Chills, Thrills and Spills

My girls, Anna and Lilly, in 2010 while stationed in Germany.

My girls, Anna and Lilly, in 2010 while stationed in Germany.

I had no business getting on that sled.

A middle-aged Navy wife and mother of three, I should’ve been at the bottom of the hill taking pictures. But when my base neighbor handed me a red saucer after I’d been cooped up watching Jonas drop a foot and a half of snow on the hill behind our house, I really had no choice in the matter.

I’d come outside to let our yellow Lab, Moby, out for a romp with all the sledders, and that’s when another military spouse approached me holding two plastic saucers.

I probably should have politely declined the invitation to sled with her, but Navy wives are known for their camaraderie, and I wasn’t about to let her down. Placing the sled under my backside, I plopped down and lifted my boots in the air.

The rest is a bit of a blur.

Halfway down the steep embankment, Moby and his head – which is kind of like a cinder block covered with fur – came from out of nowhere. BAM! After the big cartoon star in my head disappeared, I realized, he was trying to pull me off the sled by my chin-strapped hat.

At the bottom of the hill, Moby finally pulled me free of the saucer, ripping a hole in my new coat and nearly strangling me in the process. But in his well-intentioned pea-brain, he had saved my life, and treats were in order.

Before I had a chance to realize what had happened, I heard the crowd of sledders laughing hysterically. I laughed too, until an hour later, when I saw the bright purple shiner over my right eye.

And you know the strangest part? I’d probably do it again. In a heartbeat. What kind of idiot am I that, at 49 years of age, I think the ten-second saucer ride that produced a black eye was a good choice?

There must be something deep in our human psyche that compels us to thrill-seek in the face of obvious risks of great bodily harm. Every winter freeze, we strap on skis, skates, and sleds, and willingly place our fragile flesh and bones at the mercy of gravity and frozen water, knowing full well what might happen.

We could blame El Niño for our idiocy. After all, this mysterious warming of equatorial Pacific ocean water that affects trade winds, jet streams and weather systems has arguably caused blizzards, hurricanes, tropical cyclones, drought, mudslides, poor crop yield, floods, famine, and dying coral reefs. Why not blame him for our stupidity too?

Those of you stationed in warmer parts of the world like California, Florida and Hawaii shouldn’t be so quick to pass judgment. Even though the only snow you see is in a cone and has blue raspberry syrup on it, you are not immune to weather-related thrill-seeking mishaps.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago in sunny California, 48-year-old surfing legend Garrett McNamara broke his arm and dislocated his shoulder falling off the face of a record breaking 50-foot wave that was brought on by El Niño-related storms.

So there.

Unfortunately, El Niño can’t take all the heat (see what I did there?) for our poor choices. Apparently, the human drive to danger is not related to extreme weather events, but rather, to our brain function. In a psychologytoday.com article entitled “Thrill-Seeking: What Parts of Your Brain Are Involved?” Susan Heitler, PhD states that highly addictive “happy chemicals” such as adrenaline and dopamine are triggered when we sense danger or a thrilling challenge.

I’m not so sure chemicals or El Niño had anything to do with my decision to get on that red saucer. It could’ve been a pathetic cry for attention, a life-long need to fit in, lingering childhood insecurities, or maybe deep-seeded fears of the inevitability of death.

Or maybe, I was just being an idiot.

Regardless, tomorrow, black eye and all, I’m going on a ski trip with my family, even though none of us is coordinated enough to avoid falling repeatedly. But we are smart enough to know one thing at least: We’ll never let all that tedious science get in the way of our wintertime fun.

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 The plum hue of my shiner actually compliments my skin tone, don’t you think?

The Unknown: A military spouse’s greatest worry

box home

Photo credit: appraisersforum.com.

“What’s next? When will we move? Where will we go?”

Like any military spouse, these are the questions that swirl in my mind now that my Navy husband, Francis, is in the last year of his current tour of duty.

But unlike most level-headed military spouses, I’m one of those people who doesn’t deal well with unknowns.

You know the type. The ones who incessantly scribble lists entitled “Stuff I Gotta Do,” “Movies I Wanna Watch on Netflix,” “Household Projects I Never Quite Finished,” “Weight Loss Goals I’ve Been Working on Since 9th Grade,” “Meals That the Kids Won’t Hate,” and “Embarrassing Questions to Ask the Doctor.”

Yep, that’s me.

Needless to say, military moves really stress me out. In our 22 years of military marriage, I’ve often told my husband, “I don’t care if we live in a cardboard box under an overpass, just tell me where we’re going, and I’ll plan where to hang the pictures.”

All joking aside, there are legitimate worries that military families face every time they move, such as: Will my spouse have to move without us so the kids can stay in school? And if we decide to “geobach”, how will that affect our marriage? Will I be able to find work in my field? If the kids change schools, will they struggle with a new curriculum, or will they have to sit through material they’ve already learned? Will they fit in? Will we be happy?

We have several more months to go before our rotation date, but guaranteed, I’ll work myself into a tizzy over all the unknowns about Francis’ next job and our next home.

To make matters worse, we’re waiting for decisions on our daughter Anna’s college applications. At 17, she’s taking it all in stride, while I’m a veritable basket case. Where will she go? Can we afford it? Will she need a shower caddy? What if she gets a roommate with green hair and bolts in her face who boils ramen in her hot pot and sets the dorm on fire, ruining Anna’s entire freshman experience?

Our oldest, Hayden, has only two and a half years of college left. If we don’t go bankrupt first, he’ll graduate with a degree in Computer Science and get snapped up by some tech firm, and then where will he be? Halfway around the world in California? Will he learn how to iron shirts all by himself? Who is going to pair up all his mismatched socks? Will I have to fly all the way out there to disinfect his bathroom and make sure he’s eating enough fruit?

And what about our youngest Lilly? Will she even be able to get into college with that Chemistry grade? Should she forgo college altogether, considering that we’ll be flat broke by the time we pay tuition for Hayden and Anna? Could we all fit in a cardboard box under an overpass if we had to?

It’s not easy being a nut job.

I’d much rather be the type of person who drifts contentedly through life like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream, embracing spontaneity while belting out Doris Day’s best “Que, Sera Sera!” 

I’ve often wondered if, at the heart of all my obsessive planning, are deep seeded “control issues” that if left unchecked, could spiral into a psychotic episode that would leave me wandering in front of the courthouse in a dusty wool coat and a tin foil turban, muttering something about campaign finance reform, and pushing a shopping cart full of empty tuna cans.

There I go again.

My rational side knows that all the worries in the world won’t change two simple truths of military life: We’ll never know what will happen until it happens. And, just like Doris said, whatever will be will be.

Breaking a Sweat: Zumba with a side of Kung Pao

Kung Pao

I actually went to the base gym last week … twice.

Now, that may not seem like much to you Spandex-ensconsed gym rats with your fancy headphones, overpriced shoes, BPA-free coconut-water bottles, and your level ten treadmill settings. But to me, someone who used mild knee pain as an excuse to take a year-long break from all forms of exercise, this accomplishment is nothing short of a miracle.

Les Mills, eat your heart out.

It hasn’t easy been showing up at the gym after such a long and unexplained hiatus. I knew my presence would be perceived as a half-hearted attempt at a New Year’s resolution, most likely to fizzle before the first week of February. I gave myself a little pep talk in the parking lot. “Just parade in there like you own the place. For all they know, you’ve been running marathons and playing rugby for the past year.”

“Yeah, what do THEY know, “ I assured myself.

Approaching the front desk, I swiftly flashed my military ID hoping no one would see me before I darted off to Zumba class.

“Is that you, Mrs. Molinari?!” Nick, one of the gym staff called from behind the desk. His intonation and use of “Mrs.” notified everyone within earshot that some old lady who hasn’t been to the gym in a long time finally showed up. After chatting with Nick, I slinked off to class.

Zumba is truly inspirational.

So inspirational in fact, that I’ve written about both Zumba classes I’ve shown up to — one column I wrote back in 2012 while stationed in Florida was entitled “My hips don’t swing that way, but my stomach does,” and presented the scientific hypothesis that humans, like toilet bowl water, can only swirl in one direction, depending on their location on Earth’s hemispheres. The second column you’re reading today.

Expecting to see the room packed with 20-something hard-bodies that would send me into a tailspin of insecurity, I was relieved to find a comforting mix of people, all with their share of bodily imperfections and jiggly bits. After a short introduction that I forgot to listen to, the instructor hit a button on the sound system and began gyrating to Latin and African beats.

Much like the last time I tried Zumba, I thought it looked easy. “It’s just dancing … how hard could it be?”

But then, I always seem to forget that my husband and I have botched the Electric Slide at every military ball, holiday party, and wedding since our own reception in 1993. Same goes for the Cha Cha Slide, the Macarena, and the Cupid Shuffle. Call us choreographically challenged, we couldn’t Whip, Nae Nae or Stanky Leg if our lives depended on it.

I tried to mimic our limber instructor as she swiveled back and forth across the room, but all I could muster were a few awkward hops, several misplaced kick-ball-changes, a couple of inappropriate pelvic thrusts, and my own freestyle version of the pony.

I was pretty hopeless.

Despite my alarming heart rate, I only sported a small sweat mustache when the 45 minute class was over. Rather than exercise more, I thought a hop in the sauna would wake my hibernating glands. But then, I made the fatal mistake of following up the sauna with a scalding hot shower, opening veritable flood gates of profuse sweat that didn’t ease up until mid-afternoon.

Next week, I’m going to try Spinning, and maybe Yoga the week after that. I might bounce off the bike like a fool or splat on the mat like an idiot, but what’s important is that I keep showing up at the gym.

However, the next time I want to break a heavier sweat, I’ll just stick with Kung Pao Chicken.

The Boy is Back in Town

20160108_094104There is a room in our creaky old base house that we try to avoid. It’s a dangerous hazard, a treacherous obstacle, a toxic wasteland. Those who enter are well-advised to wear eye protection, use a gas mask, and wield a knife, just in case.

You see, buried deep in debris and dirty gym socks lies the creature who is responsible for turning that room into a veritable landfill: our 20-year-old son, Hayden, who has been home from college for three weeks.

Every time Hayden goes back to college, it takes a month to turn his bedroom into an acceptable guest room. It’s not just a matter of cleaning – more like the disaster restoration services that are performed after fires, floods, or lethal mold infestations.

The room stays clean until Hayden comes home from college on break, and the cycle repeats itself all over again.

Now, although I provided my son with clean sheets, the mattress is, once again, bare of linens, which were presumably thrown off in the middle of the night and lay crumpled in a dusty corner. The bed is instead strewn with gum wrappers, cords, empty soda cans, and wrinkled clothing. The floor is covered with piles of neglected books, empty boxes, tangled electronics, crusty dishes, and stiffened gym clothes. Every flat surface holds teetering stacks of college boy cast-offs, all coated in an unhealthy sprinkling of dust and toenail clippings.

Interestingly, none of this seems to interfere with our son’s daily routine while home on break. He is perfectly happy to wake up at noon on his litter-strewn mattress, wearing the same pizza sauce stained t-shirt he had on yesterday, and stumble like a zombie with crazed hair down to the kitchen for his daily roast beef sandwich, which he likes to consume on the couch while watching old episodes of  “Judge Judy” and wiping his hands on the upholstery.

After a sufficient number of crumbs have been deposited on the carpet, Hayden finds his way back to his bedroom, somehow negotiating the familiar piles of debris without so much as a scratch, to spend a few hours on one of several electronic devices before getting serious about his day.

Sometime in the mid afternoon, he emerges once again from his personal cess pool, ready to face the day, or what’s left of it, with vim and vigor. He has not shaved, combed his hair, or changed his clothes, but he does manage to grab his coat (which doubles as a blanket while his bedding is in that forgotten corner) and his shoes (both of which remain untied.)

He spends the rest of his day walking the dog, going to the gym, and visiting friends. I wonder if Hayden’s buddies are alarmed by his disheveled state, but I realize that young men his age are too caught up in youthful exuberance to care.

He returns home in time for dinner, during which he consumes his meal in a manner normally associated with rabid wolverines. To his credit, Hayden courteously drops his fork and plate into the dishwasher before retiring to his putrid quarters for the night. We remind him to take a shower, which he always does, even if that occurs at 1:00 am, after various phone calls to friends, old movies, and rounds of Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon.

We’ll take him back to college next week, after which I will excavate, fumigate and disinfect his room so guests can sleep there without breaking an ankle, contracting a fungal infection, being strangled by electrical cords, or catching Legionnaire’s Disease.

Why do we enable our son to live in such a primitive and unsanitary way when he’s home from college? Shouldn’t we, a military family, require him to wake with morning revelry, and spend his day with productive, ship-shape pursuits?

Perhaps. But seeing as Hayden tackles Differential Equations, Algorithms, and Software Design while at school; we figure he deserves a break. Besides, someday when our kids are through with college and on their own, our house will be perpetually clean and ready for guests – with hospital corners, gleaming surfaces, and Febreezed freshness.

And then, we’ll long for the days when our home was dirtier, because that was when it was when it was their home too.

From the Archives: The Time Has Come

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“Is it time?” I thought to myself as I sipped my coffee and stared at our lifeless Christmas tree. I could flip the switch to electrify the tiny lights, top off the stagnant water, and blur my eyes to the curling branches for one more week.

Or, I could take the whole damned thing down.

Positioning myself closer to the tree, I considered my options. I cocked my head sideways and sighed, remembering her lovely pine smell on that first night not long after Thanksgiving break. This tree had been with us for month of celebrating, shopping, eating, baking, and gift giving. Shouldn’t I keep her for one more week?

In my sentimental haze, I reached out to touch the lovely blown glass ornament my husband had given me years ago, and as my hand brushed against the branch, I set off a veritable avalanche of dead pine needles.

“That’s it,” I thought, “she’s gotta go.”

One by one, I removed and wrapped our tree decorations, packing them away in the storage closet under the stairs. Using a turkey baster, I sucked the scummy water out of the tree stand, and detached the naked tree, lugging her dead carcass across our family room, out the back door, and across the yard, finally heaving her into the gutter in front of our mailbox.

Fueled by a colossal sense of relief, I marched back into the house, going room by room to purge all evidence of Christmas. I shook the candy wrappers out of the stockings, packed away the Nativity, derailed the train, bubble-wrapped the ceramic Christmas trees, stored the Santa mugs, and silenced the jingle bells.

I filled garbage bags with dying poinsettias, stale cookies, burnt candles, wrinkled wrapping paper, used doilies, broken candy canes, half a cheese ball, a whole fruitcake, a carton of egg nog and a stripped turkey carcass.

Invigorated, I stormed out onto the porch and unwound the garland from the columns, plucked the light-up candy canes from the walkway, tugged until the twinkle lights gave way from the railings, and tore the wreath from the door, hurling it like a Frisbee into the gutter with the discarded tree.

Then, I set my eyes on the enormous blow-up snow globe, faithfully regurgitating the tiny Styrofoam balls in a continuous flurry over the inflatable snowman and his penguin sidekick.

Yanking the outdoor extension cord from the outlet, I heard an electronic sizzle, then turned with sadistic satisfaction to watch the orb slowly suffocate and die on my lawn.

I was infuriated to see that the blow up monstrosity failed to give up its last puff of breath, leaving one stubborn bubble trapped in its folds of Visqueen. With vengeance, I bounded across the yard and onto the bubble, stomping its last sign of verve.

I exhausted the remainder of my cathartic frenzy by firing up the Shop Vac. With crazed eyes, I sucked up thousands of pine needles, glitter, crumbs, cookie sprinkles, red and green M&Ms, snips of ribbon, scraps of tissue paper, and one or two gumdrops fringed with dog hair.

I dumped the canister in the trash, and along with several boxes and bags, wheeled the whole shebang out to the curb next to the tree cadaver. Grabbing the mail from the mailbox, I headed back inside.

I sat at the kitchen table in my freshly expunged house, pleased to have wiped my slate clean and ready for a fresh start to the New Year.

But then, I opened the credit card bill. As I leafed through a month of reckless spending memorialized on paper, I took a slurp from my coffee cup and a drop dribbled from the rim, plopping onto my protruding stomach.

Moving the bill to one side, I stared down at my surprisingly large gut, dented in the middle where my belly button lay just under my shirt. A month of overeating had turned my middle-aged mom tummy into an embarrassing mound of flesh.

I realized, the real battle to purge myself of the excesses of the holiday had only just begun.

 

The Keys to Happiness in 2016

Let's get comfy in 2016!

Let’s get comfy in 2016!

As we board life’s runaway train for another year of twists and turns and ups and downs, I can’t help but wonder, “Will this ride be better than the last?” We make resolutions, but so many factors are beyond our control. The economy, deployments, orders, our health, the future – with so many unknowns, how can we guarantee happiness in the coming year?

Simply put: we can’t.

However, in my little house-wifey world of dust bunnies, freezer burn, minivan odors, and doggie doo bags, there are literally hundreds of things I control every single day that have an impact on the well-being of not only me, but my entire family.

This New Year, instead of resolving to lose that same stubborn 10 pounds I’ve lost and gained for the last 30 years, I’m making a list of a few small, manageable things I can reasonably accomplish every day. Just like the tiny folks who captured Gulliver, Chinese water torture’s infuriating droplets, and the industrious Oompa Loompas, sometimes the little things make all the difference.

Sure, I’ll start with getting enough sleep, drinking more water and all that jazz. But there are other unexpected daily goals that may just be the keys to true happiness…

#1 Wear comfortable underwear.

Ever had one of those days when your knickers keep inching up? When no one is looking, you dig your skivvies out of your crevasse, but they creep back in. The constant wedgie adds a subtle undertone of discomfort to your day, making you grumpy.

This may not seem like that big of a deal, but think about it. When you’re grumpy, you snap at your boss. When you snap at your boss, he fires you. When you get fired, you go broke. When you go broke, you are definitely not happy.

See how that works?

It doesn’t matter if you prefer the near-commando feel of a thong, or the maximum coverage of cotton briefs – wear comfy undies if you want to this to be a good year.

#2   Install a new showerhead.

Does your showerhead emit a wimpy trickle, making it difficult to lather, rinse and repeat? Do you dare to condition, only to find it impossible to rinse out? Do you spend the rest of the day feeling greasy and lacking self-confidence?

When you lack self-confidence, you can’t decide what to cook for dinner. When you can’t decide what to cook for dinner, you make chicken nuggets. When you serve chicken nuggets for the third time this week, your spouse gets annoyed. When your spouse gets annoyed, you argue. When you argue, he sleeps on the couch. When he sleeps on the couch, you are not happy, and neither is he.

So dash to your nearest hardware store, and find a showerhead with a water output similar to that of a regulation fire hose. The therapeutic massaging action of the pelting water will blast away stress, tension, troubles, soap, conditioner . . . and sometimes the first layer of skin. Regardless, you will emerge clean, refreshed, and ready to face the year with confidence.

#3 Attain digestive regularity.

Have you ever had one of those days when your pipes are clogged? Do your intestines occasionally go on strike? Does your digestive tract stubbornly maintain a holding pattern, hovering with no landing scheduled on the flight plan?

Let’s face it – if the “magic” doesn’t happen, you feel full, heavy, lethargic, bloated. When you feel bloated, you’re irritable. When you’re irritable, you yell at other drivers when they cut you off. When you yell at other drivers, they stop to give you a piece of their mind. When they give you a piece of their mind, you swat them with your purse. When you swat them with your purse, you get arrested. When you get arrested, you are not happy.

Eat leafy greens, guzzle copious amounts of coffee, get new reading material for the bathroom — do whatever it takes to convince your nether regions to declare a truce. Succeed in attaining digestive regularity, and you will face the challenges of this year with a cheerful spring in your step.

In all seriousness, I’m sure that none of us will end up broke, on the outs with our spouses, or in jail in the next twelve months. Nevertheless, if we want to be happier this year, we need to remember that sometimes, it’s the little things in life that make the biggest difference.

~

Tips for being happier in the New Year:

Good morning, Sunshine! –Not only will 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight three times a week boost your body’s supply of vitamin D, but sunshine (even in artificial forms for those of you stationed in Alaska) can have a positive affect on people prone to depression and anxiety.

Get to bed – According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep. Lack of adequate sleep negatively affects physical and mental health, attention span, memory, learning and even body mass index.

The Dog Days aren’t over – For the last 25 years, research has shown that living with pets lowers blood pressure and anxiety. And some new studies actually indicate that children who grow up in households with pets are LESS likely to have asthma and allergies. Who knew?

Mange, mange! (Eat, eat!) –Overindulgence during the holidays may have you wanting to eat less, but “grazing” throughout the day really can make you happier. Eating six healthy meals/snacks spaced evenly throughout the day will keep your blood sugar, energy level, weight, and mood on an even keel.

The Evolution of Gift Giving

IMG_4584 2Sometime after the Earth cooled – let’s just say it was between a gazillion and a gagillion years ago – slimy little amoebas sprouted fins and then legs. And soon, critters of all shapes and sizes roamed the planet.

Not too long after that (again, I’m a little foggy on the dates but feel free to Google it if you’re a stickler for facts), hairy Homo sapiens started squirreling away special rocks and animal pelts to give to each other as gifts.

I’m no archaeologist, but I’m pretty sure gift giving back in those days wasn’t a holiday ritual. Darwin would probably tell you that exchanging gifts was a way humans ensured reproductive success and perpetuation of the species.

But let’s not get into all that tedious history. Suffice it to say that, eventually, human beings and gift giving evolved into the wallet-busting tradition known today as “The Holidays.”

While it is true that my husband, Francis, is unusually hairy and has been known to grunt, our gift giving ritual has progressed significantly from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. However, I must admit that our family’s holiday evolution has been marked with periods of barbarism, savagery and other primitive behaviors.

When Francis and I first married, we celebrated the holidays snuggled on our couch, whispering sweet nothings and exchanging meaningful gifts we charged on credit cards with $1,000 limits, blissfully ignorant of the 23% interest rates.

Soon, I gave birth to our three children. Unable to contain our “Baby’s First Christmas” excitement, we bought toys, clothes and tiny little rocking chairs, carefully wrapping them and placing them under the tree.

The rookie mistake we failed to realize was that babies just slobber on ribbons, pull ornaments off the tree, and take naps on Christmas. We could have saved ourselves a lot of time and money had we just bought them each a 97-cent bag of bows from Wal-Mart.

Then, the kids got older. Their developing brains were now able to contemplate things like St. Nicholas, the Christmas Miracle, and that the Star Wars Jedi Master Lightsaber requires three AAA batteries. Our kids’ new level of consciousness meant that we had to hit the streets, elbowing fellow humans in a primitive race for the last Barbie Saddle ‘N Ride Horse at Toys R Us.

If we survived the shopping, we nearly died of exhaustion on December 24th. After cookie baking, photos with Santa at the mall, an elaborate prime rib dinner during which the kids whined for boxed macaroni and cheese, church in the itchy outfits Grams sent, and a reading of our “T’was the Night Before Christmas” pop up book, we were forced to stay up until the wee hours wrapping gifts.

By 6:00 am when the kids woke us up, it was all we could do to grab a cup of coffee and witness the mayhem. Wrapping paper flying, we spent our last bit of energy removing hundreds of wires, zip ties and Fort Knox plastic packaging from the kids’ new toys.

Now, they’re teenagers. At this point in our family’s evolution, the kids know more than we do, and they take full advantage. To them, the Magic of Christmas is that they can manipulate us into buying them an Xbox One even though they got a C in Chemistry.

Furthermore, even though they used to hate it when we gave them clothing for Christmas, it is somehow now crucial that they get lots of new clothes. It seems that their entire social life depends on them receiving a new blanket poncho, midi boots, or hipster beanie. Problem is, we never seem to get what they want. We just keep the receipts and brace ourselves for lots of eye rolling.

Through it all, we’ve learned that the holiday is not just a Darwinian gift exchange ritual designed to perpetuate our species. It is a time of selfless generosity, when human beings gather to joyously celebrate with family and friends.

And as we remind ourselves of the ancient miracles that gave rise to our holiday traditions, we will heed the most important lesson of gift giving that can be summed up in two simple words: Gift cards.

Bring goodness and light to the holiday

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALess than two weeks until Christmas, and I haven’t sent out our annual photo cards. I haven’t finished buying gifts for my various relatives, friends, family, neighbors and pets. I haven’t baked Francis’ favorite Cranberry Pinwheels or Hayden’s favorite Onion Swiss Bread or Grammy’s favorite Cheese Ball. I haven’t moved the Elf on the Shelf from his original spot in a box in our basement.

And I’m embarrassed to say, we haven’t even bought a tree yet.

I’m way behind this year, but I won’t panic because I already did the one thing that keeps me grounded through the holidays.

No, I didn’t put a shot of Jamesons in my morning coffee. I didn’t book a flight to Cancun to hide out until the kids go back to school. And I didn’t convert to Buddhism to avoid the holiday altogether.

All I did was plug in an old ceramic Christmas tree.

If you were born before 1985, you know what I’m talking about. Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers made them at local ceramics shops back in the day. When I was a kid, it seemed there was a ceramic Christmas tree glowing in the window of every split-level, doublewide, and brick ranch in town.

Problem was, we didn’t have one in our brick ranch. Why? My mother thought they were tacky. Sigh

Sometimes, we visited our friend’s house who had a huge ceramic tree in the front window. I couldn’t stop staring at it. The vivid colors of the plastic pegs, glowing from the light bulb within, seemed impossibly pure. Cobalt blue, emerald green, golden yellow, ruby red and hot magenta. It was an irresistible feast for my ceramic-tree-deprived eyes.

To me, that lighted tree somehow symbolized everything good about the holiday season.

Twenty years later, I was pushing our stroller through a seedy indoor flea market in an old strip mall in Virginia Beach, when I saw it.

Francis was gone on some kind of military duty and I had three kids under the age of five. Needless to say, I was stressed. I have no idea what possessed me to wander into the flea market, but three isles in, past the creepy dolls, the handbag knock-offs, and the suspicious electronics, there it was — a beautiful 1971 ceramic Christmas tree gleaming like a beacon in that broken down strip mall.

“Eleven dalla,” the tiny Pilipino woman barked at me from behind the table heaped with old junk. I counted out the paltry sum and took my prize home. There on my kitchen counter, radiating precious jewel tones beside my toaster, was my sanity.

The mesmerizing sight of the vintage tree transported me away from the mayhem. Away from the obligation to spend hundreds on meaningless gift cards for people we hardly know. Away from the photo cards mailed out to so many recipients, there’s no time to even sign our names. Away from the minute-by-minute distraction of cell phones. Away from the 24-hour line-up of holiday television programming clogging up our DVRs.

Instantly, the lighted tree catapulted me back to my childhood. To a time before the Internet, digital photos, virtual reality, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Throwback Thursday.

When we scratched the frost off of our windows with grubby fingernails, and couldn’t wait to get outside. When we ate all our peas at dinner because “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” was airing at seven o’clock. When Christmas cards were special because we only got ten. When candy canes were a pretty big deal. When we called to thank our aunt for the crocheted hat from the rotary phone on the kitchen wall. When we laid under the tree in footed pajamas, gazing into the saturated colors of the dangerously hot incandescent bulbs, our bellies full of chocolate chip cookies and our heads full of gratitude.

When the holidays, and life in general, were simple and sweet.

Nowadays, the first thing I do to prepare for the holiday is plug in my ceramic Christmas tree to remind me of the simple joys of the season. But there’s no need to run out to a seedy indoor flea market in search of a handmade relic like mine. Just find the simple things that bring goodness and light to your holiday.

Hitting Home: Domestic terror and military uncertainty

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Blue Star Families 2015 Infographic can be found at https://www.bluestarfam.org/sites/default/files/docs/bsf_infographic_final.pdf.

Usually, during the second or third year of my husband’s tour of duty in the Navy, I start waking up at dawn, my mind swirling with questions.

What’s next? Where will we live? How will we afford it? Will I be able to find work? What about the kids?

I wondered if I was having a mid-life crisis, but it turns out that 40% of military families feel the same way I do.

Military folks are increasingly uncertain about the future, according to Blue Star Families 2015 Survey results released recently. For the 6,291 service members, veterans and family members who took the survey, the top concerns contributing to growing uncertainty and financial insecurity were threats to military pay and benefits, changes to retirement benefits, spouse employment difficulties, post-service transition, and the rise in active duty and veteran suicides. (See www.bluestarfam.org/survey.)

The comprehensive survey, now in its sixth year, is conducted in collaboration with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families to gain insight into the unique challenges faced by the military community and to make recommendations regarding sustaining our all-volunteer force.

Although the results were released on October 28, they seem particularly newsworthy now, in light of the recent uptick in international and, as of last week, domestic terrorist attacks that will require military involvement. A few of the surprising statistics:

Although 94% of respondents joined the military to serve their country, only half would advise their own children to serve. Since 84% of recruits come from military families, there is new concern about adequately sustaining our all-volunteer military. As Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institute said about the survey results, “Even military families are increasingly doubting whether they want to wish this same life on their children. . . not out of any lack of patriotism or a sense of public service. It’s an awareness of how hard it can be.” (See http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2015/10/29-military-families-veterans-lifestyle-survey/20151029_military_families_transcript.pdf)

Even though 82% of respondents said they joined the military for financial security, 65% of service persons and their spouses said that they were worried about military pay and compensation. One Army spouse surveyed said, “The contract that my Soldier signed with the government has been turned inside out, leaving us with an uncertain future financially. We can no longer ‘bank’ on the government to take care of their original obligations to all service members and their family members. I personally am so frustrated by all the issues, I am recommending both of my active duty sons finish their contracts and get out of the military.”

Military spouse employment continues to be a major concern. Fifty-five percent of spouses are not employed (more than five times the national average), and of those, 58% want employment. Seventy-five percent of spouses said military lifestyle had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career.

There is growing worry over unexpected expenses associated military life. One-third of military families said they pay out of pocket housing costs, and 73% said there were other unexpected expenses related to military life such as unreimbursed moving costs.

“There are a lot of conversations around the dinner table about whether to stay in or get out,” Cristin Orr Shiffer, deputy director of research and policy for Blue Star Families said in a Military Times article. As Shiffer put it, military families are keeping their “eyes on the exits.” (See http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/10/28/survey-military-family-uncertainty-rise/74727290/.)

Although 87% of veterans felt that military service had prepared them for leadership as civilians, 40% rated the transition process as difficult or very difficult, and 47% of post 9-11 veterans said they were not able to find jobs in their preferred career fields.

Regarding the psychological wellness of post 9-11 veterans, 14% “seriously thought about committing suicide during their time in the military (7% in the past year). Nearly 27% of post-9/11 veterans reported frequent symptoms of stress and 13% reported moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression.”

In a telephone interview, Shiffer told me that, although news of the survey results reached a record number of media outlets this year, more can be done to engage and inform the public. With only 1% of the population serving in the military, news is naturally targeted toward media consumers who are primarily civilian.

“I don’t see [civilians] as disinterested, but rather not understanding military issues,” Shiffer said. “Talk to your neighbors. People want to help, but they don’t know how – that’s where we come in. Blue Star Families exists to connect America to its military.”

As a 22-year Navy spouse, the survey results really hit home. And now, with the recent news that bloody terrorist massacres are being spawned in our own neighborhoods, civilians also have a reason to lie awake at dawn and wonder what the future holds for our military.

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An Impossibly Perfect Holiday

clarkgriswold

While picking bits of pumpkin pie from our teeth on the last night of Thanksgiving break, my husband Francis and I sat alone in the family room, mulling over the holiday in silence.

It had been very different from other Thanksgiving Days. Our college son’s desire to sleep in his own bed convinced us to cancel a rental cabin in Maine and accept an invitation to spend the day at Francis’ college roommate’s house west of Boston.

It felt odd going to someone else’s house for the holiday. We had gotten used to spending Thanksgivings alone with our kids for the last eight years or so, because it was usually impractical to travel great distances to be with extended family.

So this year, when we decided to go to someone else’s house for the holiday, it felt a little funny. I had to admit, not having to cook an entire meal by myself sounded pretty sweet. Francis’ college roommate, Marty, was expecting 30 people, and I was more than happy to be a mere contributor to what would surely be an epic buffet.

We arrived mid-afternoon to Marty’s renovated clapboard farmhouse in Bedford, Massachusetts and it immediately felt like we’d stepped into an L.L.Bean catalogue. Our lab Moby leaped out of our minivan to sniff Marty’s labradoodle, “Gretzky”, and the two frolicked on the outskirts of the yard, stirring up wispy puffs of milkweed floss that floated over the adjacent field like fairy dust.

Marty and his family spilled out onto the wrap-around porch to greet us, then escorted us to the barn where the rest of their relatives were cracking open cold beverages around a roaring woodstove. The barn had been converted into a party house with refrigerators and a television, nestled in the trees on a rise overlooking the property.

Marty’s three siblings, who all lived within driving distance, were in the barn with their families. Francis knew them all, but I had only met them once or twice before. It seemed like everyone was tall with full heads of hair, intelligent but not nerdy, well off without being haughty, effortlessly dapper and genuinely friendly. Their children – all older teens and young adults – were amazing conversationalists for their age, chatting with cousins and adults with ease about their life at Notre Dame or their work in analytics at Google.

When dinner bell rang, we all circled around the platters laid out in the house’s candlelit dining room, piling our plates high with turkey, beef tenderloin, creamy cauliflower, candied sweet potatoes, and too many other side dishes to count.

With all hands chipping in, an obscene number of dishes were washed, dried and put away, leaving nothing but wine glasses and dessert plates for the next round. A fire pit was lit outside between the house and barn, and someone turned on music as the sun sank behind the black silhouette of trees.

From my Adirondack chair near the fire, I watched uncles and aunts dancing and laughing freely with nieces and nephews, having done this at family gatherings many times before.

“They’re all so . . . so perfect,” I thought. I couldn’t help but compare the idyllic scene to our own military family’s hodge-podge of Thanksgiving experiences while stationed in California, England, Virginia, Germany, Florida and Rhode Island.

Just then, a thought crept up on me that had to be suppressed. Before I would allow “Why can’t we be more like them?” to corrupt my consciousness, I mustered my best defense mechanism.

“They must be hiding something!” I convinced myself, and envisioned loudly accusing the crowd of impossibly perfect people: “Show of hands! How many of you have declared bankruptcy? How many kids here smoke pot? Anyone a hoarder? Someone here must surely be addicted to porn!”

An hour later, we were back in the van driving home, and I was thankful that I’d kept my mouth shut. I had come to the unavoidable conclusion that our friends’ Thanksgiving event really was perfect after all.

After two days of feeling inadequate by comparison, it finally dawned on me that there is more than one measure of the strength of a family. Military life didn’t allow us to cultivate long-standing traditions with extended family because we had to move around so much. More often than not, it was just our little family of five together on the holidays, doing our best to have fun.

“You know Hon,” I finally broke the silence in our family room, “We may not be perfect, but the fact that we can spend the holidays alone with each other year after year is proof that, we are perfect for each other.”

Just us eating turkey in Stuttgart, Germany

Just us eating turkey in Stuttgart, Germany 2008

Just us eating turkey in Loire Valley, France

Just us and Grammy eating turkey in Loire Valley, France 2009 – notice I’m wearing the same sweater!

Just us eating turkey in Ireland

Just us eating turkey in Ireland 2010

Just us with Grams and Babbo eating turkey in Mayport, Florida

Just us with Grams and Babbo eating turkey in Mayport, Florida 2011

Just us eating turkey in Key West 2012

Just us eating turkey in Key West 2012

Just us at the Macy's Parade in NYC

Just us at the Macy’s Parade in NYC 2013

Just us and Grammy eating turkey in Maine

Just us and Grammy eating turkey in Maine 2014

Just us and 25 impossibly perfect friends in Bedford, Massachusetts

Just us and 25 impossibly perfect friends in Bedford, Massachusetts 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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