january 2020

I'll write up my thoughts on the new Star Wars movie sometime in the next couple of weeks, but after seeing it in a sleep-deprived altered state as part of the Star Wars marathon, I saw the movie again with Will and Julie the following Monday morning (two days before Christmas), and got a much clearer sense of it. Will seemed to enjoy it, but I still wouldn't consider him to be a big Star Wars fan—it's just another movie franchise, and one that he's not particularly attached to.

After that, he lobbied to go to the Macy's Pink Pig experience at Lennox Square Mall, which we've walked past over the years while doing holiday shopping but never actually gone into. The line wasn't that long when we got there, but it still felt like it took forever to get inside. It was very, very pink in there, which Will enjoyed but was a little too much for my retinas. The main part of the experience is a ride on a pig-themed mini train that circles the same small, enclosed track twice. It was fun in a kitschy, Atlanta-tradition kind of way, but otherwise nothing to write home about.

On Christmas Eve we surprised Will with a trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts for our annual viewing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is a very faithful recreation of the stop-motion animation special from the 60s. Julie's mom came with us too, and it was as enjoyable as ever.

Later that afternoon we headed to church for the Christmas pageant and Christmas Eve service. Will was the donkey this year, and although he didn't have any lines, he did get to stand right behind Mary and Joseph in the center of the stage most of the play, so that worked for him. I wasn't feeling great and had to leave before the service was over, but I felt a little better after some rest, so we still had our traditional Christmas Eve meal of snacks before we exchanged one present with each other.

Christmas morning started with just the three of us and Santa's gifts and stockings, but by around 10 we were joined by Julie's mom for our traditional breakfast of grits casserole (with mushrooms, bacon, and onions) and country ham biscuits. This is actually a tradition we inherited from her—before we had Will, we used to stay with her in Julie's hometown for a couple of days before Christmas and Christmas morning before we drove to Raleigh to have Christmas dinner with my mom's family, and we always had the grits casserole and country ham biscuits (although I added the mushrooms, onions, and bacon when we started making our own version).

When Julie's mom got there, we did our gift exchange with her and with each other, and then we cleaned everything up and took a quick nap before getting ready to go over to my sister's house for dinner later that afternoon. Will got a couple of nice Lego sets from Santa and grandma, but his big present from us was tickets to see Hamilton when it comes to the Fox Theater in April. He's really enjoyed going to musical theater over the past year, and he was also in a summer camp production of Mary Poppins last summer, so we figured this would be a cool thing to take him to.

Last year my sister had a ton of people over (friends, neighbors, etc.), which was fine, but I was kind of glad that this year she kept it limited to family only—we were all able to sit at one table together, and exchanging presents was much simpler. We picked my mom up on the way (Julie's mom also came with us), and we dropped her off on the way back home.

We had a day off the day after Christmas, but on the 27th we packed up and headed to visit my dad and stepmother in North Carolina...

Julie's mom's family only lives about an hour from my parents in North Carolina, and since she usually spends some time with them after Christmas, it made sense for us to give her a ride so she could continue that tradition even though she moved down to Atlanta last summer. The drive up to Wilmington was pretty smooth, and we got there in time to have dinner that night.

A big part of the reason we go to Wilmington after Christmas instead of enjoying a few additional days off is because that's typically when my brother and his family drive down from Toledo, Ohio, and it's our only chance to see him and his kids and for Will to see his cousins. We now have a bonus reason to visit since my sister gave birth to another cousin two years ago—even though he's too young to really remember these visits, Will is going to remember them, and I really hope they see each other enough that they can have a good relationship.

We did most of the stuff we usually do when we visit: had lunch at Salt Works (the best hot dog place in the world); went out to Clarendon, an old rice plantation that my stepmother's family owns (and which is now a protected nature conversation area)—Will especially loved that given his recent fascination with abandoned places; ate at Flaming Amy's, really good burrito place; had a family breakfast where my dad fixed waffles for everyone; visited the train exhibit in the mall that is set up by a local model train enthusiasts club; and took Will and his oldest cousin James for a visit to the U.S.S. North Carolina, a WWII battleship that is now moored on the other side of the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington. My brother and I also went out on Saturday night for a late night showing of the new Star Wars, which he hadn't seen yet (it was my third viewing).

