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.