My gravy’s better than your gravy


We do it every year. We cut out recipes. We make lists. We go to the commissary. We elbow each other out of the way to grab turkeys, cranberries, yams, and mini-marshmallows. We jam enough food into our pantries to feed an Army . . . or Navy, as it were.

Why? Because it’s Thanksgiving, of course!

When our guests politely ask, “What can we bring?” we are faced with an interesting dilemma.

On one hand, our brains are about to explode over all the details of hosting, so contributions would be nice. But on the other hand, we have envisioned holiday meals using our own family traditions, and what if our guests bring dishes that are weird and unfamiliar?

I experienced this phenomenon twenty years ago, when we lived in base housing at Fort Ord, just outside of Monterey, California. Unable to fly back east to spend the holiday with our relatives, we accepted an invitation to have Thanksgiving dinner at another family’s house down the street.

“What can I bring?” I asked the other wife. “Uh, well, um . . . ,” she stuttered nervously, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

I fancied myself a pretty darned good cook back in those days (before kids turned my brain to mush and our staple food into mac-n-cheese, mind you) and was looking forward to contributing to the meal.

“What? But, you’ve got to let me bring something,” I pleaded.

“Well, alright then, how ‘bout you bring the frozen corn.”

Frozen corn? Are you kidding me? She wasn’t.

Over the next few days, I hounded the other spouse, offering my delectable Sausage Apple Pecan Cornbread Dressing, my rich Guiness Gravy, my addictive Swiss Onion Bread, my snappy Waldorf Salad. She resisted, but finally agreed to let me bring a lousy pumpkin pie and a tub of Cool Whip.

I swallowed my disappointment that Thanksgiving — along with her boring stuffing and starchy gravy – and resolved to make what I wanted from then on.

However, year after year, the same dilemma kept cropping up. Whether host or guest, military spouses really don’t like to give up their holiday traditions. But at the same time, we are often in unfamiliar places where we feel the urge to reach out to other military families for companionship during the holidays.

I realized that, unless we want to spend Thanksgiving stubbornly alone with our coveted recipes, we’d better learn to compromise.

If I am a guest at someone else’s house, I won’t turn my nose up at the hostess’ fancy homemade cranberry sauce because I secretly love the canned stuff. I won’t judge my host if he doesn’t brine the bird, and then make passive aggressive comments like, “Could you pass the canned gravy? I think a little breast meat is stuck in my throat.” I won’t be bitter that I wasn’t able to show off my Pecan Cheesecake with the Gingersnap Crust. Instead, I’ll shut my pumpkin pie hole and gladly eat whatever my host serves.

If I host, I’ll let my guests bring their Tex Mex corn soufflé even if it clashes with my Ambrosia. I can give up my beloved Swiss Onion Bread just this once, and let them bring their Gammie’s Poppy Seed Loaf if it makes them feel at home. Who really cares if my friend has a different take on sweet potatoes – surely, no one has ever died from not eating marshmallows.

I’ll survive, and probably gain ten pounds in the process.

Besides, this is the time of year that we’re supposed to think about all the things we’re thankful for, and isn’t that being able to celebrate the holidays with our family and friends? Not the Green Bean Casserole with the French-fried onions, for Pete’s sake.

Think of it this way: good friends and family are the meat and potatoes of life. The food? Well, no matter whether it’s canned, powdered, or slow cooked from the drippings, it’s just the gravy.

Lisa’s “Better Than Yours” Gravy

  1. Simmer giblets and turkey neck in a covered two-quart pot of water with quartered onion, chunks of carrot and celery, salt and pepper, while you cook your turkey.
  2. Strain. You should have 3 cups of stock; add chicken broth if necessary.
  3. Shake one cup of the stock with 3 Tbsp. flour in a jar with a lid.
  4. When the turkey is done, remove to a platter and pour the drippings into a fat separator.
  5. Deglaze the roasting pan by putting it over low heat on the stovetop, adding 1.5 cups water (can also use wine, broth or Guiness).
  6. Stir to dissolve the intensely flavorful brown bits left on the bottom.
  7. Pour the flour-stock mixture into the pan and stir while simmering 3 minutes.
  8. Add the rest of the stock, and the pan drippings (not the fat), and cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes stirring constantly, until thickened.

The Power of Keeping Calm

The original 1939 "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster (now an internet meme) was issued by the British Government as a motivational tool to prepare the British people for the oncoming Blitz of World War II.

The stump outside my house was the perfect place for chopping up earthworms. At least two feet in diameter, there was enough room across its ringed surface for me to sit and slice at the same time.

Despite what one might think, I was and am a non-violent person. But as a child, I believed that worm pieces regenerated. By cutting worms in half, I thought I was multiplying their population, thereby taking part in important zoological conservation work.

I had no idea I was actually committing mass murder.

My parents often scolded me when they found the holes I’d dug in our lawn to collect specimens. I may have even gotten a spanking. It was the 1970s after all.

So, one day when my father came home from work, and found me chopping a new batch of worms on the stump, he wanted to know where I’d dug up our lawn this time. Proudly, I told him that our grass was unharmed, because I’d found my worms in the old lady’s yard up the street!

He went inside the house, changed into his plaid polyester lounge pants and a belted sweater vest, then came back to the stump. With a lit pipe protruding from his bushy mustache, my father considered his options. Normally, he was loud and a little scary, but this time, he calmly announced, “Lisa, you’re not supposed to dig holes in people’s lawns without asking. We will go to the old lady’s house, and you will tell her what you did.”

My memory of our walk up the street is patchy. I recall feeling a nervous burning in the pit of my stomach, and tunnel vision that made the old lady’s house seem a million miles away. Her porch stairs multiplied as I ascended them. My father waited on the sidewalk.

I don’t even remember seeing the old lady that opened the door. But I will never forget the bone-crushing humiliation I felt while confessing my crime to her.

I went on to make plenty of other bad choices in my youth, but I never dug up worms in anyone’s yard again. The punishment I received was simple, quiet, and highly effective.

In fact, looking back at mistakes I’ve made in my 49 years, the most vivid memories are of the quiet times when I was left to consider the gravity of my transgressions. When harshly accused, I recall the punishment, but can never quite remember what I’d done wrong in the first place. The heated emotions of intense moments seemed to drown out the underlying significance, leaving me feeling only sorry for myself.

One of the best lessons I learned as an adult happened when I was a new attorney. My client was one of a dozen defendants in a complicated products liability case. At the deposition of my client (my first deposition ever), I stood up and asked the roomful of older male attorneys if I could question my client first, rather than waiting until the other lawyers asked their questions, as was customary. I was confident that the facts would clear my client of liability, and I wanted to save everyone a lot of time. They all agreed.

The next day, my boss called me into his office. I had nothing but respect for this seasoned litigator whom I had come to know as my mentor. I sat across the desk from him with my legal pad and pen, jotting down a list of new tasks as he spoke.

“Oh, and one last item, Lisa,” he said calmly. “About yesterday. You know, when the other side wants information, they need to work for it. Don’t make their job easier.”

In that quiet moment, the clutter of my mind parted like the Red Sea, and I could clearly see my error: I had broken a cardinal rule of litigation procedure and felt an acute sense of shame. How could I be so stupid?

Much like the worm massacres of my youth, I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake again while practicing law. The lesson was cemented in my mind permanently, never to be forgotten.

In today’s world of angry rhetoric, violent attacks and knee-jerk reactions, sometimes it’s the quiet voices that are best heard.

[The original  “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster shown above (now an internet meme) was issued by the British Government in 1939 as a motivational tool to prepare the British people for the oncoming Blitz of World War II.]

Life lessons from the last of the litter

20151013_112335The cranberry farmer reached a calloused hand into the crate and grabbed the loose scruff of one pup’s neck. Holding the limp six-week old yellow Labrador retriever at eye level, the farmer grumbled, “You can take this one if you want. The rest are spoken for.”

We cradled the squishy bundle of softness and puppy breath, pretending to decide if he was the one. He might be hyperactive. He might chew my leather boots. His tail might clear coffee tables. He might scoot his rear end across the carpet in front of company.

But there was no going back. He was already ours.

The farmer put our deposit check into the pocket of his dingy jeans, then took out a knife. Quite matter-of-factly, he carved a swath of fur from the back of our pup’s neck so we could identify him at pick up time. As we drove back down the long country road, we couldn’t help feeling like we were meant to rescue our puppy from the harsh realities of farm life.

As you would expect when an impossibly adorable yellow Lab puppy moves into the neighborhood, our base neighbors fell in love with the dog we named “Moby.” The two-year old Golden Retriever next door named Charlie tolerated Moby’s boundless energy with the compassion of a saint, playing until they were both damp with slobber.

Summer came, and six-month old Moby burst out the door of our military quarters in search of Charlie every day. Sometimes we would find Charlie waiting for Moby on our front porch, and other times Moby would find the door of Charlie’s house wedged open, and race inside to wreak havoc.

But then one day in July, Charlie’s house was empty. Like several other military families in our neighborhood, our neighbors had packed up and moved away.

We realized that Moby is not a regular family pet. He is the pet of a military family, and just like military kids and military spouses, military pets must handle the challenges of a mobile lifestyle.

Our first pet was a cat. “Zuzu” was small, fat, and afraid of her own shadow, but she moved with us four times, including three long airplane flights and one six-month quarantine while we were stationed in England. She gave up the ghost at the ripe old age of 15, and we laid her to rest in a shady spot behind our old house in Virginia Beach.

Our first dog, Dinghy, wasn’t easy to transport, seeing as he was 110 pounds and almost three and a half feet tall. We nearly defaulted on our mortgage to pay for the “giant breed” crate required for flying him overseas. When not in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet, Dinghy moved with us in the back seat of our minivan, fogging up the windows and depositing hairballs on the seats. But just like the rest of our family, Dinghy adapted to each new environment, chasing moles in Virginia, hares in Germany, crabs in Florida, and rabbits in Rhode Island. After four moves, Dinghy went to the great dog park in the sky last Thanksgiving, and there is a grave marker bearing his name in the Maine woods near the cabin we were renting.

Moby is nine months old now. He still sniffs the empty porch next door for Charlie, eventually distracting himself with sticks, rotten apples and ratty old tennis balls.

One day, the movers will come to our house again. Moby will think they came just to play with him, and will bring them socks and squeaky toys. Then, after a scary plane ride or a long car ride, he will wonder why his bowls and bed are in a strange new kitchen.

Sometimes, I feel sorry for Moby and wonder if he would’ve been better off on the cranberry farm in Massachusetts.

But then, I see that Moby is serving as our family’s role model. Every morning, he steps out into the world to sniff the ever-changing breeze, blissfully ignorant but eternally hopeful that with each rising sun comes the opportunity for new friends, new experiences, and new adventure.

Serve and be served: Honoring our military community on Veterans Day

20151013_144701“Now serving O-4-1-1, at window number three,” a mechanical female voice said from the base clinic’s new automated pharmacy system. My ticket read “O-419″.

I grabbed a copy of the base newspaper, The Navalog, from the rack inside the revolving door, and took a seat with all the others in the waiting area. I searched the pages for something to distract me from my tendency to people-watch.

I recognized my base neighbor in a photograph and pulled the paper closer to my eyes. “Subway opens at NEX” one headline read, and my mouth watered thinking of my favorite tuna on wheat. There was a blurb about a foreign policy lecture at the War College, and I made a mental note to tell my husband about it.

“Now serving O-4-1-2 at window number two.” Sigh.

After a swish of the revolving door, I heard heated banter, prompting me to peek over the classified ads.

“Now you sit down right there!” a tiny old woman with bushy salt-and-pepper hair and a shirt embroidered with teddy bears barked at her companion, while pointing to a row of chairs. The companion was an even older woman – a friend? a sister? a neighbor? – with short wispy white hair, thick glasses and a quad cane.

The companion hobbled over to the chairs and sat begrudgingly, muttering something about not needing any help. The two argued about where to put their pocket books, until one blurted, “Knowing me, I’ll forget where it is. I can’t even remember where I parked the car!” and they both laughed.

Clearly, their hostile banter was just a shtick. These two were good friends, most likely retired military friends or military spouses, helping each other in the pharmacy.

As I watched them, I wondered what their lives had entailed. They looked to be in their late 70s or 80s, both wearing the elastic-waisted polyester pants that are advertised in the back of Parade Magazine. How long were they in the military? What had they lived through?

I wasn’t the only one watching the feisty old retirees’ comedy act. A man in uniform waiting nearby stepped toward them and said, “I got you a number from the kiosk over there. You need one to pick up a prescription. It’s a new system, but I can help you.”

The white-haired woman grumbled and snatched the ticket from the serviceman’s hand, having no intention of learning the new-fangled system. Her salt-and-pepper friend thanked the man kindly, before scolding her companion for being rude.

Others standing by peeked over to see the number on the women’s ticket – O-421 – so they could help when the time came. Everyone seemed to understand that these women had earned their place in the line, and in life.

There was no need for the women to abide by the new pharmacy system or tone down their cantankerous banter. Somehow, the rest of us in the waiting room knew they were to be respected and taken care of, and it was our duty to do it.

We watched with genuine reverence, knowing that someday, we’ll be the retirees in the military clinic pharmacy waiting rooms needing help. We’ll be the ones wearing wrap-around sunglasses, pushing shopping carts through the commissaries, bickering over coupons and deli meats. We’ll be the ones telling old stories of proud moments, of sacrifices, of military friends lost and gained along the way.

Without a spoken word between us, we made a collective pact to help the two retired women that day.

It took 37 minutes for my number to be called, but I was grateful for the opportunity to observe the military folks around me. Whether we know each other personally or not, we are one people, one community, one family. We share experiences and a sense of respect for our unique lifestyle.

And we take care of each other.

This Veterans Day, open your eyes to fellow military members in your community. Share stories, show respect, and lend a helping hand.

The Tell-Tale Tooth

IMG_7167I was nervous, dreadfully nervous.

True, the tooth had haunted me both day and night, but my senses were only sharpened, not destroyed. I was certainly not mad! In fact, my awareness was so acute as to render me excruciatingly sane.

So listen carefully, ye with endodontic woes, and hear the ghoulish story on this All Hallows’ Eve . . .

Oh, the nerve of that dreaded tooth! An angry nerve, indeed. I cannot claim credit for the murderous idea; it was my dentist who suggested that I schedule a root canal.

Last Wednesday, I arrived promptly at 9:30 am in the endodontist’s waiting room. Like a snake charmer, his Assistant lead me down a narrow passage to an oxblood red vinyl chair in the surgical chamber, scattered with various metal instruments and machines.

Suddenly, the Doctor appeared at my side like an apparition. Wearing an ominous surgical mask and cap, I could only see his vexing blue eyes . . . which is why I didn’t notice the tiny tire iron he was wielding in his latex-sheathed hand.

“Let’s confirm that Tooth Number Three is our culprit,” he said, before wrapping the metal instrument three times against my tender molar like he was chipping ice for his martini. The inflamed pulp shot searing daggers into my battered nerves.

“Unghhh!” I groaned, giving him the confirmation he needed to begin the lethal procedure.

The Doctor administered the first shots of Novocain into my gums with such an angel’s touch, I was wholly unprepared for the poisoned pitchfork he thrust mercilessly into the roof of my mouth.

While the injected anesthetic seeped into my cells, the Assistant – is her back slightly hunched? – scurried around the chamber, preparing me for the wretched task at hand. She lassoed Tooth Number Three with a “rubber dam” that covered the rest of my mouth like a miniature tarp. I feared I might suffocate if the Rubber of the Damned suctioned against my nervously heaving nostrils.

Finally, Assistant Hunchback jammed a doorstop between my back molars to make it impossible for me to scream.

With Tooth Number Three sufficiently numbed, the Doctor extended a monstrous mechanical arm from the wall, lowering the Hubble Space Telescope over my face. With his evil blue eye peering into the complex series of magnifying lenses, I wondered if I’d be burned alive like a helpless insect on a sidewalk.

As much as it had abused me over the last several weeks, I was not entirely convinced that Tooth Number Three should be sentenced to death. It had served me faithfully since my youth – through braces, fillings, unpopped kernels, Sugar Daddies, pistachio shells, and night grinding. Is it really necessary to strip the thing of its life-giving innards in such a barbaric way?

My eyes darted from Assistant Hunchback to Doctor Evil Eye, trying in vain to communicate my reluctance. But, alas, it was of no use. All I could do was lie back as they committed the dastardly deed, listening to the quickening flamenco melody oozing from the chamber’s sound system.

Assistant Hunchback passed Doctor Evil Eye a series of hideous instruments – probes, forceps, clamps, excavators. A switch was flipped, and through the whir and grind of the drill, I could hear the frantic strumming of a rosewood guitar.

