Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

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Have nephew, will travel (Part I)

Years ago, in a fit of fantastical thinking, I promised each of my nephews and niece a trip for their high school graduation. It was the sort of idea that seemed so far off in time and financial viability that I treated it as a mirage, kinda like my retirement. But late last fall, my nephew J.J.‘s college acceptances started rolling in and I realized the conversion of the trips from dream to reality was not only happening, it was imminent. (My retirement remains a mirage.)

During Yanksgiving, J.J. and I talked possible destinations. Taking into account his love for great scenery, physical activity, and good food, as well as my unwillingness to fly more than 10 hours one way, I offered him three choices: Iceland, Costa Rica, and Greece. I’d never visited Iceland, but Philippa and other friends had, and they assured me it wouldn’t disappoint. I’d been to Costa Rica and Greece, the former in early 2016 and the latter in 2002 when I took a post-bar exam trip there with Mom, and I had loved them both.

I tried not to weigh in as J.J. debated the possibilities with my sister Suzi, yet I couldn’t help but hope he would choose Greece. The two weeks I spent there in 2002 gave some of my favorite memories ever, such as watching Mom go snorkeling for the first time in her life at age 60 in the Aegean Sea. She and Dad had given me that trip as a law school graduation present, an experience so life-changing it inspired me to do something similar for my niece and nephews. On top of that, Greece played a pivotal role in developing democracy and western civilization as we know it. That last point, and the fact that no country stays on top forever, seemed worth emphasizing at a time when disturbing political chasms have formed in our own country.

“How ’bout Greece?” J.J. said, reading my thought bubbles perfectly.

Before Suzi had a chance to remember that I’ve never chaperoned competently for a day, much less two weeks, I booked an itinerary consisting of two-and-a-half days in Athens, eight days on Crete, two days in London on the way home, and a travel day at each end of the trip. It looked perfect, but I wondered how it would go. My nephew and I love each other, of course, but we’d never spent more than a day or two together at a time, and always with other people around. I encouraged my parents and siblings to warn J.J. about my quirks, and they never got further than my enormous affection for napkins. (They refer to it as an obsession, because they are cave people, but I know it’s just a healthy attachment to the fabric of civilized society.) No one bothered to tell him I snore, because anyone who’s ever slept within a two-mile radius of me and has functioning ears has already picked up on that.

He packed that knowledge into the one carry-on suitcase I allowed him to bring, and on the evening of June 30, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight at Dulles. Once we settled in to our seats, the flight attended handed out overnight kits containing red-eye essentials: an eye mask, a tiny tube of toothpaste and paper-thin socks.

J.J. looked surprised, as if he’d been honored with a great gift, and said, “I get to keep this?” If this normally nonchalant kid was impressed by an airline freebie worth $0.14, I could hardly wait to see his reaction to the Acropolis.

It was late afternoon on July 1 before we landed in Athens, where a countrywide heatwave made it feel like Hades. I grabbed a taxi to take us downtown, allowing J.J. to experience baptism by cab ride. For 30 minutes we rode in a car that responded to the pressing of the A/C button by sending smoke and hot air through its vents. To distract us from the fact that we were riding in a toaster, our driver kept things exciting on the road: he pulled up to an automated toll gate only to realize his transponder had no funds on it, rocketed backwards and across four lanes of traffic in reverse, and then shot forward to a manned booth. I glanced at my nephew, expecting panic, and saw instead the face of someone trying desperately not to laugh. I knew right then and there we were in for a great trip.

Though exhausted, we summoned enough energy after checking in to our hotel to stroll through Plaka, eat an early dinner –J.J. pronounced his gyro delicious despite the fact that it bore no resemblance to the dish that goes by the same name in the U.S. –and marvel at the nighttime view of the Parthenon from our hotel’s rooftop terrace.

We woke up the next morning on Greek time and spent a lazy Sunday wandering the maze of the Athens flea market, where my nephew was in his element. He never tired of hopping from shop to shop and stalking bargains with the patience of a seasoned predator, unlike his aunt, who’s perfectly happy to shoot the first thing she sees and call it a day. The heat wave still gripped the city, sending temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and forcing the closure of the Acropolis for long stretches of time. We decided to conserve our energy and take a low-key tour of local landmarks by way of a hop-on/hop-off bus that we hopped off exactly once, when it stopped right by our hotel.

