Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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.



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 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.


A few pearls of wisdom, Yank-ed straight from the strand

People sometimes refer to my father as “a character.” The label probably fits, since he’s given me plenty of writing material, along with a book title. But I’ve also come to appreciate both him and Mom as unheralded fonts of wisdom. (On reading this, I bet the two of them will smack their foreheads: Forty-five years of sacrifice and they get one laudatory line in a blog. Not even a T-shirt.)

In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to cull through the various pieces of advice Dad has given me over the years and share five of my favorites:

  • “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” This sounds like an invitation to make rash decisions, but it wasn’t. It was Dad’s call to action any time we kids found ourselves frozen at the precise moment when a swift move was needed. On one such occasion, our family of six had gone crabbing on a brackish creek below an unused bridge in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Crabbing required nothing more than string, raw chicken, and a long-handled net, so it was a budget-friendly activity and we loved it. On the day in question, my parents had set us up with long pieces of string, a chicken part tied tightly at one end of each piece. With the string properly baited, all we kids had to do was hang on to the un-baited end and toss the chicken towards the water. Two measly steps– hang on, and toss –that’s all we had to remember. Yet one of us somehow forgot Step 1, causing the chicken to careen gracelessly through the air, hit the water with a resounding smack, and then sink, destined to become an all-you-can-eat buffet for our prey unless Dad managed to scoop it out. Like a surgeon who must keep his eyes glued to the patient, my father had to keep a bead on the sinking fowl. This meant someone had to hand him the net, and fast. Unlike a surgeon, Dad used something considerably louder than an Operating Theater Voice when he asked us to get him the net. The net, being no dummy, always chose moments like this to disappear. The four of us might have too, had panic not rooted us to our spots like 200 year-old redwoods. Soon we heard, “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” One of us, probably Suzi, snapped to attention and got the net. (I know it wasn’t me because I’m pretty sure I’m the one who forgot the “hang on” part.) I haven’t gone crabbing in a while, but that advice comes back to me whenever I need to be reminded that the regret of inaction will haunt me more than a mistake. It usually works, once I stop laughing.
  • Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” When I was a kid, this one cracked me up because it made no sense at all. Dad grew up on a farm in small-town Pennsylvania, so maybe he saw the occasional bear. We, on the other hand, lived in Springfield, Virginia, and even your most navigationally challenged bear was not inclined to roam the D.C. suburbs. We were carnivores, yes, but we stuck to beef, chicken and pork. I soon learned that saying was just Dad’s way of acknowledging that sometimes things don’t work out, a useful corollary to “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” Though I can’t speak for my siblings, I’ve given more than a few bears a case of indigestion.
  • “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” My father loves baseball and, as the coach of an American Legion team for over 25 years, has dispensed this piece of advice to his players (including my brother) hundreds of times. I’ve come to view it as not just the foundation for a winning offensive strategy but also a good metaphor. You don’t get an infinite number of at-bats, whether on the diamond or in life, and you have no control over pitch selection, so try not to waste the juicy ones.
  • “You know you can call it off if you want to.” In 1995, I was engaged to be married and living with my parents to save money. I had dated my fiancé for four years –we’d lived together for one of those –and an argument we had about careers had exposed larger, crucial conflicts we couldn’t resolve. I didn’t know how I felt about the relationship or our future. Yet the venue was already booked, a dress had been bought, and invitations were about to go out, so what could I do? Canceling it didn’t seem like an option. Soap opera characters did that sort of thing all the time but I didn’t know anyone in real life who had. As the days passed, my stress increased and I took up running as a way to deal with it. My parents didn’t say much about my new habit, so I figured they thought nothing of it. When I returned from a run one December afternoon and sat on the couch to catch my breath, Dad lowered the newspaper he was reading, looked at me, and said, “You know you can call it off if you want to.” And then he went right back to reading the paper. He’d been paying attention, all right. With a single sentence, Dad made sure I understood my happiness trumped lost venue deposits, a beautiful but useless dress, and the embarrassment of admitting I’d made a huge mistake. This episode and those words sprang to mind again in 2011 and gave me the encouragement I needed to end my ruinous marriage to the Lawnmower.
  • “That’s why you work.” This one’s a comparatively recent entry. When we were kids, we often heard Dad say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I took this to mean we should plan and save, something he and Mom excelled at. Making a single government salary stretch as far as those two did required serious skills in either gratification delay or money laundering. And I doubt it was the latter, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to wait until retirement to do all of their traveling. I was unaware of it at the time, but they made (and still make) enormous sacrifices for us because they, like most parents, want us to live better than they did. Since all four of us seem to be doing okay, Dad now encourages us to enjoy some of our earnings in the moment, responding to my Costa Rica trip announcement with a smile and a hearty, “That’s why you work.” Yep, Dad, that’s why. And also because it doesn’t grow on trees.

