Monday, January 22, 2018

The Year of Living More With Less: You, Me and the TV

I made a lot of plans for Blue when I was pregnant. We were going to listen to Beethoven everyday. He would only eat organic baby food that I made. And he would not watch any TV until he was at least two. We did not listen to Beethoven everyday. We listened to a lot of Sesame Street and 90's country. I did make his baby food but it certainly wasn't all organic. I did my best but Petersburg, Virginia is not the fresh food oasis that Kansas and Pennsylvania have been. And we did make it until he was 2 before watching TV, although it was days old and not years old. So to my friend, Shana, who rolled her eyes at me when I revealed my baby goals to her, you totally called it.

Blue was fairly mesmerized by the TV at a young age (and by young, I mean his head was propped up in his swing because he wasn't holding it up on his own yet). We watched Baby Genius videos and quite a bit of Daniel Tiger. We watched some Caillou until my ears began to bleed one day and I determined it was the direct result of that kid's voice. Blue was plenty whiny. He didn't need an onscreen personality to further encourage him. But over the years, a lot of PBS Kids shows have served as background noise to our day-to-day lives. His obsessions yo-yo, from Wild Kratts to Sid the Science Kid to Odd Squad. And thanks to on demand, he can watch any episode any time. Neal and I tried to explain to him about what it was like to watch TV when we were growing up. It must have sounded something like I walked five miles uphill, both ways, in 6' feet of snow just to go to school. "Well, son, we could only watch whatever show was on at the time and we only had one TV so we had to agree on what to watch. And we only got to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings." I think we lost him there.

The truth is, distractions of all kinds are available these days. And they aren't the devil. Shows like Wild Kratts taught me, Neal and my mom what a narwhal is. Sid the Science Kid explained water vapor in a way I never could. Daniel Tiger wins the prize for most songs about being nice. (And when a disabled child was in his class this year, Blue simply commented that he had crutches, like Daniel Tiger's cousin, Chrissy.) The iPad has let us watch elephants in the San Diego Zoo and track Santa on Christmas Eve. It has kept him busy during cross-country moves with math games and songs about stinky feet. And it has helped me keep my sanity while in Target because that place is just as magical to a 5 year old as it is to a 40 year old. "No you may not have all those Ninjago LEGO sets. Do you want to watch Word World on my phone?"

I, someone who has never found enjoyment in mindless TV and would be just as happy to sell the TV if it weren't for UK basketball games and Masterpiece Theatre, has certainly set a precedent for watching TV. I've used it as a distraction when I needed to take a shower or wanted 25 minutes of peace and quiet. I've used it as reward for everything from cleaning up the play room to potty training. And we still have movie night every Friday, which means we all fall asleep under the glow of some Disney movie that we've probably already seen at least 3 times. But perhaps most detrimental to our health, is my love of watching TV while eating. It only took one time for Blue to fall in love with this habit, too. So, when he started refusing to eat unless he was watching TV, I knew it was time to make a change.

I searched Pinterest (which is a rabbit hole of parenting techniques) for some way to modify his behavior. I came across the "technology tickets" idea.
There are a slew of mommy bloggers who have put this into practice and were willing to share experiences and free printables. As I read through them, I decided on the rules that made the most sense for us:

1. Every Friday morning (because I finally sat down and printed this all out one Thursday afternoon), Blue receives 14 technology tickets, worth 30 minutes each. They apply to all screens but, honestly, he is on the iPad so infrequently that often when he finally thinks about it, the battery is long-dead. (However, last week he discovered the joy of competition with Mario Kart on the Wii, so that now counts, too.) Anyway, if doled out appropriately, this is one hour of TV per day, which is perfectly acceptable according to most early childhood educators...and about 1/8 the amount of TV that we have been watching. So, there's a fair amount of detoxing involved.

2. To watch TV or play the Wii, he must pull a ticket from the "unwatched" jar and place it in the "watched" jar. Then one of us starts a timer on Alexa (except her name is Echo because I started feeling a little uncomfortable about Blue barking orders at a woman all the time and never saying please or thank you. Although I'm told Alexa doesn't mind. But Mama does.).

3. To watch more TV or play a game after the timer goes off, he must pull another ticket and start another timer. When he is out of tickets, he must earn more.

4. Blue can earn one ticket by doing 30 minutes of reading, writing, math, arts & crafts or helping me around the house. He can also earn tickets by being extra helpful, kind and patient. Or by doing something the first time we ask (like getting in the bath - which, according to him, is his kryptonite or cleaning up his toys - his playroom is literally adjacent to the kitchen. How hard is it?). For the record, in three weeks of doing this, he has never once earned a ticket for doing something the first time we asked.

5. He can lose tickets by being sassy, disrespectful, argumentative or rude. He can also lose them by breaking the house rules: no hitting, no kicking, no screaming, no spitting (yes that eventually had to become a house rule. Boys are so gross.), no biting (again...what??) and no throwing (in anger, but at least he hasn't learned how to slam a door yet).

The first two days were comically confusing. He used nearly all his tickets (yes, that's basically 7 hours of TV each day but I was determined that if he had to learn the hard way, so be it) and he kept trying to move tickets back and forth between jars. At one point, Neal suggested we put a cap on how many tickets he used each day, but I knew that he would figure it out eventually, just like he finally mastered a zipper and how to count by tens. And by the end of the first week, Blue had used all of his tickets but had earned more by drawing an entire zoo of animals, helping me dust and reading 2 Magic Treehouse books. And he did not watch TV one time while he was eating. He didn't even ask.

And that brings us to week 2, which was certainly been a little more lax. With 2 days off school plus one snow day and one day when I worked all day on my magazine deadline, he probably owed us a few tickets. But the dependence on the screen is diminishing. Blue, an only child with more toys than the family of 7 that lives behind us, has finally started to look around for something to play with instead of something to watch. I'm not saying we have been perfect but as long as we strive to be consistent, Blue doesn't fight it. If he's out of tickets, that's a concrete visual. And the threat of taking away tickets has proved valuable when little else seems to motivate him. Likewise, Neal and I dragged him to the National Civil War Museum last week and he was patient and calm the entire time. That earned him two tickets when we got home. I will say this works better if both parents are solidly on-board. It's like one more thing to remember, but it will pay off...eventually.

