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.

Some things are classics, like Jane Austen, The Beatles, and…’80s Prom fashion

For Christmas a few years ago, my brother gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. I interpreted it as a loving gesture intended to help me hone my craft. He may have meant it as a way to get me to stop writing about my family, in which case he should’ve known that I’m not one to pick up on subtle hints. Besides, I’ll be happy to stop writing about them just as soon as they stop generating material.

But it was a fantastic gift –I’m gonna keep some of these questions in reserve for first dates — and today, Philippa and I are blog-dueling on one of my favorite of the 642 prompts:

What did you wear to Prom? How did you get your outfit, and what happened to it? 

In 1989, when I was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Prom was a rite of passage; nearly everyone wanted to go, including me. But wanting to go wasn’t enough: I needed a date. With no boyfriend and all of my guy friends spoken for, I started to stress. My good friend Kevin, aware of my situation, did some work behind the scenes and arranged for his pal “Bob” to ask me. Bob and I were acquaintances–  I’d always thought he was cute and nice –so I said “yes” and shifted the focus of my stress to getting a dress.

Fashion was not my forte, but it was one of the multitude of things my eldest sister, Suzi, did perfectly. She was always on point, even when the point seemed to have no point. (Popped collars, anyone?) Her sartorial skill even earned her the nickname “Fashion Plate” from my father. Though I didn’t exactly know what that kind of a plate was, I inferred that if Suzi was a plate, I was a bucket. A bucket with a massive hole at the bottom. The Plate, who was in her fourth year at UVA in Charlottesville, sensed my plight and offered to take me shopping without my even having to ask. I had only one criterion: I didn’t want my dress to look like everyone else’s.

“Then come down to C’ville and we’ll go shopping here,” she said. So I did.

Together, we went to Fashion Square Mall, affectionately referred to as “Fashion Scare,” and visited every store that carried dresses. Whatever allotment of patience was supposed to have been spread across me and my three siblings, Suzi got all of it, never seeming to tire of coming up with candidates for me to try on. To my untrained eye, though the dresses tried to combine different elements – sleeves poofed in direct proportion to the wearer’s bangs, bows capable of covering not just a butt but an entire zip code, ruffled bottoms – they all wound up looking the same. And they came in shiny, saccharine-sweet pinks, greens and blues that made my teeth hurt. I didn’t exactly know what my taste was, but I knew it wasn’t that. Suzi knew it too.

Eventually we wound up at an all-dress joint whose name escapes me, where my sister managed to pluck from the masses something my eyes would have skipped right over: a long, straight, black, strapless number with white piping along the top and a black and white skirt-like, slightly ruffled thing at the waist. Suzi informed me the functionally irrelevant skirty thing was a peplum (coincidence that it bears a close phonetic resemblance to “pablum”? I think not.). I guess the dress needed something to help it compete with my shelf of bangs. Regardless, Suzi nailed it. She’d found a dress that was not only different but made me feel grown-up and somewhat sophisticated.

Remember these?

On Prom night, Mom helped me get ready and then she, Dad, my brother and I went to the living room to take pictures while we waited for the limo bearing Bob and four of his friends to show up. Little did we know we would have had time not only to take photos, but to drive to the nearest Fotomat and have the film developed while we waited because, two hours after the appointed time, Bob still hadn’t arrived.

Am I being stood up?, I thought, just as my father said, “Do you think you’re being stood up?”

Mortification caused me to spontaneously combust, so now you know what happened to the dress.

I’m kidding, of course. Spontaneous combustion was a prayer that had gone cruelly unanswered.

I got the phone book and called one of the other girls, who said, “You mean Bob didn’t call to tell you they just left Scott’s house?” Uh, no, he didn’t.

When Bob finally arrived, I vaporized him on the spot. I’m kidding, of course. Vaporization was just another unanswered prayer. (For Bob too, if I had to guess.) Our group went to dinner and made it to Prom just before it ended. It still counted.

