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Everyone wants magic

Last night I finished the sprawling Book of Night by Holly Black. It’s about old and rediscovered magic, the bonds between people, their shadows, and the implications of becoming detached from oneself — sometimes literally. The New York Times called Black “a master of world building,” and that’s exactly right: there’s a lived-in feel to the setting, and a weary familiarity passes among characters like a well worn borrowed jacket. Around two-thirds of the way in, there is a crush of information delivered through conversations with relatively minor characters, creating a rushed feeling without necessarily providing a sense of raised stakes. And because the world building is front loaded, the reader has less time to absorb a well constructed but unwieldy finale. Black’s prose works best when it has room to breathe.

That said, the last few pages kept me awake long into the night: a horrific conclusion worse than any variation on “The Monkey’s Paw.” Black has said that she always intended to write at least one sequel to Book of Night. I look forward to another story set in this shadow magic world — with a great deal of trepidation, I might add.

In memoriam Kupo Mleya

In the hours just past midnight on Friday — two days before Christmas — an old coworker was shot and killed a block from his home. The circumstances of his death are not entirely clear and the suspected killer, who was arrested on Saturday, won’t make his initial court appearance until tomorrow morning.

I hadn’t seen Kupo for several years, and it’s been even longer since we worked together at the local co-op. He always struck me as optimistic and energetic, a vibrant heart who seemed to glide above whatever troubles may have clouded the sky. He had a manner and smile that many have described as “infectious” as they memorialize him. It’s an appropriate enough description, but it doesn’t really do justice to the man and his effect on those around him.

Kupo’s charisma was more of a warm invitation than an outward projection; his magnetic personality drew out the good feelings of others so that everyone could bask and share in that restorative glow.

For all that this city never deserved him, he shared himself deeply and unabashedly, and anyone who knew him was better for it. My favorite memory of him was a discussion about bicycling we had one day at work while prepping produce. He was an avid tinkerer, and back then I was in the habit of recreational biking. I described a trip across the levee trail at Holmes Lake Park, and the stiff wind that nearly blew me into the water.

Kupo glanced at me, then stared into the distance and said:

“A crosswind is a distraction.”

Just so. Honoring his memory by continuing onward — while appreciating the worldly beauty that surrounds me, and never taking for granted the community that sustains me — is the least that I can do.

Rest in peace, friend.

Back among the living

I had a seizure at work at the end of September. It’s been an interesting month since then—I lost close to 30 pounds in the hospital, and have been wobbling towards health after my discharge a couple weeks ago. Now I’m into the insurance weeds, sorting out unpaid leave, short-term disability, and FMLA coverage. As a government employee, I have a good group plan, but it’s still a maze of paperwork and many, many checkups. (High blood pressure, adult onset Type 2 diabetes, pulmonary abscesses, pneumonia, renal failure… just another year in the life.) Anyway, I’m slowly returning to a semi-adult functional level, and may return to work in a couple weeks. Easing back into my desk job won’t be bad; but I’ll need to revisit most everything else about my lifestyle. It’s fine. I’ve bought some time.


A week ago, on something of a whim, I signed up for the Cornhusker State Games 2021 CSG Walk, which was held yesterday morning. In this volkswalk-style event, participants were given a choice of two routes and a window of time to complete their walk. (You can learn more about this type of non-competitive event at the American Volkssport Association.) I chose the longer route—pictured below—and started out just before 7:00 AM. We had good cloud cover making the morning temperature bearable. But the humidity was off the chart from my first step; even if I were in better physical shape, I’d still have been flop-sweating within the first mile.

A screenshot from an exercise tracking app, highlighting a roughly six-mile walking route through residential areas in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Cornhusker State Games 2021 CSG Walk. This was the longer route offered to participants; the other path was approximately two miles. (Screenshot from the Map My Walk mobile app provided by Under Armour.)

This part of the city is a tree-shrouded older residential area, including some of the fancier Country Club streets. Passing through the neighborhood surrounding the golf course, I encountered a fluffy black cat lounging on a garden path, a gaunt red fox carrying a breakfast catch, and a City Council member out for a (personal) morning jaunt. Other foot traffic was light, even counting the joggers and dog walkers who shared the route.

The walk was lovely, though the long route pushed me towards the edge of my endurance. Exercise walking is something I just haven’t been doing, and it shows. But with some focused stretches, good socks and shoes, and a judicious application of ibuprofen, I recovered from the exertion easily enough. (A late-morning nap with our cats also helped.)

Several years ago, I was jogging 5K routes. Since then, I’ve fallen into a routine of constantly having to re-form basic exercise habits. I can almost trick myself into believing that’s the same as actually keeping those habits—but no. Committing to yesterday’s event without overthinking it is probably what got me through it, bypassing my uneasy brain. Maybe that touch of managed recklessness is the habit to develop first, and the rest will more easily follow.

Prepare to die, obviously!

I had the pleasure of watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in an empty theater yesterday, and it was every bit the “epic of epic epicness” that I remember. The film has an amazing cast with easy chemistry, and the story of a deceptively non-heroic protagonist still seems relevant—it almost feels more germane now than it did ten years ago. Reviving the movie for a slightly delayed anniversary celebration brings welcome exuberance into 2021.

Elective service

We held our city primary a month ago, and this week (on Star Wars Day, no less) conducted the general election. I worked again as a precinct inspector, which is an official term for a supply runner. Many election workers receive a two-year posting to a specific precinct; others, like me, serve in a backup role—covering gaps on demand. Sometimes I think it would be nice to receive a permanent posting, but working as a reserve inspector means that I rarely work consecutive elections at the same place. We have polling places in churches, schools, apartment complex clubhouses, union halls, and so on. Being an election official is an easy way to be a tourist in my own city.

Local elections are typically the slowest of all; this week’s turnout was just below 30%. One point of interest: the number of absentee ballots cast was almost double the in-person turnout on Election Day. I was relieved to see that, because early voting is what led to the election of my favorite at-large City Council candidate. His taking office represents a dramatic shift in the composition of the council, even if we did just swap out white men.

Since this country will never be done with COVID-19, the sanitation measures that we put into effect for last year’s presidential election continued this year. Everyone is well acquainted with the dance: out of 114 voters in our precinct, we had two without masks, and one dubiously tied bandana. Election workers are practiced at sanitizing voting booths, work tables, ballpoint pens, ballot sleeves. I imagine that—despite our hopes to the contrary—some version of this protocol will persist into next year’s midterms. That’s fine with me. As a precinct inspector, I feel as though my biggest problems involve policing all the small talk that happens as we’re moving voters through the line. The environment is homey and cordial, but often lacks what I would consider an appropriate level of professionalism for the job.

For the past few election cycles, I’ve been thinking more about whether or not I’ll continue working in this capacity. Election Day is exhausting. It has all the joys of retail customer service with the added benefit of enforcing state law. (And don’t get me started on arguments over electioneering.) But the work is rewarding. I feel an immense sense of pride every time, and being part of the election return is a special sort of high. By the time next year’s primary rolls around, I’ll probably be rested up and ready to do it all again.

Once more unto the breach

Well, I managed to come back around to the blog in less than a year—that represents a certain sort of progress. Let’s just say it took 51 weeks for me to recover from transcribing Ben Sasse’s atrocious graduation day speech and move on, shall we?

Profiles in cowardice

On Saturday, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse delivered the commencement address to Fremont High School’s Class of 2020. (Sasse himself graduated from the school in 1990.) No longer content to be America’s hip negging Dad, the senator has launched into a desperate grab for relevance as the world passes him by.

I transcribed the speech just to overcome my disbelief. I won’t waste energy wishing that Sasse could forever be disqualified from public service, but I will marvel at his craven display for a long time. (If you must see it to believe it, the link above contains an embedded video of the entire ceremony; Sasse’s remarks come in the first eight minutes.)

Anyway, the transcript:

Congratulations, graduates! This is a big moment.

Not on graduating high school, but on making the journey down the stairs from your bedroom to the living room, and putting on something slightly more formal than sweatpants. Your grandparents are proud of you; we’re all proud of you. It took a lot of effort. We want to recognize your sacrifice.

Congratulations, parents, teachers, and coaches! Not that there’s really any meaningful distinction among those categories anymore at this point. If you’re a parent, you’re a teacher. Thanks a lot, China.

We’re all teachers now. And let’s be honest: at the start of this, most parents thought we would be visionary math teachers, changing the world—but after about two weeks, we all just decided to default into gym teachers. I’m kidding; my dad was a gym teacher. I’m serious. He used to teach English and Social Studies but he always aspired to get to gym so he didn’t have to put on formal clothes everyday, and he could wear the same sort of sweats that most of you are wearing from the bottom half down anyway.

But anyway. I know, Dad, gym is important. If you’re watching, Dad—as if he’s watching—uh, my children aren’t at his house, and like all grandparents, there’s no chance he can get Zoom to work without my children there to do it for him.

Graduates, adults don’t tell you this, but once or twice a week in real-world life, someone’s going to ask you to climb a giant rope. No reason, just climb the rope. Sure, every now and then the rope is a metaphor, but most of the time, it’s just a big rope, and you have to climb it.

If you don’t get that joke, talk to your mom and dad. Back in the day when we were a lot fitter than you people are, we used to have to climb ropes all the way to the ceiling of the gym all the time. So, gym teachers: those of you who chose to do it as a calling, and those of you who’ve been forced into it as a calling, I salute you.

So here we are. We’re in your living room. I’m on a laptop, you’re on a couch, because 2020 is a heck of a year. I know I’m not supposed to say this, but you’re not missing out on that much, because honestly nobody—and by “nobody” I mean nobody—remembers anything about their high school graduation. In fact, a lot of us spend a lot of our lives trying to forget as much about high school as we possibly can. You know what I mean; you remember sophomore year. You don’t want those memories to be defining for you.

Read More »Profiles in cowardice

Voting in the time of COVID-19

This week our state held its 2020 primary election, complete with in-person voting. Voters were scarce, though—nearly 400,000 mail-in ballots were counted statewide.

I served as a poll worker for the first time since November 2018; this week I was an inspector, overseeing two precinct sites based in the same church. State election officials had refused to postpone the primary or switch to an all-mail format as other states had done. Our county election commission scrambled to develop additional sanitation procedures and to acquire the necessary equipment. Some examples:

  • Wearing masks and gloves for reduced contact with voters
  • Providing masks to voters upon request (most wore their own)
  • Issuing ballpoint pens (non-returnable) for marking ballots
  • Wiping down voting booths and ballot sleeves after each use
  • Maintaining social distancing as much as possible

Voting booths for both precincts were set up in one common area but spaced several feet apart. We never had more than four people voting at once, which greatly simplified crowd management, much to our relief.

Overall voter turnout, including absentee ballots, was around 39%. I suppose we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see whether it was a successful test run for managing an election during a pandemic. (Side notes: between Tuesday and Wednesday, there were around 700 new COVID-19 cases statewide. There was a corresponding spike in the number of tests conducted on Wednesday. And for the past two weeks our state has been reopening: barber shops, tattoo parlors, massage therapists, churches, restaurants, salons… all with social distancing guidelines and increased occupancy restrictions.)

All of this to say I have no idea which of these configurations—wide open or tightly controlled—will win out for the November election. I suppose I’ll be there either way.

Test for echo

“But how can I tell,” said the man, “that the past isn’t just a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensation and my state of mind?”

—Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe