Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr. Ong,

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

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

Is it ever too late to send a thank-you note? I sure hope not.

My blog turned five in May, and I did nothing to mark the occasion. I could say I forgot –after all, I’d gone to Atlanta earlier that month and surprised my nephew for his fifth birthday by springing out of an Amazon box –but I didn’t forget. The truth is, I neglected my blog’s milestone because I’d been neglecting my blog. It nagged at me, but not to the point where I did anything about it.

My dear friend and podcast co-host, Philippa, hadn’t written much on her blog of late, either, and it was bugging her, too. Like former athletes who’d become couch potatoes, each of us lamented our descent into writing sloth and wanted to get back into shape. Actually, that’s not quite true. We didn’t want to get back into shape so much as we just wanted to be back in shape. As writers, and particularly as indolent ones, we knew an active verb like “get” would require way more work than a passive one like “be.” As lawyers, Philippa and I felt compelled to spend at least a little bit of time looking for a loophole, but we came up empty-handed. Faced with the inescapable reality that you can’t achieve the writing equivalent of six-pack abs without a whole lot of sweating, we decided to confront it together.

We committed to meet at her condo and spend all of today writing. Over a lunch of caramelized fish, expertly prepared a day earlier by Philippa’s mom, I tried to explain why I hadn’t been writing.

“I think I just got tired,” I said.

And it’s true. When I started the blog in the summer of 2012, I wrote every day for a while. Then my writing tapered off to a few times a week except in November, when I would participate in NaBloPoMo and punish, er, reward my readers by writing every day. Outside of NaBloPoMo, I tried to write at least once a week, and I largely succeeded until last May, when I started a new job.

The change has been great, yet I underestimated just how much mental effort it takes to leave something you knew and liked for nearly nine years and embark on a totally different path. As my energy stores got low, my writing slowed to a trickle. And then the election came along, leaving an ugly, divisive aftermath that killed my urge to look for humor in everyday situations, much less write about it. It felt frivolous and impossible, which explains why, of the 395 blog posts I’ve written since June of 2012, I cranked out only 17 from the election until now.

To get back into writing shape, I’ll be posting at least once a week. I’m kicking it off by celebrating my blog turning five, which means writing a long-overdue note of gratitude.

A gigantic and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has ever read this blog. I know you have your choice of time-wasting vehicles out there, and I want to thank you for choosing mine. Whatever led you to this site– curiosity, insomnia, Google searches like “the coffin switched stations again” — most likely could have been cured with professional help, so thank you for not seeking it.

I owe the most colossal debt of gratitude to those who’ve been there from the beginning, including but not limited to Mom, Dad, Suzi, Lynne, L.J., Michelle, LC, Matt and Philippa. Some of those early posts really stunk. And I don’t mean day-old banana peel stunk, either; I’m talking rodent-died-somewhere-behind-the-drywall-two-years-ago stunk. Behind every good writer is a whole bunch of really bad writing she has to get out of the way to get to the good stuff, so thank you for supporting me in my perpetual quest to get to the good stuff.

And here’s to the next five years…

birthday-675486_1280

 

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

 

 

 

 

What ‘good grief’ really means

Like most people, I loathe funerals. And as regular readers know, I’m not very good at them.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do or say: I give great hugs and I usually know the right words (sometimes I even sing them). But I just can’t make my upper lip stiffen, no matter how how hard I’m trying to avoid putting my grieving loved one in a position of having to comfort me. I blow it every time, and Saturday was no exception.

My friend T’s younger sister Gina passed away suddenly, just over a week ago, and her funeral took place on Saturday.

I became friends with T several years ago through work, where she’s as strong, successful, and poised as sales executives come. T’s one of four sisters with whom she’s close, and she’s not much older than I am. That makes her far too young to lose a cherished sibling, in my book. The pages of my book, in fact, depict a dreamy fairytale landscape where siblings are always around. I need those pages to look like that because my brother and sisters are my best friends. They make me laugh so hard my face hurts, they stand ready to hug me at my happiest and saddest times, and they love me no matter how badly I screw up (something I have tested, alas). I simply can’t imagine life without them. Until Saturday, I had refused even to let such an awful thought enter my brain. Saturday morning, however, that thought saw no need to ask for permission; it just barged its way to the front of my mind and heart as I approached T at the funeral home.

