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Busy Vacation

We recently got back from a trip back east to visit our families – and quite a busy trip it was, too. We were there June 16-26, since we were trying to balance seeing Debbi’s family as well as my sister and nephew, all of whom had various plans in the works from mid-June through July. So this was in some ways an awkward time to go, but it was better than the alternatives, and I personally wanted to avoid the awful heat and humidity of our trip last year, if we could.

We arrived Friday morning and spent the day and night visiting with my father (and taking a nap in the middle, too, since the red-eye flight always wipes us out). Saturday we drove down to Debbi’s family’s house where we spent the day and took them out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant which had pretty good drinks and very good guacamole which they make table-side. This was, unfortunately, the only day I’d see my brother-in-law Shawn or their middle kid Rachel, since the two of them were driving out-of-town for a concert the following weekend.

I actually took my Dad’s car on Saturday, because I drove home to spend Father’s Day with him on Sunday. We didn’t do a whole lot on Sunday, just hung out, watched Doctor Who from the night before, and I took him out to dinner in the evening (at a place he wanted to try, which, unfortunately, both of us were kind of disappointed in).

A big part of this trip for us was to spend some time at – and doing some work on – the family beach house. Debbi and I each had a different “most important thing”: Debbi wanted to replace some of the mattresses, while I wanted to replace the curtains. Debbi went out on Sunday to pick out mattresses and set up delivery for Friday. I bought some tools, and on Monday we went to Target and bought a bunch of stuff for the house, including new rods and curtains. We spent a bunch of time on Monday and Tuesday replacing the curtains and doing some other chores: Drano’ing the shower, cleaning up the silverware drawer, and vacuuming under the beds. Since this is a beach house, sand gets everywhere constantly, and that lifting mattresses isn’t a high priority for our family when they stay there – but with new mattresses coming in it seemed worth doing.

We also checked out a new sandwich place in the area, and had dinner at the local restaurant. Plus, in order to make progress tying up a loose end on the property, I contacted the local Coastal Commission with some questions, and three of them came out to check things out and talk with us on Tuesday. They were very friendly, and I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of local owners don’t reach out to them to do this work very much.

Debbi drove me back to Dad’s on Wednesday, and my sister Katy and nephew Ivan came in that afternoon. Thursday we went over to Mount Auburn Cemetery to see Mom’s marker, which Katy commissioned and helped design, but she hadn’t seen it in person yet. Now, with the grass grown in around it, it looks really nice:

We also went in to Harvard Square to look around. I haven’t been in quite a few years, and honestly there’s not much there to attract me any more, as the place is a shadow of its former glory: Most of its bookstores closed (the loss of the venerable WordsWorth was the final straw), the comics shops not stocking many back issues anymore, browsing music stores isn’t really a thing anymore, etc. (I did find something at the Harvard Book Store, though.)

Friday, Katy and Ivan and I went down and spent the day at the beach house. The mattresses got delivered in the morning, so Debbi went over there with her nephew Josh to receive them. We mostly hung out for the day, and went down to the beach to kick around at the water’s edge (it’s not quite warm enough to go swimming) and throw a frisbee around. Katy and Ivan decided to head back to Dad’s for the night, while I stayed down with Debbi.

Saturday, Debbi’s family – her sisters, and her nephew and her other niece – came over to hang out with us. It had been warm and kind of muggy for much of the week, and it started clearing out on Saturday, at least a bit. We played bocce ball on the beach, Yahtzee in the house, and everyone tested out the new mattresses. Three of them left before dinner, and we took the fourth out to the local restaurant. (Said restaurant has good drinks and a lot of food I like, but 4 visits in one week was probably my limit.)

Sunday we had a lazy morning before Debbi drove me back to my Dad’s and went back to spend one more night with her family. On Monday Katy and Ivan headed home in the morning, and Debbi came up for lunch and then we drove to the airport, dropped off the rental car, and made the long flight home, finally getting back, unpacking, and falling into bed around 11 pm.

