may 2021

We used to be pretty good about doing our weekly Friday night movie night—we even had a rotation so that each week, one person would get to pick the movie (or pick a selection of three or four we could all vote on), one would pick the food (same deal with picking a selection of restaurants), and one would get to pick where we went to dinner another night that week.

But even though we clearly haven't had much else on the calendar on Friday nights for the past year and a half, we've gotten a bit out of the habit. We sometimes switch it to Saturday night, but I'd say we only have a movie night twice a month on average for the past several months.

Part of that is the lack of content: there's not much new to drive us to a streaming service, and we've also seen most of the older movies that are appropriate for Will (including 80s favorites like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, WarGames, Short Circuit, etc.). But when one of the big streaming services releases a new family movie, we typically will make the time to have movie night that week.

This has been a little hit or miss—the Disney/Pixar stuff is typically worth watching, but the Tom and Jerry movie on HBO Max was just awful (although to be fair, we've been making our way through all the Studio Ghibli films that we haven't seen, because HBO Max is the first streaming service that has been allowed to host those).

Last Friday a new original animated movie came out Netflix that got pretty good reviews: The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It was made by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and it is voiced by recognizable B-list stars like Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Conan O'Brien, etc. The plot is about a girl whose family decides to take one last road trip together to bring the oldest daughter, Katie, to her first year in film school, and while they are in transit, a malicious AI takes over the world's robots and starts to imprison all humans for eventual extermination.

There were moments when it felt a little emotionally forced, but in general, it had a pretty creative approach (we are often thrust into Katie's view of the world as the visuals shift to her internal imagination/storyboarding as she's making plans) and the characters were fairly grounded and believable despite the premise. The filmmakers have absolutely pulled that off before, most successfully in The Lego Movie, so it's hard to know what made this one less successive, because all the elements are there—they just come together quite as seamlessly as in some of their other works.

It's well worth watching if you have kids, however, and maybe even if you don't, especially because it's free, new, reasonably good content if you already subscribe to Netflix. I also greatly appreciated the filmmakers including two songs by one of my favorite little-known and massively underappreciated bands of all time: Los Campesinos!, a UK band who put out six consistently great albums between 2008-2017. They only make brief appearances in the movie, but fans will recognize them instantly, and maybe them being included on the soundtrack will increase their exposure in some small but significant way.

Normally my office does a big end of year party at an off-site location sometime in May when we've finished enrolling the class and before people start to be absent for summer vacations. That obviously couldn't happen last year, and despite the good availability of vaccines in Georgia now, it's not something that our workplace would support even if everyone in our office was confirmed to be vaccinated.

So instead of an in-person celebration event, my boss decided that he would give us a couple of bonus days off framed as an individual office retreat. Not only will we get the days off, but the office will actually be formally closed and we will be strongly discouraged not to send emails, etc., to any of our coworkers. I appreciate the sentiment, but the days off are coming mid-May when Will is still in school (so I can't use them to do cool stuff with him) and they aren't tacked on to Memorial Day weekend one way or the other.

To be honest, if I could choose between two days off in mid-May when I'm just going to end up hanging around the house or having all meetings removed from my calendar for the month of June (when there's really no reason for us to have meetings), I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat.

I've been having real trouble sleeping lately, and I can't figure out why. I have trouble going to sleep, often not able to nod off until after 2 a.m., but what's worse is that I'm only getting a couple of hours of sleep and then I wake up and can't get back to sleep.

I've had insomnia problems more or less my entire adult life, but I've adapted pretty well to getting through the workday if I get four or five hours of sleep (six is a real luxury, and I honestly can't remember the last time I slept for eight hours straight). But getting one or two hours of sleep a night for a couple of weeks straight, even when I'm able to get in a couple of short naps during the day when I keel over from exhaustion, just isn't enough.

I've had these phases before, and they usually pass after a few days, and they're usually brought on by extreme stress. But I'm not especially stressed about anything right now, and it's way longer than a few days, so I just have to hope things will go back to normal (or normal for me) sometime soon.

