Books, 2021

I read 30 books this year — a significant dip from prior years. I watched a bit of TV and in particular I watched a lot of hurling from the spring through the summer. I also focused more on playing hurling than I have in previous years. I don’t remember what else I did, really. I tuned into local politics some and did some COVID-related data/coding projects. I had a concussion in early October that really slowed me down. Surely there was other stuff. Some of the books I read took me a while to get through, and several I read slowly and carefully with a group online, which was both rewarding and time-consuming. Here’s what I did manage to read this year, grouped by star rating (I’m stingy with 5-star reviews) and then by some other categories I tend to track.

Four-Star Books

Three-Star Books

Two-Star Books




Young Adult

Authors of Color

Authors Who Are Not Men

Forge #1

Over the last few years, my son and I have watched a show off and on titled Forged with Fire. It’s a competitive blacksmithing show that really made us both want to go fire up some metal and bang on it. But blacksmithing seemed difficult, intimidating. Even if I could get all the equipment an figure out how to flatten some metal, could I really make anything useful? I put the thought aside for a while.

In the last quarter or so of this year, the urge struck me again and I decided maybe I could make a simple forge using things I had on hand. There’s a type of forge called a JABOD (just a box of dirt) that will do in a pinch. At the most basic level, what you need to build a forge is a chamber to hold some fuel and air pumped into that chamber to make the fire burn hotter. Steel needs to heat to something like 1200 Fahrenheit before it’ll be hot enough to shape.

Well, I had an old grill that seemed like it’d make an ok forge chassis. And I have a shop-vac to blow air. All I needed was some way to heat-proof the grill a bit and pipe air into it to stoke the flames. I was going to use lump charcoal (not briquettes) because it seemed the easiest way into the hobby (anthracite coal would’ve been another option).

Now, the floor of my grill was not solid or sturdy. It was basically a sloping grease trap made of thin metal. It would need to be reinforced somehow. I opted for cutting some plywood to provide a level floor, figuring that putting refractory material over top of the wood would protect it. I didn’t get a good photo of the grill before recycling it, but here it is with the piece of plywood I would cut to size.

Here I’ve begun ripping off the dials and pipes and wires and such that I wouldn’t need.

The board, cut to size and braced (it’s thin plywood):

Note the little notch on the end. I put it there to accommodate the pipe flange attaching an air pipe to the grill (stay tuned for that).

Here’s the new plumbing I planned to add to the grill to bring air from the shop-vac to the fire bowl inside the forge. I didn’t wind up using all the pieces, as I tinkered with my original design as I went.

I had to drill some holes in the side of the grill to fit the flange. Here you can see the holes, and then the flange installed, with a pipe screwed into it. Don’t mind the wire — I got rid of that later.

Now I had something that was beginning to look like the skeleton of a forge, with the leveling board inserted and the plumbing installed. You can see the hole on the left-hand wall and the light shining through the knob holes on the front surface. I would need to patch these up somehow or else I’d have lots of fire shooting out of them. I didn’t think that simply mashing refractory material into the holes would work. It’d likely fall out before it could harden, and at any rate, it’d be a pretty thin barrier.

Remember that box of miscellaneous grill parts? I thought there might be something useful in it. Indeed there was! I got out my tin snips and cut out little patches I could wedge in front of the holes. Some needed a little bending to fit around curves in the grill wall’s surface. These were not perfect, but I hoped they’d give the refractory material something more to cling to.

I’ve mentioned refractory material a few times and am aware that I haven’t defined it. I take its purpose to be both serving as a barrier between meltable/burnable parts of the forge an to keep some of the heat in the forge. You can get fire bricks for this, or you can buy refractory concrete. If you’re building a JABOD forge, you can use dirt or clay for refractory material (or maybe you just don’t need proper refractory material because the worst you’ll do is cook some dirt, provided you’ve picked any rocks out of it). I didn’t want to dig a bunch of holes in my yard to get dirt, but I did want to go the cheap route, so I got some plain old cheap cat litter and some playground sand. For best results, you want to powder the litter. What you really want out of it is the clay (so you don’t want the stuff with crystals in it). Mix that with sand, ashes if you have them (they’re good insulating material), and water and you can make sort of a mud you can use to make your forge more heat resistant. This was a real pain. I stated with a mallet for pounding clay (breathing a lot in while I pounded) and graduated to a cheap blender, which broke after doing a few pitchers full. I had loads more sand, and I had plenty of ash from our fire pit, but I got tired of pounding the litter, so I had less refractory material than I really wanted.