This was a more hectic trip than we’d hoped, and while we did get some downtime to just relax and enjoy, we also were very productive and got a lot done. It was satisfying, but not always very restful. Next year maybe we can take a longer trip and not have to schedule around so much going on. I think this year was just unusual in that way.

Jackson’s Home

After a long and stressful week, Jackson is finally home!

Wednesday the vet called to say that Jackson still hadn’t passed whatever it was, and recommended we take him to another, more expensive, vet – a.k.a., the hospital – since they had both an ultrasound machine and the capability to do surgery if necessary. So I picked up the little troublemaker – who had an IV needle in one paw and a cone over his head and drove him over.

Despite the cone and hating the car, Jackson loves the vet – at least, he loves checking out the exam room and the people who come to see him:

At least, he was very excited until it was time to say goodbye so he could go in the back. And I could go to work.

Thursday they called to say that they’d given him an enema (which I bet he loved!) and that he successfully pooped out – a hair tie. Which is kind of what we thought it might have been, although there was a chance it might have been a Lego-like brick. They suggested they keep him for one more night to make sure he was fully recovered.

So Friday I left work early to go pick him up. It was, like, 95°F outside, and he meowed the whole way home. He came right out and checked out the house when we opened his carrying case, and then he spent the next hour or so grooming himself all over (the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination).

Since then he’s been, well, I’d call it subdued. Not lethargic, but not completely back to normal. But he’s been eating, not throwing up, and mostly acting like his normal self. And very happy to be home – probably even happier than we are to have him home! He may be a little bundle of trouble, but he’s an important part of our household, and we missed him.

The Trouble With Jackson

I’m heads-down at work this month making the annual push for our upcoming conference, while Debbi is preparing for an off-site for her team at work later this week. Besides that we’ve been doing some deferred maintenance on our home (perhaps worth a post of its own), we’re planning a vacation this summer, I’m juggling discussions with other family members about things they’ve got going on, and I’ve been sifting through some bills which need attention (almost missed the due date for our homeowners insurance – whoops!).

So with all of that we did not need to have Jackson start throwing up repeatedly on Sunday night, waking us up twice, and requiring repeated spot-cleanings of the upstairs carpet over a 12-hour period. (Speaking of home maintenance, we should really get them steam-cleaned, too!)

By the time I came back from my run Monday morning he seemed to have stopped, but he was definitely a little out-of-sorts, possibly from not having slept enough himself the night before.

So Debbi made an appointment yesterday and took him to the vet. I’d hoped to make time to join her, but even for this time of year yesterday was an especially busy day, so I wasn’t able to make it. The vet took X-rays and – as we’d guessed – he apparently ate something, apparently a small rectangle maybe a half an inch by an inch or two, which the vet thinks was irritating his stomach. We’d learned a few weeks ago that someone – probably him – had eaten and thrown up one of Debbi’s hair ties – which you’d think would be very common, but Jackson is the first cat we’ve owned who’s gone after them. So apparently he got something else and swallowed it.

Debbi left him at the vet overnight, and the vet called to say that the object has apparently passed into his colon already, so there’s some chance that it might just come out the other end, which would certainly be the best case. (The worst case would be surgery to remove it.) So hopefully she’ll call and give us some good news today.

So we spent the night without Jackson, which was certainly a little quieter, since he’s our big troublemaker, often pawing at our venetian blinds at 4 am and forcing us to kick him out of the bedroom. But we’ve been missing him, and his sister Sadie has been especially snuggly; as our herding cat, I think she’s upset when members of her household are unexpectedly missing.

But this is stress we really did not need this week!

Forging Onward

I know, I know: Things have been awfully quiet around here.  This is my first entry of 2017, and it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything.

