Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

You never forget your first apartment…

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

#Be26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I just got tired,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s to the next five years…

birthday-675486_1280

 

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.

 

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.

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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!