Category Archives: Life

Tips for Las Vegas Fun

A coworker who has never been to Vegas is going there this weekend, and he asked me what’s worth doing there. He didn’t want to sit at a slot machine all day. Having been there a few times, I put together my list. Maybe it’s worth sharing here too, so here is my Las Vegas list:

Food:

  • The Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s is the advertised as the biggest and best spread on the strip.
  • Although the best meal I’ve had in Vegas was The Buffet at Wynn.
  • Del Frisco’s Double Eagle is a prime steakhouse that only has a few locations nationwide, one of them just off the strip in Vegas. I’ve eaten at a Del Frisco’s Double Eagle on three occasions and they were all excellent, memorable meals.
  • Similarly, some of the best regional fast food joints have Vegas locations: Smashburger, Shake Shack, Fatburger, In-N-Out, and Sprinkles. If you don’t have a Shake Shack in your town and you’ve never tried it, well then by all means get yourself to Shake Shack while in Vegas.
  • Peppermill. It’s a diner/coffeeshop that is open 24 hours and hasn’t changed decor in about 40 years, right down to the smoky mirrors in the waiting area. It’s the perfect place to get a cup of coffee and a stack of pancakes at 5 AM.

Casinos:

  • My favorite casino floors are Bellagio, Mirage, Paris, and New York New York. I really like New York New York.
  • My favorite sports books are at Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, MGM, and Caesars. The Mirage has the most comfortable chairs.
  • The Mirage has the volcano waterfall that erupts a couple times per hour. Its impressive at night. The Bellagio fountains are so great, but it gets crowded on the street. Treasure Island has these pirate ships outside the front entrance and the ships attack each other, but it was closed when I was there last year and don’t know if that’s reopening.

Activities:

  • New York New York casino has a roller coaster, which is like $15 a person to ride. Mandalay Bay has a massive aquarium that’s like $20 a person. Stratosphere is the space needle looking casino on the far North end of the strip. It’s got a few thrill rides at the top of the tower that I am too chicken to attempt.
  • CSI The Experience is at the MGM. The “BODIES” exhibit was at the Luxor when I was there last. Star Trek: The Experience has unfortunately closed forever.
  • High Roller is the massive Ferris wheel. Each car holds 20-25 people and it gets you some 500 feet up, so pretty cool view.
  • Pole Position Raceway is the largest indoor go kart track in the country and this place is for real. Machine Guns Vegas is a gun range with AK47s and M4s, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Shows:

  • Cirque du Soleil has several shows in Vegas, the two most well known (and longest lasting shows) are “Mystere” at Treasure Island and “O” at the Bellagio. I’ve seen them both and they are both worth all the money you want to spend on good seats. Not sure there’s such a thing as a bad Cirque du Soleil show.
  • David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, & Terry Fator all have their own theaters. A handful of Broadway musicals like Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages are always playing. If you go to see Carrottop please don’t tell me. The big thing in Vegas right now is, if you can believe it, Britney Spears, if you’re into that sort of thing. Here is a big list.  And on the strip are several fashion malls with places to buy discounted show tickets. Tix4Tonight is a name I remember of one of them. Basically last minute ticket brokers where you can get seats 50% of so.

Misc:

  • The city runs a bus line called “The Duece”, it’s a double-decker bus that just runs up and down the strip 24/7. A 3 day pass is like $25 so if you want to hit up half a dozen places on the strip it’s the easiest way to get around.
  • I wasn’t even going to mention Hoover Dam, but it’s super impressive if you’ve never seen it.
  • Don’t try to be a morning person. The city wakes up at night and most of the casinos don’t even get buzzing until midnight.
  • And rule number 1 of Vegas is if someone tried to hand you something, for goodness sake don’t take it. It’s either a flyer for hookers or someone’s mix cd.

Goals for 2015

Follow up on my goals for 2014:

  • Master the Traeger grill. I have used the Traeger nearly as much as I’d hoped this year. In fact during the summer I was using it for preparing dinner at least 2-3 times a week. I’ve routinely used it for chicken breasts, beef brisket, buffalo wings, pork shoulder, pork tenderloin, salmon filet, turkey burgers, and corn on the cob.  In April I was asked to make up some pulled pork for a family get together and the end product was very well received. I was just asked to cook the meat for a family Christmas party, so I’m feeling good about my skills on the Traeger. My only regret is that I haven’t cooked a pizza on it yet. If you are Traeger curious, here are some recipes I’ve been fine tuning to my tastes: Beef Brisket and the dry rub recipe I use, BBQ ribs and the dry rub for that, and Pulled Pork where I use either rub (or some of both).
  • Get rid of some stuff. Both Lauren and I went through our wardrobes and thinned out clothes we hadn’t worn recently. I got rid of all my baseball and football jerseys except for one, mainly because I’m a smaller shirt size these days. I think I’ve made half a dozen trips to Goodwill this year, which is about what I was hoping for.
  • Play host. No dining room table yet, but we did have a run of a few months where at least once a week we’d have friends or family over for dinner. That was nice.
  • Organize my house. We set some money aside for Elfa closet organizers in our master bedroom closet and I think it turned out really well. So well in fact, we purchased Elfa for our bonus room for some wall-to-wall shelving and a floating entertainment console. That turned out really well too. Also we found a great deal on some storage crates and loaded up; now finally we can put some stuff away into our attic storage. I also spent a couple days reorganizing the attic storage space to make space for the baby swing and the baby jumperoo and to put the Christmas decorations in an more accessible spot. I still need a better place to put my wallet and car keys when I walk in the house.

