A New Addition

If you’re reading this and we’re friends on Facebook, you already know. And since I’m pretty sure only my Mom reads this blog, she definitely already knows anyway. But let’s pretend you’re neither my friend nor acquaintance nor person who brought me into this world so I can break some awesome news: I’m going to be a father! Gina and I are expecting a baby in December. I’m thrilled!

Most of the advice I’ve gotten from other young fathers (and this is one area where people freely give advice) has swirled around one basic theme – that words can’t accurately express how my life will change. Not all of them were talking about simple things like losing sleep or having to change diapers, either – they were trying to convey how awesome fatherhood is, I think.

I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for this, because the concept doesn’t freak me out. I’m not going to pretend that I’ll be prepared or know at all what I’m doing on day one, but that’s okay. I’ve been an adult long enough now to realize that a big part of life is just adapting to new stuff and new situations, and I know that together Gina and I can eventually stumble toward something resembling our own parenting style.

Announcing our news has also got me thinking about my own parents and how I can’t wait for them to meet their newest grandchild. My Mom and Dad prepared me for life in every way possible, and I’m forever grateful to them for that. From reading to me at night and encouraging me to keep picking up books, to pushing me out of my comfort zone to do things like spelling bees and Space Camp. They took me on camping and fishing trips to learn to appreciate the outdoors and the environment. They taught me the value of hard work by making me help around the house and sweat through countless big projects in the basement. They showed me that using your brain can usually lead you to a better solution. They imparted their ethics while letting me figure out where I stood on my own. They nurtured my faith. They provided me with the opportunity and encouragement to go to Virginia Tech, which affected my life in countless ways. And to this day they exemplify what it means to be part of a larger family and good neighbors.

If I prove to be the merest fraction of a parent as mine are, then my kid will surely turn out fine. Thanks Mom and Dad!

So, anybody know where the official parenting rule book is kept? That’s a thing, right?

Austin Convention Trip Notes, Part 2

Below continues my write-up of our latest trip to Austin. Read Part 1 here.

What About The Music?

No trip to Austin would be complete without seeing at least one live show, but once I discovered I was not chosen for a taping of Austin City Limits, I defaulted to selecting one by venue instead of by “band I’d heard of before.” Thus I found myself at the legendary Stubb’s! (It’s a BBQ restaurant in the front, and a party in the back! Or, you know, upstairs and downstairs.) It was a night of local favorite bands playing four in a row, and not all of them were my cup of tea so I didn’t stick around for the whole shindig. It was, however, just cool seeing somebody up on that stage in a historic venue and being part of that scene. I guess you could say I also experienced six or seven free live shows while walking down 6th Street at various times, and I also re-visited my friends at Waterloo Records to see what they were featuring that I would be interested in listening to soon.

The most profound connection to the world of Austin music, however, came early in the week when I paid a visit to the memorial statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan standing on the shores of Town Lake. From here, Stevie stands with the downtown skyline as a backdrop, the statue casting a symbolic shadow of him in the middle of a guitar solo. The plaque behind the statue simply calls him a “musician,” which is fittingly understated for such a game-changing guitarist. RIP, Stevie.

Let’s Wrap It Up: Miscellaneous Thoughts

Another reason Austin is a great town is the built-in 10-mile plus trail looping around Town Lake, crisscrossed with several bridges including a couple of pedestrian-only options. I was able to keep eating all the great food I mentioned above without feeling terrible by going on several long, humid runs around various sections of the trail. I looped into the expanses of Zilker Park and Barton Springs on several occasions, as well, and I was never alone on the trail matter what time of day I started jogging. Three cheers to you, Austin, for fitness.

Gina, a group of her co-workers, and I tried to check out the Congress Ave. Bridge bats one evening. Apparently June is a hit-or-miss season for them, unfortunately. We crowded against the rails with several dozen others, hoping for a Batcave-worthy swarm of the nocturnal masses, but the swarm never came. We did see decently-sized groups of the bats dart in and out from under the bridge in brownish blurs, and we certainly heard their chirps (or whatever you call the noise a bat makes) rise up from below. I also smelled them quite plainly when I jogged underneath the bridge later that week, but that was it for bat sightings. I guess the bats will have to wait until next time.

One last food-related plug: if you’re in Austin and in need of some sauce (either barbecue or hot, it doesn’t matter), there’s only one place you need to go: Tears of Joy.

