From the Archives: Give resolutions a shot

2017

When the holiday is over, the presents have been put away, and the leftover roast has been made into soup, there’s a part of me that just wants to savor it all. To snuggle up on the couch with the kids in my new pjs, nibbling from the tin of stale Christmas cookies, basking in the glow of the dying Christmas tree, watching movie marathons until my eyeballs bleed.

These days, there’s so much hustle and bustle associated with the holidays, it’s nice to linger a while. Let it all sink in. Take a moment to stop and appreciate the richness of our military life, our families, and our traditions, before another hectic year is in full swing.

However, there’s another part of me that gets antsy. Like the plaque accumulating in my arteries from too much cheese dip, or the needles piling up under the tree, or the mounting credit card bills — the holiday builds. By midnight on New Year’s Eve, I’m ready to purge.

It’s all I can do to make it through the obligatory pork-and-sour-kraut on New Year’s Day, before I want to rid the entire house of holiday décor and begin my new and improved lifestyle. Something takes over in me, and after weeks of excess and sloth, I’m hell bent on eating enough fiber, taking 10,000 steps a day, keeping accurate financial records, compulsively vacuuming, and fundamentally changing my entire personality.

Inevitably, about a month or two into it, my bad habits creep back in. I convince myself that kung pao chicken is healthy because of the green peppers. I stop using my check register, and let receipts rattle around in the bottom of my purse. An ordinary hangnail is the only excuse I need to skip my new gym routine.

These small setbacks send me into tailspin of guilt, and before I know it, I’m on the couch in the middle of the afternoon watching reality show reruns in order to avoid my responsibilities, with my lips wrapped around a can of Pringles.

Sometimes, I make a little progress, and sometimes, I fail completely. So why bother making New Year’s resolutions at all?

About 45% of Americans regularly make New Year’s resolutions with some kind of cathartic change in mind. Lose ten pounds. Get organized. Quit smoking. Save money. Reduce debt. Get a new job. Stop procrastinating. Spend less time on electronic devices. New Year’s Resolutions are supposed to make our lives better. But do they?

Some psychologists believe that New Year’s Resolutions make us unhappy because they set us up for certain failure. According to a 2014 University of Scranton study, only 8 percent of Americans who make resolutions are successful in meeting their goals after one year.

Bummer.

Of the top five resolutions made by Americans in recent years, weight control and exercise were the easiest for resolvers to maintain. However, promises to improve finances were less successful. This is particularly relevant in 2017, when according to Nasdaq.com, “save more/spend less” is the most popular New Year’s resolution for all age groups.

However, research shows that people actually have more self-control than they might think. According to a 2015 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who think they have limited self-control “will reduce their effort and engage in various overindulgent behaviors when they face high demands …” Conversely, those who believed they had abundant willpower, performed better on difficult tasks.

The good news is that 46% of those who made resolutions reported having kept their goals past six months. Not too shabby. Most encouragingly, the statistics show that people who make New Year’s resolutions are 10 times more likely to change their behavior than people who don’t make resolutions at all.

So, even if science indicates that I’ll still be disorganized, procrastinating, and chomping a King-sized Snickers Bar come mid-February, I’m still giving my New Year’s resolutions a try.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Sure, I might screw it up again, but I’ll never find out if I can be a better person in 2017, unless I give it my best shot.

Small stuff to sweat in 2017

Seinfeld: The Shower Head Episode

Seinfeld: The Shower Head Episode

As we board life’s runaway train for another year of twists and turns and ups and downs, we can’t help but wonder, “How can we ensure our happiness, when we have no control over the economy, deployments, interest rates, orders, our health and the future?”

Fact is, we can’t control the “big-ticket” items in our lives, but what about the small stuff? Throughout the course of a normal day, we make hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices that can affect our overall happiness. Like the tiny Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, we can wrestle giants by pulling a few small strings in our daily routines.

#1 Wear comfortable underwear. Ever had one of those days when your undies were in a bunch, literally? You dig your skivvies out of your crevasse, but they creep back in. The constant wedgie adds a subtle undertone of discomfort to your day, making you grumpy and more likely to snap at your boss, your kids, and your spouse. It doesn’t matter if you prefer the near-commando feel of a thong, or the maximum coverage of cotton briefs – wear comfy undies if you want to this to be a good year.

#2 Install a new shower head. Does your shower emit a wimpy trickle, making it difficult to lather, rinse and repeat? Do you spend the rest of the day feeling greasy and lacking self-confidence? Dash to your nearest hardware store, and find a shower head with a water output similar to that of a regulation fire hose. The therapeutic massaging action of the pelting water will blast away stress, tension, toxins, troubles, soap, conditioner . . . and sometimes the first layer of skin. Regardless, you will emerge cleansed, refreshed, and ready to face the year with confidence.

#3 Attain digestive regularity. Have you ever had one of those days when your pipes are clogged? Do your intestines occasionally go on strike? Does your digestive tract stubbornly maintain a holding pattern, with no landing scheduled on the flight plan? Let’s face it – if the “magic” doesn’t happen, it can ruin your day. You feel full, heavy, lethargic, bloated, and irritable. Eat leafy greens, guzzle copious amounts of coffee, get new reading material for the bathroom — do whatever it takes to convince your nether regions to declare a truce. Succeed in attaining digestive regularity, and you will face the challenges of this year with a cheerful spring in your step.

#4 Go to bed! According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep. Lack of adequate sleep negatively affects physical and mental health, attention span, memory, learning and even body mass index. Put down that clicker and toddle off to bed an hour earlier, and 2017 may be the year of your dreams.

#5 Good morning sunshine! Not only will 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight three times a week boost your body’s supply of vitamin D, but sunshine (even in artificial forms for those of you stationed in Alaska) can have a positive affect on people prone to depression and anxiety.

#6 Mange, mange! Overindulgence during the holidays may have you wanting to eat less, but “grazing” throughout the day really can make you happier. Eating six healthy meals/snacks spaced evenly throughout the day will keep your blood sugar, energy level, weight, and mood on an even keel.

#7 The Dog Days aren’t over. For the last 25 years, research has shown that living with pets lowers blood pressure and anxiety. And some new studies actually indicate that children who grow up in households with pets are LESS likely to have asthma and allergies. Who knew?

You may not be able to change your spouse’s deployment schedule, run marathons, or win the lottery in 2017, but sometimes it’s the little things in life that make the biggest impact.

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Misty and mindful under the mistletoe

I’ll admit it. I’m a sap, a spineless, simpering, soft-hearted, sentimental fool. I’m one of those people who tears up at the slightest little things — a tidbit of news, an earnest child, the national anthem playing in the distance, a touching television commercial.

And when the holidays roll around, I’m schmaltzier than ever.

The kids are mortified with embarrassment and Francis thinks I need to get my hormones checked. But how can I be expected to hold back the waterworks during the holidays? With all the old movies that transport us to our childhoods, the aroma of baking cookies, the spontaneous generosity of folks dropping change into red buckets outside grocery stores, the snow globes with their softly suspended scenes, the familiar songs we hum while wrapping gifts, and the thousands of tiny twinkle lights.

This week, I blubbered while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the millionth time, I felt a lump in my throat anticipating our college kids coming home, and I got slushy after seeing a video of dogs snuggling with babies on Facebook.

But the hardest yank on my heartstrings came while Francis and I were watching the Navy Band Northeast’s holiday concert on base. There we were, nestled all snug in our auditorium seats and holiday sweaters, feeling Christmassy and patriotic all at once. When one musician took the stage in his dress cracker jacks and belted out a perfect medley of classic carols, my tear ducts were primed and ready for action.

Between sets, heart-warming video shorts were projected onto a screen behind the stage. The audience laughed at a segment featuring young Navy plebes botching the words to “Feliz Navidad,” and “Awww”ed in unison at clips of military brats sending sweet holiday messages to deployed moms and dads.

One small boy in a crooked Santa hat said, “Dad won’t be home for Christmas. So, we’re going to my cousin’s house. My cousin’s house is … [big brown eyes searching for the right words] … really small.” Then, after an adorable pause, the boy lit up, smiled and said, “But it’s really cozy!”

The darling innocence of this boy — this military child accustomed to making the best of hard times — knocked my emotions off balance. One more tug, and I knew I was a goner.

So, I sat quietly, flush from the collective heat of the festively-garbed crowd gathered in the auditorium, praying that the director would instruct the band to play “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” to jerk me away from the emotional cliff. But the next video clips of surprise reunions with deployed servicepersons had me groping for a tissue in my purse.

I realized that in the military, we take for granted that loved ones will be deployed during holidays, birthdays, graduations and special occasions. It is part and parcel of our unique lifestyle. When Francis was on a yearlong deployment, we adjusted during the holidays. We got together with friends and extended family members to fill the void. When he was standing the watch during other holidays, we pivoted to accommodate his schedule. There were no tears – it was military life.

According to the Department of Defense, roughly 220,000 American military service persons were deployed and away from their loved ones last December, in more than 100 countries and on every continent. This staggering figure does not even include the thousands more military personnel that will be on duty this week, sitting in silos, standing on watch floors, guarding gates, on the job, protecting and defending while we are home enjoying our families.

So, now, after 23 years as a military spouse, I see the nobility in military families’ sacrifices during the holidays. I honor their strength and positivity in the face of hardship. Without shame or embarrassment, I shed a tear, or a bucketful, when I think of how blessed Americans are to have an all-volunteer force of military men and women who serve so that the rest of us, snug and safe with our loved ones, can be home for Christmas.

This year, I might be misty under the mistletoe, but I am grateful for the gift that is the United States Military.

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From the Meat & Potatoes Archives: The Twelve Takes of Christmas

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The 2016 Molinari Family “Photo” as drawn by friend and artist, Brian Guay

“C’mon everybody!” I bellowed from our living room, “Let’s get this over with!”

“KIDS!? HONEY!?” I yelled from behind my camera. It was perched precariously on top of an Anthony’s Seafood matchbook, two beer coasters, three National Geographic magazines, Roget’s Thesaurus, and our coffee table — at the precise trajectory needed to capture an image of our family and the dog in front of our fireplace.

Knowing that the tiniest slip of the hand (or the dog’s tail) might ruin my painstakingly calibrated line of sight, I was reluctant to move. But when no one responded to my wails, I marched off to find them.

With only one day of Thanksgiving break left before the kids would return to their respective schools, this task had to get done. For military families who move all the time, holiday photo cards are a legitimate form of communication. We couldn’t let a year go by without one.

Twenty minutes later, I had managed to drag the resistant members of my family into the living room. My husband, Francis, was miffed that I forced him to abandon a riveting rerun of “House Hunters.” My son, Hayden, was annoyed that he had to pause Dragon Warrior VII just as he was about to master Ranger class. My daughter, Anna, couldn’t fathom what was so important that she had to stop texting her boyfriend. My youngest, Lilly, was pouting about being torn away from Snapchat.

They were all sporting major attitudes, but it was now or never.

“Listen! I don’t like this anymore than you do, but our family and friends have come to expect a Molinari family photo card every year, so — Backs straight! Stomachs tight! And get happy, Damnit!”

My moping gaggle huddled together on the hearth, in shared irritation over being forced to pose for a family photo. “Leave a spot for me on the left, and smile!” I ordered from behind my camera.

I gingerly jabbed the camera’s timer button, careful not to knock the lens from its makeshift-matchbook-coaster tripod, then leapt like an overweight gazelle, across our faux Oriental rug, and into my designated position.

“Mom, the camera’s blinking.”

“Honey, when do you want us to smile?”

“Are you sure you pressed the button, Mom?”

“I don’t KNOW!” I screeched through my grinning clenched teeth, “Just keep smiling!”

“But, isn’t it supposed to fl . . .” *FLASH*

It took two more takes before we realized that the camera flashed after a prescribed series of slow and fast blinks. Hayden sneezed in the middle of take number four. The phone rang during take number five. I blinked in take number six. We all got the giggles in take number seven, when Francis released a pungent belch the odor of salami.

We finally realized that we forgot to include the dog, Moby, and it took two takes, three pieces of cheese, and a tennis ball before he would agree to sit. Somewhere along the way, I inadvertently nudged the June 2014 issue of National Geographic, and it took me twenty minutes and three more ruined takes to get the family centered in the viewfinder again.

On take number thirteen, we were so desperate to end our torturous holiday photo odyssey, we all agreed to cooperate to take one final, flawless shot. 

With my last ounce of patience, I tapped the button with catlike precision, and pounced into position, tipping my jaw forward to hide my double chin. The kids replaced their fake grins with genuine sparkling smiles. Francis leaned behind me to hide his now sweat-stained armpit.

Moby sat, in perfect obedience, his ears handsomely perked.

Like the townspeople of Bethlehem, we looked for the bright light that would finally bring us salvation. . .

“Why didn’t it flash?” Francis whispered.

After another minute, Lilly extracted herself from our frozen pose, to check the camera.

Peering at the digital display, she read aloud, “‘Change battery pack.'”

Realizing that a flawless family photo was never going to happen, we decided that one of the twelve takes would have to do, because reality is as perfect as a family gets.

Alarm bells ring … Are you listening?

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Every so often, something occurs that causes married couples to question everything.

It happened to me, just last week. One teensy disruption in our mundane bedtime ritual set off marital alarm bells, rendering me vulnerable to resentment, doubt and blame — destructive emotions that push otherwise happy couples like Francis and me, to the precipice of relationship disaster.

What was it that caused such extreme marital discord? The chirping smoke detector, of course.

Now, before judging me for overreacting to such a minor annoyance, let me set the scene.

Francis just retired from the Navy after 28 years, he’s still searching for a civilian job, we have to move off base, we’re putting our belongings into long-term storage, and we’re renting a furnished place until we know what our future holds.

And if that weren’t enough stress, it’s also the holidays.

I had just come upstairs after taking Moby out for his nightly back yard “deposit.” Francis was already in bed, and while not quite snoring, I could tell from the way his mouth was propped open, it was only a matter of seconds.

After completing my toilet-teeth-vitamins-pajamas regimen, I climbed into my side of the bed, nestled into the quilts, and opened my book.

This is my favorite moment of every day, when I let a good book wash away the reality of stress, wrinkles, dust, credit card bills, college applications, teenagers, break pads, cloud storage, dog hair, and lactose intolerance.

I was deep into Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and as my spine relaxed into the sheets, my mind escaped to colonial Massachusetts, where Wampanoag warriors lurked through moonlit woods toward a Puritan garrison. Pilgrims huddled nervously around their hearths, clutched their muskets, and listened for the sounds of siege …

“CHIRP!”

“Surely, that was one of the kids’ shoes squeaking on the floor,” I told myself.

No sooner did my mind drift back to the Pilgrims when — “CHIRP!” — it happened again.

There was no denying it. It was, most definitely, the low battery signal from one of our smoke detectors. “Maybe I can sleep through it.” I nudged a pillow over my ear.

“CHIRP!”

“Who am I kidding? Someone needs to get up and disarm that thing … but wait, why me? I’m lying here next to a grown man. A Navy man. I may have handled things independently when he was away, but he’s home now. Why the hell doesn’t he do it?”

I knew Francis was pretending to sleep. “Well, two can play this game,” I thought. We laid still through several more chirps, as my resentment grew.

“CHIRP!”

“Seriously?” I thought, “How can you call yourself a real man? Your wife and children are being assaulted by this insidious alarm, and you lay there and do nothing like a big hairy baby?! Why did I marry you, anyway?”

On the tenth chirp, I’d had it. I threw off my covers and stormed into the hallway, determined to beat the smoke alarm to death. At 60 second intervals, I followed each chirp, until I finally found the offending alarm in the basement. I yanked it from its plug on the ceiling, left it in the kitchen, and started back upstairs.

“CHIRP!” I could hardly believe my ears. How could the amputated alarm still be alive?

“You have to remove the battery too!” Francis bellowed from our bed.

I can’t be certain, but I think steam rose from my ears. Not only had Francis been wide awake during this fiasco, he was now barking orders to me, from the comfort of our bed.

On my way back to the kitchen, I was certain our relationship was doomed.

After I dissected the battery, the smoke alarm died a slow death, using its stored energy to chirp weakly one more time. And, as I watched its little red light fade to black, my ire faded too. I realized, it wasn’t the end of the world, or the end of our marriage. Spouses can be really annoying, but love means having perspective when alarm bells drive us to the brink.

And from Francis’ comfortable perspective, he actually believed he was being helpful.

Open letter: To the friends I ignore

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I can see it in your eyes. You’re not happy. You think I’ve been ignoring you. You think I’m an awful friend.

Not too long ago, we were close. We talked on the phone. We had lunch. We met at the gym. We exchanged texts. I showed interest in your life.

But recently, I’ve been aloof. I haven’t called. I stopped meeting you for coffee. I didn’t “Like” that photo you posted of your kids on Facebook.