A puff of putrid dust rose from my hollowed molar, exposing its inflamed pulp. With the Hubble Space Telescope in my face, I could only smell the odor of household bleach and burnt flesh, and see the glint of metal probes.

The Andulasians stamped their feet to the ricocheting guitar strings, while Doctor Evil Eye reamed bits of meat from the bloody canals. Tooth Number Three would not surrender easily. The clapping dancer whirled to a frenzied crescendo as the Doctor made one last stabbing probe deep into the root.

“Ole!” spurted from the speakers just as the last nerve ending was plucked, and the deed was done.

Nevermore will I open a bottle with my molars!

Trophies for Participants and Parolees


A dusty relic from the season The Sharks lost every game.

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania — the cradle of quarterbacks, Steeler Country, the home of those folks accused of “clinging to their guns and religion” — where hard work and home style values are honored more than social position and wealth.

An appreciation for football, a hard-knocking sport requiring the kind of gritty strength admired in Western PA, was ingrained in me from my youth. So when our son reached the appropriate age, my husband and I registered him for flag football.

Problem was, too many kids had already signed up and the league needed one more coach. My husband, a product of small private schools, had never played football on a team, but he volunteered to give our son the opportunity. Each of the overcrowded teams gave up two of their players, and along with our son, these rejects became “The Sharks” — the real-life version of The Bad News Bears.

It was immediately apparent that The Sharks were in serious trouble.

In a desperate effort to provide the group of distractible boys a worthwhile team experience regardless of their obvious lack of athleticism, the parents made up cheers, blared the theme from “Jaws”, waved purple towels and instilled in the boys the ceaseless will to win.

The Sharks never scored a point that season, and lost every game. However, our team became legendary in the league for its undying spirit in the face of impossible odds. Despite finishing dead last, The Sharks were, in a way, inspirational.

At our end of season picnic, my husband called each player up one by one, and told the proud parents what their sons had done to contribute to the team. Then, he handed every single player a trophy.

Yep, I said it: The team lost and everybody received a trophy.

“What!?” you’re all saying, “You gave everybody a trophy? You’re contributing to the epidemic of unmotivated individuals who feel entitled to praise!” 

I hear you, and on many levels I agree that participant trophy policies send the wrong message to kids. I do believe that rewards must be earned. But, despite coming in last place, The Sharks displayed certain desirable qualities that are rarely recognized in today’s athletic culture: Good sportsmanship and moral fortitude.

Consider the NFL. Where I grew up, kids looked up to players like Bradshaw, Harris, Blount and Ham. As underdogs, these unlikely superheroes rose above the pollution-choked confines of 1970s Pittsburgh to epitomize the right mixture of raw talent, determination, and team responsibility.

As longstanding team owners, the Rooney family seemed to understand what the growing fan base valued in players and coaches. They never went for flashy cheerleaders or hotshot superstars, opting instead for a team that appealed to its blue-collar no-nonsense bread and butter.

But nowadays, the NFL is wracked with scandal involving criminal and moral misconduct. There are so many arrests among NFL players, newspapers such as The San Diego Union Tribune and USA Today maintain extensive online NFL arrest databases. (See, and

Even my beloved Steelers have been swept up in the tide of scandal. Most recently, Michael Vick, who was sentenced in 2007 to 23 months in federal prison for running a brutal dog-fighting ring, was hired as Steelers’ back up quarterback, amidst widespread fan protests. Ironically, Steelers Linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram in August about taking away his sons’ participation trophies because he was “not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.” But Harrison continues to play and receive his million-dollar salary despite a history of domestic abuse, anger management counseling, and repeated violations of the rule against helmet-to-helmet hits.

Scores of NFL players and coaches have been involved in criminal or cheating activities yet they continue to be rewarded with sponsorships, over-the-top salaries, and unfettered playtime. In its insistence on recognizing only athletic skill, modern society overlooks the virtues that make athletes truly great. The Sharks could teach the NFL a thing or two about sportsmanship and character, but the league is too busy compromising its values for the Almighty Dollar.

As Vince Lombardi famously said, “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”


Sexy Pizza Rat vs. Frankenstein

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

When I was a kid, Halloween was simple. All we had to do was be scary, be scared, and get candy.

But then about 20 years ago, society was hit with a tidal wave of global information technology. Although the full impact of Internet on society is yet unknown, the “Sexy Pizza Rat Costume” is clear evidence that Halloween isn’t all about jack-o-lanterns, trick or treating, and horror movies anymore.

A few weeks ago, someone in New York City took a 14 second video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down some dirty subway stairs, and uploaded it. With 7.7 million views on YouTube, the otherwise unremarkable rat has become a viral sensation., a costume and lingerie company, capitalized on the trend, and have sold out their “Sexy Pizza Rat” Halloween costume for a mere $90 a pop.

Rodents aren’t the only things being made into sexy Halloween costumes these days. Costume companies are adding miniskirts, bustiers, booty shorts and exposed midriffs to costumes resembling Donald Trump, Minions, Cecil the Lion, sock monkeys, Ronald McDonald, the Cat in the Hat, corn cobs, lobsters and goldfish.

In the 1970s, we didn’t have sexy costumes. In fact, most store-bought costumes came in cheap boxed sets, consisting of a 100% polyester sheath that tied in the back like a hospital gown that was supposed to resemble cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Sleeping Beauty or Fred Flintstone.

Made of eggshell-thin plastic, the masks had two round holes to see through and a tiny slit at the mouth. Presumably meant for breathing, the slit wasn’t big enough to allow breath to escape, making Halloween a steamy, uncomfortable affair. The masks would crack with the slightest pressure, and the thin elastic band that went around the head had a working life of about an hour.

As cheap as they were, I always wanted a store-bought costume, but my first-grade-teacher-mother refused to buy them because they required “no creativity.” Instead, we were set adrift with nothing but our resourcefulness and what we could find around the house.

Just like the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, a nice white sheet with two holes cut in it could do the trick. Many of the neighborhood kids dressed up as sheet ghosts for Halloween, but seeing as all our bed sheets had daisies or model Ts printed on them, my brother and I had to get a little more creative.

For a couple of years, I used a grey wig my grandmother had discarded, along with a crocheted shawl and some glasses made out of pipe cleaners, to disguise myself as “an old lady.” Other years I was a hobo, an Indian squaw, or a clown, all made from things lying around the house.

One year, my brother used income from his paper route and a mail order add in the back of his Mad Magazine to score a green rubber “Creature from the Black Lagoon” mask. Even though he wore it with jeans and a sweatshirt, it terrified me because I had recently seen the movie.

My parents had decided that I was old enough to stay up after the Carol Burnett Show on Saturday nights to watch “Chiller Theater,” a weekly double feature of old horror movies. With my brother propped on the couch, and me in a sleeping bag on the floor in front of our console TV, we gazed bug-eyed at classics such as “King Kong vs. Godzilla”, “The Man Who Reclaimed His Head”, “The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism”, and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”.

It’s too bad that nowadays, kids gaze bug-eyed at the sexy costumes that now permeate the Internet, costume shops and department stores. Instead of Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they see Sexy Pizza Rat and Sexy Big Bird.

In the pre-Internet days, it didn’t matter whether the costumes were of the store bought or homemade variety, Halloween was less about the costumes and more about being scary, or if you were like me, being scared. And like the Clark Bars, Chiclets and popcorn balls on Halloween night, there were plenty of each to go around.



College essays highlight military life

college essay

Our middle child, Anna, came home from school crying last week.

This is not unusual for teenage girls. In fact, it happens so frequently, that we sometimes have to feign concern. While we might gasp loudly and blurt with outstretched arms, “Oh, Sugar Dumpling, what’s got you so upset?” my internal monologue is really saying, Good Lord, what is it this time . . . probably boy drama, or another project is due, or skinny jeans went out of style . . . I’d better record “Survivor” because this might take a while.

But last week, Anna plopped onto the couch looking quite pitiful. With puffy eyes and a wobbling chin, she explained, “It’s just . . . everything! I have another paper due in English, a Stats test on Friday, the SAT this weekend, and I somehow have to upload my portfolio for my applications to Syracuse and Delaware. And between all that, somehow finish my college essay!” Her face contorted as tears plopped onto her sweatshirt.

Our daughter isn’t the only 17-year-old who is feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. Many of the 3.3 million US high school seniors are under pressure from parents, guidance counselors, teachers and themselves to distill their life experience down to one single, flawless 650-word college essay.

But are the tears and missed “Survivor” episodes worth it? Do essays really matter all that much to admissions counselors?

There are varied reports on whether or not essays are seriously considered by colleges. Three former admissions counselors from Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago stated in a Nov. 14, 2014 article in Time Magazine that they read and seriously considered every essay that came across their desks. However, they all acknowledged that no student with lackluster grades and test scores ever got into their schools based on a great essay.

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist who studies higher education, spent 18 months in the admissions office of a top-tier liberal arts school working alongside counselors through two full admissions cycles. In a Nov. 13, 2014 article in The New Republic, Stevens stated that the “hard numbers” – GPA, test scores, class rank, and number of AP and honors courses – reigned supreme in their admissions decisions. The applicants on the low and high ends of the school’s standards were decided upon quickly, but even for the middle pool of applicants, essays “rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers.”

Stevens said the factors that mattered more were: “How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor?”

Furthermore, in its 2014 State of College Admissions Report, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that the most important factors in admissions decisions were grades in college prep courses (82%), strength of curriculum (64%), SAT/ACT scores (58%), and overall grades (52%). While opinions on essays were evenly spread, with only 22% reporting essays as having considerable importance, 38% moderate importance, 23% limited importance, and 17% no importance at all.

Regardless of this disheartening research, the fact remains that the essay serves as the one place on the Common Application (the online standard application accepted by approximately 500 US universities) where military children can set themselves apart. If there is a weakness in class rank, GPA, or consistency of curriculum; a personal essay that mentions moving three times during high school, living overseas, or a parent’s lengthy deployment, might not only catch the attention of admissions counselors, but also will spotlight the resiliency, adaptability and strength of military child applicants.

Military children in particular must seize opportunities to mention their uncommon experiences in their applications. Honor, sacrifice, service, hardship, adventure, and worldliness — these traits don’t show up in the “hard numbers” of a student’s GPA or test scores.

So dry your tears military high school seniors, and put your pens to paper. It’s time to give those college admissions counselors an education in military life.

We can dance if we want to

military ball

Every year about this time, I go on a half-hearted crash diet involving tuna fish, hard-boiled eggs, and colon cleansing rabbit food. I dig frantically through the neglected stash of garments in the back of my closet in hopes of finding a dress that still fits and a pair of shoes that won’t make me walk like a Sleestak.

I stand in front of the mirror more than usual, twisting my hair into updoos, then brushing it out, over and over. I turn to the side, suck in my stomach, and rise up on my tippy toes. I inspect my toenails, fiddle through my jewelry stash, and pray that I can find my most important accessory — my Spanx.

Why would I exhibit this odd behavior every year in October? Because it’s time for the Navy Ball.

Just like the other military balls — the Army Ball in June, the Marine Corps Ball in November, the Air Force Ball in September, and the Coast Guard Ball in August — the Navy Ball happens every year to celebrate our service’s birthday, October 13, 1775.

Military balls are pretty much the same every year, with programs that include cocktail hour, the parading of colors, dinner, speeches, dancing, and some service-specific traditions such as the Army’s elaborate “Grog Bowl” ceremony.

Although these formal events don’t change much year after year, there is an unspoken expectation that one’s behavior at military balls must change the older one gets. When you’re new to the military, the annual ball is a time to enjoy yourself, let your hair down, live a little. But as the years of military service roll on, and you move up the ranks, you’re expected to “set a good example.”

What a drag.

I remember my first ball as a new Navy spouse in California in 1994. My husband and I were star-struck shaking hands with the guest speaker (a California senator) and other muckety-mucks in the receiving line. After nervously negotiating the fancy dinner etiquette, we jumped from our seats for the main event: dancing. I don’t remember my moves on the dance floor that night, but I do remember bumping awkwardly into the Senator and his wife, and being really, really sweaty.

At every Navy Ball since then, my husband and I hit the dance floor, ready to kick up our heels. My husband does the same funny little jig he’s been doing since our first dance at a cheesy Holiday Inn bar in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina nearly 23 years ago: he skips in place to the beat, with his hands folded up near his chest like a T-Rex, and his quadruple-E feet whipping alternately to each side. He forgets I’m with him while he smiles to the crowd, occasionally stopping to point at someone for dramatic effect.

But somewhere along the way, we realized that we were the “old fogies” at the ball, and with that realization came a sort of obligation to throttle back and leave the dancing to the younger folks. Those of us who already have a couple decades of formal events under our expanding belts should probably stick to the cake and coffee, perhaps stepping out onto the dance floor for one or two obligatory conservative shuffles before heading home to take our ginko biloba.


It is true that career military types like us don’t have all the moves (our teenage daughters have tried in vain to teach us to “whip” and “nae nae”), and we have never heard many of the popular songs because we’re too busy listening to NPR news in our high-mileage minivans. And yes, we do sometimes wake up the next morning from a night of dancing with bulging disks and torn ligaments.

But the fact remains that we still like to dance, and now that we’re too old to hang out at nightclubs, military balls and weddings are our only opportunities. Besides, when my husband and I get out there on the dance floor to botch the moves to the Cupid Shuffle, we are setting an example. In our sweaty state of dancing bliss, we are showing the world that making a career of military service can be fun.

Sound Off: Do school changes hurt military kids in the long run?

DSC02761By now, kids are back into the swing of school, reestablishing seats in the cafeteria, slipping prohibited gum paraphernalia into their pockets, and whispering in the hallways about the latest crushes.

But not every kid is skipping off the bus each day.

Military-connected children move three times more often than their civilian peers, so there are thousands of military children in the US and overseas are the “new kids” at school this year.

Although some are excited to be in new schools, many experience stress, fear and sadness. And at one time or another, new kids feel really, really awkward. Trying to find a seat on the bus, getting lost on the way to Science, and wondering who – if anyone – will be your new friend.

Although our daughters have generally benefitted from our moving experiences, our son was quirky. Diagnosed with major developmental delays as a toddler, Hayden was not like his peers. With each move, he was received with mixed reactions. In Germany, he became known as a funny character that everyone wanted to know. In Florida, he was perceived as odd, a reputation he was unable to shake. He ate lunch alone most days, and made no lasting friendships at school. By the end of our two year tour, he was showing symptoms of social anxiety, prompting us to seek medical advice.

Mercifully, Hayden became a veritable celebrity at his last school, where students and teachers thought he was hilarious, uniquely talented, and academically inclined. His status as the only military kid in his class only made him more interesting to his peers, who gave him a standing ovation on graduation day.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

But, as I found when I put the issue out on social media, every military family has their own story to tell. I read stories from nearly 50 other military families, about frustration over inconsistent IEP accommodations and inability to transfer test scores. About decisions to homeschool or move the active duty parent without the rest of the family to minimize the social and academic impact on their kids. About tears, trauma, strength and adaptability.

I thought I’d find a general consensus, but instead, I discovered opinions as diverse as the kids themselves.

“Moving was never easy. I spent the first three months of my new base high school in Germany eating lunch alone in the library and holing up in my bedroom AIM-ing my old friends from middle school. I reacted better than a lot of kids I know, whose constant moving around caused them to resort to acting out/trying out drugs and alcohol etc. [However,] I’m super grateful for all of the experiences it gave me and all the amazing families we’ve been able to meet. I still want to spend a lot of my young adult life traveling, but as soon as I have kids I want to be stationary. I don’t want my kids to have to move around, especially in high school.” Emma, Air Force child, 22.

“[Changing schools] ultimately makes [kids] better able to handle changes life will throw at us all whether expected and planned for or not. They think on their feet better, make strong, lifelong friendships quickly and learn about the importance of community…” Ciara, Navy spouse, 40.

“My observation is that younger kids may be more outwardly upset, but adjust very quickly. Older kids seem to take longer to warm up to their new surroundings.” Amy, Army Reserves Spouse, 45.

“My husband was a Navy brat and did not enjoy going to school and living with friends that always move, for that reason we never live in military housing and [our kids] attend schools with less military … It works best for us.” Krystal, Navy spouse, 32.

“[A] lot of how kids handle change in new schools is how the parents handle the new experiences….They mirror our behavior and can pick up on our stress.” Liz, Army spouse, 43.

“[As a Navy kid] I loved moving around the country because if I had a bad experience at one school, I just had to stick it out a couple of years before we’d move on. I feel that it’s made me … able to deal with the stresses of military life. In fact, I’m a little worried when my husband retires and we have to pick a place to live forever!” Karyl, Navy spouse, 39.

Despite the many challenges of changing schools, the good news is that military families are determined to find their own strategy to cope with them. As Army mom, Liz, put it, “Just be there for your kids … even if it’s just to listen and give a positive word of encouragement.”

%d bloggers like this: