run the jewels

lean in to it
allison crutchfield

Anatomy of a Song
Marc Myers

Never Say No to a Rock Star
Glenn Berger



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We're doing a pretty low-key Valentine's Day because we did so many things last week for Julie's birthday, but we're planning to order one of those heart-shaped pizzas from Papa John's for Will and then have sushi for dinner ourselves after he goes to bed.

I'm off to a conference for the rest of the week—it's in Atlanta, but it will still result in longer days for me (my commute will now be 45 minutes instead of 5, and I'll also have to spend my evenings catching up on email, etc.). So I won't be posted again until next week.

Will finished his first season of basketball on Saturday, and although he still had some focus issues (as did many of the boys on his team admittedly), he was much more engaged with this sport than he ever was with soccer, and there was a definite improvement in his skills and his interest by the end of the season. There was even one night when I forgot about practice (5:45 on Tuesday nights), and he reminded me at 5:40 and insisted that we still go even though we were going to be a little late.

The trouble is that he needs to keep at it to continue to get better, and from what we can tell the YMCA only offers their league once a year. I'd be open to putting up a basketball goal for him at the house, but there's not currently an easy place to set one up without endangered cars and/or windows, and while his elementary school used to have a few courts behind the building in a play area, those went away when they built the new structure that has been in place since he started attending.

But given how quickly he took to it, I don't want to wait another year, so we'll have to figure something out. Our neighborhood is pretty hilly, so I don't really even know of any neighbors who have a goal we could use, so we might just have a to take a chance with the windows and set up something in our little patio outside the kitchen.

It is Julie's birthday today, but since her main present is something that she won't be able to experience for another couple of months (more on that below), we made sure she had lots of reasons to be happy today.

It started last night when I gave Will $20 and let him take her out to dinner, just the two of them—she told me he was so proud to pull the money out of his pocket and give it to the cashier. Then this morning I got up early to head over to Revolution Doughnuts, a local artisan doughnut shop, to pick up a half dozen and get them back home before Julie walked Will to school.

I then did some work at home in the morning before taking her out to lunch at General Muir, where we both got the amazing (but messy) beet reuben and split an order of the poutine. After that we went to a matinee showing of Arrival, which I had seen in December during one of my late night solo movie outings, but which I thought Julie would like. She did enjoy it, and I think I liked it better the second time through. Even though I already knew how to solve the puzzle box of the timelines, I was very impressed with how well-crafted it was—there's really very little wasted space in that movie. Every scene, and virtually every moment, counts and adds to the story in some way.

Because we had done so much already, Julie decided she wanted to stick to our standard movie night, so we watched The BFG, an animated movie directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a Roald Dahl story. I had picked up Will early from school the day before so he could go shopping for her, and he picked out a large copper butterfly on a post to put in the garden and three smaller insects (two more butterflies and a dragonfly) to make a little family around the bigger piece.

I got my present for Julie a few weeks ago, although we won't be able to experience it until April. I go out to concerts a lot, but there are only a few bands that Julie gets excited enough about to go out to see, especially on a weeknight. Her favorite of those bands is the Decemberists, and we've probably been to a dozen of their shows at this point (for our anniversary one year we had third row seats to see them play a show at Merriweather Post accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and when they played a two-night stand in Atlanta two years ago we saw both shows).

They're coming to Atlanta again in April, but this time they're offering a special upgraded package that gets you seats in the first ten rows and an invitation to an intimate pre-concert performance where they will play two songs for you and everyone else who bought the enhanced package (I'm guessing between 75-100 people). I was frantically reloading the page when the tickets were set to go on sale, and at first I thought I had missed my chance because there didn't appear to be any left. But then I kept refreshing, and finally a pair of seats came back up for purchase: two front row tickets that included the pre-concert performance and a poster autographed by the entire band.

It was expensive enough that it will be my birthday present from Julie as well, but I'm really looking forward to it. It becomes increasingly difficult to get a really unique, really special present for someone who you've spent every day with for more than 25 years, so I'm thrilled that I was able to make this very special night happen.

Julie and I have faithfully watched every season of Survivor, but somehow our DVR missed the latest season that aired last fall, Gen X versus Millenials, so by the time we realized a new season had started, we had missed four or five episodes. I recorded them anyway, just in case we ever decided to jump in the middle of the season and watch them, which seemed unlikely given that we don't watch that much tv together and can barely keep up with our few shared shows like Top Chef.

But a few weeks ago I was bored, sick, and couldn't sleep, so I decided to watch one episode to see if I liked it at all. There was enough to keep me watching that I didn't immediately delete the rest, but I did change my approach to watching the episodes: I skipped all the competitions, about half of the scheming chatter in camp, and occasionally some of tribal council (just until I figured out what the themes were and who the two likely targets were, because there are always at least two on that show).

I would slow down if it looked like someone got hurt or was finding an idol or if something else unusual happened, but watching them rapid fire like this made the structure and patterns of the show stand out pretty starkly, and I really don't think I missed much that was important.

This made it so I could watch an entire episode in less than 20 minutes, and I ended up polishing off the 10 or so episodes that we had recorded by watching two or three at a time over the next few days. The problem now: if Julie wants to watch the next season, I'm not sure I can bring myself to sit through so much of what is clearly non-essential material.

The most recent book I've finished was a collection of short stories called Science Fiction by Scientists, which was recommended to me by a physics professor who works at the same university I do. I met him at a faculty event hosted by my office, and asked him if there were any books he would recommend, and he suggested this one and a non-fiction work called How the Hippies Saved Physics (which I've just started reading). It may not come as a great surprise to you that one of the stories in the book was written by the professor who recomended it to me.

The premise of the book is interesting: working scientists each write a story where one of the central plot points involves some bit of science or technology from their field, and then writes an explanation afterwards to give their interpretation of the science or theory that drove the story. The great risk with a premise like this is that you are trusting these scientists to also be good and interesting writers, and that was definitely hit and miss.

Overall the writing was decent, but there were very few stories that held together on all fronts. Some were weak on plot; some had non-compelling or not well-drawn characters; a lot just didn't seem to have a point. Several of the stories seemed like sketches that could have either served as the opening chapter in a longer work or which could have been developed further into a more compelling narrative, and by the end, a lot of what I looked forward to with each new story was seeing how quickly I could figure out the scientific background of the writer (physicist, chemist, geneticist?) and then seeing what theory or process they were going to make the fulcrum of the plot.

I can't really recommend this book to anyone, even if that premise sounds appealing to you, but it wasn't nearly as terrible as you can imagine it being, so if it ever drops to less than $5 on the Kindle store, it might be worth downloading. I'm interested to go back and discuss it with my professor buddy, but very few people are going to have that personal connection to the stories, and judged purely as works of science fiction, most of the stories are pedestrian at best.

Aside from the Super Bowl, it was a pretty active weekend for Will. On Saturday, he had his second-to-last basketball game of the season at noon, a birthday party at 2, and then went out to dinner with Julie before a dance recital for his first grade teacher's daughter, who is a teenager (he's actually gone to one before and really wanted to go to another).

Sunday early in the afternoon we all went on a hike around a nearby park with Will's Cub Scout den, and then we started to work on snacks for the Super Bowl when we got back. The main part of the meal was nachos with a black bean and onion concoction that I also use on mexican pizza, chicken that was boiled in southwestern spices, jalapenos (Will loves spicy food—he also eat sriracha on his pizza and chicken nuggets), and of course cheese. Will helped me assemble all of that on a baking sheet, and also enjoyed a sriracha salsa with spicy Doritos during dinner.

I don't know if he'll ever get into watching football with me—I never liked watching (or playing) sports as a kid myself—but he seemed to pay a little more attention to what was happening on the field that he usually does, so maybe I'll give him another shot at watching a Ravens game with me next season.

Well, as a resident of Atlanta and a hater of the Patriots and Tom Brady, that was about as disappointing a Super Bowl as I'm likely to see in my lifetime. The only thing that could have made it worse if it had been the Ravens on the receiving end of that stunning comeback.

Luckily, I was somewhat able to steel myself for that outcome, so I wasn't as shocked as your average Atlanta bandwagoner. The Ravens have played the Patriots enough in recent years for me to know that no matter how far ahead you are or how well things seem to be going, you can never count that team out. Even in the games that the Ravens have won (except, surprisingly, the playoff win at Foxborough the year Baltimore won the Super Bowl), New England was always in striking distance and nearly came back to win more than once.

I have to say though, this outcome is entirely in keeping with the disgusting mess that we've gotten ourselves into with our new president. It's just going to one of those years...

Over the weekend Will did his first Pinewood Derby with the Cub Scouts, which he enjoyed tremendously. They did the competition by den starting at 10:30(with each den winner advancing to another stage of the competition), and Will's was the second to go, so we were hoping we'd finish in plenty of time for Will to make his basketball game at noon. But there were technical problems getting the track system set up (even though the organizers had several hours to get all the kinks worked out before the kids arrived), and his den didn't start their runs until around 11:15.

It's much more complicated (but much fairer) than the Pinewood Derbies I remember. It was still a six-car track, but instead of just racing once and having someone eyeball who the winner was, this was a timed track where it collected not only who won each heat, but also the speed of each car's run. The software also had an algorithm to make sure each car ran on each of the six tracks once, so that if there were an advantage to one lane over another, it wouldn't matter because only your car's best time would be used to determine the winner of that set of heats.

Another thing that was very different compared to my experiences as a child was the fact that Will was the primary designer of his car. My dad was really into projects like that—he used to build elaborate, detailed models of several-masted sailing ships—so my first Pinewood Derby, he basically built it himself and just presented it to me prior to the race (I do remember being able to watch him paint it, but he had a very elaborate design of red, white, and blue. For the second Pinewood Derby car when I was a kid, my dad still did the design and build but at least this time he let me help with the painting—I picked out a dark green metallica sprat paint that didn't coat very evenly. I'm sure my ultra-precise father was mortified, but I thought it was great, and he did let me apply it to his creation in the end.

