Oh my gourd! Dissecting a Halloween tradition


In the dusky light, I removed the longest, sharpest knife from the butcher block, its blade emitting an ominous tone as metal scraped against wood. Shhwing! There, on plastic sheeting, lay my subject — plump, round and motionless.

Suddenly, a damp chill crept through the window sash, and a shiver ran up my spine, setting my heart and hands in motion!

Before I knew it, I had hacked off its top, and was pulling handfuls of slimy innards from its open cavity. Heart pounding, my knife plunged again and again into flesh, where eyes, nose and mouth belonged.

I stood back to catch my breath, and beheld its hideous glory. “It is done!”

This may sound like a scene from “Dexter,” but actually, I’m describing a festive fall activity beloved by children for many years — Halloween pumpkin carving.

Every red-blooded-American has made a jack-o’-lantern at some point in his or her life. Back in the 1970s, my brother and I cut our pumpkins with serrated steak knives, completely unsupervised by our parents, who were busy smoking Tartyton 100s and watching “Love Boat” in our avocado and gold living room. Later, after my brother went out to toilet-paper the neighborhood, my mom would roast the seeds in our oven, with a pinch of salt.

But pumpkin carving didn’t start in the 1970s. The tradition of making jack-o’-lanterns to ward off evil spirits (thought to roam the earth on Halloween) actually began in 19th century Ireland, where Celtic-speaking people cut scary faces into hollowed-out turnips. When the Irish immigrated to America, they found plentiful indigenous squash called “pumpkins” to carve their jack-o’-lanterns, the tradition that lives on today.

However, modern folks are no longer concerned about warding off evil spirits or perpetuating obscure Irish traditions. In today’s world of instant gratification, overprotective parenting, passivity and germophobia, one must wonder why such a messy, labor-intensive, potentially dangerous ritual persists at all.

Obviously, the desire to carve pumpkins transcends the advances of modern life. But why?

Our family has carved pumpkins every year, at every duty station, both home and abroad.

In Washington, D.C., our jack-o’-lantern sat on our apartment complex balcony overlooking the Hamburger Hamlet. In California, our carved pumpkin sunned itself on the patio of our brown and beige Fort Ord house. In the U.K., our jack-o’-lantern was stomped to bits by marauding English schoolboys in crested jackets. In Virginia, our pumpkins sat safely around our quiet suburban cul-de-sac. In Germany, we lugged our jack-o’-lanterns from our Patch Barracks stairwell apartment down to the shared patio, where dozens burned together on Halloween night. In Florida, our pumpkins succumbed quickly to fire ants and searing heat. In Rhode Island, our jack-o’-lanterns would’ve lasted forever in the New England chill, except that the squirrels decided they’d make a good pumpkin smorgasbord.


No matter where we were stationed in the world, we were determined to carve pumpkins at Halloween.

What are the psychological forces that drive us to arm ourselves with dangerous kitchen utensils, attack poor defenseless squashes, and shamelessly display their gutted remains on porch steps and front stoops?

Perhaps humans crack under intense consumer industry pressure to buy Halloween decor, cheap imported novelties, and mountains of miniaturized candies? Or, maybe all the pumpkin-flavored foods are getting to us, as we guzzle gallons of pumpkin lattes, slurp spoonfuls of pumpkin soup, scarf sleeves of Pumpkin Spice Oreos, and gulp gobletfuls of pumpkin wine. Or, could it be that the political divisiveness of the recent campaign season has us all wanting to rip the flesh out something?

We may never know why today’s families see yearly pumpkin carving as the only exception to standard rules against carrying sharp objects, lighting matches, and playing with food. But what we do know, is that there’s something ironically sweet and wholesome about carving pumpkins. Coming together as a family. Creating a work of whimsy. Standing back to watch it glow.

And, when it’s all done, roasting the seeds like mom did, with a pinch of salt.


True romance is a gas

Our Italian Restaurant

Our Italian Restaurant, circa 1992

Ten years ago, when my family was stationed in Virginia, a boring weeknight in the suburbs inspired me to write my first column. At that time, I wasn’t looking for a publishing opportunity. I simply needed a creative outlet to sort through the realities of marriage, parenting and military life.  Now, as my husband, Francis, and I prepare to celebrate our 23rd anniversary, I’ll tell the story that inspired me to write….

One busy night after the kids had gone to bed, I settled into my spot on the sofa for some mind-numbing television.

