COVID Update #5

I’ve been eating junk cereal again and today was struck by how the back of the box of my Cinnamon Toast Crunch depicts pretty well the current state of mind of a lot of the world. This image takes up the whole of the back of the jumbo sized box:

If you’re not afraid to breathe when you must scuttle out for provisions, there’s some chance you’re outraged that the gubmint is trying to limit your freedoms as a ‘murican. Or maybe you’re outraged at those imbeciles. Or maybe you’re just not used to being around your family as much as the last few weeks have called for and are a little on edge. Maybe you’re just stir crazy. Maybe you work in a grocery store where people without masks breathe on you all day. Maybe you work in a hospital, risking your health to help others. I don’t believe this is a special edition box of cereal printed for this moment in time, but it certainly seems to fit the general mood.

Gas yesterday at my usual station was $1.699. Grocery availability was reasonable, though some things are still being rationed. I was able to buy a 6-pack of toilet paper for the first time in weeks. I did have to go to a second store to get some cannellini for a white chicken chili.

School is officially shut down for the year, and the district has shared plans for calculating final grades. AP exams are still on for my daughter. A driver’s ed course I had signed her up for is moving to an online format for the classroom portion. My son is having an extended break. He is chewing through books very rapidly, which is nice, as he had really slowed down his reading for a while. He spends a lot of his afternoons out in a hammock in the yard with a book.

Some neighbors continue to have guests, which is sort of disturbing.

My hair is about as long as it’s been in my adult life; so is my beard, though that I could trim confidently. I figure if I’m going to look like a caveman, I may as well wear the whole look.

Our postal service is apparently struggling, and people are buying stamps to try to help save the organization. I ordered a couple of books of dinosaur stamps I’m a little excited about. This matters because there’s a very plausible fear that with an election coming up in November, we’ll need to vote by mail if social distancing is still called for. If our authoritarian president allows the post office to go bust, he increases his odds of winning, as greater voter participation tends to go badly for Republicans. It’s shocking that this is a thing we have to worry about. Who would have thought 5 or 6 years ago that this would be a worry?

Life for me remains mostly as it was before the pandemic, though I feel a little more contaminated when I come home from the grocery store now than I did before, and I go outside the neighborhood a little less than I had before (but not much; I was a homebody to begin with). I do feel like I’m living at the top of a slide down into an authoritarian dystopia, which is unsettling and a little hard to fathom. Maybe it’s also hyperbole. I do hope so.

In Spite of Ourselves

I don’t have big story about how John Prine shaped my worldview or how his keen understanding of the human condition has imbued my own mortal struggle with meaning. It seems as if many do, as if his recent death is for many as significant as the death of author David Foster Wallace was for me. I think I understand the feeling, though my own connection to Prine was a thin one.

I liked his music. I remember first hearing his song “We’re Not the Jet Set” about 20 years ago. At the time, I listened to an up-and-coming local Bluegrass station a lot on my morning commute, and I really liked this clever duet. The DJ said John Prine was the male half of the pair (Iris DeMent sang with him), and that’s when I learned his name. I’ve heard him here and there over the years, and in the last year or so, I’ve listened to his music a fair bit. My son and I had listened to a lot of Prine’s music over the last couple of months in particular. So he was in my frequent rotation already when the news of his having caught COVID-19 broke.

Musical talent doesn’t come very naturally to me. I can pick out melodies with a little trial and error, but my efforts to learn the guitar or the ukulele have fizzled out in recent years. I do occasionally pick up one of these instruments, though. Last weekend, having listened to Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” a lot recently, I thought it’d be fun to try to learn it to the best of my little ability on the ukulele. It’s got just three chords — C, F, and G — that are all easy to play on the uke. I was able to pick it up fairly easily, though strumming one rhythm while singing another proved difficult.

I don’t remember what provoked it, but I wound up thinking it’d be fun to amp up the song’s comedic potential by writing some alternate lyrics in which the members of the duet were a well-known odd couple. My mind turned to Frodo Baggins and Gollum, and I spent a few minutes Saturday morning plunking away on the uke and tinkering with some new lyrics. Prine died the Tuesday after.

I’m under no illusions that it’s a fitting homage to Prine, and I’ve got no real business trying to create an homage, but the timing of his death and of my working on this happened to coincide. So I give you my variation of John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Verses should be sung in the voices of Frodo and Gollum, alternating, with the refrain sung as a duet. I’ve kept some of the original phrasing, and where a line feels like too much to cram into the standard rhythm, that’s on purpose too, though I won’t insist that it’s necessarily good. The closing line is to be spoken earnestly, with a good-natured shake of the head, in the voice of Gollum.

In Spite of Ourselves

He don’t like to eat stewed bunny.
He thinks cheatin at riddles ain’t funny.
He’d take jewelry over money.
He goes to ground when the weather’s sunny.
He’s my stalker, I’m his precious,
He’s never gonna let me go.

He ain’t had taters since he left the fellas.
He cannot see that Sam is jealous.
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done.
Eats his lembas like it’s oxygen.
Nasty hobbitses, has my precious,
I’m never gonna let ’em go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

He thinks my friend Sam’s too needy.
Seeing my necklace makes him greedy.
He likes to go off and argue with himselveses.
Swears like a sailor when spotted by elveses.
He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,
He’s never gonna let me go.

Shelob will be glad to eat him,
Filthy hobbit never thought that I would cheat him.
Just because I called him master,
He thought he’d avoid disaster.
It was fictitious, now here’s my precious,
I’m never gonna let it go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

In spite of ourselves.

COVID-19 Update #4

I went to buy our week’s worth of groceries this weekend and found the vibe pretty different. The CDC has recommended wearing some kind of covering over mouth and nose to reduce the spread of your own germs. A fair few people are doing so, more at my local co-op than at the chain grocery store. At the co-op, there was a weird sort of stalemate any time I drew near anyone. I didn’t come very close to anyone, to be clear, but any time it seemed a possibility, there was this furtive eye contact and a tacit agreement to sort of circle one another or hang back until it was my turn to approach whatever we were competing for. I felt a little criminal. At the small co-op, workers collected buggies and sanitized them, and they sanitized the credit card terminal’s stylus between uses and asked that people only use the stylus. By contrast, at the chain store, people wandered down the middles of aisles, shopped in groups, and seemed generally less concerned with keeping their breath to themselves, though many did wear face coverings. Both stores had plastic barriers between customer and cashier. Both were fairly well stocked, with paper products notably absent at the chain store. I did not have a face covering this weekend and regretted it; next weekend I will, if it’s a pair of briefs and some pipe cleaner.

Gas is under two bucks, though I forget exactly how much it is. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that figure start with a one, though.

My neighbors are having work done on their godawful pool, and other neighbors are have had other workers doing yardwork. I saw several neighbors with company visiting this weekend. Nobody comes into our house, and nobody leaves it except to walk the dog cautiously or, a little, to play in the backyard. Even that I feel a little weird about. We’re still having pizza delivered on Fridays as has been our habit for a while, and our pizza place has a hands-free situation that prevents me from having to sign a receipt or get near the delivery person, who puts my pizza boxes on the porch and loiters until I wave them away. It’s nice. I could get used to more hands-free services.

I planted my little garden I had dug last weekend, putting in mostly peas, carrots, and tomatoes, with a few broccoli, brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi plants just to mix it up a little. I don’t know if any of these will grow. The tomato seeds were mostly ones we saved from some tomatoes we ate a few years ago. The others were seeds we had purchased some years back. I did find some potting soil around the house that I used to enrich some of the soil, but the ground I’m planting in is not the most hospitable, so we’ll see how it goes.

Mostly, life remains near-normal for my family. We’re home-bodies in general anyway.

I’ve heard of lots of people having trouble with their internet, but mine has been stable so far.

The Prime Minister of England is in intensive care, having contracted the virus. Nearly 11,000 people have died of the virus in the U.S. so far, and we have I think 300,000-plus confirmed cases. A few famous people have died.

