january 2011

Will did okay during our holiday travel, but he was certainly as glad as we were to be back home after it was all over. It was actually kind of sweet—there was a look of dawning recognition on his face when we brought him into his nursery, and he started smiling once he realized where he was after so many changes of venue the previous week.

We got back with a couple of days to spare before New Year's, and we mostly just relaxes. For New Year's Eve, we had sushi and champagne and enjoyed another year of Anderson Cooper's and Kathy Griffin's New Year's Eve special on CNN, which is far and away the most entertaining entry in that category.

As usual, the break feels too long and not long enough, but now I'm entering the time of year when I get to take a break from my normal routine and spend two days at home reading applicant files, so that lets me ease back into work a bit more slowly than most folks in the office.

The Ravens finshed their season with a win and a 12-4 record, second best in the NFL, and unfortunately tied with Pittsburgh, who end up the division winners with the second seed and a bye week in the AFC playoffs. But it wasn't a great game; Cincinnati is the only non-playoff team they lost to this season, and it never really felt like they had control of this one.

For better or worse, the Ravens tend to play to the level of their opponents, which means they can be brilliant against brilliant teams and sloppy and disorganized against weaker foes, so I'm not that concerned that they've lost momentum heading into their game next Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs. But it would have been nice to see a dominant performance against a team that has been beaten soundly by other teams of the Ravens' caliber this season.

I was able to take a bunch of pictures while we were on Christmas break, so hopefully if I can get my act together and process them soon, I'll once again try to restart my daily photo feature. I should have enough for two or three months of content, and before I run out again, I'm hoping I can start doing once a month outings to visit new places for the express purpose of taking photographs with my friend Jeff, who recently moved back to Maryland from Colorado and who also shares my interest in photography.

I haven't taken any photos in over a year, and it was nice to see that I could easily slip back into that mode. I've never been a technician, and I need for the inspiration to come to me, but an interesting location yielded hundreds of shots, and I could have gotten hundreds more if the daylight hadn't ended. I'm excited to sort through them and have new content for the site, but like most of my photography efforts, it's all going to be about making the time to do it in a packed schedule.

Things are ridiculously crazy at work now. One of our team leaders, who has been with the university for more than 20 years, decided to accept another position with a different college just as we're entering the busiest part of our cycle, and I've been asked by my dean to take over the short and long term leadership of her team.

So in addition to being responsible for four more full time, 1 part time, and several temp and student workers, I've also in the past six months added two new people to my primary staff and take over the IT responsibilities for another office, which means my job has shifted even more towards pure management activities and away from production work. I think I'm adjusting pretty well, but there are days when I miss just being able to come in, put my headphones on, and focus on coding a web site for eight hours straight; now my days are filled mostly with meetings and answering emails.

Luckily my primary team is a great group of people who I can feel very confident handing off tasks to, and I'm pretty familiar with the business processes of the new group that I've been asked to manage. I'll also have help on that front—I've asked one of my employees to be the day-to-day point of contact for that team for the next three months while we work through the admissions cycle, and she has agreed to step up to that role. I don't know if she'll want to do it after we get through the crisis period or not, but once we get to April, things slow way down for that team and we can take our time deciding the right strategy for the long term.

Normally after a cold spell this lengthy and this intense, I would be grumbling about not getting any snow/snow days. But not after last year...

The only good thing that may have come out of the Ravens' trouncing of the Chiefs in Kansas City yesterday is that they got in some practice against a real opponent, and Todd Heap had a chance to get sharp before heading into Pittsburgh next week. As a bonus, they didn't suffer any injuries.

But now they have to go on the road again, and play a game against a very tough opponent who has had a week off on short rest (the game is on Saturday afternoon). Even if both teams were equal in terms of time off, etc., this would still be a brutal game, but having to travel to Kansas City, then back to Baltimore, and then to Pittsburgh in less than a week while the Steelers have been relaxing at home since January 2 gives the Steelers a distinct edge.

But it's certainly a winnable game—after all, the Ravens beat the Steelers at home once already this season. You have to hope that they have hit their stride as a team after reeling off five straight wins, and that the emotion of the playoffs will give them the extra energy they'll need to get through the next game given that they've got to be physically worn down a bit by now.

I took a trip down to DC to visit some of the art museums on Saturday for the first time in a long time, primarily to see a Rothko exhibit at the National Gallery that closed on Sunday and that I've been meaning to get to since last March. Originally I had planned to go with Tom, and when I asked some local friends, it looked like a couple of them were going to come along as well, but then Tom had to work that afternoon and one of the Baltimore folks canceled, so it ended up just being me and Jeff, which was cool because he's been here for more than six months now and I haven't spent nearly as much time with him outside work as I would have liked.

The Rothko exhibit was in the tower at the east wing of the National Gallery, where they house the more recent stuff. It was a series of black on black paintings that were made at the same time as the black on black work he did for the chapel in Houston, and the exhibit also had the 24 minute piece that was composed for the opening of that chapel playing starting every half hour.

At first I wasn't that impressed, even though the space was really cool. I prefer his pieces that have a little more contrast between the fields of color that he uses, and although on a couple of pieces, it was really easy to distinguish between the maroon-black of the base field and the charcoal-black of the floating field, there were also a couple where the entire canvas appear black at first glance.

But as most of the more subtle Rothko pieces do, their beauty became evident if you sat and stared at them for a while; hidden highlights and textures and contures slowly revealed themselves, like when your eyes are adjusting to the objects in a dark room, and there was also a nice aftereffect when you would stop looking at a painting after a few minutes and look at the blank white wall next to it (although Rothko would have hated this; he preferred for his works to be hung close together without a lot of space in between them). It was also interesting, after staring for a few minutes at one of the deep black ones, to turn back to the ones with more obvious contrast between the blacks; what had previously seemed subtle differences between a deep maroon-purple and a charcoal popped like the difference between red and black.

Although I waited for the final weekend, it wasn't too crowded, which was nice—it's hard to meditate on Rothko's works as he desired when there's a crowd. I always had it in the back of my mind that if I ever visited Houston, I'd need to make a trip to his chapel, but I'm a little more motivated to get out there after seeing some of the sister works to those pieces.

I don't know if the divisive right wing rants of people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin influenced the Tucson gunman and made him feel more justified about his horrific actions, but all in all, I'd rather be affiliated with the political party that doesn't have to start shrilly defending itself every time one of these tragedies occurs.

The city spent yesterday panicking about the snow we got last night, but it turned out to be mostly a non-event. We got a couple of inches, but nothing that couldn't be cleaned up before the morning rush hour. I decided to read files from home and not take Will to daycare just in case, it probably would have been perfectly safe to do so.

After we finished with the Rothko exhibit, we spent a few minutes looking around the permanent modern collection in the upper galleries, which has some nice pieces. There were several O'Keefe's that were technically from her flower series but which were really more abstract; there's one that's predominantly green that has a wicked red slash down the middle that really sticks in my memory. Things had been moved around since the last time I'd been there, but I was still able to locate some familiar favorites from Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, and Hans Hoffman.

There was also an Arcimboldo exhibit on the next leve down, which we didn't spend any time in, but there was an accompanying piece by Phillip Haas, a contemporary artist and film director. When I saw this piece, I was immediatley reminded of an exhibit I saw at the Corcoran a few years ago where an artist took famous paintings and turned them into essentially giant dioramas, and I assumed it must be by the same artist. (Sidenote: it's surprising to me how many of the links in that entry are outdated now; I've updated a couple, but there are several resources that are just gone and I'm leaving the bad links in there anyway, because at one point they were all fully functional.) It turns out that Haas was not the artist behind that exhibit (the Corcoran exhibit was done by another contemporary artist named J. Seward Johnson Jr.), but Haas' attempt to pull a painting into a three dimensional world didn't work much better than Johnson's did

Oddly enough, while doing some research on Haas, I discovered that one of the films he directed was The Music of Chance, which is based on one of my favorite books by Paul Auster, who I wrote my undergraduate thesis on. Weird little coincidence.

After the National Gallery, we headed over to the Air & Space Museum to grab some lunch. This was my favorite place to visit in DC when I was a kid, and I still have a soft spot for it so I try to visit it whenever I'm in the neighborhood. I always have to touch the moon rock they have at the front when I go, but either most people don't know it's there or they just don't care anymore. When I would come as a kid, there was always a line for it, but even though the museum was reasonably crowded when we were entering, everyone just walked right past.

I like the sunny, airy addition they have built for the cafeteria, and even though the food was terrible, it was terrible in the same way that I remember from my childhood, so I've always enjoyed my overpriced terrible lunch there. Now, however, the food service has been taken over by McDonald's, which means it's still terrible and overpriced but without the nostalgia from my youth that makes it tolerable. We ate there anyway because it was getting pretty late and we didn't want to go to Union Station, but I'm not sure I'll return as often in the future.

I can barely talk about the Ravens game. That was a very winnable game. Pittsburgh was sloppy, bumbling, and downright inept in the first half, and the Ravens were sharp and focused. The Steelers turned over the ball three times, including an easy touchdown when they left the ball on the ground even though the refs hadn't blown the play dead, and they even missed an easy field goal at the end of the half. All they had to do was play their game and stay calm, and that game was theirs.

But as anyone who follows the NFL at all, that's not the way it turned out. Taking a 21-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, the Ravens, who were tops in the NFL at preventing scores by opponents in the third half (and with a defense that is among the best at preventing points after a turnover), turned the ball over three times, which led to two touchdowns and a field goal.

The first was a fumble by Ray Rice, who hadn't fumbled the ball once all season. It was within 25 yards of the endzone, and it led to a Steelers touchdown. Then Flacco threw an interception which the Steelers offense took over at the 25, and again they scored a touchdown to tie the game. Finally was a fumble by Flacco as he tried to take the ball from the center, which again put the Steelers within 25 yards of scoring, and that led to a field goal.

The Ravens looked like they might be back in it when Webb returned a punt for a touchdown, but that was called back to about the 20 yard line after a holding penalty against the Ravens. Then Boldin dropped a touchdown pass that was very catchable, especially for a reciever of his caliber, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal to tie it. The Steelers had enough time left to drive back down the field for a touchdown, and the Ravens just couldn't put a drive together to match them.

This is heartbreaking for Ravens fans for more than the usual reasons. For one, with the Jets win over New England on Sunday, a Ravens win would have meant that Baltimore would have hosted the AFC championship game, and I can't even begin to describe what that would mean to the fans and the city.

This should have been our year. The offense had viable short pass, long pass, and running games, and the defense had the perfect mix of seasoned veterans and strong young players. And most important of all, no one was hurt; the team on the field for the postseason was exactly the team we wanted on the field at the start of the season. Although it's likely the team will be contenders again next year, the odds of us putting together that perfect team again are slim, and I really believe that if we had made it past the Steelers, the Super Bowl was ours, especially after the results of all of the weekend's games.

As it stands, I will be surprised if it's not the Steelers making that trip to Dallas instead, and I think they will manhandle either Chicago or Green Bay (I'd put my money on Green Bay). I don't know if I can even watch the game if it's the Steelers against the Bears; I'm naturally going to be rooting against the Steelers if they are the AFC champions, but I think they will crush the Bears, and I can't watch them coast to a championship that could have been ours.

It's going to be a long, long offseason. But there's always next season, and if the Ravens can build on what they accomplished this season, they might just be able to finally bring another championship to this city.

After we had our sad little McDonald's lunch at the Air & Space Museum, Jeff and I wanted to head to the Phillips Collection to see an exhibit of early photography called TruthBeauty that focused on one of the earliest official movements in photography, Pictorialism (Jeff is also a photography hobbyist, and he knows a lot more about the technical aspects than I do). After a quick look at the map on my iPhone, I decided that it was within walking distance despite the bitter cold, so we started heading over.

It wasn't until we were about ten blocks off the mall (which was probably about 20 blocks from where we started) that we looked at the map again and realized that I had made a colossal error, because we still had another 10 blocks or so to go. I mean, I'm happy I got to road test the new winter coat that my mother-in-law got me for Christmas, but if I had it to do over again, it would have saved a lot of time and frozen cheekbones if we had taken the Smithsonian metro up to the stop closest to the Phillips.

We got there eventually, though, and made our way upstairs. I've never really studied the history of photography, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but there were some really great photographs on display (all black and white, of course); it's really amazing how quickly that art form became established and some of the basic composition rules that still work today were stumbled upon by its earliest practioners.

I'm struggling to remember the artists whose work I liked the most—Coburn, Steichen, and Stieglizt are the ones I can remember, but there were two or three more who I can't. I tried to order the catalog from the show after my visit, but it was sold out. But there was a ton of great work, including some nice shots by Steiglitz, who I sort of despise as a person but who I can't help respecting as an artist and cultural figure. Somehow I've got to get my hands on this book or one like it so I can learn more about some of the photographers whose work I'd never encountered before but whose images have stuck with me after the show.

There were two especially interesting parts to the exhibit. The first was a wall which showcased five different prints made from the same negative, which the artist made to bolster his case that photography was a legitimate art form by applying different techniques to the development process to demonstrate how much the photographer could influence the outcome of the piece even after taking the actual photo (there was another artist nearby who would actually use brushes and other techniques to manipulate the image during the development process).

The other surprising element was a special gallery of Coburn's work, part of which featured photos he had taken to illustrate books. The publishers hadn't just used photos he'd previously taken, he actually created new images specifically for the books, and it's clear that he spent a lot of time finding just the right setting and crafting the image further after he took the photograph. I'm not sure why we don't see that more now, especially given how much easier it is to digital manipulated photographs to help them achieve the right tone for the text that they're going to illustrate.

The other special exhibit at the Phillips was complimentary selections from the Phillips' permanent collection and Oberlin College's art collection. There was a lot of nice stuff stuff—some good Cezanne's, a buch of Van Gogh's I hadn't seen before, and one of Ralph Albert Blakelock's Moonlight pieces (another Paul Auster coincidence—the Blakelock owned by the Brooklyn Museum was the subject of an article that Auster wrote for ARTnews called "Moonlight at the Brooklyn Museum", which was later incoporated almost verbatim into his Moon Palace novel).

I had remarked to Jeff when we were viewing the photography exhibit upstairs that it was amazing how quickly photographers learned to take advantage of the unique features of their medium compared to traditional visual arts, most notably leaving objects in the foreground (like silhouettes of trees or leaves hanging down) that painters would have simply edited out. And then, of course, just to prove me wrong, I noticed that one of the Cezanne's that predated the work in the photography exhibit left trees and leaves in the foreground and used them almost like a framing device, just as a photographer might.

The other work I remember very distinctly was a portrait of a woman by Oskar Kokoschka that belongs to the Phillips' permanent collection. The link above doesn't do it any justice at all, even though it's the official large version offered by the museum's web site. It's a very bluish portrait, except at her head and hands, which glow red and orange and which the artist has clawed electric sparks coming out of. There's chaos all over that canvas, the details of which you can't see on the web image (it's also a pretty large canvas); apparently he had a crush on this subject, but his affections weren't returned, and you could feel the love/hate he had for her washing over you as soon as you walked into the gallery where it was hanging. I kept returning to it over and over, and I'm hoping that when the Oberlin joint exhibit is over, it's going to be returned to a permanent spot somewhere; I'd hate to think of it living in storage.

Before we left the Phillips, I made a surprising and happy discovery: the Rothko Room. It's a small room with a large Rothko piece on each wall with a single bench in the center, and no more than eight visitors are allowed in the room at a time. It's not the original Rothko Room, which both Phillips and Rothko had a hand in designing, but it's a recreation in a new space in the museum. These paintings were much more in line with the stuff of his that I like, with a more vivid palette than the black paintings we'd seen at the National Gallery earlier in the day.

There was one painting where, at the top, there were drip marks heading towards the ceiling. I know from the research I've done on Rothko that there is debate over the proper orientation for some of his works; it was a big enough issue after that Rothko eventually starting cataloging the works still in his possession and putting an up arrow on the back of the canvas so that future curators and collectors would know how he intended for them to be seen. But I have a hard time believing that's what happened here, given his involvement with the museum after he sold the pieces and his relationship with Phillips. I'm guessing he either painted it a certain way and then changed his mind or turned it upside down to paint the top half out of expediency.

We found a black and white photograph downstairs of the original Rothko Room, and one of the things I found interesting was that the room was carpeted. You just don't think about museum spaces being carpeted these days; it's all hardwood floors or tile. I made a remark to Jeff that Episcopal churches were the same way; no carpet, just hardwood floors. And so of course, when I went to church on Sunday (a church I've been attending for several years now), I noticed for the first time that it had carpeting. Thin, poorly laid carpeting over what is likely an original hardwood floor, but carpeting nonetheless.

We were the very last people out of the museum (which made it pretty easy for the coat check girl to find our coats), and we made our way to the closest metro stop before heading home. The train was crowded with Caps fans on their way to the game, but once we passed the station closest to the stadium, we thought we would have the car all to ourselves. But we were wrong; at the next stop, a preteen cheer team and all of their coaches and chaperones got on and surrounded us.

A weird ending, but a good day.

I'll be rooting for the Packers, and between them and the Bears, they are the team with an actual chance to win the Super Bowl, but really, is there any way that the Steelers won't win this year? It makes the Ravens loss sting that much more—if not for that series of turnovers to start the third quarter, it's highly likely that Baltimore would be headed to Dallas this year with a good chance of bringing the city another championship.

Will has been sniffly the last few days with something that he seems to have picked up at daycare, and now it's finally spread to me and even to Julie (who never gets sick). It's not bad enough to knock any of us out of commission (no fevers, etc.), but it's lingering and annoying. I have a hard enough time warding off germs from my coworkers, and I have a feeling this is just a preview of what hte cold and flu season is going to be like for me for the next decade or so.

This should be an interesting day: snow in the morning, rain during the day, and then snow again at night ending well before dawn. So even though we could end up with 10 or more inches, the timing might work out just right that Hopkins won't close but will instead to a slight delay or liberal leave (which is what they decided to do this morning).

An unusual snow day today: Hopkins is closed and Towson is merely opening late. Usually we're the last place to close, and even if everyone else is closed, we'll do a delay or open on our normal schedule. The only thing I can figure is that the leadership who make the decision about whether to close are all snowed into their neighborhoods, and though most of them live in Roland Park less than a mile from school, even they can't get to campus.

It won't change my day too much—I was planning to read files from home today anyway—but it's nice that Julie doesn't have to worry about trying to get in in this weather (we probably got a foot or a little more, and even though we live on a snow emergency route and the snow stopped around midnight last night, our road still hasn't been plowed).

I thought I was getting over this illness, but it came on strong yesterday, and there was a twelve hour stretch Thursday night into Friday morning that was one of the worst nights of my life. Hopefully things are turning around now, but this thing has already laster longer and hit me harder than I ever expected. The only goo thing is that Julie and Will don't seem to be similarly affected, even though they both seem to have a much milder version that's still hanging around.

This thing just will not go away. I had some soup on Friday night, and that settled okay, so I had a chicken sandwich for lunch on Saturday, the first solid food I'd had in two days at that point (I had two pieces of toast on Thursday that I couldn't keep down). That didn't settle as well, but at least it stayed down, although I was miserable and didn't eat again until more than 24 hours later on Sunday night.

I started with soup on Sunday, and then had a little brown rice and chicken with vegetables. Again, I didn't feel great, but I kept it down, and I'll likely have some for lunch again today if I'm still feeling okay. The biggest problem now is massive sinus pressure and and accompanying headache, which leaves me feeling a little dizzy and disoriented. Luckily I don't have anywhere I have to drive today, and it looks like the weather might keep us home tomorrow. And Wednesday and Thursday are my application reading days at home anyway, so it's possible that I won't have to drive myself anywhere until Friday. If I'm not feeling much better before then, I'll be heading in to see a doctor.

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