Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

“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.


Stand and deliver, and try not to get booed off the stage

Emboldened by the 2016 Presidential election, which has taught me that any unqualified fool can grab a microphone and say outrageous things in front of a crowd, I decided to try stand-up comedy.

I made my debut on July 17 with an outfit called at O’Sullivan’s in Clarendon, having had no real training beyond an improv comedy class I took in 2006, taught by the incomparable Shawn Westfall. As great as the class was, the skills didn’t really transfer because improv and standup are kind of like baseball and golf: beyond a few surface similarities — copious whiffing, profanity and beer — the two don’t have all that much in common. Though I lacked formal training, I didn’t go into this thing cold (c’mon, people, I may have a weak attachment to my dignity, but I’m not a complete moron); I’ve been working up to it for the past two years, with the help of my friend Larry. Larry and I first crossed paths at the Westover Beer Garden in the summer of 2014, when I was wrapping up the manuscript for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing  and he was hanging out enjoying an IPA. We bonded right away over humor, and when I mentioned in passing that I’d always wanted to try standup, Larry, who has a background in comedy, made it his mission to help me.

We started meeting on Tuesdays to toss back a few beers and a lot of ideas, leading Larry to call our weekly get-togethers the “Spitball Sessions.” Larry brought his notebook to every SBS and jotted down any line that made us laugh. We figured someday we’d take the best of our SBS notes and whip them into shape until they resembled a decent standup routine. It was a fine plan, except that I’m 45 and Larry is 61, and we don’t whip things into shape anymore so much as beg, plead and cajole them. And even then, the things need a compelling event. We didn’t have one, so I manufactured it by signing up for a 3-minute set on an open mic night two weeks out. And that was all it took because, as regular readers know, nothing spurs me to action like the threat of public humiliation.

Larry and I started culling through our SBS notes, which was like corralling sea monkeys. I wrote a rough draft, Larry edited, we kicked it around 85 more times, and then I started testing it out on unsuspecting audiences, like my brother and sister-in-law in Atlanta. I knew I could trust those two for honest feedback: we have the same last name, so the risk of humiliation by association was real. They watched the video I sent and then called to give me their assessment. Both of them work in Corporate America and understand the importance of encouragement, so they delivered their comments in the form of a “feedback sandwich.” They didn’t call it that, of course, but I work in Corporate America too, so I knew what it was as soon as I heard it. For those who haven’t ever dined on a feedback sandwich, the stuff you did well is the bread and the stuff in the middle is what you really need to work on, so you usually care most about the middle. You hope for something positive, the equivalent of PB&J, and you live in fear of liverwurst. (Unless you’re my sister Lynne, who adores not only liverwurst but also split-pea soup, leading me to believe her taste buds were removed at birth.) My Atlanta consultants, who are standup connoisseurs, went heavy on the bread and light on the filling, buoying my hopes that I might be able to pull it off.

I made a few changes based on their advice and then performed it live for Larry, who serves up a different kind of feedback sandwich. He left out the bread altogether, and the filling consisted of: “You just need to suck less.” I choked on it at first, bitter and tough to swallow as it was, but it was what I needed. And I had to admit, it was the best line of the day. I went back to the drawing board, and after just 74 additional run-throughs, I thought I might be ready.

Then I went to the website. It’s run by a nice, supportive guy named Curt whose noble, and slightly insane, goal is to enable newbies to break into a sometimes cliquish local comedy scene. I scrolled down to the five tips for first-timers. They were great except for #3, which was one-half super-practical (“bring water and your set notes on stage with you”) and one-half unintentionally subversive (“Your mouth will go dry and your mind will go blank within the 1st minute”).

We newbies also had to bring five hostages, er, friends to the performance, and that’s the part that really made me nervous. I don’t mind embarrassing myself in front of a room full of strangers, but in front of people I love and whose opinions matter to me (one of whom, Janice, drove four hours one way for my three-minute set)? That’s terrifying. When the time came, I did as Curt instructed and brought my water and cheat sheet up with me. I tucked the latter into my bra, figuring that if all else failed, I’d at least get one laugh if I had to pull it out.

The minute I got onstage, the nerves began to dissipate and I just enjoyed myself. And fortunately for all concerned, I got more than one laugh without ever having to reach into my bra. I was told the lion’s share of the laughs came from the stranger faction because most of my loved ones, and certainly Larry, were too terrified on my behalf to laugh.

And the feedback I got from Curt was all bread: I’ll be back at O’Sullivan’s on August 14 to do a five-minute set. The show starts at 7, and though I don’t have to bring hostages, I’m hoping some of you will surrender yourselves to the cause!

My father will give you the shirt off his back, or at least out of his trunk

My father has been coaching the American Legion Post 176 summer baseball team for over 25 years. He’s seen quite a bit in that time, as you can well imagine. He’s watched as a few of his kids made it to the big leagues, and he’s helped keep one or two out of an altogether different farm system, if you know what I mean. But what happened last Tuesday night was truly a first. Though I wasn’t there, I’ve pieced together an account based on text messages from my mother, one of our family’s more credible sources.

When my father arrived at Lee High School, the home field for Post 176 , one of the kids told Dad he didn’t have his shirt. The kid hadn’t just left his shirt at home, he’d lost it altogether. Instead of wasting time asking how the kid had lost his shirt –over-invested in the British pound, maybe? –my father went right into problem-solving mode.

Dad keeps the interior of his car very clean and its trunk full of baseball gear. That gear just happened to include the top half of a uniform. This would’ve been stellar news except for three things: 1) the shirt came from last year’s uniform; 2) it bore my father’s number; and 3) it may or may not have been laundered in the off-season. Because American Legion doesn’t play “shirts vs. skins,” the kid really had no choice but to take the field wearing my old man’s old shirt.

The kid once again had no choice when, a few innings later, the manager decided to make a pitching change and put him on the mound.

My mother was in the stands that night, as she often is. Though Mom’s normally a very attentive fan, it’s not clear to me whether she noticed earlier in the game that there were two Number 26s, or that one of them had a surprisingly youthful gait. But it certainly got her attention when the announcer said, “Now pitching for Springfield: Len Yankosky.”

For years I’ve heard my father say that, sooner or later, everybody on the Legion team winds up pitching; I guess he really meant it.

The announcer soon picked up on his lineup mixup and fixed it, making Dad’s return to the hill as brief as it was improbable.

Post 176 begins playoff action today. I wish I could be there, but I have to miss it because I’ll be making my official standup comedy debut (more on that soon). Who knows, maybe both of us will hit home runs today.

There's #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.

There’s #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.


One isn’t a lonely number when you’re hanging with the Capital Hiking Club

As a single woman in her mid-40s, I sometimes feel like I’m in No Man’s Land on the weekends: I want to go out and do something but I lack automatic access to a companion. I was headed straight for NML this past weekend as I found myself craving a good, long hike.

Many of my friends say they love the idea of going on a long hike, but I know they can’t execute. Some are married and have kids, so they can’t swing an all-day trudge through the forest (or maybe they fear the temptation to drop the kids off in the middle of the woods without a map would be too great). Others are paired-off and usually have plans with their plus-ones. And still a third category are single but either think the outdoors aren’t all that great or have full schedules.

I’ve made so many trips to NML, I already know it’ll exhaust me before I’ve even laced up my hiking boots, so I considered going it solo. But someone who gets lost in her sister’s suburban neighborhood probably shouldn’t venture out alone in the wild, so I was left with two options: 1) defer the hike until the right company materialized; or 2) make some company materialize. When the forecast for Saturday promised a July miracle – low humidity, sunny and temps in the mid-80s – option two became a mandate.

Carrying it out required me to venture into a whole other wilderness: Meetup. The site’s for “[n]eighbors getting together to learn something, do something, share something,” and a quick cruise of the D.C. area meetups proved that, at any given moment, there’s a whole lot of something going on. In what is simultaneously a testament to the diversity of options and an indictment of my navigational skills, I followed a Meetup rabbit trail that wandered from Astrology to Esperanto to Ukeleles –97 musicians and counting! — before I forcing my focus on hiking, a category that by itself offers more than 40 options.

Struggling to see the proverbial forest among all the trees, I decided to treat it like online dating and narrow it down based on apparent compatibility. The Mid-Atlantic Hiking Group and the Capital Hiking Club made the final cut. The MAHG has over 20,000 hikers in its ranks and the Capital Hiking Club over 8,000. Neither qualifies as intimate, but both had hikes scheduled for my target date, and I figured they must be doing something right to have so many members. Further inquiry revealed that only the Club had availability for its Saturday hike –a 7- or 11-miler in Jeremy’s Run in Shenandoah National Park –so my decision was made for me. (Oh, if only the online dating self-selection process worked as painlessly.)

Last Wednesday night, I signed up, paid the $23 fee. And then I started to fret. As an introvert – an outgoing introvert but an introvert nonetheless  – was I about to dive into a pool of smalltalk whose waters would drown me in moments? And these people seemed so, I don’t know, prepared. The hike leaders not only had posted a map of the hike on the Meetup page but also had gone a pre-hike hike to scout the conditions. What could I possibly have in common with people who both possessed maps and actually used them?

Will you look at this? Color-coded and everything. It's almost like they don't want to get lost.

Will you look at this? Color-coded and everything. It’s almost like they don’t want to get lost.

I found reassurance as I read about the hike on the site:

We will also have refreshments after the hike – beers $2, sodas $1, chips free.

It’s hard not to like any group that understands the importance of beer in the post-hike nutritional regimen. Then, one of the hike leaders called to say “hi” and do some basic due diligence, something the lawyer in me appreciated.

Still, when I woke up Saturday morning, I waffled. As an introvert, I sometimes find it tough to summon the energy to insert myself in a group of total strangers, even ones who like to hike. What if they were all old friends, or just a cluster of couples in disguise or, heaven forbid, “partners in crime“? I reminded myself that this outing offered the best possible scenario for an introvert: an opportunity to meet new people but with the option to break out and hike in relative solitude amid the group if I wanted to. The only forced togetherness would happen on the bus ride to and from the trailhead.

I loaded my backpack with the essentials – water and peanut M&Ms -set off for the rendezvous point at the Vienna Metro, and hoped for the best.

For the second time in six months, I hadn’t set my outing-related hopes nearly high enough. At the Vienna Metro, I fell into an easy conversation with a young woman who’d just moved here from Richmond and a guy my age who’s a local. The three of us didn’t find seats together on the bus, so I grabbed an open seat next to a man from Germany. I introduced myself and asked if he’d done any other Meetups with this group. Before long, we were sharing hiking experiences, travel stories (including my recent, yet-to-be-written-about trip to Italy with Mom), family tales, and philosophies about aging. Instead of drowning in small talk, I was enjoying a contented float in deep conversational water.

And so it went on the hike, too. The group split naturally into mini-groups that morphed over the course of the day. I walked for a time with Mitch–a kind, good-humored type and one of the two hike leaders–and then with Lorraine, a long-time Club member. She’s about my age and similarly situated socially, so we spent at least three miles talking about the ups and downs of dating as Women of Uncertain Age in D.C. After a lunch break, where the 7-mile people went one way and the 11-milers another, I fell in next to Fabi. As soon as I discovered she’s from Venezuela, ours became a bilingual hike that covered turf that ranged from politics to the economy and architecture. Before I knew it, we’d reached a clearing and saw Mitch, which meant our hike had ended.

I was almost sad about it, but a post-hike happy hour by the bus- the only place I know where you can buy a good IPA for $2 – perked me right up. Shortly thereafter, my German seatmate and I took up our previous posts and picked right up where we left off. By the time the bus pulled into the Vienna Metro, we’d talked about careers, millennials and comedy, and we hadn’t come close to running out of material.

Hiking with the Club exceeded every expectation I had. Despite the fact that they never even came close to getting lost, I think they’re my people after all. And they certainly gave me fresh cause to celebrate my independence.





A few pearls of wisdom, Yank-ed straight from the strand

People sometimes refer to my father as “a character.” The label probably fits, since he’s given me plenty of writing material, along with a book title. But I’ve also come to appreciate both him and Mom as unheralded fonts of wisdom. (On reading this, I bet the two of them will smack their foreheads: Forty-five years of sacrifice and they get one laudatory line in a blog. Not even a T-shirt.)

In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to cull through the various pieces of advice Dad has given me over the years and share five of my favorites:

  • “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” This sounds like an invitation to make rash decisions, but it wasn’t. It was Dad’s call to action any time we kids found ourselves frozen at the precise moment when a swift move was needed. On one such occasion, our family of six had gone crabbing on a brackish creek below an unused bridge in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Crabbing required nothing more than string, raw chicken, and a long-handled net, so it was a budget-friendly activity and we loved it. On the day in question, my parents had set us up with long pieces of string, a chicken part tied tightly at one end of each piece. With the string properly baited, all we kids had to do was hang on to the un-baited end and toss the chicken towards the water. Two measly steps– hang on, and toss –that’s all we had to remember. Yet one of us somehow forgot Step 1, causing the chicken to careen gracelessly through the air, hit the water with a resounding smack, and then sink, destined to become an all-you-can-eat buffet for our prey unless Dad managed to scoop it out. Like a surgeon who must keep his eyes glued to the patient, my father had to keep a bead on the sinking fowl. This meant someone had to hand him the net, and fast. Unlike a surgeon, Dad used something considerably louder than an Operating Theater Voice when he asked us to get him the net. The net, being no dummy, always chose moments like this to disappear. The four of us might have too, had panic not rooted us to our spots like 200 year-old redwoods. Soon we heard, “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” One of us, probably Suzi, snapped to attention and got the net. (I know it wasn’t me because I’m pretty sure I’m the one who forgot the “hang on” part.) I haven’t gone crabbing in a while, but that advice comes back to me whenever I need to be reminded that the regret of inaction will haunt me more than a mistake. It usually works, once I stop laughing.
  • Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” When I was a kid, this one cracked me up because it made no sense at all. Dad grew up on a farm in small-town Pennsylvania, so maybe he saw the occasional bear. We, on the other hand, lived in Springfield, Virginia, and even your most navigationally challenged bear was not inclined to roam the D.C. suburbs. We were carnivores, yes, but we stuck to beef, chicken and pork. I soon learned that saying was just Dad’s way of acknowledging that sometimes things don’t work out, a useful corollary to “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” Though I can’t speak for my siblings, I’ve given more than a few bears a case of indigestion.
  • “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” My father loves baseball and, as the coach of an American Legion team for over 25 years, has dispensed this piece of advice to his players (including my brother) hundreds of times. I’ve come to view it as not just the foundation for a winning offensive strategy but also a good metaphor. You don’t get an infinite number of at-bats, whether on the diamond or in life, and you have no control over pitch selection, so try not to waste the juicy ones.
  • “You know you can call it off if you want to.” In 1995, I was engaged to be married and living with my parents to save money. I had dated my fiancé for four years –we’d lived together for one of those –and an argument we had about careers had exposed larger, crucial conflicts we couldn’t resolve. I didn’t know how I felt about the relationship or our future. Yet the venue was already booked, a dress had been bought, and invitations were about to go out, so what could I do? Canceling it didn’t seem like an option. Soap opera characters did that sort of thing all the time but I didn’t know anyone in real life who had. As the days passed, my stress increased and I took up running as a way to deal with it. My parents didn’t say much about my new habit, so I figured they thought nothing of it. When I returned from a run one December afternoon and sat on the couch to catch my breath, Dad lowered the newspaper he was reading, looked at me, and said, “You know you can call it off if you want to.” And then he went right back to reading the paper. He’d been paying attention, all right. With a single sentence, Dad made sure I understood my happiness trumped lost venue deposits, a beautiful but useless dress, and the embarrassment of admitting I’d made a huge mistake. This episode and those words sprang to mind again in 2011 and gave me the encouragement I needed to end my ruinous marriage to the Lawnmower.
  • “That’s why you work.” This one’s a comparatively recent entry. When we were kids, we often heard Dad say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I took this to mean we should plan and save, something he and Mom excelled at. Making a single government salary stretch as far as those two did required serious skills in either gratification delay or money laundering. And I doubt it was the latter, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to wait until retirement to do all of their traveling. I was unaware of it at the time, but they made (and still make) enormous sacrifices for us because they, like most parents, want us to live better than they did. Since all four of us seem to be doing okay, Dad now encourages us to enjoy some of our earnings in the moment, responding to my Costa Rica trip announcement with a smile and a hearty, “That’s why you work.” Yep, Dad, that’s why. And also because it doesn’t grow on trees.

Happy Father’s Day to a true all-star, a Hall of Famer, and a legend in all the ways that matter. We love you, Dad!


The audit that didn’t make me feel like I’d been taken to the cleaners

Sometimes the best way to deal with a healthy fear is to confront it, which is why I decided to volunteer to be audited a few months ago. The agents who paid me a visit came not from the IRS but from DC Style Factory, and they didn’t care if I had my financial house in order: they’d come to examine the state of my closet.

I’d met Rosana Vollmerhausen, the company’s founder, and Jennifer Barger, one of the stylists and a fashion journalist, months earlier when the two were guests on Women of Uncertain Age. After watching them give gentle, constructive advice to a dude on how to dress for a date, Philippa and I invited them to critique two of my first-date outfits. I learned during those episodes that their approach is not to change your style, but rather to help you present the best version of your style, whatever it might be. During that episode, they dispensed so much great advice (no square-toed flats! Or shrugs that make you look like a matador!), and so gently, that I knew I would be in good hands. The website offers this description of the audit process:

We help weed out items that are outdated, worn out, don’t fit, or simply don’t work in your life anymore. We talk about body type, silhouette and lifestyle, to properly organize your closet so you can put together outfits with more ease. We also compile a list of missing wardrobe essentials, which can be purchased on your own, or with our guidance.

I knew I needed all of that, yet I still dreaded it. Letting someone see everything in your closet can reveal a lot, and in my case I worried it would hint strongly that I’m not actually a sighted person. I also feared having to admit something many have long suspected: my mother still dresses me. (It’s true. Unlike me, Mom enjoys shopping and stays reasonably current with fashion.) I’d have felt less exposed handing these women a decade worth of tax records.

I decided to do a pre-appointment purge. Like a patient trying to erase years of neglect by going on a flossing spree two days before seeing the dentist, I knew I had little chance of fooling a trained eye, but it seemed worth a shot.

When Rosana and Jen came to my home, they kicked things off with a brief interview.

Jen asked what I viewed as my biggest fashion challenge and I said, “Apathy.”

They laughed, but I wasn’t kidding. Though I care about my appearance, I can’t muster up much excitement about clothes. If someone forced me to subject my closet to the Marie Kondo theory of decluttering –get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy” — I just might wind up a streaker.

On asking where I shop, Jen and Rosana couldn’t have been surprised to learn that I tend to land at places like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. I realize those stores are often a year behind, trend-wise, but that’s never bothered me. We legal types are not exactly known for being fashion-forward. The most prominent members of our profession wear robes to work, for heaven’s sake. Black robes, yes, but robes nonetheless.

On wrapping up the interview, it was time to face the moment of truth and get into the closet. Unlike the hosts of What Not To Wear, DC Style Factory doesn’t wage a war on your wardrobe. They take more of a hearts-and-minds approach that involves pulling items from your closet, having you try them on, and asking, “What about this?”

Some of the things they saw in my closet probably made them want to ask, “What were you thinking?”, like the dress yoga pants I bought a few months ago, but they didn’t. (They probably know dress yoga pants are just the gateway garments to black robes.) They truly wanted to know what I liked about the things I wear.

If I said I’d kept an item for its sentimental value, they put it right back in the closet and never once did they seem to be fighting the impulse to say, “Wow! I haven’t seen anyone wear that since ‘Friends’ went into syndication!” They offered candid feedback but did so without snark and with such care that it didn’t feel personal.

I also learned “What about this?” wasn’t a rhetorical question whose only answer was, “It’ll look great at the bottom of a Hefty bag!” Sometimes they wanted me to keep something I was ready to toss, like a textured black suit Mom had bought me many years earlier.

“The skirt can go, but let’s take a look at that jacket,” Jen said. It never occurred to me to evaluate the two elements of a suit separately. Having grown up in the era of Garanimals, I viewed business suits as the fashion equivalent of Siamese twins, a package you can’t separate unless you really know what you’re doing. But sure enough, that jacket looked fantastic with some of the tops in my closet, and it definitely karen1 karen2classed up and modernized my skinny jeans. Never did I imagine my old clothes could somehow produce new outfits.

While Jen focused on the search-and-rescue mission, Rosana was busy re-folding clothes and otherwise organizing my closet, an invaluable service unto itself. Jen took the items I decided to discard and packaged them up for donation to Goodwill. A few days later, I received a memo summarizing my style and my challenges, as well as a shopping list recommending, among other things, that I consider owning more than three pair of non-athletic shoes.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I turned myself in to the fashion police. Instead of judging me for my misdemeanors, they showed me that a few small changes could add up to meaningful reform. Now let’s see if I can avoid being a repeat offender.






Finding a way to pitch, even when all you want to do is hurl

Last Saturday, I went to Books Alive!, the Washington Independent Book Review’s annual conference.

The conference featured an impressive lineup of panels with publishers and renowned authors, but what really got my attention was the opportunity to spend five minutes pitching to as many as four agents: the writing equivalent of speed dating. I decided to adopt an analogous mindset by having high hopes, low expectations, and a very thick skin.

Unfortunately, I woke up that Friday with vertigo, a new and incapacitating experience. I spent the day in bed, unable to work on my pitch and questioning whether I’d even be able to attend the conference.

While prone, I busted out the Google long enough to read about a home remedy called the Epley Maneuver.  I called my sister Lynne, who has experienced every nausea trigger known to man at least once and has had vertigo so many times she’s a verti-pro. Of course she knew about the maneuver. It involves lying on a flat surface with your head hanging over the edge and having someone take it, twist it to certain angles, and hold it there in an effort to shake something loose, literally. During our childhood, my sister and I were on the constant lookout for opportunities to do something like this to each other (and we needed no medical provocation whatsoever). But when I asked Lynne to Epley me, she didn’t sound excited in the least. Some would view this as a sign that our relationship has matured, but not me. I knew it meant the Epley must be God-awful.

She came over on Friday afternoon and maneuvered me right in my kitchen. After the five-minute protocol, I felt like a hostage at the Magic Kingdom Mad Tea Party. On regaining my bearings, I felt better, but it was short-lived.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, the room had stopped spinning but I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to pitch so much as hurl.  Yet I’d spent $250 on registration fees and didn’t want to squander that or my first chance to talk to an agent in person about my writing, so I decided to give it a shot. In an act of kindness, the Universe scheduled three of my pitches in the morning and a fourth after lunch. Before the first group session began, I met up with my friend and writing pal, Kathy, and she convinced me to power through for as long as I could. I made it through an informative panel about publishing, as well as a great session about conspiracy theory by Stephen Hunter. (In case you’re wondering, he speaks the way he writes– with simple, rich language and lots of great words like “imbue”–and he offered an important pointer to all the fiction writers out there: you get one coincidence per book. That’s it. No wonder I write nonfiction: I average at least two coincidences per story.)

For a few minutes out of each session, I left to pitch. I soon learned the speed-dating analogy fit, down to the tiny tables bearing number signs and a “time’s up!” bell.

Some view introducing your writing to an agent and yourself to a speed-dater as very personal encounters, but I’ve come to believe neither is. In both scenarios, the participants get a mere glimpse into the other person before making a go/no-go decision. That’s rarely long enough for anyone to take what happens too personally. And because most people have experienced rejection at some point in their lives, they usually try to be nice, no matter which seat they’re sitting in. Usually.

I pitched to three agents, whom I’ll call A1, A2, and A3, before handing Kathy my fourth slot and going home. I had prepared two separate pitches, one for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing, and another for my book-in-progress.  The B-I-P is not in manuscript form yet, so I sought only feedback about whether I was on the right track, whereas I hoped to land Good Luck with an agent who’d want to re-launch it. I planned to choose my pitch based on the agent’s specialty.

I pitched the B-I-P to A1 and A3. They listened attentively, asked questions, and delivered honest, constructive feedback with kindness. It felt like a halfway decent speed-date, the writing equivalent of “I’ll call you.” If they thought I had wasted their time, they didn’t let it show.

The same could not be said of A2, to whom I intended to pitch Good Luck.

A2 dismissed that pitch with contempt and speed, asking after six seconds why I would waste our time together with that. I nearly asked A2 to pause so I could order a can of varnish, but I decided just to forge ahead with the B-I-P pitch. After all, I’d paid for this detonated bomb of a speed-date, so I wasn’t about to let anybody crawl out from under the wreckage until we’d both suffered for the full five minutes.

For four more minutes, A2 torched the B-I-P pitch, to which I responded with effusive, possibly aggressive, expressions of gratitude, like, “That’s fantastic feedback!” and “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this!”

I actually did appreciate it, even if the brand of rejection A2 served up was as appetizing as a dish my mother once made called “shipwreck.” I treated this heap of uninviting contents the way I did shipwreck: I mined it search of the good bits I knew lurked inside it. I’ve gathered those, added them to the other feedback I’ve accumulated, and am using it to improve my writing.

So, I’m glad I went to the conference and tossed out a few pitches. The experience reinforced my conviction that you can’t go into it, or speed-dating, with a fragile sense of self or in pursuit of validation. If you approach it instead with confidence in who you are and the humility that comes from knowing not everyone will love you, then a bit of rejection won’t send you staggering. That’s what your vertigo is for.

Wish I could've had Dad pinch-hit for me in the afternoon. He'd have loved this lineup!

Wish I could’ve had Dad pinch-hit for me in the afternoon. He’d have loved this lineup!






RIP, Prince: In this life, we’re on our own

Prince was right: life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last. But he had hosted one of the most impressive, inspiring, weird, imaginative, wonderful, come-as-you-are parties this world will ever see, and it should have lasted far longer than 57 years. 

On Thursday afternoon, I had given a talk about careers to my nephews’ marketing class at Glen Allen High School (now there’s a tough room). The looks on the kids’ faces, the questions they asked, the undercurrents that ran between them, all of it left me reflecting on how difficult the high school years can be and how I’d never want to repeat them. That thought was at the front of my mind when I glanced at my phone and saw that a friend had tweeted the news of Prince’s passing. I couldn’t bring myself to absorb the words, no matter how many times I read them.

Like millions of people, I was a Prince fan. I appreciated him as a true musical genius, a prodigy, a prolific and never-derivative creator, a gifted songwriter, a bender of genres, a guitar virtuoso who mastered literally dozens of other instruments, and a possessor of one of the highest talent-per-pound ratios of all time.

Music lost a titan when Prince died. And I lost someone who wrote in indelible ink on the pages of my adolescence.

My first concrete Prince memory was formed in 1984, when I was a terribly un-cool seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School. A school dance loomed large, and though I wanted to go (or at least wanted to want to go), the knowledge that I didn’t know how to dance terrified me. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could admit to my mother, and she couldn’t have done a thing about it anyway. Mom was, and is, a fantastic dancer, but she knew dances like the Twist and the Mashed Potato. I couldn’t see the Mashed Potato playing a role in my first middle school dance unless I happened to trample an errant tater tot on the cafeteria floor.

My then-best friend, Liz, must have had similar fears because we somehow wound up deciding to confront them by practicing some dance moves with her sister and her mom in their living room. Despite the safety of the environment, I hesitated to move. And then “Let’s Go Crazy” –a dance commandment if ever there were one –came on and I was heeding it before I even knew what I was doing. For four glorious minutes, I rose above my self-consciousness and felt cool. That’s what Prince’s music was: a force strong enough to make even the most awkward teenager let go of the walls to which she clung and let loose on a dance floor. And that’s who Prince was: someone who could make anyone feel cool, even if only for four minutes at a time. He wore his weird on the outside, issuing the world an invitation to treat uniqueness as a source of pride rather than shame. Long before he wrote a lyric that’s now comically dated about not needing to watch “Dynasty” to have an attitude, his music, his unclassifiable and ever-changing aesthetic, and his very purpleness had made that point with eloquence. 

After reading the news, I got into my car last Thursday, turned on the radio and was greeted by a barrage of Prince songs. I wasn’t ready for it. Complex, emotional, evocative, and passionate, Prince’s music was all about life and living, and in that moment, I couldn’t access any of that. All I had was numbness. I lasted only seconds before I turned it off. I needed comfort, so I turned to Shel, an incomparable friend, the biggest Prince fan I’ve ever met, and the person who made it possible for me to see him live three electrifying times. (She also gave me this fantastic door decoration.)


Shel was taking it harder than I was and understood perfectly my unwillingness to approach Prince’s music in a state of emotional paralysis. That music is so remarkable, funky, and resplendent that I didn’t want to hear it until I could bring it some of the joy it deserved.

On instinct, I reached out to my brother next. I didn’t remember ever talking to him about Prince–L.J. is four years my junior so his adolescence probably featured a different soundtrack — but music affects the two of us in such similar ways and to such a deep extent that I felt certain he would get it. I sent a one-line text: “I’m heartbroken about Prince.”

“Me too…This hits me harder than it should,” he wrote.

For the next two days, I kneaded this sense of loss I didn’t entirely understand. I traded texts with Shel and L.J., and that helped. My brother put it well when, after watching Prince’s star turn with the Muppets, he noted that only Prince could write a song about breakfast that would top the charts musically. Though otherworldly in so many ways, Prince somehow belonged everywhere he went, whether it was the set of the Muppets, a rain-soaked stage at the Super Bowl, or the interviewee chair on “Larry King Live.”

While riding the stationary bike at the gym on Saturday and still unable to immerse myself in Prince’s music, I re-watched that Larry King interview from 1999. Prince made a comment that he didn’t like to look back or reminisce, and that really stuck with me. Though I enjoy thinking about the future and have a healthy sense of optimism, I love to reminisce and re-live. How could someone who’s produced such musical brilliance as “1999” not want to gaze back on it in wonderment? The answer hit me while I was out walking the next day: for a creative genius of Prince’s magnitude, maybe the idea of an apex didn’t even exist. Maybe he, unlike most of us, never felt tempted to scan the past and freeze it on achievements and moments of perfection because he knew he had plenty ahead of him. Prince was nowhere near done and he wasn’t ever going to be done. Death simply stopped him, and I’m still having trouble accepting that. 

I think I need to feel sorry for myself for a few more days. And maybe then I’ll be able to act my age, not my shoe size.

Celebrating 50 Years of Team Yank with a 21-Fun Salute

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on April 16.

Fifty years of marriage —600 months –is a big deal. A very big deal. I can’t begin to comprehend such a feat, especially considering my marriage to the Lawnmower lasted two percent as long. My siblings and I were determined to make a very big deal of this very big deal. We booked a private room at Fireworks, a cool pizza and craft brew joint in Arlington, for a celebratory Team Yank dinner and invited Mom and Dad’s siblings to join us.

I woke up on the morning of the party feeling an odd mix of emotions: unadulterated joy for my parents on reaching this milestone, gratitude to them for showing us that people and love matter most of all, nostalgia for our years together as a family, and an unrealistic but understandable desire to hold on to all of this, and them, forever. As I drove to my parents’ house to spend some pre-party time with my brother and his family, those emotions formed a swell of sentiment that threatened to crest. To stay ahead of the wave, I cranked up a few of my favorite Earth Wind and Fire songs, and that got me to my parents’ house. The Roommates happened to be there too, a sight that never fails to improve my mood.

An hour and a half later, I was wrapping up my visit and getting ready to run some party-related errands and Emily, who may have detected that swell of emotions rising up in her aunt, said, “Can I come with you?”

As we got in the car, I told her she’d made my day. The minute we backed out of the driveway, we lowered the windows, opened the sunroof, and fired up our favorite tunes in preparation for a rolling dance party. We hit our stride twenty minutes later when she cued up “Walkin’ on Sunshine,” complete with air guitars and arms-through-the-open-roof dance moves. I was feeling so sunny I almost didn’t mind having to go to Michael’s: we needed a frame for one of the gifts we’d gotten my parents. Emily, who is Arts and Crafts people, was elated about this pit stop, so I didn’t feel guilty about using her as a human shield as we entered the store.  We knocked out our task in short order and had a little extra time, so I told her to pick something out for herself.

In a move that just might land her a spot on our Peeps squad next year, she asked, “Can I get a glue gun?”

Off we went, me carrying a frame and Emily concealed-carrying some Elmer’s. When we got to my house, we assembled the gift, grabbed the fancy gold wrapping paper I’d bought and some tape, threw it all in a bag, and Uber’d over to the restaurant. We got everything set up and needed only to wrap the gift. That job required the perfection of my sister Suzi, but I knew when she arrived she’d be busy setting up a cake she had decorated (flawlessly, no doubt). I decided to give it my best shot. I put Emily in charge of handing me pieces of tape, a job she performed admirably. The super-fancy paper I’d bought, however, seemed repulsed by a pedestrian adhesive like scotch tape. We couldn’t get it to stick, no matter what we did.

Emily’s eyes met mine and I said what she had to be thinking, “Get the glue gun.” As the two of us hot-glued wrapping paper seams together, I noted that such a thing would never happen to Aunt Suzi.

“I know, right?” Em said. “I just wish she’d make a mistake sometime.” We finished the job just as Suzi was coming in with her perfect cake. Shortly thereafter, the aunt/uncle contingent arrived, followed by the rest of my siblings and their families, and then, to round out our 21-person gang, my parents.

My Aunt Kate, who is no slouch in the Fun Aunt department, sent my parents out of the room and closed the door so she could give them a proper wedding-style introduction like they got 50 years ago. Mom and Dad pranced in, arm-in-arm, and took a few twirls around our tiny dance floor. The party had begun.

After we’d all stuffed ourselves with delicious Italian fare, my siblings and I got the official program underway. We had decided that each person would share a favorite memory or story, and that my brother would give a toast at the end. We planned to go in order from oldest kid to youngest, but we didn’t coordinate our remarks with each other at all. I looked forward to my siblings’ stories. Though we have close relationships with each other and our parents, each of those relationships is a little bit different, and I love getting a glimpse into what they look like.

Suzi reminisced about the years in high school during which she had to sell citrus fruit as part of a fundraiser. Because Suzi’s always had a real knack for sales, for a few weeks every fall our home looked like a Tropicana warehouse. My father would spend hours driving her around, helping her deliver pound upon pound of fruit. Then Suzi mentioned my mother’s willingness to do absolutely anything for her kids and grandkids, including dropping everything a decade ago to help my sister out on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Philly and New York with Suzi’s three boys.

Lynne took a slightly different tack. Known as the “feisty” one when we were kids, she told a hilarious story about a doubles tennis match with my father gone seriously awry. Though she and Dad didn’t win that day, at least she, unlike me, managed not to bean her parental tennis partner in the back of the head. Lynne also talked about how my parents never lose sight of the little things that make us feel loved. In Lynne’s case, one of those little things is liverwurst, which my parents always keep in the fridge for her. (Maybe it’s just me, but if liverwurst is an act of love, I’d hate to see a show of hostility.) She also reminded us that, fifteen years ago, when Lynne had broken her arm and I had come down with bronchitis, Mom launched her own Meals On Wheels program, loading Dad up with tortellini soup for delivery to me and Lynne.

The stories my sisters told led precisely to the point I intended to make: even though Mom and Dad were a “them” long before the rest of us showed up, my parents have never, ever been about them. As I was making that point, that wave of emotions, which had continued to gather momentum all afternoon, got fully organized and swamped me. I pieced myself back together sufficiently to talk about how we get only tiny reminders of Mom and Dad as a “them,” such as when I watched them dance at my cousin’s wedding two summers ago. Or when they decided to go to Alaska in the summer of 2014 and I joined them, wanting to take in the “them” and their enjoyment. I will never forget the experience of riding in a small plane with them, landing on a glacier (on purpose, don’t worry), and actually setting foot on it. I watched the two of them stare in slack-jawed awe and I listened as they reveled in nature’s magnificence. They were right, it was astonishing, but to me the real natural wonders were the two of them and what they built together. As I was finishing my story, that infernal wave pummeled me again so I handed things over to L.J.

My brother began by sketching out memories in broad strokes, like the gift-laden Christmas mornings that began so early they were really still Christmas Eves, and our annual week-long vacations in the Outer Banks. Then L.J. talked about his baseball career, which my father nurtured at all points, first by hitting countless flies after work and on Sunday mornings after church, and then, when my brother went to Georgia Tech on a full athletic scholarship, telling my brother to leave him a ticket for games “in case I can make it.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that my father made it, every single time, sometimes even with Mom and always with her help. When L.J. reached the minor leagues – a place where dreams are big and salaries small –Dad handed him a literal blank check, something I never knew. And my brother had kept it all these years. As L.J. held it up, it seemed the same wave that hit me might have splashed onto him just a little bit too.

At last it was time for the toast, which reminded all of us that my brother handles words even more expertly than he does a baseball. He mentioned that Team Yank, which may not have won every game over the past 50 years but has a very solid record, has the attributes of the all-time great teams, like chemistry, strong fundamentals, and passion. He quoted Babe Ruth, who said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” That’s Team Yank in a nutshell: we love to play together, and when we do, we’re at our collective and individual best. Then we raised a glass to the greatest team any of us could ever hope to play on.

The party ended there but the story does not. Suzi and her family were staying with me, so we loaded up their car with all the leftovers. My brother-in-law drove so Suzi could sit in the passenger seat and hold the remaining half of that perfectly decorated cake on the ride home. We pulled into my driveway and I opened the car door just in time to hear a sound that looked just like this:

busted cake

The Cake Splat: No, of course it couldn’t have landed on the box, silly!

I couldn’t decide whether to call Emily or to get a piece of chalk so I could draw an outline around the cake where it died. It is perhaps fitting that four of us spent the waning moments of April 16 doing what Team Yank does best: laughing hysterically while batting cleanup.

team Yank parmesan

All 21 of us, in varying states of saying “Parmesan!” Sometimes plain ol’ “cheese” works best…





Not everybody can be somebunny

Following the likes of Adele and other great talents who take the occasional break from the limelight, I let someone else be the neighborhood Easter Bunny last year. Whereas Adele spent her time writing songs for an album that would go on to sell millions, I’d spent mine at Page After Page bookstore in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, hoping Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing would go on to sell hundreds. Okay, fine, tens.

Before going out on mascot sabbatical last year, I at least did the neighborhood the favor of upgrading the suit. At the risk of insulting the old costume, it definitely explains why we sometimes refer to clothes as “duds.” When I agreed to return to rabbit form for the annual egg hunt this past Saturday, I was looking forward to wearing a suit that didn’t have a demented face and eyeballs that might go airborne at the first hint of a breeze.

As Saturday approached, my excitement was tempered with a touch of nerves. Change is difficult for a mascot of my stature, and I knew this would be a transition year for reasons beyond the new suit: my previous handler and chauffeur, Sue, had taken herself out of the lineup this year. The departure of this talented veteran left me with vacancies at two key positions. I conducted an extensive search that consisted of combing my family’s ranks for members who are especially susceptible to bribes. The Roommates would have been my top choice, if only either of them had a driver’s license. I had to settle for my parents instead, and I bought them off with an early morning trip to see the Cherry Blossoms and then breakfast afterwards. What Mom and Dad lacked in tenure, they made up for with enthusiasm, probably because I’d pumped them full of caffeine during breakfast.

The event organizers and I had agreed that I would appear at the annual egg hunt at 10:10 a.m, so at 9:55, I put on the new suit. I noticed a major difference in quality immediately. Suit 2.0 was made of much sturdier stuff than the original, which increased its heft, along with my chances of suffocating inside of it. Not only was it hotter than the first suit, but the air holes, if there were any, did not come close to aligning with my mouth or nose.

As I frantically adjusted the head, Mom said, “There’s something wrong with the mouth.”

“You mean because there’s no air passing through it?” I said, gasping for breath as I yanked it off.

“No,” she said. “It looks funny.”

I was about to chastise her for prioritizing aesthetics over the threat of asphyxiation, but when I turned the head around to study the face, I had to agree: that rabbit looked truly down in the mouth, particularly on one side. He sported an expression I knew only too well, one that says, “I just had a root canal and won’t be able to feel the right half of my face for a week.” I began to worry about being the first mascot ever to drool.

Mom and I tried to turn that half-frown upside-down, but we couldn’t even coax it to lay flat. On realizing we were running out of time, Mom re-capitated me, and then she and Dad loaded me into the car. We’d been so caught up in fixing my face that I’d forgotten to tell my mother what to do. Since we had only a 90-second drive to the park, I gave her two simple instructions: 1. Keep me from maiming myself; and 2. Keep me from maiming small children. The last thing I needed was to trample a kid and touch off a Pamplona-style toddler stampede.

As she guided me into the park, Mom told me the egg hunt was in full swing. Because of the suit’s limited visibility, I usually rely on the sound of screams to tell me we’ve reached the spot where most of the kids are congregated. But this year I heard no evidence of children in distress. Instead, I heard only my mother’s ground report, which relayed the improbable news that kids were actually trying to get closer to me.

As they came up, most kids gave me a hug (including the stalker from my first year. I’m flattered that she’s still carrying a torch.). Several handed me their plastic eggs and one kid gave me a Hershey’s kiss. I showed my heartfelt appreciation for these gifts by grinning uselessly inside the suit and then either missing the delivery or dropping every item that was placed in my mitts.

Chillin' with my chauffeur

Chillin’ with my chauffeur

I was so surprised by this outpouring of affection that I didn’t realize anything was amiss with my costume until Mom said, “Wheat, you gotta get your head screwed on straight.” She’d probably been waiting 40 years for the perfect opening to give me that piece of advice. As usual, she was right: the Easter Bunny had the kind of head/body alignment problem no chiropractor could fix.

“I felt like I was in ‘The Exorcist,'” Mom said afterwards.

Thirty minutes and several gallons of sweat later, my handler guided me back to the car. She and my chauffeur agreed the appearance had been a huge success. I reflected on what caused this year’s unexpected surge in little kid affection and decided it was not my superior skills so much as sympathy. If mascot magnetism depends not on flashing a megawatt smile but in looking like you’ve survived dental trauma, I’ll be glad to host the pity party again next year.



I might be a little down in the mouth, but the kids are all right.