I have neither woodworking skills nor tools, so Will's car design was a standard one that the troop leaders helped him cut at a workshop a couple of weeks before the race. He painted it himself—and you could tell—and then after that we stuck on enough weights to get it close to the weight limit. It was interesting seeing the other kids' cars, because it was a pretty clear who had a father like my father (there was a sleek, tricked out batmobile with fins and everything) and who had parents like Julie and I who were all about Will owning the experience as much as possible.

Will's car seemed to do okay during his six runs—he came in first once, second a couple of times, and third the rest of the time. The top 3 in each heat series got a medal or trophy, and we thought he had a good chance based on his finishing spots, but since the rankings are based on the best time for that car in the six heats it raced in, he didn't quite make it—it must have just been an odd bit of luck that he never placed below third in his races but still didn't finish in the top 3 overall.

He was really into the races, and really wanted to win, but he took not finishing in the top 3 in stride, and overall we had a pretty great morning. Assuming that he'll want to do scouts again next year, I'm sure we'll be back at this event.

I did get to spend an evening hanging out with an old friend while I was in North Carolina—my friend Kirk (and his fiancee Jody). He was my best friend during my two years at NCSSM for our junior and senior years in high school, and we would have been roommates if 1) I hadn't gotten assigned a single during senior year or 2) if I had ended up going to UNC instead of Davidson.

I don't get back much to NC anymore, especially not the Triangle, so I hadn't seen him at all since our last high school reunion a few years ago, and I haven't really hung out with him for any length of time since the reunion five years before that one. He owns a bar near Chapel Hill now that does live music a few nights a week, which honestly fits perfectly with what I could have imagined him being happy doing. He's very creative, very loyal and hardworking, and he loves music—a lot of our adventures together in high school involved going to see live shows around Durham and Chapel Hill, sometimes by sneaking out after curfew and using the Duke-UNC shuttle buses to get over to Chapel Hill.

I had a conference dinner the first night I was in town, but I met up with Kirk and Jody after that. We went over to a local bar/arcade where they knew the bartenders (if you own a bar, I think you ended up knowing pretty much every other bar owner and bartender in town) where we had a couple of drinks before Kirk and I went on a walk to chat and so he could show me Carrboro. We walked over to the new location of the Cat's Cradle, and again, he knew the doorman so we were able to go in and watch the band for a few minutes (it was a band called Too Many Zooz that features only a trumpet, a sax, and a marching band bass drum with various other percussions elements attached to it) before heading over to another little bar where Kirk knew everyone.

The original plan was that I was going to connect with Kirk after my conference finished on Thursday and hang out with him at his bar before spending the night at his house, but my conference finished a couple of hours early, enough so that I could still do the drive home by dinner (originally it was scheduled to end late enough in the afternoon that I wouldn't have been home until long after Will had gone to bed). I hesitated for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do, but in the end I decided to do the drive home—I've been traveling a lot over the past couple of years, and I've come to miss being at home more and more.

I'm still not sure if that was the right choice—I always have a great time talking with Kirk, and it would have been cool to see his bar—but I'm hoping to make it back to Chapel Hill again before too long. Worst case scenario I should be back in August—Kirk and Jody are getting married this summer and are holding a celebration for their friends the first week of August, and I'm planning to attend.

My trip to North Carolina was pretty good, but hectic and short. My conference was on Thursday, so I drove up on Wednesday, arriving around 4:00 (I did the calculations, and from a time and money perspective, there was very little difference between me driving and flying, so I decided to avoid the airport). I stayed at a hotel on Franklin Street a few blocks from where the conference dinner was being held that night and a few blocks in the other direction from where the conference itself would take place, and while it was nice, it was weird because the last time I was in Chapel Hill, it just didn't exist.

And that was true of so many things on Franklin Street—the stuff I remember is gone, or moved to an entirely new location, and there's all sorts of new stuff that give the street a completely different feel. It's clear that the action has moved down towards Carrboro—that part of Franklin Street had a lot more restaurants and bars that seemed more popular with students than the section on the east side of Columbia has turned into more of a tourist trap area.

It was good to see some thriving new businesses, and some new locations for old ones (School Kids Records has now reopened in a tiny new space, and the Cat's Cradle long ago abandoned the old Post Office building that I remember for a new building solidly in Carrboro), but it was still decidedly odd. I've never offcially lived in Chapel Hill except for one summer during college when I was bussing tables and washing dishes for a local bar, but I had so many friends there during my high school and college years that I spend a ton of time there (not to mention the frequent trips back with my mom over the years—she is a UNC alum and goes back to visit as often as she can), and everything just feels so different now.

I know that's true of everywhere that I spend my youth, as it is for most of us once we get out of our 20s (and I am well past that time in my life). But it's still pretty disconcerting.

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january 2017