Will missed out on a lot a stuff the past year, but one of the things he missed the most was doing swim team. He had done a couple of seasons with the team that swims at the Emory pool and has Emory students on the swim team as coaches (the Cudas), and he was in the midst of training for the spring season when the pandemic shut everything down. Then the summer season was canceled, and then the fall, and then the spring again, and then the summer again. And because the pools themselves were closed, not just the teams, he hadn't actually been in a pool since his last practice in March of last year.

We were resigned to having to wait for this fall to hopefully get him into a swimming routine again when Julie was talking to a neighbor whose daughter has been swimming with a different team since last fall. She told us they had really good Covid protocols, and they hadn't had a team infection or outbreak the entire time they'd been training and competing. They also have a limited summer league that started practicing last week, has several practices a week through the end of June, and also has four or five meets through the end of June.

It doesn't cost that much for the summer session, so if we feel uncomfortable with the Covid protocols around the practices, we can pull him out without worrying too much about the financial component. He had his first practice today (they practice in the Agnes Scott indoor pool, so I plan to do a three or four mile running route in the neighborhoods around the campus while he swims; I did three miles today), and afterwards he said he felt pretty good about the way they handled things. And he clearly enjoyed being back in the pool.

I don't know how he'll do at the meets, especially after a year and a half off. He was always in the slower half of the pack when he raced with the Cudas, but it was never about his time for us (or for him)—it was about him hanging out with other kids and getting some good exercise. After the season is over we'll see if the Cudas reactivate this fall, and whether they do or not, whether he prefers this team (the Dolphins). Either way, we hope he enjoys swimming as much as he did before, and we hope he'll want to continue in some fashion after this summer season.

I read Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy a few years ago after learning that Alex Garland, one of my favorite filmmakers, was making a movie based on the first book in the series, Annihilation. The series was powerful but confusing, and the movie, while flawed, did pretty well capturing the atmosphere of dread and horror of the books.

I hadn't read any further books from VanderMeer, but I remained intrigued by his work, especially because he consistently gets glowing reviews from critics I trust. I finally decided to give another one a try, settling on his most recent work, a standalone novel called Hummingbird Salamander. It seems to be set in the near future, where climate change has continued to wreak havoc on the environment and the biosphere, and evokes a similar sense of paranoia and gloom as the Southern Reach books.

The story is a bit confusing, following the story of an intelligence analyst named Jane Smith (likely not her real name) as she in turn attempts to reconstruct the history of a woman named Silvina, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who rebels against her family and becomes an aggressive environmental activist. The lack of certainty about who the narrator is, how this story is being told (we are given clues that this is an epistolary effort left behind for an unknown audience, possibly Jane's family or the next person to take up the mystery), whether Jane is intentionally misleading us, is going insane, or some combination of the two, and the very strange events that are related to us create an overall effect that is unsettling.

This is certainly intentional on VanderMeer's part, and despite the uncertainty and brutality of the world we become immersed in, much of his writing is quite beautiful, with deep insights into both human nature and humanity's relationship to nature itself. It was a more compelling read for me than the Southern Reach books, possibly because he knew he had to tell this whole story in one book with a single primary narrator, but I'm still not sure whether his writing is a good fit for me or not. His Borne series (currently two books and a couple of short stories) are still on my possible reading list, but if he doesn't fully click for me after those, then it might be time to accept that, despite his skills as a storyteller and writer, he's just not quite my cup of tea.

With both my mom and Julie's mom living close by now, we have a lot of ground to cover on Mother's Day. On Saturday we went out to visit my mom and had lunch with her so we didn't have to cram in all our Mother's Day activities on one day. On Sunday, Will and I got up early to go to Sublime donuts (we were first in line) to get a breakfast treat for Julie, and then Julie and Will went on a hike up Stone Mountain in the morning with Julie's mom.

Julie and Will went on another little hike in the afternoon (I was intending to go, but I haven't been sleeping well recently and didn't have the energy). Then we got sushi for dinner, something we only do as a special treat because it's so expensive, and then we went out for ice cream at Morelli's, which is a bit of a drive but is always worth it. All in all it was a pretty low key weekend doing mostly what Julie wanted to do, which is how it should be.

