Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Having myself a merry little Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spam: It goes great on anything.

Spam: It goes great on anything.






The one that got away

Yesterday I wrote a piece about how, when we were kids, my sister Lynne would sing “Swans on the Lake” for a buck, often when my parents were entertaining at the house, and always while I accompanied her on the piano. I mentioned that Lynne performed it with a particular “panache” from which my eardrums may never recover, and that she always sang while hiding on the stairs between the first and second floor of my parents’ house. Back then I assumed she had stage fright. I now understand she just didn’t want to see the carnage after she detonated the high notes.

Whenever I write about a loved one, I try to get permission or at least give the person fair warning. I forgot to do that yesterday, and Lynne alerted me to my breach of etiquette by way of a comment on my Facebook page:

What??!! You couldn’t have written about our hamster debacle instead??!!! I remember the lyrics!!

Ignoring the fact that the last sentence was clearly a threat, I commented in jest that the hamster incident would be today’s post.  A mutual friend of mine and Lynne’s immediately jumped into the fray with: “Hamster post! Hamster post!”

Sorry, Lynne, but the people have spoken, and I gotta give ’em what they want.

Like most card-carrying kids, my 11 year-old niece and 10 year-old nephew have spent years intermittently begging Lynne and her husband to get them a pet. Like most card-carrying parents, my sister and her husband had refused.

When a battle goes on for years, as this one has, one side usually weakens until it breaks down completely. And so it was that my sister and brother-in-law decided to surprise the kids with a hamster. One day, while the kids were at school, the parents brought home a hamster and a some-assembly-required cage. While my B-I-L put the cage together, the hamster hung out inside a makeshift cage comprised of two cardboard boxes.

My sister could hardly wait for my niece to get home to surprise her. My niece went over to the makeshift cage, peered in, and said, “Where is it?” My sister picked up the box and, to her astonishment, discovered my niece’s question wasn’t rhetorical. Somehow the creature, which they had named Cinnamon, ate through two layers of cardboard and had gone on the lam.

The family sprang into action, setting the kind of traps that made me feel like the hours I’d spent introducing my niece and nephew to cartoon classics like  “Tom & Jerry” had been a good investment. The first trap consisted of wooden blocks arranged to form a long corridor on a few pages of newspaper. They had coated the newspaper with peanut butter, creating a Skippy trail that would lead Cinnamon right into a upside-down tupperware container. And sure enough, they caught something: ants.

On the second try they opted for flour on the newspaper instead of peanut butter, under the theory that Cinnamon would step in it and leave a nice, white trail that would lead them right to her. Cinnamon didn’t fall for that one, either.

At this point, my B-I-L concluded that Cinnamon had made it outside and was making an important contribution to the circle of life. He and my sister gave up the search and were about to abandon all hope until they heard a scurrying sound overhead. If Cinnamon hadn’t watched cartoons, she seemed to have seen her fair share of action movies because she’d escaped into the ductwork.

Unwilling to be outwitted by a rodent, my B-I-L took to the vents. He armed himself with peanut butter, a tupperware container, and a hammer, greatly decreasing the probability that both mammals would survive a confrontation.

paul ducts

Yet somehow, against all odds, my B-I-L not only zeroed in on Cinnamon’s whereabouts but managed to trap her and return her to the fully-assembled cage. Order was restored and the household went to bed, looking forward to a clean slate with Cinnamon.

When they awoke the next morning, they found the slate not only clean but flat-out empty: Cinnamon was gone again.

My sister texted: “She came, she ate, she left. I feel violated.”  Operation Lam-ster was deployed yet again, only this time they didn’t find her, even in the ducts. Days went by and then weeks. Eventually they were forced to conclude that Cinnamon would go down as the Amelia Earhart of hamsters.

The parents bought a replacement rodent and the kids have moved on, but the whole episode still haunts my sister. I told her she shouldn’t feel like a failure.  She and her husband might have lost the hamster, but at least they haven’t lost the kids. Yet.


Some people will do anything for a buck

Over breakfast this morning, I was telling my sister Suzi about how three old friends and I wound up singing the “Fifty States Song” at a memorial service recently. This anecdote led to an unfortunate digression about songs my sisters and I had sung as kids and the places where we sang them.

I had little to contribute, having done all of my childhood singing in standard kid venues, like school cafeterias and classrooms.

But back in the late 1970s, my sister Suzi and the fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes at Orange Hunt Elementary School somehow landed at the Jefferson Memorial, performing selections from a lesser-known musical called “Tall Tom Jefferson.”

And then there was my sister Lynne. As a child, she performed strictly by appointment and only on the landing between the first and second stories in my parents’ home. This exclusive gig was a truly lamentable byproduct of the piano lessons I began taking when I was seven. As all newbies do, I had spent the first several months learning to read music and just playing with just my right hand.

When my left hand finally figured out how to play a few notes from the lower half of the keyboard, the whole family celebrated, having grown sick of life in the treble clef. It was even bigger news when I mastered not just a two-handed piece but a two-page piece from the John Thompson Instruction Manual called “Swans on the Lake.”

I must have been showing off this accomplishment to Lynne, because she somehow noticed that the song had lyrics, which I replicate here in their entirety:

Stately as princes the swans part the lilies and glide,
under the willows.
Are they enchanted men soon to be free again here,
under the willows?
Oh how I would like to be
here when the fairy wand
touches the leader and
changes his looks!
Would he be handsome and brave as the heroes that live
hidden in my fairy books?

Don’t ask me to explain how or why, but these lyrics spoke to my sister. She took it upon herself to make “Swans on the Lake” not just her vocal piece de resistance, but also the vehicle for her opera debut. To give you a feel for Lynne’s style, think: Maria Callas meets Miss Piggy.

The first time my parents heard it, they probably would have given Lynne a standing ovation had they not been off in search of thread, having laughed so hard they split their sides. Mom and Dad demanded an encore, which my sister was happy to give them. But only for a price, and only if she sang from her perch on the landing, where she could be heard — oh, could she be heard– but not seen. (And no, I did not get a cut of this action.)

If that seems inexplicable, then good luck trying to understand how Lynne became the main event, entertainment-wise, when my parents would invite their friends over for dinner. At the time, I was so excited about showing off my piano skills that it didn’t occur to me to question why my parents were paying my sister to belt out “Swans on the Lake” from halfway up the stairs. In hindsight, I am forced to conclude that they didn’t like their friends.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard my sister’s rendition of “Swans on the Lake.” Maybe this year’s Yank family Christmas dinner will be the perfect time for a revival. I think I’ll stockpile a few bucks just in case.



Take the turkeys out for a trot, but make sure you know where they’re going

Happy Elastic Waistband Day, everyone!

I’m in Richmond this year, with my sister Suzi and her crew. After a leisurely breakfast whose contents ranged from omelets to last night’s Chinese food, my parents and I set out for a walk in Suzi’s neighborhood. Mom and I love a good stroll, and Dad has become something of a walking enthusiast on finding that it helps him manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. We planned to cover four miles and then come home to clean up, watch football, and get our sloth on. I left my phone behind so I could enjoy the company and the day, free of electronic distractions.

Suzi’s been in her neighborhood since 2003.  When she moved in, it was so small that we could’ve walked the whole neighborhood in fifteen minutes, including a thorough tour of the cul de sacs. Since then, various builders have come in and expanded the ‘hood,  adding sections that look sufficiently similar to the existing ones to blend in quite well. Now, you can easily complete a four mile loop without retracing a single step.

As my parents and I walked, the conversation somehow turned to my book, perhaps because I’m preparing to do my first-ever signing event at Riverby Books in DC this Wednesday.

“This whole thing has been an incredible learning experience for all of us,” my father said, referring, I believe, to the mechanics of publishing a book. Dad’s right: the how-to’s (and how not-to’s) have taught me a lot. But the thing that really bowled me over had nothing to do with words on paper. What truly overwhelmed me was the incredible outpouring of support I got, often from surprising sources.

It all started the day the author’s copy of my book arrived and I posted a photo of the cover on Facebook. I hadn’t even spoken of the book before that, so I wouldn’t have expected anyone beyond my family to care, yet they did. Elementary school friends –people I hadn’t seen in decades and who had never before commented on anything I posted –immediately cheered me on. Brand new friends, like my pals Bud and Gareth, jumped on the bandwagon despite the fact that the driver had never been behind the wheel and had no idea where this thing was headed.

