Category Archives: Journal

Me. My Life. Stuff that happens.

Half Year

They say, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” They usually follow it up with, “And it doesn’t last long.”

I’m doing my best.

Lulla-cry Baby

I’m not so good with the lullabies. They are comforting, even to me, but also to my daughter—I guess that’s just the point. Still, the comfort comes from having them sung to you; as the singer I found quickly that my memories of the melodies were sharp, the lyrics not as much. As an audience you find solace in the intent underneath the lyrics, the softly sung choruses in whispered verse. Memorization of the poetry on top is far from mandatory. So I struggle with various on-the-spot mumblings and half-remembered couplets. Often times I find myself sticking with a single refrain, usually something simple like “Kum Ba Ya,” riffing on the tune with a stream-of-consciousness sort of babble that only half makes sense. Fortunately, we chose a name that rhymes with and matches syllables with “baby.”

The difficult part of singing lullabies isn’t the lyrics, though. That’s just the part that makes them awkward. The difficult part is that many of the standards, “Lullaby and Good-Night,” “Twinkle, Twinkle,” etc are in keys that aren’t readily hit by whispered singers. I have no delusions that my singing is stage-worthy or even publicly acceptable, but I love to sing. I’ll make up silly songs for no reason whatsoever and belt them out as I wash dishes or take a shower or drive along a nighttime road. Catapulting dippy made-up songs into the air is fun and fairly easy, but trying to maintain a sense of steady melody at a low, sleep-inducing volume is… not.

Sometimes the variations of song and lyric are clearly not for my daughter’s edification. She seems just as happy if I iterate endlessly over “Hush Little Baby” but there are so many songless Mockingbirds and clumsy horses I can promise to her before I start to go a little batty. On one night in question I’d exhausted my supply of lullabies but not my child. I continued to rock her gently in my arms and grasped clumsily at something to continue with, afraid in that deluded panicky state you enter as a parent of an infant that something you are doing, have done or are about to do will cause a startled awakening accompanied by the requisite wail of newborn anguish. Lacking any true inspiration I began to improvise on a hoarse, practically tuneless little melody that was half “You Are My Sunshine” and half “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The lyrics were standard lullaby fare: Blissful slumber, promises of new days tomorrow, reassurances of parental protection, simple exclamations of steadfast love and devotion, non-sequiturs for the sake of rhyming couplets. The difference, as near as I can tell, is that instead of struggling to excavate long-forgotten lyrics from the depths of my brain, I was expressing in the first person my affection for the sleepless and thrashing babe I rocked like an exhausted pendulum. It was far from the first time I’d ever made such thoughts and feelings known to her, but be it the inherent weariness or the structure of song or perhaps just the fact that it actually worked as intended, lulling her steadily into the desired state of calm and rest I’d been working on so diligently, the result was unexpected.

I’m not, by nature, an emotionally charged sort of person. At least I don’t perceive myself as such. My default mode tends to be a sort of mildly bemused observer, occasionally drifting into moderate crankiness or a slightly softened compassion. The range is fairly short between the extremes of my moods. I don’t really get hopping mad very often. I don’t have very many moments of unbridled joy. And I definitely don’t find myself moved to tears with any kind of regularity. I didn’t even cry when Callie was born, though I went into the experience fully expecting to. It surprised me when I discovered that instead of being moved I was simply overwhelmed and sort of terrified which resulted in me entering a kind of semi-robotic state.

But in this case, I watched my little girl open and close her tiny mouth a few times, slowly, as if tasting the air around her, drinking in my song. I saw her beautiful eyes flutter closed and stay shut. I felt her nuzzle just slightly closer to my arm with the croaking sound of my stupid and now forgotten song, the tears fell.

The First First

I don’t put much stock in “Firsts,” at least not the way it seems many parents do. And okay, I have no data to back this up but I suspect it is principally a “mother” thing. At least the tracking portion of it in cute little books that look suspiciously like low-rent scrapbooks to me. If I had to wager I’d say the demarcation of “firsts” originated with dads as a means of injecting some competition into child rearing.

Anyway, maybe I should put some stock into it because perhaps developmentally those milestones are more significant than I give them credit for. To me, though, it feels like our daughter’s firsts are hardly forebears of new chapters in her life. She has consistently displayed a propensity for various actions and achievements only to promptly discard the activity once mastered as if to say, “Check. What’s next?” Her first smile, her first head lift, her first babbled vocalization, her first object grasped from curiosity (as opposed to reflex) are all lost to the haze of overwhelming change and adjustment that has characterized the last six months.

But I do recall the first time I heard her laugh like a little person.

She has a number of distinct laughs: The throaty chortle she uses when she’s amused by our games of peekaboo and silly faces, the shrill delighted squeal she uses when surprised by happiness such as a tickle or a raspberry blown on her soft little tummy, the wide-mouthed tchkkkk of air escaping tightly stretched lips and firm tongue that she does when she’s cracked herself up and convulsed into a little twitching ball of self-congratulation. I love each and every one of these laughs, but the one I love the most is the braying “ha-ha-hee-hee-hee!” of genuine mirth when something really cracks her up.

The first time I heard it I was changing her diaper and trying to make her smile as has been my custom from nearly day one. I’m not as much of a speed-changer as other dads I’ve spoken to who view the chore as a sort of Nascar pit crew scenario whose principle measure of success is beating a previous best on the stopwatch. I certainly don’t spend as much time at the changing table as Nik or most other moms I’ve encountered, but I try my best to interact with the baby as I process her waste receptacles because I figure it’s not her fault she’s too short and too immobile to use the toilet. Heck, even I bring a book with me to the bathroom so the way I see it, people need some entertainment when they have their business taken care of.

I couldn’t say what led up to the moment, but it was probably the usual barrage of tickles and hugs and exaggerated smiles. At one point though I grasped both of her wrists and lifted them up to my closely-shorn hairline and tickled the tips of her tiny fingers with the stubble. She squealed a bit with excited glee. So I pulled her arms up higher and drooped my head down a bit lower and drug her little palms across the close-cropped pate of my balding head. With a clutch of her stimulated fingers and a laugh that sounded for all the world like a delighted little girl as opposed to an amused newborn, she screeched out the now-familiar sounds of real person laughter. The sound was so surprising and remarkable that it forced a hearty laugh of my own out of me and for a couple of minutes the two of us took turns cracking each other up. Whenever we would regain our composure I’d rub my head with her chubby baby fingers and we’d start all over again.

It took a long time to change that particular diaper.

Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few

We’ve made a lot of mistakes already as new parents. Thankfully and mercifully none of them have resulted in anything seriously detrimental to our baby’s health. One that stands out in my mind is mistake I made in planning a bunch of family visits almost immediately after the birth. The problem wasn’t in the family, it wasn’t even in the visitation, the problem was merely in the additional set of worries and responsibilities that come with having people over when added atop the already crushing weight of adjusting to life with a newborn.

For their part I think our families were gracious and patient with us. It couldn’t have been easy. I read a lot and assumed from the data gathered there that the early days would be times when any and every helping hand would be more than welcome. A lot of the visitors we had were in fact there to offer support, be it emotional or by attending to chores we would maybe otherwise have let slip or in perhaps subliminal offers to assist with the baby. The hitch is that Nik and I are stubbornly, perhaps stupidly, independent. We feel a collective loathing to admit that there is something that we need help with, that we can’t handle entirely on our own. I think in a way we felt that we had waited nearly ten years to have children just to make sure we were, in fact, ready so yeah, help appreciated but not necessary.

Especially with my family it was just too much too soon. Nik and I were exhausted and terrible company. We sat around. A lot. We watched mindless TV. A lot. We fed the baby. We changed the baby. We rocked the baby. We watched more TV. Our schedules were dictated by the child we were determined to handle on our own, without apology. As first time parents who were accustomed to being basically homebodies anyway it didn’t feel so different from our normal routine, just a bit more intense and filled with 100% more dirty diapers than we were used to. What did feel different was the parade of guests. We don’t have house guests often: We’ve lived in smallish apartments for ten years. We’re the mobile ones, we do the visiting. Having people up in our space was awkward for us. We were trying to adjust to the idea of being a threesome instead of a couple and that’s weird enough, now we have my family and… well they probably felt like we were the worst hosts in the world.

They weren’t wrong.

But the mistake wasn’t in them coming. It wasn’t—I don’t think—even in us being preoccupied. The mistake was in planning the trips so close to the baby’s birth. Many of the trips were planned also to coincide with my leave of absence from work, so I think there could have been some more consideration of that to begin with. A lot about the time I spent on paternity leave would be done differently if I did it again. I’d have saved some time, if possible, to take a bigger chunk of time off later in the year. Like around the halfway mark. Like around now. Callie is so much different now than she was when everyone was coming out to see us and her. Nik and I are so much different now. I often think about how little I get to see my daughter during the week: I leave for work before she wakes up and I get a couple of short hours with her when I get home before we have to go through her bedtime routine and then I put her to bed and try to spend some time with Nik before one or both of us collapses into exhaustion. Nik does her best; she comes out to have lunch with me about once a week. She sends me pictures and messages during the day telling me about the activities her and Callie enjoy, relaying funny little anecdotes of the things she does.

I think about how most of my experience with my child was in her helpless undeveloped newborn stage and how little has been in the delightful, tiny emerging human stage. I wish I’d saved some time off to get in on that action. I wish we’d planned short introduction meetings with my family at the beginning and arranged longer visits for later, when she was interactive and funny and capable of being charmed and charming with her geographically dispersed extended family. It was a mistake, and you can’t take it back. I know the people who were so overjoyed to see Callie and us early on don’t mind that the baby they saw was minuscule and basically inert. Their excitement was genuine, as was ours. But it’s hard not to wish you’d done things differently, and harder not to worry that it might be a portent.

The Bold and the Beautiful

On weekends I spend a lot of time with my daughter. For one thing it gives Nik a much-needed break from the constant care of a baby for a couple of days and for another it gives me a short window to connect with her now that the hassle of needing to provide an income for our family has injected its unwelcome head back into our lives. It seemed long on the face of it and in fact the six weeks I spent on leave following the birth was the longest period of un-work I’ve spent since I was probably 20 years old, but looking back now it didn’t last nearly long enough.

Mostly we hang out and play at home, I feed her and change her and do all those things parents have to do with infants. But also we go out and do stuff together. Nothing super exciting like zoos or parks or museums (yet), but regular outings like the grocery store or the bank. I’ll never understand dads who think of spending time with their kids as “babysitting.” It’s certainly work of a caliber I’m highly unaccustomed to, but to me it came with the package. I’m not trying to convince you how awesome I am here. Quite the opposite. I feel like this is simply normal, like spending time with one’s daughter—even as young as mine is—was never meant to be strictly a maternal undertaking. I think it’s curious and a little sad that stay-at-home dads are kind of weird (being a SAHD, I mean, not the dads themselves) and it’s kind of discouraging that I get about equal numbers of pats on the back as I do pitying stares when I’m out alone with Callie. I’m not saying I should get more back-patting, I’m saying I shouldn’t get a second thought.

Anyway, one of the differences early on between Nik and I was that she marked out a sort of activity comfort zone for herself. She avoided going out alone with the baby, she found the tools and tactics that seemed to work for her and she resisted deviation. I, on the other hand, felt like a brave adventurer when charged with the baby’s care: I’d see how much I could integrate her with all my “normal” activities. I tried all the carriers first, I took her to places she didn’t “have” to go because I wanted to be with her and go wherever at the same time, I forged ahead with bottle-feedings and bathtimes. Honestly it wasn’t that I was or am particularly adept at any of this: But there is this thing that guys do when faced with uncertainty and that is feign absolute confidence and control. It’s a defense mechanism and you’d be surprised how often it works. Sometimes simply trying to be in charge of a difficult situation is the same as actually having a handle in the first place.

I have no idea if my brazen disregard for the klaxons of panic that sounded in my head at the prospect of extraordinary “newness” helped ease Nik’s transition into confidence or not. I like to think my willingness to try things like showering with the baby in a bouncer just outside the door when Callie and I were home alone opened the door to the notion that having a baby didn’t mean donning a leash. Now, of course, Nik is unimpeded by the existence of a child in our lives: She spends more time outside the house and outside that comfort zone than she does within.

Digression aside, when the baby and I venture outside on weekends I’m intrigued by how many people are struck by the presence of a baby. I classify people’s reaction to seeing Callie into three categories: The Melted Heart, The Panicked Soul and The Unimpressed.

The Melted Hearts are those who, regardless of their mood before laying eyes on her, will dissolve into a sappy grin. The more socially forward of this group will come up to us and interact with Callie, often then engaging me in some mild conversation, “How old is she,” “Is this your first,” etc. They’ll openly stare and try to get her to smile at them (which Callie is typically more than happy to oblige). Often people in this category are women, often older either of a grandmotherly age or approaching it although there have been plenty of guys who fall into this category as well, though none of them have been under 30. Obviously these are my favorite and Nik and I have discussed often how happy it makes us when we see someone’s mood noticeably lift on account of our baby. I confess I think she’s ridiculously adorable and I semi-shamefully admit to sort of showing her off when I’m out but I think sometimes that that weird effect dads-alone-with-babies has stunts the Melted Hearts moreso than when Nik is present.

The Panicked Souls are those who definitely take notice of a baby in their midst, but they regard her not like some kind of wonderful surprise addition to their day but as a ticking time bomb of some sort. Generally these people will also stare openly at Callie but not in the admiring way Melted Hearts do, but in the way you might stare at a slavering and obviously rabid deer that wandered into your picnic area. Logic dictates that you probably aren’t in any immediate danger, but you don’t want to take any chances. I’m not entirely sure what Panicked Souls are concerned about: Maybe it’s that I’ll whip off her diaper and start twirling it above my head like a sling, maybe it’s that she’ll suddenly break out into eardrum-puncturing wails (little do they know she reserves those for bedtime) or maybe they just think I’m suddenly going to rush up to them and tell them they have to babysit her for an hour because I just got called away to do an emergency heart transplant or rescue a litter of puppies from a burning building (what? like I can’t be a cardiologist or a superhero?) thus initiating a sequence that resembles something out of an 80s comedy starring Steve Guttenberg. I have no idea. People in this group tend to be males younger than 30 and any woman whose outfit costs more than my monthly car payment.

The Indifferent are those who try to pretend that Callie doesn’t exist. Often these people are those who are patronizing businesses without a lot of square footage in their storefronts like coffee shops and libraries. The presence of unpredictable infants in areas that are typically reserved for relatively quiet conversation is, I understand, kind of a potential disruption but I think no one wants to be “that guy” who’s got a problem with a dude carrying around his child on a Saturday afternoon. Their strategy seems akin to “ignore it and maybe it will go away.” The irony of the parallel between this and the way a child might hide under covers to avoid a scary imagined monster is something I like to savor. The mischief in me often wants to try to get Callie to take a nap in places like these just to spite the people who would ordinarily be Melted Hearts but I usually resist the temptation. To provide context: Callie loathes naps. Curiously the other large group of people who fall into this category are parents who have slightly older children like around 5-9. I wonder sometimes if they have finally exited the baby/toddler/preschooler stage and are counting their blessings but desperately fighting the hidden longing they harbor to have a baby around the house again. The wounds of sleepless nights and fearful worry for the well-being of someone so helpless and wholly dependent are still fresh, but not so much so that they cannot be overlooked or overwhelmed by the sight of a fresh-faced little cherub riding in a front-carrier with a happy toothless grin.

My Rock

Possibly the most remarkable thing to come out of Callie’s birth has been the emergence of Nikki as a superstar stay at home mom. Not that the road has been entirely smooth, far from it. In very many ways it has seemed to be the hardest transition she and, as an extension, we have ever had to make. Which was not entirely what I expected. I said last year that Nik was singularly fixated on being, or perhaps even born to be, a mother. This, I think, led to an assumption on my part (at least) that she would glide effortlessly into the role and relish it from the outset.

It hasn’t been that easy.

But, Nik doesn’t get the credit she deserves. So let me take a moment to enumerate just a tiny fraction of the reasons why she is indubitably the best wife I could ask for and why she is literally the only person I would ever want to be the mother of my children.

  • Breastfeeding: Nik and Callie struggled mightily to figure out breastfeeding. We tried so many things: We saw lactation consultants, we pestered our friends and families, we acquired a vast array of assitive devices to try and make nursing easier. Nik toiled with it for almost two months and when circumstances made the prospect even more challenging she switched to exclusively pumping. This exhausting, uncomfortable, time-consuming, onerous task was carried out for five additional months all because she wanted Callie to have the benefits of breast milk no matter the cost to herself.
  • Courage: A huge part of why this phase of our lives has been challenging for her is because Nik, long prone to clinical depression, has been fighting off the effects of postpartum depression. Ignore that idiot celebrity scientologist (excuse the redundancy), PPD is real and it’s rough. It didn’t help that I, in all my granite-like density, completely missed the symptoms that I was supposed to be watching out for. Somehow, though, despite what could have been a debilitating handicap she bravely soldiered on and simply met every challenge head on. She may have felt like she was drowning under the weight of the new responsibility and the struggle to reconcile the roller coaster emotions coming along with it, but she never missed a beat.
  • Support: We had hoped that even after I went back to work I would be able to spend a lot of time at home, especially during the first year. But then the wheels of change started turning at work and as opportunities arose, that changed rippled down into our plans. It wasn’t feasible for me to be at home as much as we’d thought and that in turn meant that in order for me to take advantage of the career opportunities in front of me Nik was going to have to rise quickly to the challenge of being a full-time solo SAHM. She may have been nervous about it and felt like she wasn’t up for the task but she’s proved to be not just a wonderful primary care giver for our daughter but also the most dependable partner in our collective responsibilities that I can imagine. She thought she couldn’t do it without me, but it turns out I couldn’t do it without her.
  • Team Parenting: I’m trying very hard to be a good dad to Calliope. Time will tell how effective my efforts will be, but while it sometimes feels like society at large is either skeptical or ambivalent of my goals, Nik has never once given any indication that she was anything other than fully supportive of my desired involvement level. She shares everything, even though she is often the one who has to carry out our collective decisions. She makes it a point to include me in everything, she sympathizes with the fact that even though she’s got the harder job of the two of us, I wish I could switch with her sometimes or even just wish I could be there more. She sends pictures of her and Callie many days. She relates all of their triumphs and difficulties each evening so I’m always clued in. Above all, she makes me feel appreciated.

This has by far been the hardest, most rewarding, craziest, most phenomenal six months of my life. I can’t believe it’s been so long already. I can’t believe it was ever any different. But more than anything I can hardly bring myself to take a breath for fear that I might wake up and realize this has all been the most wonderful if achingly fleeting dream. I thought before that I felt like a lucky man to have the family I do. I know now that feelings aren’t a factor. The stone fact is that no one has ever been more blessed than I am and a man couldn’t ask for a better wife or a more perfect daughter.

It’s On My Mind

I’m obsessed with human waste. Not in the creepy I-keep-mason-jars-of-it-under-my-pillow sort of way, but in the it’s-constantly-at-the-forefront-of-my-mind fashion. I’d blame my daughter but honestly she doesn’t really seem all that concerned about it. Sure, when she’s been sitting in her own foul for half an hour she’ll express some dismay over her environment, but it’s not like she’s really interested in what it is, she only cares what it represents. I, on the other hand, care deeply about it for reasons I don’t fully understand.

Actually, that isn’t true. I do in fact understand my preoccupation with “poops” and “peepee.” It’s like when there’s that really annoying pop song that seems to be on everywhere you go, relentlessly pounding its syrupy beat and trite lyrics into your skull for days on end and finally your only defense is to give in, turn up the radio to sing along, download the track from iTunes and buy a T-shirt with the chorus hook printed on it to wear ironically and prove to everyone how cool you are for being so uncool. What I’m saying is I don’t want to spend so much time thinking and talking about doo-doo but I don’t have a choice because it keeps coming up so I can either gnash my teeth in impotent angst over it or pretend it’s some kind of scientific pursuit.

The reason it’s such a nagging constant these days starts with the diaper. I realized before we had a baby in the house that children of this age utilized diapers in lieu of toilets and I understood that they needed to be changed quite a bit. What I wasn’t exactly prepared for was the frequency of the diaper contents. Aside from the half dozen or so “pit stops” in the restroom which can be accommodated in my case by a urinal (or even a waist-high bush if it comes to that) I have about one serious visit per day. By comparison my daughter does upwards of six or seven number twos per day. Early in the morning it’s all fine and good, with much praise and odd parental pride: “Look at the big girl with her big girl poops! Such a good girl!” etc. By mid-day the tone has shifted more along the lines of “Again? Well, okay…” and by the early evening you’re hearing the sort of heavy bargaining typically reserved for International Treaty Negotiations only in this case the outcome is who has to change the current diaper and who is owned (and I quote) “Fourteen thousand back rubs and the full unrestricted rights to choose the pizza toppings for the next ten pizzas.”

But listen, if it was just the frequency I could readily treat it as an unfortunately regular annoyance that entered my mind only as necessary and then left just as readily. But alas the tragedy of baby ownership is that they lack any sort of reliable communication interface aside from a catch-all error code function which is not only excessively verbose but also frequently misreports problems and occasionally alerts for no reason at all. As such you’re left to secondary monitoring to determine the overall health of the unit and in this case it means you can only ordain the quality of the input by closely examining the output. Not that even this kind of analysis is really informative. I mean, given the various parameters described by the professionals, I know from experience you can have detailed debates with your co-administrators over whether a particular specimen exhibits problematic characteristics or not. If you want to try this experiment at home, see if you can agree with a family member about what qualifies as “mucousy” given no additional information or examples.

I can tell you authoritatively that there are relatively few parties like a parents party when a parents party gets going on a Friday night about whether this or that globule of excrement means the baby is sick, allergic to something, getting too much foremilk or is indicative of a normal infant’s digestive system. Holla.

But perhaps the most persistent human-by-product-related musings revolve around messes in undesired locations. I’m talking about pee in your hand or poop on your hat here. I like to think of myself as a fairly clean and sanitary person. I shower regularly, I prefer a tidy environment (maybe not to the same degree as some, but I’m certain more so than others) and I try to remain at least mostly presentable. But it only takes one—two at the most—instances of being out in public and finding some sort of excrement that doesn’t belong to you on your arm or shoe before you start to develop an ever-present concern that you may at any given point in time be sporting dookie on your pants. The terrible fear is that the baby may not even be around when a tragic discovery is made and it’s really hard to play off a big pee stain on the back of your shirt while you’re giving a career-making presentation to your boss’ boss’ boss without having something cute and cooing to distract people with.

I guess the best you can hope for is that they’re new parents too, at which point they’ll just be thinking, “Wait. Did I check the back of my shirt for urine this morning?”

A Scene From Our New Life

Paul walks in. Nik sits on the floor, baby in front of her.

Nik: Here, take this.

Paul: What is it?

Nik: It’s a gold nugget.

Paul takes diaper.

Paul: This is a diaper. Augh! There’s poop here!

Nik: Well, it’s not full of candy.

Paul: No! The poop is on the outside!

Paul hurriedly throws diaper into trash. Paul rushes to the bathroom and begins washing hands.

Nik: Laughing. There was an incident.

Paul: Aw, man. There’s no soap in here! What is happening?

Paul runs into kitchen.

Nik: Hey, when you’re done running around, can you get a new shirt for the baby?

Nik considers.

Nik: Also, you may want to grab the carpet cleaner.

On the Infant Front

If you’ve ever wondered why your parents are crazy, I happen to have stumbled across the answer: They are all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In one of those deliciously wicked twists of design, appreciable mostly by those of us who collect and consume irony as if it were artisan cheese of the most rancid and pungent varieties, the source of that trauma is in fact children themselves. The execution of this assault on parental sanity occurs upon a child’s arrival into the world and lasts basically as long as children are incapable of forming any lasting memories thus ensuring that they emerge from the ordeal basically amnesic while their mothers and fathers remain haunted shells of their former selves. As such, children are left to wonder what force on Earth could have made their parents such complete lunatics, fully unaware that the madness that plagues their own existences is in fact self-wrought.

The techniques employed by the welcomed invaders are classic, really. Sleep deprivation is a legitimate form of torture but it really is just a softening tactic in this particular application, a way to pave the road for the true torment yet to come. I mean, you can set off a bomb in a building but if you want to bring the whole thing down, you need to first weaken the foundations. What happens with babies is not a sort of constant annoyance the way you might expect where they, for example, cry for protracted periods of time. After all, the goal here is to inflict psychological damage rather than merely focusing on brute force sleeplessness. Instead the assault comes in the form of a series of intermittent wails which vary in volume, duration, and pattern such that you can perpetually be lured into the false notion that relief is imminent.

Being sleep deprived is a state I’m familiar with. Large portions of my life have been spent with self-inflicted exhaustion due to my disinterest in ceasing whatever interesting activity engages me so that I can rest. Then there was the whole graveyard shift debacle of ’07 though I’m not sure I want to pick at that scab too much just yet. What strikes me about the sleeplessness associated with newborn skirmishes is how oppressive it is, comparatively. It is all-encompassing and creates obsession in the strongest-willed combatants. Normally if you get behind on sleep you cancel an appointment, wait for a weekend or take a prescription medication to knock yourself out for a couple of days. But in this case there is no reprieve and no amount of chivalry on the part of your squadmates can rectify the situation since the one thing—the only thing—that you could not sleep through is the cry of your beloved foe.

Nik and I used to gripe before the baby was born about new parents we’d run into who would examine Nik’s pregnant belly and say something like, “Get ready to never sleep again.” We regarded these people as plankton: Unfeeling sociopaths who were menacing a pregnant woman who had experienced one failed pregnancy already and lived still in mortal fear of having complications in another. At least, she would seethe, your baby is healthy. Our sympathy for these veterans has waned considerably over the past few weeks since we realized that the problem isn’t a lack of appreciation but one of all-consuming weariness that borders dangerously on narcolepsy. At no point is a new parent unaware of the triumph and blessing their child represents, but it becomes impossible to fathom anything else except sanity-violating tiredness. “Sleep” becomes the answer to every puzzle, it is the epitome of every desire, the chalice placed out of reach that contains the magical elixir of happiness. At one point deep in our daughter’s third week of life Nik and I were watching Jeopardy! and we shouted synonyms for slumber in the form of a question, with all sincerity, for 21 out of 30 questions in the Double Jeopardy round. I heard my wife, typically the paragon of reason, attempt at one point to bribe our daughter to sleep with such untenable promises as ponies, castles and luxury cars.

Once the parental psyche has been rent under the spine-crushing weight of enervation the true damage is done via a series of carefully coordinated clandestine assaults on several fronts: There is a physical component where a series of thrashing, uncontrolled movements batter even an adult male in such a way as to not leave any discernible marks but, like tapping a sack of light bulbs with a wiffle bat, the invisible damage is extensive. There is also a more direct psychological aspect to the strategy employed which is almost criminally devious in its subtlety. It plays on the dark corners of fear in your mind by placing a sudden, almost violent responsibility on an unsuspecting civilian, tormented by the other tactics explained above and then cruelly demands that one heap atop this responsibility a freighter of concern and worry. Because the most vindictive tactic unleashed is white-hot love and devotion invading every pore with each screech and every holler. Unjustly the parent is forced to adore their invading force, to pledge undying allegiance to their captor such that instead of resisting the conquerors they welcome them, cater to them and weep to placate them.

I found myself at one point standing in the shower, broken like a once free-spirited pony and staring blankly at the soap scum encrusted wall and thinking I might let the water run cold before I could face another moment of the exhaustion, the abuse. I steeled myself, shut off the water, dried and re-donned my pajamas that had become my uniform and returned to the front where I found it eerily quiet. I relieved my wife of her watch and prepared to flirt again with sheer madness. The moment was fleeting but I gazed down at my baby girl, defiantly refusing sleep, I saw the corners of her eyes crinkle. I braced myself for the tears I knew were coming, steeling for her siren call to cleave my skull but then—suddenly!—an unexpected smile crossed her tiny lips and at once broke into the most beautiful toothless expression of contentment, purity and joy. In that instant, a lifetime of treaties were signed.

Anticipation

Normally I’d consider myself to be a patient person. I find there are far too many interesting distractions and means of filling the space between plainly noteworthy events to bother being too preoccupied with getting to the next. But as pertains to the upcoming birth process, which we are now 12 days prior to the “scheduled” date—which is, as I understand it, at best an educated guesstimate—I find myself lacking my usual sense of casual ease regarding anticipation.

I think there are a couple of things contributing to this but one of them is my wife, she-who-bears-the-child, who is beyond done with the proceedings and ready to have it over. She’s been an absolute champion of womanly strength and courage throughout the ordeal, from her vindictive morning sickness in the first trimester through her pelvic pain due to symphysis pubis dysfunction. It’s not that she’s annoying me with her persistent drive to have the delivery process begin but rather it is her desperate race to feel “ready” prior to that event that runs counter to my ability to shrug my way through the process.

It manifests via a series of lists, starting with the Master To-Do List. It’s relative brevity is misleading, these dozen or so line items are ultra high level overviews of nuanced projects which, in most organizations, would require several project managers, small but efficient teams of 20-30, an oversight committee reporting directly to a steering committee and a staff of support personnel including administrative associates and filing clerks. Each entry in the Master To-Do List has a sub-list which spans several pages including multi-step action items and firm deadlines for completion. There are charts which map out efficient travel routes between build sites and resource acquisition areas, which is important because all items have a mandatory environmental impact and budgetary concerns report attached, which must be strictly adhered to.

Each of these projects is intended to facilitate the arrival of our bundle of joy, although sometimes the line connecting point A (completion of the To-Do item) and point B (utility to an infant) is insubstantial and hard to comprehend, like string theory. I know I’m more of the brawn than the brains and my distinction as such was already in considerable doubt, but when you’re standing in a pile of splintered wood that was at one point a packing crate and crawling into a dumpster to mash down the contents so you can fit the 423rd Amazon.com box inside, you lose a little focus on the big picture and can’t help but wonder what a partially developed human could possibly need that requires this much cardboard.

There was a point this past weekend where Nik expressed a desire to take a break from our List attendant proceedings and for a moment I allowed a look of dissatisfaction to cross my face which sent her off into a torrent of teary incoherence. I think my performance as a supportive husband during the pregnancy has been adequate to acceptable (somewhere in the B/B+ range if one was grading generously) but I do prove to be expertly capable in making my wife cry which she typically—in retrospect at least—attributes to the hormones. I’m not necessarily convinced and hormones or no, there are few more reliable ways of identifying oneself as a class-A heel than by reducing a pregnant woman to tears. In any case I reassured her that I wasn’t upset that she needed to take a break or annoyed that she wasn’t as capable of powering through as she used to be or that I was disgusted by her baby-bearing appearance as she postulated. I’m not sure how that last one slipped into her rolodex of possible causes for my inconsideration but it must weigh heavily on her mind because she presents it as a possibility for practically everything I do, including activities that have absolutely no bearing on her whatsoever. It goes like this:

Nik: “Do you want a bite of this cookie?”
Me: “No, thanks.”
Nik: “Is it because I’ve put on weight?”
Me: “What!? No!”
Nik: “Then why?”
Me: “Because I don’t want any cookie?”
Nik: “So you think I shouldn’t eat it either, then.”
Me: “I didn’t say that! I think you look wonderful! I don’t care what you eat!”
Nik: “Because it’s too late for me? Is that what you’re saying!?”
Me: “I’d love a bite.”

Once I had her calmed down I reassured her I had only been temporarily disheartened by her need for our fifth break in the last hour because I just wanted to get the project done. She asked if there was such a thing as husband-nesting syndrome. I didn’t understand and she triumphantly parroted what I had just said about just wanting to get it done as if that were the critical shred of evidence that exonerated an innocent man accused of a grisly triple murder. I opened my mouth to explain that it wasn’t that at all and in fact I just wanted to get it done because I was hoping that if I crossed at least one item off the Master To-Do List I would be granted a reprieve from comparing shades of pink and learning the ins and outs of bottle assemblage, storage, cleaning and warming at least long enough to watch the last half of SportsCenter. Instead I closed my mouth, swallowed and said, “Well, I don’t know. But I bet I have it!”

The truth is, I really do want to have the preparations complete. My problem is that the closer we get to arriving in this mythical locale known as “Done” (Population: 0) the more immediate our proximity to that thumb-twiddling place of “just hoping it happens soon before the mom-to-be finally loses it and performs a home c-section on herself with a pair of poultry shears.” What I fear is that we’ll be the first people in the history of the world to actually have nothing else to accomplish before the baby arrives weeks in advance and we’ll have nothing to do or talk about other than the fact that she’s not yet in labor.

Me: “So… are you in labor yet?”
Nik: Pauses. “No.”
Me: “Oh. Bummer.”
Nik: “Yeah.”
Me: “Hey, remember when we finished the nursery?”
Nik: “I do.”
Me: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a baby to put in there?”
Nik: “Um, yeah.”
Me: “…”
Me: “So, are you in labor now?”
Nik: “Why don’t you wait at the hospital?”

Yet at the same time I’m pushing for these things to be completed because the alternative is so much worse. I know at this juncture that if Callie did decide to arrive in the next few days we’d have ample place for her to sleep, plenty of means of feeding and clothing her and sufficient material to avoid having her just poop on the carpet for me to clean up later with paper towels (we pretty much leave that to the cat). Frankly, we’ve been at the stage where we could be classified as technically prepared for her arrival for over a month now. But from Nik’s perspective there would be no greater catastrophe than having her show up without having a vinyl cutout of her name adhered to the wall over her crib, unless of course she were to arrive and we didn’t have a bouncy seat for her to sit in covered in brightly colored jungle creatures that vibrated, played tinny electronic versions of classic lullabies and emitted “realistic rainforest noises” that sounded curiously identical to a guy peeing into a urinal.

It’s just that the dichotomy of wanting to help Nik finish her list so I can stop spending my weekends feeling frantically pressed for time and the fear of actually accomplishing what we set out to do and having to spend the next two or three weeks drumming our fingers creates a sense of unease I’ve never known. I’ve never been so excited for something to happen and so fearful of it at the same time. I want to savor the time we have left but I’ve never been the kind of person to wade slowly into the shallow end of a cool swimming pool: I prefer the one shocking rush of the deep-end dive.

The other element is honestly that the impending paternity leave I have coinciding (shockingly!) with my paternal initiation represents my sole vacation time this year, and in fact represents a good half of my vacation time for next year as well. As progressive as my employer is on some issues, they lag behind in granting leave for fathers so I have had to scrounge and scrape together as much time off as I could from various channels and as a result I’ve worked for months with only a handful of standard US holidays to provide reprieve. At least my daughter had the courtesy of agreeing to be conceived last winter so I was able to take the time off in the doldrums of August. But I won’t lie: I’m so ready for some time away from work.

It’s strange to think of this as a vacation because my mental image of the next eight weeks or so don’t involve a lot of relaxation and all accounts suggest the first few months are fairly drastically weighted toward the SUPER INSANE CRAZY end of the spectrum on the Life Transitional Stage scale. But it will also be the longest stint of active non-work since I began my “career” over ten years and that includes a year of spotty employment earlier this century. I have family coming out during that period which I’m very excited about both because I’m delighted for them to meet the newest family member and also because I so rarely get to see any of them. In many ways this is the ideal work furlough for a nerdy homebody such as myself: No buffering days for extended travel, no short-term jump in extra expense, no unreasonable expectations to meet, no trying to cram sufficient amounts of organized “fun” into a day to meet an imaginary quota. Just family, friends and a new chapter of our lives.

Regarding Nerves

“Are you nervous?”

This has become the de facto query directed at me when the subject of the impending birth of my daughter inevitably comes up. I’m not saying I find a way to shoehorn the topic into pretty much every conversation, but—hey, have I mentioned I’m about to be a father?

So. Am I nervous? Well, let’s see. I know that having a child can be expensive. We’re facing a situation where our typical two-income family has been relying on me as sole breadwinner for over a year, an arrangement that is unlikely to change in the next couple of years as we’ve decided it is best for Calliope if she has a full-time parent present during her formative years. As opposed to, say, some kindly old woman named Marge who collects the remainder of one paycheck after the government is finished with its plundering. I never really cared for the Atomic family model but when the math adds up… I mean, it’s math. You can’t argue with math.

Then there’s the fact that I’m in a sort of awkward career stage where I desperately need some re-education or additional training probably at a significant cost so I can break my relative salary stagnation which has been in place for about three years now. Did I mention the economy is sagging and my company just announced yesterday its third round of layoffs since I started ten months ago? I would classify myself as concerned about the financial responsibility I face.

Am I nervous? You know, this child has been almost ten years in the making. Theoretically speaking, that is. Nik and I will celebrate our tenth anniversary this October in what I presume will be a much shorter, less grandiose and significantly more anxious ceremony than we may have anticipated twelve months ago. But it’s possible that at any juncture from that date in October (of the last decade; of the last millennium if you want to fudge the numbers a bit) this thing could have been instituted. The reasons it took this long are numerous but a key factor in a lot of it was my own fears of paternal suitability. I’m not exactly the poster child for responsibility or maturity. Among my encyclopedic flaws are a severe jealousy for my personal and leisure time. Initially when we got married I said that I did in fact want children but I wanted us to have some time to be just a couple, to get to experience some alone time while we were young and not save it all until later in life. My proposal was for five years.

We didn’t make it even those five years before Nik began to grow restless waiting for the opportunity to be a mother. Few things in life have held as much appeal to this girl as the prospect of being a mom. Nurturing and care are in her blood, like she has a special enzyme that causes children to find comfort in her presence, solace in her voice and security in her arms. She began to speak of our five-year plan as if it were merely in draft form, suggesting she might put it to a special vote by the council to have the sentence reduced. It was sadly at this same time that I was growing less enamored with the notion of parenthood for mostly selfish reasons and I could not hide it from Nik. She asked point blank if I was still committed to the idea of parenthood and I had no choice but to confess that I was having doubts.

The next few years were difficult. We avoided the subject a lot, because as a couple we were happy but as a couple facing a future whose vision we didn’t share, it was also tinged with nervousness and sadness. But it had to come up now and then and the conversations were wrenching, draining. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be comfortable with the idea of being a dad. In some ways it made me a worse husband: I can’t bring myself to give my wife what she most wants in the world because I need the decision to be mutual and not some sort of martyr, but if I can’t do that, what else do I have to offer? Why even try?

It took an epiphany in the throes of the worst illness I can recall as my brain boiled beneath a 103° fever to make it clear. She was waiting for me. Her faith in me had moved beyond faith in my words or faith in my intent, she believed with her whole heart that either I would come to see that building a family with her was what we needed to do or, if not, that it was in God’s plan for us to be childless. She was willing to sacrifice her whole sense of identity because she was more devoted to me than she was to herself. Stewing in three-day filth and surrounded by discarded Kleenex brand facial tissues and empty glasses of 7Up and orange juice cocktail I suddenly understood that she would give anything for me because she believed in me with her whole heart.

I didn’t really get over the notion that fatherhood was a terrifying prospect, but I at least got over myself. I allowed myself to believe that she might be right, that I could do anything I set my mind to and I was willing at last to set my mind to being a good dad. It took a little bit more planning but everything began to get better after that. I softened on my stance and Nik cautiously began to accept that I might mean it when I said we could consider the idea of building our family. When we did finally reach the point where we were trying we conceived very quickly but our first pregnancy ended in a tragic miscarriage that almost undid everything. It was Nikki’s worst fear come true and we had no idea how to recover. It set us back more than a year, and not just in our plans for having children. Given the pain of that summer, we’ve been on pins and needles the entire pregnancy and I’m not feeling like the apprehension will ever ease. We already love our daughter so much and we’ve yet to even meet her.

But am I nervous? I’ve decommissioned an entire room of our apartment from an office/storage/hobby room into a nursery I don’t even recognize as belonging to me. We’ve helped Babies R Us post a record-breaking earnings quarter and re-arranged not just the baby’s room but our bedroom as well. It now sports a gigantic bassinet thing and a tiny desk that replaced our nice office work area. Even our living room now has to accommodate a bookshelf and, soon, an assortment of bouncers, playmats, toys, cushy pads and safety devices to avoid accidents. I’m already struggling with all manner of new bits of technology I never knew nor cared existed: Carbon monoxide alarms, internal/external thermometer alarms, monitoring systems, vaporizers, diaper disposal units, car seats, collapsible stroller frames. I love gadgets and yet these devices feel alien and unfamiliar.

All of these objects have been purchased and acquired on the recommendations of the thousands of people who’ve done this before us and while I’m grateful to have their advice and opinions, it can be overwhelming at times. There are persistent assertions that we will be sleep-deprived for months following the birth of our child. People warn about the challenges of parenthood as you struggle to maintain an identity as a couple, to make time for each other and to remember your marriage. It seems daily someone reminds me that, because we’re having a daughter, there will come a time in the all-too-rapidly approaching future where I’ll have to contend with snuffling pre- or just barely post-pubescent boys victimized by some fashion or another that I refuse to comprehend seeking to gain favor with my angel and shoulder me out of the picture. These slouching bags of water and hormones will bear the full brunt of my four decades of training in the arts of scorn, sarcasm and derision to the horror of my daughter who will flee the humiliation of her insufferable parents and seek solace in their simpering arms while I rapidly re-evaluate my long held belief that concealed sidearms are unnecessary in a civilized society.

There are cautionary tales about childhood obesity, the rise of autism, developmental concerns vis a vis television watching and electronic media consumption. Not to mention the basics of discipline and forging appropriate relationships with children as protectors and caregivers, nurturers and providers that stops short of casual friendship and who-runs-the-show spoilage. Oceans of ink have been spilled, countless hours devoted on television and PTA and church seminars and parental support group meetings to cover these topics and one’s head twirls around like a ballerina on a music box to consider having to wade into this fray. There is so much to learn, so many pitfalls on the way, so many places where someone as broken and insufferable as I am can stumble and cause irreparable harm to an innocent, unknowing child who had no worse part in this than to be stricken with the misfortune of having me as a parent.

Yeah, am I nervous?

Listen to me: I couldn’t be more excited.

Nightmare

It’s midday, except that it’s not. In a short while I’ll be up before sunrise, haunted by these things, writing for a means to find purpose. For now, the sun is mild and there is no breeze flowing from the colorless sky. I’m in a place where I can create, mostly at will although there is accomplishment in my efforts, versions of the things in my life that have come before. These versions are all made of soft material, like shaped balloons: They are kid-friendly and age appropriate. Here is a soft, bouncy version of the kitchen in the first home I remember, tiny ripples of not-liquid and not-solid forming the swirling rings of the electric stove burners in vibrant pinkish red. “Don’t touch,” I say calmly, “Those are hot.”

I’m leading a little girl through my fabrications, a girl I don’t know. She’s very young, maybe four, maybe less. She understands and responds to me, but mostly she listens. Sometimes she wanders ahead of me and I watch her closely. I know I am responsible for her but I’m content to let her explore as long as I can see her.

We discuss the things I’ve made casually, in that adult-to-child way when the grown-up respects the young one’s thoughts and observations as if they both had something to learn. This is right I feel. There are no thoughts, only feelings with words. We spend some time in each location, having time to spare. Her voice is high and amicable, full of bright curiosity and exquisite carelessness that is not a part of apathy but of contentment and inexperience. There is no darkening of the sky but this word-feeling casts a shadow.

The place is inside a giant sandbox I now notice. The surface isn’t sand exactly, it’s not dirty and doesn’t cling to your skin or pour into your shoes as you run. It’s stable but soft and stretches wide and far. We have much ground to cover. We pass a playhouse I’ve made that is a shop where they sell pizzas. My pretend pizzas are made with syrup and discs of candy because I think the little girl will like it better than the food I made in my first job. I tell her about how they used to tease me because I slid my foot along behind the broom when I was supposed to be sweeping the floor. They said it looked like I was dancing with it, and the girl’s giggle brings a sad smile to my face. She doesn’t understand the flushing heat of embarrassment that came with being branded the Broom Dancer. She does little twirls around the oven I created for her, holding the soft pretend broom high above her head so it whirls and blurs like a yellow helicopter blade. I don’t use the lesson opportunity to teach her about humiliation. We have time, but we need to move on.

We pad through the supple sand-like powder and she stops now and then to sit in it and run it through her fingers. I sweep it up and create another moment for her, before her eyes while she squeals with delight and claps her tiny fingers together. It is a mostly dry creekbed or man-made inlet, I was never sure, reproduced here as a model, a tiny play set in 1/64th scale. A path runs along the levee on either side, which people use for bicycle riding or jogging when the weather is nice. I top it with some paper doll people walking funny little origami puppies and the girl picks one up and says, “Aww. Doggie!” I feel words that say I had a doggie once but I don’t remind her of that. She moves the dolls along the path, echoing the memories of Saturday mornings. I don’t tell her of the time when a girl—not significantly older than she is now—told me on my birthday that she wanted to be with someone else instead and how I walked along this path in the pouring rain for what felt like hours, mixing tears with the icy drops until my jeans were soaked and my shoes squished with each step. I don’t tell her that. I don’t tell her how, a few years later, I would return to this same pathway with a different girl and tell her that after all we’d been through it wasn’t enough and we needed to go our separate ways. I leave out all of it, including the part where I just walked away, leaving her crying and alone. Without knowing that, she won’t know how it hurts to be on either side of heartbreak or how ashamed one can feel of their own actions.

The time passes and does not pass. The sky never changes, the invisible sun never sets. We must keep going, though we need not rush. We arrive after a time at the place I’ve been dreading. I’ve made for her a safe model of one of my favorite roller coasters. It has slides where the dips should go and cushy merry-go-rounds instead of frightening loop-the-loops. The colors are shimmering blues and candied greens. She pushes ahead of me, eager to try. “This was the first ride I ever wanted to go on,” I tell her, having to raise my voice to be heard over the distance. I can’t tell if my words are carrying across the landscape that separates us or not. She runs through the playground I’ve made for her in the essence of my favorite amusement park memory and she laughs. She looks ahead and runs further still, seeing more amusements re-created by me. I know something about these, but I can only hurry to catch up.

She crawls through tunnels and tumbles down ramps and gentle, padded inclines. She seems so far away and I cannot seem to cover the ground. She stops, and faces me. It looks like she’s half her size from this far away and I feel-think I’ll never catch her. She asks me a question although maybe it isn’t spoken: “What’s this one?”

