10 Years Later

This month marks the ten-year anniversary of my moving to Northern Virginia. I remember unpacking my stuff with my family on what seemed like the hottest weekend in August, giving us our first full-force introduction to DC summer humidity. From that first apartment in Oakton with my roommate Josh, a ten-years-and-counting residency of mystery and excitement began.

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One of the few surviving pictures from the first year of mystery and excitement.

A decade is certainly long enough to say that I’m a resident of this place and that Alexandria is my hometown, but even considering that I’ve started a family here, it still doesn’t quite feel that way. It’s hard to describe, but maybe it’s because compared to my small town childhood, I’ll always be a small cog in the giant DMV machine. I doubt I’ll ever affect the area in any significant way, and I’m okay with that.

I will say, though, that ten years is a long enough time to have some fascinating experiences and to learn a great deal. Let’s go to the highlight reel! I’m going to try to keep this list in the vein of things that could have only happened here – personal stuff aside, since I’ve got enough amazing highlights on that front to fill a dozen posts.

  • Some wild weather: A few weeks after I moved here, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans was forever changed. I remember watching the coverage on the Weather Channel with Josh on our little TV in the first apartment. Since then, I’ve experienced firsthand a derecho and the outskirts of a few hurricanes, including Superstorm Sandy. I shivered my way through Snowmaggeddon and some interesting ice storms. I’ve seen the Beltway closed down due to mudslides, fallen trees, and power outages. But the most memorable experience was being on one of the top floors of an Arlington office building when the Great Virginia Earthquake of 2011 hit. It’s one of those stories to tell my grandkids when I’m old and they won’t believe anything I say.
  • Baseball: my third-ever major league game (behind the Pirates and Orioles, respectively) was at RFK Stadium in August 2005, watching the Nationals losing to the Padres 3-0. The team had moved to DC only that year, opening their first season as the Nats just a few months prior to me showing up. For my first couple of years of work, I got to see the brand-new stadium being built day by day. Since then, my interest in baseball has grown, I’ve been to many games including Bryce Harper’s home debut and the first playoff game at Nationals Park, and I’ve learned the ups and downs of watching a playoff-calibre team that doesn’t always play like one and can’t always string more than one win together (see their current mid-August collapse).
  • Traffic: To work is to commute, and in a region that consistently ranks in the top three for “worst traffic in America,” I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in my car. The trusty Altima has braved many of the region’s worst chokepoints (the only one I haven’t had to use on a daily basis is I-95, thank God). I’ve also used four of the Metro lines to a lesser extent and endured the Orange Line crush. Through it all, I’ve learned that creativity and flexibility help keep you sane, and if you’re lucky they can usually buy you back a few minutes. Apps like Waze help discover alternate routes that may not save me much time, but at least they help me feel like I’m outsmarting someone. In the end, though, there are some days when I just have to resign myself to the fact that I’m going to be stuck in a standstill for an hour. Those are the days where I hope I’ve got a good playlist lined up on my phone.
  • Politics: This is a double-edged sword for me, and I almost left it off my list, but you can’t live here without picking up at least some understanding of national politics, even if just by osmosis. And so I’ve lived through two presidential elections and two presidents so far, learning a little more about the function and dysfunction of the American political system all the while. This affected me most directly during the government shutdown in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, I basically loathe politics and try to avoid talking about it whenever possible, but at least I can say I’m more aware of the issues since I live here, and I can form my own opinions as a result. I suppose I respect the implications of politics from a distance, and I suppose that also makes me a better citizen. Or something.
  • The beauty of the area: DC is a beautiful city for the most part, and the surrounding areas are equally amazing. All the lures of the urban jungle and historical sites are just a short ride away for me, but mountains and farms and orchards are within an hour or two’s drive as well. My love of the outdoors usually manifests itself in discovering new trails and parks in which to run, but I also took it upon myself early on to learn the lay of the land so I could play tour guide to out-of-town visitors. And so the Mall with its museums and monuments gradually became more familiar to me, and I slowly added outer-lying and lesser-known landmarks to my repertoire as all my family members grew tired of the same old stuff. Every year I try to go a few new places either by myself or with family or friends, whether in DC or nearby, but I could do that every day until I die and still not see it all. And that’s a cool thing.

And then of course there are the smaller, miscellaneous details. From witnessing a space shuttle flyover to picking apples in a Virginia orchard, from running the Marine Corps Marathon to enjoying the Cherry Blossom festival, from discovering the deliciousness of District Taco to shopping the Old Town farmer’s market, Gina and I have enjoyed this area’s less famous offerings all in our own way. Despite all of these wonderful and interesting things, I have still barely scratched the surface when it comes to experiencing all that this area has to offer. And although through the rest of 2015 I won’t have too much extra time to explore, I know it won’t be that way forever. So, here’s to the next ten years and all the promise they have to offer!