My goals for 2015:

  • Cook Large Primal Cuts. This Christmas I got two massive books on cuts of meat and how to cook them. In 2014 I’ve done, at any given time, two racks of ribs or a turkey or a 6 pound brisket. In 2015 I want to go bigger. I want to cook a standing rib roast, or 6 racks of ribs, or maybe grind my own sausage.
  • Get at least 6 haircuts. This probably sounds stupid, but for as long as I can remember I’ve just let my hair grow until it annoys me then I pay $10 for a “Number 2 All Over”. My last haircut I actually decided to get a cut and style and I actually quite liked the results. So I’m gonna try it out for a year.
  • MCSA. This isn’t exactly my idea and isn’t exactly what I would like to pursue, but it seems that this is the way my company is heading: getting everyone certified. Won’t kill me and I might actually learn something.
  • Drop More Weight. I started 2014 weighing 267. In July, my wife and I began AdvoCare and I started shedding pounds. My lowest weigh-in of 2014 (just before Christmas) was at 232, which is the lowest I’ve weighed since college. 35 pounds, gone. I want to do that again. I want to be under 200 pounds by this time next year.

Favorite Discoveries of 2014

  • Threes!, Hoplite, and Monument Valley for iOS. These games especially were the iPhone games I’ve fallen in love with and will probably keep replaying for another year or more. Threes! probably has the most play hours of any game this year, most of them from 9pm – 11pm. Hoplite is a turn based movement game with a neat mechanic for combat and leveling up. Nearly any 8-bit dungeon game is something worth your time. And I cherish every level of Monument Valley and I’m saving a few of the bonus levels for a future treat. Both are worth every penny.
  • Advocare.  Depending on what you take as my starting weight, since my weight on Day 1 of my 24 Day Challenge (263.9) isn’t my heaviest for the year (269.0), but I’m down 30 pounds. I’m eating differently, I’m cooking differently, and I feel so much better. Spark has replaced my morning coffee. Meal Replacement Shakes have become my everyday breakfast. I couldn’t be happier with the products and the results.
  • Lunarbaboon. It’s a web comic about a family. The comic is honest, imaginative, and subversive about parenting, relationships, time management, and what it means to growing up. Some days it makes me giggle, some times I laugh out loud, and some days it breaks my heart a little. Here’s a taste of it with some of my favorites: Winter, Travel, Puppies, Timer, Rescue, Deflect.
  • Arrow, The Mind of a Chef, and Black Mirror. Of the shows that are new-to-me that I started watching in 2014, there are three standouts. If you think Arrow might be your kind of fun, it probably is. Season 2 spent a lot of time doing flashbacks to Oliver’s time on that island and it’s one of my favorite parts of the show. In season 1 episode 15 of The Mind of a Chef, David Chang discusses the appropriate ways to smoke a whole hog. Also, Chang sits down with Allen Benton and Benton makes red eye gravy. If you know who Allen Benton is, then you know I was totally into this. Black Mirror isn’t for everyone, and it’s certainly not for kids, but if well conceived science fiction of how humans are affected by technology is your idea of a good time, Black Mirror will impress.
  • Allie Moss. She’s been on stage with Ingrid Michaelson, playing guitar and singing harmony, each of the three times I’ve seen Ingrid in concert. On the song Maybe, her harmony part is always a little louder than the lead vocal (it’s happened every time) and it makes me smile to think about. a couple weeks ago she promoted her EP of Christmas music on Twitter and I bought it on a whim, it’s only 3 songs, and it’s kind of wonderful. She’s released a couple more things on iTunes and I recommend getting into them. She’s just wonderful and I wish her nothing but success should she strike out on her own, but I’m also looking forward to seeing her on stage with Ingrid again soon.
  • Off Camera. An interview podcast with Sam Jones, photographer and director of the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, where he talks with his friends about their art. His friends just happen to be movie stars and rock gods. My favorite episodes are Dave Grohl, Matt Damon, and with skateboard legend and documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta.
  • The Bellagio. In April of 2014, the family went to Las Vegas for a long weekend. We spent the most time at The Bellagio, which despite having been a Vegas a couple times already I hadn’t been to yet. We saw the Cirque du Soleil show “O”also at The Bellagioand it’s a heckuva thing. The casino floor is classy and comfortable and it’s just my favorite place to be when in Vegas. On a side note, I enjoyed New York New York’s gaming floor a lot too and the buffet at The Wynn was the best meal we ate that weekend.
  • Holiday Park Events at Walt Disney World. We went to WDW twice in 2014 and were able to attend both Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. These are special events at Magic Kingdom, which closes early to regular park guests and stays open late for attendees of the separately ticketed party. The lines are shorter, the fireworks and parades are bigger and better, and the park is filled with rare characters. At the Christmas Party, all seven dwarfs were lined up for group photos. I would love to attend these parties again.

Advocare 24-Day Challenge

The challenge starts with 10 days of a cleanse then follows with 14 days of a “max” phase. We started on July 9th. Today is the last day of the challenge. I feel pretty great. Better than I have in years actually. And I’m down 10 pounds. Yay!

The Cleanse

Right out of the gate I had to change some habits. Advocare recommends some serious diet restriction for the 10 day cleanse and I wanted to do it right. These were the food suggestions I tried to go by:

  • No coffee, tea, soda, or alcoholic drinks
  • No white flour, white rice, or refined sugar
  • No fried, deep fried, or processed foods
  • Avoid red meat, shrimp, and bottom feeding fish/shellfish
  • Limit milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy
  • Try to eat natural, whole foods.

I’ve suspected for quite a while now that processed white flour is killing us all. And yeah fried chicken just isn’t as healthy as grilled chicken. And I would miss having a steak dinner. But I can do anything for 24 days. My biggest concern was coffee. Seriously my morning coffee (and my afternoon Coke Zero) is a kind of ritual that I clung to during the work week. But low and behold, and I never thought I’d say anything like this, but I don’t need my coffee anymore. Not even sure I miss it.

With the schedule of meals and snacks, I can’t remember a time in the last 24 days when I’ve felt hungry. I’m alert in the afternoons, I’m energetic in the evening, and I’m totally not sleeping through my alarm.  And did I mention I’m down 10 pounds?

Three moments

During the max phase of the challenge, three moments immediately come to mind and are worth sharing here. I’ve found them very empowering.

One

I went to the store to pick up a few things. Mostly just something for dinner that night and something for lunches. I counted 12 things (few enough for the express lane) and noticed 11 of them were from the produce section. Salad greens, potatoes, cilantro, avocado, tomatoes, and so on. Item #12: slivered almonds. I don’t remember ever grocery shopping like that. I feel really good about it.

Two

On Day 19 of the challenge, I went to dinner with my best friend to celebrate his birthday. We found ourselves at a pub. I decided to step a toe over the line and celebrate with a ribeye steak and a black and tan. I woke up the next morning feeling like I was digesting a brick. I seriously hadn’t felt that awful I don’t know how long. It took me until the next day to feel right again. It’s always been hard for me to adequately judge day to day what in my diet affects my level of well-being; it’s hard to know what food gave me heartburn or indigestion. But it’ pretty clear that 12 ounces of ribeye steak absolutely wrecked me. I mean wrecked me. It crossed my mind, and since then more than just once, that maybe all these years I was routinely feeling awful and had gotten used to it.

Three

And this happened today. I went to the break room in the office to refill my water bottle and someone had left out food. It was Jet’s Pizza and there were 6 boxes of it and it was still warm. And it didn’t even smell good. It didn’t look good. I wanted nothing to do with it. It was a moment of clarity, that this greasy pizza was not fuel, it was barely food. It was trash and it would wreck me. And I remembered how I felt after that ribeye. And I could easily say no thanks.

What I’m Learning

Some of my favorite foods are far from healthy. I’ve had a strong desire for a decent cheeseburger for about a week now. And some Hattie B’s. And I want to cook up some mac & cheese. And my sister bought me a variety of craft beer from a brewery down the road from her house in Holland, Michigan. I’m not pouring it out, I’m gonna drink it. But moderation with food isn’t something I think I ever really learned. I think now I’m finally getting a handle on what moderation looks and feels like and actually living that out. So yay for personal growth! Advocare calls that a “non-scale victory”.

I’m gonna keep going. Over the next several weeks, I’m gonna have a few beers and eat some of my favorite pizza, but I’m keeping this change to my routine. I certainly can’t argue with the results. If anybody has questions about Advocare and the 24-Day Challenge, I can answer any burning questions (though my wife is the real expert).

One Year

Our little girl turns one year old this week, yay!

I’ve been reflecting on the past year quite a bit. Parenthood has been so much easier and so much harder than I expected. It has been the longest year of my life, in the best way possible.

I’ve also tried to take inventory of what I’ve learned in the past year. I’ve had a tremendous amount of new information and new experiences, and I think I’ve changed my mind on some key issues. So here is a summary of every important topic on my mind about the past year, in really no particular order.

Feeding

Our pediatrician calls breast milk “liquid gold”, which made it more than a little disappointing when breastfeeding didn’t work out. My wife tried with every ounce of effort to breast feed our daughter, while people everywhere—smart people like doctors and nurses and mothers—reassured her that it’s just a matter of time, be patient, it’ll happen. But it didn’t happen. Her milk just didn’t come in. No liquid gold. So many people were supportive of my wife’s struggle to breastfeed. People came out of the woodwork to encourage her and share their own story. If what all the doctors and nurses told us, that it is rare a woman will not be able to breast feed, then by chance it seems we know a proportionally large number of women who had their own struggles. Maybe the doctors just say that to encourage women to keep trying.

Good news: baby formula is good enough. Formula doesn’t have the immunity benefits that breast feeding has, but as far as nourishment goes, it’s fantastic. Hey, I eat McDonald’s and Taco Bell and fast food doesn’t exactly have teams of scientists trying to make their food as nutritious as possible. A generation ago babies were being fed whole food and cow’s milk as young as three months, so I decided not to grip this too hard.

And in a lot of ways, baby formula is awesome. For example, I can give Olivia a bottle of milk while driving the car. Let’s back up, I can actually feed my daughter. I saw the stress visibly lift off my wife’s shoulders when she could sleep more than 3 hours because I can totally feed the baby. There’s no pumping, no refrigerator and freezer stocked with breast milk, and it made a transition to drinking water out of a sippy cup kind of easy. So yeah, it’s kind of worked out for good.

One last thing: if I ever hear another person snidely say “breast is best” to me again, they’re getting punched in the mouth. Because they deserve it. Punched in the mouth. Don’t ever say that. Just don’t. The only thing a new mother hears is that they aren’t being a good mother and their body is failing their child. Tell that to any new mother, it will break them. Say it in my presence, you’re getting punched in the mouth. This is your warning.

Don’t be a jerk.

Tracking feedings and diapers

My wife used this iPhone app to track how much Olivia took at a feeding and when she had a diaper change. There are many others, so find one that you like. But find one and use it.

The nurse at the Pediatrician’s office will ask you how many poopy diapers your baby has had in the last week. Baby poop is an important health indicator in the first few months. The nurse will ask. You need to give an accurate answer. But you’re only getting 3-4 hours sleep at night. Days runs together. Heck, hours run together. “How is it already 3pm?” got uttered in our house regularly. “When did you last feed the baby?” is another popular one. You will not remember. You won’t. So keep track.

Accessibility

So I’m at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, NV. We’re finishing our lunch and Olivia needs a diaper change, so I grab the necessities and carry her into the Men’s room. There is a row of 12 bathroom stalls, the last one is handicap accessible. It is the only one occupied. It is also the location of the baby changing station. I knock, no answer. There’s no space on the counter next to the sinks. I’m not going to change her on the bathroom floor. Ten long minutes later, the “Most Selfish Person Alive” emerges from his handicap stall, having enjoyed his extended session playing Candy Crush. He is totally oblivious that he just made the only other person in this bathroom, the person holding a sad baby, wait on him for the last 10 minutes. This guy sucks. And this happens all the time.

Automatic sliding doors and handicap accessible doors are totally awesome. And I have all but stopped using them, unless Olivia is in the stroller. Shopping malls are like obstacle courses. You are constantly on the lookout for ramps and elevators and automatic doors. Don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with someone on a ramp. Use the door with a handle. Don’t use the handicap stall, because some dad holding a crying baby with a poopy diaper is waiting on you. Make it a little easier on other people.

Sign Language

Sign language for babies has tremendous potential, but in the first year it has limited usefulness. Olivia can’t really control her hand movements to the point where she is signing anything yet. But I think the day will come when the potential is unlocked.

She can recognize a handful of signs: “milk”, “water”, “eat”, “more”, “all gone”. If Olivia is fussy because she wants a bottle and I ask “Do you want milk?” she might not even notice I’m talking to her. But if I also sign “milk” when I ask her, her face lights up. “Water” and “eat” get similar reactions too. For months and months you take care of your child with absolutely zero feedback, so getting a smile or a giggle is close to magical. “Cookie”, “cracker”, “thank you”, and “diaper” are on the short list for the next signs we need to reinforce. “Mother” and “father” are easy to sign, but I would selfishly rather hear her try to say mama and dadda verbally than just sign it.

Lauren and I sign to each other more often than I you’d think. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the living room and Olivia is crying and her activity table is wailing that “Welcome to our learning farm…” song, she doesn’t have to yell over all that to ask me to make a bottle. She can just sign “milk”. Sitting at a restaurant with friends, Lauren and I often sign to each other, just to ask “milk?” or “eat?” or “diaper?”. It doesn’t get Olivia’s attention that we’re up to something and it doesn’t interrupt the dinner conversation. A couple weeks ago we got home late and I carried Olivia into the house, she was already asleep. Without saying a word, like I was leading a Navy SEAL team into an enemy encampment, I signaled to Lauren that I was going to take her upstairs, change her diaper, and lay her down to to sleep. Pretty handy.

Gender Polarization

Baby boys clothes come in all sorts of primary colors. Girls clothes come in mostly pink and pastels. I hate this so much. And it’s opened my eyes to how many gender specific products you see every day but never notice. It’s turning me into a feminist. Because little girls shouldn’t be forced to wear pink to look cute. And little girls should get to dress up like Spider-Man if they want to.

seriously, what is this crap?

It’s also opened my eyes to how many people just assume every baby they see is a boy. I don’t understand why the default in people’s mind is “boy”. This drives me insane. So here are some tips: if you don’t know boy or girl and the baby isn’t wearing enough pink or pastel colors to indicate gender:

  1. Look for hair bows, headbands, and earrings. Baby girls usually have these things, baby boys usually do not.
  2. Look for ruffles and bows in the clothing. If the pants have little ruffles on the seat or cuff of the pant legs or shirt sleeves,  it’s a dead giveaway it’s a girl.
  3. Ask. It’s so simple. “Your baby is so adorable. Boy or girl?” Immediately follow that up with “How old is he/she?” and use the right pronoun. No one cares if you ask boy or girl. The first 2 months it’s near impossible to tell anyway and parents get asked this all the time. Just ask, then use the right pronoun. If you guess, you’re asking for it. If you guess wrong, the parents will think you are an idiot. But if you want to be sly about it, just talk to the baby directly: “Hey cutie pie, what’s your name?” and that usually gets a response from the parent “Her name is Olivia”. And you’re all set.

Vaccines

We freaked out a little bit when the hospital nurses wanted to administer the Hep B vaccine to Olivia the same day she was born. The request caught us by surprise and frankly it spooked us. Lauren declined because she wanted to talk to me first. I also declined because I wanted to talk to a pediatrician. Because there are so many misconceptions about vaccines in the culture right now, it’s enough to throw doubt on anyone, even people who’ve done their homework. Vaccines were something I didn’t think I’d be scared about, because I’m a highly rational person, however I was emotional and protective and scared for my child just like I was told I might be.

Olivia got that vaccination a couple days later at the Pediatrician’s office. And we stuck to the standard vaccine schedule, the only modification was spreading it out over additional appointments so she wasn’t getting so many shots at once. And really that was just so her legs wouldn’t hurt her so much on any given visit (it’s hard to see your baby crying because she’s in pain).

We picked a Pediatrician who came highly recommended; we met with her and instantly liked her, and decided to put our trust in her. Just like you’re supposed to do with any professional. Just like me with my own doctor. I guess it’s just scarier when it’s your child. We didn’t skip any vaccines and I don’t think I’d advise any parent to skip vaccines against the advice of their Pediatrician.

Photos

We take a lot of photos. Like a lot of photos. It’s not difficult at all to take out your smartphone and grab a few pictures. Or 30 pictures. The new iPhone has a Burst Mode feature so I can just hold down the shutter button and it snaps away. That has yielded some of the cutest pictures.

We are heavy users of iCloud Photo Streams. It is hands down the easier way for Lauren and I to share pictures with each other and to get them backed up to my computer. It’s also been the easiest way to share photos with family, just because everyone in our immediately family has an iPhone. I also upload a handful of the best photos to a Flickr account and we use those for a screensaver on our Apple TV. And I keep a Facebook album with some photos in there too. When someone asks if I have a picture, that’s usually the easiest way to pull up a recent picture.

We also bought an SLR camera right after Olivia was born. And it takes great photos, but I’m not a great photographer. I don’t find it to be as convenient as the camera on my phone, and the iPhone camera is good enough in most situations. We also have to be deliberate about making use of it, and weeks go by with it just sitting in the camera bag. However, if you do want to buy a SLR camera, follow this advice.

Gear

When Lauren and I walked into Babies “R” Us to setup a baby registry, I was absolutely overwhelmed by all the stuff. Not all of it’s useful. Not all of it is worth retail price. But this is a short list of everything we’ve used in the last year that is worth every penny.

  • Fisher-Price Cradle ‘N Swing: This was a life saver. It was like having an extra person to hold the baby. Dinner would not have gotten cooked if it weren’t for this swing. And Olivia took most of her naps in this.
  • Fisher-Price Rock n’ Play Sleeper: Rather than sleep in a bassinet, Olivia slept in this every night for the first 8 weeks. Lauren kept it right by her bedside so she could rock Olivia back to sleep without getting out of bed and picking her up.
  • Carter’s swaddling blankets: I took great care in swaddling Olivia and tried to perfect my technique. And these were the only swaddling blankets that wouldn’t unravel in a couple minutes. And we dismissed using the velcro swaddles because they were all intended for “arms in” and Olivia could escape from it like Houdini. After a month we had to swaddle her with her arms out of the blanket. I all but stopped using any of the other receiving blankets we had.
  • OXO wipe dispenser: Keeps the wipes moist, easy to operate with one hand, and super easy to refill. We have 4 of them. And they fit in most diaper changing caddies.
  • Pampers Swaddlers diapers and Pampers Sensitive wipes. Just like bottles, bibs, and blankets, we tried nearly every kind. These Pampers Swaddlers were consistently the best fit and the easiest to change. And these wipes are a little more per box than generic ones, but it’s the difference between Charmin and hotel 1-ply toilet paper. And the best strategy for buying diapers is easy: find a deal and stock up.
  • Motorola MBP36 video monitor: It has to easy to navigate buttons, so I can use the thing in the middle of the night when bedroom lights are turned off. It has a pretty good night vision ability. And it has a indicator lights for audio level so I can keep the speaker on mute and get a visual alert when she starts making noise. We tried an audio only monitor, but the video is so nice. She’s so cute when she sleeps. And don’t get one that uses your smartphone as the display, because it’ll run down the battery on your phone and it’s near impossible to check the baby monitor if you’re on a phone call.
  • OXO Tot Formula Dispenser: If you’re using formula, you want this specific dispenser in your diaper bag. The formula powder flows so well, way better than the others we tried. It’s like the formula is running from the law it so fluidly escapes this dispenser. It wows me every time. I couldn’t have imagined even a year ago how worked up I could get and how much of an advocate I could be for a formula dispenser, but parenthood does strange things to people.
  • Britax B-Agile Stroller and B-Safe Travel System: No regrets buying this system. The Stroller handles nicely and is light enough to fold up and carry around when I have to. The carrier doesn’t have a fancy ergonomic grip, which i actually prefer, and it’s easy to loop your arm under the handle and balance it on your hip. The base is super easy to attach to a car seat and carrier clicks in and out easily. The carrier has a 30 pound limit, but Olivia grew out of it at around 18 pounds (9 months) when we moved her up to the Britax Pavilion Car Seat. And I’ve learned that car seats have an expiration date. God forbid if your child is hurt in an injury accident and out of warranty car seat doesn’t perform correctly, your chances of seeking damages is seriously diminished. So buy a recently manufactured, new-in-box car seat and replace it if your car is in a collision.
  • Diaper Genie: Don’t buy an expensive one. Buy the generic refills, not the brand name. And the plastic canister does take on an odor over time. And the full weight of the odor hits you in the face when you empty it. But it sure beats putting a dirty diaper in your bathroom trash or kitchen trash and forgetting it’s there and you wake up the next day and wonder why your entire kitchen smells like baby poop.
  • Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes: This was one of the first toys Olivia ever held in her hands and she still loves it. When she gets fussy, the lights and the music calm her right down. She loves this thing.
  • Baby Einstein Sea Dreams Soother: I was awfully skeptical of this. It looks like a fish tank and it straps onto the crib. But it is genius: it’s a fish tank on her crib. When she wakes up, she’s mostly content to crawl over and turn this on and just watch it. No crying, no wailing, just chilling out with the fake fish in the fake fish tank, sometimes up to 15-20 minutes after she wakes up. Anything that gives me flexibility like that in my morning schedule is worth the money.
  • Munchkin Mozart Magic Cube: As soon as she started to sit up on her own, we gave her this music cube. It wouldn’t roll away from her, it kept her engaged with sounds and lights and buttons to press, and she still loves it. And it is the least annoying musical toy we have in the house. It actually plays music I don’t hate.
  • North States Superyard: Another life saver. We should have purchased this as soon as Olivia started crawling. We have it setup in our living room and she can crawl around until her heart is content and we know she’s not trying to eat the dog’s toys or grab the lamp off the end table.

Sleep

The first two nights at home were the worst. Olivia didn’t sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time for 2 days. Lauren and I didn’t get more than 3 hours of sleep in the first 48 hours. The mountain top experience of seeing my child born was completely eclipsed by the effects of not sleeping. I couldn’t think straight; couldn’t utter complete sentences. The lack of sleep absolutely broke me. Lauren too.

Sleep is fuel. You need it. Not having it will ruin you. There will be nights when the baby wakes up at 4am for a feeding and won’t go back to sleep for two hours, which means if you stayed up til midnight to read a book or watch a movie, you’re screwed. Now you’re going through the day on 4 hours of sleep and there’s a better than even chance this happens tomorrow night and the night after that. Caffeine has diminishing returns. There’s only so much coffee you can drink. I’ve had to take vacation days (technically they were sick days) because I just needed to sleep.

I’d heard all the horror stories from other parents. How kids wake up at dawn and hate naps and hate bedtime. I believe them all. Sleep is perhaps the hardest struggle of being a parent. Olivia was sleeping through the night at two months, she transitioned to her crib easily, she usually takes a morning and an afternoon nap, she doesn’t cry for someone to come get her when she wakes up, and her bedtime routine is almost like clockwork. We have the absolute best possibly baby: a baby that loves to sleep. And yet I still find myself sleep deprived, because 1) I’m an idiot who doesn’t respect my own bedtime and 2) it’s just hard.

And finally, to all of my friends who got married and had kids while I was still single, who made the time to hang out with me anyway, to invite me to their homes or to play video games into the wee hours, I love you and I am sorry if I ever disrespected your time. Because now I know. I know what you were going through. Instead of taking a nap like a sane person, like I would surely do, you spent time with your friend. So thanks.

On Being a New Parent

I rediscovered one of my favorite posts on Medium: Letter to a First-Time Father. It’s a friendly letter of advice on what other parent’s forget to warn you about when you become a parent. I read this just before Olivia was born and it’s funny and insightful and a delight.

Number Three: I’m sure plenty of older parents have already told you to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” And this is useful, because it distinguishes that person as someone who honestly has no recollection of what it was like to live with an infant. You will never sleep more than 45 minutes at a clip, and not because baby wakes up crying. You’ll be doing it because you’re terrified of SIDS, and will continually be hovering over the crib to make sure your child is breathing. Problem with this is that babies are so small, you can barely notice if their chests (with or without nipples) are rising up and down. So, logically, you’ll put a hand on your daughter’s little body, just to check, which will then wake her up. She will remain awake for the next three hours. She will also cry throughout the entirety of these three hours because she’s pissed you woke her up.

You will repeat this process every night until she’s a year old, when you’re out of the woods with the SIDS business. However, you will sporadically continue to do this for the rest of both of your lives, because the silence now terrifies you. Once, we were staying at my parents’ house and I woke up at 4am to make sure my preschool-aged sons weren’t suffocating in their blankets. When I opened my eyes, my father was hovering over me, making sure I, too, was not suffocating in my linens. I was thirty-one years old. Yes, it was creepy.

Go read the whole thing.

And Jonathan Coulton’s You Ruined Everything might be a perfect song about becoming a new parent.

Stack Overflow founder Jeff Atwood said in his On Parenthood post something I didn’t believe until Olivia was born.

As an adult, you may think you’ve roughly mapped the continent of love and relationships. You’ve loved your parents, a few of your friends, eventually a significant other. You have some tentative cartography to work with from your explorations. You form ideas about what love is, its borders and boundaries. Then you have a child, look up to the sky, and suddenly understand that those bright dots in the sky are whole other galaxies.

You can’t possibly know the enormity of the feelings you will have for your children.

I’m also very glad for the blogger Jason Kottke, who is several years ahead of me on the parenting journey. Kottke.org is a blog that posts about great ideas and awesome people, and every so often Jason speaks personally about his kids and his perspective on being a parent. There is so much good stuff here. I’ve found as much insight from posts tagged Parenting on Kottke.org as everything else I’ve read. Side note: back in 2010 he posted a link to another site where he guest posted a list of his favorite stuff for kids. That site is now gone, so in my soon-to-be-a-parent anxiousness I emailed him to ask what else was on his list. He was gracious enough to dig into his personal archive and dig out the list. Thanks Jason. And you’re right, a diaper bag needs and over-the-shoulder strap. I should have listened.

MSDN Subscriptions and Microsoft Azure

This year I discovered that a perk of my job is an MSDN Subscription. It blew my mind when I logged in for the first time and saw the page with my software keys. So much software. What is also a nice perk is a monthly stipend for Microsoft Azure. So I’ve moved this blog onto Azure and it was relatively painless. I made it harder than it actually was. And it’s super cheap, something like $10 a month, so much so that I don’t think I would ever use up my monthly stipend.

Now I need to figure out a neat project I can start up, because now I have a place to host it.

Furnace Woes

Saturday 6:30 AM. Lauren walks into the bedroom, turns on the light, and actually quite calmly tells me there is water dripping from the living room ceiling. Sure enough, a stretch of 8 feet of ceiling drywall is dripping wet and the bowl light fixture in the center of the room is filled up like a fishbowl. I grab an empty drink pitcher from the kitchen and put it under the light fixture, which is dripping pretty good by now. Lauren wads up some paper towels into it so the dripping noise doesn’t drive us crazy. I head upstairs into our unfinished attic storage and find that the drip tray under the furnace, which as a rule is supposed to be dry, is full to the brim and overflowing with water. I grab a mop bucket, a red solo cup, and manually scoop out about 10 gallons of water, 5 ounces at a time, out of the drip tray.

Saturday 8:00 AM. I call TA Kaiser and get directed to a messaging service. The heat is technically still running, so my request is triaged to the bottom of the list. I don’t get a call back until 4pm, when I’m not at home. I call our home builder to put in a service request and get directed to a voicemail box. While walking the dogs, I check the condensate line on the side of the house and it is, predictably, frozen like a popsicle.

Saturday 9:00 PM. I remove another 5 gallons of water from the furnace drip tray.

Sunday 8:00 AM. I remove another 3 gallons of water from the furnace drip tray. This time there is a nice layer of ice on top.

Monday 2:00 PM. TA Kaiser HVAC repair tech James shows up and within 2 minutes recognizes the problem. The furnace trap in the collector box has broken off it’s mount, which means the furnace isn’t draining. It’s having to use the drip tray and use the auxiliary drain in the tray. He patches up the collector box, but it will need to be replaced. He replaces the water sensor kill switch, which appears broken, as evidenced by the fact that water ran into the living room ceiling. He shopvacs out about 4 gallons of water from the drip tray using the absolute coolest shopvac I’ve ever seen and I make a note to add it to my Amazon Wish List. He even replaces the spout on the condensate line outside with a “Tee” so it will still drain when frozen up. When he leaves, the heat is running and the furnace should be draining.

Tuesday 8:00 AM. The furnace is not draining. The water sensor kill switch has shut off the furnace. The drip tray is frozen solid. I throw some table salt on the ice and run out and buy that shopvac at Lowes and remove about 5 gallons of icy water.

Tuesday 5:00 PM. James, the TA Kaiser HVAC repair tech, who I find out is actually a Field Supervisor who is working calls because of the extreme weather, has walked me through over the phone getting the furnace to turn back on.

Tuesday 10:00 PM. Lauren and I get back home from the Predators game, which we won, to find the temp in the house is 59 degrees. The furnace is running, but it’s blowing cold air. We pack a bag and stay at her parent’s house for the night. Before we leave I throw a second blanket in the kennel for the dogs.

Wednesday 8:30 AM. Air temp in the house is 49 degrees. TA Kaiser meets me at the house to replace the broken collector box and troubleshoot the furnace. The drain has frozen solid and found its way up to freeze up the furnace trap, which has thrown off the pressure valves, and killed the flame in the furnace and the thermostat ran the fan all night. I boil a pot of salt water on the stove and James, the awesome HVAC tech, defrosts the furnace trap in it, then pours the boiling hot water down the drain the melt the ice in it. Within an hour, the air temp in the house is up to 55 degrees. By noon it’s back to 70 degrees. I think it’s really fixed for real this time.

Favorite Discoveries of 2013

Another year is ending, so here’s my list of the favorite things I discovered in 2013.

  • Here’s The Thing podcast. I heard about it from a tweet from John Siracusa and it’s a fantastic show. Alec Baldwin is a great interviewer and gets the absolute best guests. Sad thing is that most of the new episodes are reposts. I recommend the David Letterman, Billy Joel, Brian Williams, Dwight Gooden, and Robert Lustig episodes.
  • Nest thermostat.  It was a gift from my Dad and I was able to install it in about an hour. It’s keeps a history and learns your behavior and tries to save you money on your electric bill. And I think it’s saved us $30 a month actually. But the killer feature is grabbing your phone, launching the app, and changing the temperature in the house without having to get out of bed.
  • The Walking Dead game. Developed by Telltale Games, who may be the most human game developer out there, this is a superb game. So emotional. Lauren and I played it together (I held the controller) and at times we both teared up. Just wonderful.
  • The iTunes Artwork Finder, by Ben Dobson. To simplify how we watch movies and TV shows, I decided to put all the AVI and MKV files I have into iTunes. That meant using Handbrake to convert to MP4, but iTunes wants cover art for every file. This web site is written by a freelance developer as a tool he used for himself to get album art from the iTunes Store API. Now it searches for Movies, TV, and more. See also iFlicks 2 in the Mac App Store.
  • The Firestone Auto Care franchise in Mount Juliet. I used to work at an office within walking distance of a Firestone, but since changing jobs and moving to a new house I hadn’t found a new place to take my car. This Firestone is never busy, I never need an appointment, and it’s in the adjacent parking lot to the restaurant Cheddar’s, which has a good chicken tenders and a decent bar.
  • Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. On 19th Ave in Midtown, I’ve found my new favorite joint. And the last several times I’ve gone there, I’ve ordered the exact same thing: Large white meat plate, Hot, fries and slaw, and banana pudding. My goal is to work up to the Extra Hot, which will undoubtedly murder my taste buds in the best way possible.
  • Super Stickman Golf 2. I’ve played this little game for over 150 hours. I’ve made in-app purchases just to support the developer. I love this little game.
  • Candy Apple flavored Milky Way minis. Found them at Target in the Halloween candy section. They might soon break into my Top 5 candy bars.
  • Olivia Louise Johnson. This year my wife gave birth to our first child, Olivia. She’s such a happy baby. She has a big smile, bright eyes, and the fastest growing fingernails I’ve ever seen. She is alert, she interacts, and she loves to grab at my beard. She’s pretty awesome. She has changed my life for the better.

Goals for 2014

Follow up on my goals for 2013:

  • Lose some more weight. I actually gained, but still down from where I was two years ago. I think losing weight is going to be a goal every year for the rest of my life. I would love to be thinner, but, you know, baked goods.
  • Cook with appliances. Since the baby was born in July, I have really changed my approach to cooking dinner. I almost always have a stock pot on the stove, ready and waiting, and have been using slow cookers more. Now that I am a proud owner of a Traeger grill, I expect even more slow cooking in my future.
  • Become a better home owner. I kept good care of the lawn this year and figured out a system for raking/blowing leaves during the fall. We also got gutter guards installed on the house, which will keep me off a ladder in future years. Lauren and I made our own window treatments and they really turned out nice. I reorganized the garage and my tools while we were building the cornice boards, but I still don’t have a single place to keep my tools and battery chargers.
  • Use my iPad more, especially for reading. The iPad found it’s use this year with Netflix and Comics. I did read parts of a few books, but mostly read on my iPhone. I read through the first several trades of The Walking Dead and Hawkeye, and I have a list of comics to read next. But the iPad found most of it’s use with Netflix. Propped up on the coffee table or an end table, it was an ideal screen to watch while holding a sleeping baby.

My goals for 2014:

  • Master the Traeger grill. As a house warming gift, my parents bought me a Traeger Lil’ Tex Elite grill. It’s an electric smoker that has the cooking area of a 4 burner propane gas grill and I cooked our Christmas turkey on it, which turned out pretty good. I’ve also done burgers (which I screwed up and finished in a grill pan on the stove) and a beef brisket (which was good but needs improvement). I need to start a cooking diary to track my results and experiments, I need a better meat thermometer, I need some warmer weather so the smoker can regulate temperature easier, and I need to find a good meat counter that sells prime rib roast, pork belly, salmon, and larger cuts of brisket.
  • Get rid of some stuff. I recently packed up two large bags for Goodwill out of my closet. I need to do more of that. I’ve got kitchen trinkets I’ve never used and never will, shoes in my closet I’ll never wear again, tee shirts and sweaters that are 10 years old, and boxes of wires and adapters for computers that have died. I’m not suggesting I’m throwing away my Darth Vader Mr. Potato Head (Darth Tater) just because he’s been a box for the last year. Because I’m not. Darth Tater is awesome. But I think it’s time to retire some keepsakes into permanent storage and thin out what we keep in the kitchen drawers. 
  • Play host. As much as our dogs will allow, I’d like to have our friends and family over more often. The last two years my side of the family has come to my house for Christmas and it’s been a pleasure. We’ve had friends passing through town stay with us and that’s been great too. Even if it’s just having friends over for fondue or chili or something off the Traeger, I’d like to open our home a little more this year (which means we also need to buy a dining room table).
  • Organize my house. I’ve moved twice in the last 4 years and some things never made it out of their boxes. Books, photo frames, and some trinkets that used to sit on my desk or nightstand are in boxes. Every closet in the house has stuff sitting on the floor. The kitchen pantry and the master bedroom need better shelving. There are storage boxes with Christmas decorations in every closet upstairs. This is the year for hanging pictures and fixing the organization of the house.