Life’s a beach when you dig deep

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Reclining my beach chair to the third notch, I sink deeply into the brightly striped canvas. Blinded by the sun, I grope for my cold beverage, safely ensconced in its Huggie, and dislodge it from the cup holder at the end of the armrest. I draw a long icy sip, letting the cold carbonation fizzle a moment on my tongue before swallowing. My heels wiggle to create two cool ditches for my feet, the sand sifting softly through my toes.

Eyes closed, I soak up the sun, hear the rhythmic splashing of the surf, and feel the gentle ocean breeze.

Ahhh …

“Hey Lisa! Are you ready to get beat?” I hear twenty minutes into a deliciously sweaty pseudo nap.

It’s Ralph. He and his wife Pam are under their beach umbrella, and he’s goading me to play ladderball. The day before, I paired up with a fellow vacationer named Grace, and somehow, we managed to win the ladderball championship for the day. Not bad for two middle-aged mothers.

While I try to think of an excuse to stay in my beach chair, Ralph makes his way down to the ocean for a dip. Although Ralph spends most of the day under his umbrella, he gets up occasionally to “go for a swim” (we all know to stay upcurrent) or play a quick game of ladderball or cornhole before going back to his Bud Lite.

I can’t remember which summer it was that our family met Ralph and his wife Pam, but we see them every year, along with other folks who vacation at the same beach. There’s Grace and Steve, Pete and Luanne, Eddie and Nancy, Bobbie and Dan, Al and Gwon, Keith and Laura, and others.

We’ve all been renting beach houses on Hickory Trail for many years, and met eventually, chatting from umbrella to umbrella. Playing beach games. Sharing cold beverages. Watching each others’ kids grow up.

We didn’t need to know much about our “Beach Buddies” lives away from Hickory Trail. We already knew that Ralph is hilarious. Grace is happy-go-lucky. Eddie brings fireworks. Pete reads books. Bobbie wears cute hats. Al’s a great volleyball player. Pam makes awesome sandwiches.

Nothing else seemed to matter.

Grace and I with our beach buddies

Grace and I with our beach buddies

But this summer, while lounging under our respective umbrellas, conversations stretched with the shadows into the late afternoon. While telling stories to avoid the hassle of cooking dinner, we learned new things about each other.

Ralph has seven siblings, three of which were in the Army. Pam and Ralph’s son is stationed at Ft. Bragg. Pete served in Army Intelligence for several years before taking over his family’s bakery business. Eddie’s son works as a civilian for the military. Keith is a retired Marine.

Like toes wiggling in the sand, we dug a little deeper, and were pleasantly surprised to find a common reverence for military life.

“C’mon Lisa,” Ralph chides on his way back from the water, “Are you and Grace ready to defend your title?”

I peel myself out of the comfy canvas nest and wave at Grace to join me on the ladderball court. While Ralph and the gang heckle us mercilessly, Grace and I surprise ourselves with our third straight win.

After some awkward middle-aged high fives, we circle our chairs around to share more laughs and stories with this random cluster of eclectic personalities. The press and political pundits say there is “gap of understanding” between military and civilians, and that we need to worry about the increasing “military-civilian divide.” But on this Carolina beach, there is only camaraderie and mutual respect.

As the sun dips low in the sky, I’m hopeful the tides are changing.

This might look like a random bunch of beach bums, but turns out, they're all great people.

This might look like a random bunch of beach bums, but turns out, they’re all great people who respect the military.

Culture or torture? Lessons learned while traveling with kids

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What did we do when the kids got cranky at the Colosseum? Bottled water and cheap sunglasses bought us another hour of touring.

Ah, Summertime … that happy time of year when, after months of running the veritable hamster wheel of work, school, bills, and chores, we finally loosen up and have a little fun.

Hike the Appalachian Trail? Take a Caribbean Cruise? Stay at a B&B in the French countryside? Camp in the Grand Canyon? Sightsee at Yosemite? Rent a beach house in the Outer Banks?

Simple, adventurous or extravagant, the point is to relax and have a good time.

But wait. Hold up. Just a sec. [Cue tire-screeching sound effects.] What do we do with the kids?

Unless you have a team of well paid nannies who will keep your offspring entertained at home all week (not likely on our military budget) then I’ve got some bad news: the kids are coming along.

Instead of leisurely lunching on brie and wine at a Parisian street café, you’ll find yourself at nibbling nuggets at the McDonalds on the Champs Elysee. Rather than braving class 4 rapids on Pennsylvania’s Ohio Pyle Gorge, you’ll be splashing the sticky cotton candy off your face on the logjam at Six Flags. Forget about scheduling your couples massage at the spa, because you’ll be wading in a suspiciously cloudy kiddie pool at a motel off the interstate.

Take it from me. I know.

In Paris, we took the kids to climb the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, just so we could have a sit down dinner in peace.

In Paris, we took the kids to climb the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, just so we could have a sit down dinner in peace.

While stationed in California, England, Virginia, Germany, and Florida, I planned countless family trips. I wanted to jam-pack our time overseas and in different states with cultural and educational experiences that our kids would appreciate for the rest of their lives.

Problem was, I forgot. Oh, yea, they’re kids. Bummer.

I soon learned that kids don’t want to wait two hours for traditional indigenous foods at an authentic local restaurant. They could care less about mountain scenery or sylvan country settings. And they absolutely hate lingering in art and history museums.

We discovered the hard way that, unless we were planning a trip to the Threshold of Hell, we’d better figure out how to keep the kids happy.

First, we adopted The Cardinal Rule of Traveling with Children:

“Lower your expectations.”

Don’t envision authentic ambiance, cultural experience, thrilling adventure, and romantic interludes. Just tell yourself that your family vacation will be about as relaxing and cultural as chaperoning a fifth grade field trip to Bowl-O-Rama. With that mindset, you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised.

In Spain, the girls had lice, and our son had an attitude... good times!

In Spain, the girls had lice, and our son had an attitude… good times!

Next, follow the strategies I finally learned while on the brink of family vacation insanity:

  • My kids are so cultured, they have thrown up in six states and seven foreign countries. Nothing kills ambiance like the lingering scent of upchuck on your shoes, so keep gallon zip-lock bags and wet wipes in your purse at all times.
  • Take appropriate steps, literally. Bell towers, monuments, castles, sand dunes, forts and tall buildings are great places to run the “squirrelly” out of kids. Beware that you may need a portable defibrillator for yourself, but a coronary event may be worth it if it means your kids will sit through dinner.
  • Pommes fritz, furai, chips, papas fritas – whatever you call ‘em, don’t even think about sitting down at a restaurant that doesn’t have French fries on the menu.
  • Space out. No, I’m not suggesting that you take sedatives while traveling with the kids, but find wide open spaces where you and hubby can soak up local ambiance while the rugrats spread their grubby little wings and fly. You can nibble local cheese and bread while they scare pigeons in the piazza, chase bumblebees in an alpine meadow, or roll in the grass at a city park.
  • Wet them down while you wet your whistle. When deciding where to stop for a glass of wine, look for a nearby fountain, stream, lake, pond, beach or tropical fish tank. If they can splash, throw rocks, feed ducks or tap on the glass, you have a decent chance of sipping your wine in peace.

Oh – and be sure to take lots of photos, because no matter how torturous family vacations may seem, take it from me, someday you’ll look back and wish you could do it all over again.

Francis Cam - Fall 09 231

A happy family moment on the windy beaches of Holland.

Sound Off: Are military discounts fair?

Image via usforcesdiscounts.com.

Image via usforcesdiscounts.com.

“Do you have a military discount?” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard my husband say this – at the movie theater, pizza place, tire center, hardware store – I guess we wouldn’t need to ask for discounts.

Every little bit helps, right? But military folks aren’t the only ones having to budget these days – the entire country is feeling the pinch. So why should we get special treatment?

Although the phrase “military-civilian divide” has been around since the Vietnam War, it is seeing a lot more press lately. Journalists, scholars, and commentators are analyzing the widening gap of understanding between the public and our shrinking military population. While the negative effects of such a gap are largely agreed-upon, the causes of this divide are the subject of hot debate.

Who is to blame? What roll do military members play in widening the gap? Do we expect benefits such as military discounts? What message does this send to our civilian neighbors? Do they resent us when we claim a discount while they pay full price?

Recently, I launched these questions into the cyberspace via social media, and the viewpoints that came back were mainly in support of offering military discounts. Although, there were hints that the issue is complex:

“As a military family we are very much into making our dollars stretch as far as possible, so it would be silly for us to leave these discounts unused. We have saved hundreds of dollars (if not thousands) over the years.” – Nichole, 33, AF spouse.

“I do not feel any guilt enjoying this small benefit at a very limited number of businesses. I pay for my health insurance, I pay my taxes, I have lived in countries that lack the conveniences Americans enjoy on a daily basis, I have moved 12 times in 18 years and paid thousands of dollars out of pocket over the years to re-stock my pantry without being able to shop ‘sales’ or use coupons.” – Katie, 46, Marine Spouse.

“But when does the notion change from appreciation to expectation? That is where I have concerns.” – Jackie, 35, civilian.

“I ask. It’s a way that business has decided to express it’s appreciation, and I appreciate that business right back! I don’t feel entitled, I feel appreciated.” – Jill, 48, retired AF spouse.

“I don’t ask. To me it feels greedy.” Marisa, 29, AF spouse.

“I view that discount as an act of patriotism, a quality, I for one, still value. Funny thing is, I have no idea which companies offer these discounts. I guess these companies have all opted for quiet patriotism. Maybe not so surprising these days.” – Chris, 50, real estate agent.

“While I don’t wear the uniform, the same oath of office I take as a government civilian is exactly the same oath every officer takes. So why is it that we are perceived as not always a part of the team? … A great deal of civilians are deploying to austere places. Why discriminate?” – Jacqueline, 35, AF government civilian.

“I was shocked to discover some of the civilians in my community where using their similarly looking military ID for store discounts. Such abuse of an unearned discount in that form made me really upset.” — Ann Marie, 35, Army spouse.

“If students, teachers, AAA, AARP… are all encouraged to ask for discounts then there is no difference in a military family asking.” — Amanda, military spouse.

“There is a movie theater chain that gives a military discount for the active duty member and not dependents … not nice! If you’re going to give a discount, give it to the entire family. We serve too!” — Suzanne, 43, Navy spouse.

“I think we’ve gotten spoiled by discounts in general. I have noticed that most military discounts are only given to the active duty member now and not the dependents, which makes sense to me.” Angie, 47, retired Army spouse.

“With what our military personnel go through, that discount is well deserved. It is embarrassing what our troops make.” — Danny, 49, civilian.

“As a civilian, I feel the ‘pinch’ too, but I’m happy to be free thanks to the military. A discount is well worth our freedom.” — Joseph, 44, civilian butcher.

If variety is the spice of life, the topic of military benefits is the five-alarm chili of opinions these days. One way to cool this hot debate is for those of us who benefit from generous discounts to douse any feelings of entitlement with an ample dollop of genuine appreciation.

Five tips for better college visits

My daughter, Anna, wincing with embarrassment during a recent tour of Syracuse University.

My daughter, Anna, wincing with embarrassment during a recent tour of Syracuse University.

Listen up, hallowed halls. Take note, institutions of higher learning. Lend me your ears, foundations of educational excellence.

You may think you know it all, but even the snootiest universities could use a few words of sage advice from the parents of prospective applicants. I’ll admit, we search for glasses that are perched on our heads, forget to defrost the pork chops, and wander around trying to remember why we came upstairs, but take heed: parents are experts when it comes to what makes a good college visit.

With one kid already in college, one graduating from high school next year, and one graduating in three years, my Navy husband and I are in that frazzled state of parenthood marked by financial panic, misplaced dreams and rapid debt accumulation. But our strong parental instinct drives us to blindly ignore our Chapter 11 premonitions and encourage our children to pursue their educational goals.

Last week, I spent three days going to information sessions and campus tours with our middle child. We learned a lot on our college visit odyssey, and feel it is our duty to pass these Five Tips on to college admissions officials across the nation.

#1. Free stuff. That’s right, we’re not too proud to admit that we like getting stuff for free. Pens, key chains, lanyards, whatever. We’ve driven a gazillion miles, stayed overnight in questionable motels, and were fed like cattle through breakfast buffet lines where we ate pasteurized egg product omelets that could have doubled for brake pads, and cups of coffee that tasted like they were filtered through my son’s gym socks. So yeah, a couple of free pens might be nice. And if you really want to make an impression, why not print us up some cool t-shirts and shoot them at us through air cannons like they do at football games?

#2. Walk backwards. It’s gimmicky, but we like it when student tour guides walk backwards for the entire campus tour. It keeps us entertained like the daredevil routine at the circus. Will he trip over that curb? Will that branch snag her hair? Why not work in few uneven sidewalk pavers or an open manhole cover to add a touch of suspense? Oh, what fun!

#3. Potty breaks. Parents have a plethora of bladder control quirks, so provide plenty of breaks to use the facilities. These are especially important if you generously offered refreshments (we do like free stuff) and don’t want parents exposing themselves on the quad to “water the shrubs.”

#4. Point out the elephant in the room. By “charming college town” did you mean that strip mall across the street with the pawnshop and the e-cig emporium? Was that the Hell’s Angels that just drove by the Student Union? Even if your bubbly tour guide acted like we were walking the streets of Mayberry, we noticed every sketchy-looking corner, and now can’t stop envisioning our daughter being mugged by some unsavory character on his way back from the methadone clinic. So yeah, let’s talk about it.

#5. Get to the point. We may spend the entire day wandering your dappled walkways and ogling your columned architecture, but make no mistake about it — we really just want a school that will make our kid happy and won’t break the bank. So don’t bother going on and on about collaborative research, evolving identities, and transformative enlightenment. Let’s go over financial aid, and I’m not talking loans.

A special note to the Ivy Leagues: Don’t be so stuck up. We have every right to tour your campus, even if we know you’ll never let our kid in. It’s kind of like going to the zoo, except that all the animals are way smarter than we are. Besides, we’re only here because your school was on our way home, and we thought it would be cool to add another pen to our collection.

When Mom leaves home

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Ah… alone at last with a latte in the airport and plenty of time for people-watching before my flight.

That chubby little boy over there with the teddy bear backpack is just precious. Sitting criss-cross-applesauce in his chair. Blue eyes, dark lashes and dimples for knuckles. Aw…

Lordy … what’s up with the guy drinking the Starbucks in the white linen pants and bright orange golf shirt? Mirrored sunglasses and a rusty tan… so cheesy. A fast talker I’ll bet. Why’s that lady moving her lips? Carrying on a full conversation with herself, hand gestures and all. Oh Geeze, a policeman with a dog. Is he sniffing our luggage? I wonder if they’re looking for drug runners. How exciting…

Uh oh, time to board.

Once a year, I leave my family and go off on my own for a few days to attend a newspaper columnists’ conference. I’ve done this for the last four years in a row, and although I love to people-watch in airports and eat out for a few days, it’s not what you’d call … easy.

My active-duty Navy husband, who has left home for work more times that I can count, just simply packs a bag and goes. He does not ask about how our daughter will get to her tennis lesson. He does not make a list of meals ideas for us to eat while he is gone. He does not remind the kids to walk the dog. And when he returns to us, he dumps a suitcase full of dirty laundry by the washing machine before finding a good place to relax.

For me, on the other hand, leaving home is a tad more complicated.

Planning begins weeks in advance. I write grocery lists. I cook. I jot reheating instructions on index cards. I make phone calls to arrange rides. I do laundry. I clean. I draw diagrams regarding pet care, chores, and logistics.

Don’t get me wrong, my family is 100% capable of running a home in my absence. However, 21 years as a military stay-at-home mom has conditioned my family to depend on me.

When I get home in a few days, I won’t dump my dirty clothes by the washing machine, because there will already be a mountain of laundry waiting for me. To their credit, my husband and kids will run around throwing things in closets so the house looks decent, and I’ll smile and avert my eyes from the dirty toilet bowls and sticky countertops.

Four more days before I have to deal with that.

“Boarding zones three and four,” is called and I walk through the human Habitrail and board the plane. Thanks to people stuffing oversized carry-ons into the overhead bins, I am forced to wait in line in First class, staring at the privileged sitting comfortably in their oh-so-roomy chairs. What makes you so special, I think as I pass by the flimsy curtain on my way to the cheap seats.

Coach class looks like a mouthful of teeth crowded into a narrow palate. From my cramped window seat in aisle 23, the air is stale and at least 10 degrees too warm from human breath and body heat. Just as my armpits begin to dampen, the pilot taxis and takes off, banking sharply to the left.

Strangely, as I look down at the toy houses splayed out like The Game of Life, I feel a pang of homesickness for my utterly dependent family. Roping suburban streets studded with turquoise pools get smaller and smaller until the aircraft wings swirl into the steamy summer stratosphere.

In the tiny space left between bags on the floor, I click my heels and mutter to myself, “There really is no place like home.”

A Blast From the Past: Remembering the 4th of July

fireworks

Graphic courtesy of abstract.desktopnexus.com.

What is it about the 4th of July?

I think of Thanksgiving and smell the aroma of roasting turkey as the jets under my tongue fire off tiny squirts of saliva. I think of New Year’s Eve, and hear a paper horn blast and see a sparkle of foil confetti. Who doesn’t think of St. Patrick’s Day and imagine green, while tasting the vaguely minty flavor of a Shamrock Shake or feeling the bubbly tickle of tinted beer?

And so it goes, that when July 4th rolls around, I tap into a unique set of associative sights, sounds, scents, flavors and emotions stored in the 1970s backyard shed of my mind.

Hot sunshine is the first recollection to surface, shedding light on other nostalgic summertime sensations — the steamy aroma of freshly cut grass, the cacophony of kids’ laughter at the community pool, the slippery coolness of a red-white-and-blue Astro Pop. As the full scope of Independence Day memories are revived, I recall flags flying from porches and posts. The tang of barbecue sauce. The sweetness of hot buttered corn on the cob. The thwap of watermelon seeds blown through pursed lips.

As the smoldering charcoal of festive family barbecues dissipate, excitement grows. We grab flashlights, blankets, and ozone depleting aerosol cans of bug repellant (toxic by today’s standards) and jump into the family station wagon.

Since everyone in town is headed to the fairgrounds for the fireworks show, we have to park several blocks away and take a shortcut through the old cemetery. I know it’s just my brother jumping out from behind gravestones to scare me, but I’m petrified nonetheless.

At the fairgrounds, we claim our spot on the grass sloping toward the grandstands where the Annual Demolition Derby was held earlier that day. The banged up cars are gone from the dirt arena, but in the dim dusk we can see the platform from which fireworks will soon be launched.

Lying on the blanket, I hear the crackerjack rat-a-tat of a brass band belting out patriotic tunes, and wait for the first thunk of the fireworks launcher. I smell the faint scent of chlorine in my hair and feel corn-on-the-cob remnants stuck between my teeth.

Boom!

The sky erupts in a massive starburst of radiating white-hot combustion. Oooh! I look around to see the crowd of faces turned upward, eyes communally reflecting the fresh flash of light. Dying embers fizzle, sparkle, then fall toward the earth.

Ahhh!

Pow! My brother doesn’t sit on the blanket, but stands in silhouette before us as vivid color ignites the night sky. With every backfire blast, he jerks theatrically as if hit by a bullet. In the shoulder, then the leg. The gut. The chest. Each shot temporarily weakens him, and he is knocked off balance. Just as it looks as if he may fight back, another invisible bullet Pow! takes its toll. His gruesome display continues until, during the rapid-fire finale, he convulses dramatically, collapsing to the ground. He looks like a goner, but his shaking hand reaches upward with the sheer human will to survive…

Pow, pow! Pow! …POW! And with that, my brother fakes his final heroic demise … until Mom tells him he’d better c’mon if he wants to get home in time to eat ice cream and light sparklers before bedtime.

This week, on the anniversary of our nation’s independence, let’s put aside negative rhetoric that threatens patriotism. Let’s celebrate the revolutionaries who risked life and limb for freedom. Let’s remember the founders who created a new concept of government by the people. And let’s tap into the nostalgia of July 4th to remind us that our American way of life is truly exceptional.

The Look of Selflessness

Francis and Hayden, April 1995

Francis and Hayden, April 1995

“Do you want a boy or girl?” I asked, lazing in bed, seven months pregnant on a Saturday morning. Francis, my husband of fifteen months, lay beside me while we both gazed through the lace sheers billowing over our bedroom window at the sun-soaked Cypress tree in our little Fort Ord back yard.

Without the early morning responsibilities that a baby would soon bring to our weekends, we were free to lie around for hours, listening to the birds chirp and wondering what our life might bring.