As I described these experiences to my parents on the walk today, I felt a powerful urge of gratitude for open hearts. I’ve encountered so many of them over the past forty-three years–this book thing is just the most recent example –and they fuel everything that’s good in my life.

I got lost in the warmth of those thoughts, which perhaps explains why we got lost in real life.

My parents and I had thought we were making a loop, only to discover it was more of a crazy eight. We’d gone four miles but were nowhere near home and had no idea how we might go about getting there, what with the builders having done such a masterful job blending the old and the new. We also discovered that I wasn’t the only one who left her phone at home; all of us had.

We kept walking, racking up six miles but getting no closer to home. Eventually our aimless wandering brought us into the path of a very nice four-person group that was out for a pre-gorge stroll. One of them lived a block from my sister. Even better, he had a smart phone, which enabled us to pull up a map.

It didn’t take too long after that for me and my parents to get back on track. I mentioned the whole incident to my brother when he called today.

“Between the three of you,” he said, “you have a pretty high collective IQ. But I’m a little worried about your street smarts.”

He has a point. I still feel very thankful for open hearts, but I’m really grateful that none of my ancestors was steering the Mayflower.


The coolest little bookstore in DC (and I'm not just saying that because they're selling my book…)

The coolest little bookstore in DC (and I’m not just saying that because they’re selling my book…)


Thanksgiving traditions: the Mayflower, pilgrims and…Dave & Busters?!

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I looked forward to the food, especially the side dishes and my mother’s gorgeous, homemade apple and pumpkin pies. (I still view turkey as nothing more than a platform for gravy and an excuse to heap piles of Mom’s signature mashed potatoes and stuffing onto my plate.)

The older I got, the less I cared about traditional trappings of the holiday and the more I appreciated the way it brought together people I love. As my siblings married and had kids, our annual numbers waxed and waned such that one year, my parents and I were the lone Yanks celebrating together. We decided to abandon tradition altogether and opted to have dinner out at Corduroy, a terrific restaurant in D.C. It felt a little strange at first, but it didn’t take us long to warm up to the idea of spending no time in the kitchen whatsoever. And it wasn’t too hard to sacrifice a week’s worth of leftovers in exchange for not having to wash a single dish. We enjoyed ourselves so much we did it again the next year.

Then there was the year my parents, my brother and I boarded a plane for Egypt on Thanksgiving. We didn’t care that our holiday meal consisted of chicken fried rice at the Wok ‘n’ Roll (JFK Airport branch), because we had good company.

This year the Thanksgiving holiday finds me in Richmond, celebrating with my sister Suzi and her family, along with my parents and one of Suzi’s neighbors. I arrived around lunchtime this afternoon to find Mom in Suzi’s kitchen, extracting one of her perfect apple pies from the oven. It turned out that Mom and Dad had picked up my other sister’s kids and brought them to Richmond, too, so that was an especially welcome surprise.

I was excited, expecting to wrap up my workday and then suit up to help with the prep. I did not, however, expect the kids to burst into the room where I was working and ask when I was taking them to Dave & Buster’s. This is what happens when you’re the childless aunt: they don’t ask you to make the stuffing; they give you the “other duties as assigned.” They don’t care if those other duties require you to go to the kind of place you normally wouldn’t leave your zip code for, much less make the destination of a pilgrimage.

Yet there I was at 5 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving, loading up my niece and nephews with spending money that they would either lose altogether or, in an even worse-case scenario, convert to tickets that they would later redeem for prizes. I don’t know about you, but I would rather set fire to a stack of $20 bills than wind up with a bucket full of tickets. Yet there I was, at 6:30 p.m., holding five buckets full of tickets.

Showing the kind of resilience that would have made the pilgrims proud, I took the tickets, dumped them on my brother-in-law, and got the heck out of there, claiming dinner responsibilities. I feel certain the pilgrims also would have approved of my decision to outsource dinner in its entirety to a popular Chinese joint near my sister’s place.

I returned to the house with armloads of Chinese fare, expecting to receive a warm welcome and instead getting shot at by my niece and nephews, who were wielding marshmallow guns they’d bought with their tickets. A fool and her money, quickly parted and then rapidly reunited in the form of Stay-Puft Saturday night specials: a proper turkey shoot if ever I saw one.


If you can’t beat ’em, don’t join ’em. Go out for Chinese food.






