Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

J.J. and I did very little the day after we hiked Samaria Gorge.

“We need a day off” I said. He probably thought I was referring to physical recovery, but I meant mental, too, because we were about to embark on the rental car portion of the program. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond and whose only experience on the roads in Greece consisted of a couple of cab rides, J.J. didn’t know what awaited us, but I did.

When Mom and I went to Greece in 2002, we had rented a car without a worry in the world. We were seasoned veterans of Beltway combat who’d seen it all and knew how to react. A driver cuts you off? Yawn. Tailgates an ambulance to get a few hundred feet ahead? Cast a disgusted glare and move on. Eats tomato soup while steering with their knees? Roll down the window and hurl a grilled cheese at them. We couldn’t be fazed, or so she and I had thought until we picked up our rental car in Athens.

I expected getting out of the city to be tough, and it was — if not for Mom’s calm and stellar navigating skills, we might still be there –but it wasn’t the hard part, it was only a hard part. Driving through the outskirts and into the countryside, where there aren’t highways so much as two-laned roads, I soon learned Americans do shoulders all wrong. In the U.S., we treat the shoulder as a place to pull off and do something, like change a tire or switch drivers. In Greece, it’s the slow lane. Why waste a perfectly viable driving surface? You also need not waste a moment worrying about getting stuck in the slow shoulder. In Greece, you don’t have to commit to one lane-ish or the other at all, you just lazily straddle the two. This leaves plenty of room for motorcycles to pass you on both sides simultaneously. And lines are neither the preferred driving formation nor boundaries painted upon a road: in both cases they’re just suggestions. All of it had taken some getting used to, but by the time Mom and I left, I was almost enjoying it.

I wasn’t sure how J.J. would feel about the driving, but I had no such worries about the car we’d rented: it cracked him up. No wider than his wingspan and just a few inches longer, it had all the sex appeal of a hair dryer, and a far less powerful engine. As I merged us into an amoeba of traffic of downtown Chania, the lack of order left my nephew aghast. I gave a dismissive wave.

“It all works out somehow,” I said, “so get used to it and watch the phone.”

Rarely do you have to tell a modern 18 year-old to pay more attention to an iPhone, but I was depending on that device, and my nephew, for navigation. He couldn’t have guided us on an actual map as Mom did — he, like most of his peers, has no idea how to read one in real time– but the kid knows his way around an iPhone. So I put him in charge of directions and holding down the A/C button, which seemed to believe it had signed up only for shift work.

He did both with calm and aplomb as we made our way out of Chania and toward Knossos, home of ancient Minoan ruins. Though only 150 km away, the drive involves a fair amount of winding and climbing. The car approached these ascents with the alacrity and land speed of a cow, leading us to dub it “Bessie.” Two hours later, J.J., Bessie and I pulled into the parking lot of the ruins.

Said to date back to 7000 B.C., the site draws mixed reviews. On the one hand, you feel real wonder as you walk on stones that remain from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and learn how advanced those ancient civilizations were, as evidenced by water and sanitation IMG_3415 (2)systems. On the other, the early 20th century work of archaeologist Arthur Evans included not just excavations but elaborate reconstructions of the palace as he imagined it would have been, so it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic. That ruins the ruins for some people, but we knew to take it with a grain of salt, and the controversy seemed to intrigue my nephew. We spent the night in Agia Pelagia, a charming seaside village where we stayed at a hotel that resembled Melrose Place and ate at a restaurant that had what we needed: good tzatziki.

The next day we drove back to Chania. This time we established our base at Agii Apostoli, a pretty beach area about 15 minutes from the center of town. Though the area lacks the charm of old town Chania, our hotel more than made up for it: situated right by the water, its terraces offered gorgeous views and its staff incomparable hospitality, and a refreshing swim in the Sea of Crete awaited mere steps away. During our stay, we also had the good fortune to meet Scott and Jennifer, two wonderful New Yorkers who made a big impression on me and J.J., and about whom I’ll write more later. We could have wiled away our last few days at Agii Apostoli in perfect contentment, yet I wanted to make sure my nephew (and I) didn’t leave Crete without seeing at least two more of the world’s most fabled beaches.

After breakfast the next day, I told one of the hotel staff what I had in mind.

She smiled and said, “Ah, you’re adventurous. This is good!” I hoped to prove her more than half-right. She set me up with a map, snacks, towels and an umbrella, all of which my nephew and I loaded into Bessie as we set out for one more road trip. Two hours and many (many) windy roads later, J.J. and I arrived at Elafonissi beach, whose allegedly pink sands I needed to see for myself. We encountered a crowded parking lot, not my favorite sight, but one look at the beach told us why: it’s dazzling. A swath of crushed shells colors the sand coral as you step into perfect turquoise water. J.J. and I couldn’t get enough of it. When we were’t swimming, we lazed on one of the many rocks that dot the sea, never tiring of watching the water flow over and around us.

Though we could have looked in amazement at the scenery forever, after a few hours we set off for Kendrodasos, a nearby and more remote beach the hotel staff had mentioned. A crow could have flown there in moments but took us more than half an hour. Bessie struggled over dirt ruts meant to pass for roads –what would we do if we blew a tire here? –and then we ditched her to walk the remaining several hundred yards to a beautiful and nearly deserted cove. We laid our towels on low-hanging tree branches and headed straight for the water, which somehow looked even bluer than at Elafonissi. An open water swimmer’s paradise, I once again had to drag us away after a few hours so we could start our trip back. We returned to Agii Apostoli by way of a glorious waterfront meal at Sunset Tavern in Sfinari, a pebbly but lovely beach area. After dinner we paused our drive one last time for a pit stop at Falassarna, yet another famously beautiful shore.

As I was lamenting that we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate it, J.J. said, “I guess we’ll have to come back.” I like the way the kid thinks.

The sun had set by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot. Tired but happy, we agreed that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of Bessie, whom the rental agency picked up the next day.

We didn’t miss the car, having planned to spend our last day on the island enjoying the beautiful beach right in front of us. Instead of going out for lunch, we walked to the mini market at the end of our street and cobbled together a very respectable picnic lunch of bread, feta, cold cuts, olives and tzatziki (what else), which we enjoyed on our terrace in between swim sessions. And then there was our last sunset in Chania, which I could not miss. More than just an everyday miracle, sunsets there are a reliable but ever-changing tableau of orange, pink, magenta, purple and blue. I tried to capture a few of them with my camera, but I just watched the final one, cementing its place in my memory.

As J.J. and I cabbed to the airport the next day, my heart felt heavy. I loved the people, the food, the scenery, and the incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences I shared with my nephew (because who wants to go on a barf-inducing hike twice?), and I didn’t want to leave. Sure, I missed my people at home, but couldn’t they just come and meet us on Crete?

I guess it was too much to ask just then, but here’s hoping that question won’t always be rhetorical.

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.

Road tripping to Allentown: another entry from the “I’ve gone further for less” file

Today’s post will be short because I’m taking my niece and nephew, aka the Roommates, on a road trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“What’s in Allentown?” you ask. A Mack Truck museum, a fish hatchery, and a whole bunch of my relatives. We don’t intend to visit any of them, however. We’re headed up there to buy bacon-scented shirts.

Right now some of you are shaking your heads, but c’mon, don’t act like you wouldn’t jump at the chance to drive 200 miles one-way just to purchase a garment that smells like breakfast meat. Sure, maybe you could buy it on line, but that’s not the point. Ownership of a pre-funked shirt is a privilege, not a right, and you have to earn it. And boy are we earning it.

We hadn’t even heard about bacon shirts until two weeks ago, when my Aunt Elaine, who lives near Allentown, happened to mention them during dinner before the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga concert. (Only before a Lady Gaga concert would the topic of meat clothing arise naturally.) The shirts, she told us, are the trademark of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, a AAA baseball team that’s renowned for showing its fans a good time. We had to go.

The question of when resolved itself in short order when the kids’ schedules opened up for this weekend. As I talked to Emily and Timothy about the trip, I mentioned the game was at night, so we might as well stay at a hotel.

“Could it have room service?” Emily asked. Timothy nodded, in a rare show of respect for his sister’s questioning skills.

Room service? For a bacon shirt-focused overnighter? If my siblings and I had posed a question like that to my father when we were kids, he’d have had a two-part response, where part one was, “Are you sh*ting me?” and part two was, “Hell no.”

So I said, “Of course.”

Due to our last-minute planning and the Pigs’ popularity, I couldn’t even buy three tickets in the same section on the team website. I had to go to StubHub. That’s right: I paid a premium to be able to walk into a sporting venue and buy a smelly shirt. I look forward to paying $6 for a bottle of water.

And since our route to the Iron Pigs takes us right past Dorney Park, a decent-sized amusement park, I decided we might as well go whole hog (har!) and squeeze in a few hours of roller-coastering while we’re at it.

Don’t tell me I don’t know how to bring home the bacon.

The official team logo, courtesy of trendingtoplists.com (http://www.trendingtoplists.com/top-10-minor-league-baseball-team-nicknames)

 

 

 

 

Little brothers: you can’t teach ’em anything.

While at the pool during last weekend’s family reunion, my brother asked me to give him some swimming pointers. I cracked up.

The idea that I could teach L.J. anything about sports technique represented a serious perversion of the natural athletic order. My brother played college baseball for Georgia Tech and then went on to pitch in the minor leagues. He was a professional athlete, for heaven’s sake! After he gave up baseball, he took up tennis, which he dabbled in as a kid. Once he really put his mind to it, he became a force to be reckoned with and was one-half of a duo that won the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association’s City Championships in 2005 or so. In short, if L.J. so much as thinks about taking up a sport, he’s probably going to excel at it. So even though my brother is four years younger than I am, when it comes to sports, it’s always felt like he’s my senior.

But having swum for most of my life, coached a team, and taught countless kids how to swim, I know what I’m doing in the water, whereas L.J., saw little reason to spend time at the pool unless the concession stand was open. And though he took lessons briefly –my parents insisted that we all learn how to swim as a survival skill –he had no interest whatsoever in the sport of swimming. On mentally reviewing our respective backgrounds, I decided maybe I could show him a thing or two after all.

The lifeguards blew the whistle to start the 15-minute adult swim period, giving us time and space to work. I told L.J. to swim a few yards so I could observe, but really, I just needed some time to adjust to this role reversal.

My brother pushed off from the wall and I watched with a mixture of amazement and envy as he knocked out five near-perfect strokes of high-elbowed, long-reaching freestyle. This, after nothing more than a few lessons as a kid. The only thing wrong with his stroke was his kick: his legs dragged motionless below him like passengers in an unseaworthy dinghy. But that’s a pretty small flaw in the grand scheme of swimming.

He came up for air expecting me to deliver an extended critique, but all I had for him were coaching bytes: “Stretch your arms out longer, keep your elbow high as you throw your arm forward, and don’t let your hips sag.” It’s the same advice I’d give to advanced swimmers, ones who already have good technique but know they need to make minor adjustments to achieve the holy grail of efficiency.  Any swim coach will tell you that success hinges on proper execution of the lazy person’s credo: go as far as you can with as little effort as possible.

My brother seemed almost disappointed and said, “That’s it?” I nodded. “Then why do I feel like I’m dying every time I do it?” A fat, juicy chance to remind my little brother that he was still my little brother was dangling right in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I told him the truth instead.

“It’s only because you don’t do it often enough,” I said. “Your stroke is excellent. It’s just a matter of conditioning.”

“Really?” That one-word question, which my brother asked with absolute sincerity, says so much about him. He’s good, if not exceptional, at most things he tries, but he seems to have no idea just how good he is, and he has zero swagger. It’s the kind of thing that makes me not just love him but like him.

“Yep,” I said. “If you swam more than 20 yards a year you’d be great.” And by “great,” I meant “Michael Phelps,” but no big sister worth her salt would give up something like that.

Still, Marc Brown, creator of the beloved children’s series Arthur, really knew what he was talking about when he said, “Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

 

Why bother with fresh starts on Easter when you can dig up family dirt instead??

[Correction: In the original post, I mentioned my parents’ VW bug. Turns out I was ahead one car: the vehicle implicated in the story below was a large, black Pontiac sedan. And my sister? In a car seat, yes. Strapped in? Not so much.]

The local Yanks congregated at my parents’ house for Easter festivities yesterday. After we gorged on pizza gaina and other Italian classics, conducted an egg hunt, and immersed ourselves in Mom’s incomparable pies, the storytelling began.

We’d been discussing the spring break trip my older sister Lynne and her family had just taken. Things went mainly as planned for them, which I pointed out was not how they went when we were kids and my parents took us on an alleged vacation to Ferrum College.  Or when we went to the Outer Banks one year and stayed in a house whose electronics consisted of a single FM radio. This might not have mattered had it not been hurricane season and rained 29 hours a day for six days straight. My siblings and I entertained ourselves by fighting, making my parents so desperate to get away from us they attended a timeshare presentation voluntarily.

“Geez, I don’t remember that at all,” Lynne said. She added, somewhat sanctimoniously, that she tends not to remember unpleasant bits from our family history. This prompted my parents to make two contributions to Lynne’s memory bank, each one involving episodes when my father was left in charge of my sister.

The first occurred when Lynne was perhaps two and Dad had taken her with him to the grocery store. When they returned, Dad decided to leave my sister in the car–strapped into a carseat that was firmly ensconced on the passenger side–while he unloaded the groceries. Dad was a logistician by trade, so this probably struck him as the most efficient way to get the job done. Yet for all his efficiency, he wasn’t fast enough because, by the time he came back outside, both my sister and the car were gone.

When I picture this moment I see my father standing in the driveway, scratching his head and looking around as he says, “Gosh, I could have sworn I left it right here…” the way people do when they misplace, say, a $20 bill. But unlike a lost twenty, Lynne and the car weren’t wedged between two sofa cushions; they were all the way across the street.

My carseated sister somehow managed to knock the car–a rather massive, black Pontiac known as “the Batmobile”– out of gear and into neutral, sending it rolling down my parents’ gently sloped driveway. The car had enough momentum to make it across the street, up the curb and a few feet into the neighbor’s yard before coming to a rest. This incident may have been a low point for my father, but it remains my sister’s greatest achievement in driving.

On another occasion before I was born, Mom went out to run errands and left both Lynne and my sister Suzi in Dad’s care. By this time, Lynne was newly potty-trained. Dad went out to the backyard with my sisters and put them in a sandbox to play, another stroke of parental efficiency. As he kept his eye on the girls, he noticed that Lynne had spent a long time sitting in the same spot. He went to investigate and encountered a stench that stopped him in his tracks. The newly minted diaper grad had to be the source.

“Good thinking in dropping her in the human equivalent of a litter box, Dad,” I said. “Cleanup should have been a breeze.” My father’s shoulders started to shake but he said nothing.

Mom arched an eyebrow and resumed the story. She returned from her errands after some interval of time that was less than an hour and more than a few minutes.

“When I got back, the girls were still out in the sandbox,” Mom said. Dad apparently gave her a status report that made casual mention of the fact that Lynne had been unusually sedentary but indicated that everything had essentially been fine. My mother went out to the litter box, where she found Lynne seated, still, and in a state of advanced fermentation.

“Wait a minute, you left me out there?” Lynne asked my father, indignant. Dad nodded, laughing silently and with such force that he couldn’t form words. My shoulders had begun to shake, too, and I saw Mom snickering.

“You really…hahahaha….left her….hahahah…out there?” I asked as I wiped tears from my eyes.

My father finally regained his composure and managed to speak.

“I couldn’t get near her,” Dad said, his explanation as complete as it was brief. That caused the whole table to double over with laughter.  As gut-busters go, I’ll take family stories over pizza gaina and Peeps every time.

Footage from the annual egg-cracking contest, another Easter staple.

Footage from the annual egg-cracking contest, another Easter staple.