I had my refractory material now an needed to try to make a fire bowl and some horizontal surface around it. I just made this part up and had no idea whether it’d work or not. It turned out better than I had initially figured it might. I first spread the goop over the plywood and around the pipe, leaving sort of a hollow around the tip of the pipe. I wanted a nicer looking fire bowl, so I used a real bowl to shape the hole. Once I had the basic shape, I wanted to build the flat, raised surface out farther and higher. You can see how the bowl looks shallower in one picture and deeper in another — in the latter, I had built material up to the rim of the bowl. I built a wood fire on top of the material to try to help it dry and cure. It worked only ok. If you look down in the bowl in some of these pictures, you can see the opening for the air input pipe, which delivers air right to the center of the bottom of the bowl.

With that settled, now I needed to rig up my shop-vac to be able to blow air into the forge body. I knew going in that the shop-vac’s hose would not naturally fit the pipe I had selected. I also harbored a hope that I could 3D print an adapter. So I learned a little bit about design specifications for threaded pipes, etc., and I did the math and modeling required to make an adapter that would thread onto my pipe at one end and onto my shop-vac’s hose at the other. Problem is, I’m not great at math. Even though I felt as if I had honored the spec perfectly, my plastic pipe fitting was just a hair too large for the pipe, which would sort of thread into the adapter but would not do so perfectly. It seemed close enough for a first-run. I might lose some air given the looser connection to the pipe (the connection to the shop-vac was pretty good), but I didn’t think I’d lose too much.

Now the thing was assembled. Time to fire it up! One thing I learned was that I did not need to worry about losing air through my adapter. I had more than enough air and, alas, a shop-vac with only “on” and “off” settings. I loaded the fire bowl up with some chunks of lump charcoal (basically wood burned in a low-oxygen environment) and some newspaper and lit it on fire. The shop-vac proved too much for the small lumps of charcoal. It would get them pretty hot and then blow them out of my fire bowl. I kept the grill’s lid down for some of this time to try to keep fuel in the forge, but the air was too much and I wound up with a rain of sparks and embers flying out of holes in the back and sides of the forge.

The fire did get hot enough to get a little dark red glow on my steel — you really want a bright orange maybe even tending toward yellow — but battling with the fuel and the airflow made it hard to keep the temperature up to anywhere approaching where it needed to be. I suspect that coal would’ve done better. After heating and trying to shape a piece of rebar a little bit, I finally gave up. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make a full success of the venture. Coals started tumbling/shooting out of the bottom of the grill, which indicated that my wood floor and the refractory material coating it had not held up to the fire. This is when I called it quits. My goal had been to move some metal, and I did accomplish that, but what I had in the end was a very slightly smushed piece of rebar.

Here’s the state of the forge after all of this effort:

The hole at the bottom of the bowl has enlarged, and indeed flames burned through the board underneath and chewed away at the refractory material too. You can see here some of the smaller lumps that my larger lumps of charcoal turned into. At top left, you can also see some lump near-charcoal I inadvertently made as part of this whole process while using a little hunk of wood to prop the forge lid open a little.

Naturally, after all of that, I failed to snap a photo of the smushed rebar, and it’s been a week or two. The result is sufficiently sad that it’s not worth showing it off anyway.

Still, I knew precious little about blacksmithing or forge-making when I started this enterprise. In the end, I made a functioning-ish forge and felt at times while building the thing as if I was in an A-Team montage. I’m pleased with this outcome. And I still want to make something that resembles a blade. So I bought an inexpensive forge that will work with a standard propane tank. Just today, I fired that sucker up, and I did get a better outcome (though still a pretty sad one). I’ll post about that separately.

The Sideline Cut

Disclaimer: This post will have a very niche audience. Unless you’re into Gaelic Athletics Association games, you’ll likely want to skip this one.

A few years ago, I wrote about my foray into hurling. In the intervening years, I’ve stuck with the sport and with my local hurling club, though I’ve tended to bow out in the hottest months of the summer (so basically in June, which is when tournament play really begins to ramp up here in the southeast). I’ve committed chiefly to practices but not much to outright game play. My dad died in late June of 2019, and that pretty much knocked me out for the year, as I sort of lacked energy or attention for a fairly time-intensive commitment. And I sure didn’t want to travel around to play tournaments while having to figure out how to manage an estate. I also wanted to be around and available a lot for my nuclear family; this was a whole lot more important to me than a game. So 2019 was a bust. And then came 2020. We usually start doing some light practice sometime in February or March, but with COVID-19 beginning to spread, we held off. Instead of practicing, team members took on some skill and physical challenges remote from one another and shared our results in our WhatsApp group. It was neat and got me to do a lot more skill work until we began holding cautious, socially distanced practices late in 2020 or early in 2021 (I forget which).

