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.

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.

intheacura
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!

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.

A Lone Reminder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea power.

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

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