The Year In Review: 2016

I write this in the last days of 2016, in the middle of my family’s traditional holiday break. No matter where I find myself, geographically speaking, during this break I always try to forget about work, obligations, and being an adult in general as much as I can. And while I also usually try to pause a bit to reflect on the past year, this time I can’t quite shake the feeling that it would be best just to forget most of 2016 entirely. I don’t think I’m alone.

One place to start would be with the seemingly incessant celebrity deaths. Even if you don’t typically care about famous people at all, we’ve lost so many well-loved musicians, actors, and athletes from all corners of the entertainment spectrum on such a consistent pace this year that it would be hard for anyone not to notice. This may not be the “worst year ever” for celebrity deaths (and what a morbid concept to even analyze), but it’s certainly gut-punched millions of fans of all stripes across the globe.

I do fully realize that celebrities are a small, rich percentage of the population who in most cases chose their careers and lived their lives the way they wanted, even if they were taken unexpectedly or before living to the ripe old age of 90. So I don’t tend to hang my entire worldview on their well-being. I get that in other corners of the world, people who will never be famous are suffering in a real and palpable way. I also see what, in a perfect world, should be a simple matter of helping people in need get impossibly complicated, tangled up in fear of terrorism and distraction by problems in our own collective backyards.

Certainly here in the U.S., all of us average citizens were subjected to an election season that exposed some of those problems. The election brought out the absolute worst elements of our society in every possible way. You have to wonder when the tensions, racial issues, and strained interpersonal relationships that erupted as a result will begin to heal when neither side of the political spectrum seems interested in doing anything but demonizing each other. And since that wonderful train really got rolling in 2016, I’m going to chalk it up in that column.

Even when I focus in on my own personal level and things nominally within my control, I am reminded that I lost two people this year who were very influential in my life: my grandmother and one of my best friends from high school. Gina also lost her grandfather, and recognizing the impact he had on her and her family, I also keenly felt the loss. Being a pallbearer three times in one year at age 34 seems a bit excessive.

Additionally, several project timelines at work were delayed interminably with no end in sight, and those I was able to complete didn’t really give me the normal sense of satisfaction. If in an “average” year I at least have a few milestones in my work that I can point to as high points, this year just seemed like one long slog.

To paraphrase the Huffington Post article I linked above, for many people all of these elements have joined forces to compound a general sense of doom surrounding 2016. And I agree that this world of instantaneous news and perpetual connectivity is a big culprit. When everybody hears the same bad news at practically the same time and everyone can share, tweet, or repost it ad infinitum, there’s a magnifying effect that we as a society haven’t figured out how to process. It’s unprecedented in human history, to be sure. You can escape this effect by either being completely disconnected and unconcerned about the world, or by diving into your own reality populated solely by people and opinions that match your own. Both are dangerous, but both are so easy to do with the lure of technology.

Another blog I follow, The Frailest Thing, often explores the questionable effects of technology on society.  I admittedly am not well-read enough to usually follow all of the philosophy, but a recent post summarizes this entire notion as “the forces pulling us apart appear to be stronger than those pulling us together.” We’ve got so many technological advances swirling around us at a breakneck pace, and they all do what they’re designed to do: bring the world to our pockets and make our lives easier. But when you can live in certain areas and never have to leave your house (as long as you’ve got the means to get stuff delivered to you) it’s not hard to imagine those same advances contributing to people drifting ever further apart.

That’s pretty heavy, no? It’s also why I almost didn’t post this at all. But then, I realized that I couldn’t just let 2016 leave me this way. Whining without offering any kind of solution isn’t worthwhile, and I don’t want to waste your time.

So that’s when I started pondering the good things that happened this year. Of course I’m thankful for my family and my job, and the fact that I can help provide a good life, clothing, and shelter for them. Noah continues to surprise me every day with his enormous potential and his capacity to bring joy to our household (toddler tantrums and dirty diapers too, to be sure – but also joy). I reconnected with most of the Wesley Foundation gentlemen and returned to Blacksburg for a Hokie football game weekend. Gina and I didn’t get many breaks to just be a married couple again, but when we did, we remembered what it was like to have fun at places like Hershey.

And certainly, an overarching highlight has been my role as worship leader at The Kingstowne Communion. Being a part of this community this past year has caused me to grow exponentially in my faith and as a musician, and I have made many new friends. While there was a huge learning curve in the beginning, and I’m still figuring out the perfect balance of time to commit to protect myself from burning out, I’m excited to see where this leads. If any of this work is having a positive impact on the community and will help someone’s life get just a little better, then it’s all worth it.

And so, I’m going to begrudgingly say that 2016 wasn’t all bad, and the parts that were I can’t do anything about anyway. I think the closest thing to a solution that I can get is simply to continue to connect. I’m certainly not going to be able to end racism or poverty or steer the country on my own, but I can choose to make my own little world around me as good as it can be. I can keep raising my son and looking out for my family. I can choose to help others. I can also choose to look the cashier at the store in the eye and really mean it when I ask how they’re doing. I can choose to try to focus on the good and not dwell on the bad, to cherish memories, make new ones, and keep pounding forward. And maybe if I can keep doing that, it won’t ever matter what year it is.

But seriously, 2016, Carrie Fisher? Come on, man.

Transitions

Over the last few weeks, it seemed as though August’s oppressive heat simply would not let go of our area, leaving us with the odd simultaneous pairing of the rollout of pumpkin-spiced everything with the persistent need for cold, tangy lemonade. But then – finally – the summer heat began to melt away, revealing the first few hints of crisp, cool autumn. We welcomed football and relished the end of baseball, but just as soon we watched the clouds rolling in, forcing us to say goodbye to September under umbrellas and rain jackets, the piles of leaves that should have been blowing in the breeze now pummeled into wet piles of submission.

And that brings us to this weekend, when the drizzle and clouds still would just not let go, and we were all forced to choose between windshield wiper speeds that were either too fast (causing the dreaded SKRONK sound against a dry windshield) or too slow (with cars pulling in front of you with their rooster-tail spray, causing immediate blindness). Even then, patience was ultimately rewarded, when the sun’s tendrils of light finally broke through to begin the dry-out.

All of this served as a backdrop to the launch of a weekly worship service. Gina was in emergency “craft project” mode all weekend, hemming fabrics and carefully choosing pieces for the altar. The songs for the service were on constant replay in my head, and I had the feeling of having a phantom air guitar perpetually strapped on. Nerves and expectations were high in our house, and come Saturday night, our dining room once again was piled high with churchy items and musical equipment to load up in the morning.

But after months of preparation, soul-searching, research, prayer, and dress rehearsals over the summer, in a strange way I at least felt ready. Maybe it was semi-delusional (it’s possible), but counting back a month or so, the music aspect of what we’re doing just seemed to gel. To me, it’s seemed like all the other teams of volunteers felt the same way.

And maybe that’s why Sunday morning, it all turned out so darn well. Practice, preparation, doses of faith and humility – all in the proper amounts, whatever they are – but it worked. And new people came, and it was wonderful to see them, but above all it felt reverential. Somehow, with lots of sweat and thought, we had once again transformed an elementary school cafeteria into a church, but for this kickoff Sunday, it felt better than any other Sunday before. It felt alive.

The possibilities ahead give me goosebumps even bigger than can the chill of the autumn air, the kind that go deeper than the skin and penetrate down to, oddly, warm my soul.

Returning From The Relaxation Game

I’m writing this on Labor Day, at the tail-end of an eleven-day respite. As a taste of beautiful fall weather finally descends on northern Virginia (the best season to be in the DC area, in my opinion), I finally feel ready to return to life at the pace Gina and I have been accustomed to for nine months.

We kicked things off with a weekend trip to Hershey, PA. I had not returned to The Sweetest Place on Earth since a pair of concert-related road trips in 2004 and 2005, and Gina only went on the first epic adventure (which you can read about here). It’s a great spot for a weekend trip, as long as you can get out of DC fast enough to achieve true escape velocity from the traffic, which we more or less did except for a bottleneck around I-270. What’s even cooler about this particular trip is that we had amassed so many credit card points over the last few years (thanks, Noah) that we were able to stay at the swanky Hotel Hershey and visit a few of the chocolate-related tourist spots for next to no cost. We ate great food, were given free stuff around seemingly every turn, got a massage, went on a hike, slept by the pool, and even made our own freaking chocolate bars.

After returning from Pennsylvania, we went into full-on “staycation” mode. (I’m not sure I like that word, to be honest, but it *is* pretty darn accurate.) For the bulk of the week, we cleaned out boxes of junk that had accumulated in our basement ever since the Great Pipe Burst of 2015. I caught up on other random projects that had nagged at me for weeks while I couldn’t afford the time to make any progress. All of this led up to the denouement, a time-honored tradition: Labor Day weekend at Smith Mountain Lake with our friends. We had to cut this year’s visit short so I could make it back to play at Kingstowne Sunday morning, but it was still worth it for the beautiful weather and traditional visits to the popcorn-eating fish. Noah even got his first boat ride and promptly fell asleep halfway through it.

The past week has been great, but I needed it to be. I’ll be honest here: it has been a tough and busy year for me. I’ve dealt with two very personal deaths and all the emotional fallout that goes along with them. Several big projects at work sapped most of my energy and time. As I mentioned above, I took a side job for The Kingstowne Communion, which has proven to be a challenging, rewarding, and humbling experience in every sense of the words. And of course, on top of all that, Gina and I have still been taking care of Noah with most of the rest of our waking hours. In fact, we were talking the other day about how we just *might* be able to call ourselves real parents now, after we’ve passed the 1.5 year mark with no major accidents and are having more and more fun exploring the world anew with our son. Still, he’s a ball of energy from the time he wakes up until he finally crashes at night, so it’s not exactly relaxing.

So, when you factor in that Gina and I had not taken anything resembling a true vacation since before Noah was born, I can say wholeheartedly that it was overdue. If I had tried to plug away even longer (until Thanksgiving or Christmas for example), I think I would have become impossible to live with. Either that, or my efforts at work and church would have quickly deteriorated as I frantically tried to keep going with no restoration of my energy and spirit each week.

If there’s any kind of advice I would pass on to other unwitting parents out there who have made it this far, it would be this: take time for yourself. Do it. Do it now!

Listen to Arnold, okay?

Look, I know there are always extenuating circumstances. You want to be there for your children, and maybe you feel guilty about leaving them behind. Maybe you don’t have a lot of money saved up because you’ve blown it all on diapers and daycare. Maybe you’ve got medical issues or no trustworthy babysitters. I get it. It took us probably a year before we even became comfortable leaving him with anyone else for longer than a dinner out. Before the Hershey weekend, in fact, we had only ever spent one night with both of us away from him.

But don’t let anxiety, money, or time be an excuse. There will never be a great time to get away from parenting. There will always be something issue that comes up that seems more important than taking care of yourself. Don’t sweat it – toddlers are pretty indestructible, and it’s okay if their grandmas spoil them for a few days. Even if you just do what we did and spend a week at home while keeping your kid in daycare just to catch up on crap, do it. Just figure out a way to do whatever it is that brings you into balance – even if just for an afternoon or an evening. You’ll be a better adult and parent for it.

A New Gig

I’ve been a little behind in posting for a couple of months. This has spoiled my two-and-a-half-year consecutive posting winning streak like a two-out home run in a tie game at the bottom of the ninth. But at least this break from blogging doesn’t come close to my prior dry spells, and I have a much better reason than general apathy this time!

In February, I was tapped to be the Creative Arts Director for the Kingstowne Communion, a church plant that is connected to my and Gina’s home church.  I’ve been learning that a new church plant is basically church from a small-business or entrepreneurial point of view. You’ve got to think on your feet, be innovative, and just handle everything differently and with a much smaller group. My job involves many roles, but by far the biggest is to be the guy that many contemporary churches would call “worship leader” or “worship minister” (or some other combination of those words). From a musical perspective, this is my first permanent gig.

Sometimes I look at this opportunity as a natural extension of my playing time with the Wesley Foundation as well as the past year or two playing with the praise band at Aldersgate UMC, and that’s probably true. But I was never the bandleader in either of those situations and very rarely did I ever find myself in a position to be the center of attention while playing. So mostly, this is a brand new experience for me, and I haven’t been outside my comfort zone this much in a while.

But, you know, maybe that's okay.
But, you know, maybe that’s okay.

Why do I say it’s outside my comfort zone? Well, aside from the center-of-attention deal, I also have historically not been very vocal or “out there” with my faith. I’ve always been conscious of not wanting to seem too “preachy,” though I don’t like the negative connotation of that word since many of my friends do, in fact, get preachy for a living. Anyway, how does a guy like me get out there in front of a crowd and sing songs of praise?

If you figure it out, let me know! (Hah!)

But seriously. It really just involves a large amount of trust and faith in God that I’m doing the right thing. And if I’m doing it correctly, the musical choices and arrangements will speak for themselves, as I interweave words, prayers, lyrics, and songs into a service that is meaningful to those in attendance. I’m not likely to change the style of my faith conversations on a personal level, but I am learning that if I take some piece of my internal faith and translate it externally, everything starts to feel more natural.

Maybe none of this makes sense, and it’s still hard for me to pin it down. (See what getting out of your comfort zone will do?) But I’ve also come to realize the responsibility that was never really there when I was simply volunteering to play music. I am one of the main architects of the service now – I am one of the people whose job it is to help the congregation follow the Wesleyan ideal of “moving toward perfection.”

So this is a big deal to me, and I want to get it right. Ever since I got the job I have been pouring my heart, soul, and nearly every spare waking moment into preparing and learning. I discovered very quickly that one does not just become a worship leader overnight. I attended a worship leader conference this past week that helped immensely. I’ve sought advice from others who have been there. I’m reading books. I’m practicing songs and researching music theory more.

I haven’t studied this hard since grad school.

It’s a few months in, and I’m definitely still not there yet. I haven’t even been able to try out the new ideas I’ve learned in just the past week. But luckily our community is awesome, our pastor is awesome, and there’s every reason to believe there are many exciting times ahead. I’m also blessed to have a great group of volunteers on the team, one of whom is of course Gina, a never-ending source of encouragement.

And here’s the best news: every week is a chance to get better, God willing. I gotta believe He’s got my back.

Raised By Wolves

Years before our son Noah was born, some of my office co-workers became new parents. Right around this time, Gina and I also got Heidi and were raising her from a ten-week-old puppy. During that period, I could easily draw comparisons between the stories I was hearing about child raising and similar situations we had with her. However, I never opened my mouth because I didn’t want to be that guy who compared someone’s kid to a dog.

I wish I’d known then what I know now, though. I’m not sure where we went wrong, but somewhere along the way, our dog has been raising our son while we weren’t looking.

It all started with Noah’s early vocalizations, which included an approximation of Heidi’s bark. It took us a while to pick up on it, so it’s hard to say how long this had been going on, but after a while we realized a “woop-woop” kind of sound would emanate from our son every time Heidi barked at a passing dog, pedestrian, deliveryman, or gust of wind. Even now, he’ll join in once she gets going, and any kind of toy dog also gets a “woop-woop.”

Naturally, we encouraged this behavior with laughter dog noises of our own. I suppose our son took this as permission to keep going. (Mental note: Noah will probably master dog language before English.) 

Before long, more little signs began showing. Ever since he started crawling, Noah has gravitated toward Heidi’s food and water dish, unable to contain the urge to stick his hands into her water or to try to tip over the dish. He is also fascinated by her dog food container. It didn’t take long for him to figure out how to open the lid, bypassing its limited safety features designed to keep out dogs more than humans. You would think that he would use his newfound knowledge to help his fellow dog-kind by sharing food or at least stashing it away for Heidi to find. But instead, he can quite often be found hiding under the kitchen table, sifting through whatever dog food he can reach, opening and closing the container at will but keeping it all for himself. We have two measuring cups that we use to portion out Heidi’s food, and I’ve caught him on camera with one of the cups in his mouth, clamped against his teeth, while standing innocently near the container. Thankfully, to date he has only tried to taste the food once (that we know about), and it didn’t seem to thrill him.

Of course, babies and toddlers usually have something in their mouths, but I’m not so sure that they always use their mouth as a carrying case while they crawl from place to place. I’m pretty sure Noah picked this up from watching Heidi carry her toys around. He’s successfully traveled with bottles, spoons, and a few toys this way. It’s multitasking the canine way!

Heidi loves when Noah eats, because our little collaborator usually drops scraps off the side of the high chair specifically for her. She happily fulfills the duty of licking them up and waiting expectantly for the next one. Sometimes, however, Noah will be crawling around hours after a meal when he’ll mysteriously lean down and lick the floor. Why do this? Leftover food particles? Just to see what it tastes like? We may never know, but odds are our dog does.

This relationship also extends past food. Ever since we got Heidi a furry new bed that will keep her warm these long, cold nights, Noah has claimed it as his couch when she’s not around (and sometimes even when she is). In fact, the only things Noah doesn’t seem interested in sharing with her is her dog toys – he usually leaves them be. Go figure.

What could be causing this canine imitation? Just a toddler being silly? Flattery in the form of imitation? Some wisdom Heidi imparted to Noah in dog language? Whatever the case may be, I’m just glad that they are getting along and that Heidi seems to be an okay parent, since none of our human lessons seem to be sinking in. I guess I owe her a bone sometime soon.

And hey, there’s always another bright side: we’re going to save a fortune on beds, clothes, education and food if he turns out to be another dog!