It took me a little while to thaw out, but after graduation, Bob and I stayed friends and went off to UVA. The dress did, too. I wore it to a formal in the Spring of 1990, with my then-best friend, Paul, as my date. Say what you will about the dress, but that particular friendship never went out of style.



As my friend Michelle put it, “Your dress is the least offensive by far.”


“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.

A picture that’s worth at least 700 words

I just finished another Aunt In Residence stint with my Atlanta nephews, B and C, while my brother and his wife took a brief and well-deserved breather. B is nearly four and has an insatiable appetite for stories and humor, a combination that makes him one of my favorite victims. One evening, B and I got to chatting about his recent adventures snow-tubing at Stone Mountain. This led me to tell him the story of my sister Lynne’s and my fateful trip down a slope known in family folklore as “Fox Hill.” The words and hand gestures I used to tell the tale (which I posted here last year) weren’t enough for B to get the picture, so I decided to draw it.

As befits a classic, I’m re-releasing it, this time featuring an exciting, new illustration!

Mother Nature went easy on D.C. when she sprinkled some confectioners sugar-weight snow on us yesterday. The accumulation totaled 5-8″, enough to trigger our collective Panic And Close reflex, but not so much that we couldn’t enjoy it, especially once the sun came out and temperatures rose into the 30s.

My friend Bud and I met up and took a late afternoon stroll along the Washington & Old Dominion trail. We pit-stopped at various points to take photos, make snow angels, and live vicariously as dozens of kids sledded down a hill of moderate steepness that ends in a park.

Though a respectable hill by any measure, it pales in comparison to Fox Hill, a three-tiered beauty of a slope near my late grandmother’s home in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. My father grew up sledding on Fox Hill and made sure my siblings and I got to enjoy the fun any time it snowed while we were visiting Nana. I have Fox Hill to thank for the most memorable sledding experience of my life, which occurred when I was eleven or twelve.

At the time, my family had four pieces of sledding equipment: two Flexible Flyers, one plastic saucer, and a waxy, blue, plastic rug of a thing that retailers would have called a “toboggan.”  Our family never used that term, perhaps because it implied structural soundness and amenities such as steering. In our house, the waxy, plastic rug thing was known simply as the “Sheet,” which is also a word for the linen that would cover your corpse after the Sheet was done with you. The Sheet was a ruthless disciple of the “every man for himself” school of thought. It frequently ejected its cargo without notice so it could continue its merry journey down the hill unburdened. This made it the vehicle of last resort for the four Yankosky sledders, except when the need for an adrenaline rush seized one of us.

On the day in question, such a need took hold of me and my sister Lynne simultaneously. Hours of sledding had caused the little plateaus between each of Fox Hill’s tiers to become icy ramps. After attempting some quick physics calculations, Lynne and I suspected that, if we rode together, we might be able to hit those ramps with enough speed to catch air. It would also require us to ride the thing that gave us the largest, slickest surface area: the Sheet. Being even less skilled at performing cost-benefit analysis than physics calculations, we concluded it was worth the risk and we boarded.

Our descent had barely begun when the Sheet turned us one hundred and eighty degrees. We approached the first ramp backwards, which is also the direction we were facing when we went airborne. The Sheet probably thought that act would be enough to get rid of us. I, however, had grown wise to the Sheet’s ejection tactics over the years and had its plastic handle in a death grip that I reflexively maintained. I held on even after we landed with such violence that it felt like we’d been dropped out of a tenth story window and onto a sidewalk.

My stubbornness angered the Sheet. As we crested the next ramp, still accelerating, the Sheet sent us sideways. We found ourselves careening away from the sledding course  and straight towards a clump of enormous wooden spools that sat at the border between Fox Hill and the adjacent property.

Our only hope for avoiding a crash was to let go of the Sheet, which I promptly did. This altered the Sheet’s trajectory, but not mine and Lynne’s. We ran straight into a spool, caromed off of it, and landed in a dazed heap. The Sheet, meanwhile, continued down Fox Hill without a care in the world, whistling the “Andy Griffith” theme song as it went.

As I lay on the ground, I saw birds circling above. Whether they were cartoon sparrows or vultures preparing to claim their carrion I will never know, because my father appeared and dragged us off.

Watching those sledders yesterday brought back the memory of that day on Fox Hill, in all its concussive glory. No wonder I attempted nothing more dangerous than a snow angel.

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

What ‘good grief’ really means

Like most people, I loathe funerals. And as regular readers know, I’m not very good at them.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do or say: I give great hugs and I usually know the right words (sometimes I even sing them). But I just can’t make my upper lip stiffen, no matter how how hard I’m trying to avoid putting my grieving loved one in a position of having to comfort me. I blow it every time, and Saturday was no exception.

My friend T’s younger sister Gina passed away suddenly, just over a week ago, and her funeral took place on Saturday.

I became friends with T several years ago through work, where she’s as strong, successful, and poised as sales executives come. T’s one of four sisters with whom she’s close, and she’s not much older than I am. That makes her far too young to lose a cherished sibling, in my book. The pages of my book, in fact, depict a dreamy fairytale landscape where siblings are always around. I need those pages to look like that because my brother and sisters are my best friends. They make me laugh so hard my face hurts, they stand ready to hug me at my happiest and saddest times, and they love me no matter how badly I screw up (something I have tested, alas). I simply can’t imagine life without them. Until Saturday, I had refused even to let such an awful thought enter my brain. Saturday morning, however, that thought saw no need to ask for permission; it just barged its way to the front of my mind and heart as I approached T at the funeral home.

One look at my friend proved that absorbing a staggering loss on a balance sheet is one thing and in life another altogether. No kind of training prepares you for the latter, not even intellectual awareness that big love sometimes means big pain. The sorrow on T’s face telegraphed the enormity of her grief. I hated what it meant for her, and what it might mean for me someday. Overwhelmed, I was in tears long before I reached her. So much for putting my friend’s needs ahead of my own.

Then the ceremony got underway and I learned about Gina, a woman I’d never met but soon wished I had. Everyone who spoke mentioned her generosity of heart, the way she loved unconditionally and her capacity to love people through flaws most of us couldn’t abide. Her family members poked gentle fun at some of her quirks –evidently she loved to plan events, which meant you’d better head for the hills when she started writing the to-do lists–but to a person they painted a portrait of someone who was a nurturer by nature, a superwoman who took care of anyone who needed it. Gina didn’t let her loved ones get away with any crap, but they knew she always had their backs.

In describing Gina’s steadfast loyalty, no matter the circumstances, T’s son said, “I could be dead wrong, and I knew she’d be standing right there, being dead wrong too.” I laughed with the crowd while thinking that’s exactly the kind of aunt I aspire to be (minus the event-planning part). So whether she ever set out to or not, T’s sister set an example, even for a total stranger like myself.

(Speaking of setting great examples, I give very high marks to the way the family structured the service. A few relatives and friends had been selected to speak about Ts sister, and according to the program, had been allotted two minutes apiece. But we all know emotions can make it easy to lose track of time. So in a nod to one of the more redeeming feature of the Oscars, the minister notified the speakers that, if they were still talking at two minutes, the organist would begin to play. If they kept going, well, so would the organist, and he was gonna crank up the volume. I can only hope T starts to run meetings this way.)

No matter how hard you try to smile through the tears, it hurts like hell to say goodbye to someone who set an example like Gina clearly did. It’s like losing the coach who not only knew how it was done but taught you everything you ever knew, the one you counted on to keep you motivated when you faltered. The minister acknowledged that pain while exhorting all present to use Gina’s example to examine our lives and repair any dysfunctional relationships we might have.

I liked that call to action. I heard it as a reminder to live well not because life could end at any moment –we all know it could –but rather to honor the beautiful example someone left us by doing similar good works.

I left the funeral home in tears, but glad to have been there. Though I absolutely stink at funerals, I go because I believe it’s important to show up for your loved ones whenever you can. Never once have I regretted going, and every single time I walk away having learned something important. In getting up close to a loss that terrifies me, I realized T’s sister will live on not just in memory –a fickle and increasingly unreliable thing as the years pass –but in the actions of those whose lives she touched.

May we all live, and leave, so well.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she's going to go first.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she’s going to go first.




On International Lefthanders Day, a love note to my Southpaw sisters

[Day 13 in a month of daily blogging with my pal and partner in crime, Philippa Hughes.]

Today is International Lefthanders Day, which I have chosen to celebrate by writing about two of my favorite lefties: my sisters Suzi and Lynne. (By the way, yesterday was National Middle Child Day, which I didn’t hear about until last night. Figures. We middle kids are used to delayed recognition.)

Yesterday’s post about Mom mentioned in passing that Suzi is one of those annoying firstborns who does nearly everything perfectly. On reading it, Suzi thought I overstated her abilities, but for once, I wasn’t exaggerating. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this cake she made.

Suzi cake pic

Do you have any idea what it was like to grow up behind the likes of someone who produces that? On a regular basis? To make matters worse, Suzi is so blasted nice you end up liking her in spite of yourself. On top of that, as I’ve seen time and again over the course of my life, and particularly when I was trying to figure out how to exit a dangerous marriage in 2011, Suzi knows what it means to be a big sister.

My sister Lynne also had a perfectionistic side. When we were kids, it manifested in a form of extreme neatness. She claimed it as a virtue, but I would’ve called “OCD” if only I’d heard of the term back then. Lynne kept her clothes in perfect order in the closet and her dresser, and she always knew if Suzi or I breached the perimeter of either location, even if we never took anything. (I suspect Lynne dusted for prints.)

I, on the other hand, did not keep my clothes, or any other tangible items, in perfect order at any time, anywhere. This might not have mattered had Lynne and I not shared a room for over a decade. In terms of rigidity and orderliness, Lynne’s side of the room resembled Germany, whereas mine look like Rome at rush hour. This and our very sibling-ness made us natural enemies. Like Snoopy and the Red Baron, fighting was our default –we did it well, often, and comically –but on those rare occasions when we got along, the two of us were tight. Lynne went to college in 1987, and she was sentenced to live in a triple. Right about then our bond began to increase, perhaps because I started to look pretty good, as roommates go. Not only have the two of us grown closer since, but Lynne actually invited me to live with her in 2011 while I was getting divorced. Clearly she’s no slouch in the big sister department, either.

I view the closeness my sisters and I enjoy as a daily gift, and Suzi and Lynne rank high on my list of preferred company. Time together can be hard to come by, now that we have jobs, husbands, kids and podcasts, so we usually treasure it when it happens.

The last time the three of us spent a stretch of time together was in February, right after my father’s cousin, Chuckie, passed away. Dad and his cousins were tight, so my sisters and I knew Dad would take this loss particularly hard, and we wanted to be there for him. Being there for him, in this case, meant driving to West Pittston, PA, a mid-week trip of 250 miles for me and Lynne and 350 for Suzi. We called each other to coordinate, and that’s when the typical Yankosky logistical circus began.

My parents, who are retired and had the time to spend the night in West Pittston, figured they would drive up by themselves. Suzi and I, who could take the day off but couldn’t spend the night, thought we could meet near my office and drive up and back in the same day together. Lynne said she might or might not be able to get away, but if she could, she didn’t know exactly when, and it would only be for the day, so maybe she would just drive up and back in the same day all by herself. When my parents got wind of Lynne’s plan, they offered to change their plans and do something even crazier in what they saw as an effort to get Lynne out of her own way.

Right about then, just as I was ready to take that gift of daily closeness and drop-kick it into a dumpster, Suzi hit everyone over the head with the big billy club o’ sanity. She convinced Mom and Dad to go up on their own and spent the night, and she and I came up with a plan for Lynne to join us as we drove up and back on the same day.

The three of us did not relish the idea of a 10-hour drive interrupted only by a funereal pit stop, yet against all odds, we had an absolute blast in the car together. We talked, we laughed, we sang, and without even thinking about it, we reveled in each other’s company. The three of us had not had an opportunity to spend time like that in many, many years. I’d have preferred to have spent it on a beach rather than trapped inside Lynne’s Mazda, but hey, you take it where you can get it. And it did all three of us a world of good.

