I don't take a week off around my birthday every year, but I've tried to make it mostly a habit. It's good to be deliberate about taking time for yourself. This year, because of the pandemic, was exceptionally weird.
A number of times in the last few years, we've done five-night cruises around this time. Disney does a thing where in the summer they have a number of these that stop at their private island two days, with other days at Nassau and at sea. It's the ultimate turn-your-brain-off and be taken care of trip. We weren't planning to do that, but we were planning to visit Seattle and then Vancouver to sail to Alaska, the latter part of which would not include Simon. That obviously didn't happen. A weekend cruise in March was cancelled as well. Other than a conference I did in January, we haven't traveled since November. We needed to create some change in scenery.
Initially, I thought about booking a super nice hotel in Clearwater or something, but watching the web cameras in the area, that seemed like a bad idea because of the volume of people and lack of mask wearing. Instead I found a little privately owned place in Cocoa that had a dozen units, so we did that for two nights. It was relatively clean, but not particularly nice. We were paying for exclusivity, for sure. It achieved what we hoped for though, some time to just turn off and enjoy the beach. There were people there, but not a ton. People mostly kept their distance. We noticed driving through Cocoa Beach proper that this was not the case, so getting the more private location was a good idea in a state where the outbreak is getting exponentially worse.
Diana surprised me, agreeing with the idea that I've put out there before about retiring on a beach somewhere. That's a tricky proposition, because as you would expect, those places are expensive, and stand-alone houses are really expensive. But the idea that you can stroll out of your kitchen to see and hear the ocean every single day sure sounds like an appealing way to go out.
The rest of the week involved some concentration on doing things that I like to do. I did some reading, I wrote some code, I did some writing, and I even started to inventory some of my outlines and script fragments that I've written over the years, wondering if there's a story there. That was helped along by watching the MasterClasses from Spike Lee and Judd Apatow. Hearing those guys talk about their process, it's clear that I need to write more really terrible stuff, and even try to make something terrible, and be OK with its terribleness.
I watched a lot of movies. The queue of things I wanted to watch really got away from me. I finally saw Bombshell, Knives Out, The Hustle, Do The Right Thing, a bunch of comedy specials and probably other things I'm forgetting. Friday was the day that Hamilton dropped, and of course we watched that twice at full volume. They mixed it so well, taking full advantage of the subwoofer. "Hurricane" sounded like we were in the Richard Rodgers. It's so good.
I spent some time obsessing about video and cameras as well, but I covered that.
We did see family a few times via video calls, since we can't see them in person. I'm still thinking about buying an electric gokart. With all of this time at home, we're fantasizing about expanding the patio. I managed to go a week without thinking about what happens if the economy gets worse and I'm out of work. I had two HOA board meetings. I treated eating like a sport, and Diana made her amazing Cajun chicken pasta. I built two Lego sets. I drank too much one night. I played a computer game. There were some epic thunderstorms. Maybe most importantly, I spent quality time doing nothing but staring at the sky.
Not being able to travel was a drag, but I do feel like I made the week count. I'll take a week off in another three months or so, but try to get some long weekend in between.
I have a surprisingly long history with pro camera gear, going back to 2006, which was seven years after I left the broadcast world where I spent other people's money on gear. I won't rehash that history entirely here, but I've always enjoyed being able to keep my hand in it all, mostly for fun. I bought the HVX200 in 2006, and it was exciting just to have an HD camera with pro features like internal neutral density filters and XLR audio. In 2012 I bought the AF100, and that was neat because I could put a bunch of different lenses I already had on it, and a bigger sensor meant you could get some of that cinematic depth of field. I even sold some video once for a show that aired on Discovery! In between, I did get a Canon DSLR that did video, the 7D in 2009, but shooting with that sucked, even when I rigged it up with a bunch of kit pieces.
I got a lot of mileage out of the AF100 though, and there are little bits and pieces on my Vimeo profile that I'm really proud of. The camera had been out already for a year and a half, and the price dropped a grand when I got it. It was super easy to coax great looking video out of that camera, and it even looked pretty good at night. The biggest challenge with it was that the compression was a bit aggressive when recording, so there were times where you'd get some artifacts in the image, especially once you compressed again for online use. External solid state recorders weren't an affordable thing yet, or I would have likely purchased one. The surprising thing is that I did generate enough revenue with video from that camera to almost pay for it over eight years. I was surprised when I realized that (the Discovery thing was a big part of that).
4K video is not a new thing at all, but honestly, we didn't even have a 4K TV until last year, and it's a smaller, inexpensive one we bought for the playroom. (The living room TV is now 10-years-old, an LED panel from Samsung, and it has some splotchy spots and light leak, but some day I'll replace it.) I've wanted to buy a new camera to enter the 4K world for a long time, but haven't pulled the trigger. The primary lens I have for the AF100 is worth more used than the camera itself at this point.
Three years ago, Canon released the C200, a new entry in their "cinema" camera lineup, which at the time had a strange mix of features, but not all of the features, that the sub-$10k camera crowd wanted. It checked a lot of boxes for me. It used Canon EF lenses, which I've had for more than a decade. It had real 4K resolution at all the frame rates you would prefer (24, 30, 60 fps, plus 120 in regular HD). It had all the proper pro ND filters and XLR audio. But the price was too much to spend on a hobby. The HVX200 in 2006 was about $7k with the crazy expensive memory cards, but I was single then.
Panasonic, which I have some loyalty to, introduced the EVA1 around the same time, and it checked many of the same boxes. The weirdness in that one is that it didn't have a proper viewfinder, but with updates, it was able to record with higher bit rates and even output raw data for external recording. When I saw it in real life last year on our NYC visit, which included a stop at the world-famous B&H, I was disappointed at how plastic it was. The Canon, by comparison, had the robust construction I would expect. Both cameras were the same price.
Anyway, in Covid-19 pandemic days, the urge to create and make things is stronger than ever. I saw that both cameras came down a grand in price I think late last year, but then I noticed the Canon came down another grand. With all the vacation travel refunds, it felt like maybe now I could justify it as the device I could use for the next eight years. Comparing the two cameras, aside from the viewfinder and build issues, came down to bit rates and outputs, and I had to psychologically get over that to make a good decision.