I worked on a few skills solo at a nearby middle school — striking the ball decently from my weak side, taking what’re called “free pucks” (lift the ball from the ground with the stick and strike it from that lift), and sideline cuts. The sideline cut is a pretty tough skill to pick up. You use it when the ball goes out over the sideline in a game. The team opposing the team who last touched the ball before it went over the sideline is awarded a sideline cut. The mechanics of it are pretty simple in theory: Place the ball on the ground and strike it from where you placed it. You can go for shorter strikes that stay close to the ground, but the holy grail for me was learning to strike the ball high and long. The very best high-level players can score points from 45 and even 65 yards out from the sideline, which means striking it a net distance of about 77 yards (for the one 65 yards out).

Easy, right? Just wail on the ball really hard and it’ll fly. It turns out, it’s a little harder to do than that.

I practiced hundreds and hundreds of sideline cuts during the pandemic. Initially, I was lucky to get the ball to arc and land 10 or 15 yards in front of me . And I was very inconsistent. I just couldn’t figure out all the mechanics you had to line up together in order to get a good strike. And I never really found a good “how-to” reference. Over time, I picked up a few tricks that have improved my cuts a lot; when all the pieces are coming together, I can get 40 – 45 yards on a cut with some height on it. I’m still pretty inconsistent and I still can’t strike the ball nearly as well as high-level players. But on a good day, I can strike it a fair bit better than many of the people playing at my level. Since I’m forgetful, I wanted to document what I’ve found to contribute to my best sideline cuts (bear in mind that I’m playing Junior C or D — I forget which, but it’s miles and miles away from the highest level play).

I suppose this is a sort of recipe, and now that I’ve made you wade through a dumb narrative, I’ll share the actual recipe. Here are the techniques that’ve tended to add up to my best cuts:

  1. Rotate your stick. If you’ve played tennis with a one-handed back-hand, you likely rotate the racket an eighth- or quarter-turn backward to angle the face upward a little so that you can get a good slice on the ball. The principle here is the same. I’m cutting from my right-hand side (as if I’m a right-handed baseball batter), and so I rotate the stick backward a little. If I were to hold my arm straight out in front of me while rotating the stick, I’d rotate it clockwise by a few degrees, so that as I swipe the stick below the ball when swinging, the stick is at a fairly acute angle (maybe 15 – 20 degrees?) relative to the ground.
  2. Take a knee. You don’t really have to take a knee, but a teammate of mine who is one of our better folks at sideline cuts will sometimes strike it from his knee. What’s important is not whether the knee is on the ground or not but that you be low enough that you can get the stick under the ball and take advantage of that acute angle your stick rotation made. You’re basically making sort of a wedge to swing under the ball to give it some loft.
  3. Don’t swing for the fences. It’s tempting to want to swing really hard. The harder the swing, the longer the distance, right? Do not fall into this trap. Swinging hard can make your swing jerky and cause you to strike the ball uncleanly. My very best cuts come from fluid swings in which I swing the wedge of my stick under the ball smoothly and find sort of a sweet spot. I don’t actually know what the sweet spot is, but my impression is that it’s an inch or two in from the butt of the bas (the flat face of the stick). Too close to the end and you’ll slice the ball to the right (if you’re swinging right-handed). Too far down toward the handle and you’ll just club the ball along the ground at a bad angle off to the left.
  4. Get wristy. This seems to apply in a lot of hurling skills. Striking from the air or from a free puck, the best players don’t take a Herculean swing but sort of flick the stick through the ball. Wrist-action can help you move the stick through the ball more quickly (I guess), and this fast movement (minus the jerk of a hard swing) gets good acceleration on the ball. Sometimes I think of this stroke as sort of throwing the stick through the ball, cocking my wrists back a little before making contact and then rotating them forward in a flicking motion that maintains the wedge shape that rotating my stick made. When I manage to put all the pieces above together with some wrist motion as I make contact, I make a better cut.
  5. Follow through. This may seem axiomatic, but I think you may have to find the right follow-through. Go all the way around to your opposite shoulder and you’ll throw your back out. Stop once you hit the ball and you’ll lose any benefit of the wrist flick. I think a fairly low-trajectory follow-through may be the best. Else you risk rolling the wrists too much and rotating the wedge toward the perpendicular, which will cause you to skate the ball along the ground rather than lofting it into the air.

I think those are the main pieces. I still have a lot of trouble putting them all together reliably, but now that I’ve articulated the main things that lead to good strokes for me, I can work on consistency by cutting toward a wall and trying to get the ball above a certain height (for distance) and within lateral boundaries as well (for accuracy).

If you happen to be a hurler and made your way through all of this, I’d be grateful for your tips.

Some Things I Like

I’ve been thinking a lot about things I value, and I thought I’d jot a few down, in no particular order (but grouped as appropriate).


Hurling is an ancient Irish sport that has made a comeback over the last century or so. It’s the national sport of Ireland and is huge over there. It’s less huge in the U.S. My town has a club I’ve been an inconsistently-attending member of for a few years. The last year in particular was not the best year for the club, though we stayed in touch remotely and organized some socially distant events. With vaccines rolling out, we’re getting back into the swing of things. I’ve improved a lot at some of the basics over the last year through solo practice, and this is emboldening me to want to play a bit more competitively, though mostly my aim is to get some exercise and have some fun while avoiding injury.

Sugary Cereal

I grew up eating really sugary cereal, but I’ve typically eaten more nourishing cereals as an adult. This year I’ve committed again to junk cereal. Cookie Crisp, Reese’s Puffs, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch have been staples. I tried Cap’n Crunch for the first time in probably 25 years and found it disappointing. Oreo cereal was a disappointment too.


The ones I listen to the most consistently these days include:

  • Still Processing. This one’s about culture and race, and I learn from it (and also laugh) every time I listen.
  • Dice Shame. A D&D actual-play podcast in nice bite-size chunks with a nice balance of silliness and drama. I’ve started a fair few D&D shows but this is the only one that I’ve stuck with. The cast members are really nice and are active on their community Discord server, too.
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed. Author John Green reviews the human-centered world. He’s a lovely thinker, writer, and speaker, and his meditations in this show are a pleasure. He’s going on hiatus, but there’s a book coming out in which I gather the essays he wrote for the show will be published.
  • Hear to Slay. Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom host what they bill as “the black feminist podcast of your dreams.” It’s hosted on the Luminary podcast network and costs a little money, but it’s well worth it. I don’t like the Luminary app, but the content here is A+. I learn and laugh every single episode. It’s one of the more enriching pieces of media I consume, and I await new episodes on Tuesdays eagerly.
  • Lady Don’t Take No. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza talks about current events and politics with various guests. I learn a lot from this one too.

I sometimes dip into A Way With Words, Radiolab (a former staple), and The Last Archive. I’ve got some others in my list too but I rarely listen to them. I used to listen to Ezra Klein’s show, but I think he moved on or something.


I’ve never been much tuned into smells, but the past year has been a year of olfactory awakening for me. A colleague pointed me to a lovely Christmas candle that I burned through much of with a quickness. I’ve tried some incense but am not very good at operating it. I tried some D&D-themed candles from Cantrip Candles and haven’t yet hit on a variety I love, but the candles are much in demand, and if you get one of the larger ones, you’ll find a d20 die in the bottom. My favorite candles I’ve picked up are from a brand called Ash & Fir, and my favorite scent is named Hunter. I also got a nifty wick trimmer.

Online Publications

Although I have made my liveihood on the internet for many years now, I have not much enjoyed reading on the internet. I much prefer to bury my nose in a paper novel. I’ve begun reading a few things online routinely in the past year, though.

  • The Audacity. Roxane Gay’s substack offers some neat weekly content, but what really drew me to this site was Gay’s hosting of an online book club. I’ve done a fair bit of book club hosting myself. I’ve also tried over the last few years to read more diversely. I’ve gotten a lot from what I’ve read of Gay’s work, and as noted above, I love her podcast. A book club hosted by her sounded like a dream. I’ve read all of the books so far and really liked them on the whole. I’ve not been as engaged in the discussions or author events as I might’ve liked. Tonight, Gay hosted a discussion with Dantiel Moniz, the author of April’s selection Milk Blood Heat. It’s a really good short story collection — like really good, without a dud in the book — and the discussion was a real pleasure.
  • Essaying. I guess there’s a theme here — I’m really digging content created by Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. This is Cottom’s substack in which she writes about the craft of writing. Some of her content is open for general reading, but some is premium content that so far has been well worth the nominal fee.
  • Pipewrench. This is a new online magazine with (by its editors’ design) sort of a dinner party vibe to it — one long feature per issue with several conversation pieces in response to it. I got a lot out of issue one and am already glad to’ve been a founding subscriber. I suppose I should note that I used to work with (and I greatly admire) one of the founders, so I may be a little biased. One of the big things about this magazine is that they’re, you know, ethical. They pay their writers and attend with care to writers’ rights. It’s the sort of venture you can feel proud to throw a little cabbage at if you’ve got cabbage to throw.

Silence from Certain Quarters

I’ve never been much of a news watcher, but over the last few years, I’ve managed to see what has felt like a very unhealthy share of a certain orange puckered anus of a grifter spouting virulent nonsense. I’ve seen that ghastly face, heard that self-assured, Dunning-Krugeriffic voice, cringed at the weird hand-cuffed gestures, been appalled at the lies and childishness of the microbursts he posted on Twitter. But for the past few months? Nothing. I’ve hardly given the man a thought. It’s been a balm to evict that cakesniffer from the rent-free tenancy he had managed to take up in my consciousness, to stagger eyes streaming through a sort of 4-year eggy fart and finally to come out at the end and exhale in relief, and inhale, and maybe even recall that such wonders as salty ocean breezes and lovely forest-themed candles still exist and can cause pleasure.