To be quite honest, I haven’t given you a second thought.

But before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you: I’m not tired of you. I’m not hanging out with other friends. And I most certainly haven’t forgotten about you. The fact is, I haven’t been thinking much about you, or anyone else for that matter, because our family is moving again.

Counting those few months we lived in that creepy townhouse with the shag carpeting in Virginia Beach in 1998, and the half year we rented that funky beach shack in Jacksonville while we waited for base housing in 2011, our Navy family has moved nine times since Francis and I married 23 years ago.

I’m not bellyaching. Many military families have moved a lot more than we have, others have moved less. Besides, I’ve enjoyed every place we’ve lived. (Well, except for that townhouse. We had to clap twice before entering the kitchen to scare off the roaches, and it had a strange scent that smelled like pickles packed in moth balls.)

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter how many times a military family moves – what matters is that every move – whether it’s overseas or across town – is a big ordeal. The kind of thing that destroys daily routines, challenges the strongest coping skills, and turns grown adults into moody little brats.

It happens every time Francis receives Navy orders. My behavior doesn’t change at first, but as time passes, and our move dates get closer and closer, I slowly withdraw into my own chaotic, stressed, little world.

My normal everyday thoughts about dog hair, power walks, coffee, defrosting chicken, and Friday night fire pits — are slowly replaced, one by one, with frantic ramblings and strange inner voices, until I become a military spouse precariously perched on the threshold of moving insanity.

“How did we accumulate all this crap? We need more plastic storage bins! What if I forget to call about turning off the cable? We have to spackle that hole in the wall before the housing inspection! What if we go over the weight limit again? Why haven’t I taken the numbered stickers off the furniture from our last move?!”

In the days before the packers arrive, I become so self-absorbed, I am incapable of normal social interaction. In a subconscious attempt to repel other humans and thereby minimize distractions, I stop showering, brushing my hair, and applying deodorant. I become so hell-bent on using up all the food in the kitchen, I concoct strange casseroles with things like pork chops, oyster crackers, canned green beans, raisins and tater tots. I walk around the house armed with a Sharpie marker and a clipboard, muttering something about ziplock baggies and duct tape, my left eye twitching from a stress-induced tick.

It’s not a pretty sight. But at this point, I really don’t care about my rat’s nest of hair, the drool on my chin, the neighborhood pot luck, the next episode of Survivor, or you. Because all I can think about it one thing: Our Tenth Move.

As I write this, I have one week until the moving company arrives to pack up every coffee cup, photo album, extension cord, lounge chair, lampshade, screw driver, text book, Christmas ornament, bicycle, pencil and picture frame we own.

The reason I like you is because you understand. Until our household goods arrive at their new destination, until we find the towels and sheets and dishes and TV remote and coffee maker, and until I flop down on the couch in our new home and take a deep breath — I won’t realize how much I really miss you.

Thanks, my friends, for always forgiving me.

Separation Anxiety

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Of all places, I was in the veterinarian’s office with our dog, Moby, when I started feeling differently about veterans. It wasn’t the smell of disinfectant, the hiss of the cat Moby was sniffing, or the yapping of a dog in the treatment room that got my wheels spinning.

It was the sight of my shiny, brand new DOD identification card. I was digging it out of my wallet to take advantage of the vet’s 15% military discount, when I remembered that it was November 1st, my husband’s first day as a separated military retiree after 28 years of service.

“Oh, sorry, I forgot,” I said sheepishly to the office assistant, “my husband just retired from active duty.”

“It’s okay, your husband’s a veteran, right? You’re still good,” he said, scribbling a lower total on my invoice.  I paid the bill, tugged Moby’s leash, and rushed to our minivan. My wheels pealed out of the parking lot, and as I careened down Route 138, I felt like I’d just gotten away with something.

I took another look at my new ID card. It clearly indicated that I was now merely a dependent of  a sponsor who is “USN/RET.” All the retirement paperwork undoubtedly stated that we were officially civilians now. Although I knew Francis was a veteran, we didn’t feel entitled to special treatment anymore.

Moby’s hot breath further dampened the minivan’s dank atmosphere. Approaching a red light, I cracked a window, and glanced over at the driver in the Honda Pilot coasting to a stop beside me. She was wearing huge sunglasses, was holding a fancy water bottle, and had a dolphin-shaped air freshener dangling from her rear view mirror.

I saw stick figure decals on her back window, indicting that she had a husband, two kids, and a cat, all wearing Mickey Mouse ears. And a bumper sticker that read, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”

In a melancholy state, I declared, “I guess that’s who I am now, just another average civilian.”

On the opposite corner, a bank marquis’ glowed 10:32 am, 61 degrees, and “Honor All US Veterans.”

I remembered Veteran’s Day 2015, when Francis, then active duty, was invited to speak at a gathering in front of City Hall. I was so proud of my uniformed husband as he spoke of the sacrifices of all the veterans who had come to commemorate that special day. We lingered after his speech, and listened to the stories told by vets who had braved Vietnam, WWII, the Korean War. It was such an incredible honor to be with such heroes – they were the real McCoys – true military veterans.

But the sign said, “Honor All US Veterans.” I wondered, are all veterans deserving of honor?

I’d heard the statistics. Less than one half of 1% of the U.S. population volunteers for military service today – the lowest rate since WWII. And of those select few, roughly 80% come from a family in which a parent or sibling served. Our recent wars have been authorized by a U.S. Congress with the lowest rate of military service in history, and the last three commanders-in-chief never served on active duty. Moreover, due to the military-civilian divide, today’s military community is increasingly separated from the public it protects.

I realized that those few who volunteer to serve their country deserve recognition.

A car horn blast from behind prompted me to quit daydreaming, because the light had turned green.

Later that day, I was back in the minivan, this time with my husband Francis in the driver’s seat. We were inching our way up to the guard shack at Gate 1, so we could drive onto the Navy base to run some errands. Like I had done earlier that day, Francis pulled out his shiny new ID card, looked at it uncomfortably, and handed it to the gate guard.

Much to our surprise, the guard saluted and said, “Good afternoon, Captain.”

“Wow,” Francis said as we drove away, “I didn’t realize they still did that after you retire.”

“You’re a veteran, honey,” I reminded him. “You’ve earned it.”

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The Power of Finger-Pointing

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Ironically, one of our smallest, weakest body parts — the finger — often wields the most power.

That one diminutive digit can instill fear, anxiety, surprise, guilt or joy. Fingers identify winners, fingers pull triggers, and fingers place blame. If I only had a dollar for every time my father pointed a calloused finger in my direction and bellowed, “You’re grounded!” I’d have enough for decent manicure.

During the current presidential campaign season, there has certainly been a lot of finger-pointing going on. But one finger has been aimed at us long before our current political candidates were in the news.

We all know the iconic image of goateed, top-hatted Uncle Sam, staring us down, sending us on the ultimate guilt trip. For more than a century, this patriotic personification of our government has been used for one specific purpose — to tell us to do something for our country.

U.S. service members know Uncle Sam all too well, because his image has been bound inextricably to the draft, enlistment, patriotism and military service.

Military history geeks might be interested to know that Uncle Sam’s origins are not fully understood. The name appears in one version of the lyrics of the Revolutionary War ditty “Yankee Doodle”:

Old Uncle Sam come there to change 
Some pancakes and some onions, 
For 'lasses cakes, to carry home 
To give his wife and young ones.

No one is quite sure if Yankee Doodle’s pancake-slinging uncle is our own patriotically-bedazzled Sam. But during the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson, a meat-packer from Troy, New York, became forever linked with the personification. As the government-appointed meat inspector for the Northern Army, Wilson was nicknamed Uncle Sam by the troops, because his barrels of inspected meat were stamped with the initials “U.S.”  Despite the tenuous connection between Wilson and the iconic character, in 1961, the U.S. Congress resolved that it “salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

Two American editorial cartoonists helped to popularize illustrations of Uncle Sam — Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who featured a long, lean Sam with a white top hat, blue tailcoat and red-striped pants in Harper’s Bazaar; and James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), whose most famous work was the WWI poster of finger-pointing Uncle Sam proclaiming “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY.”

Flagg’s recruiting poster was printed over four million times, and his famous portrayal of Uncle Sam has been used to call people to shovel coal, to enlist, to buy war bonds, to work hard, to not discuss troop movements, to become a nurse or a stenographer, to plant a victory garden, to defend American freedom, and to volunteer. 

This month, Uncle Sam is popping up again, online and in print, telling us that it is our civic duty to vote. Many of you stationed overseas sent in your absentee ballots weeks ago, and others are gearing up for November 8th.

This campaign season has been so epic, many are commemorating the event by throwing election-themed parties. Pinterest offers inspiration, from Donkey and Elephant Jell-o Shots to Election Selfie Props to Uncle Sam “I WANT YOU TO COME TO A PARTY!” invitations. Rachel Ray’s online magazine has a recipe for “Campaign Trail Mix” and advises party planners to use a curtain to create a voting booth around the bar, inviting guests to go in and “booze up liberally or conservatively.” And at www.urbanblisslife.com, one can download a printable Election Day map for the kids to color with blue and red crayons as the results are declared.

With the extreme negativity of this presidential campaign, it’s no wonder we all want to have a little fun. But we mustn’t forget about that famous finger. Not the foam one at the football game, or the angry one flipped by the driver in the passing Prius, or the one your husband tells you to pull with a devilish grin, or the tiny one your toddler uses to explore her nostrils.

You know the one. So, let’s all heed old Uncle Sam’s advice, do our civic duty, and vote on November 8th.

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Oh my gourd! Dissecting a Halloween tradition

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In the dusky light, I removed the longest, sharpest knife from the butcher block, its blade emitting an ominous tone as metal scraped against wood. Shhwing! There, on plastic sheeting, lay my subject — plump, round and motionless.

Suddenly, a damp chill crept through the window sash, and a shiver ran up my spine, setting my heart and hands in motion!

Before I knew it, I had hacked off its top, and was pulling handfuls of slimy innards from its open cavity. Heart pounding, my knife plunged again and again into flesh, where eyes, nose and mouth belonged.

I stood back to catch my breath, and beheld its hideous glory. “It is done!”

This may sound like a scene from “Dexter,” but actually, I’m describing a festive fall activity beloved by children for many years — Halloween pumpkin carving.

Every red-blooded-American has made a jack-o’-lantern at some point in his or her life. Back in the 1970s, my brother and I cut our pumpkins with serrated steak knives, completely unsupervised by our parents, who were busy smoking Tartyton 100s and watching “Love Boat” in our avocado and gold living room. Later, after my brother went out to toilet-paper the neighborhood, my mom would roast the seeds in our oven, with a pinch of salt.

But pumpkin carving didn’t start in the 1970s. The tradition of making jack-o’-lanterns to ward off evil spirits (thought to roam the earth on Halloween) actually began in 19th century Ireland, where Celtic-speaking people cut scary faces into hollowed-out turnips. When the Irish immigrated to America, they found plentiful indigenous squash called “pumpkins” to carve their jack-o’-lanterns, the tradition that lives on today.

However, modern folks are no longer concerned about warding off evil spirits or perpetuating obscure Irish traditions. In today’s world of instant gratification, overprotective parenting, passivity and germophobia, one must wonder why such a messy, labor-intensive, potentially dangerous ritual persists at all.

Obviously, the desire to carve pumpkins transcends the advances of modern life. But why?

Our family has carved pumpkins every year, at every duty station, both home and abroad.

In Washington, D.C., our jack-o’-lantern sat on our apartment complex balcony overlooking the Hamburger Hamlet. In California, our carved pumpkin sunned itself on the patio of our brown and beige Fort Ord house. In the U.K., our jack-o’-lantern was stomped to bits by marauding English schoolboys in crested jackets. In Virginia, our pumpkins sat safely around our quiet suburban cul-de-sac. In Germany, we lugged our jack-o’-lanterns from our Patch Barracks stairwell apartment down to the shared patio, where dozens burned together on Halloween night. In Florida, our pumpkins succumbed quickly to fire ants and searing heat. In Rhode Island, our jack-o’-lanterns would’ve lasted forever in the New England chill, except that the squirrels decided they’d make a good pumpkin smorgasbord.

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No matter where we were stationed in the world, we were determined to carve pumpkins at Halloween.

What are the psychological forces that drive us to arm ourselves with dangerous kitchen utensils, attack poor defenseless squashes, and shamelessly display their gutted remains on porch steps and front stoops?

Perhaps humans crack under intense consumer industry pressure to buy Halloween decor, cheap imported novelties, and mountains of miniaturized candies? Or, maybe all the pumpkin-flavored foods are getting to us, as we guzzle gallons of pumpkin lattes, slurp spoonfuls of pumpkin soup, scarf sleeves of Pumpkin Spice Oreos, and gulp gobletfuls of pumpkin wine. Or, could it be that the political divisiveness of the recent campaign season has us all wanting to rip the flesh out something?

We may never know why today’s families see yearly pumpkin carving as the only exception to standard rules against carrying sharp objects, lighting matches, and playing with food. But what we do know, is that there’s something ironically sweet and wholesome about carving pumpkins. Coming together as a family. Creating a work of whimsy. Standing back to watch it glow.

And, when it’s all done, roasting the seeds like mom did, with a pinch of salt.

pumpkins

True romance is a gas

Our Italian Restaurant

Our Italian Restaurant, circa 1992

Ten years ago, when my family was stationed in Virginia, a boring weeknight in the suburbs inspired me to write my first column. At that time, I wasn’t looking for a publishing opportunity. I simply needed a creative outlet to sort through the realities of marriage, parenting and military life.  Now, as my husband, Francis, and I prepare to celebrate our 23rd anniversary, I’ll tell the story that inspired me to write….

One busy night after the kids had gone to bed, I settled into my spot on the sofa for some mind-numbing television.

“Isn’t this a repeat?” I asked Francis, seated in his recliner. When no answer was forthcoming, I glanced over to witness an all-too-familiar scene: Deeply imbedded in the recliner’s cushions, lay my husband of fourteen years, sound asleep.

Normally, I would turn out the lights and tip-toe to bed — my revenge for being “abandoned” for the umpteenth time. Francis would wake up alone in the dark and trudge upstairs to find me teehee-ing under the covers. But on this particular night, I gawked at Francis as if I were seeing him for the first time. Is this the man I married?

Panic gripped my soul. We’re tired, boring, predictable — We’re doomed.

I remembered one afternoon in 1992, when Francis and I were at an Italian café in Pittsburgh, sipping wine and falling in love.

“I really want to live abroad,” he said. “Me too,” I said. “I love the ocean,” I said. “Me too,” he said. “I don’t care about money, only happiness,” he said. “Me too!” I said.

It was a match made in heaven.

But, if we had understood the realities of marriage, our conversation would have been different: “I’ll develop stretch marks,” I should’ve said. “That’s okay, we’ll dim the lights,” he might’ve said. “I’ll end up bald, but hair will sprout out of my ears and nose,” he should’ve said. ”I’m good with tweezers,” I might’ve said. “I have no mechanical ability and won’t be embarrassed if you handle all the home repairs,” he should’ve said. “I won’t mind for the first few years, but then I’ll get fed up,” I really wish I’d said.

But back in 1992, we weren’t thinking about annoying habits and clogged drains. We were too busy planning our perfect life to be bothered with reality.

Our unrealistic expectations persisted after we were engaged. “Pardon me!” Francis yelped after accidentally belching. Although he insisted he would never expel any kind of gas in front of me, it didn’t take long for his steely resolve to erode. Today, expelling gas happens as soon as the urge beckons. Mid-sentence, under the covers, in the recliner. “Why do you have to burp while I’m talking to you?” I’ve said. “Did I burp?” he’s said, sincerely oblivious.

Before marriage, I preened and pampered Francis like a primate, manicuring nails and plucking stray hairs to maintain his rugged good looks. I had no idea that, one day,  those stray hairs would multiply so profusely that our grooming sessions now take place in the garage and involve the leaf-blower. The pedicures have become completely intolerable, because Francis’ left piggy toe now resembles a tiny hoof. One of the kids recently asked if it was made out of wood.

I had to draw the line somewhere.

So what am I saying? Are we doomed because we haven’t met our premarital expectations?

As I watched Francis dozing in his recliner, I realized something important: We have not met our original expectations, we’ve exceeded them. Back when we were dreaming of a life of romance uninhibited by responsibility, stress and aging, we couldn’t fully comprehend the complexity and depth of marital relationships. We didn’t understand that marriage is more than candlelight dinners and adventurous travel. Long-term romance is actually built on a foundation of commitment, comfort, and companionship.

Realizing this, my aversion to the the sight of my sleeping husband turned to adoration. And as I turned out the lights and tip-toed upstairs to wait for Francis to wake up alone in the dark, I was happy that marriage is everything I ever dreamed of, and more.

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