Going off the beaten path and taking the conversation with you

Today I hiked Old Rag Mountain with a group of friends. The ringleaders, my friends Dave and Greg, first invited me on their semi-annual hike in early 2012, when I was smack in the middle of my divorce. This was a pretty bold move on their part, because a person going through a very bad divorce is not always the easiest company for a meal, much less a 10-mile hike. But they extended the invitation anyway. Dave recognized that I needed the kind of escape only a vigorous hike can provide, and he probably also realized that if I became intolerable, he could just shove me off the side of the mountain. (Aside from being Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hike, Old Rag is also its most dangerous.)

I must have behaved myself reasonably well, because we all survived the hike and they’ve invited me back ever since. I’m finding that I enjoy it more every time I go, no matter the time of year or the conditions, just because of the superlative company.

A five-hour hike gives you a chance to cover quite a bit of conversational turf, and while our group walked a very literal path, the conversation did not. It meandered all over the place, touching briefly on my love life (“Are forty-something women in a dating no-man’s land?”), before hopping over to the safer topical ground of Thanksgiving traditions, and then resting for a bit on stories of athletic pursuits.

Greg’s son, N, mentioned that he’d completed in his first sprint triathlon this summer. This prompted me to share the story of the time I convinced my brother, L.J., and my sister Suzi to do a sprint triathlon relay with me in Richmond in the fall of 2006. I volunteered for the 400 yard swim. Most people hate that part, whereas I love to swim and can crank out a 400 without batting an eyelid.

That left the bike and the run. Since L.J. used to play baseball professionally and still worked out regularly, I decided he could handle 12 miles of cycling. That had to be pretty comparable to the stationary bike at the gym, right?

By process of elimination, Suzi would do the 5K. She had gone through a running phase just a few years earlier, and though that phase had passed, I figured she could channel it long enough to complete a 5K. We signed up and called ourselves Team 2YQ, which stood for two Yankosky’s and one (Suzi) Q.

We then began the arduous task of preparing for the race, which consisted of making team t-shirts and going out for cocktails.

Because my parents loved the fact that three of their four kids were banding together in a race, they decided to trek to Richmond to cheer us on. (The fourth kid, clearly not a team player, made some lame excuse about having to supervise her 3 and 4 year-old.)

The race got underway on a brisk Sunday morning, and when I exited the swim, Team 2YQ was in second place. Quite respectable, I thought. The transition to the bike was not entirely uneventful, because my brother was riding a borrowed bike, but he soon got underway. With a professional athlete on the pedals, I thought we might hold on for silver and would certainly claim a bronze. And my brother certainly looked the very picture of exertion –stylish exertion, but exertion nonetheless–as he wrapped up the biking leg and rode into the transition area. I still felt pretty good about our chances for the bronze.

At that point, Suzi took over, looking like she’d come straight from the pages of a magazine. And by magazine, I don’t mean Runner’s World; I’m talking Vogue or Mademoiselle. She ran with a camera-ready smile and a speed that left both her makeup and her Prada sunglasses undisturbed. Bronze was beginning to seem a bit ambitious.

But all thoughts of standing were forgotten when Suzi finished because we’d had a blast and that was all that mattered. Or so we thought.

The results were posted on a website later that day. As I thought, Team 2YQ had missed the gold. And also the silver, bronze, copper, zinc, aluminum and magnesium. We had finished 12th. Out of 12. It didn’t take long for the news of our finish to make its way down the family grapevine. Any hopes of living it down died when Team 2YQ received an email from my father that took note of our 12th place finish and how far he’d traveled to witness it and was signed “Ashamed To Know You.”  At that point, we weren’t the apples of our father’s eye so much as the rotten bananas.

But rotten or not, just like on the hike today, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of any other bunch.

old rag pic












November 24: one of my calendar favorites ever since 1998

November 24 is a big deal, in case you didn’t know.  On this particular day, Mount Vesuvius erupted (1759), Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published (1859), and, most importantly, my nephew J.J. was born (1998).

November 24, 1998, was a Tuesday. As I had on many Tuesdays before it, I was staring down a full day at the Department of Defense agency where I worked, topped off with four hours of classes at the George Mason University School of Law. I was a first year law student struggling to juggle work, classes and studying, a process that consisted of figuring out which ball was the best one to drop on any given day.

