Pre-Baby Thoughts

I realized a little while ago that I wanted to be sure to write a blog post that captures my thoughts right before our first child is born. It is a unique time to be writing. With everything after this, I’ll know what it’s like to have a kid. It’s like reading spoilers for the end of a movie or show – I can’t unlearn it or pretend it never happened. Later, I’m sure I will look back on these thoughts, realize how naive I am at this moment, and laugh in pity. I also get that the hardest job in the giving birth thing will always be Gina’s and that I’m merely observing. But since our lives are going to fundamentally change in just a few days, or next week, or tomorrow or whenever – pretty soon – I’m going to try to organize some of my thoughts as we wait.

You can read that last sentence with an emphasis on the “try,” because I’ve increasingly been feeling like I’m forgetting things and losing focus. I’m sleeping basically okay, but I guess this whole situation is distracting me a lot more than I consciously realize. For instance, I let my car safety inspection sticker expire and didn’t even realize it until it was two calendar months past the date. I’m lucky I was never pulled over. Maybe I’m experiencing sympathy memory loss?

Also, there’s a lot of hurry up and wait in the final few weeks of pregnancy, I’ve found. We’ve made a lot of preparations and spent a ton of money like drunk monkeys, but now all we can do is just literally wait for the little guy to arrive. Gina is going a little stir crazy now that she’s staying home. I’m finding myself trying to wrap up everything that comes across my desk at work really quickly, or if I know I can’t finish something, to hand it off to others as soon as possible in case I get that call in the middle of a workday. That makes me feel alternately productive and lazy during the day; it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride. I’m sure it’s worse for Gina. I can only suppose that as we approach the delivery date, time will slow down to an infinite crawl as if we were approaching the event horizon of a black hole. Maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t keep my head on straight, because trying to remember stuff could help me pass more of the infinitely-waiting black-hole time.

Besides being unable to manage space and time (you need a TARDIS for that), I also definitely have an underlying sense of excitement. I can appreciate the magnitude of this parenting thing, and I can vaguely understand how difficult it’s going to be at times, even though I obviously haven’t seen anything yet. At this point we’ve both heard all the different iterations of advice from parents of all ages. I know that people are just compelled to share their horror stories and unsolicited advice, and that’s fine because I’m sure we’ll use it at some point or another. But not being one to back away from a challenge, I am eager to put my own stamp on fatherhood. So then I can turn around to the next new Dad I find and repay all the unsolicited advice favors, keeping the cycle going into eternity. Overall, I am honestly just very excited to get started.

There’s one piece of “advice” I’ve heard in various forms I simply do not subscribe to: the idea that our personal lives are going to end once we have children. Our family life is going to be whatever we want to work hard to make, dang it. We will do fun stuff. Gina and I will continue to do creative things independently, but better yet we will also nurture our children’s creativity. Life isn’t going to end. I get that I won’t have as much time to devote to things and our priorities will shift and all that, but really this will be just a kind of beginning.

You might ask yourself: Bret, what about anxiety? Do you have any of that? Well, there was a little, but most of that went away when I decided not to try doing too much and as we got more things done around the house. I had a nice goal to get the entire inside of the house painted, but that idea wasn’t absolutely necessary for baby prep, and Gina convinced me to wait until much later to finish. It’s hard for me to give up on something once I’ve convinced my head to do it, but I am thankful now that she talked some sense into me.

Anxiety can often be followed by exhaustion, and I definitely can identify with that. It’s just been a marathon since September, with something new to worry about every day. We were so innocent in the summer, thinking that we had all the time in the world, but then the time snuck up and kicked us in the shins. I’ve learned a lot over these few months, however, and when I get the chance, I’ll look back and wonder how we did it all.

Again, all of these thoughts are a little jumbled, just like our lives right now. But I do get the sense that we’re on the eve of a great adventure, even as I perpetually feel like I’m forgetting something.

In the end, I really just can’t wait to meet the little guy and give him a high five. Let’s get started already!

When We Run

Over Labor Day weekend, I was afforded the opportunity to perform a song I’d written at our church. This was a big deal to me, and I have our bandleader Andreas to thank for gently prodding me to submit a number for consideration. He is a songwriting machine, so it was gracious of him to ask.

Ever since the days of my and Stuart’s various incarnations of middle- and high-school bands/duos (namely Caffine, The Express, Summer, Big System, U.S. 52, and Hello to the Ghost), I’ve been involved with making original music. But most of those songs were Stuart’s creations, with me contributing bass-lines, or piano licks, or the occasional lyric here and there. My earliest attempts at putting all the pieces of the musical puzzle together on my own were pretty laughable for many reasons, not the least of which were that I could barely play bass and piano in those days, and I don’t know too many pop songs that were written solely from the bass.

Anyway, as I picked up the guitar and got better at it through the years, inspiration struck me on and off again to write something original. With a very few exceptions, I would give up before completing the piece, and I darn sure didn’t believe in the few completed songs enough to play them for anyone. I would record them on whatever software I had on my computer at the time and leave it at that. Most of the time, the music and the lyrics just wouldn’t mesh, or I’d be worried that what I’d written was too much like a cover of whatever band I was listening to heavily at the time, which it probably did.

But hey, I’m older now, and that gives me both the wisdom to not care what other people think so much (I’ll always sound like my influences) as well as the modicum of confidence to just follow through on an idea and see what happens. That’s what happened this summer: the right mix of timing and blessings and inspiration hit with this particular song, such that I was just wrapping it up (and actually kind of liking the result) when Andreas asked if I had a song available.

That being said, even after making my live debut, I’m still not really all that confident in letting my music be heard. I know that shouldn’t matter, but for years it’s been such an internal, private pursuit of mine that it seems weird to actually let a song go out into the world.

For all of these reasons (as well as preoccupation with becoming a parent), it’s taken me a while to muster up the courage to post this demo for you all to hear. I also have a recording of the acoustic bluegrass-y live version from church, but I’m still working on improving the quality of that recording. So for now, I submit this GarageBand demo of “We Run” for your hopeful listening enjoyment. Ironically, In addition to being drawn from a favorite Bible passage, for me it ends up being about a lot of what I’ve written about here.

I hope you like it, but hey, if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.

I’m also committed to this being just the beginning. With a little help from Divine inspiration, or whatever part of the soul these kinds of things spring from, I’m just going to keep going and enjoy writing at whatever speed I can.

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.