Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

How I became a fan of The Fan, and other alarming signs of middle age

Over the course of the past year, I embraced the surest sign of middle age there is: talk radio.

When I was growing up, radio was my primary source for music. I listened to Casey Kasem’s “Top 40 Countdown” nearly every Sunday, waiting with breathless anticipation to find out which song snagged the top berth and keeping my tape recorder close by to make bootleg copies of my favorite tunes along the way. What I liked best about music on the radio then was the element of surprise. You never really knew which song would come up when – the only way to summon up a song on demand back then was to call the radio station and make a request – and if you wanted to know which song topped the Billboard list for that week, you had to tune in to the Countdown.

If video killed the radio star, the internet killed the element of surprise on music radio (and pretty much everywhere else, too). No longer do we wait to hear a favorite song or to find out where it falls in the ranks of popular music; we Shazam it, type some text into a search window, and we’re done. The efficiency we gained is great, but we sacrificed that sense of suspense that made it fun to listen not just to music on the radio but for it.

And just in case the preceding paragraph didn’t brand me completely as middle-aged, let me remove all doubt by adding that the music that lands on pop radio today, and the way all the stations seem to play the same three songs on an endless loop, doesn’t inspire me to seek it out. I’m not saying there isn’t some worthy pop stuff out there, just that if there’s a modern equivalent of Prince, he’s not hanging out on the FM airwaves. (If my Prince will come at all, he’ll probably arrive by way of Spotify, which is where I look for new music these days.)

And if you’re tempted to shoot down my “music radio was better way back when” theory by pointing to musical atrocities of my youth, like “Pass the Dutchie,” “We Built This City,” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” I have two things to say to you: 1) Yes, I know these songs are now stuck in your head –

you got what you deserved by mentioning them; and 2) Like all self-respecting Gen X-ers, I am deep in the process of sanitizing the memories of my past, which means I have re-characterized these abominations as musical foils meant to enhance our appreciation of artists like Prince and George Michael. Now get off my lawn.

So a year or two ago, I began the transition to talk radio when driving around town. I started with WTOP for traffic and weather “on the ‘eights’ and when it breaks” — “and when it breaks” has always sounded to me like the onset of a pox, and maybe that’s about right —  but the repetitiveness and lack of depth wore me out in short order. I switched to NPR. It was a nice enough place to hang out until Campaign 2016 came along and started barfing all over the joint.

Hankering for the sound of live voices and desperate for a haven from the stench of politics, late this summer I skidded to a stop on 106.7, an all-sports talk station known as “The Fan.” I grew up on and love sports, so it made perfect sense, except for one teeny, tiny thing: I don’t like the Redskins. I never have, even though I’ve lived in the DC area for my entire adult life. Both of my parents are from Pennsylvania, Mom is from Philly, thus the Yank DNA requires that we root for the Eagles. (No one roots for the Eagles by choice. It ain’t an easy gig.) This means I must root against all division rivals, including the ‘Skins. My dislike for the ‘Skins might not have mattered had I not made my move to The Fan during the pre-season. The circumstances were far from optimal, but I’d run out of options.

When I tuned in, the Sports Junkies –four local guys who’ve been on the airwaves for 20 years — were on. I’d caught bits and pieces of their show before but had never stuck around long enough to get to know them. In an era when we all need to work a little harder to understand those whose beliefs differ dramatically from our own, I decided it was time for me to cozy up to some ‘Skins fans. And you know what? Aside from learning more about football, a sport I speak proficiently but not fluently, I’ve learned the Junkies and I have some things in common. We’re basically peers, age-wise –with similar physical complaints to show for it –and I get the sense that their musical, linguistic and cultural references haven’t moved much beyond the late ’90s and they’re unapologetic about it. So I’m pretty sure you can get off their lawns, too. And one of them is on a quest to improve his dating life, not that I can relate or anything. Best of all, though, listening to the Junks banter careen from topic to topic takes me back to the days when I’d sit around watching a game with a bunch of my guy friends. Since my cadre of guy friends has shrunk over the years, another casualty of marriage, those hangouts have pretty much fallen by the wayside. The Junkies give me a way to experience that kind of camaraderie again, albeit vicariously, and I love that.