I gave no thought to any of that when I got the call that my sister Suzi –the first of me and my siblings to start a family –had gone into labor. I just hopped in the car and made a beeline for Johnston Willis Hospital in Midlothian, about 90 miles south of my office. My parents were in the waiting room when I arrived. According to their update, things were progressing quickly, so I’d gotten there just in time. My mother mentioned that, under hospital protocol, two people were allowed to be in the delivery room with my sister. My then-brother-in-law was already in there, so I assumed Mom would join him.

Before I could even voice that thought, she looked at me and said, “I think you should go.”   Mom had always epitomized selflessness, but letting me witness the birth of the first Yankosky grandchild instead of her truly took the cake. Like any good daughter would, I ran out of the waiting room without giving her a chance to reconsider.

I suited up, scrubbed down, and went in.

If I were to describe the room in geographical terms, I’d say that my brother-in-law had stationed himself in the Northern Hemisphere, somewhere near San Diego. I stood guard on the coast of Ecuador, which I thought was prime real estate until something in the Southern Hemisphere erupted. I can’t say for sure what happened, but if it’s what I thought it was, I would not have described it as “miraculous.” I told my brother-in-law to stay right where he was.

Moments later, a nurse brought the doctor a very serious-looking pair of scissors. As soon as I realized they weren’t meant to cut fabric, I looked at the nurse, pointed at my sister and blurted out, “Does she have any idea how much that’s gonna hurt?”

Had her hands not been sterilized and otherwise occupied, I’m pretty sure the nurse would have slapped me. Instead, she said in a very stern voice, “That’s not helpful, ma’am.” I decided to let my sister be the judge of that.

A most unkind cut was made, and shortly thereafter, my nephew made his debut on Planet Earth. A combination of blind, pure, unconditional love and unbridled happiness expressed itself in the tears that made their way down my cheeks. It was the most frightening, beautiful, astonishing thing I’d ever seen in my life.

The fact that, after seeing that, I chose to remain childless? Pure coincidence, I assure you.

Happy 16th birthday, J.J. You are one of my favorite people in the world and easily the most gifted sewer-diver I know. I love you!

JJ baby picz

Clap along, ’cause I feel like a room without a roof

While driving home from brunch today, I had the radio tuned to a pop station and Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” came on. I know a lot of people view the song as a Williams sell-out (they have a point) and still others see it as pop dreck (they also have a point), but the music complements the lyrics perfectly, and I couldn’t help but like it the first time I heard it.

Maybe my affection for it stems from the fact that my two year-old nephew who adores it requested it nightly when I was staying at Camp Wipe Me in August. The minute one of his parents put him in the high chair and started to get his dinner together, he would ask for the song. Recognizing that the space between seating and eating for toddlers is brief but highly combustible, I defaulted to clown mode and danced around the kitchen by way of diversion. And when I say I danced, I don’t mean one of those cute little foot-shuffle/head-bob routines. I brought out the big guns: I did the swim, featuring all four strokes and occcasional deep submersion. My version of dry land backstroke required me to take exaggerated steps backwards while flailing my arms and prompted my brother to say, “Whoa, Aunt Wheat-you might hurt yourself!”  My nephew found my backstroke funny and my brother’s comment funnier, so he  felt the need to repeat it every time I took to the dance floor after that. Now I can’t hear “Happy” without picturing my favorite two-year old expressing concern that I might sustain a dance injury.

Maybe I like “Happy” because the lyrics reflect an outlook I try to have as often as possible. A good friend often tells me I’m “wired happy.”  Maybe he’s right, because when I feel down, my immediate reaction is to fight it. It’s not a learned response; it’s automatic. I exercise, play the piano, spend time with friends or go on a hike, and those techniques usually produce results. But my innate happy wiring, which I assume is just an accident of birth, took a real hit as a result of my marriage. That was the first time I encountered someone who hurt me not unintentionally (which happens in close relationships, no matter how hard both people try) but on purpose. The idea that the person who was supposed to love me most wanted to hurt me injected me with a fear I had never known. For a while, that fear made it hard for me to feel happy without looking over my shoulder.

It took some time for me to find my normal and to accept that it had been re-calibrated by the knowledge I gained from the experience I had. One of the things that experience taught me was to enjoy the happy wherever I could find it, for however long it lasted. The time I’ve spent with two year-old nephew taught me the very same lesson but in a far, far nicer classroom where these lyrics are required reading:

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Whenever I hear Pharrell sing those words, or my nephew attempt to, I bop along and think, “Yep, I do feel like happiness is the truth.”


All in a day’s work, and then some

I hardly ever write about my paid gig at all, much less on a weekend, but my lunchtime conversation with a friend today reminded me of just how good I have it. I like the work I do, I genuinely like the people I work with and for, and I feel that my work is valued.  My friend, also a lawyer, pointed out that the balance I lucked into isn’t the easiest one to strike. I know she’s right, and if I ever forget, all I have to do is think about my early work history.

The first job I had that resulted in an actual paycheck was in the summer of 1986, when I worked as a lifeguard at the Fox Hunt Swim Club. I was 15 at the time and thought I had hit the job jackpot. What could be better than spending the whole summer at the pool, something I’d always done but never gotten paid for? A lot of things, I soon learned.

For starters, we had to wear uniforms –t-shirts, swimsuits and sweatshirts with the company logo–and we had to pay for them. Back in those days, summer lifeguards could be classified as seasonal workers and did not have to be paid minimum wage.  So after purchasing three pieces of company apparel I didn’t really want, I probably netted a cool $4.67.

Then, there was my mistaken belief that sitting in a lifeguard chair for hours would get me a tan, which it did not. It got me a pink. I spent most of the summer under an umbrella.

My vision of what lifeguards do when they’re not keeping the public safe was the next bubble to burst. I thought I would spend the down time lounging in the office, perhaps flirting with boys my age or playing cards with the other guards. The company thought otherwise and did not believe in the concept of idle guard time. We were assigned chores every day on a rotating basis. The  skimmer baskets needed emptying, the trash needed dumping, the decks needed bucketing, and the bathrooms needed cleaning. I found it nearly impossible to psych myself up for any of these activities.

Emptying the skimmer baskets –plastic receptacles designed to collect floating debris–was like playing roulette. Sometimes you lifted the lid and found an empty basket or something benign, like leaves. But it was just a matter of time before you were greeted by the sight of a mole, mouse or snake, in varying states of vitality.

That said, emptying the skimmer baskets beat the heck out of dumping the trash. Whatever funds the company saved by not buying our uniforms did not get invested in trash bags, that’s for sure. The bags almost always sprang a leak, which meant your legs usually got a liberal spray of a substance my sister Suzi (my boss that summer) affectionately referred to as “trash juice.”

But I would have taken skimmer and trash duty in a heartbeat over bucketing, the process of filling up a bucket with pool water and throwing it down as hard as you could onto the concrete deck to rid it of surface dirt. Peak efficiency in bucketing meant staying perpetually bent at the waist so you could grab and hurl the water as quickly as possible. By the time I finished bucketing the expansive Fox Hunt deck, I was usually stuck in a 90 degree posture, and it took some doing to get back to 180.

Yet when it came to chore badness, not even bucketing could hold a candle to cleaning the bathrooms. As much as I hated that experience, it strengthened at least two things: my immune system, and my resolve to get a college degree. (I think everyone, no matter how privileged, should be required to clean public toilets for at least one day to make them appreciate the people who perform that task on a daily basis and for peanuts.)

All of this came to mind as I listened to my friend describe her mediocre job situation yesterday. I have a great job situation, and my “other duties as assigned” haven’t required me to pick up a skimmer lid, bucket, trash bag, or toilet brush. Yet.

This shows a little slice of Fox Hunt Swim Club and its ginormous deck.

It’s hard to appreciate the ginormity of the Fox Hunt deck from this pic, but it’s all I got.


A jacket is just a jacket, except when it isn’t

Today did not exactly make for optimal walking weather here in DC, considering the temperatures struggled to get out of the 20’s even before the wind helpfully added thirty mile per hour gusts. But my friend Philippa and I were both nursing a wee bit of a hangover due to last night’s shenanigans, and we thought a bracing stroll might be just the thing.

We layered up and headed for a nearby trail. We hadn’t even walked a mile before Philippa surprised me by saying, “I’m hot” and peeling off her ear ear warmers. She ascribed her personal heat level to the jacket she was wearing, which had been given to her years ago by a very thoughtful boyfriend with excellent taste in outdoor gear. Though she hasn’t been romantically involved with the beau in a long time, she remains in love with the jacket.

