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"!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Year of Better: The Dishwasher Tab Edition

I think I may have promised a dishwasher tab recipe sometime ago. The fact that I'm just now getting around to it has nothing to do with my propensity to procrastinate (say that 10 times fast after 4 bourbon shots and a mojito). The fit nailed the shan this summer and without going into it here (that's a whole separate post about prayer and God and why an independent 4-year old boy will probably age me faster than 2 deployments in the Middle East), suffice it to say, I have continued to make tabs and wash dishes nightly, but I owe you a post.

I have a love/hate and, depending on the rental home, a hate/hate relationship with automatic dishwashers. When we finally retire and settle down, I'm taking my stockpile of cash and buying the best dishwasher that money can afford. We may live in a tiny home on the side of a cliff, but I'm going to own a kick ass dishwasher because...first world problems. So, just as Neal does battle with the squirrels pretty much everywhere we live, I coddle and cuss the dishwasher. Making dishwasher tabs is my attempt at getting clean dishes every time while making sure the dishwasher doesn't just roll over and die before we are ready to move again.

So, I should say that the dishwasher did roll over and play dead while my sister and nieces were in town (because timing can either be beautiful or a bitch). While I waited for the Sears repairman to appear at our door and fretted about whether I had caused everything to short out with my tree hugger dish cleaner, I did some research. (Yes, it would have been smarter to do the research before I started using the tabs but...go big or go home.) As it turns out, technicians (of the Google variety) suggest cleaning your dishwasher with baking soda and vinegar a few times each year to unclog build-up (which also suggests to me that perhaps I should be drinking the same concoction. If it's on my dishes, it's in my body). Both Sears technicians (because why fix the problem on the first visit when you can take 2, preferably 3 weeks apart with 2 different techs) concurred. So, in the end, it was a switch that had gone bad and not due to any chemical-free concoction I had whipped up. WHEW.

I am going to do something really annoying to you but really considerate to someone else. I'm going to send you to this website for the dishwasher tab recipe. One of the unspoken rules of blogging etiquette is if someone else has worked tirelessly to perfect the recipe, you really don't copy and paste it into your own blog. Use the recipe, post about the recipe but drive traffic to that person's blog, too. I've seen some variations on this recipe. One of my favorite chemical-free bloggers uses essentially the same ingredients but with citric acid and without the kosher salt. I simply went with this one because I have kosher salt laying around but not citric acid and have been happy so far.

So, a few tips now that you've checked out the recipe.

1. It has to be kosher or Epsom salt. I personally use Epsom because my first batch (where I assumed sea salt would work just fine) was so catastrophic that I now use the biggest grains of salt, short of road salt. If you ignore this little piece of advice, you will have a bowl of rock hard hot mess before the ingredients are even properly mixed. I promise.

2. Super Washing Soda can be found just about everywhere. I pick it up at a fairly small Weis. If they have it, you can rest assured that Kroger probably stocks it, too. This will also come in handy should you want to try your hand at clothing detergent, too. Also, if you run out of super washing soda while you are making a batch of tabs and think "eh..that's basically 1 cup", just know that your tabs will probably stay mushy until you've used them all up. It's entirely possible that I'm speaking from recent experience. But they will clean just the same.

3. You can add fresh squeezed lemon juice or the bottled variety from the baking section. One time I tried adding Young Living lemon essential oil and one time I threw in some Young Living Thieves cleaner. I couldn't tell a huge difference between any of it but if my experiments had involved a petri dish, I might have more to say.

4. I mix everything in a big bowl and then spoon it out into ice cube trays - which then go into the refrigerator if it's particularly hot outside (causing it to be fairly warm inside). I tried using candy molds once (because the end product would fit inside the dishwasher compartment) but it wasn't enough cleaner. Besides, the best way to use these is to just toss them in the bottom of the washer, shut the door, hit start and congratulate yourself on saving the planet by eating some fair trade chocolate.

5. These tabs can be dry and ready to use in an hour or up to 8 hours if it's hot in your house. But sticking them in the fridge will help them harden. 

6. Here's the most important part. I saved it for the end because persistence and long attention spans should be rewarded. I basically pre-wash all of our dishes because our dishwasher is basic. I mean like a stay-at-home mom in her black yoga pants and a chai latte on her way to Target. Basic. So, I can't really say how much of the cleanliness is due to pre-wash (oh who am I kidding...pre-scrub) and how much is due to the tabs and their ingredients. But we have no spots and very little residue (mostly on Blue's IKEA cups). And when there is residue, I take comfort in knowing that it's mostly baking soda and lemon juice instead of something that ends in -hyde or -phate and may turn us green from the inside, out.

So, without further ado, here are the pretty pictures for all of you visual learners:

I just made a thousand word blog post about something that takes roughly 6 minutes to make. Seriously, just keep these ingredients on hand because someday you are going to run out of dishwasher detergent and it's going to take longer for your toddler to put his shoes on to go to the grocery than it will to whip this is up and start using it.

Next up: our clothing detergent and how I no longer get random holes in my clothes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When Water is Thicker Than Blood

When you stop to think about the people who helped mold you into the person you are today, who are they? Parents? Definitely. Teachers? For sure. Friends and enemies? Absolutely. But what about your babysitter? Maybe not. Depends on the babysitter. This was mine.
"Granny Sweasy," pictured on the left (with 2 of her kids and my mom holding a wee little me), was the neighbor across the street from my grandparents. With both of my parents working full time jobs and my grandmother still working, there arose a need for someone to watch over me, starting as soon as my mom's maternity leave ended. Granny Sweasy was already watching her own children and her granddaughter so it was an easy (and lucky) solution to a looming problem.

In the days before Pinterest and "structured activities", growing up at the Sweasy's house meant playing with Lincoln logs, racing the big wheels down the driveway (and trying not to hit the gate at the end), making mud pies, endless games of H-O-R-S-E, playing house, playing tag, picking the dandelions to make a crown of flowers, and climbing one of the apple trees in their yard. We watched very little TV (although one time we managed to watch a tiny bit of Elm Street before she came downstairs and caught us and I don't think I slept for a week), she didn't do crafts or STEM activities and I don't remember having time-out. Although she certainly didn't tolerate disrespect or fighting so I'm sure she found some way to address it. But it was so subtle that I don't remember it. It was just lots of pretending, lots of making up stories, some singing, and days filled with play. And while I'm sure she played with us, I mostly remember her stepping back and letting us find our own way of playing together and solving our problems.

I remember summer mornings were spent outside playing. The grass was still damp with dew and I was worried about getting grass clippings stuck in my jelly shoes, but that was never a decent reason to come inside. Lunch was almost always bologna, Miracle Whip (which is why, to this day, I just say no to mayo when it comes to bologna) and white bread. Sometimes that bologna was fried and boy, did that make for the best day ever! And once, when I was singing (probably This Little Light of Mine after a week of Vacation Bible School), Granddaddy Sweasy (the patriarch of the family and the other half of the dynamite Sweasy babysitting team) told me that singing at the table will make you go crazy. He was joking when he said it, but to this day, if Blue starts singing at the table, I remind him it will make him go crazy.

After lunch was a mandatory "quiet time" for about an hour. It felt like longer. It felt like a lifetime when I wasn't sleepy. On those days, I would lay on the bed and make up stories until I finally talked myself to sleep. And then she would come in and wake me and laugh about how much she enjoyed my stories. When I was still trying to enforce nap time, Blue started doing this very thing. With legs waving in the air, he would sing nonsense songs and create an entire cast of characters, until his legs dropped, his voice slowed and his eyes finally closed.

Our Christmas gift from Granny and Granddaddy Sweasy was always a coloring book and a fresh box of crayons - the BIG box. I knew it was coming every year and every year I was excited to rip it open and start using them immediately. I have since passed that tradition on and last year, I purchased coloring books and crayons for every kid in Blue's preschool class. The parents were appreciative and the kids were ecstatic. Such a simple gift but it brings so much joy. Who doesn't love to color?

Granny and Granddaddy Sweasy were good, Catholic folks and a crucifix (which, admittedly, scared the hell out of me for awhile) hung on the wall and we always said grace before meals. But they also believed in respecting your elders. If Granny Sweasy said, "Allyson?" you had better not say "What?" You had better say "Ma'am?" Unfortunately, it didn't stick. "Ma'am" and "sir" roll off Neal's tongue much more swiftly than they do mine, but her attempts to correct me remain in my memory. And when you call your own child and you hear him answer "WHAT?" it does give you new appreciation for why she persisted, even though we sometimes said "what" just to annoy her.

Granny Sweasy always kept a clean house and she started every day with making the beds. I remember her sometimes making more than one but I also suspect that she usually expected her children to make their own beds. Regardless, when I make my bed every morning, it is not because of some habitual chore left over from years of living with my parents. It's because that's how Granny Sweasy started her day and it seemed to set the world right and there is nothing wrong with that. 

It is not hyperbole to say that I hear her voice more than my own parents in my head as I help to guide Blue through life. And more than her voice I am reminded of the gentle but firm way one brings up a child; with tight hugs and big smiles and deep laughter and the constant reminder to be honest, respectful and kind. In fact, as I type this, I vaguely remember The Golden Rule hanging somewhere in the house. That was a million moons ago and maybe I am remembering it wrong but the sentiment was always there.

This morning, Granny Sweasy passed away. A force to be reckoned with, she outlived Granddaddy Sweasy by several years and became, in my mind, invincible. It feels like the music has died with her. It is deep waves of sadness that I feel for her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is for those of us who loved her as our own grandmothers and for our children who will never get one of those tight hugs or see her grin so wide that her eyes almost disappear. The last time we visited her, Blue was about two and into EVERYTHING. I fussed at him constantly and she just kept saying, "It's OK, he's fine!" While her home wasn't child-proofed, she certainly valued the curiosity of a child over the price of things.

At the end of it all, we are ashes to ashes, dust to dust and the best we can hope for is to leave some kind of legacy. I want to live on through my child and through his children and his children's children. I want him to tell his child that if he sings at the table, it will make him go crazy. And I want him to hear me saying, "Use your words." I want him to hear his Daddy saying, "Protein will keep you full longer." I want him to treat others as he would want to be treated and remember to be polite but don't get bullied. I want him to remember lessons I tried to teach him and then watch as he decides which ones to pass on to the next generation. I think Granny Sweasy will make it pretty far down the Miller line. She has left her precious mark on innumerable children and that is the legacy of an angel.

Friday, June 16, 2017

This is Us

I placed the Amazon order on Wednesday morning. Eligible for prime shipping? Excellent.

We pulled in the driveway this afternoon, exhausted and hungry after a full day of running errands on the west shore. A flat box roughly the same size as Blue rested against the front door. It's here.

We opened it up and pulled out one heavy duty pie iron and one carrying case. Father's Day? Nailed it. Plus, Neal and Blue get to play in the fire and prepare a meal at the same time. It's a win for the whole family.

Blue was bursting with questions.
What does that do? How do you hold it? Is it heavy? What do you put inside of it? What would happen if we dropped it from the balcony? Can we put Lulu inside? Does it have super powers? Will I have super powers if I hold it? Can I go poop? 

And with that, I laid the pie iron and the case in the middle of the steps and went to make sure there was enough toilet paper on the roll downstairs.

Mommy, I'm done pooping!
Mommy, I wiped. 
Wash your hands.
I did. I'm going to put a thief in the Batmobile!
Can you help me put this Lego guy in the Batmobile?
His head is stuck in the helmet. Can you get his head out?
What are you doing?
Why did you get a new planner?
What are all of those things you are writing?
Why do you have to put addresses in your new planner? 
What's wrong with your old planner? 
Can you blow up this balloon? 
Will you play this balloon game with me?
Are my cars still in time-out?
Can I have them back?
What about my art supplies?
Can you go get them now?
Well when are you going to be done?
What if I hit you in the head with this balloon?

You can't put a balloon in time-out. 
Can you play this game from Chick Fil A with me?
When are you going to be done?
When is Daddy coming home? 
What does this word say?
What about this one?
What about this one?
What about this one?
What about this one?
What about this one?
Can I watch TV? 
Has Daddy left work yet?
Look the balloon is going in hot lava. 
Look at me, Mommy. I can jump from the couch to the chair.
Look, Mommy.
I just heard the garage door open. That's Daddy.
Daddy's home! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!
Daddy let's WRESTLE. Can we wrestle?
Can I get my boots off first?
Let's wrestle NOW. Daddy.Daddy.Daddy.Daddy.Daddy. 
Where are you going? I want to wrestle!
I have to change clothes. Give me a second, please.

Now...everyone who remembers that there is an unwrapped Father's Day gift laying on the middle of the stairs, you are doing 100% better than me today.

MOMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!!!!!! You forgot to hide Daddy's present! 

*sigh* Happy Father's Day, honey. This is us. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Enlightenment in the Dairy Aisle

One of my least favorite parts about moving all the time is having to constantly re-establish home base. I usually find the house and the school before we ever leave the last duty station (that has worked remarkably well every time save once) but finding new doctors, dentists, churches, playgrounds, libraries, grocery stores, car mechanics, hair stylists, gyms, and childcare, not to mention figuring out which restaurants are overpriced, which ones might give you E.coli and which ones are the hidden-gem-holes-in-the-wall that only the locals know's exhausting and it feels like as soon as we find a comfortable groove, it's time to do it all over again. Sometimes I get it all right the first time. Our pediatricians have always been top-notch, we usually find a reliable farmers market within the first 2 months. Other searches have required more time. I rarely find a GP on the first try and it usually takes about 6 months to find a hair stylist that doesn't mention bangs at least once. I have found ways to expedite the process. Find the YMCA, an Aveda salon and a Firestone and work out from there. But grocery stores are tricky. Kroger isn't everywhere and even if it is, it may not be the best option. We don't always have access to a commissary, but even when we do, sometimes the produce is over ripe and they run completely out of chicken. Farmers markets are only open in the spring and summer. Some grocery stores are more expensive, some have a wider organic food selection, some have gas points, some have gas points but no actual gas stations to redeem them within 20 miles. I'm very picky about our groceries because we are what we eat and I go to great lengths to buy very little prepackaged foods. So, the whole foods I buy need to be of the best quality and I prefer them not to have made the trip from Chile, or even California, if I can help it.

When we moved to Dutch Amish Pennsylvania, one truth struck me immediately. This was no food desert. We don't live in a town surrounded by farms, we live on land within the farms (and every time they fertilize, we just have to remind ourselves...that's the smell of dinner on the table. Kind of like the sound of jets criss-crossing the sky over our house at Warner Robins was simply the sound of freedom). Our neighborhood backs up to a cornfield. The road my husband drives to work everyday passes the dairy plant and then, a few miles later, rolls past the dairy farms. And every time I drive to the YMCA, I pass a house with a cooler and a sign in the driveway: "EGGS FOR SALE". Take a dozen, leave your cash in the cooler. (In autumn, a house on the way to Hershey displays a surplus of squash and zucchini on a bench in the yard. Same sign, same neighborly honor system.) For months I rolled my judgmental eyes at the idea of buying perishables from someone's Coleman at the end of their driveway. And then I saw someone stop. And then someone else. And someone else. And I quit being judgmental and decided those might be the best damn eggs this side of Philly.

But our house runs on more than just eggs and when the roadside stands and weekend markets closed up shop in October, I needed a new way to meet our family's caloric needs. I have been buying our meat exclusively at a Mennonite-run market in the next town over since I discovered it on the way to Hershey one day last summer. It's fresh from the farm and if they don't have it, you don't need it. You want a leg of lamb? I'm sorry, you'll have to wait until spring. But here is the most delicious looking chicken thighs you've ever seen. And here's a recipe, in case you aren't quite sure what to do with them. And the cashiers just give the whole roll of stickers to Blue for his choosing. But again, the Miller Family cannot live on eggs and meat alone. So I was relegated to the local Weis for the weekly shopping trip. It was fine but it wasn't fun. Shopping was a chore and we slogged through every week, usually with Blue passing out from sheer boredom in the cart.

Seriously, it was so boring. I was tempted to climb right in there with him. Also, this is a cart full of prepackaged foods. But not all of this is for us. Hey Karen, here are the chips I still haven't mailed.

We continued on this way until a couple of months ago when we were entertaining Big Mama and Nana Anna for the weekend. After church, we trekked down the road to Oregon Dairy for lunch. It is a working dairy farm with a restaurant on site, but it is so. much. more. There is also a full-size grocery store, extensive playground and ice cream shop on the premises. There are hay rides available for groups to tour the farm and to celebrate Earth Day, they gave away free dehydrated cow manure to use in flower beds. In June they will celebrate Family Farm Days, which promises to be 3 days of good ole fashioned farm fun with milk tastings, ice cream samples, alpacas to pet, chicks hatching, tours of the barn and a barbeque chicken dinner (the BBQ chicken dinner is a big thing around here. Every firehouse, VFW and church within 40 miles has one at some point during the year). Grocery shopping here is not a chore, it is an event that includes checking on the pig (which is usually sleeping), saying hi to the goats, jumping on the inflatable bounce pad and slipping down the corkscrew slide at least three times. This is all topped off by one scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream in a waffle cone. I'm going to be distraught when it's time to move.
This is not mint chocolate chip. And there may have been more than one scoop.

Our grocery day is Tuesday and for reasons unknown to me, Blue is usually a rollercoaster of emotion on Tuesdays. Maybe Monday was just too Monday. Maybe he's eagerly awaiting Wednesday. I don't have a clue but it seems like one scoop of ice cream is barely reward enough for surviving it. Often I wish they had a bar with boozy shakes. Last Tuesday was no different. We were in the dairy aisle and Blue had already been in the front of the cart, the back of the cart, the side of the cart and was now trying to steer it while holding a stuffed sloth and begging for Dannon yogurt drinks. Exasperated, I muttered something to the gentleman stocking the sour cream about needing an extra helper today. I would come back at 5 to get him. He can be paid in string cheese. The gentleman chuckled and said, "No thanks. We raised 5. I don't know how we did it. We must have been crazy." We stood there, commiserating about the joys and challenges of parenting when he said something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. He mentioned that he, too, raised boys and said, "My mother told me something a few years ago that I'll never forget. She said boys take in the world with their hands and girls take in the world with their eyes."And that was it. My ah-ha moment in the dairy aisle of the dairy farm. Yes. This is why we can't go to art museums. This is why we can't have nice things. This is why I'm utterly changed simply by being a boy's mom. This makes so much sense. How many times have I said, "Do you have to touch EVERYTHING??"  and "Put that down!" and "Don't touch that!" So. Many. Times. And I thought back to being a wee Ally. I didn't touch everything. I didn't tinker with anything. I didn't press buttons or turn things over to see what was under them or touch something just for the sake of touching it. Was I a broken child? Nope. I'm a girl. So, thank you Oregon Dairy...for the bulk box of Wilbur buds and the bouncy pad and the ice cream, but mostly for hiring people who will stop and share one nugget of wisdom that will change your perspective entirely. And thanks for not having sticky frozen apple juice concentrate. That's pretty huge, too.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ears to the Ground

My readership is about 75 people and half of that is family. Never in my life has a post been shared as much as the last one. seems I tapped into something deep and wide within our little military community. It would appear that I struck a nerve that caused a reflex that resulted in hundreds of shares and thousands (and I am not exaggerating, thousands) of horror stories about military moves being shared all across Facebook. I know it was thousands because I gave up reading my book club book for almost a week in favor of scrolling and empathizing with new military wives, wives with newborns, wives with five kids and a deployed husband, families who dared to buy anything nice or collect anything of value or simply expected a professional team of packers and movers to treat them and their belongings with respect, but instead were stolen from, lied to, intimidated and, in more than one case, sexually harassed. The grievances ranged from inexperienced day-labor packers ruining family heirlooms to unprofessional behavior to dishonest business practices to outright theft...and every shade of sketchy in between. Compiled, it would be a bestseller, if it wasn't all so shocking and heartbreaking.

Of course, sprinkled sparingly throughout was the occasional fairy tale move.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, I had the best move ever. The driver was professional and organized, the packers and movers were experienced and courteous (and had no problem passing the background check to get on base), and all of my boxes were well-labeled and logical. I bought them lunch but they showed great appreciation and didn't pack any of their trash in my kitchen boxes. They didn't play offensive music or cuss in front of my kids. They didn't make any sexual advances toward me. They wrapped all furniture thoroughly, made sure everything was well-marked and were done by 5:30. Nothing was broken and the damages were few. And they all lived happily ever after. 

True story. But more rare than a unicorn reading Shakespeare.

What I inadvertently revealed was an entire population who is living the nightmare while civilians around them assume they are living the fairy tale. The famous disconnect between the less than 1/2 of 1% of the population that is serving in the military and... everyone else. I have been an Army wife for almost 11 years. I have spent at least the last 5 years trying to educate my friends and family about the stark differences between their perception of our lives and the realities. From surviving moves and deployments to adjusting to new cultures to trying to find friends when you are 30 miles from the closest major military installation, I have been vocal about the challenges (but also the many rewards) of this life. I would assume that my friends and family are quite aware of the sacrifices Servicemembers and family members make to protect our country. Yet still, many of them expressed surprise and even shock that a moving company and an auction business could be selling the "lost" household goods from military families. But my fellow members of the military community? They were not at all surprised. The greatest surprise to us was that it appears the auction was legitimate. How sad that we all assumed the worst, but it is because we have been conditioned.

As I read through post after post about destroyed furniture, the egregious disrespect for personal items and the concern many wives voiced for their personal safety while home alone with a team of packers, it occurred to me that this has been going on for DECADES. What probably began as human error has slid into corruption, deceit and mind-boggling unprofessionalism. This is not the fairy tale that our kid's Cub Scouts leader or our friend from the gym think we are living.

I would like to set the record straight on a few things, however:
1. Apparently, we can go to Iceland. Or, we could. All I can say is that I hope someday they need more logisticians.

2. Remember this picture?
That is from the best move we've ever had. EVER. If you are lucky enough to get United with Armstrong contracting and a driver named Tyler, shake his hand, buy him and the crew lunch and sit back, knowing you and your household goods are in excellent hands.

3. My closet is organized by color and then formality. Please assume this method also applies to how I prepare for a move. Many of us start weeks, if not months, before a PCS. We pre-sort, pre-label, pre-box. We dispose of anything that we don't want to move again. We separate out what we will hand-carry, whether it's expensive jewelry or a drawer full of underwear or scrapbooks from births. Then we wash the dishes and the laundry, take out the trash, get ready for Game Day. I have not met a family yet who doesn't prepare in some way. I should have bought stock in Ziploc a long time ago.

4. I did fail to mention that if furniture is damaged in a move and you would rather get it repaired than replaced, that is an option. In this last move, our kitchen island was, I think, dropped off the truck onto the ground. The front wheels were busted up through the bottom shelf and it looked utterly irreparable. But I requested someone come look at it, just in case. The gentleman who was contracted to repair it did a beautiful job and he returned it to us better than new.

5. I should be very clear that of our 5 moves so far, we've had 1 OK move and 1 pretty great move. I guess 2 out of 5 ain't bad. But it's not the majority. No one gloats about a glorious move, probably for fear of jinxing the next one. But we need to be more vocal on review sites like PCS Grades, both about the bad and the good. And then we need to ask that our voices count for something.


6. Ohhh Bay Area Movers...what can I say? The Dalai Lama once said, "When you lose, do not lose the lesson." There are reasons why the military community fought to halt the auction and some of it had to do with dates on crates, but some of it did not.

7. There are amazing packers and movers out there. But it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the whole bunch.

And now I have run out of cliches.

The overwhelming good that has come from all of this is the conversation it started about the possible changes that could be made to the move process. I would love to say that this was my intention all along, but all I set out to do was explain to my Facebook friends why this news story was such a BFD. As it turns out, it was just a symptom of a much more serious disease that everyone had simply learned to accept.  But when I asked the question, "What would you change about the PCS process?", seasoned military families began making reasonable and feasible suggestions about how to make the entire move more efficient and safe, for both stuff and people. And we have a plan to write it up and submit it to anyone who will read it, with the hopes that someone, somewhere has the power to do something. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments. It is too late for those crate owners from the 90's, but maybe not for us. There's always a silver lining. Oh look..I had one cliche left. Victory!

PS Watch your cats, y'all. I read FOUR different stories about how the movers packed the cat. I'm strapping a bell on Lulu tonight.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

That One Time a Moving Company Tried to Screw the Military

Spouses deploy. The world keeps spinning. We are asked to move twice in 6 months. We barely skip a beat. But if you want to rankle a military spouse, mess with their child(ren) or their household goods. And that brings us to the storage crate auction by Bay Area Movers and their partners in crime, Gene Daniels Auctions.  The story broke yesterday on Facebook because someone spotted the advertisement for the auction on a website and shared it. It clearly states the over 71,000 pounds of goods are from military moves: "Unclaimed Shipments from Overseas…These Shipments are unclaimed household goods / personal property of military members who were stationed in locations such as Italy, Germany, Spain and Bahrain.  Many Military members take advantage of their time stationed in these faraway places and purchase unique furniture pieces and decorative items handcrafted in these countries.  HIDDEN TREASURES…The contents of the shipments have not been seen and containers have been sealed since originally packed overseas.  The shipment(s) you bid on may contain such items as antique furniture, china, crystal, artwork, TV’s and other electronics or possibly collectors’ items."

There is so much absurdity in this that if it wasn't so disturbing, it would almost be funny. Their claim that these crates have been abandoned (even though they contain HIDDEN TREASURES, handcrafted and unique decorative items and electronics) is shady, at best. When the names on the crates were leaked, TWO people stepped forward immediately to claim their crates. Yet, the moving company had been trying to get in contact with them for years? And yes, let's remember that when we spend all this time and money collecting hidden treasures from faraway lands, the first thing we want to do is abandon it in some moving storage facility. No, more likely the moving company has already paid the claim on the "lost goods" and now they are selling it all for profit.

Let me back up. I think a little basic understanding of how a military move works is in order. When a servicemember gets orders for a new duty station, it begins a PCS (Permanent Change of Station - I love the word "permanent" here because there is nothing permanent about the military but you have to call it something, I guess). PCS moves usually happen in the summer because school is out and that's when it is the least disruptive to the rest of the family. I'm not sure what the exact number is for the total number of military families moving every summer, but Neal and I both think it's safe to put it in the tens of thousands. Every family gets an allotted weight that is based on rank. I think we are allotted something like 18,000 pounds, give or take. I know that the total weight of our household goods is about 17,500. If we buy an exceptionally heavy piece of furniture between moves, I try to offset that by getting rid of an equal amount of weight somewhere else. I also don't buy heavy furniture anymore. You know who IKEA is perfect for? College students and military families. (Although Blue's IKEA bunk bed is quite possibly the heaviest thing I've ever owned. Ever.)

If your PCS move is stateside, you have 2 options:
1. Do a door-to-door move, meaning that you watch everything get loaded on the truck and then you play Smoky and the Bandit as you race to your next destination, hoping you arrive at least 5 minutes before the truck does.
2. Do a storage move, meaning that everything goes into enormous wooden crates that get loaded on a truck, then offloaded at the moving company's storage unit, then reloaded on the truck at a later date, and then offloaded at your house. This would be your game plan if you were, for example, going to spend about 8 weeks living in your RV while you dragged your family and the cat to every National Park within the Great Plains and southwest United States area. The moving company would store your stuff, for free, for up to 90 days after they pick it up. They make no guarantees about the shape it will arrive in, or even if it will all arrive. Ever. But there is a promise that they will pick it up and then deliver some assortment of your stuff (and perhaps someone else's) at some later agreed upon date.

Okay, there is a third option. Move your crap yourself. I have several energetic and determined friends who do this. They pack and load and transport everything themselves and in return, the US government writes them a check for a percentage of what a professional move would cost. They all swear this is the way to survive a PCS. I used to scoff and mock. I'm coming around. The POD is your friend.

If your PCS move is out of the country, you have 1 option:
1. Watch your stuff get loaded into enormous crates that get loaded on a truck and then spend the next 8-12 weeks wondering if any of it will make it. It all gets loaded on a boat and sent across the ocean, whether you are going to Hawaii, South Korea, Germany, Italy or Iceland. Just kidding. We don't go to Iceland. But I hear it's beautiful and a couple of years hanging out at the Blue Lagoon would be worth some lost candlesticks. Anyway, this is where things get sticky. All of that movement of crates across oceans pretty much always results in things getting broken or just completely lost. And then, of course, it has to come back to the United States at some point. Another opportunity for everything you own to fall into the sea, or into the hands of a greedy moving company.

I hear there's a second option of moving your own stuff out of country. I can neither confirm nor deny this but it definitely calls for more research.

Until now, most military families have simply had to accept that entire crates of household goods have gone missing during out-of-country (or even stateside) moves. We moved from Kansas to Pennsylvania and 3 of our crates showed up 4 days after the first 2. Also, somewhere along the way,  they lost half of my grandmother's china, the very integral corner of Neal's desk, our furniture dolly, and an entire box of Blue's Legos. And that's just the stuff we know about. Because we don't keep a full inventory of our household goods, we only know what's missing when it never comes off the truck. Every item has a sticker with a number. Either Neal or I check off the numbers as items roll off the truck. And whatever is left unchecked is considered lost. We make a claim for those items (after we have tracked down receipts showing what we paid - which is the best reason to buy everything from Etsy or Amazon), and the moving company sends a check months later for pennies on the dollar. How do I put a price on the china my grandmother bought me? I pick an arbitrary number that sounds right while I flip the bird at the computer screen as I fill out the form. And then I post it on a very helpful Facebook page where military families post pictures of items they've lost during a move with the hopes that someone else has found it in their delivery. It almost never works out that someone who has lost something connects with someone who has found their something. But we try. And a tiny little piece of us dies inside. Because things are things but some things are, literally, irreplaceable. I hand-carry as much as I can but it's getting to the point that, between the priceless Christmas ornaments and the shadow box of Shepherd's angel gown and Blue's birth items and letters from war and the box of baby teeth that are sure to come, it's almost too much. At some point, you have to let the movers put it in a box, which goes into a crate, which goes onto a truck, which you may or may not ever see again. It's all a gamble. And sometimes you roll the dice twice in the same year.

The Bay Area Moving Company is auctioning off crates that have been "left in their storage facility for 5+ years after every attempt to contact the owner has been made" and now they "need the space for the upcoming summer PCS moves." And I think this would be a legitimate argument except that a picture of the crates got leaked and one of the crates to be auctioned was from an April 2017 move and was supposed to be shipped overseas, not auctioned off in Portsmouth, VA. According to some Facebook pages I'm on, it all got straightened out and it's now on its merry way to the rightful owner, but I can't help but wonder how many more "accidents" will be auctioned off in the coming days. Many of these "low tier" moving companies (read: low rated by families they have moved) don't get paid as much as the higher tier companies so they look to make money elsewhere. This is just one of those ways. Sometimes they just outright steal your stuff. I no longer put anything in the original, easily identifiable box. And sometimes when they break something, they deny your claim with a BS response like "You didn't prove it was in working order when it was moved." Well, it's only my Keurig coffeemaker, which is basically the 5th member of our family. It was working fabulously right up until I unplugged it from the wall and put it in a box, about 10 minutes before you pulled out of our driveway.

It is my sincere hope that Bay Area Moving has truly used every means available to contact the owners of these containers. I hope they have not sent certified letters to the address where the family moved from. I hope they have opened the containers and looked inside for names and phone numbers of the owners. I hope the owners have truly abandoned their crates. But if that is not the case, I hope those boxes are full of flea infested couches and Bon Jovi posters. May they be overflowing with knock-off Gucci purses and framed pictures of someone's cats and IKEA dishes and at least one flammable Himalayan salt lamp. I hope at least one is filled with nothing but purchases from The Dollar Tree and another from that time when the movers packed all the trash and Goodwill bags. I hope none of them contain my friend's entire collection of Polish pottery or another friend's wedding scrapbooks or my grandmother's china. I hope no one is making money off the personal affects of a military family.

Moving the military around every 12-24 months is Big Business. The moving companies who contract with the government are making serious money all year around, but especially in the summer. And then some companies take it upon themselves to increase their profit margins by whatever means necessary. While we do not get to choose our moving companies, you can help us by checking any crates that you buy at auctions to make sure they are legitimately abandoned. And you can spread this story so this never happens again. There are abandoned crates in moving company storage units to be sure, but I have a hard time imagining any of them belong to military families. What if the owner of that crate never came home from war? Someone wants that stuff. And the government knows exactly where to find the next of kin. All the moving company has to do is ask. The entire story stinks of greed and rotting morals.