“Isn’t this a repeat?” I asked Francis, seated in his recliner. When no answer was forthcoming, I glanced over to witness an all-too-familiar scene: Deeply imbedded in the recliner’s cushions, lay my husband of fourteen years, sound asleep.

Normally, I would turn out the lights and tip-toe to bed — my revenge for being “abandoned” for the umpteenth time. Francis would wake up alone in the dark and trudge upstairs to find me teehee-ing under the covers. But on this particular night, I gawked at Francis as if I were seeing him for the first time. Is this the man I married?

Panic gripped my soul. We’re tired, boring, predictable — We’re doomed.

I remembered one afternoon in 1992, when Francis and I were at an Italian café in Pittsburgh, sipping wine and falling in love.

“I really want to live abroad,” he said. “Me too,” I said. “I love the ocean,” I said. “Me too,” he said. “I don’t care about money, only happiness,” he said. “Me too!” I said.

It was a match made in heaven.

But, if we had understood the realities of marriage, our conversation would have been different: “I’ll develop stretch marks,” I should’ve said. “That’s okay, we’ll dim the lights,” he might’ve said. “I’ll end up bald, but hair will sprout out of my ears and nose,” he should’ve said. ”I’m good with tweezers,” I might’ve said. “I have no mechanical ability and won’t be embarrassed if you handle all the home repairs,” he should’ve said. “I won’t mind for the first few years, but then I’ll get fed up,” I really wish I’d said.

But back in 1992, we weren’t thinking about annoying habits and clogged drains. We were too busy planning our perfect life to be bothered with reality.

Our unrealistic expectations persisted after we were engaged. “Pardon me!” Francis yelped after accidentally belching. Although he insisted he would never expel any kind of gas in front of me, it didn’t take long for his steely resolve to erode. Today, expelling gas happens as soon as the urge beckons. Mid-sentence, under the covers, in the recliner. “Why do you have to burp while I’m talking to you?” I’ve said. “Did I burp?” he’s said, sincerely oblivious.

Before marriage, I preened and pampered Francis like a primate, manicuring nails and plucking stray hairs to maintain his rugged good looks. I had no idea that, one day,  those stray hairs would multiply so profusely that our grooming sessions now take place in the garage and involve the leaf-blower. The pedicures have become completely intolerable, because Francis’ left piggy toe now resembles a tiny hoof. One of the kids recently asked if it was made out of wood.

I had to draw the line somewhere.

So what am I saying? Are we doomed because we haven’t met our premarital expectations?

As I watched Francis dozing in his recliner, I realized something important: We have not met our original expectations, we’ve exceeded them. Back when we were dreaming of a life of romance uninhibited by responsibility, stress and aging, we couldn’t fully comprehend the complexity and depth of marital relationships. We didn’t understand that marriage is more than candlelight dinners and adventurous travel. Long-term romance is actually built on a foundation of commitment, comfort, and companionship.

Realizing this, my aversion to the the sight of my sleeping husband turned to adoration. And as I turned out the lights and tip-toed upstairs to wait for Francis to wake up alone in the dark, I was happy that marriage is everything I ever dreamed of, and more.

Losing football team with a winning spirit

Sharks cropped

In the fall, a whiff of fallen leaves evokes echoes of marching bands and whistles blown. We feel the cold aluminum bleacher seats and the prickle of wool scarves. Like Pavlov’s dog, our mouths water, imagining hot coffee at 8 am soccer games and chili dogs at football halftime.

As soon as our kids show any interest in athletics, we put them on teams, so we can experience the sights, sounds and smells of the fall sports season. We justify our pushy behavior by telling ourselves that our kids will benefit from learning about teamwork.

But do they?

Over a decade ago, our family was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and our son, Hayden, was a squishy little 10-year-old who preferred piano to athletic pursuits.

Early in the fall of his 5th grade year, Hayden showed an inkling of interest in football. As visions of tailgate parties danced in our heads, we jumped on the opportunity and contacted the local flag football league.

“Sorry ma’am, the teams are full . . . now, if your husband would be willing to coach, your son could play this season.”

Although my husband, Francis, had never coached sports before and was completely ignorant of the league team selection process, he agreed, because he was between deployments and it was a rare chance to spend some quality time with Hayden.

We received a roster of 15 kids — Hayden and 14 others — who transferred from overcrowded teams. What we didn’t know, was that the other coaches had been asked to give up a couple of kids each, and of course, they picked their worst players.

Oblivious, we showed up for our first practice ready to access the boys’ talents.

The lineup was not what we had expected.

None of the boys knew a thing about football. A few were skinny. Most were small. Three had learning disabilities. But they were all excited to play.

We called ourselves “The Sharks” and accepted the rejected purple league jerseys without complaint. Practices were dicey. The plays looked more like people running from a fire, but we were hopeful that it would all come together on game day.

As self-appointed team mom, I went overboard. I ordered the “Jaws” soundtrack. I made up cheers. I bought sweatshirts and little purple towels.

Game day finally arrived, and we were ready. Parents donned their Sharks wear, swung their purple towels and cheered. Players gathered around Coach Francis for a pre-game pep talk.

“Listen boys, I want you all to go out there today and show ‘em what you’re made of! Let’s tell everybody, if you swim with the Sharks, you’re gonna get bit!”

Both players and parents alike exploded into simultaneous applause and woo-hoos. 

A half-hour later, we were down by three touchdowns, and our blissful ignorance of the corrupt team-selection process came to an abrupt end.

“Listen up, Sharks,” Francis barked during half-time, “don’t let the numbers on that scoreboard get you down! We’re the Sharks! Win or lose, we’re gonna fight and fight hard! Now go out there, boys, and give ‘em all you got!”

At the end of the third quarter, the ref called the game because they were beating us 40 to zilch.

The rest of the season was more of the same, and it wasn’t easy to keep up the morale of our little Sharks. But we persisted. Instead of emphasizing winning, we became determined to surprise the other team with our undying spirit.

At every game, we waved our purple towels, blared the “Jaws” theme song, and shouted our original Sharks cheers. At halftime, we threw candy footballs and the refs danced to our music. It became known in the league that, no matter the odds against the our team, the Sharks played every game to win.

Despite it all, we never scored one point.

The following year, I ran into a former Sharks mom at a local grocery store. She mentioned that, even though her son was placed on a winning team that fall, he confessed, “Mom, I wish this team was more like the Sharks.”

At that moment, I realized … despite a losing season, the Sharks were winners after all.

Apples, Oranges and Milspouses


I know what you’re all secretly wondering about me. So, why don’t I address it right off the bat.

Yep, your suspicions are correct — I do weigh over 150 pounds.

I’ve worn double-digit sized pants since the eighth grade, I have a brick of Velveeta in my fridge, I can’t remember my times tables when put on the spot, I never dust the ceiling fan blades, and I’ll admit it — I let the dog lick me right on the mouth.

There, now you know, I’m not perfect.

Isn’t it strange that humans instinctually size each other up, as if we’re all part of some Darwinian survival of the fittest scenario? What’s even more interesting is that competitive instinct affects military spouses differently than our civilian counterparts.

Often, civilians compete on a material level — who has the most expensive handbag, the best lawn, the best-dressed kids, the fastest car, the biggest house, the highest paying job, or the coolest vacations.

But in the military, uniforms broadcast rank and pay grade. Many of us live in identical base quarters, we take our trash to communal dumpsters, wearing the same lounge pants we all bought from the same PX clearance racks for $9.99, and our trash contains the same K-cups and chicken bones we all picked up at the same commissaries.

Since our spouses’ incomes and benefits are a matter of public record, the playing field for military spouses is entirely different than it is for civilians. We don’t compare material possessions. We want to know: Who has moved the most? Who has lived in the worst base housing? Who has suffered the most deployments? Who has lived overseas the longest time?

Instead of tit-for-tats over who has the best Pottery Barn curtains, we military spouses wrangle over whose life is, strangely enough, harder.

But the matchup over military hardships breaks down, when you consider that military spouses’ lives are really too diverse to compare.

According to the 2014 Military One Source Demographics Report, there are 665,619 active duty military spouses, and 381,773 selected reserve military spouses. There are also at least 326,000 surviving military spouses and a whopping 15 million more spouses of US military veterans, according to the 2010 National Survey of Veterans.

We may all be known as “milspouses,” but our differences are greater than our similarities.

Military spouses hail from every branch of the US Armed Forces. They grew up in big cities and small towns in every state. They are of varying ethnicities. Some are shy, others outgoing. Some have traditional careers, while others work at home. Some are young, and others, like me, are … young-ish.

Also, like apples and oranges, our life experiences cannot adequately be compared due to variations in military communities. There are chaplains, aviators, culinary specialists, missile technicians, engineers, cryptologists, aircrew, submariners, infantry, artillery, tankers, and special forces, to name a few.  Each community has its own subculture, deployment tempo, platform requirements, work schedules and social traditions.

As a young navy spouse, I felt inadequate when compared to friends in other military communities who were enduring more deployments. When my husband deployed for a year in 2007, I thought it was my chance to earn some “street cred.” After the first six months alone with three kids, a huge dog, and endless home maintenance, I realized how silly I was for wishing hardship upon myself just so I would stack up to my friends.

Now, after 23 years as a military spouse, I appreciate the diversity of our individual journeys.

It’s not who moved the most, who lived in the worst base housing, or whose spouse had the longest deployment. Each of us has our own distinctive experience based on our military community’s subculture, our family make up, and our diverse backgrounds.

Rather than competing, let’s focus on what military spouses have in common. We are hardworking, dedicated, and resourceful. We are strong in the face of hardship. We provide a constant presence at home. We share our active duty spouse’s sense of duty, honor and patriotism.

Most importantly, every military spouse loves a US serviceperson, and like apples and oranges, they make all of our lives very sweet indeed.

Shooting for the Stars, and Stripes


For a brief period of my life, I had a briefcase, a secretary, and a view from the 18th floor. I thought I’d practice law in a big firm for a while, then settle down to a quaint small town, where I’d hang my own shingle like Matlock.

(Sans the seer-sucker suit and sideburns, that is.)

But, before I had a chance to climb another rung of the ladder toward success, I was packing up to move with my Navy husband to Washington, D.C., to Monterey, California, to Molesworth, England, to Norfolk, Virginia, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Although military life has been exciting, rewarding and adventurous, it was the death knell for my career as a litigation attorney. My student loan bills rolled in like clockwork, month after month, year after year – however, not much else in our life went as expected.

In 2010, our family was stationed in Germany, and with our three kids at school, I yearned for something other than making sandwiches and cleaning toilets – something that would challenge me intellectually. Something that did not require a license or a stable location.

This is the plight of so many military spouses today.

Earlier this year, Blue Star Families completed a study titled “Social Cost Analysis of the Unemployment and Underemployment of Military Spouses” and found that “[m]ilitary spouses face a staggering 18 percent unemployment rate compared to a national unemployment rate of 4.4 percent. More than half of those who do work face crippling underemployment – they are six times more likely to earn salaries below their education and experience level.”

Regarding educational attainment, although the youngest group of military spouses lag behind their civilian counterparts, after the age of 25 “military spouses quickly catch up to and exceed the civilian level of education.”

Regardless of education level, military spouses have more difficulty than civilians in finding meaningful employment due to “frequency of moves, inability to find employment that matched skill and education levels, inability to find employment that is flexible enough to accommodate their military spouse’s schedule, child care issues, or stigmatization of the military lifestyle and the impact on employability.”

Furthermore, the more education, the higher the income gap between military and civilian spouses. For those with a high school degree, civilian spouses earn 31% more than military spouses. For those with bachelors, masters or professional degrees, the percentages increase to 40%, 47% and 45%, respectively.

Despite these grim statistics, many determined military spouses still succeed. My own experience has taught me that courage, flexibility and stick-to-itiveness can enable military spouses to find rewarding careers.

While we were stationed in Germany and I was searching for something to do with those braincells, I decided, after the Washington Post published an essay I’d submitted, that I would become a syndicated columnist.

With no journalism degree or experience in the newspaper industry, other than a neighborhood newsletter I created back in 1977 while I was in the 5th grade that my mom photocopied and helped me deliver, I set my sights on becoming a military spouse columnist.

For years, I worked hard to realize this ambition. I studied everything from submission guidelines to self-syndication tips to AP style. I created “The Meat and Potatoes of Life” concept, took my own head shot with my arm stretched out, and, one at a time, painstakingly submitted my column to military and civilian newspapers across the US.

After seven years of rejections, hard work, and blind determination, I am proud to announce that this column, which appears in approximately 20 newspapers from Rhode Island to Virginia to California to Hawaii, has been picked up by the Grand Poobah of military publications — Stars and Stripes newspaper. My column will continue to appear in your newspaper and on my blog, but as of September 30th, it will now reach US military families at home and abroad.

I may not have realized my vision of hanging a shingle on my own law practice, but I now dream of using humor and honesty to spread the message that, no matter how hard military life gets, you are not alone, and you can do this.


The Secret Life of Moms

"Shhh... mum's the word."

“Shhh… mum’s the word.”

