Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

The kids are all right, despite my being their chaperone

If you’re considering a trip to Kings Dominion theme park and wondering whether it has first aid facilities, I’m pleased to report it does, and they’re quite nice. I had a chance to hang out there last Friday with one of the kids I was chaperoning on my twelve year-old nephew’s chorus class trip.

Readers who remember my previous chaperone stint, a dress rehearsal-like experience during which I drove behind the bus like a groupie and lost my nephew within four minutes of arrival, are shaking their heads and thinking, “Did they not check her references?”

To you people, I say two things: 1) My nephew Will requested me; and 2) the statute of limitations for losing a kid on a field trip is three years and I cleared it a month ago. So there.

Will and I arrived at Moody Middle School (isn’t every middle school moody?) in Glen Allen, Virginia, at 8:15 a.m. and were engulfed by the uniquely high-pitched cacophony of a pubescent herd. We made our way to the auditorium, where I reported for duty and received a sheet listing the names of nine (9!) teenagers in my charge. I thought it best not to point out that nine kids totaled eight more than I’d ever managed before, or that, except for Will, I couldn’t identify any of them in a lineup. But I began to sweat under the maroon Moody Middle School Music Department t-shirt I’d donned with the goal of improving the kids’ chances of spotting me in the wild.

At 8:40 a.m., and just as my eardrums verged on perforation, the teachers performed the Miracle of Adolescent Organization and we boarded the buses. With Will’s help, I was able to account for all nine kids: a promising start. When we got to Kings Dominion, the chorus director, Mr. Drummond, got the whole group checked in and set us free to wander the park for the forty minutes that remained until our assigned warm-up time.

To my utter astonishment, all nine of my kids showed up at or before the appointed time. They and the other thirty-ish chorus kids huddled under a big tarp designated for rehearsing and began to tune up while all of us chaperones but one waited on benches nearby. The last chaperone, an actual parent, was busy chasing down a kid who’d gone on walkabout.

There I sat, basking in a self-congratulatory glow after getting all of my kids to appear on time, when the warm-uppy sounds trailed off and I heard a kid say, “Someone fainted!”

Without even looking, I knew the fainter belonged to me. My glow thus extinguished, I rushed to the tent for confirmation and to offer assistance in the only way I knew how: by filing a lawsuit.

I’m kidding, of course. Some person who’d been blessed with common sense rather than a law degree had already alerted the park’s first aid unit. Within moments, a young and rather hunky paramedic appeared, which, as remedies go, seemed to beat the heck out of smelling salts. Our girl began to perk up as the medic and his dimples eased her into a wheelchair and rolled her off to the first aid clinic, with me trailing behind, sherpa-like, with our belongings. While my fainter hydrated and rested in the clinic, I sat on a neighboring cot and battled the temptation to nap, because that’s the kind of heroic chaperone I am.

Mr. Drummond showed up shortly thereafter, at which point it dawned on me that my heroics did not include giving my kids an afternoon check-in place and time like I was supposed to.

Just as I was about to blurt out, “It’s not my fault! She had The Vapors!,” Mr. Drummond, who’s undoubtedly no stranger to lame excuses, said, “Your group came up with a check-in, so don’t worry.” I was equal parts ashamed and reassured to learn I leave a leadership void than can be filled by your average twelve year-old.

The patient called her parents, rested a bit longer, and then decided she was ready to get a bite to eat and take on the park. We met up with Will and four of his friends just as they were about to start riding roller coasters, and I debated whether to join them. On the one hand, I was a roller coaster veteran –my brother, L.J., and I had season passes to Kings Dominion in the late ’80s and I rode a coaster with the Roommates two summers ago –with a cool aunt reputation to uphold among a notoriously tough demographic. On the other, I knew a person’s ride tolerance could change without notice, especially if she’s had a somewhat recent bout of vertigo.  I settled it by adopting the park motto: ride on.

We started with the Stunt Coaster, a ride that features Mini Cooper-esque cars rocketing around helixes and getting launched through billboards. I loved it, probably because it’s the sort of driving experience I fantasize about having on the Beltway.

From there we went to the Rebel Yell, a long, wooden, 42 year-old coaster L.J. and I rode thousands of times during our season pass days. It was rickety and bone-jarring back then, but we’d always loved its steep and glorious hill sequences. When I rode it on Friday, its hill sequences gave me the same thrill as before, whereas the wood, which may have aged in place, gave me a chiropractic adjustment.

Then we rode The Avalanche, as a result of which I have ruled out “Olympic Bobsledder” as my next career move, and decided to finish our day on The Dominator. Corporate amusement park types are always giving their biggest coasters menacing names like The Dominator, The Intimidator, and Talon: the Grip of Fear, I guess so riders feel like they’ve stared down a terrifying predator and didn’t blink. That marketing trick might work on the middle school psyche but it doesn’t faze those of us in our mid-40s. If you want our demographic to feel gripped by fear, you have to come up with something far scarier, like “Root Canal: Dig of Doom.”

Thus I felt unafraid when I boarded The Dominator, despite its 148-foot drop, cobra roll, five inversions and 65 mph max velocity. I felt fine as we made our way to the central meeting point afterwards, too. After all, it matters not if your spleen and kidneys aren’t exactly where they’re supposed to be, just as long as all nine of your kids are.

IMG_2761

What do you get a kid for his fifth birthday? An aunt in a box, of course.

I’m not claustrophobic. This has proven to be quite an asset at several points in my life, such last fall, when I got an MRI; or in mid-April, when I again donned the Easter Bunny suit; or this past weekend, when I went to Atlanta and let my brother tape me inside an Amazon box.

No, I was not belatedly fulfilling L.J.’s most heartfelt childhood wish: I wanted to surprise my nephew, B, who was celebrating his fifth birthday (though I’m sure my brother has waited his whole life for permission to stuff me into a box and tape it shut).

I had set a pretty high bar in the surprise department back in December, when I conspired with my sister-in-law and flew to Atlanta last-minute on a Friday so I could catch the opening of Rogue One with L.J., a Star Wars junkie. B and his little brother, C, had also gotten quite the surprise the next morning when they came downstairs to find me sitting on the couch. Now accustomed to the occasional random aunt sighting, I knew I would have to do something beyond just showing up and ringing the doorbell if I wanted to impress B.

My brother, sister-in-law and I started scheming and decided “your presence is your present” deserved to be more than just a goofy etiquette cliché. As luck would have it, the starter bike L.J. and Leslie ordered as a gift for B –the same gift I’d gotten on my fifth birthday, though my bike did not feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — had arrived at their home days earlier in a large box: perfect packaging for a special delivery aunt. 

I had booked a flight scheduled to leave National Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I can’t say that it looked good on paper — a 6 a.m. departure looks hideous on any surface –but I thought it wise to build in some wiggle room because, as regular readers know, I’ve encountered my fair share of travel debacles en route to Atlanta. I planned to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m. just to be on the safe side.

Regular readers also know I also have my fair share of sleeping struggles. Those tend to get worse if I have something on my mind, such as getting to the airport on time for a very important flight. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to bolt awake at 2:45 a.m., totally raring to go. I was packed and out of the house by 3:45 a.m., through airport security by 4:25 a.m., and standing in line for a vanilla latte at 4:30 a.m. (The airport Starbucks opens at 4:30; I think this makes them a very strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I landed in Atlanta 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was downright disconcerting. L.J. picked me up 20 minutes later. We spent the trip to his house discussing the details of our plan as if we were launching a rocket for NASA rather than a birthday surprise for a five year-old.

He told me Leslie would be watching the boys who, with luck, would be playing inside or in the backyard and away from any of the possible vantage points.

“You stay in the car while I get the box and some tape,” L.J. said. “Then I’ll walk back out with the box and you can sort of hide behind it and follow me up the steps to the door. You’ll get in, I’ll tape it shut, put the bow on it and ring the doorbell.”

It seemed foolproof, or at least reasonably likely to fool anyone who hasn’t graduated kindergarten, so I said, “Sounds good.”

Then I saw the box–estimated dimensions 4′ long x 2.5′ wide x 1′ deep —  and was instantly reminded of the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws.

This hunk of cardboard looked as incapable of fitting a great white aunt as that vessel did a great white shark, but we’d gone too far to turn back. My brother plodded up the stairs with the box in hand as I crouch-walked behind it. He put it on the stoop and held it open so I could get in.