On the drive home, I sometimes catch part of “Chad Dukes Versus The World” on The Fan. Though I suspect my and Chad’s politics differ, I know we have one important thing in common: we both love his mom. She taught music when I was a student at Orange Hunt Elementary School and remains one of my all-time favorite teachers, even if she is technically responsible for the fact that three friends and I burst into a rousing rendition of “The Fifty States Song” at a funeral. I also enjoy the way Chad weaves underused words like “bombast,” “gravitas” and “bloviate” into casual conversation. And as someone who co-hosts a weekly podcast whose episodes last however long we want ’em to, but never more than an hour, I have mad respect for someone who hosts a four-hour show daily and pretty much solo.

So yes, I’ve transitioned to talk radio and the Fan, two things thirty-something me would have mocked mercilessly. This puts me squarely on the middle age track, which doesn’t thrill me, but it helps to know I’m running in good company.

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Where do things go when they can’t go to the dogs?

When things weren’t going well, people used to say the country was going to the dogs. In another clear sign of the times, we can’t even seek refuge in that idiom anymore. Based on two items in the past week’s news, now we’re going to the squirrels.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that a squirrel that had evidently gone off its nut bit an innocent bystander outside a retirement community in Florida. Not content to stop at a bite-and-run, the squirrel kept its dental grip on the victim and refused to let go. In fact, its teeth might still be sunk into that poor person’s flesh had the squirrel not paused to announce which scholarship it had chosen to accept from the law schools that had lined up with offers,

Okay, fine, that’s not exactly how things went. Desperate and panicked, the squirrel-bitten person ran inside the retirement home for help, squirrel still firmly attached. Once inside the facility, the animal was immediately mistaken for Donald Trump’s hair and avenged the insult by going “on a rampage.”

Okay, fine, that’s not exactly how things went, either.

Technically only the rampage part is true (though the squirrel’s defense attorney ought to be taking notes, here). The squirrel really did go on to bite and scratch three or four more people before a quick-thinking resident managed to capture and toss it outside. I find this particularly impressive, considering retirement homes are not usually known as hotbeds of quick thinking.

The victims were later treated for their bites but no rabies shots were administered, consistent with this guidance from the Center for Disease Control’s website:

Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area.

As the dedicated reader who sent me this article noted, we’re all fortunate this animal wasn’t behaving in an unusual manner, “like, for instance, terrorizing an old folks’ home.” Still, it’s probably best the squirrel wasn’t put down, what with it being a voter in a swing state and all.

The second squirrel news item came on Sunday, courtesy of the National Football League. During the third quarter of the Indianapolis Colts – Green Bay Packers game, a free agent squirrel outran its coverage and went sprinting across Lambeau Field.

Recognizing a golden opportunity to address its well-publicized viewership problems and reach the nation’s ADHD segment at the same time, the NFL immediately signed the squirrel to a multi-year contract.

Actually, they didn’t. But they knew a ratings bonanza when they saw it, so they cued up the “Born Free” soundtrack and let the squirrel run. This not only added some excitement for those of us at home but also gave mainstream media outlets like CBS Sports the opportunity to work phrases like “we got some varmint action” into their online reporting and fulfilled Phil Simms’s lifelong dream of doing in-depth rodent commentary (which you really oughtta watch, so I’m putting it right here).

So here it is, election eve, and we’ve gone to the squirrels. Probably because the dogs wouldn’t have us.

 

 

For crying out LOUD!

Parkinson’s Disease is a thief and a jerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, that sure sounds like Dad.

 

 

 

Middle age: what a pain in the neck

Doctors tell you not to “chase the pain” when you have certain kinds of injuries. By this they mean if you don’t take something to combat the pain before it pancakes you, it’ll do a hit and run, never to be caught. But even catching it doesn’t always help because pain, like an investigative reporter, can be both persistent and totally unwilling to reveal its sources. 

For example, when your back hurts, you might suspect a back problem. This is logical but, with all due respect, incredibly naive. Pain is way sneakier than that. For all you know, it’s just using your back to mask a problem with your pancreas. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Because “sneaky” doesn’t sound super technical, the medical profession came up with a more elegant term for this nefarious behavior: referred pain. Charming, don’t you think? “Referred pain” makes it sound like your body parts are a bunch of conscientious professionals who have more volume than they can handle but will gladly set you up with a practice that’s taking on new business. My body kindly gave me a referral this past Sunday.

One day earlier, I had run a 5k in Great Falls, Maryland, with a few people from my boot camp group. In the days leading up to the race, I’d felt a nagging twinge in my in the space between my right hamstring and my glute – the “glam-string,” as I like to call it.  My glam-string has bothered me on occasion but never been grounds to place myself on Injured Reserve, so I plowed ahead. I felt the twinge during the race on Saturday, but I hardly noticed because the scenery –rocks, river and trees emerging slowly from a morning mist dissipating under the warmth of the sun — commanded my attention. 