I look carefully and tears fill my eyes, though I blink them back quickly and hope she can’t see from way over there. “That’s the ride I’m afraid of,” I tell her. She looks carefully at what I made, a shallow pool of bathwater, warm and welcoming, with tablets of floating foam in the shape of daisies. She skips along them, ever further out of reach. I want to tell her not to fall in. To be careful, but she won’t hear me now.

“Well I’m not afraid,” she says proudly.

I look ahead and I see what I didn’t want to have to face. It’s an opening in the sandbox, a ring of rubberized safety padding surrounding a pit. There is a cover over the pit, painted in yellows and blue zigzag designs like a ball you might buy from an enormous bin at a discount store if you could get one out without making the whole pile come down like an avalanche and bouncing across the tiled floor. The cover is a half-dome, hinged and creased across the diameter so it can retract and open. I don’t want it to open, but it will. It is.

Blue light pours from within, splitting the seam created by the widening gap between hemispheres and the girl looks at it, head tilted slightly in wonder. Tears roll down my face and I ignore them because she can’t see me anymore, she won’t look back, I know. I plead-feel Please don’t look inside and I sink to my knees. Inside is the world. Inside that passage, that pit, is danger. I’m afraid, because I’ve been there and I know. I’m afraid because I want to scream to the girl that we have to go back. I even try making something for her, something to distract her, something to get her to return to my side. I know she won’t, and I’ve forgotten how to create. I drop to my hands, needing the support, my head falls forward and I weep.

Please, no. I forgot to warn her.

She is silhouetted, black against the blue light, and my tears blur the edges until I wake.

Stop, Gap

I apologize for the delay. ironCast Episode #6 has run afoul of some technical and scheduling hitches, but it should be up before the end of the weekend or Monday morning at the latest. I’m also working on a few more actual, you know, blog posts which will be available when they are finished. Considering all things that could be later this weekend or it could be July 2010, honestly. I am doing what I can, within reason.

However, if it helps to tide you over I was finally able to get ironCast up onto iTunes. If you use the program and wish to subscribe to the ‘cast that way, you can use this handy link to find the show and simply hit the “Subscribe” button whereupon your favorite media player will automagically download the freshest content for you as it becomes available.

I’m not sure why I’m encouraging you not to visit my website, but since I don’t bother to assault you with advertising, I stand to lose nothing. Anyway, if you do happen to visit our iTunes page, please be a dear and review the show or at the very least rate it so we have some vague notion of how we’re doing. At this point for all we know we could be bringing shame and dishonor to our families—a curse which will last for generations—or we could be poised on the cusp of a lucrative XM/Sirius radio deal, lacking only the proper tinder to start the flames of a grassroots groundswell if I may be permitted to combine several clichés and metaphors in a cement mixer. What I’m saying is that without feedback of some sort, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

Dangerous Confirmations

“Turn left here.”

I glance over my shoulder and note the impenetrable wall of traffic. “Uh, no can do.” I coast into the intersection and look forlornly through my driver’s side window at the road I should be on. A scowl of annoyance folds my cheek and I heave a sigh. “Well, I guess I can swing around at the next light.”

The next light is a No U-Turn intersection. I’ve already committed to the turn lane by the time I realize this, so I take the left anyway and figure I’ll just make another left on the other side of the overpass and come back ’round to my initial destination. Of course there is no left turn possible so I stay in the furthest left lane that I can, hoping soon some light will allow me to reverse direction and get back on track. I am reminded of my dad, whom we’ve occasionally teased with names like “The U-Turn King.” Yes, karma, I see you over there in the corner. Ha ha. Very funny.

“Hey,” Nik remarks, “I think this street is the one you were trying to turn left on originally.” As I breeze past the crosswalk I duck my head and look up at the rapidly passing street sign and, yes, this is the street I originally missed turning onto, obviously it had curved sharply right after the intersection and now ran parallel to the initial road.

“Perfect,” I say.

The next nine minutes involve sixteen left turns, two U-turns and a punched steering wheel (okay two punches were attempted but I’m such a poor executor of my frustration only one of my blows actually lands on the wheel which is half a foot directly in front of me), but at last we’ve found the correct road—and the correct direction, which was a point of consideration I hadn’t thought would play a particularly strong role but proved to be nearly as vexing as locating the proper street. I silently say thanks for my wife’s insistence that we leave the house with time to spare, “just in case.”

I consider what peculiar decisions we’ve taken to arrive at this point in time and space and trace it back to Nik’s central neurosis. It’s like this: We had an ultrasound which confirmed the gender of our baby (a girl) six weeks ago. They took a picture from an unflattering angle off the monitor with an arrow pointing between her legs and typed across the image, “It’s a Girl!” It’s one of the many things that will only fly (with me) for a very brief window of time. Anyone expressing this much fascination with my daughter’s reproductive organs beyond that had better come equipped with an expensive diploma, a stethoscope and a healthy fear of lawsuits, hedge clippers and firearms. But Nik has a sort of casual paranoia: She doesn’t concoct elaborate scenarios in which aliens kidnap her or governmental bogeymen plant tracking devices in her toenails, she prefers to presume that cosmic forces plot against her in an effort to thwart her shopping trips and decor decisions. In this case she’s convinced that we require independent verification of our unborn child’s sex or she will refuse to purchase needed items, register for gifts or accept charity on the (let’s face it) 50/50 shot that the doctors are incorrect.

Which is what has us traveling this twisty maze of unfamiliar streets, looking for the offices of a private ultrasound technician specializing in—ahem—state of the art 4D ultrasounds. The term 4D is something that would probably only get a pass in the logic-adverse world of commercial prenatal products and services. The real fourth dimension is a spatial construct separate from the commonly understood planes of height, width and depth which is described as reasonably as the concept can be in this mind-fracturing article. I think what the marketers mean in this case is that the imagery incorporates the fourth dimension of spacetime which is linear progression via chronology. In other words, the images are arranged in a sequence. Never mind that this is classically defined as, you know, video. I guess it just doesn’t have that same cutting-edge ring to it.

These sorts of establishments offer a variety of services, not unlike studio photographers, only with extra-womb shutterbugs you have to find particularly seedy providers before you encounter the analog to the “genitals only” package. They are intensely specific about this option, including several blocks of disclaimer verbiage in assorted font sizes reminding customers that even an accidental glimpse of the baby’s head, neck, chest or face region is likely to cost upward of $200 additional dollars in service fees. As I settle into the longer stretch of non-highway road on the route I wonder what sort of trickery they plan to employ to prevent us from catching a glimpse of our daughter (?). What if the arbitrarily selected placement of the ultrasound wand happened to be right above her (?) face? They wouldn’t really charge us extra just because the baby was trying to use my wife’s navel as a periscope, would they?

I decide, as is my cynical tendency, they most definitely would. I try to gently prod Nik to get the child to turn around or something. “Where do you think her head is?” I ask casually, breaking the relative silence.

Nik shrugs, she’s still staring at her handwritten instructions. We’re a pretty wired family but we’re notoriously bad about keeping our printer stocked with ink, so we spend a lot of time looking up directions online and copying them by hand onto the backs of envelopes or torn receipts. I let the question linger in the air. She finally looks up. “Huh?”

“Do you think she’s facing toward your front?” I ask, still keeping my voice suave.

“I dunno, I guess so.”

I consider this. “So you think he’ll probably start toward the bottom of your stomach like the OB/GYN? Or do you think he’ll go for a top-down approach?” I’m thinking of the diagrams in a number of books I’ve thumbed through which always depict the infants sort of heads-up until it is time for the labor/delivery process during which they seem to execute a precision half-gainer with a twist. She regards me like a pet owner who just watched their dog run facefirst into the screen door after barely getting the sliding glass door clear.

But before she can chide me she glances out the window and realizes that the scenery has changed and she quickly examines her note. “Whoa, it’s around here somewhere,” she says. I look out the window, searching for a reference address. Rather than noting any street digits, I’m distracted by the black glare of the telltale signs of Bad Neighborhood: Bars line every window, graffiti extends beyond the typical suburban targets like open sound walls, bus stops and public school portables, spilling onto traffic signs, parked cars and unlucky pedestrians. The street lights have dimmed to a dull yellow, the universal color of warning and I begin to process what she just said in the context of what my fight-or-flight reaction is relaying to me now.

“It’s here?”

“Yeah, well the website says it’s not the nicest location. You know, so they can keep the costs down.”

“They keep costs down by squatting on Skid Row?” I can practically feel her scowling at me.

“Oh!” Her death gaze is cut short by a glimpse of a passing address. “It should be right… around…” her finger points out the window like a divining rod trying to find a lock. “Here!” I slow my approach and make the right hand turn into what must be the smallest parking lot ever designated as such. It contains one ’87 Oldsmobile Cutlass and is already full. There is a razor thin pathway leading toward the back of the building with a sign clearly punctured by multiple drive-by shootings indicating additional parking is available through this alley/ambush bottleneck.

The building itself is a fleabag hotel that has been converted—my guess is illegally—into a business park. The tenants include two bail bond operations, a head shop (hours: M, Th from 11:00 am – 3:45 pm) and the local NA chapter, who are currently holding a meeting. The ultrasound place is on the lower floor, street side in what I’m beginning to think of as the “killzone” for any marauders or other passing brigands. I’m trying to execute a three-point turn at a safe 45 mph while Nik is calmly gesturing toward the canal of death, deeper into the inky blackness of urban nightmares. “Looks like we’ll have to pull around back.”

I can’t bring myself to actually stop the car, so I speak quickly, “This place is a hovel. We are going to die here and our tale will serve as a grim warning to future generations.” This is my protest, but I note with chagrin that I haven’t been able to avoid actually directing the car down the alleyway. At the back side of the building is another parking lot in the loosest sense of the word. It is an enclosed and dimly lit cul-de-sac crowded with stolen cars and derelict RVs whose windows glow with ethereal lights in sickly green hues. The sort of mad street chemistry being conducted behind those filthy panes of shatterproof glass by bearded urban hillbillies frosts me with a deep marrow chill, like filling my bones with Icee™. Crowding the limited space available are looming trees, bristling with sniper’s nests and camouflaging the night’s sinister soldiers.

“There’s a spot,” Nik chirps brightly.

I pull into the stall and begin to hurriedly collect anything that might be of value—anything loose, essentially. I’m glancing out the windows, praying the automatic interior light timer will hurry because as it is we’re a virtual Victim Beacon, broadcasting our location with searchlights and highlighting our lack of defensive weaponry with fiber optic sandwich boards. Nik looks over at me, my arms laden with personal electronics, spent checkbooks, car chargers, pens, anything shiny that might reflect light and draw the villainous eye of a thug on patrol through his favorite hunting grounds. Sweat beading on my brow, she crumples her lip as if she was seeing me for the first time for what I truly am: A five-foot-seven banana slug. “Let’s just go,” she says with a heaving sigh of exasperation. A sound pierces the darkness which I immediately attribute to gunfire but upon further reflection…

“Was that… cannon fire?” I can honestly say I never expected to be dragged by my earlobe through a parking lot by a pregnant woman. Oh the places you’ll go, indeed.

The door to the destination is open, but the lights are off. Also open is the door to the meeting in the next suite which I thought originally was for NA but turns out to be Serial Killers Anonymous, a lesser known organization. The gathering of greasy-haired outcasts thumbing something rigid and slender outlined just beyond the threshold of recognition in their jacket pockets, talking to their curtains of hair with sharp bird-like movements of their heads is peppered with beefy tattooed convicts proudly displaying an impressive array of improvised blade scars across their arms and faces. Their heads turn in unison as we pass, regarding this pasty suburban couple with the same intensity as a pack of starving jackals watching a flat-tired butcher delivery van. Our options are to brave the unknown darkness behind the portal that represents what I can only assume is our final destination or stand out here testing the efficacy of the 12-step program.

“Come in, come in,” a voice creeps from the darkness, “I’ve been expecting you.” I’m having trouble placing the accent, and Nik and I shuffle nervously into the dim room, sort of egging each other on. A form moves toward the back of the suite and my eyes adjust enough to make out a shadow pulling away from the pale glow of a laptop monitor. There are flashes of color and motion just visible via the insubstantial orange light that barely filters through the slits in the closed blinds. It doesn’t seem like the form really moves, it more appears at our side, and the light clicks on.

Our host is an eastern European man, maybe mid-forties. He’s suddenly wearing a hunting-safety orange vest over a set of blood red scrubs, where a moment ago I swore he was wearing some sort of hood or at least a cloak. After another second of consideration I decide I’m not much comforted by the notion of red scrubs and I examine the extremities of them, the wrists and cuffs, to see if perhaps they were once white and only appear to have been intentionally dyed red. He’s swarthy and has a scruff of salt and pepper across his chin and neck, but I notice with some alarm that his eyes are solid black and even under the unforgiving illumination of these florescent bulbs, they reflect no light. “So, what are you here to see?” he asks cordially. I finally recognize the accent: Transylvanian.

Nik explains to him that we want to verify the baby’s gender. “You didn’t get an ultrasound from your doctor?” he asks. Looking a bit embarrassed, Nik shuffles her feet.

“We did,” I say, my voice croaking a bit as I realize my mouth is entirely devoid of saliva. “We just want to be sure.”

“Okay,” the Count Ultrasound says. Only he doesn’t say it in that “yes I understand” sort of way, he says it like, “Ooookay,” in that “hey it’s your money, weirdos” kind of way. I’m a little insulted that a vampire masquerading as a medical professional would be judging us. He continues, to Nik, “Up on the table, please.”

From across the room I’m suddenly acutely aware of several things:

  1. My wife has a long and particularly luscious neck.
  2. Count Ultrasound has positioned himself between her and I.
  3. I left my ghoul-hunting equipment at home.

I look around the room, trying to find any sort of object I could use as an improvised weapon, thinking, “What would MacGuyver do? What would Jason Bourne look for?” The most useful result of this exercise is that I confirm for the record that I am neither MacGuyver or Jason Bourne. Less useful but interesting is the room itself. Aside from the standard issue exam table, there is a high-quality color printer, a pretty state-of-the-art HP laptop which is really a desktop replacement, a massive screen stretched across the far wall, a decent projector mounted on the ceiling and an ultrasound machine that makes the one in Nik’s OB/GYN’s office look like it could have been used to confirm the gender of Caesar Agustus.

In no way am I up on any of the current models in the ultrasound sector, but I know snazzy techno-gizmos when I see them and this thing is pretty smokin’. It has its own flat panel high resolution display and as Count Ultrasound begins, he dims the lights in the room and suddenly the inside of my wife is projected wall-sized in HD on the screen from the projector. The picture quality, compared to the images I felt I was getting pretty good at deciphering, is astounding. Within moments I feel like I can start to make out tiny details I would never have distinguished from the blizzard of static at the OB’s office. I swear I can see a tiny wrinkle in the knuckle of a baby toe when suddenly the Count snaps the light back on and announces, “We’re done. It’s a girl.”

I think he’s joking, but it’s hard to tell from the back of his head. Nik looks like she’s near to tears so I’m guessing maybe he’s serious? The moment lasts too long and Nik and I exchange a few glances before she catches the Count’s look again and seems to soften. He says something I don’t hear and Nik laughs her nervous fake laugh while he replaces the wand on her belly and begins again. Oh, it was a joke. You know that one where you make a pregnant woman almost cry?

Hilarious.

The clarity in this ultrasound is remarkable and indeed after a couple of seconds to get my bearings I can clearly identify the parts he’s highlighting with the mouse cursor on the screen: This child is indeed my daughter. He flips the mode over to the dubiously referenced 4D mode which mostly seems to fill in the x-ray style ultrasound with an amber coating to give it some solidity and creates a more photographic effect. Indeed, if you wish to be charged for the privilege, the technique can give you something that approximates the child’s first picture in which you can make out a lot of their features. I’m impressed by how deftly the Count avoids the child’s face so as to avoid granting us any freebies, but I also note that Nik seems to be subtly shifting herself underneath the wand, trying to trick him into rolling over the child’s head area and giving us a peek.

Without thinking I avert my eyes, afraid Nik’s gambit will be successful. Sure, there is the ridiculous reflex based notion which puffs out its tiny chest in the face of logic and suggests that if I somehow don’t see the baby’s face I can’t be charged for it but there is something else driving my actions. It’s subtler and less prone to metaphor. Obviously I’m curious. I’ve waited for months for this child, my offspring, to reveal herself and yet there are still months to go. I have a documented fascination for technology and the wonder of using it to simulate magic.

But something in me feels like there is a magic in itself to that moment so poorly captured in novel and film where a child is drawn crying from its mother and placed into the waiting arms of its parents. It is like meeting a pen pal for the first time and finding the love you hoped and feared you might have for them is in fact real and consumes like a fire. It’s like opening the Christmas present you’ve pretty much got figured out and finding your hopes confirmed but being even more grateful for it than you thought you’d be. It’s the surprise that isn’t a surprise, something so marvelous that it can’t be cheated, it must be experienced. And at this moment I’m feeling like I risk ruining it before I’ve had the chance to know what it’s like.

Listen, the truth is, I chicken out.

But honestly it doesn’t matter because the Count is crafty and he shifts the wand with Nik like a bemused dancer dealing with an overly confident upstart. I guess he’s played this little game before and I realize he’s got the upper hand regardless: Even if Nik is successful he can always just charge us for it and emerge the victor one way or the other. I try to telepathically relay to Nik that the deck is stacked. Whether she receives the signal or comes to the conclusion on her own, she gives up.

We spend a few more minutes checking toes and seeing the baby kick, which gives a peculiar reference to the little bumps we’ve felt for weeks now. After a bit the Count stands up and snaps on the light (again), provides Nik with a towel so she can clean the goop from her stomach and fusses with his high tech equipment for a bit before dangling a parcel containing a CD-ROM and a couple of high-res printouts in front of me but just out of reach like an older brother. He’s expecting payment and suddenly I realize we haven’t discussed methods. Does he accept cash only? Checks? Discover card? Plasma by the pint?

Our exit is awkward, we’re reluctant to turn our back on him but similarly hesitant to return to the mean streets, especially carrying an unmarked package which could entice a particularly curious brand of mugger. My voice wavers as I speak intentionally loudly about our recently acquired baby pictures, clarifying that we aren’t transporting rare electronic devices or precious stones or anything else appealing to any hooligans who may be lurking just out of site, in wait. We reach the car out of breath although neither of us recalls running or even walking fast. I leave a sixteen foot streak of black rubber on the asphalt in my haste to depart and I glance into the rearview mirror one last time, confirming we don’t have a tail. A quick look to my right finds Nik, pale faced and clutching the package of images of our unborn daughter’s genitalia, an approving grimace on her lips.

“So,” I ask, trying to regain my cool exterior, “Want to try the best ice cream in the world?”

Thirteen Minutes

00:01

I guess I should have realized what she was doing earlier. Silly superstitions fluctuate between amusing and annoying for me, but I don’t have a problem with little games. That she kept her half of the wishbone in a plastic baggie was the tip-off I should have received, but it wasn’t until just this moment that the light bulb had sputtered on.

As an aside, I can’t figure out the phrasing “The light bulb went off” as a metaphor for sudden realization. Given cartoon parlance, the idea always illuminates the bulb, which means if the bulb “went off,” the idea would be extinguished. An odd turn of the language, that.

Anyhow, here I am with a mouthful of kettle chips, staring idly into space while the open refrigerator cools my jeans because I’m functionally a very thin-haired teenager, waiting to sip Diet Coke directly from the two-liter once I’ve had a chance to swallow and I’m staring at this bit of chicken carcass magnetized to the fridge door and I get it. She wished that she was pregnant.

And it worked.

Or, at least, it proved to be a timely guess. Or an accurate hope. Or… something. For a few seconds I marvel that most of the truth or effectiveness of hope and wish and prayer and astrology and superstition and faith and optimism is basically attribution: If you think of it as coming from fate or God or cosmic forces or planetary alignment or positive thinking or the power of the human spirit it works either way. Did a wish on a chicken bone give my wife what she’s always wanted? Did God answer her prayers? Did nothing more magical than raw biology occur? It just depends on how you look at it. Maybe, technically, the answer is just “yes.” Maybe God granted the chicken bone the power to grant the wish that provided the sperm with the strength to push that last tiny bit.

Maybe it’s just easier to say she got her wish.

00:02

The fleshy woman had a security camera poised above and just to the right rear of her desk, overlooking both the semi-awkward chairs that served to provide customers with a modicum (a very small modicum) of comfort and, my paranoid mind assumed, to evaluate her level of worktime dedication. Pre-registering for admission to the hospital is kind of surreal when you think about it. Delivering a baby is one of the very few times you plan on visiting the hospital. I guess that’s why most people hate hospitals: They always interrupt your life.

Really, we love hospitals. They give us a place to go when these mysterious bodies of ours malfunction. I tried to imagine living in a place where hospitals weren’t standard issue in every township and populated region. It looked a lot like the scary places on Earth that I’m hesitant to visit. Maybe because they lack hospitals.

Jowls swinging, the woman “hoom”ed over our paperwork, flitting thickly back and forth between the forms (which weren’t that detailed) and her computer screen, which was turned opposite us so the security camera could stare watchfully at it but we could not. We listened to the clack of her fingernails on the keyboard for what felt like too many seconds while she let the semi-silence drag on. Finally she looked up, “Can I have a copy of your driver’s license, please?” Nik complied readily. “Did they take a copy when you were in here before?”

Nik looked puzzled but replied, “Yes.”

Heaving her bulk out of the chair (an unnecessary motion, I presumed, the office was scarcely big enough for her full frame, much less the three of us; I couldn’t imagine what she would need to do that one of us couldn’t handle by lifting an arm six inches to any side) she slapped the ID cards into the copier tray. “Well, no harm in copying them again, I suppose.”

I almost spoke up, suggesting that having unaccounted for copies of her driver’s license and insurance card lying around was indeed capable of causing harm, but I decided to stow it. Instead I marveled at the unfunny cartoon magnet on her overhead cupboard and the gigantic teacup-and-saucer shaped pots that crowded the room with poorly maintained plants.

The copier whirred and she lifted the lid too soon, half-blinding herself with the scanning light. I suppressed a laugh, mostly for Nik’s benefit, and watched as she handed the cards back to my wife, beaming with her un-self-conscious radiance in the stiff chair next to me. Before the woman flopped herself back into the chair I already knew that she was going to tell us we were all set to enter the hospital in less than 100 days for the first steps in the journey that would alter everything forever. I wished the confirmation was being delivered by someone with less Mary Kay brand lipstick on her teeth.

00:03

It had been a pretty tough morning. My first-shift partner had taken a personal day and things were breaking all over the place, causing me to get overwhelmed and stressed out. I griped over IM to Nik and she almost immediately asked if I wanted her to come out and have lunch. It was well past my lunchtime but having no relief/backup that day, I hadn’t actually taken a break. I didn’t really want her to go out of her way, but I did want to see a friendly face so I said if she wanted to come out, I would like to see her.

After the break she had decided to just stay and hang out until my shift was over. Fortunately the rest of the day had been much smoother than the first half and now we were discussing dinner options while I tried to pack up my equipment and hit the road. When Nik and I talk about what to eat for dinner the conversation often goes something like this:

Me: “What do you want for dinner?”
Nik: “I dunno, what sounds good to you?”
Me: “Meh, I could go for pretty much anything. Did you have any preferences?”
Nik: “Well, I’m starving but nothing sounds good.”
Me: “How about something we don’t get very often?”
Nik: “No.”
Me: “How about something we eat all the time?”
Nik: “I’m sick of all of that.”
Me: “So… if you could eat anything in the world right now, what would it be?”
Nik: “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. Give me some suggestions.”
Me: “Like, more suggestions than I already have?”
Nik: “You didn’t give me any suggestions.”
Me: “I should start carrying around a tape recorder.”
Nik: “You should start carrying around some sandwiches.”
Me: “…”
Nik: “…What about sandwiches?”

But in this case we were also saddled with an additional issue of being close to our budget limit for food, plus we were in an unfamiliar location and had two cars. We had a meal at home that we were prepared to eat but it was at least 45 minutes until we could get there and then another probably hour until it would be ready. I suggested we push the budget anyway and get some food.

As we exited the building Nik said she didn’t want to do that because she’d feel guilty the whole time she ate, knowing it was bad for our budget, and she wouldn’t enjoy it. I said that was okay and we could think of something else. We walked along the sidewalk that separated the lots. My car was in the one to the right, the employee lot, hers in the left for visitors. We stopped moving because we hadn’t decided how to handle the transportation. Nik was looking increasingly agitated. She didn’t think we could agree on anything to eat and didn’t even know what we could find.

I suggested we could head into the main part of Sunnyvale and see what we came across, then come back and get my truck before we came home. Nik finally lost it. Her eyes puddled with tears and her lip quivered in that sad/cute way it does when she’s trying to avoid feeling silly for being emotional. She spoke in short, liquid phrases. “I haven’t eaten since before I left home! I know we should just go home, but I’m so hungry I’m getting a headache… I can’t think straight…” Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of my unknown co-workers, who was trying unsuccessfully not to stare at the cad making a pregnant woman cry. Embarrassed now at her audience and tumbling into a self-replicating spiral of emotional overload, she clammed up and tried to urge me toward my truck to just get something happening so she could try to forget the fact that she was crying about food of all things.

I don’t always know what to do when people get worked up over small things. I don’t judge them for it, in my estimation people like me are probably too cold and reserved for this world. Frankly, there’s a lot of stuff to get worked up about. In that second with tears falling against her will onto her stretched belly (where else would they land?) as if to bathe my unborn daughter with tears wrought by my inconsiderate behavior, I made a command decision. “Come on,” I said. “We’re going to get hamburgers. And I’m going to drive you there.”

“What about your tru—”

I cut her off. “I’ll take the shuttle tomorrow morning. I’ll drive it home then. No problem!” I smiled at her, hoping to appear reassuring and not reveal that if my all-in gamble on swaggering confidence failed me I would have no backup plan for how to ease her pain. She choked on a little laugh and glanced nervously at the bicycle-fiddler, who might as well have been whistling and staring at the clouds. She blinked back the pooled tears and wiped a palm absently on her shirt, and circled her arm around mine so I could lead her to the car.

00:04

It’s really not the sentiment the bothers me. I appreciate that people are engaged with expectant parents the way they would never otherwise be. There is a certain universal human-condition aspect to being pregnant that causes a sort of softening of the edges on the barriers that people usually construct between themselves and the ubiquitous strangers who populate their same general space. It’s in the smiles from passerby, it’s in the breezy conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be struck, it’s in the sense of palpable excitement from random humans with no other connection to you than their appreciation for your contribution to our species.

Still, there ought to be some limits. In some cases those non-pregnancy barriers exist for socially relevant reasons. Nik had just undergone the most recent barrage of naming suggestions from some arbitrary, disconnected passerby which sounded more like names they would like to use on their own children than names they felt would really suit a child coming from the collated DNA of Nik and I. We hadn’t exactly kept a secret that while we were fully prepared with a previously agreed upon name for a boy, the revelation that we were having a girl left us without a solid contingency in place. Hearing this had seemed to open the door for people to supply us with useful suggestions.

It wasn’t that we hadn’t scoured baby name books and sites already. Options were hardly what we lacked. What we lacked was that sense of connection to the name, the feeling that it was the end of the sentence that started with, “So I was hanging out this weekend with Paul, Nikki and…”

Of course, I wasn’t making it easier. I insisted that whatever name we chose also had a solid nickname. My entire life the principal complaint I had about my name was that it couldn’t be shortened. It felt many times like people avoided calling me by name, preferring to address me as “dude” or “bud” or whatever because there wasn’t a decent “hey-I-know-this-guy-and-we’re-on-informal-terms” phrasing for my name. Even people who have single syllable names like Tom or Jim can go by “Tee” or “Jay.” I won’t pretend I’m upset that no one ever felt it was cool or funny to call me “Pee.”

I built a spreadsheet. It contained the names we were considering in one column, the possible nicknames in another, matching middle name options in the third and then a column each for our individual ratings: 0-5. A calculated column then tallied the scores and sorted them by which names we both liked the best.

Lots of names Nik liked I had to rate low because they didn’t have nicknames at all. Many of the names I suggested were nixed because they were too unusual, even though I selected them to be long versions of the short names she liked. Nothing scored a higher cumulative rating than 6, and I kept dropping my score on that one because while I liked the full name, the more I thought about the short name the less happy I was with it.

Nik sighed and tried to shake off the well-meaning but ultimately frustrating encounter. Since we had the boy’s name earlier than we needed it we weren’t shy about sharing it. Even that had been somewhat bewildering as people felt perfectly at ease offering us critiques as if their reminders that it made a very excellent dog’s name was somehow helpful. The process felt in many ways like a classic case of too many cooks occupying the same kitchen.

“You know people are going to drive us crazy about this until she gets here, right?” Nik asked, although it wasn’t exactly a question. It was my turn to sigh. “I mean, what if we can’t come up with a name until right before she gets here?”

I rolled the thought around in my head for a moment, like Play-Doh. “What if…” I trailed off.

“What?”

“Nah. Nevermind.”

She scowled. “You have to tell me now. You know I hate that.”

“Okay,” I said with a grin. “I’m just thinking, what if we just told people we weren’t telling anyone the name?” Nik wrinkled her nose the way she does when she’s thinking.

“We could say it was going to be a surprise!” She seemed very excited about this.

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” I’m not huge on surprises, but I supposed that was what I was insinuating anyway. “Plus, that way even if we can’t agree on anything until the day before she’s born, no one has to know how much we struggled to come up with it. They might just assume we knew it all along.”

Nik cocked an eyebrow at me. “Ah, the procrastinator’s dream.”

00:05

We didn’t anticipate much of the reality of the pregnancy. We had plenty of notions about what it would be like. Having suffered from lower back pain for several years after an on-the-job injury and even undergoing spinal surgery to correct a herniated disc (an uncommon procedure in someone so young), we assumed Nik would have lots of back trouble during the ordeal. Instead it turned out that her lower back was fine but her ribs and mid-back were what sustained the most pressure from the extra weight in front and were causing her lots of sleepless nights and frustrating issues with general comfort.

I went to the freezer and retrieved the two ice packs we kept in there, these funky gel-based numbers that supposedly stayed cooler for longer periods of time. Than what I’m not precisely sure. I suppose than regular bags of ice cubes. That’s not the point. The problem was that even through a shirt they felt like they caused frostbite. We solved the problem by arranging them into a pillowcase, along the seam, separated lengthwise by about six inches. She would then wrap the case around her side, one ice pack lying atop her belly bulge and tucked under a breast so it could numb the thin muscles overlying the ribs. The other pack pressed against her back, just on the other side of her body from the first.

The problem was the position she had to contort into to hold the packs in place made the pain even worse than without the ice. So I grabbed an Ace bandage and wrapped it around her middle several times, making sure to get up underneath the edges of the ice packs so they would stay in place, then I clipped the bandage snugly in place. It was a little silly looking, with a bandage around the middle of a pregnant woman and a cream-colored pillow case hanging off her hip like a tiny mis-fitting cape.

I finished wrapping it up and the cold sent goosebumps up her bare arm, disappearing under the strap of her tank top. “Thank you, sweetie,” she said and planted a soft kiss on my cheek, standing up with surprising lightness on her tiptoes to reach.

00:06

Instinctively, my defenses began to rise. Forcefully I kept my voice even and tried again to explain my position, but I didn’t get far before her mind came up with another point. I could tell from her tone that she was on edge as well but trying valiantly to avoid escalating the conversation into a genuine quarrel. The curious thing about parenting is that so much initially affects the mother directly and physically. Eventually I presume the biology gets out of the way and things even out, but at this point there was so little actual influence I had.

“I think you’re not grasping that this is a long time we’re talking about. You don’t have to watch what you eat. You don’t have to alter much of anything, because the baby isn’t depending on your body!”

I nodded. “Well, that’s kind of exactly my point. I appreciate the reality of that circumstance, but don’t you think I should have some kind of input on things that affect our child? How is it fair that you play the biology card and it turns out it’s a trump card?” I’m sure she loves it when I make gaming metaphors.

It was all theoretical at this point. The discussion revolved around a comment she had read on an online article discussing bad husbands in the delivery room. One example had been a guy who, when the mother asked for an epidural, told his wife, “Come on, honey. We can do this!” Universally he had been reviled but I felt there was more to it. Perhaps they had agreed earlier that they would try for as natural of a birth as possible. It seemed like he was merely cheerleading, although I sort of understood that his use of the pronoun was a bit mistimed. My contention which was leading us down the path of disagreement was that husbands shouldn’t be chastised for offering opinions about labor process just because they weren’t the ones who had to do it. Initially my example had been that Nik once told me, “You can’t hold anything I say in the delivery room against me.” I was merely suggesting that the same ought to hold true. As much duress as men aren’t under in that situation, it’s still sort of new and scary. Plus, I say more stupid things per day than the populations of many second world countries combined, so my odds of not being a fool during delivery were vanishingly slim.

Eventually we were here, debating how much input on all things parental a father could really have when the executor of those decisions was, by definition, the mother. Nik was nodding as well, but not in agreement, more in understanding. “Well, you can have input, but you can’t have the say.”

I considered this. In a phony authoritarian voice I said, “That sounds like ‘Your opposition has been noted for the record, Mr. Dad.'” Nik curled her lip in a way to suggest, well, like, yeah. I softened my voice. “Can we at least agree that I should be some part of the decision making process?”

She tried to hide the eye roll, but I still caught it. “Of course we can.”

I’ve considered the prospect of parenthood for many years at this point. I never thought it would take less time than was necessary for the child to gestate to realize how challenging it actually was going to be.

00:07

Ultrasound technicians like to pretend they’re privy to some deep magicks, enabling them some true sight when they wield their arcane implements of divination. Honestly, they just have a lot of practice staring at grainy video feeds and speaking with authority. By the time the 20-week scan arrived, I’d seen about half a dozen or more of these in the last couple of years and felt like I was getting pretty good at seeing what they could see.

It helped when I realized that what often makes it strange-looking is that you can see completely through all the tissue most of the time. I guess it makes sense if you can see through the skin and organs of the mother that the sonic waves don’t conveniently stop when they hit the baby’s body. So sometimes you can see the baby from the bottom and catch a glimpse of its tiny, developing brain. On a related subject, I sometimes have a really tough time not making inappropriate jokes. For the record, ultrasound appointments in which they examine your fetal child to determine if everything is developing properly? Not great stages for witty stand-up routines.

I could tell the tech and Nik were discussing something; the lady squishing the paddle through the ultrasound fluid, more than a little reminiscent of hair gel, was talking a steady clip and adjusting various knobs and dials on the machine. I was in another land. I was watching my daughter roll and bounce, springing her head back and pushing off with tiny feet from the lining of my wife’s uterus. She was, it seemed, playing. It was the kind of moment you might catch if you walk up to a child’s room and find them alone, unaware of your presence. They softly entertain themselves with something mundane and maybe repetitive, lost in the world of minor activities that are still new to these inexperienced creatures. She was swimming, or jumping, or just rocking herself.

It looked like fun.

00:08

When I work from home, I tend to sit at the dining room table. The desk in the spare room/soon-to-be-nursery is always ridiculously cluttered and far too crowded with other computer peripherals from the aging desktop we can’t quite seem to part with for my laptop. Plus when I’m out in the main part of the house I don’t feel as much like I’m just stuck back in my cube at work. Nik, especially these days, prefers the couch. From my station it’s nice because we’re more or less facing each other and that makes it easy to chat while I work and she does her thing, usually studying or reading or watching TV.

She has a weird obsession about her face and makeup: She claims she had horrible acne as a teenager and she regularly complains about suffering from adult acne although I never really noticed it in high school and I don’t think it’s even remotely as bad now as she makes it out to be. But regardless she made a set of rules that she lives by regarding her skin. For one, she never leaves the house without makeup. This is frequently inconvenient for me since that means there is no such thing as her just “running out” to pick up something from, say, the 7-11 on the corner. If something needs to be picked up quickly, I’m the guy. For another, she never sleeps or lies down with makeup on. That means that if she has plans to take a nap at any point during the day, she tries as much as she can to avoid getting ready to go out until after the nap.

Sometimes, this doesn’t work. We’d had an OB appointment earlier that morning which had necessitated her getting her makeup on and she had class that evening so she couldn’t even get ready for bed early. But it was clear she was fading and needed to get some rest. She compromised by arranging some pillows on the couch and sitting in a more or less reclined position, head back, feet up, hands folded gently across the expanse of her stomach.

I was busy working, head down in some crisis of the moment and I stopped to crack my neck. As I did I pulled off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, catching a glimpse of the clock to see that I still had hours left to go in my work day. In an effort to shave a few extra seconds off my work and add a bit more mental refreshment, I looked around the room and my eyes rested on Nik.

She lay there, sort of awkwardly positioned but looking almost improbably relaxed, and I noted that the sun was low in the sky so it shone past the tall trees outside the balcony, and through the opened blinds on the patio door, illuminating her face. She says regularly that she doesn’t have that “pregnant glow,” which I believe she considers to be little more than myth. I sat for the full minute, watching that glow come from both within her and shining from without, cast by the golden sun and lighting her up the way rooms do when she enters. The soft rise and fall of her breathing, the barest of smiles tipping the edges of her mouth, a cool serenity in her expression the way she’s looked since she found she was pregnant.

I reminded myself to swallow, and reluctantly turned back to my tasks, wondering exactly how I happened upon this state of unimaginable fortune.

00:09

I don’t even remember the dream, now. In fact, given that it had wrenched me out of slumber several hours before, I didn’t even really remember it as I stood zombie-like in the shower later that morning. I was trying to concentrate on the pounding of the hot water against my neck and shoulders and not on the dream. Or the memory of the dream. Or maybe just the feelings of loss and sadness that had permeated my mind since it had played out in my subconscious.

All the books say expectant fathers often dream about their own dads, and while the specifics of the nightmare were nebulous and slippery, sliding further away on the masochistic occasions that I tried to recapture them, I do remember this: When I woke up, near to tears, I asked a concerned Nik who had shaken me out of it, “Is my dad okay?”

I guess the connective thread that binds fathers to sons as they become fathers themselves is predictably strong. The notion, passed into my waking forebrain, of losing my own father was readily contrasted with my sense of apprehension at suddenly having an entire set of people who depended on me and found value in my existence who would be left behind and, ostensibly, worse off in the case of my demise. It’s all very morbid and depressing to contemplate, especially before breakfast.

I honestly don’t know how we do it most of the time. I mean “we” in the most inclusive sense, the humans who get up knowing full well how tragically fragile our lives can be, and we carry on doing our thing, spending our time like borrowed money understanding that with each new relationship we forge we create another strand in a web made of spun glass, as easily shattered by a stiff wind as by a swung hammer. The shower thundered against the backs of my ears, and I listened carefully to its drumming, aware at once how dangerous and incredible this world can be. I shifted my weight a little, thinking it was probably getting to be time to dry off, get out and continue my day.

Maybe that’s just how we do it. We get up. We kiss our families. We face the day as bravely as we know how. We just hope. It seems somehow worth it, though thousands of years of poetry and art and music have tried in vain to describe why, we just sense it. Somehow it matters. Somehow, it’s worth sharing.

I decided to let the water run, just a bit longer.

00:10

It was the sixth time we’d visited Old Navy in as many weeks. When Nik first started to show, she was pretty pleased with her body. She had been on an impressively strict exercise regimen prior to conceiving and the first trimester had been a loathsome ordeal during which Nik was locked in a tense battle of wills with her own stomach. In this corner, crippling nausea. In the other corner, Nik’s lifetime aversion to regurgitation. The bout was ultimately ruled a draw but each landed some vicious blows.

Anyway, going into the second trimester Nik had actually lost weight, which didn’t make her doctor ecstatic but I’ve yet to meet a female who didn’t find weight loss, regardless of circumstance, a net positive. I’m fairly sure chemotherapy patients at least start off my saying, “All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the results.” She was starting to show in those blissful early visits but was only stretching her waistband a bit from the bump and overall her confidence was high.

I suppose “blissful” is a relative term. Shopping with Nik is a very effective tool in building patience. For one thing, she’s almost—almost—as picky about her clothing as she is about her food. Which means she can walk into any of two dozen stores packed floor to ceiling with garments, make a single circuit through the rows of jeans and dresses and shirts and jackets and return to the entrance declaring with authority: “They don’t have anything here.” It’s like a strange shopping blindness and I’ve found through repeated trial and error that picking something up and showing it to her does not penetrate the filter.

The other part of the equation is that she hates trying on clothes. I mean she really hates it. Given the choice between trying on clothes and stuffing live carpenter ants into her nostrils, I’m guessing the first thing out of her mouth would be, “How many ants are we talking here?” Practically this results in her returning a lot of clothes. I mean a lot. Every single trip to the clothing store(s) has, in our ten years plus as a couple, resulted in at least one item that needs to be returned. Of those approximately seventy-four trillion garments, I’d estimate one-third have actually made their way back to the place of purchase to be exchanged for cash or credit. Goodwill shoppers frequently petition us to move into their region when our leases expire.

I believe it was the former issue that ultimately led to this moment. It wasn’t that we didn’t see any maternity items, but Nik didn’t like any of them. She was also trying—and you will detect no note of complaint in this fact from me—to avoid spending a lot of cash. Naturally such ideals are lofty; lacking a large or persistent customer base maternity shops have decided to price according to demand and demand is high when as each week passes the figure a woman once only thought she loathed transforms into a mocking caricature of what she’s always envisioned herself to look like on her darkest days. Given the very real prospect of trying to squeeze an expanding body into a shirt that fit mere months ago and having the result resemble those Pillsbury biscuit cylinders when they’ve been accidentally dropped at the checkout line, women will pay upwards of $200 for an eyepatch if it makes them feel a little bit more attractive.

The obvious tragedy here is that pregnant women look, to outside observers, adorable by their very nature. We are genetically programmed to have a melting fondness for the rotund pregnant form unless we are actually the ones who are pregnant. Cruelly, maternity outlet stores capitalize on this biological fact like wolves serving starving sheep crabgrass à la mode in some famine-stricken region.

I’m not sure if I was shocked or relieved to find that even during the months Nik had spent shopping for maternity clothes, stores who didn’t specialize in them seemed to be ridding themselves of stock. I guess it’s difficult to justify charging $86 for a maternity T-shirt when you have regular, non-maternity T-shirts in XL two aisles over selling for $5.99.

But this Old Navy had clearly sold maternity clothes, they had sold them to Nikki, earlier in this exact pregnancy. Now here we were a week later, operating under Pregnant Lady Logic which suggests that seven days is all it takes for an entire rotation of a store’s stock. We were bewildered to find the spot we had checked to see the exact same elastic-waist pants and mid-paneled jeans and stretchy tank tops the prior Saturday was now an extension of the Jr. Ms. department like an encroaching vine of youthful non-reproduction had overtaken the motherhood section in the night. Nik approached a woman wearing an Old Navy name tag, tiny fists balled, clearly expecting a fight.

“You don’t have any maternity clothes.”

The employee looked up lazily from her strenuous task of folding. “No.”

“No? So where are they?”

“Where are what?”

Nik’s brow furrowed. “Where are the clothes?” The employee matched her rumpled expression and looked around, clearly thinking, look around lady, they’re everywhere. I didn’t have time to inject a friendly word of advice warning the girl about how pointing out the clothes was fruitless.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” the employee said, dropping the half-folded skirt onto the stack in front of her, “but what?”

“I’m looking for the maternity clothes,” Nik said, a little optimistic now that they were finally getting somewhere.

The girl, whose name tag read, “Mindee” and was adorned with what I presumed were supposed to be floating hearts but looked more like a child’s first clumsy attempts at the capital letter B, spoke slowly, now understanding that she was dealing with a challenged couple. “We don’t carry maternity clothes. Like I said.”

“What?” It was Nikki’s turn to be perplexed. “You just had them—”

Mindee cut her off. “Yeah, we got rid of them.” She resumed her skirt-folding. “Sorry.” She didn’t sound the least bit.

I could tell Nik was ready to launch into a tirade questioning the marketing decisions and lineage of every single employee who received a paycheck from Gap, Inc. I swiftly interjected, “Thanks,” and began tugging Nik by the arm toward the front doors. She was irate and hardly softened her voice much less her tone as she adjusted her focus from the shopgirl onto me, which I suppose was the intended effect of pulling her out, though just then I couldn’t remember why.

She was practically growling: “How are you going to just up and stop selling maternity clothes? What, did people stop getting pregnant all of a sudden!? Because, oh look! Here’s a pregnant woman RIGHT HERE and she thinks this is complete bul—”

The young man clearly knew nothing about the encounter at the rear of the store. He had been given some menial fabric-related task up near the entrance and obviously had been instructed to greet every customer as they entered and to cheerfully bid them farewell as they left. He was only doing his job when he piped up in a brisk voice as we stormed past, “Have a great day!”

Without even pausing for a breath Nik broke off her epithet and brightened her own voice into the patented Cheerful Nikki Phone Chirp: “Thanks! You too!”

00:11

At first it had seemed like one of those things, odd coincidences where something could be interpreted several ways but it was just nice or funny or pleasant to pick the unlikely explanation. But it was getting uncanny. Nik had popped on the TV just for a moment to set up the TiVo to record the Sharks game that night and when she was done she had dropped it back into Live TV which for whatever reason was set to Animal Planet. The show was some random pseudo-documentary probably full of dubious science about lions. As a sort of joke she had addressed our cat directly: “Hey, Dixie! Those are like, your cousins or something. Check it out.”

The cat had turned her head toward the TV, regarded it in her cool catty fashion for a moment, and then sat down, still staring straight at the set. Nik and I had shared a laugh. “I think she’s intrigued,” I remarked from my station at the dining room table. We tried to transition back into whatever conversation we’d been having before the game had come up.

But it was increasingly difficult to ignore the amusing spectacle of the cat who, for all appearances, was actually watching TV. She hunkered down into her relaxed, belly-down position with all four feet under her. She was apparently transfixed. “Wow,” Nik commented, “It really does look like she’s watching it.”

We had sat there for a few more minutes, watching her look intently at the television, waiting for her to break the spell. Then the show went to commercial, and things got surreal. As some ad for breakfast meats or impotency drugs came on, Dixie diverted her attention, staring first down at the carpet and then gazing languidly around the room. We had watched as several more commercials aired and she showed none of the previous interest in what was being displayed. And now the commercials faded and the show started up, some baritone voice-over artist booming, “Welcome back to Animal Planet!”

And the cat returned her attention to the show. She had watched the lions, stopped caring during the commercials, and was now glued again to the set, watching as the pride stalked some breed of Elk or another. “I’ve never seen a cat actually watch TV before,” I said aloud.

Dixie shot her attention over to me, giving me one of those wicked kitty glares that suggests, in a best case scenario, murder. I lowered my voice, “Sorry. Geez.”

She turned her head back, disturbance quelled for the moment.

00:12

There was no earthly reason for us both to be up that late. I was slated to work the next day although my sickly discomfort and sleeplessness was making that feel less and less likely by the moment. Nik, on the other hand, was just having one of her usual rough nights dealing with temperature control issues, aches, pains, discomfort with any of her recommended sleeping positions and you know, the regular stuff pregnant women go through like frequent urination and being woken by hunger.

Despite the unlikelihood of it all, here we were at four in the morning, sitting in the living room in un-slept-in pajamas, flipping through the channels. She munched on some late night snack or another while I curled my lip at both my gurgling stomach and the ridiculous choice of programming that late at night. I stopped on some random sports channel and dumped the remote onto Nik’s extended belly. “You find something.”

“Hmm-mm.” She said around a mouthful. “You do it.”

“I already tried,” I whined. “It’s your turn.”

“Well, I won’t,” she declared simply and definitively. We engaged in a non-uncommon battle of the wills as Ultimate Fighting played on our set.

“See? You won’t pick something so we get to watch these two dudes grope each other and—” a contestant punched the other in the head several times in rapid succession, interrupting my thought. “Oh snap!” I cried. That quickly, the match was over and clearly they had spent too much time hyping the event prior to the fight taking place because the post-game interviews were performed as the credits rolled by too quickly to actually read.

“Who actually watches this garbage?” Nik said, not necessarily revolted.

“Well, we do, for one.” I said.

“Because you won’t pick something good for your poor pregnant wife to watch,” she taunted. I just scowled in response.

Our banter may have continued, but the fighting show ended as abruptly as the match itself and the next moments would capture our attentions and seal our destinies for the next thirty minutes to come: The thrilling, self-declared NON STOP ACTION screaming from the intro to television’s only show dedicated to the noble sport—nay art—of turkey hunting.

00:13

Fathers are granted very little opportunity to connect on any level with their children until after their birthday. This is not some conspiracy organized by humanity’s sorority of mothers, it’s merely a fact inherent in the structure of the proceedings designed by God. I guess He figures that moms are going to be the ones handling the bulk of the physical contact anyway once the child arrives be it via breastfeeding or a slobbery thumb rubbed across the cheek to dislodge particles of Cheeto, dirt and congealed oatmeal. If there is any time to acclimate both mother and child to this bodily connection, it’s straightaway.

But dads on the other hand have to work to find that chemistry. Being uninitiated, I can’t say how much effort is involved, but I know that Nik has been talking to our daughter for months now, explaining the nuances of music and expressing her love and warning about the inherent insanity of her paternal unit. I, on the other hand, attempt to talk to her and end up feeling like I’m just talking to my wife via some odd bellybutton conduit. It feels sort of awkwardly silly, not unlike the times where I speak in a funny voice as if I were our cat, anthropomorphized, and she responds back. I know in an abstract sense that our girl is in there, a real person just too small to come out and be seen and held and kissed and loved, I just can’t get a sense for what she’s like.

I’m reading a stack of comic books, Nik is half watching something on TV and half fiddling around on her laptop. Abruptly she stops and sets down her computer, reaching over quickly to grasp my wrist. She drags my hand over toward her and I resist a little because I’m weird about being made to do things without any context or explanation. She plants my palm on her belly, low down toward her waistline and pushes my fingers under the elastic of her pants a few inches, a familiar touch that would be wildly inappropriate for anyone but me.

I know what she’s doing but honestly she’s been doing it for about a week and a half now and so far all that happens is she says excitedly, “Did you feel that?” I’m forced to respond truthfully in the negative which always leaves her looking crestfallen and me feeling a bit guilty. I’m even a bit annoyed at this point because I don’t expect anything will happen for a few weeks yet and I’m not looking forward to this scene playing out dozens of times before I finally give up and fib telling her oh yes, I did in fact feel that aw isn’t it so sweet and special. I’m really just wanting to get back to the adventures of the Teen Titans at this point.

Nik is valiantly patient with me. She likes to say that she envies my own patience but really all I offer is a detached indifference to most things that masquerades as patience. Her ability to never give up, to refuse to accept anything that resembles defeat no matter how long it takes no matter what toll there may be is real and genuine. It is unwavering. It is patience. She smiles as sweetly as I’ve ever seen her and she whispers, “Say hello to your daddy.”

The kick is little more than a soft thump, a light breeze tapping against my palm. It happens in slow motion, like a tiny high five shown for dramatic effect at the end of a championship game. One single moment, one tiny snapshot of time. One blink. One kick into my palm, and Nik glows. Her stomach seems to hum and it’s almost like there was a flashlight shining within her womb, silhouetting our baby against her smooth skin. She stretches her miniscule, developing hand into mine and we embrace the only way we are allowed at this moment. I linger there, frozen in a moment of pure contentment as we connect as one. Our family.

“Hi daddy.”

And I exhale.

Outnumbered

You may have received word via other channels, maybe you didn’t. But Nik and I are expecting our first child late this summer. We returned from the second trimester screening today with knowledge in hand that so far everything is progressing normally and we have a healthy little girl on the way.

Which of course means that soon enough I will be outnumbered by women in what I can only deduce is a karmic reversal from the circumstance inflicted on my own mother.

The significance of the pregnancy and the impending arrival is not lost on me; I recognize that there has probably been plenty of ample blogging fodder in the last few months but my silence originates less (this time!) from laziness or some sort of blockage and more from a peculiar schematic dalliance.

Truthfully the road to this point has been long and peppered with drama, but it has been a shared road and thus I feel it is only fitting that any chronicle include my partner; since she is more or less uninterested in narrative writing (what you humans refer to as web logging) I’ve been searching for alternatives. I’m still working on the specifics, but the redesign of the site you see—still a work in progress itself—is a nod toward these ends.

And in case you were wondering about the redesign and it’s relative simplicity, I’ve taken my cue from the Readability project, which opened my eyes (ha ha) to the torture inflicted on the Web’s many readers. Counting myself among both camps, I chose to no longer perpetuate the affront to my consumer half and implement the beginnings of a friendlier format. Feedback is certainly welcome, and if you are so inclined, I implore you to keep your RSS feed active for just a bit longer. There may be additional change forthcoming. I’d hate for you to miss out now, on account of impatience, especially after we’ve endured so much together.

Merry, Indeed

It had the potential to be a rough Christmas. What with the impending layoff threat and some strange times in other respects, I was apprehensive and when I get anxious about that sort of thing my default mode is procrastination. It makes zero sense logically, as though delaying thought and concern about something actually made it go away rather than just creating extra panic and stress when the zero hour looms and all activities must be shoehorned into a frantic week or (ahem) afternoon.

Obviously I can’t describe the future, but I’m more optimistic than I was even a week ago. It helps that I survived the layoffs, although it wasn’t all rosy: My boss was affected and while I didn’t get a chance to work with her for very long, she was seeming like she’d likely become one of my favorite managers in my career to date. And it’s really hard to be joyful about keeping your job when so many peers are affected and, of course, there may be more cuts in the future. But beyond that, I’ve just found a greater peace this season than I expected to. Even before the revelation that I wouldn’t spend the holidays unemployed, I was coming to a strange harmony with what has historically been an awkward season for me.

See the thing is I love Christmas. Or more specifically, I love the concept of it that I’ve fostered in my head, an entity that does not actually exist. There are elements to the materialistic version of Christmas that, honestly, I loved as a kid. I mean even then I felt a peculiar form of guilt when it came to receiving gifts. I knew I was being spoiled and I kind of wished that I wasn’t so “I want this and this and this” about it, but my object-obsessed self typically won out. I would somehow compensate by feeling like I had to truly cherish every gift I received no matter how small. The idea that I might be disappointed in something felt sour and shallow and I would do whatever I could to force delight in every act of kindness.

Somehow I felt this was not misguided but in fact the “right” way to celebrate Christmas: Get a ton of loot and feel overwhelmed by the blessings of fortune that had made them possible. Any time I heard some kid gripe about a lame present a grandparent had gotten them or express remorse that their most coveted item hadn’t made it under the tree, I’d cringe. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel the same way, I certainly did, but I actively worked to convince myself otherwise and felt the outward expression of this disappointment was churlishness defined.

Even worse to my mind was the gaming of Christmas, comparing the quality and quantity of gifts with a peer or sibling. Even the one-upsmanship of gift giving, intentional or not, coupled with a peculiar extra guilt only my mind could conjure that has me despising myself for not meeting my own ridiculous standards for gifting makes for an awkward game of internal tug-of-war.

What I began to realize a couple of years ago and has, in typical fashion, taken me a long time to gestate into an idea I can use to impact my attitudes. It is simply this: A particular amount of self-serving greed is, if not exactly ideal, at least tolerable during Christmas for children. A lot of our Christmas spirit so to speak is fostered by the ideas we get of the holiday when we’re young, and the wonder of a pile of gifts and toys to a child is worth the sort of flawed object lesson it represents. But there’s a point at which the adorable sparkle in a child’s eye at the mountain of gifts morphs into the slavering glint of entitlement that follows, I’m sad to say, many folks well into adulthood. And I’m not exempting myself from this either.

I think it in fact forks in one of two ways, either you get competitive in the receiving arena or you get competitive in the giving arena. Neither, in my opinion, is all that great. Having a little less this year due to some belt-tightening on account of Nik planning to take some classes next month and the uncertainty on the job front has made the deep plunge into material excess of the past seem as uncomfortable as the struggle to appreciate the gifts I received as a kid. What I’m only now, at nearly 32, starting to understand is the appreciation is of the person, of the gesture, of their mere being. I don’t need things. I have so many more things than I know what to do with. What I need are people. Friends. Family. Love.

It is only this suddenly discovered insight that has lifted my spirits this month. Not that I kept my job or that I can buy or create or obtain gifts for people I care about. Not that I will receive more than I could ever need this year or that I have a fun Christmas tree in my living room. Not even that I have a living room with a roof overhead. It is that I have this life, this season, these people to share it with. Yeah, it could have been a rough Christmas if I had decided to look at it that way. It’s not easy for me to look on the bright side.

That I can, and am, is what makes this Christmas merry.

Enjoy the season.

Where to Now?

There is a carpet in the hallway at work. It has a sine wave pattern, filled grey on the right, purple on the left as I walk toward my cube from the bathrooms or break room. I like to walk along the line, gently angling back and forth as I traverse the rolling hills of color.

I imagine that I’m building momentum like a marble on a rippled slide because as I hit a certain peak I veer off, like I’ve caught air and that’s when I have to turn to get into my cube. It’s like I’ve executed a jump off of a ramp to get back to my station.

I’m frequently tempted to shout “Whee!” as I do this.

* * * * *

There is a life I’m living that no one but me experiences. It’s full of strange interactions, and in it I’m frequently a guest on radio interview shows like Fresh Air. In this life I’m not remarkable; I don’t fly or have super powers. Mostly I’m me, only motivated and capable of realizing the ideas that are constantly floating around my brain.

In reality, my world is full of mundane interactions and no one cares to interview me. When I try to be creative, usually I have to settle for an approximation of what I saw or heard or created in my head. In my inner life, I’m smarter than the real me, I’m always kind to people for the right reasons and I don’t let fear of failure or the unknown stop me from doing what I most want to do.

The person that lives inside myself, who leads that life I don’t share externally, would totally yell “Whee!” when he spun on his heel toward his cubicle.

* * * * *

Today, I still walked along the carpet pattern. I still spun toward my cube, and I still couldn’t whoop with imaginary excitement as I did so.

But.

I whispered.

“Whee.”

Do You, Uh…

So. Where was I?

Ah yes. I was writing. Blog entries and various other tidbits of collated words designed to keep people more or less in the loop. The loop being, of course, a belt loop. Possibly a loup like one might use to examine a piece of jewelry, but I’m not sure why I’d want to keep anyone in one of those.

Here’s what is happening and so you don’t get disoriented, I’ll resort to the warm comfort of bullet points.

  • I work for Yahoo! (exclamation mandatory, no lie) now. I realize that for the first time that simple sentence binds me under a thorough blog policy mandated by my employer and I could, like, get fired for writing about them or me or work or anything probably. But I’m willing to risk it because a) it’s the first time I’ve been able to tell people where I work and not have them give me the 1,000 yard stare and a blank nod and b) I really want to talk about Yahoo! related stuff and, well, I can’t unless you have the appropriate context and disclaimers. So, contextually: I work for Yahoo! and if you catch me saying “[Yahoo! Product] is super fly!” you can cast appropriate scorn and derision upon me for being a corporate shill. Also, disclaimers: I now work for Yahoo! so my words and opinions are my own and do not reflect any official Yahoo! position. Sometimes, they don’t even reflect my own position and I just say stuff to be weird.
  • For example, “Kumquats are partially responsible for the recession and I’d like to propose a ballot measure to have them strictly regulated and heavily subsidized by our government. Also, made into pies.”
  • Since I’m sort of an “Eat Your Own Dog Food” kind of guy, I’ve been spending the last few weeks re-acclimating myself to the Yahoo! site and associated products. When I found Google years ago I basically latched onto it and never looked back. I don’t know how I got the image in my mind of Yahoo! as a mid-nineties dinosaur that had no further relevance for an insufferable snob elite internet power user such as myself, but there it was. Turns out that in a few weeks of re-evaluation they are: Nearly indistinguishable from Google in terms of relevant search results; Possessing of a customizable home page that, in some ways, surpasses Netvibes; Serving as one of the few legitimately tolerable remainders of the misguided “portal” craze.
  • My job isn’t flashy at Yahoo!, but it is important. I’m responsible for making sure the other stuff you use the site for stays up and running. Basically Not Mail. But Sports. Finance. News. That sort of thing. In practice it’s almost identical in execution to my last job only I’m not dealing with the unique masochism of telephony technologies which is a phrase much like ice cream cooking.
  • Eventually my shift will be 10:30 to 19:00 which will—I hope— allow me to skip most of the traffic in transit to and from Sunnyvale. For the duration of my training, I’m working earlier like 7:30-16:00 or so. What that means is that for a couple of short, blissful weeks I can take the special Yahoo! East Bay Shuttle that goes from a Park and Ride about ten minutes from our apartment directly to Yahoo! HQ. I love not having to drive in traffic, but I love letting someone else drive in it for me even better. It’s a sensation I can best describe as “dreamy.”
  • Nik and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary last week. Because I had arranged for the time to be available as vacation from my previous employer, I stipulated (lightly) that I would very much like to have it off at the new job even though it would literally be me taking vacation during my training. They accommodated the request which I thought was cool of them and Nik and I had a very enjoyable time off.
  • We also made a long-delayed trip to the Shark Tank to see a home game as part of the festivities and we were able to use some of a gift my parents had given me for my birthday (remember that? January? Anyone?) to score the best seats I’ve ever had for a Sharks game. Section 102. Row 17. Right on the ends. It was glorious. The game would have been a triumph for the seats alone, even if it had been some 1-0 snoozer. But instead we were treated to the most exhilarating game I can recall attending. Dramatic see-saw scoring, fisticuffs, a full 5-on-3 penalty (killed by the Flyers), 40+ shots taken by the Sharks and an incredible OT victory. It was so great I was giddy. It was like this: “Man. I’m really giddy.”
  • One thing we didn’t enjoy was having to deal with our apartment complex’s maintenance crew. And by crew I mean one overweight guy and his skinny underling who does all the work. This marks the fourth time they switched out our washer because the “renovated” one that came with the unit broke in under six months and they replaced it with a circa 1972 model that had—I’m not making this up—faux wood paneling and was louder than a herd of bison playing rugby in the laundry room. They brought a new model in and forgot to take the safety rod out so we ran it through a few cycles (they did a few of their own to test and make sure I didn’t forget how to twist a knob or something) and the result broke some pivotal component that allowed it to spin during the crucial spin cycle. So they had to interrupt our anniversary to haul up and install a new washer. It was very romantic.

A Meandering Path

These times arrive without warning, where writing takes place but for a variety of reasons both valid and borne of a misdirected sense of vanity, nothing materializes. “This isn’t my best work,” I whine internally to no one in particular. “That’s never stopped you before,” the cynical voice of Reason replies. He has a point, but that guy is kind of a jerk so I stubbornly refuse to let him emerge from the fracas victorious. I put the posts somewhere deep in the WordPress database. “That’ll show him,” I think. But muffled and gagged, I can still make out mocking laughter from Reason. There was no way for him to lose, really.

Some events or circumstances are easy to talk about. I maintain my gaming site on a rock steady schedule. It’s not interesting, mind, but it’s comfortable. I don’t really concern myself with maintaining a readership because there is none nor do I assume there will ever be. If some person wanted to hear my thoughts about Warhammer and Tetris, they have my sympathies. I had presumed and in fact predicated the launch of that site on the theory that it was, even in my own tiny target demographic (“People I Know Who Humor Me By Reading What I Write”), a niche audience of zero. Here, I feel a smallish responsibility to feign universal appeal. It’s not something I find particularly natural.

I have collected a series of anecdotes, therefore, that chronicle the last several months in greater detail than you’ve seen here. None are worthy of publication by themselves, but I can provide an executive summary of them, devoid of context and probably lacking any cohesive chronology. It’s the Lost method of drama: Obfuscate a simple, straightforward tale with unnecessary mystery and misdirection by destroying the basic tenets of narrative structure. I’m sure it will be fascinating.

False Alarm

The lesson I learned, above all else, was this: If you’re adamant about not visiting a hospital, do not complain to your wife about chest pain, especially when accompanied by arm discomfort. However, if you’re serious about seeing a doctor quickly, do complain to hospital staff about chest pain. They take it very seriously, at least up to the point where their frequently asked questions begin to elicit answers that don’t jive with cardiac issues. For example, chest pain without an associated shortness of breath will typically get initial attention but will quickly be followed by something just north of absolute apathy. Perhaps you need to be under 35 years of age to get that kind of attitude (the “Man, I wish this doofus wouldn’t have wasted our time”), but for someone who was reluctant to visit the ER in the first place, it’s an effective guilt trip.

Odds Are Not

The logic for including the eponymous eighteen wheels on truck rigs is difficult to fault. However, the good citizen brigade may find the freedom it permits these vehicle operators to suffer major damage to a critical portion of the trailer without obvious ill effect to be lacking. Certainly when one of several redundant tires on the truck in front me exploded and sent radial-belted shrapnel across the front of the car and several lanes of highway 237, I had less than positive things to say about it. When the shrapnel succeeded in shearing the mudflap from the back of the truck and sent it hurtling sidelong at me like a square rubber discus before I could safely change lanes, I felt there could have been some sort of auxiliary system in place to alert the oblivious driver so he didn’t proceed to bumble down the road in front of a wake of debris without so much as letting slightly off the gas.

The parking lot of our destination—arrived at after the incident—contained those concrete stall stoppers, designed to keep vehicles from getting overzealous with their approach and careening into planter boxes or, you know, walls. Parked up against one as I was, the extent of the damage seemed fairly light. Some scratches, a bit of a dent in the license plate. At the time it didn’t occur to me to lie on the asphalt and examine the underside of the car. The rest of the afternoon proceeded without incident, but as evening fell, the fate of Nikki’s poor Honda could not be avoided.

The Middle Gets Slow

The only other time I’d ever sat in the bleachers was at an Oakland A’s game. I presume that most sports teams have a standard fanbase personality: Devoted, expressive, cynical, somber, raucous, etc. A’s fans, at least 15 years ago, were fairly passive and mild. The team was reasonably good for the most part (this was the skinny Mark McGwire and early Jose Canseco before-he-was-a-total-joke era) but the fans weren’t rabid like Raiders fans nor were they plauged by the angst of Giants fans.

But this experience, at AT&T park, was different. Bleacher bums arrive, generally speaking, late. Mostly around the second or third inning. They don’t make the trip a huge event with lumbering backpacks stuffed with goodies to keep younger children occupied. They’re typically working stiffs catching a game after their shift’s end, or younger dads trying to connect with middle school aged sons without having to acquire additional mortgages. They also include some die-hards who find outfield seats to be among the best bang for the buck values and attend games primarily to amuse themselves being various shades of blue in the direction of the nearest visiting player.

The first inning had some action as the visiting pitcher struggled with control and gave up a run on a double steal, but then there was a long lull where the Giants’ pitcher, Matt Cain, retired batter after batter and the opposing pitcher mostly fumbled his way through the lineup, aided by San Francisco’s lackluster offense. As the bleacher crew worked through various libations, they grew more vocal and variously entertained themselves with chants directed at the opposing left fielder (“What’s the matter with Wa-aard!?” “He’s a BUM!”) and engaged in some semi-friendly heckling of the non-Giants fans in the crowd (“Hey, MEAT!”) which eventually resulted in a couple of relatively harmless ejections.

After another late inning run by the Giants, it seemed all but over. Naturally once Cain was replaced by the closer (Brian Wilson, apparently on hiatus from the Beach Boys) things started happening on offense for the other team but it was a long wait in the middle there between initial fireworks and the relative thrill of the final moments.

Clearly Undefined

The worst part of the entire experience was the IV. The last time I had something stuck in my vein and left there was the ill-fated attempt to give blood for a work-sponsored drive that had ended with me nearly passing out from some mysterious reaction to the process. This time it took two separate nurses the better part of twenty minutes to identify a suitable vein and once the apparatus was installed, it ached and caused me discomfort the entire visit. A visit, mind you, that was interminable as they had to “wait for lab results,” which is ER-speak for “sit there and try not to die of boredom.” In fact fifteen minutes after their estimated time to receive the results, they sent an auxiliary nurse in to collect yet another sample of blood which effectively doubled the time we had to wait.

Naturally we had skipped dinner in favor of the emergency room, so if the boredom didn’t get us, starvation seemed to be their backup plan.

At last an extremely annoyed-looking doctor came in and said, “Sometimes we don’t figure out what the problem is. But in this case, it definitely isn’t your heart.” This, I gathered, was meant to be reassuring although as an engineer (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) I find that kind of apathetic shoulder shrugging to be less than satisfactory.

“Probably,” he continued, “It’s muscular.”

I could only nod.

Worse Than Originally Feared

A different freeway but a familiar circumstance: A folded-over radial truck tire just cleared the Cadillac in front of us. Nik was driving, and traffic was moving but heavy. The thick “whap” as we rolled helplessly over the tire was unmistakable: Where the Cadillac’s clearance had been sufficient, ours was not. Soon after a heavy scraping sound forced us to pull over. This time there was no concrete slab to obscure the view: The front bumper was cracked in half and the heavy gauge plastic that served to protest the engine from the bottom had pulled free of the secure position behind the bumper and was dragging on the ground. I tried to secure it by hand back into place, but less than a quarter mile down the road and the sound began again.

We were close to our destination so we went ahead and exited, finding a gas station where we could park and I could shred my knees on the hot, uneven pavement as I tried in vain to free the protective cover from it’s stubbornly clinging fasteners. Eventually the situation was corrected but I later thought that it was unlikely a tire had caused such extensive damage. Something else was probably the real culprit, something like a projectile mud flap.

Read Carefully

By some miracle we arrived at the station almost simultaneously: Me, coming North on 680 from Santa Clara and my buddy Ryan and his companions coming West from over the hill. We’d communicated the entire trip via text message because in some twisted bizzaro fashion it had become illegal to talk on our cell phones while driving but somehow acceptable to compose and send typed messages. As I approached they finished purchasing their tickets and I slid my debit card from my wallet. In the Out Of Service terminal next to me, a BART employee worked to get the machine working again. I struggled—momentarily—to get the card oriented correctly when the employee whipped it out of my hand.

“It goes in just like in the little picture.” There was no mistaking the scorn in her voice as she initiated the transaction for me and thrust the card back into my fist.

“…’You simpleton‘,” I said, over my shoulder in the direction my incredulous party. They cast me semi-sympathetic glances but checked nervously over my shoulder to get the reaction from the technician. For a second I had a crazy surge of guilt, like I had crossed a line by suggesting sarcastically that she’d been a bit harsh. But I’d specifically made my comment loud enough so she could hear. It was she, after all, who’d felt inclined to point out my momentary confusion in spite of the fact that there was no one waiting in line behind me so no real cause for alarm that my experience might have taken a few additional seconds.

The Best Pancakes In The World

The restaurant was supposed to close at midnight. We arrived at ten till, and though we had no hope of them serving us, I had needed to use a restroom for the past thirty minutes. I resigned myself to just using their facilities and then worrying about finding a place that was open late. My arm still ached and the spots where all the EKG nodes had been ripped from my body smarted because they had taken huge clumps of chest, leg and arm hair with them. I still had work in the morning and all I wanted was some food.

When I emerged from the bathroom I was surprised to see Nik sitting at a table, perusing the menu. “They’re going to serve us?”

“I guess so,” she said simply.

Our waiter was crazy. He sat down on the bench next to Nik, complaining of a myriad of health issues: His back, his feet, his headache. I felt curiously ashamed to have been so easily convinced to see a doctor over an unusual pain that had subsided after an hour. The guy looked to be in his mid-fifties. But he quickly plowed ahead. Nik ordered dinner and I stuck with breakfast. Carrot cake pancakes with eggs and sausage. It felt like the order took forever to arrive.

Food, to me, is usually either decent and functional (“good”) or lacking, therefore unsatisfying (“not good”). I rarely find the taste of food to be so obviously superior or inferior as to distinguish itself. Typically, I chalk this up to my relatively poor sense of smell which is commonly associated with one’s taste sensitivity. After these marvelous pancakes, I wonder if my problem is that food is too readily available to me. Absense, perhaps, making the mouth grow fonder as well.

We were both so hungry, and ate so fast, that the waiter said as we went to the front to pay, “I hope you didn’t rush because we’re technically closed.” We laughed nervously and assured him that was not the case. I noted we were the only non-employees in the building. As we walked back to the car I turned to Nik.

“That guy. He’s crazy, but I kinda liked him.”

“Yeah, me too.”

That Children Might Love

Originally the insurance company wanted to call the incident a “collision,” albeit one without fault. I argued that the problem, the source of the claim, was the first set of debris which flew toward the car and was functionally the same as a rock hitting the windshield. It was, to me, unlikely that a high-clearance tire had caused such extensive damage. Of course they wanted to treat each circumstance as a separate claim and I tried to convince them it was a single “problem” brought to light by two different encounters.

Ultimately they left it in the hands of the adjuster at the body shop, which made me apprehensive. On the bright side the insurance company covered us for a rental car as long as necessary. We had to go to two separate agencies because the first—inexplicably—didn’t have any cars to rent. What we finally ended up with was a Ford Fusion, a model I’d never heard of. For someone who generally dislikes the Ford Motor Company, I have a hard time finding negative things to say about the vehicle.

We used the included navigation system to guide us to the Tech Museum in San Jose. It was sort of a make-up for the previous week’s abbreviated trip to the City which was tentatively scheduled to include a stop at some museum or other. I was leaning toward the Museum of Modern Art, but several others sounded interesting. In the end Nik just wasn’t up for it so she compensated with the Tech. On the way we dubbed the navigation system’s feminine voice “Madge” for no reason other than that it seemed like a funny name and, we’ve learned, you have to anthropomorphize navigation systems or you don’t have any one to yell at when you get lost in spite of them. Or because of them.

We fought Madge less than we fight with the Nav systems in our phone, whom we refer to as “Gladys.” She mostly struggled to deal with an unexpected festival in the park outside the museum and the dicey parking situation in downtown San Jose. Fortunately, my annual visit to the arcade expo gave me at least a passing familiarity with the area. The Tech is a cool museum, the kind of place that seems like it may have been the inspiration for Seattle’s Experience Music Project, only the EMP isn’t as well implemented. The interactivity at the Tech is remarkable, although about halfway through Nik and I determined that the place was probably aimed, demographically, a bit younger than us. We thought it would be the perfect place to take, say, a fifth grader.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves. I got to design a robot, ride on a Segway and get a sonogram of my hand. The sonogram required immersing your fist in a vat of water; nearby there is a thermographic projector which reflects an image of your thermal output. We found it amusing that the hand I’d recently seen from the inside out was now nearly indistinguishable on the thermograph because it emitted almost no heat. We also learned about genetics, and took a cleverly designed quiz about the Internet which I mostly aced, at least enough to save face. I was proud to find that Nik did remarkably well on the quiz as well.

On the way home I showed her where I worked since it was nearby and she got to experience my commute, almost exactly as I do eight times a week. We both agreed it had been a happy day.

Security Over Sorrow

Their mantra became universal before the night was through: “It’s good that you at least had it checked out.” As for me, I mostly agreed,. More than anything, I was happy to see Nik slowly lose the crinkle of worry that had settled between her eyebrows. It meant she was glad to have wasted the time, even to find out it was, indeed, wasted.

Jazz Like Blue

They had to return three times before they gave me a piece of meat that wasn’t almost gum-like from being overcooked. When they finally did, it was sumptuous. I was trying, after all, to better enjoy my food by not thinking of it merely as a means to an end. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the mellow music drifting through the speakers was being piped in from upstairs, where an ensemble played its own variations on themes the hotel trio had just treated us to.

We poked around the Virgin Megastore afterward, letting our dinner digest a bit. I found Al Green’s greatest hits collection. In the Focus’ six-disc changer, it got plenty of airtime. If you’re looking for some good soul music, I recommend the disc. Music was, ultimately, the theme of the evening. Later that night we ventured out again seeking dessert. Of course at the time we couldn’t have even thought of such a thing, but as the night cooled and our food broke down we went searching for more experiences.

The bistro was practically closed, like the chain restaurant, only less gaudily lit and with a more professional, though less likable, staff. We ordered a chocolate mousse something or other and waited for the quartet to return for their last set of the evening.

The thing about jazz, for me, is that it needs to be seen live. Recorded jazz is well and good, but it lacks the sense of time and place—the context—that gives live music its heart. The red lights in the window glinted off the drummer’s cymbals, shimmering under the steady syncopation. The trumpet playing leader found an inspiration in a just-heard conversation and instructed the band to lift their key up a step and a half so he could riff on the refrain. It was momentary, fleeting and yet permanent because it latched itself to the memories of everyone there. The chocolate was delicious, but far too rich to finish. Between trumpet solos played through heavy mutes the leader slid smoothly over the worn carpet on the stage, stepping lightly in his soft cotton threads.

I supposed you had to call a jazz band’s clothing “threads.”

The bassist looked comically like Napoleon Dynamite, but his groove was steady and perfectly matched to the persistent beat from the drummer, somehow regal with his cropped white chin beard against dark skin. Jazz musicians play a style that can hold many moods simultaneously: Melancholy, joy, sorrow, triumph. It’s not an interpretation thing, the mood comes from the collective. It’s the sonic equivalent of tears of joy.

As the set came to its end, not with a grand crescendo but with the same kind of relaxed intensity that defines the whole genre, I took a deep breath and looked across the table. She smiled at me, for no particular reason.

I reached over and held her hand until the last note died away.