Deflated egos pump up controversy

Photo courtesy of abcnews.go.com

Photo courtesy of abcnews.go.com

After our beloved Steelers’ humiliating defeat in the wild card round a few weeks ago, my husband and I realized that we needed to pick another NFL team to support if we wanted a valid excuse to laze around on weekends watching football and eating processed cheese products.

We decided on the Packers because they’re “old school,” but when they lost to the Seahawks in the Conference Championships, we found ourselves scrambling. Do we admit defeat and go shovel the sidewalks? No! As long as there’s queso dip left in the house and we haven’t developed bed sores, we’re staying right here on this couch!

Seeing as our family is stationed on a Navy base in New England, I hastily offered my loyalties to the Patriots. And besides, Tom Brady’s pretty easy on the eyes. My husband feared I was suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome, and snapped, “C’mon, we don’t want the Patriots to go to the Super Bowl again! They need to give someone else a chance!”

Despite the tiny bead of drool that had formed in the corner of my mouth as I thought about that adorable dimple in Tom Brady’s chin, I appreciated his point. The Patriots are just so damned good, and good looking, aren’t they? With all their championship titles and the longest winning streak NFL history, they’re getting way too big for their shimmering spandexed britches.

Suddenly, that ruggedly stubbled dimple stopped being the object of my obsession and became the symbol of life’s inherent unfairness. “Yeah!” I spouted, “Give someone else a chance!”

For the next four hours, we sat transfixed, hoping the Patriots — the Popular Crowd, the Most Likely to Succeed, the Golden Boys, the Kids with the Pumped Up Kicks — would get creamed by the underdog Colts. But every completed Patriot pass seemed to dredge up more deep-seated adolescent insecurities from our youths.

By halftime, I felt like I was in 8th grade all over again, standing against the cafeteria wall during the school dance, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down Wranglers with cheap knock-off boat shoes and a polyester sweater, watching the sparkly popular girls sway to Rupert Holmes’ “Piña Colada Song” with all the cute boys.

When the Patriots made their sixth touchdown during the fourth quarter, I lost all faith that there was ever any justice in the world. Defeated, my husband and I peeled our bodies out of the deep depressions that had formed under us on the sofa, and sulked off to bed.

The next day, nightly news reports of “Deflate-Gate” only served to further fuel our bitterness. “I knew it, they’re cheaters!” My husband’s teeth gnashed with fury reconstituted from his husky childhood.

The litany of the day’s news reports continued: “Some say that Mitt Romney needs to give someone else a chance to run for President.” “Days after ‘American Sniper’ receives six Oscar nominations, Navy SEAL’s heroism is questioned.” “As Taylor Swift’s latest album sales exceed four million, rumors swirl that Justin Bieber will diss her in upcoming song.” “US days as a global superpower are numbered.”

Absorbing the news of that day, I found myself wondering: Is our tendency to root for underdogs a manifestation of human inferiority complex? Do foreign nations target America because they covet our obvious prosperity? Does the instant-gratification-selfie-generation seek to discredit our military heroes in order to overcompensate for their own lack of sacrifice?

I pondered… Are we refusing to pump up the Patriots because of our own deflated egos?

Searching my soul, I realized that, deflated balls aside, the Patriots are an outstanding football team worthy to compete in their eighth Super Bowl Championship. So next Sunday, while seated on a comfy couch, I’ll give credit where credit is due.

Well, at least as long as the queso holds out.

Queso

 

Cornerstones and Cannoli

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Paul Revere statue on the Freedom Trail

George Washington once said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent may we be lead, like sheep to slaughter.” It was with this same logic that our kids mouthed off at us recently.

“History?! What do you mean we’re going to experience ‘history’?!” Lilly whined from the back of the minivan. Anna’s groggy eyes peered incredulously from under a mop of bed head. Hayden, still half asleep, grimaced in solidarity with his sisters.

It was 9 am, which on weekends, is essentially the middle of the night to our three teenagers, and we were driving from our base house on Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island to Boston to spend the day walking “The Freedom Trail.”