Since I think it’s clear I’m fond of the city and I’ve said everything positive I can say over the course of what has turned into a treatise, I will close my Austin odyssey with a note about graffiti and construction. It seems the local government is a-okay with officially commissioned murals and probably less-official graffiti adorning the various sides of historic buildings and newer structures alike. These pieces quite often rose far above the mere scribblings of gang members; I would call many of them proper works of art. Some were commercially tied to restaurants and bars, some gave shout-outs to Willie Nelson and other Texas heroes, and some were just plain weird. For this reason, I kept my eyes open and camera ready as I walked through downtown, always on the lookout for some kind of graffiti Easter egg, and they usually made me smile.

Just a small sampling of Austin's free artwork.

Just a small sampling of Austin’s free artwork. Yes, that is a tank coming out of the side of a building.

Austin is a great city, but that’s no longer a well-kept secret. Throughout the week, streets were periodically closed due to construction, and it was clear that several buildings had been recently demolished or were being hastily constructed to keep up with growth. Orange cones were littered everywhere. The residents I talked to had very mixed reactions about this kind of growth, which I can totally understand coming from densely populated and traffic-choked Northern Virginia. The picture below sort of sums up Austin’s current state in my mind: a cool, retro, slightly odd public building being quickly obscured by construction.

Progress is progress, and change isn’t something to be feared. I just hope as Austin grows, it’s done smartly. And I hope those in charge manage to keep it weird.

Austin Convention Trip Notes, Part 1

As I wrote in the fall after Gina and I visited for a weekend, I quickly found out that Austin, Texas and I were going to be best friends. Food and music, two of my very favorite things in the world, can be had by the plenty in the central Texas city. Quirkiness and friendliness, weirdness and awesomeness, country and rock ‘n’ roll, all mixed up in the same roughly 272 square miles. In short, what’s not to love?

Recently, Gina had to return there for a conference, so I wasted no time in arranging to take off work to join her. I remembered that I had quite a list of things to do there if I ever went back, and spending a week in Austin offered me nothing but time in which to do them.

Out of respect for your time, I wrote so much about this trip that I am splitting the trip notes up into two parts. This is the first; the second will come next week.

I Will Have All Of The BBQ, Or At Least All Of The Food

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, one of the first things I do in any new city is to compile a list of intriguing restaurants through Yelp, so as my time there progresses I have a short list of places to eat, ready at a moment’s notice. I did the same for this go round in Austin and pretty much stuck to it, with a few detours based on suggestions from friends. The thing is, Austin is so chock-full of good places to eat that you have to try pretty hard not to find something tasty.

Practically every meal I had during the week was a highlight. I stopped at several coffee shops, but Patika Coffee‘s little truck that could served up the best brew by far. The friendly girls making smoothies at Blenders & Bowls guided me to the perfect post-run recovery drink full of healthy goodness. The Asian-fusion specialties of Koriente and its jasmine tea was the best break I could have hoped for on a hot afternoon. We revisited Moonshine one night for a piece of bison meatloaf as big as my head, which put Ted’s Montana Grill to shame. Other highlights included the authentic New York style pizza of The Home Slice, local food trucks Kebabalicious and Downtown Burgers, Torchy’s Tacos (where I partook of a taco stuffed with beef and bacon – need I say more?), and the one chain I must have anywhere it’s within driving distance: In ‘N’ Out Burger.

But a special mention needs to go out to La Barbecue, an unassuming food truck tucked away a few blocks from downtown. On advice from my former co-worker Nick, who had already guided me to Home Slice to hang out, I made the walk out to La Barbecue early on a Thursday. But I must admit I didn’t follow his advice to the letter and didn’t get there at 10 AM like he’d advised. If I had, I probably would have gotten to sample some of the meats that ran out by the time my 45-minute wait in line was over. As it was, the free sample of melt-in-your-mouth brisket was enough to bring me to my knees. I hedged my bets and went with the El Sancho, again on Nick’s advice, which featured both pulled pork and brisket (I would have gotten it “loco” with sausage but they had already ran out). Suffice it to say that all my prayers were answered. I had found barbecue heaven, and its name was La Barbecue.

Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.

Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.

Besides catching up with Nick, I also looked up college friend Kent, he of the incomparable laser gun noise of years past. We met up at Torchy’s, which proved to have not only one of the largest and best tacos I’ve ever eaten, but also an original-recipe Dr. Pepper concoction on tap that dates back to the origins of the drink itself, but since 2012 it’s had to stop calling itself Dr. Pepper, settling on the name Doppelgänger instead. Duplicate or no, it tasted just like the good Doctor but with pure cane sugar that offered a sweeter finish.