For those keeping score at home, later this year I’ll hit the 20-year mark of journalling, or blogging, or whatever you want to call it.  That’s a long time to be doing this, and we can’t all be John Scalzi, writing multiple entries per day. I know I’ve even written entries before about not writing entries – I’m not sure if that’s self-referential or the absence of referential.  But it has gotten harder to keep writing regularly as the years have past.

Well, that’s not entirely true: In fact a lot of my writing, the day-to-day “here’s what I’ve been up to” stuff, has just moved over to Twitter and Facebook. Both of them offer more immediate feedback, and of course lower overhead in writing very short pieces. There’s also the “mental overhead” of feeling like I should have a topic worthy of spending a whole post about it.  I also often have some amount of worry about whether I’m doing the topic justice, like I need to cover it from every angle and build a bullet-proof case, rather than just exploring the subject to the extent I’m able (and interested in) at the moment.

And so, I don’t write.

So, I want to write more. And we’ll see if I do – no promises, though.

So what has been going on this year with me?

The biggest news was that we had Debbi’s niece R and nephew J visit us for a week in February, which was a lot of fun for all of us (aside from Debbi and I each having a bout of food poisoning, from two different restaurants).  We went to Alcatraz, the Winchester Mystery House, and Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, and had a couple of great afternoons visiting with our friends and their kids.  We even managed to get a couple of teenagers tired enough to go to bed by 9 pm most nights. Debbi thinks they had more fun on their visit than they’d expected to, and apparently they’re hoping to come back next year.

In January I went to Grand Prix San Jose, a big Magic tournament held just down the highway from me.  I played in a Mini Masters event the first day, which was perhaps the high point of the event for me, as I ran the table with a remarkably good deck for only 3 packs.  I played a “last chance” event to get some byes in the main event and washed out in the first round.  And then in the main event itself, I went 1-3-1 before dropping, with a pretty mediocre deck.  (A 6-3 record or better was needed to advance to day 2.) I think I played okay, but didn’t have the results.  It did remind me how frustrating sealed deck can be due to its variance. I also played a few side drafts, one of which went well, the other two of which didn’t.  It was a fun time – but exhausting! I can’t imagine playing the 24 hours out of 36 it would take to win the main event, even if I were remotely good enough to do so.

Anyway, I’ve done a few other drafts at a nearby store, with better results, even going 3-0 in my most recent Aether Revolt draft with a fast and fun red-green deck. I’m going back for another draft tomorrow night.

We’ve also had a nice home development in that our 13-year-old kitty Roulette has been getting very snuggly, and has finally discovered the joys of sitting on laps, which has been fun for everyone.  We think Roulette spent a long time feeling depressed and traumatized since she lost all of her brothers between 2010 and 2013, and we got the kittens in 2012, with Jackson being a bully towards her. But I think she’s figured out how to stand up to Jackson, and has worked through her sadness and realized that she would like to get more love and attention from her humans.  She’s become more active and has even been running around the house with Sadie from time to time.

There’s been plenty more going on, but that’s enough catch-up for now.  I’ll try to write again soon.

Ranking the Star Wars Films

Okay, a little more Star Wars for this year. Here’s how I would order the films, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10:

  1. Star Wars (9/10): Engaging, evocative setting, enjoyable characters. Despite its derivative roots and difficult gestation, the novelty and exuberance of what made it to the screen is still admirable almost 40 years later.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (8/10): Better written, better dialogue, better-delineated characters, better special effects. Doesn’t really have an ending (since it’s the first half of a two-film story) and doesn’t have the gosh-wow factor of the first film.
  3. Rogue One (8/10): Extremely well produced, satisfying (if a bit depressing) story, effective backstory to the first film.
  4. Return of the Jedi (6/10): The opening sequence is excellent, Luke’s story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. However, the Ewoks are somewhat annoying, the revelation about Luke’s family is utterly ridiculous, and geez, didn’t we already see a Death Star?
  5. The Force Awakens (6/10): Too self-consciously a rehash of the plot of the first film, too much of the setting that doesn’t make sense (is the Resistance part of the new Republic? Why are they operating like the Rebellion was?). Still, Finn is a great down-to-earth (or wherever) protagonist, the dialogue and action sequences are great, and seeing the original cast is fun.
  6. Revenge of the Sith (2/10): The only actor who gets out of the prequels not having his acting skills obliterated by Lucas’ direction is Ewan McGregor. Which arguably qualifies him as one of the greatest actors of all time, even before considering his uncanny embodiment of Alec Guinness.
  7. Attack of the Clones (2/10): This film is better than the next one on this list, and that’s all I have to say about it.
  8. The Phantom Menace (1/10): This film was completely unnecessary. Even the title is unnecessary. You have to work really hard to be a film with any production values at all and still earn a 1/10.