There are plenty of "Technology Ticket" free printables out there, but most of them are for readers. With Blue still learning sight words, I decided to create my own using clip art from Bing and my Publisher program. I'm not making it available to print because I'm sure that violates about 20 copyright laws, but I will show you what mine looks like so you can make your own. I couldn't find a decent graphic to represent "kind" and "helpful" that didn't involve children holding hands around a globe so I'm hoping this smiley face with a thumbs up gets the point across.
Unless it is a major sports event (every UK basketball game is a major sports event in this house, but also the Super Bowl and when the Louisville City Football Club went to the finals last year) or the next season of The Crown, Neal and I rarely watch TV. Before Blue was born, we spent entire Sundays lying in bed with coffee and bagels, watching HGTV and CNN. Now, it's an hour of TV before bed and Friday night movies. We don't have cable, just a cobbled together set of apps like Sling and Netflix streaming. And I'm OK with this. But the example we set has not been enough to deter Blue and he has taken everything that we have allowed him to get away with. So, for the sake of all of us, we need this. We need limits. We need less TV. And we are all learning to live more with less of it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Year of Living More With Less: The Stressing and the Blessing

As I write this, we are in PCS limbo. It happens every 18 months or so. We have been identified as movers, we have ranked the list of open jobs, we are waiting to hear from Human Resources Command at Ft. Knox regarding where we are headed next (they keep having snow days - which happens. When Neal was at Knox we had a snow so deep he had to shovel a path for Blue to walk so we could leave the house.). After a couple of conversations with Neal's Branch Manager, we have an idea of what our options might be. Sometimes it's something in our first five choices. Sometimes it's not. But that doesn't really matter. Like most military families, we rank jobs based on whether they will build or bust Neal's career. We never rank an OK job with an amazing location higher than an amazing job with an OK location. That means we've never been to Germany or Japan or Hawaii or Italy or Alaska. I'm not saying those locations only have low-level jobs, I'm saying we've never been given a list where those locations offer jobs (at that time) that would boost Neal's career. Sometimes the most desirable jobs go to someone in Military Intelligence or Infantry or Signal. However, it is also how we have landed in areas of the country that most people simply drive through or fly over and we have fallen in love with these areas just as deeply as if we had spent 2 years on the beaches of Honolulu or in the piazzas of Italy.

And because so many Americans don't get to experience the kind of quiet beauty that exists in the hamlets of Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas and Pennsylvania, I want to share some of my favorite photos from the past 8 years.
Fresh peaches at Lane's Peach Orchard in Fort Valley, GA. I will still drive out of my way for Lane's fresh peach ice cream and wine. 
A spring lunch on the banks of the Appomattox River. And then some 4-leaf clover searching. City Point served as the headquarters for the Union Army during the Siege of Petersburg. But remnants of the Civil War are scattered throughout this region of Virginia.
Tasting sap straight from the tree at a maple syrup festival in southern Indiana. It's not anything you would want to pour over your pancake. 
Watching the Kroger employees craft the Kentucky Derby garland of roses for the Derby winner. They bag the reject roses and hand them out to anyone who stops by. They may not be good enough for the Derby winner, but I was thrilled to have them.
"I'm TWO," said Blue to Santa Santa Claus, Indiana. Santa asked Blue about the real meaning of Christmas. Blue said, "Ho! Ho! Ho! Pwesents!" And it was then that we realized we had failed God. And Santa.
The time-consuming task of restoring a carousel horse by hand. Leavenworth, Kansas is home to the fastest carousel in the country, which is not as fun as it sounds. But the horses are works of art that, for some crazy reason, they allow us to straddle.
Not all of life is slower and more deliberate in Pennsylvania. Front Street in Harrisburg is a bustle of legislators and businesses. But here in Lancaster County, we yield to a simpler way of life. 
Sometimes all you need is 1/2 mile on the Appalachian Trail to remind you of what's important. We'll do more someday. Maybe the whole thing. But for now, in this season of life, this is plenty. 
I was writing at full tilt last weekend. Under a deadline with 4 articles to write and 2 days to do it, I answered a text from my editor with "I just started the second article. Beginnings and endings are hard." She texted me right back with, "In life, too." Farm Show chicks are born under bright lights and thousands of inquisitive eyes.

I am taking a moment to remember where we've been, what we've seen because it reminds me that it doesn't really matter what God's plan is for us. Whatever it is, it will work out. And being anxious about the future is simply distracting me from the joys of today. Still, it's easy for me to be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. What if we end up in a horrible school district? What if we don't get along with the neighbors? What if we're all miserable for two years? Except that has never been the case. So much stress when all we've been is blessed.

The season of uncertainty never gets any easier. Do I hold on to these ski pants or get rid of them? Will we need these life jackets at the next place? What will we do if the new house is half the size of this one with a carport instead of a 3 car garage? What if Blue is bullied? How do we keep all this unbridled anxiety from steering the ship? For Christmas, Mama Virgo presented Blue with a Magic 8 Ball because she saw it on some list of top gifts for 5-year olds. While Blue was busy asking it questions like "Where are my Dusty Crophopper socks?" (Goodwill) and "Where is the Build-A-Bear coupon that came in the mail yesterday?" (the very bottom of the trashcan) and "Where are the Duplo LEGOS that I gave to Santa?" (in an unmarked black trash bag in the garage), I wanted to know where we would be next. DC? Not likely. CA? It is decidedly so. There you have it, HRC. My Magic 8 Ball tells me so.

All I know is that we have made our homes where many people choose not to live. Vine Grove, Macon, Leavenworth...these are not pockets of glamour on the American landscape. I also know that I have been dragged kicking and screaming to every new assignment and I've been dragged kicking and screaming away from every old assignment. Beginnings and endings are hard, but being being suspended between an ending and a beginning is the worst. I do not want to say goodbye, I do not want to say hello. I want to be in the middle. But God doesn't strengthen us in the middle. The middle was our rest. Our rest is over. It's time to put on our armor and go. But where? And when?


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Year of Better: Recap

Happy 2018! 
Remember when we all flocked to see JFK in the theaters and at the conclusion of the film there was a note that the records relating to Kennedy's assassination would be released in 2020? And remember how that seemed like a lifetime away? Well, it's not. It's just down the block and around the corner. (I'm suddenly alerted to the fact of how much I use emojis in my daily communication as I'm overcome with the urge to insert a wide-eyed face here.)

I began 2017 with a house full of head colds and a commitment to better choices. I had 6 goals and here's how they played out over the year:

1. To eat a more Whole 30-based diet and eliminate fast food.
On the whole (Ha! See what I did there?), I stuck to this plan. We certainly had a couple of meals at Chick Fil A (although it's a solid 30 miles from the house so it was more a meal of convenience since we were in the area anyway), but fast food was reduced to once about every 8-12 weeks and I cooked 5-6 nights per week (although it was only about 60% Whole 30). I wish I had some stand-out meals to post here, but I don't. The meals were all good with only a few burning disappointments that had to be trashed immediately (apparently, you can't use long grain brown rice in one pot meals and expect it to cook all the way through before everything else turns to mush). After some blood work last October came back with indications of inflammation in my body, I will be doubling down on the vegetable intake this year. So, I'll try to be better about sharing some easy and divine vegetable recipes. If Blue inhales it without a single complaint, it will be blogworthy.

