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retrain

When I am not paying close attention, my left shoulder still slouches slightly inward from when I broke my collarbone in college.

I step too hard on my heels when I walk. I speak and sing with too much tension in my jaw and uneven air support. I touch-type perfectly with my right hand, but hunt and peck with my left. I underuse my pinkies when I play guitar.

These are my thoughts as I struggle to get my left pinky facing down into the plane of water this morning as I backstroke.

There are many people who always square their shoulders, walk correctly, speak and sing well, touch type, and nimbly play guitar. I bet some of them even swim pretty decently, too.

For someone with a reputation as a perfectionist, I have a lot of rough edges. As I look back at learning all of those skills, it not as though I purposely skimped on practice. Well, maybe on walking – you’d have to ask my parents.

Sometimes these imperfections make me afraid, as if I am a fraud at posture and walking and talking and typing and playing guitar. I fear that one day I’ll be exposed as a fake and I won’t be allowed to move or express myself ever again.

It’s not a valid fear. These are my skills that people always appreciate the most – yes, even my fast walking. They are part of who I am, even if I do them a bit wrongly. All I can do to alleviate my fear is retrain myself in increments. Roll my shoulder back every time I notice it leaning forward. Let go of a little of that tension and breathe more. Take the time to play the solo the efficient way instead of the quick way.

My left arm breaks through the water. I swing it up, rotate, and plunge down to slice the water with my pinky finger.

We are all imperfect and we are all improving, and that doesn’t make any of us a fraud.

not drowning, probably

Yesterday I did not drown.

The vast majority of people in the world can say this on the vast majority of days. The group of people on any given day who did drown the day before and are still talking about it is relatively slim.

Yet, of that vast majority, not all of them are doing their first significant swimming since half a life and a third of their body weight ago. That was what I was doing yesterday morning at the absurd hour of 5:30 a.m. in our neighborhood YMCA.

I’ve been swearing for four years now that I would start swimming before work. It’s been an awful lot of swearing. E is quite tired of it. I swore when we first moved, as if the suburbs would suddenly make me a fitness nut out of sheer boredom of not living in the city anymore. I swore when I was getting lumpy the next year, swore again when I got super-fit by practicing yoga three times a week, and swore some more when I joined a start-up last year and my gym time went down to nil.

It took a baby to get me to stop my swearing. I could slip my own vows for four years running, but so help me that baby was learning to swim as soon as she was old enough for her first lesson. I had seen all of the adorable photos from my friends and their swimming babies, and both of my parents still have amusing stories to tell about my baby swimming endeavors – and, honestly, there are very few stories they both tell the same way that do not involve Thriller or my aunt arriving to babysit me bearing a gallon jug of white wine.

Thus, we found a scruffy me and a chubby baby sitting at the counter at our local YMCA four weeks ago, waiting to get my photo taken. The swearing was over. Now we were doing.

Except, baby swim lessons – they’re not the most strenuous activity in the world. It’s not as though you are freestyling with them strapped to your back like a laser on a shark, you know? You are just pushing them through the water in the shallow end where you can stand. I sneak a little treading in at the end of every lesson, but it’s not exactly leaving me breathless.

Ah, but now I have a precious membership card in my wallet, which means half of the swear has been sworn. Now I just needed to get my body into the pool sans baby. So, for the those intervening four weeks I tried to wake up early enough to head to the pool before work.

Yeah – it just wasn’t happening. I am a motivated individual, but when you are juggling baby and the entire account book of a business and a cover band and god knows what else I claim to be doing with my time, the difference between waking up at 5:15 and 6:15 is a BIG DEAL. You can go to sleep in your swim trunks thinking soggy motivational thoughts and set every alarm, but when it comes down to it you are going to choose the extra hour of shut-eye every damn time. You being me, in this example.

That routine played out yesterday morning at 5:15 a.m. as it had for the past 29 days. I shut off the alarm and was about to turn over and go back to sleep. Then, I thought to myself, “What if your swimming is just as important to EV6′s lifetime cumulative happiness as her swimming? Even if it just makes you happier so you enjoy your time with her more. Then would it get you out bed?”

I laid on my back for a minute thinking about that.

Five minutes later I was in the car wearing swim trunks.

Nine minutes later I was halfway through an Olympic-length lap of freestyle thinking a few particular thoughts:

(a) I have not swum for more than a consecutive minute since I was fifteen.

(b) Even at fifteen, I don’t know if I ever attempted laps in an Olympic-sized pool.

(c) 5:30 a.m. is perhaps a bit too early to submerge one’s entire face in water and subsequently coordinate side-breathing.

(d) Wow, there’s like half a pool left in front of me.

