Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

You never forget your first apartment…

I’ve been thinking about my first Big Girl apartment a lot lately.
I rented that place, a one-bedroom unit at the Dolley Madison Apartments complex in McLean, in the Spring of 1997, after I’d ended an engagement and before I’d thought of applying to law school or even knew what a tort was. Until then, I’d been living with my parents and saving money so my then-fiancé and I could start our new life together on decent financial footing. As soon as I realized I didn’t want that relationship, or that life anymore, I decided to start my own life in my own apartment.
I paid $800 a month for 800 square feet of garden-style living. At the time, I was earning an entry-level salary as a Spanish language interpreter for the federal government, and was able to afford the place only because the first month was free. Yet it still seemed a small price to pay for a lot of independence. My apartment was nothing to write home about architecturally, but it had a stacked washer/dryer right in the unit and a balcony, two features that lent it a more grown-up feel than the apartments I’d rented with friends in college. And unlike one of my college rentals, I never had to contemplate flea-bombing this place.
Because I had no income to dispose of, my friends and family donated nearly every piece of furniture in that apartment. I had my recently deceased Nana’s country-style kitchen table, my friend Marvin’s futon sofa, my parents’ Archie Bunker-style recliner, and the dresser from my childhood bedroom. If those items wanted for luxury, they more than compensated for it by making me feel loved and comfortable.
I had also gotten a cat to keep me company in case I got lonely. T.C., a fully-grown Maine Coon with a smoker’s voice that he used liberally, was a big, loud, affectionate, lump of fur. Part dog and part Elvis, he loved butter, biscuits, sausage, and drinking from the toilet. A couch potato, he made what I called “impact noises” every time he completed the two-foot leap from futon to carpet, as if encountering solid ground were a continual, and not altogether pleasant, surprise. T.C. kept me company and kept me in stitches, except for the time he caught fire (please, don’t tell me your pet hasn’t set itself ablaze a time or two). Because that just stunk. Literally.
Though I had T.C.’s constant companionship, I didn’t want to spend too much time at home. I envisioned leading a social life similar to that of the single heroines in the sitcoms I spent way too much time watching as a kid. In an effort to maximize my going out budget, I bought groceries on the cheap. I shopped the sales and tried to emulate my mom’s coupon-clipping skills, though I usually presented expired coupons or forgot the blasted things altogether. I thought nothing of eating cereal for dinner, although most nights found me on a date, meeting friends for happy hour or dinner, or embarking on a long night in D.C. (In fact, if law school enrollment hadn’t intervened, I might still be driving around Adams Morgan, looking for parking.)
Every now and then, I invited someone over for dinner, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t actually know how to cook anything. Mom had helped me fake my way through a meal with a foolproof recipe from the High Museum of Art cookbook (never mind that nothing that came out of my kitchen belonged in the same sentence as the word “art”). And I trusted myself to assemble a salad competently, but everything else came out of a box or bag. No matter how it all turned out, we always had fun.
Twenty years later, I have a better job, a nicer house –my washer and dryer are side by side, thank you very much –and I no longer cook from a box, yet lately I find myself longing for my days at Dolley Madison.
One need not to be a psychologist to understand why: I’m not reaching back for the balcony, the stackable appliances, or the recliner. (Okay, maybe the recliner, because I’d take that thing back in a heartbeat.) I’m pining for a time when my days were mainly about having fun. The days when I barely knew what Parkinson’s Disease was, much less that it would hit my family. The days when 9/11 wasn’t loaded with sad significance, and when it seemed like people just got along better. The days when my biggest worry was a triviality like how to rid my apartment of the stench of scorched cat hair.
But I don’t kid myself: I’m well aware those days weren’t necessarily better; they were just simpler for me. Self-absorption and naiveté spared me from knowing too much about what was happening around me and from thinking too hard about what might lurk beneath our country’s seemingly placid surface.
Twenty years of living later, I know more and I pay more attention to the world around me. That knowledge and awareness can feel heavy and exhausting at times (like pretty much everything in middle age does), but I’ve come to believe they are ultimately for the good. Knowledge and awareness can help plant the seeds of change, in yourself and in others. They can make you do things like show up for a women’s march, call your Congresspeople regularly, and use your platform for good.
Knowledge and awareness can also fuel perspective and appreciation. I couldn’t have known twenty years ago, for example, what it would feel like to be an aunt to seven kids. I couldn’t have known that having those kids in my life would be everything, or that I’d care far more about their futures than my own (though it was certainly in my immediate self-interest to instruct my eldest nephew, while we were traveling together in Greece recently, to brush his teeth before breakfasting in public).
Because I know more, I can do more. And I care more. And though I feel a bit tired lately, I’ll get right back to all of the knowing and doing and caring…just as soon as my mind finishes this bowl of cereal and hauls itself out of the recliner.

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

J.J. and I did very little the day after we hiked Samaria Gorge.

“We need a day off” I said. He probably thought I was referring to physical recovery, but I meant mental, too, because we were about to embark on the rental car portion of the program. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond and whose only experience on the roads in Greece consisted of a couple of cab rides, J.J. didn’t know what awaited us, but I did.

When Mom and I went to Greece in 2002, we had rented a car without a worry in the world. We were seasoned veterans of Beltway combat who’d seen it all and knew how to react. A driver cuts you off? Yawn. Tailgates an ambulance to get a few hundred feet ahead? Cast a disgusted glare and move on. Eats tomato soup while steering with their knees? Roll down the window and hurl a grilled cheese at them. We couldn’t be fazed, or so she and I had thought until we picked up our rental car in Athens.

I expected getting out of the city to be tough, and it was — if not for Mom’s calm and stellar navigating skills, we might still be there –but it wasn’t the hard part, it was only a hard part. Driving through the outskirts and into the countryside, where there aren’t highways so much as two-laned roads, I soon learned Americans do shoulders all wrong. In the U.S., we treat the shoulder as a place to pull off and do something, like change a tire or switch drivers. In Greece, it’s the slow lane. Why waste a perfectly viable driving surface? You also need not waste a moment worrying about getting stuck in the slow shoulder. In Greece, you don’t have to commit to one lane-ish or the other at all, you just lazily straddle the two. This leaves plenty of room for motorcycles to pass you on both sides simultaneously. And lines are neither the preferred driving formation nor boundaries painted upon a road: in both cases they’re just suggestions. All of it had taken some getting used to, but by the time Mom and I left, I was almost enjoying it.

I wasn’t sure how J.J. would feel about the driving, but I had no such worries about the car we’d rented: it cracked him up. No wider than his wingspan and just a few inches longer, it had all the sex appeal of a hair dryer, and a far less powerful engine. As I merged us into an amoeba of traffic of downtown Chania, the lack of order left my nephew aghast. I gave a dismissive wave.

“It all works out somehow,” I said, “so get used to it and watch the phone.”

Rarely do you have to tell a modern 18 year-old to pay more attention to an iPhone, but I was depending on that device, and my nephew, for navigation. He couldn’t have guided us on an actual map as Mom did — he, like most of his peers, has no idea how to read one in real time– but the kid knows his way around an iPhone. So I put him in charge of directions and holding down the A/C button, which seemed to believe it had signed up only for shift work.

He did both with calm and aplomb as we made our way out of Chania and toward Knossos, home of ancient Minoan ruins. Though only 150 km away, the drive involves a fair amount of winding and climbing. The car approached these ascents with the alacrity and land speed of a cow, leading us to dub it “Bessie.” Two hours later, J.J., Bessie and I pulled into the parking lot of the ruins.

Said to date back to 7000 B.C., the site draws mixed reviews. On the one hand, you feel real wonder as you walk on stones that remain from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and learn how advanced those ancient civilizations were, as evidenced by water and sanitation IMG_3415 (2)systems. On the other, the early 20th century work of archaeologist Arthur Evans included not just excavations but elaborate reconstructions of the palace as he imagined it would have been, so it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic. That ruins the ruins for some people, but we knew to take it with a grain of salt, and the controversy seemed to intrigue my nephew. We spent the night in Agia Pelagia, a charming seaside village where we stayed at a hotel that resembled Melrose Place and ate at a restaurant that had what we needed: good tzatziki.

The next day we drove back to Chania. This time we established our base at Agii Apostoli, a pretty beach area about 15 minutes from the center of town. Though the area lacks the charm of old town Chania, our hotel more than made up for it: situated right by the water, its terraces offered gorgeous views and its staff incomparable hospitality, and a refreshing swim in the Sea of Crete awaited mere steps away. During our stay, we also had the good fortune to meet Scott and Jennifer, two wonderful New Yorkers who made a big impression on me and J.J., and about whom I’ll write more later. We could have wiled away our last few days at Agii Apostoli in perfect contentment, yet I wanted to make sure my nephew (and I) didn’t leave Crete without seeing at least two more of the world’s most fabled beaches.

After breakfast the next day, I told one of the hotel staff what I had in mind.

She smiled and said, “Ah, you’re adventurous. This is good!” I hoped to prove her more than half-right. She set me up with a map, snacks, towels and an umbrella, all of which my nephew and I loaded into Bessie as we set out for one more road trip. Two hours and many (many) windy roads later, J.J. and I arrived at Elafonissi beach, whose allegedly pink sands I needed to see for myself. We encountered a crowded parking lot, not my favorite sight, but one look at the beach told us why: it’s dazzling. A swath of crushed shells colors the sand coral as you step into perfect turquoise water. J.J. and I couldn’t get enough of it. When we were’t swimming, we lazed on one of the many rocks that dot the sea, never tiring of watching the water flow over and around us.

Though we could have looked in amazement at the scenery forever, after a few hours we set off for Kendrodasos, a nearby and more remote beach the hotel staff had mentioned. A crow could have flown there in moments but took us more than half an hour. Bessie struggled over dirt ruts meant to pass for roads –what would we do if we blew a tire here? –and then we ditched her to walk the remaining several hundred yards to a beautiful and nearly deserted cove. We laid our towels on low-hanging tree branches and headed straight for the water, which somehow looked even bluer than at Elafonissi. An open water swimmer’s paradise, I once again had to drag us away after a few hours so we could start our trip back. We returned to Agii Apostoli by way of a glorious waterfront meal at Sunset Tavern in Sfinari, a pebbly but lovely beach area. After dinner we paused our drive one last time for a pit stop at Falassarna, yet another famously beautiful shore.

As I was lamenting that we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate it, J.J. said, “I guess we’ll have to come back.” I like the way the kid thinks.

The sun had set by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot. Tired but happy, we agreed that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of Bessie, whom the rental agency picked up the next day.

We didn’t miss the car, having planned to spend our last day on the island enjoying the beautiful beach right in front of us. Instead of going out for lunch, we walked to the mini market at the end of our street and cobbled together a very respectable picnic lunch of bread, feta, cold cuts, olives and tzatziki (what else), which we enjoyed on our terrace in between swim sessions. And then there was our last sunset in Chania, which I could not miss. More than just an everyday miracle, sunsets there are a reliable but ever-changing tableau of orange, pink, magenta, purple and blue. I tried to capture a few of them with my camera, but I just watched the final one, cementing its place in my memory.

As J.J. and I cabbed to the airport the next day, my heart felt heavy. I loved the people, the food, the scenery, and the incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences I shared with my nephew (because who wants to go on a barf-inducing hike twice?), and I didn’t want to leave. Sure, I missed my people at home, but couldn’t they just come and meet us on Crete?

I guess it was too much to ask just then, but here’s hoping that question won’t always be rhetorical.

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

IMG_3205

 

 

Have nephew, will travel (Part I)

Years ago, in a fit of fantastical thinking, I promised each of my nephews and niece a trip for their high school graduation. It was the sort of idea that seemed so far off in time and financial viability that I treated it as a mirage, kinda like my retirement. But late last fall, my nephew J.J.‘s college acceptances started rolling in and I realized the conversion of the trips from dream to reality was not only happening, it was imminent. (My retirement remains a mirage.)

During Yanksgiving, J.J. and I talked possible destinations. Taking into account his love for great scenery, physical activity, and good food, as well as my unwillingness to fly more than 10 hours one way, I offered him three choices: Iceland, Costa Rica, and Greece. I’d never visited Iceland, but Philippa and other friends had, and they assured me it wouldn’t disappoint. I’d been to Costa Rica and Greece, the former in early 2016 and the latter in 2002 when I took a post-bar exam trip there with Mom, and I had loved them both.

I tried not to weigh in as J.J. debated the possibilities with my sister Suzi, yet I couldn’t help but hope he would choose Greece. The two weeks I spent there in 2002 gave some of my favorite memories ever, such as watching Mom go snorkeling for the first time in her life at age 60 in the Aegean Sea. She and Dad had given me that trip as a law school graduation present, an experience so life-changing it inspired me to do something similar for my niece and nephews. On top of that, Greece played a pivotal role in developing democracy and western civilization as we know it. That last point, and the fact that no country stays on top forever, seemed worth emphasizing at a time when disturbing political chasms have formed in our own country.

“How ’bout Greece?” J.J. said, reading my thought bubbles perfectly.

Before Suzi had a chance to remember that I’ve never chaperoned competently for a day, much less two weeks, I booked an itinerary consisting of two-and-a-half days in Athens, eight days on Crete, two days in London on the way home, and a travel day at each end of the trip. It looked perfect, but I wondered how it would go. My nephew and I love each other, of course, but we’d never spent more than a day or two together at a time, and always with other people around. I encouraged my parents and siblings to warn J.J. about my quirks, and they never got further than my enormous affection for napkins. (They refer to it as an obsession, because they are cave people, but I know it’s just a healthy attachment to the fabric of civilized society.) No one bothered to tell him I snore, because anyone who’s ever slept within a two-mile radius of me and has functioning ears has already picked up on that.

He packed that knowledge into the one carry-on suitcase I allowed him to bring, and on the evening of June 30, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight at Dulles. Once we settled in to our seats, the flight attended handed out overnight kits containing red-eye essentials: an eye mask, a tiny tube of toothpaste and paper-thin socks.

J.J. looked surprised, as if he’d been honored with a great gift, and said, “I get to keep this?” If this normally nonchalant kid was impressed by an airline freebie worth $0.14, I could hardly wait to see his reaction to the Acropolis.

It was late afternoon on July 1 before we landed in Athens, where a countrywide heatwave made it feel like Hades. I grabbed a taxi to take us downtown, allowing J.J. to experience baptism by cab ride. For 30 minutes we rode in a car that responded to the pressing of the A/C button by sending smoke and hot air through its vents. To distract us from the fact that we were riding in a toaster, our driver kept things exciting on the road: he pulled up to an automated toll gate only to realize his transponder had no funds on it, rocketed backwards and across four lanes of traffic in reverse, and then shot forward to a manned booth. I glanced at my nephew, expecting panic, and saw instead the face of someone trying desperately not to laugh. I knew right then and there we were in for a great trip.

Though exhausted, we summoned enough energy after checking in to our hotel to stroll through Plaka, eat an early dinner –J.J. pronounced his gyro delicious despite the fact that it bore no resemblance to the dish that goes by the same name in the U.S. –and marvel at the nighttime view of the Parthenon from our hotel’s rooftop terrace.

We woke up the next morning on Greek time and spent a lazy Sunday wandering the maze of the Athens flea market, where my nephew was in his element. He never tired of hopping from shop to shop and stalking bargains with the patience of a seasoned predator, unlike his aunt, who’s perfectly happy to shoot the first thing she sees and call it a day. The heat wave still gripped the city, sending temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and forcing the closure of the Acropolis for long stretches of time. We decided to conserve our energy and take a low-key tour of local landmarks by way of a hop-on/hop-off bus that we hopped off exactly once, when it stopped right by our hotel.

The next morning, our last in Athens, dawned a good 10 degrees cooler. It felt downright pleasant as we spent the morning on a food tour, eating our way through the city’s neighborhoods with the help of a local. That afternoon found us with with an archeologist who took us through the incredible Acropolis museum –something that didn’t exist during my and Mom’s trip –and then through the complex itself, offering expert insights along the way. Over dinner that night, J.J. told me he didn’t want to leave: he liked the city’s density, appreciated its sights, and loved the food. Most of all he enjoyed the people, who, though visibly and deeply impacted by a financial crisis with no apparent end, still seem to look for reasons to laugh and who treated us with unwavering warmth. The kid was Paying Attention: he noticed the Greeks put people, and especially family, first.

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I couldn’t pass up the chance to wax philosophical about money and happiness to a kid who’s just beginning to build his life as an adult. I told him I want him to become self-sufficient, of course, but I also hope he won’t be self-centered, and that he’ll make nurturing his relationships just as important as nurturing his career. Because let’s be honest: someone’s gonna have to take care of me when I’m 92.

[To be continued…]

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Plumb loco

I enrolled in a basic plumbing class a few months ago. Offered through Arlington County’s Community Learning program, the three-hour course was designed for homeowners who want to become minimally competent, or at least conversant, in plumbing essentials.

I have no good explanation for my decision to do this now, rather than 15 years ago when I bought my first home. Certainly my plumbing ineptitude has been around at least that long. It may even be in my genes. No offense to my dad, whom I respect and adore, but the entirety of his plumbing knowledge consisted of “jiggle the handle.” He dutifully passed that along to me, but it proved inadequate back in 2007 when tree roots grew into the pipes below my house, resulting in the kind of monumental sewage clog typically associated with Congress. I called Roto-Rooter back then, and I’ve called in the pros pretty much any time something’s gone amiss since.

Calling in the pros has never bothered me –watching Roto Rooter perform a colonoscopy on my house rid me of any desire to learn how to eliminate pipe polyps– but I’ve always wanted a better understanding of what they tell me. It’s like traveling to Italy and wanting to speak Italian not fluently but with enough proficiency to avoid accidentally buying a second class train ticket and, somewhere around Bologna, getting kicked out of your seat and into the aisle, into which you will be forced to squeeze with your luggage and stand for the next three hours, occasionally performing feats of contortion when a beverage cart rolls though, which they do with regularity on every form of Italian transportation. Not that this particular situation ever happened to me, or to my 6’3″ brother, who may or may not have had the misfortune of traveling with me.

Back to the plumbing class, which was scheduled for the evening of August 16, which also happens to be the Lawnmower’s birthday. I don’t have that date written down, mind you, but like the complete lyrics to every song I’ve ever hated, my brain just won’t let me forget it. So the class date wasn’t a great sign, nor was the fact that it was scheduled to last three hours (my childhood addiction to Gilligan’s Island has left me suspicious of any event of that particular duration), but I refused to let either omen deter me.

Which doesn’t mean I read the reference materials the instructor sent ahead of time, even though one of them featured a cute cartoon outhouse. Let’s be honest: even the most appealing graphic will have a hard time getting people excited to read about toilets. I resolved instead to arrive early so I could snag a seat in the back row and hide among what I assumed would be a sizable group of plumbing-challenged homeowners. I also expected mostly women, not because your average guy is a plumbing savant but because the men I know would rather fake it than admit ignorance in a public forum.

On the evening of August 16, I walked into the wood shop ten minutes before the class start time and saw only the instructor, who said, “Hi, I’m Rick. You must be Karen.”

Uh-oh. More disturbing than the loss of anonymity were the possibilities that I was the only student enrolled or I was already notorious in Northern Virginia plumbing circles. Or both. 

I asked Rick how he knew who I was and breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t say, “Yelp.” As it turns out, only four people registered for the class, and he’d met the other three in a recent class on household wiring basics. Moments later, two guys and one woman arrived, sending my gender stereotype right down the tubes.

Rick kicked things off with a history of pipes, a description of the various systems in the house, and an explanation of how they operate. I followed the evolution of pipe types just fine and was even able to earn some street cred by volunteering the story of my tree root invasion. But the subsequent foray into schematic diagrams, traps and vents lost me. Maybe tree roots have grown into the pipes of my brain, I don’t know. We moved on to basic hot water heater repair and maintenance, during which I learned that I could do things like flush out the tank and replace the anode rod myself but would most likely screw them up epically, thus reinforcing the wisdom of my current outsourcing model.

As we talked about toilet repair, we moved into the lab, a place Rick referred to as “the petting zoo.” It looked to me more like a plumbing morgue as we studied the detached upper half of a commode cadaver and other unappealing parts with inapt names like “spud gasket.” Rick explained how to fix a toilet that’s running–something every homeowner wants to know — but his advice didn’t include jiggling the handle, so I’m not sure I can trust it.

Then we watched as he joined two different types together with an adaptor and predicted water would flow through it “like shaving cream through a goose.” Like most of what went on in class, I didn’t understand that expression at all. Unlike most of what went on in class, I loved it immediately and unconditionally, and I won’t be afraid to use it. It may not help me solve any plumbing problems, but it’ll definitely improve the entertainment value of my legal advice. I just knew that class would pay dividends.

#Be26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I just got tired,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s to the next five years…

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Disorder on the court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's this thing for again, anyway?

What’s this thing for again, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, Sooz, we sure do. Happy 50th birthday to a sister for whom they sky’s the limit.
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