I started to write a piece about where the Star Wars franchise collapsed under its own weight, but it turns out I wrote such a piece two years ago. I think at this point one must come to Star Wars expecting action, special effects, and witty dialogue, and anything more is gravy. That’s mostly what Return of the Jedi was, and the later films, including the new Disney ones, are in that vein as well. I definitely do not come to them expecting deep philosophical themes or interesting world-building, since the franchise gave up on any hope of coherently working out its timeline, universe, or fantastic phenomena decades ago.

But that’s okay; there are worse sources of mindless entertainment. After all, this formula has worked for James Bond for over 50 years.

Rogue One

We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

Read on, Macduff! »

Beyond Belief

The biggest revelation for me from the election has come from pieces like this:

The revelation is this: People can be told something, understand what they’re being told, be presented with evidence of it, even have the speaker say that this is something they want to and are going to do, and just flat-out not believe it. In this case, Trump saying that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed (and replaced, but with no suggestions as to what it would be replaced with), which is entirely plausible considering repealing the ACA has been a cornerstone of Republican priorities in Congress for the last 4 years. There’s no good reason to think the Congress and Trump wouldn’t repeal it, yet people voted for him despite feeling the ACA is valuable and important.

Maybe this characteristic of voters has been obvious to everyone else, but it was a surprise to me. (And, frankly, I haven’t generally observed politicians, analysts, pundits or other voters acting as if they realized this.)

Most voters I think vote for a candidate expecting they will renege on – or may be flat-out lying – about some of their campaign statements, since that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of politics (and political reality) for most candidates. But it seems remarkable to me to vote for someone expecting that one of their key statements, about something which is important to one’s life and health (literally), is something they’d go back on.

(It’s easy to feel schadenfreude for people in the articles, but I think we should have more empathy than that; I think things are going to get pretty rough for a lot of Trump voters in the next few years, and no one should take joy in that.)

To my mind, this puts a stake through the heart of any “best interests” argument about voters (most of which I’ve found pretty weak anyway): Clearly large numbers of voters either don’t vote in their best interests, and one reason is that some of them simply don’t believe that a candidate will act against those interests even when the candidate flat-out says that they will.

I don’t know what this means for candidates’ campaigns, elections, political organizations, analysis, punditry, or just plain watching all of those. But I find it unnervingly weird that many people voted to delete Obamacare (much as they voted for racism) even when that’s not what they wanted. I know that choosing a candidate is a matter of compromise, but geez.

Aftermath

A week ago, as the Cubs and Indians were heading down the stretch of the final game of this year’s World Series I tweeted this:

So everyone realizes that we could have EITHER the Cubs win OR Trump lose, but not both, right?

If you’re the kind of person who believes in karma or other such things, there’s an explanation you can consider. Alternately, maybe the gods just decided to stick a metaphorical fork in Nate Silver’s eye.

I, myself, do not believe in such things – I was making a joke since I was rooting for the Indians. So my topics today are: What happened, and what happens next?

What happened?

