80% Chance of Baby Showers

I remember registering for our wedding. It was cool because we were somehow becoming adults and moving into our own place, so we definitely needed all the things that real adults need to have, like toasters and cutting boards and vacuum cleaners and what have you. So I got to hold the special registration gun and walk the entire surface area of several department stores, scanning items and making laser noises, all while Gina fretted about choosing the two bathroom color schemes for our apartment. We had some wedding showers, people brought gifts to the reception – it was great.

I guess I never fully thought about the next natural parallel, registering for baby gifts and the resultant baby showers, but I’ve definitely been getting a crash course over the last few months. There’s still the same magic registration gun and still many stores to explore, but at least for me, I quickly realized that every bleep of the magic gun was adding something else to our registries that I had absolutely no prior knowledge of.

For one, there are entire categories of baby products – nay, entireĀ industries that I could never even fathom would be profitable. Pick the smallest detail of parenting or caring for a newborn, and I guarantee you there are no fewer than four or five companies who only exist to make a product with one very specific function to handle that detail that will be useful for at best a few months. Each of these will cost upwards of $299.

Wait a minute, that’s exactly how these companies stay in business. They know they have just one chance to cash in on prospective parents, so they hit your wallet right when you’re most vulnerable.

The one category of baby product that breaks the $299 rule is, of course, the strollers. Here, the sky is the limit. Much like shopping for a car, when you go to the stroller showroom, a strange feeling that you’re getting ripped off by the salesman washes over you as you try to play it cool. Like watching a good magician, you know the trick is coming but you just can’t see it.

Anyway, taking the car analogy a few steps further, you could easily buy anything from the “Tesla of baby strollers” to something more akin to the “1984 Honda Civic of baby strollers,” as your budget allows. The higher up you go, the more elaborate the features get, while the units themselves get lighter and lighter, since they go from being largely made of plastic, to metals, then on to carbon composites before graduating to materials apparently harvested from stolen alien technology from the distant future. After examining many models, we got suckered into settled on the “BMW of baby strollers.”

If our stroller came with a cool guy with 80's mustache too, I might be able to convince Gina to go the Civic route.

Although, if the Civic strollers came with a cool driver with 80’s mustache too, I might be able to convince Gina to go that route.

Stroller financing aside, after registering for several other things that I felt certain no one would want to buy for us, we finally published our registries to the world and hoped for the best, while I continued to struggle to understand the differences between and functionality of various baby bottle accessories.

I must say, however, that I’ve been surprised and amazed many times since then. We’ve now been through four or five baby-shower-type events, with each comprised of different groups of people who are important to us in some way. Throughout these, my initial worries were proven silly, and we are much, much better prepared for this child thanks to the generosity of all of you! We feel very blessed and fortunate to be part of such a great support network, and we’ve been able to check off most of the essentials from our list as time has gone on. I may not know what all of this stuff does or where we’re going to store it from now on, but I thank anybody and everybody who contributed from the bottom of my heart!

In return, you can come fawn over our baby… when we’re home and have visiting hours. Assuming you’ve had your flu shot. (Sorry, we don’t make the rules.) (Well, we do, but also the doctors.)

Springfield! My Kind of Town (Center)

This past Friday, Gina and I met up with our friends Jen and Stephen to partake in a time-honored suburban pastime: going to a new shopping center within the first few weeks of its opening. Around here, that’s a dangerous proposition that could cost you untold hours of pain and frustration while wading through crowds. But with reservations in hand, we decided to try it anyway. We decided to eat dinner at the Springfield Mall.

Except it’s not the Springfield Mall anymore. It’s been reborn as the Springfield Town Center. A phoenix, rising from the ashes. Rebuilt and transformed from its previous status as a wretched hive of scum and villainy (and the home to, among other things, Mr. Watchband). The dinginess has been chiseled away to reveal the shiny new town center hiding underneath, which in an unusual twist is still pretty much a mall. But hey, it’s a nice one! The corridors, they’re so wide. The chandeliers, so sparkly. The undertone of depressing decline and inevitable deterioration – it’s gone! The Target that is attached finally flung open its inside doors once more, embracing the stylish boutique stores outside where once there was a DMV and the “V” Spa. I hope Mr. Watchband is smiling down from above.

I also hope that the other restaurants and the remainder of the food court open soon. Last weekend, the only functioning eateries were Maggiano’s (where we ate, but without the reservations we had it was going to be a three hour wait), Panda Express, and Sarku Japan. I know I definitely love Americanized Chinese food, but a place that size needs something more. The lines resembled those for the port-a-potties before a big race. With Yard House, Chuy’s, and others only opening over the next few weeks, it looks as though the developers might have jumped the gun a little bit in opening the place.

After our dinner, the four of us walked around the mall a bit. I was never in Northern Virginia during the old Mall’s heyday, but I generally hear people who grew up here talk about it with a mixture of fondness for what it was and regret for what it had become. Apparently, it was the mall to go to for years, but over time the clientele gradually got distracted and enticed by other, newer shopping elsewhere. This left the place open for the gangs and the other bad stuff that was bound to follow.

