Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

We didn’t shoot our eyes out, but…

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Buddy!” Lynne shouted.

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

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

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

Buddy calls this "a good start."

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both know I’ve gone further for less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Uh, well, really soon.

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

Him: Are you going alone?

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

Him: Who are you going with?

Me (still knocking): Um, this guy…

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

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

Him: Wait, are you downstairs?

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

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

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

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


Getting hung up on Christmas lights and letters to Santa Claus

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

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

I come from the second camp.

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

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

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

I wrote:

Dear Santa Claus,

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

Karen Yankosky


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

2. Hooked on Classics (It’s a record)

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

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


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

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

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

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



Having myself a merry little Christmas

The holidays can really try the patience of us single types. You can’t open a magazine or watch a TV show without some jeweler trying to convince you that nothing says “solitary” like no solitaire. But one holiday tradition people often think of as the province of couples –decorating the Christmas tree–never makes me feel conspicuous, lonely or lesser in any way.

It all starts with the hunting of the Christmas tree, a Yank family tradition. The Northern Virginia locals (and any non-local Yanks who happen to be around) pile into the car, drive out to the western edges of Loudon County, and traipse through the countryside in search of the perfect specimen. Only once in my life, in 2008 when I was dating a man 11 years my junior,  have I brought a significant other on the hunt. I haven’t ever given a moment’s thought to the fact that I’m almost always the only Yank without a plus one, probably because I’m too busy having fun with my parents, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew to notice.

I will admit to feeling my singleness for a few minutes every year when I get home with the tree, because I usually have to haul it from the car to the house. This doesn’t require brawn so much as a high tolerance for discomfort, because carrying a Christmas tree by yourself is like waltzing with a six-foot porcupine. Getting the tree into the stand is also not the easiest thing for a person to do by herself. I crouch or lay down on the floor to steady the trunk in the stand with one hand while tightening the screws that hold it in place with the other, having virtually no idea whether the tree is in there straight. I figure that out when I stand up, or when the tree falls on top of me.

But once it’s in the stand, that’s where any feelings of loneliness end, because I never decorate my tree alone. I bought my first house in the fall of 2002, and it had a great room that begged for a Christmas tree. I gave the great room what it wanted, even though I owned almost no ornaments. I invited my then-best friend Joseph over to help me decorate it. This took us two hours: 30 minutes to string up lights and hang ornaments, and 90 minutes to drink wine.

Over time, this became a tradition. As I acquired more ornaments, the length of time required to trim the tree varied, and every now and then someone else joined us, but the decorating-to-drinking ratio never changed.

In 2009, I met my future ex-husband. I was essentially living with him by the time Christmas rolled around that year, so we put up a tree together at his house. (Though my partner in decorating crime had changed, I saw no reason to change the decorating-to-drinking ratio, even if the beverage of choice was high-end champagne instead of wine of questionable vintage.)

As romantic as it was, I’d have told anyone who asked that it couldn’t hold a scented candle to the purely platonic tradition of my past. Tree-trimming at my house had centered on having fun. The Christmas tree was just a different backdrop for my and Joseph’s shenanigans. We weren’t setting out to achieve a particular aesthetic beyond finding a place of honor for my prized Spam ornament.

I divorced my husband and got a home of my own in 2012, and I’m pleased to report that my special brand of tree-trimming, single person-style, has returned to its former glory and then some. Last December found Philippa standing in my living room, holding a tangle of lights which I helped her sort out by pouring a glass of wine.

A new friend helped me decorate tonight (and for this I must apologize to my not-so-new friend, Max, who was going to help me this year). We had a great time, despite the fact that his first instinct was to conceal the Spam ornament from view. As I have every year that I’ve decorated a tree with someone besides a significant other, I’m basking not just in the glow of the tree, but in the way that it feels all the more special because the boughs aren’t weighed down with romantic meaning.

Spam: It goes great on anything.

Spam: It goes great on anything.






Wrapped Up In Tradition

Christmas tradition doesn’t exactly enslave the Yanks, but there are a bunch of things we do as a tribe every holiday season.  It would take me weeks to report on how all of our traditions fared this year so I’ll just give you a rundown of the top three:

1. Christmas tree cutting: Big thumbs-up.  My family goes on a Christmas tree hunt out in the Virginia countryside every year.  We’d been going to the same farm in Round Hill for the past five or six seasons, but last year we began to see signs that perhaps we ought to make a change.  First, the farm must have embarked on an ad campaign, because the parking lot the weekend after Thanksgiving had as high a car count as your average Wal-Mart.  On top of that, the tree farmers seemed to have reached a tipping point in their efforts to diversify their portfolio.  They started out innocuously years ago by selling hot cider in addition to trees.  Soon, they expanded to selling cookies and pies.  By this time last year, they’d added an organic butcher, three vintners and a nine-piece band. It felt as rustic as Costco.  And then there was the matter of transporting our freshly cut trees from field to car, a distance of half a mile or so.  If you’re not familiar with the experience, carrying an eight foot felled pine is like handling a ninety pound cactus.  You’d think the farm would help with this part of the process but you’d be wrong. For $100 per tree, they want to make sure you don’t miss out on a chance to do some alfresco weightlifting and get organic acupuncture.

I was discussing this with a friend, who said, “Home Depot sells cut trees for $25 and they put it on top of your car, you know.”

While those economics are hard to beat, my family wasn’t ready to give up our tradition for a trip to the wilderness of Home Depot.

At 8 a.m. on December 9 –late in the cut-your-own tree season– we set out for a new farm a few miles from the old one.  Only three cars had arrived ahead of us, which either meant that we’d found a hidden gem or that acres of Charlie Brown trees awaited.  As we strolled we found row after row of robust, well-shaped trees.  They’d been grown a bit too close together but it hadn’t hampered their health or shapeliness as far as we could see.  It didn’t take us long to find our trees or farmhands to load them up onto an ATV for easy transport back to the farmhouse.   We pronounced the trip a huge success, even after we got home and discovered that, as a result of growing up so close together that inadequate space remained for pruning, each of our trees leans like a pine-scented Tower of Pisa.

2.   Christmas Eve Mass: Too close to call.  The Northern Virginia locals (my parents, Lynne and her family, and I) go to Christmas Eve Mass at Nativity Parish in Burke, every year.  I never miss this ritual even though my being agnostic makes it a somewhat dicey proposition.  I generally play it safe by staying silent during prayer recitations—I learned this the hard way when some enterprising Church bigwig got it in his head recently to change up the words of prayers Catholics had been saying for 35 years –by avoiding communion, and by following everyone else’s lead.

This strategy was serving me well this year until we got to the “Sign of Peace,” where you shake hands with all the people around you.  As the ritual Spreading of the Bacteria was coming to a close, I reached across my niece and nephew to shake hands with my brother-in-law.

Unfortunately, my foot encountered the unexpected resistance of the kneeler and I lost my balance.  Instead of placing my hand in my brother-in-law’s, I came perilously close to reaching second base with my sister.  I may have to re-think this tradition for next year (as should the thousands of other lapsed Catholics who attended the service and committed so many pre-Mass sins in the parking lot that the Church should have set up a pop-up confessional).

3.  Christmas Eve with the Roommates: Jazz Hands.  In 2011, I lived with my sister, her husband and their two kids (aka “The Roommates”) for nine months, which meant that I was in the house when the kids woke up on Christmas morning that year.  They saw this development as only slightly less miraculous than Santa’s annual loot-drop, and they’ve asked me to spend the night at their house every Christmas Eve since.  I’m grateful they still think their aunt is cool, so I’m always very happy to oblige.  This year, I arrived at my sister’s house after Mass on Christmas Eve and found the roommates in their pajamas, teeth brushed.  By 9 p.m. they were tucked in, which meant that Santa could get to work.  He set up shop in the dining room, a rather bold move since both it and the living room (the place where the presents land) flank the stairs and are the first areas the kids would see if they made an unexpected appearance. I expressed this concern to my brother-in-law but he felt certain the Roommates were down for the count.  Half an hour into our work, which consisted mainly of doing wrapping paper algebra and trying to piece together last year’s scraps to achieve maximum box coverage (not because my sister is a sustainable wrapper but because she forgot to replenish her stock), I heard footsteps on the stairs and then saw my nine year-old nephew on the landing.

“What are you doing?” he said.

Luckily, eleven years of practicing law had prepared me for just such a moment.  Without hesitation I concocted a story that was 75 parts fact and 25 parts fiction (an unusually high truth ratio as alibis go) involving my inadvertently leaving the front door unlocked after making a trip out to my car for a bottle of champagne to share with the roommates’ parents, and then the three of us failing to hear Santa’s entrance because we were busy boozing it up in the kitchen.  I told this story from the middle of the full-size bed in my nephew’s room, where I lay sandwiched between the Roommates.

When I finished, my niece said, “Will you stay with us, Wheatie Bo? I’m a little freaked out right now.”

Since I was partly to blame for this Santa credibility crisis, I couldn’t refuse.  And that’s how a 42 year-old woman who’s great without child ends up spending Christmas Eve with two kids.

And in case you’ve ever wondered about the head-to-toe sleeping configuration? It only works in cartoons.

Santa left loot and a letter! But not a sunrise. We had to wait at least another half hour for that to happen.

A signature work

My mom took down her Christmas decorations the other day.  Before stashing them for another year in the closet beneath the basement stairs, she decided to give the storage space a good purge.

She came across all kinds of stuff, much of it bound for the trash, some of it worth saving (such as the Madame Alexander doll collection she started for me, which I assume was, like my brief foray into ballet, part of a largely unsuccessful campaign to girl me up), and one absolute keeper: a handmade Christmas card.

Such originals are standard gift-giving currency for any little kid with grand plans for presents and minimal resources, and no doubt Mom has found piles of them over the years. But this one stood out for three reasons:

1.  The absence of a signature. Mom relayed the news of her discovery via a flowery email that made the card sound like a family treasure, the kind of thing a kid could be proud of.  I immediately asked her to text a photo to all four of her kids, anticipating a mad rush to take credit for it.  On seeing the work, any urges we might have had to claim it immediately shifted into a campaign to cast blame.

A True Collector’s Item: “A Gift Of Love” by Anonymous


The interior: “Help my Dad”…

2. The cover art.  The Nativity scene depicted on the front of the card and the caption reflect the obvious influence of Christianity on the artist.  Less obvious is why s/he heeded the creative impulse to compound the insult of a barn birth with a non-orthopedic bed of toothpicks.  Only the Baby Jesus could have managed a smile in the face of such an affront.

3. The interior.  The images and caption inside the card raise a few questions, too.  First, we have graphic renditions of an unattractive car next to a structure of some sort.  It could be a shed, a piece of furniture, or a major appliance. A la The Shadow from the classic radio show, only the artist knows.

Then, we have the enigmatic “Help my Dad” message.  What, exactly, does the artist want the Almighty to do, here?  Help our Dad avoid a head-on collision with the fridge?  Help him buy art lessons for his kid? Or deliver him from an ugly car?

I’m inclined to go with the last interpretation.  It has the most merit, based on the fleet of cars my parents amassed over the years.   These included an enormous Dodge van painted two different shades of green and festooned with green gingham curtains, as well as a Chevy Citation.  Anyone who buys a car named after a legal action is in desperate need of divine intervention.

The arrival of the photo caused my older sister, Lynne, and my younger brother to chime in immediately.

“OK I’ll admit both the printing and the people could be mine,” she wrote, neglecting to admit that it also would have been quite consistent with her character back in those days to ask God to throw some cash and prizes our way. “But the car is WAY better than I ever could have drawn on my own!!!!!! I’m thinking this is our brother’s work.  And in my defense I don’t believe I have ever forgotten to put my name on my work. Def bro!”

From my younger brother came a non-admission/non-denial only a lawyer could love: “It keeps the art critics guessing and raises the price at auction when your work goes unsigned!”

Suzi and I, the two holdouts, wisely took the Fifth.  The mystery remains unsolved as of today, but I’m pretty sure it got all of us wanting to tear apart my parents’ closets to see what other sorts of priceless loot might be lurking inside.  Someone with Anonymous’s kind of talent would never stop at one.

A turn for the unknown

The holidays cause a lot of people to take stock and reflect on their lives.  Such reviews, whether of a month, year or decade, often stir up all kinds of feelings in the reviewer.  Popular psychology might suggest that we “just be” with these feelings, but in reality, they can make for pretty tedious company after a few days in residence.

Some people kick them to the curb without ceremony, while others try to politely pawn them off on someone else.  I seem to know a lot of people in the second camp because every year at about this time, I get correspondence from someone in my past who needs to unload an emotional boarder.

My favorite came in 2005 from my ex-fiance’s mother.  “Greg” and I had gotten engaged in the summer of 1995 and I dis-engaged in early 1996. Due in part to my epic mishandling of the situation, Greg and I split on less than ideal terms; his mother and I, however, stayed in touch and remained friends.  She and her husband even sent me a beautiful gift when I bought my first house in 2002. Her annual Christmas card, like all her correspondence, was something I looked forward to.

When the 2005 card arrived, I opened it with no trepidation whatsoever, so I was completely unprepared when a photo of Greg’s apparently recent wedding fell out.  According to the message she wrote inside the card, his mom had debated whether and how to address the topic of the nuptials and found no satisfactory guidance in the etiquette manuals she consulted.  For reasons that remain unclear to me, she decided to err on the side of disclosure via helpful visual aids.

No emotional baggage came in the mail last year.   Since I was up to my eyeballs in divorce, I imagine people thought I had enough already or they simply couldn’t find me.  (Having moved three times in eighteen months, I’d achieved something close to “fugitive” status.)

A few days ago, during a garden-variety check-in call to my parents, my mom informed me that a letter for me had arrived at their house from someone in Santa Barbara whose initials were “FBM.”  FBM capitalized on the fact that my penchant for going on the lam isn’t genetic: My parents have lived at the same address for forty years.

“Who’s it from, Mom?”

“I don’t know, but they spent $.80 to mail it,” she said.  She sounded impressed by the level of commitment implied by the hefty fare and the fact that the sender might have made a trip to an actual post office to bid it farewell.

I couldn’t think of any old flames, or even old smolders, who lived in California and/or went by “FBM” so I judged it a low-risk piece of correspondence.

“If you don’t mind, go ahead and open it,” I said. I listened as she tore open the envelope and pulled out the enclosure.

“Oh…I don’t think I should’ve opened this.”

“Why not? What is it, Mom?”

“I can’t say.”

“Why not? Can you at least tell me who sent it?”

“No, I can’t.”

“Mom, now that you’ve told me you can’t tell me, you have to tell me.  You don’t have to read it, but can you just skip to the end and see who signed it? I promise I don’t mind.” I thought phrasing it this way lent my request more maturity than outright begging.

“Oh no, I can’t do that,” she said, her voice firm.  I hit the “mute” button on my phone so she wouldn’t hear the cartoon scream I emitted.   Mom had put up a stone wall, and I knew better than to keep trying to jump over it.

Running around it, on the other hand, still seemed like a viable option.  I called my sister, Lynne.

Since Lynne is basically the hub of the information wheel in our family, I figured Mom, like the rest of us spokes, would have mentioned this type of thing to her. Lynne confirmed my hunch when I asked but she offered no details.  She claimed not to know what the envelope contained or who it was from. I still wasn’t ready to give up. What follows is an exact replica of our conversation, if you can call it that.


Some wheels go ’round and ’round but never forward…


“Come on,” I said, “Can you at least tell me if it’s good or bad?”

“If it’s what I think it is, which I never even knew what it was, it will not upset you.”  She really said this. Three times, in fact, because I had to ask her to repeat it twice more before I could even begin to understand it.  I tried again, asking the question a slightly different way, just like they taught us in law school when a typically cooperative witness fails to give a useful answer.

“What did you think it was?”

“I don’t know,” she said,  “because I never knew what it was.”

“But you must’ve thought it was something?”

“I thought it was something, yes, but I don’t know what it is.”

“But what did you think it was?”

“I don’t know what it was.”

“I know you don’t know what it was, but you thought it was something, so what did you think it was?”

“I can’t say because I don’t know what it is.”

After a few more rounds like this I felt satisfied that we had done both Abbott and Costello proud.  I hung up, my heart warmed as ever by the familiar sound of the information wheel hitting the skids.

A little off-key

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“Hope you’re around for the obligatory annual visit,” Mitch and Denise had written in the Christmas card that arrived late last week.  They’re close friends from my law school days, and I see them regularly, including during the holidays.

They always encourage me to bring a guest when I come over, but I’ll be going solo this year, and not just because I’m in between significant others.   Much as I love Mitch and Denise, on the rare occasions when I’ve brought a date to their house, things haven’t gone too well.

There was the time, back in 2007, when they invited me and my then-boyfriend, “John,” to their house for a dinner party.  An assistant dean from our law school and her husband rounded out the group.

The dean had introduced me to Mitch when we were 1Ls in the fall of 1998, and she took a personal interest in both of us that she maintained even after we graduated.  She always kept an eye out for dating prospects for me, so I was excited to introduce her to John.

I knew she’d like the fact that he was un-lawyerly, kind and tall.  She’d also appreciate his success as an entrepreneur, whether or not she was a fan of the online gaming industry he worked in.   I suspected she’d view his laid-back, reserved nature a good complement to my chattiness.

And she might have, except it didn’t look so complementary when John withered in the face of her steady stream of questions.  He looked relieved when she shifted the focus away from him.  Eventually his look of relief gave way to a face of boredom.  He tried to hide it but the occasional flare of his nostrils as he nose-yawned revealed his true feelings.

We moved into the dining room, where he appeared moderately engaged but uncomfortable.  His taste in chair styles leaned more toward beanbag than Queen Anne.

As we dined on pork loin, he followed the conversation, meaning he was always a step or two behind it.  The evening was not unfolding as I had envisioned.

After dinner, I knew John was ready to go.  Just as I was about to start the goodbye process, Denise asked me to play their piano.  She and Mitch always made this request.  Usually I didn’t mind but this time I tried to beg off.

“Oh, you all have better things to do than sit around and listen to me bang on a piano,” I said. The dean dismissed my objection with a wave of her hand.

“You have to indulge us at least a little bit before you go.  I’ve never heard you play.”  She said this as if I were Billy Joel instead of an amateur who’d taken lessons through high school and still remembered how to play a few tunes.

With leaden feet I followed the group into the living room.  I hoped John might at least welcome the change of venue and a respite from lawyer talk.

After I played a jazz number and a ballad, they asked me to play played a classical piece.  I knew just the thing: A rollicking, challenging Beethoven allegro.

I had just gotten through the toughest part, a set of fast-paced arpeggios at opposite ends of the keyboard, and was making my way toward the end of the piece.  From the corner of my eye I saw the dean’s face.  She wore a tiny frown that I took as a sign of concentration and interest.

I glanced at Mitch and Denise.  They looked happy.

I stole a peek at John. He looked…asleep.

The dean may well have been interested in my piece but she was plainly transfixed by the sight of my boyfriend on the loveseat, eyes closed, head back and mouth ajar.   The sound of hands clapping woke him up, but I barely heard it over the voice of the fat lady warming up in the wings.

My next boyfriend, “Steve,” came to dinner at Denise and Mitch’s, too.  Steve was 11 years my junior and had a huge, fun personality to match his king-size smarts.

This time, other guests attended in place of the dean and her husband, and there was no playing of the piano.  (Perhaps Mitch and Denise feared touching off another relationship-ending bout of narcolepsy.)

But some playing did occur.  At some point after dinner, Steve ended up in the basement rec room, horsing around with Denise and Mitch’s teenaged son and his friends.

I can’t blame Steve for choosing the kids over us.  They were, after all, closer to his age.  But I did blame him for putting a large hole in the drywall that brought a swift and awkward close to another evening at Denise and Mitch’s.

Yep, “plus none” is definitely the way to go this year.