Happy Father’s Day to a true all-star, a Hall of Famer, and a legend in all the ways that matter. We love you, Dad!


Finding a way to pitch, even when all you want to do is hurl

Last Saturday, I went to Books Alive!, the Washington Independent Book Review’s annual conference.

The conference featured an impressive lineup of panels with publishers and renowned authors, but what really got my attention was the opportunity to spend five minutes pitching to as many as four agents: the writing equivalent of speed dating. I decided to adopt an analogous mindset by having high hopes, low expectations, and a very thick skin.

Unfortunately, I woke up that Friday with vertigo, a new and incapacitating experience. I spent the day in bed, unable to work on my pitch and questioning whether I’d even be able to attend the conference.

While prone, I busted out the Google long enough to read about a home remedy called the Epley Maneuver.  I called my sister Lynne, who has experienced every nausea trigger known to man at least once and has had vertigo so many times she’s a verti-pro. Of course she knew about the maneuver. It involves lying on a flat surface with your head hanging over the edge and having someone take it, twist it to certain angles, and hold it there in an effort to shake something loose, literally. During our childhood, my sister and I were on the constant lookout for opportunities to do something like this to each other (and we needed no medical provocation whatsoever). But when I asked Lynne to Epley me, she didn’t sound excited in the least. Some would view this as a sign that our relationship has matured, but not me. I knew it meant the Epley must be God-awful.

She came over on Friday afternoon and maneuvered me right in my kitchen. After the five-minute protocol, I felt like a hostage at the Magic Kingdom Mad Tea Party. On regaining my bearings, I felt better, but it was short-lived.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, the room had stopped spinning but I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to pitch so much as hurl.  Yet I’d spent $250 on registration fees and didn’t want to squander that or my first chance to talk to an agent in person about my writing, so I decided to give it a shot. In an act of kindness, the Universe scheduled three of my pitches in the morning and a fourth after lunch. Before the first group session began, I met up with my friend and writing pal, Kathy, and she convinced me to power through for as long as I could. I made it through an informative panel about publishing, as well as a great session about conspiracy theory by Stephen Hunter. (In case you’re wondering, he speaks the way he writes– with simple, rich language and lots of great words like “imbue”–and he offered an important pointer to all the fiction writers out there: you get one coincidence per book. That’s it. No wonder I write nonfiction: I average at least two coincidences per story.)

For a few minutes out of each session, I left to pitch. I soon learned the speed-dating analogy fit, down to the tiny tables bearing number signs and a “time’s up!” bell.

Some view introducing your writing to an agent and yourself to a speed-dater as very personal encounters, but I’ve come to believe neither is. In both scenarios, the participants get a mere glimpse into the other person before making a go/no-go decision. That’s rarely long enough for anyone to take what happens too personally. And because most people have experienced rejection at some point in their lives, they usually try to be nice, no matter which seat they’re sitting in. Usually.

I pitched to three agents, whom I’ll call A1, A2, and A3, before handing Kathy my fourth slot and going home. I had prepared two separate pitches, one for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing, and another for my book-in-progress.  The B-I-P is not in manuscript form yet, so I sought only feedback about whether I was on the right track, whereas I hoped to land Good Luck with an agent who’d want to re-launch it. I planned to choose my pitch based on the agent’s specialty.

I pitched the B-I-P to A1 and A3. They listened attentively, asked questions, and delivered honest, constructive feedback with kindness. It felt like a halfway decent speed-date, the writing equivalent of “I’ll call you.” If they thought I had wasted their time, they didn’t let it show.

The same could not be said of A2, to whom I intended to pitch Good Luck.

A2 dismissed that pitch with contempt and speed, asking after six seconds why I would waste our time together with that. I nearly asked A2 to pause so I could order a can of varnish, but I decided just to forge ahead with the B-I-P pitch. After all, I’d paid for this detonated bomb of a speed-date, so I wasn’t about to let anybody crawl out from under the wreckage until we’d both suffered for the full five minutes.

For four more minutes, A2 torched the B-I-P pitch, to which I responded with effusive, possibly aggressive, expressions of gratitude, like, “That’s fantastic feedback!” and “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this!”

I actually did appreciate it, even if the brand of rejection A2 served up was as appetizing as a dish my mother once made called “shipwreck.” I treated this heap of uninviting contents the way I did shipwreck: I mined it search of the good bits I knew lurked inside it. I’ve gathered those, added them to the other feedback I’ve accumulated, and am using it to improve my writing.

So, I’m glad I went to the conference and tossed out a few pitches. The experience reinforced my conviction that you can’t go into it, or speed-dating, with a fragile sense of self or in pursuit of validation. If you approach it instead with confidence in who you are and the humility that comes from knowing not everyone will love you, then a bit of rejection won’t send you staggering. That’s what your vertigo is for.

Wish I could've had Dad pinch-hit for me in the afternoon. He'd have loved this lineup!

Wish I could’ve had Dad pinch-hit for me in the afternoon. He’d have loved this lineup!






Not everybody can be somebunny

Following the likes of Adele and other great talents who take the occasional break from the limelight, I let someone else be the neighborhood Easter Bunny last year. Whereas Adele spent her time writing songs for an album that would go on to sell millions, I’d spent mine at Page After Page bookstore in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, hoping Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing would go on to sell hundreds. Okay, fine, tens.

Before going out on mascot sabbatical last year, I at least did the neighborhood the favor of upgrading the suit. At the risk of insulting the old costume, it definitely explains why we sometimes refer to clothes as “duds.” When I agreed to return to rabbit form for the annual egg hunt this past Saturday, I was looking forward to wearing a suit that didn’t have a demented face and eyeballs that might go airborne at the first hint of a breeze.

As Saturday approached, my excitement was tempered with a touch of nerves. Change is difficult for a mascot of my stature, and I knew this would be a transition year for reasons beyond the new suit: my previous handler and chauffeur, Sue, had taken herself out of the lineup this year. The departure of this talented veteran left me with vacancies at two key positions. I conducted an extensive search that consisted of combing my family’s ranks for members who are especially susceptible to bribes. The Roommates would have been my top choice, if only either of them had a driver’s license. I had to settle for my parents instead, and I bought them off with an early morning trip to see the Cherry Blossoms and then breakfast afterwards. What Mom and Dad lacked in tenure, they made up for with enthusiasm, probably because I’d pumped them full of caffeine during breakfast.

The event organizers and I had agreed that I would appear at the annual egg hunt at 10:10 a.m, so at 9:55, I put on the new suit. I noticed a major difference in quality immediately. Suit 2.0 was made of much sturdier stuff than the original, which increased its heft, along with my chances of suffocating inside of it. Not only was it hotter than the first suit, but the air holes, if there were any, did not come close to aligning with my mouth or nose.

As I frantically adjusted the head, Mom said, “There’s something wrong with the mouth.”

“You mean because there’s no air passing through it?” I said, gasping for breath as I yanked it off.

“No,” she said. “It looks funny.”

