Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

#Be26

I used to like the number 26. It’s the sum of the letters in our alphabet and the number on the back of my father’s baseball jersey. Now I love 26, thanks to the courageous acts of Tyler Magill in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.

On August 11, a group of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and the grounds of the University of Virginia, looking to spread fear and hate. Having spent four happy and deeply formative years at UVA, it shocked and horrified me. I know UVA has a complicated history, not all of which is proud, but I also know it’s a place that calls upon its students to open their minds, to think beyond themselves, and to better the world by becoming better people. UVA also introduced me to some of the best people I have ever known, people who helped open my mind. People like Tyler.
He was among the first people I met when I arrived at UVA in the fall of 1989. Our circles of friends overlapped heavily, so I saw him often and quickly learned he was an original: authentic, empathetic, humble, honest, hilarious, and with a gigantic brain rivaled in size only by his heart.
A longtime resident of Charlottesville and a UVA employee, Tyler was keeping tabs on the situaton as it evolved on Friday. He hadn’t set out to get involved, but when he saw men assembling in a nearby field and realized it was taking a nasty turn, he directed cars away from the area and called 911. Tyler went to the Rotunda as the hateful march made its way down UVA’s fabled Lawn. I’ll let the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article take it from here:

“They marched up the lawn in an endless line,” Mr. Magill said. “At this point I was so shellshocked I sat down on the steps of the Rotunda. They just walked around me chanting. I saw they were starting to surround 20 or 30 students.”

At that point, Mr. Magill recalled, he felt the students were in serious danger.

“I was just thinking, Be with them; maybe my presence will change something,” he said. “I figured if they’re willing to kill 25 people, maybe they’re not willing to kill 26.”

He rushed over to join the group. “I linked arms with them and they were on us, frothing,” he said. “It was like that for I don’t know for how long. Liquid splashed on to us and then torches.”

I figured if they’re willing to kill 25 people, maybe they’re not willing to kill 26.
Many people’s instinct for self-preservation would have made them run away from the danger, but not Tyler. He stepped right into it and took a nonviolent stand. He was hit in the head with a torch (and hospitalized days later after suffering a stroke that may be linked to the assault), but that didn’t scare him. He came back to make another nonviolent stand for social justice on Saturday, the day on which a domestic terrorist –let’s call him what he is — rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters and killed Heather Heyer. Tyler showed up again on Sunday to hold “Unite the Right” accountable as Jason Kessler, leader of the rally, attempted to hold a press conference and to blame the Charlottesville police for what happened. Tyler wasn’t having it. As the police escorted Kessler away, my friend put his arms in the air to show he had no weapons and followed right behind, saying, “Her name was Heather, Jason. Her blood is on your hands. Her blood is on your hood.” (Watch the video here.)
Would I have had the courage to do what Tyler did? I honestly don’t know. But I do know he proved that one person can make a difference. Maybe even the difference. Do not lose sight of that.
Or of the fact that these violent cowards are the few. The hundreds that came from near and far and congregated in Charlottesville are nothing compared to the Women’s March –the largest protest in U.S. history –which drew well over half a million people in D.C. alone and over three million across the country.
My friend Don –also a friend of Tyler’s, a policeman for more than twenty years, and one of those mind-opening people I met at UVA — offered beautiful words about our friend and our path forward:

When a horrible act like this happens, and happens at our home, especially when that home stands for freedom and limitless education and community and youth and hope and having the world at your fingertips; it makes us look inward. We see in ourselves what we fear most: failure, disappointment, excess, apathy, and loathing. We then look at our loved ones doing the same thing, and we see their worry and despair. We see our friends suffering also, and having lost all we thought we had, we become naked and unprotected and completely exposed. And we hate ourselves for it. And that’s the real weapon of terror.

So what do we do? Well, I’m going to train harder. I’m going to make sure my people have everything they need. I’m going to live better. I’m going to lead by example. I going to spread the story of this tragedy; and foster the hope we can all draw from this because WE are going to stop this. We are going to play to our individual strengths and come together as one people because we are one race; humans. That is our first step.

If you’re a musician, create song because, “somewhere something alway sings.” Find what you do best, and apply that talent to stopping all self-destructing forces. We can all plan peaceful protests. Flood the media with determination and resolve. Post videos and pictures of hope and righteousness. But most importantly, we all have to be better than the person we are right now! All of us! Every day be better than who you were the day before! It’s the only chance we have! The only chance to show the world that we will not succumb to fright, anxiety, and ignorance! We are better than our history! And just when we begin to think we are making a difference; REMEMBER, we all have to make sure we can be number 26!

Don is right. We all have platforms –whether it’s the family dinner table, a blog, a concert hall –and it’s time to use them, every day. Step into the void left by those who call themselves leaders but fail to denounce racism and bigotry, or even to call it by name. We have to. Let Tyler’s courage inspire yours. Don’t show up for hate; show up only for love. Do only good. Speak up. Link arms. Cultivate hope. Be selfless. Be 26.

Is it ever too late to send a thank-you note? I sure hope not.

My blog turned five in May, and I did nothing to mark the occasion. I could say I forgot –after all, I’d gone to Atlanta earlier that month and surprised my nephew for his fifth birthday by springing out of an Amazon box –but I didn’t forget. The truth is, I neglected my blog’s milestone because I’d been neglecting my blog. It nagged at me, but not to the point where I did anything about it.

My dear friend and podcast co-host, Philippa, hadn’t written much on her blog of late, either, and it was bugging her, too. Like former athletes who’d become couch potatoes, each of us lamented our descent into writing sloth and wanted to get back into shape. Actually, that’s not quite true. We didn’t want to get back into shape so much as we just wanted to be back in shape. As writers, and particularly as indolent ones, we knew an active verb like “get” would require way more work than a passive one like “be.” As lawyers, Philippa and I felt compelled to spend at least a little bit of time looking for a loophole, but we came up empty-handed. Faced with the inescapable reality that you can’t achieve the writing equivalent of six-pack abs without a whole lot of sweating, we decided to confront it together.

We committed to meet at her condo and spend all of today writing. Over a lunch of caramelized fish, expertly prepared a day earlier by Philippa’s mom, I tried to explain why I hadn’t been writing.

“I think I just got tired,” I said.

And it’s true. When I started the blog in the summer of 2012, I wrote every day for a while. Then my writing tapered off to a few times a week except in November, when I would participate in NaBloPoMo and punish, er, reward my readers by writing every day. Outside of NaBloPoMo, I tried to write at least once a week, and I largely succeeded until last May, when I started a new job.

The change has been great, yet I underestimated just how much mental effort it takes to leave something you knew and liked for nearly nine years and embark on a totally different path. As my energy stores got low, my writing slowed to a trickle. And then the election came along, leaving an ugly, divisive aftermath that killed my urge to look for humor in everyday situations, much less write about it. It felt frivolous and impossible, which explains why, of the 395 blog posts I’ve written since June of 2012, I cranked out only 17 from the election until now.

To get back into writing shape, I’ll be posting at least once a week. I’m kicking it off by celebrating my blog turning five, which means writing a long-overdue note of gratitude.

A gigantic and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has ever read this blog. I know you have your choice of time-wasting vehicles out there, and I want to thank you for choosing mine. Whatever led you to this site– curiosity, insomnia, Google searches like “the coffin switched stations again” — most likely could have been cured with professional help, so thank you for not seeking it.

I owe the most colossal debt of gratitude to those who’ve been there from the beginning, including but not limited to Mom, Dad, Suzi, Lynne, L.J., Michelle, LC, Matt and Philippa. Some of those early posts really stunk. And I don’t mean day-old banana peel stunk, either; I’m talking rodent-died-somewhere-behind-the-drywall-two-years-ago stunk. Behind every good writer is a whole bunch of really bad writing she has to get out of the way to get to the good stuff, so thank you for supporting me in my perpetual quest to get to the good stuff.

And here’s to the next five years…

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Disorder on the court

Marine One flew low and the sun burned hot above Court B-1 at Hains Point on Saturday morning as I tried to make a triumphant return to league tennis after an eighteen-month hiatus.

(If you’re wondering what happened to my beloved Smash Hits–a storied USTA 3.0 franchise that made its first unforced error by allowing me to join the team in 2012 and compounded the goof by making me captain a year later –they had to disband after a slew of injuries and retirements dropped their numbers to unsustainable levels.)

Since spraining my wrist in February of 2014, I had set foot on the tennis court exactly once, to swat balls around with my friend Laura. Laura, also a former Smash Hit, asked a few weeks ago if I’d like to join her on a team called Sets in the City for their fun summer league. I agreed after determining that Sets possesses the two qualities I view as essential in a team: 1) a great name; and 2) a near-total disregard for actual tennis skills. The captain put me in the lineup for Saturday.

I faked my way through the warmup, but it took less than ten minutes of match play to show that I was rustier than a door hinge on the Titanic. My serve, an eloquent testimonial to why multi-tasking doesn’t work, was sometimes powerful and sometimes accurate but never both at once. I also struggled with ground strokes, alternately taking the phrase literally and hitting the ball straight into the asphalt or treating it as ironic with shots that didn’t touch down until West Virginia. To make matters worse, adrenaline, an uninvited guest when you’re a 46 year-old amateur playing a no-stakes-just-for-fun match, crashed the party and refused to leave no matter how hard I tried to get rid of it.
The whole scene would have struck me as comical had I been playing singles, but my brand new partner, Kate, had to suffer through it with me. We lost the first set, 4-6, before Kate determined that yes, it would probably be okay if she went ahead and suggested a couple of tweaks to my technique.

She delivered a gentle critique with saintly politeness, just as my mother — my long-suffering and once-concussed partner on the Smash Hits — probably would have done.

I appreciated the kindness, but what I really needed just then was my father’s more direct approach. Dad wouldn’t have made it through one game much less an entire set before bellowing a helpful,  “KEEP THE G*&@*!@*! BALL IN THE THE G*&@*!@*! COURT!”

As it turns out, dear old Dad was already on my mind anyway. Twelve hours earlier, my butt had been on the bleachers at Waters Field in Vienna with Mom and my sister Lynne, cheering as the American Legion Post 176 baseball team –an outfit Dad has coached for more than 25 years –won the District Championships. Friday night’s game capped an improbable title run that required Dad’s team to beat the formidable Vienna post twice in a row.
How did they do it? The occasional towering home run helped, of course, but they won mainly by playing small ball and showing big heart. The boys of Post 176 weren’t perfect, but their sense of team seemed to elevate their game both individually and collective just when they needed it most. That, more than anything else, seemed to propel them to an unlikely championship and an even unlikelier chance to douse Al, Dad’s coaching buddy of over 25 years, with a huge bucket of gatorade. I’ll remember that moment of spontaneous team joy, and my dad’s role in it, forever.

As I stood on the court, waiting for the helicopter to pass and thinking about the night before, I decided I was glad to be playing doubles rather than singles, even if it meant being accountable for my lousy game. Like most things in life, tennis is better, and makes you better, when you’re in it for someone besides yourself.

So I worked to raise my game. Which in my case that meant aiming to keep the ball in play and succeeding maybe half the time. It was still a major improvement and enough to help  us win the second set. Though Kate didn’t launch into the Hallelujah Chorus, I could tell she wanted to.

Kate and I went on to win in a tiebreak, 10-8, and though it didn’t really count for anything, it felt good to be back on the ball. Or at least somewhere in its general vicinity.

What's this thing for again, anyway?

What’s this thing for again, anyway?

Happy 50th to my sister Suzi, a perpetual high-flier

My sister Suzi turns 50 on June 26, a milestone I find hard to grasp. Empirical evidence that Suzi really is that old abounds, such as her son graduating high school a few weeks ago, but my mind’s eye still sees my eldest sister in her lavender oasis of a room in our childhood home, putting on her soccer uniform, diligently practicing the clarinet, or picking out the perfectly on-point outfits that led Dad to call her “Fashion Plate.” Maybe I’ve trapped my image of Suzi in her formative years like a bug in amber because I refuse to accept my own aging, but I think it’s also because her formative years left a huge impression on me, too.

I have long joked about Suzi’s first-born perfection, but she really does excel at nearly everything she attempts. A trait like consistently high performance — Suzi’s report cards showed up with A’s slathered all over them like peanut butter on bread– could have bred resentment and rebellion in us younger siblings, who suffered through countless teachers calling roll for the first time and saying, “Oh, you’re Suzi’s sister?” They gushed those two syllables in a way you just knew meant, “I wonder if angelic near-perfection runs in the family?”

With a last name like Yankosky, trying to claim I belonged to some other clan was pointless, so my choices were to try to rise to the occasion, or to recalibrate the teachers’ standards by stinking up the joint. I chose Door #1, not because I’m high-minded but because I thought Door #2 would get me thrown out of the house. My sister Lynne and my brother, L.J., made similar choices, possibly for similar reasons. As I watched Suzi ace elementary, middle, and high school in rapid succession, ultimately landing herself at the University of Virginia, I saw that academic achievement didn’t just make you a nerd or your parents happy (though it accomplished both of those things); it opened doors. Whether or not my sister meant to, she set an example that was so powerful and positive, I couldn’t help but want to go down a similar path.

Over the years I realized that example transcends academics and comes down not to what my sister does but who she is. To commemorate Suzi’s five decades on Earth, I’ve decided to share five of the most enduring things I’ve learned from her:

  • Talent is nice, but it’s no substitute for hard work. My sister may have inherited some musical ability from my father, who used to bring down the house with renditions of exciting accordion hits like “Lady of Spain” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” (Dad played with some reluctance– generally a very redeeming quality in an accordion player –but when he did play, he was great and we loved it.) So maybe Suzi had a bit of a musical head start, but that didn’t make her first chair of Lake Braddock’s Symphonic Band and one of the best players in the state; the constant desire to improve her skills, along with the hours and hours she spent practicing up in her room, got her there. Those things also got the door to her room shut quite frequently because, no matter how good somebody is, the human ear can only withstand so much unfiltered clarinet. But closed door or not, I saw that consistent hard work is what it takes to get really, really good at something.
  • Don’t look for shortcuts. My sister does things right, even if she has to slow down to do it. She has patience and an ability to stay focused on details that I lack. If the two of us are asked to decorate 150 cupcakes to look like miniature American flags, all 150 of hers will look exactly the same and will feature delicate stripes and tiny icing stars coaxed lovingly from a pastry bag. I, by contrast, will crank out one, maybe two decent-looking cupcakes –fraternal twins at best– before the stars resemble an icing sneeze and the stripes an EKG readout. I then will declare, “This s&^t’s for the birds,” drive to the nearest grocery store, and buy a box of pre-decorated cupcakes topped with toothpick flags.
  • Be generous. Suzi was always better than the rest of us at sharing, maybe because she, unlike me and Lynne, didn’t have to deal with some other sibling coming along and taking over half of her room. Whatever the reason, my sister is unfailingly generous with every resource she has, whether it’s her time, cash, creativity, or encouragement. Need cupcakes for a school event, a birthday, or because it’s Tuesday? Suzi will make them, and, as I mentioned, they will be perfect. Launching a book? Suzi will drive four hours on a school night with her entire family in tow to rally behind you. (She will later drop your book into a sewer, but that early show of support enables you to overlook such minor lapses.)
  • Always take care of your team. Suzi sometimes watched us kids for short stretches when we were little. She never seemed to mind, perhaps because it cemented her place in my parents’ succession plan but more likely because she just enjoyed taking care of us and helping. (With an ethos like that, there was no way she was going to become the lawyer in the family.) We mainly liked it when Suzi was in charge — she was far more benevolent than our usual overlords –and she usually did a great job at it. I say “usually” because there was that time she took her eye off of my brother for all of ten seconds, during which he managed to crash into the concrete and split his his forehead open like a ripe banana. But hey, he needed to be toughened up. The point is, my sister likes to take care of people and, as any member of Team Yank will tell you, she’s really good at it. That attribute has also made her a great manager in the business world, where thus far her employees’ foreheads remain intact. As far as we know.

Last week, the entire Yank clan was in the Outer Banks for a few days, so we seized the chance to sneak in a surprise 50th celebration for Suzi, too. You know those planes that fly up and down the shore, trailing giant banners encouraging you to “Buy one shirt, Get 14 Hermit Crabs Free at T-Shirt Emporium”?

Well, we hired one to fly past with a banner that said, “Happy 50th Birthday, Suzi!! Team Yank loves you!”

Yep, Sooz, we sure do. Happy 50th birthday to a sister for whom they sky’s the limit.
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A word of advice for my nephew, the graduate

My eldest nephew, J.J., graduates high school tomorrow.

I was in the delivery room when he was born, but it didn’t occur to me to offer any words of wisdom as he entered the world. I was too busy recovering from having witnessed the “miracle” of life and wondering why, if my mother didn’t want me to have kids, she didn’t just say so.

Now, more than 18 years later, a second chance has come my way, and I’m not about to squander it.

