Alarm bells ring … Are you listening?

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Every so often, something occurs that causes married couples to question everything.

It happened to me, just last week. One teensy disruption in our mundane bedtime ritual set off marital alarm bells, rendering me vulnerable to resentment, doubt and blame — destructive emotions that push otherwise happy couples like Francis and me, to the precipice of relationship disaster.

What was it that caused such extreme marital discord? The chirping smoke detector, of course.

Now, before judging me for overreacting to such a minor annoyance, let me set the scene.

Francis just retired from the Navy after 28 years, he’s still searching for a civilian job, we have to move off base, we’re putting our belongings into long-term storage, and we’re renting a furnished place until we know what our future holds.

And if that weren’t enough stress, it’s also the holidays.

I had just come upstairs after taking Moby out for his nightly back yard “deposit.” Francis was already in bed, and while not quite snoring, I could tell from the way his mouth was propped open, it was only a matter of seconds.

After completing my toilet-teeth-vitamins-pajamas regimen, I climbed into my side of the bed, nestled into the quilts, and opened my book.

This is my favorite moment of every day, when I let a good book wash away the reality of stress, wrinkles, dust, credit card bills, college applications, teenagers, break pads, cloud storage, dog hair, and lactose intolerance.

I was deep into Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and as my spine relaxed into the sheets, my mind escaped to colonial Massachusetts, where Wampanoag warriors lurked through moonlit woods toward a Puritan garrison. Pilgrims huddled nervously around their hearths, clutched their muskets, and listened for the sounds of siege …

“CHIRP!”

“Surely, that was one of the kids’ shoes squeaking on the floor,” I told myself.

No sooner did my mind drift back to the Pilgrims when — “CHIRP!” — it happened again.

There was no denying it. It was, most definitely, the low battery signal from one of our smoke detectors. “Maybe I can sleep through it.” I nudged a pillow over my ear.

“CHIRP!”

“Who am I kidding? Someone needs to get up and disarm that thing … but wait, why me? I’m lying here next to a grown man. A Navy man. I may have handled things independently when he was away, but he’s home now. Why the hell doesn’t he do it?”

I knew Francis was pretending to sleep. “Well, two can play this game,” I thought. We laid still through several more chirps, as my resentment grew.

“CHIRP!”

“Seriously?” I thought, “How can you call yourself a real man? Your wife and children are being assaulted by this insidious alarm, and you lay there and do nothing like a big hairy baby?! Why did I marry you, anyway?”

On the tenth chirp, I’d had it. I threw off my covers and stormed into the hallway, determined to beat the smoke alarm to death. At 60 second intervals, I followed each chirp, until I finally found the offending alarm in the basement. I yanked it from its plug on the ceiling, left it in the kitchen, and started back upstairs.

“CHIRP!” I could hardly believe my ears. How could the amputated alarm still be alive?

“You have to remove the battery too!” Francis bellowed from our bed.

I can’t be certain, but I think steam rose from my ears. Not only had Francis been wide awake during this fiasco, he was now barking orders to me, from the comfort of our bed.

On my way back to the kitchen, I was certain our relationship was doomed.

After I dissected the battery, the smoke alarm died a slow death, using its stored energy to chirp weakly one more time. And, as I watched its little red light fade to black, my ire faded too. I realized, it wasn’t the end of the world, or the end of our marriage. Spouses can be really annoying, but love means having perspective when alarm bells drive us to the brink.

And from Francis’ comfortable perspective, he actually believed he was being helpful.

Open letter: To the friends I ignore

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I can see it in your eyes. You’re not happy. You think I’ve been ignoring you. You think I’m an awful friend.

Not too long ago, we were close. We talked on the phone. We had lunch. We met at the gym. We exchanged texts. I showed interest in your life.

But recently, I’ve been aloof. I haven’t called. I stopped meeting you for coffee. I didn’t “Like” that photo you posted of your kids on Facebook.

To be quite honest, I haven’t given you a second thought.

But before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you: I’m not tired of you. I’m not hanging out with other friends. And I most certainly haven’t forgotten about you. The fact is, I haven’t been thinking much about you, or anyone else for that matter, because our family is moving again.

Counting those few months we lived in that creepy townhouse with the shag carpeting in Virginia Beach in 1998, and the half year we rented that funky beach shack in Jacksonville while we waited for base housing in 2011, our Navy family has moved nine times since Francis and I married 23 years ago.

I’m not bellyaching. Many military families have moved a lot more than we have, others have moved less. Besides, I’ve enjoyed every place we’ve lived. (Well, except for that townhouse. We had to clap twice before entering the kitchen to scare off the roaches, and it had a strange scent that smelled like pickles packed in moth balls.)

