When kids are quiet, something’s not right

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“Kids… ,” I’d yelled into our playroom on a regular basis when our children were small, “what’s going on in there?!” 

Usually, I’d heard roughhousing — giggling, knocks against the wall, creaking couch springs, yips and squeals. You’d think the innocent sounds of our children playing would warm our hearts, but as experienced parents, Francis and I knew that wholesome noises often lead to bonked heads, chipped teeth, and poked eyes.

However, there were other times when we hadn’t heard squeals, bumps, or creaking floorboards. No singing, hammering, smacking or crying. No Barbies being thrown, sippy cups hitting the floor, or lamps getting knocked over.

What we heard was something far more terrifying: total silence.

Let’s face it, kids are noisy. They sniffle, babble, fidget, fiddle, whine and wank. Silence is a clear sign that something’s wrong.

Case in point: One night, when our family was stationed in Virginia, Francis and I let our five-year-old son, Hayden, and his two-year-old sister, Anna, watch a video in the playroom before bedtime.

Back in those days, we savored every peaceful second that a half-hour video provided as if it was some kind of luxurious spa treatment. As soon as we popped a tape into the VCR, we would dash down the stairs to melt into our couch cushions. With the doors open, we could hear the murmur of the often-played video and the sounds of our kids tinkering with toys. After countless nights of the same routine, we’d know exactly when our time was up.

But on this night, the half hour flew by without us noticing. Twenty minutes or so after “Arthur” was over, I nudged Francis. “Uh oh … I don’t hear the kids.”

“Hayden and Anna!” Francis yelled up the playroom stairs, “What’s going on in there?”

Soon we heard little padded feet scurrying and intermittent giggling. Hayden and Anna slunk downstairs, and appeared before us with their heads bowed in guilt. When they looked up, we saw that they each had green marker scribbled all over their hands and faces.

“What have you two been doing?” we demanded. Anna’s enormous brown eyes flashed to her older brother.

“Playing,” Hayden said.

“Hayden and Anna, you’re not supposed to use markers on skin,” I scolded. Reaching for a tub of baby wipes, I noticed green marks on Anna’s neck that dipped below the collar of her footed pajamas. I unzipped her pjs, and gasped.

Anna chest, belly, arms, legs, feet, hands and back were a green, inky mess. A quick inspection of Hayden revealed that, other than his green hands and face, he was marker-free. The culprit was obvious.

“Hayden! Why did you scribble all over your little sister?” Francis pressed.

“Not me,” Hayden shrugged.

“Then how did your name get in the middle of Anna’s back? Do you expect us to believe that she put it there? She can’t even read yet!” I barked.

We looked down at our sheepish kids, realizing that Hayden had pulled off a classic big brother prank on his adoring little sister. Francis and I tried to maintain a serious demeanor, but one side glance at each other was all it took to get us laughing.

Pretty soon, all four of us were cracking up. Anna had no idea what was so funny, but she laughed right along with us.

After a second round of baths to remove the washable marker, we tucked them into bed for the night. We stopped by the playroom to turn out the lights, still smiling about their sweet shenanigans.

The grins drained from our faces when we saw what the kids had really been up to. The tattooing of Anna had just been the icing on the cake. The real masterpiece was in our formerly pale yellow playroom. Somehow, in the time it took for us to realize that the “Arthur” video had ended, Hayden had managed to create a mural of scribbles on all four walls in every color of the rainbow.

And he did it in complete silence.

Whoever said, “Children should be seen, not heard,” clearly wasn’t a parent.

Is your cup half full or half empty?

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My mother, a retired first-grade teacher, has always put a positive spin on things that appeared to be sad, unjust, terrifying or disgusting. I’ve always admired her capacity to see the good in all things, but there are times when this ability seems out of reach.

On a mud-splattered, dreary Monday morning in February, my mother would hear birds singing. Along a litter-strewn highway dotted with decrepit strip malls, my mother would spy Queen Anne’s Lace growing in a nearby ditch. If I served my mother a revolting casserole made from two weeks of mediocre leftovers, she would delight at the colorful pimentos. My mother could encounter a great big pile of excrement, and chances are, she would point out the “skat’s” scientific benefits — fertilization, seed distribution, or composting. I know, because she’s actually done this. Many times.

Having been a military spouse for 24 years, I found it difficult to channel my mother’s relentless positivity. Military moves, separations and inadequate pay were like big piles of excrement plopped down into our path. As far as I could tell, there were no benefits. These inevitable hardships were the sacrifices of military service.

But just because I couldn’t see a bright side doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.

Take PCS moves, for example. After I packed up my entire household, left my job and everything I had come to know, said good-bye to good friends and our favorite pizza joint, was I supposed to see rainbows and unicorns?

No, because there were no unicorns and rainbows, but there were certain hidden benefits of PCS moves. A fresh start, a clean slate, or a reset was sometimes just what our family needed. Our first move overseas gave my husband and I an opportunity to travel together, rather than spending all our vacations with extended family. Our orders to move from England were a ticket out of my tedious obligations as Parliamentarian of the Spouse’s Club. When we moved away from Virginia, we were relieved to get our son out of the school where he had been bullied. Our move from Germany enabled me to break up with the hairdresser who had turned my hair an unnatural shade of yellow-orange. During our move to Florida, the movers finally broke that microwave cart I always hated anyway.

With each move, we were given a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves, our routines and our living situations. And in that way, moving was actually a good thing.

Let’s face it, military pay grades are not the stuff that dreams are made of. My minivan with 215,000 miles on it and interior carpeting that smells like pickled eggs is proof that military families aren’t wealthy. However, receiving military pay that is a matter of public record has it’s benefits, too. We never had to wonder how we stacked up to our military peers. Minivans, pot lucks, and bill-splitting were never frowned upon. There was no competition or pretentiousness. And in that way, military pay was actually a good thing.

Believe it or not, even military separations offer something positive. Aside from the obvious “absence makes the heart grow fonder” phenomenon, there’s also crumbs, clickers and communication to appreciate. Men are crumb-producing machines, and during the times that my husband was deployed or on travel, I relished my crumb-free existence. I also savored full reign over the television clicker. But best of all, my husband and I communicated best when he was away. We emailed and called often, and never forgot to say, “I love you.” And in that way, military separations were a very good thing.

Artists say that the lump of plaster is a masterpiece because “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Real estate agents will tell you that the old shack is “a charming Cape Cod.” And my mother will tell you that the dog doo you just stepped in is an essential element of the circle of life.

Families enduring the challenges of military life can put a positive spin on their world. No matter how dark it seems, as long as the sun shines, there will always be a bright side.

Pork Chop Envy

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It was another gloomy winter afternoon in our working-class English village. Ever since we’d been stationed at JAC Molesworth in the flat Cambridgeshire countryside know as “The Fens,” I’d found myself counting the minutes until my husband, Francis, got home from work.

At that latitude, the sun set around four o’clock, leaving me with nothing to do but pop in a Barney video for our toddler — it was the 90s after all — and contemplate dinner.

I wandered nonchalantly to the pantry expecting to see the usual line up of canned vegetables, dried noodles and jarred pickles. But there it was, staring at me from between the peanut butter and salsa with smug indignation. It had belonged to the woman who had come before me. She had bought it, presumably, for a cozy dinner with the man who was now my husband.

It was her box of Shake ‘n Bake.

Michelle was Francis’ old girlfriend. Her Shake ’n Bake had, along with her gawd-awful dining room chairs and etched wine glasses, mingled with our joint marital property. After we married, I moved in with Francis, and then we moved together three more times. Somehow, the Shake ’n Bake had survived.

At first, I had thought the crumb mixture was Francis’. But then I’d remembered that when I met him, his diet consisted of baloney sandwiches, cereal and take out. The Shake ’n Bake must’ve been Michelle’s. 

I had put up with the chairs and glasses out of necessity — we needed all the hand-me-downs we could get back in those early days — but I didn’t need this lousy box of Shake ’n Bake.

I didn’t use tawdry cooking shortcuts. It was cheap, just like Michelle with her frizzy red hair, overdone make-up and Boy George hats. I wanted rid of this relic of Francis’ past life, once and for all. The vacuum sealed pouch of pork chop coating may not have expired, but I had sentenced it to death. I grabbed the offending box from the shelf and headed for the rubbish bin.

But wait, I thought. Why not use this as a teaching moment?

The mixture seemed surprisingly fresh for being four years old. I followed the package instructions, throwing meat into the bag with the pouch ingredients, and laying the coated pieces out on a cookie sheet.

When Francis arrived home, our “Michelle Memorial Dinner” was ready.

While Francis changed out of his uniform, I eagerly anticipated his reaction to the meal. I envisioned the disappointment that would most certainly appear on his face as he bit into the cheapened chop. I would ask innocently, “Do you like it, Honey? I made it with that old box of crumb coating. Wasn’t it … oh, what’s her name again… Michelle’s Shake ’n Bake?”

Surely he would spit the bite into his napkin and declare the meal a culinary embarrassment. He would confess that I was a much better cook than Michelle. That I was the love of his life and Michelle was a mistake.

“Smells good,” Francis said as I doled pork, green beans and potatoes onto his plate. He carved a particularly large bite of pork, plunged it into his potatoes and opened wide.

I watched intently for a grimace, a groan, a gag.

“Mmm,” Francis mumbled, shoveling forkfuls into his mouth. I waited patiently for my opportunity to blame Michelle for his inevitable disgust.

“This is delicious, hon,” Francis said, spearing a second chop. I nibbled a bite myself, and had to concede that he was right. The Shake ’n Bake wasn’t half bad after all.

I realized that I was the only culinary embarrassment in our kitchen that night. My insecurities had driven me to kill an innocent box of bread crumbs in effigy. The Shake ’n Bake hadn’t been a threat to my marriage any more than Michelle had been.

I was being silly.

I confessed my “Michelle Memorial Dinner” plot, and we both laughed hard at my ridiculousness. I raised a glass to Michelle, giving credit where credit is due, and promised to make her signature recipe again.

After all, it was’t a mistake, it was just Shake ’n Bake. 

The Lunch Ladies

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My boots were there, sitting next to the front door, a gritty residue of evaporated slush encircling the soles. I would have loved to climb back into bed that morning with Moby our Lab, rather than face my salt-encrusted minivan and an excruciatingly boring To Do list. But I had to get out into the world. I pulled on the unflattering Michelin Man down coat I swore I’d never buy until we moved to “Rhode-Iceland,” slipped into my water-stained boots, and opened the door to the cold January morning.

It may be different for the lucky military families stationed close to the Equator. But for the rest of us, winter — with its grey dormancy and dreary disposition — has a way of making us retreat into our dens like hibernating bears. As soon as the sun abandons us for southern latitudes, humans tend to retract, curl up, nestle themselves away until spring’s resuscitation.

On its face, this seems like a damned good idea. It’s cold outside, so why not fire up the CrockPot, but on lounge pants and binge watch “Ozark” all day?

The problem is that humans aren’t meant to be alone like bears.

According to a 2015 study in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science,” social isolation and perceived loneliness are potentially damaging to one’s health, with well-established risks of higher rates of cancer, infection, heart disease, arthritis, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, Alzheimers Disease, and dementia. Worse yet, loneliness and isolation can also cause early death. The study by researchers at Brigham Young University found that the subjective feeling of loneliness increases one’s risk of death by 26 percent. Social isolation increases mortality by 29 percent, and living alone shows a 32 percent increase.

Loneliness is subjective, however. In a 2012 study, three researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that most subjects who felt lonely were married, lived with others and were not clinically depressed. While the quantity of relationships is a factor in loneliness, the quality of relationships is relevant, too. But regardless of whether one is actually alone, or just feels lonely, connecting emotionally with other human beings is essential for good health. 

Military spouses may find that isolation is a natural response to frequent moves and a lack of community belonging, but the health risks are too serious to ignore. The same way it’s important to drink enough water, eat veggies, exercise, and get your teeth cleaned every six months — it’s important to get out and be with people.

During the work-ups leading to my husband’s year-long deployment to Djibouti, a friend contacted me about forming a weekly “Lunch Bunch” with two other wives. I was a bit of a loner, but something told me that I needed this, so I agreed.

We met each week at different restaurants, using the alphabet as our guide. The first restaurant name started with an A, the second started with a B, and so on. Initially, our lunches were typical housewife affairs with gossip and discussion about the latest hot dip recipes.

But soon, our rendezvous took on a rebellious quality, à la “Thelma and Louise.” We whispered like middle schoolers, heckled waiters, talked over each other, and on many occasions, laughed until we cried about the absurd realities of marriage, sex, parenting, minivans, in-laws, and the latest Anna Nichole Smith drama. We started keeping a journal, chronicling the best and worst dishes, memorable quotes, cute waiters, and frequent moments of hilarity.

By the time my husband returned from deployment, the Lunch Bunch had almost whizzed through the alphabet twice. We had guzzled more than one hundred Diet Cokes, eaten thousands of french fries, and laughed until we lost bladder control on countless occasions. I never wanted it to end, but military orders soon sent us overseas.

Despite all those french fries, the weekly lunches with my friends had kept me healthy during the deployment … and apparently, alive!

So, even in winter, when everything looks dead as a doornail and the wind cuts like a knife, resist the urge to retreat into your cocoon. Put on your boots, open the door, and get out into the world.

Turning the other cheek: My first colonoscopy

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It seems that every humor writer on Earth has penned an amusing account of his or her root canal, mammogram, or other cringeworthy medical procedure. Arguably, the intimate details of one’s doctor’s appointments should not be published for the masses to read. However, many unscrupulous writers have plucked this low hanging fruit in shameless pursuit of an easy laugh.

While I aspire to higher moral standards as a writer, I cannot deny the uncontroverted fact that embarrassing medical procedures are grounding experiences to which many readers can relate. So, realizing that publicly exposing the sordid details of my recent colonoscopy might qualify as conduct unbecoming of a military spouse, I nevertheless feel compelled to give my readers what they want.

Of course, I will tell the unsavory tale with the utmost decency and decorum – no vulgar language will be used in this story. In fact, I have gone to great lengths to provide squeaky-clean metaphors and subtle innuendos to describe the most sensitive parts.

For those who may not know, routine colonoscopies are recommended for people over fifty. In theory, the procedure is relatively simple — the doctor uses an endoscopic camera to check the colon for irregularities. But in reality, this life-saving cancer screening has a way of bringing humans to the brink of all that is sacred, forcing them to confront the indignity of uncontrolled bodily functions, and to stare into the deep, dark abyss of of their mortality.

No pun intended.

The first step in my colonoscopy journey was the dreaded pre-operative bowel cleansing. By nearly starving myself on a clear liquid diet for two days, and guzzling what seemed like a 50 gallon drum of the prescribed system-cleaning solution which tasted like bilge water with a spritz of Lemon Pledge, I effectively relinquished all control of my bowels for the next 48 hours. Suffice it to say that I would highly recommend that anyone scheduled for a colonoscopy invest in a Mega-pack of Charmin double ply, install a splash guard on the toilet, and stop wearing pants altogether.

By the next morning, my intestines were emptier than an AA meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, and I was ready for my colon’s photo shoot. At the Naval Clinic’s surgery center, I put on a hospital gown open at the back and laid on my side as instructed. The room contained various trays of instruments, an overhead spotlight, an air compressor, and a long black hose wound over a metal rack. I thought I had accidentally wandered into a Jiffy Lube. But then, I saw the flat screen TV for live streaming the video of my innards and knew I was in the right place.

The doctor had decided to put me under general anesthesia rather than mild sedation, because my lower intestines were “all over the place” and would need extra probing. As I waited for the anesthesiologist to arrive, I was embarrassed about my exposed rump and middle-aged stomach that drooped onto the table like spilled pancake batter. I glimpsed the air compressor and knew that they would soon be pumping my intestines full of air and shoving Lord-knows-how-many-feet of that hose into my body.

Thank God the nurses and doctors are all strangers to me, I thought. I’d heard all the mortifying stories of uncontrolled flatulence during colonoscopies, and I was relieved that no one I knew would be there to see me turn into a human kazoo.

Just then, I heard, “Hey, Lisa!”

The anesthesiologist came in for a side hug, and I stared at him in shock. It was Jerry, the father of my daughter’s friend from school. I had chatted with him and his wife many times during school events. I knew he was a Navy doctor, but I had no idea that he would one day peer down at my bare backside.

The milky solution in the syringe could not hit my IV soon enough. I awoke an hour later, feeling gassy, embarrassed, and woozy, but mostly relieved that my colon received a clean bill of health.

Schedule your colonoscopy screening now. See www.coloncancerfoundation.org.

pumpkin spice colonoscopy

Military life killed my career, but new promises bring hope in 2018

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Photo courtesy of defense,gov

There is a seldom-opened drawer in our file cabinet that contains the only tangible evidence of my legal career. The musty hanging folders have labels such as  “Resumes,” “Licensing,” and “Writing Samples.” Even though none of these documents have been used since I had to stop working as a litigation attorney in the late 90s to move overseas with my Navy husband, I refuse to throw them away.

I tell myself that I need the files in case a career opportunity presents itself. But I know I’m really just keeping the yellowed pages stained with rust spots from ancient staples as proof that I once did more than make sandwiches and clean toilets.

Like many military spouses, moving every few years killed my career.

I eventually found work as a writer to accommodate our mobile military lifestyle. But frankly, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to adequately utilize the law degree that took three years and more than $90,000 in student loans to earn, and the Pennsylvania law license that required countless hours of bar exam studying to acquire. Although I’m proud of having put my earning potential aside so my husband could serve his country, I regret that military life often requires spouses to sacrifice good employment and educational opportunities.

The most recent Blue Star Military Family Lifestyle Survey shows that 47 percent of military spouses with children under 18 earn an income, while two-thirds of their civilian counterparts are employed. Of those military spouses who are employed, over half earn less than 20K and one-third earn less than 10K. Adding to employment challenges, two-thirds of military families report that finding childcare is a consistent problem.

The drastic draw-down of military forces, combined with increased optempo, has meant that active duty members deploy more often and for longer periods. Spouses are understandably worried about employment issues, the impact of military life on their children, and the cohesion of their families. Not surprisingly, the survey indicates that nearly a quarter of military spouses have been diagnosed with depression, a rate 50 percent higher than the national average.

But it was the following survey result that got the attention of the Department of Defense: For the third year in a row, military families are less likely to recommend military service to their children. With an all-volunteer force that comes primarily from military families, this is a major concern.

Which could be why the Pentagon is finally considering new policies for 2018. Robert Wilkie, a military brat and veteran, was recently appointed to the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, a position that has been neglected in recent years. In a December 27 interview with the Fayetteville Observer, Wilkie said that the Pentagon is considering allowing military families to stay put for longer than two or three years. He criticized the current system which makes constant movement a hallmark of military life, and recognized that it limits the careers of military spouses.

“It was built at a time when less than 10 percent of the military had families,” Wilkie said. “Today, 70 percent have families… If the families aren’t happy, the soldier walks.”

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) aims to ease the burdens on military families. Signed December 12, NDAA promises the highest military pay raise since 2010, a rebate of up to $500 for military spouses who apply for new employment licenses after PCS moves, appointment of quality child care providers when needed, a new policy allowing military families to move before or after service members change duty stations to accommodate school and work schedules, and 20,300 more troops to ease deployment demands.

Sounds great, but when will this become policy? Trump may have signed the new $700 billion NDAA, but it won’t take effect until Congress passes an appropriation bill to fund it. In the meantime, as sequestration looms, the 2017 budget has been extended until January 19th.

The old resumes in my file cabinet may never see the light, but this week, I hope Congress will follow through on its promise to make life better for military spouses in the New Year.

Battling Millennial Military Brats Over Winter Break

what-college-students-do-over-winter-break-2-13382-1418969613-0_dblbig“You guys are SO loud,” our 19-year-old daughter whined, loping downstairs into the kitchen where my husband and I were chatting. Her hair was a rat’s nest. One sock was half off, the excess flapping with each step. She was wearing the sweater she’d had on the day before and had slept in.

The clock read twelve-thirty-five in the afternoon.

“I’m sorry, Anna, did we wake you?” I said with enough sarcasm to curl the wallpaper. She yawned and poured herself a cup of coffee, tsking when she realized the pot had gone cold. Anna stood with the refrigerator door open for what seemed like eons, before selecting eggs and the fresh avocado I had bought for taco night.

There was a half avocado beginning to brown on the edges but perfectly usable, sitting right beside the new one. But after a semester of college fashion design classes, sorority functions, and weekend tailgate parties, Anna felt fully entitled to our hospitality while on winter break. That included laundry service, use of a vehicle, gas money, free wifi, home-cooked meals, the right to steal our phone chargers, and apparently, fresh avocado for her breakfast… or lunch, as it were.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “We’ll survive without the avocado.”

Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. “Taylor and I are going for a walk on the beach. Should I take the dog?” Anna called from the front hall.

“That would be great,” I replied, relieved to scratch the task off my To-Do list. “Just remember to keep him on a leash,” I warned.

“Oh,” Anna reconsidered, “never mind then.” Without brushing her pillow-head out, she pulled on her thigh-high boots, grabbed the fluorescent orange camouflage hunting jacket she’d recently bought from a thrift store, and propped a pink pair of reflective sunglasses on the end of her nose.

I watched as she pranced off in the odd outfit, silently totaling up the tuition we were paying for her to pursue a degree in fashion.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “She’s artistic.”

Suddenly, I was startled by the presence of our 22-year-old son in the hall.

“Oh, Hayden, you’re up?” I said, genuinely surprised. While home on winter break from college, Hayden’s natural waking time was two in the afternoon and it was barely one-o-clock. “Why didn’t you come into the kitchen to chat with Dad and me?”

“I don’t know.”

Hayden was a few months shy of graduating from a major research institution with a degree in Computer Science. He was earning As and Bs in intensive courses such as Cryptography and Network Security, Linear Algebra, Graph Theory, Data Mathematics, and Parallel Programming. He had already accepted a job offer to be a Software Engineer after graduation, at a starting salary that took my husband over a decade to attain in the Navy.

But, invariably, Hayden answered almost every question we asked of him with, “I don’t know.”

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “He’ll talk to us some day.”

“Hayden, will you walk the dog please,” I requested.

In bare feet and pajama pants with bits of pillow fuzz in his beard, he sighed. “Well, I’m about to eat lunch.” Hayden did take the dog on a long walk, but not until he polished off the rest of the good deli meat and expensive cheese. In his pajama pants. At three in the afternoon.

As military brats, our kids know that their father’s 28 years of active duty service paved and paid the way for their college educations. They respect that I stayed home to manage our family. Having lived overseas, they know the importance of worldliness, adaptability, and lasting friendships. Living on a military family budget, they understand the value of a hard-earned dollar.

But ironically, our resilient military brats are also self-absorbed Millennials who were forced to move every few years. Self-absorbed Millennials who gave up friends, homes, and schools many times. Self-absorbed Millennials who are now away at college most of the year.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. It’s okay if they can finally take home for granted.

The Real Truth About New Year’s Eve

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During my youth, my best offer on many New Year’s Eves was babysitting.

My night included sampling the family’s leftover holiday treats and counting down with Dick Clark after the kids went to bed. Despite my pathetic circumstances, I held out hope that, as soon as my social standing improved, I’d have many fabulous, sparkling, whirlwind New Year’s Eve parties in my future.

Little did I know then, nibbling stale cookies and watching the ball drop on TV is about as good as it gets.

It took many years of dashed hopes for me to wise up, so let me spare those of you still blinded by visions of grandeur any further disappointment: New Year’s Eve is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When you’re young, you believe that New Year’s Eve is an exciting night of unknown possibilities. Will you attend a party? Pack into a nightclub? Hang with a wild group of friends? If single, you wonder who might show up. A crush? An ex? Or possibly a new prospect? Could old passions be rekindled? Would new romance be sparked?

You shop in advance for something with a little sparkle, something that might show some skin, something that you’d look good in if dancing breaks out. You want your hair to shine, your pulse points to smell perfumed, and your lips to look smooch-able.

You envision yourself mingling with fun, attractive people. The conversation flows with the bubbly. You throw your head back and laugh like they do in wine commercials. Your hair swishes and your bracelets jingle.

The night is filled the kind of music that compels you to spring to your feet. You swing your hair in loop-de-loops just for laughs. Droplets of sweat glisten on your neck as you and your friends jump in unison to the beat.

Midnight comes unexpectedly, and everyone scrambles to turn down the music, fill glasses for toasting, and moisten lips for kissing. After counting down in unison, balloons are released, glitter infuses the air, and everyone embraces in joyous celebration of the beginning of another exciting new year…

That’s the impossible dream. But here’s the reality of many New Year’s Eves:

December 31st rolls around, and you prepare for a get-together between friends who had nothing better to do. Thanks to holiday spiral hams, cheese balls, cups of egg nog, breakfast casseroles and countless cookies, you abandon the form-fitting outfit you had planned. You opt, instead, for a roomy sweater and pants with a forgiving waistband.

You gather with friends, and after chit chat and cocktails, more holiday food appears. Despite swearing off overeating several days ago, you can’t resist filling your plate with meatballs, spinach dip and pecan tarts.

The host’s music list includes a sedative mix of classic rock. Although you all break out singing “Don’t stop believing!” when Journey comes on, and a friend does a sad pelvic gyration to “Roxanne,” dancing never really takes off. With a full belly, a toe tap is all you can muster.

Time passes, and someone muffles a yawn. You sneak a peak at your watch and are aghast.

“What time is it?” a friend asks.

“Quarter past eight,” you reply, and everyone glances nervously at each other. Four more hours to go.

You down another stiff drink while a friend relays excruciating details about her cat’s prolonged struggle with feline distemper. You pretend to check in with the kids on your phone when you’re really scrolling through Facebook. You hit the buffet again, just because it’s there.

Mercifully, a guest offers to shoot off some fireworks, and you are grateful for the half hour spent shivering in the driveway while watching him light fire to bottle rockets and roman candles.

Back inside, making it to midnight becomes a matter of survival. By the time the host turns the television on, it’s all you can do to chant, “… five, four, three, two, one — Happy New Year!” before heading for the door.

So before the ball drops this December 31st, drop your expectations. With a pre-party nap, an elastic waistband, and plenty of antacids, you might actually enjoy yourself.

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All I want for Christmas is the bottom bunk

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T’was the night before Christmas, and somewhere in the house, someone won’t be sleeping. But not on account of dancing sugar plums. It will be because of that damned cross bar under the pull-out sofa mattress, the acrid smell of a nephew’s pillows, the slow hiss of the flattening air mattress, or the frigid temperature in the basement rumpus room.

During the holidays, when we converge into one festive house to make merry, a game of musical beds is often played, and someone always turns up the loser.

I reached out to readers for their tales of undesirable holiday sleeping arrangements, and received a surprising deluge of detailed stories — as if they harbored resentment over being dealt the short end of the stick all those years, and this was their chance to blow the whistle on the injustice.

Suz, a military spouse, told of annual holiday get-togethers with three branches of her extended family. Eighteen people sleeping in a three-bedroom cabin meant that, after the adults claimed the beds and couches, the eleven kids were left to fight over two unheated spaces — the cement basement or the frigid uninsulated loft. “Every year we’d go back and forth about the merits of both places… And don’t even get me started on how 18 people shared two bathrooms!”

My sister-in-law, Cara, offered countless anecdotes about undesirable sleeping arrangements. Unmarried until recently, she said her circumstances ensured a lifetime of sleeping in odd places as the youngest of five kids and “as the ‘Token Single Lady.’”

As a child, visiting female cousins and friends were assigned to sleep with Cara in her frilly canopy bed, much to her delight. One morning after Gayle, a teenager, was relegated to Cara’s bed, Cara’s mom asked how she slept. “I slept fine,” Gayle reported, “until Cara wet the bed.”

Years later, Cara received her comeuppance when she was offered either of the twin beds in her nieces’ bedroom during a family get-together. “Aunt Cara,” her niece warned before bedtime, “I’d sleep on top of the covers if I were you, because my sister’s been wetting the bed  but is afraid to tell Mom. And the cat sleeps with me, so watch out for cat hair and crumbs.”

Greg, a retired military officer, told me of his family’s annual beach vacations at the Seaside Motel on the Jersey Shore, where he slept in a bed with his brother and sister. “It was a week without sleep as we would come home from the beach completely sun burnt and exhausted, only to climb into a bed of sand paper, owning to the fact that none of us knew how to wash the sand out of all the nooks and crannies.”

Another military spouse friend, Ann, told me she still feels guilty about the holiday when she pushed a mattress into a storage space behind the laundry room to make a place for her nephew. In the morning, she absent-mindedly threw in a load of laundry, not realizing that the dryer vent would turn the tiny space where her nephew slept into a sauna. He awoke in a pool of sweat and hit his head on the rafters trying to escape. The family now refers to the room as “The Sweat Box.”

I harbor my own resentment over the night before my wedding, when my parents made me (aka, the Insignificant Little Sister) sleep on the musty couch in the basement because my older brother (aka, the Golden Boy) was given my bedroom.

However, this is the season to appreciate the blessings in our life. So, instead of seething over that brown and gold couch, I’ll remember those less fortunate.

The military men and women serving overseas will lie on cots, in barracks, and in cramped quarters aboard ships and submarines tonight, with visions of loved ones in their heads. They won’t have the luxury of sleeping on an air mattress in playroom or on a roll away cot in the hallway with their family near by. This Christmas, let’s be grateful to the deployed troops, for volunteering to serve so the rest of us can be home for the holidays.

Do you see what I see?

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I’m grateful that our last tour in the Navy landed us in New England, where the scenery looks like a Currier and Ives dinner plate come to life. I love the frosty chill in the December air, the smell of cut timber and pine boughs, the feel of warm woolen mittens. Here, holiday spirit finds me, draws me in, and captures me. And I gladly surrender.

But it hasn’t always been this easy. For most military families like ours, frequent moves are an unavoidable part of life. And at some point, Uncle Sam stations you somewhere that looks and feels completely foreign. Since holidays are all about tradition, the absence of those traditions can leave you longing for the holidays you grew up with back home.

I was raised in an idyllic small town in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, where Christmas was traditional, classic, just like in the movies. Finding holiday spirit was as easy as waking up in my twin bed with the Kliban Cat sheets, scratching a peephole out of the intricate frost that had formed on the window overnight, and staring out at the winter wonderland right outside.

With dissolved candy canes coursing through my veins, I’d grab the parka handed down from my brother and head for the hill behind our house. The kids in our neighborhood would ruthlessly pelt each other with snowballs, eat gritty icicles broken off the gutters, and sled down the hill until our numbed cheeks couldn’t feel our running noses.

With a warm sludge of hot cocoa and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in my belly, I’d thaw before a roaring fire, staring up at the screw-in lights on our tree. There was one bulb in particular, a transparent magenta one, which seemed to emit pure, saturated hot pink splendor, infinitely refracted by sparkling silver tinsel. I was hypnotized by its magical brilliance, and spilled over with anticipation and awe.

Four decades later, I was sitting in a North Florida Starbucks in mid-December, feeling the blues.

Our family was stationed at Naval Station Mayport, and despite the fact that the Starbucks manager insisted on setting the central air at a frigid sixty-odd degrees and I was surrounded by trendy holiday decor, it just didn’t feel like Christmas to me. 

After I got my vente latte’s worth of free Wi-Fi, I moped out into the sub-tropical 75-degree Florida winter and headed for my minivan. I didn’t have to put on a coat, or scrape any ice off my windshield. I drove back to our base house on roads clear of salt and ash. At home, I opened the windows to let in the ocean breeze. After walking the dog on the white sand beach that ran along the east side of our housing area, I slumped into a lawn chair in our palm-tree-studded back yard.

“Woe is me,” I thought, and as I worked on my tan, I wallowed shamelessly in self-pity.

Later that week, I was back at Starbucks again. As I sat in the trendy coffee shop buzzing with flip-flop-festooned and Ray-Ban-bedecked Floridians, I wondered how they could stand it.

Suddenly, I heard the ring of the cash register and realized that it reminded me of jingle bells. I took notice of the lovely cranberry red hue of the Florida Seminoles t-shirt worn by the man sitting next to me. I sipped my latte, and detected a hint of cinnamon. And then, I looked up at the trendy pendant light hanging overhead, and was drawn in by the pure, saturated blue of its glowing cobalt shade. I was mesmerized.

“Merry Christmas,” the man in the cranberry Seminoles shirt uttered as he got up from our shared table to leave, snapping me out of my hypnotic gaze. In that moment, I realized that holiday spirit comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, locations and climates, but I had been too clouded by my own narrow expectations to see it.

“Merry Christmas to you, too!” I eagerly replied to the festive gentleman, relieved that I had finally seen the light.

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