“Did you have a good summer?” clusters of moms in the high school lobby ask each other, then simultaneously give the required pat answer, “Yes, but it went by too fast… I wish I had two more weeks with the kids.”  We wave good-bye to our children, then head to our minivans, presumably ready for a full and productive day.

But once the minivan door closes, reality hits like a school bus.

“I’m free,” I mutter to myself, my eyes wide and unblinking, my caffeine-affected fingers trembling against the steering wheel. “Finally … free.” In the time it takes for me to round the circle and exit the school property, I’ve thought of a million things I could do with my day now that there are no witnesses.

Even though my older children didn’t need much supervision over the summer, I find the feeling of being completely alone — unfettered by parental responsibilities, social mores, ethical codes and rules of human decency — quite liberating.

Feeling a pang of hunger, I realize that there is no one to stop me from opening the neglected bag of cheese curls in the center console and pouring them directly into my upturned mouth. I turn the radio from the pop music station my girls insist on to my favorite – the 80s channel – and bellow “Karma Chameleon” as I turn onto Memorial Boulevard.  At one stop light, I floss my teeth, and at the next, I pluck my eyebrows. As I approach the Navy base gate guard, I flip off the radio and wipe my cheese stained mouth on my sleeve.

Leave no witnesses.

At home, I spend a good 20 minutes on the floor snuggling with our dog, Moby, before planning my day. There’s no one home to hear me talking to Moby out loud or to see him licking my face. There is no one there to balk, demand my attention, or roll their eyes. There is no one to embarrass, shame or disgust.

It’s just me, for once, and it’s wonderful.

Sure, we moms feel a pang of guilt at deceiving our children in this way. Here they are, off at school, thinking that boring old Mom is home jotting down new sandwich ideas, organizing their homework spaces, and thinking nothing but nurturing thoughts. When in reality, we are leading a double life.

With the freedom that the school year affords, we moms can mop our kitchen floors while singing the entire Sound of Music soundtrack, complete with “Lonely Goatherd” yodeling and “Climb Every Mountain” contralto vibrato. We can fold laundry while binge-watching DVRed episodes of Fixer Upper. We can meet our work friends out for long lunches, or stay home and eat logs of cookie dough all alone. We can join base bowling leagues, or teach ourselves the Ukulele from YouTube videos. We can take a yoga classes, or just wear the pants all day.

Whatever we moms decide to do with our time, it’s our little secret, and our kids would be wise to keep up our little charade.

For example, there is no sense in suggesting that the chicken drumstick and mashed potatoes on your plate was cooked by the Colonel. We may have run out of time between pottery class and that sale at the outlet mall, so just say, “This dinner is delicious, Mom!” and be thankful that we had time to run through the drive-thru. Also, don’t complain if Mom shows up late for practice pick ups. You have no idea how hard it is to attend a friend’s jewelry party and  “like” all the funny cat videos on Facebook in one afternoon. Lastly, don’t comment on new hair styles, funky jewelry, or sudden tattoos. Mom may be finding herself, or recovering from a girls night out — either way, it’s her business.

Moms spend most of their adult lives revolving around their kids, so they deserve some time to do what they want. 

So, shhhhh … mum’s the word.

A Tale for Those Left Behind


Their eyes were locked on me, reading my every thought, prying at my secrets, peering uninvited into my soul. The light over the table swayed, uncomfortably bright. Beads of cold sweat sprouted along my hairline. I braced myself for the inevitable interrogation…

“How do you like the pork chops, Dumpling?” she asked, with a nonchalance that belied her intrusive stare.

“Delicious, Mom,” I sputtered between cheekfulls of pork and potatoes, hoping that the compliment might end my ordeal.

“So, what happened at school today?” my father pressed while pushing applesauce around his plate.

Wide-eyed and hunched in a self-protective posture at the opposite end of our kitchen table, I muttered the one word that had allowed me to avoid my parents’ attention for so many years: “Nothin’.”

“Well, something, must’ve happened at school today. Here, I’ll help you out. So … you stepped off the bus, and then?” he badgered, mercilessly.

My older brother, Tray, had recently gone off to the Naval Academy, leaving me home alone, with our parents. For so many years, I had flown completely under the radar. But now, my only sibling was gone.

As the first born, Tray had always carried the entire burden of my parents’ expectations for their offspring. I had merely been the unremarkable little sister of The Golden Boy, The Favorite, The Apple of Their Eye. Tray not only fulfilled, but exceeded their hopes — he was a popular top athlete with gifted math and science skills, who went on to become a Navy jet pilot. His obvious superiority left me free to drift contentedly through childhood, bouncing unnoticed between mediocre and above average.

Wearing ratty Converse Chucks, hand-me-down jean cut-offs, and a camp t-shirt, I’d ride my yellow Schwinn through our neighborhood, my Kool-Aid backpack packed with a cheese sandwich, a few Wacky Package collectors cards, and a Thermos of Tang. On rainy days I’d stay in my room, lost in elaborate pretend scenarios, or I’d play my mother’s old 45s on my Fisher Price record player.

As a child, I did not resent Tray for getting all of my parents’ attention. Quite the contrary, I relished my quiet, comfortable, ignored existence, and happily hid in the humongous shadow of the older brother that I, too, idolized.

But then he left home, and suddenly, the gig was up.

It was as if my parents, Durwood and Diane, looked through the unexpected void left by my brother’s absence and noticed, “Oh yeah … Who is that there? Is that the other one … the little dumpy one … what’s her name again? Oh yes, it’s Lisa!”

I was entering the tenth grade, when I suddenly became the subject of my parents undivided attention. Mom was now interested in what I wore, my social behavior, and how I did my hair. “Oh, Dumpling, let me help you give a little height to those bangs,” she would say, licking her thumb.

My Dad, who had no previous interest in my athletic accomplishments, which by the way, included a second place ribbon for the standing broad jump at church camp, started showing up to all of my high school swim meets. My teammates knew this sudden change in attention made me nervous, and would alert me when he appeared in the chlorine-steamed stands, “Head’s up, Lisa — Durwood’s here!”

Night after agonizing night, I was interrogated by my parents at the dinner table, forced to reveal my likes, dislikes, social pursuits, academic achievements, ambitions, disappointments, hopes and dreams. Durwood and Diane took an unprecedented interest in me, having long talks about life, getting me horseback riding lessons, taking photographs of me before dances, and bragging about me to their friends.

It was like I was their kid or something. Weird.

Thirty-five years later, our youngest child, Lilly, is wide-eyed and crouched defensively in her chair at the dinner table, as if we are about to pummel her with dinner rolls. Her sister left for college last month, and Lilly’s instinct is telling her, the gig is up.

But there’s no need for those left behind to afraid. I’ve lived through it myself, and I’m here to tell the tale. It will take some time, but soon, you will get used to being the center of attention.

Those strange people who’ve been ignoring you all these years? Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They are simply your parents, and they are finally beginning to realize that you are pretty darned interesting after all.

Is there life after terminal leave? Keep on dreaming…

dream cartoon

Ever since my retired Navy husband, Francis, went on terminal leave, I’ve been having some pretty weird dreams.

Nowadays, some prefer to use the label “transition leave” because it sounds a little less like someone is about to die, but no matter whether one uses the ominous traditional term or the newfangled sugarcoated expression, both describe the same thing: the period of accrued leave (up to 75 days) that a serviceperson can take before his or her final separation from the military.

Some lucky military servicepersons line up good civilian jobs before their leave time begins, making leave a veritable vacation. Others sail through their leave without a care in the world knowing they can survive comfortably on their military retirement pay due to independent wealth, or a spouse with a wicked good job, or an absence of major bills like mortgages and college tuition.

But then there are people like us.

We have a dog scheduled for expensive knee surgery, two kids with private college tuition, one child who goes over the data limit on her phone every month, a minivan with 180,000 miles on it and a funny rattling noise in the wheel well, tired old furniture in desperate need of replacement, and an embarrassing amount of accumulated debt.

I could claim that my writing career will carry us, but then again, I could also declare that monkeys will fly out of my belly-button. So, it’s a given: Francis has to get a new job before his terminal leave ends and he stops receiving a paycheck from Uncle Sam.

During this transition in our lives, we could either fight the psychosomatic effects of stress, or embrace them. Did you know that nail biting actually saves wear and tear on clippers? Facial ticks are a form of exercise. Wine actually tastes pretty good on Tuesday afternoons. Diarrhea can be quite cleansing. And terminal leave nightmares are kind of fun to interpret.

In this week’s nightmare, I had a big, sprawling house with lots of rooms. And even though it was my house, I was surprised by several hidden hallways, staircases and bedrooms. At some point, I became aware that I had houseguests. Dozens of them. The house suddenly looked cluttered and dirty. The dream turned chaotic, as I tried desperately to play hostess the hoard of guests. I was frantic to find them all clean towels, bedrooms and baths in the complicated maze of my mysterious house. Just before I woke up, I discovered that the bathrooms were infested with gobs and gobs of slimy black mold.

I couldn’t wait to ask Google what my bizarre nightmare was all about.

Apparently, “new room” dreams are actually quite common. According to www.DreamMoods.com and most other online dream interpretation sources, a house represents “self” or “inner psyche,” and finding new rooms in that house can indicate that the dreamer is facing something new or unknown about himself or herself. Finding dirty or cluttered rooms implies that some aspect of the dreamer’s life is in chaos. It can also mean that the dreamer is suffering from some emotional or psychological clutter, and needs to release these feelings in order to regain control.

What other common dreams may appear during stressful transitions in life?

Teeth falling out can indicate problems with confidence or self-expression. Being late to, or forgetting to study for, a school exam implies that the dreamer feels judged or unprepared for a challenge. Dreams of falling happen when one feels unsupported or out-of-control, but are also linked to a “fall from grace.” Dreams of being naked in public can indicate shame, fear of exposure, and vulnerability. Being chased in a dream can represent fear that a secret, an addiction, or a debt may catch up with you. Dreaming of being in an out-of-control vehicle can indicate a lack of direction in life.

But interestingly, flying often indicates that the dreamer is feeling empowered and optimistic.

So, for those who have recently retired from the military or are considering retirement, never fear. Even if you find yourself toothless on a date, naked in church, late for a Calculus exam, or being chased by wolverines, remember that it’s only a dream. One day soon terminal leave will be over, and with any luck, you’ll be flying high.

Shop, Drop, and Enroll


“Three decorative pillows or just two?” my daughter Anna asked in front of a colorful display of bedding at a local Homegoods store. It was 7:00pm, and we had been shopping since the stores opened that morning.

The first place we stopped was the Apple Store, where I spent over a thousand bucks in less than 15 minutes buying Anna a new laptop that was required for her major. After that we hit Zara, H&M, Macy’s, JC Penny, Target, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, JoAnn Fabrics, TJ Maxx and Homegoods.

“What’s another $20 bucks at this point?” I replied to Anna in utter defeat and near starvation. “Definitely get three.”

Two weeks later, we pulled up to her dorm at Syracuse University, our minivan packed to the gills with fluffy new bedding, posters, a clip on lamp, school supplies, a throw rug, a shower caddy, towels, a desk set, a fan, pop-up laundry bins, six months worth of toiletries, various snacks, cases of bottled water, a microwave, a coffee maker, and yes, three decorative pillows.

Happy, helpful sophomores garbed in blazing orange, whose parents had been victims of “The Dorm Room Shakedown” the previous year, were awaiting our arrival with huge rolling bins to cart thousands of dollars worth of unnecessary products up to assigned rooms.

“Hi!” they shouted with rehearsed enthusiasm, shaking us out of our road trip stupor, “I’m Sean/Cassandra/Matt! I’d love to help you move in!” They filled two of the rolling carts to capacity, then guided us like sheep to slaughter to the dorm elevators.

In the newfangled co-ed hallway, Anna found her room, which was a “split double” — one room separated down the middle by a wall of closets and dressers. This gave Anna and her roommate their own private spaces within one room.

Anna’s roommate had already moved in, and her side was so spectacular, it looked like something straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue. We stared at her shabby chic bedside table, complete with a vase of peonies and a trendy mirrored lamp. There were whitewashed faux ironwork wallhangings, cool enlarged letters, clear canisters filled whimsically with popcorn and pretzels. Her rug was larger, her bed risers were higher, and she had way more than three decorative pillows.

Concerned that Anna’s room would look a cell at Rikers Island by comparison, we quickly unloaded everything we’d already purchased, and left to find the nearest Target. Two-hundred more bucks later, we added modern shelving, storage bins, two strings of twinkle lights, curtains, a coat rack, hangers, plastic drawers and a bowl of fresh fruit.

While Anna and I scrambled to decorate, Francis retreated to the busy co-ed hallway. “Eyes forward!” we heard him bark in military fashion when passing boys tried to sneak a peak at his daughter.

Before saying good-bye to Anna the next day, we all went to her dining hall to take advantage of the free lunch offered to new parents. I contemplated filling my purse with chicken tenders to supplement the beans and rice we’d be eating at home for the next six months, but selected a modest plateful of quinoa-spinach-mango salad and coconut shrimp instead.

“You know, Anna,” Francis said between mouthfuls of made-to-order chicken salad panini, “when I went to college, all I brought was the blue quilt off my bed and a Journey poster. And our dining hall only had things like casseroles and meatloaf. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”

Looking confused, Anna chomped her gourmet veggie pizza, and said, “Want anything from the Froyo Bar?”

When it was all said and done, Anna’s room looked better than the hotel room we stayed in at the Syracuse Holiday Inn, and had much better coffee. But then again, our hotel was only $100 with our military discount. I guess the old adage is true: you get what you pay for.

Or in this case, your college kids get what you pay for.

Yard Sale Booty Blues

Make it rain, baby!

Make it rain, baby!

“I’ll give you thirty bucks for all of it,” the man said in a heavy Rhode Island accent, gesturing to a table heaped with vintage toys from my childhood that I’d decided to sell at a recent neighborhood yard sale.

“Are you kidding me?!” I blurted incredulously.

“No way!” I continued, “I could get that much on Ebay for just the Dawn Dolls … and you want my Holly Hobby sewing machine, my Sunshine Family, my Barbies, and my Bionic Woman Doll … complete with the original box and accessories, too? What … are you nuts?”

A crowd of yard sale-ers stopped milling about my folding tables heaped with used junk to witness our banter. As the Rhode Island con artist did his best to swindle me out of the beloved toys that I’d refused to part with through nine military moves, I realized that my inside hoarder was getting the better of me.

It’s time to give up old things, I told myself.

But my inside hoarder resisted total surrender: “Gimme thirty-five at least!”

In the end, I settled for $32 and stood back as he callously threw my precious relics into his van. “Be careful!” I shouted pathetically, “You almost dropped the Bionic Woman’s Morse code translator!”

Two hours after our yard sale had ended, my husband, Francis, and I were headed to a Connecticut casino with a Ziplock baggie stuffed with $276 of yard sale booty, along with tickets to the Counting Crows/Rob Thomas concert that night.

“Make it rain, baby!” I yelled from the passenger’s seat of our minivan, jingling the baggie and envisioning a wild night of prime cuts of beef, top shelf cocktails, double-or-nothing winnings, and sweaty rock songs.

Mohegan Sun appeared quite suddenly in the Connecticut woods, and with our baggie securely stashed in my fanny pack, we found our way to the casino. I pictured us shouting excitedly over a crowded roulette wheel or muttering “Hit me” at a suspense-filled blackjack table, but we were lost in the indoor jungle of flashing lights, ringing bells and cigarette smoke. Overwhelmed, we found ourselves feeding bills into a lonely poker machine near the restrooms.

After five minutes, we cashed in our whopping $8 winnings and went to one of the many casino restaurants, where we shared a delicious stack of chicken and waffles drenched in Vermont maple syrup and sprinkled with crispy onion straws before heading to the concert.

Rob Thomas took the stage singing recognizable tunes such as “This Is How a Heart Breaks,” “Her Diamonds,” and “Someday.” We would normally leap to our feet at a concert, but we’d gotten up early for the yard sale, and we were both feeling full from dinner.

Besides, most of the crowd of 40-to-60-year-olds stayed seated too, with the exception of a surprising number of women, whose peri-menopausal hormones were compelling them to gyrate their capri-ensconced hips quite enthusiastically. The women reached out longingly to Rob Thomas, and being a 40-something himself, he obliged with an excellent performance.

“Oh good grief,” I cringed halfway through the show, after Francis let a belch slip by that reeked of those crispy onion straws.

“Sorry,” he confessed, “do you have any Tums in that fanny pack?”

The next act was the one Francis had been waiting for. Back in the 90s, he played Counting Crows’ August and Everything After album a zillion times on our old CD player. “Time to get sweaty,” he said as lead singer Adam Duritz took the stage.

But soon it was clear that we were all getting a little too old for these late-night endeavors.

Duritz, now 52-years-old himself and endowed with an ample gut, loped around the stage as if he suffered from joint degeneration. We felt Duritz’s pain literally and figuratively, as we shifted in our seats to ward off hip numbness.

Although Duritz displayed his true artistry on the stage that night, the middle-aged crowd was not long for this world, fighting back yawns by ten o’clock.

“For criminy’s sake, Honey!” I winced on our way home after Francis expelled another pungent belch.

The strange combination of the day’s events had taught me that, getting rid of old things in life won’t stop the sands of time. Just like Francis’ crispy onion straws, the years will just keep on repeating.

chick n waffles

%d bloggers like this: