Appreciating Sacrifice

veterans-day-2014-5

Image via freehdimageswallpapers.com

I’m just a housewife, what the heck do I know?

Some days it seems my only expertise is how to wipe smudges off the refrigerator door, but it turns out, I’ve actually learned a thing or two in my 21 years as a military spouse.

I’ve learned that being in the United States military is not just a job – it is a lifestyle that requires the commitment of the entire family. Since the 1970s, our military has consisted entirely of volunteers who sign up to serve their country, knowing that their families will face sacrifices and hardships.

My husband has been on active duty in the Navy for 26 years, and our family has lived in nine different homes in five states and two foreign countries. He has spent many days away from home; the longest separation was a yearlong deployment to Djibouti. But we’ve been pretty lucky; other military families have had it much worse, with multiple deployments, back-to-back hardship tours and hazardous duty.

Even though military folks could have nice lives “on the outside” with, in most cases, better pay and stability for equivalent work, many have stayed well past their service obligation despite 13 long years of war.

Why on earth do they do it?

Although retirement benefits, compensation, and job stability are factors, there has always been a common sense of patriotic duty motivating military servicepersons to keep at it. It might sound clichéd to civilians, but the honor, pride and respect that has traditionally come with serving one’s country has been a key reason why military families continue to volunteer for duty year after year.

Well, at least until recently.

With all the talk of fiscal cliffs, sequestration, budget cuts, downsizing, draw down, veteran unemployment, force reduction, retention boards, and the public’s increasing war fatigue, military members are not exactly “feeling the love.” In fact, the armed forces could be facing the worst military retention rates since the post-Vietnam War era.

The 2014 Navy Retention Study released on September 1st examined which factors were impacting Sailors’ “stay/go” decisions, concluding that “Sailors are most likely to leave uniformed service because of increasingly high operational tempo, poor work/life balance, low service-wide morale, declining pay and compensation, waning desire to hold senior leadership positions, and a widespread distrust of senior leadership, all of which erodes loyalty to the institution.”

The Navy study revealed plummeting morale – only 17.7% of sailors ranked morale to be good or excellent — finding “a fundamental belief that attainment of senior positions … are not worth the sacrifice.”

Other branches of the service are also facing the negative impact of budget cuts and war fatigue on morale and retention of their servicepersons. The Blue Star Families 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicated that “[c]hanges in the national security priorities have ripple effects on military families that were evident in the responses of this year’s survey participants.”

The Survey participants perceived that “civilians do not understand the service or sacrifices made by military families.” Blue Star Families recommended that policy makers take note of “the contributions of the military service culture to American life.”

“One of the biggest challenges we face as a country is supporting our military community both so that our all-volunteer force remains a sustainable alternative, and so that a generation of service members, veterans and military family members are both empowered and encouraged to share their sense of service, adaptability, and civic mindedness with the nation and within local communities,” the Survey concluded.

I might just be a housewife whose biggest mental challenge today was remembering to defrost the rump roast, but I do know this:

On Veterans’ Day, we all need to snap out of the political buzz of election day long enough to appreciate the military men, women, and families who spend years committed to securing our country’s freedom.

At the very least, we can all grab the hand of a Veteran and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” Now, more than ever, military members and veterans need to be told that their sacrifices are indeed “worth it.”

The Rack or The Rocking Chair

therack

“Now, pull your right knee up to your left ear,” the therapist told me in all seriousness. I looked out the window to see if any pigs were flying by.

It was the first day of my physical therapy at the Newport Naval Base clinic. Upon turning 48 years of age last June, my knees decided they’d had enough. I ignored the aches and pains for a while, chalking it up to the weather as if I was one of those cows you see lying down when rain is coming. But after my right knee started buckling like an old Barbie Doll, I finally decided to see a doctor at the base clinic.

“You’re welcome to keep them when we’re done here,” the clinic’s x-ray technician offered with a smile, handing me a pair of ridiculous paper shorts. He took images of my knees from all sides, and told me the doctor would call me with the results.