Julie and I have seen the Decemberists more than any other band, and I'm pretty sure all the shows I've seen we've seen together (which is a rarity—even when Julie likes a band and wants to go see them, I usually end up going to some shows with other friends or by myself because she typically doesn't like to go out on a weeknight). Last year was supposed to be their 20th anniversary tour, and even though they weren't scheduled to play Atlanta for some reason (we're usually on the tour itinerary), we were thinking about driving to Tennessee for their closest show and taking Will for his first Decemberists show.

But of course Covid screwed that up, and the band also recently announced that, despite the increasing number of people getting vaccines and the decreasing cases, they were not going to tour again this summer. Given that at this point they are primarily a live act (they still release albums, but they are not nearly as good or impactful as their earlier work) and that's where most of their income comes from, you know they're feeling unsafe about where we might be with Covid later this summer heading into the fall.

So to give fans something to tide them over until (hopefully) 2022, they decided to do a series of live shows on three Sundays in April, each one with a different set of songs. You could buy tickets for an individual show, but we decided to buy a pass for all three, and we also paid for the add-on that got us each commemorative "tour" t-shirts and access to a special Q+A with the band after each performance where they would play songs that weren't featured in any of the shows.

The performances were pretty solid, but of course they were lacking the showmanship of the live experience. From what we could figure, they did all the performances over the course of a few days for later broadcast, and then did the Q+A sessions afterward live on Zoom from their respective houses. You could tell they hadn't played together for a while—they were a little bit rusty with some numbers, and frontman Colin Meloy couldn't remember which fret to put his capo on for a couple of songs. The Q+A sessions were pretty fun even though we didn't get one of our questions answered.

I'm going to miss seeing them live this year, especially if we get to a point where other bands start touring again, but hopefully everything will be back to normal next year. I would love to take Will to their show—he's not at a point where he has strong musical presences for recorded music yet, but he appreciates live performances, and they are very good at the theatrical aspect of the in-person experience.

When I first started exercising daily many, many years ago (before Will was born), I went to a Fleet Feet store outside of Baltimore to get a pair of running shoes. And then when those started to show a little wear, I went to another Fleet Feet, this time in Atlanta (Decatur specifically) and decided to upgrade to a pair of shoes from a specialized running brand. After trying on several different brands/models, I ended up with a Brooks Glycerin 12, their model pretty much designed for people like me: casual runners who generally run on roads at distance of 2-5 miles per run.

Those shoes served me very well, and they were well made enough that after seven years they still had some miles left on them, but as I prepared to start running again in earnest after a break of several months (due to Covid—I hate running in the cold, and because my university's indoor track was closed in the winter because of the pandemic, my exercise options shifted to the treadmill and push-ups), I decided I'd treat myself to a new pair of shoes to run this year's Peachtree Road Race in. So I made an appointment at the same Fleet Feet I went back to in 2014 and started researching some options.

The Glycerin has remained one of Brooks most popular models, and it was up to version 19 this year. That's the one I primarily wanted to try, but I also tried the Brooks Ghost along with a couple of models recommended by the salesperson. None of the other models felt as good as the new Glycerin (which has a lot more padding, lift in the heel, and a broader base than the 12), but they didn't have the style I wanted in the size I needed. But they were able to order them from their warehouse, and I'm supposed to pick them up next week.

I've been good about my training since the weather warmed up, although I'm a lot slower than I used to be. I'm planning to run a 5K in early June, which will be my first organized race since November 2019. My main goal with the Peachtree this year is to 1) run the entire time (due to my cataract surgery in spring 2019, I didn't have enough time to properly train by July, so I ended up walking part of the route) and 2) beat my time from 2019 (which shouldn't be hard if I'm able to run the whole way, since even my moderately slow running pace is faster than my fast walking pace).

My office typically does an off-campus event each May to celebrate the end of another admission cycle before we move into the relatively slow summer months (slow for most people in the office—it's one of the busiest times of year for my teams). But obviously Covid is preventing that, even as vaccinations increase and local cases decrease. So instead of doing something lame like another Zoom happy hour, our boss decided to give us all two days off.

I know many people are very appreciative of this, but as someone who is already capped on vacation days, they don't mean that much to me. And they're also not days off that you can use whenever you want: in order to sell the idea up the chain, he pitched it as a "personal retreat", which means we all have to take the same two days off. And while these days are weekend-adjacent (this Friday and next Monday), giving us a four day weekend, they come at a time when Will is still in school so I can't do anything with him.

I'll most likely just sit around the house watching movies and playing video games, which is fine, but not how I would have chosen to spend the days if they were given to me as floating holidays I could use anytime this year. In lieu of these proscribed days off, I actually would have preferred a different reward: a whole month with no meetings.

We were already a meeting-heavy office even before the pandemic, but because the counselors spent most of the year either traveling, reading files, or taking time off in the summer, they weren't around too often to add to the problem. But in the Zoom world where the months that they would have been on the road are now relatively empty of tasks, they have decided to fill the void by scheduling meetings. Many, many more meetings. Often weekly meetings to discuss things that have had no real developments since the previous week's meeting.

There are very, very few meetings on my calendar that need to happen as often as they do (if at all), and this is especially true during the summer months. And yet the meetings persist. I've started sending clearer signals about my opinion on the value of certain meetings by simply not going, but there are still way too many that don't add value to my workday. So instead of a couple of days off where I'm not really going to be able to do anything special, it would mean a lot more to me to declare a moratorium on meetings for a month—the thought of having a completely clear calendar for June fills me with such joy that I can't think about it for too long or it makes me depressed when I look at my actual calendar.

As I expected, I didn't end up doing much with my bonus days off. They were still relaxing, but not nearly as fun as they could have been had I had control over when they happened. I took a break from my normal World of Warcraft gaming (which is very stale at this point anyway—we're in the midst of the longest drought in new content in the 16 year history of the game) and instead spent some time with the recently released Mass Effect Legendary Edition, which collects all the Mass Effect games into a single release and gives them upgraded graphics. I played this a bit after Mass Effect 2 came out and liked it, but I don't play console games all that often, and I didn't finish it. I don't know how far I'll stick with this version, but I'm enjoying it so far.

For the rest of the weekend, Will had a recital on Thursday—his first indoor recital in over a year and a half. We felt okay about it because 1) it was held in a fairly large church nave; 2) masks were required; and 3) there was limited attendance and families were separated by at least one pew. Julie and I also had a nice night in on Friday—Will went to stay with Julie's mom and we had dinner and watched a movie. For dinner we got takeout Ethiopian from Desta, our favorite Ethiopian place in Atlanta, and then later watched Joker, which I had seen once in the theaters when it came out but Julie had never seen. It was less compelling on the small screen, but Joaquin Phoenix's performance is truly a thing to behold.

I also went to my first big event since the start of the pandemic: on Saturday night, I went to Mercedes Benz stadium to watch an Atlanta United game. Even though I'm fully vaccinated, I was still pretty nervous about this, but they had good protocols in place: there was limited attendance, everyone was seated in pods with only people in their group, the pods were separated at least six feet from the next pod in all directions, and masks were required. I almost didn't make it there—I take the MARTA, and it was nerve-racking being in a small space with lots of strangers. But I made it to the platform, steeled myself to get on the train (being fully prepared to get off at the next station and head back home if I didn't feel comfortable, but almost everyone was being good about wearing their masks), made it to the stadium, and felt comfortable once I got in my seat.

I knew that everyone else in my pod was fully vaccinated as well, and the non-pod seats actually had ropes tied across them so no one could sit in them. And even though we were all fully vaccinated, my group members also wore their masks pretty consistently. I still left in about the 70th minute, right after Josef Martinez entered the match from the bench, to make sure I didn't have to be with a big crowd on the MARTA back home (I came really early, so the crowds going to the game weren't at full capacity at that point). Overall it was a strange experience with lots of anxiety, but also a lot of fun. Hopefully we can keep a good pace with vaccinations nationwide and get to a point soon where we can do this safely without masks and social distancing again.

Will turns 11 this summer, which puts him frustratingly just out of reach of being in one of the groups approved to receive a Covid vaccine. But Julie has been doggedly pursuing various vaccine trials for kids in his age group, and after a lot of reaching out to the people running the studies, she finally got a call back for Will to be in a Moderna trial.

Even better: this is a study to judge different doses of the vaccine, so every child in the study will get a dose of the vaccine that has been proven effective in the 12-18 age group. He'll have to undergo a battery of tests, including the nasal Covid test, over a series of visits over several months, but he will definitely be fully vaccinated by July 1. As a bonus for him, he also gets paid $85 per visit, which we're going to let him spend on whatever he wants (most likely video games).

We feel so fortunate that we got him into this study. We'd like to go visit my dad and stepmother in North Carolina this summer (the only grandparents Will hasn't seen since 2019), and we feel a lot better about doing that knowing he has the vaccine—all the adults that we'll spend time with are vaccinated, but my sister has a 3 year old and a 6 month old that obviously can't get the vaccine, and having Will vaccinated will help protect them and make it easier for us to spend time with them.

We also don't know where we'll be in terms of Covid cases in Georgia by the time school starts, or what the masking/social distancing policies might be, so we'll feel a lot more confident sending him back to in-person school knowing that he's as well protected as he can be.

Every year there are at least a few albums that I listen to obsessively and almost inevitably end up on my year-end top 10. Last year I got a couple of those early—Andy Shauf's The Neon Skyline and Grimes' Miss Anthropocene both came out in the first couple of months of 2020—but this year, despite several releases I was excited about, it's taken until May until I discovered one of those records, and it's from an artist I'd never listened to before.

The band is called Origami Angel, and the record is Gami Gang, a standard English rendering of the #gamigang hashtag that fans of the band use online. It's their second proper album, and it's a double-album at that, packed full of power punk hooks laced with pseudo-metal guitar figures filigreed between the chords. They're a duo from DC who seem to fit into what's being called fifth wave emo, a genre that I don't understand well enough at this point to figure out which subgenre Origami Angel belongs to and what other bands have a sound similar to them.

But as much as the categorizer in me loves these branching trees of influences and movements in music scenes, I didn't know about any of that stuff before I stumbled on this album, but it gripped me right away. I'm far from their target audience—the two guys in the band are very young, barely out of college, and their lyrics have lots of overt nods to retro 80s/90s culture around gaming and online existence (given that I'm part of the cohort of kids who grew up in the 80s who experienced a lot of that culture the first time around, it's weird to hear it fetishized with reverence by people half my age)—but there's something authentic underneath the veneer of pop culture references that really speaks to me.

You will not be able to get these songs out of your head, even as the lyrics and song titles are often cringe-worthy (at least to an Old like me). More than one song uses playing video games as a bonding point with a girlfriend, and more than half the song titles are bad, meaningless puns (for example: "Footloose Cannonball Brothers" is Footloose + Loose Cannon + Ball Brothers, and none of those terms have anything to do with the lyrics in the song, they just thought it was funny to cram those three phrases/references together).

That's where they have the most room to grow—frontman Ryland Heagy is so good at playing guitar that it's already ridiculous, and his songs are so crammed full ideas that they're at the bursting point—but as he gets older, experiences more of life, and spends more time honing his lyrical skills to match his guitar chops, I expect the occasional flashes of brilliance in his words to become more frequent.

Anyway. Love this record. Love these guys. Can't wait to see them get bigger, because I have no doubt they will, and I hope the vaccination rates increase to a point where touring might be a thing again and I could go see them live sometime soon.

I had my first social outing with friends in a long, long time last night: I met my buddies Jonathan and Wes at a relatively new brewery in Avondale Estates called Little Cottage. They have a tiny parking lot and small outdoor patio, but the stars were aligned for us: we got the last parking spot, and one of the picnic tables got up to leave just as we got there.

I got one of their in-house brews called Hymn Songs of an Alternate Universe, which I would have gotten for the name alone, but it was really good. It's a pale ale, and those are usually a little too hoppy for me, but the combination of several varieties of American hops and lots of citrus made this one a lot lighter and more refreshing than the pale ales I've had before.

Even though we were outdoors and everyone in my group was vaccinated, it was still a little nerve wracking being in close quarters with friends around tables full of strangers. But as the night went on and we got deeper into conversation that went beyond our pandemic experiences, it started to feel normal, like any other night spent talking with friends over beers.

