Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

If you can’t follow your heart, try following some people on Twitter

I have really come to appreciate Twitter lately, but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, this social media outlet breaks vital news the instant it happens (#NewGrumpyCatVideo) and is the only medium that moves fast enough to keep pace with every newly hatched Trump election conspiracy in real time (#RiggedBigly). But that’s not why I’m on it. I love Twitter for “Who to follow,” the helpful feature that suggests other Twits, Tweeps, or whatever term the kids use for people whose feeds might interest you.

Twitter pays attention to the company I keep and often points me to writers, podcasters, and people promoting important new products like the Catterbox, a collar device that translates your cat’s meows to human speech. Those people are right in my wheelhouse.

(You just went to, didn’t you? I don’t blame you one bit; I don’t see how you couldn’t. Perhaps you, like me, were disappointed to see that all it has are a bunch of videos showing the device in action. Nobody cares about that. What we really want to see is footage of owners trying to affix the Catterbox to their cats. Anyway, no need to thank me for bringing this to your attention in plenty of time for holiday shopping.)

But Twitter has also given me a bunch of less obvious suggestions. Those people seem to fall into one of the following five categories:

  • Mommy bloggers
  • Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs
  • Travelers
  • Psychics (is that a sub-genre of “Travelers”?)
  • Bots and Trolls

I have to say, I don’t quite get it.

The mommy bloggers seem to be lovely people, but once you get past the blogging, we don’t have all that much in common. Yes, there was that time recently when my niece’s eye scare gave me a whopping dose of vicarious parenting. Beyond that, though, I don’t write about how to make vegetables go incognito at dinner, nor have I ever lactated. And I doubt all that many mommy bloggers care to read about my niche speed-dating episodes gone bad. If these moms are following me, they’re probably keeping their distance.

I’m also not sure why Twitter thinks I should follow venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. I don’t want my capital to venture; other people’s capital can go wandering off like a high school student in a gap year, but I want mine to stay put. And while I admire entrepreneurs, given my ongoing and possibly unhealthy addiction to a regular paycheck, I’m more likely to start lactating than start a business.

As for traveling, I enjoy it very much, as evidenced by my recent trip to Italy with Mom. But most of the travelers Twitter suggests aren’t like me; they travel full-time and got their gigs by selling everything. I don’t know about you, but I travel to go on vacation. Traveling full-time while keeping an eye on my funds as they dwindle like hourglass sand sounds suspiciously like work, that thing that pays for the trips I take to escape it.

The psychics and paranormals are so entertaining that I don’t really care why Twitter thinks I should follow them. For example, here’s the profile for Adrian Lee, a guy who checks all the otherworldly boxes and then some:

Acclaimed author, founder of (TIPS) The International Paranormal Society, psychic, and host of the ONLY paranormal news quiz show – More Questions than Answers.

A paranormal quiz news show called “More Questions than Answers”? If there’s a better game show name out there, I don’t want to know about it. Though it would also be a great name for a show about my dating life. (You can find MQTA here. You know you can’t resist.)

And speaking of my love life, to the bots and trolls, I say thanks but no thanks. That’s what online dating is for.


The image of this happy cat is brought to you by

The image of this happy Catterbox model is brought to you by 


To write off, or not to write off? That is the (dating) question

As co-hosts of a podcast about dating and relationships, Philippa and I sometimes receive messages from listeners seeking advice. To show that we take these questions seriously (a statement we can’t always make about the answer), I’ll address in this forum one we received recently. But first, a little background.

Our listener, “Lisa,” was visiting friends out of town when she met a Person Of Interest (“POI.”). Though they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, Lisa and the POI really hit it off and agreed they wanted to see each other again. When Lisa returned home, she and the POI texted. During one of those exchanges, Lisa mentioned she’d found cheap airfare and could easily arrange a trip to the POI’s town. The POI said he’d like that but didn’t ask about dates or show other signs of enthusiasm. She volunteered a date. The texts began to decrease in both frequency and verbiage –he’d been busy, he wrote. He had not spoken of the proposed date. Then, a week or so after they’d last seen each other, he called her. It was a bold escalation in medium (or an act of aggression, if you ask Philippa). That date Lisa had suggested? Not good. He offered a vague excuse and, instead of proposing another date for her trip, said he’d figure out a time to come and see her.

Lisa is in her 40’s and not a dating novice, so she interpreted this to mean he’s seeing someone where he lives. The drop in text frequency and quality fit that theory, and she was ready to chalk it up as a loss. (I would have, too.)  Then, last Friday night at 9 or so, the POI sent her a “hey hot stuff” text. That might not have been weird if his other messages had been like that, but they hadn’t. In fact, there hadn’t been many other messages at all, so she figured “hot stuff” referred to someone else –I would have, too –and didn’t respond.

Two hours later, he texted again: “Nothing? I figured I’d at least get a laugh.”

A laugh? Why? Because she’s not hot stuff? Lisa scratched her head and responded that she was at dinner with a friend. Almost exactly 24 hours later, POI sent another erudite text: “hey hot stuff.” I suspect by then Lisa was hot. She didn’t respond. (I wouldn’t have, either.) He texted Sunday night to ask if she’d written him off.

She saw it when she woke up Monday morning and, before her caffeine had a chance to kick in, wrote, “No, just didn’t think those texts were meant for me.” She probably expected an explanation of some sort in response. (I would have.) Instead, she got: “How are you today?”

She wrote, “OK, *now* I’m writing you off.” Actually, she didn’t. That’s what I would have written. She’d already responded with a benign, “Fine, thanks” before she turned to us, so that golden opportunity was blown. Leaving that aside, the fact that Lisa came to the two of us for counsel -one of us a humorist and the other such a ghosting expert someone once referred to her as “Casper Hughes” –tells you a lot, namely: she came to the right place.

As a human being, I feel obligated to give her practical advice: I don’t think she owes the POI anything, not the benefit of the doubt or responses to future texts. They’ve spent little time together and don’t have the same level of interest in keeping something going, so it seems like a lot more trouble than it’s worth. Let it die of natural causes.

But as a humorist, I say: KEEP THE TEXTS ALIVE! And respond only in haiku, releasing one line at a time, every few hours. Had she followed that advice, she’d have responded to “how are you?” like this:

Fine! How you doing?

Wait, I meant *who* you doing?

Wait, who are you, yo?

So, Lisa, thanks for asking. We wish you the best of luck in dating, and remember those three little words: hey hot stuff.

Some things are classics, like Jane Austen, The Beatles, and…’80s Prom fashion

For Christmas a few years ago, my brother gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. I interpreted it as a loving gesture intended to help me hone my craft. He may have meant it as a way to get me to stop writing about my family, in which case he should’ve known that I’m not one to pick up on subtle hints. Besides, I’ll be happy to stop writing about them just as soon as they stop generating material.

But it was a fantastic gift –I’m gonna keep some of these questions in reserve for first dates — and today, Philippa and I are blog-dueling on one of my favorite of the 642 prompts:

What did you wear to Prom? How did you get your outfit, and what happened to it? 

In 1989, when I was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Prom was a rite of passage; nearly everyone wanted to go, including me. But wanting to go wasn’t enough: I needed a date. With no boyfriend and all of my guy friends spoken for, I started to stress. My good friend Kevin, aware of my situation, did some work behind the scenes and arranged for his pal “Bob” to ask me. Bob and I were acquaintances–  I’d always thought he was cute and nice –so I said “yes” and shifted the focus of my stress to getting a dress.

Fashion was not my forte, but it was one of the multitude of things my eldest sister, Suzi, did perfectly. She was always on point, even when the point seemed to have no point. (Popped collars, anyone?) Her sartorial skill even earned her the nickname “Fashion Plate” from my father. Though I didn’t exactly know what that kind of a plate was, I inferred that if Suzi was a plate, I was a bucket. A bucket with a massive hole at the bottom. The Plate, who was in her fourth year at UVA in Charlottesville, sensed my plight and offered to take me shopping without my even having to ask. I had only one criterion: I didn’t want my dress to look like everyone else’s.

“Then come down to C’ville and we’ll go shopping here,” she said. So I did.

Together, we went to Fashion Square Mall, affectionately referred to as “Fashion Scare,” and visited every store that carried dresses. Whatever allotment of patience was supposed to have been spread across me and my three siblings, Suzi got all of it, never seeming to tire of coming up with candidates for me to try on. To my untrained eye, though the dresses tried to combine different elements – sleeves poofed in direct proportion to the wearer’s bangs, bows capable of covering not just a butt but an entire zip code, ruffled bottoms – they all wound up looking the same. And they came in shiny, saccharine-sweet pinks, greens and blues that made my teeth hurt. I didn’t exactly know what my taste was, but I knew it wasn’t that. Suzi knew it too.

Eventually we wound up at an all-dress joint whose name escapes me, where my sister managed to pluck from the masses something my eyes would have skipped right over: a long, straight, black, strapless number with white piping along the top and a black and white skirt-like, slightly ruffled thing at the waist. Suzi informed me the functionally irrelevant skirty thing was a peplum (coincidence that it bears a close phonetic resemblance to “pablum”? I think not.). I guess the dress needed something to help it compete with my shelf of bangs. Regardless, Suzi nailed it. She’d found a dress that was not only different but made me feel grown-up and somewhat sophisticated.

Remember these?

On Prom night, Mom helped me get ready and then she, Dad, my brother and I went to the living room to take pictures while we waited for the limo bearing Bob and four of his friends to show up. Little did we know we would have had time not only to take photos, but to drive to the nearest Fotomat and have the film developed while we waited because, two hours after the appointed time, Bob still hadn’t arrived.

Am I being stood up?, I thought, just as my father said, “Do you think you’re being stood up?”

Mortification caused me to spontaneously combust, so now you know what happened to the dress.

I’m kidding, of course. Spontaneous combustion was a prayer that had gone cruelly unanswered.

I got the phone book and called one of the other girls, who said, “You mean Bob didn’t call to tell you they just left Scott’s house?” Uh, no, he didn’t.

When Bob finally arrived, I vaporized him on the spot. I’m kidding, of course. Vaporization was just another unanswered prayer. (For Bob too, if I had to guess.) Our group went to dinner and made it to Prom just before it ended. It still counted.

It took me a little while to thaw out, but after graduation, Bob and I stayed friends and went off to UVA. The dress did, too. I wore it to a formal in the Spring of 1990, with my then-best friend, Paul, as my date. Say what you will about the dress, but that particular friendship never went out of style.



As my friend Michelle put it, “Your dress is the least offensive by far.”


MRIs and other good vibrations

I recently wrote about seeking medical treatment for pain in my neck. During the appointment I had last week, the doc took X-rays and explained that dehydrated discs were causing several of the vertebrae in my neck to rub together. He explained that this is not good, using technical language that I translated it as, “Your spine was designed by someone who stinks at Jenga.” He then referred me for an MRI to get a better look at what might be causing the pain.

That post drew an outpouring of heartwarming concern from kind readers, along with an offer from my father to put me out with the trash. I decided to go for the MRI and keep that offer in reserve.

For the uninitiated, MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. According to WebMD, it is a “test that uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body.” It sounds vague, but benign, the precise combination I aim for in my legal writing. In reality, you basically lay on a stretcher inside a gigantic magnet, wearing an antenna contraption that bears some resemblance to the halo your mom attached to your angel Halloween costume when you were four.

Golly, why would this inviting machine make anyone nervous?

MRI exams make some people anxious and claustrophobic, an understandable reaction to an experience akin to a 45-minute test-drive in a coffin with limited stereo options. Don’t worry if you’re one of these people and find yourself fighting the urge to flee; the lovely MRI people have straps to help keep you still. And as we all know, nothing puts an anxious, claustrophobic, coffin-bound person at ease like a nice set of restraints.

Fortunately, I didn’t require those. Having spent a fair amount of time in mascot suits, I am not prone to claustrophobia. And if you want to make me anxious, you’ll have to come up with something a lot scarier than MRI, like marriage. In fact, the MRI I had in 2011 triggered not anxiety or claustrophobia, but narcolepsy. Yes, I fell asleep. The technician hadn’t been happy about it at the time- I guess I didn’t stay entirely still while asleep, and maybe he couldn’t hear the machine over my snoring.

So I went into this MRI determined to stay awake. As the scan got underway, it seemed the coffin’s radio was tuned to the “Sounds of VDoT” station, on which a band comprised entirely of jackhammers was performing a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” A few minutes later, and without my consent, the station changed to “1980’s Arcade Game Noises.” PEW PEW! PEW PEW!

No sooner had my Space Invaders craving been ignited than the coffin switched stations again, this time to “Zoo Instrumental Classics.” For five minutes straight, I listened to what sounded like a monkey banging on a coconut with a ball peen hammer.

For the finale, the coffin landed on “Trapped Underwater,” featuring the dulcet song of a humpback whale in distress. No wonder I fell asleep last time; it was a defense mechanism.

I’ll get the results on Monday afternoon, which is perfect because the trash goes out on Tuesday.



You can dress ’em up, and sometimes that’s plenty

You know what holiday makes me appreciate and respect my mom even more than Mother’s Day? Halloween, because that was when her Make-It-From-Scratch skills reached their zenith. 

That’s really saying something, too, because my mother could and can figure out how to do just about anything and do it well. A self-taught cook, she made magic in the kitchen (except for that one time when she made shipwreck, but hey, we all screw up sometimes). She not only owned a sewing machine but knew how to use it, sometimes to make clothes but more often to perform non-elective surgery on pants, dresses, shirts and stuffed animals. And she’s resourceful, a trait that really came in handy during the pre-internet 1970’s and ’80s, when I was coming of age. 

Way back when, a month or so before Halloween, Mom would ask what we wanted to be that year. In hindsight, that question alone astonishes me. If I had four kids deeply involved in tennis, baseball, band, swimming, soccer and piano, I’d be in triage mode until October 29 at the earliest and wouldn’t ask a question any more open-ended than, “Which one are you, again?” I picture myself gathering the kids ’round the laptop for a festive session during which I’d ask them which costumes they’d like that are under $25 and can be delivered free by drone. Not Mom, though. She let our Halloween imaginations roam and then did a heroic job of keeping up with them, no matter what it took.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I bring you a few entries from Mom’s Homemade Costume Hall of Fame (you’ll have to supply your own Barry Manilow soundtrack):

  • Miss Piggy: For some reason, my sister Lynne identified with this Muppets character and her diva ways (perhaps the steadfast refusal to carry a tune awakened a kindred spirit in my sister?), so that’s what she wanted to be for Halloween one year. Rising to the challenge, Mom didn’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; it was almost the other way around. She fashioned a snout from a Dixie cup, which she covered in pink felt. She made and attached to the Dixie snout a set of rosy, stuffed cheeks, which in turn were affixed to a strap that somehow met at the back of my sister’s head. The above-the-head portion of the ensemble was rounded out with a headband into which was wedged a pair

    The Miss Piggy costume Mom made was waaaay better than this, though her failure to accessorize with wine in a plastic cup is a serious oversight.

    of stuffed pig ears, sewn by Mom. In place of Miss Piggy’s signature lavender gown? Mom’s purple polyester bathrobe.

  • Jailbirds: Whether it was career foreshadowing or something more benign, in the late 1970s, my best friend, Liz, and I insisted on dressing up like a pair of convicts. Our knowledge of incarceration fashion was limited to cartoons, according to which orange was not the new black; horizontal zebra-stripes were au corante. To achieve that look, my mother and Liz’s mom took white undershirts from our respective dads, put down masking tape or something like it in horizontal stripes spaced an inch or two apart, and took a can of black spray paint to the un-taped remainder. They did the same with white corduroy pants and then made us accessories in the form of striped, brimless hats. The pièce de résistance was the ball-and-chain. The moms somehow sewed two black spheres and stuffed them with newspaper for the ball part. And don’t ask me where, but somehow they found chain loops made of bamboo or something similarly lightweight –the light fixture in our family room may have sacrificed something to the cause — that our little kid legs could drag around without fear of injury. (Wait a minute, is that what happened to my glam-string?!?!)
  • An Ewok: The Force was pretty much always with my brother. L.J.’s Star Wars addiction began before kindergarten, so it was just a matter of time before he requested one of the characters from the movie series. How in the world could Mom hope to replicate this furry, fictional forest critter? She took a set of footie pajamas and attempted to dye it brown. If she was aiming for burnt umber, she wound up with toasted marshmallow. Then she made custom headgear. (My brother hastened to clarify the term “headgear” here refers not to the orthodontic torture device I wore for the better part of 200 years but rather to a mascot topper.) According to L.J., Mom bought light brown furry material and covered most of the head with it, and then she added a piece of darker felt to depict the Ewok’s raccoon-like eye mask. Even Steven Spielberg would have been impressed.
  • The World Serious: My brother was into baseball at an early age, by which I mean an age where you, upon hearing a term like “World Series” and having no idea what either “world” or “series” means, may make a wee bit of a mistake when you try to pronounce it. L.J. heard the phrase as the “World Serious” and wanted that to be his costume. My mother took his World Serious request world seriously and re-created the 1986 showdown between the Mets and the Red Sox by somehow sewing together jerseys and hats from both teams. As my brother put it, “whichever side of me you saw, you got a ballplayer for one of the teams.” And trick and a treat, and a costume grand slam.

Thanks to my mom and all the other moms out there who set an impossibly high bar in the Halloween costume department. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some shopping to do on Amazon.

T2 wasn't alone in his costume cluelessness.

Last year’s find, courtesy of Target.

Middle age: what a pain in the neck

Doctors tell you not to “chase the pain” when you have certain kinds of injuries. By this they mean if you don’t take something to combat the pain before it pancakes you, it’ll do a hit and run, never to be caught. But even catching it doesn’t always help because pain, like an investigative reporter, can be both persistent and totally unwilling to reveal its sources. 

For example, when your back hurts, you might suspect a back problem. This is logical but, with all due respect, incredibly naive. Pain is way sneakier than that. For all you know, it’s just using your back to mask a problem with your pancreas. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Because “sneaky” doesn’t sound super technical, the medical profession came up with a more elegant term for this nefarious behavior: referred pain. Charming, don’t you think? “Referred pain” makes it sound like your body parts are a bunch of conscientious professionals who have more volume than they can handle but will gladly set you up with a practice that’s taking on new business. My body kindly gave me a referral this past Sunday.

One day earlier, I had run a 5k in Great Falls, Maryland, with a few people from my boot camp group. In the days leading up to the race, I’d felt a nagging twinge in my in the space between my right hamstring and my glute – the “glam-string,” as I like to call it.  My glam-string has bothered me on occasion but never been grounds to place myself on Injured Reserve, so I plowed ahead. I felt the twinge during the race on Saturday, but I hardly noticed because the scenery –rocks, river and trees emerging slowly from a morning mist dissipating under the warmth of the sun — commanded my attention. 

The next day my glam-string was okay but my calf, a muscle that’s never caused me a minute of trouble, went on strike. I suspect it was a referral but didn’t have time to investigate because I was chasing pain in a different location: my neck. That’s not new pain, but it’s been dormant since the spring of 2011, when I went to an orthopedist. I had a bunch of tests done, got a monster shot, and experienced near-instant relief. (I unloaded my marital pain in the neck a few months later, which had to have helped.) 

I never expected that relief to last five years, and neither did the doctor, who I went back to see today. He took a fresh set of X-rays and informed me that the vertebrae collapse he’d seen the first time around had worsened. I’d lost tissue and gained bone spurs and a pinched nerve.

When I turned 43, I wrote a post in the form of a report card, and one of the subjects was health. I’d given myself a grade of 95. Likening the human body to a house, I had concluded the major systems still worked well, the warranties on my joints had held out, and I was generally humming along. Two years later, when I’ve reached an actuarial midpoint, my major systems still work fine but the stairs seem to have collapsed. It’s a threat to my structural integrity, but don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed. I have duct tape.

Our instructor won this medal, whereas the rest of us mere mortals got plastic ones, but I gotta tell ya, the Visegrad 5k is a very, very cool race. Not only do you get to run on the C&O canal towpath but there's a staggering assortment of Slavic pastries at the end!

Our instructor won this medal, whereas the rest of us mere mortals got plastic ones, but I gotta tell ya, the Visegrad 5k is a very, very cool race. Not only do you get to run on the C&O canal towpath but a staggering assortment of Slavic pastries awaits you at the end!

Set the world on fire, not your pet

Owning a pet is a big responsibility. You have to know things like what to feed it, which shots it needs, and the best method of extinguishment when it inevitably catches fire. I owned a Maine coon named T.C. many years ago, and if he were still around, I think he’d agree that I did pretty well on those first two but had room for improvement on the third.

Before I tell you that story, I owe you some background about T.C. I adopted him in 1997 as an antidote to the loneliness I feared might come as I moved into an apartment to live by myself for the first time. That fear was unfounded, but I was glad for it nonetheless because it led to one of the better companionship decisions I’ve ever made. We only had five years together before I had to have him put to sleep, a loss that was worse than any breakup I’d endured to date. I haven’t had a pet since, because no other animal could possibly meet the standard T.C. set. He loved people (and their food), attention, and toilet water. A furry slapstick comedian, he didn’t glide through the world with feline grace; he lumbered around like Godzilla. And in place of a dainty “meow,” he held forth with a gravelly yowl that made me wonder if he’d been raised on a diet of Marlboros.

When describing T.C. to a friend a few years ago, I used shorthand and simply said he’d been a very dog-like cat. The friend, a committed Dog Person, rolled his eyes and said, “That’s what every cat owner says.” Perhaps. But even if that’s true, some of those cat owners are right, and I’m one of ’em.

T.C. loved it when I invited people over  — one of my favorite things to do in my Big Girl apartment –and on the day in question, I had done just that. My friend Christopher was supposed to come over for dinner after work. My plan to come home and start cooking hit a major snag when I walked through the front door to find that T.C. had done some prep work of his own in the form of a vast, rust-colored hairball he’d deposited on the sofa.

A concerted Resolve campaign didn’t help much, so I bombed the area with dishwashing liquid and hot water. That did the trick, but it left in its wake a massive spot that I knew wouldn’t dry on its own before Christopher showed up. Panicked, I grabbed a hair dryer and trained it on the spot. It seemed to be working, so in an effort to speed things up, I pressed it against the fabric. The dryer’s whine became increasingly high-pitched and then I heard a strange pop. The whining stopped abruptly. A wisp of smoke curled out of the hair dryer and the smell of burned fabric wafted under my nose. Great. Not only had I not fixed the couch problem, but my apartment now smelled scorched. I was out of ideas and running out of time, so I lit a Yankee candle, set it on the coffee table, and called my friend Shel for advice. It wasn’t that I thought she’d know what to do so much as I thought Shel was the only person who, on hearing my story, might be able to stop laughing long enough to try to help.

I sat on the un-hairballed half of the couch, told her what I’d done, and waited for the cackling to subside. She began to think out loud. As I listened to her rattle off ideas that sounded like a cross between “Hints From Heloise” and the Three Stooges, T.C. leaped onto the coffee table and started walking across it, oblivious to the Yankee candle and on a path to stride right over top of it. The candle, by contrast, was very much aware of my cat’s proximity.

Its flame rose up, igniting the long hairs that hung from T.C.’s belly. He marched on, smoking yet still utterly clueless, as I interrupted Shel.

“I gotta go – my cat’s on fire!” I hung up, grabbed the wet towel I’d used in hairball cleanup, and went into action. My firefighting knowledge was limited to “Stop, drop and roll,” so I used the towel to grab the cat, and roll him on his back to smother the flames. He let out a yowl of irritation, another idyllic coffee table stroll rudely and inexplicably interrupted. He skulked off towards the kitchen, muttering as he went and leaving in his wake the unmistakable stench of burnt hair. I didn’t even have a chance to attack it before there was a knock at the door. Christopher.

On taking a few steps into my apartment, he furrowed his brow, wrinkled his nose and said, “Um, exactly what might you be cooking?”

This incident came to mind tonight when I had another friend over for dinner. As he was leaving, he noticed the plaque Shel gave me for my birthday this year. On prominent display in this very cool word collage that celebrates the highlights of our friendship is the phrase “pets on fire.”

“There has to be a story there,” he said. Indeed there is. And the moral of that storY? Where there’s smoke, there’s a fire, and possibly also a flaming cat.


“Left holding the bag” isn’t always a figure of speech

[Welcome to Day 4 of a month-long, relay-style blog slog with my friend, writing partner and all-around instigator, Philippa…]

Before I launch into the story of something that happened a few weeks ago, I want you to know that the people involved are okay. I offer this assurance not because I’m a nice person, but because I don’t want concern for their wellbeing to keep you from laughing. Priorities!

The day in question, a Wednesday, began innocuously enough for me: I’d gone to boot camp, had a breakfast meeting with a young man I’m mentoring, and was en route to the office by way of my sister Lynne’s house. My brother-in-law, who normally works from home, was away on business so I’d offered to come by and walk Buddy, the family dog. Before I even reached the house, I’d gotten a distress call from Lynne: the eye infection my 13 year-old niece, Emily, had developed weeks earlier wasn’t responding to treatment. Em’s opthamologist had seen her that morning, dilated her pupils, and been unable to give a diagnosis. He advised Lynne to take her to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he knew more specialized testing could be done. The possibilities he had mentioned sent my sister on an ill-advised tour of Web MD, which did nothing other than qualify her to be Grand Marshall of the Parade of Horribles.

My sister tried to sound calm when she said, “Can you go with me?” but a crack in her voice gave her away.

I said, “Of course,” then made arrangements to work on the road, took Buddy for a quick walk, and executed Lynne’s instructions to pack a cooler for what was bound to be a long day.

Fifteen minutes later, Lynne and Emily walked through the door. My sister looked like she was hanging on by dental floss. Emily looked like a zombie, and a rather hip one because she was wearing a pair of sunglasses. The shades were meant to combat the photosensitivity that was making her nauseous, but they also seemed to mute her personality, and that worried me as much as anything. Emily’s not just the sunniest teenager I know, she’s the sunniest human I know. While waiting for Lynne and Em to arrive, I had given in to the WebMD temptation too, causing unhelpful phrases like “permanent loss of vision” to lodge themselves in my brain. But I knew I couldn’t telegraph my terror. I acted falsely upbeat instead, making lame jokes about this being just another of our wacky dates.  I grabbed the cooler and opened the door for Emily, who zombie-stepped through it. Buddy, who is nothing if not a team player, rocketed through the open door and into the un-fenced front yard. Saddled with the cooler, I was slow to give chase and didn’t see where he’d gone.

As I dropped the cooler and looked frantically left and right, I heard Lynne yell, “NOT THE BARF! NOT THE BARF!”

Using the powers of deduction that have gotten me so far in this life, I grasped that Emily, who was leaning against the house, had gotten sick and Buddy was headed straight for the sick. On the upside, at least we knew where to find him. As Lynne chased him away from the Superfund site, Buddy, inspired by the generally festive atmosphere, decided it was the perfect time for a game of tag. Five minutes and fourteen Beggin’ Strips later, Buddy was in the house and we were in the car. I got in the backseat with Emily and my sister proceeded to drive like she was auditioning for the lead in a “Dukes of Hazzard” revival.

Our trip to Baltimore suffered a second setback when Emily’s nausea returned. I scoured the backseat for possible biohazard containers and found only a lone plastic grocery bag. My hope that we wouldn’t need it was dashed even before I’d finished forming it, and then I found myself doing something that is definitely not in the Professional Aunt, No Kids contract: holding my niece’s hair and rubbing her back while she put the bag’s containment powers to the test. (No wonder my sister volunteered to drive.) In that moment, I discovered that I have a superpower –I am not a relay puker, hooray! –but this particular bag had met and exceeded its limits. So there I was, left holding not just a bag, but a bag that had sprung a small leak. Though we weren’t even 30 minutes into our trip and were just crossing the American Legion Bridge, my sister and I agreed we needed to exit.

“How ’bout Carderock?” I said, referring to a stretch along the Potomac near the Maryland side of Great Falls. “It’ll take a few minutes to get there once you exit, but I’ve parked there to hike and I know they have bathrooms.” I was right on both counts. It took what felt like an eternity to get there, but the park did have bathrooms. Em could hardly wait to get out and I could hardly wait to get rid of our revolting parcel.

She and I got out of the car, and that’s when I noticed the “Trash-Free Park” signs. And sure enough, as I made a desperate scan for trashcans, I found only posters admonishing me to take my trash with me.

“But have you seen my trash?” I said, to no one in particular.

My niece and I went into the restroom, hoping it might be a Green Zone in the war on park trash. No such luck. The protections of the Fifth Amendment preclude me from telling you exactly what happened next; however, I think I struck a good compromise, in that it probably left every interested party unhappy.

An hour later, we had arrived at Hopkins.

Things had to get worse before they got better –every healthcare worker who asked Emily about her symptoms received a nonverbal and very colorful answer, villains like Multiple Sclerosis and lupus had to be ruled out, and my sister and I had to eat our bodyweight in M&Ms –but after nine hours the news was as encouraging as it could have been: a rare condition called nodular scleritis. As unlucky as Emily was to get it in the first place, she was extremely fortunate to be among the few people for whom the malady isn’t caused by an underlying and far scarier autoimmune disorder. With the application of medicine and drops, the doctor expected it to clear up over a couple of months and would monitor it biweekly in the meantime. A cheer went up from Team Yank, whose remote members had been keeping tabs on the situation and supporting us with a steady stream of funny, encouraging texts.

As we got in the car to go home, Emily sat in the backseat, exhausted but back to her sunglasses-free and sunny self. I volunteered to drive home. It was a nice thing to do at the end of a long day, sure, but it also guaranteed that I wouldn’t be left holding the bag twice.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em's hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em’s hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

Team Yank celebrates a Hall of Famer

[My pal Philippa and I have just kicked off our version of National Blog Posting Month, where we cover the whole month by alternating days. It’s supposed to jump start my writing, or my insomnia, or both…]

Last weekend, my brother was inducted into the West Springfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: a very big deal.

L.J. never would have described it in those terms — “don’t get a big head” was one of my father’s mantras when my siblings and I were growing up, plus my brother is a humble team-player by nature–but statistics don’t lie.

As a right-handed pitcher for the West Springfield varsity baseball squad from 1991-1993, he helped the team win a State Championship, pitched on the silver medal-winning USA Junior National Team, landed repeat berths on the Washington Post’s All-Met Team, and was named the All-Met Player of the Year in 1993.  When the Minnesota Twins made him an 18th round draft pick in 1993, he opted instead to accept a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech, an engineering and Division 1 baseball powerhouse. In his first year on the talent-loaded Tech team, he helped pitch the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance. He was a perennial ACC Honor Roll-er, a two-time academic All-American, and the recipient of Tech’s prestigious Total Person Award in 1998, an honor given annually to two student athletes who excel on the field, in class, and in the community. (Did I mention that he’s also a nice guy? It’s true.) He closed out his pitching career at Tech with a record of 25-4, the third-best in Tech’s history at the time. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in 1998, L.J. was not just a member of the team’s pitching staff but also its only engineer. During five seasons, he pitched four hundred-plus innings in over 100 games on Braves teams in Macon, Myrtle Beach, Greenville (SC), and Richmond. He made it to AAA before injuries nudged him off the field.

Though he’d had a spectacular run, its ending was without spectacle, so this whole Hall of Fame thing gave our tribe an opportunity, however belated, to give my brother’s accomplishments their due. I can’t speak for anyone else in the family, but I really needed that second chance.

It’s not that I hadn’t known my brother was an incredible athlete; of course I did. I’d been aware that he was a gifted pitcher long before he got to West Springfield, though that’s when his true potential really began to show. Unfortunately, I simply failed to appreciate that time. I had just started college and was not merely determined but flat-out defiant about blazing my own, non-baseball trail. This might have been fine if I’d had any idea where that trail should go —navigation has never been my strong suit –or what my own potential was.  But I didn’t. So at the precise moment when I should’ve been cheering L.J. on with the rest of Team Yank, I was busy trudging through the Great Seeking Swamp (a place that’s easy to get stuck in but turns out not to be all that deep), my progress hampered by the fact that I had blinders on and my nose in my navel.  I went to my brother’s big games, but those gorgeous curve balls, sinkers and sliders whizzed past me just like they did all those hapless batters. I wasn’t present. When I emerged from the Swamp, at about the time when L.J. was heading to Tech, Team Yank didn’t act like I’d spent a couple of years warming the bench. I knew I had, though, and I knew I’d missed out on some great stuff.

So when the Hall of Fame news broke, I reacted with what my brother probably saw as extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not every day that a family member gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, and it’s certainly not every day that you get a second chance. A second chance may not be the same as a clean slate, because that botched first attempt lives on in your memory (and who knows where else), but that’s exactly what makes second chances so great: remembering what you screwed up the first time frees you up to make an altogether different mistake the next time. Or to learn from it. Or both.

Instead of reprising my role as benchwarmer, this time I helped rally Team Yank. Together, we compiled a video commemorating L.J.’s greatest moments, both on and off the field. It was some of our better work. In a nod to Dad’s “don’t get a big head” mantra, the off-the-field segment was part roast and part heartfelt tribute. There were cameo appearances by family, friends, and L.J.’s mullet (yes, the mullet was of such magnitude as to warrant a separate credit). There was a dramatic re-enactment of my brother’s pitching career, featuring every member of the family and the music of, who else, Barry Manilow.

But the real scene-stealer was L.J. After the ceremony and after we’d watched the video, when he’d earned the right to bask in the glow of his accomplishments and our family pride, my brother refused to stand in the spotlight by himself.

“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” he said.

Whether or not we all agreed with L.J.’s words, they shouldn’t have surprised us. I scoured a bunch of old articles in the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, and in every article that praised my brother, he credited and thanked his team, his teachers, his coaches. It seems he understood even 20 years ago the value of humility, and that you strive not so much for individual gain but to elevate those around you. I couldn’t be prouder of my brother, for what he’s done and who he is. And I think I speak for all of Team Yank when I say he’s definitely helped me raise my game.


“What I Did This Summer,” in 1,000 words or less

The kids of Arlington County go back to school tomorrow. Some of them will undoubtedly be asked to write a “What I did this summer” essay, so I’ve decided to join them.

If anecdotal evidence and comic strips are any indication, kids loathe this assignment. I’m pretty sure the teachers of Orange Hunt Elementary and Lake Braddock Secondary never inflicted it on me, but now that I’m staring it down, I think I’m starting to understand the dread. Being forced to break up with summer—especially a really good one– is hard enough, but having to relive the relationship on paper while the wound is still fresh? That’s a special torture. Compounding the pain for these kids is the likelihood that I they probably haven’t written a full sentence for months, and now, like a couch potato drafted into a mandatory jogging program, they have to write a whole essay. Even if there’s some satisfaction once you’ve done the task, the actual doing can feel like a joyless slog.

I get it, kids, on both fronts. And I feel more than a pang of longing as I say goodbye to this particular summer, which featured adventures like:

  • Starting a new job. I’m 45, so changing jobs at this point in life is a bit like switching schools in ninth grade: exciting, scary, daunting, and invigorating. You’re not altogether new to the gig, so you have some sense of what your days will look like, but you don’t know anybody and you can’t find anything. Then again, maybe the new school analogy doesn’t quite fit here. I’ve joined a company loaded with millennials, so perhaps it’s more like Senior Citizens Day at the local high school. Regardless, I’m pleased to report the kids are all right, to say the very least, and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to leave your comfort zone.
  • Storming Italy with Mom. We traveled from May 31 – June 10, and I meant to write about the trip the minute I got home, but like Donald Trump’s tax returns, my intentions somehow never materialized.  At this point, highlights are the best I can do. Our trip began in Naples, where my Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ed are living on a temporary assignment. Naples doesn’t get a lot of tourist love, perhaps because it’s let itself go a bit, but it’s situated in a picturesque location and is home to the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. As Ed drove us around town, I came to realize the official language of Naples isn’t Italian, it’s car horn. Ed’s not fluent yet, but I feel pretty good about his chances. Beyond driving, he and my aunt were incredible tour guides and hosts. Caroline chauffeured us to Gaeta – a lovely seaside town between Rome and

    Mom and Caroline in Naples

    Naples – and went on a ferry with us to the island of Capri, a place whose unique beauty I won’t diminish by attempting to describe it. Ed wins a special award for spending an entire Saturday driving all of us to various towns along the steep, curvy, incomparable Amalfi Coast (motto: “Where the sea is blue and the knuckles are white”). From there, Mom and I went on to Florence, where we art-ed it up at the Uffizi one day and hiked the Cinque Terre the next. That second excursion was my big idea, because the CT held the promise of spectacular, unique scenery. I hadn’t researched what the hiking would entail, but roving between the towns of this UNESCO World Heritage site on foot sounded right up my alley. At 73, Mom is very active and loves to watch her kids do things they love, so she gamely agreed. And boy, did the CT ever make good on its promise of spectacular. Not only did we get spectacularly beautiful scenery—the colorful hillside towns that look so charming in postcards leave you slack-jawed in person –but we also got IMG_1474spectacularly difficult hiking. The trails are clear but navigating them required taking lots of big steps up and down rocks and across streams. Had I realized up front that Cinque Terre is Italian for “blow a hammy,” I might have thought twice about subjecting Mom to it. IMG_1433But my mother, who was probably the oldest person in our guided group, powered right through it, a testament both to her fitness and her willingness to do anything for an Aperol Spritz. Our trip ended in Rome, perhaps my favorite city in the world and a very cool place to spend my 45th birthday. As I reflect on the trip, I think I liked the CT excursion best of all, and the memory of my mom hiking beside me along a cliff, wildflowers on one side and sea on the other, will always make me smile. Then again, when you’re hanging out with one of your favorite people, your favorite place is anywhere.

  • Trying standup comedy. I wrote about my first experience here. I did two more 5-minute sets, the second of which took place at a Georgetown Club called the Chinese Disco (which is neither Chinese nor disco, thanks for asking). I’m almost glad I don’t have video footage from that outing, because I’m not sure any of my material could compete with this photo. It has “Annual Christmas Card” written all over it.

Somehow this all just goes together.

So long, summer. I miss you already.