Category Archives: military

My sailor won’t batten down the hatches!

My column in the June issue of Military Spouse magazine!

My column in the June issue of Military Spouse magazine!

Ahoy, fellow Milspouses! Are you tethered to a soldier who doesn’t know how to hang a ceiling fan? Does your airman plead ignorance when it’s time to program the remote? Are you anchored to a sailor who can’t assemble the baby’s crib? Does your marine call the plumber when the faucet leaks?

If you answered, “Aye,” to any of these questions, then I’ve got the scuttlebutt for you! Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful sailor’s wife who got stuck doing ALL the home repairs….

SO, SO NAIVE

A couple decades ago, I left home to marry a Navy man. A true greenhorn, I assumed that military men were all “manly” types who tinkered with cars, hooked up stereos, and fixed stuff around the house.

For the first few tours, we rented or lived on base, so my misconceptions about my husband’s fix-it skills persisted. It wasn’t until we bought our first home in 1998 that the truth was revealed. I soon realized that, not only did my husband have no fix-it skills, he also didn’t feel an ounce of embarrassment if I handled the bulk of the yard work and home repairs.

In denial at first, I believed he’d change as the demands of our growing family increased. I decided to set a good example, and bought a manual on DIY. With a baby on my hip and a toddler at my feet, I replaced the kitchen faucet. I hung new ceiling fans. I assembled the baby’s crib. I aerated the lawn. I replaced the sprinkler heads.

LITTLE DID I KNOW…

Ladies, I even jig sawed my son’s soap box derby car — and loved it.

The feeling of accomplishment was so exhilarating, I forgot to notice that my husband hadn’t joined in my DIY efforts. He even stood idly by as I embarked on a two month project to build shelving along one 15’ wall of our playroom. I couldn’t see past the sawdust to notice that my husband hadn’t lifted a finger to help.

One night while simultaneously nursing our third baby and chopping onions for dinner, I asked my husband to assemble a simple table-top grill. Half an hour later, my husband sat looking cross-eyed and annoyed at the instructions. “I’m telling you Honey, you could strand me on a deserted island with this thing, and I’d never figure it out.”

A few days later, I was relaying my frustrations to another Navy wife while we watched our kids on the playground. Expecting compassion, I was surprised when she told me it was all my fault.

RUDE AWAKENING

At first I thought she had no idea what she was talking about, because her aviator husband was super-handy; whereas, my husband was still uncertain about the term “Phillip’s head” and referred to the hardware store as “a haunted house.”

However, she explained: “I grew up on a ranch and am no stranger to a tool box, but that has always been my little secret. Try being helpless,” she whispered, “trust me, it works.”

Tragically, it was way too late. My husband had already seen me chop onions, nurse a baby, and assemble a grill all at the same time. There was no going back. And now, as a salty ol’ navy wife in my “roaring forties,” I’m still the one who programs the remote and assembles the IKEA dressers.

BE WARNED!

It might be too late for me, but if this is your maiden voyage as a milspouse, there’s still time! You may be perfectly capable of skippering your own boat, but don’t go overboard. Stow those fix-it skills in your ditty bag and play the roll of landlubber Ginger or sidekick Gilligan while hubby takes the helm. He’ll figure out how to replace the toilet tank float or fix the cabinet hinge in no time.

Be ye in a Navy port or on an Army fort, heed this whale of a tale and your DIY projects will always be smooth sailing.

5 TIPS FOR GROWING YOUR OWN HANDYMAN

  1. First printed in 1991, The Reader’s Digest New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual is the veritable bible of home improvement projects. Order it on Amazon and give it to him as a birthday gift. [Hint, hint.]
  2. If your husband flounders in the hardware store, don’t be his safety net. Give him time to get his bearings, and he’ll navigate his own way.
  3. Be his crew: offer to assist without trying to take over the project.
  4. Rather than nagging hubby to be Cap’n Fix-It, positively reinforce his DIY efforts. He may not want sea biscuits, salt pork, and a jigger of rum; but a homemade lasagna dinner is a motivating reward for tinkering with the plumbing or car.
  5. Spread out your suggested projects, maybe motivating your sweetheart to tackle one home improvement project per month. He’s busy defending America, after all, so the boy does need an occasional break.
Pick up your own copy of Military Spouse Magazine today!

Pick up your own copy of Military Spouse Magazine today!

Announcing: The Mess Hall

Legendary photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Legendary V-J Day photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In honor of Memorial Day, I’ve decided to get off my duff (whatever that is) and finally create a page just for us military folks. We have our own groceries (aka “commissaries”), our own department stores (aka “exchanges”), our own 7-11s (aka “shopettes”, unfortunately without those delicious Slurpee machines, I might add), so why not have our own page on my blog, right?

However, let me be clear that I do not do book reviews (sorry, I’m a slow reader), I don’t offer guest posting (it’s all about me), and I don’t blog about other people’s products/services no matter how legit (although you can feel free to send me samples!) I don’t mean to be a fuddy-duddy, I just simply don’t have a lot of time [READ: my life is a train wreck.]  I have been known; however, to share certain military related news/products/services on my Facebook page, so if this is something you’d like me to consider, go to https://www.facebook.com/TheMeatandPotatoesofLife and send me a message. Hitting the “Like” button wouldn’t hurt, either. Just sayin.

Anyhoo, this page will be a work in progress (I’ll soon be adding lists of retailers who offer military discounts, classic books every military family should have on their shelves, and even time honored military spouse recipes), but please click on the “The Mess Hall” page tab above to see my first list of military-related items — organizations that honor the troops and their families.

Happy Easter to our deployed soldiers and sailors!

God Bless our soldiers and sailors this Easter!

Courtesy of Grigoriy Kogan at http://www.gagcartoons.com.

Why I love being ordered around

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Mayo-nnaise to Foley: “I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g… I got nothin’ else!”

To everyday civilians, “the pursuit of happiness” typically involves career, home, love, and family. It’s no different for military families, with one important exception: ORDERS.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, active duty servicepersons must pursue their happiness within the strict confines of written military orders, which are lengthy documents that appear to be written in alien code.

Military orders seem riddled with gibberish, and might be easily replicated as follows: Sit on a computer keyboard for about ten minutes, periodically shifting positions. Once enough “XXXXXXXXs” and “UUUUUUs” have been typed, print out about 15 pages; staple. Trust me, even the most seasoned soldier or sailor wouldn’t immediately notice the difference.

However, buried amongst the seemingly nonsensical verbiage are key phrases such as “Report no later than August 2013” and “Newport, Rhode Island,” which, although embedded in gobbledygook, are important mandatory instructions regarding the next couple of years in a serviceperson’s life.

We are a Navy family who’s seen our share of military orders. Our most recent written orders arrived a month ago. Besides “RTTUZYUW” and “UUUU–RHMCSUU” my husband’s orders indicate that this summer, he must report to a new job at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

The hidden message contained in the gobbledygook.

The hidden message contained in the gobbledygook.

Our last orders instructed my husband to report to Naval Station Mayport, Florida in March 2011, and before that to Africa Command, Stuttgart, Germany in July 2008. Before that Djibouti, East Africa. Before that Norfolk, Virginia. Before that Molesworth, England. Before that, Monterey California. And so on, and so on.

I can’t prove it without the assistance of an experienced cryptographer, but I think that our orders might also contain mandates such as “///GET OVER IT///” or “///NO WHINING–YOU’RE IN THE MILITARY///.” We must follow military orders regardless of inconvenience or hardship, like moving your son before his senior year, or leaving the church that you like so much, or separating your youngest after she finally made a new best friend. None of that matters. We are at the mercy of the U.S. Navy.

So why do we continue to let ourselves get ordered around?

In today’s unstable economic climate, one might think that mere job security is what motivates military families to keep following orders, and with all the news of “fiscal cliffs” and “sequestration” there is some truth to this.

However, regardless of job security, a deep attachment to a military culture develops. With each successive move, military families not only become more resilient, but also cultivate a strong identity and pride in their unique lifestyle. Believe it or not, we become so accustomed to being ordered to go somewhere new, we often look forward to it after being in one place for a couple of years.

I must admit, I’ve wondered if our affection for military life might be a twinge of Stockholm syndrome. Or maybe it’s rooted in fear of what’s on the outside, like long-term prisoners who are afraid to be released from prison life. Or maybe it’s a compulsion, like Pacino’s Michael Corleone in Godfather III (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”)

Sargent

Truly, I know our affinity for this lifestyle is rooted in honor, duty, courage, loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority, and sacrifice for others. These concepts have become muddled in today’s society, so we feel fortunate to be given the opportunity to raise our kids in a military environment where those virtues are emphasized. We live and work with other military families who have a common understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.  We don’t need a permanent hometown — it’s the similar sense of values and camaraderie with our fellow military families that makes us feel at home.

No doubt about it: non-military families are fortunate to put down roots in one place where they can make close friendships and foster stable school, family and community ties. They might not understand how a family like mine could be happy about moving to Rhode Island after less than two years in Florida.

But we are happy about our ninth move in 20 years, because it’s part and parcel of our military lifestyle. To quote a common saying which adorns many a sailor’s front door, “Home is where the Navy sends us.”

Purchase signs like these at www.signsofpatriotism.com.

Purchase signs like these at http://www.signsofpatriotism.com.

Winter Wondering

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January 2013. My back yard in Florida.

I love snowy white winters, but ever since the Navy moved us to Florida, the only flakes we see are floating in milk-filled cereal bowls. So, I sit on my sunny screened porch in January, surrounded by green grass, ocean breezes, and palm trees, and I dream of snow.

I know, I know, that’s nuts. Crazy. Certifiable. But I can’t help it. Something was imprinted in my psyche many years ago, something that makes me associate winter with snow, and snow with pleasure.

As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, my heart filled with anticipation at the first snow. To us, snow, especially in copious amounts, meant FUN. Snowballs, sled riding, hot chocolate, and one of the most joyous occasions in a child’s life – SNOW DAYS.

I can recall falling off my flying red plastic sled in a puff of white on the hill behind our house, and laying a minute or two, to make sure I was still in one piece and to listen to the silence – how the snow absorbs noise and brings a soft quietness to the air. Packed and padded in protective layers, I felt swaddled like a baby, watching my breath ascend over me into the air. It was pure joy.

Ironically, a serious sledding accident in the winter of 1977 only strengthened my positive association with snow.

I was in the fifth grade, and it was the last night of our winter break from school, and also my father’s poker night. While the men played cards in our basement rec room, my brother and I listened to radio reports of a blizzard, and hoped for school closures.

Fueled by bravado (and a few beers), my father and his buddies decided it would be a good idea to take our 12-man wooden toboggan out for a run down the hill behind our house. My brother and I couldn’t believe our luck, and eagerly followed.

With my legs crisscrossed under the toboggan’s wooden curl, I sat in the front, four men and my brother behind me. Visibility was nil due to the blizzard and dark night, but there was a wide path between the houses for our ride. With the weight of the men, we took off like a bullet, and I pulled the ties of my parka hood tight to keep the snow from hitting my face.

About halfway down the hill – WHAM! The rest came in flashes: my father’s friend looking down wearing one of my hats, someone saying “I think it’s broken”, riding in the back of a truck, being carried on the toboggan into the hospital, three layers of pants being cut off, wanting my mom and dad.

I had broken my femur. Apparently, our toboggan had drifted off course, running into a white flagpole in our neighbor’s yard. I spent the next two and a half months in a hospital bed, with a weight hanging off the end of my foot.

To add insult to injury, during my lengthy hospital stay, the historic 1977 blizzard blew into town. Schools were cancelled for over two weeks, and I was stuck in a hospital bed watching Don Ho and eating    Jell-O.

One might think that the experience would have caused me to associate snow with pain; however, the pain of my broken leg paled in comparison to the envy I had for my peers who spent two glorious weeks out of school, sucking on icicles, throwing snowballs, and drinking hot chocolate.

So now, like Pavlov’s dog, when winter rolls around, I begin to drool.

Sometimes the Navy sends us somewhere that fulfills my nostalgic longings, like our last tour in snowy Stuttgart, Germany.

I must admit, there was a downside. Bundled up like the Michelin Man, I would trudge four flights down our military stairwell housing to our minivan, hazy with salt residue and laden with blackened hunks of snow behind each wheel. Despite spraying de-icing compound into the locks, the doors would often be frozen solid, requiring me to climb in from the trunk.

But now, even with the memories of crusted, frozen, gritty car doors still freshly juxtaposed against this balmy pastel Florida winter, I can’t help but long for snow. Big fluffy, white hunks dropping from tree branches. Delicate crystalline flakes drifting slowly from the sky.

Cold to the touch. Warm to my heart.

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

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

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March 2007. Anna savoring a late spring snow while visiting Grammy back home in PA.

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Hayden trying to break the land speed record.

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Lilly reaching maximum happiness level.

The Family Meeting

“C’mon guys!” I bellowed from the kitchen, “You’re late!” One by one, they appeared at our table, each carrying a heavy attitude.

My husband had always thought my family meetings were pure nonsense. All this nicey-nicey talking was a complete waste of his Sunday leisure time. When he grew up, you did what your parents told you to do, or you’d be wearing five faster than you can say “child protective services.”

However, my active duty Navy husband had left me in charge of the household on so many occasions in our 19-year marriage, he had decided that it was best to go along with my parenting strategies, harebrained or not.

I’d been holding semi-annual family meetings since the kids were too young to read my typed agendas, and believed these forced family events were necessary to maintain order, and my sanity. Although no stranger to corporal punishment, I’d always been afraid we’d turn our kids into axe murders, heroine junkies, or worst of all, adults with low self-esteem.

So, I believed we could achieve total cooperation from our children simply by gathering them up and nicely telling them what we want them to do. Makes perfect sense, right?

Our girls, 12 and 14, arrived in a sock-sliding race for the best seat, the elder sister grabbing the prime spot.

The last to arrive, thudding down the stairs, was our 17-year-old son, who would’ve preferred a hot poker in his eye than a conversation with family in which feelings might be discussed.

With everyone seated, I decided to play upon their worst fears.

“OK, everyone, let’s hold hands and say what we love about each other . . .” I allowed a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, and just when I thought mutiny was imminent, I blurted, “Gotcha!”

My comedic genius softened them up a bit, exactly what I needed for my parental brainwashing plan to take hold. Clearing my throat, I began.

“School starts tomorrow, and we want you to manage your time properly so everything runs smoothly. We’ll get up each morning promptly at six, and we expect . . .” I went on, and on, about bedtimes, homework, chores, allowance, privileges, personal hygiene, and manners.

About 40 minutes into the lecture, I knew I was losing them, an eventuality for which I was prepared.

“In conclusion, to help you manage your time, we got you each a little gift.”

The girls squealed with delight when I revealed three super-cool new sports watches, with digital displays, dual alarms with five minute back up, 10 lap memory chrono, and water resistance to 100 meters – whatever all that means.

I sat back, smug with satisfaction. My plan is complete. Rules will be followed. Order is restored. No punishments necessary. And I look like Mother Theresa. Nice.

“Uh, just so you know, I’m not wearing this thing,” my son suddenly interjected.

“Listen Honey, you’re almost a man now — you really should learn how to use a watch… “

“I’m not putting this stupid hunk of plastic on my wrist when there are clocks everywhere.”

I can’t be sure, but smoke may have started rising out of my ears.

It may have been our son’s utter lack of appreciation, his complete disregard for authority, my unrealistic desire for total obedience, or the fact that my underwear was riding up that afternoon, but I was seeing red.

“Listen to me, young man,” I said through gritted teeth, “you WILL wear that watch, understand me?”

“NO.”

The next 20 minutes are a bit foggy, but I do clearly recall my husband storming off down the street, and my son throwing the watch at the wall while screaming a particular expletive, which he’d previously not uttered in our presence. Then, I vaguely remember flying upstairs without touching the ground and lifting my son’s door off the hinges with superhuman strength.

Cooling off in our garage, I felt an immediate sense of regret. The boy IS seventeen – he probably sees that watch as a shackle, keeping him under our control. I need to let him make his own choice.

I walked into the house, just as my son was coming out to find me. Our eyes met, communicating our mutual regret without words.

“Where’d that watch go, Mom? I’ll give it a try.”

“I’ll help you find it, Honey, and I was thinking, maybe you could just carry it in your pocket if you don’t want to wear it around your wrist.”

Just as we found the watch in the corner, my husband arrived home, refreshed from a nice afternoon walk, and asked, “So . . . what’s for dinner?”

 

When Strangers Marry

On this day, eighteen years ago, I promised to love, honor and cherish a man I really didn’t know all that well at the time.

In fact, prior to committing ourselves to each other until death, my husband and I were pretty much clueless. We had no idea what kind of husband or wife we might turn out to be. As long as we were in love, we thought, nothing else mattered, right?

Time marched on, and with each passing year, we made new realizations about each other and our relationship.

Most significantly, our vastly different childhood experiences forced us to redefine our pre-conceived notions of “man” and “woman.”

My husband grew up going to private school as the son of a neurologist in the affluent DC suburb of Chevy Chase. At weekend cocktail parties and crew regattas, parents chatted over canapés about politics, world events, and their children’s prep schools. They drank bottled water and bought their food from overpriced grocery stores. They had things like capers and pate in their refrigerators, and drove imported cars.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a town with only one high school, where we thought every one in the world had two days off for hunting season. To the people of my small town, “Chevy Chase” was not necessarily an affluent neighborhood, and it was perfectly normal to get your water from a well and your meat from the woods. Our refrigerators frequently contained bricks of Velveeta, cans of Hershey’s syrup, and in the spring, fish with the heads still on. My parents’ vehicles were pre-owned, and other than one Volkswagen Beetle, none of them were imported.

My husband grew up believing that all women can throw sophisticated dinner parties at the drop of a hat, while being charming and looking fabulous in the latest styles from Lord & Taylor or Talbot’s. He did not realize that he had made a lifetime commitment to someone who shops at Target and whose idea of a party is opening a bag of Fritos and watching a Steelers’ game. My poor husband has had to redefine “woman” to include those, like me, who would prefer a hot poker in the eye than the obligatory social events required of a navy officer’s wife.

Similarly, I have had to adjust my definition of “man” to include those who don’t own any thing that is fluorescent orange. I’ve had to realize that there are men out there who actually prefer white wine to beer, and not all men demand space in the garage for a work bench. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my husband is afraid of tools, guns and knives, and shudders at the mere thought of putting a worm on a hook, much less eating a fish with the head still on it.

I’ll admit – I have felt somewhat guilty that I’ve never fulfilled my husband’s expectations of what his wife might be. I’ve often wished that I was more sophisticated, more formal, more “fancy.”

And I’ve seen self-consciousness in his eyes too, like the time I had to put the barbecue grill together because he couldn’t understand the instructions, or the time I snorkeled on a beach vacation for four hours alone while he sipped a Pink Squirrel and read an Oprah Winfrey book selection under an umbrella.

If we knew back then what we know now, would we have eternally promised ourselves to each other before the altar of Graystone Church eighteen years ago today?

Without a doubt, I say “Yes.”

When we first met, the one thing we knew for certain was that neither of us was perfect, but we instantly gave each other the pure and unconditional acceptance that had been missing in our lives. Unless one later discovers that one’s betrothed is actually an axe murderer or a spy for the Russians, unconditional love and acceptance is a powerful thing that can transcend unknown personality quirks.

Besides, I’ve also discovered along the way that my husband is incredibly disciplined, dedicated, and hard-working. Better yet, he is fiercely loyal and his love for our family is deep and sincere. Best of all, he makes me laugh.

We may not be the husband and wife we thought we’d be eighteen years ago, but deep in our hearts is the underlying truth that we love and accept each other just the way we are.

So, Happy Anniversary, Honey. Always be yourself, and I will always love you for it.

Sharing Happiness

My phone rang this week, and for once, it wasn’t my kids or my husband or my mother or my carpool partner or my in laws or one of those pre-recorded doctor’s appointment confirmation messages.

“Hey Lisa, what have you been up to?” she asked. I was dumbfounded. I had not received a purely social call in months — it was as if I had forgotten what to do. My mind raced as I tried to remember how to engage in idle chit chat.

Why on earth is she calling me? I thought. I mean, we only know each other because our husbands work together, and besides, I’m new here, but  she’s lived here for years. She has plenty of other friends to call . . . there must be some problem.

“Oh, you know, the usual . . . busy, busy, busy!” I lied, waiting for her to ask to borrow money, or give her a ride to the airport, or buy overpriced candles for her son’s baseball team fundraiser.  

“Well, listen, I really need some exercise… would you like to go on a power walk or something?”

You’d have thought I was a double winner on the Price is Right Showcase Showdown by the way I reacted.

“Really?! Yes! I would love to! What time?! Where do you want me to meet you?! I’ll go anywhere! I already have work out clothes on, so I am ready to go whenever you are, so just say the word and…”

“Nine-fifteen at the Park and Ride lot on Wonderwood Drive,” she interrupted my pathetic ramble.

“You got it!”

I arrived twenty minutes early, and sat desperately waiting to spot her mini van. When she arrived, I bolted from my car as if it had burst into flames.

“Hi!” I yelled and waved across the parking lot, startling her out of her morning haze. For the next hour, we did what housewives do so well – analyzed, pondered, proclaimed, opined, pontificated, empathized, chastised, gossiped and even listened a little bit, all under the guise of exercise. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Back in the parking lot, my new friend suggested that we make the outing our new Thursday routine. I eagerly agreed, and nearly skipped back to my car with a goofy grin.

On the drive home, I thought, Finally, a real friend. I can’t wait for next Thursday. Boy, I wish we could meet Tuesdays and Thursdays. But maybe that’s too much. I don’t want to scare her away. Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe I did come on too strong. I don’t remember listening all that much, actually. I think I did most of the talking. Why do I always do that? She was probably wondering whether I’d ever shut up. I’ll bet she will call and cancel next week because she thinks I’m an annoying blabbermouth….

I pulled into my driveway, put the car in park, and looked at myself in the rear view mirror. Not only did I realize that, on the walk, my bangs had fallen into that unflattering middle part that made my face look like a full moon, it also occurred to me that this had all happened before.

Suddenly overwhelmed with that bizarre déjà vu sensation, I tried to recollect the past. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the internal conversation I just had with myself was the same one I had in 2008, 1998, 1996, 1994 and 1993 – basically, every time the military has ordered us to move.

After every move, I busy myself with setting up our new life – new house, new schools, new doctors, new dentists, new music teachers, new gym, new church, new pizza place, new routines — a daunting task which keeps me occupied for several months. But once the new routines are in place, there’s nothing left to do except live.

I don’t care whether you live in Poughkeepsie or Prague, boredom eventually sets in. You find yourself dawdling on the internet, throwing dinner together last minute, ignoring housework, and eating too much. You put on work out clothes every day, but never make it to the gym. You call your husband at work even though you know he can’t chat. You write long e-mails to friends from the past who are too preoccupied to write back. Even your own mother tries to get off the phone when you call, and your last resort, the family dog, has no good gossip to share.

You are bored out of your mind.

As I fixed my bangs in the rear view mirror, I remembered the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who disappeared “Into the Wild” (the name of the book by Jon Krakauer) to live free from obligations and relationships. After spending over three months utterly alone, he finally realized that he had been wrong about life all along. Days before he died of starvation trying to make it back out of the wild, he wrote “Happiness is only real if shared.”

Remembering the quote helped me understand why I always get a little pathetic every time we move, and although I’m in no danger of starving anytime soon (quite the contrary in fact,) I realized that everyone needs a good friend or two to nourish the soul.

Surviving the Storm of Terrorism

As the victims of Hurricane Irene repair their flooded homes, new winds over the ocean whip in circles. Some will peter out, while others will twist and writhe into gigantic storm cells that threaten our coastlines. This pattern is repeated year after year, and we cope with the destruction as life goes on.

This year, the East Coast survived Irene. In 2008,Texas survived Ike. In 2005, the Gulf States survived Katrina. In 2003, the Mid-Atlantic survived Isabel. Each time, the affected people dealt with their losses, gathered with their communities and rebuilt their lives.

A decade ago, we were hit by a destructive cell bigger than any hurricane. It was the Storm of Terrorism and it rained down on us on September the 11th, 2001.

Ten years after the devastation of 9/11, has ourAmerican Wayof Life survived the storm intact? What is unique about how Americans react to disasters, both natural and manmade?

When Hurricane Isabel roared through the Mid Atlantic States in September 2003, my family of five was gathered around a battery operated radio in our family room inVirginia Beach, nervously listening to news of the storm’s path.

On September 11th, my family was gathered in that same family room, shocked by the news of the first plane crashes.

During one of Isabel’s howling gusts, our house was suddenly slammed with something that shook the foundation. I instinctively grabbed the kids and headed to a doorway in the center of the house, while my husband ran out onto our porch to investigate. “It’s bad, Honey! Really bad!” he yelled, darting back into the house and up the stairs. When he finally joined us, he reported that a 90 foot pine tree had uprooted and fell through our roof, breaking through the second floor ceiling.

As we stood within five feet of our television screen on 9/11, with the children at our feet, I gasped loudly and put my hands to my mouth when the Twin Towers collapsed to the ground.

In both situations, our children were too innocent to understand what was happening. They had never experienced hurricanes or terrorism. Both times, they watched my husband and me, trying to make sense of it all, and both times, our children reflected our fear.

Not more than a minute after the tree hit, our neighbors shuttled the kids and I to their house, while the men braved 100 mph gusts to anchor tarps over the gaping hole in our roof. That night, we tried to sleep on the neighbor’s floor while our minds raced with thoughts of the damage, the deductible, reconstruction, and loss.

Once we were able to grasp the horrific events of the 9/11 terror attacks, our minds raced with thoughts of the devastating loss of life, the mind boggling acts of heroism, and the inevitable war to come. The tragedy was almost too much to bear.

The day after Isabel spun her way northward, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny day, and although there was much work to do, we were grateful to be alive and felt a new appreciation for our family and our neighbors. People on our street shared water, tools and generators. On our gas grill, I cooked up all the thawing steaks, sausages, bacon and eggs from our powerless refrigerator, and passed breakfast out to the neighbors. Even the most recluse of our neighbors was out on the street, willing to lend a helping hand.

Similarly, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Americans from every race, political party, and socio-economic group banded together and displayed unbridled patriotism, the likes of which our country had not experienced in decades. Flags flew on every street. Neighbors, friends and family reached out to connect, enlist, volunteer and donate. Despite the divisive views on the War on Terror now, back then it was clear to everyone that the US had to show the rest of the world that no one can attack Americans and get away with it.

It is as if these destructive events serve to remind Americans of how good we have it. After these storms, whether natural or manmade, the clouds of political divisiveness and floodwaters of our daily routines disappear. We can suddenly see our lives clearly, and find new appreciation for our families, our communities, and our nation.  

But since the 9/11 attacks, our collective visibility has been overcast with the minutia of the War on Terror, the controversy over the 9/11 memorial site, claims of corruption in charitable fundraising, and other complicated political issues. Our ability to clearly recall the injustice of the 9/11 attacks has eroded. Instead of banding together to stand against such forces of destruction, we are fighting with each other.

On this, the tenth anniversary of the senseless terrorist attacks on our shores, let’s put our differences aside. Bring to mind that fateful day and how it felt. Think of those who lost their lives in the attack and the heroic rescues. Honor the military members who continue to fight so that terrorism will not make landfall in the United States again. Harness those emotions, memories and patriotism. Be grateful for our families, our communities, our nation, and the one thing that no storm or terror cell can destroy – our uniquely American way of life.

Middle School Disorientation

My daughters and I nervously passed between two huge concrete lions flanking the entrance, and a door opened magically before us.

“Welcome to Julia Landon College Preparatory!” said the eighth grader holding the door, smartly clad in khaki shorts, a navy blue polo emblazoned with the school logo, and a full set of shining braces.

It was middle school orientation day, and having  just moved to Jacksonville, Florida, we had no clue how to negotiate the vast halls and complex social hierarchy of this new institution.

With every move, our military family has adapted to new surroundings, but this time we were a bit anxious. The girls had been accepted into a top notch magnet school, and while I was grateful for this stroke of dumb luck, I was also a bit worried that I might meet up with some pretentious personalities.

Being from humble roots, I don’t deal well with snooty people.

Besides, middle school parents are a separate and distinct breed. Unlike elementary school children who are a blank canvas, and high school kids whose personalities are pretty much set, middle school children are still forming their individual aptitudes and character traits. Middle school parents still believe that, with their guidance, their children will be neurosurgeons and professional athletes.

At this stage in the game, middle school parents are still living the dream, and they carry themselves as if their children are the cream of the crop.

I had a sneaking suspicion that the parents at Julia Landon College Preparatory Middle School might have cornered the market on elitist attitudes, so I decided to beat them at their own game.

I knew I needed to walk into that school wearing something that would convey the message, “Yea, I’m new, intelligent, interesting, and I have no time for you.”

So, I strategically paired a trendy shirt dress and sandals with a silver pendant necklace on a leather cord. I carried one of those huge tote bags with the name of a European city stamped all over it. Mine read “Stuttgart.”

I envisioned another mom asking, “Ooo, cool necklace . . . where’d you get it?” and I’d have to tell how I bought the pendant from a street market in Rome after a delicious lunch of risotto and fried artichokes in a Trastevere café. I’d have that far-away look in my eye that says, “I’ve got more culture in my upturned pinkie than you’ll get from a case of Yoplait.”

Then someone else might notice my Stuttgart bag and inquire as to whether I have “visited”Germany. I’d have to hide my smirk as I explain, “Why, no, actually we lived in Stuttgart for the last three years.” Again, with that far-away look in my eyes.

That’ll show ‘em, I thought, as we crossed the threshold into the school.

We were greeted by more khaki clad kids, each one more polite and helpful than the last, “yes ma’am” rolling off their tongues without the slightest effort.

I grumbled under my breath at their superiority. I had been trying to get my own children to use that simple phrase for years, but even under extreme duress, I had only been able to elicit a reluctant muttering that sounded more like “S’pam.” Apparently, my kids would rather shove Popsicle sticks under their toenails than subordinate themselves in such a humiliating way. Preferring to not be referred to as repulsive canned meat product, I gave up the fight and accepted the garden variety “Yes, Mom,” usually accompanied by plenty of eye rolling.

We followed the sea of people headed to several stations set up for getting locker assignments, student ID photos, PTA memberships, textbooks, and PE uniforms. The crowd looked like a giant preppy wave of madras plaid, nautical stripes, tanned limbs, sun bleached hair and white teeth. Parents seemed to recognize each other, chatting as the tide swept forward.

In a pathetic ploy for attention, I would announce at each station that “We are new here,” but no one seemed to care all that much. They were just as pleasant as eating a slice of summer peach pie on a porch swing. But I wasn’t about to let these sweet-tea swilling snobs get the best of me.

In a last ditch effort to get the upper hand, I announced to the silver-haired guidance counselor, “Well, we are new because WE JUST MOVED HERE AFTER LIVING IN EUROPE,” hoping the surrounding hoard would overhear and drop to their knees to beg for my friendship. But no one batted an eye.

In her slow-cooked southern drawl, the guidance counselor responded, “Well, I do declare, you have come a long way! Welcome, we are so happy to have you here. Now, how may I help you?”

Contritely, I handed the sweet woman my daughters’ health records and thanked her for her assistance. I couldn’t deny it any more. The people at this new school weren’t snooty nor elitist. I didn’t need to beat them at their own game because they weren’t playing one. This was simply a good school with good people in it. With a sigh of relief, I finally let down my guard and resolved to just be real.

As I walked back out the door and between the concrete lions, I remembered the advice I had given my own girls that very morning: “Don’t be afraid, just be yourself. In time, you will make lots of new friends and you’ll fit right in.”

Point taken.

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