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!

Getting The Drift, Part 3

Shoveling. So. Much. Shoveling.

That’s the main takeaway from The Second Day After Snowzilla, otherwise known as Monday. Everything was still mostly closed to give road crews time to clear the streets, but the company that our HOA hired to do just that struggled to complete the job. After watching the snowplow give up halfway up our street on Sunday night as I mentioned before, we were a little disheartened. But to our surprise, later that night, the contractor brought back a tenacious little Bobcat to take care of the rest of our street. This went on throughout the night, as far as I and my immediate neighbors could tell. Luckily, the commotion did not wake Noah.

But even after clearing the sidewalks and a pathway between our cars, there still remained the painstaking process of clearing out the rest of the parking spaces as well as a lane to the street. In years past, the best case scenario after the plowing company came through would be contending with three-foot-tall piles of snow pushed in front of our cars.

This year, we fared much better thanks to a combined effort of the original contractor, a guy who used to live in the neighborhood that owned a giant plow and just wanted to come by, and another contractor that the HOA hired when the original guys were stretched too thin. So even though there weren’t huge piles, there are still only so many places one can put two feet of snow. As an example, before it started melting, the pile of snow next to our house almost reached the first floor windows. And of course, each shovelful had to be walked from wherever I was working to wherever the nearest pile happened to be.

All that said, clearing snow is a game of inches, and shoveling a few square feet can feel like vacuuming the Sahara if you’ve been at it long enough. It’s not my favorite activity, but it did work up my appetite enough to devour many leftovers.

The ultimate action pose.
If I had shovel, I would shovel in the morning. I would shovel in the evening…all over this land.

I will also say this: all it takes is some inclement weather to bring a neighborhood closer together. We learned more of our neighbors’ names this weekend than we had in the last four years, and everyone we talked to was willing to pitch in and help each other shovel, or engage in a quick conversation about road conditions from passersby who had walked far enough to scout out ahead. I got to overhear a group of kids plan out the construction of their snow fort. And of course, those of us with shovels sprinkled in small talk during the requisite breaks to prevent heart attacks.

I really lost track of the day after those hours of shoveling. Somewhere in there, I ventured out with Heidi to investigate the neighborhood beyond our immediate row of houses for the first time since Friday. You can see some of our discoveries in the Flickr gallery below. One of the things I love about our dog is that she’s always game for anything outside, no matter what the weather. This blizzard was no different – she frolicked through deep, untouched snow as we took little-used paths behind houses. She bounded up plowed drifts that might as well have been mountains, jumping and sniffing and digging all the while. It was good for both of us – exercise for her, and a few laughs for me.

As the sun set and Noah headed to bed, Gina and I commented on our mutual levels of exhaustion after her solo parenting while I was shoveling away. With our street and the roads beyond passable following another run by the Bobcat and the announcement that Noah’s daycare was open the next day, the feeling of isolation dwindled.

This would be good news to anyone who would have had cabin fever by this time, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that the whole episode hadn’t lasted a little longer. The power and heat had stayed on, and we made some great food with plenty of supplies to spare. So I would say we had a cozy, if not completely relaxing, Snowzilla experience. Time, and the world outside our little bubble, stood still for just a couple of days. Even after we got word that both our offices would be closed the following day, I knew that the outside world would soon collapse the bubble, ushering in the onslaught of work and other commitments.

Since I fell asleep on the couch last night in an achy haze, I suppose this is my last daily blizzard journal for Snowzilla. I’m sure there will be more storms that will come along and force me to write more. However, despite a botched measurement at Reagan National Airport (I much prefer these “bench” marks from the always-great Capital Weather Gang), this was still a top-five storm for the area.

Certainly, it was also one we will remember forever as part of our little family’s history.

(Read Part 1 and Part 2, if you dare.)

Here’s the Flickr gallery, as promised (link):

Snowzilla 2016