Jonathan and Wes were both fairly regular attendees of trivia night at Thinking Man, so I assumed they had met before. But they actually hadn't, and it turned out as they got to know each other that they had a ton in common: they both have family in Arkansas and spent a lot of their childhoods there, they don't live too far from one another now, and the house that Wes moved into last year was previously owned by a childhood friend of Jonathan's wife, so even though he has never been to Wes' house since he bought it, he's actually spent lots of time there.

Hopefully as vaccination rates increase, cases will continue to go down and the virus will go away (at least in Atlanta; the rest of Georgia is likely to be a very different story), allowing us to have a whole summer (and hopefully fall and winter) where we can feel comfortable returning to what used to be normal activities with our friends. I'll never take evenings like this for granted ever again though, and this one will certainly stand out in my memory after a year and a half of not having one.

We haven't done our Friday night movie night routine much recently, partly because Will has been enjoying playing online games with friends until later into the evening on Friday, but partly because there hasn't been a whole lot new to watch. We've gone through all the kid-level movies (mostly animated) that were released this century, and we also dipped back into some 80s classics like Back to the Future, WarGames, Short Circuit, etc. Will doesn't particularly care for superhero movies (although we've watched a few Marvel ones that he's enjoyed, like Ant Man), and although we've watched all the Star Wars movies, he's just not that into them.

He's not quite old enough and engaged enough for most PG-13 movies, but I did find one that seemed like it would hit a sweet spot of action, humor, and techie stuff: Sneakers, the 1992 hacking heist movie starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley, and River Phoenix. I hadn't seen it in a long time even though it's one of my favorite movies from the 90s. It was as good as I remembered, despite some of the now-dated tech stuff, and Will really enjoyed it as well.

There might be a few more movies that fit into this category—I'm thinking Ghostbusters would be a good one—and given the reality that we won't be getting many new movies to watch for a while, I'm going to need to dig up a few more if we're going to try to do movie night regularly again.

After finishing Jeff VanderMeer's Hummingbird Salamander, I stayed in the sci fi realm with the latest book in Martha Well's Murderbot Diaries series, Fugitive Telemetry. This is the sixth release in the series, and it's a standalone story that falls in between the events of books four and five. There's nothing especially deep or revelatory about these books, but they are fun to read—the main character, a cyborg who has no memory of who he was before he was purchased by a corporation and transformed into a soldier-for-hire, has a sardonic voice and biting view of normal humans, and seeing the story through his eyes (and hearing it through his voice) is pretty entertaining.

The one complaint I have about this book and pretty much all the ones that came before it is that, even though they are labeled as novels and sold at the price of a novel ($10.99 or $11.99 for the Kindle editions), they are very, very short. Most of them would barely qualify as a novella; a couple would more properly fit into the short story category. I like the series and the character enough that I continue to pay the exorbitant price, but it does rankle me a bit.

I try to justify it by comparing it to buying treats at the movies: the markup on M&Ms and popcorn is ridiculous, but it completes the theater experience. The problem with that analogy, of course, is that, as entertaining as the books are, they are still just books, and when you compare them to other sci fi books at their price level, you're getting a lot less bang for the buck.

As usual, I am at my cap on vacation days and have to take two days off before the end of May or I lose them, so even though I have plenty of work to do, those days are going to have to be tomorrow and Friday. And because Monday is Memorial Day, I'm in for a five day weekend.

I'm sure I will still do some work, but I'm going to actually try to relax as much as I can. Summer is usually decently busy but it tends to be a bit slower than the rest of the year (owing in part to the fact that many of the people in my office essentially check out for the summer and aren't constantly sending me requests for data or proposing new projects).

But Friday is the last day for my operations manager, who not only directly supervises a team of five that's under my umbrella, but who also does a tremendous amount of configuration and maintenance in our two primary information systems. I'm going to have to pick up the bulk of his work until we find a replacement, and that's going to push my workload through the roof. I'm hoping we can get a new person in here by July, because once we get into August and are prepping everything for the new admission cycle, it won't be sustainable for me to do all the stuff that role does and all the stuff that I'm responsible for.

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