On rainy days, we rolled from our bed to the living room couch, watching old movies late into the afternoon in sweatpants and slippers, only running out for popcorn and take out. On sunny weekends, we’d maybe get up and go on a hike in Big Sur, stopping at a local restaurant for fresh Monterey Bay squid steaks or at our friends’ house near Lover’s Point for cookouts.

We believed that working all week entitled us to self-indulgent weekends, and we had no idea that, after less than two years of marriage, having a baby would strip us of that luxury for good.

“Well,” Francis responded after a pause to imagine our future as parents, “I think I’d look good carrying a girl around.”

How odd, I thought. I had assumed that my question – a common one between expectant parents – would prompt him to compare and contrast the experiences he might have raising a son or daughter. Would he want to fish with his son? Throw baseballs in the yard? Or would he prefer to be called into his daughter’s room for tea parties? But instead, Francis expressed his preference for a boy or a girl based solely upon which one might compliment his physical appearance.

“What do you mean, you’d look good carrying a girl around?” I hoped that this man I thought I knew, with his arm draped possessively over my swollen belly, was not a closet narcissist intent on using his offspring as wardrobe accessories.

“You know what I mean,” he plainly retorted, as if everyone who has answered that question thought first of their appearance, “when I imagine being a father, I see myself walking around with a little girl wearing pink booties and a lace bonnet and all that.” He went on to describe how other people might see him in public, and think, “Oh, look how cute that Dad is over there carrying his sweet little baby girl.”

I listened, trying desperately to understand Francis’ point of view, but I was worried. Are we too selfish to be parents?

“It’s a boy!” the obstetrician yelled two months later. A nine-pounder, Hayden Clark Molinari entered our world on a rainy spring evening in 1995, and Francis quite suddenly became a father.

In an instant, our priorities were forever reordered. Like all parents, we lost ourselves in the blur of diapers, bottles, blankets, booties, rectal thermometers, teensy nail clippers, and 3:00AM feedings. Francis didn’t notice that I looked like I’d been hit by a Mack Truck, and I was oblivious to the fact that he was wearing the same spit-up-stained sweatshirt for three days in a row. We were too caught up in the sheer wonder of the little bundle of ten toes and ten fingers we’d created to care.

The rest of the world simply melted away.

Francis got his baby girls a few years later, but he never mused about what his children made him look like again.

Now don’t get me wrong, Francis never completely gave up his interest in his physical appearance. He still checks himself out in shop windows, turning to the side to sneak a peek at his tush. He’s still demands to be photographed when he’s feeling particularly dapper. On the dance floor, he still plays to the crowd and forgets that he’s supposed to be dancing with me. But now that Francis is a Dad, his responsibility to our family is his top priority.

And I must admit, fatherhood looks pretty damned good on him.

The Realities of Now

Photo courtesy of birthday-cake-pictures.com

Photo courtesy of birthday-cake-pictures.com

Back then, you danced. I mean you really danced.

During your 20s and 30s, you’d hear a song that would make you spring to your feet. Channeling the beat of the music through gyrating torso and limbs, you swung your hair in loop-de-loops just for laughs. Rivulets of sweat trickled down your back, and when your evening was done, you slept like a rock.

You danced often. At cousin’s weddings. At military balls. On Friday nights with good friends who came over for dinner and didn’t end up leaving until 1am. At bars or nightclubs you were still young enough to patronize without looking pathetic.

Now, in your 40s and 50s, dancing just isn’t the same.

For the most part, you sit and watch. But every once in a while, like an old dog who’s feeling frisky, you give it a go. A really good 80s song fools you into believing you’ve still got it, so you shuffle to the dance floor doing a sort of pre-dance — biting your bottom lip with one fist pumping in the air — that signals everyone else to pay attention.

Once positioned, you begin, but soon realize that your body doesn’t dance spontaneously like it used to. You must deliberately recall the moves that used to come so freely, as you awkwardly recreate The Roger Rabbit, The Van Halen Jump, and The Hair Swing from faded memory. Eventually, thirst and a twinge of humiliation prompt you to go back to your seat.

Later, in the wee hours, you bolt awake when your calf seizes up with cramps. And in the morning, you discover that you have a kink in your neck, and won’t be able to turn your head to the side for four or five more days.

Back then, in your 20s and 30s, you and your spouse were still discovering yourselves and setting standards for your life. “Perhaps we’re the kind of people who brew craft beers in our garage, using interesting ingredients like apricots and toasted malts? Maybe we surf, play the harmonica in a coworker’s band, bake gourmet biscotti, ride Harleys, or run marathons?”

“When we buy or rent a home, we will absolutely insist on stainless steel appliances. We’ll use the china from our wedding registry every Thanksgiving. Romance will not be diminished when we have kids. Our children will be born using the Bradley Method, they will only eat home-made organic baby food, and will strictly adhere to a system of marble jar behavior rewards as set forth in the June issue of Parenting Magazine.”

Now, after decades of adulthood, your days of self-discovery are behind you. Life happened, and you were too busy working, paying taxes, raising kids, coping with deployments, and keeping your marriage intact to bother with building your identity. In the process, you simply became who you are, naturally.

Today is my 49th birthday.

My husband has been in the Navy for 27 years. Our base house has mismatched appliances, and tumbleweeds of dog hair. I drive a minivan and take fiber supplements. My husband is bald and falls asleep in his recliner. I haven’t seen our wedding china since we boxed it for storage before an overseas move seven years ago. The money we dreamed we might spend on exotic travel and trendy décor ended up being used on braces for our three kids, mortgages, fan belts, plumbers’ bills and college funds. Our idea of a great Friday night is fire-pitting with the neighbors and still being in bed by 11pm.

Life isn’t as we imagined it back then, but believe it or not, we’re happier than we could have dreamed.

You see, after more than two decades of marriage, parenting, and military life, I may not dance all that much anymore. But I’ve gained the wisdom to know that it’s the love of family, the companionship of friends, the honor of military service, and the richness of life experiences that really matter.

So today, when people tell me, “Happy Birthday!” I say to myself, “Bingo.”

Navy Ball 2010 ... I paid for this the next morning.

Navy Ball 2009 … I paid for this the next morning.

The guard that never smiles

guardDuring morning rush hour, cars creep forward in a queasy gas-break rhythm toward Gate 1. The most recent ISIS threats have prompted heightened security, so the guard is taking his time.

After school drop offs, I join the security line in order to get back to our house on base. With nothing else to do but wait, I flop down the visor and grab a flosser from my purse. Every few seconds, I peek under the mirror and inch the minivan toward the back bumper of the blue Prius ahead of me.

In the space of two minutes, I manage to floss my teeth, pluck a few stray eyebrow hairs with the tweezers I keep in the center console, and dust the pollen off the dashboard with my sleeve.

With the gate finally in sight, I feel for my military ID card. I use the pad of my thumb to grip the edge of the laminated card, tugging it from its slot. Every once in a while, it’s not there, and I feel that nervous burn in the pit of my stomach. Did I lose my military ID? But after a few panicked seconds, I find it in the wrong slot or rattling around in the bottom of my purse with gum wrappers and stray coins.

This time, my ID is just where it’s supposed to be, and I slide it out between my thumb and forefinger in one fell swoop.

As the blue Prius ahead of me stops at the guard station, I see him.

Oh no … not that guard, I mumble to myself with dread. Will he finally crack a smile?

I’ve known many gate guards in my 21 years as a Navy spouse. Our family has lived on base for our last three tours of duty in Germany, Florida, and now Rhode Island. We also lived on base in California, but that was during the 90s when the gate guard, if there was one at all, would simply wave vehicles through, casually eyeballing for military decals on windshields.

Nowadays, in the Post 9-11 era, military folks have “personal” relationships with their gate guards, who check our military ID cards multiple times each day. We begin to recognize the guards and their distinct personalities.

There’s the chipper young military guards willing to exchange “thank-yous” and “have-a-nice-days” while fulfilling their duties. The Department of Defense police guards are a more eclectic mix. Some reflect local social mores — southern hospitality, west coast mellowness, midwest sincerity, northern reserve. In Florida, I enjoyed banter with guards who had slow-cooked southern drawls, and here in New England, I perk up when I see the one who chats with an amusing Nor’eastern accent, complete with dropped “r”s that turn up on the end of other random words.

Of course, no matter which guard is at the gate, there is always that serious moment when they swipe my ID through their hand-held card reader, apparently revealing everything in my past, including that day I got grounded for digging worms up in the neighbor’s back yard. No matter what I’ve done in my life, I always feel like I’m in trouble. But what a relief it is when the guard looks up from his little machine of secrets, hands me my ID, and says with a smile, “Have a nice day, ma’am.” Whew!

But some guards are different.

After checking the Prius driver’s ID, the stoic guard orders him to proceed with a flick of his finger, as if jettisoning a bug from his shirtsleeve. I sheepishly approach the guardhouse, handing over my ID. Should I kill him with kindness? Drip with sarcasm? Or hit him head-on with, “Hey mister, this ain’t no Buckingham Palace – lighten up!”

But as usual, I utter no words other than a weak “thank you” after being summarily dismissed.

Driving away, I realize, as much as I’d feel more comfortable if he would let his guard down and smile, he might be more comfortable keeping his guard up.

And as long as the guards are keeping us safe, I guess I’m comfortable with that.

Put to the test

final-exams-yes1

It’s that dreaded time of year, when despite the blooming trees and singing birds, many baggy-eyed humans have confined themselves to dark corners, their heads buried in musty old textbooks. Yep, Exam Week. The heavenly flora and fauna beckons us to run free, but for some, it’s Hell on Earth.

In the Molinari family, all three of our children are in the midst of brutal final exams. Dealing with one anxious, hormonal teenager is enough to give a parent palpitations. But with all three of our children taking tests, my husband and I are considering installing a defibrillator in our kitchen.

I wonder if they have a stainless steel model?

Interestingly, one individual may deal with being “put to the test” differently than another. In our family, we each have completely distinct test-taking personalities.

The Giggler

Our youngest daughter Lilly, a 9th grader, doesn’t whine or complain. She simply disappears into the computer room at night, and momentarily, we happily forget that she exists. But then, usually about 30 minutes into her study session, we hear it.

At first a murmur, and then a giggle, followed by bursts of outright laughter. “Lilly!” we yell from our lounge furniture, after remembering that we do indeed have children, and that they are supposed to be studying, “What’s going on in there?”

“Julia and I are quizzing each other on Skype,” she claims innocently enough. But somehow we feel duped as the giggle-fest continues.

The Thespian

For our middle child, Anna, an 11th grader, exam week is a time of high drama.

“I’m ready to be infuriated — wish me luck,” I said to my husband last night before entering our computer room to find out why Anna was crying. After years of enduring Anna’s melodramatic behavior, and her epic stress-induced wrath, I knew I was in for a show.

I opened the door to find her draped theatrically over the couch, surrounded by textbooks and paper. One gangly arm covered her eyes, while her downturned lower lip trembled. “What’s wrong?” I asked, bracing myself for histrionics.

“I’ll never get it all done!” she wailed, suspiciously not lifting her arm to show her allegedly tearful eyes.

I spent the next twenty minutes explaining to Anna that — if she takes a deep breath, breaks her work into manageable pieces, cancels unnecessary activities, etc. – she will survive Exam Week. But a happy ending is not what Anna had in mind for this script, which she envisioned more like the inevitable doom in A Streetcar Named Desire or the dire destiny in Romeo and Juliet. As the weeping and wailing continued, I ducked out of the room to spare myself her operatic final curtain call.

The Sloth

Our eldest, Hayden, a Freshman in college, takes a more laid back approach to Exam Week. In fact, in response to the added pressure, he “lays back” on just about anything he can find – his desk, his piano bench, the floor, the couch at the Student Union, and of course, his bed.

“Multi-Variable Calculus? Physics II? Computer Science? Geeze, Hayden, are you worried about studying for all those exams?” we anxiously asked him over the phone last week. “Yea … [elongated yawn] … I’ll study once I get off the phone … but maybe … I’ll take a little nap first.”

The Procrastinator and The Pragmatist

As for my husband and I, we suffered through many tests ourselves back in the day. I was a productive yet chronic procrastinator, doing everything BUT study. During exam week, my dorm room was thoughtfully decorated, my nails meticulously manicured, laundry folded, and muffins baked. My career military husband, however, was the consummate pragmatist when he took exams, doing what needed to be done without needless emotion. After 27 years in the Navy, he’s still a pragmatist, although much of his “studying” is now done in the bathroom.

It really doesn’t matter whether our children laugh, cry, or snore their way through Exam Week, as long as they make the grade. And besides, their most important lessons in life are definitely yet to come.

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