Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An hour later, we had arrived at Hopkins.

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

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

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

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

Writing hangovers, embedded aunt-ing, and other excuses for a nearly post-free month

Posting every day in August left me with a writing hangover, which is one of two reasons you haven’t been seeing much from me (though I did write another piece for washingtonpost.com, so I’m gonna count that). Family travel is the other.

I spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, visiting my brother, sister-in-law, and my two youngest nephews. Things have changed a lot since last summer, when I embedded for a couple of weeks at Camp Wipe Me. Baby C was an infant at the time. Now he’s 14 months old and walking with an alarming degree of both confidence and oblivion.

B is three. He continues to wow me with his expansive vocabulary—his verbal prowess really shines when he’s in the bathroom, a place from which he has delivered many a thoughtful soliloquy– his inexhaustible curiosity, and his tireless tirelessness. The Camp Wipe Me wardens manage on their own just fine, but since the job demands the negotiation skills of Henry Kissinger and the stamina of the Energizer Bunny, they always appreciate an extra set of hands.

Two weeks later, I was in Richmond, helping Mom hold down the fort at my sister Suzi’s house. (After 11 years of marriage, Suzi and her husband finally decided to take a honeymoon trip. I’m all in favor of delayed gratification, but if I’d waited so much as 11 months to go on my honeymoon, I’d have missed out on the highlight of my marriage.) The fort’s other occupants included three boys, ages 10, 15 and 16, and two portly beagle-ish hounds. In short, Mom and I were surrounded by hairy creatures who would pee anywhere if you let them. Unlike B and C, these boys had no need for an entertainer or supervisor, they just needed an Uber driver with basic cooking skills.

Based on my stints in both locations, I’ve observed a few things:

  • No matter the ages of the boys, you expend most of your energy in the same two areas: food and sleep. When it comes to food, you struggle to get the toddlers to eat enough of what’s on the table to keep them going. With teenagers, you struggle to put enough food on the table to keep them going. And you must always remember that both categories of boys will consider eating what’s on the floor. Toddlers see it as a first resort and teenagers a last, but it remains an option for both, making this the one area where the dogs can add serious value. Sleep offers another study in contrasts: with toddlers, you have to coax them to get into the bed and stay there, whereas teenagers have to be coaxed out of it.
  • Embedding with the kids is a huge privilege. Being there for the day-to-day, as opposed to a special occasion, presents a natural opportunity to gain all sorts of little insights into who they are. During a quick trip in the car, you might overhear conversations about girls they like, classes they hate, and who they follow on Instagram. When you pack their lunches, you learn about their food quirks, not to mention their sense of humor. As Mom and I were packing lunches for the teenagers on the first day of our stay, my mother, who can be as wickedly funny as she is sweet, said, “You should cut their sandwiches in the shape of hearts.” It was a diabolical idea and I loved it. Being the stellar aunt that I am, though, I decided my amusement might not be worth their long-term psychological trauma. I grabbed a tiny post-it note, wrote, “I almost cut this in the shape of a heart. You’re welcome,” and stuck it to the bags that held their sandwiches. To my and Mom’s surprise, the boys thought it was hilarious, and so did their friends. My eldest nephew, J.J., even saved the note, so I wrote a new one every day.
  • Sometimes the kids you embed with end up taking care of you. When I lived with my sister Lynne and her family during my divorce, my niece and nephew, aka the Roommates, kept a constant eye on me. My nine year-old niece joined me as I went out to buy laundry hampers and other nits I needed for my new life in her basement. Her sunny disposition converted a dreaded shopping trip to one of my favorite memories from that time. My seven year-old nephew, a kid whose gift for sarcasm kept him in constant danger of not making it to eight, showed incredible sensitivity when it came to my emotions. I tried to conceal my sadness, but my failure would reveal itself as a look of concern in his huge blue eyes or a drive-by, ostensibly random, hug. He didn’t have to understand my pain for it to be his pain. Realizing that he was suffering for me steeled my resolve to focus on the abundant good in my life instead of my misery. When I was in Richmond just a few days ago, J.J. and I landed on the topic of relationships while I was cooking dinner. I offered a bit of advice and then said, “On the other hand, what do I know? I’ve screwed up in all kinds of ways.” I expected him to say, “I know, right?” since he witnessed my marital debacle up close. Instead, he said, “That’s not how it looks to me. It seems like you always get it right.” The tear that came to my eye had nothing to do with the onions I’d just chopped and everything to do with this kid’s unwavering faith in me. He doesn’t care whether I made the wrong decision by getting married, he just knows I made the right one by leaving. It’s an honor to have that kid’s back, and to know that he’s behind me.
Luckily the Grinch and the sock monkey don't eat very much.

Fortunately, everyone in this photo is housebroken.

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)

 

 

 

 

How do you make 45,000 people all feel special at once? Just ask Taylor Swift.

Last Tuesday night, I was on my feet at Nats Park in D.C., shake-shake-shaking it off with Taylor Swift and 45,000 of my closest friends. Those who know me well were surprised, well aware that I’m not exactly a Taylor Swift fan.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire the way she’s evolved. Instead of spending her whole career cranking out the countrified confections that got her started as a teen, she peered over the edge of the country pier and then chose to take a flying leap off of it, doing a world-class cannonball into the waters of pop music. And her lyrics show flashes of incredible insight. Take, for example, the words to a song like “We are Never Getting Back Together”:

I remember when we broke up the first time
Saying, “This is it, I’ve had enough,” ’cause like
We hadn’t seen each other in a month
When you said you needed space. (What?)
Then you come around again and say
“Baby, I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change, trust me.”
Remember how that lasted for a day?
I say, “I hate you,” we break up, you call me, “I love you.”
Ooh, we called it off again last night
But ooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you
We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together
Like, ever…

She nails both the irrational magnetism of a yo-yo relationship (not that I know anything about that, ahem) and the comical petulance of a twenty-something experiencing it. And we all know that “never ever ever” talks a good game but tends to lose its nerve when it really counts.

Great lyrics and impressive achievements aside, I’ve never felt motivated to spend a dime on Swift’s music, so you might be wondering how and why I wound up with a concert ticket. The how is simple, if undignified: I finagled one from my twelve year-old niece, Emily.

She’d gotten five tickets as a birthday present from her parents. My sister Lynne planned to bring their family of four and let Emily invite one friend, or perhaps a few friends if my nephew and/or brother-in-law opted not to go. No mention of aunts was made. Yet that didn’t stop me and my sister Suzi — also a Swift agnostic– from throwing our hats into the ring unbidden, like your average Republican presidential candidate. Unlike your average Republican presidential candidate, however, Suzi and I at least showed some respect for the fact that we faced long odds. Instead of making complete nuisances and spectacles of ourselves, we waged a persistent, but polite and subtle, campaign. And it worked. (Hellooooooooo, Republicans.)

Why were Suzi and I dying to subject ourselves to hours of ear-splitting tween screams over an artist whose music we don’t love? It had nothing to do with Taylor Swift and everything to do with wanting to see Emily’s unadulterated joy for ourselves. The kid was so fired up about the concert, we wouldn’t have cared had the headliner been William Shatner (though that would have prompted me to call Child Protective Services on Lynne). I had a second reason: as a child-free aunt, I rarely get to witness kid “firsts,” and I wasn’t about to let this one pass me by.

So last Tuesday night, our group of five –Lynne, Suzi, Emily, Emily’s pal and I –arrived at Nats Park at 7 p.m., the concert’s official start time. We donned the thick, white, plastic wristbands the staff had handed us and took our time getting to our seats. The bands contained LED lights programmed to Swift’s set list, and we’d heard she wouldn’t start until 9:30, when full darkness had descended.

We got our first pleasant surprise when Swift appeared onstage at 8:30. Forecasts she described as “aggressive” led her to brave sub-optimal LED conditions so her fans could have the Complete Experience. And once the show got underway, oh, did we ever have the Complete Experience. Emily and her friend danced as if in the throes of electrocution, belting out every song with tonsil-baring gusto. My sisters and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Swift herself was the next pleasant surprise. That relatable quality in her lyrics extends to her performance style, too. For all her pop princess polish –she didn’t sneeze without an assist from a phalanx of male dancers, and she wore more outfits in two hours than I’ve worn in two years–she comes across in song as someone who bumbles her way through heartbreak and rejection as gracelessly as the rest of us. She may have her act together, but she’s still a hot mess.

And then there were those wristbands. They blinked and delighted fans all night, but one moment near the end of the show embedded itself in my memory. As Swift commented that a lot of performers look out from the stage and see only darkness, every wristband lit up in blue, an eloquent acknowledgement of her fans as collective and individuals. She looked around and said, “I see all of you, including you, all the way at the top over there,” with what sounded like genuine appreciation.

Strange as it may sound, I didn’t want the concert to end. But when it did, I walked away feeling big like for Taylor Swift and an ache not in my ears but in my face, from smiling.

taylor swift

My LED bracelet stayed all lit up and happy long after the concert, much like its wearer.

Gifted and Talent-less

When I lived with my sister and her family last year, doing fun stuff for my niece and nephew (aka the “roommates”) on holidays was a piece of cake.  Now it requires a little more thought and planning.  I’m good at the first but less competent at the second.

While driving to my sister’s house for bus duty last week, which I do every other Thursday, I realized I would miss Valentine’s Day with the kids this year.  If I wanted to do something fun for them in person, I had to act fast.

I stopped at the grocery store (as I do always do to pick up the ritual Skinny Cow ice cream treats and pizza fixins) and decided to look for inspiration there, even though I knew it was an unlikely source.

The seasonal aisle, packed floor to ceiling with red boxes of chocolatey, sugary goodness, was a dentist’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. While I believe it’s my job as an aunt to educate the kids in the classics, my sister might not have forgiven me if I’d picked this year to introduce them to the wonder of the Whitman’s Sampler.

My eyes continued to scan the shelves for something that wouldn’t require a Ritalin antidote and landed on these.

The stuffed animals met my lofty standards– “within arm’s reach and under $10”–  so I grabbed them and drove to the bus stop.

I set the dog in the front seat, where my ten year-old niece sits, and the bear in the back for my eight year-old nephew. I could hardly wait for my roommates to find their Valentine’s Day surprises, so much so that I told them some goodies awaited as we walked the short distance from the bus stop to my car.

They were surprised, all right.

“You got us these last year,” Timothy said.

I smacked my forehead, finding no solace in the fact that my taste in Valentine’s Day gifts was at least consistent.

Emily tried to make me feel better.  “It’s okay, Wheatie Bo, Timothy and I can trade.” I was starting to perk up until she added, “Besides, Mommy made us pack up the ones from last year anyway.”

Apparently consistency does not guarantee quality when it comes to gift taste.

Emily’s comment struck a blow to my pride but I recovered the instant I realized the stuffed animals could still be put to good use.

“Guys, I have an idea,” I said. They were all eyes and ears.  “Let’s give ‘em to Mommy and Daddy.”  The kids thought this was a grand plan.  As soon as we got home, we displayed the gifts on the kitchen counter, where they would be seen as soon as Lynne walked through the door.  And then we waited in eager anticipation of my sister’s reaction to our double dog re-gift.

Lynne showed up just after five.  The look on her face as she laid eyes on the stuffed animals was priceless, as was her awkward, “Oh…wow… That was really nice of you, Wheatie Bo.”

Timothy cracked right away. “No it wasn’t, Mom.  She gave ‘em to us first, but we already had ‘em.”  Clearly the kid still has a thing or two to learn about proper execution of a practical joke.

But I know he’s in very good hands, because my sister responded without missing a beat, “Let’s wrap ‘em up and give ‘em to Nano and Granddad.”

My sister and I are two fruits who didn’t fall far from the family tree.  If I know my parents, before the week is out these five dollar tchotchkes will have made it all the way to my brother in Atlanta.