Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…


Celebrating 50 Years of Team Yank with a 21-Fun Salute

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on April 16.

Fifty years of marriage —600 months –is a big deal. A very big deal. I can’t begin to comprehend such a feat, especially considering my marriage to the Lawnmower lasted two percent as long. My siblings and I were determined to make a very big deal of this very big deal. We booked a private room at Fireworks, a cool pizza and craft brew joint in Arlington, for a celebratory Team Yank dinner and invited Mom and Dad’s siblings to join us.

I woke up on the morning of the party feeling an odd mix of emotions: unadulterated joy for my parents on reaching this milestone, gratitude to them for showing us that people and love matter most of all, nostalgia for our years together as a family, and an unrealistic but understandable desire to hold on to all of this, and them, forever. As I drove to my parents’ house to spend some pre-party time with my brother and his family, those emotions formed a swell of sentiment that threatened to crest. To stay ahead of the wave, I cranked up a few of my favorite Earth Wind and Fire songs, and that got me to my parents’ house. The Roommates happened to be there too, a sight that never fails to improve my mood.

An hour and a half later, I was wrapping up my visit and getting ready to run some party-related errands and Emily, who may have detected that swell of emotions rising up in her aunt, said, “Can I come with you?”

As we got in the car, I told her she’d made my day. The minute we backed out of the driveway, we lowered the windows, opened the sunroof, and fired up our favorite tunes in preparation for a rolling dance party. We hit our stride twenty minutes later when she cued up “Walkin’ on Sunshine,” complete with air guitars and arms-through-the-open-roof dance moves. I was feeling so sunny I almost didn’t mind having to go to Michael’s: we needed a frame for one of the gifts we’d gotten my parents. Emily, who is Arts and Crafts people, was elated about this pit stop, so I didn’t feel guilty about using her as a human shield as we entered the store.  We knocked out our task in short order and had a little extra time, so I told her to pick something out for herself.

In a move that just might land her a spot on our Peeps squad next year, she asked, “Can I get a glue gun?”

Off we went, me carrying a frame and Emily concealed-carrying some Elmer’s. When we got to my house, we assembled the gift, grabbed the fancy gold wrapping paper I’d bought and some tape, threw it all in a bag, and Uber’d over to the restaurant. We got everything set up and needed only to wrap the gift. That job required the perfection of my sister Suzi, but I knew when she arrived she’d be busy setting up a cake she had decorated (flawlessly, no doubt). I decided to give it my best shot. I put Emily in charge of handing me pieces of tape, a job she performed admirably. The super-fancy paper I’d bought, however, seemed repulsed by a pedestrian adhesive like scotch tape. We couldn’t get it to stick, no matter what we did.

Emily’s eyes met mine and I said what she had to be thinking, “Get the glue gun.” As the two of us hot-glued wrapping paper seams together, I noted that such a thing would never happen to Aunt Suzi.

“I know, right?” Em said. “I just wish she’d make a mistake sometime.” We finished the job just as Suzi was coming in with her perfect cake. Shortly thereafter, the aunt/uncle contingent arrived, followed by the rest of my siblings and their families, and then, to round out our 21-person gang, my parents.

My Aunt Kate, who is no slouch in the Fun Aunt department, sent my parents out of the room and closed the door so she could give them a proper wedding-style introduction like they got 50 years ago. Mom and Dad pranced in, arm-in-arm, and took a few twirls around our tiny dance floor. The party had begun.

After we’d all stuffed ourselves with delicious Italian fare, my siblings and I got the official program underway. We had decided that each person would share a favorite memory or story, and that my brother would give a toast at the end. We planned to go in order from oldest kid to youngest, but we didn’t coordinate our remarks with each other at all. I looked forward to my siblings’ stories. Though we have close relationships with each other and our parents, each of those relationships is a little bit different, and I love getting a glimpse into what they look like.

Suzi reminisced about the years in high school during which she had to sell citrus fruit as part of a fundraiser. Because Suzi’s always had a real knack for sales, for a few weeks every fall our home looked like a Tropicana warehouse. My father would spend hours driving her around, helping her deliver pound upon pound of fruit. Then Suzi mentioned my mother’s willingness to do absolutely anything for her kids and grandkids, including dropping everything a decade ago to help my sister out on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Philly and New York with Suzi’s three boys.

Lynne took a slightly different tack. Known as the “feisty” one when we were kids, she told a hilarious story about a doubles tennis match with my father gone seriously awry. Though she and Dad didn’t win that day, at least she, unlike me, managed not to bean her parental tennis partner in the back of the head. Lynne also talked about how my parents never lose sight of the little things that make us feel loved. In Lynne’s case, one of those little things is liverwurst, which my parents always keep in the fridge for her. (Maybe it’s just me, but if liverwurst is an act of love, I’d hate to see a show of hostility.) She also reminded us that, fifteen years ago, when Lynne had broken her arm and I had come down with bronchitis, Mom launched her own Meals On Wheels program, loading Dad up with tortellini soup for delivery to me and Lynne.

The stories my sisters told led precisely to the point I intended to make: even though Mom and Dad were a “them” long before the rest of us showed up, my parents have never, ever been about them. As I was making that point, that wave of emotions, which had continued to gather momentum all afternoon, got fully organized and swamped me. I pieced myself back together sufficiently to talk about how we get only tiny reminders of Mom and Dad as a “them,” such as when I watched them dance at my cousin’s wedding two summers ago. Or when they decided to go to Alaska in the summer of 2014 and I joined them, wanting to take in the “them” and their enjoyment. I will never forget the experience of riding in a small plane with them, landing on a glacier (on purpose, don’t worry), and actually setting foot on it. I watched the two of them stare in slack-jawed awe and I listened as they reveled in nature’s magnificence. They were right, it was astonishing, but to me the real natural wonders were the two of them and what they built together. As I was finishing my story, that infernal wave pummeled me again so I handed things over to L.J.

My brother began by sketching out memories in broad strokes, like the gift-laden Christmas mornings that began so early they were really still Christmas Eves, and our annual week-long vacations in the Outer Banks. Then L.J. talked about his baseball career, which my father nurtured at all points, first by hitting countless flies after work and on Sunday mornings after church, and then, when my brother went to Georgia Tech on a full athletic scholarship, telling my brother to leave him a ticket for games “in case I can make it.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that my father made it, every single time, sometimes even with Mom and always with her help. When L.J. reached the minor leagues – a place where dreams are big and salaries small –Dad handed him a literal blank check, something I never knew. And my brother had kept it all these years. As L.J. held it up, it seemed the same wave that hit me might have splashed onto him just a little bit too.

At last it was time for the toast, which reminded all of us that my brother handles words even more expertly than he does a baseball. He mentioned that Team Yank, which may not have won every game over the past 50 years but has a very solid record, has the attributes of the all-time great teams, like chemistry, strong fundamentals, and passion. He quoted Babe Ruth, who said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” That’s Team Yank in a nutshell: we love to play together, and when we do, we’re at our collective and individual best. Then we raised a glass to the greatest team any of us could ever hope to play on.

The party ended there but the story does not. Suzi and her family were staying with me, so we loaded up their car with all the leftovers. My brother-in-law drove so Suzi could sit in the passenger seat and hold the remaining half of that perfectly decorated cake on the ride home. We pulled into my driveway and I opened the car door just in time to hear a sound that looked just like this:

busted cake

The Cake Splat: No, of course it couldn’t have landed on the box, silly!

I couldn’t decide whether to call Emily or to get a piece of chalk so I could draw an outline around the cake where it died. It is perhaps fitting that four of us spent the waning moments of April 16 doing what Team Yank does best: laughing hysterically while batting cleanup.

team Yank parmesan

All 21 of us, in varying states of saying “Parmesan!” Sometimes plain ol’ “cheese” works best…





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??

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

gingerbread 1

Structural soundndess is overrated.

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

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

gingerbread final





How do you make 45,000 people all feel special at once? Just ask Taylor Swift.

Last Tuesday night, I was on my feet at Nats Park in D.C., shake-shake-shaking it off with Taylor Swift and 45,000 of my closest friends. Those who know me well were surprised, well aware that I’m not exactly a Taylor Swift fan.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire the way she’s evolved. Instead of spending her whole career cranking out the countrified confections that got her started as a teen, she peered over the edge of the country pier and then chose to take a flying leap off of it, doing a world-class cannonball into the waters of pop music. And her lyrics show flashes of incredible insight. Take, for example, the words to a song like “We are Never Getting Back Together”:

I remember when we broke up the first time
Saying, “This is it, I’ve had enough,” ’cause like
We hadn’t seen each other in a month
When you said you needed space. (What?)
Then you come around again and say
“Baby, I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change, trust me.”
Remember how that lasted for a day?
I say, “I hate you,” we break up, you call me, “I love you.”
Ooh, we called it off again last night
But ooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you
We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together
Like, ever…

She nails both the irrational magnetism of a yo-yo relationship (not that I know anything about that, ahem) and the comical petulance of a twenty-something experiencing it. And we all know that “never ever ever” talks a good game but tends to lose its nerve when it really counts.

Great lyrics and impressive achievements aside, I’ve never felt motivated to spend a dime on Swift’s music, so you might be wondering how and why I wound up with a concert ticket. The how is simple, if undignified: I finagled one from my twelve year-old niece, Emily.

She’d gotten five tickets as a birthday present from her parents. My sister Lynne planned to bring their family of four and let Emily invite one friend, or perhaps a few friends if my nephew and/or brother-in-law opted not to go. No mention of aunts was made. Yet that didn’t stop me and my sister Suzi — also a Swift agnostic– from throwing our hats into the ring unbidden, like your average Republican presidential candidate. Unlike your average Republican presidential candidate, however, Suzi and I at least showed some respect for the fact that we faced long odds. Instead of making complete nuisances and spectacles of ourselves, we waged a persistent, but polite and subtle, campaign. And it worked. (Hellooooooooo, Republicans.)

Why were Suzi and I dying to subject ourselves to hours of ear-splitting tween screams over an artist whose music we don’t love? It had nothing to do with Taylor Swift and everything to do with wanting to see Emily’s unadulterated joy for ourselves. The kid was so fired up about the concert, we wouldn’t have cared had the headliner been William Shatner (though that would have prompted me to call Child Protective Services on Lynne). I had a second reason: as a child-free aunt, I rarely get to witness kid “firsts,” and I wasn’t about to let this one pass me by.

So last Tuesday night, our group of five –Lynne, Suzi, Emily, Emily’s pal and I –arrived at Nats Park at 7 p.m., the concert’s official start time. We donned the thick, white, plastic wristbands the staff had handed us and took our time getting to our seats. The bands contained LED lights programmed to Swift’s set list, and we’d heard she wouldn’t start until 9:30, when full darkness had descended.

We got our first pleasant surprise when Swift appeared onstage at 8:30. Forecasts she described as “aggressive” led her to brave sub-optimal LED conditions so her fans could have the Complete Experience. And once the show got underway, oh, did we ever have the Complete Experience. Emily and her friend danced as if in the throes of electrocution, belting out every song with tonsil-baring gusto. My sisters and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Swift herself was the next pleasant surprise. That relatable quality in her lyrics extends to her performance style, too. For all her pop princess polish –she didn’t sneeze without an assist from a phalanx of male dancers, and she wore more outfits in two hours than I’ve worn in two years–she comes across in song as someone who bumbles her way through heartbreak and rejection as gracelessly as the rest of us. She may have her act together, but she’s still a hot mess.

And then there were those wristbands. They blinked and delighted fans all night, but one moment near the end of the show embedded itself in my memory. As Swift commented that a lot of performers look out from the stage and see only darkness, every wristband lit up in blue, an eloquent acknowledgement of her fans as collective and individuals. She looked around and said, “I see all of you, including you, all the way at the top over there,” with what sounded like genuine appreciation.

Strange as it may sound, I didn’t want the concert to end. But when it did, I walked away feeling big like for Taylor Swift and an ache not in my ears but in my face, from smiling.

taylor swift

My LED bracelet stayed all lit up and happy long after the concert, much like its wearer.

Aunts Marching

Many people have asked how I fared during my four-day stint as solo sub parent to Baby B, my 13 month-old nephew.  It was incredible, exhilarating, exhausting, interminable, and brief, sometimes all at once.

In-person opportunities to assert my presence in B’s life are relatively few because of geography, so I feel real pressure to make the most of them.

Hallmark and other purveyors of sap pile on to the expectations load with sayings like, “Everything is nicer when shared with an aunt,” and “Aunt, without you there were many occasions I would have missed, and things I could not have achieved. I don’t think I would have grown into the person I am without your influence.”  (This last one is a lovely sentiment unless you happen to be Charles Manson’s aunt.)

So when I wasn’t busy boarding, re-planing and re-planing at National Airport last Thursday, I was thinking about how I would use this time with B to make a lasting impression. I envisioned being there when he rolled out a new word or gesture, maybe even one I’d imparted to him.  We would do puzzles and other brain-stimulating activities together.

I saw myself taking him to the pool and playground and cementing my image as the aunt who brings laughter to his life.  And we’d both be so tired from our days together that we’d sleep straight through the night. That’s how I saw this going.

And I’m proud to report I was right about one thing: We both slept straight through the night, every night.

Taking pantry inventory is on Mensa’s list of “Signs Your Nephew Is a Genius,” right?

Beyond that, the utopian Aunt/Nephew bonding script got torn into tiny little shreds of realism, which I have distilled into the following observations.

  • No matter what Hallmark says, B did not seem to think the diaper experience was improved by sharing it with me.
  • It’s a good thing B didn’t pick up any new words or gestures from me, because most of the ones I used hailed from a street other than Sesame.
  • B is aware that he has “parts.”  When they’re exposed to daylight, B, like pretty much all men, feels the need to do a manual check and make sure everything is still there.  On one occasion, the timing of this particular inspection resulted in my having to launder two towels, a blanket, and a sock monkey, and to hose myself down with Clorox.
  • When playing, B quickly became frustrated with the wooden puzzle that required him to fit various construction vehicles into their designated spots.  He instead showed much greater interest in moving two large plastic tubs full of clothes that my brother had used to B-proof parts of the playroom. B didn’t want to open them or dump them out, he just wanted to move them around.  Lest he pull it down on his head, I pulled one down for him and he proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes pushing it around the room, as if it were a rug Zamboni. I followed closely behind him in a half-crouch, ever mindful of my brother’s observation that watching a 13 month-old, posture-wise, is like constantly playing defense against the Lakers.  After doing a few circuits of what I came to refer to as “Lumbago Laps,” I collapsed on the floor and let out a loud sigh of exhaustion.  B found this hilarious and launched himself at me like a giggly missile.  If you’ve ever babysat a toddler, you just experienced a sinking feeling because you know B’s reaction could mean only one thing: endless repetition.


I hadn’t been home for a day before I contacted my brother and asked if I could do it again in six months.