One look at my friend proved that absorbing a staggering loss on a balance sheet is one thing and in life another altogether. No kind of training prepares you for the latter, not even intellectual awareness that big love sometimes means big pain. The sorrow on T’s face telegraphed the enormity of her grief. I hated what it meant for her, and what it might mean for me someday. Overwhelmed, I was in tears long before I reached her. So much for putting my friend’s needs ahead of my own.

Then the ceremony got underway and I learned about Gina, a woman I’d never met but soon wished I had. Everyone who spoke mentioned her generosity of heart, the way she loved unconditionally and her capacity to love people through flaws most of us couldn’t abide. Her family members poked gentle fun at some of her quirks –evidently she loved to plan events, which meant you’d better head for the hills when she started writing the to-do lists–but to a person they painted a portrait of someone who was a nurturer by nature, a superwoman who took care of anyone who needed it. Gina didn’t let her loved ones get away with any crap, but they knew she always had their backs.

In describing Gina’s steadfast loyalty, no matter the circumstances, T’s son said, “I could be dead wrong, and I knew she’d be standing right there, being dead wrong too.” I laughed with the crowd while thinking that’s exactly the kind of aunt I aspire to be (minus the event-planning part). So whether she ever set out to or not, T’s sister set an example, even for a total stranger like myself.

(Speaking of setting great examples, I give very high marks to the way the family structured the service. A few relatives and friends had been selected to speak about Ts sister, and according to the program, had been allotted two minutes apiece. But we all know emotions can make it easy to lose track of time. So in a nod to one of the more redeeming feature of the Oscars, the minister notified the speakers that, if they were still talking at two minutes, the organist would begin to play. If they kept going, well, so would the organist, and he was gonna crank up the volume. I can only hope T starts to run meetings this way.)

No matter how hard you try to smile through the tears, it hurts like hell to say goodbye to someone who set an example like Gina clearly did. It’s like losing the coach who not only knew how it was done but taught you everything you ever knew, the one you counted on to keep you motivated when you faltered. The minister acknowledged that pain while exhorting all present to use Gina’s example to examine our lives and repair any dysfunctional relationships we might have.

I liked that call to action. I heard it as a reminder to live well not because life could end at any moment –we all know it could –but rather to honor the beautiful example someone left us by doing similar good works.

I left the funeral home in tears, but glad to have been there. Though I absolutely stink at funerals, I go because I believe it’s important to show up for your loved ones whenever you can. Never once have I regretted going, and every single time I walk away having learned something important. In getting up close to a loss that terrifies me, I realized T’s sister will live on not just in memory –a fickle and increasingly unreliable thing as the years pass –but in the actions of those whose lives she touched.

May we all live, and leave, so well.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she's going to go first.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she’s going to go first.

 

 

 

You’ve Got Mail. Way too much mail.

I have a confession to make: I’m an e-mail hoarder.

Though I have little trouble unloading possessions I don’t use or need, I can’t bring myself to delete the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve exchanged in cyberspace with my loved ones. Those messages mean as much to me as actual letters, even if they take less effort to send and travel in an ethereal medium. I’ve been hanging on to them since 1996. Like a box of old photos, these e-mails capture all sorts of moments in my life, and it reassures me to know I can pull them up when I want to take a nostalgia trip.

Some of these personal exchanges live in my work e-mail in-box. It does not have unlimited storage capacity, so every now and then I get an automated love note informing me that, if I don’t start getting rid of things, I won’t be able to get anything new. (Too bad my parents didn’t think to use that logic on me and my siblings when it came to storage space in their basement.)

I got one of those automated love notes today, so I began picking through the digital pile in search of messages to dump or at least file. As I moved several messages to a folder I’ve labeled “Personal,” I couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to peruse the contents of the folder.

If “Personal” were a tangible folder whose items I’d organized chronologically, it would have a gigantic bulge right around July 30, 2011, when I left the Lawnmower. I rolled out that news slowly and usually by e-mail because the emotions associated with it –sadness, embarrassment, anxiety, shock—put me in constant jeopardy of bursting into tears. Every email I sent at that time prompted an incredible response that I saved, and as I read those notes today, they moved me again.

Most of my friends wrote to express shock and dismay and made immediate offers to show up. These two messages are a representative sample, one from a law school pal and another from one of my oldest friends:

Well please let me know the first instance you are available and I promise to be there…no matter where. Keep that chin up.  You are one of the most beautiful, intelligent, talented women I have ever known.  Just remember that.

My dear Karen, I am at a complete loss for anything approaching adequate to say.  Just know that I am so, so sorry and that I am here for you at any time and for anything you need.  I would love to see you soon.  For one thing, I’ll rest easier once I can see you in person and give you a huge hug, not that that will change a damned thing, but I really, really want you to know that I am here for you.  You name whenever is good for you, and also name what you’d like to do.  And in the meantime, call me ANYTIME you need a friendly ear.

Then I came across a note from my friend J, whom I’ve written about before. In typical J fashion, his note started from the same foundation as many of my friends, but then he made it his own. Because one of the Lawnmower’s first acts as my new husband was to ex-communicate J, one of my first acts as the Lawnmower’s soon-to-be-ex-wife was to re-communicate my pal. Fortunately for me, J was happy to pick up right where we’d left off without uttering a word of blame. J’s version of showing up for me over the course of our friendship usually meant plying me with food and booze at his condo or at a nearby restaurant. I had learned long ago to pack an overnight bag in case of overindulgence, and that preparation paid off in this case. Though the details of the evening mentioned in the note below have been lost to the ravages of time and/or Pinot Grigio, some of the constants of our friendship came through loud and clear, including a shared hatred of Tuesdays, mutual affection for the movie Airplane!, and a healthy dose of mocking.

YO-I just wanted to say, “Good Luck, we are all counting on you.”  …OK, Airplane references aside (though really, is there a better theme for a Tuesday?), it was great to see you on Saturday.  I am looking forward to getting back on a regular schedule and hopefully cooking together when schedules and inspiration allow.  BTW, I wanted to let you know that you left your rings, earrings and CD here.  I have copied the CD, am wearing the rings, and have an appointment scheduled to get my ears pierced.  …thought you should know.

Joseph and I have drifted apart over the past three years, but that note proved the truth of Victor Borge’s famous observation that “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” As I read the message, I laughed, and for at least a few minutes, I didn’t feel quite so far away.

 

A true friend is one who’s still your fan even after you’ve gone all fan-girl

Everyone has a concert buddy, and mine is my friend “Tom.”

We met as awkward seventh graders at Lake Braddock Secondary School and bonded over music and writing. Both of us were words nerds who wrote for the school paper (though I skewed far more heavily in the nerd direction than Tom ever did) and played instruments in our spare time. Tom played the bass in a rock band, whereas I played piano someplace slightly less hip: the pit orchestra for school musicals.

After we graduated in 1989, we stayed in touch through reunions and Facebook. The latter helped us reconnect in person last December.

We caught up on all the life we hadn’t posted about on Facebook. Our old bond was not only intact but stronger, and it still included music. Neither of us plays our instruments as regularly as we once did, but we still know how to appreciate music. And though we listen carefully and critically, Tom and I can find something to enjoy in just about any live performance. This makes us natural partners for shows that might not interest other people.

Last winter, Tom invited me to see Stanley Clarke, a renowned bassist, at the Birchmere in Alexandria. I had never thought of bassists as headliners, but I have such faith in Tom’s taste in music that his proclamation that Stanley was a musical god among men was all it took for me to want to hear the gospel. Two hours with Stanley and his incredible trio proved that he’s a gifted bassist in the way that Shakespeare knew a few things about iambic pentameter. I was converted and ready to evangelize.

In April, I bought tickets to see Phil Vassar, one of my favorite performers, at the Hylton Arts Center in Manassas. I invited Tom and he accepted immediately, though he didn’t know who Phil was. A few days before the show, I won passes for a meet-and-greet. I asked Tom if he was up for it and got an enthusiastic, “Hell yes!” He knew it would make me happy, so of course he was happy to do it.

A few days before the concert, I emailed Tom with the crazy idea of giving Phil a copy of my book. Never before had I considered doing anything so utterly fan-girl, but Phil had played a brief, yet important, role in my life at a crucial time and I wanted him to know. I waited for Tom to tell me it was a terrible idea. My friend is a straight-shooter, plus his background in security put him in a good position to assess how Phil might react to my gift. Tom liked my plan and thought I could pull it off without seeming like a stalker.

A few hours before the concert, I typed up a letter to include with the book:

Dear Phil,

I’m sure fans give you strange things all the time, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I give you some backstory.

Your music won me over the moment I first heard “That’s When I Love You” on WMZQ in 2001. Not a fan of country music at the time, I was listening to that station only because my then-boyfriend –possibly the least likely person on Planet Earth to belt out those lyrics—kept his car radio perpetually tuned to it. That song led me to buy your debut album, whose piano-heavy tracks planted the seeds of my long-term addiction to your particular brand of country.

When I started going to your shows, I was blown away not just by the way you would tear up the piano, but also by the amount of humor and personality you brought to the stage. I came away impressed with your musicality and moved by what your performance seems to say about your approach to life: respond with resilience and humor.

When I turned 40 in June of 2011, my marriage was heaving its last gasps, so I didn’t have much of a celebration. By September, I had moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, leading my entire family to conspire and stage a surprise 40th birthday do-over at the Ram’s Head Tavern. Your show was the centerpiece, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. My family members strolled in one at a time, the arrival of each person putting a smile on my face and sending a tear of joy down my cheek. I spent a glorious night with the people I love, doing something I love, and I cherish that memory.

As my way of saying thank you for the gift of your music, I hope you enjoy this collection of humor essays. If I got them right, they embody the same spirit I hear in your music.

Thanks again for being a consistent bright spot.

I stuck the letter and book in a gift bag and drove off to meet Tom. When I picked him up, I learned he’d studied up on Phil’s music before the concert. Some people do that to enhance their enjoyment of the show, but knowing Tom, he did it to enhance my enjoyment of the show. He didn’t want to stand there just bobbing his head, he wanted to sing along with me, because if something matters to one of Tom’s friends, it matters to him.

As we stood in line for the post-show meet-and-greet, we learned it would include a photo op.

“I’ll hold your purse and take the picture,” Tom said.

When handed a purse, your average man will react as if you’ve asked him to hold a norovirus. But Tom volunteered to throw himself on the purse grenade so I would have clear path to executing my plan.

When the moment came, I handed my purse and phone to Tom. I gave the gift bag to Phil, who opened it as I explained what it was. He received it politely, meaning he did not discard it as I stood there, nor did he seek a restraining order.

Such was my state of shock that I nearly allowed Tom to take the photo, which would have meant he wasn’t in it. Fortunately, Phil was paying attention and got one of his bandmates to snap the shot. That photo of me, Phil and Tom is one of my all-time favorites.

What stands out in my memory about that night wasn’t the music or the meet-and-greet, though. More than anything I remember how hard my friend worked, in ways great and small, not only to share in my happiness but to grow it.

Tom’s generosity of spirit is especially remarkable considering he has long struggled with depression (one of the things I learned when we got together last December). He has sought help in every form imaginable, but his brain chemistry continues to do its damnedest to rob him of hope and purpose. He battles the crushing pain of his illness daily, and always with courage and grace.

