The Meat and Potatoes of Life

When kids are quiet, something's not right

“Kids… ,” I’d yelled into our playroom on a regular basis when our children were small, “what’s going on in there?!” Usually, I’d heard roughhousing. You’d think the innocent sounds of our children playing would warm our hearts, but as experienced parents, Francis and I knew that wholesome noises often lead to bonked heads, chipped teeth and poked eyes. However, there were other times when we hadn’t heard squeals, bumps or creaking floorboards. No singing, hammering, smacking or crying. No Barbies being thrown, sippy cups hitting the floor or lamps getting knocked over. What we heard was something far more terrifying: total silence.

Putting a positive spin on military sacrifices

My mother, a retired first-grade teacher, has always put a positive spin on things that appeared to be sad, unjust, terrifying or disgusting. I’ve always admired her capacity to see the good in all things, but there are times when this ability seems out of reach.

Forget the past and pass the pork

It was another gloomy winter afternoon in our working-class English village. Ever since we’d been stationed at JAC Molesworth in the flat Cambridgeshire countryside known as “The Fens,” I’d found myself counting the minutes until my husband, Francis, got home from work. At that latitude, the sun set around four o’clock, leaving me with nothing to do but pop in a Barney video for our toddler — it was the ’90s, after all — and contemplate dinner.

Even in winter, ladies must lunch

My boots were there, sitting next to the front door, a gritty residue of evaporated slush encircling the soles. I would have loved to climb back into bed that morning with Moby, our dog, rather than face my salt-encrusted minivan and a painfully boring to-do list. But I had to get out into the world. I pulled on the unflattering Michelin Man down coat I swore I’d never buy until we moved to “Rhode-Iceland,” slipped into my water-stained boots, and opened the door to the cold January morning.

Turning the other cheek: Tale of a colonoscopy

It seems that every humor writer on Earth has penned an amusing account of his or her root canal, mammogram or other cringe-worthy medical procedure. Arguably, the intimate details of one’s doctor’s appointments should not be published for the masses to read. However, many unscrupulous writers before me have plucked this low-hanging fruit in shameless pursuit of an easy laugh.

Perhaps promises will finally become policy

There is a seldom-opened drawer in our file cabinet that contains the only tangible evidence of my legal career. The musty hanging folders have labels such as “Résumés,” “Licensing” and “Writing Samples.” Even though none of these documents have been used since I had to stop working as a litigation attorney in the late ’90s to move overseas with my Navy husband, I refuse to throw them away. I tell myself that I need the files in case a career opportunity presents itself. But I know I’m really just keeping the yellowed pages as proof that I once did more than make sandwiches and clean toilets.

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  • The truth about New Year's Eve

    During my youth, my best offer on many New Year’s Eves was baby-sitting. My night included sampling the family’s leftover holiday treats and counting down with Dick Clark after the kids went to bed. Despite my pathetic circumstances, I held out hope that, as soon as my social standing improved, I’d have many fabulous, sparkling, whirlwind New Year’s Eve parties in my future. Little did I know then, nibbling stale cookies and watching the ball drop on TV is about as good as it gets.

  • The holiday battle for a comfy bunk

    ’Twas the night before Christmas, and somewhere in the house, someone won’t be sleeping. But not on account of dancing sugar plums. It will be because of that cursed cross bar under the pull-out sofa mattress, the acrid smell of a nephew’s pillows, the slow hiss of the flattening air mattress or the frigid temperature in the basement rumpus room. During the holidays, when we converge into one festive house to make merry, a game of musical beds is often played, and someone always turns up the loser.

  • Hope, cheer and ruthless behavior

    During this season of giving, people everywhere are transformed. Generosity and compassion well up in us all. However, in the midst of all this merriment, otherwise charitable people can become so caught up in materialistic desires that they have thoughts of theft, revenge and even murder. What, pray tell, could arouse criminal tendencies during the holidays? Simple: group gift exchanges.

  • Holiday cheer not always found where you’d expect

    I’m grateful that our last tour in the Navy landed us in New England, where the scenery looks like a Currier and Ives dinner plate come to life. I love the frosty chill in the December air, the smell of cut timber and pine boughs, the feel of warm woolen mittens. Here, the holiday spirit finds me, draws me in and captures me. And I gladly surrender.

  • Five dollars’ worth of holiday happiness

    Every year, there it was. Pop’s gift for me, propped among the branches of our Christmas tree. Always the same rectangular envelope crafted from heavy paper with dainty red curlicues printed on the corners. It reflected the brilliant glow of our incandescent Christmas bulbs in red, green, orange, blue and gold.

  • Black Friday flunky? You’re not the only one

    As much as I’d like to think that Black Friday is a greedy retail industry conspiracy to fleece gullible consumers out of their hard-earned cash, I can’t deny the fact that it offers shoppers really good deals.

  • Desperate fans want their football

    Unlike other football fans, I had no choice in the matter. I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. Ergo, I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. In that part of the country, team loyalty is passed down like eye color, pigeon toes and Grandma’s Golumpki recipe. As involuntary as breathing air.

  • Programs for veterans also help families

    In my 24 years as a Navy wife, I never lost sleep worrying that my husband had been injured in combat. Due to the nature of his job, he was mostly shielded from danger, and thus, his service to his country did not come with a huge price tag. We were lucky. Many of the 2.7 million post-9/11 veterans are not so fortunate. More than 540,000 have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). However, these “invisible wounds of war” are often hidden from the veterans themselves, so it is believed that the figures on PTSD are actually much higher.

  • The tortoise, the hare and the hairy retiree

    Let’s face it — nothing packs on the pounds like getting out of the military. After years of being weighed, measured, poked and prodded by Uncle Sam in the name of combat readiness, newly separated service men and women are abruptly set free from fitness standards. They swap uniforms for stretchy civilian clothes, embrace hair growth, and eat without fear that a side of fries will jeopardize their careers.

  • Hey Mom: Tricks (and treats) are for kids

    It was October 1997, and our first child was 2. When he was an infant, I didn’t want to be like those parents who dress their babies up as pea pods or puppy dogs and parade them from house to house. Everyone would know I was just showing off … and collecting candy for myself. But now that Hayden was walking and talking, there was a plausible excuse to go trick-or-treating.

  • The moody foodie tries all, likes most

    I’ll try anything once. Well, maybe not cliff diving … or running with the bulls … or a Mohawk hairdo … or silicone lip injections. But when it comes to food, I’m totally adventurous. Every time our military family moved to a new place, I couldn’t wait to try the local cuisine. Most of the time, we loved the native dishes, incorporating local recipes into our regular meal routine.

  • Football parents guilty of excessive celebration

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

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

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

  • VIsiting your spouse during R&R: Just do it

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

  • Of college tours and Trojan wars

    “Odysseus, eat your heart out,” I thought while driving our daughter, Lilly, to college visits recently. Although I wouldn’t encounter any cyclopes or sea monsters, I knew I was embarking on a grueling ordeal.

  • The skin and bones of contentious home decor

    At some point in a marriage, a military spouse faces a delicate dilemma: How to incorporate her partner’s military awards, sword, deer head, bowling trophy, stereo speakers, bar lamp or autographed sporting equipment into the home decor. In nearly 24 years of marriage to my husband, Francis, I’ve learned that solving this domestic quandary involves compromise, diplomacy and, when all else fails, trickery.

  • Tragedy reminds us we are all American

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

  • Laundry cycles reflect stages of life

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

  • Friendly persuasion: Why Mom was right

    In the 1980s, when my mother’s favorite film aired on TV, she would try desperately to get our family to watch it. “C’mon,” she’d beg, “there’s an incorrigible goose and a sweet little Quaker family … You’ll love it!” A goose and Quakers? Needless to say, we never saw the film. We were too busy watching “Gremlins” to bother.

  • What does riding the school bus teach our kids?

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

  • One year out, but the ride's not over

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

  • Sea glass: Life’s collectible gems

    Every summer, the beaches of this nation are scattered with people who wander slowly, look quite seriously down at their feet and bend over frequently. Despite appearances, they are actually not contemplating the prognoses of their bunions, admiring their arches or watching their toenails grow. For some reason, these people are compelled to search the beach for a particular type of trash — namely, broken glass.

  • The respectable way to catch crabs

    Many hungry vacationers will seek out the rich sweetness of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs this summer. Arguably, you haven’t lived until you’ve cracked fresh-steamed crabs over a table covered with newspaper. However, unless you plan to put a second mortgage on your house in order to afford the pricey steamed blue crabs for the whole family at a restaurant, you might want to consider catching these feisty critters yourselves.

  • Every dog has its day when I'm pet sitting

    When you’re a military family stationed in Timbuktu, you can’t rely on relatives to watch your pets when you’re on vacation. Our military family has learned that trading pet care favors with friends isn’t always the best alternative.

  • Separate offices show shared military life

    “Dear Lord,” I prayed recently while lifting another heavy cardboard book box from the pile left by the movers, “please don’t let one of my organs drop out onto the floor.” Since our move two weeks ago, I’ve been unpacking every day. Despite the danger of torn ligaments and internal damage, I’m determined to finish decorating my new study.

  • Dad's driving advice: 'Feel it in your rear'

    We universally accept that 16-year-olds don’t know much about life, so why is it that we allow them to propel two-ton combustion engines over concrete at high speeds?

