Don’t be a moody foodie


I’ll try anything once. Well, maybe not cliff diving … or running with the bulls … or a Mohawk hairdo … or silicone lip injections. But when it comes to food, I’m totally adventurous.

Every time our military family moved to a new place, I couldn’t wait to try the local cuisine. Most of the time, we loved the native dishes, incorporating local recipes into our regular meal routine.

Early in our marriage, my husband was assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. At first, we were disappointed to find that pizzas in California had foo-foo toppings such as sprouts, gorgonzola, fennel, and pears. And the wait staff wore trendy glasses, thumb rings and Greenpeace t-shirts. What ever happened to good old-fashioned pepperoni and “mootz-a-rell”, served by someone named “Ang” with bad highlights and a mustache?

However, once we tasted the local foods — fresh-caught squid, Gilroy garlic, Castroville artichokes, and tangy sourdough bread hot from the oven – we were hooked.

Similarly, our next tour in England added delicate crumpets and hearty Shepherd’s pie to our repertoire. Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs and plump Virginia peanuts became staples after back-to-back tours in Virginia Beach. Germany brought us countless European delights including schnitzel, beer, goulash, beer, spaetzle, beer, chocolate, and beer.

Oh, and did I mention beer?

During a tour in the Deep South, we became connoisseurs of fried chicken, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, and biscuits. And Rhode Island has blessed our palates with rich chowder, sweet brown bread, lobster rolls and traditional rum drinks made with spicy ginger beer.

However, for every delectable indigenous morsel that passed favorably over my taste buds, there were countless other native foods that triggered my gag reflex. Our mobile military life has taught me that every region has its share of really bad foods, and I’m not such a foodie that I will pretend to like them.

Over the years, I’ve learned to look out for certain “red flags.” For example, if someone tells you that you have to “develop a taste for it,” that means you will need to consume copious amounts of the substance to desensitize your taste buds to its wretched flavor.

A peanut lover, I couldn’t wait to try southern boiled peanuts, until I discovered that the slippery, mushy nuggets tasted like mutated potato. It took several tries before I was able to eat them without shuddering.

If someone tells you, “It tastes like [chicken or some other familiar meat],” beware that you are about to be served mysterious animal parts.

Whilst in England, I was served black pudding and told it was a variety of sausage. A tiny nibble filled my mouth with the distinct taste of vital organs. In Scotland, I was offered a sliver of haggis and told that it tasted “just like pork and oats.” One swallow and I felt as if I’d just licked the underbellies of a herd of sweaty sheep. At a cafe in France, the waiter encouraged me to try an Alsatian delicacy called, “Sauerkraut Royale.” I spent the next hour sorting through hunks of cartilage and fat tangled with pickled cabbage. In Munich, I made the mistake of ordering the local favorite, Schweinhaxe, only to be presented with a huge roasted pig’s knuckle joint, translucent sinew and all.

And, if someone tells you, “it just needs a little hot sauce,” they are saying that you will need to distract yourself with pain in order to ingest this foul tasting dish. At the risk of igniting another Civil War, let me say that greens are not as good as southern folk proclaim. Collards, mustards, chards – isn’t it suspicious that they are all slow cooked in bacon fat and disguised with Texas Pete?

But don’t be discouraged, foodies. There are still certain universal truisms in the world of local cuisine upon which you can depend. For example, even though you can never trust anyone who tells you to “suck the juice out of the head, it’s the best part,” you can always believe the person who says, “it’s good with butter.”

After all, what isn’t good with butter?

Football parents guilty of excessive celebration


Ever since our kids’ peewee soccer days, my husband, Francis, and I have loved watching them play sports. Despite their average athletic skills, we planned our entire week around a Friday night football game, a Saturday morning cross country meet, or a Wednesday afternoon tennis match. We wore spirit wear, baked cookies, volunteered, and bellowed chants.

Some might label us as doting parents; others might say we need to get out more.

Regardless, I must admit, there have been times when our enthusiasm for our children’s competitions has gotten us into trouble.

Each sport has its own unwritten rules governing the behavior of spectators, and problems can arise when parents don’t conform to the unique standards for each sport.

For example, our son played high school football at three different high schools. By the time he went off to college, we had mastered football’s spectator rules.

On Friday nights, we proudly wore our 100% nylon mesh replica jerseys, emblazoned with our son’s number. We never ate before the game, preferring to get dinner from the concession stand, where a balanced game night meal consisted of a hot dog (protein), chips with nacho cheese (dairy), and ketchup (vegetable). A blue raspberry Sno Kone rounded out the meal (fruit). Once seated in the bleachers, we tried to resist aerobic activity, other than arm flailing and  strolling to the restroom at halftime.

During the game, we were encouraged to exaggerate any feelings of pride, exhilaration, disappointment, or anger. Football parents were expected to hoot, holler, and shout expletives that might otherwise be considered obnoxious or unkind.

Some examples included, “Hey, that’s MY kid! Woohoo!” yelled while pointing repeatedly at the player. Or, “Take that you LOSERS!” directed to the opposing team while making rude spanking gestures. Or, “Hey Ref — I’ve seen potatoes with better eyes than you!” most effective when screamed with a mouthful of half-chewed hot dog.

But when our daughters joined cross country teams, we realized that we might need to modify our spectator habits.

As virgin cross country parents, we hated getting up in the middle of the night to be at an 8:00 am away race, arriving at the course groggy and confused.

There were no bleachers to sit on — just hoards of leggy teenagers milling about on tarps in a grass field. We couldn’t help but notice the absence of foam fingers and tacky nylon mesh. The other parents looked like runners too, wearing trendy, moisture-wicking spandex and micro-fleece sportswear. We heard no cowbells or air horns – only two-finger golf clapping and the faint tweet of birds in the distance. We could smell no grilled pork products or locker room odors – only fresh air and a hint of cappuccino.

We never felt more lost and alone.

We heard the crack of a starting pistol, and suddenly, our daughter whizzed by us, among the pack. No sooner did the runners pass, than the crowd of parents started sprinting through a trail in the woods. We weren’t sure if there was a grizzly bear attacking us, or a clearance sale at Pottery Barn, but we followed along.

The jog led us to our next observation point, where Francis and I breathlessly yelled, flailed and gestured, “Hey, that’s our kid! C’mon Sweetie! Make ‘em eat your dust!”  The looks on the other parents’ faces made it clear that our exuberance was not appreciated.

After two more sprints to observation points, the race was over, and we found ourselves two-finger golf clapping with everyone else. All that sprinting left Francis and I famished and in search of the nearest deep-fat fryer. But the only food available was granola bars, and unfortunately, they were for the team.

On the way home, while waiting in the drive-thru for a #7-With-Bacon-Go-Large, I realized that we’d learned valuable lessons about becoming cross-country parents: First, spectating the sport requires either an all terrain vehicle with GPS navigation, or a personal defibrillator. Second, until someone starts deep-frying granola, one should keep a bag of Funions and a six-pack of Mountain Dew in the glove box to combat hunger.

The other men (and a few women) in my life

gate guard

In my 23 years as a military spouse, I have regularly had relationships with individuals other than my husband. Often several times a day.  Some have been veritable strangers to me, while others are men I have come to know quite well. And, believe it or not, a few of them have been women.

Most of these relationships have been light and friendly, a few have been business only, but all of them have had a certain intimacy. It may have appeared to others that we were mere acquaintances, but make no mistake about it — these men have peered deeply into my psyche and revealed my secrets.

The men, and a few women, I am referring to are the military base gate guards.

It all happens quite accidentally. As my minivan inches forward in the line toward the base gate, I am unsuspecting. I chew my gum. I listen to the radio. I glance down at my commissary list. I casually pluck a flosser or tweezers from my console and use the flip-down mirror to groom myself. I don’t realize that the gate guard is about to peek into the intimate corners of my life.

“Hi! How’r you today?” I ask after stopping at the guard shack. I fumble for my ID, which is always jammed too far into the pocket of my wallet. “Darnit,” I mutter, licking my thumb in order to get a decent grip on the plastic.

“There you go!” I finally produce my ID, hoping he won’t scrutinize the black and white photo that was taken the day my hairdryer broke last year. Without a word, he accepts my ID, and after swiping it through his little hand-held machine, he stares at it and the machine’s display. Back and forth, back and forth, analyzing whatever has been revealed.

All at once, I feel vulnerable, exposed, guilty for something I haven’t done.

He looks directly at my face, too. I smile nervously, wondering, what is he thinking? Is he trying to match my double chin to the one in my ID picture?

He leans over a bit and inspects the interior of my minivan. His flashlight scans each row of seats, the floor mats, the dark spaces under the dash. His eyes pause a moment on Moby, our 2-year-old yellow Lab, panting and seated in the second row on a furry blanket.

I see the corner of his mouth rise a little, and I detect a reaction in his eyes. Is it a twinkle?

There have been several times over the years when the gate guard has ordered me to pull my van over so that he could conduct a random vehicle search. Without a doubt, random vehicle searches have taken our relationship to another level.

In these instances, I follow the gate guard’s orders to exit my van, and get ready for him to pat me down. But instead of frisking me, he directs me to stand aside and watch, while he searches every inch of my vehicle, looking under my hood and using mirrors to peek up my undercarriage.

Once, while stationed in Germany, the guard even had his drug detecting shepherd sniff  the junk in my trunk.

On one hand, I am embarrassed when he shines his flashlight into every nook and cranny — I prefer it with the lights off — but at the same time, I desperately seek his approval.

“You’re good to go, Ma’am, have a nice day,” he has told me countless times after our little encounters. I smile and wish him well, until next time.

As I head for the commissary to buy turkey burgers and fiber supplements, I know that between us, there are no illusions, no commitments, no secrets. The gate guard has looked into the intimate details of my life, and he is fully satisfied.

All joking aside, our military gate guards provide an invaluable service to our military community. Standing watch rain or shine, no matter how monotonous or hazardous, they protect every military installation around the world. Thank you, military base gate guards, for your service and dedication to our safety and security.

No excuses: Visit your military spouse during R&R

Francis and I, crouching in a smokey Masai dung hut in Tanzania during his R&R

Francis and I, crouching in a smokey Masai dung hut in Tanzania

“There’s no way I can go to Africa,” I told my husband, Francis, over a bad Skype connection. He was halfway through a year-long deployment to Djibouti, East Africa, and wanted me to meet him during his R&R for a Tanzanian safari.

“C’mon, Honey, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Francis pleaded between internet blips.

I sighed heavily, thinking of all the reasons why I couldn’t go.

Who would watch the kids? Hayden had football on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with games on Saturday afternoons. Anna had select soccer on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, with games on Saturday mornings. And Lilly had pee wee Soccer on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, with games also on Saturday mornings, but on a different field across town. To make matters worse, I had snack duty almost every week, and carpooled to practices with another military mom.

Add Hayden’s speech therapy twice a week, Boy Scouts on Monday nights, and piano lessons for all three kids on Wednesdays, and our schedule was a logistical nightmare.

Dinghy, our 110-pound Labradoodle, was sweet, but he had recently been dropped by his normal dog sitter because he earned a “D” on his doggie report card. Apparently, she had to chase him around her kitchen when he ran off with an entire rotisserie chicken he stole from the counter. Where would Dinghy go if I galavanted off to Africa?

Plus, I would need shots for typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis A and B, rabies, meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and influenza; and pills for malaria. When would I have the time to make all those clinic visits?

Furthermore, our circa 1981 house had a lot of quirks. The original Florida Heat Pump sputtered away, despite being several years past her recommended lifespan. What if she finally gave up the ghost? I had jury-rigged the refrigerator’s ice maker after it broke. What if someone else wouldn’t know how to make it work? I babied our fragile garbage disposal. What if someone let a spoon slip down the drain? What if someone didn’t know how to get the toilet tank flapper to seal like I do? What if someone ran the mower over one of the sprinkler heads?

Even if I solved all the “what ifs,” there was still the problem of our budget. We didn’t have funds for a trip to a Motor Lodge in Schenectady, much less an African safari.

Surely, meeting Francis for his R&R was an impossible dream.

But suddenly, there I was. In row 53, sipping a Baileys on ice, on a flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport to meet Francis.

It was something Francis had said. “Once-in-a-life-time chance …” had rattled in my brain, eventually giving way to the adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

My mother traveled to our house to watch the kids for ten days. Friends and neighbors helped with car pools, practices, grass cutting and dog walking. I received 14 shots and popped my malaria pills. Flights were booked, safari excursions were picked, and a new credit card was procured to pay for it all.

