years ago during a playoff series where one of the players on the other team was a Native American tribe member, and they stopped handing out or selling the foam tomahawks that are part of the team's branding, and also stopping playing the organ intro that prompts the crowd to start a Native-American-inspired chant and the accompanying chopping motion known as the Tomahawk Chop (which, incidentally, originated with the Florida State Seminoles fan base and migrated to Atlanta when FSU alum Deion Sanders joined the Braves in the early 90s; this chant is also used by the Kansas City Chiefs NFL team). During the deciding game of the five game series, many Braves fans in attendance revolted against this new policy and started doing the chant anyway, and the St. Louis Cardinals promptly scored 10 runs in the first inning, winning the game 13-1 and knocking the Braves out of the playoffs, perhaps a fitting outcome despite the near-universal hatred that non-St. Louis-based baseball fans have for the Cardinals.

The team said at the time that they would engage with local tribe leaders to discuss the impact of the Braves name and chart a new path with their cooperation, which seemed like a good sign. But now, a year and a half later, it seems like those conversations never happened in any substantial way, and they have now announced that they have no intention of changing their name and seem to want to close off the discussion. This is a play to the right wing part of their fan base (which is substantial—this was also a driver of the move to Cobb County and the blocking of the Atlanta MARTA system being connected to the new stadium), but it's not going to end the criticism or discussion—after the Cleveland changes its baseball team's name and Washington changes its NFL team's names, the Chiefs and the Braves will become the biggest sports brand names still using a Native American name and iconography as their brand.

The most recent disregard for a large part of their fan base came with their Covid policy (which again, is heavily influenced by the demands of the red part of their base), and their lack of desire to enforce even minimal protocols in a state that currently ranks among the very worst in vaccination rates. The policy is supposed to require masks for all attendees, but looking around at the crowd shots for the first couple of weeks of games, it's clear that there's no enforcement of this—almost no one is wearing a mask, and it also seems like the seating pods meant to keep social distance between different pods of fans are not being used. And starting in May, they're going to move to full capacity for games, which will just make things worse.

Maybe things will change this summer—maybe there will be new guidance on masks at outdoor events; maybe the case counts and vaccination rates in metro Atlanta will get to better places; maybe Will will finally be eligible for a vaccine so that at least we know our family will be safe even if we're around people who are potential spreaders of the virus. But until then, we won't be attending games, and I'll remain disappointed at the Braves response on this issue the same way that I'm disappointed at the stadium relocation and name issues.

I'm still a season ticket holder to the Atlanta United, and the team had its first home game of the 2021 season last Saturday night. I was a little nervous about going to such a big event, but a few things convinced me to give it a try. First, I've been fully vaccinated since February; second, the team is limited capacity and seems serious about enforcing seating pods and mask wearing (except when eating); and third, everyone in my pod is also fully vaccinated.

It wasn't just the game I was nervous about, however—in order to get to the stadium, I have to ride the MARTA, something I haven't done since fall of 2019. MARTA is supposed to require masks in all stations and trains, but I didn't know whether people would adhere to this policy and how comfortable I would feel sharing a 20 minute train ride in an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers. So while I made plans to go, I was prepared to bail if I ever felt uncomfortable: getting on the MARTA, going into the stadium, or once I was in my seats.

But I was able to acclimate and feel okay about things each step of the way: nearly everyone on the MARTA was wearing a mask (and it also wasn't that crowded because it was a night game with limited capacity), the seating pods and masking were enforced in the stadium, and even among the other vaccinated people in my pod, they were good about wearing their masks when they weren't eating or drinking.

I still left a little early to make sure I missed the bigger crowds on the MARTA on the way home, leaving just after Atlanta United scored their second goal and superstar Josef Martinez game into the game as a sub. I was still hyper aware of other people and a little anxious the whole time—this is the first time I've been around that many people in about 15 months—but overall I felt pretty good about it, and I'll definitely go again if they keep these protocols in place.

Will auditioned for his music school's annual honors recital last month, and he was given a spot by the judges. The recital is normally indoors at a high-end location, but this year, in order to respect current Covid protocols, the school rented an outdoor pavilion at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, which is located on the grounds of the former estate of Charles Candler, the eldest son of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler.

The only other time we've been there is to do their annual Easter Egg hunt a few times when Will was younger, but it was a really lovely setting for this outdoor concert. There was plenty of room for all the families to spread out and sit in their own pods, and the head of the school took video of the entire concert so people didn't have to stress out about going up front to film their child.

Will usually shines in a performance setting, but there were a few stumbles when he played his (admittedly pretty difficult) piece. He later said that the delay between when he played a key and when he could hear it on the speakers was throwing him off a little bit, which makes sense—it didn't look like they had monitors aimed at the performers, so there probably was a short gap, especially as the sound echoed back, that wasn't drowned out by a stage monitor.

All in all, though, he did really well, and it was really nice to have yet another move towards pre-Covid normalcy despite the social distancing and masking that everyone was observing.

I got a few new albums recently in what has been an unusually slow year, especially given that 1) artists have been cooped up with nothing to do but write and record for the past year and 2) concert season seems like it will ramp up to full throttle by fall this year, and most acts like to release new material ahead of their tours. I ended up getting four total: Dinosaur Jr.'s Sweep It Into Space, Remember Sports' Like a Stone, Wurld Series' What's Growing, and Ben Hopkins' I Held My Breath for a Really Long Time Once.

I've only had a couple of listens to each of them, but here are my first impressions of the first three: J. Mascis continues his amazing second run of Dinosaur Jr. with the original trio that started with 2007's beyond and has now reached it's fifth album with Sweep It Into Space. There's not really anything here you haven't heard from the previous four records that came out this century, but if you like the band and their sound, this one won't disappoint. I haven't found my standout two or three singles yet, but overall it's a solid listen with no weak spots.

