College Tours and Trojan Wars: Survival Tips

the oddysey“Odysseus, eat your heart out,” I thought, while driving our daughter, Lilly, to college visits recently.

Although I wouldn’t encounter any cyclopses or sea monsters, I knew I was embarking on a grueling ordeal. Over the course of our four-day trip, I would put 1800 miles on our minivan, log over 40,000 Fitbit steps on five campus tours, nail-bite through Lilly’s four interviews, swipe mini bottles of lotion from three cheap hotels, and eat at least four tuna sandwiches.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 77% of colleges in the United States rate campus visits as a top recruitment strategy for prospective freshmen. After more than 25 college tours between our three kids, I knew the schools we were about to visit would try every trick to get their hooks in us, and that I would need to muster the strength to resist falling into their traps. 

At each school, we went to the admissions offices for information sessions and interviews. My goal was to stay awake — thank goodness for complimentary K-Cups — and to be realistic about Lilly’s interviews. When one interviewer proclaimed, “Lilly is PERFECT for our school!” I knew he really meant, “Lilly seems like a real peach, but don’t be surprised if we drop her like first period Physics once we get her transcripts.”

Of course, we were assigned to tour guides that were fresh-faced and overly enthusiastic. “Hi! I’m P.J.! I double-major in Global Mediation Strategies and Interpretive Dance, with a minor in Sustainable Mollusk Farming, and I am the Assistant Treasurer of the Quidditch Club. Follow me while I walk backwards like a trained circus monkey!”

And our tour groups — which always seemed to include a kid with purple hair, a jock with a gum-chewing dad, and someone from Long Island — followed like sheep to slaughter. The parents glanced sideways at each other, muttering redundant thank yous every time we held doors for each other.

Lilly in the yellow blouse, following our cheerful tour guide

Lilly in the yellow blouse, following our cheerful tour guide

We hit the usual campus spots like libraries and student centers, but our guides had a few strategic surprises up the scrunched sleeves of their spirit wear. They wisely steered clear of stark reality such as old Biology buildings that smelled like pickles and frat houses with permanently tapped kegs in front yards, and instead pointed us toward 3-D printers, digitally illuminated mock trading floors, online laundry monitoring systems, colorful rock walls, and staged dorm rooms.

Even though my older children’s dorm rooms reek of nacho cheese and are littered with dirty socks, the dorm rooms on our college tours were color-coordinated, obsessively organized, freshly Febreezed, and adorned with gratuitous advertising signs reading, “Brought to you by Bed, Bath and Beyond.” They explained that we could take advantage of “gender fluid” housing options. Furthermore, if we only fill out a seven-page background check and sign the necessary legal release forms, our child would be permitted to live with someone of the opposite sex.

No matter how one feels about progressive housing options, one should never use the term “fluid” when referring to teenagers’ bedrooms.

In the dining halls, our guides detailed complicated meal plans involving flex dollars, bonus bucks, and recycling rewards, to buy foods described as gluten-free, halal, locally-sourced, mindful, farm-to-table, kosher, Paleo, diabetic-sensitive, and “world-fair” cuisine. I knew this was a fancy way of saying that, for four years, our kids will eat mostly cereal, chicken fingers and soft-serve ice cream.

Like Odysseus resisting the call of the Sirens, I did not fallen prey to the secret strategies employed by those institutions of higher learning. I kept my wits about me, and was triumphantly on my way home after four long days.

I had to admit, however, that the use of chocolate chip cookies was an effective marketing tool. One school had them in baskets at admissions, another offered them hot out of the oven as we toured the dining halls, and another doled them out at the conclusion of the tour. Add that to the free cookies in the hotel lobbies, and despite my Trojan warrior willpower, I was packing a baker’s dozen by the time we passed Poughkeepsie.

Coloring ourselves American in the face of tragedy

Photo credit: Gulnara Samoilova/AP Photo

Photo credit: Gulnara Samoilova/AP Photo

We’ve all seen them. Those unbelievable images of New York City on September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Centers and our lives changed forever.

There’s the photos of the gaping, flaming holes left by the hijacked planes. Images of desperate victims jumping from the burning buildings, of first responders and courageous civilians risking their lives, of the collapsing towers spewing forth a terrifying cloud of ash, of the jagged, smoldering devastation and death left behind.

Sixteen years later, the images still shock us and bring us back to the harsh reality and the incredible heroism of that day.

Today, we once again bear witness to mass devastation in another iconic US city — Houston, Texas. Like 9-11, first responders and volunteer civilians are risking life and limb to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey and mass flooding from the most recorded rainfall in continental US history.

There are images of schools, churches, highways, homes and cemeteries under muddied waters. Of drenched, exhausted victims fleeing their submerged homes, carrying shoeless children and trembling dogs on their shoulders. Of at-capacity shelters, of downed electrical lines, of rain continuing to fall.

But something is different. After 9-11, our entire country banded together to mourn the loss, hail the heroes and recognize America as one great nation of people. However, the Houston flood news coverage is interrupted with reports on continuing racial and political tensions.

Perhaps the fact that 9-11’s devastation was caused by a foreign enemy allowed Americans to link arms as allies. As for Houston, we have only Mother Nature to blame. But ironically, the lack of someone to accuse has made us turn on each other.

Rather than allowing our hearts and minds to open wide and fully absorb another historic moment when Americans rise to an unthinkable challenge, we are still bickering over politics.

This squabbling robs thousands of first responders, law enforcement, mobilized military aboard warships and aircraft, and National Guard members the recognition they deserve for their undaunted service. It diverts our attention from the countless acts of kindness and bravery shown by thousands of average civilians. It keeps us from thinking deeply about the suffering our fellow citizens continue to endure, and more importantly, how we might help from afar.

It even distracts us from those criminal opportunists who plot to loot and ransack as soon as the waters recede, allowing them to carry out their dirty deeds without the deterrent media coverage that might assist law enforcement officials.

Perhaps as 9-11 approaches, we can use the now-famous images of that historic tragedy to close the gap that prevents us from banding together to face the Hurricane Harvey flood devastation as one united people.

Some images of 9-11 are particularly relevant to the division we are experiencing today. The photos of people in the streets of New York City — office workers, firefighters, military men and women, hot dog vendors, tourists, nearly everyone — blanketed in grey ash are a symbolic reminder that we are all Americans. In those photos, one cannot distinguish between black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative.

All one sees is people helping or being helped in the midst of unthinkable tragedy.

This year, on the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11, as Houston begins the long process of recovery, let’s set aside our differences for a later debate. Let’s color ourselves as only Americans united as one. Let’s open our hearts so that we can fully experience the historic storm of grief and tragedy without distraction, and open our hands to offer our fellow citizens the charity and hope they so desperately need.

[The following relief organizations are among those taking donations to assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey: American Red Cross (https://www.redcross.org/donate/hurricane-harvey); Salvation Army (www.disaster.salvationarmyusa.org); and Houston Flood Relief Fund (https://www.youcaring.com/victimsofhurricaneharvey-915053).]

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP Photo

www.themeatandpotatoesoflife.com

WORD COUNT: 656

The Spin Cycle of Life

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With our three kids finishing up summer jobs or out with friends, the house was unusually silent last week, except for the whirr of the ceiling fan and the soft tap of Moby’s dog nails on the tile kitchen floor.

One afternoon, I was going over the planner I’d been neglecting all summer. I threw out expired coupons and “To Do” lists I’d never gotten to, and ran a finger across the hole-punched calendar. The upcoming weekend squares read, “Take Anna and Hayden back to college.”

Moby’s stout yellow frame clunked down at my feet, seeking a cool spot to beat the afternoon heat. He stretched out his webbed toes as I scratched his belly. In a couple of days, Hayden and Anna would be back at college, Lilly would be in high school, and Moby would be my daytime companion again.

As a military spouse and work-from-home mom, I was used to being alone. As much as I missed my peaceful, organized solitude during the school year, I wanted to savor the crazy, cluttered, sticky, sandy, loud, fun inconvenience of having a house full of kids.

I remembered that the kids would need clean clothes for school, so I stepped over Moby in search of dirty laundry.

Passing through the foyer, I spied Lilly’s tennis bag where she’d thrown it after working at the local recreation center. As I pulled her dirty uniform out of the bag, gritty clay sprinkled onto my hardwood floors.

All summer, I’d been trying to get Lilly to leave her equipment on the porch. But after working on the hot tennis courts, she’d burst into the house with so much enthusiasm for whatever was next — inviting friends over, snuggling with Moby, lunch — all she could do was drop her bag and bound into the kitchen seeking chocolate milk. I smiled thinking of how Lilly’s optimistic nature had brightened my summer days.

On my way upstairs, I nearly tripped over Anna’s shoes — fringed denim mules this time. A fashion design major, Anna left clothing and accessories all over the house, each piece specifically chosen for her unique daily ensembles, then summarily discarded.

This summer, I had told Anna to pick up her things too many to count. Despite her chronic disorganization, she had a uniquely creative mind. I grabbed her shoes, and her purple tasseled handbag draped over the banister, and continued to the bedrooms, thinking about how much I would miss Anna’s quirky sense of style.

I paused at Hayden’s room, instinctively inhaling before opening the door. Entering his lair was like embarking on a dangerous wilderness expedition. The air was thick the sharp aroma of stagnant soda, dirty socks and dead skin cells. The treacherous path around the furniture was tangled with electronics wires, discarded clothing, and pretzel bags. The bed was a jumble of twisted sheets and video game equipment.

When he wasn’t at his full-time summer internship, Hayden was usually in this room playing video games, talking to friends, or sleeping. Sounds would emanate — laughter, bling-bling, bloop-bloop, silence. He’d emerge for dinner, and on rare occasions, he’d plop down on the couch to watch TV with me. Despite his gruff nature, he never complained when I snuggled a little, holding his hand or letting my foot rest on his lap. As I pinched his smelly laundry between my thumb and forefinger, I giggled at the paradox that our sweet, accomplished, intelligent son was such a hopeless slob.

In the laundry room, I stuffed the clothes and a few sandy beach towels I found over the porch rail into the washing machine and punched the buttons. The water rose in the round door’s glass window — preparing to wash away the remnants of summertime adventures, sticky ice cream cones, smokey fire pits, dusty bike rides, and saucy spaghetti dinners — and I felt the water in my eyes rising too.

Watching the socks and t-shirts slosh to and fro, I reminded myself that this is the cycle of life. After nine months of peace and quiet, the kids will come rushing back again, crowding our house with noise, sand, laughter, crumbs, laundry, and — as always — love.

college bound

Friendly persuasion: Why Mom was right

Friendly Persuasion

Back in the 1980s, when my mother’s favorite film aired on TV, she would try desperately to get our family to watch it. “C’mon,” she’d beg, “there’s an incorrigible goose and a sweet little Quaker family… You’ll love it!”

A goose and Quakers? Needless to say, we never saw the film. We were too busy watching “Gremlins” to bother.

Little did we know then, Mom’s favorite flick — “Friendly Persuasion,” a 1956 production starring Gary Cooper as the patriarch of a Quaker family in 1862 struggling to maintain pacifist views in the face of the Civil War —  addresses complex philosophical notions about non-violence that have modern relevance.

The movie was nominated for six academy awards including Best Picture, and in the 1980s, President Ronald Regan gave a copy of the film to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, suggesting that the two countries resolve their differences peacefully.

Yeah, but “Gremlins” has Phoebe Cates and that cute little fuzzball, Gizmo. So, there.

In all seriousness, I regret that I spent my youth too focused on applying frosted strawberry lipgloss to think deeply about civil rights and violence in America. Later, as a military spouse, my attentions turned to foreign enemies during my husband’s 28 years on active duty. I wasn’t really concerned about conflicts on US turf.

But today, some are predicting that the United States is on the brink of a second Civil War, or at least a second civil rights movement.

Racial tensions are peaking. Violent extremist groups are making a comeback. Media is no longer hiding its bias, but rather using it to attract like-minded viewers who won’t decry their version of the news as propaganda. Diversity of thought is not tolerated in an era celebrating diversity of religion, race, gender and sexual identity. Republicans and democrats are digging their heels in, pulling each other apart in a mean-spirited tug-of-war on every issue. Everyone is so focused on aggressively vilifying the opposition, hope for compromise seems lost and violence is considered justifiable.

If we’re ever going to find a solution to our current civil rights conflict, Americans must stop yelling “Lalalala, I can’t hear you!” with our fingers jammed in our ears. It’s time to try —  yep, I’m gonna say it — a little friendly persuasion.

I’m not advocating that we waste a Sunday afternoon watching an old movie about some goodie-two-shoes Quakers. I’m saying that friendly persuasion can be a powerful tactic for change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. proved this in the 1950s and 60s, when his peaceful resistance movement prompted the most sweeping reforms in racial equality since slavery was abolished. Many activists today don’t believe that a central figure like King is needed for civil rights reform. Protests are sparked organically via social media and grassroots efforts, without a charismatic public leader at the helm of each cause. But as the current civil rights conflicts get uglier and bloodier, King’s methods should be considered.

King advocated “nonviolent direct action” as a means of “disarming the opponent” and felt that riots were ineffective. “[R]ioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”

King said that nonviolence “helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

And on hate, he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

As military families who are accustomed to worrying about the safety of active duty soldiers and sailors in combat against foreign enemies, we must consider that disputes between fellow US citizens — be it marching in the streets or commenting on social media — require rational, respectful debate rather than physical force and hate speech.

I still have no interest in that silly goose, but I must admit, my mother was right. Friendly persuasion is a worth a try.

What does riding the bus teach kids?

vintage school bus

This month, many American military children home and abroad are boarding busses for their first, excited days of school. Despite the iconic yellow vehicle being the subject of happy nursery rhymes and jolly cartoons, taking school transportation is not always a stress-free experience.

In fact, riding the bus to school each day can seem like a gauntlet, a survival test, a rite of passage. School buses are tiny microcosms of society, where kids must quickly master small group dynamics just to find a seat. And thereby, find one’s place in the complex social hierarchy.

As a squishy little second grader at East Pike Elementary School, I thought the bus stop on Chestnut Street seemed like a huge, unruly mob.

By the time the bus arrived at 7:23 am, the kids at our stop had already climbed trees, thrown chestnuts, knocked books to the ground, acquired fresh grass stains, and executed several wedgie attacks. Much of the shenanigans were prompted by the older boys, which included my brother, Tray.

Boarding the bus each morning, I found my seat so as to attract the least amount of attention. Most days, I kept a low profile (literally, since I was short and could hide behind the green vinyl seat), but one particular fall, I was forced to take my turn as the subject of harassment.

Tray and his buddies had been ordered by the driver to sit in the first rows due to their boisterous behavior. But rather than serving as a penalty box, the front seats acted as a podium, effectively making the gang of boys our sadistic morning dictators.

Snorting, giggling, and kneeling on the seats, the boys led chants and jeers targeting riders in a twisted game of Russian roulette. One morning, the barrel of their gun was pointed at me, and the chamber was full.

Quite fond of nicknames, Tray had a vast repertoire of epithets for me based on my chunky frame. I was called Bubbs, Bubbs McGraw, Chunk, Chunky Dinners, Skunk, Chung King, and, quite simply, Pig.

A summer trip to Hawaii to visit our grandparents inspired Tray to add a Polynesian nickname, “Lee Lae Lon,” to his inventory. It was meaningless, but I hated it, which was exactly what Tray wanted.  Unable to come up with an effective retaliation other than, “Shut up, you big meanie!” I had learned that incessant whining was my only recourse.

That morning, after the gang of boys tired of their normal rowdy routine, they turned their attention to me.  After some conspiring, Tray’s hulkish friend, Jimmy, yelled, “Gimmie an L!”

Everyone looked confused, so Jimmy yelled the order again, and the crowd hesitantly responded, “L?”

Jimmy and the gang continued, “Gimme an E!” Even I repeated, “E!” and the chant gained momentum.

Jimmy added another “E,” then another “L,” and so on, until he screamed “What’s it spell?!” No response was forthcoming from the confused riders, but Jimmy’s gang yelled the pre-planned answer: “Lee Lae Lon!”

“Who’s a pig?!”

“Lee Lae Lon!”

“Louder!”

“LEE LAE LON!”

Except for the snickering troublemakers, no one understood the chant, but it soon became a well-known part of our fall morning regimen.

Thankfully, I passed the test — I didn’t cry or tattle — and was not singled out again after that fateful season. Other than my middle school years, when our bus driver played the same outdated AC/DC “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” 8-track tape in excruciating repetition, the rest of my school bus experiences were relatively torture-free.

Our children rode the bus, too. They endured rumors, scuffles, mooning, name calling and wedgie attacks — and, there was the time when Anna ran home from the bus stop crying because the middle school boys were using the F-word. But all three kids survived without major incident.

Whether school bus experiences will train our children how to throw spit balls and use the F-word, or teach them to be brave and kind, we don’t know for sure until they run the gauntlet themselves. We can guide them, but all we know for certain is that the wheels on the bus go round and round.

One year out of the military, and the ride’s still not over

wood coastA year ago, my husband, Francis, stood on a stage before our family and friends in his Navy dress uniform and spoke about his 28 years of service in the military. The audience looked on curiously as the band played “Old Glory” and the flag was passed slowly, methodically, from rank to rank. When “The Watch” was recited, men blinked and cleared their throats, and women dug for tissues in their purses.

After speeches were said and flowers were given, I grabbed Francis’ arm. To the lilt of the bosun’s whistle, we walked briskly up the burgundy-carpeted aisle, and past the rigid side boys, Francis giving his final salute as an active-duty US naval officer.

That symbolic moment in time felt emotional, powerful, wonderful. Despite our uncertain future outside of the US Navy, we were focused on the last 28 years of Francis’ military service and how thankful we were for it all. The experiences, the challenges, the opportunities, the adventures, the honor, and even the hardships and the strength built therefrom.

We floated through the weekend on pride and gratitude, dancing like sweat-soaked fools at our party.

Reality came like a rickety wooden roller coaster. The kind you aren’t initially afraid to board, because, well, how bad could it be? People have been taking this old ride forever, right?

Once you lock yourself in, you start feeling queasy as it tick-tick-ticks its way up the slope. Then suddenly, it dives and your stomach drops into your shoes. You think you might be hurled to your death, or at least hurl up the corn dog you just ate, but as the centrifugal force pins you into the seat, you realize that you’re in for the long hall. As the momentum carries you up the next hill, you look out and see the peaks and valleys and twists and turns to come. You know you must stay to the end, when in great relief, you will stagger toward the funnel cake stand.

That’s what reality feels like after the pomp and circumstance and open bar of a military retirement ceremony.

A couple months after our friends and family went home with rolled up programs and sweaty party t-shirts in their suitcases, we moved off base into a tiny temporary rental, where we spent the long, dark winter searching for our new place in the world.

Our pillow talk was initially laced with nervous excitement. Will Francis make more money in the civilian world? Will we attend swanky corporate parties? Will we make new friends who golf and meet at wine bars on Fridays? Will we finally turn in the minivan for an SUV with that new car smell?

In our naiveté, we believed what everyone told Francis: “With your experience, you’ll write your own ticket.”

Turns out, that ticket was harder to write than we realized. It took many months of gazing wall-eyed at LinkedIn; writing and rewriting resumes; networking with Tom, Dick and Harry; pouring over application questions; rehearsing for interviews; tsking about unreturned calls and emails; and trying desperately to not take “sorry, we chose someone with corporate experience” personally.

Finally, it came. The job offer was located out-of-state from the high school our youngest attended, but what the hell, it’s a great job, take it.

Our original vision of a cushy-post-retirement lifestyle had to be amended to include living apart during weekdays, negotiating the hopelessly tangled ropes of corporate politics, making due with our old minivan with over two-hundred-thousand miles and a leaky roof, and missing our military friends.

One year out, our metamorphosis from military to civilian life is still in the gooey larval stages. We remain very much a family in transition.

As we navigate the peaks and valleys and twists and turns of this extended roller coaster run, we’ll hold tight to the military pride that welled up in us last summer on the day of Francis’ retirement ceremony. Our military foundation will keep us grounded, so we can sit back, raise our hands in the air, and enjoy the ride no matter where it takes us.

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[With much thanks to Francis’ cousin, Marianne Mangan, for taking over two thousand photos during our retirement weekend last year. Also, thanks to our friend Suz Drgon for taking photos, too … love the sweaty dance shots, Suz!]

Catching crabs, the respectable way

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Many hungry vacationers will seek out the rich sweetness of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs this summer. Arguably, you haven’t lived until you’ve cracked fresh-steamed crabs over a newspapered table.

However, unless you plan to second mortgage your house to order pricey steamed blue crabs for the whole family at a restaurant, you might want to consider catching these feisty critters yourselves.

With a few supplies rummaged from home, fishing blue crabs can save a military family budget about $18-20 per pound of prepared crabmeat. Simply dig around in the garage and your kitchen junk drawer to find a net, a long string with a sinker and hook tied on one end, and a cheap cooler with a lid. A quick poke through the trash will yield your bait – smelly chicken necks and fish heads work best.

But be forewarned: A myriad of secondary supplies are required, depending on the tolerance level of your family. Your crabbing expedition may involve lawn chairs, smelling salts, cards, a badminton set, Jenga, a full length copy of War and Peace, ear plugs, a brown paper bag, ointment, bandages, aloe vera, tweezers, and an enormous cooler of cold beverages.

[Note: Do not use the beverage cooler to store your crabs unless you like them marinated in Dr. Pepper. These nasty critters may be small, but they’re mad as hell and can pierce an average beer can with a snap. Moreover, the minor convenience of bringing one cooler is not worth the risk of the severe puncture wounds you will suffer as you reach in for a cold one.]

Haul your supplies to a suitable location — any old dock on the bay will do. Place one rotting chicken neck or fish head firmly on your hook, making sure to have smelling salts nearby in case you pass out from the revolting odor. When fully conscious, hold one end of the string, and chuck the baited hook several feet from the dock. Tie the string to the dock, take a seat in your lawn chair, and open a cold beverage.

Ahh, crabbing’s not so bad, you’re thinking, right? But please, be aware that it may take anywhere from thirty seconds to a full 24 hour and 52 minute tidal cycle to catch a crab. This would be a good time to make use of the cards, Jenga, badminton set and full-length copy of War and Peace.

Every so often, check your string for vibrations indicating that a blue crab is nibbling your bait. When you feel a twitch, pull your string ever so slowly, luring the unsuspecting crab toward the dock. Your prey is no Einstein – its pea-sized brain will think the putrid chicken neck is trying to escape and will grasp it even tighter.

Once you are able to see the crab, do not remain calm. Gasp, jump, knock your beverage over, and exclaim loudly, “I got one!! Grab the net!!” If you have not scared your catch away, have a family member scoop up the crab while you yell, “Get the darned thing for Pete’s sake!!”

You will inevitably fail at your first attempt to deposit the crab into the cooler, resulting in it scrambling around on the dock while your family emits blood-curdling screams at high decibels. Earplugs and brown paper bag may come in handy.

Once you manage to secure a crab in the cooler, repeat the aforementioned steps 34 times, yielding a half bushel of crabs – just enough meat to feed a family of five, as long as you also have corn on the cob, watermelon, bread, hamburgers, salad, beans and a half-dozen pies.

When you are done crabbing, properly dress your crab nip wounds with bandages, treat your bug bites with ointment, apply aloe vera to your sunburn, and pull out dock splinters with tweezers before heading home to steam and pick your catch.

And by the way, good luck with that!

[For more information on blue crabs and crab fishing on the East and Gulf coasts, see these helpful sites: www.chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/blue-crab, www.instructables.com/id/Crabbing-For-Beginners/, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ9cT9_3ASg.]

The princess and the pee

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When you’re a military family stationed in Timbuktu, you can’t rely on relatives to watch your pets when you’re on vacation. Our military family has learned that trading pet care favors with friends isn’t always the best alternative.

Except for the time I completely forgot to feed a fellow military spouse’s cat over a long weekend (the kitty lived and somehow we’re still friends,) we happily exchanged pet-related favors with our military friends for many years.

That is, until we met P’Nut.

We we stationed at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and P’Nut was a 7-pound pomeranian-chiuaua mix owned by our base neighbor, Tara.

P’Nut ate a quarter cup of kibble a day and Goldfish crackers as doggie treats. During the day, she lounged in a skillet-sized doggie bed, and thought a long walk was to the mailbox and back. At night, P’Nut was carried to a pink crib beside Tara’s bed.

By contrast, our labradoodle, Dinghy, was 110-pounds, with a perpetually dripping beard. He scarfed five cups of food a day, along with whatever he found while rooting through the bathroom trash. His four daily walks were measured in miles, and Dinghy was infamous for dragging his walker when he spotted a cat, lizard, sand crab, bird or butterfly. His favorite place to sleep was curled around the cool base of the toilet.

And as Tara learned the week she agreed to take care of him while we were on vacation, Dinghy had a surprisingly delicate digestive system. Apparently, Dinghy’s “business” was the consistency of Grey Poupon the entire week were were gone.

By the time we returned from our trip, our entire base housing neighborhood was talking about Tara’s ordeal, so when she asked me to walk P’Nut one afternoon, I jumped at the chance to return a favor.

Following Tara’s specific instructions, I opened her garage door and entered the laundry room at exactly 5:30 pm, then carefully scooped exactly one-quarter cup of kibble into P’Nut’s tiny food dish.

As instructed, I informed P’Nut that it was “time to go outside” and led her into the open garage. While making soothing noises, I approached P’Nut with the tiny, rhinestone-studded leash.

Just as I was thinking what a piece of cake this favor was turning out to be, P’Nut’s minuscule black lips peeled back from her needle-like teeth and she lunged for my fingers. I sprung backward and let out an embarrassing shriek.

Chalking the incident up to a fluke, I cooed, “Does widdle P’Nut wanna go on a wiky-walk? Oh, yes you do, you sweet little th…. AHHHHH!”

Relieved to find my fingers intact, I decided to ask the next door neighbors for assistance. I told them how sweet little P’Nut was attempting to sever my limbs with her razor-sharp teeth. The husband, a burley Navy helicopter pilot, stepped confidently toward P’Nut, declaring, “Oh, I’ll pick her up – how hard can it be?”

What happened next can only be described as mayhem. P’Nut flashed her fangs and dashed around the garage squealing like a pig while the pilot, his wife and I gave chase. When the dust settled, the pilot was back on his porch, yelling, “I don’t think she likes me!”

Considering P’Nut’s extreme obstinacy, we gave up the on the walk, and tried to get the little diva back in the house. For 20 more minutes, we ran around like the Keystone Cops. I feared that Tara would return to find her petite princess gone for good.

And then, I remembered the bag of Goldfish. I desperately grabbed a handful of the cheesy morsels from the laundry room shelf and, like a court jester who’s been sentenced to the gallows, I bowed before Her Excellency to offer the bribe.

Thankfully, P’Nut accepted.

The life-threatening nature of my experience with P’Nut had arguably paid my debt of service to my friend Tara. However, I decided that it was time for me to get out of the pet care business.

Next week, our dog, Moby, is going to a kennel while we’re going on vacation. It’s not free, but peace of mind is worth every penny.

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[At each duty station, ask for “the gouge” on kennels and pet sitters. Get references from people you know to back up online databases like yelp.com, care.com, rover.com, or petsitters.com. Visit facilities before taking pets to stay. Many kennels allow dogs and cats to interact with other friendly pets, and only crate the animals during feeding or sleeping times. Take your pet’s food, medications, and a favorite blanket or toy. As always, ask for military discounts, and enjoy your vacations!]

A tale of two studies: What story would your space tell?

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“Dear Lord,” I prayed recently while lifting another heavy cardboard book box from the pile left by the movers, “please don’t let one of my organs drop out onto the floor.” Since our move two weeks ago, I’ve been unpacking every day. Despite the danger of torn ligaments and internal damage, I’m determined to finish decorating my new study.

In all the homes we’d lived in as a military family over the last 24 years, I’ve never had my own dedicated office. In Monterey, California, my husband, Francis, and I plucked at our respective laptops in our base housing bedroom, looking over the crib in the corner where our first baby slept.

In England, the spare bedroom in our village house was frequented by too many visitors from the States to be used as a study, so we put a desk in the family room where we could keep an eye on our first, and then second, babies while they tried to jam cookies into their mouths and the VCR.

In Virginia, the room over the garage was too filled with our three kids’ toys to be an office, so the computer stayed on a desk in the kitchen where I could hear the oven timer and the dryer buzzer. And in our stairwell apartment in Germany, I regressed to working in our bedroom again, at a desk nestled among Francis’ kicked-off boxer shorts and slippers. In Florida and Rhode Island, I shared spaces with Francis and the kids again, always pining away for a study of my own.

But now, after our eleventh military move, we found a house with two extra rooms – one for Francis and one for me. When the movers brought in the “pro-gear” boxes (the serviceperson and spouse are given a weight allowance for professional gear during each permanent change of station move), we excitedly told them to take my boxes to the room off the laundry, and Francis’ boxes to the yellow room upstairs.

After years of holding back to accommodate the rest of our family, Francis felt free to fill his new study with his many awards, medals, souvenirs, and “Yeah, Me!” tchotchkes, earned during 28 years of active duty service in the Navy.

Francis’ décor is all pomp and circumstance. Glossy cherry, polished brass and braided gold ropes. A monogramed cigar box, a glass globe, a framed picture of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, a leather chair, and a Persian rug.

Francis in a smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy is all that is needed to complete his vision.

I couldn’t wait to display my own personal selection of stuff.

Managing to lift the book box without losing any organs, I heaped dozens of cookbooks onto the shelves, alongside my favorite classic novels by Steinbeck, Updike, Salinger, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Lee and other 20th century American authors.

Another box held my antique typewriter, which I placed on the writing desk I bought while stationed overseas. I filled the misshapen clay pot that our middle child made in 3rd grade with pens and pencils, and placed it beside the computer. I hung my collection of vintage aprons like a valance above the window. And put the old goose-necked rocker — where each of our three children were swayed to sleep when they were babies – in the corner under the Art Deco wall lamp I bought at a garage sale.

I left a space on the wall for my law degree. Even though I only practiced for a few years before military life’s frequent moves and solo parenting made freelance writing a more viable career, I plan to hang my law degree prominently. On the days when I forget long division, or that my sunglasses are perched on my head, or that I already fed the dog, it will serve as a reminder that I am no dummy.

His looks over the sea. Mine looks over my vegetable garden. His is shiny. Mine is cozy. His is all about service and honor. Mine shows a focus on home and family.

We fought to have our own individual spaces, but ironically, both his and hers reflect one basic attribute – dedication to our shared military life.

Redux: Feel it in your rear

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We universally accept that 16-year-olds don’t know much about life, so why is it that we allow them to propel two-ton combustion engines over concrete at high speeds? After many months of pumping the phantom break and digging my fingernails into the armrests, our youngest daughter, Lilly, got her driver’s license this week.

And I breathed a sigh of relief.

I never understood my parents’ plight until I had to teach each of our three kids to drive. Now I feel their pain.

It was June 4, 1984, my birthday, and I was twirling the barrel of my curling iron through my bangs. I heard my mom’s voice calling from outside our brick ranch, “Sweet pea! Come here, would ya?”

I tsked loudly, rolled my eyes, and ignored.

“Honeybunch? C’mon, it’ll only take a sec!” she continued, eventually appearing at my bedroom door. In classic teenage style, I sassed at her, annoyed by what I saw as her rude interference with the crucial task of heightening my bangs.

Eventually, I succumbed to her pleas, but not without attitude. I appeared outside, slump-shouldered and eye-rolling, where the cause of the hubbub was revealed. On our lawn sat a pale blue 1974 Volkswagen Beetle tied up with an enormous yellow bow.

I offered no apology for my embarrassing behavior. Instead, I screamed and ran to claim the gift, which I assumed I wholeheartedly deserved.

That day, I had to deliver pizzas with my Dad for a school fundraiser, and he thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn to use the Beetle’s manual stick shift.

My hair properly coiffed, I jumped excitedly into the driver’s seat and awaited my father’s instructions.

A gruff, ex-college football player, Dad was not delicate. He operated on pure instinct, street smarts, and gut feelings. I, on the other hand, had no innate abilities. Instead, I relied on conscious analysis. My father didn’t use maps, instructions or cookbooks. I relied heavily on them. He was not articulate, using facial expression and volume to communicate. I spoke in great detail to explain my thoughts.

So, when it came time for me to learn how to drive a stick, we were not exactly compatible.

After several stalls, I eventually got the Beetle onto the road. I made every first-timer mistake — revving the engine, sputtering and stalling, rolling back after stopping on an incline, riding the clutch, and lurching. Each time, Dad bellowed, “Easy, easy! No, not now! There, now! Shift! The clutch, the clutch! Feel it in your rear!”

I couldn’t process the words he was blasting in my ear, and I soon began to cry.

“Can’t you feel it in your rear? That’s how you know when to shift!” he shouted in frustration. I had no idea what he was talking about, and continued to grind, lurch, and stall.

I was able to hide my tears during the first few pizza deliveries, but after more yelling and a near-catastrophic stall downhill from a barreling coal truck, I was soon a blubbering, red-eyed, snotty mess.

“Hello (*sniff*) Ma’am (*snort*) I, I, I, (*rubbing nose with sleeve*) believe you ordered two (*hiccup*) pepperoni pizzas?” I managed to choke out after ringing doorbells.

“Oh, Sweetie, sure! Would you like to come inside and sit a while?” one customer offered upon seeing my pitiful condition.

I somehow managed finish the deliveries without anyone calling child protective services, but was devastated at my failure to understand my father’s instructions. Later, I took the Beetle out alone on the road in front of our house. Even though I still didn’t feel anything in my rear, I was surprised at how quickly I taught myself.

Decades later, I realize that riding in the car when my kids are driving is sometimes a huge pain in the butt. Perhaps that’s what my father was talking about.

Regardless, my experience taught me to hold my tongue when our teenagers are driving. My instinct may be to scream, “Holy Mother of God! Brake! Brake! Brake!” But I’ll sit quietly and let them think for themselves.

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