Not so lucky: St. Patrick’s Day cuisine

St. Pat's Day

Sure, there will be parades, funny hats, green decorations, and parties during the week of March 17th. But what really makes or breaks holidays and special occasions?

Let’s face it — it’s all about the food.

Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter are lucky enough to have chocolate as their traditional treat. Thanksgiving hit the luck jackpot with succulent roasted turkeys, mouth-watering dressings, tartly sweet cranberry sauce, and pies loaded with whipped cream. And who doesn’t love Christmas and Hanukah foods like cookies, doughnuts, prime rib, latkes, hot cocoa, brisket, and gingerbread? With the luck of the Irish on it’s side, you’d think that St. Patty’s Day would be associated with delectable culinary delights.

But corned beef and cabbage?

First of all, what is “corned” beef anyway? Does the corning process make an otherwise inedible piece of meat safe for human consumption? Is it one of those cuts of meat that grandfathers like to hang from rafters in basement corners, smelling like sweaty feet for 9 months at a time? Is the term “beef” just a genteelism for “pickled squirrel meat my Paw-Paw shot in the backyard”?

Corned beef is undeniably delicious in a grilled reuben sandwich, but when boiled with cabbage, it can become a smelly, stringy affair. I have enjoyed corned beef and cabbage on a few occasions; however, those were the times that, by sheer happenstance, the cooking time was precisely correct for that particular size cabbage, acidity, elevation, boiling point, and tilt of the Earth’s axis.

What average cooks don’t realize is that, within mere seconds, the otherwise crispy, sweet vegetable can become an overcooked ball of sulphur-gas-emitting mush that will stink up the house for at least a week. Corned beef and cabbage cannot just be tossed into a Crockpot. Cooking this finicky dish properly requires knowledge of chemistry, catlike senses, and a precision timing device. But who wants to stand around on St. Patrick’s Day watching cabbage steam for precisely six minutes and 39 seconds? There’s green beer to drink!

green beer

Speaking of which, green beer is festive and all, but let’s not kid ourselves. Order a green beer in any pub on St. Patrick’s Day and it’s likely to be the most tasteless brew on tap. Why? The rich gold, amber and brown tones of the better beers turn an unappetizing hue of olive drab when mixed with green food coloring. It’s the watery, faintly yellow beers that make the prettiest kelly-green tones, but beware that the appetizing color is masking a gut-rot swill that will stain your tongue and leave your head throbbing in the morning.

To make matters worse, my Irish mother-in-law, Alice Murphy, bakes a loaf of Irish Soda Bread every year around this time, and the whole family raves. But the dry, bland loaf has always confused me. It’s not sweet enough to eat like coffee cake or dessert, but it’s too sweet to use as a pusher for the corned beef and cabbage.

Irish soda bread

“It’s good with butter,” my mother-in-law would say. But doesn’t everything taste good with a thick slab of butter?

There is one saving grace of St. Patrick’s Day cuisine. That sweet frozen delight with a creamy hint of something reminiscently herbal like mint (or is it parsley?) that tingles the senses and cools the cabbage-scalded tongue. Whether eaten at 2:00 am with a Supersize Fry and Filet-o-fish after guzzling green beer, or sipped solitarily from the Drive-thru window on the way home from work, The Shamrock Shake mercifully delivers us from culinary evil.

When it all boils down to it, eating lousy food on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t so bad, as long as you’re lucky enough to share it with friends and family.

shamrockshake

Best flicks found in basement boxes and bargain bins

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Somewhere in our basement, there is a box of VHS tapes. Relics from the days when our kids loved  “The Aristocats”, “Toy Story”, “Spot” and “Barney”. Their sticky little hands could pop those clunky tapes into the TV/VCR combo without needing Mom’s help.

Well, as long as there wasn’t a waffle or a Barbie shoe in the VCR already.

If we let them, they’d watch one after the other — “Pocahontas”, “The Great Mouse Detective”, “Sesame Street Sing-a-long”, and “Babe” — leaving the tapes lying about unwound and out of their crunched jackets. But we limited the kids’ TV time, only allowing movie marathons when they were sick.

Even so, it was alarming how much the kids memorized. Anna could perform a perfectly accurate but off-key version of  “A Whole New World,” and Lilly spoke flawless Swahili when belting out “Hakuna Matata.” And our oldest, Hayden, who was diagnosed with autism, could repeat entire 30 minute Arthur scripts even though he had a severe language delay.

These movies had even seeped into our adult psyches, at times rendering us babbling fools instead of responsible parents. We would catch ourselves singing “… Barney can be your friend too if you just make believe him!” in the shower, or mumbling “Dora, Dora, Dora the explorer …” while waiting in the car pool line.

By the time Hayden reached fifth grade, the VHS tapes had been watched dozens and dozens of times. The words and tunes were forever burned into our brains, and our VCR was nearly burned out.

It was time for us to move on.

We decided to introduce our kids to REAL movies. Movies with real people and real stories that would teach them real life lessons.

One rainy afternoon, we found all the 80s classics from our childhood in a discount DVD bin at the mall. “Karate Kid”, “Pretty in Pink”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Footloose”, “Sixteen Candles”, and “The Breakfast Club.”

At home, we lined the kids up on the couch: Hayden, 12, who was frankly still happy watching Jimmy Neutron; Anna, who was ten going on 25; and Lilly who at eight, was still too distracted by her Polly Pockets to care.

As if we were passing down the ancient wisdom of their elders, we explained why the 80s movies they were about to see weren’t just entertainment, they were a visual manifesto for teen angst and adolescent rebellion. Without computers and internet access, we were trapped in the bubble of our high schools and hometowns. Music, television and movies were our only escape. Seeing our frustrations and dreams played out by actors like Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald, and Ralph Macchio was liberating and connected us to teenagers across our nation, and the world …

“I’m hungry!” Hayden whined.

“I wanna watch the one with the cute boy on the front,” Anna demanded.

“‘Scuse me,” Lilly giggled, apparently having expelled some form of gas.

We were losing them, so we quickly loaded “The Breakfast Club” into the DVD player.

Having not seen the film in a while, we forgot some minor details. We certainly remembered the inspiring story of five stereotypical high school students who entered detention with nothing in common, and left eight hours later with a new understanding of themselves and each other.

But we completely forgot about those same kids smoking pot together, cussing, making out in the janitor’s closet, and admitting to drinking alcohol, compulsive lying, and nymphomania. Oh, and the “R” rating.

Whoopsie.

Thankfully, Hayden had fallen asleep and Lilly was on the floor with her dolls. Only Anna had watched the whole movie, and she had her head buried deep in the couch cushions.

After prying Anna from the couch and drying her tears, we learned that, despite her insistence that she was “not a little girl anymore,” her innocent brain was not ready for teenage reality.

We went back to our tattered VHS tapes for the next few years, repeating the same lines and humming the tunes we knew so well. Anna eventually gave “The Breakfast Club” another try. And now as a senior in high school, it is, ironically, her all-time favorite flick.

Whether a movie wins an Oscar or ends up in the bargain bin at the mall, it’s our life experiences that connect us to the characters and allow us to appreciate their stories. There’s no need to go to the box office, because the Best Picture may just be in a box in the basement.

The Fix Is In

"Seriously?"

“Seriously?”

I told the folks at the local dog park that they wouldn’t be seeing Moby, our one-year-old yellow Lab, for a couple of weeks. When I explained why, the men in the group collectively cringed and hitched their knees together.

The appointment was first thing Monday morning.

Moby loped out of our front door into the crisp morning air just like he always does, his stout wagging tail on one end and a big sloppy smile on the other. I opened the minivan’s rear door, and Moby jumped right in. He probably thought we were driving to the beach to chase balls and eat dead fish, or to the commissary so he could sneak into the front seat and stare at the entrance waiting for me to come back out so we could go chase balls again. 

But instead, we took a longer trip, 25 minutes northward. I pulled into the closest available parking space at the veterinary clinic, hopped out and opened the back door.

“Hey Lil’  Buddy! C’mon, this is going to be fun!”

Moby has never been the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, he’s a bit of a block head, but even he knew something was up. He was hesitant to jump out, wondering why I had left the balls in the car. When I tugged at his collar, he pulled back, causing all his neck flub to bunch up around his face.

Finally, Moby noticed that the air outside the minivan was a veritable a cornucopia of odors, so he jumped out to investigate. There were years worth of animal pheromones, territorial markings, and nervous involuntary spillage in that parking lot. On my way to the clinic door, the leash stopped with a jolt while Moby sniffed, then licked, then marked a tuft of dead grass peeking through a crack in the asphalt.

Let him have his fun, poor guy.

In the waiting room, Moby wasn’t sure if he should hide or jump for joy. On one hand, there were lots of fun-looking dogs and people in in there, and even one small hissy thing that made a peculiar yowling sound. (Moby had never seen a cat before.) But on the other hand, there were unfamiliar smells in that waiting room, like medicine … and disinfectant … and fear.

Before Moby’s block head could figure it all out, the veterinarian’s assistant was leading him away. I watched his tail wag as he looked up at her, and knew that he thought he was going somewhere to chase balls.

Oh, the irony.

Several hours later, Moby was back in the minivan, stunned at having been robbed of his virility, and wondering why there was a ridiculous cone around his head.

The physical pain in his nether regions was a mere annoyance compared to the humiliation of the cone. It soon became the bane of his existence. He knocked lamps over, he spilled his water, and the neighbors laughed at his pitiful state.

Worst of all, it got in the way of chasing balls.

At the end of the week, when Moby had accepted the fact that he would be wearing that blasted cone the rest of his life, it suddenly cracked and fell off while he was rolling in the snow. Moby stared at the cone a moment, not sure if he should be sad at losing another appendage, or happy to be rid of it. Instinct took over, and Moby pounced onto the cone, grabbing and shaking it with all his might.

Killing the cone restored Moby’s faith in his lingering masculinity, and as he trotted back to the house with his head held high, I could almost hear him say, “Nothing will ever get between me and my balls again.”

[Every year, millions of homeless dogs and cats are needlessly euthanized due to the overpopulation crisis in the US. Spaying and neutering is the best way to control overpopulation. Although Army Public Health Command suspended routine surgeries at all military base vet clinics in 2014, affordable spaying/neutering programs are available on the economy for anyone who needs them. At www.humanesociety.org, you can use a spay/neuter widget to find low cost services within 50 miles of your zip code. Furthermore, the site has a list of hundreds of organizations across the US that offer financial aid for pet care and surgeries. And if you need pet fostering while on deployment, reputable organizations such as dogsondeployment.org, guardianangelsforsoldierspet.org, and pactforanimals.org offer long-term fostering. Give your milpets the good care they deserve.]

Sound Off: Should military spouses speak out about politics?

We_Can_Do_It!On bases around the US, military officials have released guidance on what military folks can and cannot do during this primary election season, citing the laws restricting partisan activity and giving special instructions on social media.

Embarrassed at my ignorance after 22 years as a military spouse, I wondered, “What are the applicable laws anyway? Do any of them apply to me? Did I break any rules when I sheepishly placed that bumper sticker in my minivan window back in 2012?”

I knew some research was in order.

Thomas Jefferson led the first effort to prohibit federal employees from influencing the votes of others, but it wasn’t until The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 that such restrictions were made law. Although the act doesn’t specifically apply to military personnel, Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 governs “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces,” and states that active duty military members may not run for office, participate in partisan political campaigns or speeches, serve as officers in political groups or clubs, march in partisan parades, promote political fundraising events, attend partisan events as representatives of the Armed Forces, or post large political signs or banners in yards or on cars.

Although, small bumper stickers are permitted … whew!

Furthermore, the directive also prohibits posting, liking, or sharing of partisan information on social media without an appropriate disclaimer in the post stating that “the views expressed are not those of the DoD.” And no matter the venue, if commissioned officers use “contemptuous words” against the President, Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of State or other political leaders, they are subject to court martial under 10 USC Section 888.

While none of these legal restrictions apply to military spouses, I still wondered, “Do military spouses have an unwritten moral or ethical duty to limit political expression?”

I posted the question on social media and got mixed responses. Several military spouses stated that they chose to keep their political opinions to themselves, but attributed their privacy to good taste rather than any obligation to their active duty spouse.

“We are each entitled to our opinions,” one spouse commented, “but, we are not entitled to act like jerks.”

“Decorum and free thought are not mutually exclusive,” another spouse responded.

While another commented that “rarely does respectful dialogue marry with social media,” she also acknowledged that military spouses are impacted by legislation regarding pay, benefits, and troop movements; and “… having the spouse stand up to speak in their husband’s or wife’s stead is only a natural inclination.”

One military spouse thickened the plot by asking whether ethics gets “a little tricky” when a military spouse publicly opposes an operation his or her spouse is currently engaged in such as the US missions in Vietnam and Iraq.

Jeremy Hilton, a military spouse, veteran, and military families advocate added his two cents, referring us to a 2013 piece he wrote for Spousebuzz.com titled “How to be a Great Military Spouse Advocate”: “While it’s always important to pick your battles, I for one have no intention of taking a bite out of a crap sandwich just because DoD tells me it tastes good.”

With the discussion’s ante upped, Navy spouse Lori Volkman blew us away with an inspiring story.

Practicing attorney, founder of Military Spouse JD Network, and co-organizer of the military spouse political advocacy training group Homefront Rising, Volkman told us of 12 military spouses (including Hilton, above) who took action in December 2013 against deep military benefits cuts in the Bipartisan Budget Act. The grass-roots movement known as #KeepYourPromise, went viral, garnering 16 million Twitter views, 100,000 Facebook fans, main stream media coverage, and celebrity support.

As a result of those 12 military spouses speaking up when their service members couldn’t, legislators repealed the military pension cuts in the Bipartisan Budget Act and #KeepYourPromise has become a legislative watchdog for military families.

“The moral of the story is this: If we had not spoken, who would have?” Volkman commented, and, ironically, we all took a collective moment of social media silence.

But don’t expect military spouses to be quiet for long. 

Whether written in polite letters to congressional leaders, blasted in all caps over social media, or communicated in the powerful silence of the voting booths, the voices of military spouses will ring through, loud and clear.

Snow Plows and Wedding Vows

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After 23 years of marriage, I know relationships are tested.

Power struggles surface during unexpected moments, when complex facets of our subconscious bait us into subtle conflicts with our mates. Every couple has their triggers, and ours include discussions over which way the toilet paper roll should hang, who touched the thermostat last, and what constitutes junk mail.

For my husband and I, there is one seemingly harmless event that launches us into a passive aggressive battle of wills like no other. It happens only once or twice a year, but when it does, it causes palpable tension that leaves us both leafing through the yellow pages for a good attorney, just in case.

That event is skiing.

A wonderful recreational sport intended to provide overworked human beings with a break from the daily grind, unforgettable memories, and adrenaline-fueled euphoria; skiing actually sends us to the brink of divorce.

Our perceptions of skiing started in our respective childhoods. Francis will never forget being forced to take ski lessons with his brothers, after having been bribed with hot cocoa. Whereas, my high school best friend and I loved going to local Pennsylvania ski resorts, lying to boys we met on the lifts, telling them we went to exclusive private schools and our names were “Claire Taylor” and “Brooke Townsend.”

With our particular histories, Francis and I see family ski trips through different lenses – mine rose colored, and his sharply focused in harsh lighting.

Last weekend, some friends invited us to their ski place up in New Hampshire. As soon as we accepted the invitation, the power struggle ensued.

Subconsciously, Francis was prepared to hate every minute of it – the cold, the inconvenience, the expense – and to hold me personally responsible for his annoyance. And without realizing it, I launched my own propaganda campaign to convince him that skiing is fun.

While Francis remained stubbornly skeptical, I ran around like the proverbial headless chicken to shield him from the inconvenient truth. I needed a PhD in economics to get the best deal on lift tickets. I needed eight arms at the base recreation center to rent two snowboard sets, two alpine ski sets, and four cross country ski sets. I needed the patience of Job packing enough gloves and hats and snacks and drinks to keep everyone happy. I needed a second mortgage on our house to pay for it. And acting lessons in how to grin and bear it.

It all came to a head our first day on the slopes. After huffing and puffing our way into long underwear, ski pants, sweaters, and coats, we still had to pack our equipment into the car, find a parking spot at the resort, and awkwardly lug our clacking skis, poles, helmets and boots to the ticket area.

The tension emanating from Francis was palpable. With clenched teeth, he silently screamed, “This is all your fault!” And the worst was yet to come.

Sweaty and winded, we went to the locker room for the most notorious of ski-related tasks. You’d think that by now, someone would have invented an easier way to put on ski boots, or at the very least, a boot that doesn’t make you walk like you are doing a bad version of The Hustle.

Francis grunted audibly from his side of the bench. It took two of us bracing against the lockers to snap his buckles shut, then we had to do it all over again when he announced that a wrinkle in his sock was causing excruciating pain.

Cussing under his breath, Francis did the awkward-rocking-boot-walk outside to find his skis, and by some miracle of God, we made it onto the chair lift.

