Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, Sooz, we sure do. Happy 50th birthday to a sister for whom they sky’s the limit.
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A love letter to the house that has heart

My parents put their home of 45 years on the market on Thursday, leaving me with a burning question: will the new owners let me raid the pantry? Because let’s face it: my decades-long habit of walking through that very same door and heading straight for the kitchen will be tough to break.

Kidding aside, I’m glad my parents decided to downsize and to part with the house “while they’re still friends,” as my sister Suzi put it. She’s right. Mom and Dad have earned a break from maintaining four bedrooms and three levels’ worth of a house, including a driveway that required shoveling six days ago. But it still felt weird to see the listing on a real estate website.

The description of the property included factual stuff –four-bedroom Colonial in Orange Hunt Estates, built in 1972, carport, updated kitchen with granite counters and maple cabinets, hardwood floors on two levels, updated baths, finished basement, central air, .26 acre yard — sterile information buyers want to know about the structure that’s been our house. But it doesn’t tell them a thing about our home.

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Fishing pole seeing some great Outer Banks action…

The carport, for example, is bounded on one side by a brick wall against which my three siblings and I hit tennis balls and kicked soccer balls for hours, leading our parents to consume horse-tranquilizing amounts of Tylenol. The back wall of the carport has a shed that held a fleet of bikes, including the first one I ever rode, as well as a structurally unsound purple thing we kids saw as the Bike of Last Resort. The purple wobbler tried to kill me and my sister Lynne on two separate occasions, leaving me with a mild concussion and her with road rash.

Rafts, fishing poles, crabbing nets and other essentials we took on our week-long trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks every summer also lived in the shed, as did the rake my father took out every fall. We kids recognized the appearance of the rake as a sign that we were supposed to help bag up the leaves that blanketed our back yard, a chore we hated. We knew better than to whine –that never worked with Dad –so we punished him with ineptitude instead. The hand-eye coordination that enabled us to hit baseballs and tennis balls with aplomb mysteriously vanished the moment we bent over a pile of leaves.

“When you kids don’t want to do something,” Dad would say/mutter/yell, our cue to slink off in silent victory.

Though we hated the leaves, we loved the backyard. It was our soccer field, gridiron, and baseball diamond, and on summer nights it formed part of a flashlight tag venue that spanned two streets. No real estate listing would mention that. Or tell you how, every so often, a baseball or soccer ball would go crashing into the kitchen through the window over the sink.

We ate dinner in the kitchen as a family almost every night. In the early years, we had a formica table that sagged in the middle like a swaybacked mule. If a person seated at one end of the table needed something at the other, we didn’t bother to pick up the item and pass it. We just gave it a good shove and watched it slide to the other end like an air hockey puck.

We had a more majestic ensemble in the dining room for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The company of assorted relatives and friends often extended our holiday table all the way into the living room. Whether feeding six people or thirty, Mom would take her consistently outstanding cooking up a notch, producing perfect turkeys, gorgeous pies, and our beloved Easter pizza gaina. But what I remember most of all are the stories we told and the laughter that went on for hours.

And what about the family room, where we napped, read the newspaper, and watched the Super Bowl? The listing takes note of the fireplace but not the fact that we barely used it for a fifteen-year stretch because I had guinea pigs that lived in cages on the hearth. I’d always wanted a dog but my parents refused, opting to let me get domesticated rodents instead. Because I treated the pigs like dogs–there was even an unfortunate episode involving a leash — they lived forever. Mom and Dad probably should’ve gone for the dog.

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At some point, Mom hung a framed copy of Renoir’s Young Girls at the Piano above our old Kimball. The girls, and their poses, reminded her of me and Suzi. (Renoir Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Then there’s the living room. My brother, L.J., took trumpet lessons from a family friend there, and that’s where I learned how to play the piano, a skill that earned me the occasional reprieve from the dinner dishes. Suzi played a bit too, so sometimes we teamed up for throwback duets like “Tea for Two” and “Heart and Soul.” We also hosted dozens of sing-alongs in the living room, though my sister Lynne’s unforgettable, operatic renditions of “Swans on the Lake” always took place from the landing leading upstairs.

Speaking of the upstairs, both full baths are up there. Because Mom and Dad claimed one –something we kids regarded as an injustice but now recognize as a small and well-deserved concession to privacy–the four of us were expected to share the other. We did not get equal time, and it’s no coincidence that Suzi looks good in pretty much all of her childhood photos. Just sayin’.