2. Buy organic as often as possible.
I'm not gonna lie...local grocery stores make this practically impossible. Either 2 stalks of broccoli cost the same as my new running shoes or they just don't keep it well-stocked. However, in this part of Pennsylvania, we have options.

I discovered several farmer's markets over the summer, including the Lancaster Central Market (if you are in the area and it's open, GO. It's the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in the country and it's one of the few intersections of Amish and English agriculture).

And for the first 6 months, I shopped at Oregon Dairy, which is a working dairy farm with attached grocery store, petting zoo, restaurant, playground and ice cream shop.

Although it's 45 minutes from the house, Blue was still home with me 2 days each week so we made this our day's adventure. Grocery first, then playground, followed up by ice cream. I miss that routine. My muffin top does not. Alas, Blue started full-time school in the fall and I was less tempted to drive 90 minutes for pig petting and ice cream.

Eventually, I found one that's closer to home and is open year-round. They are only open Thursday - Saturday so that requires some flexibility on my end. I now do my menu and grocery shopping on Thursdays and that has to last until the following Thursday. There are some items the farmer's market just doesn't carry, though (and there is an argument to be made that perhaps we don't need it after all, but cats need litter and the males in this house will mutiny if we run out of goldfish crackers). But I would say 80% of our groceries come from the farmer's market, which is mostly organic.

3. Purchase meat from our local Mennonite market.
I've managed to stick to this, even though it means a third stop just for groceries. (And because I'm completely addicted to Bell & Evans chicken, which I can only find at their retail store on the other side of town, sometimes a fourth stop.) But the beef is grass-fed, the chickens are free range, you can ask the meat counter to fresh cut anything you want and they are incredibly helpful when it comes to preparing the meat. That has allowed me to venture into cuts of beef that I wouldn't ordinarily try because I would end up ruining it. Bell & Evans air chills their chicken, which means there's no gross plastic pack of who knows what in the package under the chicken. I didn't know I was so disgusted by that little squishy gel pack and it will be very hard to go back.

4. Eliminate the toxic cleaners from our house.
YES!!!! This was my first task last January and I've slowly eliminated every single toxic cleaner we used and replaced them with safe and, just as importantly, effective household cleaners. I now make my own dishwasher tabs (linked to the recipe), clothing detergent (recipe coming), kitchen and bath cleaners (mainly Young Living's Thieves Cleaner, vinegar, baking soda, Epsom salt and Super Washing Soda).
Thieves (it's concentrated so it needs to be diluted with water and dilution depends on what you're cleaning) + baking soda cleans almost everything. The Thieves cleaner needs to sit on the surface for a minute so it can start working but I haven't found anything that it can't tackle. And if you are unsure about using it on extra germy areas like kitchen counters after cooking chicken or on the toilets, there are several Youtube videos out there where more ambitious moms than me have conducted a cotton swab test in a petri dish and compared it to bleach or other more traditional cleaners. Thieves wins. Every single time. I bought this bottle in February and I'm almost out. That's a testament to how little it takes (unfortunately, it's also a testament to how infrequently I clean my bathrooms, but that's a resolution for a different year). It takes about 30 minutes for me to make a batch of dishwasher tabs and clothing detergent (because somehow I always run out at the same time) and the most time-intensive part of the entire process is pressing the dishwasher mix into the ice cube trays and allowing the clothing detergent to cool completely before mixing it one last time.

We've also substituted our bath soap with Dr. Bronner's (which I hadn't heard of until Blue got the worst case of cradle cap when he was about 3 months old and some crunchy mama blog said to wash it with Dr. Bronner's. It worked like a charm, but I deemed it unworthy of anything else and threw the remainder in the trash. I still weep for my past self over that). In addition to the whimsical and wordy packaging (that is worth the read if you ever find yourself on the toilet without your phone), Dr. Bronner's is a 0 on the Think Dirty app and comes in at least 6 different scents (including one that is scent-less for babies and is actually a 1 on Think Dirty, ironically enough).

For mopping, I use a capful of Thieves, about a gallon of hot water and the juice of one lemon. To clean my furniture, I use a mix of olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice. I've been doing both of these things for a year and the non-toxic cleaners actually work better than the toxic ones. To clean my microwave, I have an Angry Mama, which is completely unnecessary but so fun to watch that sometimes I clean my already-clean microwave just to watch her little bobbing, steaming head go round and round.

I will say that this is the biggest change I've made this year that has made the biggest difference for me. My house is clean and without the use of toxic chemicals. I continue to find new recipes and ideas for expanding on this goal. I will still post my clothing detergent recipe, but I wanted to use it for a year before sharing it with you. And I will share other finds after I test them for myself.

5. Spend at least 30 minutes outside everyday.
Apparently, I only like to be outside if there is some task to be completed. I only stuck to this when the weeds threatened to return the playground to its naturally forested state and I spent 6 weeks weeding by hand (because Round Up doesn't comply with goal #4) while Blue played. This is one goal where I fell woefully short and I need to re-focus on for 2018. I have a neighbor who is outside almost any time I drive by and she's my inspiration. She and her kids can be found tossing the football, drawing with chalk on the driveway, playing basketball and swinging on their playground. And her kids never complain about how hard it is to ride a bike, catch a ball or swing themselves...unlike Blue who can't be bothered to do any of these things. Clearly some shiz needs to change around here. 

6. Incorporate essential oils into our daily routines. 
At the end of January I received my Premium Starter Kit and a diffuser from Young Living Essential Oils. I had an oily friend (who I now lovingly refer to as my oil guru) on speed text and a hope that the oils would prove to be worth it. I started by diffusing Lavender and Cedarwood to help us sleep. That worked. I used Panaway on my cramps. That worked. I used Peppermint and Lemon and Lavender on my headaches. That worked.

One morning last March, I fell to the ground, doubled over in pain from an ovarian cyst. After a series of exams, ultrasounds and a frightening phone call from my doctor that it might be cancer, it was determined that it was just an unusually large cyst that would resolve on its own. I texted my oil guru. I went off the birth control that wasn't doing its job anyway (because it was intended to control my cysts, not control birth). I started on Progessence Plus and Endoflex and Clary Sage. I'm religious about my use and I haven't had a painful cyst since. I also don't have the extreme mood swings that I had on birth control or the debilitating cramps during my period and I lost about 5 pounds right off the bat. Maybe it's all in my head, but maybe it's not.