In that rare moment of calm silence, I realized that Francis had been right all along – skiing really is the most inconvenient sport. I decided to concede defeat and leave him alone, fully expecting him to give up after a run or two and head for the lodge.

Hours later, I ran into Francis on the slopes. Not only had he not given up, he’d been skiing all day long, without hot cocoa. “You up for another run?” he asked from behind his balaclava.

“Heck yeah,” I smiled, slotting into the lift line with him.

On the chairlift, I asked, “Isn’t this fun?”

“It’s okay, I guess,” he responded, noncommittally.

I leaned in for a frosty kiss, realizing that our power struggle had peaked, and it was all downhill from there.

Chills, Thrills and Spills

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

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

I had no business getting on that sled.

A middle-aged Navy wife and mother of three, I should’ve been at the bottom of the hill taking pictures. But when my base neighbor handed me a red saucer after I’d been cooped up watching Jonas drop a foot and a half of snow on the hill behind our house, I really had no choice in the matter.

I’d come outside to let our yellow Lab, Moby, out for a romp with all the sledders, and that’s when another military spouse approached me holding two plastic saucers.

I probably should have politely declined the invitation to sled with her, but Navy wives are known for their camaraderie, and I wasn’t about to let her down. Placing the sled under my backside, I plopped down and lifted my boots in the air.

The rest is a bit of a blur.

Halfway down the steep embankment, Moby and his head – which is kind of like a cinder block covered with fur – came from out of nowhere. BAM! After the big cartoon star in my head disappeared, I realized, he was trying to pull me off the sled by my chin-strapped hat.

At the bottom of the hill, Moby finally pulled me free of the saucer, ripping a hole in my new coat and nearly strangling me in the process. But in his well-intentioned pea-brain, he had saved my life, and treats were in order.

Before I had a chance to realize what had happened, I heard the crowd of sledders laughing hysterically. I laughed too, until an hour later, when I saw the bright purple shiner over my right eye.

And you know the strangest part? I’d probably do it again. In a heartbeat. What kind of idiot am I that, at 49 years of age, I think the ten-second saucer ride that produced a black eye was a good choice?

There must be something deep in our human psyche that compels us to thrill-seek in the face of obvious risks of great bodily harm. Every winter freeze, we strap on skis, skates, and sleds, and willingly place our fragile flesh and bones at the mercy of gravity and frozen water, knowing full well what might happen.

We could blame El Niño for our idiocy. After all, this mysterious warming of equatorial Pacific ocean water that affects trade winds, jet streams and weather systems has arguably caused blizzards, hurricanes, tropical cyclones, drought, mudslides, poor crop yield, floods, famine, and dying coral reefs. Why not blame him for our stupidity too?

Those of you stationed in warmer parts of the world like California, Florida and Hawaii shouldn’t be so quick to pass judgment. Even though the only snow you see is in a cone and has blue raspberry syrup on it, you are not immune to weather-related thrill-seeking mishaps.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago in sunny California, 48-year-old surfing legend Garrett McNamara broke his arm and dislocated his shoulder falling off the face of a record breaking 50-foot wave that was brought on by El Niño-related storms.

So there.

Unfortunately, El Niño can’t take all the heat (see what I did there?) for our poor choices. Apparently, the human drive to danger is not related to extreme weather events, but rather, to our brain function. In a psychologytoday.com article entitled “Thrill-Seeking: What Parts of Your Brain Are Involved?” Susan Heitler, PhD states that highly addictive “happy chemicals” such as adrenaline and dopamine are triggered when we sense danger or a thrilling challenge.

I’m not so sure chemicals or El Niño had anything to do with my decision to get on that red saucer. It could’ve been a pathetic cry for attention, a life-long need to fit in, lingering childhood insecurities, or maybe deep-seeded fears of the inevitability of death.

Or maybe, I was just being an idiot.

Regardless, tomorrow, black eye and all, I’m going on a ski trip with my family, even though none of us is coordinated enough to avoid falling repeatedly. But we are smart enough to know one thing at least: We’ll never let all that tedious science get in the way of our wintertime fun.

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 The plum hue of my shiner actually compliments my skin tone, don’t you think?

The Unknown: A military spouse’s greatest worry

box home

Photo credit: appraisersforum.com.

“What’s next? When will we move? Where will we go?”

Like any military spouse, these are the questions that swirl in my mind now that my Navy husband, Francis, is in the last year of his current tour of duty.

But unlike most level-headed military spouses, I’m one of those people who doesn’t deal well with unknowns.

You know the type. The ones who incessantly scribble lists entitled “Stuff I Gotta Do,” “Movies I Wanna Watch on Netflix,” “Household Projects I Never Quite Finished,” “Weight Loss Goals I’ve Been Working on Since 9th Grade,” “Meals That the Kids Won’t Hate,” and “Embarrassing Questions to Ask the Doctor.”

Yep, that’s me.

Needless to say, military moves really stress me out. In our 22 years of military marriage, I’ve often told my husband, “I don’t care if we live in a cardboard box under an overpass, just tell me where we’re going, and I’ll plan where to hang the pictures.”

All joking aside, there are legitimate worries that military families face every time they move, such as: Will my spouse have to move without us so the kids can stay in school? And if we decide to “geobach”, how will that affect our marriage? Will I be able to find work in my field? If the kids change schools, will they struggle with a new curriculum, or will they have to sit through material they’ve already learned? Will they fit in? Will we be happy?

We have several more months to go before our rotation date, but guaranteed, I’ll work myself into a tizzy over all the unknowns about Francis’ next job and our next home.

To make matters worse, we’re waiting for decisions on our daughter Anna’s college applications. At 17, she’s taking it all in stride, while I’m a veritable basket case. Where will she go? Can we afford it? Will she need a shower caddy? What if she gets a roommate with green hair and bolts in her face who boils ramen in her hot pot and sets the dorm on fire, ruining Anna’s entire freshman experience?

Our oldest, Hayden, has only two and a half years of college left. If we don’t go bankrupt first, he’ll graduate with a degree in Computer Science and get snapped up by some tech firm, and then where will he be? Halfway around the world in California? Will he learn how to iron shirts all by himself? Who is going to pair up all his mismatched socks? Will I have to fly all the way out there to disinfect his bathroom and make sure he’s eating enough fruit?

And what about our youngest Lilly? Will she even be able to get into college with that Chemistry grade? Should she forgo college altogether, considering that we’ll be flat broke by the time we pay tuition for Hayden and Anna? Could we all fit in a cardboard box under an overpass if we had to?

It’s not easy being a nut job.

I’d much rather be the type of person who drifts contentedly through life like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream, embracing spontaneity while belting out Doris Day’s best “Que, Sera Sera!” 

I’ve often wondered if, at the heart of all my obsessive planning, are deep seeded “control issues” that if left unchecked, could spiral into a psychotic episode that would leave me wandering in front of the courthouse in a dusty wool coat and a tin foil turban, muttering something about campaign finance reform, and pushing a shopping cart full of empty tuna cans.

There I go again.

My rational side knows that all the worries in the world won’t change two simple truths of military life: We’ll never know what will happen until it happens. And, just like Doris said, whatever will be will be.

Breaking a Sweat: Zumba with a side of Kung Pao

Kung Pao

I actually went to the base gym last week … twice.

Now, that may not seem like much to you Spandex-ensconsed gym rats with your fancy headphones, overpriced shoes, BPA-free coconut-water bottles, and your level ten treadmill settings. But to me, someone who used mild knee pain as an excuse to take a year-long break from all forms of exercise, this accomplishment is nothing short of a miracle.

Les Mills, eat your heart out.

It hasn’t easy been showing up at the gym after such a long and unexplained hiatus. I knew my presence would be perceived as a half-hearted attempt at a New Year’s resolution, most likely to fizzle before the first week of February. I gave myself a little pep talk in the parking lot. “Just parade in there like you own the place. For all they know, you’ve been running marathons and playing rugby for the past year.”

“Yeah, what do THEY know, “ I assured myself.

Approaching the front desk, I swiftly flashed my military ID hoping no one would see me before I darted off to Zumba class.

“Is that you, Mrs. Molinari?!” Nick, one of the gym staff called from behind the desk. His intonation and use of “Mrs.” notified everyone within earshot that some old lady who hasn’t been to the gym in a long time finally showed up. After chatting with Nick, I slinked off to class.

Zumba is truly inspirational.

So inspirational in fact, that I’ve written about both Zumba classes I’ve shown up to — one column I wrote back in 2012 while stationed in Florida was entitled “My hips don’t swing that way, but my stomach does,” and presented the scientific hypothesis that humans, like toilet bowl water, can only swirl in one direction, depending on their location on Earth’s hemispheres. The second column you’re reading today.

Expecting to see the room packed with 20-something hard-bodies that would send me into a tailspin of insecurity, I was relieved to find a comforting mix of people, all with their share of bodily imperfections and jiggly bits. After a short introduction that I forgot to listen to, the instructor hit a button on the sound system and began gyrating to Latin and African beats.

Much like the last time I tried Zumba, I thought it looked easy. “It’s just dancing … how hard could it be?”

But then, I always seem to forget that my husband and I have botched the Electric Slide at every military ball, holiday party, and wedding since our own reception in 1993. Same goes for the Cha Cha Slide, the Macarena, and the Cupid Shuffle. Call us choreographically challenged, we couldn’t Whip, Nae Nae or Stanky Leg if our lives depended on it.

I tried to mimic our limber instructor as she swiveled back and forth across the room, but all I could muster were a few awkward hops, several misplaced kick-ball-changes, a couple of inappropriate pelvic thrusts, and my own freestyle version of the pony.

I was pretty hopeless.

Despite my alarming heart rate, I only sported a small sweat mustache when the 45 minute class was over. Rather than exercise more, I thought a hop in the sauna would wake my hibernating glands. But then, I made the fatal mistake of following up the sauna with a scalding hot shower, opening veritable flood gates of profuse sweat that didn’t ease up until mid-afternoon.

Next week, I’m going to try Spinning, and maybe Yoga the week after that. I might bounce off the bike like a fool or splat on the mat like an idiot, but what’s important is that I keep showing up at the gym.

However, the next time I want to break a heavier sweat, I’ll just stick with Kung Pao Chicken.

The Boy is Back in Town

20160108_094104There is a room in our creaky old base house that we try to avoid. It’s a dangerous hazard, a treacherous obstacle, a toxic wasteland. Those who enter are well-advised to wear eye protection, use a gas mask, and wield a knife, just in case.

You see, buried deep in debris and dirty gym socks lies the creature who is responsible for turning that room into a veritable landfill: our 20-year-old son, Hayden, who has been home from college for three weeks.

Every time Hayden goes back to college, it takes a month to turn his bedroom into an acceptable guest room. It’s not just a matter of cleaning – more like the disaster restoration services that are performed after fires, floods, or lethal mold infestations.

The room stays clean until Hayden comes home from college on break, and the cycle repeats itself all over again.

Now, although I provided my son with clean sheets, the mattress is, once again, bare of linens, which were presumably thrown off in the middle of the night and lay crumpled in a dusty corner. The bed is instead strewn with gum wrappers, cords, empty soda cans, and wrinkled clothing. The floor is covered with piles of neglected books, empty boxes, tangled electronics, crusty dishes, and stiffened gym clothes. Every flat surface holds teetering stacks of college boy cast-offs, all coated in an unhealthy sprinkling of dust and toenail clippings.

Interestingly, none of this seems to interfere with our son’s daily routine while home on break. He is perfectly happy to wake up at noon on his litter-strewn mattress, wearing the same pizza sauce stained t-shirt he had on yesterday, and stumble like a zombie with crazed hair down to the kitchen for his daily roast beef sandwich, which he likes to consume on the couch while watching old episodes of  “Judge Judy” and wiping his hands on the upholstery.

After a sufficient number of crumbs have been deposited on the carpet, Hayden finds his way back to his bedroom, somehow negotiating the familiar piles of debris without so much as a scratch, to spend a few hours on one of several electronic devices before getting serious about his day.

Sometime in the mid afternoon, he emerges once again from his personal cess pool, ready to face the day, or what’s left of it, with vim and vigor. He has not shaved, combed his hair, or changed his clothes, but he does manage to grab his coat (which doubles as a blanket while his bedding is in that forgotten corner) and his shoes (both of which remain untied.)

He spends the rest of his day walking the dog, going to the gym, and visiting friends. I wonder if Hayden’s buddies are alarmed by his disheveled state, but I realize that young men his age are too caught up in youthful exuberance to care.

He returns home in time for dinner, during which he consumes his meal in a manner normally associated with rabid wolverines. To his credit, Hayden courteously drops his fork and plate into the dishwasher before retiring to his putrid quarters for the night. We remind him to take a shower, which he always does, even if that occurs at 1:00 am, after various phone calls to friends, old movies, and rounds of Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon.

We’ll take him back to college next week, after which I will excavate, fumigate and disinfect his room so guests can sleep there without breaking an ankle, contracting a fungal infection, being strangled by electrical cords, or catching Legionnaire’s Disease.

Why do we enable our son to live in such a primitive and unsanitary way when he’s home from college? Shouldn’t we, a military family, require him to wake with morning revelry, and spend his day with productive, ship-shape pursuits?

Perhaps. But seeing as Hayden tackles Differential Equations, Algorithms, and Software Design while at school; we figure he deserves a break. Besides, someday when our kids are through with college and on their own, our house will be perpetually clean and ready for guests – with hospital corners, gleaming surfaces, and Febreezed freshness.

And then, we’ll long for the days when our home was dirtier, because that was when it was when it was their home too.

From the Archives: The Time Has Come

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“Is it time?” I thought to myself as I sipped my coffee and stared at our lifeless Christmas tree. I could flip the switch to electrify the tiny lights, top off the stagnant water, and blur my eyes to the curling branches for one more week.

Or, I could take the whole damned thing down.

Positioning myself closer to the tree, I considered my options. I cocked my head sideways and sighed, remembering her lovely pine smell on that first night not long after Thanksgiving break. This tree had been with us for month of celebrating, shopping, eating, baking, and gift giving. Shouldn’t I keep her for one more week?

In my sentimental haze, I reached out to touch the lovely blown glass ornament my husband had given me years ago, and as my hand brushed against the branch, I set off a veritable avalanche of dead pine needles.

“That’s it,” I thought, “she’s gotta go.”

One by one, I removed and wrapped our tree decorations, packing them away in the storage closet under the stairs. Using a turkey baster, I sucked the scummy water out of the tree stand, and detached the naked tree, lugging her dead carcass across our family room, out the back door, and across the yard, finally heaving her into the gutter in front of our mailbox.

Fueled by a colossal sense of relief, I marched back into the house, going room by room to purge all evidence of Christmas. I shook the candy wrappers out of the stockings, packed away the Nativity, derailed the train, bubble-wrapped the ceramic Christmas trees, stored the Santa mugs, and silenced the jingle bells.

I filled garbage bags with dying poinsettias, stale cookies, burnt candles, wrinkled wrapping paper, used doilies, broken candy canes, half a cheese ball, a whole fruitcake, a carton of egg nog and a stripped turkey carcass.

Invigorated, I stormed out onto the porch and unwound the garland from the columns, plucked the light-up candy canes from the walkway, tugged until the twinkle lights gave way from the railings, and tore the wreath from the door, hurling it like a Frisbee into the gutter with the discarded tree.

Then, I set my eyes on the enormous blow-up snow globe, faithfully regurgitating the tiny Styrofoam balls in a continuous flurry over the inflatable snowman and his penguin sidekick.

Yanking the outdoor extension cord from the outlet, I heard an electronic sizzle, then turned with sadistic satisfaction to watch the orb slowly suffocate and die on my lawn.

I was infuriated to see that the blow up monstrosity failed to give up its last puff of breath, leaving one stubborn bubble trapped in its folds of Visqueen. With vengeance, I bounded across the yard and onto the bubble, stomping its last sign of verve.

I exhausted the remainder of my cathartic frenzy by firing up the Shop Vac. With crazed eyes, I sucked up thousands of pine needles, glitter, crumbs, cookie sprinkles, red and green M&Ms, snips of ribbon, scraps of tissue paper, and one or two gumdrops fringed with dog hair.

I dumped the canister in the trash, and along with several boxes and bags, wheeled the whole shebang out to the curb next to the tree cadaver. Grabbing the mail from the mailbox, I headed back inside.

I sat at the kitchen table in my freshly expunged house, pleased to have wiped my slate clean and ready for a fresh start to the New Year.

But then, I opened the credit card bill. As I leafed through a month of reckless spending memorialized on paper, I took a slurp from my coffee cup and a drop dribbled from the rim, plopping onto my protruding stomach.

Moving the bill to one side, I stared down at my surprisingly large gut, dented in the middle where my belly button lay just under my shirt. A month of overeating had turned my middle-aged mom tummy into an embarrassing mound of flesh.

I realized, the real battle to purge myself of the excesses of the holiday had only just begun.

 

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