january 2022

With the Omicron surge coming on strong in December, we got a little more cautious about hanging out with people, so Christmas 2021 was pretty similar to Christmas 2020 (aside from the fairly major difference that we were in a rental house this year instead of our now-burnt out home). We started with our typical Christmas morning with just the three of us before having Julie's mom over a little later in the day to exchange presents on the screen porch.

That afternoon we went over to my mom's house to exchange gifts with her, but unfortunately not with my sister, who, along with her husband, was still recovering from Covid cases they came down with just before the holidays. I really, really hope next year is more normal - I really want Covid to be behind those of us who are keeping up with our vaccinations, and I really want to be back in our house (which we haven't even been able to get contractor bids for because the insurance company is really dragging their feet on a settlement).

In normal years, we usually take a few days between Christmas and New Year's to drive up to North Carolina to visit my dad and stepmother (and also my youngest sister and her family, who still live there). But this year with the latest Covid surge, we decided not to risk it and to just stick close to home and enjoy our time off from what has been an incredibly stressful year both personally and professionally.

And that's mostly what we did, although we did venture out one evening for the Zoo Atlanta's IllumiNights, where they have decorated the park for the holidays. Julie and Will had been there before, but this was my first time, and it was pretty impressive. It's hard to beat the Botanical Gardens' annual holiday light decorations (which we've gone to see every year since we moved to Atlanta), but this was pretty good. I can see us making this one an annual tradition as well.

Also over the break, we had to spend a considerable amount of time over at the house trying to go through everything that remains and see if anything was salvageable. Those few things that were we packed into plastic bins and moved into our storage unit in preparation for the pre-building clean out and clean up of the house that will hopefully happen in the next month or two.

It's really depressing that we haven't really been able to get started on the rebuilding process yet—if the insurance company had made a reasonable settlement in a reasonable amount of time, we could already have selected a contractor and started work on the rebuild, with at least a possibility of being back in our house by the summer. Instead, they have engaged in delay tactics, and even though they offered us an initial settlement in mid-December, it was ridiculously low, so we're already in negotiations with them for something more in line with what it's actually going to take to rebuild in the house.

Once that happens, we'll start looking at bids from contractors, but even best case scenario, demolition and construction won't happen until early spring at best, which would put us more in the ballpark of late fall or early winter for a completion date (and that's only if things go reasonably well from a supply chain and permitting perspective). At this point I'd be happy if we were back home before the end of 2022, but a few weeks delay with any part of the process and we'll be solidly into 2023. Sigh.

This omicron surge is something else—plenty of people we know who have never been that cautious either caught Covid for the first time over the holidays or caught it again, and lots more people who are more towards our end of the caution spectrum caught it as well. My sister, who hasn't really changed her socializing at all in the past two years, finally caught it, and the only surprising thing was that she hadn't caught it several times before. She was vaccinated, but it still hit her pretty hard, although she seems to be on the mend now.

We accept that we will likely get it at some point, especially with Will going to school (where he wears a mask, but a lot of kids don't, and it's pretty clearly going around there). But until that day comes, we're going to keep doing what we've done for the past two years: keep up with our vaccinations/boosters, wear masks when we're indoors in public spaces with lots of people, and not put ourselves in situations that are high risk (like eating out at restaurants).

Well, a brutal Ravens season came to an ignominious end yesterday with a loss to our archrivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It could hardly have ended in worse fashion: despite a string of close losses in December, the Ravens still would have been in playoff contention with a win, and additionally would have ended the hated Ben Roethlisberger's career with a defeat in his home stadium that would have also ended the Steelers' playoff hopes.

Instead, after coming back to tie the game with a little more than a minute remaining, they lost in overtime. They entered December with an 8-3 record, first place overall in the AFC, but the injuries that have plagued them since before the season even began (they lost their top two running backs and one of their starting corners to season-ending injuries in training camp) finally got the best of them when star quarterback Lamar Jackson went down with an ankle injury that took him off the field for the rest of the season.

They ended up with an 8-9 record, meaning they didn't win any more games after holding that first place 8-3 spot. They lost six games in a row to end the season, five of them without Jackson and five of them where the final score differential was three points or fewer (and three of those games were one point losses).

