Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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

 

 

 

 

Finding consolation in a console

My parents have embarked on a major downsizing project, an exercise in sorting through both the tangible stuff and the memories that have accumulated in the house they’ve lived in for the past 45 years.

That house, a center-hall colonial, may seem like standard-issue suburbia– half-brick/half-siding with four bedrooms and two baths upstairs, family room, kitchen, living room, dining room and powder room on the main level, and a basement — but it’s really a family treasure chest in disguise. And boy, has that house worn some disguises.

Built in 1972, the house made its debut in Orange Hunt Estates clad in pale green siding with forest green shutters, its second-story overhang propped up with a set of square, pale green pillars. The front door opened into a foyer covered in whitish wallpaper with an ornate floral pattern in olive green and gold. If you left that jungle and headed to the left, you entered the family room, which welcomed you by rolling out the multi-colored shag carpet, with patches in various shades of brown, black, rust and mustard. That carpet not only camouflaged a multitude of spills but tolerated years of me and my siblings horsing around, playing board games with our friends, building card houses, watching sitcoms on our rabbit ear-antennae’d TV when we were allowed to (which was infrequently), and tearing open presents on Christmas morning.

A mustard-colored recliner Archie Bunker would have envied sat in one corner of the family room, complemented by a hanging lamp whose shade, as I recall, was white with multi-colored spots. Dad liked to read The Washington Post in that chair, and all of us liked to curl up there when it was vacant. The pièce de résistance in the family room, furniture-wise, was a sofa covered in an off-white nubby fabric patterned with vertical green stripes of varying widths. The sofa lent itself to naps, in part because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the history of furniture but also because the color scheme in that room made you want to lie down and close your eyes in self-defense. I don’t remember Mom spending a whole lot of quality time in either the recliner or on the sofa, probably because she was too busy making sure we kids didn’t kill ourselves or each other, but I digress.

If you’d headed right instead of left when you walked through the front door in 1972, you’d have found yourself in the living room. It also had a shaggy carpet, but in a neutral monochrome to let everybody know that it had some class. An octagonal wood combination table/cabinet sat on that carpet, flanked by two wingback chairs that, in a decorative leitmotif, bore the same green-and-gold floral pattern as the foyer wallpaper. In case you’re wondering what lived inside the octagon, Mom and Dad stored the liquor there. With four kids spanning eight years, I can understand their wanting ready access to booze.

The living room led to the dining room, whose early decor I don’t really remember because of a glorious console stereo that sat against one wall and stood out from everything else. Six feet of wooden chic, the console held a turntable, an AM/FM radio, and a whole lot more. That console was Christmas, giving us the smooth sounds of Johnny Mathis’s “Winter Wonderland” while we decorated a tree we’d cut down at a farm in the Virginia countryside. The console let our family follow Barry Manilow on countless musical trips to the hottest spot north of Havana and comforted us with the knowledge that Barry couldn’t smile without us. When Barry and Johnny weren’t hogging up the rotation, Simon and Garfunkel and Billy Joel made regular appearances on the turntable, too. Then the ’80s came and the console gave us Hooked On Classics, because it knew the only thing that could make Beethoven’s Fifth sound sound better was a disco beat.

 

The house changed disguises over time: wallpaper came down in favor of neutral paint, the incomparable green-striped couch was swapped for something bluer and prettier but not quite as comfortable, the shag carpet made way for plush brown in the family room and a nice Persian rug in the living room, and the square columns yielded to round white ones. We also got a piano, which meant the console stereo was stereo3relegated to the basement. But that didn’t stop it from cranking out the songs we lived by, songs that made us dance, sweat, swoon and laugh. Long after new-fangled technology like boomboxes, CD players and shelf systems had arrived and doomed the console to obsolescence, I still regarded it as a monument to my family’s happiness and never tired of seeing it.

The minute I realized Mom and Dad were serious about downsizing, I lay claim to that console, and I moved it into my house last weekend. It lives in the basement, just like it did my parents’ house, and it’s still home to songs by Sinatra, the Kingston Trio, and the Village People, as well as soundtracks from the Muppet Movie, Grease and Annie, and albums like Free to Be You and Me and The Stranger.

Sure, it needs a new needle and hasn’t cranked out any tunes in a while, but that console can still crank out dozens of happy memories just by keeping me company. If that’s not a family treasure, I don’t know what is.

My funny Valentines

I regard Valentine’s Day with a bemused detachment that borders on apathy.

It doesn’t make me feel any differently about my relationship status –like most days, it has moments when I wish I had a partner and moments when I’m glad I don’t. It doesn’t make me wish someone would buy me flowers; I buy them for myself every week because I like having them around. And it doesn’t impact my chocolate consumption, because I make heroic efforts to keep that consistently high. But there is one thing I look forward to every Valentine’s Day: the writing of the annual poem for the Roommates.

As regular readers know, when I was getting divorced in July of 2011, I moved in to my sister Lynne’s house and spent nine months living with my her, my brother-in-law, and their two kids, whom I affectionately dubbed the Roommates. Emily and Timothy, who were eight and six when I moved in, not only didn’t mind having their aunt as a boarder but saw it as a familial upgrade.

As an expression of my gratitude, I tried to lend a hand with the kids when I could, meeting them at the bus stop, helping with homework, or chauffeuring them to their activities, but no amount of pitching in for Emily and Timothy could come close to the support those two gave me. They helped me unpack and decorate my room, ran errands with me, and always kept me fully stocked with hugs and laughs. When I was at my lowest, they made me feel important and loved.

So when Valentine’s Day rolled around in 2012, I decided to show them some love: I wrote a goofy poem –an inside joke-laden riff on “Roses are red, violets are blue” –and taped it to the mirror in their bathroom so their day would start off with a happy surprise. A year later, I had moved into my own house but kept the tradition going, and it continues to this day.

Over time, the poems have seen a slight increase in structural, if not thematic, sophistication, migrating from “Roses are red” to limericks, to this example from 2015:

Ode to the Roommates

Roses are red (although some come in yellow),

But Cupid, he’s always a fat little fellow.

He flies through the air wearing wings, but no sneakers

Nor pants, shirts or socks, like some weird pint-sized streaker!

He shoots, a crime that would get both of you grounded

But not him. And his bow? Not so much as impounded.

Hearts are the things that he’s trying to hit

But I’m here to report that his aim, well, it’s ….(not the best).

He’s shot me a dozen times right in the gut

And arrows have left scars all over my butt.

But you’re not in his crosshairs, and I know the reason.

You are loved every day, every month, every season.

So while Cupid is out acting all totes cray-cray

Just relax, have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

I decided to up my game this year and introduce the kids to a classic by writing a version of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was a great idea until I realized that poem really puts the “long” in Longfellow, so for my and the Roommates’ sanity, I abridged it. The kids know I’m a few stanzas shy of a full poem, anyway. So without further ado, and with apologies to Longfellow, I bring you “Cupid’s Ride,” featuring a guest appearance by Buddy, the family dog. Oh, and if you find parts of it sophomoric, that means I overachieved, because the kids are in middle school.

Cupid’s Ride

Listen up, Roommates, and you shall hear

Of the antics of love’s puppeteer.

On February 14th of oh-seventeen

From north to south and in between

Cupid planned to careen, zip, and veer.

 

He said to his friend, “If lonely hearts stay

At home or go on the lam tonight,

Or snapchat or just fight against tooth decay,

Shooting my arrows will set it all right:

One in the can, or two in the knee,

Then I, high above in the soft clouds will be,

Ready to strike with a dose of my charm,

Through every street all about Franklin Farm,

Breaking in to those houses that have no alarm.”

 

“Now I’m off!,” he said, his iPhone in grip,

Ready to fly and to just let it rip.

With clouds creating a bit of a haze,

He decided to leave all the mapping to Waze.

To Wildmere he went, seeking Em Bem and Tim-o

(It might have been faster to hire a limo.)

His arrows were marked: one “her” and one “him-o,”

He prayed for light traffic – love dislikes delays!

 

Meanwhile, Buddy, through backyards and street,

Wanders and watches with eager ear

Till in the silence he can’t help but hear

A blunder –someone at the garage door,

The sound of cursing, the trip of feet,

And the sound of a cap, pried free of a beer

Ready to ease down a throat, with a pour.

 

Buddy climbed up the sofa, took his perch

On its nice cushions, made of soft thread,

To the top, on which he could rest his head;

He felt ready to snooze, then to lurch,

As the sounds around that nervous him made,

Who’s there? Dad? Mom? The cleaning brigade?

Atop those luxe pillows, all fleecy and fluff,

He thought, “Uh-oh, I’ve gone far enough.”

There he paused to listen and look down

Wait, has that pillow always been brown?

Oh look! Moonlight flowing over stuff!

 

Outside, in the garage, lurked the sprite,

Cupid, that is, not the stuff you drink;

Wrapped in silence and a bad stink,

Regretting that burrito last night.

With a most ill wind, off he went,

Creeping as if from Hades sent,

Not pausing to whisper, “Mind the smell!”

Next moment, Buddy, he felt the spell

Of the place and the hour- it wasn’t right;

Would he be blamed? Just maybe he might.

Then suddenly all his thoughts were bent

On a chubby angel inches away

In the spot where Buddy liked to play,

Wearing white, bow and arrow in hand-

Did he have some sort of nude attack planned?

 

Meanwhile, impatient to take aim and shoot,

Cupid had had it with this galoot.

Right in the door then walked Tim-o and Em:

The true targets of the pudgy brute,

Who gazed on the kids and said, “Ahem.”

Then, for flair, he stamped the earth

And turned to suck in his extra girth;

They watched him whip, then watched him nae-nae,

But when he grabbed his bow, Em said, “Hey, hey,

Could you put that down? You’re making me sweat.”

He said, “OMG, this ain’t nothin’ yet.”

And lo! Near the angel and off to his right

Came a fur flash blacker than the night!

Buddy sprang to action, without snarls or grins

And grabbed the arrow, then ran out of sight

With his new toy, thinking, “Hooray, love wins!”

They blinded me with science, and their potential: January wrap-up, Part I

I kicked off 2017 with a post detailing what I’m looking forward to on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and now that we’re into February, I owe you a January wrap-up. It’s going to take more than one installment, so I’ll start with two pieces of bonus awesomeness that came my way in the final week of January: judging the Herndon High School Science Fair on January 26 and attending the Year Up Graduation ceremony on the 27th.

Maybe you’re wondering how I landed the Herndon High gig, since I’m a lawyer by trade and my most sophisticated science experiment involved making a geyser out of Mentos and Diet Coke. (Go ahead and try it, you know you want to.) They probably heard about my stints as a Halloween costume contest judge and couldn’t help but be impressed with my juridical credentials. To those who suggest that desperation might have caused the school to lower its standards far enough to admit me, I have two words for you: alternative facts. Now go away.

I felt a bit nervous about venturing beyond my subject matter comfort zone; however, I was mainly just excited to join an event celebrating science, a discipline whose pesky fixation on data-based conclusions just might land it in the crosshairs of the current administration.

On the afternoon of the contest, fifty-some of us volunteer judges settled into the lecture hall, awaiting a training session. I needed it. While I doubted they could teach me all the science I faked my way through as a student at Lake Braddock Secondary School, I hoped they would at least cover topics like “What to do when the students know more than you.”

The lead teacher, Mr. G., went through a powerpoint presentation and explained that we would be judging honors science students who were required to complete a project in categories that ranged from environmental science to chemistry. He outlined the criteria for what makes a project good, including that the students had thought of it themselves, had a personal connection to it, used the scientific method, and understood the science behind it.

As he put it, “You’ll figure out who knows their stuff.” I believed him, but also wondered about the corollary: Would the kids figure out which judges knew their stuff?

He gave us a refresher on the scientific method, just in case some of us had forgotten. Ahem. As he mentioned the steps –problem/question, hypothesis, trial/testing, analysis and conclusion –it sounded vaguely familiar. Had I gone all the way to the back of my memory, I’d probably have found it under a pile of dust, right beside slope and y-intercept.

Mr. G told us to award points for projects that broke new ground, as opposed to projects with a high “been there, done that” factor, which told me exactly how my Mentos/Diet Coke experiment would have fared. He recommended we focus on substance over style — advice I wish people would follow in the dating world– armed us with rubrics, clipboards, and stickers to track the projects we’d reviewed, and then sent us off to the cafeteria, where the students and the projects had gathered.

On arriving at the cafeteria, the first thing that struck me was the incredible student diversity. Actually, that was the second thing. The first was the lingering scent of tater tots, if I’m being honest. But the diversity really did amaze and cheer me. At least half of the students I met were minorities and/or female, a sight that provided excellent counterpoint to a White House and Cabinet packed with white guys.

The students themselves also impressed me, first with the topics they’d chosen to explore, like the correlation between gender and multi-tasking abilities, the impact of color on memorizing information, and the effect of musical training on the ability to detect differences in pitch, and then with their presentation skills. They introduced themselves with a poise I lacked when I was their age (and on occasion still lack), and they seemed to enjoy talking about their projects.

In the end, my teammate, Tyler, and I found Mr. G was right: we could tell which students really knew their stuff and had immersed in their subject. Two girls floored us with a project on the therapeutic use of binaural beats, beginning with the fact that we had no idea what binaural beats were. The girls proceeded to explain in terms even a lawyer could understand that binaural beats are a sort of trick you can play on your brain by putting on a pair of headphones and feeding your left and right ear separate tones that are 5-40 Hz apart from each other and under 1500 Hz in frequency. Your brain focuses on the discrepancy between the two sounds, processes the difference in frequency as a separate/”third” tone, and begins to resonate at that third tone. That resonance can help with concentration, relaxation and even insomnia.

As if reading my mind, Tyler asked, “Can we find examples of binaural beats on the web?” I left feeling optimistic about our future and my chances for a good night’s sleep.

IMG_2270

I kept the program, of course.

The very next night found me at NOVA’s Annandale Campus to watch a young man I’ve mentored graduate from a program called YearUp. YearUp identifies urban youths who “are highly motivated but lack opportunities to enter the mainstream economy,” spends six months teaching them professional skills employers seek, and then matches them with companies for six-month internships that give the students a chance to gain experience and apply what they’ve learned. It’s a high-support, high-expectations model.

I signed up through my company months ago and was assigned to a young man named Omar. When I’ve participated in formal mentoring programs in the past, the results have been mixed, but within moments of meeting Omar last summer, my expectations for our relationship soared.

A minority whose family has long struggled to make ends meet, he’s the oldest kid and the first in his family to continue his education beyond high school. He left a string of service jobs to join YearUp –definitely not the path of least resistance for someone in his circumstances –because he wanted a better life for himself and his family. Once again I found myself sitting across from a kid whose poise and maturity left me in awe and wondering what I could possibly teach him that he couldn’t figure out himself. As we got to know each other, relaxed and talked about non-work stuff, we found common ground in comedy.

“You do stand-up?” he said. “That takes guts.”

I laughed, because that’s a funny thing to hear from a kid who’s faced more adversity in his first twenty years on Earth than I have in twice that time. I explained that standup doesn’t take guts so much as a weak attachment to your dignity, but it somehow still earned me his respect. Fueled by mutual respect and like, our relationship evolved and our interactions were, at least for me, something to look forward to.

I felt that anticipation especially acutely on November 9, when Omar and I met again for breakfast. Just hours earlier, the 45th president had been elected after running a campaign that didn’t seem to care much about people like Omar and his family. Torn between wanting to cry and feeling obligated to deliver a message of hope, I simply spoke the truth.

“You’re the one thing I was really looking forward to today,” I told him. And then I explained why his blend of determination, enthusiasm and perseverance makes me optimistic.

As I watched Omar walk across the stage seven weeks later, certificate and full-time job offer in hand, I thought of that moment on November 9, the honors science students from Herndon High, and the words of Jonas Salk, who said, “There is hope in dreams, imagination, and in the courage of those who wish to make those dreams a reality.”

I’m betting big on these imaginative, courageous kids.

Oh when these Yanks go marching in

Did you see me among the throngs of people standing on Independence Avenue last Saturday? You didn’t? Well darn it all. Maybe an “I still have to protest this s&^%?!?!” sign made it hard to spot me. Or a “Dissent is patriotic” sign, or one of the hundreds of “Love Trumps Hate” signs. If you didn’t see me, then you probably didn’t see Mom, either. But both of us were at the Women’s March in DC, forming a foursome with my friends Tricia and LC.

I wouldn’t describe the four of us as March People under normal circumstances –LC and I both prefer parties that involve food over ones that involve donkeys and elephants, Tricia has a serious aversion to crowds, and most people of Mom’s generation did their demonstrating forty years ago — but these are not normal circumstances. The electoral college gave us a president who manufactures enemies and enmity, two commodities that most assuredly do not make America great. The four of us decided to stand for what does make America great — tolerance, equality, science, freedom of religion, and diversity in its many forms –and to stand against an agenda that threatens those things.

I hatched a plan to meet at my house at 8 a.m., drive to Arlington Cemetery, park, and then hoof it another two-and-a-half miles to the march site. Better than relying on public transportation, I thought, so I announced my plan with great confidence despite having no idea whether it would work.  The event website had advised participants to ensure they brought food and water but not to bring backpacks or large bags. Having taken that advice to heart, all four of us showed up wearing the most pocket-intensive clothing we owned and with protein bars sticking out from under our jackets like tumors.

We climbed into my car and set off for a great unknown. I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into Arlington Cemetery fifteen minutes later and found parking with ease.

As we started walking in the direction of the March, Tricia asked, “What time do you think we’ll be back?” and then mentioned she had a commitment at 5 p.m.

With speeches slated to start at 10 a.m. and the March itself at 1:30, I said, “Two, maybe three o’clock,” and I felt like I’d built plenty of padding into my answer.

As we strolled down the Mall, not wearing pink hats or carrying signs –the protein bars were all we could handle– we passed National Park Service employees, every one of whom wished us a good day. We passed uniformed police officers who gave us the thumbs-up. We passed a Wonder Woman, men and women in pink hats, lab coat-wearing scientists, and sign after glorious sign.

We paused at the Washington Monument to take advantage of what looked like a last chance at indoor plumbing for a few hours. It turned out to be a brilliant move because, on reaching Independence Avenue and Sixth Street well in advance of the March’s 10 a.m. kickoff, we ran into a wall of people. The three blocks between us and the main stage were absolutely packed with marchers, so we weren’t going anywhere. Not only did this not bother us one bit– we could see the stage in the distance and up-close on a big screen, and we could hear the speakers–but it energized us. This thing was gonna be big. Yuuuuuuuuuuuge, even.

IMG_2237

Our view from what we thought were the cheap non-seats, only to learn we were up pretty darned close.

As the official program got underway at 10 a.m., we listened to America Ferrara, who said, “We march today for the moral core of this nation against which our new president is waging a war…He would like us to forget the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ and instead take up a credo of hate, fear, and suspicion of one another. But we are gathered here and across the country and around the world today to say, Mr. Trump, we refuse.”

We listened to Michael Moore, who gave a concrete “how to resist” to-do list to a crowd that thirsted for it.

We listened to Gloria Steinem, who pointed out that the March required 1,000 more buses than the Inauguration –size matters, you know– and that the president is not the people.

We listened as six year-old Sophie Cruz, who last spring gave a letter to Pope Francis imploring him to help save her undocumented immigrant parents from deportation, told us in two languages to fight with love, faith and courage. “God is with us,” Sophie said. I don’t doubt that He was, and so were millions of demonstrators around the world. (Sophie for Prez…just sayin’…)

The speeches continued for hours, stretching well beyond 2:00 p.m. and with no end, or march start, in sight. So much for my 2, or even 3 p.m. return prediction. We weren’t even sure the march part would happen because the mile-long route was jammed with demonstrators. Shortly after Alicia Keys made a surprise appearance to sing “Girl on Fire,” we decided to start making our way back to the car. And by making our way, I mean goose-stepping. It took us 45 minutes of daisy-chained shuffling to get close to the revised route on Constitution Avenue, where we were able to break free.

As we walked back to the car, we declared Mom our March MVP. I know Mom didn’t agree with the platform of every special interest group represented at the March –neither did I, for that matter — but she didn’t let that stop her from seizing humongous common ground. There’s a lesson for all of us in that. And the same woman who hiked the Cinque Terre with me in May topped that feat by logging in six miles on the Mall, with six hours of standing in between, and never once did she lose her smile.

Would I say the march was perfect? Of course not, because no gathering so enormous could hope to be. But it got a lot of things pretty darned right, including striking a chord that inspired millions of people to march in similar gatherings all over the world. Here are a few things that stuck with me:

  • Rising up starts with showing up and standing up;
  • It’s useful to see who’s standing with you;
  • Small, local acts make a difference;
  • Following up is as important as standing up;

I choose to treat the follow-up as a marathon, not a sprint. That means consistent action every day –calling my elected officials, doing outreach, and making donations to fund important lawsuits –focusing my energy on what matters (hint: not Twitter), taking breaks when I need to, and persevering even if I hit the wall. That last one’s easy: I’ll just make Mexico pay for it.

Ultimately, I agree with Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “To sit home, read one’s favorite paper, and scoff at the misdeeds of the men who do things is easy, but it is markedly ineffective.” Had Teddy been alive to see how easy scoffing has gotten, what with “alternative facts” and all, I bet he’d have put on a pink hat, too.

I'm with her.

I’m with her.

 

Go ahead, make 2017 a year of forward-looking statements

I feel kinda sorry for 2017. Two thousand sixteen is a tough act to follow, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In a year when the proverbial stage desperately needed some Shakespeare, it got Charlie Sheen’s one-man show instead. This disappointing, laborious spectacle left audiences so hostile, exhausted and disgusted that no year in its right mind would want to take the stage after that. But 2017 is here, so we in the crowd might as well do what we can to help the newcomer succeed. How do we do it? The answer is simple: we give ourselves something to look forward to, every day, every week and every month.

Psychologists have long viewed the anticipation of a positive experience as a key to happiness. That’s great news, because we can choose to create positive anticipation, and that in turn means maintaining some control over our happiness no matter what presidencies, er, events are happening around us. Anyone who’s ever planned a vacation knows intuitively that looking forward to it gives you a boost long before you pack your bags. And, as a 2014 New York Times article points out, anticipating something great, and savoring that anticipation, not only increases the chances that the experience itself will be good but helps counteract any negativity that ensues if it doesn’t live up to the hype.

So let’s start off 2017 in a way that Wall Street would hate: by making tons of forward-looking statements. Here’s what I’m already looking forward to this year…

… by the day:

  • Sweating: I make a point of exercising nearly every day. Swimming, running, and going to boot camp not only make me feel good physically but also do wonders for my mental health, creativity, and overall outlook. That makes it pretty easy to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Reading a book: I wind down every day by reading at least a few pages of a book. It settles my mind and helps my writing. And if I wake up for long stretches in the middle of the night, as I am wont to do, reading eases my frustration.
  • My neighbors: I live in a great ‘hood, on a great street, where we all know each other, look out for each other – these unbelievable people shoveled me out from Snowzilla when I sprained my wrist last year – and enjoy the occasional front lawn happy hour. I see at least one of my neighbors pretty much every day, sometimes for only a moment as I drive past, but even just the exchange of a friendly wave makes me smile.
  • My family: Not a day goes by without one or more members of Team Yank calling, texting or emailing to say “hi,” send a photo or share a hilarious story. Many of their communications do all three.
  • My friends: My pals are fun, interesting, talented people who enrich my life every day in some way, including by sweating next to me, introducing me to cool places like Costa Rica, or keeping me apprised of such crucial current events as the dates of Barry Manilow’s farewell tour.
  • Music: I always find joy in music, whether I’m making it or just listening to it.

…by the week:

  • The podcast: it’s one of the most fun things I do, hands-down. The combination of hanging out with Philippa and talking about dating adds up to a whole lot of laughter.
  • Writing: not always one of the most fun things I do, but it makes me more engaged in my world, and that’s a great thing. Besides, I’m close to having a first draft of my second book, and I want to cross that finish line.
  • Walks with friends: my pal Bud and I do our best to take weekly walks together, even when it’s cold. I love the exercise, the camaraderie and the laughter.
  • Tuesdays with Larry: my comedy partner and I get together pretty much every week to throw around new material. Sometimes we get absolutely nothing done, but even those fails are successes, because we’re always laughing.
  • More meet-ups: My hike with the Capital Area Hiking Club was a rousing success, so I’m gonna try to do more meet-ups. It’s a great way to try new things, or to meet new people while doing stuff I already enjoy.

…by the month (presented in fragments because these aren’t yet fully formed):

  • January: Going to see Wicked with Mom, Lynne and Emily; taking a trip to NYC with my great friend, LC, and both of our moms; the Women’s March; taking Dad to lose a bunch of money at the new casino at National Harbor; resuming standup comedy stints.
  • February: L.J.‘s birthday; trip to Atlanta to see him, my sister-in-law, and the kiddos. More standup.
  • March: A Joe Bonamassa concert with two people I adore; UVA basketball and March Madness; the official arrival of Spring; the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and maybe even actual cherry blossoms!
  • April: Mom’s birthday; my parents’ anniversary; cherry blossoms! (And maybe the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler?) another chance to reprise my role as the neighborhood Easter Bunny; Opening Day for Major League Baseball!
  • May: Mother’s Day; Memorial Day = cookouts, outdoor swimming, front lawn happy hours, outdoor concerts, etc.
  • June: Father’s Day; a landmark birthday for my sister Suzi; my nephew J.J.’s graduation, followed by a two-week graduation trip with JJ to celebrate said graduation (the burden I carry as his aunt).
  • July: Celebratory graduation trip, cont’d!
  • August: The Yank family reunion; Lynne’s birthday; Dad’s birthday.
  • September: Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolf Trap. (ALERT: I bought two tickets, so those who are interested in being my plus-one should start lobbying now!)
  • October: Hikes to enjoy the fall foliage; another chance to judge the neighborhood Halloween costume contest.
  • November: YANKSGIVING!!!!!
  • December: Star Wars Episode VIII! I don’t know how I’ll top 2016’s “I’ve gone further for less” Rogue One experience, but if I have to go to Hawaii to see Episode VIII, so be it.

Whaddya know, the same things that make me happy every day – family, friends, exercise, outdoors, laughter, and music – pop up regularly in my weekly and monthly lists, too. Another cool thing? I know the list will only grow.

Try making your own list and I bet you’ll not only make the same discoveries but find that the simple act of making the list sets a perfect stage for 2017. Happy New Year, everyone!

Sometimes going on your own merry way is the only way to go

Just as I predicted, the nasty aftermath of the 2016 presidential election left me with a hangover. Not the garden variety, one-day affliction either, but a long-acting, and singularly joy-resistant strain. It didn’t care that the holidays were approaching, thus I didn’t care, either.

That wasn’t like me at all; I love the holidays. They’re just an excuse to do fun stuff with my family, like hunt for Christmas trees, hang up pretty lights, and make architecturally unsound gingerbread houses. But the thought of those things didn’t put a dent in my hangover.

The Yank tree hunt went forward the first weekend in December as usual and we had fun – Dad and I took turns using the saw to cut down my tree and then celebrated the early Christmas miracle of retaining all of our limbs – but the idea of decorating my tree sparked no enthusiasm. It did, however, spark enthusiasm from my neighbors. On seeing my car pull into the driveway with a tree atop its roof, they immediately mobilized to lend a hand. I politely declined, not because I didn’t appreciate their offer but because the presence of competent help would have minimized the chances that something would go comically awry, thereby reducing the chances that I could get a blog post out of the whole thing. Sadly, I got the tree upright and reasonably straight in the stand on the first try.

Two days later it remained vertical, so I decided to decorate it, solo.  I couldn’t summon up the usual urge to invite friends over for an evening of snacks and ornament origin stories (a Spam ball warrants an explanation), which made me realize I had to snap myself out of it. But how?

During a text exchange with my brother the following weekend, the answer came to me: force. Not a force, but The Force.

L.J. and I had been texting about travel when the topic of Star Wars arose, as it does, and he wrote:

Btw, are you flying down next weekend so we can see Rogue One?

He and I had grown up on the Star Wars franchise and went to see The Force Awakens with my niece and nephews when it came out last year. His  question about the latest movie, opening on December 16, was as natural as it was tongue-in-cheek. My response was, too:

We both know I’ve gone further for less.

It’s true — I’ve gone to Pennsylvania for bacon shirts and Seattle for Barry Manilow — and the Star Wars flicks are not my sister-in-law, Leslie’s, cup of tea, but there was no way I could pull off a flight to Atlanta on less than a week’s notice during a peak travel period. Yet I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. What if I could find a way not only to get there but to surprise my brother? I tested it with Leslie, and she loved it. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got, until doing it became not an “if” but a “must,” and for almost entirely selfish reasons.

I cashed in some miles and booked a flight that would put me on the ground in Atlanta at 9:30 p.m. on Friday the 16th. With just a little travel luck – something I can’t always count on – both the plane and my spirits would achieve liftoff. I could hardly wait to give Leslie the news, and I could hardly wait to get there. That feeling of buzzy and nearly unbearable anticipation — a purely kid-at-Christmastime sensation — grew as I counted down the three days to my trip. By Friday afternoon I was ready to jump out of my skin.

I’d requested an Uber to take me to National Airport so I wouldn’t lose time parking. The driver pulled up right on time and got out of the car…dressed in full cowboy regalia. The only person on Earth who’d have appreciated that sight more than I did is my brother, which I took as an omen that everything was going to work out perfectly.

The driver tipped his hat and said, “Howdy, ma’am. Where y’all headed to?”

“The set of Tombstone or a Village People casting call, whichever is closer,” I wanted to say. But I just asked him to take me to National Airport instead. A missed opportunity, I know, but I had places to go.

As we got underway, he said, “I’m not from Texas,” simultaneously reading my mind and eliminating the only plausible explanation for his attire. He’s from Florida and has a passion for horses, so I guess he just wants to be ready in case a steeplechase breaks out on the Beltway. Outfit notwithstanding, the rest of the ride was uneventful, as was my flight to Atlanta for a change.

The minute we touched down, I sent Leslie an email to tell her I’d made it. I hopped in an Uber – this one driven by a person dressed for suburban Atlanta rather than the OK Corral – and in 30 minutes was standing in my brother’s driveway. I dialed his number. I rarely call him, especially after 10 p.m., so I wasn’t surprised when he answered on the second ring and asked what was up. Our dialogue went like this:

Me: Um, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m going to see the Star Wars movie soon, and I thought you should know.

Him (sounding a bit disappointed or envious, I couldn’t quite tell which): Aw, that’s okay, Wheat. Are you going tonight?

Me: Uh, well, really soon.

I put the phone on mute so I could knock on the front door.

Him: Are you going alone?

Me (still knocking, loudly): Haha, no…

Him: Who are you going with?

Me (still knocking): Um, this guy…

Him: Who is this guy, making you pick him up, and so late? And is he ever going to answer the door?

Me (still knocking): I don’t know, are you?

Him: Wait, are you downstairs?

Right then my sister-in-law cued up the Rogue One trailer, the Star Wars theme song began to play in the background, and I burst out laughing. Leslie and I had pulled off the perfect surprise.

Over the course of the next 40 hours, we not only saw the movie (which L.J. and I loved) but pimg_2126acked in a visit to the aquarium with my adorable little nephews, a delicious dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant, and a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us so the little guys could pick out a Christmas present from their aunt. My time in Atlanta flew faster than reindeer on Christmas Eve and my spirits were soaring just as high.

When my brother dropped me off at the airport on Sunday afternoon, I felt a bit sad on the one hand, yet on the other, I was looking forward to getting back home for Christmas with the rest of the family. Getting into the holiday spirit this year was as easy as going Rogue.

Hope all of you find your holiday spirit, too. See you back here soon!

 

We all have reason to vote, and to vote with reason

The 2016 presidential election has left me feeling like an unseasoned drinker at a New Year’s Eve party who, on taking in way too much toxic garbage way too fast and way too soon, gets sick before the main event and doesn’t even care to witness it.

I’m far from alone: a survey conducted in August by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of the country is stressed out by this election. That was in August, folks. A whole two months ago. So anyone who’s surprised to learn that there’s a full house in the proverbial powder room just hasn’t been paying attention. This election has exposed rampant ugliness and intolerance, giving us little to cheer about and plenty of cause for disgust. Unlike a New Year’s Eve bash, though, we can’t avoid the nausea by choosing just to sit this election out: it’s way too important.

I always vote, but I belong to no party and I’m not thrilled with my current choices (sounds suspiciously like my dating life, doesn’t it?). If you’re in the same boat — wondering how to decide which button to push when both candidates are pushing your buttons, dismayed that you can’t vote with your heart because your heart isn’t in it, wanting to pull the rip cord instead of the lever — here’s what worked for me when I voted this afternoon: pure, simple reason.

We haven’t seen much of reason during this election — evidently it didn’t make the guest list, and I don’t blame it for not wanting to crash this particular party –but I forced it to join me in the voting booth today. I’m glad I did, too, because reason reminded me that competence matters more than likability, and so does sanity. Reason encouraged me to tune out false equivalences, like the notion that stability equals status quo, or that experience equals establishment. Reason likewise recognized that both candidates have shown susceptibility to influence-peddling (as have nearly all politicians) and prompted me to reject that as a basis for comparison. Reason also warned me that, if I really mean it when I say this election is important, I shouldn’t make my vote irrelevant by casting it for an independent or write-in. In short, reason made my choice easy, if not fun. I suspect it could make a lot of people’s choices easy, if only they’d let it.

The one thing reason didn’t do was call me an Uber so I could leave this awful party. And I really want to go home now, because something tells me we’re all in for a long, nasty hangover.

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“Think before you speak” might be good advice, but it makes for very dull stories

We’ve all said things we wish we could take back.

One of my all-time doozies came up last night while I was having dinner with my friend, “Eric,” who’s going through a divorce. Eric and I agreed that, even when everyone involved knows divorce is the right answer, it’s still a miserable soul-grinder of an experience. Experts often liken it to a death, complete with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (though all five do not necessarily occur, nor do they happen in a particular order). That comparison has always made sense to me, I think divorce can also involve a sixth phase: decency. During the decency phase, one or both parties make a concerted effort to be cordial, if not pleasant, and to resist the urge to malign the other person. As with the other phases, this one can only last for so long, and it can be baffling.

My divorce had a decency phase. As I told Eric, it happened early and, like the marriage itself, was startlingly brief. The Lawnmower and I had separated in late July of 2011, on terms that were, how shall I say, suboptimal. But we had a house to sell together –through the For Sale By Owner process, of course, because using an agent would have inflicted an insufficient amount of real estate misery for a special occasion like divorce –and a property agreement to negotiate. If decency could help us unload the Yuppie Prison and knock out a contract, I was all in favor of it. I gave it my best shot, but aspiration proved much easier than execution.

My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I were barely two weeks into the decency phase when the Lawnmower’s birthday rolled around. This presented me with a decency dilemma: should I say something? On the one hand, we had separated and were preparing to divorce, so the etiquette gods would surely show me mercy if I chose to stay silent. On the other, I knew it was his birthday, and he knew that I knew it was his birthday. I remember the birthdays of my immediate family and significant others unassisted, and separation hadn’t erased his entry in my mental calendar. Just the opposite, in fact. As I thought about unwinding our joint life, the days that used to hold special meaning for us hovered in the front of my mind like floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Even if I managed to pop them, they’d take a while to deflate.

Since I couldn’t claim with a straight face that I’d forgotten the LM’s birthday, ignoring it could seem intentional, an insult. The decency campaign might not survive that kind of threat to its existence. I needed to keep it alive, so I decided to say something. But what?

I typed, “Happy birthday, Mark.” On my laptop screen it didn’t even look sincere. That period was fatal. Delete.

“Happy birthday, Mark!” Nope. The exclamation conveyed exuberance, which reflected either tone deafness or a very bad attempt at irony. Neither interpretation would help my cause. Maybe a greeting was a terrible idea.

My brain kept chewing on it and then, as only a lawyer brain could do, took that terrible idea and made it worse by adding a comma and a dependent clause.

“I wanted to wish you happy birthday, under the circumstances,” I typed. Before I could second-guess it, I clicked “send,” ending my internal debate. An email from the LM arrived moments later.

He’d written, “Thank you, under the circumstances.”

Eric howled with laughter when I got to the punchline. Even though that email hadn’t done me any good when I sent it five years ago, it helped Eric last night, so I was glad I brought it up. It was, after all, only the decent thing to do.

I’d have been better off sending him this, slice removed and all.

 

For crying out LOUD!

Parkinson’s Disease is a thief and a jerk.

It purloins capabilities its victims have relied on every day for their entire lives — fine motor skills for buttoning shirts, flexible face muscles for smiling, a steady hand for writing –and when it does, those people know they’ve been robbed. But they might not notice when the disease starts to make off with their voice; PD steals it in tiny increments and so masterfully they can’t even detect what they’re losing.

My father was diagnosed with PD in 2007, and a few years ago, Team Yank began to observe a gradual softening in his speech. That really troubled me, because a booming voice had always been one of Dad’s trademarks. The boom wasn’t something he achieved on his own, mind you: my siblings and I spent our formative years helping him hone it to perfection, inspiring him to create at-home classics like, “ARE YOU DEFYING ME?” and the soccer field favorite, “GET THE LEAD OUT!“. When the four of us got the lead out and went to college, the boys of American Legion Post 176 carried on our tradition, giving Dad a chance to share his gift on the baseball field. He’s been doing that for more than twenty years, and he hasn’t let PD stop him, but it’s been a while since I’d heard him challenge anyone’s defiance. I’ve missed that boom.

A friend suggested we look into a PD-specific form of speech therapy called LSVT LOUD.

LSVT LOUD improves vocal loudness by stimulating the muscles of the voice box (larynx) and speech mechanism through a systematic hierarchy of exercises. Focused on a single goal “speak LOUD!” – the treatment improves respiratory, laryngeal and articulatory function to  maximize speech intelligibility. The treatment does not train people for shouting or yelling; rather, LSVT LOUD uses loudness training to bring the voice to an improved, healthy vocal loudness with no strain.

Treatment is administered in 16 sessions over a single month (four individual 60 minute sessions per week). This intensive mode of administration is consistent with theories of motor learning and skill acquisition, as well as with principles of neural plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to change in response to signals), and is critical to attaining optimal results. The treatment not only simulates the motor system but also incorporates sensory awareness training to help individuals with PD recognize that their voice is too soft, convincing them that the louder voice is within normal limits, and making them comfortable with their new louder voice.

“You’ll see instant improvement,” my friend said.

A bold claim, indeed, and one my father has decided to test. But as you may have gathered from the description above, there’s no such thing as “LOUD lite.” You have to go all-in. When I try to put myself in Dad’s shoes, I imagine taking on LOUD requires some serious guts, not to mention commitment. Fortunately, Dad has both of those in spades and he started last week.

Team Yank never sends anybody out on the field solo, so Mom has gone with him, listening and taking notes at every session. Because it’s always a good idea to have a reliever on your staff, I joined them today. I went not because they needed me in the bullpen but because phone conversations with Dad had proven my friend right  –the results have been immediate and impressive –and I wanted to see what makes the magic happen.

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This graph gives the PD person a visual way to compare how they sound to their own ears against how the world hears them.

What makes it happen, I learned, is effort, patience and perseverance, on the part of both the patient and the instructor. Dad’s instructor, Matt, kicked things off with several rounds of “Ahs” and “Yahs.” It’s a quasi-singing exercise that encourages the mouth muscles to open wide and helps strengthen breath support so that volume reaches and stays within the 70-80 decibel range. Attaining and maintaining 70 dB – normal social conversational volume –is no small feat if PD’s had you operating at 60 dB (which is about as loud as air being pushed into a room through a healthy HVAC unit). The computer screen showed Dad his volume so he could get used to the level of effort 70-80 db requires. After that, Matt transitioned Dad to repetitive pitch exercises and more quasi-singing. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is if you’re Dad and your singing up to this point was limited to command performances of img_0182“Happy Birthday.”

Dad warned me, “It’s the worst singing you’ll ever hear,” but I reminded him that we still have my sister Lynne, and that gave him enough reassurance to keep going.

Speaking of pitch, that’s a baseball term to Dad. So when Matt told him during a Week 1 session that he needed to work on his pitch, Dad started to move the office chairs aside so he could wind up his fastball unimpeded. Matt must have thought he was about to witness an interpretive dance routine. They cleared up the confusion in short order, but the comic relief was welcome.

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The Valley View voiceover copy. I can’t blame Dad for busting out the red pen.

I wasn’t treated to any of those wacky hijinks today, but I did get to hear Dad do multiple readings of the advertising copy for Valley View, a car dealership trying to move some SUVs. The idea is to generate lots of enthusiasm, consistent with the genre, and practice inflection. My father is not a form-over-substance kind of guy, so he could not resist making some copy edits as he went.

The best part of the whole thing for me was hearing Dad practice over and over again some of the sayings my three siblings and I have been hearing ever since we can remember, like, “Is the Pope Catholic?””Does a wild bear poop in the woods?” and my personal favorite, “You’re still in the top four.” He sounded like himself, and tears threatened to form as I thought about how proud I am of what he’s doing and who he is. And if he keeps this up, he’ll be booming at me again in no time.

As we walked out of the office and to our cars, I asked Dad to say one more thing for me, loud. He nodded, happy to oblige.

“Make sure you get your next car from Valley View Automotive!”

Yep, that sure sounds like Dad.