The president of the U.S. continues to lie and suppress opinions contrary to his own, and the sycophants he has surrounded himself with continue to drive the country into the ground. It’s hard to imagine a government more tainted by corruption and bumbling idiocy than this one. Wisconsin today opted to hold their presidential primary tomorrow instead of delaying, and the implication is that conservative politicians are doing so because they know it will suppress the democratic vote. This seems on brand, and it is unconscionable.

My friend and colleague wrote this post relating sheltering at home to caring for a bunny, and though that sounds a little weird on the surface, her post is well worth a read, for it is both wise and hilarious. You should give it a read.

COVID-19 Update #3

We mostly stayed home over the past week, going out for a couple of medical appointments (nothing COVID-19 related) and having one medical appointment via video, which I could sure get used to, though I suppose there are limits (“hey, Doc, I’ve got this bump between my butt cheeks, here let me just drop trow and try to get my butt real close to the camera where are you going?”). I mowed the yard. We decided to bring back our garden, which we haven’t had for a couple of years because the last time we grew one, nobody really wanted to weed it, so it became a mess pretty quickly. My inclination right now is to be more resigned to whatever lies ahead than to be alarmist. So I’m not packing a go-bag or unrolling razor wire around my property or planning to feed my family for months from a little 6×8 plot or anything. But having a little garden, as we used to, will be nice, will make me feel like we’re another day or two from starvation if things do wind up going sideways. If only my kids ate vegetables.

Here’s the start of the garden. First I broke up all the earth with a shovel, so I could then till it a bunch to break the big chunks into smaller chunks. I’d like to get some decent soil rather than trying to grow a garden in red clay, but I also don’t want to be one of the yahoos packing the parking lot of the hardware/etc store now that Spring has arrived and spreading whatever I may or may not have around (or picking something up). I’ve grown veggies in this soil before, and I reckon I can manage it again.

I went to the grocery store today too, and it seemed a little farther from post-apocalyptic than it did when I last went. Many staples were either missing or in short supply, but there were paper towels, and there was meat, butter, milk, some bread. There were some canned goods too, and rice, but no flour. The store is imposing limits on how much of some things you can buy, which is a little annoying if you’re trying to just buy regular groceries for the week as I’m used to doing, but of course it makes sense and is why things are available that weren’t available a week ago.

We’ve tried using cloth napkins at times over the years, but it never sticks. I feel a little guilty. We’ve been using paper towels for a while (the narrow sheets, at least), and at some point this week, we started tearing those in half so that we’re not using as many. It makes me think of my grandmother carefully opening gifts and smoothing and saving the paper. Hopefully the world will right itself and we’ll keep some of these slightly less bad habits afterward.

There’s confusion about masks. Medical staffers need masks to protect them. People are sewing cloth masks at home that I suppose somebody is distributing to somebody? I think it’s lovely that people are trying to contribute in this way, though I’m skeptical of the efficacy of the masks and worry indeed that they’ll do more harm than good, being likely ineffective and potentially carrying the virus if handled by unknowing carriers. It’s a grander and more selfless gesture than my little victory garden, and the sap in me who gets a little misty thinking about this sort of outpouring of human kindness and cooperation has to tell the more vocal cynic to pipe down.

Lots of my neighbors seemed to have company this weekend. It’s a little distressing. Do they just not believe in science? I live in a conservative area, so that isn’t a rhetorical question. Well, it is when posed to my reader, but it is also a valid question here. A couple of neighbors have stuck teddybears in a window. My son stuck one in his window for a day but got tired of having his blinds up, and who can blame him, since these days he runs around in his underwear and spends a lot of time doing headstands in his room.

Never have I felt such a virulent disgust for any person than I feel for Donald Trump. This has been the case from day one, but it grows with every new inconceivable thing the bastard does. Today he announced an extension through April of the social distancing guidelines he has questioned to date. I think this is good, and I’m surprised he could be convinced to do it. He also went on Twitter to talk about the ratings of his daily briefings about COVID-19. My hatred for this man is not political. Certainly, my beliefs differ from the ones he claims to hold. But I would take a dignified, responsible adult of any party over this vacuous buffoon. I have felt shame ever since he became president, but his lack of a capacity to operate on any principles more sophisticated than the basest self-regard is especially appalling right now. I’m sure it will be somehow more appalling tomorrow, still more the day after that.

COVID-19 Update #2

I hadn’t anticipated writing about this again quite so quickly, as I hadn’t anticipated much change. But there has been some change. Late last week, my city mayor made an executive order that bars and restaurants no longer provide dine-in service. Over the weekend, the governor (after initially saying something to the effect that he trusted the citizens of Tennessee to make good decisions) finally also issued an executive order limiting the same sorts of things. So, we’re in semi-lockdown.

It’s not a police state or anything, thankfully, though Trump has deployed the National Guard in California, and I can’t really imagine what that’ll mean for people in California. I hope it doesn’t mean that the most vulnerable people get treated (more) poorly, though that does seem to be the general modus operandi of the current administration.

I went to the grocery store on Sunday partially to resupply myself with candy but also to get food for our meals for the coming week. The shelves were a lot more bare this time. When I went a week ago, it was mostly rice, flour, and paper goods that were in short supply. On this trip, there was very little meat, just a scattering of canned goods, no snack cakes, no bread, no butter, and a much smaller selection of cereal than usual. Chips were fairly picked over too, as were frozen vegetables. Soft drinks and candy (historically my most important food group) were thankfully abundantly available.

I’ve seen photos of downtown, which has been fairly bustling in general over the past few years but which now is apparently a ghost town. I’m surprised and relieved that people may be seeming to get the message to keep a distance from one another.

I’ve seen more neighbors walking their dogs and pulling children in wagons than usual, though we are heading into Spring weather, and these activities always pick up after winter draws to a close, so maybe this isn’t pandemic-specific. A neighbor proposed to the neighborhood Facebook group that people put teddybears in windows to give little kids out walking sort of a scavenger hunt, and I find the idea sort of charming. Another floated the idea of bringing a food truck to the neighborhood one night a week so that we could help support local businesses without going out. I’m mixed on this idea — I like the notion of supporting such businesses, but it’s hard for me to avoid thinking that somebody cooped up in a food truck all day and passing food and money back and forth is a pretty effective germ vector.


Although we have sub-freezing weather every year, the state I live in is not well prepared for winter precipitation. E.g. I think we have about a tablespoon of salt to put down for the whole state’s icy roads. Every once in a while, when a big winter weather event is in the forecast, everybody will scurry out to buy bread and milk and be ready to stay home for a few days, or maybe even a week or two. I’m a bit of a hermit and don’t mind staying home — in fact I prefer it — but I don’t like feeling as if I might be stuck at home with no way to get the things I might need. About a week’s worth of isolation from the grocery store is enough for me.

A week ago, I went out and bought about a week’s worth of food. Truthfully, I bought a little more than that — an extra jar of spaghetti sauce, some extra noodles, a ham that’d last several meals and veggies for turning it into a soup. The store was out of toilet paper, flour, and rice. I had no intent to panic buy, but having the little extra safety net of a reasonable supply of the staples seemed rational. I told my wife that if things got bad enough that we’d have trouble surviving week to week, we were screwed in the longer term anyway (being basically helpless consumers in general), so there wasn’t much point in buying for the longer term and contributing to the panic.

It had never occurred to me that events would occur in my life that would make me worry a little about basic survival. And I’m not worried, really. Or not so much. I don’t think I am, at least. Not yet. But what if this is after all the beginning of an unraveling of civilization into a future that looks rather like something out of The Road? Is it hysteria to wonder? Maybe. I hope so. Surely it is.

Even so, I do feel like the current moment is a remarkable moment in history, precisely because what is happening is actually happening, because somehow we’ve landed in a position in which what is happening can possibly happen. It’s almost unfathomable to me.

But here we are. Maybe it’ll pass. I occasionally see headlines about things like scientists using supercomputers to find things that will mitigate COVID-19, and in those moments, I think, “Aha, here is the deux ex machina. This is how the movie ends. We’re going to be ok.” Because of course we’re going to be ok. That’s how it works for privileged people like me in privileged nations. But then the story isn’t quite so positive as the headline. Or I read another about how even if we slow the spread of the disease in the short term, we’re a year or more away from a vaccine that would lead us to actual global safety, and a failure to persist in social distancing in the mean time will simply start the cycle again. It’s a sobering thought. Maybe this isn’t just a snow week with a twist. Maybe this is a new reality. Maybe I should go ahead and plant a garden and learn to create fire.

Things are ok for my family right now. Hopefully they’ll stay that way. I wanted to record a few little snapshots of reality for my future self to look back on (internet and electricity willing). With any luck, I’ll look back on this in a couple of weeks after some miracle cure has fixed everything and realize I was being silly to worry at all, to want to record the state of things. But just in case things do get bad, and as a point of reference if they get bad and then better, here are some observations about my world right now.

Gas is around $2 per gallon right now, maybe a few cents north of that.

I have reliable internet, electricity, and gas, and my heat and air work reliably. Our water runs clear, and our hot water heater works well. Our toilets flush our waste away. We have soap and shampoo and are able to shower daily.

Yesterday was the first day of Spring, and in the morning, I hear loads of birds singing. It has rained most days over the last few weeks (it’s raining now, and thundering now and again), and I’m a little tired of it, but I feel like it’s probably preferable to drought right now, depending on what’s to come.

Knoxville didn’t seem to’ve had much urgency about COVID-19 until maybe today. I went (a little reluctantly) for takeout last night from my son’s favorite restaurant for his birthday, and many of the restaurants I passed had lots of cars in their lots and people dining in, though the general advice world-wide for a couple of weeks now has been that we should minimize such congregating to minimize spread of the virus. Today, the Knoxville mayor issued an order at last to shut down dine-in service for restaurants and bars.

I worry a lot about small businesses, little breweries, game stores, my local donut shop. I worry about the people who work in these places, often people who are making below minimum wage and relying on tips. I worry that my charming little local bookstore will shut down. I’m afraid though to go patronize any of these places, as I don’t want to spread any germs I may have or pick up germs from anybody else. I worry that in the coming weeks and months, so many places will shut down and that so many lives of people living close to the bone will become even more desperate. I’m tipping well when I have occasion, and I keep trying to think of cockamamie ideas I might suggest to small business owners I know, to help them through this time, though it’s really a little silly of me, if well-intended.

Grocery stores do still have food, but selection isn’t what it was a month ago. I wonder if we’ll go out one day to find the stores broken into and looted by people with no other realistic choice. I realize this sounds a little dramatic and that I may look back soon and chuckle at my naivete (I really hope I do).

The government is appalling. Partisanship aside, it seems very clear to me that those who are supposed to protect the interests of the citizenry are aggressively failing to do so.

It’s hard to know what to believe about the world. This isn’t brand new, but it seems worse to me over the last year or two.

This week was Spring break, so the kids were going to be home from school anyway, but school is as of now on hold until April 6. Some teachers are trying to gather material students can work on online. Universities have moved to an online format in a hurry. I’m very skeptical that school will resume for this school year, and I’m a little paralyzed about what to do about it. Should I figure out how to homeschool? That feels like a big responsibility. My kids are bright; should I just figure they’ll be ok and can just pick things back up whenever school resumes?

I do not fear for the physical safety of my family. We have shelter, transportation, and food for the reasonable short-term.

My family is healthy on the whole. There’ve been some cold symptoms in the house, but nothing symptomatic of COVID-19, no fevers, no respiratory distress. My daughter has asthma, so I worry about what may come, but for now, we have medicine and she’s fine. We’re all fine. We eat too much junk food, I’ll grant.

Life is 99% normal for me, with no significant changes from our routines over the last few years other than the dismissal of school. We read, play games, talk, listen to music, do laundry, make messes, vacuum, feed the pets, quarrel from time to time, and everything else that’s been usual for us of late.

