Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

What do you get a kid for his fifth birthday? An aunt in a box, of course.

I’m not claustrophobic. This has proven to be quite an asset at several points in my life, such last fall, when I got an MRI; or in mid-April, when I again donned the Easter Bunny suit; or this past weekend, when I went to Atlanta and let my brother tape me inside an Amazon box.

No, I was not belatedly fulfilling L.J.’s most heartfelt childhood wish: I wanted to surprise my nephew, B, who was celebrating his fifth birthday (though I’m sure my brother has waited his whole life for permission to stuff me into a box and tape it shut).

I had set a pretty high bar in the surprise department back in December, when I conspired with my sister-in-law and flew to Atlanta last-minute on a Friday so I could catch the opening of Rogue One with L.J., a Star Wars junkie. B and his little brother, C, had also gotten quite the surprise the next morning when they came downstairs to find me sitting on the couch. Now accustomed to the occasional random aunt sighting, I knew I would have to do something beyond just showing up and ringing the doorbell if I wanted to impress B.

My brother, sister-in-law and I started scheming and decided “your presence is your present” deserved to be more than just a goofy etiquette cliché. As luck would have it, the starter bike L.J. and Leslie ordered as a gift for B –the same gift I’d gotten on my fifth birthday, though my bike did not feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — had arrived at their home days earlier in a large box: perfect packaging for a special delivery aunt. 

I had booked a flight scheduled to leave National Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I can’t say that it looked good on paper — a 6 a.m. departure looks hideous on any surface –but I thought it wise to build in some wiggle room because, as regular readers know, I’ve encountered my fair share of travel debacles en route to Atlanta. I planned to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m. just to be on the safe side.

Regular readers also know I also have my fair share of sleeping struggles. Those tend to get worse if I have something on my mind, such as getting to the airport on time for a very important flight. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to bolt awake at 2:45 a.m., totally raring to go. I was packed and out of the house by 3:45 a.m., through airport security by 4:25 a.m., and standing in line for a vanilla latte at 4:30 a.m. (The airport Starbucks opens at 4:30; I think this makes them a very strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I landed in Atlanta 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was downright disconcerting. L.J. picked me up 20 minutes later. We spent the trip to his house discussing the details of our plan as if we were launching a rocket for NASA rather than a birthday surprise for a five year-old.

He told me Leslie would be watching the boys who, with luck, would be playing inside or in the backyard and away from any of the possible vantage points.

“You stay in the car while I get the box and some tape,” L.J. said. “Then I’ll walk back out with the box and you can sort of hide behind it and follow me up the steps to the door. You’ll get in, I’ll tape it shut, put the bow on it and ring the doorbell.”

It seemed foolproof, or at least reasonably likely to fool anyone who hasn’t graduated kindergarten, so I said, “Sounds good.”

Then I saw the box–estimated dimensions 4′ long x 2.5′ wide x 1′ deep —  and was instantly reminded of the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws.

This hunk of cardboard looked as incapable of fitting a great white aunt as that vessel did a great white shark, but we’d gone too far to turn back. My brother plodded up the stairs with the box in hand as I crouch-walked behind it. He put it on the stoop and held it open so I could get in.

When the situation is dire, people sometimes perform superhuman feats, and I pulled off nothing less than a triumph of human origami to get into that box. Had I not eaten a few too many peanut M&Ms the night before, the top flaps might have closed together perfectly, but it was close enough. L.J. started to put tape across the flaps, at which point the full absurdity of the situation hit us simultaneously and we were seized by a massive attack of the giggles.

We got ourselves under control – our plan only called for one five year-old, after all –and L.J. rang the doorbell. I heard him tell B he had a package and then read aloud the short poem-riddle I’d written for the occasion. The box flaps opened and I sat up, arms wide open in a gesture that would either give B a smile that would last forever or a lifetime of Zombie Aunt Apocalypse nightmares. He was surprised, and in a good way, once he realized what was going on and heard his mom and dad cracking up. B’s little brother ran off at top speed, which, in fairness, is what anyone should do if faced with a lawyer springing out of a box.

B, who was by now beside himself with excitement, grabbed my hands to help pull me the rest of the way out of the box and said, “How did you get here?”