I have a pretty simple – even reductionist – view of how Presidential politics works: That the largest single factor is how the electorate views the state of the economy at the time of the election. There are a lot of voters who are “locked in” to one party, and among those who aren’t, the state of the economy is the biggest determining factor in whether they turn out to vote, and who they vote for. In particular, I believe that if they perceive the economy to be bad – especially in their region (“all politics is local”) – then they will tend vote for the major party candidate who is not from the party of the sitting President. Regardless of what’s going on elsewhere in government, in a Presidential election, the party of the sitting President gets the blame.

I also feel that incumbency is a significant factor, so even if the economy is bad, the incumbent has a built-in edge which a non-incumbent candidate of the same party of the sitting President does not have.

There are some other nuances, but fundamentally I think Bill Clinton’s campaign got it right in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So, I think that the Republican Congress has been engineering the recovery from the last recession to be weak, so that large swaths of the electorate felt that the economy basically sucks, even though it doesn’t suck for a lot of people. Yeah yeah, lots of job growth, but it’s been not so much tepid job growth as growth of tepid jobs. So the marginal voters who turned out to vote – i.e., the ones that matter – came out and held the Democrats responsible, because the sitting President is a Democrat. I think this has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the Republican leadership, and while Trump displacing their establishment candidates isn’t what they’d planned (primary politics is a very different kettle of fish from the general election), they’re probably pretty happy with the outcome overall.

Would Bernie Sanders have won where Hillary Clinton lost? I doubt it. And I think polls showing otherwise are no better than wishful thinking for his supporters. (I voted for Sanders in the primary.)

Why did the polls and analysts get it wrong before the election? Heck if I know. But the economic news over the last 2 years made me think that the Republican nominee – whoever it was – would have a better chance of winning this election than a lot of people gave them credit for.

Anyway, here we are: President-Elect Trump.

What happens next?

As usual John Scalzi said a lot and said it better than I can. But I have a few more things to say:

First, I think people who voted for Trump for economic reasons are – ironically, tragically – the least likely citizens to be helped by his programs. Trump doesn’t care about the little guy, and I think his talk about bringing back jobs was just rhetoric; he’s interested in helping himself and his fellow tycoons to make money off of everyone else, legitimately or not. Trump isn’t an “outsider”, people like Trump are the reason government has insiders – they exist for people like Trump. If you’re not like Trump (white, male, rich), then don’t expect to see a whole lot of help from the government in the next four years.

Second, while the Supreme Court and the repeal of Obamacare are getting a lot of the press, what really scares me is that in the next 4 years the Republicans might turn their attention to repealing Social Security and Medicare, two of the greatest and most successful government programs in the history of humanity. Certainly I’m not counting on them being around when I retire, at this point. And after helping care for my mother these last few years, I really cannot stress enough just how wonderful a program Medicare is.

(A friend said that Trump has pledged not to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Even if he said this, I bet he doesn’t care enough to stick to that. And the Congressional Republicans definitely want to get rid of them.)

Finally, this:

Every Presidential election I’ve voted in has been tremendously stressful to watch the night of the returns. When Clinton and Obama won each of their two terms, it was a big relief because, although I found them each far from perfect, they were better than the alternative. When George W. Bush won each of his two terms, it was difficult to see how I was going to get up in the morning. Last night was like those two Bush elections times ten.

It’s prosaic to say, “we have to go on, because what else can we do?” I was able to get up this morning and mostly do my usual routine. But I fear that a lot of people are going to decide they can’t keep going. I bet we’ll see rising suicide rates among minorities, LGBT folks, and maybe even women.

I have no comforting words. My mental-compartmentalization skills are working overtime to help me adjust to this, and they’re doing pretty well – but I feel guilty because it makes me feel emotionally detached from how I think many people are feelineg.

The next few years are going to be brutal for many people whose wealth is counted in less than 8 figures. I hope we all survive them.

R.I.P. Maggie

My sister Katy texted me last night to tell me that our Mom’s cat Maggie passed away sometime during the day.

