Slippery Summer

Back in June, I thought summer was an all you can eat buffet of leisure splayed out before me like a picnic at the park.

My mind raced with all that could be done in three whole months.

“I’ll spend afternoons lounging at the beach to get that cool surfer look with a peely nose and streaks of blonde in my hair. I’ll strip, sand, stain and refinish that old dresser my husband has been threatening to drop off at Goodwill. I’ll plant hydrangeas, and lovely cascading window boxes, while wearing a sundress and straw hat. I’ll take a trip to see my mother, and we’ll sit on the porch in rocking chairs telling stories and drinking coffee. I’ll host backyard barbecues with tangy grilled meats, snappy local corn, and fresh peach pies for all our friends.” I thought.

Here it is mid-August, and all I have to show for myself is a few new age spots and a couple of scraggly tomato plants. As fast as a wet kid on a Slip ‘N Slide, but not nearly as much fun, summer simply slid right by me.

What the heck happened?

Summer has been a blur. We spent so many hours packed into our minivan touring colleges and visiting family, that our vehicle now has the permanent aroma of dirty socks and submarine sandwiches. When home, my days were spent shuttling my kids to jobs and get-togethers with their friends; picking up after them; and nagging them to help walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, take SAT practice tests, write college essays and fold laundry.

Apparently, summertime has ceased to be the extended break from reality that it was when I was a kid.

Our parents never had to say it, but we were expected to get up each summer day and, basically, beat it. Go somewhere, do something, get out of the house. I don’t care how hot it is, that’s what garden hoses, creeks, and community pools are for. And don’t ask for money, other than maybe a bit of pocket change for a snow cone.

On boring summer days when I was a kid, I’d get on my bike and ride several miles on rural roads to a local airplane hangar so I could buy a grape soda from the vending machine. I’d arrive home three hours later with a purple mustache and no one gave it a second thought. When it got really hot, my friends and I would stick our feet in the “creek” down in the ravine near our houses, and belt songs like Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” into the massive drainage tunnel that ran under the highway. Our parents were happy we were occupying ourselves, and expressed no concern that we might get hepatitis or parasites from the suspicious water. Some lucky days, my mom would drop me off at the town pool, where I was expected to spend the entire day making friends, feeding myself with a buck fifty in change, and avoiding spinal injuries on the high dive. When it rained, my friends and I were banished to basement rumpus rooms, where we would get into arguments while playing hours of Monopoly, Sorry and Clue.

Back then, it was kids’ solemn obligation to entertain themselves with minimal parental assistance. Now that I’m a parent, I must say … those were the good old days.

But I’m not going to let summer slip on by. Before we find ourselves knee deep in school physical forms and summer reading reports, I’m determined to slow down and take a good old-fashioned break.

Next week, my family of five is headed to Maine. We’re renting a rustic cabin on Great Pond — a remote military recreation facility about an hour north of Bangor — with no Internet access, no phone service, and no cable television. Just a clear lake, canoes, picnic tables, fire pits, Adirondack chairs, and a lodge with ping pong and stacks of board games.

It may not be a drainage tunnel under the highway and I’m not sure if they’ll have grape sodas, but I’m pretty sure we’ll entertain ourselves just fine.

Trash, Treasure & Timing

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Like most hoarders, I’m in complete denial.

I see myself as a “collector” of valuable, interesting, and sentimental things.

It all started during childhood, when I felt compelled to stash away objects in an old antique chifferobe my mother saved from a junk pile and made into a girly bookcase for my room, complete with white paint and happy daisy contact paper.

The upper shelves were stacked with stuffed animals, some of which I still vividly recall: the sawdust filled donkey, the seersucker camel, a Dakin walrus, and an ancient Teddy bear with a tinny wind-up music box. Lower shelves held various books such as the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series that my mother hoped I’d read but never did, and my collection of comic books — Little Dot, Casper, Richie Rich, Wendy, Archie — which were well worn.

But the bottom drawer of my chifferobe contained the real treasure trove.

Squirreled away, under a layer of groovy acrylic sweaters and bell-bottomed jeans, was a cherished collection of random objects. Having a particular affinity for miniatures, I had an impressive assortment of bubble gum machine and Cracker Jack prizes, special rocks, acorns, a toy compass, junk jewelry, macramé key chains, Mexican jumping beans, abandoned crochet projects, old keys, and bottle caps.

Thirty years ago, those treasures meant a lot to me, but somewhere along the way I threw them all out. Their time had ended.

Today, I’m still collecting – saltboxes, sea glass, vintage furniture. But thanks to the military, we must get rid of stuff every few years when it’s time to move, and rest assured, I’ll never be one of those people you see on TV living in a house packed to the ceiling with garbage and 17 cats.

Frequent purging is part and parcel of military life, and this often happens during the summer when most military families move. Although some cart their excess household goods off to charity thrift stores for the tax deductions, many find it easier to just give their stuff to neighbors and friends, and be done with it.

The most common items given away? Houseplants; candles; light bulbs; televisions; exercise equipment; bicycles; strollers; Little Tykes play kitchens, houses, sandboxes and cars; grills; and, of course, booze.

Food is also a popular give away item, but there are mixed reviews from recipients. While everyone loves getting frozen steaks and unopened boxes of brownie mix, nobody wants that dusty can of hearts of palm that never got used. (Rumor has it, there’s a jar of capers that has been passed among so many military families, it’s origins are now unknown.)

Sometimes there are regrets. We once gave away an expensive leather recliner to a Florida base neighbor, because, at the time, it was too big for our living room. After we moved to our base house in Rhode Island, we realized that the chair would have fit perfectly into our new quarters.

I recently found out that the Navy SWO family who acquired our leather chair later got orders to Nevada, so they gave the chair to a Navy JAG family who took it with them to their new assignment in Washington, DC.

But life has a way of closing circles when the time is right.

Last week, we traveled to Maryland to help my 82-year-old mother-in-law clear out the house that my husband and his four siblings grew up in. Eight truckloads of musty old junk were carted off to the dump, but somewhere in the heap, my husband unearthed a gem: his deceased father’s favorite leather armchair.

We now realize that giving away our trash years ago, enabled us to receive an unexpected treasure.

Hair of the Dog

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I’ll admit it, I’ve got a problem.

I wake up each morning, brain sluggish and throat dry. I’m not thinking straight, but I know one thing for certain: I’ll need a drink to get through the day.

Although “the hair of the dog” is precisely my problem, booze has nothing to do with it. I need coffee every morning, and lots of it, to face the fact that the dog is shedding.

I didn’t believe those who warned us.

“You’re getting a lab?” they said in disbelief. “You know labs shed, right?”

Yeah, yeah. Whatever.

Back in March, when I first set eyes on our then eight-week old yellow lab puppy, people could’ve warned me that he would grow up to have poisonous tentacles, razor sharp claws, and skunk-like scent sacs. I simply didn’t care. He looked just like one of those impossibly adorable LL Bean catalog puppies, and nothing, including common sense, was going to stop me from taking him home.

Throughout the spring, our new dog “Moby” shed a hair here and there, but we were too busy dealing with other puppy-related issues such as potty training and needle teeth wound care to notice.

But then, summer came. Moby turned six months old a week ago, and to celebrate, his follicles have apparently decided to take a vacation. Accordingly, his stiff little yellow hairs have been granted their freedom to explore every nook and cranny of our household.

It all happened quite suddenly. One day, to praise Moby for returning the pair of underwear he had stolen from my son’s room, I reached down to stroke his back. He gave me several licks to the face before I noticed that I had a veritable catcher’s mitt of dog hair covering my hand.

Since then, dog hair has permeated every aspect of our lives.

First thing in the morning, my scratchy throat is the sure sign that I’ve inhaled several hairs in the middle of the night, triggering sudden coughing fits. When I shake the covers to make our bed, puffs of hair become airborne, creating a cyclone of dog hair that glows visibly in the morning light, before gently drifting back down to settle on our bedspread, ready to be inhaled another night.

I often find a hair floating in my morning coffee and have to fish it out with a finger. If I miss, it ends up on my tongue. Strangely, I can feel it, but somehow can’t seem to find it. Eventually, I swallow and hope that dog hair doesn’t have too many carbs.

The rest of the day, I find mats of hair in the lint trap, tumbleweeds of hair drifting down the hallway, tufts of hair on the upholstery, balls of hair on the bathroom rug, blankets of hair in the vacuum filter, tangles of hair on the fan blades, and a generous sprinkling of hair on carpets, furniture and fixtures.

Also, thanks to my unfortunate mistake of allowing Moby to ride along in the minivan to drop my teenage daughter off at her summer job, anyone who enters our vehicle gets out looking like Chewbacca.

I didn’t think it was canine-ly possible for a dog to shed so much hair, much less for it to end up on top of our refrigerator, baked into the meatloaf, or woven into my toothbrush bristles. In a strange and incredibly annoying sort of way, dog shedding is quite miraculous.

In fact, it will be a miracle if I survive this process without hacking up a hairball myself. But in the meantime, I guess I have no choice but to love every hair on … or off … Moby’s adorable little head.

Life’s a beach when you dig deep

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

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

Ahhh …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing else seemed to matter.

Grace and I with our beach buddies

Grace and me with our beach buddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture or torture? Lessons learned while traveling with kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it from me. I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lower your expectations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A happy family moment on the windy beaches of Holland.

Sound Off: Are military discounts fair?

Image via usforcesdiscounts.com.

Image via usforcesdiscounts.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five tips for better college visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Mom leaves home

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

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

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

Uh oh, time to board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four more days before I have to deal with that.

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

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

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

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

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

fireworks

Graphic courtesy of abstract.desktopnexus.com.

What is it about the 4th of July?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom!

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

Ahhh!

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

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

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

The Look of Selflessness

Francis and Hayden, April 1995

Francis and Hayden, April 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the world simply melted away.

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

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

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

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