Month: August 2017 (Page 1 of 3)

Reader’s Notebook, 8/31/17

A Divided Spy – Charles Cumming.
I hate it when I realize, a decent stretch into a book that is part of a series, that I missed the previous entry in the set. I had read book one of Cumming’s Thomas Kell series and then picked this one up. Problem is this is book three. And as the books all build upon each other, that caused some problems when reading this one. As in a couple very important people died in book two that I really needed to know more about for book three. Oh well…

But a good book should be able to stand on its own, and A Divided Spy does exactly that. In this book – the series finale perhaps, given how it ends – Thomas Kell has retired from MI6 after his last mission, which resulted in the death of his girlfriend. But he gets pulled back into active service when given a chance to track the Russian agent he believes responsible for her death. The Russian agent has some deep, dark secrets that another British agent stumbled upon and may give Kell an opportunity to exact revenge.

However, the operation isn’t as straight-forward as Kell had hoped. The Russian agent is an expert at manipulation, and Kell can never be sure if he can accept the information the Russian is offering as true or an invitation to a dead end. Worse, when Kell shares intelligence on an impending terrorist attack with his superiors, they dismiss it knowing that the Russian is suspect.

Things spin up to the final 60 pages or so, which are terrific. I dig books that race up to the final pages.

Out of the Fish Business

We’re out of the fish business.

Our last betta, Harry Potter, died an unfortunate death today. He was on his last legs already – L was sure he was dead last weekend – but then I accidentally wacked the side of his bowl with a lid to some Corningware while I made my lunch. Water and gravel went everywhere. By the time I rounded up enough towels to start cleaning up the mess, there was no sign of poor Harry. Eventually I found his lifeless body under our toaster. Don’t know if he died from the shock of shooting out of his bowl or, tragically, waiting for me to save him but expiring before I could locate him.

He was L’s fish. M and C both had bettas that died a few months back. We had kind of decided when Harry went, we would be done with fish.

Which is a good thing.

Because fish are kind of bullshit.

They don’t do any tricks or interact with you. You can’t walk them around the neighborhood or play games with them. They don’t sound the alarm when a stranger enters your home. Hell, you can get away with feeding them only every 7–10 days and changing their water once a month and they’ll just sit there drifting around in the interim. Sometimes they live for years – I think one of our bettas almost made it three years – and sometimes they expired within a week of bringing them home. We had one fish that committed suicide; we found him on the countertop one morning. Other than C when her first fish, Spike, died after 18 months and she burst into tears and was sad for a day,[1] none of the girls really had a reaction to finding a dead fish in their bowl. I doubt L is going to be upset when I tell her later that Harry is gone.

Not that we’re moving up to more advanced pets. No-sir-ee! We don’t need any cats or dogs or domesticated rodents or anything like that. We have lots of birds in the trees, a bunny in the front yard, and raccoons under the deck. That’s plenty of wildlife fun for our family.

We got our first fish for M’s sixth birthday. So we made it seven years, one month, and five days as fish owners. The girls always liked the fish when we first got them, especially when they were younger. But after a couple days, the new fish always became afterthoughts and just took up space on our kitchen counter.

It wasn’t a bad run, but I’m not heartbroken that it’s over.

  1. She was five at the time.  ↩

R’s: Crap

Well, shit.

August wasn’t supposed to be like this.

After a scorching hot June and (most of) July, the Royals were supposed to roar into August and battle Cleveland for the AL Central lead, all while solidifying the lead they had built up in the Wild Card race. Worst case, they were going to play New York or Boston in the Wild Card game. Best case, they would be guaranteed at least three playoff games in the ALDS.

So much for all of that.

This team has completely fallen apart.

The bullpen went first, coming off a dominant stretch in late July and turning into total garbage. Then the starting rotation started leaking oil. Deadline acquisition Trevor Cahill sucked and then went onto the DL. Danny Duffy was mediocre at best after a DL stint, then went back onto the DL, and apparently got himself a DUI over the weekend. Jason Vargas’ early-season magic is long gone. Jason Hammel is really good for five innings then turns into a pumpkin in the sixth every time out.

Oh, and then the lineup. They go into tonight’s game not having scored a run in something like 800 innings.[1] Pathetic. This team has always been streaky as fuck, but this is taking it a little too far.

Pretty much every move Dayton Moore has made over the last two years has gone wrong. It looks like the Royals will be stuck with Ian Kennedy through the end of his contract. Brandon Moss has done very little. Jorge Soler hasn’t contributed a thing to the Major League team and there’s real doubt whether he ever will. Raul Mondesi was a disaster in the bigs, and they Royals may have ruined their best prospect by rushing him. Hammel has been decent at times, but far from a successful signing. None of the pitchers acquired from San Diego have been any good. And the Alex Gordon contract is turning into a blunder of historic nature.

Well, Melky Cabrera has been solid. So I guess that’s one in the win column for Dayton.

I point all that out not to blame Dayton, but rather to show how little luck the Royals have had this year. I think most of those moves were defensible, and even if they all turn into mediocre rather than terrible moves, this team is right in the playoff hunt.

One of the better modern baseball stats is BABIP: batting average in balls in play. It suggests that, over time, luck in baseball evens out. You might have great (or bad) luck on balls put into play one year. But odds are the next year that luck will swing back toward normal. Perhaps that’s what this season is for the Royals. After being an extraordinarily fortunate team from August 2014 through November 2015, they had to swing back. Last year was a neutral year. This year is the pendulum swinging toward the opposite extreme.

Which sucks. As I’ve said many times this year, my biggest hope for this season was that the Royals stay in the playoff race deep into the season. With their roster, a third AL pennant in four years was going to be a long shot. I just wanted this summer to matter. While we got an exciting eight weeks in the middle of the season, the first four and the most recent four all sucked. Now, with school ramping up, football about to start, and autumn just over the horizon, it’s getting harder to tune in each night to see how the team does. I wanted one more September where, despite all the fall stuff, I was still compelled to turn on the Royals game each night. Even if they came up short, I wanted that last month of watching Hosmer and Moustakas and Cain and Escobar fight they way they did in ’14 and ’15.

Flags fly forever, though. So L and I will probably dive into the DVR again soon to watch the bottom of the 8th inning of game six of the ’15 ALCS, and then Josh Donaldson ground out 5–3 to seal the pennant, and 12th inning of game five of the World Series. For her, it’s just fun. For me, it will be to relive that magical 14 months when, somehow, the Kansas City Royals were the best team in baseball.

Hopefully it’s not another 30 years before I get to live through moments like those again.

  1. Or 43. Whatever.  ↩

Sports, Sports, Sports

We are officially in the busiest stretch of the year for us. Right in the middle of kickball season. First cross country meet was last Saturday. Soccer practice begins this Wednesday. For the next two weeks we’ll have five teams cranked up and rolling through practices and games/meets.

C had a solid sports weekend. Friday night she had a kickball game. They run-ruled their opponents in six innings. She had two singles, a double, and a home run. And, once again, she played amazing defense. She had two innings as either pitcher or suicide in which she accounted for all three defensive outs of the inning. The dad keeping score with me was incredulous, “How did she catch that? What do you do, just crush balls at her at home all the time?” I could just shrug.

The best part about her defense is how she has no poker face about it. After the first out she’ll look around in surprise, like she can’t believe she made the catch. After the second she’ll start giggling. While making the third out, she’s flat out laughing. She could be a stone-cold killer of a player if she was as competitive as some of the girls out there. I’m kind of glad she still looks at it as a silly game.

At her cross country meet the next day a mom of one of her teammates, who was not at the game, came up to me and said, “My 7th grader texted me from the game last night and said ‘C.B. just played the greatest kickball game I’ve ever seen!’.” That might be exaggerating a little; one of his classmates has had some amazing games. But it was still cool to hear.

As for cross country, the first meet of the year is always a crapshoot. You’re not sure how a month’s worth of training will pay off. How will the kids react to running competitively for the first time of the year? How will they manage getting some food – but not too much – into their bodies before the race? This meet throws another curve at the kids as it is a relay event. Kids have a partner and take turns running 1K at a time until they’ve run 6K as a team. While it’s a good way to ease into the season, for some reason this format seems to throw a lot of kids.

New for us this year was C moving up to the 5th/6th race, so no longer was she running first. We watched the 3rd/4th race and soooo many kids were crying at the end. Good times.

Anyway, C was running with her buddy E, as they are the only two St. P’s 5th grade girls this year. They were both consistently in the top 10 of their age group last year, so we were eager to see how they did. During the race they both seemed to struggle. E got the hilly side of the course and hadn’t run a bunch of hills yet. C just looked off; she seemed to be running with choppy steps instead of smooth ones. Boys and girls ran together, so I was doing my best to count where they were amidst the packs of kids. I had them finishing 12th or 13th. We got the results Sunday night and they were actually 11th. Four seconds faster and they would have edged out one of the St. P’s 6th grade teams for the last ribbon. Not too shabby! I think hearing that helped C understand that just because she’s running against older girls doesn’t mean she’s not still competitive.

After the race she said her knees hurt from kickball the night before. Plus she’s been fighting a cold, although she said that didn’t affect her as much as her knees did.

If the weather cooperates, we have a packed schedule this week. L has two kickball games, tonight and Thursday, against the two teams they beat last week. M has a doubleheader tonight and another game Wednesday. C has games Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll try to run her tonight, although her cold has gotten worse and she may take the night off. And L has soccer practice Wednesday.

Friday is a night off from kid sports, but we plan on going to the local high school football game that night before our last lake weekend of the summer.

Friday Playlist

The music day I’ve been waiting on since way back in the spring is finally here: The War on Drugs A Deeper Understanding is officially out. Sadly, perhaps because they are now on a major rather than indie label, folks like me who had pre-ordered the album did not get a link to download it a week early as with 2014’s Lost In The Dream. Fortunately, the band has both released five singles – half the damn album! – and streamed the album on their website Wednesday. But, still, I was up early to download my copy and burn it to a disk to put into the player in the car. My vinyl copy should be delivered in a bit. And I’m currently streaming it on Spotify.

I’ll try to formally review it in a week or so, but my first impression is that it’s a pretty spectacular album. Whether it will hold up the way Lost In The Dream did is another question. That’s one of my 10 favorite albums ever, and one I still listen to regularly. But A Deeper Understanding sounds amazing and, at least for now, measures up to the classic that came before it.

Something a little different this week, then. The War on Drugs are critical darlings, and thus have generated a lot of press over the past week. Many pieces dive into the central irony of the band: how they build upon the sounds of mid-80s, “Heartland” rock and make something that sounds new and vital and amazing. Most of those pieces have references to the songs of that era the writer believes are touchstones for Adam Granduciel’s creations. So let’s listen to some of those classics, shall we?

“Wah Wah” – George Harrison. You can make a strong argument that Heartland Rock’s true godfather was Harrison. His first solo album, All Things Must Pass is a consistent reference point for writers tackling the modern practitioners of the sound. I know and love “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life” but had never listened to the entire album before this week. This song is amazing! Written during his brief departure from the Beatles during the sessions for Let It Be, Harrison unleashes all his frustrations with Lennon and McCartney. I’m so disappointed my parents leaned McCartney so we had Wings albums instead of this in the house when I was little.

“The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley. There’s a clear divide in mid-80s Heartland rock between the cool folks, ones you have no shame enjoying today, and the way less cool ones. I think the differentiator is the amount of synthesizers in their songs. Springsteen dabbled in synths, but was ultimately a guitar guy. Same for Mellencamp and Petty. But guys like Henley and Bruce Hornsby, who hid the guitars behind layers of synths? Nothing cool about them.

This song, though, was an instant classic and is still kick ass over 30 years later.

“Tougher Than The Rest” – Bruce Springsteen. Ryan Adams’ Prisoner album from earlier this year had much more direct sonic links to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album. But TWOD has been treading that synth-heavy territory for some time, too.

“All You Zombies” – The Hooters. Odds are you remember their name first, and laugh at it. Then you might remember their bigger hit “And We Danced.” But this is a great song, too, and Pitchfork suggests it played a big influence in TWOD’s sound. Both bands are from Philly, too!

“Poor Places” – Wilco. Not mid-80s dad rock, but the way Wilco put songs together for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was perhaps the closest match for how Ganduciel meticulously assembles his music.

“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent. My second favorite song of 2013. TWOD’s 2011 album Slave Ambient was an experimental masterpiece. But it also had some strong Heartland elements to it, and I think my love for that album helped me fall for Phosphorescent’s Muchacho two years later.


Links: On ESPN and UVa

Wow, a two-post day! I know, right?!?!

Actually, I’m trying to get back in the habit of sharing links on a more regular basis, with or without some commentary from me.

In this case, I’d like to address the stupidity that was ESPN removing broadcast Robert Lee from next week’s University of Virginia home football game. If you haven’t read about this, ESPN thought that they might get roasted for allowing an Asian-American with a name similar to the most famous Confederate army general call a game in Charlottesville, VA just a few weeks after the recent Nazi protests there. Well, many sides were protesting. Many sides. But there were a lot of fine people on all those sides.

Stupid is my best description of this decision. It was needless and bound to cause more problems than it would theoretically solve.

Fortunately, a couple other writers offered up takes that I A) agree with and B) do so better than I could.

First off, Will Leitch offers up 10 thoughts on the issue. I think his criticism of Clay Travis is especially spot-on, and can be applied to any number of bomb throwers in all parts of our media. They seem to exist only to find controversy that fits their world view. And if they can’t find it, they manufacture it.

Then over at the site Leitch created a dozen years ago, Barry Petchesky rakes ESPN over the coals. The whole piece is good, but the headline is especially brilliant.

Welp, ESPN Shot Itself in the Dick

On the Eclipse

It’s weird how Monday’s eclipse caught me by surprise.

I knew it was coming, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I heard about it for the first time pretty early in the year. I think, though, when I saw that it would occur during the school day, and thus there wasn’t anything special I could do with the girls for it, I semi-dismissed it. I also read that you need to be careful when photographing an eclipse so that you don’t melt your camera’s sensor. I wasn’t interested in buying a couple hundred bucks of filters to take pictures safely so there was no need to get excited about that angle of the day.

So Monday I turned the TV on and watched some of the coverage as I did things around the house. It was cloudy here in the morning, but the forecast promised a chance of clearing around eclipse time. Sure enough, about an hour before the moon first got in our path to the sun, the clouds moved off and it was bright, hot, and humid.

The contractor doing our bathroom threw me a pair of eclipse glasses, which I failed to get before they became impossible to find, and suddenly I was pretty excited. I stepped outside a few times and took a peek. There it was, a sun showing progressively less of itself as the moon slid across my view of it. Maximum coverage here was set for 2:25. At about 2:20 a huge cloud drifted in from the west and completely covered the sun. There were a couple brief moments when the sun popped through holes. But by 2:30, a heavy deck of low clouds moved in and that was pretty much it for us. Within 90 minutes it was raining.

I was hoping to get some pictures of the cool eclipse shadows under trees, but there wasn’t enough light for even that. I attempted to just shoot the clouds opposite the eclipse, to get a sense of that odd, in-between lighting. But that light was just too weird for my camera. Even playing around with the white balance and exposure settings in Lightroom doesn’t salvage them. I probably should have read up more on camera settings for eclipse lighting!

It wasn’t exactly the ideal eclipse experience for us. The girls got to watch on TV at school. The older girls made eclipse viewers, but it was pretty cloudy there as well and they didn’t get great views either. Knock on wood we have better luck in eight years, when a total eclipse will go directly over Indy. No fighting traffic to get to the boonies to watch!

What I thought was cool about the whole thing was this rush of excitement of people who were seeing it. At first, it seems kind of silly to be cheering when the sun disappears, as many large groups that were shown on TV did. But when you consider this was a spontaneous reaction to the moment, that silliness goes away. Saturday evening I popped into a liquor store and overheard an older woman who said she was from New York and driving out to the path of totality. I thought that was cool, too. Why not, you know?

The eclipse didn’t have anything to do with our political situation, with the economy, with our relationship with Russia or North Korea or Mexico or the Middle East, with the sports teams we love or hate, or anything else that causes our blood pressure to rise.

The eclipse just was.

And for a few minutes, we could all chill out and not worry about whatever shit each of us worries about each day.

Opening Day, Part 2

L has played her first two official kickball games, so I can finally share her exploits. Spoiler alert: she did not fail to live up to the expectations we had for her.

Monday was opening night for her team. They started off slow and trailed 25–9 after two innings. But they figured out things both at the plate and in the field, had a couple huge innings, and ended up winning 47–28. If you’re like me and not good at math, that’s a pretty solid comeback.

She singled her first two times up, kicking rockets right at people that stayed in the infield. After some advice from her coach who is also her parent,[1] she found a hole in her third time up and kicked a three-run homer. True to form, she was humble about the whole thing. Coming down the third base line, she had both hands up in the air with #1 fingers raised. Seriously, kid.

I take some blame. When she bought her Alex Gordon jersey in June, I showed her his finger point to the crowd after his game-tying home run in game one of the 2015 World Series. She does that all the time now. I think this was a partial homage to Alex.

Next time up she kicked a grand slam. Fortunately she kept her hands down this time. She also made several good defensive plays.

A good night and pretty solid first game all around.

Last night was game two. It was a blow out from the beginning. We were up 20–8 after one inning and won 44–17. Again she had two singles and two home runs. Well, kind of. Her second home run came with one on, and that runner was the 20th run of the inning, which is the max. So technically the inning ended when that runner crossed the plate. But since L destroyed the ball on that kick, putting it over all the fielders’ heads, I think we’ll go ahead and chalk it up as her fourth homer of the season.

She got her first injury last night, too. She was playing suicide and did a half-dive to try to catch a little popup. She got the ball in her hands but when she hit the asphalt it popped out. She skinned up her knees and elbow, but was ok. Road rash is an important part of kickball.

Yesterday was also our first – and hopefully only for this season – night with three games at three school at the same time. M’s team won easily, and I heard she got on base each time and even threw out a former classmate who switched schools a couple years back.

C plays on an all fifth-grade team, but in a league that has some sixth graders in it. They played a mixed 5th/6th team last night and got crushed. S said C played well, but got frustrated when an umpire called her out when she was clearly safe. She doesn’t get mad like I would in that situation, but rather gets really emotional. She can keep it together during the game, but as soon as it ends she loses it a little bit. Sounds like she played another excellent game in the field, too.

Speaking of the umpires…I normally keep my mouth shut. It’s a hard job, they’re volunteers, the game is fast-paced, and the diamonds are on parking lots so it is easy to confuse which lines are for the field and which are for cars. I always figured either as a parent watching or keeping score, it was never my place to question calls loudly.

But, as a coach of L’s team who knows the rules pretty well, I have a big problem with umpires who make calls based on an incorrect understanding of those rules. So in both of L’s games I’ve had words with the umps when they made a call that I felt was wrong not because of their judgement, but because of them not knowing the rules. The first night I argued a bit but let it go. I pulled up the appropriate rule and was ready to show it to him if he made the same call again.[2] Last night the umpire tried to say there was a 25-run limit per inning. The game was a total blowout and I didn’t see any reason for our girls to keep kicking.

“No, that’s the game rule,” I yelled out to him. “Twenty runs is the limit for an inning.”
“I’ve never played that way,” he responded.
“That’s the rule. It’s 20,” and I had our head coach send our girls out to the field.

This guy has been umpiring the entire time M has been playing, and this rule has never changed. That freaking kills me. The rule book is only 16 pages long – four of which are just about the specifications of the field – and this is a rule that comes up quite a bit. There shouldn’t be any question about it.

Yeah, I may be asked to leave a game before the season is over. Good thing is I’ll be rotating through the girls games, so when I’m with M and C I will (hopefully) go back to my restrained self and let the coaches handle it.

  1. “Stop kicking it to the third baseman! Look where she is and kick it between her and the shortstop!”  ↩
  2. He called a girl who double-kicked the ball behind home plate out. The rules clearly state that if a kicker is in foul territory, as she was, this is a foul ball and a strike.  ↩

Reader’s Notebook, 8/22/17

Agent 110 – Scott Miller.
This is a fine, brisk look at the activities of Allen Dulles, future CIA director, through his years as an OSS officer in Switzerland during World War II. Residing just across the border from Germany, he quickly put together a network of Germans who, for one reason or another, were plotting against Hitler and his government. The book looks at Dulles’ role in assisting people inside Germany who were looking to assassinate Hitler and his efforts to bring about an early surrender of German forces in Italy to help the western powers beat the Soviets to Berlin.

As I said, it’s brisk. This feels like a book that should be a lot closer to 600 pages. But, to be honest, I don’t know if I would read 600 pages about Dulles’ years in Switzerland. So perhaps it is the perfect length.

On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder
Speaking of Nazis, I’ve wanted to read Snyder’s Bloodlands, about how the Germans and Russians decimated the land and people between their countries during the second half of World War II, for years.

Instead, I read this, where he draws on some of that knowledge to write about modern times.

He takes 20 lessons learned from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to help his readers understand when a modern tyrannical state might develop.

This book is not accidental or coincidental. Although he never writes the name of our current buffoon-in-chief, he directly addresses how Donny John used many techniques also used by Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini during his campaign for president. And, amazingly, pretty much every day that passes makes Snyder seem even more prescient and less paranoid.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! – Manuel Gonzalez
I picked up this book based solely on its title. Actually, it was just the exclamation point in the title. “That looks promising!” I thought to myself.

Big pay off!

The title tells you exactly what the book is about: the regional office really is under attack! But don’t think Dunder-Mifflin when you consider what this regional office is. Rather, it is a secret organization that uses a force of super-powered young women to battle various forces of evil. Aliens. Warlocks. Time travelers. And other dark forces common to fantasy, sci-fi, and comic books.

But here’s the thing that makes the book brilliant: all that stuff is just hinted at. Gonzalez tosses us little hints here and there about what goes on when the women are out in the field. The focus is this attack on their highly secured headquarters.

The story of that battle is told from multiple perspectives. From one of the operatives who has turned against the Regional Office and is part of the attack. From one staff member of the Regional Office staff who is trying fighting off the attack. From academic papers written about the attack years later. From a group of employees who are held hostage during the attack. And each of these points-of-view jump around in time to give us an understanding of what the Regional Office does, how they find and train their operatives, who runs it, and what the aftermath of the attack is. Sometimes Gonzalez offers up three different perspectives of the same event.

I often struggle with books that fall into the fantasy/sci-fi realms. I thought this one was brilliant, though. It both satirizes those genres and is fiercely loyal to them. It’s the perfect middle ground for a reader like me that struggles with accepting those fantasy worlds. Based on some reviews I read, I think someone who is more into fantasy than I am might get more out of the book as it challenges many of the assumptions that are now cannon in that genre.

The depth of the book really doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a ton of fun to read. And even if I can’t get the broader, literary elements of it, I could certainly relate to the more emotional elements of the story. For all of its oddness, the story at its core is about pretty traditional stuff: relationships, the search for personal identity, and the desire for righting wrongs and finding revenge.

It was excellent.

Friday Playlist

“The Possibility” – Worriers. A cool little rave up by a band I would have sworn was from Ireland. Don’t the vocals have a Cranberry-esque sound to them? Turns out they’re from Brooklyn, like 87% of the bands in the indie world.

“All There Is” – Guggi Data. Guggi – AKA Gustav Data Andersson – is from the Swedish band Makthaverskan. This is his second solo single, which is beautiful in a wistful kind of way.

“Glide” – The Dream Syndicate. Another band returning from a long hiatus, this time all the way back to before I graduated from high school! The last Dream Syndicate album came in 1988. Think about how many things have changed in the world – dramatically – since then. Trump was just a shitty wannabe celebrity who seemed harmless despite his gigantic ego. If only we could have stopped him then… Anyway, this is a pretty solid song, somehow both dense and light at the same time.

“I Wish I Was A Bird” – Luke Rathborne. This song reminds me a lot of Phosphorescent’s epic “Song For Zula” from a couple years back. There’s a similarity in structure and in some of the music. But they’re still very different songs.

“Open Your Heart” – Madonna. Consequence of Sound listed their top 20 Madonna songs earlier this week. I have some problems with the list. However, since I know like four of her songs since about ’92, it’s tough for me to fairly critique it. This song should be much higher, for sure. And “Live to Tell,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “Oh Father” should definitely be on the list.

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