There was a little family drama on our last night when we were having our big Christmas dinner, but we were able to talk it out eventually (although I needed a little break from it all and had to drive around for an hour to cool off). It was kind of a bummer to end the visit that way, and there was still a little bit of tension in the air the next morning, but it was mostly fine by the time we got on our way and headed back home to Atlanta.

We got back home the day before New Year's Eve, and we barely had time to get a good night's rest and unpack before we engaged in two annual New Year's traditions. The first was a gathering at a neighbor's house that we've been going to for the past few years. We usually stay until midnight since Will has started staying up to see the ball drop, but we were still tired from our trip, so we walked back home around 11 and celebrated at midnight with just our family.

The next afternoon we headed over to another friend's house for his annual chili dinner, where he cooks three kinds of chili and everyone brings snacks and desserts to supplement. I usually really enjoy that, but I was still so tired from all our travel and social interactions over the previous couple of weeks that I was a lot quieter and less engaged than usual.

The first time I felt like I had an actual day off over the Christmas holidays was January 2, the day a lot of people go back to work. But since I needed to burn off a couple of vacation days or I would lose them, I took off Jan 2 and 3, so I had a long weekend left to relax and gather myself for one of our busiest times of year at work before I had to return to the office earlier this week.

The last time I wrote about the Ravens, they were 12-2 and had won 10 straight games, clinching the AFC North and a spot in the playoffs. For the remaining two regular season games, they played the Browns in Cleveland and the Steelers in Baltimore, games that looked like they would be a lot higher stakes at the beginning of the season when many pundits predicted that Baltimore would be third in the division and fighting for the final wild card spot.

If the Ravens won either game, they guaranteed themselves a bye week and the number one seed in the AFC, meaning all their games would be home games through the Super Bowl. But they took care of business in Cleveland, winning the game handily and avenging their last loss in September when Cleveland won against them in Baltimore.

With nothing left to play for except pride, the Ravens rested several of their starters in week 17 against Pittsburgh, including star quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose spot was filled by former number one overall draft pick Robert Griffin III. But even our B team was too much for Pittsburgh; we won that game as well, giving us a 14-2 record (the best in franchise history) and snuffing out any hope the Steelers had for a playoff berth.

The Ravens have had an additional week off since then, but tomorrow they play sixth seeded Tennessee Titans, who beat a faltering Patriots team last week. We're heavily favored, but the Titans have gotten hot at the right time, and they also know our defense pretty well because their defensive coordinator was previously our defensive coordinator.

This is a very winnable game for the Ravens at home if they play the kind of football they played over the last two months of the season, when they had convincing wins over many of the other teams that made the postseason, but I don't expect it to be an easy win (I actually would have rather faced the Texans, who we would have played had the Patriots beaten the Titans).

Well, that was a crappy way to end the season for the Ravens. After winning the number one overall seed, giving them home field advantage through the AFC Championship game, they lost to the lowest seeded team, the Tennessee Titans. The Titans got hot at the right time, they're dangerous when they're on a streak, they had a great game plan against us, and we didn't adjust on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball. But as much as I can analyze what happened, I can't rationalize away the sense of a major missed opportunity with the most balanced and dangerous Ravens team in history (including the two Super Bowl winning teams, both of whom had poorer regular season records than this team).

But that doesn't take away from how fun and amazing the regular season was, nor does it diminish my hope for the coming years—not only will Lamar Jackson continue to improve (and he's likely to be the MVP this season), but now that the front office is completely sure that they should go all in on constructing the team around him, he should get even more weapons.

It will help if we're able to retain our offensive and defensive coordinators (they are both interviewing for head coaching jobs), and if we can shore up the front seven on the defense. But our starters in the secondary and all of our starters on offense are under contract for next year, so we've got a great foundation to build on and our largest amount of salary cap space in probably a decade. There's a great window here for Baltimore to be extremely competitive for at least another five years, and hopefully longer, as I have no doubt that Jackson will work hard to adjust as his athletic skills change as he gets older.

So yeah, a terrible way to end this season, but what a great time to be a Ravens fan. I can't wait til September to see how Jackson and the rest of them will build on what they accomplished this year.

We've been to see the holiday lights at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens every year since we've moved to Atlanta. Usually we go right before Thanksgiving (when we typically have a lot of family visiting) or a couple of weeks before Christmas. But this year plans to go with family prior to or immediately after Thanksgiving didn't work out, and our schedule was so overwhelming leading up to the holidays that we never found an evening to go.

But luckily it was open through this past weekend, and we organized ourselves enough to go last Wednesday. Because it was midweek and kind of last minute, we didn't try to arrange the visit with my mom and sister, who live nearby-ish, and instead just went with Julie's mom, who only lives about 10 minutes away from us.

It was nice to go when it wasn't as crowded, and it was also nice to go when we didn't have to coordinate 6-10 people and all stay together as a group. I felt like we could linger longer when we wanted to, and didn't feel pressured to move on or to think about leaving because someone in a larger group had run out of steam.

It was as cool as ever—the light show set to music, which they introduced three years ago (I think?) was still the main attraction, but they added some new songs to the rotation, and they also had a new area with new light sculptures. There was an area that was closed this year (it was a mock farm/garden with lots of insects and rows of corn), but hopefully they'll bring that back next year and still keep the new area.

I enjoy going with the extended family, and I imagine we'll be back to a larger group next year, but after the very hectic holiday season, it was nice to have a relatively quiet evening where we could really immerse ourselves in the experience without worrying so much about logistics and keeping a larger group of people happy.

I pulled together a last-minute trivia night so we could use the $25 gift certificate we got for winning second place in our December meetup (which I don't think I wrote about, because it happened just as I started taking my vacation and stopped posting), and because it was kind of spur of the moment, it was our smallest turnout so far: there were only four of us there to start, and one of us had to leave after the third round (there are four rounds plus a bonus round, and the bonus round is typically where the game is won or lost because it's worth so many points).

We weren't doing so great—through three rounds, we had what was probably our lowest point total to date after getting zero points for the bonus questions after the first round and missing both our 7 and 3 point questions in the second round (you answer four questions, and assign a 1, 3, 5, or 7 point value to them depending on your confidence in your answer, and you can only use each point value once per round).

The questions, especially the bonus questions, were particularly hard that evening, so we adjusted our strategy as time went on: whereas we're normally pretty open to taking a risk on a bonus question that we don't have full confidence in (you get 5 points for each correct bonus answer, but if you choose to answer them, those are also the only questions you lose points for if you get them wrong), that approach was causing us to lose valuable points. So we started only answer the bonus questions we were collectively 100% sure of.

That paid off in the long run: at the end of the fourth round, prior to the bonus round, we were in the running for the top 3 even though we had a relatively small point total (compared to the nights when we've won). It turns out that the teams that had been far ahead of us at the halfway mark were still being aggressively with their bonus point guesses, and they had gotten a lot of them wrong. So we didn't necessarily gain ground on them so much as they lost ground to us.

We felt pretty going about the bonus round, and when the host announced the top three, we round ourselves tied for second place. The tiebreaker question was Neil Peart's age when he died, and I guessed 67 (the correct answer) while the other team guessed 66, so we ended up with another second place finish and another $25 gift certificate.

At this point I've seen Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker three times, and each time was a unique experience.

The first time I saw it was at the end of a 24 hour marathon where we watched all 9 movies of the Skywalker sage from start to finish with only 20 minute break in between each film. It started at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night and ended with the premiere of The Rise of Skywalker at 5 p.m. the following day, an hour before the preview showings started at 6. I did this experience with my friend Jeff, who also went with me to the marathon for the premiere of the first movie of the final trilogy, The Force Awakens.

This marathon wasn't as cool as the other one—in the first marathon, we were in luxury leather recliners, there were longer breaks between the films, and they served us a buffet breakfast and lunch (included in the price of our marathon pass). This time we were just in a normal stadium theater, which made it a lot harder to get more than 20 or 30 minutes of sleep before your body insisted you change position because of the discomfort. So by the time we got to the final movie I was pretty out of my head with sleep deprivation, and although I got the major plot points, it was very disjointed in my memory and I don't think I could have given you an accurate summary five minutes after I walked out of the theater.

The second time I saw the movie was the following Monday morning with Will and Julie. This time I was able to savor the movie and put together the plot a little more coherently (to be fair to my sleep-deprived self, they packed A LOT into this movie, and it's no easy feat absorbing all the important plot points in a single viewing). Will enjoyed it, but he's never become the Star Wars fan I hoped he might be. I thought there was a nice symmetry to The Force Awakens coming out when he was 5 1/2 years old (I had just turned 6 when A New Hope was released)—I was hoping the final trilogy would resonate with him and pull him into the Star Wars universe the same way the original trilogy did for me. I mean, he liked it (as much as he likes anything—he doesn't really get long-term obsessed with anything), but it doesn't seem likely that it's going to have the lasting impact on him that it did on me.

The final time I saw it was when I was in North Carolina after Christmas to see my dad and stepmother, and also visit with my sister and her son and my brother and his three kids. One night after everyone else was turning in for the evening, my brother and I went out to see a late showing in a nearly-empty theater that we used to go to when we were kids. He's a huge Star Wars fan too, so it was cool seeing it with him.

As for the movie itself: I'll still likely see it again in the theater, but despite some of its obvious problems, I liked it more each time I've seen it. I'll never for the life of me understand why they let a different person write the middle entry in the trilogy without making him adhere to certain major plot points (one of the reasons that the final movie seems so frenetic and overstuffed is because it's like two movies in one—the first movie is overwriting/retconning a lot of The Last Jedi, and the other is telling the story that Rise of Skywalker actually wanted to tell), or why they had to bring Palpatine back AND have Rey be related to him (the movie would have worked just as well if Snoke had remained the big bad, especially if he was a clone/reincarnation of Palpatine's mentor, Darth Sidious, and Rey would have been a more compelling character if she hadn't been part of a royal force bloodline).

There's a lot more I could complain about, but you've probably read it all online at this point. At the end of the day, it's nice to have closure on this saga, and despite the overall issues with the final trilogy as a whole and The Rise of Skywalker specifically, there are a lot of great moments in each film and they are entertaining. I also appreciated the way they ended the stories of the main trio from the original films—Luke, Han, and Leia—all of whom had significant moments in this film despite two of their characters being dead at the beginning of the movie and one of the actual actors being dead by the time the movie was released.

A high school friend of mine who is pretty connected to the music scene in Chapel Hill invited me to a closed Facebook group with a lot of industry insiders that is meant to serve as a replacement for the defunct Village Voice Pazz and Jop annual music poll. Here are the albums that made up my top ten:

    1. Purple Mountains—Purple Mountains
    2. Black Dresses—Love and Affection for Stupid Little Bitches
    3. Chance the Rapper—The Big Day
    4. Big Thief—Two Hands
    5. Charly Bliss—Young Enough
    6. Nilufer Yanya—Miss Universe
    7. Lizzo—Cuz I Love You
    8. Pip Blom—Boat
    9. Wilco—Ode to Joy
    10. Titus Andronicus—An Obelisk

Let me explain the poll's methodology a little bit, and put my list in context. You were asked to nominate 10 albums and were given 100 points to weight them, but you couldn't give any album less than 5 points or more than 30. So my list above can be divided into three groupings: the first two are weighted more heavily because they were my favorites, entries 3-8 all got 10 points (if I were actually ranking them in order, the order would be a bit different than above), and the final two were weighted at the minimum 5.

Here's how the group voted overall:

    1. Purple Mountains—Purple Mountains
    2. Angel Olsen—All Mirrors
    3. Billie Eilish—When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
    4. Lizzo—Cuz I Love You
    5. Weyes Blood—Titanic Rising
    6. Sharon Van Etten—Remind Me Tomorrow
    7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds—Ghosteen
    8. 75 Dollar Bill—I Was Real
    9. Lana Del Rey—Norman Fucking Rockwell
    10. 10. Fontaines DC—Dogrel

Purple Mountains was the overwhelming winner, but if Big Thief hadn't released two well-loved albums in 2019, there's little doubt that they would have been in the top 5 (the combined points for Two Hands and U.F.O.F would have put them in third place), and even with the split vote, both albums nearly made the top 10 (they ended up taking the 13th and 14th slots).

It was really fun to monitor the group every day as people posted their lists, both to find people who shared my tastes (although I'm the only person in the 400+ person group who voted for the Black Dresses album, and they were one of my favorite discoveries this year) and to put some new things in my queue to listen to.

Overall this was a pretty weak year for music for me, with many artists I was hoping to have releases from (Jeff Rosenstock, Sidney Gish, of Montreal, and Pinegrove, to name a few) not releasing much of anything, and many of the releases I purchased being somewhat disappointing.

A lot of the bands I listen to tend to do their releases in the first quarter of the year in preparation for tours in the spring and summer, so hopefully this year will give me some early wins.

We did a few activities this weekend—visiting my mom and having dinner with Will's friends Evie and Anika—but overall it was a pretty quiet, relaxing few days. It always seems weird to have a holiday so close on the heels of the winter break and then not have another one until the end of May, but this time of year, with as intense as the work is in my office, it's always welcome.

After the two Neal Stephenson works (Atmosphaera Incognita and Fall), I went back to an idea I've considered for a while: re-reading Oscar Wilde's biography by Richard Ellman, which I read when it first came out back in 1988. But while looking at purchase options for it (I still have the original hardback in a box somewhere, but I have no idea if it's here or back at my childhood home, plus I read everything on a Kindle these days), I discovered that there is a more recent biography of Wilde (called simply Oscar) by a writer named Matthew Sturgis who as also written books about artists Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert.

As much as I liked Ellman's book and wanted to revisit it, I figured it might be more worthwhile to read a different take on Wilde's life that incorporated an additional 30 years of scholarship. So I purchased Sturgis' book with the hopes that I'd get everything I got from Ellman plus a little bit more.

First the positives: it is an incredibly well-researched book that gives us comprehensive, detailed insights into Wilde's activities, achievements, and finances. It also draws extensively from Wilde's own letters and the letters and commentary of those who interacted with him to give us not only a deep sense of who Wilde thought of himself as, but how those in circles of wealth, art, and literature who encountered him viewed him.

Where it falls short, however, is exactly where Ellman excelled (which was perhaps a motivating factor in how Sturgis chose to structure his book): creating a narrative that is as engrossing as a work of fiction, and one that incorporates keen critical analyses of Wilde's literary works. It's hard to believe anyone will outdo Sturgis' scholarship and sourcing in terms of the raw facts of Wilde's life, but there's no poetry in his writing and no overarching narrative arc in his structure (even though Wilde's dramatic and theatrical life easily lends itself to such a design).

One of the most curious discrepancies between Ellman and Sturgis comes from the choices the two biographers made in terms of how they presented their works: a main thrust of Ellman's narrative about the tragedy of Wilde's life is that the injury he eventually died from at age 46 occurred while he was incarcerated on sodomy charges, and that if he hadn't been foolish enough to enter into the legal proceedings that eventually led to his own prosecution, and if prudent Victorian laws hadn't made his sexual orientation a crime, he likely would have lived much longer and created many more noteworthy works of literature.

Sturgis, by contrast, barely mentions this at all; to the extent he does, he downplays the role that Wilde's prison injury played in the later poor health and his eventual death. Even if Sturgis doesn't agree that this specific injury was a major contributing factor to Wilde's death, he is certainly aware that most prior scholarship, including Ellman, does have that point of view, and so he owes it to the reader to go into more detail about why he has come to a different conclusion. And while he details the horrors of prison and the negative effects it had on Wilde's health, he doesn't seem willing to attribute even the overall experience as a major factor in Wilde's death, even if he wants to downplay a specific incident.

It's still a very worthwhile read if you're interested in understanding the life of Oscar Wilde, but it's probably best paired with Ellman's book (which I am still considering re-reading). Together they create a much more robust, more more engaging story about the life of a man whose influence is still felt in art and literature—and really, in the philosophical approach to living life—to this day.

I am way, way behind on the Walking Dead—the last little burst I watched was the first five episodes of season 9 (we're currently in the middle of season 10, with the second half of the season starting up again in February). But I decided to try to catch up before new episodes start airing again.

I was excited as the prospect of moving beyond the conflict with Negan and the Saviors, and even though I like Rick Grimes, his character had become too central to the show in a way that seemed to hold it back at times. So even though I didn't want to see him off the show, I was curious to see what the writers would do without the central pivot point who had anchored the narrative since episode 1.

In the first episode after Rick's exit—gone, but not dead—we jump forward six years in time, so that toddler Judith is 9, and Rick's baby that Michonne was carrying is now a five year old name R.J., Michonne is the security officer but really in charge of Alexandria, and Negan has apparently been hanging out in a basement cell for all that time. There are updates on the other communities as well, but the general sense is there haven't been any major enemies to fight and they've generally been focused on rebuilding society and living life without murdering or being murdered on a daily basis.

Of course they're only going to show so much of that on this show, so we pick up the story just as another major antagonistic group is starting to emerge, this one called the Whisperers. Their whole schtick is that instead of trying to recreate human society that existed before the plague, they've decided that evolution has chosen the dead as the ultimate victors, so they emulate them and walk among them, manipulating the herds of zombies to protect their territory and take out their enemies. Which is the first really ridiculous thing that this post-Rick world is asking us to accept.

As is typical after the purges that tend to happen to main characters as a big conflict winds down, the show also introduces us to new characters primarily in the form of a small group that include a musician, a girl who is so stereotypically mean and untrusting that it seems inevitable that she'll eventually become a trusted leader, and two sisters, one of whom is deaf.  We initially meet them when 9 year old Judith rescues them when they are surrounded by walkers, which leads to the next two annoying things: a 9 year old who totes around a handgun that even strong adults have trouble handling (Rick's old weapon), and a deaf person who has somehow survived for over a decade in the universe we've been shown on the show, where the sounds the dead make are often the only warning you have that an attack is imminent.

Of the episodes I've watched so far, the other things that stand out as problematic are Daryl taking the deaf woman on a nighttime rescue mission with him (no fucking way someone as hard nosed as Daryl is going to raid an enemy camp to rescue a teenager while also having to worry about a deaf woman he can't communicate with and who he's just met and has no idea of her fighting skills); the fact that the Whisperers wouldn't immediately abandon their leader at the prospect of an actual normal existence; and the fact that the leader of the Whisperers, Alpha (played by Samantha Morton) is just not a compelling or scary villain compared to previous big bads. She's just a murderous psychopath who rules exclusively through fear, which doesn't give her character the same depth as the socially manipulative and occasionally charming characters of the Governor and Negan.

Jumping ahead six years in time has other drawbacks as well: so far we're getting a smattering of episodes that help tell a character's story by jumping back in time to see them before the plague or in the immediate aftermath and then jumping ahead to the present, a structure that I had my fill of during all those seasons of Lost. I've already had my fill of it here, but I have a sinking feeling that this is a device they're planning to use many, many times in the coming episodes.

Last year was the first year in a long time that we didn't do a family vacation week at Hilton Head, instead opting to take a cruise over Will's spring break and then for Julie and I to take a trip (that overlapped with a business conference of mine) to Chicago while Will spent the week with my parents in Wilmington. We were thinking about returning to Hilton Head this year, but when we found a really good deal on a cruise (bigger boat, nicer cabin) for the first week of June, we decided to book it.

Will was very excited, and has spent most of his iPad time since then watching YouTube videos about the ship and also planning his Perfect Day at Coco Key. We stopped at the private island on our cruise last year, but the main attraction—a water park with the tallest water slide in North America—was still under construction. It's complete now, and Will has been obsessing over it.

The cruise leaves on a Monday and gets back on a Friday, so we'll probably go up a day or two early to do a day at Disney, Universal, or Lego Land. Will is excited about that as well, and has been lobbying hard for Lego Land. We don't have any solid plans for his spring break this year, and with the other time we want to take off this summer, she can't take the whole week off. So I'm thinking about taking him on a trip just the two of us to somewhere not too far away, maybe Birmingham, AL, or Asheville, NC.

We don't have a lot of solo father/son time together—his pace and desire for constant activity is much more aligned with Julie's natural preferences than mine—and it will be nice if we can spend some one-on-one time together where I can find the right balance between fun activities and relaxing downtime.

The big activity this weekend was the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. This year Will had his cut in the shape of a quarter note and decorated it with piano keys because of his love of music. It still didn't do great—we're typically having to attach weights at the last minute to get it to meet the required specs—but the lower profile helped, and it was probably his best performing car so far.

Our file reading season kicked into high gear this month, and I've been trying to dedicate more time to it than I have the past couple of years. Part of this is because I took on an additional territory this year—one of our admission counselors left just as the travel cycle was starting, so the rest of us in her region of the country each took a part of her territory (I got southeast Alabama, where Montgomery is the main population center)—but it's mainly because we do our initial reads in pairs, and the more time I can give to help copilot on full time counselors' files, the better.

Our app pool is actually a little smaller this year than it was last year—we're down about 1,700 files compared to last year after several years of fairly significant annual increases. Most schools had a similar effect, and the decrease is part of a larger trend that is only going to get worse as the population of students graduating from high school (and the subset of those students who apply for college) gets smaller and smaller over the next several years. We hit bottom in 2026, and I predict there's going to be a lot of consolidation in the industry as smaller schools, rural schools, and those in the lower tiers of academic quality struggle to fill their classes.

I'm fortunate to work for a university that is both wealthy and which has a big enough brand name that we're not going to be in danger of not enrolling a class, but we may have to become more flexible in our admission criteria as the applicant grows smaller and the competition for the best students intensifies among our peers. It will be an interesting time for the industry, and I suspect being a professional in higher ed enrollment management is going to look very different ten years from now.

Will started two other activities this month: acolyting at church and joining a winter swim team. He's been doing a summer swim team the past couple of years, and he loves being the water, so we wanted to sign him up for a fall team but signed up a little too late when there were no spots left. But we got a spot for the same team for the winter season, so we've been taking him to practice at least twice a week starting this month.

I've been trying to get back into regular running habits as well, and his swim practice schedule works really well with that: he swims at the campus PE center where I'm a member, so while he swims I go run on the track. His practice lasts an hour, which gives me just enough time to warm up, run for 45 minutes, and then cool down in time to meet him after practice.

He also started acolyte training, and he was in his first service a couple of weeks ago. He's really into it, not necessarily because he's really thoughtful and engaged with exploring his religious beliefs (he's just not very reflective about those things, at least not in ways that he allows us to see or is willing to discuss), but because a church service is another version of a theatrical production, and he always likes to be on stage. He was pretty nervous that first time, but he did a great job, and now he wants to do it more often than the once a month that they are typically scheduled for.

Will has been doing magic club at school again this year, and while he's learned some really cool tricks, most of them are dependent on gadgets and devices, and it's not too hard to figure out how they might work. But he recently taught himself a trick he learned on a YouTube video, and it just blows Julie and I away.

Here's the setup: he tells you he's going to play the ultimate game of rock-paper-scissors with you. He then asks you to think of who you're going to play the game with but not tell him, and then writes something on a piece of paper, folds it up, and puts it to the side. He then asks you to tell him who the person was, and then writes that down, shows it to you, folds it up, and puts it in a different pile.

He repeats this with the location you want to play the game in—anywhere in the world—and repeats the procedure of first writing down an answer before you tell him and then writing it down again after you tell him, keeping them in the same piles as the person answers. Finally he writes down a prediction about the game, writes it down and puts it with the mind-reading pile before playing a game of rock-paper-scissors with you and writing down the result of the game on a piece of paper and putting it with the answers he wrote down after you told him.

Then comes the big reveal: he opens the pieces of paper from each pile one by one, showing the matching answers between the mind-reading pile and the answers you gave him. I've seen him perform it three times at this point (twice on me, once on Julie), and every time the answers have matched exactly even though they were completely random and unguessable. It's pretty amazing, and he makes it look effortless.

I don't actually want to know how it works, and I'm afraid if I see it too many more times my analytical, puzzle-oriented brain will figure it out. It's a great trick, especially because it's not dependent on a piece of gadgetry, and it's even cooler that he learned it not from his school club, but from his own research.

January has been a busy, quick month. We're ending it tonight by driving down to Macon for a concert, to hopefully be followed by a relatively restful weekend. But February will go by quick, and so will March, and then suddenly it will be springtime again with summer just around the corner. It hasn't been a very cold winter so far, but I'm still eager for the winter months to be over so we can get back to more daylight and more time outside.

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