After thinking long and hard about which words would best encapsulate the most important advice I could ever give my nephew, which words he would remember in times of need, I realized it actually comes down to one single word, and that word is: covfefe.

That’s right: a word that’s not even a word, a typo that tweeted itself onto the world stage, reveals what I consider to be a few of life’s most important lessons, which are:

  • Everyone covfefes. Like every other human on Earth, you, dear nephew, will make mistakes. Lots of ’em. Some will be so minor you’ll forget them in moments, others will make you cringe for years, and still others will be memorialized in a blog, but all of them offer you a chance to improve something about yourself if you’re paying attention.
  • Own your covfefes. How you respond to your mistakes reveals as much about you as the mistakes themselves, if not more. If you screw up and the whole world knows it, there’s no point in trying to hide it or in making someone else explain it away, so just admit it already. We’ll all respect you a lot more, I promise.
  • Laugh at your covfefe if it’s funny. Making a comical goof isn’t a sign of weakness, but being unable to laugh at it is. Not taking yourself too seriously, no matter your title or station in life, is a form of humility that tends to make people think more of you rather than less, even people who don’t like you. And laughter is one of the most powerful forms of connection we have, so seek it out whenever you can.
  • Take care of your relationships. When you covfefe bigly, you’re going to want to be surrounded by people you trust and love, such as your favorite aunt. Those people might not let you off the hook, because honesty is a big part of all close relationships, but we will try to help you navigate your way out of it and you won’t have to wonder whether we have your best interests in mind. Remember that you can’t demand trust any more than you can demand respect; you have to earn it. Consistent acts of kindness on any scale go a long way towards cultivating close relationships, and those relationships matter more than everything else in this life. Based on our relationship, I think you already know that.

I couldn’t be more proud of you or love you more, J.J. And when you walk across that stage tomorrow, I’ll be in your cheering section, just like I always am, fighting off tears and the urge to yell, “Covfefe!”

It was a smooth and dignified transition, unlike my nephew's shift from first gear to second.

Me and the graduate two years ago, cultivating closeness when I gave him my car.

 

The kids are all right, despite my being their chaperone

If you’re considering a trip to Kings Dominion theme park and wondering whether it has first aid facilities, I’m pleased to report it does, and they’re quite nice. I had a chance to hang out there last Friday with one of the kids I was chaperoning on my twelve year-old nephew’s chorus class trip.

Readers who remember my previous chaperone stint, a dress rehearsal-like experience during which I drove behind the bus like a groupie and lost my nephew within four minutes of arrival, are shaking their heads and thinking, “Did they not check her references?”

To you people, I say two things: 1) My nephew Will requested me; and 2) the statute of limitations for losing a kid on a field trip is three years and I cleared it a month ago. So there.

Will and I arrived at Moody Middle School (isn’t every middle school moody?) in Glen Allen, Virginia, at 8:15 a.m. and were engulfed by the uniquely high-pitched cacophony of a pubescent herd. We made our way to the auditorium, where I reported for duty and received a sheet listing the names of nine (9!) teenagers in my charge. I thought it best not to point out that nine kids totaled eight more than I’d ever managed before, or that, except for Will, I couldn’t identify any of them in a lineup. But I began to sweat under the maroon Moody Middle School Music Department t-shirt I’d donned with the goal of improving the kids’ chances of spotting me in the wild.

At 8:40 a.m., and just as my eardrums verged on perforation, the teachers performed the Miracle of Adolescent Organization and we boarded the buses. With Will’s help, I was able to account for all nine kids: a promising start. When we got to Kings Dominion, the chorus director, Mr. Drummond, got the whole group checked in and set us free to wander the park for the forty minutes that remained until our assigned warm-up time.

To my utter astonishment, all nine of my kids showed up at or before the appointed time. They and the other thirty-ish chorus kids huddled under a big tarp designated for rehearsing and began to tune up while all of us chaperones but one waited on benches nearby. The last chaperone, an actual parent, was busy chasing down a kid who’d gone on walkabout.

There I sat, basking in a self-congratulatory glow after getting all of my kids to appear on time, when the warm-uppy sounds trailed off and I heard a kid say, “Someone fainted!”

Without even looking, I knew the fainter belonged to me. My glow thus extinguished, I rushed to the tent for confirmation and to offer assistance in the only way I knew how: by filing a lawsuit.

I’m kidding, of course. Some person who’d been blessed with common sense rather than a law degree had already alerted the park’s first aid unit. Within moments, a young and rather hunky paramedic appeared, which, as remedies go, seemed to beat the heck out of smelling salts. Our girl began to perk up as the medic and his dimples eased her into a wheelchair and rolled her off to the first aid clinic, with me trailing behind, sherpa-like, with our belongings. While my fainter hydrated and rested in the clinic, I sat on a neighboring cot and battled the temptation to nap, because that’s the kind of heroic chaperone I am.

Mr. Drummond showed up shortly thereafter, at which point it dawned on me that my heroics did not include giving my kids an afternoon check-in place and time like I was supposed to.

Just as I was about to blurt out, “It’s not my fault! She had The Vapors!,” Mr. Drummond, who’s undoubtedly no stranger to lame excuses, said, “Your group came up with a check-in, so don’t worry.” I was equal parts ashamed and reassured to learn I leave a leadership void than can be filled by your average twelve year-old.

The patient called her parents, rested a bit longer, and then decided she was ready to get a bite to eat and take on the park. We met up with Will and four of his friends just as they were about to start riding roller coasters, and I debated whether to join them. On the one hand, I was a roller coaster veteran –my brother, L.J., and I had season passes to Kings Dominion in the late ’80s and I rode a coaster with the Roommates two summers ago –with a cool aunt reputation to uphold among a notoriously tough demographic. On the other, I knew a person’s ride tolerance could change without notice, especially if she’s had a somewhat recent bout of vertigo.  I settled it by adopting the park motto: ride on.

We started with the Stunt Coaster, a ride that features Mini Cooper-esque cars rocketing around helixes and getting launched through billboards. I loved it, probably because it’s the sort of driving experience I fantasize about having on the Beltway.

From there we went to the Rebel Yell, a long, wooden, 42 year-old coaster L.J. and I rode thousands of times during our season pass days. It was rickety and bone-jarring back then, but we’d always loved its steep and glorious hill sequences. When I rode it on Friday, its hill sequences gave me the same thrill as before, whereas the wood, which may have aged in place, gave me a chiropractic adjustment.

Then we rode The Avalanche, as a result of which I have ruled out “Olympic Bobsledder” as my next career move, and decided to finish our day on The Dominator. Corporate amusement park types are always giving their biggest coasters menacing names like The Dominator, The Intimidator, and Talon: the Grip of Fear, I guess so riders feel like they’ve stared down a terrifying predator and didn’t blink. That marketing trick might work on the middle school psyche but it doesn’t faze those of us in our mid-40s. If you want our demographic to feel gripped by fear, you have to come up with something far scarier, like “Root Canal: Dig of Doom.”

Thus I felt unafraid when I boarded The Dominator, despite its 148-foot drop, cobra roll, five inversions and 65 mph max velocity. I felt fine as we made our way to the central meeting point afterwards, too. After all, it matters not if your spleen and kidneys aren’t exactly where they’re supposed to be, just as long as all nine of your kids are.

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What do you get a kid for his fifth birthday? An aunt in a box, of course.

I’m not claustrophobic. This has proven to be quite an asset at several points in my life, such last fall, when I got an MRI; or in mid-April, when I again donned the Easter Bunny suit; or this past weekend, when I went to Atlanta and let my brother tape me inside an Amazon box.

No, I was not belatedly fulfilling L.J.’s most heartfelt childhood wish: I wanted to surprise my nephew, B, who was celebrating his fifth birthday (though I’m sure my brother has waited his whole life for permission to stuff me into a box and tape it shut).

I had set a pretty high bar in the surprise department back in December, when I conspired with my sister-in-law and flew to Atlanta last-minute on a Friday so I could catch the opening of Rogue One with L.J., a Star Wars junkie. B and his little brother, C, had also gotten quite the surprise the next morning when they came downstairs to find me sitting on the couch. Now accustomed to the occasional random aunt sighting, I knew I would have to do something beyond just showing up and ringing the doorbell if I wanted to impress B.

My brother, sister-in-law and I started scheming and decided “your presence is your present” deserved to be more than just a goofy etiquette cliché. As luck would have it, the starter bike L.J. and Leslie ordered as a gift for B –the same gift I’d gotten on my fifth birthday, though my bike did not feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — had arrived at their home days earlier in a large box: perfect packaging for a special delivery aunt. 

I had booked a flight scheduled to leave National Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I can’t say that it looked good on paper — a 6 a.m. departure looks hideous on any surface –but I thought it wise to build in some wiggle room because, as regular readers know, I’ve encountered my fair share of travel debacles en route to Atlanta. I planned to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m. just to be on the safe side.

Regular readers also know I also have my fair share of sleeping struggles. Those tend to get worse if I have something on my mind, such as getting to the airport on time for a very important flight. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to bolt awake at 2:45 a.m., totally raring to go. I was packed and out of the house by 3:45 a.m., through airport security by 4:25 a.m., and standing in line for a vanilla latte at 4:30 a.m. (The airport Starbucks opens at 4:30; I think this makes them a very strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I landed in Atlanta 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was downright disconcerting. L.J. picked me up 20 minutes later. We spent the trip to his house discussing the details of our plan as if we were launching a rocket for NASA rather than a birthday surprise for a five year-old.

He told me Leslie would be watching the boys who, with luck, would be playing inside or in the backyard and away from any of the possible vantage points.

“You stay in the car while I get the box and some tape,” L.J. said. “Then I’ll walk back out with the box and you can sort of hide behind it and follow me up the steps to the door. You’ll get in, I’ll tape it shut, put the bow on it and ring the doorbell.”

It seemed foolproof, or at least reasonably likely to fool anyone who hasn’t graduated kindergarten, so I said, “Sounds good.”

Then I saw the box–estimated dimensions 4′ long x 2.5′ wide x 1′ deep —  and was instantly reminded of the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws.

This hunk of cardboard looked as incapable of fitting a great white aunt as that vessel did a great white shark, but we’d gone too far to turn back. My brother plodded up the stairs with the box in hand as I crouch-walked behind it. He put it on the stoop and held it open so I could get in.

When the situation is dire, people sometimes perform superhuman feats, and I pulled off nothing less than a triumph of human origami to get into that box. Had I not eaten a few too many peanut M&Ms the night before, the top flaps might have closed together perfectly, but it was close enough. L.J. started to put tape across the flaps, at which point the full absurdity of the situation hit us simultaneously and we were seized by a massive attack of the giggles.

We got ourselves under control – our plan only called for one five year-old, after all –and L.J. rang the doorbell. I heard him tell B he had a package and then read aloud the short poem-riddle I’d written for the occasion. The box flaps opened and I sat up, arms wide open in a gesture that would either give B a smile that would last forever or a lifetime of Zombie Aunt Apocalypse nightmares. He was surprised, and in a good way, once he realized what was going on and heard his mom and dad cracking up. B’s little brother ran off at top speed, which, in fairness, is what anyone should do if faced with a lawyer springing out of a box.

B, who was by now beside himself with excitement, grabbed my hands to help pull me the rest of the way out of the box and said, “How did you get here?”