Mom had cats for just about my entire life. When I was born she and Dad had a cat named Dinah, whom I barely remember, although I dimly remember thinking she was someone to avoid. She died when I was still quite young. I grew up with an Abyssinian cat named Amos – I’m not sure if they got him before or after I was born – and he was around until 1987, along with our Welsh Corgi, Punkin, who joined us in 1976. I always found Amos somewhat aloof, even for a cat, just doing his own thing. I don’t really have strong memories of him, even though I was a teenager for part of his life.

In 1988, after I went to college and Amos passed away, Mom and got a couple of cats, a sweet tabby named William, and a feisty polydactyl calico named Jenny. William was my buddy whenever I visited, and I was very sad when he passed away in 2000. Jenny lived a couple more years, and I think enjoyed being an only cat.

We weren’t sure Mom would get another cat after Jenny – well, maybe Mom was less sure than the rest of us – but she found Maggie at a shelter, I think around 2003. The shelter said she’d been found pregnant and with a collar on her neck which was too small. And she was a small cat – maybe 7 pounds – a calico with smoky fur and a smudge on her nose. Mom adopted her, and really had to stick out caring for her for that first year, because she said Maggie took a long time to warm up to her, and even longer to really become her friend. But eventually she settled in with Mom, coming down for treats or to lie on the newspaper, and moving from room to room to lie in the sun in various windows. I guess she would growl and hiss loudly at cats who came into her yard, and avidly watched all the birds which flew into the yard.

She was not a very friendly cat, usually running and hiding when visitors came. It would take several days after I’d arrive to visit before she’d do more than look at me around a corner. She didn’t bite or scratch (much), she just wasn’t very friendly. She did warm up to me when I stayed at Mom’s house while she was recovering from knee replacement surgery in 2012, even getting into the morning paper routine. She’d even sit at the top of the stairs and meow for me to come to bed when it was Mom’s usual bedtime!

She had a bit of a mischievous streak: Mom said she once got outside, and Mom left both the front and back doors open for her to come back in. After an hour, she walked in the front door… and before Mom could close the doors she walked all the way through the house and went out the back. She did come in to stay later in the day, though. She also loved to play with tabs from plastic milk cartons, and would sometimes carry one to the top of the stairs and meow until Mom came out and told her what a good kitty she was. (When we were preparing to sell the house, I found dozens of the tabs behind the oven.)

Maggie had a hard time in Mom’s apartment in assisted living, with people coming in and out several times a day, and having a pretty small place to live. Mom played with her a lot, but as Mom declined (and I see in hindsight that she hid a lot of the symptoms of her decline from us) I think she became neglected and lonely.

The nursing staff told us that when Mom passed away she meowed loudly for a while afterwards, and then she had to endure several days in the apartment alone, with the occasional visitor to give her food and scoop her litter, until Katy and I came to clean out the place.

Katy volunteered to adopt her, and something remarkable happened: She moved into Katy’s house, with her son and her two young cats, and she totally took over the house. She whipped the young cats into line, and became very friendly to the humans. Katy says when she’d have workmen over, the other cats with disappear but Maggie would stay and supervise them. And last December, when Katy adopted a young dog, Maggie told the dog who’s boss, and used him against the other cats, since they didn’t like him.

So after everything, Maggie got her happy ending, a year and a half in a nice old house, with friendly humans, lots of wet cat food, and plenty of time lying in the sun on the porch.

Katy said Maggie had been getting small and thin lately, and we’re not really sure how old she was. Our best guess is that she’s 13, about the same as our calico Roulette, but she could easily have been a year or two (or more!) older than that. She always had kind of cruddy teeth, which is not a recipe for long-term health. So it was not really a surprise, though the suddenness was a bit of a shock. I don’t think Maggie would have done well with a long decline, anyway.

Katy says she’s having Maggie cremated and will spread her ashes over Mom’s grave next time she visits. I think they’d both like the thought of that.

(photo by Katy)

(photo by Katy)