Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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…]

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

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

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

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

“I think I just got tired,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s to the next five years…

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Disorder on the court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's this thing for again, anyway?

What’s this thing for again, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The kids are all right, despite my being their chaperone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve and Dawne

One of my favorite moments with Steve and Dawne