january 2007

Back when I used to program in Macromedia Director (an app for making interactive CDs), I used to leave a signature of sorts in the source file. Director used a series of cells that you could populate with images, sounds, video, etc., and you could color those cells to keep the different types of media easily distinguishable. Starting with the cell that corresponded with my birth year, I would color each cell that went with each year I had been alive using the following pattern: blue was an average year, green was a great year, and red was a bad year.

I haven't used Director in forever, but in the years since I stopped, I would say that only 2001, the year when George W. Bush was sworn in as president, when CO2 Media shut its doors, and when our whole world was changed in the wake of the 9.11 attacks, was the only year that I would have colored red since my last year of graduate school in the mid-90s.

Unfortunately, 2006 would be colored red as well. From the first day of 2006, when Bryan Harvey and his family were senselessly and brutally slain in their home, it was a year that I would rather not have lived through. The thing that looms largest for me was a draining conflict with one of my sisters that complicated my relationships with the rest of my family; it also lasted nearly the enitre year and, for me, at least, the after effects will be felt for a long time to come. There were also more typical problems: our country's ongoing involvement in Iraq, issues at work, a sick pet, a relative who died after a long and debilitating disease, etc., but they were magnified by the problems with my sister and with the vague but persistent feeling that I didn't have one second of time without these problems weighing me down to clear my head (although I know I did have some space to breath every now and then, all the perspective I gained while distanced temporarily from my problems vanished as soon as I returned to them, leaving me as exhausted as ever). And to top it all off, the year ended with another bad family situation that I can't even begin to speak of.

There were some bright spots, though: fortunately none of my problems were with Julie, who stood by me through my family issues. We also celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary with both a week at Niagara Falls and a ten day cruise to the Caribbean, both of which gave me some valuable time away from my day-to-day problems. And there were more general positives: the country seemed to wake up a bit from the nightmare of the Bush administration when Democrats took more than expected in the national elections; my team at work solidified and performed very well while facing our most challenging year yet; and, on the whole, I think that I probably had more good days than bad.

Still, 2007 almost can't help but be better than 2006. This isn't exactly our least stressful time at work (in fact, it's our most), and I've got the brewing family ugliness to deal with, and it's not unusual for my red years to come in back-to-back pairs, but nevertheless I've got to hope that 2007 will start better than 2006 and stay that way.

This weather is ridiculous. I've almost given up hoping for snow this year, I just hope we have a couple of weeks where it actually feels like winter. I grew up in the south, so it doesn't have to be 20 below for it to feel like winter to me, but even in North Carolina, it wasn't supposed to be in the 50s and 60s during the day in January.

I wasn't expecting to start reading files again until late January, because traditionally we don't have enough files for the part-time readers until then, but we're so far ahead of schedule this year (thanks in large part to the work my team has done over the past year to improve our application processing workflow) that we already had more than enough files from my region to let me take home a full day's worth.

After the first couple of reading days, I'll probably be able to decision about 40 files a day, but I'm starting with 30 today to take some time to get my sea legs back, since there are so many little things to remember. But after decisioning 500+ applications last year, I don't think it will take long for me to get back in a groove.

Labbits! Labbits!

I don't have many ethical reservations about my current field of college admissions, but one thing that does give me pause is the highly competitive nature of high school students these days, particularly particularly the ones who apply for admission to elite schools like the one I work for. As a bright but often unmotivated and unfocused teen who did very well at one of those elite institutions without devoting most of my high school years to stuffing my resume with activities, clubs, community service, and competitions that would look good to a college admissions counselor, I've always felt a little uneasy with the high percentage of applicants that my school gets who seem to have taken that every-minute-of-every-day-is-scheduled approach, and the correspondingly high percentage of those kids who we enroll.

I know it was probably naive to think this even when I was a high school student, but I still believe that there should be some free space in a child's day, a time when they're not supposed to be doing anything specific, a time when their brains can take a break and turn off for a little while. I think if you create a population of kids who are always-on overachievers who don't allow themselves any downtime, you're asking for trouble down the road—either they're going to burn out and crash hard when they can't handle the stress of the obligations they've made, or they're going to turn into robotic activity machines who infect their workplaces and their families with this same never rest, never think, never stop mentality.

One of the essay questions we ask on our application asks kids to tell us what they would do if they were given a whole day with no obligations whatsoever. I think it's telling that we ask this, because it implicitly acknowledges that kids these days have lives that are too scheduled; if not, why would a day without obligations be something they had to imagine, rather than something that they experienced on a fairly regular basis?

And working my way through my first batch of applications for the year, it's clear that, just as you would assume from the endless lists of activities that they send us with their applications, these kids are far too overscheduled, because the answer to this essay question is exactly the same in at least 90% of their answers: if they had a whole day to themselves with no obligations, these kids would do...absolutely nothing. Sleep late, watch tv, hang out with friends/family, or one of dozens of other choices—the details of what they would do specifically don't matter much, what it boils down to is that they would stop doing all the stuff that they're busy crowing to us about in the rest of their application because they're drained, exhausted, and nearly burnt out from pretending to live adult lives years before they should have to.

When I'm reading files, I certainly don't punish kids for their involvement in school and community activities and organizations, largely because the kids with the most overstuffed resumes also tend to be the ones with the best academic records, and given the demanding rigor of the coursework at my school, academic performance in high school counts for a lot in our admissions process. But every now and then I come across a kid who has the academic solids, the good test scores, and other positive attributes who doesn't happen to be class president, captain of the soccer team, leader of the science olypiad team, or first chair violin in the school orchestra—a kid who doesn't seem to do much at all that would be deemed resume-worthy by college admissions standards.

It's those kids that I try to push for, especially the ones that take this supposed downtime to plunge deep into a personal hobby like making art or recording music. Because maybe, just maybe, when those kids get here, they'll continue to perform well academically without having every second of every day scheduled, and instead of turning into one of the activity robots that they'll be sharing dorms and classrooms with, they'll be there to show the robots that you can succeed and still leave some dead air in your schedule, that the dead air is, in fact, an integral part of their success. I don't know how likely that really is, but I have to hope. I have to root for the kids who were like me, and hope that they can stay the way they are and still compete with the Most Likely to Succeed automatons.

So just about a year ago, I got an email from my sister telling me that she had decided to have her wedding on November 25, 2006, two days after Thanksgiving. This despite the fact that everyone she had floated the idea to had reacted with some degree of negativity. This despite the fact that some years ago she stopped participating in our family's Thanksgiving, even though I know my father would have gladly paid for her plane ticket so it wouldn't have cost her anything to come. This despite the fact that there are other people (most notably my wife's parents) who participate in our Thanksgiving who would not be able to travel to Florida (everyone who I normally spend Thanksgiving with lives in either North Carolina or Maryland) for Thanksgiving and the wedding.

And my sister wasn't asking if we could attend on November 25, or if there were any issues with that date—she was simply telling us, and expecting everyone to show up even though, just like most Americans, members of my family already have quite a bit else going on that time of year.

I assumed that, since the date was so far off, and since she can be unthinking to the point of stupidity when it comes to considering things from other people's point of view, and since her choice of dates would have major impacts on everyone attending her wedding except her friends who lived nearby (none of her family except for my mom lives anywhere close to her), the date was still be flexible and it could easily be moved to a time less problematic for everyone. So I wrote her an email, laying out many of the issues I saw with the date (previous commitments, increased cost, hassle of traveling that time of year, etc.), and asking if she would consider moving the date either two weeks earlier or two weeks later so as to eliminate those issues.

She didn't answer me for a week, and when she did, it was only to tell me no and to dismiss my concerns as irrelevant. I wrote her again asking her both to reconsider and to explain to me what was so important to her about that date, and this time she ignored me for two weeks. Her answer about why that date was so important boiled down to her desire not to have the wedding during hurricane season, and nothing else. Which to me, as a rational person, is a pretty stupid reason: the odds of a hurricane affecting any particular day are pretty infinitesimal, even in a hurricane prone region, and blocking out an entire six month period as being unacceptable simply because of this irrational fear is pretty dumb. Especially because, you know, November 25 still falls during the official hurricane season (moving the wedding into the first part of December, which I suggested, would have eliminated both the concern about hurricane season and the concern with traveling during a holiday period).