Vaccines and Masks

I have a couple of cute masks that I wear with something I hesitate to call pride (pride not really being my way) but with at least an uncharacteristic showiness. One is made of fabric depicting simple cartoonish whales in varying colors on a navy background. The other — a gift from a colleague who is a talented seamstress — has space kittens on one side and trucks on the other. I generally display the space kittens.

Of course it’s not just mask fashion that I’ve taken a liking to. I think masks have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 (and the seasonal flu and probably lots of other things too). I don’t know that I’ll be a forever-masker, but I’m certainly a masker, and I can certainly see myself masking up well past the time when the worst of the pandemic seems to be over.

I got my first COVID-19 vaccine three weeks ago and felt like Peter Parker about to get superpowers from a spider bite. I get shot number two tomorrow and will feel nigh invulnerable two weeks hence (though I’ll still wear my mask).

Ice Cream

I eat ice cream nearly every day, even if it’s just a couple of spoonfuls. It’s just the best. These days I’m eating mostly chocolate, though often enough, I get concoctions with all sorts of junk in them (brownie batter and chunks, for example) that must legally be called “frozen desserts” rather than “ice cream.”

COVID Update

I haven’t written about COVID-19 in a little while. Not a whole lot has changed for my family and me. We’re homebodies by and large, so other than essential trips out, we mostly stick around the house. We venture out to do outdoor things occasionally.

The Biden administration, though surely flawed in many ways (e.g. there are still kids in cages at the Mexico border), has really taken the pandemic seriously and oversaw the distribution of 100 million vaccines within the first 60ish days of the administration. I believe they’re on course at this rate to have distributed 200 million by Biden’s 100th day in office, doubling his ambitious initial goal. We haven’t been vaccinated yet, but I today scheduled an appointment to get my first dose in about a week.

I don’t know if vaccination will be enough. There are variants of the virus, and I imagine complacency and easing of restrictions will result in resurgences of the disease in spite of mass vaccination. Every time I drive by places like the Applebee’s and the nearby bowling alley, I find the parking lot pretty much full. I would think the bowling alley would be very nearly the last place you’d want to find yourself during a pandemic (“here, let me stick my fingers in the holes in this ball that other people’ve been sticking their boogery fingers in”), but I guess dummies gonna dumb.

Groceries and toilet paper are not hard to come by, as they were this time a year ago. Gas prices have risen again, to something like $2.80 a gallon if I’m not misremembering. Mostly I still see people wearing masks in places like the grocery store, and I wonder how long that’ll go on for. Flu cases were way down this year, and I’d like to think that our memories for that will not be so short that we forget to keep up with effective precautions next flu season.


Five years ago, we got a new dog, Maisy. She’s been a great addition to the family. I had recently been thinking maybe she was a little lonely. She almost always has one of her human beings at home (especially during pandemic times), but I just found myself wondering if she might benefit from some canine company. Sometime in the last year or so, the kids sort of cornered me and made an appeal to begin fostering dogs, which’d give us the multiple-dog experience without the longer term commitment. I was unequivocal in my “no” at the time. I’ve been the chief caregiver for Maisy, and I’m fine with that, but I didn’t want another dog to manage.

But I changed my mind, and in late December, I started looking around to see if we might find another shelter dog we could adopt. Before Maisy, I had always had smaller dogs, and in fact I was a little reluctant to get a bigger dog. Maisy was about 35 pounds when we got her (which seemed big at the time), but she grew to be about 70, which seemed big indeed, but satisfyingly so. It turns out I’m more of a big-dog person. So I had my eyes open for a dog on the bigger end rather than the smaller end of the size spectrum.

After striking out at a couple of shelters, I did some web searches and learned about a local group called SARG. They had a Great Pyrenees named Baxter who had been living with a foster family. He was listed as being about 90 pounds, which met the bigness criterion. And my wife, it turned out, had always sort of wanted a Pyr. So we filled out an application to try him out for a couple of weeks to see if he would fit (like, perhaps even literally fit) in our home.

There were two things about Pyrs that I worried about. They’re bred to be big barkers, and sometimes they’re nocturnal. A nocturnal barker was not a family addition I particularly relished. I sleep poorly enough without a dog barking all night. But also, I work from home and spend a lot of time on video chats. My office is right next to our front door, so a big daytime barker would be a problem too.

We introduced Baxter to Maisy and they got along well enough, so we did the trial run. He does bark some, but it’s not so bad, and mostly he doesn’t bark at night. I’m not sure I’ve slept past about 7:30 in the morning since we got him, but on the whole, the barking situation isn’t so bad. And he is the sweetest big floof of a dog I’ve ever met (sorry, Maisy). He loves being petted and will let you know in no uncertain terms (by nosing you or putting a paw in your lap) if you stop petting too soon. He’s a snuggler, and he really likes company; he spends a few hours most days hanging out with me in my office while I work (which also mostly keeps him from seeing bark-inducing things outside). By the time we got him, he had bulked up a lot and now weighs in at about 112 pounds. He is satisfyingly big.

He and Maisy play well for the most part. He’ll nip her a little sometimes but always stops when she yelps and usually goes into a submissive pose to let her know he’s playing. And when they run around outside, she’s more often the more aggressive of the two. Sometimes they’ll very nearly cuddle a little (more so the more time goes on). He’s a great dog, a wonderful addition to the family.

We kept his shelter name because none of us hated it and we were having trouble agreeing on anything else, though I took the liberty of elongating his name a bit to Captain Baxter Leopold von Snugglesworth Learn-Houston, Esq. Mostly we call him Bax.

January 2021

Well it’s been a helluva month. In COVID-19 news, the world continues to rage with the disease. It seems like some places will be a bit better for a while and then will get bad again. My town was for some time at the top of the list of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, which isn’t a list I feel especially good about being at the top of. Our family has thankfully stayed safe and COVID-free. We’re continuing to live as hermits for the most part, though we are letting my son play more out in the neighborhood than we had been, which I hope is a calculated risk we don’t come to regret. The world out there seems largely normal, but with most people wearing masks. That said, I do see people crowding restaurants and bars and such, which blows my mind.

We got a dog named Baxter, a Great Pyrenees whom I’ll write about at greater length before too long. I’ve resisted getting a second dog for a long time but decided five years to the date (coincidentally) after we got our other dog that I was willing (and even eager) to get a companion for her. After visiting a couple of shelters with so-so luck, I found a lesser-known animal rescue group nearby that happened to have this lovely big pooch. We gave him a trial run for a couple of weeks starting at the end of 2020 and made the adoption official in the last week. He’s a sweetheart, if a loud one.

And then there’s U.S. politics. Trump was thankfully voted out of office, but I wasn’t going to believe he would actually leave office until I witnessed it on January 20. I figured he and his minions would find some way to cheat or intimidate their way into keeping him in office. And they sure tried. On January 6 while I was working, I started hearing news reports that a “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C. had erupted into an assault on the Capitol. January 6 is the day that the legislature vote to certify the election results. Trump conveniently held a rally on this day during which he incited the crowd to march down the mall to the Capitol and basically see their will done. A mob of people in MAGA hats and various flags (including the Confederate flag) stormed the Capitol and overwhelmed the curiously small police force there, breaching various offices and one of the chambers of legislature. It was brazen, as if they knew they’d get away with it minus any consequences. Some have begun to suffer some consequences, but it was terrifying that things came to this point. They erected a gallows and called for the assassination of Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence (whom Trump was upset at for not colluding with him to steal the election). Eventually, reinforcements arrived (it appears that Trump’s goons at the Pentagon were complicit in withholding troops) and the situation was gotten under control, but even then, the rioters were politely escorted away and allowed (most of them) to leave. By contrast, BLM protesters all summer were shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, beaten, and locked up. This is what white supremacy looks like.

The legislature resumed their work and in spite of the resistance of 100+ Republican legislators certified the election. Biden would be president, it seemed. (But who knew what else Trump and his mob might try?) A week later, the House of Representatives voted (with 10 Republicans crossing the aisle) to impeach Trump, the first time a president has ever been twice impeached. And the week after that, Biden and Harris were sworn in. This was a profound relief.

Trump had had his social media accounts suspended as he continued to lie and foment his supporters. That alone was a relief, but then seeing Biden sworn in and the Trump apparatus disassembled, with Trump and his crooked children making tracks at last, enabled me to exhale. Normalcy and dignity and something resembling the truth are returning to at least the executive branch of the U.S. government. Now we just need to shame and indict and punish Trump and his many enablers.

Here’s to a less eventful February, and here’s to a vast reduction in how much we have to hear from Trump and his sort. What a stain.

Reading, 2020

I read a scant 44 books this year, down from 67 last year and 100 in 2018. It’s weird, since I felt like I had read pretty consistently. One factor is that I led an in-depth group read of Adam Levin’s Bubblegum in the middle part of the year. This took 9 or 10 weeks of focused reading and thinking and writing during which I might otherwise have read a few other books. I also read a handful of long books that took a fair bit of time. And I false-started on a few (not listed below). Finally, this was the dreaded year during which my youngest child lost interest in our nightly routine of reading aloud (my eldest having lost interest a couple of years ago), and this change partway through the year will have diminished my number a bit too. The number of books doesn’t mean much, but I feel oddly self-conscious about a significantly reduced amount of reading. I did also watch a lot of TV. And I continued to spend a lot of time prepping and playing D&D — time I would in previous years have devoted to reading.