Good For a Few Laughs

Kent also invited me to join him for a show at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. This is a group of local theaters that not only screen the latest Hollywood releases, but they also specialize in quirky showings like 90′s music video singalongs and re-screenings of cult classics. We indulged in a recurring show featuring the local Austin comedy troupe known as Master Pancake, which basically involves a group of guys doing a live action MST3K-style commentary of some of the greatest films ever made, or at least the most popular. Wackiness ensued as they tore apart the 90′s movie that simultaneously launched and ended Michael Jordan’s acting career while spawning one of the most inexplicably popular soundtracks ever, Space Jam.

Another highlight of the week for me was sampling a couple of hours of The Hideout Theatre‘s 45-Hour Improv Marathon, which was just as it sounds and just as hilarious. A group of eight core people were involved with all 45 performances at some point or another, resting only for a few minutes between shows. That’s serious business, but also hilarious and delirious as time went on, I’m sure. I personally saw their takes on the original Star Trek and 70′s cop shows, and both were well done. The troupe offers improv classes as well as resources for teaching local children. Hurrah!

The Hideout Theater's take on Star Trek.

The Hideout Theater’s take on Star Trek.

To Be Continued…

That’s it for now. As promised, check out Part 2 next week!

Outta Time?

Time is, at its core, a human concept. I mean, of course it would still be there if humans hadn’t invented it – we would all still age, mountains would still erode and all that – but measuring the passage of time in units like seconds and minutes? That’s all us. Like currency or laws, we all have to pretty much agree as a human race that time is something worth measuring consistently for the whole system to work. I, or some woman in Liberia, or the Pope or whoever could decide to come up with a brand new unit of time, but it wouldn’t be effective unless the whole world picked it up, too. And yet it still wouldn’t be any more or less real than the idea of what an “hour” is.

So with that in mind, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that as I mature and grow (or, if you prefer, begin becoming an old fart), I’m realizing more and more that we “see” or experience time at different rates. And I think it’s fascinating.

The first examples I can think of are summer breaks in school. I can remember them lasting forever and feeling like I got so much done during them. I mean, I read tons of books each break, played a lot of video games, tore around outside, made a lot of music – heck, I even helped tape entire fictional seasons of sketch comedy shows with my friends using a VHS camcorder. And there were even a couple of weeks left over after all that. This time distortion even lasted into college somewhat, though it was sullied a bit by the time I was doing summer school and co-ops. Now that I’ve been working a while, I only really measure the passage of summer by its net effects on traffic.

I’m not especially sad about that, just a bit nostalgic. Summer is now only as long as any other season…except that is not a hard and fast rule, either, as those of us who suffered through the unusually long-seeming winter of 2014 will attest. It’s all relative, of course. I just wonder exactly what it is about getting older that makes our perception shift.

Another example that really got me thinking about this concept is the natural rhythm of a workday and workweek. We’ve all had the interminable days where we slog through hours upon hours, only to see the clock stuck at 2 PM. And then someone turns the frozen donkey wheel when we get to the weekend and all of a sudden it’s Monday again. But at a higher level, I also find myself getting into the routines of work life until it sometimes seems like I’m blowing through the weeks left and right, even though some days are terribly long, and then I look up and – holy crap it’s late June in 2014!

Turn it slower, Ben. I have some shows to binge-watch on Netflix! (Source: lostpedia.com)

Turn it slower, Ben. I have some shows to binge-watch on Netflix! (Source: lostpedia.com)

Time can be sneaky, charging right past you when you’re not paying attention to it.

There are so many pop culture references I could use to finish bringing my point across (I’ve already used Lost, but there’s Back to the Future, Doctor Who’s “timey wimey” explanations, and so on), but I don’t think I’m talking about time travel here, necessarily – maybe only up to the point that we might think we’re in a time warp based on our changing perceptions of time any given day. No, I think I could sum up my feelings about all this by paraphrasing Don Draper in Mad Men: time is neither good nor bad. It just is. Even though we created it, we can’t defeat it.

Mostly, I’m at peace with that. My mid-life crisis hasn’t happened yet, and I’m comfortable with the way things are going. Sure, sometimes I moan to co-workers who are about to retire that I’ll never see the day when I can finally hang up my spreadsheets for good. Maybe here and there I’ll wish that I still had an endless summer or two left in me. But overall I’m okay with being a real world adult, just beginning to be sensitive to the fact that time is even more valuable the older I get. And certainly, how we perceive the time going on all around us isn’t really what’s important, anyway.

As Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Exploring The Inner Frontier

Over Memorial Day weekend, with family in town, Gina and I were faced with what’s become an increasingly common decision: what do we do for entertainment? We are fortunate to live near a vibrant city, with so many opportunities available, and yet we sometimes struggle to come up with fun, different things to do when our families come into town. As wonderful as it is, there’s only so many times you can take the same people to the Mall. And since we have a bunch of family that don’t live here and have no reason to come other than to visit us, our roles as cultural ambassadors to the DC region are even more highlighted.

I’ve always said I don’t mind this role. I’m happy to play the tour guide when I have to. However, I’m coming up on my ninth year living here, and there are spans of time when I still fall into the trap of many residents of the area, when the daily chores of working and commuting leave little energy for doing any extracurriculars in the evenings and weekends. That’s always going to happen from time to time, I get that, but I want to never take vistas like the Mall or the Potomac from Mount Vernon for granted. I want to enjoy checking out new live music venues when I have the time. I’m not making a grand statement that I’m never going to let Gina and myself spend a quiet minute at home again, because I value that time just as much, but at the same time I don’t want to be one of those people who lives five minutes from the beach or an awesome park but never goes there. This is my home now, but I don’t want to lose out on these opportunities to feel like a tourist with the insider benefits of being a local.

Maybe some of you reading this are in the same boat. That’s why I’m going to use Ramble On to occasionally post some highlights from things Gina and I have done locally and recently that might be of interest to check out. There are many things that fall in the “hey, I’ve been meaning to do that” category, and maybe we can help steer you in the right direction. I’ve decided to call the series “The DC I See: Experiences of a Local Tourist.” Just because I can.

The first experience I’ll tell you about came during the aforementioned Memorial Day weekend not too long ago. With my father- and stepmother-in-law, we tried out one of those Potomac river shuttles that are so busily plying the river during warmer weather. There are a number of routes, usually involving some connection between Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, National Harbor, or any combination of the three. Other (longer and pricier) options include the Spirit of Washington and Odyssey dinner cruises. Our tickets for the jaunt from Old Town Harbor to Georgetown only ran about $26 per adult, while in comparison a night of fine dining on the water will set you back around $100 per person or more during peak times.

We went late on Sunday afternoon to sync up with some Georgetown dinner plans. It being a holiday weekend, I think the lines were a little longer than normal. The boats were also running behind schedule due to, as the skipper explained later in much more diplomatic words than I’ll use here, a flood of inexperienced kayakers mucking around the Georgetown waterfront, all but inviting themselves to be knocked over by larger boats’ wakes. For this reason, our boat was about 45 minutes late, but luckily we had given ourselves plenty of cushion to get to our restaurant.

Once we were finally aboard, the courteous staff made us feel at home, except for the guy who banged my knee with the gangplank steps as he loaded them onboard. But that’s not that much different from my dog Heidi nipping my feet to get my attention, so I guess it was a little like home. There’s a limited snack bar aboard each vessel, good for a bottle of water or soda if you’re really thirsty, but the tastiest thing you’re going to get there is some popcorn if you’re lucky. There was also a recording playing in the background during the cruise, timed to talk about the sights of the river as we chugged past, but with a full crowd of tourists onboard, we couldn’t really hear it, so I filled in the gaps by pointing out landmarks as best I could for our 30-45 minute voyage.

That last paragraph might make the cruise seem like an ill-advised tourist trap, but that is not the case. The lure, and the price of admission, is all about being on the water. There’s something transformative about seeing familiar sights from the middle of the Potomac. Couple that with calm waters and a beautiful day like we had, and the whole experience turns downright magical. I imagine those kayakers we had to avoid were trying to get the same feeling by being that much closer to the waves, but letting an experienced skipper sail you along so you can get lost in the smell of the spray and the light playing off the churning wake as you watch airplanes take off from Reagan is perfectly fine by me.

With a valid ticket, you can choose any return sailing that suits you, something we were thankful for after our filling meal at Filomena. Timed with the sunset, our cruise back to Old Town was even more relaxing, the gentle lull of the shuttle lulling our happily sated stomachs into an aura of contentment.
We sailed the Washington Monuments Cruise by the Potomac Riverboat Company, operating seven days a week until at least 8PM for most daily cruises thorough the summer, but check the website for the latest schedules.