Cameras in this sub $10k range all make some compromises somewhere so they can't do what the expensive cameras do. Usually this comes as a combination of codec used to store the data, or how lossy it is, the color sampling rate, which determines how many pixels get counted for color information, and the color depth, which is the number of bits used to describe the colors. On paper, the Panasonic does the better sampling and depth for most of the recording options, but the Canon will record the full on raw format with 12-bit color sampling. The recording media is expensive and file sizes are enormous, but this is the equivalent of shooting raw on an SLR camera.
But here's the thing... to really see the flaws created by lower sampling and bit depths in compressed 4K, you need a specific set of circumstances and then zoom in to small areas of the image where those circumstances occur. There are so many pixels that you can "get away" with these "shortcomings." That was clear the more I looked at samples that reviewers posted (that is, the original files from the cameras) three years ago. And let's be honest... most of what I'm going to shoot is probably going to be viewed on a 5" phone screen. The less expensive Canon doesn't have real compromises, and since it's already three years in, the support in tooling for the raw format is a solved problem too. Plus, I've always liked the color science of Canon cameras. Canon is also known for legendary auto-focus capability, with face tracking and such. I've always been "meh" about that feature, but not having to pull your own focus when you're doing run-and-gun shooting is pretty awesome when it works so well.
So I pulled the trigger. I did a few quick tests, and the quality in low light, even with the 4:2:0 8-bit color, is pretty clean. In the raw mode, it's staggering how you can over-expose something by three or four stops and still correct it to find the detail. Mind you, at 24 fps, you can only record about 30 minutes on a 256 gig card, but you could composite special effects with the stuff that comes out of there. I can't believe what you can get out of a camera and not need to have a Hollywood budget.
What am I planning to shoot with this? Well, it's hard to say in the long run, but in the short run, I'd like to do some silly nonsense for YouTube, and I'm going to try and write some shorts, maybe casting my family since we can't exactly recruit people outside. I've got ideas about how to make drinks, some cooking (everyone's doing it), reviews of products, social commentaries, and whatever else comes to mind. I'd like to get some video of the cranes that live in the neighborhood, because they're pretty cool.
One of the attributes that I value most in people, and strive for myself, is a strong sense of self-awareness. I'll admit that I don't have it to the extent that I would like, and I've been disappointed to find people that I admired lack it in serious ways. I value it because it is essential to forming a better person, able to recognize the gaps in one's knowledge or ability, which makes it possible to improve and empower others who can compensate for your own shortcomings. It is an attribute that is closely related to humility.
Self-awareness could go a long way toward improving the United States. It seems like it would be at odds with pride, something that Americans value a great deal, but I would argue that you can be proud of your self-awareness and the willingness to change the things that are not ideal. We can absolutely be proud of a relentless effort to fix what's broken.
Being a patriotic American means acknowledging that there have always been two Americas, where "we the people" never meant all the people, and its history is rooted in contradiction between stated values and the actions and outcomes that have defined us.
America is a story of extraordinary success. In relatively short time, it went from a colony to the richest independent nation in the world. It has created entire industries, leading the industrial revolution, pioneering fields like medicine and computer technology. It has built gigantic buildings, landed humans on the moon, sent vehicles to explore Mars, traversed a continent with transportation systems and invented a communication system we all take for granted today. It used its wealth to help militarily destroy a fascist government that killed millions on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
America is a story of extraordinary failure. It was founded for the purpose of exercising self-governance and freedom from a tyrannical government, but the freedom was never intended for all people. It treated people as property and systematically killed and contained the indigenous people who already lived on the land the nation claimed as its own. After a massive civil war that ended slavery, a caste system quickly evolved that segregated people by race and continues to negatively affect people of color in every way. America has a healthcare system that spends twice as much per capita on care compared to the average of comparable nations, but doesn't lead in quality of outcomes in any category at all, and in fact has the worst chronic disease burden. The US spends more on military than the next 10 nations combined, of which 7 we consider close allies. One in 10 Americans live below the poverty line despite having the largest economy in the world.
We have much to celebrate, but we have much to correct. The lack of true civic equality is a specter that we can't keep ignoring. As long as there are two Americas, we can't realistically find a path forward together. We are not all endowed with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," because there are systems in place that make that impossible. It touches every part of our society, including education, economic opportunity, criminal justice and electoral engagement.
The idea that we can go back to a "greater" America is not real. It's a dog whistle of the worst kind: There is no time to go back to when things were more equal, only less. The nation once did great things, but it maintained a habit of doing terrible things at the same time. I believe that to be patriotic, to truly love our country, we must acknowledge this, and strive to correct it. That's what being American is to me, and I hope you'll come along for the ride.
I've noticed a lot of Internet memes that lately that go something along the lines of, "You voted for so and so, and I voted for so and so, but we can still be friends and agree to disagree." It's generally shared by white people in reference to the invigorated civil rights movement that came after the George Floyd murder, and the larger call to dismantle the systemic racism that we've been dealing with for hundreds of years.
But let's be clear about something... racism is not a political opinion that we can just overlook and be pals. Regardless of your stated political leanings, racism can't be a part of the platform you identify with. There is no moral equivalence between racism and fiscal policy or healthcare or whatever thing you think the government should have a say in. Racism is not a right or left proposition, and it's wrong, period.
Now, that's not to say that one side hasn't taken a more active stance in sustaining racism in recent years. The GOP has supported an unambiguous racist in Donald Trump since the time it was clear that he might have a shot at winning. His racism is not something open to interpretation, it's blatant. The party has further participated in system racism by way of its efforts to suppress voters and participate in extreme gerrymandering that has been declared illegal by the courts. That's not OK. Mind you, the Democratic record on systemic racism isn't ideal either, as much of the criminal justice policy in the 90's reinforced the two-America system we still have today.
If you want to engage me about politics, there's no acceptable way to defend racism or call it a difference in opinion. The finer points of farm subsidies and energy policy are a difference in opinion. Racism is always immoral.
My job would be remote under "normal" circumstances, and I've been generally working remotely for about 80% of the last decade anyway. Video calls are not novel to me at all; I probably do a minimum of six per day. Depending on the app, you generally get a quick preview of what your own camera is showing. A couple of weeks ago, the person I saw behind my desk was nearly unrecognizable.