The next day my glam-string was okay but my calf, a muscle that’s never caused me a minute of trouble, went on strike. I suspect it was a referral but didn’t have time to investigate because I was chasing pain in a different location: my neck. That’s not new pain, but it’s been dormant since the spring of 2011, when I went to an orthopedist. I had a bunch of tests done, got a monster shot, and experienced near-instant relief. (I unloaded my marital pain in the neck a few months later, which had to have helped.) 

I never expected that relief to last five years, and neither did the doctor, who I went back to see today. He took a fresh set of X-rays and informed me that the vertebrae collapse he’d seen the first time around had worsened. I’d lost tissue and gained bone spurs and a pinched nerve.

When I turned 43, I wrote a post in the form of a report card, and one of the subjects was health. I’d given myself a grade of 95. Likening the human body to a house, I had concluded the major systems still worked well, the warranties on my joints had held out, and I was generally humming along. Two years later, when I’ve reached an actuarial midpoint, my major systems still work fine but the stairs seem to have collapsed. It’s a threat to my structural integrity, but don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed. I have duct tape.

Our instructor won this medal, whereas the rest of us mere mortals got plastic ones, but I gotta tell ya, the Visegrad 5k is a very, very cool race. Not only do you get to run on the C&O canal towpath but there's a staggering assortment of Slavic pastries at the end!

Our instructor won this medal, whereas the rest of us mere mortals got plastic ones, but I gotta tell ya, the Visegrad 5k is a very, very cool race. Not only do you get to run on the C&O canal towpath but a staggering assortment of Slavic pastries awaits you at the end!

Team Yank celebrates a Hall of Famer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“What I Did This Summer,” in 1,000 words or less

The kids of Arlington County go back to school tomorrow. Some of them will undoubtedly be asked to write a “What I did this summer” essay, so I’ve decided to join them.

If anecdotal evidence and comic strips are any indication, kids loathe this assignment. I’m pretty sure the teachers of Orange Hunt Elementary and Lake Braddock Secondary never inflicted it on me, but now that I’m staring it down, I think I’m starting to understand the dread. Being forced to break up with summer—especially a really good one– is hard enough, but having to relive the relationship on paper while the wound is still fresh? That’s a special torture. Compounding the pain for these kids is the likelihood that I they probably haven’t written a full sentence for months, and now, like a couch potato drafted into a mandatory jogging program, they have to write a whole essay. Even if there’s some satisfaction once you’ve done the task, the actual doing can feel like a joyless slog.

I get it, kids, on both fronts. And I feel more than a pang of longing as I say goodbye to this particular summer, which featured adventures like:

  • Starting a new job. I’m 45, so changing jobs at this point in life is a bit like switching schools in ninth grade: exciting, scary, daunting, and invigorating. You’re not altogether new to the gig, so you have some sense of what your days will look like, but you don’t know anybody and you can’t find anything. Then again, maybe the new school analogy doesn’t quite fit here. I’ve joined a company loaded with millennials, so perhaps it’s more like Senior Citizens Day at the local high school. Regardless, I’m pleased to report the kids are all right, to say the very least, and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to leave your comfort zone.
  • Storming Italy with Mom. We traveled from May 31 – June 10, and I meant to write about the trip the minute I got home, but like Donald Trump’s tax returns, my intentions somehow never materialized.  At this point, highlights are the best I can do. Our trip began in Naples, where my Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ed are living on a temporary assignment. Naples doesn’t get a lot of tourist love, perhaps because it’s let itself go a bit, but it’s situated in a picturesque location and is home to the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. As Ed drove us around town, I came to realize the official language of Naples isn’t Italian, it’s car horn. Ed’s not fluent yet, but I feel pretty good about his chances. Beyond driving, he and my aunt were incredible tour guides and hosts. Caroline chauffeured us to Gaeta – a lovely seaside town between Rome and

    Mom and Caroline in Naples

    Naples – and went on a ferry with us to the island of Capri, a place whose unique beauty I won’t diminish by attempting to describe it. Ed wins a special award for spending an entire Saturday driving all of us to various towns along the steep, curvy, incomparable Amalfi Coast (motto: “Where the sea is blue and the knuckles are white”). From there, Mom and I went on to Florence, where we art-ed it up at the Uffizi one day and hiked the Cinque Terre the next. That second excursion was my big idea, because the CT held the promise of spectacular, unique scenery. I hadn’t researched what the hiking would entail, but roving between the towns of this UNESCO World Heritage site on foot sounded right up my alley. At 73, Mom is very active and loves to watch her kids do things they love, so she gamely agreed. And boy, did the CT ever make good on its promise of spectacular. Not only did we get spectacularly beautiful scenery—the colorful hillside towns that look so charming in postcards leave you slack-jawed in person –but we also got IMG_1474spectacularly difficult hiking. The trails are clear but navigating them required taking lots of big steps up and down rocks and across streams. Had I realized up front that Cinque Terre is Italian for “blow a hammy,” I might have thought twice about subjecting Mom to it. IMG_1433But my mother, who was probably the oldest person in our guided group, powered right through it, a testament both to her fitness and her willingness to do anything for an Aperol Spritz. Our trip ended in Rome, perhaps my favorite city in the world and a very cool place to spend my 45th birthday. As I reflect on the trip, I think I liked the CT excursion best of all, and the memory of my mom hiking beside me along a cliff, wildflowers on one side and sea on the other, will always make me smile. Then again, when you’re hanging out with one of your favorite people, your favorite place is anywhere.

  • Trying standup comedy. I wrote about my first experience here. I did two more 5-minute sets, the second of which took place at a Georgetown Club called the Chinese Disco (which is neither Chinese nor disco, thanks for asking). I’m almost glad I don’t have video footage from that outing, because I’m not sure any of my material could compete with this photo. It has “Annual Christmas Card” written all over it.

Somehow this all just goes together.

So long, summer. I miss you already.

 

My father will give you the shirt off his back, or at least out of his trunk

My father has been coaching the American Legion Post 176 summer baseball team for over 25 years. He’s seen quite a bit in that time, as you can well imagine. He’s watched as a few of his kids made it to the big leagues, and he’s helped keep one or two out of an altogether different farm system, if you know what I mean. But what happened last Tuesday night was truly a first. Though I wasn’t there, I’ve pieced together an account based on text messages from my mother, one of our family’s more credible sources.

When my father arrived at Lee High School, the home field for Post 176 , one of the kids told Dad he didn’t have his shirt. The kid hadn’t just left his shirt at home, he’d lost it altogether. Instead of wasting time asking how the kid had lost his shirt –over-invested in the British pound, maybe? –my father went right into problem-solving mode.

Dad keeps the interior of his car very clean and its trunk full of baseball gear. That gear just happened to include the top half of a uniform. This would’ve been stellar news except for three things: 1) the shirt came from last year’s uniform; 2) it bore my father’s number; and 3) it may or may not have been laundered in the off-season. Because American Legion doesn’t play “shirts vs. skins,” the kid really had no choice but to take the field wearing my old man’s old shirt.

The kid once again had no choice when, a few innings later, the manager decided to make a pitching change and put him on the mound.

My mother was in the stands that night, as she often is. Though Mom’s normally a very attentive fan, it’s not clear to me whether she noticed earlier in the game that there were two Number 26s, or that one of them had a surprisingly youthful gait. But it certainly got her attention when the announcer said, “Now pitching for Springfield: Len Yankosky.”

For years I’ve heard my father say that, sooner or later, everybody on the Legion team winds up pitching; I guess he really meant it.

The announcer soon picked up on his lineup mixup and fixed it, making Dad’s return to the hill as brief as it was improbable.

Post 176 begins playoff action today. I wish I could be there, but I have to miss it because I’ll be making my official standup comedy debut (more on that soon). Who knows, maybe both of us will hit home runs today.

There's #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.

There’s #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

The Kentucky Book Fair: a blue-ribbon event in every way

Thus far, the Fates have looked out for me when I’ve done book events, and I hoped my trip to Frankfort to participate in the 34th annual Kentucky Book Fair would be no exception. I brought my parents with me, because every author worth her salt has groupies, or at least accomplices.

On Friday afternoon, the three of us touched down in Cincinnati, which is 80 miles away from Frankfort but offered the best flight options. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Cincinnati airport, but I’m going to guess not because, from the looks of things, nobody has. The joint is a nice, gigantic space that lacks nothing except travelers. The corridors were so vast and empty we could’ve launched into a floor routine unimpeded. We proceeded to the Alamo rental counter instead, where the agent asked if I’d like to upgrade from the Corolla-level vehicle I’d selected online.

Since we had a fair amount of luggage and planned to a bit of driving, I said, “Sure. What do you have?”

“What would you like?” the agent asked.

My father can’t stand this kind of dithering, so he took matters into his own hands and said, “I’ve always wanted a Cadillac.”

Though I knew he was kidding and just trying to get things moving, the agent didn’t and said, “It just so happens that we have a brand new one.”

And just like that, Dad had touched off a silent standoff between my “Why not?” philosophy and his “You Kids Don’t Appreciate the Value of Money” credo. I think nothing of driving four hours one way to buy bacon shirts, so really, Dad didn’t stand a chance. Moments later, we set off in a black Cadillac sedan equipped with a dashboard straight out of Star Wars. I couldn’t have imagined a better start.

On Friday night the three of us attended an author’s reception in downtown Frankfort at the Kentucky Historical Society, a lovely facility whose impressive exhibits tell the story of Kentucky and its people. As we enjoyed a glass of wine and snacks from the tasty buffet, we were given a warm welcome by none other than the Lieutenant Governor, Crit Luallen. She discussed the crucial role the KBF plays in promoting literacy, as well as raising funds for the school and public libraries to which the KBF donates its profits. I felt fortunate and honored to be a part of it. My groupies were pretty excited, too.

To top things off, we had the good fortune to sit at a table with an author from Mississippi named Dean Smith and the good friend who’d road-tripped with her. (Dean also understands the importance of groupies/accomplices.) We spent the next hour sharing stories about writing, divorce, and families, and laughing like we’d been friends for years. As we were comparing GPS goofs, Dean and her friend explained that, instead of taking them to the bed and breakfast they’d booked for the weekend, their GPS led them to a funeral home. When the GPS said, “You’ve reached your final destination,” it took on a whole new meaning. I looked forward to seeing them again at the fair on Saturday.

The next morning, my groupies helped me get set up at the fair and then I sent them off with the Caddy to do some touring. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is in Louisville, an hour’s drive from Frankfort. The Derby has long been on Dad’s bucket list, and though my parents couldn’t quite pull that off, they could at least check out the fabled venue and take in the live races scheduled for that day.

They were off to the races, and I settled in for eight hours of reader-meeting and book-talking. I had been placed at a table with Marie Parsons and Laura Weddle, native Kentuckians who’d taken up writing after retiring from decades of teaching college English together. Marie had written a novel called The Devil’s Back and Laura authored two collections of short stories, People Like Us and Better Than My Own Life. These women are my parents’ age or older and probably wondered why in the world they’d been stuck next to a 40-something humor writer from DC. But instead of just keeping to themselves, which they easily could have done, they decided to get to know their new neighbor. I soon realized I’d landed on the best street in the neighborhood. We spent hours covering topics like how it’s never too late to pursue a dream, how difficult it can be to find true and lasting love (Laura’s one of the few who seems to have figured it out), and what in the heck had happened to my parents. They’d left the KBF in the Caddy at 10, and two hours later, I hadn’t heard from them.

My groupie worries receded when I heard someone call my name and turned to see my dear friend Andrea, who I met in first grade at Orange Hunt Elementary School. Andrea and her family had moved to Lexington several years earlier, something I wouldn’t have known had I not posted about coming to the KBF on Facebook a few days earlier. Andrea and I hadn’t seen each other in at least 15 years, and I nearly hurdled Laura and Marie to get to her. I couldn’t believe she’d come to see me. As I hugged my old friend, my new friends beamed and took pictures. Whether or not I sold a single book, I’d already gotten so much more from the KBF than I came for.

My euphoria eventually subsided and my thoughts returned to my parents. It was after 2 and I still hadn’t heard from them. I called and texted. Nothing.

When I mentioned this to Laura and Marie, who knew my folks had taken off for Churchill Downs in the Caddy, Laura looked concerned and said, “They’re probably in a ditch somewhere.” And then she and Marie cracked up. I guess they seated me with the right people after all.

To my relief and to the great amusement of my new friends (including Dean and her pal, who’d stopped by to visit) the prodigal groupies returned an hour later. As the fair was winding down, Mom and Dad helped me pack up and I said a reluctant goodbye to Marie and Laura. I had no idea how many books I’d sold, but I knew the day had been a huge success in every way that matters.

A few hours later, Mom, Dad and I drove to Heirloom, an acclaimed restaurant in Midway, for a celebratory dinner. Over a salad of roasted butternut squash, frisee and thinly shaved local ham, we relived the events of the weekend.

I thanked them for supporting and encouraging me, including dropping what they were doing to come with me to Kentucky. As we clinked our glasses together for a toast, my mother smiled and said to me those three little words every child longs to hear: “It was fun.”

The roadies and the roadster.

The roadies and the roadster.