So happy Lefthanders Day, you two. For a couple of Southpaws, you’re all right.




Dating stories: the perfect gift for any occasion

My sister Lynne’s birthday was yesterday. The local Yanks—my parents, my brother-in-law, the Roommates and I –usually mark such occasions by having dinner at the restaurant of the birthday person’s choice, but this time, the birthday girl said she wanted to have dinner at home.

That didn’t bother the Roommates, because their only requirement for a successful birthday celebration is ice cream cake and that’s always consumed at home. Nor did it faze my parents, whose car could drive itself to Lynne’s house by now. And I certainly didn’t mind the change of venue, since dinner at someone else’s home (even a relative’s) doesn’t demand much more from me than a restaurant dinner does. In fact, my only job was to show up and bring a salad. Though not asked to, I opted to bring a bottle of wine, too. I find it compensates for a lot, lest I screw up the dish assigned to me or, more likely, forget it altogether.

While I got down to the important business of slicing avocados and undoing the screwtop on the wine, not necessarily in that order, my brother-in-law Paul fired up kebabs on the grill. After a tasty, relaxing dinner topped off with ice cream cake, when we’d have been paying the tab at a restaurant, we instead lingered at the table. And that’s when dinner really started to get good.

When you’re the family’s only single person, they look at you almost as they do a hyena at the zoo: they’re fascinated by this creature that thrives in the eat-what-you-kill world, but they don’t necessarily want to experience it firsthand. This means my family loves to hear dating stories, even if just to make them glad they don’t live on the Serengeti of romance.

So that’s how I found myself telling a story about why I didn’t buy tickets to this Friday night’s Lyle Lovett concert, even though I really wanted to go. It’s not that tickets weren’t available, it’s that I didn’t have a suitable date.

I don’t usually care whether I have a date. I’m perfectly happy, often outright thrilled, to go to the movies, dinner, and even weddings solo. But a concert at Wolf Trap by one of my favorite showmen? It’s an experience that’s meant to be shared, and with the right company, which for me means someone who would appreciate both Lyle and me. Two of my go-to concert guys had conflicts, but I thought my friend “Brian,” an attractive, nice, and recently divorced guy, might fit the bill.

On July 27 I texted him the following:

By chance are you free August 14? There’s a concert I really want to go to and I was hoping to convince you to join me. 🙂

Brian, though a great guy, is not the most punctual responder, so I hardly noticed that it took him 5 hours to write back. After thanking me for the invitation, he promised to check his calendar and get back to me “tomorrow.”

I let two tomorrows go by before I sent a breezy, “Hi there! How are things looking for August 14?” He texted two hours later to say that he was free and to ask what the event was.

I responded immediately, thinking we might be on the verge of actually making plans:

Cool! If you’re up for it, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band (that’s really what they call themselves) are at Wolf Trap. I got dragged to see him years ago, expecting nothing, and they wowed me so I see them every chance I get. If it’s not your thing, feel free to pass, of course.

Thanks to the wonders of iPhones, I knew Brian had read my text right away, yet he didn’t respond. I let a tomorrow pass and then another one, and then I took out a Mob hit on him. I’m kidding, of course. As far as you know.

At this point in the story, my sister, who met Brian at a book event and declared him both nice and good-looking, could no longer contain herself. She embarked on a three-minute rant loaded with righteous, if vicarious, indignation that ended when she pounded the table and said, “He’s a FLAKE! But this isn’t about me.”

Without missing a beat, my brother-in-law deadpanned, “Are you sure?”

My parents had said nothing but their facial expressions spoke volumes (comprised entirely of four-letter words). I feared I was about to lose control of the room. The last thing the hyena wants is a bunch of non-prey littering the landscape, so I jumped back in and said I’d handled it my own way.

I explained my conclusion that, even if Brian responded eventually, eventually wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted, and deserved, enthusiasm, and not about Lyle Lovett, but about me. I’ve been alive long enough to know that even flakes know how to show enthusiasm when they really want to.

Out of some bizarre and misplaced sense of etiquette, which I blame entirely on my mother, I told them I’d felt compelled to close the loop with Brian, so I texted, “I ended up not getting tickets after all, so you’re off the hook.” Never mind that he and the hook hadn’t even been in the same ocean as far as I could tell.

Dad stood up, out of disgust, butt fatigue, or some combination of the two, and we started to gather up the cake plates. As my mother and father made their way out the door, we all agreed we wouldn’t have stuck around at a restaurant long enough to have had that conversation.

Mom said, “We should do this every few weeks,” and Lynne seconded the motion.

Guess I’d better get back out on the plains.

[Here’s one of the songs I won’t be hearing Friday night…]












Little brothers: you can’t teach ’em anything.

While at the pool during last weekend’s family reunion, my brother asked me to give him some swimming pointers. I cracked up.

The idea that I could teach L.J. anything about sports technique represented a serious perversion of the natural athletic order. My brother played college baseball for Georgia Tech and then went on to pitch in the minor leagues. He was a professional athlete, for heaven’s sake! After he gave up baseball, he took up tennis, which he dabbled in as a kid. Once he really put his mind to it, he became a force to be reckoned with and was one-half of a duo that won the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association’s City Championships in 2005 or so. In short, if L.J. so much as thinks about taking up a sport, he’s probably going to excel at it. So even though my brother is four years younger than I am, when it comes to sports, it’s always felt like he’s my senior.

But having swum for most of my life, coached a team, and taught countless kids how to swim, I know what I’m doing in the water, whereas L.J., saw little reason to spend time at the pool unless the concession stand was open. And though he took lessons briefly –my parents insisted that we all learn how to swim as a survival skill –he had no interest whatsoever in the sport of swimming. On mentally reviewing our respective backgrounds, I decided maybe I could show him a thing or two after all.

The lifeguards blew the whistle to start the 15-minute adult swim period, giving us time and space to work. I told L.J. to swim a few yards so I could observe, but really, I just needed some time to adjust to this role reversal.

My brother pushed off from the wall and I watched with a mixture of amazement and envy as he knocked out five near-perfect strokes of high-elbowed, long-reaching freestyle. This, after nothing more than a few lessons as a kid. The only thing wrong with his stroke was his kick: his legs dragged motionless below him like passengers in an unseaworthy dinghy. But that’s a pretty small flaw in the grand scheme of swimming.

He came up for air expecting me to deliver an extended critique, but all I had for him were coaching bytes: “Stretch your arms out longer, keep your elbow high as you throw your arm forward, and don’t let your hips sag.” It’s the same advice I’d give to advanced swimmers, ones who already have good technique but know they need to make minor adjustments to achieve the holy grail of efficiency.  Any swim coach will tell you that success hinges on proper execution of the lazy person’s credo: go as far as you can with as little effort as possible.

My brother seemed almost disappointed and said, “That’s it?” I nodded. “Then why do I feel like I’m dying every time I do it?” A fat, juicy chance to remind my little brother that he was still my little brother was dangling right in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I told him the truth instead.

“It’s only because you don’t do it often enough,” I said. “Your stroke is excellent. It’s just a matter of conditioning.”

“Really?” That one-word question, which my brother asked with absolute sincerity, says so much about him. He’s good, if not exceptional, at most things he tries, but he seems to have no idea just how good he is, and he has zero swagger. It’s the kind of thing that makes me not just love him but like him.

“Yep,” I said. “If you swam more than 20 yards a year you’d be great.” And by “great,” I meant “Michael Phelps,” but no big sister worth her salt would give up something like that.

Still, Marc Brown, creator of the beloved children’s series Arthur, really knew what he was talking about when he said, “Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.


Waiting for the other shoe

I posted a link to my blog on Facebook last night with the following lead-in: “Family stories, like bad date stories, are always reliable blog fodder. (Heaven forbid I find myself in a situation that combines the two…)”

So far that hasn’t happened, thank goodness, but this morning I remembered an incident that came somewhat close.

In the Spring of 2003 I went to a party thrown by a law school buddy and happened to hit it off with one of his friends.  “Jeff” asked me out and we set up a date for eight o’clock on a Thursday evening.

In those days, I was working at a downtown law firm and usually took the Metro from my home in West Falls Church to the office at Farragut West.  Jeff knew this and suggested that we meet at 8 p.m. at Guarapo, a then-hip restaurant/lounge located in Metro-accessible north Arlington.

That day I wore a black dress that transitioned well from office to evening, along with a pair of black Mary Janes with medium-height heels.  They were my go-to shoes whenever I needed to toe the line between fashionable and sensible.

A girl’s best friend?

I rounded out the ensemble with black tights, in case the balmy daytime temperatures gave way to a chilly night.

Jeff arrived at Guarapo before I did and had gotten a cozy table against the wall.   Over the course of the evening we shared tapas, a bottle of wine, all kinds of stories, and lots of laughs.  Things were going really well, I thought.

I didn’t have a sense of how much time had passed until I realized that we’d just about emptied out the joint.  I glanced at my watch and saw that it was past 11.

“Since it’s a school night and we’re practically the last people here, I guess we’d better get going,” I said.

Jeff nodded.  “Yeah, you’re right, but I don’t feel like we’re done talking, do you? I could give you a ride home if you’d like.  My car’s just a few blocks away.”

“That sounds perfect.”  We left Guarapo and walked out into the night.

A faint spring mist fell as we strolled.  It was too little to justify an umbrella but more than enough to send my free-range hair into full-on frizz.  My feelings of self-consciousness were expanding as fast as my hair and I couldn’t wait to get to the car.

When Jeff pointed to it just a few yards away, my step quickened.  And then it skidded, thanks to the damp pavement combined with the nonexistent tread on the soles of my beloved Mary Janes.

My arms shot out in a panicked effort to keep my balance.  This succeeded only in making me look like I was surfing the wild waves of the sidewalk.  I reached for a nearby parking meter in a last-ditch effort to stay upright but it was just beyond my grasp.

I landed on the pavement in a pose that resembled the hurdler’s stretch, though I had never before attempted it in a dress.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” Jeff asked as he helped me up.

I faked a laugh and a breezy tone. “I’m totally fine, ha ha!  This kind of thing happens to me all the time. I mean, I don’t always fall but I’m pretty clumsy so it’s no big…”

“Um, Karen…”  Jeff pointed at my left knee.  I looked down and saw that the pavement had ripped a gaping hole in my tights and torn apart my knee, which had begun to bleed.

I don’t remember much of the conversation on the way home except for  obligatory “I’ll call you” from Jeff at the end.

I woke up the next day feeling sore and mortified.  I called my sister, Lynne, for reassurance.

“Whoa. I’ve never wiped out on a date before,” she said.  On realizing she’d dealt a fresh wound to my pride instead of a salve, she tried to recover.  “But it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened on a date.  I don’t even think it would keep most guys from asking you out again.”

“I don’t know,” I said, a fresh wave of shame overtaking me as my mind’s eye pictured the spill.  “It was pretty bad.”

“Tell you what, why don’t I get a guy’s perspective? I’ll ask Paul.”  It sounded like a great idea.  Sometimes it took Lynne a minute or two but she always knew just what I needed.

Moments later she sent me an email containing an exchange between her and her husband.

Her:  “Hey there…have a question for you…If you and I had gone out on our first date and, say, in the course of the evening, I fell flat on my face. Would you have asked me out again? Love, ME.”

Him: “Yes, as long as you had all your teeth!! Is this a trick question?”

I felt like punching them both in the mouth.

All was forgiven a few hours later because, to my great surprise, Jeff called and invited me on another date.

The moral of this story is: even if you lose your balance, you should always remember to hold your head high.  Otherwise, you might lose a tooth, too.