“I came in the mail!” I said.Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.01.15 PM

When I told him I actually flew down on a plane, he seemed disappointed to learn even Amazon Prime has its limits. But our fun knew no limits on Saturday: we went to Legoland, partied it up with B and C’s friends and some superheroes, and knocked the stuffing out of a Spider Man piñata. It was pretty much perfect.

I have no idea how my brother and I will top this one, but I do know one thing: we’re gonna need a bigger box.

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.

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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.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_1892_-_Two_Young_Girls_at_the_Piano (1)

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!”

How I became a fan of The Fan, and other alarming signs of middle age

Over the course of the past year, I embraced the surest sign of middle age there is: talk radio.

When I was growing up, radio was my primary source for music. I listened to Casey Kasem’s “Top 40 Countdown” nearly every Sunday, waiting with breathless anticipation to find out which song snagged the top berth and keeping my tape recorder close by to make bootleg copies of my favorite tunes along the way. What I liked best about music on the radio then was the element of surprise. You never really knew which song would come up when – the only way to summon up a song on demand back then was to call the radio station and make a request – and if you wanted to know which song topped the Billboard list for that week, you had to tune in to the Countdown.

If video killed the radio star, the internet killed the element of surprise on music radio (and pretty much everywhere else, too). No longer do we wait to hear a favorite song or to find out where it falls in the ranks of popular music; we Shazam it, type some text into a search window, and we’re done. The efficiency we gained is great, but we sacrificed that sense of suspense that made it fun to listen not just to music on the radio but for it.

And just in case the preceding paragraph didn’t brand me completely as middle-aged, let me remove all doubt by adding that the music that lands on pop radio today, and the way all the stations seem to play the same three songs on an endless loop, doesn’t inspire me to seek it out. I’m not saying there isn’t some worthy pop stuff out there, just that if there’s a modern equivalent of Prince, he’s not hanging out on the FM airwaves. (If my Prince will come at all, he’ll probably arrive by way of Spotify, which is where I look for new music these days.)

And if you’re tempted to shoot down my “music radio was better way back when” theory by pointing to musical atrocities of my youth, like “Pass the Dutchie,” “We Built This City,” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” I have two things to say to you: 1) Yes, I know these songs are now stuck in your head –

you got what you deserved by mentioning them; and 2) Like all self-respecting Gen X-ers, I am deep in the process of sanitizing the memories of my past, which means I have re-characterized these abominations as musical foils meant to enhance our appreciation of artists like Prince and George Michael. Now get off my lawn.

So a year or two ago, I began the transition to talk radio when driving around town. I started with WTOP for traffic and weather “on the ‘eights’ and when it breaks” — “and when it breaks” has always sounded to me like the onset of a pox, and maybe that’s about right —  but the repetitiveness and lack of depth wore me out in short order. I switched to NPR. It was a nice enough place to hang out until Campaign 2016 came along and started barfing all over the joint.

Hankering for the sound of live voices and desperate for a haven from the stench of politics, late this summer I skidded to a stop on 106.7, an all-sports talk station known as “The Fan.” I grew up on and love sports, so it made perfect sense, except for one teeny, tiny thing: I don’t like the Redskins. I never have, even though I’ve lived in the DC area for my entire adult life. Both of my parents are from Pennsylvania, Mom is from Philly, thus the Yank DNA requires that we root for the Eagles. (No one roots for the Eagles by choice. It ain’t an easy gig.) This means I must root against all division rivals, including the ‘Skins. My dislike for the ‘Skins might not have mattered had I not made my move to The Fan during the pre-season. The circumstances were far from optimal, but I’d run out of options.

When I tuned in, the Sports Junkies –four local guys who’ve been on the airwaves for 20 years — were on. I’d caught bits and pieces of their show before but had never stuck around long enough to get to know them. In an era when we all need to work a little harder to understand those whose beliefs differ dramatically from our own, I decided it was time for me to cozy up to some ‘Skins fans. And you know what? Aside from learning more about football, a sport I speak proficiently but not fluently, I’ve learned the Junkies and I have some things in common. We’re basically peers, age-wise –with similar physical complaints to show for it –and I get the sense that their musical, linguistic and cultural references haven’t moved much beyond the late ’90s and they’re unapologetic about it. So I’m pretty sure you can get off their lawns, too. And one of them is on a quest to improve his dating life, not that I can relate or anything. Best of all, though, listening to the Junks banter careen from topic to topic takes me back to the days when I’d sit around watching a game with a bunch of my guy friends. Since my cadre of guy friends has shrunk over the years, another casualty of marriage, those hangouts have pretty much fallen by the wayside. The Junkies give me a way to experience that kind of camaraderie again, albeit vicariously, and I love that.