He sometimes posts on Facebook when the pain becomes intolerable, as it has in recent weeks. He reaches out when all he wants to do is crawl inward, which shows astounding bravery, strength, and selflessness. By sharing his story, Tom gives the people who love him a chance to remind him, and he lets others in the grip of depression know they’re not alone.

Tom wrote a Facebook post yesterday about feeling hopeless. It drew an immediate, heartfelt outpouring of support from the many people who know Tom’s presence in our world changes it for the better. We know he brings incredible joy to the people in his life. We know he matters.

We can’t change the wiring of his brain or fight this horrible battle for him, but we can stand with him, and we can thank him for letting us.

So thank you, Tom, for giving us a chance to show up for you, as you do for all of us.

Love,

Your Fan Club

Ninety percent of friendship is just showing up

[Posting the Aug. 29 entry a day late because I wound up without wi-fi…]

I try to live by the principle that ninety percent of friendship is just showing up. But I come up short sometimes, and that’s been particularly true with respect to a friend I’ll call Dave.

We met in the late 1990s at a birthday party for my dear friend LC and we’ve been pals ever since. We did typical friend stuff—grab dinner, go to the occasional concert, catch a ballgame –but he also showed up for me and all of his friends in ways that weren’t typical.

For example, when an on-and-off boyfriend broke up with me for the umpteenth time in 1999 and then left the area, Dave arrived bearing hugs and adult beverages. Instead of being praised for his kindness (something he certainly deserved but never expected), the only recognition he got on that occasion came from my cat, who left a hairball of gratitude on Dave’s shoes.

A few months later, when I’d been exiled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for a three-week course, Dave again came to my rescue. He gave me frequent flyer miles so I could meet him in Chicago and pal around for a weekend. (Dave is a big baseball fan, so we found it necessary to sneak in to Wrigley Field during that trip.)

In September of 2002, Dave was among the crew who helped me load up the contents of my one-bedroom apartment into a U-Haul and move it to my parents’ basement and my friend LC’s house. Few acts will land you in my friendship Hall of Fame faster than volunteering to assist with a move. You earn extra points if you make me laugh while you’re at it, which Dave did by taking a recliner we were moving, plopping it in my parents’ front yard and taking a load off.

A couple of years later, Dave met Ann, a warm, kind, caring and hilarious person who made my friend happier than I’d ever seen him. I adored her, too, as much for her epic personality as the way she embraced his circle of friends.

Dave and Ann gave me a chance to show up for them in 2006 by asking me to do a reading at their wedding. I was so honored that I straightened my hair for the occasion. A few years later they became parents to a beautiful daughter and I took huge delight in their joy.

They took equally huge delight in mine in October of 2010, beaming at me as I spoke my wedding vows. When I left my husband less than a year later, they felt my heartbreak and were among the first to offer support, consolation, and wine.

Just as I was trying to piece my life back together, theirs began to disintegrate.

First, a blood disorder Dave had wrestled with his entire life claimed his sight, one eye at a time. Then came the pulmonary lymphoma, which my friend battled and beat, with Ann at his side the whole time. His bravery, her dedication and their determination astonished me.

Not long after that, what I believe would be labeled a neurological event (they’ve endured so many medical calamities in such a short time that I struggle to get the details right) landed him in assisted living in Loudoun County, where he remains and is likely to remain.

Ann shows up there every day. I hadn’t shown up at all.

I changed that today. Finally.

I was excited to see my friend but also a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I also worried that words might fail me, either because I didn’t have any to say at all –it doesn’t feel quite right to talk about your very normal life to someone whose existence has been turned upside down — or because the wrong ones might come flying out. “This is so unfair!” seemed particularly likely to break free of the thought bubble it’s been floating in for quite some time. And then I got annoyed at myself for making this visit more about me than him.

This jumble of thoughts may explain why, when I went to sign in, I identified myself as a resident instead of a visitor. On resolving that minor error, I headed up to Dave’s room and knocked on the open door to announce myself. Because he couldn’t get up to greet me, I asked if it was okay to hug him.

Dave still being Dave — which, selfishly, came as a huge relief  –he welcomed my chair hug and everything else about my visit. We covered comfortable subjects, like my family, our sports teams, and some of my travel adventures, and then I asked about his health. My questions came out clumsily, but Dave didn’t seem to mind. He seemed to know I wanted to understand as much as possible, and he wanted to help me.

Even though my friend now struggles to get out of a chair, he can still teach a master class in the art of showing up. And he reminded me that late is better than never.

 

 

 

 

Everything came up roses at the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler

Blue skies, bright sun, temps in the 40s and trees exploding with pink flowers made the conditions for the annual running of D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Ten Miler ideal. Good thing, too, since my condition as a runner could not be described in similar terms.

My friend Val had talked me into putting my name in for the CB Ten-Miler lottery a few months ago. Given the race’s popularity, I felt certain my name wouldn’t get picked. Naturally, the odds turned out to be in my favor, in a Hunger Games sort of way.

I “trained” by running upwards of five miles once or twice a week, an inadequate regimen by any measure. Because I hike and do various other sports, I figured I’d find a way to finish the race. But as an over-40 and under-trained runner, I was well aware that the race might decide to return the favor.

I shoved that thought of my mind as our 7:30 start time rolled around and Val, her friend Nat and I crossed the starting line.

Because we were joined by fifteen thousand of our closest friends, this quintessentially D.C. race had the feel of something else that’s quinteCB monumentssentially D.C.: the Beltway at rush hour. We began bumper-to-bumper and trudged along slowly. (Meanwhile, I pictured the elite runners who started 10 minutes ahead of us already finished and tucked into a booth at IHOP, ordering Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruities.)

As we kept our eyes peeled for a chance to break free, I couldn’t help but notice that people were running a whole lot like they drive around here. Most at least made a token attempt at courtesy, but some runners zigged back and forth constantly, squirting into any opening they could find, no matter how small and no matter who they had to cut off to do it. I made a mental note to run with a horn next time.

Unlike the Beltway at rush hour, however, just about every person on the road was happy to be there despite the traffic. Time and again I overheard fellow runners remark on their good fortune to live in a place so replete with natural and manmade beauty that it makes sharing space with Congress almost tolerable.

I found myself nodding in agreement. I’ve lived in the D.C. area for most of my life and the cherry blossoms in their full glory always fill me with awe. I busted out my phone and snapped pictures of them as I went, the kind of thing you can’t do without blurring unless you’re a decidedly non-elite runner.Hainespointrunners

As we went around the Lincoln Memorial and made our way across Memorial Bridge, another trademark D.C. thing came into view: the low-flying black helicopter. Only in this town would people greet it with enthusiastic waves, as if it were a cherished mascot.

And speaking of enthusiastic waves, when I wasn’t busy checking out the cherry blossoms, I couldn’t help but notice the number of spectators lining the race route. D.C. sometimes gets bashed as a place full of transients, a place with no soul, a place where people care only about their status. But I saw just the opposite yesterday morning: thousands of spectators who got up ungodly early on a Sunday morning to cheer not just for “their” runners but for any runner who looked like she might need it. Ahem.

Some of those spectators didn’t even seem to be there for a particular runner, like the two people dressed up in full Incredibles regalia, blasting music from an acoustically favorable underpass that leads into Haines Point, or the guy who set up a beer and Oreos station near the Mile 7 mark.

By that time, unfortunately, Nat and I had lost Val, and I didn’t want Oreos and beer so much as I wanted the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler to become the Cherry Blossom 7-Miler.

Since that option wasn’t available, Nat and I decided to chat our way through the rest of the race. This gave me a chance to learn a lot about her, including the fact that this otherwise likable person has an appalling propensity to speed up as a race goes on. Having never experienced such an alien urge, I decided not to knock it til I tried it. And I must admit that it didn’t feel utterly hideous until Mile 9.

Our pace had dropped to near 8:00/mile and was on the verge of dropping me altogether until I did some very fast math and said, “Hey, I bet we only need three bad date stories to get us across the finish line!” Hope sometimes arrives in the unlikeliest of forms.

Nat laughed and volunteered to go first. This suited me fine because, regardless of how I run, I’m a rock-solid closer when it comes to bad date stories. I was in the middle of Story #2 when we passed a sign that read “800 to go.”

800 what? I wondered. Furlongs, I decided, as the interminable sprint continued and I exhausted my supply of wind, if not bad date material. After cresting a gentle slope that might as well have been Everest, the finish came into view. Suddenly, a person I’d met just two hours earlier and I were urging each other across the finish line.

That moment—a tiny triumph shared with a new friend on a stunningly beautiful day, amid scenery found only in D.C.—is, to me, what life in this town is all about, and I love it.

CB haines point

Of birthdays, bonfires and birthday suits

My dear friend Philippa’s birthday was on October 13. We made a huge deal of it last year because she had just received a breast cancer diagnosis, was staring down a double mastectomy, and was more conscious than ever of making the most of the life you’ve been given.

A dozen or so of us marked the occasion by holding a good ol’ fashioned bra burning.  The goal wasn’t to free ourselves of societal constraints but rather to show of solidarity for our friend who would no longer need the famously female undergarments. (Unlike standard-issue boobs, fake ones don’t need a restraining device to keep them from migrating south late in life like anatomical retirees.)

Philippa had never really cared for bras, so on the one hand she wasn’t sorry to set a bunch of them ablaze. On the other, whether she liked ‘em or not, those undies held up a part of her that undoubtedly formed part of her identity as a woman. I can’t imagine what it felt like to let go of them and what they represented, and not by choice.

When I try to think of a single word to describe this gathering that blended support, concern, love, determination, optimism and fear, the one that comes to mind is: reckoning. Being on the cusp of a long, difficult journey made Philippa take stock, and I think it had that effect on the rest of us, too.

A year later, Philippa’s physical recovery was complete. But I still broached the topic of birthday plans with care, recognizing that emotional recovery goes at its own pace. My friend said she was torn, and I could understand why. She survived an ordeal–clearly something to celebrate—but was forever altered. What type of gathering commemorates that?

After thinking about it for a few days, Philippa said, “Let’s have a beach bonfire.”

“Sounds great,” I said.  Of course, I would have forced myself to react with great enthusiasm to anything she suggested, including a quilting bee, but another big burn sounded like it could be therapeutic.

A slightly smaller group than last year’s trekked from DC to Dewey Beach on a beautiful Sunday morning and were rewarded with clear skies and temps in the 60s. We spent the afternoon on the beach and then came home, put on some music, and  started making dinner.  After a few minutes of cutting up vegetables, we decided to cut a rug instead. Yes, a dance party broke out right there in the living room in broad daylight. (I say this as if the dance party acted alone, but it had an accomplice: the apple cider/rye concoctions that had quenched the group’s thirst while out on the beach.)

There I was, dancing in the living room of a beach house with mainly middle-aged people, belting out Michael Jackson songs, when suddenly “All About That Bass” came on.  You might not have thought Meghan Trainor’s bubble gum ode to bubble butts would appeal to our demographic, but the whole room sang it loud and proud, especially Philippa. After a year that was all about her treble, I guess she was glad to focus on the bass for a change.

Because we’re all about that bass.

When the sun had sunk and with it the mercury, we bundled up and returned to the beach.  This bonfire was far less somber than the previous one.  But it did have some things in common with last year’s.  It, too, had a strong “letting go” theme.  And it also involved reckoning, as in Philippa and a few other people reckoned they should let go of their clothing. (I reckoned I would keep mine on, thank you very much.)

And off went a small and very merry Birthday Suit Brigade, dipping the skinny while the rest of us stayed on shore and chewed the fat, thrilling in watching our dear friend live large.

 

 

Long, Not-So-Lost, Friends

I found Mr. C.!

It took me less than two weeks to do it, proving that you can accomplish nearly anything if you’re willing to dedicate all of your resources to the task.

It wasn’t easy to come up with $0.95 to buy an address report, especially since I had to commit to a monthly service for $6.95 to get the $0.95 deal and then remember to cancel it the next day.  But when something’s important enough, you make these kinds of Herculean efforts.

Once I got Mr. C’s address, I started writing a letter, with an actual pen on actual paper.

I wanted to keep it chatty and light, a bit of a challenge given some of the events of the past few years.  I figured I’d go with something like: “Dear Mr. C, How are you? Not much new here in the past eight years, just the garden variety ‘get married, tear down your house, start building a new one, realize you’re in a disastrous marriage, make a hasty exit 10 months into it, wacky hijinks ensue’ sort of thing. Oh, and I’ve started wearing my hair curly. That about covers it.”  I filled three pages with my scrawl and then plopped the letter in the mail.

Mr. C responded in record time and via email, a route he chose either to save time or (more likely) as a polite way of saying, “Your handwriting is so bad that I deciphered only two words in your letter: ‘Mr.’ and ‘C.’  Do not ever pick up a pen again.”

He wasn’t bent out of shape about my eight-year disappearance, nor did he dwell on the story of my marriage (perhaps because he couldn’t read it).  Instead, he thanked me for finding him –he’d intentionally omitted his return address because he didn’t want me to feel pressured to respond – and he picked right up where we’d left off, as your great friends do.

Days after I got Mr. C’s note, I learned via a Facebook status update, complete with a photo that made the words of the update superfluous, that my friend “J” had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the middle of chemo.

J, her husband and I had become friends in law school some fifteen years earlier, bonded by the common adversity of working full-time and going to law school at night.  We were part of a close-knit group of 15 or so similarly situated students.

As sometimes happens in a group like that, a personal conflict whose origins I don’t remember arose in 2003 or so and splintered the group.  A nucleus remained that included me, but not J and her husband.  I never quite understood what happened or why—I thought it was better in some ways not to know – but I missed them.  From time to time I thought about contacting them but wasn’t sure if an overture would be welcome.

I rekindled my friendship with J very timidly about a year ago, after Facebook kept pointing out in its helpful way that perhaps I might know J and would want to be friends with her. Well duh, Facebook.

The fact that the update J posted last week came as a complete shock to me tells you that, other than using the passive channels of social networking, I’d done nothing to close the gap in our relationship.

Few things make a person regret inaction faster or more deeply than a cancer diagnosis.

Since I couldn’t do anything about the past, I acted on the now. I reached out to the law school group, they mobilized, and we came up with a care package for Team J.  Last Sunday I set out for their house, intending simply to leave the loot outside the front door.  The last thing J and her family needed was a lapsed friend bursting on to the scene, unannounced.

Sunday brought surprisingly balmy temps for early February, the kind that make you walk around without a coat, drive around with the windows down, or, in the case of J and her husband, leave your front door wide open.  I hadn’t counted on that.

If I executed my original plan, I might get busted in the act.  The only thing weirder than a derelict pal randomly showing up at your door is a derelict pal fleeing it, so I didn’t think I should risk it.

Instead, I summoned up a little courage, rang the doorbell, and braced myself for a reaction ranging from chilly politeness to “Honey, call an exterminator! FAST!”

What I didn’t expect was for J’s husband to give me an immediate, warm welcome, or for J herself to come rushing up, break into an exuberant grin, and envelop me in a hug so fierce that it left me wordless.  The tears that sprang to my eyes and appeared in hers closed the span of years in seconds.

These recent experiences with Mr. C, J and her husband remind me that the essence of friendship really is just showing up, and that, though I should have done it years ago, sometimes late is better than never.