(e) Come to think of it, I’ve always been pretty slow at freestyle.

(f) This staying afloat while moving forward thing (or, visa versa) is pretty strenuous compared to how hard it was when I was fifteen and weighed 75% of what I do right now without a single ounce of fat on my body.

(g) But fat is buoyant, right?

(h) Oh my lord, there is still more pool in front of me.

After my first lap and a brief bout of hyperventilation while clinging to the pool side, the lifeguard suddenly emerged from his little office to sit in a chair that happened to be directly facing my lane. My fellow swimmers had received no such treatment. Despite my frequent concerns that I would arrive early to find an entire and entirely-lithe high school swim team dominating the lanes, I was swimming with one middle age woman who also (wisely) was not putting her face in the water and an older gentleman who swam a slow but unceasing freestyle the entire time I was at the pool without stopping once.

The lifeguard continued to stare directly at me as I clumsily completed another lap, as if he was considering administering the swim test they give to tweens and granting me a neon arm band. I probably would have helped my case if I didn’t dip precipitously under the water about two thirds of the way through every lap.

But let me remind you of something about me. It might take me a long time to do something. I might have a lot of concerns about the critical path and the project management triangle. But when I am in the pool getting lapped by the dry-faced lady and the never-ending senior paddler with a lifeguard judging me, you had better believe I will find a way to eek out each successive lap just like I made it through my first hot yoga class while being convinced I was dying the entire time.

So I swam. I did some modified freestyle. I did a side-stroke. About halfway through I remembered that I was actually not terrible at backstroke, and switched to that. Each lap was still a herculean struggle, but moving my body through the water stopped seeming like such an absurd idea during my wall-clinging breaks.

My half-hour of morning pool time done, I emerged triumphantly from the pool – only to very nearly collapse into a heap when gravity took over and I realized I felt like someone had been beating me with a sack of oranges. I gingerly noodled over to a bench and sank down, trying to affect an air of contemplation and self-evaluation so the guard would not come over and check me for delayed drowning.

Five minutes later I rose and limped to my car so I could go wake up a baby and tell her about how her father just went swimming.

 

waffly plans

I make a lot of plans that I don’t follow through to completion.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. When I plan something I more often than not do it. It’s just that nebulous pre-planning stage where I’m a risk. More than just a verbal agreement, but less than an actual day, time, and schedule. That’s where I’m dangerous. The thing could happen or not. I have no way of knowing until we plan some more.

At 6:49 a.m. yesterday morning I was still looking for something to go wrong with the plan. I was in the car, but it still didn’t feel like much of a plan. Not because I didn’t want to see Mel – it had been nearly a year, after all – but because driving across two states to have brunch at a random Waffle House is the sort of thing I verbally commit to and maybe even plot on a map once or twice, but don’t actually follow through and do.  Trust me – I have many friends who can verify this sort of thing. Interstate plans are my least-likely to be achieved.

(The conversation started in Facebook Messenger as follows:

Me: We should have brunch sometime, despite being separated by multiple states and hundreds of miles.

Both: [Interminable rambling about kids' schedules.]

Mel: Well, there’s a Cracker Barrel exactly at the mid-point between our houses.

Me: I was hoping for a Waffle House.

Mel: That’s the next closest dining establishment to the exact mid-point between our homes.

Me: Sold.

As you can see, it really wasn’t much of a plan.)

An hour later I was doing 85 on I-95 South just to keep up with the other cars, belting “Rent” at the top of my lungs to the wind rushing in from my open window. Certainly, something would go wrong once I left the highway. I am not a noted navigator, and there were four separate state routes in Maryland I would need to navigate. Plenty of room for error and plans canceled at the last minute.

I kept thinking that until I actually passed the Waffle House on my right, because that is how I think. The thing that makes me good at project management makes me bad at doing things with friends – I assume the process is in danger and possibly broken until it delivers. Now I just needed to make a right into the parking lot and the plan would be consummated.

A right. I know I passed a ramp into the lot, but it was into the gas station. A Waffle House would have a proper ramp. With signs. Waffly signs. I would be seeing it any moment now.

I came to the intersection at the edge of the not-quite strip mall of gas station, Waffle House, and liquor store. There was no ramp. I leaned forward tentatively to peer across my dash at the road ahead to the right. No ramp. In fact, it looked a bit like a highway, extending unceasingly into the distance with no options for a K-turn. Though it beggared belief, apparently that small and informal gas station ramp was also the entrance to the only Waffle House within two hours of my house.