All four bedrooms are upstairs, too. Mom and Dad once again rudely claimed one for themselves, leaving three for us kids. Until 1976, that worked just fine, but then my brother was born. This destroyed any hopes Lynne had of getting her own room, which probably explains why the one she and I shared for years radiated all the easy calm of the Gaza Strip. We fought constantly and forged short-lived truces of convenience, such as the time we jointly lobbied our parents to divide the room with a brick wall. And there was the color scheme–pale green walls, a fuchsia rug and light yellow spreads on our canopy beds– for which I am chiefly to blame. What was meant to achieve a “Rainbow Connection” effect looked instead like an acid trip.

Suzi’s room, a lavender oasis, was where she honed her clarinet-playing skills until she was one of the best in the state.

L.J. also had a room to himself and went on to play professional baseball, so just imagine what Lynne and I could have become if only we’d had our own rooms. But I digress. The wall above L.J.’s bed was decorated with a huge circle comprised entirely of pennants, most from the Philly teams our family can’t seem to abandon. My brother gave the hallway outside his bedroom a unique accent one day when, while doing strength exercises with a stretchy rubber tube that had a baseball attached to one end, he accidentally let go of the baseball and sent it flying right through the drywall.

Next to L.J.’s room was the laundry chute, a feature that not only made a mundane chore easier but doubled as an intra-house communication device.

Any contents we sent down the chute landed in a box in the basement, the space where we wiled away happy hours playing with the Death Star and Millennium Falcon, holding marathon ping-pong tournaments, creating communities out of Legos, and watching quality programming like “The A-Team” once a second TV set arrived.

Things weren’t always perfect in our house, though. We occasionally slammed the doors in anger. And my siblings and I sometimes begged for more room, never realizing that sharing space so often, unwittingly creating lasting memories together as we went, is precisely what has made us the best of friends.

That house is the place where we took prom pictures, relaxed during Spring and Fall breaks, celebrated my parents’ 25th anniversary, and showed all seven of my siblings’ kids how to yell into the laundry chute. It’s a place where people love to gather, where friends don’t hesitate to drop in unannounced.

Unpretentious outside and rock-solid inside, that house, and the two people who bought it in 1972, gave us an incomparable luxury: a place to feel centered.

It is the only place our family of six has ever called home. Though it’s hard to say goodbye, we and the house part as far more than friends. It has held the heart of our family for 45 years, and we will always love it.

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.

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!

We didn’t shoot our eyes out, but…

As an antidote to a macabre few days that claimed George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in rapid succession, I figured I’d write a wrap-up of the Yank Christmas.

Before I do that, though, I understand why lots of people are shaking their fists at 2016 and yelling, “ENOUGH!” It’s been a Sith Lord of a year for many people in many respects. Losing in a twelve-month period those three luminaries, as well as the likes of Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and John Glenn — people who dreamed and dared, who lived with sometimes painful authenticity, whose music, characters and sheer bravery inspired many of us during adolescence and upon whom we were counting to keep us company at least through middle age — has felt for some like insults heaped atop injury. I get it. If you ask me, the most constructive thing we can do is treat 2016 as a cast-iron-skillet-to-forehead reminder not to be complacent, not to take who and what we have for granted, and to be humble. (That last one could be very important for the President-Elect, not that anything can penetrate that forcefield of hair.)

Where was I? Oh right, the holiday wrap-up.

We who celebrated Christmas have had six days to tunnel our way out of the discarded wrapping paper avalanche, which means many of us are now in the process of completing the Retail Circle of Life by exchanging the “thoughtful” gifts we got for stuff we actually wanted.

I got to skip that process, because my Christmas featured everything I wanted: family, friends, love and laughter.

It began at my sister Lynne’s house. I spent the night there on Christmas Eve because, as one of the Roommates pointed out, I’ve done that since 2011 –when I was living in their basement because I was getting divorced –and it is now tradition. Those two sure know how to make lemonade from lemons. At 12 and 14, the kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but nevertheless get excited about Christmas because they know they still have a shot at getting something other than clothes. Even Buddy, the family dog, seemed excited. (Then again, Buddy views projectile vomiting as a festive occasion, so his excitement bar is set low.)

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Before (and tell me this isn’t a thing of beauty).

My parents live fifteen miles away from Lynne and always come on Christmas morning to join in the festivities. In years past, they arrived at Lynne’s house by 6 a.m. so as not to miss a minute of gift-opening action. The Roommates felt magnanimous this year and agreed to move the start time all the way back to 7. Mom and Dad showed up right on time and, like the Three Wise Men, came bearing gifts. Because not all hosts enjoy frankincense and myrrh, Mom instead brought three homemade pies: pumpkin, chocolate, and apple. All three could have done duty as Gourmet cover models, but Mom’s apple pie – a cinnamon-spiced, double-crusted, exquisite creature with lumps in just the right places- won the pageant. Mom put the beauty queen on the sideboard in my sister’s dining room, a suitably dignified place for it to bide its time until dinner that night.

They came into the family room and the gift-opening frenzy got underway. We were maybe thirty minutes into the festivities when we heard a loud thump from another room.

“Buddy!” Lynne shouted.

I made a beeline for the kitchen. Buddy tends to hang out where the food lives, so I figured that’s where he’d gone. Nothing.

The other half of the search party, my brother-in-law Paul, had headed for the dining room. There, he caught Buddy paying homage to A Christmas Story and doing his best imitation of the Bumpus Hounds on my mother’s beautiful apple pie.

For a tense moment, no one knew what to do. But then we all got dressed, hopped in the car and headed to a Chinese restaurant. Just kidding. We all looked at Mom, and she shrugged it off because her grandchildren, even the furry ones, get a pass for pretty much everything.

Buddy calls this "a good start."

After, or as Buddy calls it, “a good start.”

After we’d all committed to eat around the Buddy spots, the gift melee resumed and I opened a bag that held an R2D2 apron – a wink to my recent road trip – that I wore for the rest of the day.

I kept it on when I paid a visit to a dear friend whose mom passed away right after Thanksgiving. To maximize the effect, I had also conscripted my parents and made them hold up a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” sign. Our cheer bomb also came loaded with a plate of Mom’s incomparable Christmas cookies, and for at least a few minutes, my friend smiled. 15747358_10211426162756066_4574908933500634748_n

From there, the three of us went to see my friends Dave and Donna. I’ve known them since the fall of 1998, when Dave and I were first year law students at George Mason University. Circumstance drew us together – he’s wheelchair-bound and I was assigned to be his notetaker – and it’s been my enduring good fortune to count the two of them and their three kids among my closest friends ever since. Somewhere along the way, I became a part of their Christmas tradition. I show up, have a beverage, play a few Christmas carols on their piano, and then go on my merry way. I don’t remember how or why it started, but I’m glad it did. I’m also a little surprised, considering some of the things that have gone spectacularly awry when I’ve visited. Their three kids, who were wearing footie pajamas when I first met them back in 1998, are now all grown and launched, and all three were in residence when my parents and I knocked on the door last Sunday. Dave was in particularly high spirits because, in a nod to his Swedish heritage, Dave’s son had made a gigantic batch of a wine-based beverage called Glögg, a compound word formed by the union of “glue” and “slog.” Actually, I rather liked the stuff. And truth be told, even though it seemed to make my fingers stick to the ivories when the time came for the annual mini-concert, it’s really more like paint thinner than glue.

From there our fearsome threesome went back to Lynne’s house for Christmas dinner with the Roommates, my brother-in-law, and two people who long ago transcended the “friend” category and are full-on family. The nine of us spent the next five hours telling stories, laughing ’til our sides hurt, and assaulting the eardrums of innocent bystanders with a sing-along that featured Christmas carols and such old standards as “You Light Up My Life” and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” It was enough to make you beg for Glögg.

I hope your holiday was, if not as loud, at least as merry. And may the Force be with you as you head into 2017.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both know I’ve gone further for less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Uh, well, really soon.

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

Him: Are you going alone?

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

Him: Who are you going with?

Me (still knocking): Um, this guy…

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

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

Him: Wait, are you downstairs?

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

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

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

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

 

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:

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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.

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

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Like my creds?

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.

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

 

You can dress ’em up, and sometimes that’s plenty

You know what holiday makes me appreciate and respect my mom even more than Mother’s Day? Halloween, because that was when her Make-It-From-Scratch skills reached their zenith. 

That’s really saying something, too, because my mother could and can figure out how to do just about anything and do it well. A self-taught cook, she made magic in the kitchen (except for that one time when she made shipwreck, but hey, we all screw up sometimes). She not only owned a sewing machine but knew how to use it, sometimes to make clothes but more often to perform non-elective surgery on pants, dresses, shirts and stuffed animals. And she’s resourceful, a trait that really came in handy during the pre-internet 1970’s and ’80s, when I was coming of age. 

Way back when, a month or so before Halloween, Mom would ask what we wanted to be that year. In hindsight, that question alone astonishes me. If I had four kids deeply involved in tennis, baseball, band, swimming, soccer and piano, I’d be in triage mode until October 29 at the earliest and wouldn’t ask a question any more open-ended than, “Which one are you, again?” I picture myself gathering the kids ’round the laptop for a festive Amazon.com session during which I’d ask them which costumes they’d like that are under $25 and can be delivered free by drone. Not Mom, though. She let our Halloween imaginations roam and then did a heroic job of keeping up with them, no matter what it took.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I bring you a few entries from Mom’s Homemade Costume Hall of Fame (you’ll have to supply your own Barry Manilow soundtrack):

  • Miss Piggy: For some reason, my sister Lynne identified with this Muppets character and her diva ways (perhaps the steadfast refusal to carry a tune awakened a kindred spirit in my sister?), so that’s what she wanted to be for Halloween one year. Rising to the challenge, Mom didn’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; it was almost the other way around. She fashioned a snout from a Dixie cup, which she covered in pink felt. She made and attached to the Dixie snout a set of rosy, stuffed cheeks, which in turn were affixed to a strap that somehow met at the back of my sister’s head. The above-the-head portion of the ensemble was rounded out with a headband into which was wedged a pair

    The Miss Piggy costume Mom made was waaaay better than this, though her failure to accessorize with wine in a plastic cup is a serious oversight.

    of stuffed pig ears, sewn by Mom. In place of Miss Piggy’s signature lavender gown? Mom’s purple polyester bathrobe.

  • Jailbirds: Whether it was career foreshadowing or something more benign, in the late 1970s, my best friend, Liz, and I insisted on dressing up like a pair of convicts. Our knowledge of incarceration fashion was limited to cartoons, according to which orange was not the new black; horizontal zebra-stripes were au corante. To achieve that look, my mother and Liz’s mom took white undershirts from our respective dads, put down masking tape or something like it in horizontal stripes spaced an inch or two apart, and took a can of black spray paint to the un-taped remainder. They did the same with white corduroy pants and then made us accessories in the form of striped, brimless hats. The pièce de résistance was the ball-and-chain. The moms somehow sewed two black spheres and stuffed them with newspaper for the ball part. And don’t ask me where, but somehow they found chain loops made of bamboo or something similarly lightweight –the light fixture in our family room may have sacrificed something to the cause — that our little kid legs could drag around without fear of injury. (Wait a minute, is that what happened to my glam-string?!?!)
  • An Ewok: The Force was pretty much always with my brother. L.J.’s Star Wars addiction began before kindergarten, so it was just a matter of time before he requested one of the characters from the movie series. How in the world could Mom hope to replicate this furry, fictional forest critter? She took a set of footie pajamas and attempted to dye it brown. If she was aiming for burnt umber, she wound up with toasted marshmallow. Then she made custom headgear. (My brother hastened to clarify the term “headgear” here refers not to the orthodontic torture device I wore for the better part of 200 years but rather to a mascot topper.) According to L.J., Mom bought light brown furry material and covered most of the head with it, and then she added a piece of darker felt to depict the Ewok’s raccoon-like eye mask. Even Steven Spielberg would have been impressed.
  • The World Serious: My brother was into baseball at an early age, by which I mean an age where you, upon hearing a term like “World Series” and having no idea what either “world” or “series” means, may make a wee bit of a mistake when you try to pronounce it. L.J. heard the phrase as the “World Serious” and wanted that to be his costume. My mother took his World Serious request world seriously and re-created the 1986 showdown between the Mets and the Red Sox by somehow sewing together jerseys and hats from both teams. As my brother put it, “whichever side of me you saw, you got a ballplayer for one of the teams.” And trick and a treat, and a costume grand slam.

Thanks to my mom and all the other moms out there who set an impossibly high bar in the Halloween costume department. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some shopping to do on Amazon.

T2 wasn't alone in his costume cluelessness.

Last year’s find, courtesy of Target.

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.

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