The next morning, our last in Athens, dawned a good 10 degrees cooler. It felt downright pleasant as we spent the morning on a food tour, eating our way through the city’s neighborhoods with the help of a local. That afternoon found us with with an archeologist who took us through the incredible Acropolis museum –something that didn’t exist during my and Mom’s trip –and then through the complex itself, offering expert insights along the way. Over dinner that night, J.J. told me he didn’t want to leave: he liked the city’s density, appreciated its sights, and loved the food. Most of all he enjoyed the people, who, though visibly and deeply impacted by a financial crisis with no apparent end, still seem to look for reasons to laugh and who treated us with unwavering warmth. The kid was Paying Attention: he noticed the Greeks put people, and especially family, first.

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I couldn’t pass up the chance to wax philosophical about money and happiness to a kid who’s just beginning to build his life as an adult. I told him I want him to become self-sufficient, of course, but I also hope he won’t be self-centered, and that he’ll make nurturing his relationships just as important as nurturing his career. Because let’s be honest: someone’s gonna have to take care of me when I’m 92.

[To be continued…]

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A word of advice for my nephew, the graduate

My eldest nephew, J.J., graduates high school tomorrow.

I was in the delivery room when he was born, but it didn’t occur to me to offer any words of wisdom as he entered the world. I was too busy recovering from having witnessed the “miracle” of life and wondering why, if my mother didn’t want me to have kids, she didn’t just say so.

Now, more than 18 years later, a second chance has come my way, and I’m not about to squander it.

After thinking long and hard about which words would best encapsulate the most important advice I could ever give my nephew, which words he would remember in times of need, I realized it actually comes down to one single word, and that word is: covfefe.

That’s right: a word that’s not even a word, a typo that tweeted itself onto the world stage, reveals what I consider to be a few of life’s most important lessons, which are:

  • Everyone covfefes. Like every other human on Earth, you, dear nephew, will make mistakes. Lots of ’em. Some will be so minor you’ll forget them in moments, others will make you cringe for years, and still others will be memorialized in a blog, but all of them offer you a chance to improve something about yourself if you’re paying attention.
  • Own your covfefes. How you respond to your mistakes reveals as much about you as the mistakes themselves, if not more. If you screw up and the whole world knows it, there’s no point in trying to hide it or in making someone else explain it away, so just admit it already. We’ll all respect you a lot more, I promise.
  • Laugh at your covfefe if it’s funny. Making a comical goof isn’t a sign of weakness, but being unable to laugh at it is. Not taking yourself too seriously, no matter your title or station in life, is a form of humility that tends to make people think more of you rather than less, even people who don’t like you. And laughter is one of the most powerful forms of connection we have, so seek it out whenever you can.
  • Take care of your relationships. When you covfefe bigly, you’re going to want to be surrounded by people you trust and love, such as your favorite aunt. Those people might not let you off the hook, because honesty is a big part of all close relationships, but we will try to help you navigate your way out of it and you won’t have to wonder whether we have your best interests in mind. Remember that you can’t demand trust any more than you can demand respect; you have to earn it. Consistent acts of kindness on any scale go a long way towards cultivating close relationships, and those relationships matter more than everything else in this life. Based on our relationship, I think you already know that.

I couldn’t be more proud of you or love you more, J.J. And when you walk across that stage tomorrow, I’ll be in your cheering section, just like I always am, fighting off tears and the urge to yell, “Covfefe!”

It was a smooth and dignified transition, unlike my nephew's shift from first gear to second.

Me and the graduate two years ago, cultivating closeness when I gave him my car.

 

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.

It’s not Easter without my Peeps.

I describe the child-free aunt experience as “all the joy of grand-parenting without the hassle of parenthood.” I don’t punish the niece and nephews, I’ve never had to conduct potty training, and none of my siblings has been foolish enough to put me in charge of a “Birds and Bees” talk. Yet. But every now and then, I get sucked into performing a distinctly parental function.

In 2013, for example, I took my niece to her cheerleading competition in Virginia Beach when her mother and father claimed to be on a trip in the Dominican Republic (I suspected they were really just in Fairfax, wandering the aisles of Wegmans, but I never could prove it). In 2014, I gave my eldest nephew lessons in driving stick shift. And just a few weekends ago, I wound up deep in the arts and crafts trenches with my nephew Timothy, suffering an acute attack of Science Fair Project Syndrome (“SFPS”).

I could blame my sister Lynne for inflicting SFPS on me, but in truth, it was my mother’s fault. I had gone to my parents’ house to cook dinner one Saturday night. I knew Timothy didn’t have plans, so I’d told Lynne to bring him over if he wanted to come. Not only did he want to, but he showed up with an overnight bag so he could come back to my house for a sleepover afterwards. I was thrilled, even though there hadn’t been time to plan the sort of special activity that’s the hallmark of my niece/nephew Date Nights.

When I mentioned this to Timothy, he said, “Too bad we can’t make another gingerbread house.”

Our last gingerbread house had gone entirely too well, so I’d have loved a chance to redeem myself and was about to say so when my mother said, “Hey, what about the Peeps?”

I knew Mom meant the Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest. Timothy, a connoisseur of both sugary treats and slapstick, was all over it. Mom, Timothy and I brainstormed while we washed dishes. By the time Timothy and I settled on the idea of depicting a typical D.C. black-tie gala and calling it “Dancing Peep to Peep,” it was already 7:30 p.m. I had plans to leave town by 9 the next morning and the contest deadline was Monday. The realization that we had less than 14 hours in total to complete the project brought on the first stirrings of SFPS, an intense panic caused by extreme deficiencies in time, materials, and expertise.

Mom recognized the signs right away, having survived dozens of bouts with SFPS herself, and tried to help. She ran to the basement and returned with a Nordstrom box. Its fold-up lid offered the makings of a ballroom floor and a back wall. Timothy and I grabbed the box, hightailed it out of my parents’ house, and headed to Target, making a mental shopping list as we went.

I should note here that Timothy and I are not arts and crafts people. We derive no joy from working with glue at any temperature. Months ago I wrote that if you were to create a Fantasy Christmas Decorating League and draft players from my family, I would get picked last. This is true, but only if we limit the team to adults. If we expand it to include minors, I would get drafted just ahead of Timothy, and neither of us would put our team in any danger of hitting a salary cap.

Timothy and I arrived at Target half an hour before the 9 p.m. closing, knowing we needed Peeps, materials to cover the dance floor, and glue. Timothy solved the dance floor problem when he spotted rolls of patterned tape in the school supplies aisle.

Pointing to a roll of 1/2″-wide blue tape that featured a very busy white pattern, he said, “That looks like the carpet at cotillion.” Timothy isn’t cotillion people, either, and his remark confirmed what I’ve long suspected: he spends most of his time looking at the rug. But it was a brilliant choice as dance floor coverings go.

Being long on vision and short on realism, Timothy and I thought we could jazz up the ballroom by adding columns and making a ceiling from which to hang a disco ball. (Your better art revolves around a disco ball. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, a disco ball is always involved.) We found no suitable column materials at Target. I promised him we’d find something at my house, though I had my doubts. My home is full of things that come in handy when you want to hit the Pinot Grigio, not the Pinterest. 

By 9:15 p.m., diorama construction had begun. I handed the dance floor tape to Timothy and he went to work. I watched as he lavished on the diorama a level of attention his math homework will never see. But even with his heightened focus, the “carpet” had been laid down in a way that might make you question the sobriety of the installer.  Timo

Those who’ve suffered from SFPS know this is precisely when one of its most vexing symptoms –a powerful urge to take over the project–manifests, emanating from a deep desire to win and/or get at least 2 hours of sleep. I tried to keep it at bay by going off in search of column materials. I opened a closet, spotted several wire dry cleaner hangers and realized the white cardboard cylinders around the base of the hangers would work perfectly.

I returned to the kitchen, hangers in hand.  Moments later, one of those hangers was really in hand: I sustained a flesh wound while separating the cardboard cylinders from the hangers. As I bled copiously on our project and scanned the kitchen for tourniquet materials, I abandoned the idea of columns. 

Just then, Timothy said, “How will we split the prize, Aunt Wheat?” I had no answer, focused as I was on having split my thumb. 

I got Timothy’s consent to revise our architectural plans. We agreed to concentrate on the details that would make the project special, or at least funny. I made a mini disco ball from a wad of tinfoil and we suspended it from a string of tiny LED lights we’d found at Target. We added a DJ Peep who wore  headphones, which we made by cutting two small circles out of my Jambox case and connecting them with the loopy wire from a wine glass charm. (I had plenty of those to spare.) 

We made “records” out of furniture pads. DJ Dr PeepAnd, because women always outnumber men in DC, we added a wallflower peep, hanging out next to a planter o’ jellybeans.

We quit at 11 p.m. and returned to the job site 8 hours later. 

I had felt we should clothe the Peeps, though a literal interpretation of “strictly black tie” had its appeal. With no time to get fabric, we devised outfits from some heavy-duty, patterned construction paper I happened to have. The patterns added some pizazz but the paper was rather rigid, making the female Peeps look like they’re wearing fashion cowbells. 

We did what we could and then I headed out of town. As I prepared to submit our entry after work the next day, I was seized by a powerful perfectionistic urge, the most painful symptom of SFPS by far. I tried to subdue it but could not resist adding back panels to two Peep dresses that lacked them. (Never mind that most black-tie events would benefit from a good, old-fashioned mooning.) I snapped photos of our work, uploaded them to the Post site, and clicked “submit.”Peep to Peep

The winners were announced this week. If only the Post had included a “sprint” category, we might have made it onto the podium. But Timothy and I had so much fun, I bet we’ll do it again next year, assuming I’ve recovered from my SFPS by then. 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I said, “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

If Mothers Know Best, What the Heck Does a Childless Aunt Know?

Two days after officiating my friends’ wedding, I hopped on a plane for Atlanta.

My brother and his wife live in the suburbs there and welcomed their son, Baby C, just four weeks ago. Since they already have a two year-old boy, B, running around, I figured they could use an extra set of hands around the house.

I was right.  My hands have been put to immediate use here at Camp Wipe Me, where I currently serve as Deputy Toddler Wrangler and Backup Infant Handler. (As far as I can tell, the only qualifications for this job are opposable thumbs and willingness to buy a plane ticket.)

B and I have spent some quality time together over the past two years, so I was excited to have another chance to hang out with him.  I was surprised to learn that the kid now speaks in complete sentences. Of course, most of them are incomprehensible thanks to my brother’s belief that there’s no need to talk down to toddlers. Two of my nephew’s recent words of the day are “unorthodox” and “excavator.”

But this morning, my conversation with B didn’t include any exotic words and instead centered on my suitcase. He noticed that it was empty.  I explained that, since I was staying awhile, I had unpacked all of my clothes and put them in a chest of drawers. B is a firm believer in “trust, but verify,” so he headed straight to the dresser.

He opened the drawers as fast as he could and started pulling out random articles of clothes.  And then he began to put them on.  All of them.  At once.  He was clad simultaneously in a pair of my shorts, capri pants and a skirt before Daddy showed up and ruined the fun.

When I mentioned this episode to my mother, she said, “Why didn’t you take a picture?” I would have if I could have, trust me, but I had my hands full trying to get Tootsie to put my pants on one leg at a time.

Since I last spent time with him, B has also become a devotee of scatology.  As I changed him this morning, he yelled, “I wanna see it!”

That makes one of us, kid.

Anyway, my hands don’t have a whole lot of non-work time to type at the moment, so I’m blogging less. (Hey, at least it’s a new excuse.)  But I will be back here on Sunday. It happens to be Dad’s birthday, so the Camp Wipe Me inmates and I will be posting a special tribute.

Don’t worry, everything’s under control.

 

 

 

Letting go of love…it’s a white-knuckle experience

Few things are harder than letting go of a true love. I know, because I just did it.

A few weeks ago, I was forced to end a relationship that had been a source of stability and almost never caused me stress. I had to end it even though we were both content and nothing was wrong.

Because I’d known from day one that this relationship, wonderful though it was, couldn’t last forever, I had a long time to prepare for the end.  But that still didn’t make it any easier.  You never really know what goodbye will feel like until the moment is upon you.

And when the moment came, I felt like sobbing.

Somehow I managed to hold back my tears as I handed the keys to my blue, 2004 six-speed Acura RSX Type-S to my nephew, who had just gotten his learner’s permit.  I had no idea that letting go would be so hard when I promised the car to J.J. a decade earlier.  (Promises are easy to make when the probability and date of execution both seem remote.)

Oh, the places we’d gone, that little blue car and I.  It took me to Hilton Head and back to visit a long-distance boyfriend.  It helped a dear friend race to the hospital to see his father, who’d just had a stroke. It made dozens of trips to fields and gyms across Virginia to watch various family sporting events. It held my belongings when I decided to leave my husband and the Yuppie Prison in July of 2011.  That car was the one thing that felt a little bit normal as the rest of my life was falling apart around me.

When I moved in with my sister and her family that summer, I carted my seven and nine year-old Roommates all over the place in my two-door delight. They always sat in the incredibly cramped backseat and couldn’t get out unless I pressed a lever that pushed the front seat forward a few inches. They soon realized that, if they wrapped their arms around the passenger seat while I pressed the lever, they could shoot forward with the seat, a game they loved.  Sometimes I launched them five or six times before we even left the driveway.  Once we got going, we would sing pop atrocities like “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz at the top of our lungs.  When I think back to that summer, happy memories of these sing-along ride-alongs crowd out the misery of extricating myself from a terrible marriage.

But after ten years, the time had come for me and my car to set each other free.

Just before dusk a few Sundays ago, I drove my eldest nephew to a large, deserted, and hilly church parking lot.  After I parked the car and shut off the ignition, we switched places. It took me more than a few minutes to adjust to the view from the passenger seat, a role I wasn’t used to.

As we buckled our seatbelts, I realized I had given no thought whatsoever to how to teach stick shift to J.J.  (We childless aunts aren’t usually entrusted with teaching nieces and nephews anything other than curse words.) My mind raced back to the two-phase approach that had been used when I learned how to drive stick at age 23.

Phase one consisted of a very brief lesson administered by my father in the Lake Braddock Secondary School parking lot. After I’d managed to get the car in gear and moving forward successfully twice, he pronounced me ready to hit the road.  I disproved the pronouncement almost immediately by stalling four times in a row. On a hill. In traffic.  After the fourth stall, I came unglued, yanked the emergency brake, stormed out of the car, and yelled, “YOU DRIVE! I’M WALKING HOME!”

Phase two was conducted a few days later by my nineteen year-old brother.  Perhaps because he hadn’t expected to find himself in a teaching role, his instruction consisted of one sentence: “It’s like walking in slow-motion: as you put your left foot down on the clutch, you lift your right foot off of the gas, and then reverse it.”  If my brother was short on advice, he was long on patience, so eventually I got it.

At the risk of depriving my nephew of an important educational experience, I decided that we could skip phase one and go straight to phase two.  I passed down my brother’s one-sentence pearl of wisdom and hoped it would be enough. I felt surprisingly calm, considering that neither J.J. nor I knew what we were doing.

Right away, J.J. stalled, as most people do when learning to drive stick.  Three or four additional stalls allowed me to diagnose the problem. “Give it more gas,” I said, my Zen state undisturbed.

The stalling continued. I decided to try coaching J.J. while he was in the process of shifting.

“Gas,” I said, calmly. He gave it a little more juice, but I knew we were still on the brink. “Gas,” I said again, the prospect of another stall becoming imminent.  I started to lose my Zen and began repeating that one word, increasing the speed and volume of my speech until I could have passed for a World Cup commentator.

Five solid minutes of “Gas…gas…gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” must have done the trick, because pretty soon, J.J. got it.

We spent another half hour in the parking lot executing all sorts of maneuvers, only a few of which sent me lurching forward in the seat like a cat in the throes of a hairball.  I decided we were ready to take on the streets of Arlington.

“Just remember two things, J.J.,” I said. “Rule number one: stay calm. Rule number two: gas. Gas gas gas gas gas.”

And we were off.  For the next forty-five minutes, my nephew drove well and uneventfully, stalling only once and recovering right away.  We decided to head back home. I thought we were in the clear until an aggressive driver tailgated and then passed my nephew on a one-lane road a few blocks from my house.

J.J. was rattled, which I realized only as he was pulling the car into the driveway.  My driveway is a flat surface except for the concrete apron that leads to it. That apron, which rises two inches at its peak, might as well have been Mount Everest. J.J. stalled once. Twice. Three times.

After the fourth, I caught a whiff of an unfamiliar odor. It smelled vaguely like formaldehyde, a scent I associate more with funeral homes than driveways. It took me a second to realize the stench emanated from my burning clutch.  Suddenly the funeral connection seemed apropos. Tears sprang to my eyes and I resorted to mouth-breathing.

“Oh my GOD, Aunt Wheat. I can’t do it,” J.J. said, making me fear that we might end up going through phase one after all.  I couldn’t let it happen.

I grabbed the emergency brake and put the car in neutral.

“Don’t worry, pal,” I said.  “You’re totally okay. I know that guy threw you off, but you did absolutely nothing wrong, except you forgot rule number one.  Which is…?”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “Stay calm,” he said, only it came out as, “Steh hahm,” because his teeth were gritted.

“And rule number two?”

“Gas,” he said.  He paused for a split second and then added, “Gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” in his best World Cup Announcer voice.  We cracked up.

When we got ahold of ourselves, I said, “Okay, give it another shot.”  This time, he remained calm. And boy, did he ever remember to give it gas. We rocketed into the driveway so fast I thought we might break the sound barrier, or at least the gate to my backyard.

After a hearty laugh and a change of underwear, my nephew and I agreed that, even if we didn’t go all that far, we had definitely turned a corner together.

It was as smooth and dignified transition as my nephew’s shift from first gear to second.