I’ve worked from home for years and continue to be able to do so. I’m able to keep in contact with people via the internet and my phone, though being not especially social on the whole, I don’t do so as frequently as I probably ought to.

There’s plenty more to say, but this is a snapshot and not a photo album, so I’ll stop there, as this is feeling a little tedious and maybe silly already.

Bookshelves #20

Bookshelf #20 keeps us still mostly in the neutral colors, but a rare and only approximate additional organizational scheme emerges here. These are mostly books of poems and/or books (poems, anthologies, and a couple of essay collections) written or edited by one of my college professors, who I looked to as a mentor (meaning mostly that I attended probably every single weekly office hours session he offered for the four or so semesters I studied with him). I like McFee’s poetry and his essays, however biased I may be, having also admired him as a professor.

The other thin poetry books are ones I’ve liked quite a lot. Chitwood taught at my university starting some time after I graduated and is buddies with McFee. Hudgins writes really great stuff. The Donald Hall book is full of feeling about his experience with the death of his wife, writer Jane Kenyon. Ferlinghetti is always fun (I heard him give a reading at my university some 24 years ago and it was marvelous and made me a fan, even though I never did have much of a thing for the beats in general). Wrigley writes these marvelous meditations (as the title of the one selected works anthology suggests), often involving animals (as the title of the other suggests). I don’t read a whole lot of poetry these days, but he’s a poet I can dip into at any time and feel good about, rather than, as I’ve often done, kind of shaking my head and wondering what is even happening here. Atsuro Riley I wrote about nearly 16 years ago here. The Oyster book I own because acquaintance and artist Matt Kish did the cover art and I wanted to support that. I dip into most of these books occasionally when thinking about trying to get back into reading more poetry, though usually I find that while these books are pleasing to me, most of the other stuff I run into is less so.

Nestled in among the poems are two books by David Foster Wallace, both well worth reading (but if you’re new to Wallace, start with the lobster book; his essays are often a good gateway to his work, and Oblivion has some especially challenging or abstruse stories in it that to my mind make it not the best starting point).

Evan Dara is a puzzle. Nobody seems to know if he’s real or if he’s some other author incognito. Many loved this book. I don’t remember much at all about it, though my Goodreads review tells me that I found much of it sort of annoying and the last 120 pages dazzling, and that it was one I’d likely want to revisit.

The Bright Hour is a memoir a college friend and classmate in my poetry classes in college wrote as she was dying of cancer. I’m biased because I knew her when we were young and have lots of positive memories of her early work and of her sensitive and nuanced workshop feedback, and the book thus feels a little personal to me, but I did think it was a beautifully written book. The little volume stacked on top of it is a chapbook she published a few years before her diagnosis.

Finally, there’s an Ondaatje book a colleague who loves Ondaatje recommended as a way of seeing a bit into some of the culture of Sri Lanka.

And finally finally, there are a few more poetry books stacked behind these, but none that I recall as being especially worth a mention.

Next up are two shelves of recipe books, which I may give only an appetizer-sized treatment of.

Books, 2019

I read 67 books in 2019, significantly down from the prior couple of years. A couple of things contributed to this slowdown. One, I began devoting a lot more time to playing Dungeons and Dragons, which requires lots of reading and writing and planning of its own that is time I would otherwise have spent with regular old prose books. Two, my family reading slowed down a lot. We went through several books that were real slogs, we stopped one in the middle, and we skipped a lot more nights this year than we’re used to skipping, as we had more evening commitments. I learned last year not to focus overmuch on how many books I had read, but in general I also just felt this year like I was a shallower or less committed reader. I spent a week or two each false-starting on rereads of two Pynchon books (Against the Day and V) and Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (this was the family read we stalled out on, though I would’ve liked to’ve continued, as it was a reread I was enjoying). I read the first 2ish books of the Lord of the Rings series to my family, but we stalled in the middle for no good reason and moved on (this was a second or third family read-through, in any case). I read a lot of fantasy this year — much of it related to D&D — and a lot more science fiction and nonfiction than I had remembered. Seven of these were rereads (in addition to the three rereads I stopped partway through).

30 of the 67 books were written by women and 16 by people of color. Another was edited by a woman of color. This feels like a pretty poor showing with respect to the diversity of my reading — far better than my reading in 2015 after which year I began paying closer attention to diversity in my reading but far worse still than my reading in 2016 and even in 2018 when only about a third of my reads were by straight white men. So, I still have some room to keep expanding my horizons beyond the experience closest to my own.

Highlights were Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a couple of the Drizzt books by R.A. Salvatore, J R by Gaddis (though I liked it less on this my third or fourth full reading of this book than I did prior times), The White Goddess (which made me use my brain as much as any book I read this year), Confessions of Max Tivoli, So You Want to Talk About Race, and the first two books of Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy.

Here go the books by rating:

Five-Star Books

  • J R, by William Gaddis

Four-Star Books

Three-Star Books

Two-Star Books

One-Star Books

And now the same books broken into a few categories:



Science Fiction

Young-Adult or Kid Lit

Christmases Past

Christmas was always a huge deal when I was young. It was my mom’s favorite holiday by far. We would always crank up some Christmas songs on our giant cabinet stereo (later a smaller model) and deck out our formal living room (which we used pretty much only ever for Christmas and my parents’ occasional bridge club). It’s a tradition I’ve carried forward into my adulthood with my family.

I hadn’t thought about the old family traditions a whole lot until my wife recently brought home a candle chime device similar to one I grew up with that I had entirely forgotten about. The idea is that the heat from these four little candles set into a base rises and turns a horizontal propeller, which in turn causes little metal figures to twirl about. They dangle little metal rods that ting against a couple of bells. It was always such a treat to get this thing out and fire it up when I was young, so it was a nice bit of nostalgia this year.

Remembering this device made me want to go back and look at some old Christmas photos, and I here share a few for posterity. Reader, be warned: I was an unlovely child.

The quality of Santas has really gone up since I was a kid (pictured here in 1978). I clearly wasn’t buying it.
A year older and wiser, I’m more willing to give this guy a chance, though I’m clearly not convinced. Also, Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk called — he wants his haircut back.
Christmases were always huge when I was a kid, just loads and loads of big toys from Santa, plus lots of packages under the tree. Stockings were fruit and nut heavy, though.
In 1981, I guess both the Hulk and the Lone Ranger were popular.
I believe the outfit here is an Army type uniform, with the white section you could write your name on. There may’ve been a helmet too, and I think maybe walkie talkies. I hang some of the ornaments seen here on my tree still today. The little red and white stocking ornament was one of many that my grandmother crocheted.
At six, I seem to’ve become resigned to Santa lap-sitting, clearly less than joyful perhaps because prosthetic beard technology has really not improved at all during the whole of my life to date.

3D Printing

Well I sure didn’t need another hobby, but a few months ago, my son asked me if we could try out 3D printing. I had given it some thought myself already, just as a matter of general curiosity and with the idea of printing miniatures for D&D in mind. Wouldn’t it be neat, I thought, to need a miniature of a goblin, say, and just push some buttons and have one spit out of a 3D printer?

Yes, that would be neat. But it turns out that that’s not how it works. That’s not how it works at all. It turns out that 3D printing takes a lot of patience and troubleshooting and tedious manual work, and even then, your prints don’t necessarily come out looking very good at all. I’ve mostly printed abortive miniatures and a few things like throwing knives for cosplay for my son. I recently played D&D with a guy who had some cardboard miniatures that you put in these little stands. I ordered some, but mine came without the stands. This was the perfect time for a functional print!

So, I found a design online and did the steps necessary to get it ready for printing. I printed the 10 little stands that were part of the design. They were ok, but they didn’t clip my minis tightly enough, so the cardboard figures slipped out of the bases. Surely I could improve on the design. I also wanted to have more than the 10, for large combat. And I wanted to build them in such a way that I could also print bases with a bigger diameter, for bigger creatures who might show up in combat.

So, I went into this online free software called Tinkercad and designed a mini by making the component shapes and fusing them together. My first try looked like this:

It’s a little rough. I didn’t even notice initially that the original bases I had printed had nice little rounded corners. The vertical clip pieces were also wider on the original. I needed to try again. My second version looked like this:

It’s closer! The corners are rounded, and the clips are wider. This looks a little nicer. But the corners are still sharper than in the original design, and I liked the original design. So I made another attempt, and at this phase, I refined my process. I had been making the base and then the clippy bit, which I then copied and spun 180 degrees to make the second clippy bit, like so (this is sort of a scratchpad I was working in in Tinkercad):

But this made it hard to position the pieces precisely, and precision — making sure the width between the clippy bits was exactly right — was what prompted me to undertake this project to begin with. So I tried another design, pictured here from the side:

Here I made a single wide block centered on the base. Viewed from another angle (not pictured), you’d be able to see the rounded corners, which required that I fashion the main orange block here out of two rectangles and two circles, all fused together. Once I had that, I used negative space (the gray boxes) to cut out a center section of precisely 2.4mm wide and to round the bottom bits and make the clip pieces narrower. Once you’ve got all these things laid out, you group or sort of merge them within the software to get a single shape (like the orange base in the image prior to the one just above). The printed result:

This is very nearly identical to the original design, but with a more precisely measured negative space between the vertical bits. My minis fit perfectly, with no slipping. Obviously I still need to do some more work with the X-acto knife to clean this one up a bit. But now I’ve got my own file I can manipulate and refine further (e.g. to make larger bases).

Once you’ve done the work to create the 3D model file, you pull it into software known as slicer software that lets you tune the settings for your specific printer and the plastic you’re using. You can change all sorts of settings, from filament temperature to the speed the nozzle moves to what pattern is used to print the inside bits of solid pieces (depicted in one of the printer shots below). Pulling the model into the slicer looks like so:

You can see here that I took my original base and duplicated it 15 times, changing the numbers. This gives me a single print job of 16 numbered bases, which lets me use up to 16 identical cardboard minis in D&D combat and to keep them distinct from one another using the number (this makes more sense if you’ve played D&D). With my settings tweaked, I export a file that the printer can understand, which basically offers some config info and a bunch of essentially coordinates and short-hand instructions for how to move the extruder and printer bed around and what to do with the filament. Here the things are being printed:

That honeycomb shape is called an infill, and you can (in your slicer software) define different methods of infilling. Using an infill rather than printing the pieces solid saves both material and time, while providing support that other layers can be extruded on top of. Here’s the print job finished:

But you’re not done at this point. You still have to pop the pieces off, trim off the little brims, take an X-acto knife to the many little burrs and imperfections, and, if you’re more industrious than I am, prime and paint them. This print, which I ran three times to get three sets of bases, takes about 8.5 hours a pop to print, plus the time to set up the printer and trim the final pieces. It’s hardly plug and play. The end result is kind of neat, though:

And, with the minis clipped into a couple of them:

I’ve gotten pretty decent at printing the smaller pieces. There are still some things I need to troubleshoot about the bigger ones, which you can see here still have a lot of imperfections. I’ve tweaked several slicer settings (and even tried a couple of different slicers) to try to improve those, so far with little success. It’s frustrating because you’ll get an imperfect print after sometimes hours of printing, tweak a setting that you hope will fix it, and then run another potentially flawed print. So, again, it’s very different from what the process I had envisioned in which I’d push a button and have a beautiful printed item a little while later. It’s neat when you do get a good print, but it’s pretty frustrating the rest of the time.

I’m using a Creality Ender 3 printer (a pretty low-end one) with PLA filament. I’ve tried a couple of different slicers and mostly use to Slic3r; I initially used Cura to slice, but it’s got some bugs with using support materials (which I didn’t even get to in this post — it’s a whole other level of annoyance and tedious manual after-work that I’ll spare you further details of for now).