On the drive home, I sometimes catch part of “Chad Dukes Versus The World” on The Fan. Though I suspect my and Chad’s politics differ, I know we have one important thing in common: we both love his mom. She taught music when I was a student at Orange Hunt Elementary School and remains one of my all-time favorite teachers, even if she is technically responsible for the fact that three friends and I burst into a rousing rendition of “The Fifty States Song” at a funeral. I also enjoy the way Chad weaves underused words like “bombast,” “gravitas” and “bloviate” into casual conversation. And as someone who co-hosts a weekly podcast whose episodes last however long we want ’em to, but never more than an hour, I have mad respect for someone who hosts a four-hour show daily and pretty much solo.

So yes, I’ve transitioned to talk radio and the Fan, two things thirty-something me would have mocked mercilessly. This puts me squarely on the middle age track, which doesn’t thrill me, but it helps to know I’m running in good company.

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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!

Where do things go when they can’t go to the dogs?

When things weren’t going well, people used to say the country was going to the dogs. In another clear sign of the times, we can’t even seek refuge in that idiom anymore. Based on two items in the past week’s news, now we’re going to the squirrels.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that a squirrel that had evidently gone off its nut bit an innocent bystander outside a retirement community in Florida. Not content to stop at a bite-and-run, the squirrel kept its dental grip on the victim and refused to let go. In fact, its teeth might still be sunk into that poor person’s flesh had the squirrel not paused to announce which scholarship it had chosen to accept from the law schools that had lined up with offers,

Okay, fine, that’s not exactly how things went. Desperate and panicked, the squirrel-bitten person ran inside the retirement home for help, squirrel still firmly attached. Once inside the facility, the animal was immediately mistaken for Donald Trump’s hair and avenged the insult by going “on a rampage.”

Okay, fine, that’s not exactly how things went, either.

Technically only the rampage part is true (though the squirrel’s defense attorney ought to be taking notes, here). The squirrel really did go on to bite and scratch three or four more people before a quick-thinking resident managed to capture and toss it outside. I find this particularly impressive, considering retirement homes are not usually known as hotbeds of quick thinking.

The victims were later treated for their bites but no rabies shots were administered, consistent with this guidance from the Center for Disease Control’s website:

Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area.

As the dedicated reader who sent me this article noted, we’re all fortunate this animal wasn’t behaving in an unusual manner, “like, for instance, terrorizing an old folks’ home.” Still, it’s probably best the squirrel wasn’t put down, what with it being a voter in a swing state and all.

The second squirrel news item came on Sunday, courtesy of the National Football League. During the third quarter of the Indianapolis Colts – Green Bay Packers game, a free agent squirrel outran its coverage and went sprinting across Lambeau Field.

Recognizing a golden opportunity to address its well-publicized viewership problems and reach the nation’s ADHD segment at the same time, the NFL immediately signed the squirrel to a multi-year contract.

Actually, they didn’t. But they knew a ratings bonanza when they saw it, so they cued up the “Born Free” soundtrack and let the squirrel run. This not only added some excitement for those of us at home but also gave mainstream media outlets like CBS Sports the opportunity to work phrases like “we got some varmint action” into their online reporting and fulfilled Phil Simms’s lifelong dream of doing in-depth rodent commentary (which you really oughtta watch, so I’m putting it right here).

So here it is, election eve, and we’ve gone to the squirrels. Probably because the dogs wouldn’t have us.

 

 

We all have reason to vote, and to vote with reason

The 2016 presidential election has left me feeling like an unseasoned drinker at a New Year’s Eve party who, on taking in way too much toxic garbage way too fast and way too soon, gets sick before the main event and doesn’t even care to witness it.

I’m far from alone: a survey conducted in August by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of the country is stressed out by this election. That was in August, folks. A whole two months ago. So anyone who’s surprised to learn that there’s a full house in the proverbial powder room just hasn’t been paying attention. This election has exposed rampant ugliness and intolerance, giving us little to cheer about and plenty of cause for disgust. Unlike a New Year’s Eve bash, though, we can’t avoid the nausea by choosing just to sit this election out: it’s way too important.

I always vote, but I belong to no party and I’m not thrilled with my current choices (sounds suspiciously like my dating life, doesn’t it?). If you’re in the same boat — wondering how to decide which button to push when both candidates are pushing your buttons, dismayed that you can’t vote with your heart because your heart isn’t in it, wanting to pull the rip cord instead of the lever — here’s what worked for me when I voted this afternoon: pure, simple reason.

We haven’t seen much of reason during this election — evidently it didn’t make the guest list, and I don’t blame it for not wanting to crash this particular party –but I forced it to join me in the voting booth today. I’m glad I did, too, because reason reminded me that competence matters more than likability, and so does sanity. Reason encouraged me to tune out false equivalences, like the notion that stability equals status quo, or that experience equals establishment. Reason likewise recognized that both candidates have shown susceptibility to influence-peddling (as have nearly all politicians) and prompted me to reject that as a basis for comparison. Reason also warned me that, if I really mean it when I say this election is important, I shouldn’t make my vote irrelevant by casting it for an independent or write-in. In short, reason made my choice easy, if not fun. I suspect it could make a lot of people’s choices easy, if only they’d let it.

The one thing reason didn’t do was call me an Uber so I could leave this awful party. And I really want to go home now, because something tells me we’re all in for a long, nasty hangover.

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“Think before you speak” might be good advice, but it makes for very dull stories

We’ve all said things we wish we could take back.

One of my all-time doozies came up last night while I was having dinner with my friend, “Eric,” who’s going through a divorce. Eric and I agreed that, even when everyone involved knows divorce is the right answer, it’s still a miserable soul-grinder of an experience. Experts often liken it to a death, complete with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (though all five do not necessarily occur, nor do they happen in a particular order). That comparison has always made sense to me, I think divorce can also involve a sixth phase: decency. During the decency phase, one or both parties make a concerted effort to be cordial, if not pleasant, and to resist the urge to malign the other person. As with the other phases, this one can only last for so long, and it can be baffling.

My divorce had a decency phase. As I told Eric, it happened early and, like the marriage itself, was startlingly brief. The Lawnmower and I had separated in late July of 2011, on terms that were, how shall I say, suboptimal. But we had a house to sell together –through the For Sale By Owner process, of course, because using an agent would have inflicted an insufficient amount of real estate misery for a special occasion like divorce –and a property agreement to negotiate. If decency could help us unload the Yuppie Prison and knock out a contract, I was all in favor of it. I gave it my best shot, but aspiration proved much easier than execution.

My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I were barely two weeks into the decency phase when the Lawnmower’s birthday rolled around. This presented me with a decency dilemma: should I say something? On the one hand, we had separated and were preparing to divorce, so the etiquette gods would surely show me mercy if I chose to stay silent. On the other, I knew it was his birthday, and he knew that I knew it was his birthday. I remember the birthdays of my immediate family and significant others unassisted, and separation hadn’t erased his entry in my mental calendar. Just the opposite, in fact. As I thought about unwinding our joint life, the days that used to hold special meaning for us hovered in the front of my mind like floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Even if I managed to pop them, they’d take a while to deflate.

Since I couldn’t claim with a straight face that I’d forgotten the LM’s birthday, ignoring it could seem intentional, an insult. The decency campaign might not survive that kind of threat to its existence. I needed to keep it alive, so I decided to say something. But what?

I typed, “Happy birthday, Mark.” On my laptop screen it didn’t even look sincere. That period was fatal. Delete.

“Happy birthday, Mark!” Nope. The exclamation conveyed exuberance, which reflected either tone deafness or a very bad attempt at irony. Neither interpretation would help my cause. Maybe a greeting was a terrible idea.

My brain kept chewing on it and then, as only a lawyer brain could do, took that terrible idea and made it worse by adding a comma and a dependent clause.

“I wanted to wish you happy birthday, under the circumstances,” I typed. Before I could second-guess it, I clicked “send,” ending my internal debate. An email from the LM arrived moments later.

He’d written, “Thank you, under the circumstances.”

Eric howled with laughter when I got to the punchline. Even though that email hadn’t done me any good when I sent it five years ago, it helped Eric last night, so I was glad I brought it up. It was, after all, only the decent thing to do.

I’d have been better off sending him this, slice removed and all.

 

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.