I looked so... tired. It's not the work, really. Work is always challenging, but I wouldn't describe it as tiring. I think what I was seeing was just the aggregate product of everything. Heck, work might be the retreat from the rest, where I get to engage with other adults doing interesting things. But the parenting of a kid with ASD and ADHD, the pandemic, the reckoning of institutional racism, the toxic and immoral politics of the White House, the economic carnage where I live, the unknowns of school in the fall... it's exhausting.
A lot of this is certainly out of my control, but as an empathetic human being, I want to do things where I can. Idealistic 20-something me engaged because that's what you do when you're young, but now it's out of a sense of obligation to my child and the communities that I've been a part of or ally to. One can't just disregard it all.
I also get into the classic behavior that decades of therapy taught me not to do, where I compare my life to others and feel bad for the relative discomfort that I feel. It doesn't help that we have these crazy entitled white people having tantrums about wearing masks in a Trader Joe's, because you don't want to be those people. But for a reasonably empathetic person trying to leave the world a better place than they found it, which I hope describes me, it's not constructive to try and keep score and feel bad because you don't have it that hard compared to others. The feels are reals, as a therapist once told me.
So what am I doing about it? Well, I started by taking time off. I did that thing again where I went three months without a day off, which I try not to do. So this week I'm doing as little as possible. We did do a couple of nights in a low-traffic beach rental, where we were able to mostly socially distance and avoid people (though #floridaman makes this difficult). There's something cathartic about standing in the ocean and letting the waves beat the shit out of you. Unfortunately it wasn't the most comfortable place, but it was a change of scenery.
I've also committed to prioritizing things in daily life more deliberately. So yes, I can be socially responsible, be the dad and husband, set boundaries for work, and importantly, take time to be present for a few moments a day.
I'll get to a point where I'm less tired, but it will require reorganizing my brain for the current reality.
The protests are becoming more regional, but it's definitely time to start turning that protest into action. In the United States, these issues are fundamentally changed at the local level. Yes, we need to get the racist fascist out of the White House, but the most immediate and impactful change has to happen in the municipalities and counties where we live. That's how the system is wired.
My first two professional jobs after college were working for two different suburban municipalities, specifically in the cable TV departments. In those jobs, I had the pleasure to work with the police chiefs of both cities in creating programs that acted as a communications bridge between those departments and the communities. This was in the mid-90's, over 20 years ago. I had the opportunity to ride with officers, be there for briefings, and talk endlessly with everyone from the chief on down. There are some stand outs from those conversations.
I asked one of the 20-year veterans of the department if at the time he had ever drawn his gun. He said it was just once, and even then he did not point it at anyone. The particular case was a domestic abuse call, and there was uncertainty about the suspect's state of mind as they approached the house. His commentary seems strange in current times: "It's not like TV, we don't go into every scene with our gun aimed. That's not what our training requires."
About the same time, one of the departments was granted a military surplus armored vehicle from the feds. The chief was excited to get it, but uncertain about when it would ever be practically used. I remember he said, "I guess if the SWAT team needs to drive it into a bank?"
Before I left that job in 1999, I participated in a SWAT training exercise, recording the entry and search of a training structure. Yes, I was in a concrete block room by myself when they tossed a flash-bang into the room, and this is not something that you forget. I had my ears fully covered, and it was still unlike anything that I had ever heard. Even more strange, it felt like someone punched me in the chest. It didn't knock the wind out of me, but I did feel it. I followed them after they breached the door as they searched the rooms, rifles and tactical gear in hand. It was a weird exercise without any "bad guys" to find, but it sure was intimidating.
I learned that there were policies for everything, and officers were certified to know them. There were third party accrediting agencies that depended on the force understanding the policies. The training was all about de-escalating every situation, and again, avoiding having any reason to pull that gun out of the holster. These were not people at war, they were people intent on keeping the peace. So imagine my surprise when I learned about this Dave Grossman guy who has built a popular consultancy around teaching officers how to be ready to kill people. That's insane. Police killed in the line of duty has generally trended down continuously since the 70's, while people killed by police has gradually been trending up for the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities.
Something obviously changed, and in the last month we've seen a number of explanations, and they all need to be discussed and addressed:
I don't want to hear about the "bad apples" argument. Some professions don't have room for "bad apples," like pilots or doctors, or people we trust with deadly weapons on the streets of America.
Each of these issues require change at the local level. If you have elected police chiefs or sheriffs, find out where they stand. If not, see where your mayor and council folk stand. What are they doing today? Go to meetings, call them out and get their positions. These issues require local civic engagement, and that's more than a like and share on Facebook. If your local officials haven't already started to outline a path for change, demand it.
It's OK to be angry, but get to know the system. Get to know why it's broken. Being the loudest voice has a place, but getting the change you want requires civic engagement with the people who make the laws and policies. If they don't deliver, that's when you vote them out. And remember, at the local level, the barrier to entry for elected official is far lower. The next person in that seat could be you.
Earlier tonight, I scheduled a virtual happy hour for my team, and it was a lot of fun. They're geographically spread out in all four US time zones, so it was an early pour for some of them, but it was nice to spend a little time talking about anything but work. I demonstrated making a proper margarita and also the "Cadillac Cooler" that we famously learned to do on a Disney cruise. We also got to see my boss' rooftop in Brooklyn, which was pretty epic, with turf. The company is based in NYC (in One World Trade Center, in fact), so I have a number of teammates who live in the city. It kills me that I don't know when I'll get to see the office in real life, and shake hands with those folks.
Unfortunately, the only people who could drink those beverages were me and Diana, but it was fun to have that social interaction, remote as it might have been. In February we were thinking about how long it had been since we had a party, an unusually long time, but then it was clear that parties were not a great idea. We were ready to cater it and everything, since it had been so long.
Diana, working in the theater, is especially cut off. Her work friends have a weekly Zoom meeting, but it's not the same as seeing people every work day, even if it is virtual. I've worked remotely on and off for years, and you really do get to know your coworkers when you do it right (i.e., frequent and consistent video calls). Her job was about being in the building and meeting the "patrons of the arts" on a regular basis. That glorious building hasn't seen people in three months.
It's fun to see some folks do stuff online to help people get through it. This lovely couple, Suzy and Alex, that we saw on one of our cruises has been periodically performing live. Sofi Tukker have been performing DJ sets every day now for more than 90 straight days. Glen Phillips from Toad The Wet Sprocket has been doing stuff. Facebook has been doing listening parties, which is kind of neat. (But also, fuck Mark Zuckerberg.)
I feel like I'm the only person who knows people that have had Covid-19, and only one degree now from death by the disease. Most of that is just in the last two weeks, implying that this is the exact opposite of the time to get complacent. But yet, here we are. Florida set two infection records, two days in a row, as did Orange County. People still act like it's a political issue.
Among the many casualties of Covid-19 is the complete shutdown of theatrical productions. Three shows in our Orlando Broadway season were cancelled, and of course all of Broadway in New York is dark. Even for next season here, they ditched The Cher Show and replaced it with Jesus Christ Superstar (which is a win, honestly). It's hard to say if we'll be in a place where any of it resumes this year. Some of the best shows start in February, including The Prom, Wicked, Hamilton and Superstar. It'll be very sad not to see those. I need to order my "We are all lesbians" shirt for The Prom.
I've written about this before, but musicals are probably the most intense emotional connection to art I have. When you get to the end of "Yorktown" in Hamilton, when the ensemble performs "One By One" in The Lion King, when Christine sings "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" in Phantom, Jenna doing "She Used To Be Mine" in Waitress, "You Will Be Found" in Dear Evan Hansen, "Something's Missing" in Come From Away, "Unruly Heart" in The Prom... I could go on all day. These are amazing moments.
I often struggle with the fact that seeing these shows is a privilege of the well-off, but also revel in the fact that people with extraordinary talents get to share their gifts and get paid.
In the mean time, I'm excited that we'll get to see Hamilton on Disney+ in a few weeks. It's not quite seeing it in person (with the amazing #PhilipTour cast of last spring), but I'll take what I can get.
This post has been in my head for a long time. I've not been completely certain about how to write it, because my brain has been racing non-stop for weeks and without structure. Let me distill it down to some basic facts:
This set of circumstances is difficult to accept or reconcile. The other day we were talking about, "Well, I'm not that much at risk, and people are venturing out to Universal for roller coaster rides." Enduring self-quarantine for this long makes you try to rationalize things that observable truth should put down. If we're being honest, without some medical breakthrough, this is the way our lives look for another six to nine months at best. That's very, very hard to accept.
That our leadership has been so poor fuels anger, too. Local governments have been left to their own devices trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic, when only a coordinated and consistent response could truly control it and lead to the most positive outcomes possible. Some nations have demonstrated this, like New Zealand and Australia, but we've failed hard. There was no real federal response, and states basically said, fuck it, go back to your lives, just wear a mask. Two weeks later, we're seeing the leading indicators about how that's working out. Even the stock market responded negatively.
I know all of the dates. The last time I was in a theme park was March 5. The last time we ate out in public was March 12, the day before we bailed on a short cruise. Since that time, the closest thing we've had to in-person socialization has been watching the Crew Dragon launch from our front porches with our neighbor. Countless Zoom calls with family, friends and coworkers and virtual birthday parties have been the normal ever since. There's nothing normal about not seeing other human beings for three months.
If the disease by itself wasn't enough, you have the economic carnage that makes me uneasy no matter how well my employer is doing. I worry about our local economy and its people, so dependent on tourists. We're in the midst of a long overdue civil rights movement that I care deeply about and want to do more with beyond financial support. My favorite charity had to basically shut down indefinitely. My child has ASD and the most unexpected things can cause meltdowns. If that weren't enough, social media has further outed the racists among people I thought were friends, and the hurt and disappointment over that is not easy to get over.
Put together, all of this is enough to drive my anxiety through the roof. A friend of mine correctly points out that, if you can afford it, it's reasonably easy to avoid contact with others, but contact with others is the thing you need the most when the world is particularly difficult. That you can't really do anything about the state of the world to relieve all of the anxiety factors is a pretty bad place to be.
Logically, I know that this will pass, and I'm starting to think that there's a good chance that we as a society come out the other end better (optimism still runs deep with me). The dumpster fire has a way of making us see how screwed up we have allowed things to be. But in midlife, there's a sense of urgency, so losing a year is going to have a cost. I hope it's worth it.
I'm very fortunate that my team has gained an intern for a couple of months. I can't even imagine having the opportunity when I was in college to work at a growing tech company, the kind that didn't exist when I was in school, and seeing for the first time how the sausage gets made. (Sidebar: That's such a gross expression, probably because I don't like sausage.)
I believe that the excitement of this would be the same for virtually any profession that you're interested in, or at least for professions that make stuff. I've only spent an hour and change with our summer teammate so far, but her enthusiasm, desire to learn and curiosity is kind of infectious. It's a lot of responsibility to give someone a good look into the work, because you have to realize that your actions will shape a lot of their perceptions about an entire industry. No pressure!
It's also one of those situations where you find yourself learning even when you're supposed to be the teacher. This was a consistent theme for me in my coaching days, that as much as it was my job to teach kids how to play volleyball, much of the time they showed me what it meant to be excellent people. They remind me of qualities I have to remind myself to embrace.
First there's the sheer joy of learning. In the ongoing debate about the role of college, I think that refining and developing the skills for life long learning is the most important thing. It's a mindset that's hard to maintain, especially with age. It requires that we retain humility about all of the things we don't know. That seems rare now, with the arrogance and narcissism that comes with the idea that you're an expert about something because you can Google it. For things simple and complex, there has to be joy in eventually gaining mastery of knowledge.
Then there's the curiosity of youth. Simon says, "I'm just curious," several times a day. It might just be an expression that he's latched on to, but curiosity is something that kids demonstrably use all of the time. It feels really good to indulge in curiosity. A few weeks ago, I tore apart our stand mixer to repair the leaking gasket and repack the grease in the gear box so it wasn't so noisy. Sure, it was mostly to make Dolewhip, but the curiosity to see what was inside there was irresistible.
The discovery that comes from learning and curiosity, that's the best part. At some point, you know a new thing. Lubricating a stand mixer with food-safe grease is not likely a high point, but learning and curiosity also lead to important outcomes in any number of pursuits. For me in the last year, these outcomes include better understanding of myself, far more history than I ever learned in school, new technology tools learned, and although it doesn't feel like it some days, better parenting tools.
I can't imagine life without these joys. Sometimes we need to be intentional about pursuing them.
If there is any particular food porn that has made its way from my phone to social media over the years with any frequency, it's definitely Dolewhip. For the unaware, Dolewhip is pineapple soft serve made by the people who sell a bunch of fruits and vegetables. It's largely famous for being sold at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as their Aulani resort in Hawaii. Our favorite place to get it in the little Pineapple Lanai stand at the Polynesian Village Resort, which is easy enough to get to by monorail or boat when leaving Magic Kingdom. My favorite way to get it is as a float in pineapple juice, swirled with vanilla soft serve.
When the pandemic started and the parks closed, the official blog or the park app or something released a recipe for Dolewhip, and the Internet went nuts about it. When the park fan sites (which are generally a little... let's say "enthusiastic") got a hold of it, there were all of these discussions about whether or not the recipe was authentic. The hype was nuts, and people reported different results regarding the authenticity of the results. Here's the reality though: Dole offers a recipe right on its official site. Disney released a recipe on their park app, and it included actual vanilla ice cream and chunks of pineapple.
But let me spoil all of that: Dolewhip comes from a powder mix that anyone can buy on Amazon. Sometimes a local ice cream shop even has it. It's dairy-free and vegan-friendly. If you look at the ingredients, it's mostly sugar and water. Its origins are completely uninteresting, despite its deliciousness.
Because it makes me happy, and because I have the ice cream maker bowl for our stand mixer, of course I plopped down the cash for four pounds of pineapple flavored sugar powder! Reading about the physics of ice cream and soft serve, and even looking at the instructions for the freezer bowl, I wasn't entirely sure about making this work, but what the hell else do I have to do in quarantine mode?
Let's start with ice cream, and how it's made. While all the stuff in ice cream has a lower freezing point than water, if you just mix it up and freeze it, you can't eat it because it would be a solid block, like ice. The trick to making ice cream is getting a lot of air into the mix as it freezes, which is to say they make it foamy. They put the mixture in these big refrigerated vessels with augers constantly moving the liquid around, and it thickens up as it gets colder. The trick, it seems, is to make sure that none of the ice crystals get too large, which is easier if you keep moving them around each other. With regular ice cream, the really good high-fat content stuff, the fat also increases the viscosity even before you freeze it. Once the ice cream is poured into a container, they push the containers through a freezer.
So how was this going to work with Dolewhip? It might be all sugar, but there's no fat. It has the "stabilizing" agents of various kinds in small quantities, and coconut oil, but it still seems like it's mostly sugar water. I wondered, what is vanilla soft serve mix made of? Turns out, mostly the same thing. There is some small amount of dairy substance, but not much. Soft serve machines essentially do the same process as an ice cream factory, turning the liquid in a refrigerated cylinder with an auger moving it around, and they operate at an interesting temperature, usually in the low 20 degrees Fahrenheit range. The Dolewhip recipe is about 4 to 1 water to mix, and I learned that the freezing point of 4:1 sugar water is about 27 degrees. It's all starting to add up!
The KitchenAid bowl is filled with some kind of fluid that freezes, so after a night in the freezer, you fill it with your ice cream mixture and turn it on. The bowl pulls the energy of the mix into the bowl, which begins the freezing process. The official recipe in smaller parts works out to about a cup of the dry mix with four cups of water. The instructions to prepare a whole bag involve agitating it with a half-bucket of water, then once it's dissolved, add the other half of water. I speculate that it's easier to dissolve it in less water, then dilute the solution, so I bust out the whisk after two cups of water, then add the other two.
After about 25 minutes of stirring, the bowl is very nearly overflowing. But it's also pretty soft, and not really ready to eat. It's close in the stuff on the edges of the bowl. I transfer it to the freezer in a small container, and it seems to get to the magic temperature about three hours after that. It's pretty much the experience in the theme park, and it's magical (and also a lot cheaper).
As you can guess, the trick is getting it to the right temperature. Our freezer is set to -2, our fridge is 35. The magic spot is around 25. So there's a game of transferring it between the freezer and the fridge, and it's destructive. If it melts too much, it freezes back into something that's more like ice and not soft serve. For the three of us, that one cup of mix makes about three servings each, and the last one definitely has a texture that's different. I may try to make a half batch next time to see what happens.
There are two impractical ways to solve the temperature problem. One is to get a small freezer with digital temperature controls to store nothing but our Dolewhip at precisely 25 degrees. That would be silly. The other is to get an actual soft serve machine. That would be borderline insane. On one hand, I could make twist with vanilla, on the other hand, it makes so much product that we'd have to invite the neighborhood over to clean it out.
This week has been pretty rough. With all of the tropical moisture getting thrown around out of the tropics, we've had day after day of rain here in Central Florida. Yesterday, I spent all day on the couch binge watching TV. I didn't really understand it for the more than three decades that I lived in Cleveland, but I get seasonal affective disorder. It hits me hard and fast even with a single day of clouds, but several in a row put me into a blob state where I'm not motivated to do anything. In my case, it's not really seasonal, because I don't get depressed for most of winter since moving, but the feelings are definitely real. It was a strange discovery when I finally moved out of Ohio to find that my periodic unhappiness was connected to something I couldn't control. I'm super conscious of it now, given the history of depression in my family.
For a long time, I thought that experience and environment, and certainly some hereditary traits, were the biggest contributors to depression. Indeed, learning to be happy is a skill, but it's not entirely a choice when your brain chemistry won't allow it. I'm glad that we're getting to a better place in our culture where we can talk about all of the things that go into positive mental health.
Having a child diagnosed with ADHD certainly opened my eyes to the part that chemistry, and drugs, play in mental health. Mix in the constantly changing body of a child, and you see how certain drugs don't even work to treat it for very long. It's a constantly moving target. I was resistant at first to him taking meds, because I was worried that he wouldn't be Simon. But I've seen it work in practice, and if anything, when the drugs work, he's more himself.
With my own mini-health impending crisis late last year, I did take the doctor's advice to use lorazepam to fend off what he believes are panic attacks. The short story is that I had physical feelings that felt like something serious, with chest tightness and shortness of breath, but I didn't have any of the markers for heart disease. These sensations don't necessarily coincide with in-the-moment stress either. But I've taken it a few times, and it works really well. The symptoms go away within a half-hour, and my mind is in a peaceful state. I use the metaphor of a freeway, where there are express lanes and regular lanes. That drug makes me feel like the fast lanes go away, and the mind stops racing. The rest is happy to go at whatever speed makes sense, and I'll get to where I'm going whenever.
I still worry about that altering who I am. I was given Vicodin once to deal with a painful sinus infection causing headaches, and I only took it once because it made me feel completely out of control, worse than any night of drinking ever. That experience, along with a history of addiction in my family, is probably why I'm so hesitant about drugs that impact mental state. I need to get over that, because I've seen how these substances have helped me and Simon, for different reasons.
The weather going forward this week has rain, but it doesn't look like there are any washouts, fortunately. I actually love thunderstorms, but the usual m.o. for Florida means sun and rainbows right after. I hate feeling like this, because it feels more like a personality flaw than it does brain chemistry. You'd think I would know better.
We have generally tried not to totally hide the problems of the world from Simon. We let him watch the news sometimes with us, and we talk about what he sees. We don't really try to impart political views on him either, though he routinely asks why President Trump is so "angry" and "mean" to people. We felt it was important for him to see the demonstrations this week. The discussions didn't go as planned.
For context, Simon has never existed in a non-diverse place. Heck, even our parents' group in Seattle included black, East and South Asian kids. Now he lives in Central Florida, which is also diverse. He's known a gay couple since he was 1. I'm relieved that his normal is this.
We tried to explain racism to him, specifically in the context of police enforcement, which has been particularly brutal and proportionately deadly to African-American people. I'm fairly certain that it's the autism, but he couldn't understand it. If I can empathize on the way he thinks, where often social contracts are illogical, he just can't reconcile how racism is a thing.
From a moral character standpoint, sure, this is great. He literally doesn't see color, and not in that "I have black friends" kind of way that's icky. But there's a down side to that, too, because it suggests that he doesn't have the empathy or wiring to be an advocate and guard against systemic racism. I think that's the important point in this essential revisiting of civil rights: It's not enough to not be racist, we have to actively stamp out the systemic and institutional racism. So yay for raising a child that is not racist, but we're struggling to get him to understand the more abstract concepts.
From a maturity standpoint, he's probably a year or two behind, something reinforced by the fact that he seems to connect best with younger kids (or very kind adults). But this sort of thing fits in a broader context of things that he doesn't naturally "get" because they're based on larger social contracts. Racism is taught, certainly, but if you see the world in more absolute terms based on factual observations, racism is completely illogical. It's one of those situations where autism is in some ways a gift.
I talked with a coworker about this recently, as he has a child with autism who also doesn't entirely grasp racism. The stakes are higher for him though, because his child isn't white like mine. I don't have to teach mine that driving while black is a risk. In my case though, I hope it's just a matter of delaying the discussion until he "gets it." The simple things like "please and thank you" and holding doors for others has also been a struggle.
Item #9274 of things I never expected to talk about as a parent.
When Diana and I went to New York for our anniversary in 2018, I was skeptical that I would really like New York. It took Hamilton after all of those years to get me there. I had such a distaste for Chicago and LA, and I figured NYC would yield a similar response. But of course, New York is graced with extraordinary history, Broadway, museums, TV studios, architectural wonders, and a great many (very great many) people. When we went back last year, I loved it even more.
Then I got to a point where it was clear that I was going to be working for a New York-based company, with an office in One World Trade Center, no less, and I imagined I'd get to visit a few times a year. Then the Covid-19 pandemic got real, real fast, and with the city as its anchor in America. I haven't met any of my coworkers in real life, and couldn't tell you when I will.
What I have seen, remotely, is people whose lives make my quarantine life easy by comparison. I know, I try not to keep score on the misery scale (therapist rules), but having to confine yourself in a place where people density is so high comes with a high cost. And frankly, that's one of the things that makes New York great, is the ability of people to collaborate and be together. People live in less space, they pack on subways, they share space because they have to. So imagine that with hospitals overflowing with death, and now civil unrest and protest. There's a psychological cost to that.
Naturally, this informs my view of these crises, and I imagine my view would be very different if it was simply limited to life in suburban Orlando, watching things from the comfort of my laptop. The seriousness of these two problems is very serious. Seeing people closer to it creates a great deal of empathy.
Hang in there, New York. You've been through more than your share of terrible things going all the way back to the founding of the United States. You'll get through this, too.
It was a strange weekend. On one hand, it's clear that America is pretty tired of black people dying at the hands of police, vigilantes and a wider criminal justice system that works differently for people of color. On the other hand, a company started by an immigrant put a couple of Americans in space, for the first time doing what government would not. The contrast is strange, to see hundreds of years of failure to eradicate racism at the same time as extraordinary scientific achievement.
We've been trying to have conversations with our son about all of this, and if you think it's hard to rationalize racism, try explaining it to a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum who isn't wired to understand something abstract like that. (Yeah, that's a whole post on to itself, for another day.) He happened to see Trump threatening to send the military out, and now we also have to explain that it's not a brute squad out to hurt him.
Racism never went away, but in the comfort of my social and professional circles, it seemed like it was at least pushed well beyond the bounds of polite conversation. But then the frequency of stories of black people killed in police custody started growing, pundits were pointing out the disproportion between the demographics of the population versus those who were incarcerated, poor, sick or otherwise lacking opportunities for education. By the time the mid-oughts rolled in, it started to become obvious to me that the bounds of polite conversation were the only thing really hiding the racism. As any non-white person could tell you, it sure as hell didn't go away.
As bad as the racism was, sexism has always been there too, and largely happening in the open. Being LGBTQ wasn't safe either. In recent years, we could pile on xenophobia. It's disappointing and sad that we can't seem to beat these inequities and hateful behavior out of our culture, despite generations of trying. You'd think the Baby Boomers, my parents generation, would have gotten us most the way there, having lived through the core of the civil rights era. But then, every Gen-X'er like me has that one racist uncle, so it's not entirely surprising that they didn't get it done. Anthropologists suggest that these societal attributes do take many generations to resolve. Mine sure didn't get it done, but then, we're still outnumbered by the Boomers, so I don't know if we ever had a chance. Fortunately, we're outnumbered by Millennials and Z's even more so, and anecdotally I think they'll get it done.
To be clear, it's everyone's job to stamp this out, not blame others. We all have to declare our commitment to the right side of history, hold our policy makers accountable, and get civically involved in a non-trivial way. I've always felt strong about this, but I feel like I have to do more. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling.
About that spaceflight, it was a welcome energy that I haven't felt in years. When the Space Shuttle program ended, rightfully so given the flaws and age of that program, it felt a little like we were giving up. Not that the Russians aren't fully capable of getting people to the ISS, but the story of American spaceflight is entangled with our pride and identity to an extent, which in the 60's largely involved getting to space before the Soviets. When the Bush administration suggested privatizing space travel, and then the Obama administration reinforced that direction, I felt at first that it was kind of a shortcoming. It felt like America couldn't do it, so let's just make it another thing we throw insane money at and get mediocre results.
What happened next was that a South African immigrant, having cashed out of dotcom success, founded a rocket company that mostly failed at first. But the vision for SpaceX was consistent, in the desire to reduce cost by reusing as much of a rocket as possible (you don't throw away a 747 after flying it once, after all). It got a contract for launch capabilities and human flight, and that led to last weekend's trip for the Crew Dragon carrying astronauts. They got there faster than the old guard contractors, and for a fraction of the cost.
If you spent the better part of the day watching all of this, you may have noticed something striking about the people you saw on TV. The engineers from SpaceX who host their webcasts are diverse. To see women of color (with visible piercings and a partially shaved head, no less), who are engineers and not communications interns, along side middle-aged white men, is a big deal. And when you see more of the people working at the factory and they talk with more engineers, you see that the workforce is more representative of America than, say, half of the US Senate (you know which half, don't make me say it). Heck, the president of SpaceX is a woman.
If you work in technology, you probably think, "Yeah, no shit, that's what my work looks like, too." But if you watched that rocket coverage enough, you eventually saw NASA. The shots of Mission Control were not diverse at all. It was almost entirely middle-aged white men (I think I saw one woman at some point). This is why racism isn't simply an issue of rogue police or bad apples or whatever rationalization people try to come up with. How is it that NASA so poorly reflects the population that it serves? When people talk about systemic racism, this is it. I don't for a minute think that NASA hiring managers are going to Klan rallies, but there's something going on that leads to an outcome that is the opposite of the outcome at SpaceX. The issues are complex, not just with the hiring practices, but with education (inequality in access) and cultural expectations (women play with dolls, not STEM kits).
Looking at those contrasting organizations, you have to look at the difference in outcomes, and look for the causes. Then you have to change the causes.
I bring this up, again, not to suggest that we can leave racism as someone else's problem, but rather to give hope and show that the seeds are there to put America's greatest failure in its past. This is the time. If we get people off of the planet by strapping them to a controlled explosion, attacking the institutional racism should be within our reach.
Weird times indeed for school. Simon's spring break this year started on Friday, March 13. That was also supposed to be the day we would take a weekend cruise to celebrate the break and my new job, but with uncertainty about being able to return into the country, we opted out. As it turns out, Simon never went back to school.
The school-from-home scene started a week after the end of spring break, when the county district decided to give it a whirl. All things considered, they did an OK job given the circumstances, when not every kid had a device to connect. They'll resolve that next year regardless of the situation. If there was a blessing in this mess, it's that the state decided to abandon standardized testing, which was amazing. (That reminds me, Simon's previous psycho principal I'm sure was devastated, as testing was everything to her. I have her emails, from a FOIA request, that show this.)
Diana was out of work at this point, since she works the front-of-house for our local performing arts center. I started a new job, so she took on the role of home teaching liaison. It's important to point out that this was not "home schooling" in the traditional sense. What it really was, was assignments created by the teachers that essentially became homework. The teachers did some online video stuff with them almost daily, but it wasn't quite the same as in-person instruction. There was a lot of burden on parents to make sure they did the work and learned the material, and this was assuming that each family had robust Internet access and a computer. With Simon's school, being in an affluent suburb, I'm sure this worked out, but in inner-city areas, I suspect it was not the same.
If anything could be said about this arrangement, it's that Diana deserves to be mother of the year, and I'm sure that millions of other parents could be given the same distinction. She saw first hand how hard it was for Simon to engage or just give up. It was clear why so much work was coming home. As he continues to develop and grow up, she could see that his meds for ADHD were not particularly effective. Over the two months, we abandoned the primary drug he was using, and used only the 3-4 hour booster that he was getting midday. That was, surprisingly, more effective.
It ended this week, which is a blessing and a curse. School at least provided some structure, but now we're on our own, and summer camps are not a thing right now, as you would expect. Diana has already committed to at least some math practice throughout the summer.
The first big national crisis that I can remember was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. I was 12 at the time, in grade seven. I remember that night seeing Ronald Reagan's speech from the Oval Office, and there would be clips of it on the nightly news and special reports for days afterward. (There was no cable news or Internet, just the big three TV broadcast networks.) As sad as that day was, there was comfort in Reagan's words, that we shared this experience to "mourn seven heroes."
When Operation Desert Storm began, George H. W. Bush got on TV and explained the action. Regardless of the controversy over our involvement in Kuwait, the president clearly understood the gravity of the situation and did his best to reassure the nation that it was the right thing to do.
Bill Clinton saw the Oklahoma City bombing on his watch, and while the initial reporting speculated a wide range of intent, the president cautioned against speculation and committed law enforcement to finding who did this. He called attention to the humanity of the people lost, their families and the deep need to heal after the tragedy.
George W. Bush, prior to this year, had the single most difficult job of any president in my lifetime, leading us through 9/11. The psychological sting to the nation was brutal, but he was steadfast in his message of resilience and cooperation among Americans, always careful to deescalate suspicion of Muslims and foreign nationals. He knew that division was the last thing the country needed.
During the Barack Obama administration, a gradual recovery from a recession was one of many challenges, but his empathetic and genuine response to tragedies like those at Sandy Hook and Charleston were the responses the nation needed. It takes a man of conviction and humility to sing "Amazing Grace" in front of the world.
American presidents are, among other things, consolers-in-chief. They have impossibly difficult jobs where at least half of the nation probably won't agree with them, and on top of it all, we look to them to assure us that everything is going to be OK, and it will get better when things are off the rails.
You know where I'm going with this as it relates to Donald J. Trump. Now we have a president incapable of exercising any kind of empathy. He's an autocrat who selfishly only thinks of himself. In just a few months, 100,000 Americans have died from a disease that has been dealt with absent of any real strategy, and nearly a third of the people who have died are Americans despite having only 4.5% of the world population. There is no reassurance for the families who have lost people. Racial injustice has spiraled out of control while he stokes the flames, threatening violence against protesters. There are no calls for unity and meaningful reform stop the cycle. One in four people are now out of work, but there is no leadership or way forward, or even a hollow politician promise to make it better.
No, in this time of crisis, we have a president who is completely focused on a ridiculous conspiracy theory that a TV show host committed murder decades ago, and a war against private companies who are now unwilling to publish his lies and calls for violence unchecked. It's the same man who downplayed the disease that has killed 100,000 people and since deflected that failure to others.
We should expect better of our presidents. This behavior is not defensible.
I didn't know it at the time, but my solo trip to Epcot for a little lunch on March 5 was the last time I would be in a Disney park for a while. It was Simon's birthday, but he and Diana were on a field trip to St. Augustine. The impending seriousness of the pandemic was already obvious at that point. I remember going in to the temporary location for Mouse Gear (weird I know, but I like the shampoo they use in the resorts and on the cruise line), and it was pretty crowded with people from all over the world. I quickly turned around and got out of there. A few days later we went to Universal to see Blue Man Group, then on Sunday, to Splitsville for the annual tradition of bowling for Simon's birthday.
But now, I don't know when our next time in a Disney park will be. Yesterday, Disney announced its opening plan, which would have set the new expiration date for our passes as about three months after our original expiration. Today, we cancelled the passes and requested a prorated refund. There are a lot of reasons:
I applaud Disney for doing their best, and maybe (hopefully?) that will be good enough for the tourists, but it's not great for us. We'll buy in again as soon as it seems like a good idea, but in the five months we've got left, I don't see it. There's no evidence that things will be better, and actually the evidence points the other way. We've got a cruise line reservation to use as well, and I can't tell you when that's going to happen for all the same reasons.
It's a bummer, but on the bright side, Epcot will be like a new park once we're able to go back.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is upsetting in large part because we've seen this movie over and over again, and it sucks.
I've resisted writing about this for the last few years, because I've felt like I'm just another white guy with an opinion. But every time something like this happens, I realize more and more than not speaking up is to be complicit in America's greatest failure. For two and a half centuries, we can't seem to shake racism from our culture. If we don't demand more from the members of our communities, our elected leaders and the institutions of our nation, there's no incentive for change.
I didn't speak up because it's exhausting to talk about racism. Having a racist president who has further normalized racism, when I hoped that we had started to move in the other direction, is also exhausting. The problem is that I have the luxury of caving to that exhaustion as a white guy. I won't get pulled over for driving while black, or assaulted and killed for going for a run through a primarily white neighborhood. I literally don't have skin in the game in the same way that people of color do.
This is something we fix largely by local civic engagement, in all areas of discrimination. We don't get fast food from companies that fund homophobic charities. We don't shop at big box stores that exploit minorities and the poor. We don't vote for local leaders unwilling to admit that there are really two criminal justice systems. We hold law enforcement accountable through technology and strict policy and training (and protect those officers who uphold those ideals). We speak up at work when we observe sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. It starts locally.
So let's start with something local and timely. Texas: Get your shit together. Black and Latino people are disproportionately getting sick and dying from Covid-19, and part of the reason is that testing availability leans heavily toward white neighborhoods in many cities. Similar scenarios are playing out in pockets all over the south, mostly where minorities live. We have to speak up.
The optimist in me really does believe that we as a nation can get better at this, but I naively thought that my generation would be the one to break cycle. We can't go around saying that we don't see color, because that means we don't see the inequity associated with it. Speak up. Get involved.
Despite a great deal of optimism that's, well, rooted in something I can't explain, I think we're going to be in this world of suboptimal global health for probably the rest of the year. I hope I'm wrong, but hope is not a strategy, and there isn't a lot of evidence to believe otherwise. Accepting this means that I also have to accept that so much of what I enjoy in my spare time is rooted in the Orlando tourist economy, which essentially stopped. I appreciate more than ever the convenience that we enjoy, that there's always live entertainment and food and drink just minutes away, all year.
If I look back to my pre-Central Florida life, I spent a lot more time creating things. I'm not entirely sure why I don't do that with the same frequency that I used to. I was creative as a child in all kinds of goofy ways. I remember coloring strips of paper with orange stripes and taping them into loops to make orange barrels (because I grew up in Ohio, duh), and building out entire road construction sites for my Hot Wheels cars to navigate. I built amusement rides and pinball machines out of Erector sets and cardboard boxes. In high school, I drew up Dungeons & Dragons scenarios in high school, and wrote software on my Apple II to store character profiles. In college I made some really bad TV and radio, and wrote even worse opinion columns. After college I made better TV and transitioned to making software.
I think the change started to happen as I started making the long transition from maker to manager in my professional life, while having a child. I don't know if there's causation there, but I know that those two things do require more of me mentally. The counterintuitive thing going on now is that peeling off the fun things, my source of release that was certainly not a mental drain, has caused me to want to engage my creative side again. That should be fun to unpack with my therapist.
Often I find myself being envious of artists, the people who make movies, music and live theater. They're completely brutal ways to make a living, if you can at all, but they sure do seem to derive a great deal of happiness from what they do. I have no fantasies about doing any of those for a living, but it doesn't mean I can't do them for fun. I admire that so many of them have devoted so much time to creating things and sharing them online the last two months.
Here's where my head is:
I'm sure I'll read this in ten years and think, wow, there's some midlife chaos. Unless of course, I actually do the stuff.