“Mild to moderate degenerative arthritis, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and a possible sprain,” she told me, but all I heard was, “Go find a rocking chair and some tapioca pudding, because you’re officially ancient. ” I was prescribed anti-inflammatories and ordered to attend twice-weekly physical therapy sessions for a month.

I envisioned myself being gently guided through therapeutic motions intended to heal my stiffened joints, but no one bothered to tell me that I would have to break a sweat, not to mention turn myself into a human pretzel.

Every PT session followed the same general routine: Before I had the chance to get into a good People Magazine article in the waiting area, I was greeted by one of the clinic’s half dozen physical therapists and brought into the cheerful PT suite with its colorful work out equipment, entertaining background music, happy houseplants, padded tables and million-dollar view of the Narragansett Bay.

Although I would have preferred to nod off on a padded table while enjoying the view, I was always asked to warm up on a treadmill, followed by rolling my under-stretched thighs repeatedly over a foam cylinder on the floor. Piece of cake, or so I thought. Who knew that the harmless limbering exercise would elicit visions of being strapped to The Rack by Medieval King Longshanks?

I was then allowed to lounge on one of the padded tables, which would have been lovely, if it were not for the dog leash I had use to pull my extremities into positions that made me look like a middle-aged Cirque du Soleil reject. These awkward maneuvers were always followed by seemingly endless leg lifts that left me covered in an unladylike sheen of sweat.

While the therapist cleaned the table, I had to endure a final mélange of strengthening exercises. Isometric lunges, calf raises, step ups, wall squats and something affectionately referred to as “monster walks” — pacing back and forth across the room in front of everyone, legs splayed out in a semi-squat with a giant rubber band around my thighs.

Thank God I’m already married.

When my ordeal was over, I would grab my belongings from the patient cubbies, and bid my assigned therapist adieu, promising to do my homework. Despite the fact that I never committed the therapists’ names to memory and often wondered if they were all descendants of Emperor Caligula, I must admit, they knew what they were doing.

Thanks to their vast knowledge and firm encouragement, my knees are getting better and there’s no need to go out and buy that rocking chair just yet.

I never would have guessed it, but apparently, pigs can fly after all.

Timeless Tradition

Navyballtable“This ol’ thing? Only cost me $39.99 at Ross,” I bragged to other military wives in the ladies room of the Naval Station Newport Officer’s Club last weekend. Despite my seeming candor, I wouldn’t admit that I’d actually spent a lot more on the torso-girdle-contraption I was wearing under my ball gown.

The Navy Ball is held each year to celebrate the birthday of the seagoing branch of the armed forces, and it is pretty much the same every year: cocktails, photographs, dinner, speakers, cake cutting, and dancing one’s face off to a band of Navy musicians wearing “crackerjack” dress blues.

This year’s 239th Navy Birthday Ball is not really unique; all five branches of our military celebrate their respective birth dates with similar events. The Army held their 239th birthday ball in June, the Coast Guard’s 224th birthday ball was in August, the Air Force’s 67th birthday ball was in September, and the Marine Corps will hold their 239th birthday ball next month.

My yearly tradition always begins with the hunt for a decent dress to wear. Mine was cheap, fit like a glove, and covered all the things that, at 48 years of age, I didn’t want to worry about — my lunch lady arms, my armpit chicken fat, and all the other wiggly bits, which I tucked neatly into that girdle contraption. I felt like a million bucks.

Well, considerably more than $39.99, at least.

2014101095181721

We walked to the Club from our base housing neighborhood, me in sensible flats, carrying my heels, which I knew would make my feet feel like they’d been fed through a sausage grinder if worn too long.

Entering the lobby, swarming with Navy folks dressed to the nines, I slipped into my heels and hid my flats under my husband’s cover on the coat rack. Sipping wine and chatting with friends while waiting in line for the professional photographer, I suddenly felt self-conscious about my bargain basement dress and the fact that, arriving home late that afternoon from our daughter’s JV soccer game, I’d gotten ready for the ball in exactly 27 minutes.

My insecurities were eased when another “senior” spouse told me that she’d thrown on one of her “sock drawer gowns” — dresses that she whips out at a moment’s notice, gives them a good shake, and slips into without any need for ironing or alterations.

Seated at Table 13, I got a little misty during the parading of the colors and the national anthem, because, after 21 years as a military spouse, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll get to be a part of all this.

20141010_191249

We settled into our seats, under the warm ballroom light, to listen to the keynote speaker. The soft sounds of glasses clinking and hushed conversations could be heard as the President of the U.S. Naval War College, Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe, approached the podium. Normally at these functions, I would feign interest, half-listening while secretly people-watching. But this time, motivated by the sense that unique military experiences like this are precious and fleeting, I was all ears.

With all the honor and authority expected of a decorated Navy Seal, and a bit of unexpected charm and familiarity, Admiral Howe spoke to us.

“… The Navy is, at times, about spit and polish, about formal uniforms and ceremonies. But we must never forget that we are also about steel, and fire, and precious blood … expended in righteous combat against intractable enemies. It is this warrior spirit, this Navy ethos, that sets our profession apart from the citizens we serve. …”

Not again, I thought, my eyes pooling up. You sentimental fool, get ahold of yourself! I blinked rapidly to disperse an oncoming tear, and applauded the Admiral for his poetic and patriotic words.

An hour later, I was barefoot, sweaty, and doing my own middle-aged housewife rendition of “The Cupid Shuffle.”

With our Navy friends both new and old, we danced the night away, happy in the knowledge that, no matter how long we’ll be in the military, our traditions, our experiences, our pride and our honor will stay with us forever.

ball dancing

 

Dust in the wind, and on my furniture

dustbunny

Dust bunnies are the bane of my existence.

Well, that might be a tad dramatic, but let’s just say that I pretty much hate dusting. Then again, my mother taught me to never use the word “hate” so let’s go with this: Dusting is an activity of which I am not particularly fond. (And I get bonus points for not ending with a preposition.)

You see, I just spent all last week cleaning my 100-year-old base house for a neighborhood party. Even though every military family on my street has the exact same old house with it’s government budget linoleum floors and gazillion layers of paint, we still try to spruce things up when we host each other.

So I cleaned the house for my guests. Sure, housework is pretty lousy all the way around, but dusting is, by far, the most frustrating and futile of household chores.

Take, for example, vacuuming. On the cleaning satisfaction scale (this doesn’t exist, but just go with it) vacuuming is a ten. There’s something about the whirring, the amps, and the way you can hear debris being slurped up the suction tube. Popcorn kernel on the rug? THWUMP! Gone. Crumbs on the cushion? SHLUSH! Gone. Sand on the hardwood? FFFWPT! Gone.

Other tasks such as folding laundry and ironing are not as exhilarating as vacuuming, but the monotony can be minimized by simply turning on the television. Putting a crease in my husband’s cammies is actually quite riveting if done while watching a catfight on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” And I must admit, there are days when I’d rather chew my own arm off than empty the dishwasher for the umpteenth time, but it’s really not so bad if I can catch a rerun of “House Hunters” on the kitchen TV in the process.

I think it’s safe to say that there’s not a soul on this planet who truly enjoys cleaning bathrooms. However, the revolting nature of this foul chore is so universally recognized, that there are a plethora of products on the market to make the job palatable. Flushable toilet scrubbing wands, automatic shower sprayers, disinfecting wipes, bleaching toilet tank tablets, and just in case you can’t even stomach harmless soap scum, there are Scrubbing Bubbles who will gladly do it for you.

But dusting? Dust is one of those sad facts of life, like stretch marks and male pattern balding. It’s always going to be there, so you’ve just got to deal with it.

And unfortunately, no one has invented anything to make dusting any easier. Here we are in the 21st Century, and in order to dust your house, you’ve still got to grab a rag – your son’s old football t-shirt is as good as anything else – and a can of furniture polish and get to work.

You may be able to catch a few minutes of a favorite show while tackling the family room, but that brief distraction is short-lived. You’ve still got to plod, slowly and methodically, room to room, spraying, rubbing, and wiping. Starting with the cob-webby ceiling fan blades and hitting every last desk, lampshade, molding, photo frame, table, piano key and baseboard, all the way down to the tumbleweeds of dusty dog hair on the floor.

