Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Remembering Steve Hanlin, one of the finest people I’ve ever known

Last week, we lost one of the good ones, Steve Hanlin. Steve might not have been famous, but to me, he is a legend.

If I think of my friends as a baseball team, he was a utility player who breezed in to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Like the best of the all-time greats, he had the gift of anticipation, a talent for knowing exactly where to be and what to do without ever having to be asked. I detailed some of Steve’s most spectacular feats of friendship in this post I wrote nearly two years ago. At the time, I didn’t refer to him by his real name because, even though my blog wasn’t on his radar –he had lost his eyesight before that, and a multitude of other health issues had caused significant cognitive decline –he wouldn’t have wanted me to shine a spotlight on him for just doing what he thought a friend should do. Steve prioritized his close relationships. He didn’t need a 75 year-long Harvard study to tell him that’s what really matters in this life; he knew it intuitively and tended to those relationships every day, never realizing the extraordinariness of his deeds and devotion.

I won’t tell you much about Steve’s professional life because he wouldn’t have, either, but I know he was very good at his job as Director of Client Services for a software company. He had great business acumen, read people well, worked hard, and took pride in his work, so of course he succeeded. But he didn’t live to work; time in the office fueled the things Steve loved to do outside of it, like take pictures –he was a skilled photographer whose powers of observation translated into beautiful compositions, including a shot of the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome that graced my wall for years –travel, go to sporting events, and laugh.

It was easy to make Steve laugh, just one of the myriad ways his generosity manifested itself. He also loved to make other people laugh. That love, along with a healthy sense of adventure, led my pal to enroll in an improv comedy class years ago. If you’ve never seen or done improv, you might not know that one of the cardinal rules for participants is to say, “Yes, and…” to whatever comic scenario their partner has initiated, no matter how absurd. “Yes, and…” says you’re in this together and that you’ll go to any lengths necessary to help keep the proverbial boat afloat, even if the boat consists of more holes than wood.

I remember going to Steve’s graduation show at the Improv in DC, cracking up at my friend’s exploits, and thinking, If ever there were a person responds to life with “Yes, and…,” it’s Steve.

Life handed Steve the ultimate absurdity in the form of his health, and it wasn’t funny at all. It was hideously unfair, in fact, yet still my friend seemed to give it the improv treatment.

I knew Steve for nearly twenty of his 46 years on Earth and never once heard him gripe about the lousy scene he’d walked into. To the blood disease he had for decades, to the loss of his sight, to lymphoma, to all of it, he said, “Yes, and…” He never gave up. Steve wouldn’t have wanted praise for his bravery, nor would he have seen his fight as heroic, but that’s what it was, and that’s who he was. Steve was a wonderful husband to Dawne and father to Ava, giving them everything he could for as long as he could. And Ava and Dawne did the same for him. Speaking of Dawne, I don’t think she ever tried improv, but she would excel at it, too. As unselfish, brave, warm and funny as Steve, she always stayed in the scene with him, no matter what awful or dark turns it took, and she made sure their little family found the laughs wherever they could along the way.

I struggle not to focus on the injustice of it all, struggle not to cry and shake a fist at the sky in anger for my friend who didn’t get the life he deserved. But Steve would want me to be better than that. He didn’t think life owed him anything; he was glad and grateful for everything he had. The way he lived, in quiet and constant service of the people he loved, set an example that leaves a powerful and enduring legacy. I carry that with me, and whenever life hands me something lousy, I will think of my beloved friend and try my very best to say, “Yes, and…”

Steve and Dawne

One of my favorite moments with Steve and Dawne

 

 

 

 

Spring broke

Spring is a time of awakening, a time of renewal, a time of raising your hand and volunteering for activities you frankly have no business doing.

My role as the Easter Bunny at the annual neighborhood egg hunt last Saturday probably falls into that last category. Then again, when you’re 45 years old and want to participate in an event whose target demographic is the ten-and-under set, sneaking in under cover of an animal suit is pretty much your only option.

This was my fourth year in the bunny suit, so I know the ropes. That turned out to be a good thing because this year, for the first time, I had no handler. I was all set to fire my agent for negotiating a lousy contract until I learned this year’s hunt would feature a mimosa bar. Our neighborhood civic association has limited funding, and I could hardly argue with the decision to throw its resources behind such a crucial strategic initiative. And at least this year I had a viable explanation for staggering around the park. Once I had met, and possibly exceeded, my contractually-established service levels for inflicting trauma on unsuspecting little kids, I went home and turned my attention to making, or attempting to make, pizza gaina.

For the uninitiated, pizza gaina — Italian for “call your cardiologist” –is not your typical tomato sauce/mozzarella number; it’s a pie that consists of several pounds of meat and cheese, plus eighteen eggs, all encased in dough. Pizza gaina is an indulgent dish served on Easter to celebrate the end of Lent, a period of sacrifice that, for Italians, traditionally meant skipping meat on Fridays. It’s also an efficient dish: with just a single slab, you can catch up on all five weeks’ worth of missed meat. But there’s a reason Italians only eat pizza gaina once a year: it’s a royal pain in the rear to make.

I knew making pizza gaina was tough, having watched both my father’s mother and my mom make it year after year. Both Nana and Mom turned out consistently fantastic pizzas, but only after laboring over the dough for hours and then stressing the entire time the pie sat baking in the oven. If it baked for too long, the filling would be fully cooked but the dough would burn. If it didn’t bake long enough, an oozy mess might await when you went to cut it. And no matter how long you baked it, the pizza might display classic Italian stubbornness and refuse to come out of the pan. As further proof of the difficulty of the task, my sister Suzi, who does pretty much everything perfectly, tried to make pizza gaina a few years ago and nearly burned her house down.

I knew all of this, and yet I volunteered to make the pizza gain this year anyway. Mom and Dad were two days out from their move –hardly an ideal time for a major culinary undertaking –so I figured I would try to carry on the tradition. In case you’re inspired to do the same, or to start a new tradition, here’s the recipe Mom gave me, with minor adjustments.

DOUGH: 

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cake of yeast

Mix flour, salt and pepper in a large pot. Add eggs. Mix yeast with one cup warm water. Add to dry ingredients and work well. Grease pot and dough. Cover and let rise ’til double, approximately one hour, and then punch down and shape. Return after one hour to find your particular dough does not believe in Easter, because it has not risen. Punch it anyway, then throw in the trash, where it lands like a flour cannonball.

wrecked dough

What atheist dough looks like before you catapult it into the trash.

Drive to grocery store for replacement yeast, because the only other yeast you have on hand is in a six-pack of beer. Return home and repeat first six steps, doing celebration dance at the sight of the risen dough.

Let stand 20 minutes. Roll to fit over greased 9 x 13″ pan –a roasting pan without the rack usually works–well enough so the top can be sealed. “Well enough so the top can be sealed” means you will roll the dough to the point where it’s so thin you can read the classifieds through it and then maybe, just maybe, it will be long enough to make a complete seal across the top as you fold it over. To be continued, because we Italians believe in suspense.

FILLING

  • 3 and 1/2 lbs of ham, cubed
  • 1 and 1/4 lbs muenster cheese, cubed
  • 18 large eggs
  • 1 cup grated Italian cheese (such as pecorino romano)

Scramble eggs well. Add rest of ingredients, mix well, and pour into pan. Cover with remaining dough, attempt to seal in the filling by pinching dough around the edges. Glance over at countertop and discover “rest of ingredients” apparently did not include the cup of Italian cheese, because it’s still sitting on top of the cutting board where you grated it. Carefully peel back the dough you just sealed, sprinkling expletives liberally as you go, and dump in forgotten Italian cheese. Attempt to stir contents with one hand while holding up the dough lid with the other. Attempt to reseal dough. The dough lets you know what it thinks of this process by refusing to seal in one corner.

Bake at 350 degrees on lower rack in oven until brown – 1-1/2 to 1 -3/4 hours. Before putting in oven, pierce top with fork. Curse yourself for being the kind of person who stupidly does not read the whole recipe before starting to cook because, if you had, you might have noticed that, from an order of operations perspective, the instruction to pierce the top should have come before the instruction to bake at 350 rather than after. Consider removing pizza to pierce it but decide you’ve already angered the dough enough for one afternoon.