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Princess Di even approved. C’mon, people.

As we walked around, Stephen began wondering if the Town Center would suffer the same fate as its alter ego in just a few years. It is possible, but I’m staying optimistic. I think that the new restaurants, gym, and movie theater coupled with the anchor stores will make the Town Center interesting and varied enough to keep people coming back. The only thing that gave any of us pause was that many stores were still unoccupied or unopened – again, maybe the opening date was a little too early? Surely the place is at least fully leased?

While the heart of Springfield itself seems destined to stay nothing more than a jumble of roads and highway interchanges broken up by strip malls (albeit convenient ones!), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the rebooted version of the Mall will stick around for a while.

Playing the Mandolin

I previously wrote about the painstaking process I went through to choose my new mandolin. Since then the challenge, of course, has been learning how to play it. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t do much just sitting in my room, so I’ve had to pick it up and play it every now and then.

The only formal music lessons I’ve ever taken were several years of piano in middle and high school. Those lessons were invaluable, since they taught me to read music and the basics of theory, but it was clear after several recitals that the piano didn’t come naturally to me. I could practice a piece dozens and dozens of times, making mistakes all the while, making my parents suffer and cats in the neighborhood angry, while never quite reaching perfection. I could eventually grind a piece out when I had to, but it wasn’t as if I was one with the keyboard.

Anyway, I still used that foundation and a lot of informal lessons from my friend Stuart to progress pretty well on the bass, and from that early success it seemed that the handheld, fretted stringed instruments were more of my bag. From there, teaching myself acoustic guitar wasn’t a huge leap, and that was the last instrument I learned.

The mandolin, I’ve since discovered, is a different animal and so it must be treated. It’s strung like a violin, so all of the chord structures are new to me. The doubled strings sometimes chew up my fingers more than the guitar ever did, but that’s ok, all musicians go through some type of torture in the name of their instrument. What I do like about it is the contrast it offers compared to a guitar. You can throw a mandolin into any song and some surprising tone combinations come through. It’s like adding just the right dash of spice to your chili. I love that it can stand in as a choppy, rhythmic, almost percussion instrument in bluegrass and folk tunes. But it also has almost as many moods as the guitar, softening up sad songs even more if you know how to pull off a great tremolo (which I don’t. Yet.) Like all acoustic instruments, a mandolin can come alive when in the right hands, and I love that.

I recognize that I’m not quite the right hands yet, but at least I’m not the wrong feet. Most of the time I find myself just noodling around with my mandolin, but when I focus and get through a couple of lessons in my book, I can start to play something that sounds recognizable, or at least not bad.

I think the biggest hurdle is going to be finding the time to just play the thing enough to get some repetitions under my belt. I need to memorize a few chord patterns and songs and slowly work my way up. I got through the basics of guitar by picking out tabs for pop songs that I wanted to learn how to play. It’s a little difficult to find direct inspiration like that for the mandolin, though, since there aren’t that many popular songs that are solo mandolin tunes (unless you’re a virtuoso like Chris Thile or Sarah Jarosz or something, and they’re two in a million). I guess I could dig deep into Led Zeppelin’s back catalog. And as fun as they all are, I think it will be a while before I can chicken-pick my way through a wild and wooly bluegrass tune. But hey, you never know when being able to play “Losing My Religion” or the intro to Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” will come in handy!

If any of you are ever interested in picking up the “Mando,” I do highly recommend Don Julin’s Mandolin For Dummies or any of his other instructional books. I remember when the …For Dummies books were just trying to teach people how to use Windows 95, but they’ve since expanded their offerings to include every topic under the sun, and Don packs a lot of great tutorials into the book. Plus there are play-along music files you can download.

I hope you enjoyed this little detour into my trials of learning a new instrument. More than anything, these last few months have reminded me that it’s the trying of new things that keeps the brain sharp! So everybody go out there and buy mandolins. Or, you know, whatever else floats your boat.

The Parking Wars

Every now and then, I think about joining forces with my HOA to try to help make our community a little better. “I should do my part,” I think, “after all, you don’t have a right to complain if you never do anything to make it better.” Then I slap myself across the face, bringing me back to my senses, and go on about my business.

I applaud those members of our society who step up to the plate of civic leadership, I really do. But over the last few years, I’ve watched as every decision our HOA makes is second-guessed or questioned, every rule or request booed or generally ignored, every social event snubbed. As a completely volunteer job, being an HOA president or committee chairperson has got to be the most thankless position in all of the history of man, falling just short of the honor of being the person who invented HOAs in the first place. (Full disclaimer: we haven’t gone to any social events, either. But we at least do what our HOA overlords tell us to when they’re doing maintenance around the place so our cars don’t get towed or mistaken for trash. But maybe I should thank them more. Mental note: send the HOA a thank you card.)

The most recent example of thanklessness was this weekend, as our neighborhood received some much-needed repainting of parking spaces. I’ve never received more paper notices, Facebook posts, and all around advertising than I did this week to warn us all to move our cars before the painting started on our particular street, lest we face certain doom. And yet, there were still a handful of cars up and down our street who didn’t budge when it came our turn. When I saw them, I felt like pulling my pants up waist-high, putting on some big glasses, and yelling at those darn kids to get off my lawn. Then I slapped myself again and just chuckled sardonically at how clueless and selfish some people can be. Today’s rain prevented the workers from finishing, so we’ll get to revisit this behavior in another few days. My pants will be ready.

I was actually glad to hear about the painting at first. We definitely needed it, because recently some curbside parking was taken away due to a disagreement with the Fire Marshall (mental note: never tick off the Fire Marshall). This forced many people, who had been rather fast-and-loose with the old curbside parking game, back into proper spots. Since there aren’t really enough proper spots to go around, for weeks now this has set off a daily game of musical chairs on our street, where the last person home in the evening has to park a mile or two away – battling wild dogs and boars the entire way back to their front door.

To make things even more interesting, up until this weekend our spots (which are narrow enough as it is) were only marked by a foot-long white line near the curb. So when the family in the townhouse up the street from us that owns four hulking SUVs park crooked, as they always do, it’s been harder for the rest of us to scoot into the remaining spaces. We now have glorious, car-length stripes with our brand new parking spaces, but I don’t think that will change the SUV Family’s behavior or magically improve their parking skills. At the very least it will be blatantly obvious that they’re over the lines, so the rest of us can scoff indignantly and turn up our noses. That’ll show ‘em.

You can probably detect some sarcastic undertones in this post. It’s mainly because leftover road rage from commuting home has usually boiled over a bit each evening with each new chapter of the Parking Wars, but I try not to let it affect my long-term mood. I guess being in the neighborhood this long has made me somewhat defensive of it. I want it to thrive and do well. I like having interesting neighbors, even if I don’t hang out or talk to them as much as I should. I don’t like people being jerks to each other, but alas that’s human nature in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. If the Parking Wars continue to the breaking point and our society finally crumbles, I guess I’ll have to be ready. In the meantime, at least the Internet can make me laugh about it.

Seems about right.

Choosing A Mandolin Is Not As Easy As It Seems

Earlier this year, after my birthday, I decided to treat myself to a new instrument using some saved-up Guitar Center gift cards. Any musician can immediately identify with the internal struggle this type of decision ignites. There’s a kind of universal law, I think originally posited in Germany in 1879, that says (loosely translated from the original German) “a man cannot own just one instrument of choice, for upon purchasing an instrument he must soon own one of a different color, style, shape, or rare vintage to hang on a wall and admire knowingly.”

Well, thankfully for my budget, I don’t subscribe to that law. I don’t hang my instruments on walls. Who has time for that?

So anyway, after some soul searching and several wasted afternoons prowling the Guitar Center – which isn’t easy because it’s all the way out in Seven Corners and who has time to drive all the way out there and if I’m going to do it, I might as well spend the whole afternoon there and pick up some strings and picks while I’m at it to not make the trip a total waste, and you know the first one’s always free but I can stop any time I want – I narrowed my choices to a five-string bass, a banjo, or a mandolin.

I consider my primary instrument to be the bass, and yet I still only own the one I’ve had since high school. It’s a four-string Yamaha that has never led me astray. So branching out to a nice five-string held a certain allure, though it felt a little like betrayal. A big fat six-string bass was also an option, but let’s face it, those are overkill, and I can only imagine they give you carpal tunnel. I decided I wanted something brand new.

That left the two folkier instruments. Given my West Virginian upbringing bluegrass, gospel, and folk have never been far from my heart, even when I wouldn’t want to admit it. But now all of those genres are cool, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t care. But it does help that many of my latest favorite bands use a healthy dose of both in their songs.

But which to choose?

Looking from the aspect of idols, musicians I admire, didn’t really help. Banjo has Bela Fleck; mandolin has Chris Thile. Both are awesome, and I inherently knew I’d never get anywhere close to their levels of talent. Any other deciding factor, like number of strings or size, seemed immaterial.

I wish I could say I had a moment of clarity where the one came floating down to me in a ray of light, but there was nothing so clear-cut as that. In the end, I chose the mandolin, for no good reason, really. I settled for an entry-level Washburn “Mando-pak” (I’ve since learned that the mandolin players’ community likes to preface lots of words with “Mando” and that the cool kids refer to the instrument that way). You can see my mando below. That sounds dirty.

Just waiting to be played.

Just waiting to be played.

Anyway, my mother-in-law got me a Mandolin for Dummies book to go with it, and I’ve been off to the races ever since, slowly but surely. For some reason, most recently it’s been much, much more slowly – more like a dead stop – but at least it’s something that can challenge me for years to come. In the coming weeks, I’ll reflect on my experiences in learning to play. For now, I can definitively say that the “mando” is a lot of fun. I think this is the beginning of something beautiful and folky.