Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baby's First Outing

In my son’s baby scrapbook there’s a blank page with the heading “Baby’s First Outing.”

My wife Kait gave birth to our son Uriah 20 months ago. Along with the joy of being a new parent came equal amounts of dread. In the early days Uriah’s life on Earth thoughts banged around my head of the incalculable number of things that could go wrong: I imagined holding him and getting my foot caught on the corner of an area rug and he goes flying out of my arms, or I'm unknowingly feeding him a bottle of rotten formula that causes his skin to become green and scaly, or I'm playfully tossing him into the air but I've forgotten about the living room ceiling fan whirling in the danger zone overhead.

So, for the first 2 weeks of Uriah's life he was kept safe and sound in his bassinet while his nerve wrecked Dad simply stared down at him.

But one can only stare at a baby for so long before things get a bit dull for all parties involved. For Kait and I that time was about one month. We figured it was time to get little Uriah out of the house. We decided that baby’s first out would be to…The Monroeville Mall. What baby wouldn't love to hear one day that his first time out of the house was to a corporate facility that housed a mock Mister Rogers neighborhood, an expansive zombie wax museum, and a Payless Shoe Store? For me the allure was that a trip to the mall was relatively low risk.

We dressed Uriah in his tiny dinosaur hoodie, with the row of green spikes on the hood. Then we strapped him into his Graco baby seat, which is built like a Sherman Tank. I settled in behind the wheel of the Hyundai Elantra. Kait sat in the back beside the baby seat.

And off we went.

We live in the Greenfield neighborhood, next to Squirrel Hill. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of town, the on-ramp to 376 there is a steep decline to a stop sign where you have to stick your head out the window and look BEHIND you like a dog, and wait for a gap in the cars passing at 60 mph and then gun it and weave into traffic. Nerves had already taken hold of me on the short drive from our house to that on-ramp. I'm going about 15 mph. I'm putting my blinkers on a half mile ahead of time. Basically, I'm driving like it's my driver's test and a sneering instructor with a red pen and a clipboard is riding shotgun.

After an unscathed first leg of the rip, we arrive at the ramp. Now, I've managed this ramp probably a thousand times in my life without incident. I patiently wait my turn while the vehicles in from of me pull one by one on to 376 East. Occasionally I glance into the rearview mirror to observe Kait playing peek-a-boo with Uriah. How adorable! Eventually, my turn to ease toward the stop sign arrives. I roll down the window and stick my head outside to gauge the oncoming traffic behind me, and I wait until a chance to pull out. When I do I gun it. But when I snap my head forward to take stock of the rapidly approaching Squirrel Hill Tunnel, I see we're careening toward a black minivan that I hadn't noticed was still waiting on the ramp ahead of me. In that moment it's not my life that flashes before me, but Uriah's. And it's just a month of lying in a bassinet and being stared at.


The collision is barely a fender bender. But my wife immediately explodes. "My car!" she says. "The car? What about our baby?" I reply. We’d taken so many car rides alone that she momentarily forgot we had a newborn with us. "Uriah! I swear Matt, if you hurt my baby…rah, rah, rah." She tore into me. Her chastisements flood my ears so rapidly that I can't decipher the words.

I exit the car and approach the driver of the van, who is also bitching at me. I apologize and tell her I screwed up, wasn't paying attention, and so forth—just a longwinded way of saying "my bad." Meanwhile cars are beeping and driving around us on the ramp to get onto the highway. Eventually, the other driver settles down and forgives me, and drives away. I return to the Elantra, and the firestorm within. By this time, my wife is on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Now, Kait is taking turns between berating me and describing the baby's condition. "He looks okay but I can't tell…Oh my god Matt, if you hurt my baby…Send paramedics right away…You idiot Matt, if you hurt my baby…"

I have no choice but to pull on to the highway and get off the next exit literally 50 yards away. We end up right back in Greenfield. Meanwhile Kait is still unloading on me "The dispatcher said we aren't supposed to move the car because the baby's neck might move. If you hurt my baby..."

I pull to the side of a residential street only about 5 blocks from our house. While the verbal bombardment continues I lean back and get a good look at Uriah. He seems to be sleeping peacefully.

We wait along the road while the evening gets darker and darker. Finally, a cop car pulls up behind us, red and blue lights flashing like crazy. My neighbors in the surrounding houses are drawn to the flashing lights and start walking onto their front porches to check out the scene. I get out of the car again and approach the cop who is talking into the receiver on his shoulder, as they do. I only catch the words "situation" and "back-up."

After a little longer the paramedics arrive, red and white lights flashing like crazy. More neighbors peer out their windows or mosey on to their porches. Kait is still in the back seat, crying and rubbing Uriah's cheeks. I'm just standing there on the sidewalk watching, and hoping to shrink to nothing.

Finally a fire truck shows up, red and white lights flashing like crazy. Within seconds, cops, paramedics, and fire men mull about the Elantra. People are starting to line the streets as though they are expecting a parade. This is a major neighborhood event now. I honestly half expect the KDKA news helicopter to come hovering overhead.

At this point I'm just another onlooker. It's pretty dark now. I peer through the Elantra's back window. One paramedic shines a flashlight on Uriah while another places his calloused stout finger on Uriah's smooth scrawny neck. "Heartbeat normal," the paramedic says. A third paramedic places the cold business end of a stethoscope on Uriah's petite chest. "Breathing normal." The whole time Uriah remains asleep. I'll never forget his tiny face, disappearing and reappearing in all the flashing red, blue, and white lights. The row of stubby green dinosaur spikes atop his head are coming and going too. The poor dude has no idea of the commotion around him. He looks just as he had while sleeping in his bassinet the month before this giant mess.

In that moment I never felt smaller. Never. One month into being a parent and on our FIRST trip out of the front door I'm already convinced I managed to give my baby whiplash, or worse. And whole world within two blocks knows that the distraught guy lingering about the Elantra is the one to blame.

I snap out of my trance when the first cop on the scene approaches me. "Mr. Bower, your baby seems perfectly fine. Please sign the medical report and we can all go home." I smile and nod and I sign the report. He tears a copy from his clipboard and hands it to me while bidding me a good evening. Then he begins to walk away, but stops and turns around and says, "Hey. When I first got here I mean to ask you about the driver of the other vehicle? The dispatcher said your wife was ready to kill up the other driver." I said "No. She wanted to kill me."

Once the flashing lights dimmed and the onlookers disappeared back inside their homes I drive my family straight home. Once back inside the living room and under the comforting glow of the floor lamp, I hold all 9 pounds of my still sleeping son in my arms. For the first time I feel as though he is safe right where he was.


If you open Uriah's scrapbook to the page with the headline "Baby's First Outing", there isn't a description of a nice night at the zombie wax museum or Payless Shoes, there's a copy of a medical report.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

7 Questions for the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Season

Despite a wildly successful 2013 campaign that treated Bucco Nation to the first winning season—and playoff appearance—in twenty years, questions still abound two weeks prior to Opening Day. The Pittsburgh Pirates seemed poised for a legitimate postseason push again this summer. But sometimes a can of corn turns out to be a bucket of shit, with the handles on the inside.

1.      Was the entire 2013 a “wag the dog” scenario?
In other words, was the entire 2013 season staged? Were fans treated to a fake winning season to divert attention from owner Bob Nutting’s frugality, or the horrendous breakdowns in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012? Were spectators at PNC Park watching holograms of ball players, and wins scripted by writers? Was Root Sports telecasting a kind-of WWE event, or “sports entertainment”? Does Andrew McCutchen actually exist, or is he just the concocted protagonist in a sick fantasy conjured by the puppeteers in the luxury suites? Are these questions being asked facetiously? Sadly, no.

2.      Who will be the first baseman on Opening Day?
Despite GM Neil Huntington not acquiring a bona fide first basemen in the offseason, the general consensus is that the team does, in fact, need a warm body to fill the position. Unfortunately, a platoon of an uninspiring Gaby Sanchez and pseudo-prospect Adam Lambo seems a lackluster solution. But still, a living, breathing human being should be in the general vicinity of the bag when the Bucs are in the field. Rumor has it that management is toying with the notion of cutting first base from the payroll altogether, and paying the batboy minimum wage to retrieve errant throws from the dugout. The notion would make Dick Groat roll in his grave, and Dick Groat aint’ even dead yet. Hey! Wait a minute…

3.      Will the defensive shift hurt or help the outfield?
Jose Tabata has gained weight steadily since his rookie year. The right fielder has suggested to manager Clint Hurdle that the outfield should shift so dramatically to the left, regardless of the batter’s spray chart, that the new alignment would virtually position Tabata seven feet from the Nathan’s Hot Dog stand. Okay, the word “virtually” was typed in jest; Tabata will be housing weiner dogs rather than taking bad routes to fly balls.

4.      Will Burnett sign with the Pirates?
This question is posed by the same people who think Obama wasn’t born in the US, or that the US government used remote control planes to crash into the Twin Towers, or that flash-in-the-pan pitcher Jeff Locke is ticketed for an All-Star career.  Face it people.  Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. His contract looks just as legit as Obama’s birth certificate, which means there is a 50-50 chance that Burnett has not signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

5.      Will Pedro Alvarez strike out 2,794,704,087 times in 2014?
That number seems high, but if you include spring season at-bats, I think we’re in the ballpark. 

6.      Is the Pirate Parrot responsible for the recent string of heroine deaths in the Pittsburgh region?
Connoisseurs of both baseball and opiates recall that the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980’s brought media attention and shame to several high-profile baseball players who were outed as drug abusers. Humorously enough, the Pirate Parrot was the pusherman. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the famed mascot has returned to his former illegal habits. However, the sharp uptick in heroine use on the streets combined with several eye witness accounts of a white powdery substance on the Parrot’s beak, a TMZ video of the Parrot sunbathing with 15 scantily-clad Swiss models on his newly purchased schooner, and the recent announcement that the popular hotdog gun has been re-titled the smack gun—which the Parrot will use to fire several ounces of “pure” to lucky fans during the 3rd inning break—really makes you wonder.

7.      Will the Pirates have another winning season?
If by “winning” you mean having scored more runs than the opposing team at the conclusion of 9 innings of play, and having accomplished that feat more than 82 times. And by “season” you mean season. Then yes, the 2014 Pirates are playoff bound again. Let's Go Bucs!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Idol Unto Yourself

Trying to snatch a bird with bare hands is a fool's errant. I tried repeatedly as a kid. I'd spot a swooping swallow and run toward it full throttle in hopes of plucking it mid-air. God that was stupid. As I aged my methods evolved. I'd stand in a field and hold a granola bar above my head. I figured if I stood still as a scarecrow a bird would eventually investigate the bait, and I'd grasp my prey as it pecked on a salty nut. No dice, duh. Finally, I employed the ol' box propped up with a stick attached to a string contraption. I almost ensnared a blue jay once. He narrowly escaped. I was so dang close.

A therapist observing my fruitless efforts would surely conclude that I was a boy destined to chase unobtainable dreams. He'd write on his tablet "Hopeless. He'll reach for the stars—first on tip toes, and then he'll try a ladder, then a cherry picker, then a spaceship... Silly boy." The margins of the notepad would inevitably be cluttered with doodles of stick figures and spirals drawn by a bored mind.

Just another silly boy?  

I did catch a bird. One day a robin with a gimp leg hobbled about the front yard. I simply strolled up to the defenseless birdie and cupped its enfeebled body with my relatively massive adolescent hands. Here was a creature gifted with the boundless capability of flight nestled in my palms. I could've squashed it like a meat-filled ravioli. Instead, I simply released the poor thing into the nearby woods (where it likely suffered an agonizing death from starvation, but that's not the point).

This silly boy had accidently caught his dream.

He also learned a valuable lesson that has aided him deep into adulthood: Struggling tirelessly to catch a dream is a fool's errand, indeed. Instead, stay alert for the moment a crippled version of your dream staggers within reach, and then pounce at your leisure. Was I ever seriously going to become a star third basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies, as I imagined as a Little Leaguer? No. But I can create and control a badass ball player on MLB's The Show who the automated fans will adore. How about a future astronaut who floats around the cosmos like Buzz Aldrin? Hah. However, the Union County Fair has one of those puke-inducing spinning zero-gravity rides. Hope to become the President of the United States? Sorry, bud. Nonetheless, there's scant competition if your aim is to be elected the inaugural president of the Stephen Baldwin Fan Club.

Go ahead and chase dreams if the rubber stamp movie heroes or billboard song choruses seduce you. Eventually your legs will fatigue and you'll crumple alongside High Hopes Highway. Stay there. When the muscles atrophy the brain soars. Dopamine chugs between receptors like a freight train. Real life happens between the white line and the guard rail, anyway. Here is where laughter doesn't fade into mile markers passed, the spinning celestial plane sets the beat to a rhythmless dance, and a baby tossed straight up in the air can be caught when he returns to Earth a man in your likeness. And if a maimed bird limps into your personal space, you’re an idol unto yourself.