After reuniting with Francis in Kilimanjaro, we spent the night under a mosquito-netted bed in a tiny coffee plantation cottage, were kittens mewed from their nest in the thatched roof. In the days that followed, we traveled with our guide, Mussa, staying overnight in rustic tented camps. We watched elephants and leopards in Tarangire National Park. We spied rhinos and flamingos in Ngorongoro Crater. We squatted in a smokey dung hut with a Masai tribal chief. We gazed at wild animals and incredible sunsets in the Serengeti. We visited a dirt-floor orphanage to play with children and make a donation.

The impossible dream had become a reality, and surprisingly, our household did not fall apart. Not only did we recharge our deployment batteries, reuniting with my husband allowed me to share in his military adventure.

Although I try not to think about how much interest we accrued on that credit card debt, the trip to see my husband was, quite simply, worth every cent.

College Tours and Trojan Wars: Survival Tips

the oddysey“Odysseus, eat your heart out,” I thought, while driving our daughter, Lilly, to college visits recently.

Although I wouldn’t encounter any cyclopses or sea monsters, I knew I was embarking on a grueling ordeal. Over the course of our four-day trip, I would put 1800 miles on our minivan, log over 40,000 Fitbit steps on five campus tours, nail-bite through Lilly’s four interviews, swipe mini bottles of lotion from three cheap hotels, and eat at least four tuna sandwiches.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 77% of colleges in the United States rate campus visits as a top recruitment strategy for prospective freshmen. After more than 25 college tours between our three kids, I knew the schools we were about to visit would try every trick to get their hooks in us, and that I would need to muster the strength to resist falling into their traps. 

At each school, we went to the admissions offices for information sessions and interviews. My goal was to stay awake — thank goodness for complimentary K-Cups — and to be realistic about Lilly’s interviews. When one interviewer proclaimed, “Lilly is PERFECT for our school!” I knew he really meant, “Lilly seems like a real peach, but don’t be surprised if we drop her like first period Physics once we get her transcripts.”

Of course, we were assigned to tour guides that were fresh-faced and overly enthusiastic. “Hi! I’m P.J.! I double-major in Global Mediation Strategies and Interpretive Dance, with a minor in Sustainable Mollusk Farming, and I am the Assistant Treasurer of the Quidditch Club. Follow me while I walk backwards like a trained circus monkey!”

And our tour groups — which always seemed to include a kid with purple hair, a jock with a gum-chewing dad, and someone from Long Island — followed like sheep to slaughter. The parents glanced sideways at each other, muttering redundant thank yous every time we held doors for each other.

Lilly in the yellow blouse, following our cheerful tour guide

Lilly in the yellow blouse, following our cheerful tour guide

We hit the usual campus spots like libraries and student centers, but our guides had a few strategic surprises up the scrunched sleeves of their spirit wear. They wisely steered clear of stark reality such as old Biology buildings that smelled like pickles and frat houses with permanently tapped kegs in front yards, and instead pointed us toward 3-D printers, digitally illuminated mock trading floors, online laundry monitoring systems, colorful rock walls, and staged dorm rooms.

Even though my older children’s dorm rooms reek of nacho cheese and are littered with dirty socks, the dorm rooms on our college tours were color-coordinated, obsessively organized, freshly Febreezed, and adorned with gratuitous advertising signs reading, “Brought to you by Bed, Bath and Beyond.” They explained that we could take advantage of “gender fluid” housing options. Furthermore, if we only fill out a seven-page background check and sign the necessary legal release forms, our child would be permitted to live with someone of the opposite sex.

No matter how one feels about progressive housing options, one should never use the term “fluid” when referring to teenagers’ bedrooms.

In the dining halls, our guides detailed complicated meal plans involving flex dollars, bonus bucks, and recycling rewards, to buy foods described as gluten-free, halal, locally-sourced, mindful, farm-to-table, kosher, Paleo, diabetic-sensitive, and “world-fair” cuisine. I knew this was a fancy way of saying that, for four years, our kids will eat mostly cereal, chicken fingers and soft-serve ice cream.

Like Odysseus resisting the call of the Sirens, I did not fallen prey to the secret strategies employed by those institutions of higher learning. I kept my wits about me, and was triumphantly on my way home after four long days.