On the last Monday of July, Blue took a nose dive out of the RV window and onto the pavement below. He was diagnosed with an orbital skull fracture, which left him with a ping pong ball-sized lump on his forehead and took about 10 years off my life. I called my oil guru. I went into August armed with a rollerball of Helichrysum, Frankincense and Cypress, and a tub of rose ointment. By the beginning of September, the team of physicians concluded that he had healed beyond what they expected. Part of that is the oils. Part of it is God - that he didn't land in a different way that would have resulted in a worse injury. It was bad, but it didn't turn out to be life-threatening. And I was ready with oils that would support his muscular and nervous systems so his body could heal faster.

There is a lot of debate about Young Living vs. DoTerra vs. Plant Therapy vs. whatever you buy at Whole Foods or on Amazon. And maybe I'll write a separate post about that someday and maybe I won't. What I can say now is that you have to do your own research, as in-depth as you deem necessary. Read, ask questions, talk to people. There are concerns that Young Living's price point has more to do with its direct sales structure than with the quality of oils. There are people who are morally opposed to DoTerra because it was created by a couple of guys who started at Young Living and then used all they learned to create a competing company. And there are people who quit the others because the oils were topped with fillers that reduced the effectiveness, making them essentially useless. There are pros and cons to all corporations, especially in the essential oil industry, and as informed consumers, the best we can do is research it and then decide what we can accept and what's a deal-breaker.

I have decided to be more open this year about ways we are using essential oils to not only prevent illness but actually promote health. When I read through my post from last January, I clearly detect a tone of exhaustion that stems from being sick of being sick. Although I ended 2017 with a stomach bug, it was mild and quick-to-pass. I attribute that to consistent use of high-quality oils that promote health.

The Year of Better was like a wheel turning, with so many spokes pointing inward toward one common goal: to be a better version of myself (and to bring my family along for the ride). Although I accomplished most of the tasks I set forth last year (and even completed some I hadn't originally included like checking my metabolic blood work and starting Weight Watchers), I spent a lot of money doing it. And some of it was necessary but much of it was simply convenient.

That leads me to 2018's project: The Year of Living More With Less. Less shopping, less food, less money, less unjustified worry, less meat, less social media, less preoccupation with my phone, less TV, less stuff, less mindless distractions, less excuses, less procrastination. I don't have my goals set yet, but I'm working on them. It's going to be a hectic year with another move imminent. A new house, new city, new school, new doctors and dentists, new friends, new, new, new. And that's when I tend to accumulate more, more, more. So, this is certainly a timely challenge. 3 down, 362 to go...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ten Ways to Support Our Veterans (more than a free meal at Applebee's)

 Taken at the Leavenworth Veterans Day Parade, the oldest (and longest) parade in the country.
Ahhh...Veterans Day. The day we set aside to thank the men and women who died protecting our freedom.

No. Wait. That's Memorial Day.

Ahhh...Veterans Day. The day we set aside to thank the men and women who are serving our country.

No. Wait. That's Armed Forces Day.

Ahhh...Veterans Days. The day we set aside to thank...our veterans?

As I found out this week when I posed a seemingly harmless question to Facebookland, there are many ways to define a veteran. And how you define it dictates who you spend this day thanking.

Webster's definition: A person who has had long service or experience in an occupation.
Veterans Administration definition: For the purpose of VA health services and benefits, a person who served in the active military service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.
The original definition of Veterans Day: Originally Armistice Day, 11/11 was meant to celebrate the end of WWI and to honor the veterans who served in that war, whether they were still active or not. But as more wars were waged, in an attempt to be more inclusive, the holiday was changed to include all veterans from all wars. 
Many active duty Servicemembers' definition: Any Servicemember who has been deployed to a combat zone is a veteran of that conflict. Or anyone who has received a DD-214 form is a veteran. Or anyone who has 180 days of active duty service, not including Basic Training or AIT.
Many other active duty Servicemembers' definition: See Veterans Administration definition.

So, yeah...there some differences in opinion and there are many individuals who feel quite strongly about who gets to claim the title of veteran. For the VA, it is understandably black and white. But for everyone else? There are at least 50 shades of gray.

Although I speak the military language fairly fluently, I would readily admit that until 3 days ago, I was like most of you. I tried not to thank anyone living on Memorial Day. I gave a shout-out to our Servicemembers (and the Founding Fathers, of course...Viva la George Washington!) on the 4th of July and I thanked pretty much everyone who was or is in the military on Veterans Day. Because I believe that if you have experience in an occupation or have been deployed to a conflict or are retired/discharged, you are a veteran. So, that applies to pretty much every Servicemember I know. But...I'm willing to concede that this is the only day that retired/discharged veterans get to shine some light on the problems they are plagued by and the ways we can help. So, on Armed Forces Day, I'll be back with a slew of ways we can support our active duty Servicemembers.

First and foremost, I believe this country goes about throwing good Servicemembers after bad wars at an alarming rate. If there is a need for deployment then we must also accept the obligation to provide not just adequate but excellent care after deployment. That's physical healthcare, mental healthcare, job placement, any kind of social services that Servicemember might have. And what we need to start recognizing is that a Servicemember deployed to a conflict 4 or 5 or 6 times is going to have a lot more needs than a civilian who worked for state government for 35 years. Even if he/she never saw someone get blown to bits, even if he/she never lost a limb, even if he/she was only deployed for 4 or 6 months at a time. And the military maintains a decent support structure for Servicemembers, as long as they are active. But when they are retired or discharged, they take their number at the VA and wait. After spending almost 3 weeks watching Ken Burns' and Lynn Novack's documentary on the Vietnam War, I feel many things, but mostly disappointment that we didn't learn from that shameful mistake. We may not be spitting on veterans in the street anymore, but that's only because we are simply ignoring them now. We are ignoring their mortality rates, their homeless rates, their alcohol and drug abuse rates. I consciously did not join the military because war and violent death scare the crap out of me. But as I am running away, others are running to it and when they come back, broken and messy, we can't punish them for doing something we wouldn't.

So, I am listing ways that we can all help the veterans of today, which will also help the veterans of tomorrow. There are, literally, thousands of ways for Americans to support veterans...from simply waving flags as the VFW passes by during the Memorial Day parade to regularly visiting nursing homes that care for aging veterans and everything in between. These are just the ones that either I or friends have first-hand knowledge of. I encourage everyone who has an opportunity to add, to please do so in the blog comments or Facebook comments.

1. Socks for Vets: This Pennsylvania-based organization was first brought to my attention by one of the spouses in our unit. Their mission is to collect new socks, cards/stuffed animals/sugar-free candy for the amputees and cards for distribution at the Veteran's Home each month. The founder, a 9th grade military child named Cavan, determines a different theme each month and then collects donations based on that theme. Their goal is to keep veterans in the nursing home happy and comfortable as they live out their days. You can read more about them on their Facebook page, Socks for Vets.

2. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2): This is the official U.S. Army program that assists and advocates for severely wounded, ill and injured Soldiers, veterans and their families, wherever they are located, regardless of military status. Again, I heard about this program from a fellow Army wife. When a Servicemember enters into the program, he/she is assigned an advocate to help them navigate the Wounded Warrior Lifecycle. Essentially, they are easing the transition from military life to civilian life after a traumatic injury or illness. By contacting the advocate in your area, you can ask to receive their emails, which often offers suggestions for ways you can support local veterans. For more information about the program and to find your area advocate's information, check their website.

3. Presents for Patriots: A timely addition considering the holidays are upon us, Presents for Patriots makes it possible for families of wounded Servicemembers to have food on the table and gifts under the tree at Christmas. They team up with the Freedom Alliance and you can read about them here. While I do not have first-hand experience with this program, it was one of the suggested ways to support wounded warriors from AW2.

4. Team RWB: I have only met volunteers from this organization at a festival while we were stationed at Ft. Leavenworth. I gave them my email with every intention of getting involved, but 11 months at a duty station goes by fast and before I knew it, it was time to move again. Also, it seemed like the chapter was always getting together for runs. I'm not a runner anymore. I'm like a brisk walker, bike rider and occasional hiker. Team RWB (Team Red, White and Blue in case you hadn't put that together yet) has a clear and succinct mission: To enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. So, the Leavenworth chapter liked to get their veterans together to run. But if the only reason you are running is because there's a bear chasing you, don't despair. Contact your local chapter anyway and see what other ways you can get involved. I'm all for a hike down a flat part of the Appalachian Trail followed by a potluck dinner and maybe that's a thing where you are, too. You can find your local chapter here.

5. Join an Elks Lodge: While the VFW and American Legion are only open to veterans (and specifically veterans of foreign wars for the VFW), the Elks is open to anyone who is an American citizen, over the age of 21, not convicted of a felony, not a communist and believes in God. Once you're in, a whole host of new opportunities to serve veterans, alongside your fellow Elks, will most likely become available to you. And if you are thinking to yourself, "That sounds like a bunch of old, white men sitting around drinking beer and watching baseball," I will tell you that I went to my first Elks lodge as the guest of my sorority sister (who is NOT an old, white man, by the way). She is extremely active in her Elks lodge in California, which provides for veterans and their families at Christmas, as well as conducts activities to support them throughout the year. The national Elks veterans committee mission statement reads, "So long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them." Fun fact about the Elks: when the symbol was voted on by the first members in 1868, they were choosing between the elk and the buffalo. It was 8-7, in favor of the elk. You can find your local chapter here.

6. Visit the nursing homes: Yeah, I get it. Nursing homes are usually musty, depressing places where shells of humans slump over a table and drool into their mashed potatoes. That is really not your thing. It ain't mine, either. But mission work with our church has taken us to the local nursing home twice in the past year and each time it is unexpectedly rewarding. This past visit was to paint pumpkins with the residents. I ended up sitting next to the oldest member of our church, at a not-yet-ripe 102. Granted, she asked 4 times in 10 minutes if she got to keep her pumpkin and every time I said, "YES!" she radiated with renewed excitement, I also got to hear about how she was born just after midnight on New Year's Day during a terrible snow storm in Pennsylvania. And how she grew up Lutheran but her husband was a Moravian so she "converted". Also, I don't have any grandparents left and I didn't appreciate the ones I had when I had them, so this is like a second chance for me. So, call up the local nursing home or assisted living residence and find out if they have any veterans living among them. I bet they do. I bet they would love a visit or a card made by your kid!

7. Volunteer with the Veterans History Project by the Library of Congress: This was passed on to me by another fellow Army wife who is just as obsessed with living history as I am (and in the under-60 crowd, that's hard to come by). This project simply requires you to download the Veterans History Project Field Kit, prepare for the interview with the veteran, conduct the interview and then upload it to the Library of Congress. And what I've learned from 6 months as a staff writer of our local magazine is that interviewing someone is no more than having a conversation where you ask most of the questions. If you are curious at all, you will be fabulous at this. Plus, it preserves a veteran's memories for the future generations that will never have a chance to hear them in person. (And if Ken Burns has taught me anything, it's that he is a national treasure who will be sorely missed when he's gone.) You can download the kit and get started here.

8. Volunteer with the VFW and the American Legion: One of the suggestions offered on my Facebook post was to help organize a reunion for veterans of combat. The fellow Army wife and veteran who suggested it was able to participate in a reunion organized by the local VFW and it made a profound impact on her life. Just having the time to reconnect and socialize with the other veterans she had served in combat with flooded her with appreciation for the opportunity. I know better than some how daunting it is to be a civilian on the cusp of the military world. So many acronyms, so much uncertainty. If cold-calling a VFW or American Legion post feels overwhelming and something you will probably never work up the courage to do, try contacting one of the other organizations (like Team RWB or the Elks) instead. Most likely, you will team up with veterans, active duty Servicemembers or their families somewhere along the way and they will help make volunteering for veterans accessible and enjoyable!

9. Read this article by Charity Navigator: Support Veterans and Active Duty Servicemembers

10. Read this article by The Street: 7 Charities That Actually Help Veterans Beyond Veterans Day and pay special attention to The Fisher House and Operation Homefront.

Will volunteering with these organizations allow you to have some effect on the darkest aspects of many veterans' lives? Will you find them homes? Get them off drugs and alcohol? Cure their PTSD? Nope, it will not. But it will weave a web of love and support that may encourage them to seek the help they need. And if they are simply aging, it will show them that they are not forgotten. We all have causes that are close to our heart...organizations that have touched our lives and we will always support. But I feel like supporting America's veterans is a cause that crosses all ages, incomes, genders, races. Whatever we are doing right this very minute, we are free to do it because someone fought for that right. Now we must support them. You don't have reach way out of your comfort zone. Find where your interests overlap with a veteran's needs and focus your efforts there. Everyone will be the better for it. I will be the first to admit that our family has not walked the talk that's in this blog post. But when I write a follow-up on 11/11/2018, we will have found some way to support our veterans and I hope you have, too.

And to all of our country's veterans, HAPPY VETERANS DAY and thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Freedom is not free.