Remember Sports is a band I started listening to a few years ago when they were just called Sports and they were all still going to college together at Kenyon. Their sound has matured a bit each release, and that continues here, with their best songs going beyond the raucous punk pop of their early releases to more midtempo (but still engaging) songs that bring in influences from late 80s jangle rock and even some country elements. The best song is the nearly seven minute song that layers in more and more melodic elements until it builds to a crescendo about five minutes in with a calming denouement the strips the song down to basic instrumentation and understated vocals. It's a little masterpiece from a band that produces two or three true gems each album.

Wurld Series is a new group for me, and they remind me a bit of the Coke Dares or 2nd Grade—indie rock with an emphasis on the rock part that's doled out in bite-sized chunks of succinct ideas, songs that generally explore a couple of riffs or hooks and then move on to another idea in another song. The album is only 28 minutes but has 14 songs, only two of which break the three minute mark, so you're constantly shifting one from one concept to another. It's a style I like—my short attention span gets restless in most cases when songs go on too much past the classic three minute ideal for pop songs—and they mix up soft and loud enough that it doesn't feel like one big blur.

I'll write more about the Ben Hopkins release when I've had more time to digest it not only musically but also culturally. Hopkins was the main songwriter in a two-person band called PWR BTTM that was on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough with the release of their second album, Pageant, when he was accused of sexual misconduct on an anonymous internet message board. The band was incredibly popular with the LGBTQ+ crowd, and even though there were never any substantiated allegations or police report filings, the merest hint of wrongdoing with that fanbase can get you quickly shunned and exiled.

And that's exactly what happened to PWR BTTM: when the allegations became broadly known just as Pageant was being released, the record company dropped them (and also stopped any sales, digital or otherwise, of the band's two albums), their backing band quit, their supporting act quit, their PR/management agency dropped them, and their headlining tour was canceled (and presumably many favorable reviews and articles were not published given the previous response to the band and the early response to Pageant itself). The band attempted to reengage and make amends with their core supporters over the following few months, but eventually they called it quits in the face of unrelenting ex-communication from the fans and their label.

Hopkins apparently released this solo record quietly last fall, and I only discovered it recently because I was messing around on Google to see if there was any recent news on the band or its members. As expected, the release was not reviewed or highlighted by any mainstream or indie music publication, so it's no surprise that I hadn't heard about it through my normal channels for discovering new releases.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around how I feel about the allegations against a band I loved so much, along with the abrupt cancelation of the band by their most vocal supporters, and I don't know how I can accurately assess the music itself until I've thought a little more about all that, especially because several songs are not-so-subtle explorations of what the past couple of years have been like for Hopkins.

Will went back to school in person today for the first time in over a year. The school district starting allowing students to return to in-person learning about a month ago, but given uncertainty about Covid protocols and whether teachers and students would adhere to those protocols, we decided (with his input) to wait and remain doing at-home virtual schooling initially. But the school also offered a second window for reentry before the end of the school year, and after hearing about how well things seemed to be going from parents who had sent their kids back (coupled with the fact that there were no Covid cases at our school during that first month), we felt like it was an acceptable risk to send him back.

It was weird seeing him off in the morning and having him out of the house all day, but despite some nervousness and a little bit of a freakout during his first day, it overall went pretty well. And he'll get to end his last year in elementary school in a more normal fashion: seeing his friends in person every day, eating his lunch in the cafeteria, and even getting to be on traffic patrol in the mornings (something only fifth graders are allowed to do).

We're fully expecting that if things continue to trend in a positive way due to vaccinations (especially if those vaccines are approved over the summer for 12-17 year olds and maybe even 4-11 year olds) he will be in person full time at middle school next fall (which will include a bus ride for Will for the first time in his life; we only live a five minute walk from his elementary school). We've been trying to get him into a vaccine trial to get him protected as soon as possible, but even if that doesn't happen, it seems highly likely that almost everyone else in the school should have a vaccine (the 7th and 8th graders should all be eligible if they approve a vaccine for 12-17 year olds over the summer, and even some of Will's 6th grade classmates will be eligible then, with an increasing number able to get it as they have their birthdays).

When we built our yield models this year, we tried to take into account what might change in students' decision-making due to the effects of the pandemic, but really, there were so many variables and so much that we might not have been able to include in the models in a reliable way that they were really just guesses. But they turned out to be good guesses: tomorrow is our deposit deadline, and our numbers are looking very solid, so much so that we might not even go to the waitlist (something that has only happened one other year at my current institution).

There's still a window where things could go wrong: if a significant number of our competitive peers didn't adjust their models correctly, they could go to their waitlists in big numbers, which would trigger a domino effect of everyone raiding everyone else's deposited students from their waitlists to rebuild their numbers. But so far it looks like that's not happening: only a couple of our peers seem to be going to their waitlists, and those are going in relatively small numbers.

It will be nice to have the past two incredibly chaotic and stressful cycles behind us as we hopefully start to move back to a more normal post-Covid world. Certain attitudes and preferences about college have likely changed permanently for the next few cohorts, but we'll be able to measure and account for those preferences if things remain relatively stable rather than trying to guess at outcomes while things are still in a state of extreme flux.

The next year isn't going to be easy—my longtime (and very reliable and competent) operations manager is resigning at the end of May, we have a new president, and we also have a new provost who is staring July 1—but if we have a more stable recruiting and selection process that we can plan for more than a few weeks ahead of time, we should have a good year despite the leadership and personnel transitions.

december 2021
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