31 of the 44 books were written by women, 17 by people I believe would identify as non-white. I mention it because I’ve been trying for a few years to avoid reading mostly (straight) white men, and I like to keep loose track of how I’m doing at getting outside my own experience of the world. I read a mix of fantasy, nonfiction, social justice, literary fiction, and even a couple of books of poems and a play. I read some people I had heard of and also branched out to read well-known authors who were new to me or random finds from my local bookshop, which I’ve tried to patronize a little extra this year.

Highlights this year were Ducks, Newburyport, The Greenlanders, Bubblegum and The Instructions, How to Be an Antiracist, The Nickel Boys, and The Last Samurai. I enjoyed most of the books I read this year, with only a small handful of two-star books and no one-star books.

I list the books below by rating and by a few non-comprehensive categories of my own devising.


  • How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi


  • Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley
  • Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt
  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds
  • Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi
  • The River, by Peter Heller
  • The Fearless Organization, by Amy C. Edmondson
  • Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt
  • A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • Sugar Money, by Jane Harris
  • The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
  • Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, by Kai Cheng Thom
  • How We Fight for our Lives, by Saeed Jones
  • Bubblegum, by Adam Levin
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • White Noise, by Don DeLillo
  • The Instructions, by Adam Levin
  • Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellman
  • Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney


  • The Paper Wasp, by Lauren Acampora
  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar
  • The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
  • Hot Pink, by Adam Levin
  • Tracks, by Louise Erdrich
  • Eternity: Selected Poems, by Tracy K. Smith
  • Dragonsdawn, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey
  • The Court Dancer, by Shin Kyung-sook
  • Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hard Mouth, by Amanda Goldblatt
  • Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler, by Francisco de Quevedo and Anonymous
  • Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey


  • The Bingo Palace, by Louise Erdrich
  • Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield
  • An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green


  • A Radical Shift of Gravity, by Nick Tapalansky
  • Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, by Wizards of the Coast


  • How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds
  • The Fearless Organization, by Amy C. Edmondson
  • Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  • How We Fight for our Lives, by Saeed Jones


  • Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, by Kai Cheng Thom
  • How We Fight for our Lives, by Saeed Jones


  • The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Dragonsdawn, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
  • Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, by Wizards of the Coast
  • Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi


  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds
  • The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green

COVID Update #8

I haven’t done one of these in a while. COVID has become pretty routine for me. I wasn’t one to leave the house without a good reason previously, so for me, this is largely more of the same.

The most stark contrast I’ve seen between now and March or April has been that wearing masks is pretty normal now, and it’s fairly rare to go out and see somebody at the grocery store without one. It’s a nice change. The other night, I was watching a TV show in the realist tradition (mostly I guess I watch other stuff) and I was suddenly horrorstruck that nobody was wearing masks. What were all these people from this TV show from 10 years ago thinking?

Whether things seem all that different to me or not, here’s what we’re looking at right now in Tennessee.

Tennessee Daily Cases 11.16.2020 (Source:, via Inside of Knoxville

Back in July and August was our first big uptick. It looked pretty severe at the time, and I think it was actually at about that time that I noticed more consistent mask usage. New cases even dipped for a while. But now they’re 2-plus times higher than they were during that spike. And with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, it’s hard to imagine this sort of graph will start to look better any time soon.

Meanwhile, we had an election. Trump lost, though he is not conceding and indeed is raising a big lying stink about it, opening lots of lawsuits to try to end-run around the results somehow. I worry that he and others will find a way to get past the election results and that we’ll double-down on fascism if he manages it. Meanwhile, he seems to be doing nothing but tweeting and golfing. He’s not really acknowledging that this virus is still a thing (though he and a bunch of the people who work closely with him contracted it) and has no apparent plan to try to do anything further about it. Biden and Harris meanwhile have formed a committee but can’t do much until the White House starts working with the transition team.

School is still in session, though I’m seeing more and more short-term closures as specific schools run out of custodial staff or substitute teachers. With the numbers climbing again, it’s really hard to believe the kids’ll go back post-Christmas, but then I thought they’d only go for a week or two so far this year, and they’ve been in session since late September. The school system has done a surprisingly good job with things, though I wish they had taken a different approach.

D&D Tabletop Virtual Maps

When I first started running D&D games a while back, I drew battle maps on whiteboards or the grid on the back of wrapping paper. When my group moved to playing virtually due to COVID, I started using maps built into a module a bought for use on Roll20, and I searched the web for maps when I needed to make up an encounter. There are lots of really neat looking maps out there.

I don’t imagine I’ll be playing in person any time soon again, but I’ve seen some neat setups that either project onto a table or that turn a TV or monitor horizontal for the display of vivid maps without all the hassle of drawing maps by hand (which can take some time even if you draw crudely, as I do). I’m not much of a builder but decided on a whim on Saturday to try making a frame to hold an old 27″ monitor I had lying around.

I took some rough measurements and bought some 4″x1″ (so actually more like 3.5″ x .75″) lumber, two 8-footh lengths. I also got some small trim pieces and a sheet of plexiglass cut to the approximate size I figured I’d need. I’m pretty bad at carpentry and so tend to make a rough plan rather than to pretend that I’ll measure or cut very precisely. The end result tends to be crude but mostly serviceable work. Here I’ve marked and begun cutting my frame pieces.

Next, I wanted to sort of route out a couple of slots in one of the boards that’d allow me access to the buttons on the bottom of the monitor and that’d let me feed cords through the frame. I sort of eyeballed it and did some crude routing with a drill and a chisel. I should have measured properly, as my button slot is misaligned by a wide margin. By the time I saw how badly it was misaligned, I had already assembled the frame and slid the monitor into it. I can contort my finger in there and push the power button, but this is not the finest craftsmanship, even by my low standards. I may figure out some sort of button offset gadget I could 3D print to allow me to push buttons inside the frame by pressing buttons on the outside, but it’s a low priority.

In the next shot, I’ve got my frame pieces cut and ready for final sanding. You can see from the knot in the one piece that I’m not super finicky about the look of the wood. I sort of like the knot, actually.

I assembled the frame using wood glue and nails. The black band around the frame in the next photo is this neat clamp my dad got me many years ago that’s designed precisely for holding this sort of thing together while letting the glue dry. Next, I drilled some pilot holes through the plexiglass and the frame. My intent was to both superglue the plexiglass down and nail it in place, with some trim pieces finishing the look and covering some of the monitor’s bezels. I carefully got as far as getting the plexiglass cleaned up and attached to the frame, and I slid the monitor into the frame for a satisfyingly snug fit. Then I cut a piece of wood to hold the monitor into place from behind and screwed that into the sides of the box, long-way (not pictured). When I turned it back over, I found that in spite of my clean-up job, I had managed to get some sawdust between the monitor and the plexiglass — and not just a little. A few specks I could’ve lived with, but it was very noticeable. I tried shop-vacuuming the dust out to no avail, and finally I decided to try carefully prying the plexiglass back up. It cracked as I did so.

So I went back to the hardware store to get more plexiglass. Luckily, they still had the piece they had cut my bit from, so they just cut me a new piece out of it at no additional charge, since I had paid for the whole sheet (I don’t know why they didn’t give me the whole sheet to begin with). I was able to give more precise measurements for the plexiglass this time based on the dimensions of the assembled frame, so I wound up with a better cut than my own prior trim-up job on the the initial plexiglass to make it fit my frame.

In the next shot, you can see that I’ve moved from using an old end table in the garage as a workbench to using the table in our breakfast nook. A little sawdust in the kitchen never hurt anybody. Here I’ve thoroughly cleaned the frame and monitor and plexiglass, re-glued the plexiglass, and have affixed three of the trim pieces using pilot holes and nails. I managed not to crack the plexiglass in spite of hammering nails through the pilot holes. I made the holes about the size of the nail, but not terribly deep, so the nails could slip easily into the holes but still bite into the wood down deep in the frame and hold things together.

And here’s the finished piece, with a little sawdust on the exterior. When I peeled the film off the plexiglass, I was left with a nice clean surface. There’s a gap in the trim on that lower left corner, and the nails don’t look great. I didn’t attend too carefully to spacing of the nails. The slots I hand-routed in the bottom (not pictured here) look a little rough-hewn, but then the whole aesthetic here is pretty rough hewn. I didn’t feel like waiting on stain or varnish, and besides, I didn’t figure I ought to make this thing any more flammable than it already is by adding chemicals to the wood.

The monitor’s bottom bezel (pictured at right here) is wider than the others, and I decided just to live with it, since I thought a uniform trim width was preferable to varying trim widths.

Finally, I plugged the thing in and pulled a map up on it:

You can see that I’ve placed a few of minis on the map too. The idea here is that in the future, I might be able to run a game using Roll20 and show the map here. I can then drag the map around as needed to expose different parts of it within the frame so that we can see big maps without using a lot of table real estate. And they can be vibrant maps that’re much nicer to look at than my crude sketches. I’d like to figure out how to properly go into full-screen mode to get rid of the browser window bits (Roll20 isn’t great for this). But I’ve got lots of time before I’ll feel comfortable playing in person anyway, so there’s time for that yet.