Knowing my sister as well as I do, and knowing that as irrational and stupid as she can be about things sometimes, the hurricane thing still sounded pretty bogus—I guessed that what was really going on was that she was trying to co-opt a family holiday that she had stopped participating in years ago and turn it into something that focused on her, forcing us all to give up our traditions and pay attention to her. Normally I'm able to turn a blind eye to her manipulative, self-centered nature because it's been a long time since she's had any real involvement with my life, but this time she was not only screwing with my life, she was screwing with the lives of many people that I cared about and with a holiday that she had stopped caring about a long time ago. Even if most of my family was able to relocate down to Florida for Thanksgiving, Julie and I would not be able to, because her parents could not make the trip down to Florida given her father's health, which meant that I would be excluded from a family event that I haven't missed my whole life simply because of my sister's selfish and shortsighted choices.

I knew other people in the family didn't like the date either, but they were unwilling to stand up to her because it's always been part of our family dynamic to let her get away with anything because her responses when she doesn't get her way, even as someone in her 30s, are either to yell or cry. I didn't really have a choice given our obligations to Julie's parents, so I took one more stab at writing to her to see if we could work something out, reminding her that her choices had a negative effect on many people, including some who weren't even invited to her wedding. I'm not sure what kind of response I expected from her, given how ridiculous her responses up until that point had been, but I did expect some sort of response in fairly short order, since I had always written back to her promptly in an effort to resolve our conflict.

I didn't hear from her in over two months.

In the meantime, I started hearing from other family members about what she was telling them about why she picked the date she did, etc., and none of the stuff she was telling other people matched up with what she was telling me. It was clear that she was lying to everyone, feeding us all different stories and different excuses and hoping that none of us would actually compare notes. It wasn't surprising given her bad habit of lying, but it was still disappointing.

When she finally wrote me again, the day before my birthday, it was just about the worst response I could have imagined. Not only did she unfeelingly brush aside our concerns about Julie's parents, she also had a laundry list of bullshit excuses as to why she hadn't responded to me sooner (more lies), and she told me in a very hostile way that she was having her wedding when she was having it, and I just needed to shut up and buy my plane ticket.

Now, it's fine with me if she wanted to have her wedding whenever. The problem I had is that she felt people were obligated to attend her event but she didn't give them any input as to when that event would happen; what made it worse was that she arbitrarily scheduled that event at a time when most people have prior commitments. If my sister had handled the situation differently at the beginning by asking for everyone's input as to which dates in a range of possibilities would work (which seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do given that the date she chose had no special significance to her), I think a different date would have been selected, one that would have been far less problematic. Or even if she had acknowledged the poor choice of a date and told people not to feel obligated to attend, then it would have been easier to bow out, and maybe if enough people had said no she would have rescheduled of her own volition. But no, she made a terrible choice, didn't discuss it with anyone, and then still expected that everyone would cancel everything else that was going on and come just because she said so.

Unfortunately, a large number of people in my family did just that, because for her entire life, my family has let my sister have her own selfish way rather than teach her to think about other people and make decisions according; I can think of very few situations where she has been required to face the consequences of her bad decisions. So I decided that I'd had enough, and that I wasn't going to attend. I didn't speak to her again for six months, despite constant pleas from family members that I work it out with her (again, they tried to reason with me because I'm generally a pretty rational person, while not saying a thing to my unreasonable sister, which just served to further stiffen my resolve).

If all of this seems a little petty, well, I can understand why someone outside my family (and likely quite a few of my family members) would see it that way. But to me, this was the culmination of a lifetime of unequal treatment between me and my sister, me always having to be responsible and act considerately towards others, she always having others clean up her messes for her and acting selfishly. Despite my work over the years to distance myself from the dysfunctional relationships of my childhood, her actions in this situation struck a very raw nerve and reopened some very old wounds. It made me sick to thing about giving in to her demands and letting her once again have her way while everyone else was forced to sacrifice something for no reason other than her selfishness. I just couldn't go, no matter how much the rest of my family wanted me to.

More tomorrow. If you thought this was pointless and boring, you probably shouldn't come back here until at least Thursday.

Of course, I did end up going to my sisters's wedding, although it was very difficult for me to do so. I didn't actually change my mind until a few days before the ceremony, and I'm still not sure exactly why.

Since we still had plans to spend Thanksgiving with Julie's parents, that meant that we couldn't fly out until Friday, and it also meant that we had to work in our packing among all the cooking, eating, etc. of Thanksgiving day. The late purchase of tickets meant that we had to fly to Miami instead of Ft. Lauderdale, because the tickets to Ft. Lauderdale were ridiculously expensive, and also that we couldn't fly back the next Wednesday, because there simply weren't seats available from south Florida to Baltimore until then.

The events around the ceremony themselves were pretty fun—we got to see some people that we hadn't spent time with in a long time, including my aunt (my dad's sister) and uncle and my cousins, my other uncle (my mom's brother) and one of our cousins on that side, and most of my mom's close friends, not to mention my immediate family. I never questioned that the wedding, whenever it was to take place, was going to be a nice get together, I just had real issues with the timing and the justification for that timing. I know that many members of my family shared some of those same reservations, but none of them actually spoke to my sister about their concerns. Their attitude seemed to be that my sister is always irrational and never thinks about how what she's doing affects other people, and you just have to let her be that way. But I'm tired of doing that; I really wanted to make a point to her, to try to make her face up to some of the consequences of her decisions for once in her life.

But in the end, I guess I realized that I was hurting myself and my other family members more than I was teaching her any kind of lesson (which was underscored during a conversation I had with my sister when she told me that if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn't change anything). I still don't feel completely right about going, but given that this isn't a black or white kind of issue, I guess I feel like I'm more on the good side of the grey about my decision to go than I am on the bad. Hopefully this is the last time I'll ever be put in a position like this, because I can't think of another comparable event in my sister's life that would allow her to dictate a schedule to the rest of us.

I still have a lot of resentment towards my sister, both for a lifetime of living off of other people, particularly my mother; for her consistently selfish and manipulative behavior and her pattern of lying and not taking responsibility for her actions; and now for this particular incident, which I see as one of the most egregious sins she's ever committed, even moreso because she still doesn't see why what she did was wrong, or at least inconsiderate. I don't know if those feelings will ever change, because I honestly wasn't that close to her before and this year of strife certainly didn't make me feel any closer.

So that's the deal with my sister's wedding that I've been making veiled references to for the better part of a year. Now let us never speak of it again.

It was Regan's birthday yesterday, and since it had been forever since the last time we talked, I figured that was as good a reason as any to get back in touch with her. The last time I saw her was nearly two years ago, when she came up here for a brief visit. I was supposed to see her later that year at her wedding in October, but I got a letter in September telling me that she had called it off. We've had a couple of email exchanges since then, but since neither of us is really a phone person, we don't tend to communicate much, even though I feel as close to her as I ever did.

So I called her up and we began to get caught up on each other's lives. She has now moved from Birmingham to Athens, GA, where she works at the university press (in an odd coincidence, my friend Leila, who currently works at the UK press, also worked at the UGA press when she was in graduate school there). She has apparently completely moved on from her former fiancee (although we didn't really discuss that), and she's now dating someone in a PhD program for poetry at UGA (he is also, I was pleased to learn, passionate about comic books). She sounded happy.

I spent my half of the conversation telling her about the stuff with my sister's wedding and catching her up on other family stuff, like Tori's job in Hickory, my dad's retirement, and Dodd's life in Baltimore. We also talked a bit about Athens and nearby Milledgeville, home of Flannery O'Connor. The last time I went down to visit Regan we talked about going up there to visit Andalusia, the dairy farm where Flannery spent much of her writing life, but we never followed through; funny that she lives so close to it now.

We always make these promises to each other that we're going to visit at least once a year, because neither of us really likes to talk on the phone so seeing each other in person is pretty much the only way we can stay caught up. But this was a good phone call, and since we know full well that neither of us is going to visit the other any time soon, we resolved to have a phone call at least once a month. That might not sound like much to most people, but for us, it's a nice, manageable target.

The next time I post I will have my hands on a copy of the World of Warcraft expansion pack, the Burning Crusade. So let's hope I get some of my entries pre-written this weekend or content next week could be mighty thin.

This shouldn't really count as a post, but today it's going to have to, because, well, you know, I've been a little busy for the past 24 hours...

Getting a copy of the Burning Crusade turned out to be a little difficult for us, not because there weren't plenty of copies available (the local Gamestop where we had reserved two regular edition copies even had a midight opening that was very hard to pass up), but because we were trying to get copies of the Collector's Edition, which included tons of little extras, the most important of which was an exclusive in-game pet (I know this seems crazy to anyone who doesn't play this game, but then again, I'm guessing almost everything about this game seems crazy to people who don't play).

I had reserved an online copy through Best Buy, the only online outlet with copies left by the time I figured out that the Collector's Edition was going to be fairly hard to get, and Dodd had two copies reserved at a Best Buy in downtown Baltimore, so we were hopeful that we'd end up with three copies for the three of us (Julie plays too). But just in case, I decided to try and get copies first thing in the morning from stores that didn't take preorders on the Collector's Edition, big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.

As it happens, there are two Wal-Marts and one Target within 15 miles of us, and their times were staggered so that we could take a shot at each of them: one Wal-Mart opened at 6 a.m., the other opened at 7 a.m., and the Target opened at 8 a.m. We got up around 5 a.m. on Tuesday and got to the first Wal-Mart by 5:40, and we were pleased to see that there was no line forming (you laugh, but there are 8 million people who play this game). We were the first ones in, but when we got the game section, there were no copies of the game out, not even the regular edition, despite the presence of a large display touting the release date. So we asked one of the shelf stockers, and he went and found regular edition copies for us, but he couldn't find any Collector's Editions, so we decided to try the other two stores and wait to hear from Dodd about his reserved copies (his Best Buy didn't open until 10 a.m.).

I didn't have much hope that the other Wal-Mart would have any Collector's Editions either, because I'm sure that both stores get supplied from the same central warehouse. But we went anyway, and found about 10 other people already waiting in line. (See? I told you.) We were again the first people to make it to the game section (we took a shortcut through the registers, while everyone else to a less direct path). And again, there were no copies on the shelf. Soon the other shoppers arrived, and everyone was just standing looking at the same shelf that did not contain any copies of the game, when an employeed poked his head into the aisle and said, "Looking for these?" while holding up several copies of the game.

Most everyone else took their regular editions and left, but when we got to him, we asked if he happened to have any copies of the Collector's Edition. "I sure do," he said, opening a box full of them. We took three, just in case Dodd's reserved copies didn't pan out, and quickly paid for them so we could make our way home to begin the installation process.

Well, almost a week into the Burning Crusade expansion pack, and I'm already halfway done with the leveling process (the original version of the game capped your level progress at 60; the Burning Crusade takes it to 70, so level 60 characters have 10 new levels of experience they can gain). I've been surprised at how well the servers have held up; Blizzard has a reputation for bungling launches and big events, and the expansion pack was both, but aside from momentary blips, the servers seem to be handling the increased traffic from the release of the expansion very well. In fact, I'd say that the servers seem even more stable than they were in the month or so leading up to the launch.

The game has some beautifully designed new zones, and it's easy to solo a lot of the content. The new dungeons I've seen, four of them so far, are quick and painless with a good group, and they yield good gear. In fact, the gear might be a little too good—a lot of the gear I've accumulated, which previously was the best in the game and which only a small portion of the population had access to, has been rendered obsolete by items that are much easier to obtain than my gear was. I've already replaced five pieces of my gear, and I have no doubt that by the time I've finished leveling, everything I had a week ago will have been discarded. I understand what Blizzard is trying to do—level the playing field and make it so that within a few weeks all players will essentially have the same quality of gear before the raiding groups start to pull ahead of everyone again—and I understand why this was necessary to keep the more causual players in the game. But it still kinda sucks.

The other problem is that, if you don't stay a bit ahead of the average leveling pace, a lot of your time in-game is spent waiting for respawns, since you'll have thirty people in a tiny questing area that was really designed for only a few players at a time. I've been fortunate so far that I've been able to do this, but many of my friends in-game are taking it slower and are running into this problem on virtually every quest.

But within a month or two, all the leveling stuff will be done, and people will be back to running instances almost exclusively, and that problem doesn't exist in that environment (each group that goes into one of these dungeons gets their own copy, or instance, of that dungeon, so you don't have to fight over kills with other groups). All in all, I don't think Blizzard could have done much better with their first expansion pack for the most successful MMO of all time.

I'm feeling much more confident in my skills as a reader this year. Last year, my first year, I would typically bring back 5-8 files from each batch of 30 (which is how many the part-time readers are expected to read in a day) that I needed to consult with a full-time counselor about before making my final decision. My first couple of batches this year held to that same level this year, but since then, it's been much easier for me to make a call on some of the borderline cases—the last batch I took home only had one file that I wanted a second opinion on, and the counselor I consulted with agreed with my initial assessment.

Even though reading applications is a nice break from my normal duties for a couple of months, I still would never want to do a counselor's job full-time—way too much travel, working off hours, etc. But I'm lucky I work somewhere that I can participate in the process on some level without having to complete change my career path.

I tried to overindulge in playing World of Warcraft the first weekend after the expansion, hoping that I could then chill out about playing this week. That lasted about a day...

Finally saw Napolean Dynamite. Didn't get it.

Or rather, I got it, I just didn't think it was funny.

More files to read this week, which means more time working at home. I'm sure in another month, when I've been doing this three days a week and some weekends in addition to keeping up with my normal responsibilities, I'll be tired of doing this, but in the meantime, I really enjoy not having to be in the office.

My labbit obsession continues unabated. I am now the proud owner of 38 of the little guys in 27 different flavors. eBay is a great and terrible thing.

When we were in Florida for my sister's wedding, we spent one afternoon with my dad, Rachel, and Tori watching jai alai matches. For those of you that haven't seen it, the sport is a little like racquetball, only played on a much larger court, a much harder ball, and with long curved scoops that let players whip the ball around at ridiculous speeds.

My dad was the impetus; he used to go to matches when he lived in Florida and wanted to see them again. Betting was a central part of the action—it was kind of like going for an afternoon at the horse track, where there would be a match and then a short break for betting before the next group of competitors took their turn, so that you were always busy either watching the matches and rooting for your picks or going to the machines to place your bets for the next one.

The setup and scoring of the matches was a little complicated, but if you paid attention, you could get it by the third match. It didn't really matter, though—our methods of betting varied greatly, and the only person who seemed to have a logical method was dad, who bet on the second player out of the eight competitors in each match, because the way they did the scoring the second person had a mathematically better chance of winning (dad won pretty frequently, too). Rachel bet on a player who had a haircut like Dodd's in the daily guide they handed out at the door, I bet mostly on jersey colors, etc.

Since we had a rule that you couldn't bet on a player that someone else was already betting on, we had five out of the eight players picked in every match, and since we usually bet $2 to show, we typically had at least two winners in every match, so by the end of the day we were less than a dollar short of breaking even.

It's a very violent game, but it's very elegant and strategic too. It was interesting watching the older, not-as-in-shape veterans rely on strategy and precision, while the younger, less experienced players tried to use overpowering force to win their points. It was kind of sad to see how empty the place was—it could have been because it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but even still, I got the feeling that a lot of the "audience" for the sport were gamblers who didn't need to actually show up for the events and could instead watch the matches on satellite feeds in betting parlors at horse tracks or casinos.

We had a good time, though—we spent a lot of our time cheering for the guy who looked like Dodd, although we didn't call him by his real name, we actually cheered for Dodd. I think my two visits to a horse track have been a little more enjoyable, but that's likely because they were to a Kentucky horsetrack at the perfect time of year, but I'm definitely hoping to go see more jai alai next time I'm down for a visit to south Florida.

Didn't the Super Bowl used to happen in January? I mean, I know I didn't pay that much attention, but it just feels wrong for it to be in February. Is this an aberration, or is this just the way it's going to be from now on?
december 2007
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october 2007
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august 2007
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january 2007

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