I could relate. I was wearing my favorite jacket– a waterproof, well-insulated Columbia number that warms my body and heart because it was given to me by someone I love dearly –but it only recently displaced the Mountain Hardwear coat I’d been wearing every winter since a boyfriend gave it to me for Christmas in 2002. Actually, I take that back. The Mountain Hardwear jacket missed a season in 2010.

The tale of its lost winter began in November of 2009, when I was dating my future ex-husband. He and I had taken a day off from work and decided to spend it looking for houses (the idea of possibly tearing mine down to build a new one had just begun to germinate). The day had a chill to it, so I grabbed the Mountain Hardwear jacket on our way out the door.

He apparently hadn’t seen me wear it before, because we hadn’t made it out of his neighborhood when he said, “Mountain Hardwear, eh? They make great stuff. Where’d you get that, Orvis?”

“Geez, I have no idea,” I said. “The guy I was dating in 2002 gave it to me.”

“Wow, that’s a long time to hang on to a jacket. Were you two serious?” I laughed.

“Not even a little bit. We dated for maybe six months. He was a lot of fun but we didn’t have the same intellectual interests.” And by that I meant that my conversations with the former beau generally centered on football and beer, both perfectly great  topics as part of a rotation, but I can’t give them headliner status every single night.  I went on to explain that the ex-boyfriend worked for a beer distributor, so it was just a matter of time before I nicknamed him the Beer Guy.

My eventual ex-husband thought any nickname other than a pet name was an insult.  I generally did not and still do not share that view: most of the men I dated and nicknamed not only knew what their nicknames were but saw them as a sign of affection; however, an incident did occur during the divorce that caused me to start referring to my estranged spouse as “the Lawnmower,” a nickname that has stuck (The backstory is too long to tell here, but don’t worry, you can read it in my book. Do you like how I did that, all smooth-like?).

The Lawnmower scoffed at my benign explanation of the jacket’s history. He couldn’t believe a man who wasn’t serious about me would give me so nice a Christmas gift or that I kept wearing it for reasons unrelated to a defunct relationship with someone I hadn’t seen in seven years. But he dropped the subject when we pulled up in front of the first house, and it went unmentioned the rest of the day.  We were driving back to the Lawnmower’s home in the boonies, immersed in a lengthy real estate discussion, when he asked whether I would mind if we made a quick pit stop at the Harris Teeter in Reston to buy steaks.

“Of course not,” I said.

As we walked into the Harris-Teeter we were still chatting about houses when someone behind me called out loudly, “Yank! Hey Yank!”  That voice, deep with just a sprinkle of gravel, was one I hadn’t heard in seven years but recognized in an instant. The Beer Guy. I turned around to see him striding away from a large Budweiser display and towards me, a huge grin on his face and his arms spread open wide. After he gave me a bear hug, I introduced the new beau to the old one, struggling to refer to him by his given name.

The three of us made awkward small talk for a few minutes and then the Lawnmower and I set off for the meat department.

He wasn’t smiling when he said, “Let me guess: the Beer Guy?”

“Yep. After seven years. What were the odds of that?” I forced out a nervous laugh and left it at that.

The Lawnmower didn’t mention it again, but I can’t say I was surprised that one of the boxes I opened on Christmas morning contained a new jacket. Like the old one, it was grey. But unlike the old one, Nike made it, not Mountain Hardware, and it expressed a strong preference for form over function. It was lovely, don’t get me wrong, and I felt love for the person who gave it to me but I did not love the thing itself. I couldn’t see myself hiking in a jacket with a plush faux fur lining. I wore it but I missed my Mountain Hardwear jacket, which I was keeping in the back of a closet. I broke it out again with unabashed joy in late 2011, months after I had left the Lawnmower.

Now that I have a new jacket to adore, the Mountain Hardwear one has seen little daylight. But the walk with Philippa got me thinking that it deserves yet another lease on life. I pass the same homeless man on the route I drive to DC every Wednesday, and I think it will fit him. It’s not as useful as offering him a job or a roof over his head, but there’s something to be said for a gift that keeps on giving.

The Mountain Hardwear and I have both aged, but one of us hides it a little better.

The Mountain Hardwear and I have both aged, but one of us hides it a little better.