Friday, August 26, 2016

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Home run!

Is it over yet???

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Ballad of Oberon the Owl

I feel a little like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this morning, a little torn. The weekend is leaving me feeling split, confused, because one day was absolutely wonderful, Saturday, and one day was pretty miserable, Sunday. When I think about Saturday in isolation, I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, and happy, and when I think about Sunday in isolation, I feel exhausted, disappointed, and worn-down.

I probably wouldn’t feel as bad if it was reversed, and Sunday was the wonderful day. Were that the case, I think I could conveniently forget Saturday and feel as though I had salvaged the weekend with a wonderful Sunday, but the opposite is true. I am left with the more pleasant memory the more distant. And I feel as though I pushed a perfectly wonderful weekend in front of a train, rather than pulling one back from the brink.

Our weeks have been very long, and the past few longer than most. I have been having to fill in for my boss which a week or two ago added up to over 60 hours. Blah. He was again out of town at the beginning of last week, and I covered for him, coming in at 7:30 and not leaving until after 6:00. Long days for me. Longer days for Elise at home with the kids trying to help them have a magical summer, the perfect balance of fun (read: mini-golf followed by breakfast for dinner at IHOP and root beer floats) and relaxation (entire days spent on the floor building legos), even if it killed her in the process.

With long weeks come very, very short weekends. We try to make the most of ours. And start planning as early as Monday. But you know what they say about best laid plans? And many times, by the time Saturday morning finally does roll around we often find ourselves moving slowly, just content to all be home together with no place we have to go.

This past Saturday we fought hard against the gravitational pull of the comfort of our home (though I longed for it having just finished a six mile run and thoughts already trained on an afternoon nap). We didn’t pack anything except water bottles, supremely unprepared for whatever the day might present, and drove to West Virginia. We decided to go to the historic town of Harpers Ferry, on a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

We arrived around 11:00, in the heart of the day and with the kids already hungry (are they ever not hungry?!). We parked then took the shuttle bus into town. We had fortuitously arrived during a music festival. Woodstock it wasn’t, the bluegrass singer on stage telling the crowd, “I once had an owl. His name was Oberon. We lived together in a barn for three years. But that was six years ago and I don’t know what happened to Oberon, but if he had passed, I think I might have heard.”

We had never been to Harpers Ferry and had done exactly zero research before leaving the house. Yet, somehow we found the perfect spot for lunch, Bistro 1840. Maybe it was the sign outside that advertised craft beers on draft. We dragged our wilted kids into the refreshingly cool air-conditioning and quickly ordered two IPAs and a pile of French fries and waaaay to much food. We languished over lunch, not eager to return to the heat of the day. But eventually we did.

We climbed to Jefferson Rock, so called because it was the spot Thomas Jefferson stopped when he similarly surveyed the town. The walk coincided with a (very short) segment of the Appalachian Trail, and I briefly shared with Elise and the kids my dreams of a thru-hike:

“It’s supposed to be life-altering,” I told them.

“What’s that mean?” they asked.

“It means it’s supposed to change your life forever.” Then I looked down at Clementine. “Well you’re four, so most anything might change your life forever.”

I then went on to briefly explain the trials and tribulations of being a thru-hiker. Sadly, I don’t think I sold anyone. They may have balked after sheltering in lightning storms.

After I very brief walk on the Appalachian Trail, we went down to the river. As I mentioned, we didn’t bring anything with us. No towels. No bathing suits. But the four us (Elise declined) stripped down to our underwear and waded into the cooling waters of the Shenandoah River.

Clementine was the first one in and she splashed in the ripples of a few mild rapids nearby. The boys soon followed. Lastly, I dove in in my boxers. After a quick swim, I joined Elise on the banks of the river where we watched our kids making fish traps in the mud and throwing rocks into the river and watching them splash. Occasionally a kayak or raft of river runners would float past. The warm sun eventually dried me and I started to warm again, and Elise pressed her body close to me and we took photos of one another with our phones until it became time to drive home.

We took the shuttle back to the parking lot and back to our car. On the drive home, we listened to podcats from “This American Life” on NPR. The kids, too. Stories from and about summer, just as we were writing our own. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How to Eat Like an Olympian

This summer seems to be one for the record books, and everyone thinks it is uncommonly warm. After a rainy May, we had a surprisingly mild June, only to be followed by a brutal July. 15 straight days when the temperature in Washington, D.C. hasn't been below 80 and several weeks in the mid-90s where -- along with the humidity -- heat indexes are in the 100s. Weathermen say to expect more of the same for August.

The last few summers we have been in Washington, D.C. (most recently three years ago), Elise has taken the kids to visit her parents in Spokane and missed the worst of the summer weather, While it was incredibly, brutally hot while she was gone, the weather did not let up upon their return.

Both Elise and I have been incredibly busy. Elise took the kids to the sprayground on Monday (a uniquely DC/Northern Virginia thing, I think. Maybe not. We didn't have spraygrounds when I was a kid in South Florida. Why would you, I guess, if you had the beach? But swimming in a pool during the summer seems to be a thing reserved for only the extremely privileged.  There are few public pools. Private pools charge exorbitant membership fees -- I could fly my family to Paris for less -- and waiting lists that are several years's like going to a restaurant and having the hostess tell you that there will be a seven hour wait for a table. Spraygrounds are playgrounds with fountains. They're free and they kids love them, so I guess everybody does win in the end). There, she received an email inquiry to do food styling for a cookbook author who would be appearing on one of the D.C. local affiliate's morning shows.

Ironically, just the night before, Sunday, Elise stood in the kitchen and asked me rhetorically, "What am I even doing?

"I take pictures of food and put them on Instagram? That's not a job! Nobody is going to pay me to do that!"

Well, fate intervened and decides that, yes, someone would pay her to do just exactly that!

When I got home from work Monday night, Elise ran to Whole Foods in search of all the ingredients she needed to prepare recipes out of "The Plant Power Way Cookbook". Ingredients such as spirulina powder and flaxseed. Then, with the help of a friend, she spent literally all day Tuesday preparing and styling the dishes before running back out to Whole Foods for more ingredients.

She got out of bed at 2:30 unable to sleep. I heard her tinkering around in the kitchen before dozing back off. Before she left, she told me she couldn't sleep and was going to go do yoga. I didn't think twice.

She did end up doing a half hour of yoga sometime around 4:30 a.m. I am impressed with her ability to center herself and find inner calm when she had every right to be completely freaking out. I helped her pack the car when I got up. Our new babysitter whose services we only have for the next few days showed up right at 6:45, and Elise and I hugged and kissed Peter and Sam who had just appeared from his room seconds before we were to walk out the door.

We drove into the city together, taking advantage of the carpool only option on 66 East, and she dropped me off somewhere around Pennsylvania and 26th where I walked the rest of the way to work. It was Elise's first time on a TV set and she was dispirited by the extent to which all the cameras and lighting were automated. She told me there was only two people on the set really, the producer and an intern, when I was picturing gaggles of cameramen, gaffes, lighting boys, and set designers scurrying about. It was exciting to hear about her experience. Not nearly as exciting, I imagine, as being there in person. And the finished product was amazing. Elise, the ever-the-perfectionist, thought the burger looked like crap, but I'll let you be the judge:

 You can see the video by clicking here

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Empty Sweaters, Part Two

June 15 was a Wednesday. It was two days after Elise's birthday. I got up early to go for a run just like I had the morning before. The day before, I remember not even being able to move my legs. It was like a dream I often have when I can't run, can't move forward, and inevitably resort to crawling. Yes, I have dreams like this. Maybe everyone does. I don't know. Dreams where I can't run. Tuesday morning was just one of those days. I felt like total crap but I'd at least gotten out of bed, put my shoes on, and made it out the door. That--in and of itself--is no small feat. So. I don't waste those mornings when I get them. And forced myself through three pathetic miles.

The next morning, Wednesday, was a different story. I flew up and down the trail and up and over hills, punishing the pavement with the soles of my running shoes. I ran through morning showers, mist on my face and sweat stinging my eyes. I saw rainbows and storm clouds tinged peach by the rising sun. I may have cried. When I got home, I snuck back into the house careful not to wake anyone. I stood in the laundry room and stripped, throwing my sweaty running shorts and socks right into the washing machine. I took off my running shoes and immediately knew something was wrong. My foot throbbed. By the time I got home from work later that evening my whole foot was swollen. 

That night, I stood in the kitchen in bare feet and showed Elise.

"Your toe is crooked," was the first thing she said.

Was it? I didn't know. I didn't make a habit of looking at my feet but the second toe on the left foot was leaning to the right, almost touching the big toe. The toe on the right foot didn't do that. But I didn't know if it had always done that or if that was a disturbing sign of something new. 

