april 2016

I didn't really take a whole week off—although I tried as hard as I could, I did at least a couple of hours of work every day the first week of April except for Monday (which was my birthday). We usually don't do much for birthdays—a nice dinner out, sometimes a special activity of some sort—but this year Julie went all out—the whole long weekend was like one extended celebration.

We started on Friday night with Julie surprising me with a grown up dinner (Shellie came over and did Will with movie night—he made her watch Hop, a movie about the Easter Bunny that he'd been obsessed with for the prior two weeks). We're still looking for a truly remarkable upscale restaurant in Atlanta, and this time we tried Bacchanalia (which, in order to get a spot at 8 on a Friday night, Julie had to make reservations for back in January). It's regularly listed as one of the best (and often THE best) restaurant in Atlanta, and it was definitely our favorite from the ones we've tried so far.

They have a four course prix fixe menu where you select a starter, a main course, a cheese course, and a dessert, with suggested wine pairings (at additional cost) for each course except for the cheese course (and yes, there were suggested pairings for dessert). We started with six raw oysters (also an additional cost), and then I selected potatoes and caviar for my starter, NY strip for my main course, a bleu cheese for my cheese course, and cheesecake for my dessert.

The potatoes and caviar was probably the most interesting thing I had—it was potatoes whipped with a generous portion of butter until the texture was almost like a dense whipped cream over a bed of caviar, which provided a nice salty bite together with the potatoes. My NY strip was very good, as was the cheese course, which was the second most interesting dish—the bleu cheese had been transformed through some sort of molecular gastronomy process into a fine powder, which was then minced with a small salad of baby asparagus. I finished with the cheesecake and coffee—a pretty standard dessert for me, but this one was very good.

I'm still not sure if it quite measures up to our all-time favorite, Volt (Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant in Frederick, MD), but it came pretty close. Next time I might be a little more adventurous in my selections (NY strip is safe but there's not a whole lot you can do to transform it in a really unique way) and see if that makes a difference - at Volt I always tried to pick the most interesting or unusual selection, and that certainly introduced me to some dishes that I wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

Saturday was relatively quiet, which was just what I wanted—it had been a busy and stressful couple of weeks leading up to the release of our Regular Decision admission population, and I just needed to decompress and not do any work.

Sunday, though, was pretty active. On Sunday around lunch we went to the Festival on Ponce, an annual arts festival in a local park that also has rides and activities for kids. We ran into one of Julie's coworkers who also lives in our neighborhood and spent some time hanging out with them (Will of course got on very well with their oldest child). We tagged team looking at the art and watching Will, and then visited our favorite artists on the way out to see what we might want to buy. We ended up with the following:

The big squid-flippers-skeleton thing might be a good match for some other folk art I have—I little rectangular painting on a block of wood featuring aliens and flying saucers, and two other little paintings of an astronaut and a monkey. The bird print I'd like to match with two other bird-themed pieces we got when we moved to Atlanta, and the bug prints will go with some displays of actual bugs we got at a charity auction a couple of years ago.

Later Sunday afternoon, we met up with my sister, her husband, my cousin, and her wife at one of our favorite Atlanta restaurants, Holy Taco (which was actually the first real restaurant I ate at on my first recruiting trip to Atlanta) to celebrate my birthday with family. This same group had gotten together back in February for lunch and to see my cousin's recently refurbished house, and it was great to see them all again. Plus, it was just warm enough to sit outside—an early sign of the coming spring and the return to warm weather. Margaritas, mexican street corn, and chips with queso made it a great night, and a really fun way to celebrate my birthday with more than just our nuclear family unit.

Monday, my actual birthday, was a pretty awesome day. When I woke up, Will gave me a bowl he made at one of those paint your own pottery shops that's nearby, an echo of the one he gave me last year for my birthday. Then we left the house around 1:30 for a surprise that turned out to be club level seats for the Braves home opener, the last Opening Day game that will be played in Turner Field.

When we've gone to Braves games before, Will has only lasted until about the sixth inning, even if we didn't get there until after the game started, but we got there in time to see the tail end of batting practice that day, Will lasted all the way until the ninth. We walked around a lot before the game started, and getting a lot of snacks certainly helped keep him distracted, but he actually sat through most of the game and was even paying attention to the plays occasionally (I wonder if going to the Emory softball games and getting to be a bat boy has made him more interested in the sport).

That boy has an amazing memory—he was probably only three the last time we were at the stadium, and he still remembered - and led us to—a screen mounted on a wall on the far side of the stadium in the upper deck that looked like a giant smartphone. I had no memory of what he was talking about, and it was the only one in the stadium, and yet he remembered exactly where it was and was able to walk us to it.

Will was beat by the time we left, but even though it was spring break that week, we had to get him to bed early because he and Julie were flying out the next morning to go visit her mother. He napped in the car on the way home, woke up long enough to have birthday cupcakes when we got home, and then crashed despite the excitement of his impending trip (he loves flying to see Julie's mother because they don't have direct flights, so he gets to fly on TWO planes for both the trip to grandma's and the return trip).

Again, Monday was a really good day, but it could have been an all-time great day if the two sporting events I watched had turned out slightly differently. They were both nail-biters, but neither of them ended with the team I was rooting for winning.

First was the Braves game, where the Braves took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning after scoring a run in the eighth on a bases-loaded walk. They brought out their closer, who promptly proceeded to load the bases himself, and then very nearly got out of it.

The first out came on a strikeout, out number two came on a shallow hit to left field, and what should have been out number three happened when the left fielder threw to home and easily beat the runner coming from third. The problem was that the catcher dropped the ball when the runner knocked into him, so instead of getting the third out and ending the game, it tied the game and sent it to extra innings. And of course in the tenth, the Nationals scored another run for which the Braves had no answer, ending in a 4-3 loss. Very exciting, but very disappointing.

Later that evening I watched UNC play for the national championship against Villanova. In my March Madness brackets I'm always a sucker for UNC and the ACC in general (except for Duike, which I always knock out in the first or second round because 1) it's fun and 2) it's even funnier in the years when they blow it and actually do get knocked out early, which seems to happen every five years or so), so in years like this when ACC teams go farther than expected and UNC stays in it until at least the Final Four, I do pretty well (in fact, I had already won the office contest no matter whether UNC won or not, since I had the most points and the only other person who had a team in the final two also had UNC as the winner).

That was a hard fought game, and both teams played with a lot of heart and both clearly deserved to be there, and it's no surprise at all that the last team to have the ball sunk a last second shot for the win. It's just disappointing that after Marcus Paige's amazing shot that left only 4.7 seconds on the clock that they couldn't play defense well enough to keep Villanova from getting the ball to one of their outside shooters and letting him have a clean look (I mean, couldn't they have fouled at and least guaranteed a tie?).

If the Braves catcher had held onto that ball and Atlanta had won in dramatic fashion in the last Opening Day at Turner Field (they move to a new stadium outside the Perimeter next season), and if UNC had won the championship on the back of that final shot from Paige, it would have been a truly epic day in sports fandom for me, and the fact that it could have happened on my birthday would have made those wins all the more special. But alas, it was not to be.

On Tuesday morning I drove Julie and Will to the airport and then became a bachelor for a few days with very few responsibilities: show up for my scheduled meetings at work (about half a day's worth on both Tuesday and Wednesday), don't let the house burn down, and don't let the cats die. Otherwise, since I was taking vacation that week, I was free to do as I pleased.

And I didn't do much. There was more work email I couldn't ignore than I was hoping for, but I was pretty much able to take Thursday off, and I only had a couple of small issues to handle on Friday. I actually left the house every day except Friday, and I didn't get takeout once, instead finishing off leftovers and making food at home.

Tuesday night was beers with my friend Steve at Thinking Man (I see him every couple of weeks, and we've hit up Mac Magee (my go-to for Decatur pubs), Steinbeck's, and now Thinking Man, and they're all pretty good, but Thinking Man's fried dill pickle slices with cayenne seasoning stood out as a great little bar snack) where for once neither of us had to get home especially early, so we ended up staying out until 11:30.

On Wednesday I met my friend Jeff for a movie after his business school classes ended. We saw Batman v Superman (more about that later) because we both knew we were going to see it even though we both expected it to be terrible. I actually don't remember what I did on Thursday that took me out of the house, but I'm absolutely positive that I ran some errands or something. But that's how untethered I was—no one really cared where I was or what I was doing, and I didn't have anywhere specific to be.

That's nice for a short stretch, especially for someone like me who needs some moments of solitude each day, but by the time I picked up Julie and Will from the airport on Saturday, I was very ready for them to be home. They had a good trip visiting Julie's mom, I had a good few days of ignoring work and not really having any other responsibilties, and we still had a couple of days to have a normal weekend together before work started back up.

So: Batman v Superman. This was not a good movie, as you have no doubt surmised from either the critical lambasting it's received or because you've seen it yourself, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the critics had led me to believe. I actually liked it better than Zack Snyder's solo Superman movie, and while it was nowhere near either Tim Burton's or Christopher Nolan's conception of the Batman universe, it was definitely better than the two post-Burton films made by Joel Schumacher.

There were plenty of awkward, painful moments, however, and Snyder so freely resculpted the DC universe to suit his purposes that it was clear that he decided on the plot first and worried about how to fit it into the canon later. There were also a lot of dream sequences that you weren't sure we're actually dream sequences, which were introduced and dismissed with little to no explanation. The worst thing to sit through was a laugh-out-loud interaction between the two title characters centered around the name "Martha" that was crucial for moving the plot forward—which underscores how ridiculous it is to call these loosely-strung-together setpieces a plot at all.

And as many critics have noted, there was a lot of time spent setting up future single-character spinoffs that had no bearing on the actual plot of this film—we got glimpses of Aquaman (set up as a Poseidon-like figure) and the Flash, along with a hefty does of Wonder Woman, who stole the show simply because the two title characters were so leaden that they almost made you eager for Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor and his sputtering, nonsensical overacting (but don't get me wrong: Eisenberg was pretty awful too).

But in the end, this film was pretty much exactly what you would have expected: Ben Affleck was being Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder created the same kind of film he's always created, Jesse Eisenberg was being his usual chatterbug self, and whoever that guy who plays Superman is was being just as empty and boring as he was in his solo movie. So yes, that's a terrible concoction, but it wasn't the unanticipated world-ended that the critics seem to think it is.

Will is doing soccer again this spring (we've been doing it every fall and spring for the past few years; I think this is his fourth or fifth season overall), and it seems like it's finally starting to click with him.

He's never really been that engaged in the past, and instead has been far more interested in playing around with his teammates off the field (many of them are longtime pals going back to preschool), but we've kept signing him up because 1) we want him to be engaged with a team sport of some sort and 2) it was a good way to stay in regular contact with some of his old friends who we don't see in the context of school anymore since all of them are in separate school districts now.

But whereas in past seasons, he might semi-accidentally score a goal two or three times across the course of the season, this year he's scored at least one goal in every game, and he's even had a couple of multiple score games. He's paying attention to where the ball is, isn't afraid to get in the scrum and fight for the ball, has a lot more control over the ball when he does get it, and is even eagerly volunteering to be on the field (whereas before the game was secondary to his playtime with his friends).

He's not a soccer superstar or anything, and it certainly helps that most of the teams we've seen this season have been more at the level of our team whereas last year we played so many great times that had multiple dominating players, but I'm so happy to see him really engaging with the sport, to the point where I think it might turn into something he willingly wants to continue as he gets older.

I've never liked the slight midwestern nasal tone of the default Siri American voice, so I decided to switch her to the British incarnation. The problem: I think she's expecting to hear me talk with a British accent as well, so her listening is oriented around that accent. Since I've made the switch, she's gotten dramatically worse at understanding what I'm saying, and that wasn't a high bar in the first place.

Still, a condescending upperclass British accent is much more tolerable to my semi-Anglophilian tendencies than then earnest whine of the upper midwest, so I think I'm keeping her for now.

I finally finished reading all six of the Stainless Steel Rat books that I bought a few weeks ago, and as fun as it was in some ways to revisit this character (who I was strongly attached to for a couple of years in my early teens), I think I've had my lifetime fill now.

There are two things I figured out about these books that I didn't notice when I was a kid: 1) Jim DiGriz is a sociopath—not the serial killer kind of sociopath, but a sociopath nonetheless, who will never put anyone else's interests above his own and only sticks to his "moral code" of non-violence as long as he doesn't need to use violence to get what he wants; and 2) these books are not about a master thief at all, but rather focus on DiGriz infiltrating various military organizations in order to topple an evil/corrupt regime.

I read at least three new books as part of this binge, and even though two of them were prequels that were set before we encoutner DiGriz in the first SSR novel, I still have no real idea how he transformed from a young, ambitious, and greedy sociopath into the character that we see in the original novel, which should sort of be the point of a prequel trilogy (I mean, even George Lucas was able to get that part of the Star Wars prequels right).

There are some books from that period in my life that I have read again in recent years that I'm pretty sure I'll read again at some point in my life (like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and some of Asimov's and Heinlein's works), but I don't see myself ever returning to these.

I remain endlessly fascinated by Ink Master, especially given that I don't have any tattoos and I don't have any particular interest in them outside of this reality competition show. There's a tattoo artist who lives on our street, and although I've so far resisted the temptation, I've really wanted to ask him 1) if he watches the show and 2) if so, what he thinks of the artists on the show.

Is this like the early seasons of Top Chef or some other reality shows like Project Runway where the competitors really aren't that great compared to real stars in that industry, or are these unknowns actually some of the more talented in the field who really are admired and respected by their peers if they win the show (which is sort of where Top Chef seems to have gotten in its later years)?

The success of the show has spawned several other tattoo-themed reality shows, but I don't watch any of them—just Ink Master, and sometimes its one-off spinoff specials. I can't explain the appeal, but sometimes you don't need to justify your tastes, you just need to enjoy them without complication.

Last Wednesday Julie and I were supposed to go see a concert, so we had arranged for Shellie to come babysit, and we had her come over early so she could eat dinner with us. Will was pretty excited to see her, but then he uncharacteristically wasn't really wanting to hang out with her and was instead clinging to me. Then he said he wanted to go lay down, and when we went in to check on him a few minutes later, he was asleep on his bed and his forehead felt very warm.

It turned out that he had a fever, so we skipped the concert and stayed home with him. He seemed to feel fine the next day, and he went to school the rest of the week, but then again on Friday night he came down with a fever and got sick a couple of times before going to bed early.

He ended up staying home all weekend, which was a shame because there were some fun events that he had to miss—two birthday parties (including one for a friend who is moving to California in a couple of months) and his soccer game on Sunday. The hardest part of the whole weekend was when he was pleading with us—begging and crying and screaming—to go to the Saturday afternoon birthday party. He said he felt fine, but he was clearly exhausted and still running a fever, so there's no way we could have taken him.

He was again better by school on Monday, so the two rounds of sickness really sucked for him, causing him to miss a night of fun with Shellie and a whole weekend with multiple events with his friends.

This is simultaneously one of the best and worst times of year if you are an HBO subscriber. It's amazing because we're getting our annual fix of three great shows—Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, and Veep—but terrible because these are the three best series on HBO right now, and they'll all run for ten weeks at the same time and then we'll have to wait another 42 weeks before we get any new episodes from any of them.

If HBO had more good shows to scatter across the year, this wouldn't be so problematic, but these are really the only three series that I'm watching on HBO these days (aside from John Olliver's great Last Week Tonight), and I'd much rather get one of them at a time but have more to look forward to throughout the year than getting all three of them in one huge sugar rush and then having to come down from that the rest of the year.

I haven't started watching the new season of Fear the Walking Dead, nor have I watched any of the episodes of the second half of the most recent season of the original Walking Dead. My brother-in-law is a huge fan, and he and Julie have both finished watching it, but so far we haven't been able to talk about it because I haven't finished the season and they don't want to spoil it for me.

I don't know what it is that's changed about that show for me—after I watched the first couple of seasons on Netflix, I DVR'd all new espisodes after that and would usually watch them within 24 hours of them airing. But now I tend to wait until close to the end of each half season or until after it is over and semi-binge on them, watching an episode every night for a couple of weeks until I work my way through the season.

I'm definitely going to watch this half season at some point in the near future, but if it doesn't pull me back in and make me want to engage immediately when the next season starts airing in October, I might have to give up on this show for awhile. I'm just not sure what the point is anymore, I don't care much about any of the characters I used to love, and there just doesn't seem to be any sort of meaningful conclusion they're working toward. And if the message is "there are no meaningful conclusions in the world", well, I can do without that proclamation—even if I think it might be true.

Game of Thrones has sort of turned into the same experience as Walking Dead for me—I don't immediately pounce on the new episodes like I used to (or like I do for Silicon Valley or Veep), but I do watch them eventually and still get some pleasure out of them (although that's been diminishing returns since season 2—sort of like the books the show is based on).

Maybe this season will grab me again once I start watching it—for the first time, the producers of the show have run out of material from the source novels and are telling new stories that George R.R. Martin hasn't yet shared with his readers. Martin has indicated that although the show's producers are aware of the long-term story arcs for the characters in the novels, they show will diverge in many ways from the stories whenever they are published, just as some of the stories in past seasons of the show have been different than what happened to certain characters in the books.

That's likely the first time that's happened in the history of a serialized television show based on a series of novels, and it feels really weird to me—Martin is the one who made this world, and it's really through his words that I want to experience its stories first-hand, and then watch the dramatizaton of them after I've had a chance to know what his intentions towards the characters were.

But now the world of these characters has been turned on its head, and we'll be reading the future books with the distortions of the tv show as the primary experience we had with the later parts of the storyline as our source material and the books as the alternate universe.

I ran my first offcial 5K race a year ago, and tomorrow I'm going to run that same race again. I know my time will be much improved—I had only been running outdoors (as opposed to a treadmill) for about three weeks at that point, so I had no strategy for outdoor courses and my main goal was just to finish—but I'm curious to see by how much.

Over the next month, I will also run the second and third races I ever ran, and even in that short time period I had a pretty dramatic improvement, shaving two minutes off the first race's time in the second race, and then another three minutes for the third race.

I've gotten a little out of my training routines over the winter, only running once or twice a week instead of three or four times a week, but I'm really going to try to get back in a rhythm in May in preparation for the re-running of my third race in early June—that's about as flat a course as I'm going to get in Atlanta (the course follows a trail alongside a river), and that's probably my best chance this year to run a 5K in less than 30 minutes.

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