Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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.

img_2013

“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.

img_0183

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.

img_0184

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.

 

 

 

I won’t judge you…unless you’re wearing a costume

I live in a cohesive community that reminds me in all the best ways of Orange Hunt, the neighborhood where I grew up. As in good ol’ O.H., neighbors here know one another and people take care of each other. But my current neighborhood has something O.H. didn’t: a community-owned park at the end of a street. That’s where I once again judged the annual Halloween costume contest, which took place today.

My neighborhood brought me back by popular demand, if we count as a demand last night’s neighborhood-wide email blast seeking people who are “interested and highly qualified. Or reasonably qualified.” I volunteered before they lowered their standards to “reasonably alive.” But I did it with some reluctance because my 13 year-old niece, Emily, couldn’t come. She had joined me last year in a zebra outfit and under the pretense of taking notes, but really, I wanted her there for backup in case things broke bad.

Though I didn’t have my backup zebra this year, I didn’t have to go it alone after all. As I was walking out the front door, I ran into Sue, my neighbor’s mom. She had come to town to see her granddaughter walk in the parade and nobly answered the call to the reasonably qualified. I was happy to see her. I like Sue a lot, but more importantly, she’s smaller than I am and was wearing a homemade ghost costume whose eye holes tended to rove. I felt certain I could outrun her if the crowd turned on us.

At 10 a.m., the parade got underway, led, as your better parades are, by a Jeep-driving Captain Hook. Behind him walked an inflated T-Rex, princesses, a ballot box with legs, Kraft Macaroni-n-Cheese, superheroes, a donut, George Washington, Greek goddesses, a punk rocker, french fries, a president, a farmer and his barnyard animals, Harry Potter and Hermione, a UPS crew, the entire cast of Toy Story, owls, a cheeseburger, and scores of other costume-clad revelers. The Arlington County police lent their support by dressing up as themselves and clearing traffic from the parade route. The parade culminated in the park, where the other judges and I circulated to get a closer look at the costumes that piqued our interest. Forty-five minutes later, the judges huddled to determine the winners.

As I’ve said before, wearing an inflatable shows extraordinary costume commitment.

As in Olympic figure skating, we scored based on presentation, required elements, and the ability to stay vertical while wearing an absurd outfit. After three minutes of agonizing deliberation–twenty seconds of which was spent rearranging Sue’s eyeholes–we had our winners

Captain Hook took to the dais (French for “unoccupied picnic table”) and silenced the crowd so the head judge could announce our results.

The winners I remember are:

  • Kraft Mac-n-Cheese: Were the creators going for irony with a homemade costume depicting America’s favorite processed powdered cheese side dish? We didn’t know and we didn’t care. Like most people, we love mac and cheese in any form.
  • The cast of Toy Story: they had it all, and it looked like they’d made it all. Or at least most of it. It’s hard to get close enough to inspect for “Made in China” labels without committing a serious personal space violation.
  • A family of monkeys: This looked to me like a faithful rendition of life in a zoo, or family mealtime. Either way, a few hurled bananas would have upped the authenticity.
  • The farm: We overlooked the fact that this farm’s chicken was strapped into a stroller –so much for free range eggs –because the cow and pig were so darned cute.
  • A graveyard bride: dressed all in grey and black, I imagine this is how I look when I haunt my ex-husband’s dreams. Mwahahaha.
  • The UPS crew: On person’s Amazon trash is another person’s UPS truck, loaded up with all kinds img_0161of cargo and a pig in the passenger seat. The driver, a toddler who lives on my street, refused to get into the truck. I don’t blame him; I’d be grumpy about working Saturdays, too.
  • The ballot box: By the time we announced the results, she was nowhere to be found. Either she’d gone off to stuff herself or she’d walked off with the election. We’ll never know.

And though he didn’t win, my personal favorite was this one:

img_0175

Yep, that’s an “A” that flashes on and off, making him…A-blinkin’.

I texted this pic to my family, eliciting responses that reflect the national mood right now.

L.J.: “Is he running for President? Because if he is, I’ll write him in!”

Lynne: “Me too! He has my vote!” She didn’t even ask about his email protocol.

Suzi: “At this point I would even vote for the UPS truck or the mac and cheese!!” Perhaps she thinks the mac and cheese would better represent us than the current orange candidate. I cannot disagree.

L.J.: “UPS delivers the goods!”

Like this annual event, that slogan is a real winner. Now if only we could find the ballot box.

img_0153

Me and Sue. She calls it a costume, I call it the Judge Protection Program.

img_0171

Like my creds?

If you can’t follow your heart, try following some people on Twitter

I have really come to appreciate Twitter lately, but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, this social media outlet breaks vital news the instant it happens (#NewGrumpyCatVideo) and is the only medium that moves fast enough to keep pace with every newly hatched Trump election conspiracy in real time (#RiggedBigly). But that’s not why I’m on it. I love Twitter for “Who to follow,” the helpful feature that suggests other Twits, Tweeps, or whatever term the kids use for people whose feeds might interest you.

Twitter pays attention to the company I keep and often points me to writers, podcasters, and people promoting important new products like the Catterbox, a collar device that translates your cat’s meows to human speech. Those people are right in my wheelhouse.

(You just went to Catterbox.com, didn’t you? I don’t blame you one bit; I don’t see how you couldn’t. Perhaps you, like me, were disappointed to see that all it has are a bunch of videos showing the device in action. Nobody cares about that. What we really want to see is footage of owners trying to affix the Catterbox to their cats. Anyway, no need to thank me for bringing this to your attention in plenty of time for holiday shopping.)

But Twitter has also given me a bunch of less obvious suggestions. Those people seem to fall into one of the following five categories:

  • Mommy bloggers
  • Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs
  • Travelers
  • Psychics (is that a sub-genre of “Travelers”?)
  • Bots and Trolls

I have to say, I don’t quite get it.

The mommy bloggers seem to be lovely people, but once you get past the blogging, we don’t have all that much in common. Yes, there was that time recently when my niece’s eye scare gave me a whopping dose of vicarious parenting. Beyond that, though, I don’t write about how to make vegetables go incognito at dinner, nor have I ever lactated. And I doubt all that many mommy bloggers care to read about my niche speed-dating episodes gone bad. If these moms are following me, they’re probably keeping their distance.

I’m also not sure why Twitter thinks I should follow venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. I don’t want my capital to venture; other people’s capital can go wandering off like a high school student in a gap year, but I want mine to stay put. And while I admire entrepreneurs, given my ongoing and possibly unhealthy addiction to a regular paycheck, I’m more likely to start lactating than start a business.

As for traveling, I enjoy it very much, as evidenced by my recent trip to Italy with Mom. But most of the travelers Twitter suggests aren’t like me; they travel full-time and got their gigs by selling everything. I don’t know about you, but I travel to go on vacation. Traveling full-time while keeping an eye on my funds as they dwindle like hourglass sand sounds suspiciously like work, that thing that pays for the trips I take to escape it.

The psychics and paranormals are so entertaining that I don’t really care why Twitter thinks I should follow them. For example, here’s the profile for Adrian Lee, a guy who checks all the otherworldly boxes and then some:

Acclaimed author, founder of (TIPS) The International Paranormal Society, psychic, and host of the ONLY paranormal news quiz show – More Questions than Answers.

A paranormal quiz news show called “More Questions than Answers”? If there’s a better game show name out there, I don’t want to know about it. Though it would also be a great name for a show about my dating life. (You can find MQTA here. You know you can’t resist.)

And speaking of my love life, to the bots and trolls, I say thanks but no thanks. That’s what online dating is for.

 

The image of this happy cat is brought to you by Gadgetgo.com http://gadgetgo.info/2016/05/10/catterbox-is-a-cat-translator-collar/

The image of this happy Catterbox model is brought to you by Gadgetgo.com 

 

To write off, or not to write off? That is the (dating) question

As co-hosts of a podcast about dating and relationships, Philippa and I sometimes receive messages from listeners seeking advice. To show that we take these questions seriously (a statement we can’t always make about the answer), I’ll address in this forum one we received recently. But first, a little background.

Our listener, “Lisa,” was visiting friends out of town when she met a Person Of Interest (“POI.”). Though they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, Lisa and the POI really hit it off and agreed they wanted to see each other again. When Lisa returned home, she and the POI texted. During one of those exchanges, Lisa mentioned she’d found cheap airfare and could easily arrange a trip to the POI’s town. The POI said he’d like that but didn’t ask about dates or show other signs of enthusiasm. She volunteered a date. The texts began to decrease in both frequency and verbiage –he’d been busy, he wrote. He had not spoken of the proposed date. Then, a week or so after they’d last seen each other, he called her. It was a bold escalation in medium (or an act of aggression, if you ask Philippa). That date Lisa had suggested? Not good. He offered a vague excuse and, instead of proposing another date for her trip, said he’d figure out a time to come and see her.

Lisa is in her 40’s and not a dating novice, so she interpreted this to mean he’s seeing someone where he lives. The drop in text frequency and quality fit that theory, and she was ready to chalk it up as a loss. (I would have, too.)  Then, last Friday night at 9 or so, the POI sent her a “hey hot stuff” text. That might not have been weird if his other messages had been like that, but they hadn’t. In fact, there hadn’t been many other messages at all, so she figured “hot stuff” referred to someone else –I would have, too –and didn’t respond.

Two hours later, he texted again: “Nothing? I figured I’d at least get a laugh.”

A laugh? Why? Because she’s not hot stuff? Lisa scratched her head and responded that she was at dinner with a friend. Almost exactly 24 hours later, POI sent another erudite text: “hey hot stuff.” I suspect by then Lisa was hot. She didn’t respond. (I wouldn’t have, either.) He texted Sunday night to ask if she’d written him off.

She saw it when she woke up Monday morning and, before her caffeine had a chance to kick in, wrote, “No, just didn’t think those texts were meant for me.” She probably expected an explanation of some sort in response. (I would have.) Instead, she got: “How are you today?”

She wrote, “OK, *now* I’m writing you off.” Actually, she didn’t. That’s what I would have written. She’d already responded with a benign, “Fine, thanks” before she turned to us, so that golden opportunity was blown. Leaving that aside, the fact that Lisa came to the two of us for counsel -one of us a humorist and the other such a ghosting expert someone once referred to her as “Casper Hughes” –tells you a lot, namely: she came to the right place.

As a human being, I feel obligated to give her practical advice: I don’t think she owes the POI anything, not the benefit of the doubt or responses to future texts. They’ve spent little time together and don’t have the same level of interest in keeping something going, so it seems like a lot more trouble than it’s worth. Let it die of natural causes.

But as a humorist, I say: KEEP THE TEXTS ALIVE! And respond only in haiku, releasing one line at a time, every few hours. Had she followed that advice, she’d have responded to “how are you?” like this:

Fine! How you doing?

Wait, I meant *who* you doing?

Wait, who are you, yo?

So, Lisa, thanks for asking. We wish you the best of luck in dating, and remember those three little words: hey hot stuff.

Some things are classics, like Jane Austen, The Beatles, and…’80s Prom fashion

For Christmas a few years ago, my brother gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. I interpreted it as a loving gesture intended to help me hone my craft. He may have meant it as a way to get me to stop writing about my family, in which case he should’ve known that I’m not one to pick up on subtle hints. Besides, I’ll be happy to stop writing about them just as soon as they stop generating material.

But it was a fantastic gift –I’m gonna keep some of these questions in reserve for first dates — and today, Philippa and I are blog-dueling on one of my favorite of the 642 prompts:

What did you wear to Prom? How did you get your outfit, and what happened to it? 

In 1989, when I was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Prom was a rite of passage; nearly everyone wanted to go, including me. But wanting to go wasn’t enough: I needed a date. With no boyfriend and all of my guy friends spoken for, I started to stress. My good friend Kevin, aware of my situation, did some work behind the scenes and arranged for his pal “Bob” to ask me. Bob and I were acquaintances–  I’d always thought he was cute and nice –so I said “yes” and shifted the focus of my stress to getting a dress.

Fashion was not my forte, but it was one of the multitude of things my eldest sister, Suzi, did perfectly. She was always on point, even when the point seemed to have no point. (Popped collars, anyone?) Her sartorial skill even earned her the nickname “Fashion Plate” from my father. Though I didn’t exactly know what that kind of a plate was, I inferred that if Suzi was a plate, I was a bucket. A bucket with a massive hole at the bottom. The Plate, who was in her fourth year at UVA in Charlottesville, sensed my plight and offered to take me shopping without my even having to ask. I had only one criterion: I didn’t want my dress to look like everyone else’s.

“Then come down to C’ville and we’ll go shopping here,” she said. So I did.

Together, we went to Fashion Square Mall, affectionately referred to as “Fashion Scare,” and visited every store that carried dresses. Whatever allotment of patience was supposed to have been spread across me and my three siblings, Suzi got all of it, never seeming to tire of coming up with candidates for me to try on. To my untrained eye, though the dresses tried to combine different elements – sleeves poofed in direct proportion to the wearer’s bangs, bows capable of covering not just a butt but an entire zip code, ruffled bottoms – they all wound up looking the same. And they came in shiny, saccharine-sweet pinks, greens and blues that made my teeth hurt. I didn’t exactly know what my taste was, but I knew it wasn’t that. Suzi knew it too.

Eventually we wound up at an all-dress joint whose name escapes me, where my sister managed to pluck from the masses something my eyes would have skipped right over: a long, straight, black, strapless number with white piping along the top and a black and white skirt-like, slightly ruffled thing at the waist. Suzi informed me the functionally irrelevant skirty thing was a peplum (coincidence that it bears a close phonetic resemblance to “pablum”? I think not.). I guess the dress needed something to help it compete with my shelf of bangs. Regardless, Suzi nailed it. She’d found a dress that was not only different but made me feel grown-up and somewhat sophisticated.

Remember these?

On Prom night, Mom helped me get ready and then she, Dad, my brother and I went to the living room to take pictures while we waited for the limo bearing Bob and four of his friends to show up. Little did we know we would have had time not only to take photos, but to drive to the nearest Fotomat and have the film developed while we waited because, two hours after the appointed time, Bob still hadn’t arrived.

Am I being stood up?, I thought, just as my father said, “Do you think you’re being stood up?”

Mortification caused me to spontaneously combust, so now you know what happened to the dress.

I’m kidding, of course. Spontaneous combustion was a prayer that had gone cruelly unanswered.

I got the phone book and called one of the other girls, who said, “You mean Bob didn’t call to tell you they just left Scott’s house?” Uh, no, he didn’t.

When Bob finally arrived, I vaporized him on the spot. I’m kidding, of course. Vaporization was just another unanswered prayer. (For Bob too, if I had to guess.) Our group went to dinner and made it to Prom just before it ended. It still counted.

It took me a little while to thaw out, but after graduation, Bob and I stayed friends and went off to UVA. The dress did, too. I wore it to a formal in the Spring of 1990, with my then-best friend, Paul, as my date. Say what you will about the dress, but that particular friendship never went out of style.

prom-sidewaysedited

img_2010

As my friend Michelle put it, “Your dress is the least offensive by far.”

 

Set the world on fire, not your pet

Owning a pet is a big responsibility. You have to know things like what to feed it, which shots it needs, and the best method of extinguishment when it inevitably catches fire. I owned a Maine coon named T.C. many years ago, and if he were still around, I think he’d agree that I did pretty well on those first two but had room for improvement on the third.

Before I tell you that story, I owe you some background about T.C. I adopted him in 1997 as an antidote to the loneliness I feared might come as I moved into an apartment to live by myself for the first time. That fear was unfounded, but I was glad for it nonetheless because it led to one of the better companionship decisions I’ve ever made. We only had five years together before I had to have him put to sleep, a loss that was worse than any breakup I’d endured to date. I haven’t had a pet since, because no other animal could possibly meet the standard T.C. set. He loved people (and their food), attention, and toilet water. A furry slapstick comedian, he didn’t glide through the world with feline grace; he lumbered around like Godzilla. And in place of a dainty “meow,” he held forth with a gravelly yowl that made me wonder if he’d been raised on a diet of Marlboros.

When describing T.C. to a friend a few years ago, I used shorthand and simply said he’d been a very dog-like cat. The friend, a committed Dog Person, rolled his eyes and said, “That’s what every cat owner says.” Perhaps. But even if that’s true, some of those cat owners are right, and I’m one of ’em.

T.C. loved it when I invited people over  — one of my favorite things to do in my Big Girl apartment –and on the day in question, I had done just that. My friend Christopher was supposed to come over for dinner after work. My plan to come home and start cooking hit a major snag when I walked through the front door to find that T.C. had done some prep work of his own in the form of a vast, rust-colored hairball he’d deposited on the sofa.

A concerted Resolve campaign didn’t help much, so I bombed the area with dishwashing liquid and hot water. That did the trick, but it left in its wake a massive spot that I knew wouldn’t dry on its own before Christopher showed up. Panicked, I grabbed a hair dryer and trained it on the spot. It seemed to be working, so in an effort to speed things up, I pressed it against the fabric. The dryer’s whine became increasingly high-pitched and then I heard a strange pop. The whining stopped abruptly. A wisp of smoke curled out of the hair dryer and the smell of burned fabric wafted under my nose. Great. Not only had I not fixed the couch problem, but my apartment now smelled scorched. I was out of ideas and running out of time, so I lit a Yankee candle, set it on the coffee table, and called my friend Shel for advice. It wasn’t that I thought she’d know what to do so much as I thought Shel was the only person who, on hearing my story, might be able to stop laughing long enough to try to help.

I sat on the un-hairballed half of the couch, told her what I’d done, and waited for the cackling to subside. She began to think out loud. As I listened to her rattle off ideas that sounded like a cross between “Hints From Heloise” and the Three Stooges, T.C. leaped onto the coffee table and started walking across it, oblivious to the Yankee candle and on a path to stride right over top of it. The candle, by contrast, was very much aware of my cat’s proximity.

Its flame rose up, igniting the long hairs that hung from T.C.’s belly. He marched on, smoking yet still utterly clueless, as I interrupted Shel.

“I gotta go – my cat’s on fire!” I hung up, grabbed the wet towel I’d used in hairball cleanup, and went into action. My firefighting knowledge was limited to “Stop, drop and roll,” so I used the towel to grab the cat, and roll him on his back to smother the flames. He let out a yowl of irritation, another idyllic coffee table stroll rudely and inexplicably interrupted. He skulked off towards the kitchen, muttering as he went and leaving in his wake the unmistakable stench of burnt hair. I didn’t even have a chance to attack it before there was a knock at the door. Christopher.

On taking a few steps into my apartment, he furrowed his brow, wrinkled his nose and said, “Um, exactly what might you be cooking?”

This incident came to mind tonight when I had another friend over for dinner. As he was leaving, he noticed the plaque Shel gave me for my birthday this year. On prominent display in this very cool word collage that celebrates the highlights of our friendship is the phrase “pets on fire.”

“There has to be a story there,” he said. Indeed there is. And the moral of that storY? Where there’s smoke, there’s a fire, and possibly also a flaming cat.

img_1993

Team Yank celebrates a Hall of Famer

[My pal Philippa and I have just kicked off our version of National Blog Posting Month, where we cover the whole month by alternating days. It’s supposed to jump start my writing, or my insomnia, or both…]

Last weekend, my brother was inducted into the West Springfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: a very big deal.

L.J. never would have described it in those terms — “don’t get a big head” was one of my father’s mantras when my siblings and I were growing up, plus my brother is a humble team-player by nature–but statistics don’t lie.

As a right-handed pitcher for the West Springfield varsity baseball squad from 1991-1993, he helped the team win a State Championship, pitched on the silver medal-winning USA Junior National Team, landed repeat berths on the Washington Post’s All-Met Team, and was named the All-Met Player of the Year in 1993.  When the Minnesota Twins made him an 18th round draft pick in 1993, he opted instead to accept a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech, an engineering and Division 1 baseball powerhouse. In his first year on the talent-loaded Tech team, he helped pitch the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance. He was a perennial ACC Honor Roll-er, a two-time academic All-American, and the recipient of Tech’s prestigious Total Person Award in 1998, an honor given annually to two student athletes who excel on the field, in class, and in the community. (Did I mention that he’s also a nice guy? It’s true.) He closed out his pitching career at Tech with a record of 25-4, the third-best in Tech’s history at the time. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in 1998, L.J. was not just a member of the team’s pitching staff but also its only engineer. During five seasons, he pitched four hundred-plus innings in over 100 games on Braves teams in Macon, Myrtle Beach, Greenville (SC), and Richmond. He made it to AAA before injuries nudged him off the field.

Though he’d had a spectacular run, its ending was without spectacle, so this whole Hall of Fame thing gave our tribe an opportunity, however belated, to give my brother’s accomplishments their due. I can’t speak for anyone else in the family, but I really needed that second chance.

It’s not that I hadn’t known my brother was an incredible athlete; of course I did. I’d been aware that he was a gifted pitcher long before he got to West Springfield, though that’s when his true potential really began to show. Unfortunately, I simply failed to appreciate that time. I had just started college and was not merely determined but flat-out defiant about blazing my own, non-baseball trail. This might have been fine if I’d had any idea where that trail should go —navigation has never been my strong suit –or what my own potential was.  But I didn’t. So at the precise moment when I should’ve been cheering L.J. on with the rest of Team Yank, I was busy trudging through the Great Seeking Swamp (a place that’s easy to get stuck in but turns out not to be all that deep), my progress hampered by the fact that I had blinders on and my nose in my navel.  I went to my brother’s big games, but those gorgeous curve balls, sinkers and sliders whizzed past me just like they did all those hapless batters. I wasn’t present. When I emerged from the Swamp, at about the time when L.J. was heading to Tech, Team Yank didn’t act like I’d spent a couple of years warming the bench. I knew I had, though, and I knew I’d missed out on some great stuff.

So when the Hall of Fame news broke, I reacted with what my brother probably saw as extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not every day that a family member gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, and it’s certainly not every day that you get a second chance. A second chance may not be the same as a clean slate, because that botched first attempt lives on in your memory (and who knows where else), but that’s exactly what makes second chances so great: remembering what you screwed up the first time frees you up to make an altogether different mistake the next time. Or to learn from it. Or both.

Instead of reprising my role as benchwarmer, this time I helped rally Team Yank. Together, we compiled a video commemorating L.J.’s greatest moments, both on and off the field. It was some of our better work. In a nod to Dad’s “don’t get a big head” mantra, the off-the-field segment was part roast and part heartfelt tribute. There were cameo appearances by family, friends, and L.J.’s mullet (yes, the mullet was of such magnitude as to warrant a separate credit). There was a dramatic re-enactment of my brother’s pitching career, featuring every member of the family and the music of, who else, Barry Manilow.

But the real scene-stealer was L.J. After the ceremony and after we’d watched the video, when he’d earned the right to bask in the glow of his accomplishments and our family pride, my brother refused to stand in the spotlight by himself.

“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” he said.

Whether or not we all agreed with L.J.’s words, they shouldn’t have surprised us. I scoured a bunch of old articles in the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, and in every article that praised my brother, he credited and thanked his team, his teachers, his coaches. It seems he understood even 20 years ago the value of humility, and that you strive not so much for individual gain but to elevate those around you. I couldn’t be prouder of my brother, for what he’s done and who he is. And I think I speak for all of Team Yank when I say he’s definitely helped me raise my game.

img_1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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