I didn't run again for 5 1/2 weeks. My work shoes made it worse and I limped at the office. I went to a physical therapist who thought it was extensor tendinitis and stretched it and put ultrasound on it. I iced it. I rolled my shin with a foam roller with knobs on it the size of the Hulk's knuckles. When it wasn't better after two weeks, I made an appointment to see a doctor. I got an X-ray which didn't show anything. If it was a stress fracture, it wouldn't until the next X-ray when the stress fracture would appear as a thin white line of new bone where it was healing. I know because I've had a stress fracture before. I went to the doctor again on Friday and had a second X-ray, but there was no stress fracture.

"A stress fracture is the only thing I would tell you not to run on," he told me. I took that as the green light I was waiting for. The joint in my second toe was inflamed, pushing the tow to the side. 

I ran this morning and it was all at once the most wonderful and horrible experience. I thought about the pain the entire time. With every step, I asked myself did that hurt? Did that hurt? Did that hurt? For two miles. Of course the answer was no, but I expect I'll be imaging pain for awhile. In running though, I started to feel a little bit like my old self. When I got home, I mowed the line and vacuumed the house. I am immediately more invigorated by an activity that--if anything--should make me more tired. 

A short while later I fell asleep on the couch which I felt bad about because I missed important work emails. But I am mortal and falleable and fu€k I was tired. I can only finish work at 11:00 and get up at 6:00 so many days in a row. When I woke up, I tried to order flowers for Elise online. tried to call me an hour later but I was in the shower. When I tried to call them back, the automated message said my approximate wait time was 60 minutes. Isn't that an hour?! So I hung up. I still don't know if she ever got the flowers. 

It's been a long 5 1/2 weeks but that time is over and a new chapter is beginning. I'm ready for them to come home. The house plants are dying despite my best efforts to keep them alive. I water them religiosly and make them take turns at the window in the sunlight like my kids sharing the iPad . I even tried breathing on them. It's as if they sense the house is empty and my attempts to keep them alive are not genuine, but done out of guilt. It's like they're dying on me on purpose. 

There is no happy medium. When the kids are here, fighting, screaming, crying, complaining that they wanted a green plate instead of the purple plate I put their fried egg on, complaining that I made them a fried egg when they wanted a scrambled egg, or complaining that I scrambled the eggs in the same pan I cooked the bacon in and now there are little black flecks of things in their eggs, or complaining when I make them steak and eggs. Steak and eggs! My dad never made me breakfast but when he did he made us steak and eggs. Steak and eggs! And I loved it. But my kids!? NO! They'd rather have a bowl of Rice Krispies. 

But when they're not here all I think about is how much I wish they were here. Everything is off. Like adrift on the sea or lost in the vastness of space with no linear purpose. In the infinite, I don't know which way is up or down or forward. There are no boundaries, no one to go to bed to and no one to get up for. So I do neither. 

Last night I had pretzels and mayonnaise for dinner. Elise planned a menu for me before she left and even bought me easy-to-prepare meals from Trader Joes. But I ate them all. I was once quite self-sufficient.

But It felt good and has been a wonderful release to rely on someone. 

When I was in high school, every time I got a new album or cassette, I would go to my room, close the door, and listen to the whole thing, back to front, both sides, following along with the lyrics if they were there or trying to transcribe them myself if they weren't. So tonight I'm listening to music again. It's just sometging I know to do when there's nothing else to do. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empty Sweaters

It's never easy when the family is gone. This time seems harder than others. For a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is Elise and the kids are exploring Yellowstone National Park without me.

They probably picked as good a time as any to go. Temperatures are supposed to be in the 100s this weekend in DC. They do seem to miss the hottest parts of the summer when they go, so that is good. This week has also been particularly crazy at work. And I'm on closing shift. And my metro line is single-tracking, which adds an extra half hour to my commute each way. I didn't get home until 11:30 last night. Just enough time to have a beer, kick my feet up, then go to bed. So--for that reason, too-maybe it is better that they're not here. That's what I keep telling myself anyway.

This morning, Elise texted me, asking me what I'd done. I replied: made the kids' beds, did a short yoga session, walked to the Giant to mail a letter. She's not missing much. Meanwhile, they are seeing buffalo and hot springs, finding drawings by Peter in the back seat of the rental car, scribbled on hotel stationary, of Old Faithful erupting.

Last weekend, I went to visit my mom which was restful and restorative. We didn't do much. Talked, mostly. Read a lot. I had cold nitro coffee on tap for the first time. I'm hooked. I made the mistake of having it black, but the mouthfeel was like beer which was uniquely wonderful. Next time, I would ask them to put a little simple syrup and milk in the bottom of the cup before pouring the beer, so as to keep the head, but make the coffee a little sweater and not as bitter. We went to Leftovers for dinner one night to listen to the Grateful Dead cover band and eat panko-friend oysters and Dune Dog for lunch. I think it is what both of us needed.

It was just enough to hit Monday refreshed. The refreshing feeling has worn off. I walk to the metro stop, wading through waves of heat radiating off the pavement in a suit and tie. When I get up in the morning, the silence is deafening. I would 145 x over rather listen to the kids fighting in the living room. The emptiness is vast, and I turn on music as soon as I get up to try and fill it. When I was folding clothes the other morning, I folded Elise's burnt orange sweatshirt. It had been hanging on the drying rack downstairs and had a crispness to it that clothes get when they air dry as opposed to drying in the machine. I hugged it to my chest. As I did it, I knew it was weird, but I did it anyway. I couldn't help myself. I get up first in the morning and start the coffee and breakfast for the kids. Elise usually follows no more than a few minutes later, and she hugs me in the kitchen when she gets up. Every morning. It wasn't the same, but it did have the feel of her, the smell, even when empty.

Before I went to Florida, I had the fleeting thought of what it would be like to have an older brother. I don't exactly know where the thought came from...I think from the lyrics of a song I had been listening to at the time. I had never--in 44 years--ever even remotely wondered this, which is maybe (or maybe not) surprising in and of itself, that the notion had never crossed my mind. I wondered what he would be like, what our relationship would be like, and in that context, I thought about my relationship with my two younger brothers. One is getting married this summer. The other is having a baby. I resolved before I went to Florida to try to be more like a big brother I myself would want to have. I'm not sure if I succeeded. It's only just a start, really.

Only a few more days to go until my head and my heart are full again and can vanquish these random thoughts that can creep up upon me in the quiet. Not always unwelcome, but unbidden. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Whale That Was Left Behind

Tuesday morning, I roused everyone at 4:20, helped them get dressed and get a quick bowl of O's in their tummies before packing the car and heading to the airport. I put Clementine's Tigie in her new unicorn backpack and Christmas Puppy in Sam's. Then, I stopped and asked Peter which stuffed animal he was bringing to Ma and Granddad's house.


Spout is his stuffed blue whale. "Is Spout in your backpack?" I asked him. He said he was.

I went back to his room and scanned his bed quickly. I didn't see Spout, so Pete must have packed him. 

As we drove along the George Washington Parkway to Reagan National, the sun gradually stained the sky peach and pink and rose over the Capitol building and behind the Washington Monument across the Potomac. Traffic was lighter than I expected and we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I hugged everyone goodbye as I dropped them at the curb. I always worry that it's too much for Elise to handle on her own, but she would most likely counter that it was easier to check in and board a flight without me than with me; I always seem to fumble for my belt and my shoes in the security line and take the electronics out of my carry-on that don't need to be separately scanned and keep the ones that do in my bag, holding up the line. Inexcusable, really, for someone who flies as much as we do.

I drove home. The quiet was deafening. Disconcerting, to be honest.

I returned to our empty home a little after six. I tidied up in the basement, rolling up the sleeping bags that we had hung to dry from our camping trip just a few days before and started a load of laundry. Upstairs, I washed the dishes and loaded the dishwasher. Then, I went to the kids' room to strip the sheets off their bed. They'd be gone for two weeks, a perfect opportunity. 

I whipped the sheets off Peter's bed and what should come tumbling out onto the floor? 


Oh no, I thought. Peter traveling across country without his stuffed animal. I immediately knew what I had to do, and Googled mail and delivery stores. I saw that the Staples right behind our house had a new mail and shipping center that opened at eight, so I got ready to go to work and pulled up just as the saleswoman was unlocking the door. 

The store was just opening. The lights were flickering on and cash registers were being unlocked. I waited several moments for someone to notice me at the new UPS counter. The store music came on, it was a song from the new Disney movie Zootopia. It reminded me of my kids. I felt hollowed out inside, empty, like a pumpkin that had been carved into a jack o' lantern. 

The woman behind the counter asked me how she could help. 

I held up Spout. "I need to overnight this whale to Washington State, but I don't have a box."

The woman then proceed to dismantle a giant cardboard carton in which reams of printer paper had been shipped and reassemble it with half a roll of packaging tape, fashioning a, perhaps, too-large box for Spout. She then measured the box with a ruler and asked me to input the shipping information into the computer. 

When it was all said and done, she swiveled the computer screen back towards her and said, "That'll be $90."

"WHAT!?" I couldn't imagine that she was serious. It is a whale, but the stuffed animal can't be more than five inches in length and have a weight that is measured in ounces or grams. 

"I can get there in a week for $30."

A WEEK!! Peter could be crying his eyes out for a whole week! He could not be able to fall asleep at night for a whole week!

"You could try the post office," she offered. 

After dropping the car off at the dealer to get the brakes checked (the service center would later call and say the car needed repairs the sum of which was roughly half of what I paid for the car in the first place. I could buy another car for all the money they wanted me to spend on this one), I took the Metro into the city I had watched the dawn dissipate over only a few hours earlier. I stopped at the post office. 

There, Ebony with aquamarine nails that were like tiger claws told me that "to this town"--she stabbed the word "Cheney" on the packing slip--they could only guarantee two-day delivery. No overnight.  "I'll take it," I told her and happily coughed up $20 that I never would have parted with before someone else had quoted me $90. "UPS wanted $90," I told her. She didn't care, but the woman next to me sporting a star-spangled sequened cap informed me, "It's cuz it's private. This is the guv'ment." And she said it in a way that was not disparaging, but with a tone that said because it was government it could be relied upon. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but it made me feel proud for also being a part of the government machine, a mechanism that could be relied upon to work and give value for hard-earned tax-payer dollars. 

I ripped the makeshift cardboard box open, wasting yards of packaging tape, and put Spout into a bubble-wrap envelope. I handed him to Ebony. She had me acknowledge that their were no hazardous materials in the envelope even though she had just watched me put a stuffed whale into it. She also told me that the envelope was insured up to $100 and asked me if I wanted to buy more insurance. Was she serious? The contents of the envelope had no value and yet was also invaluable, I thought, but decided to keep that to myself. I declined additional insurance. I handed the envelope to Ebony, wondering for a split second if either Peter or I would ever see Spout again.

This afternoon, Pete called to thank me for sending Spout. The left behind whale had been reunited with his pod. 

Off Grid, Part Two

As you can see from the previous post we went to camping last weekend in Shenandoah National Park. Elise got a new sleeping bag for her birthday, so we had to take it on a test run before the summer was over. 

We only spent one night, Saturday night, but I think we definitely made the most of our time there. After setting up camp Saturday afternoon, we went on a hike to  Overall Run Falls. The hike was four miles round trip, and the boys held up amazingly. They set the pace and didn't complain once about the distance. We even saw what we're pretty sure was a rattlesnake on the trail, but thanks to Elise's keen eyes, we were able to pull up just short of the snake slithering across our path and wait until it made its way back into the grass. 

In the height of summer, the "falls", the highest in the park, was really not much more than a trickle, but enough to cool down. When we got back to camp, Elise and the boys started the campfire over which we roasted hot dogs for dinner and s'mores for dessert. 

The next morning, we decided to drive a little deeper into the park after breaking camp to the Skyland lodge. It was 20 miles from our campsite down Skyline Drive and on the way, we spotted a black bear on the side of the road. The car in front of us stopped to look at it, so we stopped, too. There was really no way to go around even if we wanted to. Skyline Sr winds its way along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is mostly double-yellow line the entire length of the twisty mountain road. 

As we were looking at the bear--because, really, that's what one does in a national park...look at the wildlife--a pair of motorcyclists came up behind us and started revving their pipes, obviously upset that we had stopped in the middle of the road. Well, like I said, I couldn't have gone anywhere even if I wanted to, because the guy in front of me was stopped, too, but the sound of the pipes scared the bear away, much to the kids' disappointment. One of the motorcycles then when tearing around us. Just as he did, his partner who was stopped behind us tipped over and became trapped under her bike. I saw it in the rear view mirror. The guy pulled his bike over and went running back to pull the bike off her, but not before making sure to stop and fling a few choice words my if somehow I was complicit in making his girlfriend tip her bike. "That's karma for you," Elise said. She then had to explain to Sam what karma was. 

We proceeded to Skyline lodge but hurried the kids out of the car before someone motorcycle posse recognized us and beat me up. I even carried Clementine under the false hope that a crazed biker wouldn't lay out a dad carrying his sweet four year-old daughter. 

Despite the near run-in with the bikers, a we had a very relaxing, a lot of work but much needed weekend "off the grid", so to speak. We really were unplugged for almost 48 hours which is nearly unheard of in this day and age. After a light lunch of turkey sandwiches and some coffee at the lodge, we went on another short hike to the top of Stony Man Mountain. Wee hooked and are already planning a return trip to the park, if only for a day hike.