Then, to make matters worse, the instant your ionic-ally charged ShamWow glides over the coffee table, there are millions more minute particles depositing themselves right back on the surface. We can’t see the little buggers, but every minute of every day, they’re there, coursing through our ductwork, wafting from room to room, floating from the ceiling to the floor, landing silently on every horizontal surface in our homes.

Where do these particles come from and why are they hell-bent on banishing us to a lifetime of dusting drudgery? Unless you want to read about dead skin cells, I don’t recommend Googling this question. Just accept dust as a fact of life, and be thankful that you have a house that needs dusting, because it means you have a home.

Don’t Mind the Gap

mindthegap

All my regular tables in the loft of the Starbucks are taken, so I grab the only available seat downstairs — a barstool right beside the restrooms.

I have work to do, but before I start, I spend the requisite amount of time dawdling.

Staring out the window, cleaning crumpled gum wrappers out of my purse, checking email on my laptop, people-watching. Although I would normally procrastinate in this way for at least a half-hour, I decide that people-watching beside the toilets is decidedly less entertaining than it is from the upstairs loft, and therefore not worth the effort.

I open a blank document, and breathe a great big sigh. Youve been a stay-at-home military spouse for a long time. The kids are old enough now. Its time to find a paying job.

“RESUME [return]… Lisa Smith Molinari,” I key onto the top center of the page.

I pick up steam, quickly tapping out my address, phone number and email, adding aesthetically pleasing fonts, underlining and bold. After a few thumps on the return key, I type “EDUCATION” and enjoy a trip down memory lane to the ivy-tangled Georgian architecture of Miami of Ohio, and the endless racks of thick casebooks at Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan.

I add “law review” and “cum laude,” feeling a surge of confidence. Ah, that wasn’t so bad, I think to myself, onto the next section.

No sooner do I bold and underline the heading “WORK EXPERIENCE”, when my hands begin to tremble. It’s just the caffeine, I tell myself, and strain to recall the details of my last paying job.

Hmmlets see now, was it 1995? When I worked for that law firm in California while Francis was assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School? Seriously? I can’t put a job from almost two decades ago on my resume! I’ll be a laughing stock!

I realize that, since marrying my Navy husband in 1993, I have nothing to put in my resume for “work experience” except a few short-lived legal jobs between military moves. Recognizing that my Vente Skinny Vanilla Latte has nothing to do with my trembling hands, I press on, trying my best to make 20 years as a stay-at-home military mom read like a thriving professional career.

As I fill my work experience gap with various volunteer and freelance jobs I’ve had through the years, I “tsk” at how unfair the working world can be to military spouses. For most of us, managing our families through multiple moves, hardships, deployments, and constant change is the most challenging “work experience” we’ve ever had. Despite the bonbons-and-soap-operas stereotype, any SAHM who has successfully managed a three-child-and-one-sloppy-labradoodle household — and all the deployments, broken hot water heaters, clogged gutters, orthodontist appointments and parent-teacher conferences that come with it — is most-definitely worthy of gainful employment.

I resist the urge to add the cutesy cliché “Domestic Engineer” in hopes that potential employers will respect me for putting my own career aside to help my husband serve his country. Instead, under the heading “REMARKS” I write, “Despite gaps in my job history, I have always exemplified hard work and dedication, whether as a lawyer, writer, volunteer, mother or military spouse,” pounding the period button with a self-righteous poke.

I’ve been working hard for 20 years at the uniquely challenging job of being a military spouse, and perhaps that’s the kind of experience that just can’t be described on paper. Finished with my resume and my latte, I close my laptop with a steady hand, and hope that there are employers out there who won’t mind the gap.

I love Lucy, and her twin beds

lucytwinbeds

A fellow military spouse once told me that I reminded her of Lucille Ball’s character in the iconic 1960s television show, “I Love Lucy.” I’m a throwback kind of gal, so I took the comparison as a generous compliment.

However, although I can totally relate to Lucy as a scatterbrained housewife, yearning to make it in showbiz (well, writing anyway) and I think I’d look fabulous with a fiery ginger up-do, hot red lipstick, and a crinolined polka dot dress, Lucy had one thing I only dream about.

Lucy slept in a twin bed.

Insignificant detail, you say? Well then, why was Lucy so darned bright-eyed and bushy-tailed while I grope through my days in a perpetually drowsy fog? It’s the twin bed, I tell you.

Despite her ditzy disposition, Lucy was smarter than you think. She knew better than to snuggle up to snoring Desi night after night. When it was time to get her 40 winks, she did it right, snoozing soundly, all the way across the room. I, on the other hand, climb into bed each night with my husband of 20 years, and pray that I can manage to squeeze in five meager hours of shuteye over the racket of my husband’s rattling airways, located mere inches from my eardrums.

Mercifully, my husband is not a snorer who continually emits the decibel equivalent of a gas-powered buzz saw night after night. He is an inconsistent snorer, producing anything from mild wheezing, to mattress-vibrating snorting, and every buzz, rumble, snuffle and gasp in between.

Some evenings, my husband’s slackened sinuses project nothing more than a steady nose whistle punctuated by soft snorts here and there, and I am able to get a decent night’s sleep using a strategic combination of earplugs, elbowing and whispering, “Honey, turn on your side!” But typically, his snoring is more relentless, waking me several times throughout the night and turning my mornings into something out of “Dawn of the Living Dead.”

And on evenings when my husband makes the mistake of partaking in scotch and cigars with our base neighbors around our fire-pit, his snoring is so loud that I have been known to grab my pillows and retreat to the silence of our living room couch.

Recently, a Finnish study found that women who suffer from chronic sleep deprivation have significantly impaired ability to maintain peak cognitive performance. Furthermore, current headlines read “For snoring spouses, separate beds may save marriage,” “More couples getting ‘sleep divorces’,” and “When happily ever after means separate beds.” It seems that, scientifically, twin beds might be good for our relationship.

But the problem is, I can’t help but feel guilty when I stomp off to sleep on the couch.

Lucy and Desi got away with it, but in today’s society, sleeping in separate beds gives the impression that there’s something wrong in the marriage. As much as I secretly love to have our bed to myself when my Navy husband is away from home, I’m not willing to suggest that we trade in our queen for a of couple twins.

So, instead of Lucy’s hot red lipstick, I will apply concealer to the bags under my eyes, and hope that, despite my chronically impaired cognitive performance, I will remember that love is definitely worth losing sleep over.

Lucy kiss

Snack Duty: Fall’s most competitive sport

111_0224By now, the youth sports scrimmages are over, and regular fall season competition has begun. But what our kids don’t know is that another fierce game is about to start. A game that involves intense, some might say vicious, competition. A game that is not for the faint at heart. A game that requires superb skills, bloodthirsty drive, and aggressive ambition to win.

That game is the one that is waged between the parent volunteers.

A few days ago, my finger trembled as it hovered over the mouse. I had just typed an email to my daughter’s JV Girls’ Soccer Team coach, volunteering to coordinate snacks for our upcoming games. But I hesitated. I had played in this game before, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the Coach to send me back in.

Years ago, when our Navy family was stationed in Germany, I was at the height of my youth sports volunteer career. That fall, during our daughter’s U8 rec soccer season, an intense but unspoken rivalry developed among the parents over who would win the title for “Best Team Snack.”

I signed up for a game at the end of the season, hoping to have time to eye up my competitors. I combed the commissary and trinket stores, hoping to find a winning balance of nutritious edibles to please the health-conscious parents, and fun treats that would win the hearts of the players.

On game day, I was ready.

At half-time, I passed out orange wedges, which not only offered nutritional content, but also had comedic value when the kids cracked up over each other’s orange-peel smiles. But I was only just beginning. When the final whistle blew and the players ran off the field, I clinched the coveted title by giving the team ice-cold Gatorades, home-baked cookies, and “Goodie Bags” filled to their zip-locked brims with granola bars, lick-and-stick soccer ball tattoos, tiny cleat keychains, sugarless bubblegum, and miniature chocolate soccer balls.

