Book Review: Home Game

Earlier this year, I received a copy of Michael Lewis’s Home Game as a gift. This is definitely the kind of book that I probably would have bought for myself after reading the dust jacket. Here’s an excerpt:

“When he became a father, Michael Lewis found himself expected to feel things that he didn’t feel, and to do things that he couldn’t see the point of doing. At first this made him feel guilty, until he realized that all around him fathers were pretending to do one thing, to feel one way, when in fact they felt and did all sorts of things, then engaged in what amounted to an extended cover-up … The remarkable thing about this story isn’t that Lewis is so unusual. It’s that he is so typical. The only wonder is that his wife has allowed him to publish it.”

Lewis is the author of several sports- and finance-themed books that have been made into movies, which is as much a barometer of success for an author these days as anything (see The Blind Side, Moneyball, and most recently The Big Short). Home Game departs from his most famous subject matter to instead focus on his everyday experiences as a father to three children (his wife, I just learned, is Tabitha Soren, who was on MTV back when MTV mattered).

It’s clear through his anecdotes that no matter where a father falls on the income spectrum, no matter the amount of success, if he cares about and loves his family then chances are he’s going to have some version of the same fatherly experiences. Lewis retells his stories in a way in which, I suspect, any parent could recognize elements of their own lives. Most of them are laugh-out-loud funny, too. Some of the highlights for me: Secret pride as his daughter fends off bullies by warning them that she’s going to pee in the public swimming pool if they don’t leave her brother alone. Camping overnight with his daughter in a theme park in Oakland. The stress and anxiety of caring for his infant son diagnosed with RSV. It’s in this last example that Lewis spells out parenthood in as beautifully blunt a way as I’ve seen:

“If you want to feel the way you’re meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It’s only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.”

I think this is, quite frankly, one of the only ways the human race endures. We build up the bonds to our children through caring for them in those tough early days. That, and because they’re cute. There are other areas in the book where Lewis’s bluntness and candor might not be for everyone, but it is frequently hilarious all the same. And since the source material for the book came from the journals Lewis kept after the birth of all three children, it all rings true, making this book a very real peek into the life of a modern family.

As for me, I enjoyed the book – and it was a quick read – but I don’t think I buy the extended cover-up notion wholesale. I do think it’s true that once a baby arrives, the reality of the experience quickly replaces any preconceived fantasies you may have had about having a child. And it’s definitely true that, at least in our case, it takes time to forge a deep bond that goes beyond the initial just-getting-by days. Lewis also has a point with the idea that many modern dads don’t really know what the job entails these days, and we all sort of have to figure it out for ourselves and make it work for our own families. (As a member of the father club, however, I also want to be careful to not destroy the illusion for any of the other dads out there that are playing the long con.)

One final thing that I took from the book is the idea of doing a journal to capture some of the more fleeting thoughts and memories that come from being a parent. I’ve been trying to share the big highlights about parenthood on this blog when I can, but of course I can’t (and don’t want to) share everything. For one, everything’s moving so fast that I can’t trust myself to remember it all. For two, not everything’s blog material – I don’t have aspirations of posting daily about the peanut butter & jelly sandwich my kid had for lunch. But I want to resolve to write more in 2016, and a journal is one way I just might be able to make it happen, so I’m going to personally give it a shot.

In closing, if you have a dry sense of humor and you find yourself becoming a parent in the coming year (either “again” or for the first time), or if you want to relive some of those early parenting days, then Home Game is definitely worth a read.

Hello From The Other Side

Well. That took a while. I’m back.

But I never really left; I’ve just been doing more offline than at any other time this year. The feelings carrying me through October, November, and most of December 2015 were just about equal to the blurriness and just-barely-staying-afloat that permeated the first few newborn-fueled weeks of the year. I know I’ve got you interested now, so let’s review the autumn months!

Shortly after my last post in early October, my blog was hacked. At least I was spared wild spam postings about sexual performance and making money online; instead, the hackers focused on leaving malicious files filled with virus-y goodness parked in various corners of my website, waiting to do who-knows-what. Luckily, my hosting service found out about it and contacted me. They happily offered to clean up the mess for me for hundreds of dollars, but I rose to the challenge and thanked my lucky stars for frequent backups and a basic know-how of webpage janitorial services.

Following that near-fiasco, I think everybody got sick for a few weeks straight. It’s difficult to say, because most of my memories of that time are feverish and ill-formed. I could also have very easily learned how to float down the hallway during this same period, but I’m still waiting to verify that. I do have solid evidence, however, that a few big projects popped up at work during this time period, which consumed any extra time I had when I wasn’t coughing or in bed. During this time, we also had a bit of a health scare with my grandmother, so we also all took a special trip back to West Virginia for a whirlwind weekend.

In the ensuing weeks, the weather got weirder as well. I’d been training for a half marathon in October all through the summer, but the specter of Hurricane Joaquin forced the organizers to cancel the event a few days ahead of time, only to essentially dodge the DC area. Now, we’re in the middle of an El Niño-fueled swampy Christmas that feels imported from Miami.

October turned into November and we increasingly lowered our expectations on what to do with our free time. There was a whole spell of several weeks where Noah no longer slept through the night. Once we put him to bed, laying down on the couch for a couple of hours before he woke up again seemed to be the best option. Laundry started being done solely based on whether our underwear levels were dangerously low or not. Our DVR filled to dangerous levels with unwatched programs. Our budget and spending became dangerously erratic. In essence, we had regressed back to being parents of a one-month-old. We experimented with different methods of putting him to bed, settling on a variant of a “gradual retreat” that seemed to help him self-soothe enough to get him to go back to sleep when he did wake. This basically involved one of us sitting increasingly closer to the door as we watched him wail in the crib, interspersed with us consoling our little guy and calming him back down. Much to my surprise, after a few nights, he began falling asleep on his own. Our outlook improved slightly after that, and we would have celebrated as well had we not been so tired.

It was around this time that Thanksgiving was drawing close. Scheduled to go to West Virginia, we looked forward to a few days’ rest with extra help to watch Noah. It was even conceivable to think of the trip as a vacation, something we hadn’t had all year.

That was the case right up until I got into a car accident on I-295 the Thursday before we were to leave and totaled my old, trusty Altima. Before you get concerned, I walked away from it just fine, as did everyone else involved. It wasn’t even that much damage; it was just a little too much for the old bird to bear.  I was dealing with insurance and an obstinate towing company that refused to give up my car for a few more days, right up until I came down with a nasty stomach virus that laid me low for a few days more. That particular bug made its rounds through our whole family. Miraculously, we all improved enough to still go to West Virginia, just several days later than we had originally planned and on some of the worst traffic days of the year. Even a shortened version of the holiday worked wonders for our health, and spending time with family was worth it.

After Thanksgiving, our eyes turned toward Christmas as our next real extended break, but I could have sworn the world was doing everything it could to keep us from getting there. Gina’s workload kept going up. Our free car rental through my insurance couldn’t last forever, so we had to work in an entire afternoon to buy a new car (a 2016 Camry). At least that seems to have worked out in our favor so far, but it did take time away from planning Noah’s first birthday party (not to mention Gina’s portion of planning a baby shower the next weekend). The Toy Story-themed party went off without a hitch and was a lot of fun, and it was great to catch up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while, but I don’t think either one of us sat down the entire time.

As we neared the finish line for the year, Noah threw us one more curveball by contracting another daycare plague, this time in the form of Hand Foot and Mouth Disease. (No, this isn’t the same thing as Hoof and Mouth Disease in cattle. And while I feel like they could have come up with a more creative name for it, it’s unfortunately fairly common in the under-five crowd these days, so no need to call the CDC yet.) Shortly after that, I had another feverish couple of days, laid low with yet another weird virus. (Enough with the viruses already!) Luckily, both Noah and I have been given a clean bill of health this week so Gina and I could finally begin organizing our house and put up our Christmas tree. (I had been predicting we wouldn’t decorate it until Christmas Eve, but we beat that by a whole day!) Unfortunately, Noah also shared his virulent Christmas gift with his Nana, so now our holiday plans are under revision even as I write this.

All of this might read as a long list of complaints, but there were certainly highlights. Reconnecting with family and friends, making new friends, Noah’s constant developments and new facial expressions, and personal triumphs all brought some needed levity and joy. And don’t get me wrong, throughout all of this I also counted my blessings that we were at least keeping everyone clothed, fed, and housed, if not 100% healthy and happy every day. Sure, there were so many horrifying things happening in the world – Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino chief among them – that I fully admit to sitting down and tearing up several times when I contemplated the kind of world our son would be inheriting. The political grandstanding that now follows these events, and the idea that a gun-toting radical with any motive could strike anywhere at any time just depresses me even more. But I suppose this period of trials has, in a way, made our family stronger as we look more toward each other for support and finding small moments of happiness when we’re exhausted by it all. Luckily, Noah’s got an abundant supply of those, every time he smiles, and I have hope for his potential to do good. It’s this hope, plus faith and love that will see us through, I am confident of that.

But it would still be nice if the beginning of 2016 was just a teeny bit easier.

And even if it doesn’t turn out to be, just like our traditional folk hero Adele who brings us all together every time she releases an album, at least I can say that I’ve tried.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Rules

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about our parenting experiences. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting happening, it’s just that everything is going so fast. Just as we get used to a set of routines (for instance, the five-to-eight month-old version of the rules, which I have to say we had down pat) the game completely changes. I’ve been trying to joke that as long as everybody in our house is clothed, fed, and somewhat happy, then we are doing okay, but here lately we’ve been lucky to feel like we’re getting any two out of the three right.

Maybe we should only be parents of a constant rotation of five-to-eight-month olds.

BWAHAHAHA, sorry, I think I lost my mind there for a second.

Calvinball is probably easier to figure out, actually.

Anyway, one good example of the shifting sands of time is Noah’s eating habits. If we could just feed him the same amount of formula forever, we’d be golden. I’ve gotten really, really good at making bottles, and he’s always been really, really good at drinking them. But of course, for some reason we have to introduce solid foods and try to teach him to pick up small chunks of stuff that don’t taste as good as his milk, or convince him that drinking out of a sippy cup is much better than shotgunning a bottle of formula. In essence, he’ll always have to work harder for his food from here on out, and there’s every indication from every other parent in the world that soon, after he fully transitions to “real” food, he won’t want to eat at all. So then we’ll have to worry about him starving to death. Cool.

These transitional problems are, of course, not insurmountable. But to solve them requires a certain creativity and imagination. When you factor in that we still have a basic level of exhaustion in all things, you can imagine that creativity takes a hit. Our poor brains are preoccupied with survival. For instance, it took us weeks if not months to figure out a way to give Noah his last bottle of the day without it counting as “giving him a bottle to go to sleep,” which we learned from our doctors is one of the first cardinal sins of parenting, beginning somewhere around six months. (The solution was just to rearrange the order of his nighttime routine and do the bottle before the bath.)

Another dangerous game of roulette as he gets older, we’ve found, is the process of slowly introducing him to new foods. These days, you never know what a kid is going to be allergic to, so it’s best to introduce only one new food at a time just so you can do some reverse engineering if things go sour in the aftermath.

So far we’ve been lucky, until recently. After a relatively normal breakfast where we let Noah nibble on some fragments of scrambled eggs, we went about our day and ended up going shopping for some babyproofing supplies. No sooner had we left the store than Noah, quietly and without warning, emptied the contents of his stomach all over himself. And the car seat. We rushed home, cleaned him up, and tried to give him some more food to make up for the “lost” meal, so to speak.  Three words: more projectile vomiting.

After some feverish racing around to clean him up, a quick debate about whether we should go straight to the ER, and a call to the after-hours on-call pediatrician, we finally settled in to a night of gradual doses of PediaLyte and general sleeplessness. By the next day, our little guy was fine, but we don’t know what caused the episode. We are tentatively chalking it up to an egg allergy, since that was the only new food he’d eaten that day, but we’re just not sure.

How do people survive to grow up to be adults again? I was hoping Noah would avoid the food allergy arena altogether, but is each new generation of humanity carrying us swiftly towards our ultimate destiny of just being allergic to everything?

Since there’s no way to answer those questions, I guess we’re stuck with a game of throw-up Russian roulette. Just add another chapter to the ever-changing rulebook of parenthood – which is, of course, printed backwards. In invisible ink.

The Reign of Pub Trivia

I’m not sure how or when, but somewhere along the timeline of human history, a genius realized that bars and trivia competitions could go as well together as ketchup and mustard, or fish and chips. The formula that filtered down through the ages is deceptively simple: simply take a weeknight at a bar when business is comparatively slow, add a host with some questions and a rudimentary PA system, toss in some drink specials and a few rules to keep things flowing, and boom – all trivia nerds in the immediate vicinity will get wind of it and swarm the bar in order to claim some share of the glory that comes with knowing more obscure facts than the people sitting around them.

I think this phenomenon is so pervasive, especially in a wonky city like DC, because so many young adults of bar-going age grew up with a love of trivia instilled by watching Jeopardy! Many of these adults, myself included, would die to go on the show. Many of us also know there’s very little chance we’ll ever get to say hi to Alex Trebek in person, so we make do the best we can by trying out our skills in real life when the opportunity arises.

Just such an opportunity arose recently. My friend Gerritt is moving away soon, which has launched a cavalcade of going-away festivities. Gerritt and I met in college, and while we became friends for many reasons, it was apparent early on that our combined trivia knowledge was formidable. It wasn’t long before we were forbidden to be on the same team for any board game involving the faintest hint of trivia rules. But for all that, we never joined forces in a “real world” trivia challenge throughout our whole “adult” lives.

Until now.

The idea really got started with Gerritt and two of my other friends, Matt and Steve, in the early stages of the going-away get-togethers. They realized there was both a convenient venue and a large gap in our lives that could only be filled by forming a trivia team, and they knew that I would be interested.

And so we descended on an unsuspecting bar in DC one fateful Wednesday night in late August, not knowing whether we would live up to our own expectations or suffer an ego-bruising setback as had happened in the past.

I learned a few things during that prototypical outing. First, I learned that choosing a trivia team name is almost as important as answering your questions wisely. We struggled a bit on this score, deciding on a name that fit the supposed weekly theme of Jeff Goldblum movies. However, we quickly realized that to gain the respect of other teams and to make our host laugh, our name would need to hew closer to a political or current events pun with a side order of sexual innuendo. I filed that away for future reference.

Second, I learned that our individual knowledge sets complemented the others’ nicely. The team became more than the sum of its parts, with each of us having an area that proved to be a strength, such as Matt’s memorization of sports championships or Gerritt’s deep music game. We also overlapped enough in other areas that if one of us wasn’t sure of an answer, we could often back them up with words of encouragement ranging from “that sounds right” to “YES, that’s it” to “I have no idea, just put anything down.” In the end, this worked out to our advantage more often than not – we certainly talked ourselves out of a couple of correct answers, but not many, and being honest about our own senses of certainty proved useful.

Third, I learned that hey, this trivia thing is pretty fun!

The fourth thing I learned is that we finished the night victorious, besting teams that were mainstays and full of trivia vets. I was admittedly surprised. We led after a few rounds but fell behind in a couple of mid-game slumps. We agreed that we owed our come-from-behind victory to a conservative betting style and the honesty with ourselves that I mentioned above, since some questions involved wagering points and we did not “go big” when we didn’t feel good about an answer. We strolled out of the bar one $30 gift certificate richer.

Standing out on the streets of DC on that warm summer night, the four of us realized we were really onto something and that we should get the team together at least one more time before Gerritt left town. There’s something to be said for going out on top, but we had to prove that this one particular week was not a fluke, that we weren’t just lightning in a bottle.

It took some serious planning, but we made it happen a few weeks later. Having one successful outing under our belts, we acted like pros this time. We chose our very fitting team name using equal parts punmanship and lasciviousness. We used our gift certificate to offset the cost of dinner. We didn’t stray from the strategy that worked well for us the first time.

And dang us if we didn’t win again! Two time international world champs! Two for two!

Despite the euphoria over trouncing all the other teams, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. I knew that there wasn’t enough time left for all four of us to manage to get together for another round before Gerritt left. As we were paying our tab, the trivia host announced that this session was to be the last for that particular bar. It seemed fitting.
And so ended the shortened, but perfect, season of our pub trivia team. I won’t say I’ll never try out trivia again, but losing an irreplaceable player means that this version of the team is at an end. Indeed, we shall not see its like again.
As for Gerritt himself, well, this is just a parting of the ways. Moving across the country isn’t as big of an impasse as it used to be. Until next time!

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.

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!