After 15 minutes, turn on oven light to monitor progress and discover filling has begun to leak out of the unsealed corner and to pool atop the dough. Turn off light and resolve to wait an hour before risking another peek. Return to this:

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Stop yourself from thinking, “It could have been worse,” because it still has time to get worse.

Remember Mom’s advice to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely on top for the last 15 minutes if browning too quickly. Discover you have no aluminum foil. Curse as you search for acceptable substitute and find only a silicone baking sheet liner. Place silicone liner atop dough and hope for the best.

Remove pizza, which appears done after 1-1/2 hours. After removing from oven, let stand 5-10 minutes and invert on rack. Or invert 90 % of it, because 10% decides to stay bonded to the pan.

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Conduct a visual inspection of the inverted 90% and discover it’s oozing filling in a way that reminds me of how the Cutlass 88 Oldsmobile we had in the early ’80s used to leak oil.

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Brainstorm ways to reunite the inverted 90% with its family back in the pan so that it will eventually emerge as an intact whole. Google “Is duct tape edible?”

Resign yourself to placing the mostly empty pan on top of the inverted 90%, returning silicone liner-covered pizza to oven, and hoping the entire big mess will, like a sitcom, find a way to come together in the last 5 minutes.

Remove pizza from oven, wait 10 minutes, and voila!

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Spend 3 minutes lamenting your Italian heritage. Had you been half-French, you would have quit at the quiche stage and wouldn’t have troubled yourself with dough lids or pie inversion, meaning you’d be on your second glass of wine by now.

Let the pizza (and you) cool for several hours. Cut into inch-thick slabs and stack on a plate such that the pieces that look like they’ve been attacked by the Easter Bunny are hidden under a pile of pretty ones. Pass it all off with arrogance when your parents show up on Easter morning, and beam when they tell you your grandmother would be proud.

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A love letter to the house that has heart

My parents put their home of 45 years on the market on Thursday, leaving me with a burning question: will the new owners let me raid the pantry? Because let’s face it: my decades-long habit of walking through that very same door and heading straight for the kitchen will be tough to break.

Kidding aside, I’m glad my parents decided to downsize and to part with the house “while they’re still friends,” as my sister Suzi put it. She’s right. Mom and Dad have earned a break from maintaining four bedrooms and three levels’ worth of a house, including a driveway that required shoveling six days ago. But it still felt weird to see the listing on a real estate website.

The description of the property included factual stuff –four-bedroom Colonial in Orange Hunt Estates, built in 1972, carport, updated kitchen with granite counters and maple cabinets, hardwood floors on two levels, updated baths, finished basement, central air, .26 acre yard — sterile information buyers want to know about the structure that’s been our house. But it doesn’t tell them a thing about our home.

nagshead

Fishing pole seeing some great Outer Banks action…

The carport, for example, is bounded on one side by a brick wall against which my three siblings and I hit tennis balls and kicked soccer balls for hours, leading our parents to consume horse-tranquilizing amounts of Tylenol. The back wall of the carport has a shed that held a fleet of bikes, including the first one I ever rode, as well as a structurally unsound purple thing we kids saw as the Bike of Last Resort. The purple wobbler tried to kill me and my sister Lynne on two separate occasions, leaving me with a mild concussion and her with road rash.

Rafts, fishing poles, crabbing nets and other essentials we took on our week-long trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks every summer also lived in the shed, as did the rake my father took out every fall. We kids recognized the appearance of the rake as a sign that we were supposed to help bag up the leaves that blanketed our back yard, a chore we hated. We knew better than to whine –that never worked with Dad –so we punished him with ineptitude instead. The hand-eye coordination that enabled us to hit baseballs and tennis balls with aplomb mysteriously vanished the moment we bent over a pile of leaves.

“When you kids don’t want to do something,” Dad would say/mutter/yell, our cue to slink off in silent victory.

Though we hated the leaves, we loved the backyard. It was our soccer field, gridiron, and baseball diamond, and on summer nights it formed part of a flashlight tag venue that spanned two streets. No real estate listing would mention that. Or tell you how, every so often, a baseball or soccer ball would go crashing into the kitchen through the window over the sink.

We ate dinner in the kitchen as a family almost every night. In the early years, we had a formica table that sagged in the middle like a swaybacked mule. If a person seated at one end of the table needed something at the other, we didn’t bother to pick up the item and pass it. We just gave it a good shove and watched it slide to the other end like an air hockey puck.

We had a more majestic ensemble in the dining room for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The company of assorted relatives and friends often extended our holiday table all the way into the living room. Whether feeding six people or thirty, Mom would take her consistently outstanding cooking up a notch, producing perfect turkeys, gorgeous pies, and our beloved Easter pizza gaina. But what I remember most of all are the stories we told and the laughter that went on for hours.

And what about the family room, where we napped, read the newspaper, and watched the Super Bowl? The listing takes note of the fireplace but not the fact that we barely used it for a fifteen-year stretch because I had guinea pigs that lived in cages on the hearth. I’d always wanted a dog but my parents refused, opting to let me get domesticated rodents instead. Because I treated the pigs like dogs–there was even an unfortunate episode involving a leash — they lived forever. Mom and Dad probably should’ve gone for the dog.

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At some point, Mom hung a framed copy of Renoir’s Young Girls at the Piano above our old Kimball. The girls, and their poses, reminded her of me and Suzi. (Renoir Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Then there’s the living room. My brother, L.J., took trumpet lessons from a family friend there, and that’s where I learned how to play the piano, a skill that earned me the occasional reprieve from the dinner dishes. Suzi played a bit too, so sometimes we teamed up for throwback duets like “Tea for Two” and “Heart and Soul.” We also hosted dozens of sing-alongs in the living room, though my sister Lynne’s unforgettable, operatic renditions of “Swans on the Lake” always took place from the landing leading upstairs.

Speaking of the upstairs, both full baths are up there. Because Mom and Dad claimed one –something we kids regarded as an injustice but now recognize as a small and well-deserved concession to privacy–the four of us were expected to share the other. We did not get equal time, and it’s no coincidence that Suzi looks good in pretty much all of her childhood photos. Just sayin’.

All four bedrooms are upstairs, too. Mom and Dad once again rudely claimed one for themselves, leaving three for us kids. Until 1976, that worked just fine, but then my brother was born. This destroyed any hopes Lynne had of getting her own room, which probably explains why the one she and I shared for years radiated all the easy calm of the Gaza Strip. We fought constantly and forged short-lived truces of convenience, such as the time we jointly lobbied our parents to divide the room with a brick wall. And there was the color scheme–pale green walls, a fuchsia rug and light yellow spreads on our canopy beds– for which I am chiefly to blame. What was meant to achieve a “Rainbow Connection” effect looked instead like an acid trip.

Suzi’s room, a lavender oasis, was where she honed her clarinet-playing skills until she was one of the best in the state.

L.J. also had a room to himself and went on to play professional baseball, so just imagine what Lynne and I could have become if only we’d had our own rooms. But I digress. The wall above L.J.’s bed was decorated with a huge circle comprised entirely of pennants, most from the Philly teams our family can’t seem to abandon. My brother gave the hallway outside his bedroom a unique accent one day when, while doing strength exercises with a stretchy rubber tube that had a baseball attached to one end, he accidentally let go of the baseball and sent it flying right through the drywall.

Next to L.J.’s room was the laundry chute, a feature that not only made a mundane chore easier but doubled as an intra-house communication device.

Any contents we sent down the chute landed in a box in the basement, the space where we wiled away happy hours playing with the Death Star and Millennium Falcon, holding marathon ping-pong tournaments, creating communities out of Legos, and watching quality programming like “The A-Team” once a second TV set arrived.

Things weren’t always perfect in our house, though. We occasionally slammed the doors in anger. And my siblings and I sometimes begged for more room, never realizing that sharing space so often, unwittingly creating lasting memories together as we went, is precisely what has made us the best of friends.

That house is the place where we took prom pictures, relaxed during Spring and Fall breaks, celebrated my parents’ 25th anniversary, and showed all seven of my siblings’ kids how to yell into the laundry chute. It’s a place where people love to gather, where friends don’t hesitate to drop in unannounced.

Unpretentious outside and rock-solid inside, that house, and the two people who bought it in 1972, gave us an incomparable luxury: a place to feel centered.

It is the only place our family of six has ever called home. Though it’s hard to say goodbye, we and the house part as far more than friends. It has held the heart of our family for 45 years, and we will always love it.

Finding consolation in a console

My parents have embarked on a major downsizing project, an exercise in sorting through both the tangible stuff and the memories that have accumulated in the house they’ve lived in for the past 45 years.

That house, a center-hall colonial, may seem like standard-issue suburbia– half-brick/half-siding with four bedrooms and two baths upstairs, family room, kitchen, living room, dining room and powder room on the main level, and a basement — but it’s really a family treasure chest in disguise. And boy, has that house worn some disguises.

Built in 1972, the house made its debut in Orange Hunt Estates clad in pale green siding with forest green shutters, its second-story overhang propped up with a set of square, pale green pillars. The front door opened into a foyer covered in whitish wallpaper with an ornate floral pattern in olive green and gold. If you left that jungle and headed to the left, you entered the family room, which welcomed you by rolling out the multi-colored shag carpet, with patches in various shades of brown, black, rust and mustard. That carpet not only camouflaged a multitude of spills but tolerated years of me and my siblings horsing around, playing board games with our friends, building card houses, watching sitcoms on our rabbit ear-antennae’d TV when we were allowed to (which was infrequently), and tearing open presents on Christmas morning.

A mustard-colored recliner Archie Bunker would have envied sat in one corner of the family room, complemented by a hanging lamp whose shade, as I recall, was white with multi-colored spots. Dad liked to read The Washington Post in that chair, and all of us liked to curl up there when it was vacant. The pièce de résistance in the family room, furniture-wise, was a sofa covered in an off-white nubby fabric patterned with vertical green stripes of varying widths. The sofa lent itself to naps, in part because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the history of furniture but also because the color scheme in that room made you want to lie down and close your eyes in self-defense. I don’t remember Mom spending a whole lot of quality time in either the recliner or on the sofa, probably because she was too busy making sure we kids didn’t kill ourselves or each other, but I digress.

If you’d headed right instead of left when you walked through the front door in 1972, you’d have found yourself in the living room. It also had a shaggy carpet, but in a neutral monochrome to let everybody know that it had some class. An octagonal wood combination table/cabinet sat on that carpet, flanked by two wingback chairs that, in a decorative leitmotif, bore the same green-and-gold floral pattern as the foyer wallpaper. In case you’re wondering what lived inside the octagon, Mom and Dad stored the liquor there. With four kids spanning eight years, I can understand their wanting ready access to booze.

The living room led to the dining room, whose early decor I don’t really remember because of a glorious console stereo that sat against one wall and stood out from everything else. Six feet of wooden chic, the console held a turntable, an AM/FM radio, and a whole lot more. That console was Christmas, giving us the smooth sounds of Johnny Mathis’s “Winter Wonderland” while we decorated a tree we’d cut down at a farm in the Virginia countryside. The console let our family follow Barry Manilow on countless musical trips to the hottest spot north of Havana and comforted us with the knowledge that Barry couldn’t smile without us. When Barry and Johnny weren’t hogging up the rotation, Simon and Garfunkel and Billy Joel made regular appearances on the turntable, too. Then the ’80s came and the console gave us Hooked On Classics, because it knew the only thing that could make Beethoven’s Fifth sound sound better was a disco beat.

 

The house changed disguises over time: wallpaper came down in favor of neutral paint, the incomparable green-striped couch was swapped for something bluer and prettier but not quite as comfortable, the shag carpet made way for plush brown in the family room and a nice Persian rug in the living room, and the square columns yielded to round white ones. We also got a piano, which meant the console stereo was stereo3relegated to the basement. But that didn’t stop it from cranking out the songs we lived by, songs that made us dance, sweat, swoon and laugh. Long after new-fangled technology like boomboxes, CD players and shelf systems had arrived and doomed the console to obsolescence, I still regarded it as a monument to my family’s happiness and never tired of seeing it.

The minute I realized Mom and Dad were serious about downsizing, I lay claim to that console, and I moved it into my house last weekend. It lives in the basement, just like it did my parents’ house, and it’s still home to songs by Sinatra, the Kingston Trio, and the Village People, as well as soundtracks from the Muppet Movie, Grease and Annie, and albums like Free to Be You and Me and The Stranger.

Sure, it needs a new needle and hasn’t cranked out any tunes in a while, but that console can still crank out dozens of happy memories just by keeping me company. If that’s not a family treasure, I don’t know what is.

My funny Valentines

I regard Valentine’s Day with a bemused detachment that borders on apathy.

It doesn’t make me feel any differently about my relationship status –like most days, it has moments when I wish I had a partner and moments when I’m glad I don’t. It doesn’t make me wish someone would buy me flowers; I buy them for myself every week because I like having them around. And it doesn’t impact my chocolate consumption, because I make heroic efforts to keep that consistently high. But there is one thing I look forward to every Valentine’s Day: the writing of the annual poem for the Roommates.

As regular readers know, when I was getting divorced in July of 2011, I moved in to my sister Lynne’s house and spent nine months living with my her, my brother-in-law, and their two kids, whom I affectionately dubbed the Roommates. Emily and Timothy, who were eight and six when I moved in, not only didn’t mind having their aunt as a boarder but saw it as a familial upgrade.

As an expression of my gratitude, I tried to lend a hand with the kids when I could, meeting them at the bus stop, helping with homework, or chauffeuring them to their activities, but no amount of pitching in for Emily and Timothy could come close to the support those two gave me. They helped me unpack and decorate my room, ran errands with me, and always kept me fully stocked with hugs and laughs. When I was at my lowest, they made me feel important and loved.

So when Valentine’s Day rolled around in 2012, I decided to show them some love: I wrote a goofy poem –an inside joke-laden riff on “Roses are red, violets are blue” –and taped it to the mirror in their bathroom so their day would start off with a happy surprise. A year later, I had moved into my own house but kept the tradition going, and it continues to this day.

Over time, the poems have seen a slight increase in structural, if not thematic, sophistication, migrating from “Roses are red” to limericks, to this example from 2015:

Ode to the Roommates

Roses are red (although some come in yellow),

But Cupid, he’s always a fat little fellow.

He flies through the air wearing wings, but no sneakers

Nor pants, shirts or socks, like some weird pint-sized streaker!

He shoots, a crime that would get both of you grounded

But not him. And his bow? Not so much as impounded.

Hearts are the things that he’s trying to hit

But I’m here to report that his aim, well, it’s ….(not the best).

He’s shot me a dozen times right in the gut

And arrows have left scars all over my butt.

But you’re not in his crosshairs, and I know the reason.

You are loved every day, every month, every season.

So while Cupid is out acting all totes cray-cray

Just relax, have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

I decided to up my game this year and introduce the kids to a classic by writing a version of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was a great idea until I realized that poem really puts the “long” in Longfellow, so for my and the Roommates’ sanity, I abridged it. The kids know I’m a few stanzas shy of a full poem, anyway. So without further ado, and with apologies to Longfellow, I bring you “Cupid’s Ride,” featuring a guest appearance by Buddy, the family dog. Oh, and if you find parts of it sophomoric, that means I overachieved, because the kids are in middle school.

Cupid’s Ride

Listen up, Roommates, and you shall hear

Of the antics of love’s puppeteer.

On February 14th of oh-seventeen

From north to south and in between

Cupid planned to careen, zip, and veer.

 

He said to his friend, “If lonely hearts stay

At home or go on the lam tonight,

Or snapchat or just fight against tooth decay,

Shooting my arrows will set it all right:

One in the can, or two in the knee,

Then I, high above in the soft clouds will be,

Ready to strike with a dose of my charm,

Through every street all about Franklin Farm,

Breaking in to those houses that have no alarm.”

 

“Now I’m off!,” he said, his iPhone in grip,

Ready to fly and to just let it rip.

With clouds creating a bit of a haze,

He decided to leave all the mapping to Waze.

To Wildmere he went, seeking Em Bem and Tim-o

(It might have been faster to hire a limo.)

His arrows were marked: one “her” and one “him-o,”

He prayed for light traffic – love dislikes delays!

 

Meanwhile, Buddy, through backyards and street,

Wanders and watches with eager ear

Till in the silence he can’t help but hear

A blunder –someone at the garage door,

The sound of cursing, the trip of feet,

And the sound of a cap, pried free of a beer

Ready to ease down a throat, with a pour.

 

Buddy climbed up the sofa, took his perch

On its nice cushions, made of soft thread,

To the top, on which he could rest his head;

He felt ready to snooze, then to lurch,

As the sounds around that nervous him made,

Who’s there? Dad? Mom? The cleaning brigade?

Atop those luxe pillows, all fleecy and fluff,

He thought, “Uh-oh, I’ve gone far enough.”

There he paused to listen and look down

Wait, has that pillow always been brown?

Oh look! Moonlight flowing over stuff!

 

Outside, in the garage, lurked the sprite,

Cupid, that is, not the stuff you drink;

Wrapped in silence and a bad stink,

Regretting that burrito last night.

With a most ill wind, off he went,

Creeping as if from Hades sent,

Not pausing to whisper, “Mind the smell!”

Next moment, Buddy, he felt the spell

Of the place and the hour- it wasn’t right;

Would he be blamed? Just maybe he might.

Then suddenly all his thoughts were bent

On a chubby angel inches away

In the spot where Buddy liked to play,

Wearing white, bow and arrow in hand-

Did he have some sort of nude attack planned?

 

Meanwhile, impatient to take aim and shoot,

Cupid had had it with this galoot.

Right in the door then walked Tim-o and Em:

The true targets of the pudgy brute,

Who gazed on the kids and said, “Ahem.”

Then, for flair, he stamped the earth

And turned to suck in his extra girth;

They watched him whip, then watched him nae-nae,

But when he grabbed his bow, Em said, “Hey, hey,

Could you put that down? You’re making me sweat.”

He said, “OMG, this ain’t nothin’ yet.”

And lo! Near the angel and off to his right

Came a fur flash blacker than the night!

Buddy sprang to action, without snarls or grins

And grabbed the arrow, then ran out of sight

With his new toy, thinking, “Hooray, love wins!”

Go ahead, make 2017 a year of forward-looking statements

I feel kinda sorry for 2017. Two thousand sixteen is a tough act to follow, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In a year when the proverbial stage desperately needed some Shakespeare, it got Charlie Sheen’s one-man show instead. This disappointing, laborious spectacle left audiences so hostile, exhausted and disgusted that no year in its right mind would want to take the stage after that. But 2017 is here, so we in the crowd might as well do what we can to help the newcomer succeed. How do we do it? The answer is simple: we give ourselves something to look forward to, every day, every week and every month.

Psychologists have long viewed the anticipation of a positive experience as a key to happiness. That’s great news, because we can choose to create positive anticipation, and that in turn means maintaining some control over our happiness no matter what presidencies, er, events are happening around us. Anyone who’s ever planned a vacation knows intuitively that looking forward to it gives you a boost long before you pack your bags. And, as a 2014 New York Times article points out, anticipating something great, and savoring that anticipation, not only increases the chances that the experience itself will be good but helps counteract any negativity that ensues if it doesn’t live up to the hype.

So let’s start off 2017 in a way that Wall Street would hate: by making tons of forward-looking statements. Here’s what I’m already looking forward to this year…

… by the day:

  • Sweating: I make a point of exercising nearly every day. Swimming, running, and going to boot camp not only make me feel good physically but also do wonders for my mental health, creativity, and overall outlook. That makes it pretty easy to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Reading a book: I wind down every day by reading at least a few pages of a book. It settles my mind and helps my writing. And if I wake up for long stretches in the middle of the night, as I am wont to do, reading eases my frustration.
  • My neighbors: I live in a great ‘hood, on a great street, where we all know each other, look out for each other – these unbelievable people shoveled me out from Snowzilla when I sprained my wrist last year – and enjoy the occasional front lawn happy hour. I see at least one of my neighbors pretty much every day, sometimes for only a moment as I drive past, but even just the exchange of a friendly wave makes me smile.
  • My family: Not a day goes by without one or more members of Team Yank calling, texting or emailing to say “hi,” send a photo or share a hilarious story. Many of their communications do all three.
  • My friends: My pals are fun, interesting, talented people who enrich my life every day in some way, including by sweating next to me, introducing me to cool places like Costa Rica, or keeping me apprised of such crucial current events as the dates of Barry Manilow’s farewell tour.
  • Music: I always find joy in music, whether I’m making it or just listening to it.

…by the week:

  • The podcast: it’s one of the most fun things I do, hands-down. The combination of hanging out with Philippa and talking about dating adds up to a whole lot of laughter.
  • Writing: not always one of the most fun things I do, but it makes me more engaged in my world, and that’s a great thing. Besides, I’m close to having a first draft of my second book, and I want to cross that finish line.
  • Walks with friends: my pal Bud and I do our best to take weekly walks together, even when it’s cold. I love the exercise, the camaraderie and the laughter.
  • Tuesdays with Larry: my comedy partner and I get together pretty much every week to throw around new material. Sometimes we get absolutely nothing done, but even those fails are successes, because we’re always laughing.
  • More meet-ups: My hike with the Capital Area Hiking Club was a rousing success, so I’m gonna try to do more meet-ups. It’s a great way to try new things, or to meet new people while doing stuff I already enjoy.

…by the month (presented in fragments because these aren’t yet fully formed):

  • January: Going to see Wicked with Mom, Lynne and Emily; taking a trip to NYC with my great friend, LC, and both of our moms; the Women’s March; taking Dad to lose a bunch of money at the new casino at National Harbor; resuming standup comedy stints.
  • February: L.J.‘s birthday; trip to Atlanta to see him, my sister-in-law, and the kiddos. More standup.
  • March: A Joe Bonamassa concert with two people I adore; UVA basketball and March Madness; the official arrival of Spring; the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and maybe even actual cherry blossoms!
  • April: Mom’s birthday; my parents’ anniversary; cherry blossoms! (And maybe the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler?) another chance to reprise my role as the neighborhood Easter Bunny; Opening Day for Major League Baseball!
  • May: Mother’s Day; Memorial Day = cookouts, outdoor swimming, front lawn happy hours, outdoor concerts, etc.
  • June: Father’s Day; a landmark birthday for my sister Suzi; my nephew J.J.’s graduation, followed by a two-week graduation trip with JJ to celebrate said graduation (the burden I carry as his aunt).
  • July: Celebratory graduation trip, cont’d!
  • August: The Yank family reunion; Lynne’s birthday; Dad’s birthday.
  • September: Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolf Trap. (ALERT: I bought two tickets, so those who are interested in being my plus-one should start lobbying now!)
  • October: Hikes to enjoy the fall foliage; another chance to judge the neighborhood Halloween costume contest.
  • November: YANKSGIVING!!!!!
  • December: Star Wars Episode VIII! I don’t know how I’ll top 2016’s “I’ve gone further for less” Rogue One experience, but if I have to go to Hawaii to see Episode VIII, so be it.

Whaddya know, the same things that make me happy every day – family, friends, exercise, outdoors, laughter, and music – pop up regularly in my weekly and monthly lists, too. Another cool thing? I know the list will only grow.

Try making your own list and I bet you’ll not only make the same discoveries but find that the simple act of making the list sets a perfect stage for 2017. Happy New Year, everyone!

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.)

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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!

 

For crying out LOUD!

Parkinson’s Disease is a thief and a jerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, that sure sounds like Dad.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An hour later, we had arrived at Hopkins.

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

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

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

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