Monday, November 6, 2017

When We Can't Do Everything But We Can Do SOMETHING

It is 50 days until Christmas and it has been 72 days since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston. Two more hurricanes, rampant wildfires and one mass killing at a music festival and another at a tiny church outside San Antonio makes it feel like it has been longer. But it was just a little over 2 months ago. In that time, many Houstonians have mucked their houses, trashed their moldy possessions, ripped out carpet and tile and walls and ceilings. And some...have not. But for the Bear Creek neighborhood in the northwestern suburbs of Houston, they are moving toward restoration at a lightning pace, aided by various teams of volunteers and a woman on a mission.

Penelope Moore waited for the rain to stop and then went on a bike ride to get out of the house. Just a little exercise to get the blood moving and hopefully see the sun. She doesn't exercise often because when she does, it usually leads to trouble. It didn't take long for her to find trouble. Her neighborhood was dry, but soon she pedaled into neighborhoods that hadn't been so lucky. She stopped at one house to help and one house led to another, which led to another, which led to 7 more. It started with packing whatever was salvageable (which wasn't much) and dragging what was left to the curb. She wrote a wrap-up Facebook post each night that described the emotional carnage she was witnessing, the devastation that many residents felt and the hope that appeared in unexpected places. And she ate a lot of Nilla wafers dipped in vanilla frosting. (I can't blame her. In times of tragedy I've never known a stalk of broccoli to comfort like a box of brownie bites and a jar of Nutella.) The more Penny shared about the needs of this neighborhood, the more her posts were shared. When Monica (who is my friend I've known the longest, not to be confused with my oldest friend), shared Penny's posts, I was hooked. Here was this woman, running on chemically altered sugar and a loaf of crusty French bead stashed in her passenger seat, bringing workers and renewed hope with her everyday. All she did was show up and ask people to do the same. And just like the loaves and the fishes, the people multiplied.
 This is the neighborhood of Bear Creek where The Helpers are working with residents to rebuild 9 houses. Ten days after the hurricane, some streets in this neighborhood were still 4 feet under water. 
A common scene around Bear Creek for several weeks.

Monica posted about the hurricane relief efforts on August 30 and had Paypal funds ready to spend  the next day. She answered Penny's request for bubble wrap, packing paper and Ziploc bags with those donations from friends and family. I was one of the friends who Paypal'd her some money and I'm not gonna lie, when I found out she was buying bubble wrap and packing paper, I was confused and not a little bit annoyed. I almost texted her, Aren't you supposed to be using that money to rebuild? Why are you buying bubble wrap? But I decided to wait and see. As it turns out, bubble wrap, packing paper and Ziploc bags is exactly what the survivors needed right at that moment. I humbly deleted my pre-written text. I needed to trust my long-time friend - that she would fill the need as it arose. Over the next few days, the need evolved into feeding the workers, providing ice, bananas, delivering catered lunches to the workers. And we kept hashtagging our efforts #Fundthehelpers, an homage to Mr. Rogers' quote about looking for the helpers during scary times. Within a week, all of the helpers were donning hazmat suits, galoshes and respirators. It had gotten bad. It had gotten scary.
The water line, which was not just water. Even as the flood waters were receding from Bear Creek, the nearby reservoir, which was at capacity, was slowly releasing raw sewage into the neighborhood to ease increasing pressure. As if flood waters weren't gross enough...

Although Monica's girls wanted to help every day they weren't in school, most homes were just too unsafe. However, they were able to rescue some Barbies and, at this house, they could remove wood as the men tore it out. 

I wish I could find the post Penny wrote about what happens to drywall after it has been wet for a week but it definitely grows some kind of fur. Anything that was still wet at this point was not only ruined, it was dangerous. While Penny learned to shoo away anyone with an open sore, Monica learned that some Barbies can be saved and some cannot. Volunteers were arriving in time for breakfast and then losing it in the bushes shortly after entering the houses. The heat, the smell, the total devastation created an environment that seemed almost impossible to tackle. But Penny just kept showing up and asking others to do the same.

Monica and Penny finally met.

The days were grueling, but they put on their Texas Strong t-shirts and went to work with whoever showed up. Kids went back to school, volunteer teams went back to work, the curbs cleared, black mold appeared, walls came down, floors came up. Penny balanced out her carb loading with a few vegetables and Monica celebrated her oldest daughter's birthday. Life marched on but every day began with the steady work of ripping it all out and starting all over. After the bleach began to dry, the rebuilding could begin, but they had to find the money.

Money was still coming in through Monica's Paypal account, an avalanche of cash at first and then trickling in as the rest of the country only glimpsed Hurricane Harvey in the rear view mirror. But Monica bought the gift cards she could, gave some to residents who were ready immediately, and held on to the rest. Several hundred dollars went to purchase "cleaning buckets" for residents in Rockport, where the hurricane made landfall.
The idea being that needs are evaluated on an almost daily basis and donations are addressing those needs in real time. As Penny determines the next steps for each house, Monica maximizes donations to reach the most residents in the most effective way. And this isn't a stretch for Monica. When we were 8 years old and I was blowing my entire allowance on rhinestone bangles at Claire's, she was trying to find the best value for her dollar. You would not want me to be in charge of spending donations. I don't even clip coupons. But Monica is perfect for this and I know that she is conscious about every purchase she makes. And I think most residents want to pull themselves up by their own  boot straps. But the truth is, I just don't think it's financially feasible for some, especially those without flood insurance.

I'm going to stop here and talk about flood insurance for a second. I will be the first to admit that I was not only on, but temporarily driving, the WHY DON'T YOU PEOPLE HAVE FLOOD INSURANCE Bandwagon. But then, as I was driving to the hippest craft show in the trendiest part of Lancaster (which does boast some craftspeople that don't drive buggies and speak high German), I had an hour-long conversation with Monica about flood insurance. The short version is that, had we been in their shoes, we probably would not have had flood insurance either. How do you foresee the 1,000-year flood happening in your lifetime and the reservoir down the road that had never been a problem before suddenly threatening everything you own? So, I am choosing to save my judgment for the next season of SYTYCD. (Is that still a thing? It took awhile to get through the PBS series about the Vietnam War and I feel like I'm grossly out of touch with mainstream TV.)

So, they had to find the money...because these people don't have the kind of money it takes to start over from scratch (and neither would we). And even if they did have flood insurance, this is now happening. (It's hyperlinked but seriously take a minute to read it. It's eye-opening and more than a little disturbing about just how bankrupt the federal government flood insurance program is.) #Fundthehelpers kicked into high gear and Monica created a pretty spiffy fundraising thermometer using the Texas state flag.

But the truth is, these residents and the volunteers helping them are suspended in the middle, often taking 3 steps forward just to take 2 steps back. And much of it has to do with money.

This brings me to the reason for this post. I would like to host another Facebook Craft Auction the second weekend of December. If you've been following along for awhile, you know I've done this twice, both with great success. We raised thousands of dollars for St. Baldrick's and I know we can do the same for #Fundthehelpers. Here's what I'm asking for:

1. Go to the Fundthehelpers Auction Facebook page and give it a like. I will post the items for auction as they roll in, as well as share posts from Monica and Penny regarding the 9 homes they have committed to rebuilding.

2. Contact me if you would like to donate a craft or service for auction. I am asking that you donate the item and the shipping cost so that 100% of the proceeds go to #Fundthehelpers. I would also like to get at least 25 items for auction. This can include handcrafted items, direct sales items or services that you can provide remotely.

3. Spread the word about the auction and ask your crafty friends for donations - especially anything they make that you've had your eye on for awhile. Just think of it as the perfect intersection between Christmas shopping and charitable giving.

If you would like to see the break-down of how the funds will be spent on these 9 houses, here is the chart (it starts with Mold Remediation at $500/house):
 The auction will open on Friday night, December the 8th and run until Sunday night, December the 10th. Rules for the auction will be posted on the Facebook page.

I know there are a lot of places to spend your money in the next 4 weeks. And if you are a crafter there's a lot to be made in the next 4 weeks. I hope you will find #Fundthehelpers a worthy cause to support. We can't all board a plane for Houston and spend the next 4 days hanging sheetrock, but we can certainly help it get done. On your marks, get set, GO!!!

Monday, September 25, 2017

She's a Grand Old Flag

Oh irony of ironies...I am able to write this post because Neal and Blue have gone to a flag retirement ceremony hosted by the local Boy Scouts troop. I'm not exactly sure what is involved with the retirement of flags but I'm sure I'll hear all about it in about an hour. Until then...

It's getting increasingly difficult for me to attend public sporting events. Or any amusement park that begins the day by playing our National Anthem. Before the first notes are ever played, we should be standing at attention, hats removed, right hand over the heart, and if you don't know the words, then just be quiet and respectful. We know the words because we lived on an Air Force base for 2 years and the National Anthem played every day at 5 PM, even on the weekends, over a loud speaker that was mounted practically in our back yard. But when I stand for the playing of our National Anthem, I don't see people frantically removing their hats, putting away their phones and searching for which direction to face. I see families continuing their conversations and, worse, encouraging their kids to do the same. I see people texting and taking pictures, putting on makeup and eating snacks. The only time we've been beside someone who was familiar with National Anthem etiquette and knew the words, we were standing in the Waves of Honor line at Sesame Street Place. Otherwise, many (not all because that would be a sweeping statement that doesn't hold true) Americans fail to render the appropriate honors for our American flag and the National Anthem.

So, I ask...isn't that also a kind of protest? By not giving either one the respect they are intended, isn't that kind of the same thing as what the NFL players are doing? But, to be sure, many Americans are doing it for an entirely different reason. Either they are lazy, ignorant or just disrespectful humans in general. (If you aren't an American and don't consider this your country, I wouldn't expect you to show honor to a flag that isn't yours.)  Regardless, they aren't doing it because they are desperate to have their voices heard. They aren't doing it to bring attention to a situation that has been spiraling out of control for years. At least...I don't think they are.

But the desecration of our flag has been going on for years. Here are just a few examples (no links to protect the not-so-innocent)...
Thanks, Pinterest, for showing us 30,000 ways to inappropriately use our American flag for home decor.
And these are the tame ones, because we like to keep things at least PG-13 around here. But for the love of all things stars and striped, will everyone please stop wrapping your naked bodies with the flag?

So, to clear up any confusion about proper flag etiquette, I hopped on to get some guidance.
When displaying the flag, DO the following:
    • Display the U.S. flag from sunrise to sunset on buildings and stationary flagstaffs in the open. When a patriotic effect is desired the flag may be displayed 24-hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.
    • When placed on a single staff or lanyard, place the U.S. Flag above all other flags.
    • When flags are displayed in a row, the U.S. flag goes to the observer’s left. Flags of other nations are flown at same height. State and local flags are traditionally flown lower.
    • When used during a marching ceremony or parade with other flags, the U.S. Flag will be to the observer’s left.
    • On special days, the flag may be flown at half-staff. On Memorial Day it is flown at half-staff until noon and then raised.
    • When flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. By "half-staff" is meant lowering the flag to one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff.
    • When the flag is displayed over the middle of the street, it should be suspended vertically with the union (blue field of stars) to the north in an east and west street or to the east in a north and south street.
    • When placed on a Podium the flag should be placed on the speaker’s right or the staging area. Other flags should be placed to the left.
    • When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall (or other flat surface), the union (blue field of stars) should be uppermost and to the flag's own right, that is, to the observer's left.
    • When displayed in a window it should be displayed in the same way -- with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street.
    • When the flag is displayed on a car, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.
    • When the flag is used to cover a casket, it should be so placed that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.
When saluting the flag DO the following:
    • All persons present in uniform (military, police, fire, etc.) should render the military salute. Members of the armed forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute.
    • All other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, or if applicable, remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.
When stowing or disposing of the flag, DO the following:
    • Fold in the traditional triangle for stowage, never wadded up.
    • The VFW offers the following instructions for properly disposing of a worn flag:
      • The flag should be folded in its customary manner.
      • It is important that the fire be fairly large and of sufficient intensity to ensure complete burning of the flag.
      • Place the flag on the fire.
      • The individual(s) can come to attention, salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a brief period of silent reflection.
      • After the flag is completely consumed, the fire should then be safely extinguished and the ashes buried.
      • Please make sure you are conforming to local/state fire codes or ordinances.
Quick list of Flag Etiquette Don’ts:
    • Don’t dip the U.S. Flag for any person, flag, or vessel.
    • Don’t let the flag touch the ground.
    • Don’t fly flag upside down unless there is an emergency.
    • Don’t carry the flag flat, or carry things in it.
    • Don’t use the flag as clothing.
    • Don’t store the flag where it can get dirty.
    • Don’t use it as a cover.
    • Don’t fasten it or tie it back. Always allow it to fall free.
    • Don’t draw on, or otherwise mark the flag.
    • Don’t use the flag for decoration. Use bunting with the blue on top, then white, then red.
As many others have pointed out on Facebook this weekend, proper etiquette for when the National Anthem is playing includes standing at attention. There may not be any written codes for addressing how to protest the National Anthem correctly but then, if there were, it wouldn't really qualify as a protest. I don't agree with how the NFL players are choosing to protest but I understand why they are doing it this way. Since the end of slavery, African Americans have had to find ways to be heard, to have their civil rights acknowledged as equal. From sitting at whites-only lunch counters, to sitting at the front of the bus, to taking a knee during the National Anthem. It would behoove us to pay more attention to why they are doing it, rather than be so focused on how they are doing it. But if you are too busy taking selfies with players kneeling during the National Anthem, perhaps you are part of the problem.

For the record, Neal (and several other Servicemembers I've seen post on various Facebook posts) feel that just the act of protesting is a freedom that is afforded them by the brave men and women in our Armed Forces. They believe that protecting that freedom is worth fighting for and although some are disappointed in the way they are protesting, the point is, they have that freedom and they are exercising it. Would I be a little more understanding if some of those NFL players had ever deployed? Or even served on a USO tour? Absolutely. But they wanted our attention and now they have it. The question what?

(One more thing...full disclosure...we draped a tiny yard flag over our newborn for about 5 minutes. It wasn't a full size flag, but probably wasn't our best call. Would I do it again? No, I don't think I would. But I don't have any problem with decorating homes or bodies using flag-inspired patterns. Because, she really is a grand old flag.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Somewhere Between When Harry Met Sally and When a Man Loves a Woman

Today, Neal and I celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary. I haven't done anything for 11 years except live on this earth, be a daughter, be a friend and be married to Neal. Jobs, houses and cars have come and gone. I haven't even had a pair of underwear last this long. But if I did, they would be stretched out in all the right places, clingy when they need to be and invisible but supportive.

One of our wedding songs was "Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts because at the ripe ages of 28 and 38, it had felt like a harrowing journey to find each other. But the music has since changed. There are still valleys through the muck and long, scenic drives along the high ground, but, for the most part, the road has been smooth. Detours? Sure. Construction? Constantly. But there is no one I would rather have beside me on this trip. Sometimes I have dreams that I have married someone else and when I finally shake myself awake, I'm flooded with relief that I married the right one.

We are, coincidentally, spending the week about a mile from where we were married. Today I'm going to make Neal drive by the house where we stayed and maybe walk the little strip of sand where we devoted a lifetime to one another. It does, sort of, feel like a pilgrimage. We find ourselves here...after the moves. after the heartbreaking endings and all the fresh starts. We come here and we remember what we were like before one of us went to war and one delivered an angel baby...before we became parents...before we slept too little and worked too late...when we had been married for 11 hours and for better or worse felt more like a promise and less like a commitment. We come to this place and remember that we laughed a lot back then. Now we have a mortgage, a 5-year old, a geriatric cat, a truck payment and a college fund. I've always wanted to be that woman who is a wife first and a mom second. Regretfully, I haven't always lived up to the ideal. Sometimes the responsibility of parenting weighs heavily on my shoulders and I forget to laugh, fail to see my husband before I see the father of my child. And that has taken its toll on our marriage, I'm sure.

Every time we celebrate another year of marital bliss, I'm reminded of the movie, When Harry Met Sally. Not so much the on-again, off-again relationship that gave the movie its plot, but the interjected interviews of real-life spouses. From the chatty wife/silent husband to the husband and wife who were talking over one another, I always wished I would find the kind of happiness that these couples signified. Eleven years later, I think we are there. And the trick, I think, is: slow and steady wins the race.

Neal always kisses me goodnight and good morning. He bathes the kid and empties the dishwasher. I clean the litterbox, cook the meals and keep the kitchen clean. He knows not to dry my laundry and that I need coffee first thing every morning. I know he goes to bed at 10:15 and wants to eat a vegetable most nights of the week. Sometimes he brings home a bottle of wine, sometimes I surprise him with a 6-pack of craft beer. I know that mission comes first and he knows that I need a girls' weekend once a year. Even though we don't tell each other everything, we know just about everything, but that knowledge is hard-earned. It comes from 11 years of disagreements, misunderstandings, judgments, gross generalizations and assumptions. It's like that question: would you want to be born now, knowing everything you know right now or lose 10 years off your life? Would I want to begin our marriage knowing everything I know now? The easy answer is yes, but not necessarily true. Would I give up reassurances to feelings of doubt, hugs after arguments, laughter about the silliest of misunderstandings? No, I don't think I would. Our marriage is a sculpture of our lives together and without these pieces layered over time, it would be entirely 1-dimensional.

I always thought we would be that couple that held hands in the Costco parking lot, slow-danced in the kitchen with a delighted toddler looking on, kissed in public without the least acknowledgment of anyone else. But we aren't those people. Sometimes I see those people and I feel a twinge of jealousy. What do they have that we don't? A nanny? A little blue pill? But then I remember that, at our cores, we aren't them. Our hands get sweaty and Blue thinks the only male I should be dancing with is him. But when we laugh, when we talk, we find each other and it's better than any waltz. Our house is wherever the Army sends us, but Neal is my home. It doesn't matter in which far-flung corner of the world we end up, when I look at him, I know where I am supposed to be and everything about it feels perfect. 11 down, 111 to go. We won't get them all, but I cherish the ones we do get. Some days are painfully monotonous and others are filled with stomach-twisting adventure. Regardless, I know that we are in this together, whatever that may bring. And that is a Hollywood rom-com ending.
On our first anniversary, Neal was pushing troops through Basic Training at Ft. Jackson as part of his annual training. So we shared this bed for 3 nights. We bought a king size bed as soon as he got home.
Neal was deployed for our second anniversary. On our third anniversary, we buried a child and got tattoos to celebrate his life.
For #4 we went to Charleston. We got drunk at the hotel happy hour, chatted with WWII veterans, saw a production of Hairspray and went to the Citadel Friday night awards parade.
Deployed again for #5. On our 6th wedding anniversary we celebrated with this little guy, born just a month before. We were exhausted and probably overwhelmed. I don't remember much but I recall Neal asking me to pick up dog food. Except that we had two cats.
Thank goodness for grandmothers. Our 7th wedding anniversary was spent overnight in Louisville, where we drank wine, blew glass and posed inappropriately with 21C penguins.
8 years later and still posing with our wedding officiant, who I found online but has turned out to be one of our favorite island people!

I don't remember exactly but I think we spent #9 in a tree, picking apples. I don't know what the anniversary gift is for 9 years, but I doubt it's pie.
Most anniversaries end up involving this guy. It is what it is and we always make the best of it. But it is nice to have a non-kid anniversary every few years. Happy #10 to us! 
#11! Takeout and wine on the beach while the sun sets. Bonus: Neal found a cool night sky app on his phone! And we didn't get run over by the beach restoration crews working all night.

Cheers to being in the marital "tweens"!