It's a bummer, but it's actually surprising they hung in there as long as they did. This felt like a doomed season from the start with all the early injuries, which continue to accumulate throughout the season until entire position groups were essentially playing backups, some of whom were added to the team midseason and didn't participate in training camp and practices over the summer. I won't even try to list all the injuries here—there are just too many—but every single unit on the team had major holes with frontline starters/stars sidelined for significant portions of the season. It was just too much to overcome.

Despite finishing in last place in the tight AFC North (division winners Cincinnati had a 10-7 record; third and fourth place in the division shared an 8-9 record), the Ravens could bounce back pretty quickly next year. If they can sign a key free agent or two, have their typically strong performance in the draft, and get back the players who were injured this season, they could once again become very scary on both sides of the ball.

There's a lot of work to do between now and September, but they aren't as far away from contending as their division finish might suggest (if they had won just two of those close games in December, they would have had the same record as Cincinnati). It sucks that things didn't fall their way this year, but they were hit harder by injuries than any team in recent memory, and I have to believe that this is an aberration that won't affect them so severely next year if they return closer to the mean for the NFL.

UGA hasn't beaten Alabama once since former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart took over head coaching duties for the 2016 season. Hell, they haven't beaten Alabama since 2007, midway through Mark Richt's tenure as head coach.

Before yesterday, they had faced each other six times since I became a UGA in 2012 after moving to Atlanta (before moving here, I didn't really follow college football). Two of those meetings were in the regular season, once in Tuscaloosa and once in Athens, and both were UGA losses. They have also faced each other three times in the SEC title game in early December during that timespan, and again, the outcome of all three games were wins for Alabama.

The last of those six meetings was in the national championship game in 2018, when Alabama had somehow snuck into the playoffs despite not winning the SEC West and not playing in the SEC championship, much less winning it. UGA were the real winners of the SEC that year, and they ended up playing their hated rivals and the albatross that they hadn't beaten in more than a decade at that point.

It looked for all the world like UGA was going to win that game until Nick Saban made the unprecedented move of switching from his struggling star starting quarterback Jalen Hurts to true freshman backup Tua Tagovailoa, who brought the Crimson Tide's offense back to life and led Alabama to a narrow 26-23 victory. Us UGA fans wondered if we'd ever find a way to beat this team—their longstanding dominance was becoming more psychological at that point, because both programs have more talent and more resources than just about any other programs in the country.

For the 2021 season, they met for the third time in ten years in the SEC championship game, which Alabama again won, and won decisively. But that was Georgia's only loss of the season, and it was to the number one ranked team, so they made into in the four-team playoffs along with the team that had just beaten them, and after both SEC teams handily beat their opponents, they once again met in the national championship game.

But this time, finally, there would be a different ending to the story. After trading field goals in the first half, UGA scored the first touchdown in the third quarter, followed by an Alabama touchdown five minutes later, putting the score at 18-13 Alabama with ten minutes left in the game. But those would be the final points Alabama would score, while UGA went on a big run, scoring two offensive touchdowns and capping their win with a defensive interception returned for another touchdown, putting the final score at 33-18 Georgia.

With that UGA national championship win, I've now been lucky enough as a sports fan to watch all of the teams I care about win at least one championship while I was an active fan: the NCAA championship for UNC basketball in 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, and 2017; the World Series for Atlanta Braves in 1995 and again last year in 2021; the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2012; the MLS Cup for Atlanta United in 2018; and now, finally, the college football national championship for the University of Georgia.

I've only been there in person for one of those games (the Atlanta United in 2018), but I've watched all of them live as they were happening, and they were all such tremendous thrills. But even on the back of another World Series win by the Braves a few months ago (it's been a great year for Georgia sports fans), there were few that brought such a sense of a weight being lifted as this incredible win by the Bulldogs.

The big present we got for Will for Christmas this year was an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset (I guess it's technically Meta Quest now since Facebook bought the company and got rid of the Oculus name, but Oculus is a much better name and Meta is just...stupid).

He and Julie have both been playing with it a lot, and he was thrilled to find it under the tree on Christmas morning, but we'll see how long it lasts for either of them (I haven't tried it yet, but I probably will at some point even though my limited exposure to VR so far has led to vertigo and motion sickness). I've doubted some video game purchases that Will has asked for before, and I've seen him lose interest after a few weeks.

However, I have noticed that he never really abandons them—he might put them down for a few weeks, but then he'll come back after no more than a month or so and be all-in on that device/console again. So even if he doesn't keep up his current daily usage, I suspect this will remain in the gaming rotation for him for a long time, especially because it's a different experience than any of his other devices.

I recently finished Erik Larson's Thunderstruck, a book that attempts to intertwine the stories of Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless radio telegraph invention and notorious British killer Hawley Harvey Crippen.

I enjoyed one of Larson's other books, The Devil in the White City, which tells the truly interrelated stories of the Daniel Burnham, who designed the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago (the titular White City), and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who built a boarding house that took advantage of the throngs of tourists visiting Chicago for the fair to cull his victims, who he killed and disposed of in secret rooms he had built into the boarding house for that exact purpose.

Thunderstruck has a lot of compelling stories to tell, but it's a real stretch to try to link the two main characters. Still, each of their biographies is fascinating, though for entirely different reasons, and I enjoyed the book even though the weakest parts were the attempts to tenuously connect the stories of these two men.

After we finished watching Game of Thrones together (my second run through the show, and Julie's first) in 2020, it took a while before we found another show to watch together. Part of the problem is that Julie just doesn't watch much tv, and when I get into a show, I want to watch it at a reasonably rapid pace—not binging it all in a day or a week, but watching a full season over the course of two or three weeks.

Whereas even when Julie's interested in a show, she might watch one episode a week, and she'll sometimes go three or four weeks between episodes. So our ways of experiencing shows don't sync up very well, even when it's a show we're both interested in, so we don't tend to watch together.

But I did convince her to give Amazon's The Boys a try after I had finished watching the second season, and we're now making our way through those two seasons with some frequency. I wasn't sure she'd get the darker take on the superhero genre, especially with all the gore, but she likes the characters, especially the kinda-protagonist Hughie Campbell.

We had just the lightest touch of snow over the weekend, not enough to even fully cover everything, but it still counted for Atlanta. It didn't stick around for long, but for a little bit the world was more or less white, and Will was even able to scrape together enough of it to make a little tiny snowman.

I do generally love living in Atlanta, but I sometimes miss having actual winter weather. In our ten years here, we've had maybe four times where there was something that counted as a snowfall, and even the most robust of those only dropped an inch or so and was gone within 24 hours.

We're now in the heart of file review season for admission applications, and even with my relatively small territory (I'm the primary on about 350 files; full-time readers typically read between 1000-1200), it's probably more than I can handle this year. We're still without a communications director and an operations manager, and I'm doing about a third of the first role and about half of the second on top of all my normal responsibilities.

We may have new hires for both those roles soon, but even if you have experience in our industry, you can't just hit the ground running and take over everything, especially in the middle of a cycle. So even if both those roles are filled in the near term, the new folks will still be in learning and hand-holding mode for a while, and my workload won't significantly decrease (and in fact it may increase slightly because I'll still be doing those jobs but also training the new people how to do them so I'm not still doing them next cycle).

I tend to prefer music that hews to the traditional rock/pop three minute song format, but I have noticed an interesting trend when I'm listening to vinyl (as opposed to listening in the car or while I'm exercising): because I'm in more of an active listening mode where the music is the focus of my attention instead of something more in the background, I've started to have more appreciation for bands with longer/more abstract leanings.

I've been a fan of bands like Sigur Ros, Spiritualized, Stereolab, M83, and the Avanlanches for years, but not many of their individual songs make it onto my shuffle playlists and I don't often listen to complete albums except right after they are released. But when I'm picking out records for a vinyl listening session, those bands are ending up on the turntable way more often, and I've able to immerse myself in their music for an afternoon or evening and hear a depth to their sound that I've missed with how I've listened to them before, even for albums that I've owned for decades (like Stereolab's Dots and Loops and Spiritualized's Pure Phase).

I don't really have the time to take a day off this time of year and with the staff members we are missing, but that's exactly what I did last Friday. This is because my employer puts a cap on how many vacation days you can accrue, and once you hit that limit, you don't accrue any more until you lower your balance.

I've banked enough days and been here long enough to accrue enough new time every month that I basically need to take two days off every month or I'll go over the cap. Once we hit the spring and summer and I'm able to take an actual vacation where I used up four or more days in a month, I'll be able to drop my balance low enough so that I won't have to take days off every month for a little bit unless I actually want to.

That used to happen during the Christmas break—I would take off a few days before Christmas and use vacation for the non-holiday days during the week between Christmas and New Year's and end up burning 4-5 days that month. But a couple of years ago, my institution decided to shut down that week and give everyone time off without forcing them to use vacation days. That was a nice thing to do, and the right thing to do, but it made it so I don't get a chance to lower my vacation balance during that period.

So here we: in a month when I actually need more days to do the work I need to do, I'm going to have to take two days of vacation. I'm sure I'll still check in and make sure I'm not ignoring something critical, but working a full day on a vacation day is functionally the same as not taking the day and losing the accrual, so I'm going to get some sort of extra rest and relaxation out of it.

I've finally been able to hire someone to fill my operations manager position, a role that my systems manager and I have been trying to cover between us since our previous operations manager left us last May. He had been in the role since 2015, and he had a year of overlap with the woman who had held the position since its inception back at the turn of the century. So his leaving was a pretty big deal, and while I knew he had a million tasks he was responsible for, I didn't feel the true complexity of the role until I was forced to have to do it myself on top of all my normal work.

The new hire is a first for our office: he's our first true remote worker, working out of state and flying down once a month for a few in-person days. Currently his agreement with us says that he's supposed to move to Atlanta by August, but he has a family with strong roots in their current community, so I'm hoping that my institution will become more accepting of remote work and allow us to extend that indefinitely.

I mean, he'd always have the option to move to Atlanta if he wanted to, but in our office we make a big deal about work/life balance and recognizing the importance of your non-work/family life. And if it's a better balance for his family and him to stay in their current home/community, and the job can be done remotely (and it has been done remotely for the past two years), then there's no reason for us to force that move. Anyway.

It will take a while for him to get to know our processes before I can fully hand things off to him, but he'll be able to start pitching in immediately, and hopefully every day that passes will shift more of the responsibility back to that role and away from my systems manager and me.

Julie and I were supposed to go to a Pinegrove show this Sunday, but with the current Omicron surge, the band decided to postpone the first two weeks of its tour in support of their just-released album 11:11. They haven't announced when it will be rescheduled for, but hopefully it won't be canceled like so many other postponed shows have been.

I've seen the band once, back in February 2019, and it was such an incredibly cathartic, emotional show, one of those experiences where the whole crowd was on the same wavelength and the band was feeding off the communal energy. I don't expect that every time, even from a band that has produced a show like that before, but even if it doesn't hit those same heights, I'm still excited to see them play live again.

I'm taking another forced day off tomorrow even though I have way too much on my plate between my normal work, reading files, and training my new operations manager. But if I don't take the vacation day, then I just lose it because I'm at max accrual. I'll likely still end up working some tomorrow and probably over the weekend as well, so I won't really get to enjoy the time off. But psychologically, it's import for me to at least put it on the calendar and feel like I have the right to step away from work if I want to.

We're finally going to be able to take Will to see the Decemberists, one of my wife's favorite bands and the band that we've seen together more than any other. Their last tour of the US was in 2018; they had plans to tour in 2020 (and then again in 2021) to celebrate 20 years of existing as a band, but both tours were canceled due to concerns about Covid, especially in the touring context.

But they just announced a new tour with a stop in Atlanta in August, and I was able to get tickets that include a pre-show soundcheck performance of a few songs and a Q+A with the audience. Julie and I have done that a few times before (this will be our tenth time seeing the band, and our third or fourth time doing the pre-show event), but we're really excited to bring Will—we almost brought him to the show we saw back in April 2018, but we didn't quite pull the trigger (his first concert would come a couple of months later when we took him to see Belle and Sebastian in June 2018).

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