I had to admit, however, that the use of chocolate chip cookies was an effective marketing tool. One school had them in baskets at admissions, another offered them hot out of the oven as we toured the dining halls, and another doled them out at the conclusion of the tour. Add that to the free cookies in the hotel lobbies, and despite my Trojan warrior willpower, I was packing a baker’s dozen by the time we passed Poughkeepsie.

Coloring ourselves American in the face of tragedy

Photo credit: Gulnara Samoilova/AP Photo

Photo credit: Gulnara Samoilova/AP Photo

We’ve all seen them. Those unbelievable images of New York City on September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Centers and our lives changed forever.

There’s the photos of the gaping, flaming holes left by the hijacked planes. Images of desperate victims jumping from the burning buildings, of first responders and courageous civilians risking their lives, of the collapsing towers spewing forth a terrifying cloud of ash, of the jagged, smoldering devastation and death left behind.

Sixteen years later, the images still shock us and bring us back to the harsh reality and the incredible heroism of that day.

Today, we once again bear witness to mass devastation in another iconic US city — Houston, Texas. Like 9-11, first responders and volunteer civilians are risking life and limb to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey and mass flooding from the most recorded rainfall in continental US history.

There are images of schools, churches, highways, homes and cemeteries under muddied waters. Of drenched, exhausted victims fleeing their submerged homes, carrying shoeless children and trembling dogs on their shoulders. Of at-capacity shelters, of downed electrical lines, of rain continuing to fall.

But something is different. After 9-11, our entire country banded together to mourn the loss, hail the heroes and recognize America as one great nation of people. However, the Houston flood news coverage is interrupted with reports on continuing racial and political tensions.

Perhaps the fact that 9-11’s devastation was caused by a foreign enemy allowed Americans to link arms as allies. As for Houston, we have only Mother Nature to blame. But ironically, the lack of someone to accuse has made us turn on each other.

Rather than allowing our hearts and minds to open wide and fully absorb another historic moment when Americans rise to an unthinkable challenge, we are still bickering over politics.

This squabbling robs thousands of first responders, law enforcement, mobilized military aboard warships and aircraft, and National Guard members the recognition they deserve for their undaunted service. It diverts our attention from the countless acts of kindness and bravery shown by thousands of average civilians. It keeps us from thinking deeply about the suffering our fellow citizens continue to endure, and more importantly, how we might help from afar.

It even distracts us from those criminal opportunists who plot to loot and ransack as soon as the waters recede, allowing them to carry out their dirty deeds without the deterrent media coverage that might assist law enforcement officials.

Perhaps as 9-11 approaches, we can use the now-famous images of that historic tragedy to close the gap that prevents us from banding together to face the Hurricane Harvey flood devastation as one united people.

Some images of 9-11 are particularly relevant to the division we are experiencing today. The photos of people in the streets of New York City — office workers, firefighters, military men and women, hot dog vendors, tourists, nearly everyone — blanketed in grey ash are a symbolic reminder that we are all Americans. In those photos, one cannot distinguish between black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative.

All one sees is people helping or being helped in the midst of unthinkable tragedy.

This year, on the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11, as Houston begins the long process of recovery, let’s set aside our differences for a later debate. Let’s color ourselves as only Americans united as one. Let’s open our hearts so that we can fully experience the historic storm of grief and tragedy without distraction, and open our hands to offer our fellow citizens the charity and hope they so desperately need.

[The following relief organizations are among those taking donations to assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey: American Red Cross (; Salvation Army (; and Houston Flood Relief Fund (]

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP Photo


The Spin Cycle of Life

spin cycle

With our three kids finishing up summer jobs or out with friends, the house was unusually silent last week, except for the whirr of the ceiling fan and the soft tap of Moby’s dog nails on the tile kitchen floor.

One afternoon, I was going over the planner I’d been neglecting all summer. I threw out expired coupons and “To Do” lists I’d never gotten to, and ran a finger across the hole-punched calendar. The upcoming weekend squares read, “Take Anna and Hayden back to college.”

Moby’s stout yellow frame clunked down at my feet, seeking a cool spot to beat the afternoon heat. He stretched out his webbed toes as I scratched his belly. In a couple of days, Hayden and Anna would be back at college, Lilly would be in high school, and Moby would be my daytime companion again.

As a military spouse and work-from-home mom, I was used to being alone. As much as I missed my peaceful, organized solitude during the school year, I wanted to savor the crazy, cluttered, sticky, sandy, loud, fun inconvenience of having a house full of kids.

I remembered that the kids would need clean clothes for school, so I stepped over Moby in search of dirty laundry.

Passing through the foyer, I spied Lilly’s tennis bag where she’d thrown it after working at the local recreation center. As I pulled her dirty uniform out of the bag, gritty clay sprinkled onto my hardwood floors.

All summer, I’d been trying to get Lilly to leave her equipment on the porch. But after working on the hot tennis courts, she’d burst into the house with so much enthusiasm for whatever was next — inviting friends over, snuggling with Moby, lunch — all she could do was drop her bag and bound into the kitchen seeking chocolate milk. I smiled thinking of how Lilly’s optimistic nature had brightened my summer days.

On my way upstairs, I nearly tripped over Anna’s shoes — fringed denim mules this time. A fashion design major, Anna left clothing and accessories all over the house, each piece specifically chosen for her unique daily ensembles, then summarily discarded.

This summer, I had told Anna to pick up her things too many to count. Despite her chronic disorganization, she had a uniquely creative mind. I grabbed her shoes, and her purple tasseled handbag draped over the banister, and continued to the bedrooms, thinking about how much I would miss Anna’s quirky sense of style.

I paused at Hayden’s room, instinctively inhaling before opening the door. Entering his lair was like embarking on a dangerous wilderness expedition. The air was thick the sharp aroma of stagnant soda, dirty socks and dead skin cells. The treacherous path around the furniture was tangled with electronics wires, discarded clothing, and pretzel bags. The bed was a jumble of twisted sheets and video game equipment.

When he wasn’t at his full-time summer internship, Hayden was usually in this room playing video games, talking to friends, or sleeping. Sounds would emanate — laughter, bling-bling, bloop-bloop, silence. He’d emerge for dinner, and on rare occasions, he’d plop down on the couch to watch TV with me. Despite his gruff nature, he never complained when I snuggled a little, holding his hand or letting my foot rest on his lap. As I pinched his smelly laundry between my thumb and forefinger, I giggled at the paradox that our sweet, accomplished, intelligent son was such a hopeless slob.

In the laundry room, I stuffed the clothes and a few sandy beach towels I found over the porch rail into the washing machine and punched the buttons. The water rose in the round door’s glass window — preparing to wash away the remnants of summertime adventures, sticky ice cream cones, smokey fire pits, dusty bike rides, and saucy spaghetti dinners — and I felt the water in my eyes rising too.

Watching the socks and t-shirts slosh to and fro, I reminded myself that this is the cycle of life. After nine months of peace and quiet, the kids will come rushing back again, crowding our house with noise, sand, laughter, crumbs, laundry, and — as always — love.

college bound

Friendly persuasion: Why Mom was right

Friendly Persuasion

Back in the 1980s, when my mother’s favorite film aired on TV, she would try desperately to get our family to watch it. “C’mon,” she’d beg, “there’s an incorrigible goose and a sweet little Quaker family… You’ll love it!”

A goose and Quakers? Needless to say, we never saw the film. We were too busy watching “Gremlins” to bother.

Little did we know then, Mom’s favorite flick — “Friendly Persuasion,” a 1956 production starring Gary Cooper as the patriarch of a Quaker family in 1862 struggling to maintain pacifist views in the face of the Civil War —  addresses complex philosophical notions about non-violence that have modern relevance.

The movie was nominated for six academy awards including Best Picture, and in the 1980s, President Ronald Regan gave a copy of the film to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, suggesting that the two countries resolve their differences peacefully.

Yeah, but “Gremlins” has Phoebe Cates and that cute little fuzzball, Gizmo. So, there.

In all seriousness, I regret that I spent my youth too focused on applying frosted strawberry lipgloss to think deeply about civil rights and violence in America. Later, as a military spouse, my attentions turned to foreign enemies during my husband’s 28 years on active duty. I wasn’t really concerned about conflicts on US turf.

But today, some are predicting that the United States is on the brink of a second Civil War, or at least a second civil rights movement.

Racial tensions are peaking. Violent extremist groups are making a comeback. Media is no longer hiding its bias, but rather using it to attract like-minded viewers who won’t decry their version of the news as propaganda. Diversity of thought is not tolerated in an era celebrating diversity of religion, race, gender and sexual identity. Republicans and democrats are digging their heels in, pulling each other apart in a mean-spirited tug-of-war on every issue. Everyone is so focused on aggressively vilifying the opposition, hope for compromise seems lost and violence is considered justifiable.

If we’re ever going to find a solution to our current civil rights conflict, Americans must stop yelling “Lalalala, I can’t hear you!” with our fingers jammed in our ears. It’s time to try —  yep, I’m gonna say it — a little friendly persuasion.

I’m not advocating that we waste a Sunday afternoon watching an old movie about some goodie-two-shoes Quakers. I’m saying that friendly persuasion can be a powerful tactic for change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. proved this in the 1950s and 60s, when his peaceful resistance movement prompted the most sweeping reforms in racial equality since slavery was abolished. Many activists today don’t believe that a central figure like King is needed for civil rights reform. Protests are sparked organically via social media and grassroots efforts, without a charismatic public leader at the helm of each cause. But as the current civil rights conflicts get uglier and bloodier, King’s methods should be considered.

King advocated “nonviolent direct action” as a means of “disarming the opponent” and felt that riots were ineffective. “[R]ioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”

King said that nonviolence “helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

And on hate, he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

As military families who are accustomed to worrying about the safety of active duty soldiers and sailors in combat against foreign enemies, we must consider that disputes between fellow US citizens — be it marching in the streets or commenting on social media — require rational, respectful debate rather than physical force and hate speech.

I still have no interest in that silly goose, but I must admit, my mother was right. Friendly persuasion is a worth a try.

What does riding the bus teach kids?

vintage school bus

This month, many American military children home and abroad are boarding busses for their first, excited days of school. Despite the iconic yellow vehicle being the subject of happy nursery rhymes and jolly cartoons, taking school transportation is not always a stress-free experience.

In fact, riding the bus to school each day can seem like a gauntlet, a survival test, a rite of passage. School buses are tiny microcosms of society, where kids must quickly master small group dynamics just to find a seat. And thereby, find one’s place in the complex social hierarchy.

As a squishy little second grader at East Pike Elementary School, I thought the bus stop on Chestnut Street seemed like a huge, unruly mob.

By the time the bus arrived at 7:23 am, the kids at our stop had already climbed trees, thrown chestnuts, knocked books to the ground, acquired fresh grass stains, and executed several wedgie attacks. Much of the shenanigans were prompted by the older boys, which included my brother, Tray.

Boarding the bus each morning, I found my seat so as to attract the least amount of attention. Most days, I kept a low profile (literally, since I was short and could hide behind the green vinyl seat), but one particular fall, I was forced to take my turn as the subject of harassment.

Tray and his buddies had been ordered by the driver to sit in the first rows due to their boisterous behavior. But rather than serving as a penalty box, the front seats acted as a podium, effectively making the gang of boys our sadistic morning dictators.

Snorting, giggling, and kneeling on the seats, the boys led chants and jeers targeting riders in a twisted game of Russian roulette. One morning, the barrel of their gun was pointed at me, and the chamber was full.

Quite fond of nicknames, Tray had a vast repertoire of epithets for me based on my chunky frame. I was called Bubbs, Bubbs McGraw, Chunk, Chunky Dinners, Skunk, Chung King, and, quite simply, Pig.

A summer trip to Hawaii to visit our grandparents inspired Tray to add a Polynesian nickname, “Lee Lae Lon,” to his inventory. It was meaningless, but I hated it, which was exactly what Tray wanted.  Unable to come up with an effective retaliation other than, “Shut up, you big meanie!” I had learned that incessant whining was my only recourse.

That morning, after the gang of boys tired of their normal rowdy routine, they turned their attention to me.  After some conspiring, Tray’s hulkish friend, Jimmy, yelled, “Gimmie an L!”

Everyone looked confused, so Jimmy yelled the order again, and the crowd hesitantly responded, “L?”

Jimmy and the gang continued, “Gimme an E!” Even I repeated, “E!” and the chant gained momentum.

Jimmy added another “E,” then another “L,” and so on, until he screamed “What’s it spell?!” No response was forthcoming from the confused riders, but Jimmy’s gang yelled the pre-planned answer: “Lee Lae Lon!”

“Who’s a pig?!”

“Lee Lae Lon!”



Except for the snickering troublemakers, no one understood the chant, but it soon became a well-known part of our fall morning regimen.

Thankfully, I passed the test — I didn’t cry or tattle — and was not singled out again after that fateful season. Other than my middle school years, when our bus driver played the same outdated AC/DC “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” 8-track tape in excruciating repetition, the rest of my school bus experiences were relatively torture-free.

Our children rode the bus, too. They endured rumors, scuffles, mooning, name calling and wedgie attacks — and, there was the time when Anna ran home from the bus stop crying because the middle school boys were using the F-word. But all three kids survived without major incident.

Whether school bus experiences will train our children how to throw spit balls and use the F-word, or teach them to be brave and kind, we don’t know for sure until they run the gauntlet themselves. We can guide them, but all we know for certain is that the wheels on the bus go round and round.

One year out of the military, and the ride’s still not over

wood coastA year ago, my husband, Francis, stood on a stage before our family and friends in his Navy dress uniform and spoke about his 28 years of service in the military. The audience looked on curiously as the band played “Old Glory” and the flag was passed slowly, methodically, from rank to rank. When “The Watch” was recited, men blinked and cleared their throats, and women dug for tissues in their purses.

After speeches were said and flowers were given, I grabbed Francis’ arm. To the lilt of the bosun’s whistle, we walked briskly up the burgundy-carpeted aisle, and past the rigid side boys, Francis giving his final salute as an active-duty US naval officer.

That symbolic moment in time felt emotional, powerful, wonderful. Despite our uncertain future outside of the US Navy, we were focused on the last 28 years of Francis’ military service and how thankful we were for it all. The experiences, the challenges, the opportunities, the adventures, the honor, and even the hardships and the strength built therefrom.

We floated through the weekend on pride and gratitude, dancing like sweat-soaked fools at our party.

Reality came like a rickety wooden roller coaster. The kind you aren’t initially afraid to board, because, well, how bad could it be? People have been taking this old ride forever, right?

Once you lock yourself in, you start feeling queasy as it tick-tick-ticks its way up the slope. Then suddenly, it dives and your stomach drops into your shoes. You think you might be hurled to your death, or at least hurl up the corn dog you just ate, but as the centrifugal force pins you into the seat, you realize that you’re in for the long hall. As the momentum carries you up the next hill, you look out and see the peaks and valleys and twists and turns to come. You know you must stay to the end, when in great relief, you will stagger toward the funnel cake stand.

That’s what reality feels like after the pomp and circumstance and open bar of a military retirement ceremony.

A couple months after our friends and family went home with rolled up programs and sweaty party t-shirts in their suitcases, we moved off base into a tiny temporary rental, where we spent the long, dark winter searching for our new place in the world.

Our pillow talk was initially laced with nervous excitement. Will Francis make more money in the civilian world? Will we attend swanky corporate parties? Will we make new friends who golf and meet at wine bars on Fridays? Will we finally turn in the minivan for an SUV with that new car smell?

In our naiveté, we believed what everyone told Francis: “With your experience, you’ll write your own ticket.”

Turns out, that ticket was harder to write than we realized. It took many months of gazing wall-eyed at LinkedIn; writing and rewriting resumes; networking with Tom, Dick and Harry; pouring over application questions; rehearsing for interviews; tsking about unreturned calls and emails; and trying desperately to not take “sorry, we chose someone with corporate experience” personally.

Finally, it came. The job offer was located out-of-state from the high school our youngest attended, but what the hell, it’s a great job, take it.

Our original vision of a cushy-post-retirement lifestyle had to be amended to include living apart during weekdays, negotiating the hopelessly tangled ropes of corporate politics, making due with our old minivan with over two-hundred-thousand miles and a leaky roof, and missing our military friends.

One year out, our metamorphosis from military to civilian life is still in the gooey larval stages. We remain very much a family in transition.

As we navigate the peaks and valleys and twists and turns of this extended roller coaster run, we’ll hold tight to the military pride that welled up in us last summer on the day of Francis’ retirement ceremony. Our military foundation will keep us grounded, so we can sit back, raise our hands in the air, and enjoy the ride no matter where it takes us.


[With much thanks to Francis’ cousin, Marianne Mangan, for taking over two thousand photos during our retirement weekend last year. Also, thanks to our friend Suz Drgon for taking photos, too … love the sweaty dance shots, Suz!]

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