I was about to chastise her for prioritizing aesthetics over the threat of asphyxiation, but when I turned the head around to study the face, I had to agree: that rabbit looked truly down in the mouth, particularly on one side. He sported an expression I knew only too well, one that says, “I just had a root canal and won’t be able to feel the right half of my face for a week.” I began to worry about being the first mascot ever to drool.

Mom and I tried to turn that half-frown upside-down, but we couldn’t even coax it to lay flat. On realizing we were running out of time, Mom re-capitated me, and then she and Dad loaded me into the car. We’d been so caught up in fixing my face that I’d forgotten to tell my mother what to do. Since we had only a 90-second drive to the park, I gave her two simple instructions: 1. Keep me from maiming myself; and 2. Keep me from maiming small children. The last thing I needed was to trample a kid and touch off a Pamplona-style toddler stampede.

As she guided me into the park, Mom told me the egg hunt was in full swing. Because of the suit’s limited visibility, I usually rely on the sound of screams to tell me we’ve reached the spot where most of the kids are congregated. But this year I heard no evidence of children in distress. Instead, I heard only my mother’s ground report, which relayed the improbable news that kids were actually trying to get closer to me.

As they came up, most kids gave me a hug (including the stalker from my first year. I’m flattered that she’s still carrying a torch.). Several handed me their plastic eggs and one kid gave me a Hershey’s kiss. I showed my heartfelt appreciation for these gifts by grinning uselessly inside the suit and then either missing the delivery or dropping every item that was placed in my mitts.

Chillin' with my chauffeur

Chillin’ with my chauffeur

I was so surprised by this outpouring of affection that I didn’t realize anything was amiss with my costume until Mom said, “Wheat, you gotta get your head screwed on straight.” She’d probably been waiting 40 years for the perfect opening to give me that piece of advice. As usual, she was right: the Easter Bunny had the kind of head/body alignment problem no chiropractor could fix.

“I felt like I was in ‘The Exorcist,'” Mom said afterwards.

Thirty minutes and several gallons of sweat later, my handler guided me back to the car. She and my chauffeur agreed the appearance had been a huge success. I reflected on what caused this year’s unexpected surge in little kid affection and decided it was not my superior skills so much as sympathy. If mascot magnetism depends not on flashing a megawatt smile but in looking like you’ve survived dental trauma, I’ll be glad to host the pity party again next year.



I might be a little down in the mouth, but the kids are all right.




It’s not Easter without my Peeps.

I describe the child-free aunt experience as “all the joy of grand-parenting without the hassle of parenthood.” I don’t punish the niece and nephews, I’ve never had to conduct potty training, and none of my siblings has been foolish enough to put me in charge of a “Birds and Bees” talk. Yet. But every now and then, I get sucked into performing a distinctly parental function.

In 2013, for example, I took my niece to her cheerleading competition in Virginia Beach when her mother and father claimed to be on a trip in the Dominican Republic (I suspected they were really just in Fairfax, wandering the aisles of Wegmans, but I never could prove it). In 2014, I gave my eldest nephew lessons in driving stick shift. And just a few weekends ago, I wound up deep in the arts and crafts trenches with my nephew Timothy, suffering an acute attack of Science Fair Project Syndrome (“SFPS”).

I could blame my sister Lynne for inflicting SFPS on me, but in truth, it was my mother’s fault. I had gone to my parents’ house to cook dinner one Saturday night. I knew Timothy didn’t have plans, so I’d told Lynne to bring him over if he wanted to come. Not only did he want to, but he showed up with an overnight bag so he could come back to my house for a sleepover afterwards. I was thrilled, even though there hadn’t been time to plan the sort of special activity that’s the hallmark of my niece/nephew Date Nights.

When I mentioned this to Timothy, he said, “Too bad we can’t make another gingerbread house.”

Our last gingerbread house had gone entirely too well, so I’d have loved a chance to redeem myself and was about to say so when my mother said, “Hey, what about the Peeps?”

I knew Mom meant the Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest. Timothy, a connoisseur of both sugary treats and slapstick, was all over it. Mom, Timothy and I brainstormed while we washed dishes. By the time Timothy and I settled on the idea of depicting a typical D.C. black-tie gala and calling it “Dancing Peep to Peep,” it was already 7:30 p.m. I had plans to leave town by 9 the next morning and the contest deadline was Monday. The realization that we had less than 14 hours in total to complete the project brought on the first stirrings of SFPS, an intense panic caused by extreme deficiencies in time, materials, and expertise.

Mom recognized the signs right away, having survived dozens of bouts with SFPS herself, and tried to help. She ran to the basement and returned with a Nordstrom box. Its fold-up lid offered the makings of a ballroom floor and a back wall. Timothy and I grabbed the box, hightailed it out of my parents’ house, and headed to Target, making a mental shopping list as we went.

I should note here that Timothy and I are not arts and crafts people. We derive no joy from working with glue at any temperature. Months ago I wrote that if you were to create a Fantasy Christmas Decorating League and draft players from my family, I would get picked last. This is true, but only if we limit the team to adults. If we expand it to include minors, I would get drafted just ahead of Timothy, and neither of us would put our team in any danger of hitting a salary cap.

Timothy and I arrived at Target half an hour before the 9 p.m. closing, knowing we needed Peeps, materials to cover the dance floor, and glue. Timothy solved the dance floor problem when he spotted rolls of patterned tape in the school supplies aisle.

Pointing to a roll of 1/2″-wide blue tape that featured a very busy white pattern, he said, “That looks like the carpet at cotillion.” Timothy isn’t cotillion people, either, and his remark confirmed what I’ve long suspected: he spends most of his time looking at the rug. But it was a brilliant choice as dance floor coverings go.

Being long on vision and short on realism, Timothy and I thought we could jazz up the ballroom by adding columns and making a ceiling from which to hang a disco ball. (Your better art revolves around a disco ball. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, a disco ball is always involved.) We found no suitable column materials at Target. I promised him we’d find something at my house, though I had my doubts. My home is full of things that come in handy when you want to hit the Pinot Grigio, not the Pinterest. 

By 9:15 p.m., diorama construction had begun. I handed the dance floor tape to Timothy and he went to work. I watched as he lavished on the diorama a level of attention his math homework will never see. But even with his heightened focus, the “carpet” had been laid down in a way that might make you question the sobriety of the installer.  Timo

Those who’ve suffered from SFPS know this is precisely when one of its most vexing symptoms –a powerful urge to take over the project–manifests, emanating from a deep desire to win and/or get at least 2 hours of sleep. I tried to keep it at bay by going off in search of column materials. I opened a closet, spotted several wire dry cleaner hangers and realized the white cardboard cylinders around the base of the hangers would work perfectly.

I returned to the kitchen, hangers in hand.  Moments later, one of those hangers was really in hand: I sustained a flesh wound while separating the cardboard cylinders from the hangers. As I bled copiously on our project and scanned the kitchen for tourniquet materials, I abandoned the idea of columns. 

Just then, Timothy said, “How will we split the prize, Aunt Wheat?” I had no answer, focused as I was on having split my thumb. 

I got Timothy’s consent to revise our architectural plans. We agreed to concentrate on the details that would make the project special, or at least funny. I made a mini disco ball from a wad of tinfoil and we suspended it from a string of tiny LED lights we’d found at Target. We added a DJ Peep who wore  headphones, which we made by cutting two small circles out of my Jambox case and connecting them with the loopy wire from a wine glass charm. (I had plenty of those to spare.) 

We made “records” out of furniture pads. DJ Dr PeepAnd, because women always outnumber men in DC, we added a wallflower peep, hanging out next to a planter o’ jellybeans.

We quit at 11 p.m. and returned to the job site 8 hours later. 

I had felt we should clothe the Peeps, though a literal interpretation of “strictly black tie” had its appeal. With no time to get fabric, we devised outfits from some heavy-duty, patterned construction paper I happened to have. The patterns added some pizazz but the paper was rather rigid, making the female Peeps look like they’re wearing fashion cowbells. 

We did what we could and then I headed out of town. As I prepared to submit our entry after work the next day, I was seized by a powerful perfectionistic urge, the most painful symptom of SFPS by far. I tried to subdue it but could not resist adding back panels to two Peep dresses that lacked them. (Never mind that most black-tie events would benefit from a good, old-fashioned mooning.) I snapped photos of our work, uploaded them to the Post site, and clicked “submit.”Peep to Peep

The winners were announced this week. If only the Post had included a “sprint” category, we might have made it onto the podium. But Timothy and I had so much fun, I bet we’ll do it again next year, assuming I’ve recovered from my SFPS by then. 




Bread (and milk and toilet paper) and Circus

Last night I met my friend “Eric” for happy hour in Chinatown. Our friendship, which goes all the way back to my Orange Hunt Elementary and Lake Braddock Secondary School days, had been dormant for a decade or more, so I was looking forward to waking it up. 

To avoid the hassle of trying to find parking in that area, I decided to Uber and arrived at the restaurant at 5:30. When Eric and I emerged at 8, a dusting of snow coated the ground. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see it. A radio forecast I’d heard that afternoon mentioned the possibility in passing, and then, like a football team that mentally moves on to the next game while before winning the game currently in progress, encouraged residents to go ahead and pre-panic for this weekend’s Potentially Monumental Snowfall. Because no one wants to be caught off-guard when PMS hits.

I requested an Uber for my trip home and the app informed me there would be a surge charge of 3.8 times the normal fare. It asked if I still wanted a ride. With my home a mere 6 miles away from the restaurant, five words that sealed my doom scrolled through my brain: How bad could it be?

The Uber arrived and I got in. 

One hour, one mile and $50 later, I ditched Uber. Clad in fashion boots, a skirt and tights –I had at least worn a reasonably weather-worthy coat and a pair of gloves– I began the three-quarters of a mile walk to the Metro stop at Farragut West. I forced myself not to think about how I could have saved an hour, $50, and an unplanned stroll had I just gotten on the Metro in Chinatown, a block from the restaurant.

At Farragut West, I was greeted by an uncooperative fare machine, which meant I missed the next train and had to spend $20 on a Smartcard I don’t need. In fact, based on the way things were going, I shouldn’t have been in possession of anything bearing the label “Smart.”

I caught a Silver Line train twenty minutes later and soon had reached my stop at East Falls Church, just over a mile from my home. I had been operating under the mistaken belief that cabs would be lined up at the station, eager to benefit from people like me. I saw not a single cab. I began the 1.1 mile walk home, which actually was uphill, in the snow, in my boots. When I was a quarter-mile from home, I began to celebrate my good fortune in being reasonably close to public transportation and healthy enough to walk the few miles to it in my work clothes. I even patted myself on the back for having bought boots constructed of all man-made materials that don’t breathe at all. They were keeping my toes warm, so who cares if they make my feet sweat 90% of the time? 

I reveled in these thoughts and my proximity to home, oblivious to the fact that The Universe might be listening. The Universe reveres humility. It does not reward those who engage in congratulatory self-talk, especially when such talk celebrates an inadvertently astute footwear purchase. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when The Universe knocked my legs out from under me, causing me to do a complete and total butt-plant. Actually, it was more like a butt-plant/wrist-jam combo because, once I lost my balance, I reached out in a failed attempt to brace myself. Speaking of which, I’d like to have a word with whoever is responsible for human evolution. If humans in the act of falling universally and instinctively reach out to brace themselves, could you please give us something sturdier to use than the wrist? It’s like trying to prop up a refrigerator with a toothpick. 

I stood up, checked to see if The Universe had held up a score card, and limped home. As I changed out of my work-turned-workout clothes, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed one of the hoop earrings I’d been wearing–my very favorite pair, given to me by a dear friend–was missing. So not only had The Universe knocked me flat, but it sent me home looking like a pirate. 

When I woke up this morning, my toothpick hurt like hell and I thought I might have fractured it. I went to urgent care, got X-rays, and was diagnosed with a severe sprain, though I learned a fracture may not show up for a few days. So I’d also like a word with the people who are always telling you to seek prompt medical attention. Evidently sometimes you should be fashionably late. 

From the urgent care I went to the grocery store, which, based on inventory levels, had last been stocked in 1923. Every vegetable or legume ever canned and/or bagged had been purchased. Even the beets were gone. I think we can all agree that nothing heralds the Apocalypse like a run on beets. And when I say the place had gone bananas, I mean it, because the only variety of bananas they had were the gone kind.

And common sense, the one commodity we all really need to stock up on when it snows around here? Long gone.

We probably won’t see it again for at least a week, so here’s hoping everyone rides out the PMS in warmth and safety!

The Universe probably didn't like it when I snapped this pic of a 6-car pileup on a side street, either.

The Universe probably didn’t like it when I snapped this pic of a 6-car pileup on a side street, either.

Getting hung up on Christmas lights and letters to Santa Claus

My father’s had some health problems recently, so my sister Lynne and I –the local Yanks– helped my parents get their house ready for the holidays this year.

There are two types of people when it comes to holiday decor: those who deck the halls (and the walls and the alls) and those whose efforts start and end with slapping a wreath on the front door. My mother hails from the first camp. She hauls out the holly, puts candles in the window, and pretty much covers the full set of lyrics from “We Need A Little Christmas.” She even has seasonally appropriate dinnerware.

I come from the second camp.

I put up a Christmas tree and that’s it. A gorgeous live wreath adorns my door every year, yes, but only because my dear friend LC makes it and puts it there. No candles in the window, no outdoor lights, and certainly no changing of the dinnerware. In fact, if Mom had to put together a Fantasy Christmas Decorating Team from a pool consisting of me and my siblings, I would get drafted last by far, and only if the other three went out on injured reserve or got suspended by the league. Which might as well have been what happened this year, because I was the one kid who was available when it was time to hang the lights.

Mom and I got it done, but in taking me on as an apprentice, she missed out on Suzi’s first-born perfectionismmy brother’s engineering meticulousness, and Lynne’s tenacity. What she got instead was my legendary impatience, tempered with irreverence. At some point, Mom handed me a garnish I flat-out didn’t understand, some round, piney thing meant to go atop the lamppost like an evergreen hat and said, “It’s supposed to look Victorian.” I looked at it and agreed that it did, in the sense that I felt like beating the Dickens out of it.

Though trying at times, this process was not without its rewards: while searching for various decorations, Mom and I came across letters my sister Suzi and I had written to Santa Claus. Judging from their contents, they had to have hailed from 1982 or so. Though no one knew it at the time, those letters held strong clues about the career paths Suzi and I would eventually take.

I wrote:

Dear Santa Claus,

I hope you gave everyone else what they wanted. My list is very simple. It consists of 2 tIMG_0305hings, of which you might not be able to bring me. If these two are not possible, anything would be just great. Please include in your letter that you couldn’t bring me these items. Love and [Hershey] kisses,

Karen Yankosky


1. A guitar (That is an item you probably can’t bring

2. Hooked on Classics (It’s a record)

Clearly I had lawyer instincts even then because I started out  trying to get on the judge’s good side with a bit of harmless insincerity. Like all respectable attorneys, I then launched into a reasonable yet dispassionate petition in favor of my requests (“I’m only asking for two things here, pal, and one of them is a record. Never mind that this record is to classical music what Cheez Whiz is to camembert, I want it anyway.”). I also like how I included the actual wishes not in the body of the letter but as an exhibit, and how I requested documentary proof in the event my petition wasn’t granted. I can only assume I was preparing for appeal.

Suzi, who many years later would go on to a career in marketing, took a completely different tack in her letter.


At the age of 15, she not only knew some things about Santa that I didn’t, but she also already understood one of the most important principles of selling: if you’re not sold on your own product, no one else will be. She let Santa know in the clearest terms she was convinced she’d been good, and if he wasn’t, well, that was his problem. Unlike me, she didn’t bog down her letter with exhibits or any other clutter. She made her ask and then she got the heck out of there, spewing sales-y schmooz as she went because she grasped that relationships matter.

We both got what we wanted that year, for reasons having far more to do with our parents’ goodness than our own.

These days, our lists include things we covet more than a guitar or coat but can’t acquire with mere claims of niceness, such as our parents’ health and happiness. We know those things are gifts, and it sure can’t hurt to keep them on the list.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you, and may you get everything that’s on your list.



That’s the way the cookie crumbles: adventures in gingerbread house construction

Two years ago, I went to Target and bought one of those ready-to-decorate gingerbread house kits, thinking it would be a fun thing to do with the Roommates during one of our pre-Christmas date nights. The house featured on the box cover looked like a standard center-hall Colonial, somewhat stylistically similar to the house the Roommates lived in, except their parents hadn’t allowed them to festoon the roof with candy.


The kit claimed to eliminate the worst step in the process–baking the cookies–and I believed it. Given walls manufactured to the correct specifications, I figured the rest should be as easy as assembling a pre-fab house. Since I have no experience whatsoever with assembling pre-fab houses, that proved a very poor foundation from which to start.

Speaking of foundations, the kit did not provide one, which I did not discover until we opened it. Even a pre-fab homebuilding rookie like me understood we might be in trouble if we were relying on a piece of cardboard covered with tinfoil to hold this thing up. As I read the diagram it became clear the walls were supposed to do all the work of keeping the structure vertical, a mechanical engineering feat accomplished through proper wall placement and the use of powdered sugar frosting to adhere the walls to each other.

I held up a side wall and slathered its edges with icing. Then I instructed the Roommates to grab the shorter walls and press them to my side wall at a 90-degree angle, give or take. We held that position for two minutes and then did the same thing with the remaining side wall. After letting the walls dry for a few minutes, I laid the two roof pieces atop the walls with the deft, delicate touch of a neurosurgeon. (It should be noted that I know less about neurosurgery than I do pre-fab homebuilding.)

The structure remained upright, giving us the impression that it might be able to withstand some gentle decorating. But as my niece attempted to apply a gumdrop, the wall on my nephews’s side started to collapse. Pretty soon the whole thing fell down as if it had been made of a royal flush rather gingerbread.We tried to rebuild three times and then gave up. We settled for decorating the slabs and then laying them on the foil-covered cardboard in a mysterious pattern, like a cookie Stonehenge.

The Roommates and I had another Date Night planned last night, and I decided it would be hilarious to have another gingerbread house kit waiting for them. I spotted one while shopping at Trader Joe’s yesterday and tossed it in my basket without paying much attention. Had I taken a closer look, I’d have seen the TJ design reflected a major architectural shift: they’d ditched the center-hall colonial in favor of an A-frame chalet.

The Roommates and I unpacked it last night and saw right away that it included a slab, as your better pre-fabs do. The slab had a hole at each corner, into which we spread icing and then sunk the footers for the front and back walls. They seemed pretty steady. The roof pieces, which were meant to rest on the ground rather than the top of the walls, leaned against each other perfectly, making the line of icing we applied to the top seam of our gingerbread teepee nearly superfluous.

gingerbread 1

Structural soundndess is overrated.

We felt confident enough in the soundness of the whole thing to plop the people and dogs TJ had included in the package right in the front yard. Death by gingerbread/frosting avalanche seemed unlikely.

As we studied the house and noted its disappointing resemblance to the one featured on the box cover, our faces all said the same thing: it looked nice enough, but we’d had a lot more fun when the walls came tumbling down.

gingerbread final