“This is our last chance to do something as a family before Hayden goes back to college, so zip it,” my husband Francis dictated like King George. Too sleepy to battle, the kids surrendered and went immediately back to sleep.

With the uprising squelched, I settled into my seat to study the tour book while Francis drove us north on Route 24. As long as we didn’t freeze to death, we would walk the 2.5 mile trail through downtown Boston, past 16 sites that played a pivotal roll in the dramatic struggle for the ideals of freedom of speech, religion, government, and self-determination.

Although our kids would have rather gone to school wearing headgear, we wanted them to experience the events that sparked the American Revolution over two centuries ago. Glancing in the visor mirror at our teenagers sprawled open-mouthed in the back seats, I repeated the thought that had passed through my mind countless times: “Hopefully they’ll appreciate this one day.”

Somehow, it was my fault when Francis missed the hairpin turn the GPS ordered him to take in Boston’s Financial District — my husband is Irish-Italian after all — but we eventually arrived at the parking garage recommended by our tour book.

Our hike began at the Old State House, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, where in 1761 patriot James Otis rendered a five-hour speech that ignited the colonists’ original rebellion. Only 15 years later, the newly-signed Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the people of Boston from the building’s balcony.

If only we were holding muskets, our family of five would have passed for bedraggled revolutionary militia, as we fought the bitter winds to march over the site of the Boston Massacre north toward the Charles River. We thought we saw the “two if by sea” lanterns hanging on the Old North Church steeple, Paul Revere’s signals that British “regulars” were coming to invade. But thankfully, it was only the neon lights of the restaurants and bakeries on the North End, Boston’s version of Little Italy.

“C’mon, let’s go there, puhleeeese!?” the troops protested, pointing wearily to red-awninged Pizzeria Regina. In order to quell their cries of Starvation Without Representation, we allowed the majority to rule and stopped for lunch.

The meal was of historic proportions, and our patriots were properly refueled to survive the rest of the march, even while lugging plastic doggie bags of leftover slices. We passed three more sites — Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, The Old North Church, and Paul Revere’s house — before the kids asserted their inalienable right to dessert.

Sucking pistachio-laced ricotta from a cannoli the size of my boot, I tasted the benefits of freedom as we trudged on toward the Old South Meeting House, the Massachusetts State House, and Boston Common; stopping at the graves of John Hancock, Sam Adams, and Paul Revere along the way.

In the end, we completed the 2.5 mile Freedom Trail before dusk, and were safely splayed out on our family room couch, channel surfing by 8 pm.

“Hey Dad,” Hayden interrupted Francis’ game of smartphone solitaire, “check this out.” Ironically, CNN was covering breaking news of the discovery of a time capsule buried by Paul Revere and Sam Adams 225 years ago in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. The latex-gloved scientists displayed the copper box of artifacts for the cameras, as our son gazed at the television, his face expressing newfound respect for the brave determination of our founding fathers.

As debate over freedom of speech rages on in Paris, in the media, and in our family of five, America stands as a shining beacon to the rest of the world of what can be accomplished when, at all costs, people demand to be heard.

The sweet taste of freedom -- pistachio cannoli from Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End

The sweet taste of freedom — pistachio cannoli from Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End

copper time capsule

The copper time capsule buried by Paul Revere and Sam Adams that was recently found in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House

The Dieter’s Wall

drumstick

Okay, seriously people, this isn’t fun anymore. It’s been two weeks since I started this diet, and I am officially starving.

Don’t give me a bunch of baloney (although processed pork products sound mouthwateringly delicious in my weakened state) about how a low-cal protein snack will stave off hunger pangs. A rolled up slice of turkey just isn’t gonna cut it.

No matter how many times some rich celebrity — who, incidentally, eats diet meals prepared by her personal chef and has a trainer who comes to her home gym — tells you that “the pounds just melt away,” dieting is hard.

Sure, the first few days can be fun. The same way raking leaves seems fun for the first 15 minutes until you realize that it’s going to take three hours and you’ll have to do it every weekend. Or the way cooking dinner seems like fun when you’re first married, but then 20 years later, you’d rather chew your own arm off than prepare another meal. Or the way running seems like fun until you come to the end of the second block and suddenly feel as if your heart might explode.

Yea, dieting is kinda like that. By the end of the second week, I want someone to hit me in the head with a frying pan — preferably one that has just fried me up a few crisp slices of bacon — to put me out of my misery.

I hit that dieter’s wall this week while shopping at the commissary. The satiating effect of the protein shake I guzzled that morning had worn off, and I was beginning to feel that familiar grumbling in the pit of my stomach.

We all know it. That burning in your innards — unnoticeable at first, it slowly builds as you weave through the grocery aisles, until you’re ready to grab a cheese ball out of the dairy case and eat it like an apple, cellophane and all.

I rushed from my minivan, across the blustery commissary parking lot, and into the store. Everything was fine in produce, where I followed my grocery list to a tee, except for the bagged Lite Caesar Salad Kit I decided would make a satisfying diet lunch.

I made it through the canned goods, baking supplies and cereal without incident, but as my hunger amassed, things began to unravel in the snack food aisle. With each step, the burning in my gut seared deeper, until I felt as if I might implode like the collapsing core of a supernova, transforming the entire commissary into a giant black hole and destroying civilization as we know it.

That’s when it happened. Lying there, on the shelf beside the display of Pringles, I saw it. Some coupon clipper had generously left me a lifeline. “One dollar off five cans,” it read, which seemed such a fantastic deal, it was compulsory. Saliva dripped from my lower lip as I loaded the Pringles into my cart.

By the time I approached the check out area, I had grabbed Oreos, frozen pizza, apple turnovers, and a one-pound block of cheddar cheese. Blinded by desperation, I caught the tantalizing aroma of roasted chicken.

Two rotisserie chickens soon joined the mountain of forbidden foods heaped onto the cashier’s conveyor belt. While the bagger loaded my groceries into the back of the minivan, I wondered how I could sneak food to the front seat for the drive home.

I had done this before. “Oh, I’d better put the chicken up front to keep it warm,” I had fibbed to other baggers during past diets. By the time I pulled into my driveway, my face and steering wheel were slick with grease, and with a drumstick clenched between my teeth, I was a dead ringer for Henry the VIII.

But sadly, the opportunity never came. Instead, I barely made it home to my driveway, where I frantically dug through the trunk to find that Caesar salad kit. I stumbled into the house without unloading my groceries and devoured my lunch out of a Tupperware bowl while standing at the kitchen counter.

Disaster may have been averted that day, but I won’t sugarcoat the truth — as much as I’d love something, anything sugarcoated right about now. I will hit another wall, but I refuse to give up. As long as I can make it over each obstacle, even with a drumstick hanging out of my mouth, I’ll eventually win the battle.IMG_3104

Teen Terms

anna bubbleLast night, my husband and I were in the family room of our base house, droning into another morally bankrupt reality show, when suddenly, there was a rumbling down the staircase.

“Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad!” our 16-year-old daughter, Anna, sputtered, while jumping up and down in front of us.

“What is it, Anna!” I shouted, half expecting her hair to be on fire.

“He asked me to hang out! He asked me to hang out! He asked me to hang out!” Anna yelled while fist-pumping into the air.

Who asked you to, to … to hang out, and what do you mean, ‘hang out’ anyway?”

Still surging with pent up excitement, Anna grabbed the arm of the couch, and repeatedly kicked both feet behind her. “Alden! Alden! Alden asked me to hang out!” she answered between donkey kicks.

We already knew all about Alden. In fact, every day for the last few months, we’d been hearing Anna talk about this boy – how cute he was, how he would come to the Art room to talk to her after school, how great the article was that he wrote for the school newspaper, how he was named Athlete of the Week, how he danced with her at the holiday ball, how he kissed her in the theater costume closet, yada, yada, yada.

“Oh,” my husband chimed in, “you mean he finally asked you out on a real date?”

Oh, Geeze. I wish he hadn’t said that. For the next 20 minutes, our daughter rolled her eyes, tsked, and sighed while trying to explain why he was not her boyfriend and they were certainly not going on a date. “We’re just hanging out!” Anna said with one last spasmodic flail of arms and legs, before running off to get dolled up to meet Alden.

Apparently, teen romance as we know it has changed completely. The terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are now used sparingly, only when two teenagers are very “serious.” Until then, they are referred to as “talking.” When one talking teen asks his corresponding talking teen to go out with him to a restaurant or movie, this is most definitely not a date. Now, this is called “hanging out.”

But be aware that “hanging out” must not be confused with “hooking up” which, thankfully does not mean what it did back in the eighties. Nowadays “hooking up” is a vague term that can be used to describe anything from a mere peck on the cheek, to — God Forbid — all kinds of other acts in which our teenage daughter will not engage unless she wants to be grounded for life. Also, parents should refrain from referring to kissing as “making out,” “mashing,” “frenching,” or “necking,” which teenagers today consider as antiquated as butterfly clips and Beanie Babies.

Anna eventually reappeared in the family room, all glossed up and ready to go on her non-date with her non-boyfriend. My husband drove her to the base gate, and got out of the car to introduce himself to Alden. After shaking hands, Anna’s father looked the boy directly in the eye for a moment, communicating without the need for words that, regardless of what terms teens are using these days, we’ve all been there, and we know exactly what they’re up to.

Back when Anna and I spoke the same language

Back when Anna and I spoke the same language

Give Resolutions a Shot

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsWhen the holiday is over, the presents have been put away, and the leftover roast has been made into soup, there’s a part of me that just wants to savor it all. To snuggle up on the couch with the kids in my new pjs, nibbling from the tin of stale Christmas cookies, basking in the glow of the dying Christmas tree, watching movie marathons until my eyeballs bleed.

These days, there’s so much hustle and bustle associated with the holidays, it’s nice to linger a while. Let it all sink in. Take a moment to stop and appreciate the richness of our military life, our families, and our traditions, before another hectic year is in full swing.

However, there’s another part of me that gets antsy. Like the plaque accumulating in my arteries from too much cheese dip, or the needles piling up under the tree, or the mounting credit card bills — the holiday builds. By midnight on New Year’s Eve, I’m ready to purge.

It’s all I can do to make it through the obligatory pork-and-sour-kraut on New Year’s Day, before I want to rid the entire house of holiday décor and begin my new and improved lifestyle. Something takes over in me, and after weeks of excess and sloth, I’m hell bent on eating enough fiber, taking 10,000 steps a day, keeping accurate financial records, compulsively vacuuming, and fundamentally changing my entire personality.

Inevitably, about a month or two into it, my bad habits creep back in. Small setbacks send me into tailspin of guilt, and before I know it, I’m on the couch in the middle of the afternoon watching reality show reruns in order to avoid my responsibilities, with my lips wrapped around an entire can of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles.

Sometimes, I make a little progress, and sometimes, I fail completely. So why bother making New Year’s Resolutions at all?

It’s not just me. About 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions with some kind of cathartic change in mind. Lose ten pounds. Get organized. Quit smoking. Reduce debt. Get a new job. Stop procrastinating. Spend less time on electronic devices. Whether we hope to rid ourselves of debt, chaos, pounds, or bad habits, New Year’s Resolutions are supposed to make our lives better. But do they?

Some psychologists believe that New Year’s Resolutions make us unhappy because they set us up for certain failure, and nobody wants to feel like a failure these days. According to a 2014 University of Scranton study, only 8 percent of Americans who make resolutions are successful in meeting their goals after one year.

However, 46% reported having kept their goals past six months. Not too shabby. Most encouragingly, the statistics show that people who make New Year’s resolutions are 10 times more likely to change their behavior than people who don’t make resolutions at all.

So, even if science indicates that I’ll still be a disorganized procrastinator chomping a King-sized Snickers Bar come mid-February, I’m still giving my New Year’s resolutions a try.

Sure, I might screw it up again, but who wants to be a sniveling cynic who never sticks his neck out for fear of failure? Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The mere resolution to change for the better shows that, at the very least, I have the courage to give it a shot.

 

 

Hide-a-beds, shared bathrooms, and other holiday traditions

familyvisits

With a tiny snort, you awaken from a bad dream about being tied to a railroad track with a locomotive barreling toward you. You grope in the darkness, relieved to find yourself under a blanket, in bed, with no threat of being torn to smithereens by an oncoming freight train.

Relieved yet half-conscious, you exhale with a soft grumble, smack your lips, and turn on your side to nuzzle back into your pillow.

Ouch! What’s that dull pain across the middle of your back? It dawns on you: I’m not in my own bed. Your eyelids open, one after the other, and in the dim early morning light, you take in your surroundings to allow your internal GPS to determine it’s location.

Wood paneling. Burnt sienna sculpted carpeting. Wagon wheel light fixture. Console television. Framed portrait of you in the 4th grade with an enormous split between your two front teeth. And an excruciatingly uncomfortable metal bar pressing against the middle of your back.

Rerouting

“Oh yea,” you finally recall, “It’s the holidays. I’m in Pennsylvania. At my mother’s house. In the basement that my parents converted into a family room in 1977. On a hide-a-bed couch.”

Although you’d rather lay there uncomfortably, reminiscing about growing up in that little brick ranch, nature calls. You slowly roll your aching torso to the edge of the paper-thin mattress, setting off a cacophony of squeaking springs. Standing silently by the brown, orange, and harvest gold plaid couch, you wait until you’re sure your spouse is still asleep, before tip-toeing up the stairs to the bathroom.

Ever since moving out of your childhood home, you have enjoyed the basic human entitlements of the public drinking and waste water system. You’ve become accustomed to the ample gush of clear, cool, potable water from faucets, shower heads, and toilet tanks.

But in the one tiny bathroom shared by every living soul in your mother’s crowded house, there are issues you’ve long since forgotten about. As you open the door, you detect the faintly familiar odor of rotten eggs

You are about to blame your Uncle Eddie, who went overboard on the sausage dip the night before, but then you remember that the sulfurey well water is the source of the offending odor, something you were oblivious to growing up in that house.

On the speckled Formica countertop is a note from your mother, reminding the family of the limitations of the well and septic tank: “If it’s brown, flush it down, but if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” You sit on the mint-green porcelain commode, leafing through an old National Geographic, wondering how on Earth you grew up this way.

After waiting a minute or two for the water supply to recover from your flush, you get in the shower. Your pampered hair follicles will have to survive on the 79 cent bottle of VO5 Strawberries and Cream shampoo your mother bought at the discount store with a coupon. Mid-lather, one of your kids knocks, begging, “Please! I gotta go!”

Ignoring Grammy’s hand-written sign, she flushes. “Ahhh!” you yelp, as scalding hot water cascades from the shower head. There’s another knock at the bathroom door, as other family members enter to brush their teeth and use the toilet while you brave the water temperature fluctuations behind the frosted glass shower doors.

Eventually, you emerge from the only bathroom, dressed and ready for another day of visiting with family over the holidays. You might get dirty looks from your relatives, who have to wait an hour for the hot water supply to build back up before they can shower. You might have frizzy hair from your mother’s cheap shampoo. And you might suffer a few back spasms from sleeping on that damned hide-a-bed.

But you don’t mind because you realize that having family to visit with over the holidays is a blessing in disguise. These quirky people brought you into this world and are the reason you are never alone. No matter how annoying holiday family visits might seem, when you consider the alternative, you know it’s all relative.

One of THOSE People

colonialsense

Photo courtesy of colonialsense.com

You may want to grab a pencil and paper, because I’m about to impart a priceless little jewel of wisdom: There are two sides to every street.

I imagine you are most likely stunned by my remarkable mastery of the obvious, but try to focus on this helpful illustration: On the east end of Anystreet in Anytown, USA, there stands a brick colonial. Four bedrooms, faux shutters, window boxes, and neatly trimmed hedges.

Homeowner husband Niles Rutheford, at the behest of homeowner wife Brooke, retrieves a stepladder from the garage to hang the seasonal decorations on the house. It is the weekend after Thanksgiving because, of course it would be gauche to decorate for the holidays any sooner.

While Niles stands on the ladder in his nubuck driving moccasins, Chinos and a loden half-zip lambswool sweater, Brooke hands him an assortment of pomegranates, pears, magnolia leaves and pine boughs to decorate the arched pediment over the front door. Taking care not to scratch her riding boots, Brooke removes the fall bittersweet and decorative cabbage displays from the window boxes, and replaces them with an artful and fragrant arrangement of pineapples, holly berries, and eucalyptus.

Preferring Colonial authenticity to garish 20th Century light displays, the Ruthefords opt to place a single flickering LED cordless candlestick in each of the front windows. With their holiday decorating completed in just two hours, the Ruthefords head to the Starbucks drive through in their Range Rover for chai teas and croissants.

On the west end of Anystreet, there stands a classic vinyl-sided split level. Three bedrooms, a family room, and an apartment in the basement for Aunt Trixie and Uncle Wayne. While homeowner wife Dawn Pachinski goes shopping on Black Friday, homeowner husband Buck and son Cletus take the extension ladder out from under the trampoline, and 17 Rubbermaid tubs filled with outdoor holiday decorations from the shed.

While Cletus inflates the giant rotating snow globe and elf carousel for the front lawn, Buck begins the arduous process of staple-gunning 7,000 lights to the roof, windows, doors, shed, fence, trees and shrubs. At some point, Uncle Wayne joins in to line the driveway with lighted candy canes and set up the 12-piece life-size nativity scene.

After six days of work, four trips to Home Depot, three puncture wounds and one cracked rib, the Pachinski property is a lighted holiday decor masterpiece, complete with computerized musical synchronization to “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” via FM transmitter.

A week later, the Ruthefords receive “Best Holiday Decor” recognition from the Anytown Garden Club, but some residents feel their snooty décor lacks spirit. Conversely, the Pachinskis receive a citation from the Anytown authorities for violating various local ordinances, but every kid in town says the Pachinskis have “the best Christmas lights ever.”

When we were stationed in Florida, our military friends told us about a local neighborhood with “the best Christmas lights ever.” That night, we packed the kids in the minivan and followed the directions our friends gave us, but were surprised to find a shabby collection of small older homes in a swampy wooded area just off the expressway. We were skeptical, but the long line of cars outside the neighborhood had us intrigued, so we waited.

A few minutes later, we entered the subdivision, and were amazed. Somehow, these ambitious swamp dwellers had hung hundreds of strings of lights vertically from the highest tree branches, so that the lights dangled straight down to the ground like electrified stalactites in every color imaginable. The affect was truly magical, and I had to admit, that neighborhood really did have “the best Christmas lights ever.

Ok, now brace yourself for another tidbit of priceless wisdom: Whatever your holiday décor preference, don’t judge, because the beauty of Christmas is in the eye of the beholder.

Photo courtesy of houseideas.biz

Photo courtesy of houseideas.biz

 

What’s the get in giving?

redkettleguy

Here you go again. You’re running from store to store, buying baking supplies, twinkle lights, a “Frozen” Plush Olaf for your niece and flat screen TV for your husband. You’ve got to get home to bake 12 dozen pecan tarts for the neighborhood cookie exchange, when it dawns on you.

You forgot the butter.

For the second time today, you approach the irresistibly cute Salvation Army bell ringer outside the grocery store. You want to tell the sweet little old man freezing his bippy off in the name of the needy, “I gave earlier today,” but you know darned well he doesn’t remember and will think you’re a cheapskate. So you sort through the gum wrappers and bobby pins to see if you can find a few more quarters in your purse.

But you realize that you put all your coins in the kettle during your last trip to the store, so you look for a single or two, only to find that you’ve only got a five spot. With trembling hands you fork over the five dollar bill you were hoping to use for a Vente Skinny Peppermint Mocha Latte with extra sprinkles on the way home.

You intentionally hesitate with your hand over the red kettle, wanting the bell ringer and everyone else to see the denomination of your bill and think, “Wow, she gave five whole dollars.

“Thank you for your kindness,” the old man says, and you walk into the grocery feeling like Mother Teresa.

In fact you feel so charitable that you decide to buy a few canned goods, in addition to your stick of butter, to put in the food bank collection at the front of the store. And while you’re at it, you grab a whiffle ball set to put in the Toys for Tots box too.

With a sanctimonious flip of your wrist, you zip your debit card through the reader just as the cashier asks, “Would you like to give a dollar to the Orphaned Kittens’ Sweater Knitting Guild?” Seven other impatient customers are in line behind you. The baggers are waiting for your answer. The cashier is staring blankly into your eyes.

Dead silence.

Another dollar? Seriously? Don’t you remember that I just gave a dollar for the stinking kittens when I was in here an hour ago, for criminy’s sake? This is entrapment! Let someone else dress the orphaned kittens! I just want to buy this damned stick of butter and go home!

As you search your brain for a valid excuse to say “No thanks,” you contemplate the essence of giving.

Charitable organizations raise the bulk of their income between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, when people are feeling generous. Salvation Army, for example, needs to collect $1.3 million this holiday season to fund its programs for the homeless and the poor, and they hope about $450,000 of that will be in donations to it’s iconic red kettles.

The US Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program collects toys in the months of October, November and December, to give to less fortunate youngsters as a message of hope to encourage them to become responsible, productive, patriotic citizens. Other national and local charities are collecting anything from money to canned goods to blankets to teddy bears for worthy causes.

Is giving about risking death by trampling to get the best bargain on an Xbox Assassin’s Creed Unity Bundle at Wal-Mart, or is it about providing for those who are truly in need?

“Absolutely,” you tell the cashier, realizing that the beauty of giving is that it is no bargain at all.

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The Dinghy that keeps our family afloat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQuite often, the thing that wakes me in the morning is not my alarm clock. It’s not the National Anthem blaring over the base loudspeakers. It’s not my husband plodding off to the bathroom. And it’s certainly not our teenagers getting themselves up on time.

Most mornings, our dog Dinghy, a 110-pound labradoodle with an explosion of blond hair and long gangly legs, is the first to wake me up. Whether he has snuck up onto our bed, leaving my husband and I teetering at the edges, or splayed out on the cool hardwood floor of our bedroom, he starts his morning with a stretch, followed by an elongated yawn before beginning his “bath.”

As a male dog, he starts with the unmentionable area that males find most important. After spending an inordinate amount of time licking that general location, he comically attempts to scratch inside his ears with his long awkward hind feet. Inevitably, he misses the first few times, haphazardly wapping his neck and the back of his head, until he finally finds that sweet spot. Without looking, I know he’s found it when I hear him grumble deeply as if to say, “Oh yea, that’s the ticket.”

Once done scratching, he cleans his paws in preparation for what is arguably one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. Alternating each enormous front foot, Dinghy wipes his own face over and over, then with paws daintily crossed, he licks them one last time.

When finished, he looks like the canine reincarnation of Phyllis Diller, but is ready to face the day. And after kissing the fuzzy top of his head, so am I.

There are so few constants in military life. We hold on to those things that bind us together and make us feel that, despite frequent moves, deployments, separations, and an uncertain future, we are a family. No matter where we are in the world, we belong to each other.

Ten months before my husband left for a yearlong deployment to Africa, we picked Dinghy out of a litter of fat pups on a farm in North Carolina. During that deployment, Dinghy chewed countless socks, dug trenches in our lawn, and stole an entire baked chicken off the kitchen counter, but he captured our hearts. Every morning, I’d open my eyes to his fuzzy face and hot breath, urging me, “Look! It’s another day! I want to spend it with you because you’re my best friend and I love you!”

Sure, some days became stressful and chaotic. I had my share of meltdowns and drank my share of wine. But I found it nearly impossible to be sad for long, because I started every morning staring into the face of pure, unconditional love and utter acceptance.

Dinghy moved with us from Virginia to Germany to Florida to Rhode Island. No matter whether we lived in a stairwell apartment, temporary quarters, base housing or on the economy, Dinghy, like us, felt at home as long as we were together.

Eight days ago, our family rented a cabin with no internet or phone service at a remote Navy Morale Welfare and Recreation center on Great Pond in the North Woods of Maine. We had a wonderful week of hiking, doing crafts, watching favorite movies, cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and cutting down our own Christmas tree. Dinghy was there with us, tramping through the woods, swimming after sticks in the cold lake, stealing socks, demanding attention, and sneaking into bed to snuggle with us at night.

As always, he was a constant reminder that we belong to each other and are loved.

Late on our last night in the cabin, Dinghy suddenly seemed sick. In the morning, my husband went to the park office to use the phone to call a veterinarian. But it was too late. Unbeknownst to us, Dinghy’s stomach had twisted – a sudden and deadly condition known as “bloat” – and he died that morning in our cabin, with us all around him. With permission from the park manager, we buried Dinghy in the woods near the lake under a huge elm tree.

This morning, for the first time since March of 2006, we woke up feeling sad. But Dinghy would not like that. In his unbridled enthusiasm and perpetual loyalty, he taught us that, as long as we have a family who loves and accepts us, every new day has promise.

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Appreciating Sacrifice

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I’m just a housewife, what the heck do I know?

Some days it seems my only expertise is how to wipe smudges off the refrigerator door, but it turns out, I’ve actually learned a thing or two in my 21 years as a military spouse.

I’ve learned that being in the United States military is not just a job – it is a lifestyle that requires the commitment of the entire family. Since the 1970s, our military has consisted entirely of volunteers who sign up to serve their country, knowing that their families will face sacrifices and hardships.

My husband has been on active duty in the Navy for 26 years, and our family has lived in nine different homes in five states and two foreign countries. He has spent many days away from home; the longest separation was a yearlong deployment to Djibouti. But we’ve been pretty lucky; other military families have had it much worse, with multiple deployments, back-to-back hardship tours and hazardous duty.

Even though military folks could have nice lives “on the outside” with, in most cases, better pay and stability for equivalent work, many have stayed well past their service obligation despite 13 long years of war.

Why on earth do they do it?

Although retirement benefits, compensation, and job stability are factors, there has always been a common sense of patriotic duty motivating military servicepersons to keep at it. It might sound clichéd to civilians, but the honor, pride and respect that has traditionally come with serving one’s country has been a key reason why military families continue to volunteer for duty year after year.

Well, at least until recently.

With all the talk of fiscal cliffs, sequestration, budget cuts, downsizing, draw down, veteran unemployment, force reduction, retention boards, and the public’s increasing war fatigue, military members are not exactly “feeling the love.” In fact, the armed forces could be facing the worst military retention rates since the post-Vietnam War era.

The 2014 Navy Retention Study released on September 1st examined which factors were impacting Sailors’ “stay/go” decisions, concluding that “Sailors are most likely to leave uniformed service because of increasingly high operational tempo, poor work/life balance, low service-wide morale, declining pay and compensation, waning desire to hold senior leadership positions, and a widespread distrust of senior leadership, all of which erodes loyalty to the institution.”

The Navy study revealed plummeting morale – only 17.7% of sailors ranked morale to be good or excellent — finding “a fundamental belief that attainment of senior positions … are not worth the sacrifice.”

Other branches of the service are also facing the negative impact of budget cuts and war fatigue on morale and retention of their servicepersons. The Blue Star Families 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicated that “[c]hanges in the national security priorities have ripple effects on military families that were evident in the responses of this year’s survey participants.”

The Survey participants perceived that “civilians do not understand the service or sacrifices made by military families.” Blue Star Families recommended that policy makers take note of “the contributions of the military service culture to American life.”

“One of the biggest challenges we face as a country is supporting our military community both so that our all-volunteer force remains a sustainable alternative, and so that a generation of service members, veterans and military family members are both empowered and encouraged to share their sense of service, adaptability, and civic mindedness with the nation and within local communities,” the Survey concluded.

I might just be a housewife whose biggest mental challenge today was remembering to defrost the rump roast, but I do know this:

On Veterans’ Day, we all need to snap out of the political buzz of election day long enough to appreciate the military men, women, and families who spend years committed to securing our country’s freedom.

At the very least, we can all grab the hand of a Veteran and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” Now, more than ever, military members and veterans need to be told that their sacrifices are indeed “worth it.”

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