Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Happy 50th to my sister Suzi, a perpetual high-flier

My sister Suzi turns 50 on June 26, a milestone I find hard to grasp. Empirical evidence that Suzi really is that old abounds, such as her son graduating high school a few weeks ago, but my mind’s eye still sees my eldest sister in her lavender oasis of a room in our childhood home, putting on her soccer uniform, diligently practicing the clarinet, or picking out the perfectly on-point outfits that led Dad to call her “Fashion Plate.” Maybe I’ve trapped my image of Suzi in her formative years like a bug in amber because I refuse to accept my own aging, but I think it’s also because her formative years left a huge impression on me, too.

I have long joked about Suzi’s first-born perfection, but she really does excel at nearly everything she attempts. A trait like consistently high performance — Suzi’s report cards showed up with A’s slathered all over them like peanut butter on bread– could have bred resentment and rebellion in us younger siblings, who suffered through countless teachers calling roll for the first time and saying, “Oh, you’re Suzi’s sister?” They gushed those two syllables in a way you just knew meant, “I wonder if angelic near-perfection runs in the family?”

With a last name like Yankosky, trying to claim I belonged to some other clan was pointless, so my choices were to try to rise to the occasion, or to recalibrate the teachers’ standards by stinking up the joint. I chose Door #1, not because I’m high-minded but because I thought Door #2 would get me thrown out of the house. My sister Lynne and my brother, L.J., made similar choices, possibly for similar reasons. As I watched Suzi ace elementary, middle, and high school in rapid succession, ultimately landing herself at the University of Virginia, I saw that academic achievement didn’t just make you a nerd or your parents happy (though it accomplished both of those things); it opened doors. Whether or not my sister meant to, she set an example that was so powerful and positive, I couldn’t help but want to go down a similar path.

Over the years I realized that example transcends academics and comes down not to what my sister does but who she is. To commemorate Suzi’s five decades on Earth, I’ve decided to share five of the most enduring things I’ve learned from her:

  • Talent is nice, but it’s no substitute for hard work. My sister may have inherited some musical ability from my father, who used to bring down the house with renditions of exciting accordion hits like “Lady of Spain” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” (Dad played with some reluctance– generally a very redeeming quality in an accordion player –but when he did play, he was great and we loved it.) So maybe Suzi had a bit of a musical head start, but that didn’t make her first chair of Lake Braddock’s Symphonic Band and one of the best players in the state; the constant desire to improve her skills, along with the hours and hours she spent practicing up in her room, got her there. Those things also got the door to her room shut quite frequently because, no matter how good somebody is, the human ear can only withstand so much unfiltered clarinet. But closed door or not, I saw that consistent hard work is what it takes to get really, really good at something.
  • Don’t look for shortcuts. My sister does things right, even if she has to slow down to do it. She has patience and an ability to stay focused on details that I lack. If the two of us are asked to decorate 150 cupcakes to look like miniature American flags, all 150 of hers will look exactly the same and will feature delicate stripes and tiny icing stars coaxed lovingly from a pastry bag. I, by contrast, will crank out one, maybe two decent-looking cupcakes –fraternal twins at best– before the stars resemble an icing sneeze and the stripes an EKG readout. I then will declare, “This s&^t’s for the birds,” drive to the nearest grocery store, and buy a box of pre-decorated cupcakes topped with toothpick flags.
  • Be generous. Suzi was always better than the rest of us at sharing, maybe because she, unlike me and Lynne, didn’t have to deal with some other sibling coming along and taking over half of her room. Whatever the reason, my sister is unfailingly generous with every resource she has, whether it’s her time, cash, creativity, or encouragement. Need cupcakes for a school event, a birthday, or because it’s Tuesday? Suzi will make them, and, as I mentioned, they will be perfect. Launching a book? Suzi will drive four hours on a school night with her entire family in tow to rally behind you. (She will later drop your book into a sewer, but that early show of support enables you to overlook such minor lapses.)
  • Always take care of your team. Suzi sometimes watched us kids for short stretches when we were little. She never seemed to mind, perhaps because it cemented her place in my parents’ succession plan but more likely because she just enjoyed taking care of us and helping. (With an ethos like that, there was no way she was going to become the lawyer in the family.) We mainly liked it when Suzi was in charge — she was far more benevolent than our usual overlords –and she usually did a great job at it. I say “usually” because there was that time she took her eye off of my brother for all of ten seconds, during which he managed to crash into the concrete and split his his forehead open like a ripe banana. But hey, he needed to be toughened up. The point is, my sister likes to take care of people and, as any member of Team Yank will tell you, she’s really good at it. That attribute has also made her a great manager in the business world, where thus far her employees’ foreheads remain intact. As far as we know.

Last week, the entire Yank clan was in the Outer Banks for a few days, so we seized the chance to sneak in a surprise 50th celebration for Suzi, too. You know those planes that fly up and down the shore, trailing giant banners encouraging you to “Buy one shirt, Get 14 Hermit Crabs Free at T-Shirt Emporium”?

Well, we hired one to fly past with a banner that said, “Happy 50th Birthday, Suzi!! Team Yank loves you!”

Yep, Sooz, we sure do. Happy 50th birthday to a sister for whom they sky’s the limit.
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Forget living la vida loca, I’ll take pura vida every time

I rarely need to set an alarm for important morning meetings, because my racing mind usually wakes me up hours early. But last Thursday was different. I had a really big appointment first thing, and I was pretty sure I was going to get a raise out of it, so I set an alarm to be on the safe side. Good thing I did, because it roused me from a deep slumber when it went off at 5:30.

I got ready by putting on not a business suit but a bathing suit. And instead of a notepad and paper, I grabbed a pair of goggles as I rushed out the door. By 5:45, I was standing on a south-facing beach and preparing to swim toward the sun as it began its ascent over the horizon, which happened to be the Pacific Ocean. The water and air temps both hovered in the mid-80s, resulting in a seamless transition from land to ocean. I got past the first set of breakers and settled in for a longish swim. I alternated my breathing every few strokes, turning my head to the left to monitor my distance from the shore and to the right to watch for swells behind me. During one of those right-side breaths, a line of pelicans –my favorite birds — flew right next to me, wings spread wide as they buzzed the top of the water. As I went on, I dove and bobbed when I needed to, reveling in the waves but mindful that the ocean could clobber me pretty much any time it chose.

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The camera couldn’t capture the glorious shades of pink and purple that I swam towards every morning.

Every now and then I lifted my head out of the water to keep tabs on the sun. I watched in awe as the sky mixed shades of orange, red, purple and pink to produce color schemes I thought existed only on airbrushed T-shirts. About fifteen minutes into my swim, I stopped and began to tread water so I could savor those last few moments as the sun climbed above the horizon. Then, I swam into shore and walked back to the hotel, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back. This had become my routine during my week-long stay in a little surf town on the west coast of Costa Rica, and though it didn’t give me the kind of raise that fattened my wallet, it made my spirits soar every single time.

When I got in the water for my final swim there on Thursday morning, a wave of emotions washed over me. I felt the simple, perfect exhilaration of immersing in nature. I was in reverence of my surroundings and aware of my teeny, tiny, fleeting role in the grand scheme of things. I experienced a potent longing, verging on greed, to freeze this scene and the sensations it produced so I could access them on demand. But most of all, I felt profound gratitude. The people of Costa Rica would fold all of these emotions into one simple phrase: pura vida. The literal translation is “pure life,” but it conveys far more than that. It’s a greeting, a philosophy, an invitation to seek joy in simple things, and a reminder to appreciate whatever you have.

I’d been sorely in need of a big dose of pura vida when I decided weeks ago to join my friend Philippa and three of her pals on their annual surf trip to Costa Rica. The human psyche, like a garage, just seems to collect junk, so it behooves you to clean it out every now and then. But no one looks forward to that job, especially if you’ve got the equivalent of a Bowflex collecting dust in a corner. Since my divorce in 2012–arguably the last time I really cleaned the joint –I’ve collected plenty of useless emotional clutter that impedes my path to things I need and want in my life, like making space for my writing, or for a partner. It was time for a purge.

I’ve always done my best mental housecleaning at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Something about the rustic surroundings and ties to my fondest family memories always makes me feel centered and grounded. But I was in no mood to wait for warm weather to roll around, so I seized the Costa Rica opportunity instead. As proof of how badly I needed to get away, I bought a plane ticket without even knowing exactly where we were going. Philippa had always referred to their surf town as a “special place,” which I hoped would be close enough to what I needed.

Turns out I hadn’t gotten my hopes up nearly high enough.

Our beachfront hotel (if that’s even the right word for a place that feels as friendly and welcoming as my own home) sat amid lush greenery that’s tended but not overly manicured. Hammocks nestled between palm and almond trees practically begged us to leave the beach and take a nap. My room featured a wraparound porch I called “the office,” but no phones rang there. I heard only the soothing roar of waves pounding the beach, the squawk of scarlet macaws in the boughs above, and the occasional startling “bonk” of an almond dropping from a tree onto the tin roof of my bungalow. My thoughts could roam wherever they wanted, uninterrupted.

The office, where I never minded keeping long hours.

The office, where I never minded keeping long hours.

Clearly the surroundings were conducive to achieving inner calm, but that wasn’t enough: I needed the right company, too. I wanted the same kind of easy companionship my family used to provide, and I found it in Philippa’s friends. I’d spent some time with two of the three amigos during Philippa’s breast cancer ordeal. The way they nurtured my friend’s spirits had long ago earned them my abiding affection and gratitude. I took an instant like to the third, a writer from Philly who seems to find as much joy in coming up with the right words as the right wave.

All three of the amigos made me, the lone non-surfer, feel like part of the tribe. As my family used to do, they kept an eye out for me but never hovered. They seemed to enjoy watching me take off for a swim, and I loved coming in to shore to watch them surf. No one cared whether we all played in the water at the same time or went off to do our own thing: we knew we’d catch up to compare our days eventually. When we did, the three amigos never failed to crack me up, give me food for thought, and make me smile. And thanks to them, I now understand what it means to be “goofy footed.” I left Costa Rica Thursday morning feeling lighter in every way imaginable.

I’m not unhappy to be home, but I already miss the place where my days moved to the beat of nature, where I swam my way to the sun, and where stars coated the night sky like a dusting of powdered sugar and glitter. Most of all, I miss being there with Philippa and the three amigos. Here’s hoping I brought some of that pura vida back with me.

You’ve come a long way, Baby.

I view beaches much in the same way I do wine: I’ll take anything I’m offered and accept it with gratitude, but I definitely have strong preferences.

I like a beach that isn’t overly commercial and doesn’t have a boardwalk.  And I want it to have real, pounding surf that doesn’t care what it looks like when it lands, not those tidy little waves that are so prissy and timid they practically ask for permission to come ashore.

Just how I like it: Foamy, frothy and wild.

I owe my taste in beaches to my family’s summer vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  We spent a week there every summer when I was a kid, starting when I was five or six.  In those days, the Banks were pretty darned rustic.  The beach provided our entertainment, and it was more than enough.

During the day, we rode the waves in inner tubes, bodysurfed, and made sand castles.  At night, we strolled the sand with a flashlight and a net to catch the crabs that sometimes rolled in with the tide.  And we’d go to bed to the sound of those messy, roaring waves.  We loved it there, and it’s always felt like home to me.

When I decided to go away to write this weekend, I headed straight for the Banks.

For maximum inspirational effect, I splurged and booked an oceanfront room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk.   That felt a little strange to me because, when I was a kid, Kitty Hawk didn’t even have a chain hotel, much less a five-story one. Not that we’d ever have stayed in a place like that, anyway.  A friend of my father’s owned a beach house in the Outer Banks and that’s where we tended to spend our vacations.

Actually, let me back up, because “house” is a bit of an overstatement.

The Beach Baby, as the house was known, began her life as a two-car garage that belonged to the home next door. Cars, like people, were skinnier back then, so this garage wasn’t one of those 22 foot-wide jobs that you see today. Nor did it have extra space for bikes, or woodworking, or any other garage frivolities.  It was built for one purpose: to house two cars.

Eventually, someone whose real estate vision was at least 20/20 came along and saw that it would make great sense to convert the oceanfront garage into an oceanfront house.  This person understood that some changes would be needed to make the structure habitable, seeing as how people’s and cars’ needs for indoor plumbing sometimes differ.

He started by adding a full bathroom.  That’s also where he stopped, because there was no need to go off on some crazy square footage binge.

Into the two-car garage with a bathroom, the visionary then packed a fridge, a small counter and four-burner stove, a table and chairs, a set of bunk beds, two twin beds, a full bed, and a dresser.

If you’re trying to picture the sleeping configuration and asking yourself how in the world all five beds fit into the space of a one-car garage, the answer is: they didn’t.  The full bed was in the kitchen.

This offered a certain convenience, especially for the kind of person who wakes up at 2 a.m. craving yesterday’s potato salad but doesn’t feel like leaving the bed to get it.

The full bed also boasted a short commute to the bathroom, though you couldn’t get there just by sitting up.  You had to walk up a couple of steps near the foot of the bed.  Those steps weren’t placed there for aesthetic effect, they were a necessity so the bathroom door could be opened without smacking into the kitchen bed.

(Before you get too impressed by the way the Beach Baby raised the efficiency concept to new heights, I have to tell you she was a real inefficiency, time-wise.  With six people and only one bathroom, someone had to be showering at every waking moment if we had any hopes of going out to dinner before midnight. The people-to-bathroom ratio also meant that bodily functions weren’t mandates so much as requests that you did your best to honor, assuming you could find a four-minute window when someone wasn’t in the shower.)

What the Beach Baby lacked in amenities she made up for with location: she sat right smack dab on the beach.  If you stepped out the back door, you were standing on sand, and high tide was never more than a few yards away.

We weren’t the only ones who loved the Beach Baby’s location. Mother Nature did, too. She’s quite the real estate visionary herself, and she had big plans for the Beach Baby.

When hurricane season was in full swing one year in the mid-eighties, Mother Nature took the garage-turned-house and turned it into a fully furnished raft.  Though technically gone, the Beach Baby still lives on in our memories…and who knows where else.