A Lone Reminder

In order to make our subscription to HBO more worth it (in addition to the access to the wonderful past programming that HBO Go provides*), over the last few months I’ve occasionally been scanning the program guide and just scheduling movies to record that I figure we’ll get around to watching one of these days. Yes, I know I could do that straight through the HBO Go app anyway, but I don’t have a Chromecast or anything and my DVR is right there, all shiny and inviting.

*No, this post is not sponsored by or affiliated with HBO in any way. "The Wire" is a great show, though.
*No, this post is not sponsored by or affiliated with HBO in any way. The Wire, however, is a fantastic television program.

Last night, Gina and I finally got around to watching Lone Survivor, which I had recorded back in December. I guess choosing it now was a subconscious way to honor Memorial Day weekend.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of Marcus Luttrell and his team of SEALs during Operation Redwing in Afghanistan in 2005. As a movie, Survivor is less celebrated than the more recent depiction of fellow Texan and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper. I still haven’t seen Sniper (or any other movie released in the past eight or nine months, really), so I’m going solely off of awards show buzz and box office business. While Survivor wasn’t perfect, it certainly did its job to depict the intensity of training and lifestyle that men like the SEALs endure in service to our country, the horror and gruesome nature of war, the tension of an uneven firefight, and the brotherhood and common decency that, to me, has to underlie everything that’s done for any of it to make any kind of sense. It also shines some light on what it might look like to be an average citizen in Afghanistan. I don’t want to spoil too many details for you, but since the movie is called Lone Survivor, you can guess that the op turned pretty bad and that Luttrell is the lone survivor. The entertainment, gory and hard to watch as it can be, is in seeing how he gets there. (That, as well as the definite “USA! USA!” moments sprinkled in throughout.)

I’ve heard reviews that the book is better than the movie, offering more details and perspective from the man himself, and I do plan and encourage you all to check that out at some point.

I generally try to keep the tone in this blog light. I also try to stay away from politics. That said, no matter your opinions on wars both specific and in general, I’ve always believed that the ultimate heroes are the men and women who step up and join our military, because they are who continue to give you the right to voice your opinion. Seeing movies like this once in a while are a good reminder of that. Honoring our heroes every Memorial Day is another.

Sea power.

So while I prepare to fire up the grill this Monday surrounded by a family that has recently grown by one special person, I will once again tip my hat to those who are out there serving.

This year, I have that much more to thank them for keeping safe.

Let It Rain

I love a good thunderstorm. A few rolled through our corner of Northern Virginia recently. As I was walking Heidi, the dark clouds slowly crept into the western sky and that unmistakeable chilling calm settled over the neighborhood. The leaves on the trees were blowing upside-down, and the animals were making a break for cover. Heidi and I made it back home well before the rain began, but it wasn’t long before the first drops began pockmarking our deck. As the storm picked up momentum, I opened our deck door (with the screen shut) and picked up Noah so he could see and hear. I don’t believe this was his very first thunderstorm, but he certainly hasn’t seen very many, and I wanted to share the experience with him. I suppose it has to do with sowing the seeds of appreciation for the power and thunderous beauty of nature, and to show him that lightning and thunder are to be respected but not feared. He seemed interested, until he turned around to drool all over my shoulder, but I think I got my point across.

What is it about thunderstorms that enthrall me? I’m not sure, but it’s got to have something to do with my memories of watching storms when I was little.

I can recall many a summer afternoon when my family would while away the time on our front porch, each of us attending to our own hobbies. I’d be playing with action figures or something, crawling all over the place. My dog, Duchess, would be lying panting on the cool concrete porch floor. Mom would be reading. If my brother Bart wasn’t in the basement crafting some kind of wooden model, he would likely be reading too. And as for Dad, he would be whittling with his pocketknife, quietly surveying the neighborhood. This was relatively easy to do, since the porch was both covered by a roof and surrounded by cedar trees, offering a shady and secluded vantage point from our hill all the way out to the highway, at least three-quarters of a mile down the road.

So it was from here that we could see every car coming (not that there were ever  that many) and which of our neighbors were home. But we could also see storm clouds cresting the ridge as they gathered steam to blow into our town. In the days when the only weather forecast came from either our newspaper, radio, or the local network news, it wasn’t always a guarantee that we’d get a warning when a storm was coming (and I was around six or seven in this scenario, so I wasn’t paying much attention to weather forecasts, anyway). The weathermen just weren’t that accurate either, so often, seeing those mean-looking clouds were our best indication to batten down the hatches.

In my memory, we could see the rain coming, gliding delicately over the hillsides. From a distance it might look like fog or mist, but as the invisible wall blew ever closer, I could begin to distinguish what type of rain we were facing. Maybe those big, fat drops pelting everything or perhaps more of a finely woven sheet of water.

In my earliest memories of storm watching, Mom would bring a blanket out for me and I would wrap myself up in it, sitting as close to the house as I could, still a bit timid. Duchess would also usually crawl under the blanket with me, either out of fear or wanting to be close to me as well. As the storm would gather strength, it would form flash flood rivers down our hillsides that would flow into our ditches, a maelstrom of renewal and cleansing. Sometimes the lightning was so nearby it would make us all jump and raise the hair on the back of our necks. But my goodness, was it all fun.

It was on that front porch where I first learned to count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” after a bolt of lightning to figure out how far away a storm was. And there were very few storms bad enough to chase us off the porch, so I always felt safe. Somehow, watching the tempest just outside our doors made home feel even more like the refuge it already was.

So that’s the kind of appreciation I want to share with Noah. We may not have quite as good a place for storm watching these days, but that doesn’t have to stand in the way.

Anyway, perhaps Eric Clapton said it best.

Back In Black… Thumbnails

As I’ve mentioned before, a while ago I inadvertently smashed my thumb in our baby stroller in the middle of a crowded restaurant, causing immense pain and rendering my nail black (and, to many, disgusting). I just thought I’d give you all an update on the status of my thumbnail in case you were worried. And if you were worried, thanks. Thanks for your concern.

How is it going? I have to say, this was the first time I had smashed my thumb in a baby stroller, so I don’t have a lot of reference points for comparison.

I will say that the initial soreness wore off after a few days, so all that is left is the black nail itself. Except it’s not *just* black. In the crushing press of articulated plastic and aluminum, my poor nail was transformed into a complex tapestry of black, blue, and normal-nail-tan. The resulting pattern is reminiscent of a Rorschach test, with a blob here, a blob there,  scattered with a scratch or puncture mark for flair. There are two islands of normalcy down both edges, but heading to the center of the nail, if you look closely enough, there are actually subtle gradients of color. I don’t think the amorphous blob of injury looks like anything, but it would sure be cool if it did.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time looking at my thumb these days.

But that’s because I keep getting reminded of it. This is an injury barely above a cut or a scratch in the grand scheme of things, so if it were on my toenail, say, I probably would only think about it while in the shower or putting my socks on. With this being visible to the outside world, but still not overtly obvious, I’m getting questioned about it months later, at work or in other casual conversations.

“Man, what’d you do to your thumb?”

or

“I wasn’t going to say anything at first, but for a second there I thought you were wearing nail polish…”

or

“Way to show support for Goth culture with one black thumbnail, Bret.”

And so something that would otherwise be filed away in the back of my head with the stubbed toes and accidental shots to the groin in my past must stay with me. So, I stare at it a lot while I’m “thinking” at work, or at home, or when I want to gross out my wife. I suppose I could start wearing polish on all ten nails to cover up the bruise and avoid attention, but that seems like overkill at this point, and besides, nearly everybody’s already seen it already.

It’s all fascinating, really. It’s another miracle of the human body.

I do worry that it’s going to fall off at some point, but my good ol’ thumbnail has shown remarkable resilience. It’s probably the Scandinavian DNA in my family. My thumbnail is a direct descendant of the Vikings. They didn’t care what color their fingers were, for God’s sake.  They were too busy plundering and raiding. Some days it does feel weird, like something’s shaking around in there, but most of the time it feels like any other nail.

If I have to be honest, though, the most fascinating aspect of this is the rate of nail growth. Enough time has passed that I can now see the new nail growing from my cuticle, pushing the old one up. As I write this, maybe a quarter inch of new nail has seen the light of day. This makes my thumb look all the more grisly, but it also adds an element of danger every time I trim my nails. Another millimeter of grossness falls away, but will this be the time when the whole house of cards comes crashing down?

This is the kind of thing I think about, kids.

According to the Internet, adult fingernail growth rates can vary depending on your age, overall health, and whether you’re pregnant. Scientists have studied this, but not as much as you would think, considering the sheer amount of stuff scientists study. The most recent research out there (from 2010) gives an average growth rate of 3.47mm/month. (Side note: I think I’d heard this before, but I also just read that your fingernails grow for days after you’re dead. Now that’s creepy.)

My thumbnail has about 2.3 cm left to go, or 23 mm. By my reckoning, I have a over six and a half months before my hand is back to normal.

Wow. This is going to take a while. Will my thumb be renewed at Noah’s first birthday party? Will it hang together until Thanksgiving, or will I unthinkingly use it to pry open the seal on a jar of peanut butter, forcing my poor nail to give up the ghost?

We’ll just have to see, won’t we? I hope you’ll join me on this ride.

Oh, and in case you thought you were going to get through this post without a picture of my thumb, here you go (at least I waited until the end!):

Glorious.

The Parental Ups and Downs

Our son Noah has reached a couple of miniature milestones: he’s turned over on his own (once, and to great surprise by everyone involved, himself most of all) and he’s starting to sit up if we give him a little help. Every time he does when I’m playing with him, we smile and laugh because it’s a big deal. If all you’d ever done up to this point was just kind of lie wherever you were until someone moved you, you’d be ecstatic to discover that you have some of your own locomotion! These are great times.

But I don’t want to completely sugarcoat parenthood. It’s still a tough job, you guys. When we’re at our most vulnerable and exhausted, he still needs us. Our peaks and valleys are in direct correlation to his. When he’s happy and cooing and doing baby gymnastics while farting in his crib, I can’t help but laugh and feel the special pride reserved for new dads. When he doesn’t feel good and we can’t figure out why, or I’m at home with him on one of those days where he doesn’t want to sleep and is constantly fussy, a pit opens up directly into my stomach and everything else in the world fades away. This, I believe, is now part of the job. It’s who we’ve become. We signed up for this, and like the Grinch, our hearts have expanded right on schedule, and we’re way past Christmas.

It’s a good thing there’s a no-return policy on this gift, because the fact is caring for newborns takes quite a toll on parents, and the adjustments we have to make are myriad. Preparing to go anywhere takes an inordinate amount of time and logistical planning. You must be prepared to change a diaper anywhere. If you decide to go run errands on a day home with the baby, you must think long and hard about which stops are really worth it, because you’re going to be carrying a minimum of 50 extra pounds worth of gear. I feel like a Navy SEAL sometimes, carrying a freaking boat on my back while running down the beach.

Nah, forget the SEALs. Gina and I may look outwardly calm a lot of the time, but we’re really just paddling hard under the surface like scared ducks.

Kinda like this.
Kinda like this, but flipped the other way and in the water.

If any other new or prospective father out there ever reads this, I just want them to know what they’re up against. There are the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and while not all of them are instigated by Noah, he is now an integral part of our home, of our family. To be honest, I still sometimes scold myself for not putting my son first when I should, maybe by trying to watch a few more seconds of The Wire before feeding him, or hesitating a few moments before deciding whether that diaper really needs to be changed right away (hint: the answer is always yes).

Maybe this stems from being married and being an adult in the real world for a few years before having a child. We built up a pattern of routines, habits, and hobbies that got disrupted. I was perhaps a little set in my ways, and even though I of course do everything necessary to care for my son, early on I also was trying too hard to keep going on like nothing had changed – when, of course, everything has.

The good news is that I’m learning and getting better about it. I may still be learning how to be a Dad for another eighteen years, but at least I’m willing to learn. And I’m still able to enjoy all my hobbies and old routines, I just have to be more efficient at enjoying them. Gina and I still have a relationship, we just have to rearrange our time spent together around the baby’s needs. And I’m beginning to learn that sometimes, it’s okay to leave things unfinished for a few more days because the timing just doesn’t work out. That can be a hard pill to swallow for a guy who never really ever truly “rested” on my days off and who relishes finishing a project.

Many people tell me to just keep enjoying this time, because it will be over soon. I’m trying to do that, even as I adjust my expectations on what I can get done. I have to, because before too long Noah will be completely mobile, and then the fun will really begin.

 

The Price of a Gallon

I pulled into our favorite gas station the other day after a quick session of running errands. There are two clusters of gas stations within five minutes of our house. Depending on whether you turn left or right at a particular intersection, there is usually a 30-cent price differential. There doesn’t appear to be any logic behind this, as both sides of the intersection are a mix of all sorts of major brands of gas, as well as weird Econo-brands that are of questionable quality. The cheaper side has a lot of banks, the other has two 7-Elevens and a CVS. Maybe the cheaper side of the intersection is supposedly seedier or otherwise “the wrong side” of the tracks, or possibly it’s all a giant conspiracy designed to draw traffic to the laser tag place behind the Shell station on the cheaper side. (And really, laser tag is reason enough to always choose the cheaper side.)

Ah, suburbia.

So, there I am pumping gas after going through the five-minute process to load up my grocery store points to get an even bigger per-gallon discount. I usually tune out my brain during this mundane few minutes of life. This station has TV screens playing sports highlights and week-old news clips, but most of them have been washed out by constant exposure to sunlight, so I typically don’t pay much attention. Sometimes I try to see if I can time how long it takes to pump one gallon, but usually I’m just staring blankly.

This particular evening, a young lady’s voice interrupted my slightly vegetative state.

“Excuse me sir, I’m not asking for money, I just need enough for a gallon of gas. My mom took the five that I had in my car and we literally just ran out of gas as we pulled in here.”

Slightly startled, I turned my focus to her. She was young, probably in her late teens, no more than twenty. Her dirty-blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing her boyfriend’s too-large coat. No makeup, maybe she’d even been crying. She looked distraught, but not merely from running out of gas – it was clear she was suffering through the latest of many crises in her young life. From my side of the pump, I could just barely make out a long-haired guy, presumably the owner of the coat, sitting in the passenger seat of their beat-up old Honda Civic.

Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough or know me in real life, you know that I am a Christian. You also probably know that I don’t usually feel the need to proselytize nor be super expressive and open about it, but it’s not like I’m hiding it, either. So of course I’m familiar with the Golden Rule, “What Would Jesus Do?”, and all those other great verses about helping your neighbor. But, this being a gas station on the “seedy” side of the road in a large metropolitan area not too far from DC, I was, despite myself, instantly wary.

“I’m sorry,” I replied back to her, as if that was somehow a real reply. And I turned back to my gas pump, suddenly transfixed by the digital readout. Seeing that she wasn’t going to get any more out of me, she slumped back into her car.

Immediately, my mind was racing and guilt was pouring through me. Why was that my first reaction?

Well, for one, I’ve been burned by seemingly honest requests before. Years ago, shortly after starting work in DC, I was accosted by a man in a wheelchair asking for money in a Metro station. He had a picture badge – with a lanyard and everything, so it had to be official – saying he was a Katrina refugee being housed in the DC Armory not too far away. I gave him some money without thinking too much about it. A few weeks later, I saw the same guy in a different Metro station, walking around upright with no trouble. Either my $5 had helped him complete the final payment for a miracle medical procedure, or I’d been duped.

Years after that, Gina and I were in a parking lot of a grocery store, and I stupidly rolled down my passenger side window to see what this youngish man who had appeared out of nowhere wanted. He spouted some nonsense about also being a Hokie (since he’d noticed the VT stickers all over our car) and about how his sick sister was across the road in the McDonald’s parking lot, and they needed money to get to the hospital. I mumbled an apology and hastily rolled the window back up, Gina rightly admonishing me for exposing us to someone clearly a little unbalanced, and I felt bad about it for a time.

From homeless people on the streets of the city to the downtrodden holding handwritten signs at busy intersections, I have been numbed to their condition despite myself. The usual trains of thought now pop into my head: “They’re just going to use it to buy drugs / get drunk.” “If he has enough time to stand around and write a sign, he has enough time to go looking for a job.” You know the drill, and many of us have thought the same things.

How are we, in the midst of our busy lives, supposed to filter out the legitimate requests from those that are not? How do we know who’s going to help themselves or not? Is there any such thing as an illegitimate cry for help?

By the time my tank was full, the girl had moved on to begging another lady who had pulled into the pump in front of me. I was finishing my transaction when my conscience finally got the best of me. Finishing my payment and setting the pump down into its slot next to the 87-octane sticker, I walked over to the attendant’s window.

“So there’s a couple of kids over on pump three asking people for money for gas. What’s their story? Are they for real?” I asked the man through the bank teller glass.

He looked surprised. “Uh, well, they just got here.”

So at least they hadn’t been bumming people for money all day. I briefly ran the risk analysis in my head and figured the simplest way to honor their request, and to be sure it was used for the intended purpose, was to be the middleman and just pay for their gas.

“All right, I’ll buy them a gallon,” I replied, slipping the cash that I had in hand under the bank-teller style pass-through.

The transaction completed, I turned around to find the second lady the girl had talked to in line behind me. Seeing she’d had the same idea, I let her know what I’d just done, and she looked a little relieved as she put away her pocketbook and headed back to her car.

On my way back, I stopped by the despondent girl and her still-immobile boyfriend.

“I just bought you guys a gallon,” I said, trying not to sound high-and-mighty-look-what-I’ve-just-done-for-you.

Her eyes lit up. “Thank you so much!” I nodded, smiled awkwardly in a “you’re welcome” gesture, and got into my car.

As I drove away, I reflected on whether her story had been believable. I decided that I could certainly imagine many scenarios where a jobless teenager and her lazy boyfriend would be strapped for cash and faced with a parent who would steal gas money from their car. But I could also imagine scenarios where that story was completely fabricated.

In the end, though, it wasn’t the story itself that sold me. She could have made up anything.

I suppose part of it was my conscience, part of it guilt, and partly my sense of charity stemming from my faith. But really, more than anything, as I stood there pumping gas, I realized that being cynical all the time is tiring. The numbing to other people’s problems, the shell that you have to erect in order to make it through modern suburban life, doesn’t have to be impermeable. I don’t want to always assume the worst of everyone. So buying these kids a gallon of gas was a tiny, small stand against my – and by extension, the world’s – indifference. It was an all-too-rare chance to make someone’s life better, however briefly, and at least I know they actually used what I gave them.

I headed home, wondering how far a gallon would take the young couple, whether it would be far enough to escape their problems or lead them into more, whether they would lean on each other in the dark times or if they would finally break up, whether she would reconcile with her mother, and whether the sunny days would ever outnumber the cold and gray ones in their lives.

At the stoplight, I paused. Then I turned the corner and moved on.