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter how many times a military family moves – what matters is that every move – whether it’s overseas or across town – is a big ordeal. The kind of thing that destroys daily routines, challenges the strongest coping skills, and turns grown adults into moody little brats.

It happens every time Francis receives Navy orders. My behavior doesn’t change at first, but as time passes, and our move dates get closer and closer, I slowly withdraw into my own chaotic, stressed, little world.

My normal everyday thoughts about dog hair, power walks, coffee, defrosting chicken, and Friday night fire pits — are slowly replaced, one by one, with frantic ramblings and strange inner voices, until I become a military spouse precariously perched on the threshold of moving insanity.

“How did we accumulate all this crap? We need more plastic storage bins! What if I forget to call about turning off the cable? We have to spackle that hole in the wall before the housing inspection! What if we go over the weight limit again? Why haven’t I taken the numbered stickers off the furniture from our last move?!”

In the days before the packers arrive, I become so self-absorbed, I am incapable of normal social interaction. In a subconscious attempt to repel other humans and thereby minimize distractions, I stop showering, brushing my hair, and applying deodorant. I become so hell-bent on using up all the food in the kitchen, I concoct strange casseroles with things like pork chops, oyster crackers, canned green beans, raisins and tater tots. I walk around the house armed with a Sharpie marker and a clipboard, muttering something about ziplock baggies and duct tape, my left eye twitching from a stress-induced tick.

It’s not a pretty sight. But at this point, I really don’t care about my rat’s nest of hair, the drool on my chin, the neighborhood pot luck, the next episode of Survivor, or you. Because all I can think about it one thing: Our Tenth Move.

As I write this, I have one week until the moving company arrives to pack up every coffee cup, photo album, extension cord, lounge chair, lampshade, screw driver, text book, Christmas ornament, bicycle, pencil and picture frame we own.

The reason I like you is because you understand. Until our household goods arrive at their new destination, until we find the towels and sheets and dishes and TV remote and coffee maker, and until I flop down on the couch in our new home and take a deep breath — I won’t realize how much I really miss you.

Thanks, my friends, for always forgiving me.

Separation Anxiety

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Of all places, I was in the veterinarian’s office with our dog, Moby, when I started feeling differently about veterans. It wasn’t the smell of disinfectant, the hiss of the cat Moby was sniffing, or the yapping of a dog in the treatment room that got my wheels spinning.

It was the sight of my shiny, brand new DOD identification card. I was digging it out of my wallet to take advantage of the vet’s 15% military discount, when I remembered that it was November 1st, my husband’s first day as a separated military retiree after 28 years of service.

“Oh, sorry, I forgot,” I said sheepishly to the office assistant, “my husband just retired from active duty.”

“It’s okay, your husband’s a veteran, right? You’re still good,” he said, scribbling a lower total on my invoice.  I paid the bill, tugged Moby’s leash, and rushed to our minivan. My wheels pealed out of the parking lot, and as I careened down Route 138, I felt like I’d just gotten away with something.

I took another look at my new ID card. It clearly indicated that I was now merely a dependent of  a sponsor who is “USN/RET.” All the retirement paperwork undoubtedly stated that we were officially civilians now. Although I knew Francis was a veteran, we didn’t feel entitled to special treatment anymore.

Moby’s hot breath further dampened the minivan’s dank atmosphere. Approaching a red light, I cracked a window, and glanced over at the driver in the Honda Pilot coasting to a stop beside me. She was wearing huge sunglasses, was holding a fancy water bottle, and had a dolphin-shaped air freshener dangling from her rear view mirror.

I saw stick figure decals on her back window, indicting that she had a husband, two kids, and a cat, all wearing Mickey Mouse ears. And a bumper sticker that read, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”

In a melancholy state, I declared, “I guess that’s who I am now, just another average civilian.”

On the opposite corner, a bank marquis’ glowed 10:32 am, 61 degrees, and “Honor All US Veterans.”

I remembered Veteran’s Day 2015, when Francis, then active duty, was invited to speak at a gathering in front of City Hall. I was so proud of my uniformed husband as he spoke of the sacrifices of all the veterans who had come to commemorate that special day. We lingered after his speech, and listened to the stories told by vets who had braved Vietnam, WWII, the Korean War. It was such an incredible honor to be with such heroes – they were the real McCoys – true military veterans.

But the sign said, “Honor All US Veterans.” I wondered, are all veterans deserving of honor?

I’d heard the statistics. Less than one half of 1% of the U.S. population volunteers for military service today – the lowest rate since WWII. And of those select few, roughly 80% come from a family in which a parent or sibling served. Our recent wars have been authorized by a U.S. Congress with the lowest rate of military service in history, and the last three commanders-in-chief never served on active duty. Moreover, due to the military-civilian divide, today’s military community is increasingly separated from the public it protects.

I realized that those few who volunteer to serve their country deserve recognition.

A car horn blast from behind prompted me to quit daydreaming, because the light had turned green.

Later that day, I was back in the minivan, this time with my husband Francis in the driver’s seat. We were inching our way up to the guard shack at Gate 1, so we could drive onto the Navy base to run some errands. Like I had done earlier that day, Francis pulled out his shiny new ID card, looked at it uncomfortably, and handed it to the gate guard.

Much to our surprise, the guard saluted and said, “Good afternoon, Captain.”

“Wow,” Francis said as we drove away, “I didn’t realize they still did that after you retire.”

“You’re a veteran, honey,” I reminded him. “You’ve earned it.”

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The Power of Finger-Pointing

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Ironically, one of our smallest, weakest body parts — the finger — often wields the most power.

That one diminutive digit can instill fear, anxiety, surprise, guilt or joy. Fingers identify winners, fingers pull triggers, and fingers place blame. If I only had a dollar for every time my father pointed a calloused finger in my direction and bellowed, “You’re grounded!” I’d have enough for decent manicure.

During the current presidential campaign season, there has certainly been a lot of finger-pointing going on. But one finger has been aimed at us long before our current political candidates were in the news.

We all know the iconic image of goateed, top-hatted Uncle Sam, staring us down, sending us on the ultimate guilt trip. For more than a century, this patriotic personification of our government has been used for one specific purpose — to tell us to do something for our country.

U.S. service members know Uncle Sam all too well, because his image has been bound inextricably to the draft, enlistment, patriotism and military service.

Military history geeks might be interested to know that Uncle Sam’s origins are not fully understood. The name appears in one version of the lyrics of the Revolutionary War ditty “Yankee Doodle”:

Old Uncle Sam come there to change 
Some pancakes and some onions, 
For 'lasses cakes, to carry home 
To give his wife and young ones.

No one is quite sure if Yankee Doodle’s pancake-slinging uncle is our own patriotically-bedazzled Sam. But during the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson, a meat-packer from Troy, New York, became forever linked with the personification. As the government-appointed meat inspector for the Northern Army, Wilson was nicknamed Uncle Sam by the troops, because his barrels of inspected meat were stamped with the initials “U.S.”  Despite the tenuous connection between Wilson and the iconic character, in 1961, the U.S. Congress resolved that it “salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

Two American editorial cartoonists helped to popularize illustrations of Uncle Sam — Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who featured a long, lean Sam with a white top hat, blue tailcoat and red-striped pants in Harper’s Bazaar; and James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), whose most famous work was the WWI poster of finger-pointing Uncle Sam proclaiming “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY.”

Flagg’s recruiting poster was printed over four million times, and his famous portrayal of Uncle Sam has been used to call people to shovel coal, to enlist, to buy war bonds, to work hard, to not discuss troop movements, to become a nurse or a stenographer, to plant a victory garden, to defend American freedom, and to volunteer. 

This month, Uncle Sam is popping up again, online and in print, telling us that it is our civic duty to vote. Many of you stationed overseas sent in your absentee ballots weeks ago, and others are gearing up for November 8th.

This campaign season has been so epic, many are commemorating the event by throwing election-themed parties. Pinterest offers inspiration, from Donkey and Elephant Jell-o Shots to Election Selfie Props to Uncle Sam “I WANT YOU TO COME TO A PARTY!” invitations. Rachel Ray’s online magazine has a recipe for “Campaign Trail Mix” and advises party planners to use a curtain to create a voting booth around the bar, inviting guests to go in and “booze up liberally or conservatively.” And at www.urbanblisslife.com, one can download a printable Election Day map for the kids to color with blue and red crayons as the results are declared.

With the extreme negativity of this presidential campaign, it’s no wonder we all want to have a little fun. But we mustn’t forget about that famous finger. Not the foam one at the football game, or the angry one flipped by the driver in the passing Prius, or the one your husband tells you to pull with a devilish grin, or the tiny one your toddler uses to explore her nostrils.

You know the one. So, let’s all heed old Uncle Sam’s advice, do our civic duty, and vote on November 8th.

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Oh my gourd! Dissecting a Halloween tradition

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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.

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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.

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True romance is a gas

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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

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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

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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

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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.

milspouse_unemployment_infographic

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.

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