“I came in the mail!” I said.Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.01.15 PM

When I told him I actually flew down on a plane, he seemed disappointed to learn even Amazon Prime has its limits. But our fun knew no limits on Saturday: we went to Legoland, partied it up with B and C’s friends and some superheroes, and knocked the stuffing out of a Spider Man piñata. It was pretty much perfect.

I have no idea how my brother and I will top this one, but I do know one thing: we’re gonna need a bigger box.

Remembering Steve Hanlin, one of the finest people I’ve ever known

Last week, we lost one of the good ones, Steve Hanlin. Steve might not have been famous, but to me, he is a legend.

If I think of my friends as a baseball team, he was a utility player who breezed in to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Like the best of the all-time greats, he had the gift of anticipation, a talent for knowing exactly where to be and what to do without ever having to be asked. I detailed some of Steve’s most spectacular feats of friendship in this post I wrote nearly two years ago. At the time, I didn’t refer to him by his real name because, even though my blog wasn’t on his radar –he had lost his eyesight before that, and a multitude of other health issues had caused significant cognitive decline –he wouldn’t have wanted me to shine a spotlight on him for just doing what he thought a friend should do. Steve prioritized his close relationships. He didn’t need a 75 year-long Harvard study to tell him that’s what really matters in this life; he knew it intuitively and tended to those relationships every day, never realizing the extraordinariness of his deeds and devotion.

I won’t tell you much about Steve’s professional life because he wouldn’t have, either, but I know he was very good at his job as Director of Client Services for a software company. He had great business acumen, read people well, worked hard, and took pride in his work, so of course he succeeded. But he didn’t live to work; time in the office fueled the things Steve loved to do outside of it, like take pictures –he was a skilled photographer whose powers of observation translated into beautiful compositions, including a shot of the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome that graced my wall for years –travel, go to sporting events, and laugh.

It was easy to make Steve laugh, just one of the myriad ways his generosity manifested itself. He also loved to make other people laugh. That love, along with a healthy sense of adventure, led my pal to enroll in an improv comedy class years ago. If you’ve never seen or done improv, you might not know that one of the cardinal rules for participants is to say, “Yes, and…” to whatever comic scenario their partner has initiated, no matter how absurd. “Yes, and…” says you’re in this together and that you’ll go to any lengths necessary to help keep the proverbial boat afloat, even if the boat consists of more holes than wood.

I remember going to Steve’s graduation show at the Improv in DC, cracking up at my friend’s exploits, and thinking, If ever there were a person responds to life with “Yes, and…,” it’s Steve.

Life handed Steve the ultimate absurdity in the form of his health, and it wasn’t funny at all. It was hideously unfair, in fact, yet still my friend seemed to give it the improv treatment.

I knew Steve for nearly twenty of his 46 years on Earth and never once heard him gripe about the lousy scene he’d walked into. To the blood disease he had for decades, to the loss of his sight, to lymphoma, to all of it, he said, “Yes, and…” He never gave up. Steve wouldn’t have wanted praise for his bravery, nor would he have seen his fight as heroic, but that’s what it was, and that’s who he was. Steve was a wonderful husband to Dawne and father to Ava, giving them everything he could for as long as he could. And Ava and Dawne did the same for him. Speaking of Dawne, I don’t think she ever tried improv, but she would excel at it, too. As unselfish, brave, warm and funny as Steve, she always stayed in the scene with him, no matter what awful or dark turns it took, and she made sure their little family found the laughs wherever they could along the way.

I struggle not to focus on the injustice of it all, struggle not to cry and shake a fist at the sky in anger for my friend who didn’t get the life he deserved. But Steve would want me to be better than that. He didn’t think life owed him anything; he was glad and grateful for everything he had. The way he lived, in quiet and constant service of the people he loved, set an example that leaves a powerful and enduring legacy. I carry that with me, and whenever life hands me something lousy, I will think of my beloved friend and try my very best to say, “Yes, and…”

Steve and Dawne

One of my favorite moments with Steve and Dawne

 

 

 

 

Spring broke

Spring is a time of awakening, a time of renewal, a time of raising your hand and volunteering for activities you frankly have no business doing.

My role as the Easter Bunny at the annual neighborhood egg hunt last Saturday probably falls into that last category. Then again, when you’re 45 years old and want to participate in an event whose target demographic is the ten-and-under set, sneaking in under cover of an animal suit is pretty much your only option.

This was my fourth year in the bunny suit, so I know the ropes. That turned out to be a good thing because this year, for the first time, I had no handler. I was all set to fire my agent for negotiating a lousy contract until I learned this year’s hunt would feature a mimosa bar. Our neighborhood civic association has limited funding, and I could hardly argue with the decision to throw its resources behind such a crucial strategic initiative. And at least this year I had a viable explanation for staggering around the park. Once I had met, and possibly exceeded, my contractually-established service levels for inflicting trauma on unsuspecting little kids, I went home and turned my attention to making, or attempting to make, pizza gaina.

For the uninitiated, pizza gaina — Italian for “call your cardiologist” –is not your typical tomato sauce/mozzarella number; it’s a pie that consists of several pounds of meat and cheese, plus eighteen eggs, all encased in dough. Pizza gaina is an indulgent dish served on Easter to celebrate the end of Lent, a period of sacrifice that, for Italians, traditionally meant skipping meat on Fridays. It’s also an efficient dish: with just a single slab, you can catch up on all five weeks’ worth of missed meat. But there’s a reason Italians only eat pizza gaina once a year: it’s a royal pain in the rear to make.

I knew making pizza gaina was tough, having watched both my father’s mother and my mom make it year after year. Both Nana and Mom turned out consistently fantastic pizzas, but only after laboring over the dough for hours and then stressing the entire time the pie sat baking in the oven. If it baked for too long, the filling would be fully cooked but the dough would burn. If it didn’t bake long enough, an oozy mess might await when you went to cut it. And no matter how long you baked it, the pizza might display classic Italian stubbornness and refuse to come out of the pan. As further proof of the difficulty of the task, my sister Suzi, who does pretty much everything perfectly, tried to make pizza gaina a few years ago and nearly burned her house down.

I knew all of this, and yet I volunteered to make the pizza gain this year anyway. Mom and Dad were two days out from their move –hardly an ideal time for a major culinary undertaking –so I figured I would try to carry on the tradition. In case you’re inspired to do the same, or to start a new tradition, here’s the recipe Mom gave me, with minor adjustments.

DOUGH: 

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cake of yeast

Mix flour, salt and pepper in a large pot. Add eggs. Mix yeast with one cup warm water. Add to dry ingredients and work well. Grease pot and dough. Cover and let rise ’til double, approximately one hour, and then punch down and shape. Return after one hour to find your particular dough does not believe in Easter, because it has not risen. Punch it anyway, then throw in the trash, where it lands like a flour cannonball.

wrecked dough

What atheist dough looks like before you catapult it into the trash.

Drive to grocery store for replacement yeast, because the only other yeast you have on hand is in a six-pack of beer. Return home and repeat first six steps, doing celebration dance at the sight of the risen dough.

Let stand 20 minutes. Roll to fit over greased 9 x 13″ pan –a roasting pan without the rack usually works–well enough so the top can be sealed. “Well enough so the top can be sealed” means you will roll the dough to the point where it’s so thin you can read the classifieds through it and then maybe, just maybe, it will be long enough to make a complete seal across the top as you fold it over. To be continued, because we Italians believe in suspense.

FILLING

  • 3 and 1/2 lbs of ham, cubed
  • 1 and 1/4 lbs muenster cheese, cubed
  • 18 large eggs
  • 1 cup grated Italian cheese (such as pecorino romano)

Scramble eggs well. Add rest of ingredients, mix well, and pour into pan. Cover with remaining dough, attempt to seal in the filling by pinching dough around the edges. Glance over at countertop and discover “rest of ingredients” apparently did not include the cup of Italian cheese, because it’s still sitting on top of the cutting board where you grated it. Carefully peel back the dough you just sealed, sprinkling expletives liberally as you go, and dump in forgotten Italian cheese. Attempt to stir contents with one hand while holding up the dough lid with the other. Attempt to reseal dough. The dough lets you know what it thinks of this process by refusing to seal in one corner.

Bake at 350 degrees on lower rack in oven until brown – 1-1/2 to 1 -3/4 hours. Before putting in oven, pierce top with fork. Curse yourself for being the kind of person who stupidly does not read the whole recipe before starting to cook because, if you had, you might have noticed that, from an order of operations perspective, the instruction to pierce the top should have come before the instruction to bake at 350 rather than after. Consider removing pizza to pierce it but decide you’ve already angered the dough enough for one afternoon.

After 15 minutes, turn on oven light to monitor progress and discover filling has begun to leak out of the unsealed corner and to pool atop the dough. Turn off light and resolve to wait an hour before risking another peek. Return to this:

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Stop yourself from thinking, “It could have been worse,” because it still has time to get worse.

Remember Mom’s advice to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely on top for the last 15 minutes if browning too quickly. Discover you have no aluminum foil. Curse as you search for acceptable substitute and find only a silicone baking sheet liner. Place silicone liner atop dough and hope for the best.

Remove pizza, which appears done after 1-1/2 hours. After removing from oven, let stand 5-10 minutes and invert on rack. Or invert 90 % of it, because 10% decides to stay bonded to the pan.

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Conduct a visual inspection of the inverted 90% and discover it’s oozing filling in a way that reminds me of how the Cutlass 88 Oldsmobile we had in the early ’80s used to leak oil.

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Brainstorm ways to reunite the inverted 90% with its family back in the pan so that it will eventually emerge as an intact whole. Google “Is duct tape edible?”

Resign yourself to placing the mostly empty pan on top of the inverted 90%, returning silicone liner-covered pizza to oven, and hoping the entire big mess will, like a sitcom, find a way to come together in the last 5 minutes.

Remove pizza from oven, wait 10 minutes, and voila!

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Spend 3 minutes lamenting your Italian heritage. Had you been half-French, you would have quit at the quiche stage and wouldn’t have troubled yourself with dough lids or pie inversion, meaning you’d be on your second glass of wine by now.

Let the pizza (and you) cool for several hours. Cut into inch-thick slabs and stack on a plate such that the pieces that look like they’ve been attacked by the Easter Bunny are hidden under a pile of pretty ones. Pass it all off with arrogance when your parents show up on Easter morning, and beam when they tell you your grandmother would be proud.

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A love letter to the house that has heart

My parents put their home of 45 years on the market on Thursday, leaving me with a burning question: will the new owners let me raid the pantry? Because let’s face it: my decades-long habit of walking through that very same door and heading straight for the kitchen will be tough to break.

Kidding aside, I’m glad my parents decided to downsize and to part with the house “while they’re still friends,” as my sister Suzi put it. She’s right. Mom and Dad have earned a break from maintaining four bedrooms and three levels’ worth of a house, including a driveway that required shoveling six days ago. But it still felt weird to see the listing on a real estate website.

The description of the property included factual stuff –four-bedroom Colonial in Orange Hunt Estates, built in 1972, carport, updated kitchen with granite counters and maple cabinets, hardwood floors on two levels, updated baths, finished basement, central air, .26 acre yard — sterile information buyers want to know about the structure that’s been our house. But it doesn’t tell them a thing about our home.

nagshead

Fishing pole seeing some great Outer Banks action…

The carport, for example, is bounded on one side by a brick wall against which my three siblings and I hit tennis balls and kicked soccer balls for hours, leading our parents to consume horse-tranquilizing amounts of Tylenol. The back wall of the carport has a shed that held a fleet of bikes, including the first one I ever rode, as well as a structurally unsound purple thing we kids saw as the Bike of Last Resort. The purple wobbler tried to kill me and my sister Lynne on two separate occasions, leaving me with a mild concussion and her with road rash.

Rafts, fishing poles, crabbing nets and other essentials we took on our week-long trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks every summer also lived in the shed, as did the rake my father took out every fall. We kids recognized the appearance of the rake as a sign that we were supposed to help bag up the leaves that blanketed our back yard, a chore we hated. We knew better than to whine –that never worked with Dad –so we punished him with ineptitude instead. The hand-eye coordination that enabled us to hit baseballs and tennis balls with aplomb mysteriously vanished the moment we bent over a pile of leaves.

“When you kids don’t want to do something,” Dad would say/mutter/yell, our cue to slink off in silent victory.

Though we hated the leaves, we loved the backyard. It was our soccer field, gridiron, and baseball diamond, and on summer nights it formed part of a flashlight tag venue that spanned two streets. No real estate listing would mention that. Or tell you how, every so often, a baseball or soccer ball would go crashing into the kitchen through the window over the sink.

We ate dinner in the kitchen as a family almost every night. In the early years, we had a formica table that sagged in the middle like a swaybacked mule. If a person seated at one end of the table needed something at the other, we didn’t bother to pick up the item and pass it. We just gave it a good shove and watched it slide to the other end like an air hockey puck.

We had a more majestic ensemble in the dining room for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The company of assorted relatives and friends often extended our holiday table all the way into the living room. Whether feeding six people or thirty, Mom would take her consistently outstanding cooking up a notch, producing perfect turkeys, gorgeous pies, and our beloved Easter pizza gaina. But what I remember most of all are the stories we told and the laughter that went on for hours.

And what about the family room, where we napped, read the newspaper, and watched the Super Bowl? The listing takes note of the fireplace but not the fact that we barely used it for a fifteen-year stretch because I had guinea pigs that lived in cages on the hearth. I’d always wanted a dog but my parents refused, opting to let me get domesticated rodents instead. Because I treated the pigs like dogs–there was even an unfortunate episode involving a leash — they lived forever. Mom and Dad probably should’ve gone for the dog.

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At some point, Mom hung a framed copy of Renoir’s Young Girls at the Piano above our old Kimball. The girls, and their poses, reminded her of me and Suzi. (Renoir Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Then there’s the living room. My brother, L.J., took trumpet lessons from a family friend there, and that’s where I learned how to play the piano, a skill that earned me the occasional reprieve from the dinner dishes. Suzi played a bit too, so sometimes we teamed up for throwback duets like “Tea for Two” and “Heart and Soul.” We also hosted dozens of sing-alongs in the living room, though my sister Lynne’s unforgettable, operatic renditions of “Swans on the Lake” always took place from the landing leading upstairs.

Speaking of the upstairs, both full baths are up there. Because Mom and Dad claimed one –something we kids regarded as an injustice but now recognize as a small and well-deserved concession to privacy–the four of us were expected to share the other. We did not get equal time, and it’s no coincidence that Suzi looks good in pretty much all of her childhood photos. Just sayin’.

All four bedrooms are upstairs, too. Mom and Dad once again rudely claimed one for themselves, leaving three for us kids. Until 1976, that worked just fine, but then my brother was born. This destroyed any hopes Lynne had of getting her own room, which probably explains why the one she and I shared for years radiated all the easy calm of the Gaza Strip. We fought constantly and forged short-lived truces of convenience, such as the time we jointly lobbied our parents to divide the room with a brick wall. And there was the color scheme–pale green walls, a fuchsia rug and light yellow spreads on our canopy beds– for which I am chiefly to blame. What was meant to achieve a “Rainbow Connection” effect looked instead like an acid trip.

Suzi’s room, a lavender oasis, was where she honed her clarinet-playing skills until she was one of the best in the state.

L.J. also had a room to himself and went on to play professional baseball, so just imagine what Lynne and I could have become if only we’d had our own rooms. But I digress. The wall above L.J.’s bed was decorated with a huge circle comprised entirely of pennants, most from the Philly teams our family can’t seem to abandon. My brother gave the hallway outside his bedroom a unique accent one day when, while doing strength exercises with a stretchy rubber tube that had a baseball attached to one end, he accidentally let go of the baseball and sent it flying right through the drywall.

Next to L.J.’s room was the laundry chute, a feature that not only made a mundane chore easier but doubled as an intra-house communication device.

Any contents we sent down the chute landed in a box in the basement, the space where we wiled away happy hours playing with the Death Star and Millennium Falcon, holding marathon ping-pong tournaments, creating communities out of Legos, and watching quality programming like “The A-Team” once a second TV set arrived.

Things weren’t always perfect in our house, though. We occasionally slammed the doors in anger. And my siblings and I sometimes begged for more room, never realizing that sharing space so often, unwittingly creating lasting memories together as we went, is precisely what has made us the best of friends.

That house is the place where we took prom pictures, relaxed during Spring and Fall breaks, celebrated my parents’ 25th anniversary, and showed all seven of my siblings’ kids how to yell into the laundry chute. It’s a place where people love to gather, where friends don’t hesitate to drop in unannounced.

Unpretentious outside and rock-solid inside, that house, and the two people who bought it in 1972, gave us an incomparable luxury: a place to feel centered.

It is the only place our family of six has ever called home. Though it’s hard to say goodbye, we and the house part as far more than friends. It has held the heart of our family for 45 years, and we will always love it.