The Ides of July

Wow! It’s been a while, mainly because July has been an unusual month of firsts since I last posted. Join me for another wild and wooly trip into the parenting arena!

Noah started daycare, which has gone well. I’ve only forgotten his stuff when I’ve gone to pick him up once, and I’ve never forgotten him, so I count that as a win. Everyone seems to love him there, as random adults will shout “Hi, Noah!” when we arrive, while ignoring us. He’s the only boy in his room. I guess he’s kind of a big deal? As for us, we’ve settled into the new drop-off, pick-up, and getting-ready-for-school-every-night routine without incident.

Noah got his first two teeth! This was quite a surprise when we first noticed. They’re the bottom two front teeth, and while very nice and very cute teeth, they also mean he’s growing up too fast, so they’re frightening.  Anyway, we trick him into showing us his teeth by letting him chew on one of his bottle lids, which leaves a nice clear plastic window to the bottom of his mouth. That’s pure Gina parenting ingenuity right there.

Noah got his first cold from daycare! This was less exciting and happened nearly the same day we discovered his teeth, so for a while we thought it was just a “teething fever.” It turns out, through medical research on the Internet, that there really is no such thing as a teething fever (even though many parents swear it’s a real thing). Whatever the truth is, we definitely confirmed with the pediatrician that this was a full-fledged, sneezy, snotty, coughing summer cold. (See, he’s already catching cooties from all the girls at school!)

We got our first shared illness brought home from daycare! This was even less exciting. In fact, it downright sucked, because we’re still fighting our way out of it almost 10 days later. Gina and her Mom were hit the hardest, as they juggled days taking care of the little guy while he was banned from daycare, and so were exposed the most. Gina still has the signs of a viral infection. I somehow dodged the virus bullet but managed to wear myself down enough to get a massive allergy attack in the middle of July. Supposedly there’s a lot of mold floating around these parts? Anyway, our house has been nothing but coughs and sniffles for a week.

But the final first, though dampened a little bit by our various illnesses, was Noah taking his first trip to West Virginia and meeting a good grouping of my family. He traveled like a champion, only getting cranky in the last half hour or so of the nine-hour drive. Noah finally meeting my brother was a big deal. Letting Mom hold him again was a lot of fun, especially since she’s been going through an illness of her own recently. Seeing Dad fawn over his grandson again while carrying Noah up and down the hillside was worth the long drive. Watching my aunts, uncles, and cousins interact with him was surely worth the incessant coughing, though I sincerely hope we all feel better for the second visit.

So really, it’s been all I could do just to keep up with all the changes around here, not to mention getting on the mend and actually writing about them. The ups and downs make me wonder what August has lying in wait for us. The hottest month in Northern Virginia has certainly been a time of change for me several times over – will this one live up to the hype?

The Diaper Games

In the early months of parenthood, I likened the diapering process to some sort of lasso and rodeo ordeal. That, my friends, was a much simpler time. I didn’t know that the difficulty curve for diapering was actually somewhere between level 8-3 in Super Mario Bros. and playing through Contra without the unlimited lives cheat code.

The main reason for this difficulty is that in recent weeks, Noah has picked up some extra mobility tricks. He can roll over pretty much at will and pull himself toward anything he can grab. He rolls himself into a ball when he sleeps. He can do the baby equivalent of push-ups all day long. For his size, I’d say he has roughly the same upper body strength as a Russian boxing bear. All of this is great and normal for his development, and it’s usually a lot of fun to watch.

However, when you add those tricks to the changing table, it makes for a doggone circus.

These days, as soon as his butt hits the changing pad, Noah must think to himself, “at last.” He instantly begins reaching for whatever he can find, which in this case includes various lotion bottles, the Noah’s Ark wall hanging that he’s always loved so much, a container of wipes, or maybe even his poop-filled diaper. All of these items, except the wall hanging, have gone crashing to the floor either as a direct result of his reaching or a panicky grab by a parent trying to keep their newly-agile baby from also crashing to the floor.

And so I’ve resorted many times to holding down my son with one arm while negotiating the flaps of the diaper using one free hand, along with whichever fingers aren’t occupied with preventing certain injury and head trauma to my blissfully unaware baby boy. Usually, this results in one of us getting poop all over himself.

I haven’t even touched on how enjoyable it is to attempt putting pajamas on Noah while he’s turning, reaching, and flopping around. For your sake, just imagine that it’s pretty close to docking an unmaneuverable spaceship to an airlock that’s spinning violently.

I know there’s no way around this and that it’s only going to get worse. And I know this is just another prime moment for you veteran parents reading this to smile knowingly and laugh at our misadventures (you’re welcome). But seriously, at this rate we might as well hang a trapeze above the changing pad and just let Noah go to town.

I doubt that would really work, but I know that he would love every second of it.

My First Father’s Day

My first Father’s Day has come and gone.

It nearly coincided with Noah reaching the six-month mark this past week, and since he passed all of his doctor’s tests with flying colors, I was a proud papa going into Sunday. The verdict from the doctor is that he is very long and has a big head, but his growth and development are coming along beautifully (my interpretation, not theirs).

And for sure, going into this weekend, Gina and I had noticed some great developments. Our son’s modes of transportation have evolved into rolling over at will, spinning on the floor on the back of his head, and pulling himself toward things by grasping tightly and using his arms. While he hasn’t quite figured out how to use his legs, he is certainly propping himself up on his hands and knees and performing the slightest of floor scoots. It seems that before too long he’ll start to really scoot around and eventually crawl, which will send our house’s Alert Status to a constant Red for the next eighteen years. In the meantime we’ll pick him up when we can and watch him squirm around like a dog that doesn’t want to be picked up, in addition to all the cooing and shouting that has come before.

In short, I love it all. I love watching him figure out the most basic tasks. I love his smiles and laughs. I still have a basic amount of trepidation in reserve that we’re somehow going to stunt his growth or screw him up, but we’ve made it six months with no apparent trouble.

I still have to stop and let that sink in: he’s six months old. That simply does not seem possible.

Six months is long enough, however, for the idea of being a father to completely sink in. I feel like I’m part of a club now, a club of guys who can silently nod acknowledgement as we pass by with our strollers and diaper bags. I’m part of a not-so-secret brotherhood of men that can sigh knowingly and send supportive vibes when we see one of our brethren trying valiantly to tamper down a full-on public child meltdown in the summer heat.

And so it was as I entered my first Father’s Day. I think all of us in the Dad club realize that in the grand pantheon of holidays, Father’s Day does not rank as high as Christmas, Easter, or Mother’s Day. But it’s still nice to be recognized. Since Noah is still too young to select a tie or handcraft a card to give me, I received some nice mementos and congratulations from Gina and Noah’s grandparents. We didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate since Gina has been working full-bore on a major event at work and yesterday was no exception, but really just getting to spend time with the little mister was enough to make me appreciate the day’s sentiment. His laugh is a salve in itself.

Technically, these are called "Mr. Men," but we need a little levity here.
Technically, these are called “Mr. Men” and not “little misters.”

Call it a Father’s Day gift to myself, but I’m taking a couple of days off to relax as well. Both of our jobs have picked up so much that the daily rhythms of working and taking care of Noah have led to a nightly ritual where, after our bundle of joy is safely asleep, Gina pulls out her laptop and gets back to work while I valiantly attempt to read or do something fulfilling. My quest lasts for twenty or thirty minutes before I’m drooling on the couch, in the classic fatherhood pose of watching TV with my eyes closed.

In part due to this whirlwind of activity, my overall awareness of current events is much lower than it usually is. But this week, I still heard the reports of the horrible church shooting in South Carolina as they trickled in. Once I learned more of the details, the news broke my heart. There’s no way to understand the kind of hate and racism that was on display last Wednesday night. Reddit has a tracker of “mass shootings” that have happened in 2015 (with a somewhat wide definition of what constitutes a mass shooting). Without even counting Charleston there have been over 150, and only a smattering of them have even cracked the national news.

I’m not qualified to comment on this, politically or socially or in any facet. It will never make sense to me in a thousand years. I can only say that now that I’m in the father club I have to wonder, and not for the first time, what kind of world I’ve brought my son into.

The answer I come back to is that in all of human history, the world has always been one that’s neither completely good nor completely bad. There is evil, without question. But there are also truly good people and good causes.

And as a father, I have to believe that the world is better now that Noah is in it. The alternative is too difficult to comprehend.

He’s too young to understand any of this, but unfortunately the time will come when he will be older and I will have to try to explain some kind of national or world tragedy to him. I’m not sure what words I will use. Maybe I’ll only be able to offer him hugs and reassurances. But there are a few ideas I think I can reliably fall back on. One is simple: leave the world better than you found it. Another is a simplified version of the Golden Rule: just be nice to everyone.

And then there’s 1 John 4, verses 7, 18, and 21.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Everything I’ve seen from the Charleston community since the horrible tragedy has shown me that, while they’re grieving now, they will continue to lean on each other and be okay as a community. They are showing love and resilience, and that gives me hope.

If he could understand me today, I would say to Noah that we’re going to have a lot of fun and many, many more Father’s Days to share. We won’t be able to stop evil things from happening, but if we can just bring even the tiniest bit of joy or comfort into the world that wasn’t there before… we’ll have done good.

And Noah, don’t worry. I’ll be there to help.

The Escape Room Awaits

A few months ago, I stumbled across Jessica Contrera’s article in the Post about the latest craze in live entertainment: escape rooms. After reading just a little about it, I knew it was something I had to try.

Taking their cue from video games and movies where the player or main character is locked in a room and must investigate the room’s contents to figure out puzzles in order to unlock the door, escape rooms essentially translate that concept into real life. The origins of creating this kind of real space might trace back to Europe, Asia, or possibly Silicon Valley, but no matter where the first one started, it seems this is simply an idea whose time has come. For those of us that grew up playing these types of video games and watching these movies, getting the chance to try it out in real life taps into something deep. Call it a return to childhood, call it a desire to be social, call it a critical thinking challenge – it’s a phenomenon that’s taking off. Escape rooms are worldwide, they’re popular among people my age with disposable income, and most importantly to this story, there are a few that recently opened up in DC.

I convinced a few friends to go recently one Friday evening, after much coordination of schedules. I chose Escape Room Live DC, mainly because it seemed the most popular based on reviews and it was the one featured in the Post article, but there are others out there. The same company is even opening a location in Old Town in a few months, so if we’d only waited we could have had a somewhat easier time getting to the place.

As it was, Glover Park is a really great neighborhood, but it sure isn’t Metro accessible. To get there you just have to get creative, be willing to walk up some hills, and plan some extra time. My part of the crew, Steve and Gerritt, took Metro to DuPont Circle, then caught a bus over to Wisconsin Avenue. Matt hopped on the bus at Foggy Bottom, another decent option. Brian and Stephen drove in and took their chances with street parking, which worked out great for them.

Operating under the theory that you can’t escape a room on an empty stomach, we hit up Surfside for a tasty taco dinner and beers and had plenty of time to stroll down the street and get psyched up for the big event.

The room is in the basement of a building, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There are various spy-themed decorations scattered throughout, plus an old school arcade game console table. Steve and I killed some time playing Galaga while we waited for the groups ahead of us to finish. All in all, the clientele all looked to be about our age, though I did spot at least one group that looked like a family of all ages. We reserved the entire room so we wouldn’t be grouped with strangers, but if you don’t have that many people in your group or you’re just out on a date or with a friend, you can jump into any open room at any reservation time.

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Waiting to escape.

Before long, it was our turn. I have to say I think we were feeling a little overconfident going into it. Among the six of us, we probably felt that our backgrounds, overall knowledge of games and puzzles, and general critical thinking skills would make us a lock to break some kind of record. I had deliberately chosen the smallest room available on the website, which also happened to be the most difficult. After receiving a briefing from the Gamemaster, he led us to our room. The general guidelines were: don’t break anything, not everything is a clue, and you have 45 minutes to get out from the time the door is locked. I glanced at the leaderboard posted next to the door as I walked in. For six people, the record time was around 42 minutes. That should have been our warning.

I won’t give out any spoilers about the solution for our particular room. I will only say that it was much, much more difficult than we had anticipated, and it did not contain a framed photo of Bill Murray. And there were a nice mixture of number puzzles, word puzzles, and somewhat-physical challenges in addition to the straight-up riddle solving. To grade us fairly, I think we narrowed in pretty quickly on the various clues and puzzles that were readily available from examining the room – the “opening round.” But figuring out what to do with the information we had – jumbled numbers, cryptic phrases – and how to apply them to the various combination locks we found to keep going – was mind-boggling.

After 15 minutes or so of bouncing around from one puzzle to the next and not making much headway, the Gamemaster’s voice chimed in from the webcam stationed on a wall near the door. “Do you guys want a hint?”

Of course, he’d been watching us flounder the whole time.

That was the moment of truth. Did we swallow our collective pride and give up any chance at reaching the leaderboard, or did we plow stubbornly on and risk not escaping at all?

We went with the clues.  In the end we needed five of them, but we did escape with only a couple of minutes to spare. That’s what counts, right?

The few, the proud. The escapees.
The few, the proud. The escapees.

I think you can tell from the post-escape picture taken by the Gamemaster that it was going to take a while to convince ourselves of that. Even if I did get to dress like some kind of weird Viking.

In the end, we left with a bit of a defeated gloom and more than a few bruised egos. We wound down the night at Breadsoda so the rest of the guys could drown their defeat in beverages while I watched. Our consensus was that we did okay considering we had no prior knowledge of what types of puzzles to expect, and that we probably could tackle a room of similar difficulty now that we’d been through the wringer. Maybe we were just trying to make ourselves feel better. Maybe one of these days we’ll schedule a rematch and see.

As for me, now that I’ve gotten a taste of escaping, I really do want to try it again sometime. I’ve got enough family members that enjoy mysteries that I think we can make a go of it. With new rooms coming to Old Town and an occasional reset of clues and puzzles in their existing rooms, Escape Room Live is set up to capture every other Indiana Jones or Legend of Zelda fan in the DC Metro area for years to come.

(There’s not much here, but check out the Flickr gallery if you want.)