In the tangle of minivans exiting the gravel parking lot beside the field, another mom yelled through her open window, “Hey, Molinari! Thanks for making the rest of us look bad with that stinking goodie bag!”

There was no denying it. I nailed it.

But just as I was basking in the glow of victory, our family was transferred to Florida. Thinking my snack skills unparalleled, I agreed to be my son’s high school football “Team Mom.” Little did I know, I had just entered the Parent Volunteer Thunderdome.

Innocently, I made a batch of cupcakes and offered them to the team after our home opener. I had just unknowingly thrown down the gauntlet to another parent, who brought home-baked cookies to the players after every game and was known as “The Cookie Lady.” She was not happy that I’d stepped on her turf, and shot daggers at me the rest of the season.

But The Cookie Lady was a pussycat compared to the “Concessions Queen” – a volunteer who had ruled the concessions booth with an iron fist for several years. When she got wind that there was a new “Football Mom” trying to win favor with the team, she gathered her minions to plot revenge. These women gave me so many dirty looks, I had to ask someone in the chain gang to escort me to the parking lot after the games, for fear that one of them might be hiding between the minivans with a shiv.

After two years of cowering in fear over cupcakes and cookies, my family is now stationed in Rhode Island, and I’m wary of entering the Parent Volunteer Battle again. Will I be able to reclaim my “Best Team Snack” title? Is it worth the sleepless nights spent wracking my brain for a new twist on crispy rice treats? Will I be strong enough to face gut-wrenching decisions like rainbow or chocolate sprinkles? Will I go out in a blaze of glory or suffer the agony of defeat? I just don’t know….

Reminding myself that it’s all about the kids, I mustered the courage to hit “Send” and started looking up the recipe for monster cookies.

Let the games begin.

Now What?

So much to do, so little time...

So much to do, so little time…

I remember it like it was yesterday. The shriek of my alarm going off at 6:15 am like the start of some second-rate dog race.

With a rat’s nest of hair and the same yoga pants I’d worn the day before, I was off and running: making beds, toasting waffles, packing lunches, dropping off, sorting laundry, picking up, flipping nuggets, filling tubs, reading stories, tucking in.

Other than 20 minutes spent wolfing down a turkey on wheat for lunch at our kitchen island between wash cycles, the closest thing I had to “free time” was falling asleep on the couch while clipping peanut butter coupons in front of the television after the kids went to bed.

And when my Navy husband was deployed, my daily routine was a total blur, teetering somewhere between precarious sanity and certifiable madness.

Thank the Good Lord those days are over.

After a couple of decades spent fulfilling the needs of our three kids, I’m finally free! With our oldest now off at college, our two girls in high school, and my husband on shore duty, no one is depending on me anymore. Hallelujah! It’s time for me to do what I want to do for once.

However, when school started this year, I didn’t want to traumatize our girls by drastically changing their routine. I thought it best to wean them gently, so I got up early each morning as usual, offering to scramble eggs, find soccer socks, slice oranges. But turns out, they can do it all by themselves.

What a relief!

On our morning ride to school in the minivan, I used to talk my kids through the day’s schedule, making sure they were organized and ready for any quizzes or tests. But the girls let me know the first week of school that, instead of talking to me, they prefer to motivate themselves on our morning drive by having a “Girl Dance Party,” which entails turning the minivan volume up to level nine and flailing their arms to the beat.

And my sixteen-year-old is quick to remind me that, in a few short months, they won’t even need me to drive them to school because she will have her driver’s license. What a welcome change that will be!

Back at home, I breathe a huge sigh of relief that there’s no one depending on me for the next 10 hours. I look around our empty house, ecstatic that I have the whole day to myself to finally do all the things I could never do before — go on a shopping spree, start a new career, take tennis lessons, meet friends for lunch, train for a marathon.

But, of course, I wouldn’t want to jump into my newfound freedom too quickly. Instead, I check to see if there’s any laundry to be done, then remember that I did it all yesterday. I peek at the computer every ten minutes to see if any pressing emails have come in. I wander the house looking for dust bunnies.

Eventually, I microwave the cup of lukewarm coffee I inadvertently left in the pantry, and plunk down at the kitchen table.

Now what?

Just then, I hear a thunk in the bedroom upstairs. Stirring from his morning nap, our 8-year-old labradoodle, Dinghy, comes down the back staircase of our old base house, his toenails clopping on the wood flooring. With a boney clunk, he sits in front of me, lifts a lanky paw, and scrapes it over my thigh.

Just when I was about to savor the sweet solitude of freedom, it dawns on me. I’m not free just yet — I’m still key and essential to this household.

With renewed purpose, I get out my To Do list and scribble, “1. Walk dog, 2. Feed dog, 3. Teach old dog new tricks, 4. Buy new dog toys, 5. Go to dog park …”

Looks like my work is never done.

The Last Laugh

Image via ticklemeentertainment.com

Image via ticklemeentertainment.com

I can see it now. A huge tufted nightclub booth, upholstered in spotless linen, floating on a cloud in the sky. A group of chuckling comedians is seated at the heavenly table, kibitzing over a bowl of perfectly salted cocktail peanuts.The comedians scoot over to make room, because one more has arrived.

It’s Joan Rivers.

Their earthly mission to make other people smile complete, Rivers, Williams, Belushi, Radner, Candy, Farley and other comedic legends, lounge comfortably with each other. Their laughter echoes softly in the stratosphere.

Funny people who have made it their life’s work to make the rest of us laugh deserve a good seat in Heaven. Especially when you consider that, many of them did not have it so easy here on Earth.

Humor is a gift, but like the people who possess a good sense of it, it’s often complicated. With a few exceptions, funny people tend to be complex individuals with insecurities and internal struggles, prone to over analysis and deep thinking about their own significance in the world.

Even though my life’s work has been making sandwiches and cleaning toilets as a Navy housewife and mother of three, I can totally relate.

As a tubby little daydreamer, I discovered at a young age that humor was my ticket out of social mediocrity. Knowing that there was no way I was going to meet my parents’ expectations for a slim, sophisticated, charming daughter, I began to secretly experiment with humor.

I loved to watch comedians like Flip Wilson, Soupy Sales, Carole Burnett, Bill Cosby, and my favorite, Jerry Lewis. I learned quickly that I could make people laugh by crossing my eyes, adopting a fake speech impediment, or using raisins to black out my teeth.

Self-deprecation seemed to be the most direct path to social acceptance, so I began poking fun at myself regularly. Initially, my parents did not find my new image funny at all, and made a last-ditch effort to get me back on the right track, signing me up for English horseback riding lessons and encouraging me to seek a serious career in business one day.

But it was already too late. By the end of my senior year in high school, I was elected 1984 Class Clown, making it official: I was the funny girl.

What I didn’t realize then, aside from the fact that my reputation as a clown would prevent me from getting a decent date to the prom, was that people would expect me to be funny for the rest of my life. Having a sense of humor became my job, and I had to punch the clock through good times and bad.

Thankfully, humor helped me find my husband, also a funny guy, and raise three funny kids. Through 20 years of military moves, it helped us all make new friends. And my own witty observations about military life, marriage, and parenting helped me put this column in print over five years ago.

Comedians spend their lives making people laugh despite enormous tragedy and private personal struggles. We praise them when they are funny, and ignore them when they are not. Then, when they die, we finally become curious about who they really were.

Robin Williams, who committed suicide last month at the age of 63, was a thoughtful person who suffered from bouts of devastating depression. Before her untimely death from cancer at age 43, Gilda Radner had a tough childhood, teased for being overweight and suffering the death of her beloved father when she was only a teenager. Chris Farley’s need for attention from his 600-pound alcoholic father motivated his hilarious physical comedy. But despite his kind heart, Farley inherited his father’s self-destructive tendencies, dying of a drug overdose at the age of 33, the same age as John Belushi when he died.

Joan Rivers was a comedic pioneer who could dish out the zingers, and take them, especially when it came to her multiple plastic surgeries. But behind the scenes, Rivers suffered personal tragedy when her beloved husband of 22 years, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987.

And the list goes on.

Clever, sensitive, deep-thinking, warm-hearted, and sometimes self-destructive, funny people are complicated. We should not wait for them to die to appreciate that their multiple facets and personal struggles are exactly what make them interesting in the first place.

As Joan herself once said, “I think anyone who’s perfectly happy isn’t particularly funny.”

Having the last laugh in that comedy club in the clouds...

Having the last laugh in that comedy club in the clouds…

john

robin

radner

farley

phyllis

belushi

Back to School Fashion Fears

I'll take a slab of bangs and a side of Colonel Sanders Ties.... hold the style!

I’ll take a slab of bangs and a side of Colonel Sanders Ties…. hold the style!

Unfortunately, I remember just about everything from middle school, from the Smurfs puffy stickers on my locker to that humiliating time I threw up in the cafeteria, and every awkwardly self-conscious moment in between.

During this gawky time in my life, I was clueless. It was as if I was hovering in a state of adolescent limbo between the days of carefree childhood and independent young adulthood.

I lay awake at night in my mock-brass twin bed staring at the Holly Hobby doll on my floral yellow Contact-papered shelf, wondering, “Who the heck am I, anyway?” I needed a little style, a decent group of friends, and maybe someday, a boyfriend. But other than practicing kissing on the back of my hand, I had no idea what to do.

Despite all that stuff my parents told me about being “beautiful on the inside”, I thought that wearing fashionable clothes to school was the first step to being cool. However, thanks to my absence of self-identity, putting together a stylish outfit was a particularly daunting task.

It was easy for my brother. All he needed was a pair of decent jeans, a few striped shirts left over from his color-coordinated Garanimals days, and some turf shoes. Part his hair straight down the middle with a huge plastic comb, put that comb in the back pocket of his new jeans and voile! He was totally in style.

For girls, however, it was more complicated. We had to keep up with an intimidating array of trends. Just getting a new pair of jeans was overwhelming. Pleated or plain front? Acid or stone washed? Tapered or Flared? Jordache or Lee?

There were madras shirts, Flashdance cut up sweatshirts, Members Only Jackets, cowl necks, Forenza sweaters, oversized blouses worn belted with a broach at the neck, Izod shirts with an upturned collar, turtlenecks printed with whales, and blazers with enormous shoulder pads. There were painter’s pants, Hammertime pants, parachute pants, stirrup pants, and overalls. There were Jellies, Converse Chucks, Tretorns, Reebok high tops, Vans, penny loafers, Capezios, Docksiders, and Candies faux wood slides.

Not to mention the dizzying assortment of accessories: fingerless gloves, leg warmers, Vuarnet sunglasses, Swatch watches, deely-boppers, bandanas, stick pins, braided headbands, mood rings, fanny packs and banana clips.

I was so confused, and I still had to decide whether rooster bangs or a bi-level would go better with my frosted purple eye shadow! Oh the agony!

Unable to discern my particular style, I never developed a real sense of fashion. I wore a lot of blouses that tied at the neck ala Colonel Sanders, and my hair long with a slab of bangs, or in a pseudo Dorothy Hamill that made me look like my face was framed with a ring of polska kielbasa.

Even when I managed to convince my mother to buy me something trendy from the juniors rack at Hills Department Store, I was still doomed. Like the time I accidentally flung the strap of my overalls into the girl’s restroom toilet before history class, or the time the boy sitting next to me in English took a bite out of my new root beer Bonne Bell Lip Smacker.

And now, as I take my girls back-to-school shopping, I’m amused that many of the trends that confounded me thirty years ago, are back on the racks. Although I am relieved that my girls have sense of style, I hope that less fashion-savvy kids are not stressing about what to wear to school like I did. Even if they can’t figure out the latest trends, it’s Okay because they’ll get another chance when those fashions reappear years later.

Regardless, what’s most important is that our kids learn enough at school that they don’t have to repeat English, Mathematics, Science or History. Besides, when it comes to back to school fashions, history has a tendency of repeating itself.

%d bloggers like this: