Pomp and Unusual Circumstances

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By the time the Abbey’s headmaster got to the graduates whose names started with an “M,” my feet were bloody stumps. I thought I’d be fine in two-inch sling backs, but an hour into the ceremony, my toe knuckles stung rawly and the pointed heels sunk into the grass under the enormous tent.

I got up from our reserved row of seats to get a better vantage point to take photographs. Our motley crew of relatives — sisters, aunts, grandmothers, an uncle, a cousin, and my husband who had already spilled coffee on his tie — had all come to see our son receive his high school diploma. We were essentially the same as the other families seated around us, but somehow, I felt like our family was different.

The Abbey was our son’s third high school in four years. Our Navy family was required to move after his 9th grade year at an army barracks high school in Germany, to an inner-city public school in Florida, and finally to Rhode Island where our son finished his senior year at the Abbey, a local boarding school. We were surprised when our son was accepted to the school as a day student, and we were elated when the school offered us enough financial aid to make it affordable on our tight military budget.

At the Abbey’s pre-season football camp, our son made his debut as the new senior. He was quirky, husky, and lacked the personal hygiene skills necessary to keep up with the school’s strict dress code. A sort of “nutty professor” type.

In past schools, our unusual son was received with mixed reviews. In Germany, the students saw him as smart and uniquely funny — someone everyone wanted to know. In Florida, he was perceived as odd, and after two years, he did not manage to make any real friends. Would the Abbey’s wealthy, preppy boarding school students be able to look beyond our son’s sloppy appearance and odd demeanor to appreciate his distinctive sense of humor and extraordinary intellect? Only time would tell.

Throughout the year, we had mixed clues to our son’s reputation at the Abbey. The football coach smiled widely when speaking about our son; however, the English teacher grimaced when describing the “odd British accent of questionable origin” our son employed when reciting poetry. The students and faculty reported that he “stole the show” in the winter musical; however, of the four boys our son invited to our house for his April birthday party, only one showed up.

“Emily Magnifico,” the headmaster called and several students stood to cheer on their graduating friend. As I wobbled on painful shoes up the rows with my camera, my mind raced with random thoughts. These students have had four years to bond. Our son wasn’t here long enough to be understood.

“Sean McDonough,” I heard with more applause as I inched closer to the stage.

Has our military lifestyle robbed our son of the opportunity to form close relationships with his peers? Does he think that it’s his fault?

“Julian Minondo,” emanated from the loud speakers as I raised the camera to my eyes with shaking hands and waited for my son’s name to be called.

“Hayden Clark Molinari,” I snapped the shutter, frantically catching glimpses through the viewfinder of my son making his way through the crowd of navy jacketed students to the smiling headmaster. In a fog of emotion, I could not coordinate the still images I saw with my eyes with what I distinctly heard with my ears.

I took the camera away for a moment and realized, they are giving him a standing ovation.

Students and teachers leapt to their feet to cheer for an unusual boy who had been with them for nine short months. Through the din of applause and shouts, I managed to take a dozen more photographs before bursting into tears.

Minutes later, the students spilled out of the tent, milling around in a sort of preppy mosh pit in the bright sunlight. Fighting the celebratory crowd, we found our son amongst the jovial graduates, slapping each other’s backs. He smiled broadly as I kissed his prickly cheek and thought, stay true to yourself and you will always be loved.

My Annual Dose of Dirt

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I’ve got dirt under my fingernails. There’s a blister the size of Delaware on my thumb. My face is sunburned in a distinctive raccoon pattern around my sunglasses. I’m walking with slight limp, thanks to the pain in my knee from too much squatting.

This happens to me every spring. As the bees begin to buzz, I get the bug to plant things in my garden. The grocery stores display flats of pansies outside the entrances and the hardware stores offer specials on grass seed, and I find myself heaping my cart with annuals, perennials, shrubs, vegetables and herbs.

We moved into base housing at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island last July, too late to plant. So this spring, as soon as winter gave up its death grip on the soil, I was ready. I dropped a pretty penny at the local Garden Center, and informed my husband that we had to dig out the overgrown shrubs running along the driveway of our base house.

We found our shovels that hadn’t been unpacked since our last move, and went to work. We thought we’d leaver the root ball of each shrub out with a few scoops of the shovel, but of course, the overgrown plants wouldn’t budge. One inch under the topsoil was a complex tangle of woody roots and random rocky deposits, the removal of which could have warranted the use of combat grade explosives.

For an hour, we chopped, hacked, tugged, and pulled, but still hadn’t uprooted the first shrub, despite spewing every expletive in the book. We guzzled water between breathless attempts, as sweat soaked through our shirts. My husband began grunting and groaning with every heave of the shovel, like a middle-aged male version of Monica Seles. Finally, the last stubborn root broke free, and we triumphantly hurled the severed bush away.

One down, only five more to go.

Needless to day, the next day after we removed all six shrubs and two diseased rhododendrons, my husband and I could barely walk. It took me a week to recover enough energy to plant the new perennials I’d purchased at the Garden Center, and my knee still feels like it’s going to buckle like some kind of hyperextended Barbie Doll leg.

This week, I finally managed to get everything in the ground, the pots, and the window boxes, and although it doesn’t exactly look like the recreation of Epcot that I’d imagined, I’ve satisfied my annual spring gardening fix.

Thankfully, my horticultural urgings are more about the process than the end result.

Every spring, I crave the catharsis of digging in the dirt, and long to revive my hibernating muscles with the rigors of yard work. I can smell the aroma of freshly mulched borders, see the hues of artistically arranged beds, and taste the refreshment of a cold beer after a long day outdoors. I envision myself, in a flowered sundress and straw hat, walking through my abundant garden barefoot on a hot midsummer day, placing my own freshly cut flowers, aromatic herbs, and plump vegetables into a basket.

Come summer, it never quite turns out the way I’d hoped, and I usually find myself totally dumbfounded when my tomatoes suffer from bottom rot and my azaleas have blight. My thumb might be blistered, but unfortunately, it isn’t green. But let’s face it, I can buy whatever I want at a grocery store. And besides, when it comes to the fulfillment of gardening, I’ve been paid back in spades.

Breaking up is hard to do

 

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We used to be so good together. You comforted me. You made me happy. I loved you

But after all these years, I’ve become too dependent. I want you too much, and I now realize, it’s just not healthy. I need to strike out on my own and try new things.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Carbohydrates, I’m breaking up with you.

In the early days, I couldn’t foresee how addicting our relationship would become. I didn’t fear our love affair, because I believed the science of the 1990′s, which decreed that low fat carbs were healthy fuel for my body. I was so naive, ignorantly indulging in second helpings of sticky rice, snacking on crackers, and adding a hunk of ciabatta bread alongside my pasta. Oh, the ciabatta bread!

When I gained weight, I never blamed you. I thought cheese, meat, butter, cream and nuts were my enemies. As long as I didn’t put mayo or cheese on my sandwich, it was health food. As long as I ladled red sauce on my spaghetti, it was good for me. As long as I used skim milk — a bowl of cereal, a glass of juice and a butterless slice of toast was the perfect breakfast. What a fool I was!

When I married a Navy man, you didn’t leave me. In fact, our threesome was quite happy in an open relationship. Together, you and I won my new husband’s heart, and his stomach, too.

While stationed in Monterey, California, you introduced us to the wiles of sourdough — we felt so naughty as we loaded chowder into your bread bowls. While stationed in England, you never told us that the baked beans the English dollop on their breakfast plates, pour over their toast, and glob on their baked potatoes were as bad as the scones, biscuits and puddings. Excess glucose surged through our blood while we were stationed in Germany, as we washed pretzels, noodles and potatoes down with wheaty beers and sweet wines. In the South, we were so busy avoiding fried chicken, sausage gravy and bacon fat, we didn’t notice that you were secretly feeding our addiction with sweet tea, sticky barbecue sauce, and starchy corn bread.

Worst of all, I could never seem to resist the chocolate with which you regularly seduced me. How could you smugly stand by while I wallowed in guilt over the fat content? Little did I know, your sugar was the culprit all along!

You betrayed me, and as hard as it is for me to say this, it’s over.

Sure, you will always be a part of my life, but I’m ready to explore the rest of the food pyramid. The rotisserie chickens with their crisp skins, the creamy camemberts, the olive oils, the avocados, and the bacon … the glorious bacon! I don’t mean to hurt you, but there are a lot more fish (like salmon with a generous slathering of creamy dill sauce) in the sea.

When we do run into each other, I hope we can be civil. I won’t rudely turn away from you on special occasions (especially if you come in the form of homemade macaroni and cheese with buttered breadcrumbs on top), but let’s keep our contact to a minimum. Of course, the kids will still want to have you around, but during scheduled visitations, please keep your high fructose corn syrup to yourself.

One last thing before you go. If, by chance, I should have a moment of weakness over, let’s say, a bag of Hershey Kisses with Almonds during a hormone spike, I can tell you right now that it will be a nothing more than a meaningless fling.

So long, Carbohydrates. It’s been nice knowing you.

Understanding Mom

The popsicle stick rendering of Mom, made by my youngest, Lilly

The popsicle stick rendering of Mom, made by my youngest, Lilly

I used to have a little book of quotes about motherhood that, along with Life’s Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown Jr., I kept on a tiny three-legged table in the powder room, stacked neatly on top of a few National Geographic Magazines. The pair of books paid equal homage to the males and females using our facilities, and besides, I figured that anyone staying in our bathroom long enough to read should at least try to enrich themselves while they’re at it.

I got the book years ago as a baby shower gift from someone I can’t really remember. Perhaps I was feeling a pre-natal hormone surge, but I do recall being touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift, and envisioned my family pondering its inspirational quotes and finding newfound appreciation for their loving matriarch for years to come.

When our military family moved from place to place, I had the movers pack up the books along with other bathroom accessories — a wicker tissue box cover, a decorative soap dispenser, fingertip towels, a little dish for matches, and the three-legged table — and in every new location, I faithfully placed the little motherhood book back in its traditional spot.

Despite the fact that this routine went on for about 15 years, reality is, the book’s binding remained crisp because no one in my family was interested. Admittedly, the few times I tried to read the book, it bored me to tears.

Page after page of heartfelt reflections on the nurturing bond between mother and child. A couple pages into it, reading the back of the antibacterial soap bottle seemed far more entertaining than suffering through such corny drivel.

Believe me, I have experienced the indescribable joys and deep-rooted connections unique to motherhood. I have felt every saccharinely trite, mawkishly sentimental, cloyingly schmaltzy emotion when mothering my own children.

However, as the mother of three teenagers [pray for me] outward displays of such corny sentimentality are not well received, unless that is, I want to see my kids’ eyes rolling, which I most certainly do not. My teenage son doesn’t understand why I like to smooch his prickly cheeks. My middle child thinks it’s weird that I breathe in her hair with my eyes closed. My youngest doesn’t get why I regularly stop in the hallway to sigh at the baby photo of her sitting in the kitchen sink.

No little book of mush will make them understand what I know. I have learned over the years that appreciation for motherhood is best felt, not described in words on a Mother’s Day card or in a book on a three-legged table in the bathroom.

The only way to fully comprehend the instinctual and emotional feelings of motherhood is to experience parenthood for oneself. Thankfully, my three teenagers are too wrapped up in their headphones and toenail color to consider procreation anytime in the next decade.

So I will have to wait for true appreciation.

For the time being, I will be patient. I will try to let it go when they act like Mother’s Day is a hassle. I will pretend I didn’t hear them say, incredulously, “What do you mean we’re going to early church because we have to take Mom to brunch?!” I will smile and thank them when they give me a card they hastily picked up from 7-11, and grocery store cut flowers even though it is common knowledge that I prefer potted plants. And I will bite my lip when my teenage son blurts out his brunch order before mine.

We mothers must wait for the day when our children experience parenthood for themselves, and continue to hope that they’ll finally get it. No, they probably won’t come running back to us to show their undying love and appreciation, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll stop being the first ones to let go when we hug them.

The Avocado and Golden Rule

Indiana Junior High School, Circa 1979

Indiana Junior High School, Circa 1979

With my 8th grade daughter’s mid-term Parent Teacher Conference scheduled for this week, I find myself feeling guilty. Again.

“Hello Mrs. Molinari,” the teachers always start out, shuffling through files to find records pertaining to my child. “I’m sure you’ve been keeping up with your daughter’s grades on the online Parent Portal, and know that she turned several assignments in late this term.”

Every time, I stare, like a deer in the headlights, thinking, “Oh shoot! I forgot to check that Portal thingy again … where did I write the username and password down anyway?” But instead, I respond, “Yes of course, I check the Parent Portal frequently, and I am very concerned. Obviously, if I had been informed of these assignments, I would have certainly made sure that our daughter turned them in on time.”

“But Mrs. Molinari,” the teachers inevitably retort while I brace myself to be exposed as a fraud, “all the assignments are listed in advance on our class website and teacher’s blogs … you know that, right?”

“Well, certainly!” I lie, scanning my brain for some kind of excuse for my parental neglect. But inevitably, like some kind of overage juvenile delinquent who’s been cornered, I cower to the teacher’s authority, and take the blame.

I admit that I don’t check the Parent Portal as often as I should. I concede that I’ve never read the teacher’s blogs. I divulge that I don’t know the class website address. I confess to never joining the parents’ Facebook group, using the class hashtag, or following the school updates on Instagram.

I acknowledge that I haven’t figured out how to open the progress reports on Google Drive, and I reveal that I am totally clueless about this “Cloud” thingumabob that everyone keeps talking about.

I plead for forgiveness, and promise that from here on out, I’ll be good.

I sulk out of Parent-Teacher Conferences and combat my shame with self-pity, pointing out that our parents never had to worry about checking online grade portals and teacher blogs.

Parents in the 1970s came home from an honest day’s work in their gabardine slacks, and after a satisfying dinner of Swiss Steak and canned peas, retired to the den to relax with a Vodka Gimlet and a riveting episode of “Gunsmoke.”

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After cleaning tables and washing dishes, the children of the 70s were expected to finish our homework with minimal parental supervision. If our book bags contained graded papers or report cards, we were expected to hand-deliver these items to our parents. There was no need for them to snuff out their Tareyton 100s or get up from their avocado and gold lounge furniture, much less remember complicated website addresses and passwords. All they had to do was glance down at the papers in their polyester-ensconced laps during the Chiffon Margarine commercials.

If the grades were bad, we got a lecture and were not allowed to go out and play. If the grades were good, our parents put the papers on our refrigerators with magnets.

Back in those days, parenting seemed straightforward — set clear expectations for kids, praise their accomplishments, and let the school do its job. Today, parental roles have changed, whereby teachers create and assign work, and parents are expected to research, monitor and enforce the details of assignments and grade progress.

I’m not sure which parental role is better for our kids, but I can’t help but think that I should have been born a generation ago.

I’d be quite comfortable in a Dacron sweater vest and gauchos. I’d have no problem whipping up a casserole using Spanish olives, cottage cheese or frankfurters. I’ve been known to put my children’s schoolwork on the refrigerator with magnets. And I’d sincerely enjoy an evening watching “BJ and the Bear” on a console television, minus the cigarettes, that is.

But I have to confess, I’m just not good at micromanaging my kids’ education.

Guilty, as charged.

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Refrigerator Repo

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Despite the fact that Old Man Winter has been stalking some areas of our country, freezing the poor pansies and keeping northerners ensconced in wool, spring really has sprung.

In keeping with the season’s theme of rebirth, this is the time of year when we are supposed to experience renewal. For fortysomethings like me, this usually does not mean getting a chin lift or booking a trip to visit the Dalai Lama. Generally, the revival that we encounter comes in the form of, yep, you guessed it, Spring Cleaning.

But before I lift the couch cushions to reveal $3.96 in coins, two ballpoint pens, the DVD clicker we lost two moves ago, and a veritable snack mix of old popcorn, fuzzy gummy bears, stale peanuts and pulverized goldfish crackers….

Before I pull the bed away from the wall to discover a dust bunny large enough to knit into a size 12 cardigan sweater and a pair of knee socks….

Before I rummage through our closets to fill thrift store donation bags with flared jeans, Christmas pajamas, and those silly-looking shape up shoes….

Before all that, I really must tackle the most important job first: The Refrigerator.

Despite it’s perfect chill of 36 degrees Fahrenheit, I know there are food items lurking in the back that are no longer edible. These items were forgotten months ago, remaining hidden behind the OJ and the leftover pot roast.

In order to eliminate these phantoms of the fridge, it’s necessary to empty the whole thing out. I usually begin with the freezer. Hoping to find a forgotten casserole dish of coq au vin to cook for dinner, I usually end up with a dozen or so brownish bricks of unidentifiable meat encased in unlabeled storage bags.

When I threw them in the freezer, I thought the contents would be obvious, but thanks to a thick layer of frost, I can’t tell a turkey leg from a hamburger patty. After I reject the idea of licking each brick to determine the contents, I hedge my best guess, running the risk that I might end up inadvertently cooking Ham Hock Sloppy Joes or Rump Roast Noodle Soup.

Next, I clear out the small shelves on the refrigerator door. For some unknown reason, items such as jelly jars, bottles of dressing, containers of mustard, and jars of pickles tend breed and multiply here. I usually have to take a deep breath, and tell myself that the world will not implode if I throw out the almost empty jar of Apricot spread, or the bottle of Catalina dressing I used a quarter cup of for a recipe last summer.

Moving to the main refrigerator shelves, I like to keep an eye out for things that are so old, they could be mistaken for something else. For example, expired feta looks just like bleu cheese. Expired sour cream mimics small curd cottage cheese, but smells like dirty feet. And interestingly, expired apple juice that makes a “pffzzzt” sound when the cap is opened has the same effect as tequila when ingested.

After a quick poke in the lunchmeat drawer to remove any slippery slices of iridescent pastrami, I usually move on to the vegetable crispers. As anyone who has ever grabbed for a cucumber only to find a log of slimy mush knows, this area of the fridge can be a challenge to even the strongest constitution. Rusty lettuce, milky tomatoes, shriveled apples and blackened cauliflower florets are only a few of the delicacies waiting to trigger a gag reflex.

Once all the odiferous offenders have been removed from our refrigerator, I give it a good scrub with some disinfectant, pop open a fresh box of baking soda and head off to the commissary for replacement vittles. Considering that our military family budget does not include funds for cosmetic surgery or spiritual pilgrimages, a refreshed refrigerator is our best rendition of spring renewal.

Sweet Sanity

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Have you been having visions of colorful foil? Have you detected the aroma of coconut in the air? Have you been seeing rabbit tracks everywhere? Have you been drooling for no apparent reason?

No, you are not suffering from a serious mental disorder. Do not take a Xanax. Do not voluntarily commit yourself to the local psychiatric ward for a 90-day stay. Do not form a support group and invite everyone over to watch “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Don’t worry, these seemingly strange symptoms are normal this time of year, because Easter makes us all a little crazy.

Of course, we expect children to spool themselves into an all-out frenzy on Easter. They burst out of church as if they’d just escaped from an asylum, and it’s all we can do to snap a quick photo of them wearing their stiff Easter ties and flouncy Easter dresses, before they start running around like crazed maniacs in search of candy eggs.

Why, then, does this sweetest of holidays cause grown adults to go bonkers too? Believe it or not, our temporary lunacy is triggered by the same stimulus that affects our children — CANDY.

Considering that mature adults have highly developed impulse control, you might not think that sugary treats would make us lose our minds. But then, you’d be wrong.

It all starts when adults deprive themselves during Lent, declaring that they’ve given up chocolate, carbohydrates, or desserts. Forty days of that can turn even the most stable person stark raving mad. Then, we are faced with temptingly colorful displays of individually wrapped miniaturized candy bars in every store, which taunt and torture us in our self-induced sugar-starved state.

To add insult to injury, we have to purchase the candy for our kids, so we hide bags in our houses, under our beds and in our closets. No one can see it, but we know it’s there, calling to us like Sirens, “C’mon…. just open a little corner of the bag and take a few. No one will know. Chocolate tastes so good….”

We respond to these voices in our heads, waffling between resistance and bargaining: “Yea, I could just have one teensy-weensy marshmallow egg [staring into space with small drop of drool forming in corner of mouth] … No! [slapping hands over ears, squeezing eyes shut] … I can make it to Easter, just a few more days [breathing into a paper bag] … and then on Easter Sunday [eyes widening, grin forming] … I can sneak into the kids’ Easter baskets after they go to bed [drooling again]… and go … hog … wild [said in a frighteningly deep gravely voice.]”

As for me, I swore off carbohydrates several weeks ago, surviving on chicken, salads, and hard-boiled eggs. Our kids don’t know about the hidden combo bags of candy I bought from the commissary last week, but I certainly do. The tiny Milky Ways have been whispering to me at night from under our bed. I’m pretty sure the dog hears them too. I can’t stop muttering, “Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar,” and I’ve developed an involuntary eye twitch.

Despite my fragile state, I will not give in to my urge to rip the secreted bags open and gobble the candy-coated catalysts, foil wrapping and all. I am an adult, after all.

However, on Easter Sunday, after the kids have opened every plastic egg, after the dog has ingested colored Easter grass, after the leftover ham has been sliced for sandwiches, after I give up washing the scalloped potato dish and let it soak in the sink, and after we snuggle up on the couch to watch Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” I will calmly open a bag of pastel peanut butter cups.

And there, in that sweet moment, I will reclaim my sanity.

College Talk Tips

2014-04-11 12.43.05It’s college decision time, but before parents of high school seniors engage each other in conversation, take heed! You are about to step into a veritable quagmire of double entendre regarding the seemingly innocuous topic of your child’s college pick.

One might think that discussing college decisions is as simple as:

Parent #1: “What college will your son/daughter attend in the fall?”

Parent #2: “He/She will attend XYZ University.”

Parent #1: “Oh, that’s swell.”

But, BEWARE. Hidden beneath this rudimentary exchange is a underground strata of complex connotations and confidential context.

How do I, a parent of a high school senior, know this already? During our last few tours of duty, my family has had many “empty nesters” as neighbors in military base housing. I have found that there is much to be learned by observing this unique breed of parent.

No, they don’t collect twigs, preen their feathers, or engage in elaborate mating rituals….well, not that I know of, anyway. But, empty nesters have “been there, done that” when it comes to parenting. Interacting with these seasoned veterans around backyard fire pits and at the dog park has taught me that some things in life are not as simple as they seem.

In order to help other parents, like myself, who will soon be expected to tell friends, relatives and colleagues about their children’s college picks, I will pass on the college talk tips I have gleaned from more experienced parents.

Most importantly, when people ask, “What college did Little Suzie decide to go to?” they really want to know, “Did she get any rejection letters?” And when you answer, “Little Suzie is going to State,” they are tabulating all prior conversations in an attempt to figure out which schools gave your kid the Heisman.

In order to diffuse their natural curiosity, it’s best to be frank. Tell them which schools, if any, declined to accept your child’s application for enrollment. However, do not be tempted to add, “We’re actually happy that Little Johnny didn’t get into Ivy U, it just wasn’t the right fit for him.” The listener will only hear, “Little Johnny’s ‘Ds’ in Chemistry came back to bite him, and besides, those ivy leaguers are so stuck up.”

Also, although it is considered gauche for friends to discuss money matters in the civilian world, talking about personal finances is quite common in the military community. Thanks to clearly defined rank structures, we military folks know each other’s pay grade. Regardless, be careful when discussing college expenses with friends and neighbors. As soon as they find out that your child’s college costs upwards of fifty grand a year or more, they will wonder how on earth you’re gonna pay for it.

You may wish to remain silent, and let them speculate that your child was offered a scholarship for some hidden talent like didgeridoo playing or curling. In a vacuum of information, your friends might think that you’ve got some long lost rich great uncle who graced you with a gazillion dollar trust fund, but this might be hard to believe if you drive a used minivan and buy buns from the day old rack at the commissary. Or, they might guess that your family’s heritage includes a recruitable ethnicity, like the long lost peoples of the Siberian Pot Belly Tribe.

But most likely, unless you tell your friends and family that you are paying for college with the GI Bill, loans, your Thrift Savings Plans, or your 529 plans; they’re going to think that you’re planning to sell your earthly possessions, take the night shift at the local 7-11, and move the family into a cardboard box over a heating grate in order to pay for college.

Most parents have faced or will face the daunting college application process, and as long as you deliver the news of your child’s decision without pretense, you will be met with understanding. Honesty is clearly the best policy to stop wondering minds from wandering to the absurd.

My child? He was rejected from two [stuck up] schools and accepted by six [fine academic institutions]. He has decided to go to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. We are using the GI Bill. And yes, it’s really swell.

 

The Hidden “I” in Team

 

At regular intervals throughout his 26-year military career, my husband has been promoted to the next rank. Each time this happens, there is a little ceremony, during which my husband gives a brief speech. After two decades of being married to a Navy man, I have that speech pretty much memorized.

“Captain So-and-so, thank you for the wonderful introduction. Also, kudos go out to Petty Officer Whatsisface for the lovely decor and delicious cake. *clears throat* When I joined the Navy [#] years ago, I never imagined making [current rank]. I merely aspired to learn, to travel the world, and to serve my country. But I stayed in the Navy because, simply put, I love my job. And the reason I love my job is because of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work for and with. [Names various people in the command, to include Admiral Whooziewhat, seated nearby.] But there is someone else here that I need to recognize. Someone, without whom, I would not be standing before you all here today. Someone who has been my teammate for [#] years — my wonderful wife, Lisa.”

Women swoon, men wink, cameras flash, I blow my husband a kiss, and he smiles in return. And every time, at that moment, I actually believe it’s true.

Soon after, I find myself alone, changing the wiper blades, taking the dog to the vet, paying the exterminator bill, and ordering our son to shave. My teammate is not around, because he is halfway across the globe. It’s not his fault; he’s working to support our family.

But, when I become the sole manager of our family, I am often frazzled, overwhelmed, and unshowered, walking around with my arms held up like a crazed zombie in search of Sauvignon Blanc. My personality waffles between deranged inmate, vicious dictator, catatonic robot and hormonal sobbing mess, while I try my best to handle our chaotic home life on my own. This doesn’t feel like teamwork, but more like some bizarre form of solitary confinement.

My husband just left for Italy. He’ll be gone for a only a week, then back for a week, then gone again to Alabama for a week, then home another week before he’s off again to Texas for another week. These little work trips are minor annoyances when compared to the long deployments other military folks are enduring, and besides, managing the home front alone gets easier the older you get, right?

Uh, not so much.

Like an old umbrella stroller with a wobbly wheel, an old shirt with a loose button, an old desktop computer with too many image files, an old blender that gives off a burning smell every time you try to make a frozen margarita — I used to work really well, but the older I get, the more likely it is that I’m gonna blow.

The kids tiptoe around the house, hoping that I’ll wipe the smudged mascara away from my eyes before I take them to school, and wondering whether I’ll force them to eat cheese and crackers again for dinner. The dog senses tension, and follows me around the house, licking my pant legs. But with the distraction of the DVR, therapeutic happy hours with the neighbors, and a secret can of Pringles stashed in the laundry room, I know I will cope until my husband gets home.

I must admit, I have come to enjoy certain aspects of my temporary solitude — total control of the TV clicker, sleep uninterrupted by snoring, cheese and cracker dinners. And he, too, relishes his “me time” while on travel — total control of the TV clicker, sleep uninterrupted by his wife telling him to stop snoring, restaurant dinners.

Despite the suitcase full of dirty laundry and the generous gift of hotel mini-soaps he deposits with me upon returning home, we are undoubtedly happiest when we are together. But as a military family, we must often work separately toward our common goals. As sports writer Amber Harding once said, “… there most certainly is an ‘I’ in ‘team.’ It is the same ‘I’ that appears three times in ‘responsibility.’”

Spring Break, Eighties Style

Scan“Don’t crush the groceries!” I yelled as my teenage son smashed the car top carrier lid closed. With everything for our family spring break trip packed, we piled into our salt-hazed minivan and hit the road.

I wondered if all this rigmarole was worth it for a few days of so-called vacation. I’d worked myself into a pre-trip frenzy, making lists, doing laundry, kenneling the dog, getting the oil changed, packing, double checking, and packing some more.

All that hassle just to spend military leave time stuffing ourselves like sardines into our minivan for eleven long hours. And once we get there, we’ll be unpacking, making beds, cooking, cleaning and managing the kids just like we always do. Same work, different location.

Is Spring Break really worth all this hassle?

As we passed through the Naval Station Newport base gate and headed south, I recalled an easier time. It was 1986, and I used my new credit card to buy a Spring Break trip with my college roommates. I was broke, but all those Citibank sign up ads around campus promised a $1,000 credit limit, and all I had to do was pay a little bit off each month. “Wow, what a great deal!” I thought in my youthful ignorance.

After curling our bangs, my roommates and I boarded a bus, chartered by Sigma Epsilon Fraternity, headed from chilly Ohio to sunny Daytona Beach, Florida. The frat brothers thoughtfully included a six-pack of Little Kings Cream Ale in the trip package price, just in case the passengers got thirsty on the fourteen-hour ride south.

“Ohmigod,” my roommate exclaimed halfway through Tennessee, “like, I totally can’t find Lisa anywhere!” “No way!” “Way!” They didn’t know that I’d crawled up in the overhead luggage compartment to sleep off those Little Kings.

On the day of our arrival, I promptly burned myself to a crisp laying out on the beach. Later at a Bud Light Belly Flop contest at the motel pool, I tried to hide the pain, sipping wine coolers with my roommates while dancing to “I’ll stop the world and melt with you” – a la Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club” — in our stone washed denim and Wayfarers. We took note of one particular college boy moonwalking in checkered Vans, red Birdwell Beach Britches, and a blonde mullet. He was the kind of cool guy who probably drove a Camero.

The loudspeaker blared as he climbed the high dive, “Next we have Mad [expletive deleted] Mike from University of Maryland!” We cheered with the crowd, but in the end, his svelte torso was no match for the linebacker from Mississippi State with a gut tinged pink from multiple flawless flops.

By the time we boarded the bus for our return to Ohio a week later, I had sloughed off the first three layers of my skin, lost my Jellies shoes, survived on happy hour nachos, been totally ignored by Mad [expletive deleted] Mike, and maxed out my $1,000 credit limit, totally unaware that I would be paying off the debt for the next eight years.

And it was totally worth it.

There was something special about the Eighties. Was it the big hair? Orange Julius? Hackey Sacks? Mr. T? New Wave music? Shoulder pads? Hawaiian pizza? The Cosby Show? McDLTs? The Sprinkler Dance? Tri-color pasta salad? Parachute pants? Boom boxes? Frosted eye shadow? Deely-bobbers? Alf? Fried potato skins? A carefree state of mind?

Whatever it was, the Eighties was fun. A lot of fun.

“Honey,” I asked my husband as we entered the New Jersey Turnpike, “find that Eighties radio station, would you?” The kids groaned, and began arguing over whether we were getting lunch at Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A, but I leaned back in my seat, put on my sunglasses and said, “I think this might turn out to be our best Spring Break trip ever.”

Like, totally.

Scan 2

I found these in my basement. Note the girl in the red two-piece, or is it a one-piece? And that’s Mad [Expletive Deleted] Mike in the long red trunks with the mullet. That’s me in the cool faux Vuarnet shades – you can see my skin sloughing around my neck. Turns out, guys are not into that kind of thing. The last photo is a party on our motel balcony — Good times!

Scan 1

These are my Miami of Ohio college chums, looks like they’re doing the Van Halen Jump! That’s me piled on the bed with my roomies and their boyfriends – notice my stone washed jeans and shoulder pads! Ah, to be young and stupid again!

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