When the situation is dire, people sometimes perform superhuman feats, and I pulled off nothing less than a triumph of human origami to get into that box. Had I not eaten a few too many peanut M&Ms the night before, the top flaps might have closed together perfectly, but it was close enough. L.J. started to put tape across the flaps, at which point the full absurdity of the situation hit us simultaneously and we were seized by a massive attack of the giggles.

We got ourselves under control – our plan only called for one five year-old, after all –and L.J. rang the doorbell. I heard him tell B he had a package and then read aloud the short poem-riddle I’d written for the occasion. The box flaps opened and I sat up, arms wide open in a gesture that would either give B a smile that would last forever or a lifetime of Zombie Aunt Apocalypse nightmares. He was surprised, and in a good way, once he realized what was going on and heard his mom and dad cracking up. B’s little brother ran off at top speed, which, in fairness, is what anyone should do if faced with a lawyer springing out of a box.

B, who was by now beside himself with excitement, grabbed my hands to help pull me the rest of the way out of the box and said, “How did you get here?”

“I came in the mail!” I said.Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.01.15 PM

When I told him I actually flew down on a plane, he seemed disappointed to learn even Amazon Prime has its limits. But our fun knew no limits on Saturday: we went to Legoland, partied it up with B and C’s friends and some superheroes, and knocked the stuffing out of a Spider Man piñata. It was pretty much perfect.

I have no idea how my brother and I will top this one, but I do know one thing: we’re gonna need a bigger box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to say, I don’t quite get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

“Left holding the bag” isn’t always a figure of speech

[Welcome to Day 4 of a month-long, relay-style blog slog with my friend, writing partner and all-around instigator, Philippa…]

Before I launch into the story of something that happened a few weeks ago, I want you to know that the people involved are okay. I offer this assurance not because I’m a nice person, but because I don’t want concern for their wellbeing to keep you from laughing. Priorities!

The day in question, a Wednesday, began innocuously enough for me: I’d gone to boot camp, had a breakfast meeting with a young man I’m mentoring, and was en route to the office by way of my sister Lynne’s house. My brother-in-law, who normally works from home, was away on business so I’d offered to come by and walk Buddy, the family dog. Before I even reached the house, I’d gotten a distress call from Lynne: the eye infection my 13 year-old niece, Emily, had developed weeks earlier wasn’t responding to treatment. Em’s opthamologist had seen her that morning, dilated her pupils, and been unable to give a diagnosis. He advised Lynne to take her to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he knew more specialized testing could be done. The possibilities he had mentioned sent my sister on an ill-advised tour of Web MD, which did nothing other than qualify her to be Grand Marshall of the Parade of Horribles.

My sister tried to sound calm when she said, “Can you go with me?” but a crack in her voice gave her away.

I said, “Of course,” then made arrangements to work on the road, took Buddy for a quick walk, and executed Lynne’s instructions to pack a cooler for what was bound to be a long day.

Fifteen minutes later, Lynne and Emily walked through the door. My sister looked like she was hanging on by dental floss. Emily looked like a zombie, and a rather hip one because she was wearing a pair of sunglasses. The shades were meant to combat the photosensitivity that was making her nauseous, but they also seemed to mute her personality, and that worried me as much as anything. Emily’s not just the sunniest teenager I know, she’s the sunniest human I know. While waiting for Lynne and Em to arrive, I had given in to the WebMD temptation too, causing unhelpful phrases like “permanent loss of vision” to lodge themselves in my brain. But I knew I couldn’t telegraph my terror. I acted falsely upbeat instead, making lame jokes about this being just another of our wacky dates.  I grabbed the cooler and opened the door for Emily, who zombie-stepped through it. Buddy, who is nothing if not a team player, rocketed through the open door and into the un-fenced front yard. Saddled with the cooler, I was slow to give chase and didn’t see where he’d gone.

As I dropped the cooler and looked frantically left and right, I heard Lynne yell, “NOT THE BARF! NOT THE BARF!”

Using the powers of deduction that have gotten me so far in this life, I grasped that Emily, who was leaning against the house, had gotten sick and Buddy was headed straight for the sick. On the upside, at least we knew where to find him. As Lynne chased him away from the Superfund site, Buddy, inspired by the generally festive atmosphere, decided it was the perfect time for a game of tag. Five minutes and fourteen Beggin’ Strips later, Buddy was in the house and we were in the car. I got in the backseat with Emily and my sister proceeded to drive like she was auditioning for the lead in a “Dukes of Hazzard” revival.

Our trip to Baltimore suffered a second setback when Emily’s nausea returned. I scoured the backseat for possible biohazard containers and found only a lone plastic grocery bag. My hope that we wouldn’t need it was dashed even before I’d finished forming it, and then I found myself doing something that is definitely not in the Professional Aunt, No Kids contract: holding my niece’s hair and rubbing her back while she put the bag’s containment powers to the test. (No wonder my sister volunteered to drive.) In that moment, I discovered that I have a superpower –I am not a relay puker, hooray! –but this particular bag had met and exceeded its limits. So there I was, left holding not just a bag, but a bag that had sprung a small leak. Though we weren’t even 30 minutes into our trip and were just crossing the American Legion Bridge, my sister and I agreed we needed to exit.

“How ’bout Carderock?” I said, referring to a stretch along the Potomac near the Maryland side of Great Falls. “It’ll take a few minutes to get there once you exit, but I’ve parked there to hike and I know they have bathrooms.” I was right on both counts. It took what felt like an eternity to get there, but the park did have bathrooms. Em could hardly wait to get out and I could hardly wait to get rid of our revolting parcel.

She and I got out of the car, and that’s when I noticed the “Trash-Free Park” signs. And sure enough, as I made a desperate scan for trashcans, I found only posters admonishing me to take my trash with me.

“But have you seen my trash?” I said, to no one in particular.

My niece and I went into the restroom, hoping it might be a Green Zone in the war on park trash. No such luck. The protections of the Fifth Amendment preclude me from telling you exactly what happened next; however, I think I struck a good compromise, in that it probably left every interested party unhappy.

An hour later, we had arrived at Hopkins.

Things had to get worse before they got better –every healthcare worker who asked Emily about her symptoms received a nonverbal and very colorful answer, villains like Multiple Sclerosis and lupus had to be ruled out, and my sister and I had to eat our bodyweight in M&Ms –but after nine hours the news was as encouraging as it could have been: a rare condition called nodular scleritis. As unlucky as Emily was to get it in the first place, she was extremely fortunate to be among the few people for whom the malady isn’t caused by an underlying and far scarier autoimmune disorder. With the application of medicine and drops, the doctor expected it to clear up over a couple of months and would monitor it biweekly in the meantime. A cheer went up from Team Yank, whose remote members had been keeping tabs on the situation and supporting us with a steady stream of funny, encouraging texts.

As we got in the car to go home, Emily sat in the backseat, exhausted but back to her sunglasses-free and sunny self. I volunteered to drive home. It was a nice thing to do at the end of a long day, sure, but it also guaranteed that I wouldn’t be left holding the bag twice.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em's hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

Yes, my sister is wearing Em’s hospital gown. In her defense, it was at most 12 degrees Fahrenheit in there.

“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.

 

Stand and deliver, and try not to get booed off the stage

Emboldened by the 2016 Presidential election, which has taught me that any unqualified fool can grab a microphone and say outrageous things in front of a crowd, I decided to try stand-up comedy.

I made my debut on July 17 with an outfit called StandupComedyToGo.com at O’Sullivan’s in Clarendon, having had no real training beyond an improv comedy class I took in 2006, taught by the incomparable Shawn Westfall. As great as the class was, the skills didn’t really transfer because improv and standup are kind of like baseball and golf: beyond a few surface similarities — copious whiffing, profanity and beer — the two don’t have all that much in common. Though I lacked formal training, I didn’t go into this thing cold (c’mon, people, I may have a weak attachment to my dignity, but I’m not a complete moron); I’ve been working up to it for the past two years, with the help of my friend Larry. Larry and I first crossed paths at the Westover Beer Garden in the summer of 2014, when I was wrapping up the manuscript for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing  and he was hanging out enjoying an IPA. We bonded right away over humor, and when I mentioned in passing that I’d always wanted to try standup, Larry, who has a background in comedy, made it his mission to help me.

We started meeting on Tuesdays to toss back a few beers and a lot of ideas, leading Larry to call our weekly get-togethers the “Spitball Sessions.” Larry brought his notebook to every SBS and jotted down any line that made us laugh. We figured someday we’d take the best of our SBS notes and whip them into shape until they resembled a decent standup routine. It was a fine plan, except that I’m 45 and Larry is 61, and we don’t whip things into shape anymore so much as beg, plead and cajole them. And even then, the things need a compelling event. We didn’t have one, so I manufactured it by signing up for a 3-minute set on an open mic night two weeks out. And that was all it took because, as regular readers know, nothing spurs me to action like the threat of public humiliation.

Larry and I started culling through our SBS notes, which was like corralling sea monkeys. I wrote a rough draft, Larry edited, we kicked it around 85 more times, and then I started testing it out on unsuspecting audiences, like my brother and sister-in-law in Atlanta. I knew I could trust those two for honest feedback: we have the same last name, so the risk of humiliation by association was real. They watched the video I sent and then called to give me their assessment. Both of them work in Corporate America and understand the importance of encouragement, so they delivered their comments in the form of a “feedback sandwich.” They didn’t call it that, of course, but I work in Corporate America too, so I knew what it was as soon as I heard it. For those who haven’t ever dined on a feedback sandwich, the stuff you did well is the bread and the stuff in the middle is what you really need to work on, so you usually care most about the middle. You hope for something positive, the equivalent of PB&J, and you live in fear of liverwurst. (Unless you’re my sister Lynne, who adores not only liverwurst but also split-pea soup, leading me to believe her taste buds were removed at birth.) My Atlanta consultants, who are standup connoisseurs, went heavy on the bread and light on the filling, buoying my hopes that I might be able to pull it off.

I made a few changes based on their advice and then performed it live for Larry, who serves up a different kind of feedback sandwich. He left out the bread altogether, and the filling consisted of: “You just need to suck less.” I choked on it at first, bitter and tough to swallow as it was, but it was what I needed. And I had to admit, it was the best line of the day. I went back to the drawing board, and after just 74 additional run-throughs, I thought I might be ready.

Then I went to the Standupcomedytogo.com website. It’s run by a nice, supportive guy named Curt whose noble, and slightly insane, goal is to enable newbies to break into a sometimes cliquish local comedy scene. I scrolled down to the five tips for first-timers. They were great except for #3, which was one-half super-practical (“bring water and your set notes on stage with you”) and one-half unintentionally subversive (“Your mouth will go dry and your mind will go blank within the 1st minute”).

We newbies also had to bring five hostages, er, friends to the performance, and that’s the part that really made me nervous. I don’t mind embarrassing myself in front of a room full of strangers, but in front of people I love and whose opinions matter to me (one of whom, Janice, drove four hours one way for my three-minute set)? That’s terrifying. When the time came, I did as Curt instructed and brought my water and cheat sheet up with me. I tucked the latter into my bra, figuring that if all else failed, I’d at least get one laugh if I had to pull it out.

The minute I got onstage, the nerves began to dissipate and I just enjoyed myself. And fortunately for all concerned, I got more than one laugh without ever having to reach into my bra. I was told the lion’s share of the laughs came from the stranger faction because most of my loved ones, and certainly Larry, were too terrified on my behalf to laugh.

And the feedback I got from Curt was all bread: I’ll be back at O’Sullivan’s on August 14 to do a five-minute set. The show starts at 7, and though I don’t have to bring hostages, I’m hoping some of you will surrender yourselves to the cause!

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.

 

 

 

 

A picture that’s worth at least 700 words

I just finished another Aunt In Residence stint with my Atlanta nephews, B and C, while my brother and his wife took a brief and well-deserved breather. B is nearly four and has an insatiable appetite for stories and humor, a combination that makes him one of my favorite victims. One evening, B and I got to chatting about his recent adventures snow-tubing at Stone Mountain. This led me to tell him the story of my sister Lynne’s and my fateful trip down a slope known in family folklore as “Fox Hill.” The words and hand gestures I used to tell the tale (which I posted here last year) weren’t enough for B to get the picture, so I decided to draw it.

As befits a classic, I’m re-releasing it, this time featuring an exciting, new illustration!

Mother Nature went easy on D.C. when she sprinkled some confectioners sugar-weight snow on us yesterday. The accumulation totaled 5-8″, enough to trigger our collective Panic And Close reflex, but not so much that we couldn’t enjoy it, especially once the sun came out and temperatures rose into the 30s.

My friend Bud and I met up and took a late afternoon stroll along the Washington & Old Dominion trail. We pit-stopped at various points to take photos, make snow angels, and live vicariously as dozens of kids sledded down a hill of moderate steepness that ends in a park.

Though a respectable hill by any measure, it pales in comparison to Fox Hill, a three-tiered beauty of a slope near my late grandmother’s home in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. My father grew up sledding on Fox Hill and made sure my siblings and I got to enjoy the fun any time it snowed while we were visiting Nana. I have Fox Hill to thank for the most memorable sledding experience of my life, which occurred when I was eleven or twelve.

At the time, my family had four pieces of sledding equipment: two Flexible Flyers, one plastic saucer, and a waxy, blue, plastic rug of a thing that retailers would have called a “toboggan.”  Our family never used that term, perhaps because it implied structural soundness and amenities such as steering. In our house, the waxy, plastic rug thing was known simply as the “Sheet,” which is also a word for the linen that would cover your corpse after the Sheet was done with you. The Sheet was a ruthless disciple of the “every man for himself” school of thought. It frequently ejected its cargo without notice so it could continue its merry journey down the hill unburdened. This made it the vehicle of last resort for the four Yankosky sledders, except when the need for an adrenaline rush seized one of us.

On the day in question, such a need took hold of me and my sister Lynne simultaneously. Hours of sledding had caused the little plateaus between each of Fox Hill’s tiers to become icy ramps. After attempting some quick physics calculations, Lynne and I suspected that, if we rode together, we might be able to hit those ramps with enough speed to catch air. It would also require us to ride the thing that gave us the largest, slickest surface area: the Sheet. Being even less skilled at performing cost-benefit analysis than physics calculations, we concluded it was worth the risk and we boarded.

Our descent had barely begun when the Sheet turned us one hundred and eighty degrees. We approached the first ramp backwards, which is also the direction we were facing when we went airborne. The Sheet probably thought that act would be enough to get rid of us. I, however, had grown wise to the Sheet’s ejection tactics over the years and had its plastic handle in a death grip that I reflexively maintained. I held on even after we landed with such violence that it felt like we’d been dropped out of a tenth story window and onto a sidewalk.

My stubbornness angered the Sheet. As we crested the next ramp, still accelerating, the Sheet sent us sideways. We found ourselves careening away from the sledding course  and straight towards a clump of enormous wooden spools that sat at the border between Fox Hill and the adjacent property.

Our only hope for avoiding a crash was to let go of the Sheet, which I promptly did. This altered the Sheet’s trajectory, but not mine and Lynne’s. We ran straight into a spool, caromed off of it, and landed in a dazed heap. The Sheet, meanwhile, continued down Fox Hill without a care in the world, whistling the “Andy Griffith” theme song as it went.

As I lay on the ground, I saw birds circling above. Whether they were cartoon sparrows or vultures preparing to claim their carrion I will never know, because my father appeared and dragged us off.

Watching those sledders yesterday brought back the memory of that day on Fox Hill, in all its concussive glory. No wonder I attempted nothing more dangerous than a snow angel.

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

Forget living la vida loca, I’ll take pura vida every time

I rarely need to set an alarm for important morning meetings, because my racing mind usually wakes me up hours early. But last Thursday was different. I had a really big appointment first thing, and I was pretty sure I was going to get a raise out of it, so I set an alarm to be on the safe side. Good thing I did, because it roused me from a deep slumber when it went off at 5:30.

I got ready by putting on not a business suit but a bathing suit. And instead of a notepad and paper, I grabbed a pair of goggles as I rushed out the door. By 5:45, I was standing on a south-facing beach and preparing to swim toward the sun as it began its ascent over the horizon, which happened to be the Pacific Ocean. The water and air temps both hovered in the mid-80s, resulting in a seamless transition from land to ocean. I got past the first set of breakers and settled in for a longish swim. I alternated my breathing every few strokes, turning my head to the left to monitor my distance from the shore and to the right to watch for swells behind me. During one of those right-side breaths, a line of pelicans –my favorite birds — flew right next to me, wings spread wide as they buzzed the top of the water. As I went on, I dove and bobbed when I needed to, reveling in the waves but mindful that the ocean could clobber me pretty much any time it chose.

IMG_0582

The camera couldn’t capture the glorious shades of pink and purple that I swam towards every morning.

Every now and then I lifted my head out of the water to keep tabs on the sun. I watched in awe as the sky mixed shades of orange, red, purple and pink to produce color schemes I thought existed only on airbrushed T-shirts. About fifteen minutes into my swim, I stopped and began to tread water so I could savor those last few moments as the sun climbed above the horizon. Then, I swam into shore and walked back to the hotel, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back. This had become my routine during my week-long stay in a little surf town on the west coast of Costa Rica, and though it didn’t give me the kind of raise that fattened my wallet, it made my spirits soar every single time.

When I got in the water for my final swim there on Thursday morning, a wave of emotions washed over me. I felt the simple, perfect exhilaration of immersing in nature. I was in reverence of my surroundings and aware of my teeny, tiny, fleeting role in the grand scheme of things. I experienced a potent longing, verging on greed, to freeze this scene and the sensations it produced so I could access them on demand. But most of all, I felt profound gratitude. The people of Costa Rica would fold all of these emotions into one simple phrase: pura vida. The literal translation is “pure life,” but it conveys far more than that. It’s a greeting, a philosophy, an invitation to seek joy in simple things, and a reminder to appreciate whatever you have.

I’d been sorely in need of a big dose of pura vida when I decided weeks ago to join my friend Philippa and three of her pals on their annual surf trip to Costa Rica. The human psyche, like a garage, just seems to collect junk, so it behooves you to clean it out every now and then. But no one looks forward to that job, especially if you’ve got the equivalent of a Bowflex collecting dust in a corner. Since my divorce in 2012–arguably the last time I really cleaned the joint –I’ve collected plenty of useless emotional clutter that impedes my path to things I need and want in my life, like making space for my writing, or for a partner. It was time for a purge.

I’ve always done my best mental housecleaning at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Something about the rustic surroundings and ties to my fondest family memories always makes me feel centered and grounded. But I was in no mood to wait for warm weather to roll around, so I seized the Costa Rica opportunity instead. As proof of how badly I needed to get away, I bought a plane ticket without even knowing exactly where we were going. Philippa had always referred to their surf town as a “special place,” which I hoped would be close enough to what I needed.

Turns out I hadn’t gotten my hopes up nearly high enough.

Our beachfront hotel (if that’s even the right word for a place that feels as friendly and welcoming as my own home) sat amid lush greenery that’s tended but not overly manicured. Hammocks nestled between palm and almond trees practically begged us to leave the beach and take a nap. My room featured a wraparound porch I called “the office,” but no phones rang there. I heard only the soothing roar of waves pounding the beach, the squawk of scarlet macaws in the boughs above, and the occasional startling “bonk” of an almond dropping from a tree onto the tin roof of my bungalow. My thoughts could roam wherever they wanted, uninterrupted.

The office, where I never minded keeping long hours.

The office, where I never minded keeping long hours.

Clearly the surroundings were conducive to achieving inner calm, but that wasn’t enough: I needed the right company, too. I wanted the same kind of easy companionship my family used to provide, and I found it in Philippa’s friends. I’d spent some time with two of the three amigos during Philippa’s breast cancer ordeal. The way they nurtured my friend’s spirits had long ago earned them my abiding affection and gratitude. I took an instant like to the third, a writer from Philly who seems to find as much joy in coming up with the right words as the right wave.

All three of the amigos made me, the lone non-surfer, feel like part of the tribe. As my family used to do, they kept an eye out for me but never hovered. They seemed to enjoy watching me take off for a swim, and I loved coming in to shore to watch them surf. No one cared whether we all played in the water at the same time or went off to do our own thing: we knew we’d catch up to compare our days eventually. When we did, the three amigos never failed to crack me up, give me food for thought, and make me smile. And thanks to them, I now understand what it means to be “goofy footed.” I left Costa Rica Thursday morning feeling lighter in every way imaginable.

I’m not unhappy to be home, but I already miss the place where my days moved to the beat of nature, where I swam my way to the sun, and where stars coated the night sky like a dusting of powdered sugar and glitter. Most of all, I miss being there with Philippa and the three amigos. Here’s hoping I brought some of that pura vida back with me.

Yanksgiving: it’s a movable feast

Weeks ago, plans had taken shape for my standard Thanksgiving: morning exercise of some sort, afternoon appetizers at the home of my friends Marvin and Gil, and then a trip down I-95 to Richmond for dinner with my sister Suzi, her family, and their awesome neighbors. My parents were supposed to fly to Atlanta two days ago to celebrate the holiday with my brother and his family, but the back problems Dad starting having weeks ago spiked, making travel of any kind impossible.

My parents were crestfallen, the Atlanta Yanks were disappointed, and all of us were concerned about Dad. In situations like this, my family does not spend a whole lot of time wringing its hands; we leap into action. Texts and emails started flying and pretty soon my sister Lynne had arranged to show up at my parents’ house Monday and Tuesday night, I had volunteered to cook a turkey and a few sides at my parents’ house on Thursday, and Suzi and her crew were going to drive up from Richmond Thanksgiving morning with the rest of our dinner necessities. A heartwarming example of a family coming together to save Thanksgiving, except for one niggling detail: I’ve never cooked a turkey before.

I mentioned this in passing while on the phone with my boss yesterday, and then I uttered the five-word phrase that has preceded every DIY disaster in my home: “How hard can it be?”

My boss, who owns a Sarcastic Magic 8-Ball (because I gave it to him) and is not afraid to use it, chimed in with the corollary: “How could this go wrong?” I decided not to tell him I hadn’t yet procured a turkey. And frankly, that was the least of my worries because the Westover Beer Garden near my house has an organic butcher and sells locally and sustainably-raised, hormone-free turkeys for Thanksgiving. I called and requested a turkey that would feed eight.

“Fifteen pounds is the smallest I can do,” said the meat guy.

“I’ll take it,” I said, never mind that I’ve never roasted a fowl larger than six pounds.

I picked up my turkey yesterday. When I saw the price tag, I concluded that my bird might have been raised locally but had done its undergraduate work at Yale. With my investment-grade bird in hand, it was time to start thinking about how to prepare it. I texted my dear friend Philippa for advice. She cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her tribe last year and was asked to do it again this year, so she couldn’t have screwed it up too badly.

I knew I’d gone to the right person when she sent a text about a recipe involving an entire bottle of champagne. Because preparation is the key to culinary success, my efforts did not stop there. I conducted additional research while Uber-ing to the soft opening of Sehkraft Brewery, the beer garden’s latest venture. My driver happened to mention that she cooks for a group of twenty every year, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

“Honey, I started cooking days ago,” she said, apparently unconcerned that the fate of her driver rating rested on her answer.

When I got home from Sehkraft I turned my focus, such as it was, to scouring the interwebs for advice. As I read up on the champagne recipe (spoiler alert: most of the bubbly is supposed to wind up in the bird), reviewers suggested brining the bird first. Traditional brining involves giving the turkey a long soak in herbed saltwater for overnight. No big deal when your bird and the soaking tub are small enough to fit in the fridge, but with a 15-pounder, that was going to be a hassle. Then I discovered dry brining, which consists of giving the turkey a salted, spiced rubdown and letting it hang out for a day or two.

I got up at the crack of dawn, mixed the salt and spices, and proceeded to get the bird ready for its rubdown. All I can say is whatever suffering my turkey endured in slaughter pales in comparison to the violence I wrought upon it in my kitchen. I struggled to tuck the wings underneath, with the result that I now own a turkey that is both Ivy-educated and double-jointed. But it’s done. The briny bird is now in the fridge, awaiting tomorrow’s final assault.

While the turkey chills, my family members are undoubtedly sweating it. Being a glass half-full type, I pointed out to my mother that I’ll either whip up a heck of a meal or take my father’s mind off his back pain by giving him a world-class case of salmonella.

But it almost doesn’t matter how the bird turns out, because Thanksgiving, or as I like to call it, “Yanksgiving,” is about the people, not the food. By surrounding myself with some of my very favorite turkeys, I can’t lose.

 

The Yank bird, freshly dry-brined and crying fowl.

The Yank bird, freshly dry-brined and crying fowl.