(That may not be true. According to their handy store-finder, there are three Houses of Waffle slightly nearer within Maryland though not necessarily as directly accessible, and one in Lancaster whose time away would largely be dictated by how many horse-drawn buggies you would get stuck behind in Lancaster.)

I looked left and right. I looked forward and backwards. There were no cars as far as the eye could see.

I carefully placed the car in reverse and drove backwards the hundred or so feet to the entrance to the gas station. A woman was just exiting in her sedan, and I gave her a jaunty wave as I reversed past the ramp, came to a stop, and then turned into the lot.

Mel was waiting for me, seated in the window, drinking coffee from one of those curved little mugs like we used to have at our coffee shop. Her hair seemed impossibly long. I kept meaning to tell her how long her hair looked, but when you’ve driven ninety minutes to see someone for ninety minutes and then drive away for another ninety minutes you have to be efficient with your topics of conversation.

We ate hash browns with picked jalapeños, swapped stories about our kids and eCommerce, and probably said the word “vagina” more than any other pair of people who have ever been seated together in a Waffle House.

My plan was fulfilled. Now I just had to figure out which direction was north so I could get home.

#MusicMonday: “Look At Where We Are” – Hot Chip

hot chip - in our headsWhen you hear these Indie Pop, or Art Pop, or Indietronica, or Electropop, or Synth Pop, or Alternative Dance – or whatever you would label hip wierdball dance bands like Hot Chip and Dirty Projectors with high-voiced male singers  the first thing you almost assuredly notice is their plastic elastic vocals. Just like the skinny-jean culture I loosely associate with their fans, husky(-voiced) boys need not apply.

(I would just call them “Pop” or “Dance” and let them duke it out for attention with Bruno Mars, personally. How they material differ from Paula Abdul I will never understand. But I digress.)

Yet, I don’t trust that we’re always hearing the authentic sound of a real voice singing. It is not just because these are genres that positively glisten with auto-tune. No, it more that as a rule I don’t trust that any vocal that sounds better than George Michael and not as good as Michael Jackson. That’s an uncanny valley that hardly any guy occupies. I’ve heard the subtle stuff you can do with gating and pitch correction and snapping to a click track.

(I actually once questioned Nate from Fun. about that on Twitter, and he swore his own plastic elastic vocals were achieved sans any tuning effects. This was before Some Nights, obvs.)

Then, last week “Look At Where We Are” from Hot Chip’s 2012 record In Our Heads shuffled onto my headphones. It’s such a nude song. A few synth burbles. A two beat kick-snare kick-snare drum loop. Completely unadorned electric guitar, so plaintive you can hear the pick and fingers on the strings. And the voice is right there in your ear. It is not a vacuum-sealed thing in a can. It is silken and easy, and you can hear the air surrounding it.

When all three elements line up, the song turns into some sort of Luther Vandross baby-making jam. Sure, we get some sampled vocals and synths later, but the point has already been made:

Hot Chip can do all of that bippity boopity dance stuff with the best of them, but they don’t need to do it. The best song on the LP is something any kid could do in their bedroom with the most basic instruments out there, yet any kid can’t.

Think it’s an illusion of the studio? Watch this nerdy dude in a sweatshirt who is Hot Chip’s singer deliver a perfect live version complete with the very minor vocal warbles at Coachella:

(Seriously, how freakishly great is his voice?)

Suddenly I find myself liking Hot Chip a lot better, even if they are an indie-art-electronica-indie-synth-pop-dance-indie-alterna-pop band.

Or, you know, A POP BAND, as it was known in 1987.

the one where the baby potty-trains herself

Hark, it is my first post about baby waste! Our baby is at least this chubby. Detail of the Cherubs Fountain at St Peter's Basilica or Basilica di San Pietro, Rome, Italy.

Hark, it is another post about baby waste, as they foretold! Our baby is at least this chubby. Detail of the Cherubs Fountain at St Peter’s Basilica or Basilica di San Pietro, Rome, Italy.

Of all of the challenges that fatherhood held in store for me, I felt the most trepidation about diapers. Luckily, my high-quality baby sensed my weakness in this area and toilet-trained herself to make my life easier.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

Sure, no one takes a special delight in dealing with human waste (well, certain fetishists excluded), but I just don’t have the coping mechanisms in place for even the briefest of ordeals. Urine, at least, is typically sterile when it’s straight from the tap. The idea that poop might touch some part of my person was enough to cause an anxiety attack even before her birth. I don’t even do well with cleaning a toilet with a very long-handled and disposable brush.

Luckily, baby diapers are really not so hard to manage once you graduate from the initial “explosive bowel movements can happen at any time” phase. After a month or so of finding my footing with disposables so that I could whip them off and quickly … well, dispose of them … we graduated to cloth diapers. It took me a little while to come to peace with them using the same washing machine as all of my clothes, but as with everything else in my life I discovered and documented a multi-step coping process. With that in place, mostly they’re the same as normal diapers – you just roll them up, drop them in a smell-proof pail, and forget about the waste inside.

(Expansive cloth diapering made easy for people who just want to throw money at it without doing any crafting essay to come.)

Cherubs by Fiamiughi [?], Bologna. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

Cherubs by Fiamiughi [?], Bologna. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

Around the six-month mark, a new theme emerged. The problem was not #2, it was #1. For some reason, EV6 viewed the diaper coming off of her butt during a changing as a signal that NOW IS THE TIME TO PEE EVERYWHERE ZOMG GO FOR IT. If that baby had any liquid reserved in the nether half of her body, it was going to gurgle up and out in a matter of seconds once that tush was exposed to air.

This was amusing at first, mostly because EV6 is so incredibly chubby that she looks like some sort of Rubenesque cherub meant to be cast in plaster, peeing off of the side of an Italian fountain. She never failed to giggle maniacally while it happened.

That got me through the first 10 or 15 sopping wet diaper changes. Then I got a little frustrated. Really, EV6? You couldn’t have done that five seconds earlier when the diaper was still beneath your chubby bottom, or twenty seconds later into a new one?

At wit’s end and running twice the amount of laundry to compensate for all the soiled stuff, we ordered a potty she wouldn’t topple off of. I mean, why not? If I could even point her at the darn thing in time it would save a lot of soggy trouble.

Then a magical thing happened. After I rushed EV6 from the pad to the potty in the first few changes, she stopped her reflexive peeing and just waited for the potty. In fact, on many occasions she stopped wetting her diaper entirely and just saved it up for the inevitable potty trip. Then, realizing she vastly preferred the constant dry diaper over an routinely damp one, she began to signal her need to visit the potty while she was still dry.

The first few times this happened I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. It’s not like I was trying to teach her potty-training. There was no established routine or special sign language vocab. I was just avoiding getting hosed down like a front-row audience member at Sea World during changes. Meanwhile, she devised this whole language of little grunts, claps, and sleeve-tugs to indicate her potty-readiness.

I wish you could have been there the day I figured out what she was telling me. Mind: blown. I had always mocked the idea of “elimination communication” as a whacky excuse to hold your baby over a chamber pot every five minutes, yet this little cherub taught me how to communicate about elimination.

If that was the whole story it would be awesome enough. Yet, that is not the end. No. This baby got even more awesome all on her own. Because, you see, though the focus of this exercise was never #2, suddenly she also began hold them for the potty. I have not dealt with a smelly diaper in months.

Like, twenty minutes ago – hilariously, midway through writing this post – we were laying on the couch, and she was like, “Yo, father, potty me.” And I said, “What? Are you sure? We were just there half an hour ago. Aren’t you comfortable here? Aren’t we snuggling?”

She proceeded to stare directly into my eye, mash one fist into an open palm, and grunt at me, as if to say, “You better take this mother-smooshing baby to the mother-smooshing potty RIGHT NOW.”

Up she went with a totally clean, dry diaper. Back we came, having deposited a stink-bomb into the potty rather then earmarking it for the washing machine.

I’ve never been down for this whole “babies are miracles” nonsense, but in this particular instance this baby has been miraculous.

she’s with the band

As evidenced by that last post, E and I elected to stay in for New Year’s Eve.

We originally planned to join some friends for what turned out to be a tremendously awesome party, but once E’s mother volunteered to visit for the night with her brother in tow we realized we had the opportunity to enjoy our own house for 24 entire hours while two totally other people entertained our baby.

(To put things into perspective, last time we had a fleet of family visit us I spent the better part of a night mopping AND I LOVED IT.)

(That’s not a baby-related change – I’ve always loved mopping.)

Since the entire point of holidaying at home was to avoid leaving the house, and since EV6 enjoys music and dancing, I asked bro to bring his Rock Band setup along with him. (I, of course, eschew all shitty plastic instruments that are not actually synthesizers, so my only participation is singing and occasionally playing an actual guitar, which works out even better for me now that I’m covering a pretty significant chunk of these sorts of tunes with Smash Fantastic.)

Thus, on New Year’s Day, we began a run of five-starring any songs left uncovered from our epic renditions of Summer 2011, when we had three microphones on mic stands for harmony and were ranked something like 18th in the world at the entire Bruno Mars catalog and could make the chorus of “Love Game” sound like something performed by the Andrews Sisters.

EV6 was digging it for a while, since from her perspective behind the TV it seemed like she was enjoying a command all-singing, all-dacing performance. Between her chubbiness and her need for us to constantly dance for her pleasure, she’s more and more resembling Jabba the Hutt. It’s impossible to get anything done that cannot be disguised as a command dance party.

However, she began to flag just as we hit the heavy belting stage of our setlist. Bro and I exchanged nervous glances between every song. Was the music lulling her to sleep or keeping her awake? We didn’t want to put her off her downward spiral to slumber, but each successive monster rock song hit I sang could be the one to rouse her.

(Keep in mind that I can be heard singing unamplified over a full drum set. I’m not saying that’s an ideal arrangement, just that my unadulterated singing voice is potentially louder than several hundred dollars worth of wood, metal, and reverberating polymer blends.)

We needn’t have worried. We are raising a rock baby who is completely unphased by loud sounds. After all, EV has been sitting in on full band rehearsals (wearing ear protection) since she was two months old. She went out somewhere in the Ks through Ls, stayed down when I had to move my microphone stand into the kitchen to sing Maroon 5 without it bleeding into the other mics, and did not rouse until after an appropriately rousing rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here We Go Again.”

If you don’t believe that’s a spectacular feat, you should invite me over to sing some hair metal tunes while you’re taking your next nap.

a crucial mission

There were fourteen minutes left on the timer.

“I can do this,” E said. “Ten minutes to finish, three whole minutes to carefully get to the second floor and back, one minute to spare.”

“And when have you ever known this to take ten minutes?”

“Oh, it takes you longer?” She remarked a little “hmph” to herself and set about her initial task. I could not help but watch her progress out of the corner of my eye with the rest of it glued to the screen and its ticking clock. She performed her duty steadily, just as I do, but a little more delicately. Her hands are more deft. Marching band member versus rocker. One of us has subtler fingers.

Subtlety has its applications. We were five minutes in and, though it did not look like she was halfway done, she also had not blown it all by being too forceful. That’s why she was the one doing the doing and I was the one doing the watching. I forced my eyes back up to the clock, as if the weight of my stare on E’s fingers might burden them down in her task. Hers always seem impossibly delicate to me, even though I have seem them hammer nails and move earth. Years ago I hardly could believe the one would bear the weight of my ring, but there it was glittering at the edge of my vision.

The clock ticked. We both watched the screen in silence as it panned across crowds of people breathing the same cold air as we were breathing but miles away. It was not going well for the woman the cameras were currently focused on, her fists pumping against the night as if trying to piece the dark and cold and slip away.

She let out a pained howl. The crowd cheered politely. Eleven minutes in, now, and just three minutes left. E was not finished.

“You aren’t going to make it.” My voice was still husky from all the commotion earlier in the night. “You could just stay.”

“I’ll be fine,” she mouthed back to me as she adjusted her grip.

Two minutes. I looked down to see E had finished, but she had yet to make a move. If it was me, I would be moving. Better to put things into motion. Pull the pin out, let the grenade lend you some urgency.

Seventy-five seconds. How long just to climb the stairs? E began to shift her weight, gathering her feet below her. Sixty. The count began. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. She rose, balanced, and crossed the room to the stairway with the stride of a dancer or a cat. All arches and flexed muscles, power hidden beneath lithe grace.

She disappeared through the archway. I hardly heard her on the stairs. Maybe she chose not to climb them after all. Maybe she had resigned herself that she wasn’t going to make it, and was just watching me as I watched the numbers close in on zero. Forty-two. Forty-one.

Twenty. Still enough time to descend the stairs and fit her body into the seat beside me, neatly filling the negative space. One day you stop being your own unit and the way you hold yourself starts to suggest the people that are meant to be surrounding you.

Ten. Nine. Eight. I stopped expecting her face to emerge from the arch at the front of the room. Seven. It was fine. Six. The mission was what mattered. Five. Four She would come back when she could come back.

Three. Two. One.

It was not the first new year that we would not open with a kiss, but at least the baby was asleep.

E returned at 12:02, blithe to the fact that her walk up the stairs with a limp, milk-drunk baby had taken the full three minutes she originally prescribed after draining the bottle rather than the fifty seconds she gave herself.

“Did I miss it?”

“No, it’s still 2014.”

“So I missed it. The ball.”

“They didn’t even show the ball. Just lots of awkward kissing. No more of that woman’s caterwauling, thank goodness. I’m surprised it didn’t wake her while she was drinking her milk? She’s down?”

“Totally out.”

We did not kiss. E whisked into the kitchen, in search of the champaign. Then we watched the Koi channel while everyone sipped champagne until I turned into a pumpkin at 12:58.

Happy New Year!