  • As kids get older, parents become uncool

    “I just don’t get it,” Mom piped up over the screeching sounds, “Why on Earth would a cat scratch a beaver? That just doesn’t make sense, ecologically speaking.” My brother Tray and I were mortal enemies, but he grinned at me to share our mutual opinion that Mom was a square. Everyone else in the world knew the song was “Cat Scratch Fever,” not “Cat Scratch a Beaver.” Everyone but our mother.

  • Childhood memories recall dad’s soft side

    My middle-aged brain regularly forgets that my sunglasses are perched on my head, can’t remember where I parked the minivan and compels me to walk around my house muttering, “Now, why did I come in this room again?” But for some unknown reason, I have incredibly detailed memories of my childhood.

  • Gifts from the fridge say 'we've shared a lot'

    The summer military moving season is upon us, which means it’s probably time to say goodbye to some very good friends. There will be farewell fire pits, hugs on the driveway and even a few tears. But moving requires cleaning out the pantry and refrigerator, so this otherwise sad occasion might also come with parting gifts.

  • Brotherly love and other forms of abuse

    First, we’d hear giggling. Then a sharp squeal. The creak of the mattress springs, a bump on the wall, a muffled “Ouch!” Then more giggling.

  • 'Taps' conveys both sadness, peace

    One evening in 1981 while I was at summer camp, I took a deep breath, and blew a little too hard on the bugle’s mouthpiece. The counselor who played “Taps” each night to signal “lights out” to the campers had agreed to let me be the substitute bugler that evening.

  • 5 reasons why I’d never win ‘Survivor’

    I could claim that I have fencing lessons, or that I have tickets to La Boheme, or that I’m attending a lecture on the sustainability of agricultural practices in Machu Picchu. But I’d rather admit what I’m really doing Wednesday night.

  • Shopping trip means mind over mattress

    I stepped out of our car and squinted up at the sleek, tall building. It seemed more like a tech company or the corporate headquarters of something really important. Not a furniture store.

  • Never say never also applies to military life

    I swore I’d never do it. But there I was on a gurney, begging my doctor to please, for the love of God, give me a flipping epidural right this minute. It was the birth of our third child, Lilly, and up until that point, I had insisted on enduring labor pains without medication.

  • Birds, bees and military brats: Kids get cultured

    “Time for gelato!” I blurted, pulling our kids away from a statue at the Vatican City Museum during a family trip to Rome. We had stopped on our way to the Sistine Chapel to take a closer look at the strange female sculpture that we initially thought was covered in some kind of fruit ... were they mangoes? The plaque on the adjacent wall explained that she was Artemis, the goddess of fertility, and she was adorned with severed bull testicles. Ahem.

  • Military transitions just can't be rushed

    A few days ago, I made my usual school drop-off, then took our 2-year-old lab, Moby, on his regular morning walk. While we trudged around the local reservoir, I listened to my latest audio book and focused my eyes on the path, dodging the many goose deposits.

  • Tradition, Easter treats change with the times

    When holidays like Easter and Passover roll around each year, I can’t help but compare my childhood to our fast-paced modern life. My memories pass before me like an 8mm film, with a jumpy picture and the clicking sound of spinning reels.

  • Military families: Always outsiders?

    On a recent drive to take our two eldest kids back to college after spring break, I didn’t mind when Anna commandeered the minivan’s satellite radio. But halfway through the Berkshires, my elbow hurt from fist-pumping to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” and I was bored with pop lyrics.

  • Young military spouses, your mistakes await you

    Twenty-four years ago, when I became a military spouse, I was pretty clueless. “Honey,” my husband, Francis, delicately explained through clenched teeth two weeks after our wedding, “the reason you should NOT lose your new military ID is that you will need it for everything!” I thought the silly laminated card was an unnecessary formality. I had no idea that it would actually become more important than my spleen.

  • When conveniences cause excess stress

    Lying before dawn under the rumpled covers of our bed, I squeeze the minute muscles of my eyelids in hopes of delaying the morning grind.

  • It's an old van, but it's family

    “What the …?” my 16-year-old daughter, Lilly, stopped herself short in front of our minivan on a blustery, rainy morning before school this week. There, on the driveway, was a pile of shattered black glass. Just above the shards on the passenger’s rear side was a gaping hole where the window used to be.

  • A little sympathy wouldn't hurt

    Trailing tissues behind, I burst through the base clinic doors five minutes past my appointment time. “Sorry I’m late,” I croaked raspily to the corpsman in blueberries at the family practice desk. He directed me to the waiting area.

  • Wanted: A manager to keep mom in line

    I was late for the meeting. Again. With an armful of crumpled papers, I rushed down the hall. Sheepishly, I found a seat at the table, and began with as much authority as I could muster:

  • Fat Tuesday now just a painful memory

    By now, two months into 2017, most people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. I’ll admit it, I give up every year around this time, and the chronic pattern of lose-gain-guilt-lose-gain-guilt repeats itself in perpetuity.

  • Strength will kick in when parents need it

    Everyone knows Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — but few know that buried in the fine print of this famous decree, there is a Military Spouse Clause that reads, “And when it does go wrong, it will happen during deployment.”

  • Middle-aged love takes some effort

    With Valentine’s Day almost here, we’re all feeling the pressure to be romantic. But for couples like us who’ve been married a long time, it’s not always easy.

  • Your Super Bowl party, my super bowl party

    Here we are, living in New England, and no one has invited us to a Super Bowl party. Oh well, I’ve had worse Super Bowl Sundays. Much worse.

  • 'Base housing people' among the most fortunate

    I was emerging from the base gym’s steam room, sweating and feeling a bit woozy, when I heard her. “We don’t do base housing,” a young female officer putting on her blueberry fatigues told a friend in the women’s locker room.

  • Family robot at the ready to answer life's thorny questions

    After a lifetime of wondering things like, “How do you say ‘underwear’ in Urdu?” and “What is the shelf life of a can of Pringles?” I no longer have to rack my brain for the answers to life’s pressing questions. In an unprecedented act of holiday generosity, my 21-year-old son bought me a tiny robot, not much bigger than a can of tuna. “Alexa,” my new voice-activated Amazon Echo Dot, has achieved total consciousness and is perfectly willing to share it with me, if only I would ask.

  • Sex, lies and profile pics: What yours says about you

    Eight years ago, I sat at a desk in our stairwell apartment on Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, and created my first Facebook profile. Technology was not my forte, so it took hours for me to figure out how to upload a digital photo. The image that I used that day is the same one on my Facebook profile today, but not for the reasons one might think.

  • A zombie's guide to rural Vermont

    “I booked three nights in a one-room cabin in Woodstock, Vt., with two queen beds, a fireplace and an air mattress!” my husband, Francis, bellowed excitedly, after searching for a last-minute excursion for our family during the long holiday break. After two tours in Europe, our three kids were accustomed to these spontaneous trips, otherwise known as “forced family fun.”

  • Take a shot at some resolutions

    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.

  • 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.

  • Christmas spirits dance in my head

    Thanksgiving was over, to begin with. I awoke at midnight from a strange dream of being chased by a mashed potato monster, but I couldn’t run, due to the weight of my own enormous thighs.

  • Suffering through the 12 takes of Christmas

    “Come on 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 a 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.

  • Alarm bells ring, are you listening?

    Every so often, something occurs that causes married couples to question everything. It happened to me just last night. 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.

  • Just give up: Resistance to fat jeans is futile

    Human willpower built the pyramids, traveled to the moon and split the atom. It enabled Evel Knievel to attempt to leap the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, and Annie Edson Taylor to plunge over Niagara Falls inside a pickle barrel. It compelled Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa to climb Mount Everest and Joshua Slocum to sail alone around the world. But human willpower is no match against gingerbread lattes, holiday cheese balls and Aunt Betty’s Peanut Butter Fudge.

  • Thanksgiving’s forbidden fruit

    As a kid, my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal wasn’t the turkey.

  • Once and always a military family

    This week, our family took the ultimate leap of faith. After 28 years of active-duty military service, my husband, Francis, retired. I used to think that it would feel weird, that I would be a little depressed, that the world would look different through civilian eyes. But now, as we prepare to transition, I remember the moment a couple of months ago when I realized it would be OK.

  • The point of finger-pointing

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

  • Trick or treat: Smell my size 11 feet

    A few Halloweens ago, I was sitting on the porch of my privatized housing at Naval Station Mayport, giving candy to trick-or-treaters on our street. My husband went door to door with our kids, while I stayed home and tried to not gorge myself on Heath Bars.

  • Oh my gourd! Dissecting a Halloween tradition

    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.

  • True romance can be a gas sometimes

    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 24th anniversary, I’ll tell the story that inspired me to write. …

  • Losing football team with a winning spirit

    In the fall, a whiff of fallen leaves evokes echoes of marching bands and whistles blown. We feel the cold aluminum bleacher seats and the prickle of wool scarves. Like Pavlov’s dog, our mouths water, imagining hot coffee at 8 a.m. soccer games and chili dogs at football halftime.

  • Military spouses’ lives too diverse to compare

    I know what you’re all secretly wondering about me. So, why don’t I address it right off the bat.

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