Know Better, Do Better: The Christmas Edition

The question came up last week, as was inevitable: “What does Blue want for Christmas?” My mind went absolutely and completely blank. Because what I heard was not, “What does he want for Christmas,” I heard, “What does he need for Christmas?” And honestly…nothing. Our child wants for nothing. Sure he will tell you that he needs another Star Wars Lego set or some more Jungle in My Pocket toys. He will beg for a laser tag set and a whole semi-truck full of stuffies. But all he truly needs is an attitude of gratitude. Santa baby, can you slip that under the tree?

IMG_2119

I understand that this problem is almost 100% of our own doing. From the time we found out I was pregnant, we have been buying for him. First it was all the toys that, according to numerous mommy bloggers and the Today Show, he had to have. I rolled my eyes at the wipe warmer, but he had a giraffe teething toy (but no teeth), the cutest little shoes (before he could even crawl), and a crib full of stuffed animals (many were bigger than him). Over the years, we’ve tried to supplement the growing footprint of toys with “educational” gifts. An entire library full of all of the “recommended” books, “brainy” toys – some requiring batteries and some made of wood, marble runs, and bins upon bins of Lego. There were plastic animals of every size and species, Army men and all of their accessories, Hot Wheels cars with the accompanying track and even a suitcase to carry them all. Ironically, nothing has made all of that seem excessive like living in and exploring around Los Angeles.

It is impossible to go anywhere, besides within the gates of our own neighborhood, and not see a member of the homeless population. Whether you drive or walk, you will see at least one person who is homeless every single day. Across the street, across town, in the parking lot of the vet’s office, outside of Starbucks, in the park next to the aquarium, sleeping on the beach. They live all along the L.A. river, under wind-shredded tarps that are strewn across sun-faded tents. They usually aren’t asking for money or help, they are simply moving about their day, just as we are. Some are passing the time by watching traffic, some are sleeping, and some -judging by their awkward propped positions – look like they may have passed on. I don’t know any of their stories, but I hear the locals talk about their “favorites”. Most are known, many are liked, some are helped. It has taken me months to be even a little bit OK with this. I want Oprah and Ellen to give every single homeless person a house, but the reality is that isn’t the root of the problem or even a viable solution. And the most difficult part for me to accept? There are so many homeless children.

When the school year started, I had to log into an L.A. school district website and confirm that we have a home. The default was not that everyone lived in a house, it was that everyone lives in something other than a house or apartment. The school district wanted to know if we were living with friends or family, in an RV, in a tent or in a shelter. I almost felt guilty by the end. No, no, no, no…no to all of that. We have a house. I’m so sorry, I wish they all did. And the truth is, there are children in Blue’s school, children he sees and plays with everyday, that are homeless. And I don’t think he had ever noticed. I wasn’t about to bring it to his attention, but a few weeks ago he began saying variations of, “This is the worst Christmas ever.” I let it go (for probably longer than I should have), but by the second week, I had had enough. We had a chat.

“Do you remember the people we see living in tents on the side of the road? Did you know that some of those people are kids? Did you know that those kids don’t have toys or stuffies or even a bed to sleep in? Did you know that those kids sometimes only eat when they are at school?” Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Tears welled up in my eyes and a look of remorse washed over Blue. Homeless had become part of his lexicon, just as Amish had in Pennsylvania. The difference, he was beginning to understand, was that one chose the life and one did not. Sometimes I have serious doubts about moving every two years. Like when I remember fondly the Christmas traditions we shared with my grandparents and cousins when I was growing up. I become nostalgic for a time when my grandmother would stick the Bing Crosby 8-track tape in the player (which was installed in the wall) before decorating the tree. And I think, “Blue will never have this to reflect on each Christmas season. We are ruining his childhood.” But then we have a Come-to-Jesus about how he is not having the worst Christmas ever, although there are kids in his class who certainly are. Like Billy from The Polar Express….Christmas just doesn’t work out for them. And because he can look out of the car window every single day and see someone having the worst Christmas ever, he has stopped saying that. Next week it will be something else, but at least he has come around on this topic.

All of this was spurred by a Facebook post shared by a friend this morning. It urged people to stop giving Santa credit for the expensive gifts their children received. The iPads and gaming systems, the 52424-piece Lego kits and the new iPhones. Because when kids talk (as they inevitably do), it will appear that Santa is more generous to the families with more money. How old were you when you realized this? I was today years old. Why? Because our child has never wanted for anything, just as I never wanted for anything when I was a child. I never wanted a pony, but I wanted a My Little Pony. When I was Blue’s age, I got an entire stable full. One Christmas, the hot item was a Cabbage Patch doll. I received three. And now I’m doing the same thing. We wait for Blue to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas and then we order it from Amazon, with Prime shipping of course. The greatest irony is that for Blue’s third Christmas, we began the rule of 4: something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. Then Santa gave him everything else. We seriously restricted what he got from us and let Santa have a field day. Up until this morning, I thought we were doing what was best for him.

We are all doing the best we can as parents, which is sometimes a train wreck, often a fly-by-night operation, and occasionally flashes of brilliance. I’m certain we are going to look back in 20 years and regret many of the decisions we’ve made along the way. But if we’re lucky (and willing to accept that we are learning as he learns), hopefully the result will be an empathetic, kind, generous, well-rounded, and productive member of society. Blue may remember the countless renditions of A Christmas Carol that we dragged him to, the hours we spent sipping hot chocolate while strolling through the most decorated neighborhoods, Jingles the Elf fishing for marshmallows in the toilet, eating candy thrown from floats in Christmas parades, meeting reindeer at the zoo, sitting on Santa’s lap at the Macy’s in New York City, and any number of other unique experiences that we treat him to every Christmas season, but hopefully he will also remember dropping a $5 in the Salvation Army bucket, collecting food for a family in the church, buying toys to donate, making a meal for a friend, and sending care packages to our troops overseas. He will remember that at the center of Christmas is Christ and the light that He brought to a dark world (we can certainly argue until the cows come home about when Christ’s actual birth was – but that’s for another post). And when Blue has a family, he will share the traditions that we got right, change the ones that we got wrong, and do something for those who are having the worst Christmas ever. (And if there is karma in parenting, he will get to have a similar conversation with his own child.)

I love this post by Karen, whose blog, And Then We Laughed, is full of insights about life’s little moments. She and her husband have made the commitment to make more purposeful decisions and this post reflects that change. The Christmas season is full of things we do on auto-pilot, much we do because that’s how our parents did it. But there is no shame in stopping to take stock of our family’s needs and changing our traditions so that they represent what Christmas…Christ’s birth…means to us.

Advertisements

What Blue Star Families Means to Us #Giving Tuesday

On the second morning of our honeymoon, as Neal and I sipped coffee in our bathrobes on the veranda of our B&B in Charleston, SC, I confessed to him that I hated my job. It had become indisputably clear that I was terrible at selling gym memberships, which was the first bullet point in my job description. Neal mulled this over for a second and then asked, “What do you want to do?” It wasn’t said in a judgemental or demeaning tone. He truly wanted to know what would make me happy. “I think I want to be a massage therapist. I want to go to massage school,” I answered. He flashed his trademark Neal smile and said, “Well, there you go, then.” One month later, I was enrolled in massage school.

When Neal was offered the opportunity to move from a Reservist position to active duty with the Active Guard/Reserve program, there were 2 stipulations: we had to move to Macon, Georgia by the middle of May, and he would be deployed for one year to Iraq within 6 months of the move. We readily agreed knowing that this door, which had been opened so unexpectedly, would shut without any guarantee of it opening again. We arrived home from a vacation in Hawaii at 4 AM and at 7 AM, the moving truck arrived to take all of our worldly possessions south.

Prior to that first move, as the wife of a Reservist, most of our challenges were centered around being apart, from deployments, to annual training and the drill weekends each month. I became the FRG (Family Readiness Group) Leader, simply because no one had expressed any interest in the position. I ran fundraisers for unit events and I called to check on spouses when the Servicemember was deployed with a different unit. I was involved, but I wasn’t immersed in the military culture. My knowledge was limited to what I had experienced since meeting and marrying Neal.

Our first PCS changed everything.

With a house full of boxes and the realization that my parents weren’t just down the road, I sat down and cried. Neal went to work, met people, made friends, and had conversations throughout the day. I tried to figure out how my Kentucky massage therapy license would transfer to Georgia and wondered where I would work if my clients didn’t have a military ID to get into base housing where we lived, all while emptying box after box in our carport. I was suffocating under the sheer weight of chaos and loneliness. I put on the brave face for Neal as he relayed the ups and downs of his day, but I wanted to scream, “Take me home! I can’t do this, I’m not cut out for this life. I want to go back to my friends and family and our little house on the cul-de-sac with the pergola and the clematis!” Six months later, he deployed to Iraq and I did go home. But it didn’t feel like home. Now I was a visitor who had missed out on birthdays, births, weddings, and funerals. Everyone was glad to see me, but they also knew I couldn’t stay. For the first time in my life, I felt like a flower, ripped from the stem and stuck in a vase. No longer rooted to anything, eventually I would wither.

It feels a little melodramatic to even write that from where I sit now, but it is exactly how I felt back then. I was 32 years old and had never been away from home for more than a few months. I went to college next door to my hometown, along with most of my closest high school friends. As it was in 1989, so it was in 2009. Sitting on the back porch of our house on Robins AFB, huddled around a fire pit with new friends, we rang in 2011. Neal would be leaving in a few weeks for Iraq. I had no job and no job prospects. We had made friends – some from the base and some from Neal’s work – but it was the first time I had ever felt depressed. Nothing was as I had imagined it would be.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better at this military family thing. I can make a new friend in 4 minutes flat (Blue can do it in 3) and I’ve finally come to accept that most businesses don’t want to hire someone just to lose them again in 24 months. I don’t blame them – that’s a lot of time and energy to invest in someone just to have to start all over again with someone new. I know because we do it all the time. It’s emotionally exhausting. I conceded that my life would revolve around making sure that Neal didn’t have to worry about anything at home. Whether he wanted to help with the chores or not, everything would get done – from packing and unpacking when we move, to daily tasks like cleaning the litterbox and cooking meals. He only had to focus on work and spending time together as a family. And on most days, that has been enough for me. But there have certainly been times in the past 8 years when I shake my fist and shout, “This doesn’t have to be so damn hard!”

Like when we moved to Fort Lee, VA, when Blue was 3 months old because Neal was picked up for Captain’s Career Course. On-post housing had a wait list so we leased a 3-bedroom apartment behind a strip mall. An hour after the movers had emptied the truck into every room of that apartment, the housing office called to say they had a house for us.

Like when I couldn’t get a spot in the Child Development Center at Ft. Knox because all of the slots were full, which meant I couldn’t go to the gym for an hour each day because the gym had no childcare.

Like when we were stationed on a National Guard post and not only was there no housing, but there was no way to meet other military families outside of the unit.

Like when the contract for our dental care was switched to a provider who reimbursed pennies on the dollar and all of the good dentists stopped accepting Tricare because they have to make a living, too.

Like when we were stationed in Southern California and the first time we went out as a family, we paid $12 in parking and $75 for a barely palatable lunch.

This is not a list of complaints, these are the challenges that we encounter constantly. But we have grown resilient and resourceful. We take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine, and figure out how to solve the problem.

We loved that little apartment because in the strip mall was a grocery store and an Italian restaurant, which made pizza that we still talk about to this day.

At Fort Knox, I joined a group of moms who worked out on a playground while the kids played. Sometimes wrangling kids back onto the playground was part of the workout. I took that idea with me to Fort Leavenworth and implemented it there, because we weren’t going to let a lack of childcare keep us from exercising.

I met my neighbors in Pennsylvania and then took a job writing for the local magazine so I could meet even more. And sometimes they turned out to be fellow military families.

I wrote letters to our Congressmen and women about the dental insurance situation and rejoiced when I found a phenomenal dentist with military ties and an office just 40 minutes from our house. Some of my friends were driving an hour each way.

And in the last few months before we were due to leave Pennsylvania, I met Joanna. A spouse in our unit suggested we meet at Joanna’s coffee shop for breakfast and some adult conversation. During a lull, Joanna sat with us and we chatted about living in Pennsylvania, military life, and her new position with Blue Star Families. “OH! They do the Blue Star Museums every summer! We love those people,” I exclaimed. Joanna laughed, “Yes! And we are doing a new thing this summer called Blue Star Parks!”

And that is how I came to join the Blue Star Families network (which is to say I went on the website and entered my information – which is free and open to all military families) and continue to be indebted for the ways they are improving our quality of life everyday. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to sit in one of their staff meetings. What ideas get written on the board? Which ones get tossed out? It feels like every week they have devised a new way to make life a little easier, make it a little more enjoyable.

Yep, making new friends every 24 months is draining, but what if you could do it around a table with a Starbucks latte in your hand? The Starbucks Neighborhood stores commit to holding Coffee and Talk events for military families.

Yes, sometimes we get stationed in exotic (read: expensive) places and after each little expense is raised, there’s very little left for exploring the area where we live. Blue Star Museums, Parks, Theatres and their partnership with Disney ensure we can enjoy the same opportunities as residents whose pay more accurately reflects the cost of living for that area.

Absolutely, it would be amazing if every spouse who wanted to work outside of the home was given that chance. Blue Star Families Careers Center not only actively partners with businesses who have voiced an interest in hiring military spouses, but also provides career coaching, training, and mentorship.

And if you want to work outside of the home, what a blessing it would be to have access to reliable and affordable child care close to base housing. Blue Star Families is working on that, too.

They also see the need for an improvement in access to mental healthcare – for the entire family – and providing more tools for caregivers. There are a lot of moving pieces when you are talking about a military family, regardless of the branch of service, regardless of the rank or where they live. Blue Star Families wants to address it all.

But they aren’t going it alone.

One of the reasons, I think, they are so successful is because Blue Star Families is always on the lookout for new partnerships. Starbucks, Disney, National Endowment for the Arts, National Parks Service, Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Academy of US Veterans, Ebates, CSX, USAA, The Boeing Company and so. many. more. Those are just the ones I saw in a quick scroll through their Facebook page. They are consistently reaching out, daily, to close the gap between military families and the civilian communities where they live and work. When I had thrown my hands in the air and decided the divide was too wide, they decided to build a bridge, initiative by initiative. They must do at least 3 impossible things before breakfast each day.

We all have a story…a difficulty that has lessened because an organization exists to address it. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, the American Heart Association, The Ronald McDonald House, St. Jude’s, United Way, American Red Cross, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Girls on the Run, World Wildlife Foundation, Doctors Without Borders…and on…and on…and on. We must support the organizations that touch our lives directly and, if we can, choose one or two that touch the ones we love.

Blue Star Families is the one I choose and that is why I support them today, on Giving Tuesday. I want to do everything I can to further their work, their mission of helping military families all over the world. When I look into the eyes of a newly married military spouse or a Servicemember who is leaving his/her family for another deployment, I want to be able to say that we are doing everything we can to support them. And that takes money. Blue Star Families has an excellent track record of putting it to good use.

20180831_120429

Hanging out at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Blue Star Museum, over the summer.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

In a perfect world, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday would be switched. Shoppers would be setting alarms and trudging out into bitter cold winds, bleary-eyed with coffee in hand, to every locally-owned business in town. Small businesses would get the first cut and big box stores would get whatever was left over the next day. But that’s not how it is. So, it’s important to not blow the whole wad at Target or Walmart and to give just as much priority to the little shops on Main Street. Or the businesses owned by our family, friends and neighbors…even the multi-level marketing businesses. Get your Posh and Scentsy fix now!

Today, I’m going to share with you a few of my favorite small businesses from 2018. One is an MLM, the rest are one-man/woman shops…they are all amazing and I give them my personal stamp of approval. I know of many more, but since I haven’t worked with them directly, I’m going to leave that up to you all to recommend small businesses that you love. These are in no particular order.

1. Green Cleaning With Ashley (Norwex)

norwex-products-570x527

I’m just going to go ahead and lead with an MLM because they get such a bad rap. Ponzi Scheme, pyramid scheme…basically a lot of scheming (which is never a good thing, just ask Bugs Bunny). But in reality, each consultant is a small business and the face behind that small business is someone who is passionate about the products he/she is selling. While I don’t sell Norwex, a fellow military spouse (and my neighbor across the street) does and after using products I earned from a party we hosted in September, I’m ready to sing the praises of several items.

1a. The mop system. I hate mopping. Besides cleaning toilets, it’s my least favorite chore and I used to be able to postpone it indefinitely. But when you add a kid to the mix, floors take a hit. Unfortunately, having to do it more often didn’t mean I had come to enjoy it. It actually made me grumpier about spills, drips, drops and trails of milk. Using the mop system the past 2 months has changed all that. I use the dry mop pad to sweep up the big stuff and the cat hair, then I follow it up with the wet mop pad. And by using only water and the silver back-loc Norwex mop pad, I can get all the floors in my house clean and germ-free. And it takes about 5 minutes. Total. Yeah, it’s pricey, but regaining my sanity is worth every penny.

1b. The Enviro-Sponge. I think this came as a hostess gift, meaning it wasn’t on my list of immediate must-haves. But it has rocked my dish washing world. It cleans the dutch oven, the silpat mats, the cookie sheets, the pots I boil pasta in, even stains in the sink. And because it also has that bac-lock technology, after 24 hours, the silver has neutralized the bacteria and it’s ready to go again. The Spirinets (like steel wool but without leaving rust marks all over the sink edge) gets an honorary mention here for being equally as awesome.

1c. The Enviro-Wand. Our ceiling fans run 24-7. In the summer, they run one direction and in the winter, they run the other. They never stop and regardless of the climate, they accumulate a foul amount of dust, cat hair and whatever else is floating around in the air. Cleaning the ceiling fans comes in right behind cleaning toilets and mopping floors. There has just never been an easy way to reach and clean all those blades without clumps of gross falling all over the bed and floor. But the Enviro-Wand (with its little micro-fiber tentacles) has solved that problem. And it takes about 30 seconds to clean a fan. My car may look and smell like an entire Kindergarten class is living in it, but my fan blades absolutely freaking sparkle.

1d. Dish towels/Enviro-Cloth. Basically, you can’t go wrong with any of these. From mirrors, to toilets, to cat puke in the carpet, they clean everything with minimal scrubbing. I have like 8 of them and I wouldn’t mind 8 more.

1e. The lens cleaning cloth. This was another hostess gift and not something I really thought I needed, but I was so wrong. It comes hooked through a clip so it can be attached to my purse or camera bag. It is so handy for cleaning sunglasses and camera lenses and cell phone screens.

If you are interested in trying Norwex, Ashley has a party open right now. You can find it here. I think my next 2 purchases will be a hair turban for when I get out of the shower (Ashley says it cuts her hair dryer time in half and girl has some hair) and the vegetable cloth. I do love a shiny vegetable.

2. Jarrett Rutland

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m all in when it comes to Jarrett’s art. His illustrated watercolor of our family spurred many of my friends to purchase their own because, truly, he is just that good. But he also has a new children’s book coming out next month. We (along with several of you) got an advance copy of Chilly da Vinci and we are simply delighted by the story every time we read it. I have a more formal review coming next week, but one of my favorite aspects of this book is that it teaches children that when we are problem solving, we rarely get it right on the first try. As the mother of a child who thinks everything should come easy to him and if it doesn’t, then he should just give up, this lesson is invaluable. You can find my review of Jarrett’s work here and you can pre-order your copy of Chilly da Vinci here and you can check out his Etsy shop here.

3. Sew Sweetness Monogramming

Rebekah and her monogramming machine are a force to be reckoned with. Her office (which is really where our dining rooms are supposed to be in base housing, I think) is filled with fabric of every pattern, thread of every color. Monogramming blanks (from purses, to kids’ lunchboxes, to shawls and shirts) are stacked on tables and hung from racks, ready to be customized. Her niche is certainly Disney shirts and while I have a few of those from her, I also have a purse and a shawl (which is patiently waiting for cooler temps in Southern California). Rebekah’s attention to detail and eye for design means I can let go of the reins and let her do her thing – which is always perfect. As Reese Witherspoon has been credited as saying, “If it isn’t moving, monogram it.” And if you’re going to monogram it, you need Rebekah.

4. 1 Canoe 2

B20181124_121609

While I don’t personally know this artist, I purchase a hand-lettered postcard from her every time we PCS. Sometimes they rhyme, sometimes they don’t…but they are always precious. Her Etsy store is full of goodies: greeting cards, recipes cards, fabric, notebooks, and (my favorite) presidential drinking glasses. If she added Obama I would have my Christmas shopping done already.

5. Switchables

While this business is no longer small, it is still family-owned and operated by Joyce and Bill Birchler. Located in the New England area, Switchables sells nightlights and changeable stained glass nightlight covers, as well as ornaments and jewelry. I don’t know if they still do this, but when they were building the business by attending area craft shows, the Birchler Family handcrafted each piece of stained glass. I can certainly attest to the craftsmanship. I discovered Switchables while perusing one of the shops in Harbourtown on Hilton Head Island. I bought the sailboat for Blue’s nursery a few months before he was born and I won the turkey in one of their giveaways last month. The sand dollar was a birthday gift for my mom so that she can always have a piece of the beach in her home. I’m already scouting out which one I want for Christmas. It’s so hard to pick!

6. KC Cool

Based in Kansas City, of course, this small business is owned by a gentleman who is pretty KC cool himself. I met him at our church’s Christkindl Market several years ago and snatched up a who’s who of BBQ shirt for Neal and a red/white/blue shuttlecock shirt for Mom (because the giant shuttlecock at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is everything). Unfortunately, he has since changed the shuttlecock colors so Mom got me this one in the photo instead. The shirts are so soft and they haven’t pilled like so many of my other soft t-shirts have. If you know someone who lives in KC or just loves to visit, this is a great place to pick up some KC swag.

7. CraftFit

The husband-wife team that owns this small business is truly a dynamic duo. They perfectly complement one another’s strengths and the result is an Etsy shop full of awesome. Megan and Del create wooden flags that can hold the coins that Servicemembers are given by their commanders and I just saw a new piece: a sign that reads As for me and my house, we will serve tacos. I literally snorted when I saw that. I found Megan when I needed some vinyl t-shirts made for the Derby Day Color Run at Ft. Leavenworth a few years ago, but I knew she and Del had been creating beautiful pieces together long before that. Although they move just as often as we do, they waste no time getting the shop set back up and the production line moving because their art is in high demand. Whatever you get from them, you won’t be disappointed.

8. Swatara Coffee Company

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Lebanon Valley area of Pennsylvania, make sure you stop in for a cup of coffee and a sandwich or a pastry at Swatara Coffee Company. SCC, which just celebrated its first anniversary, is everything you want from a coffee shop. Fun-loving owners, John and Joanna Guldin-Noll, have created an oasis for everyone, whether you are a coffee drinker or not! Pop in for craft night, game night, a local crafters’ market, a bag of ground coffee for your morning commute, Meet the Artist night, yoga or any number of other activities that fill their calendar each month. It truly is the most happening place in Jonestown, but even if you can’t make it to PA, you can still have a cuppa SCC in your mug every morning. Ground coffee can be purchased on their website and shipped! That Shoo-Fly Pie Coffee they just listed online is going to be mine very soon! #TreatYoSelf!

9. A Touch of Kentucky Bourbon Mastery

If you are in the Central Kentucky area and love all things bourbon, a hi-top table and chairs or a side table made out of bourbon barrels is exactly what you need! Rita and her husband have been creating upcycled bourbon barrel gifts for many years, long before I got our first lazy susan with our name and wedding date painted on the top or the bourbon barrel table that lives next to the couch. If we are ever stationed back in Ft. Knox, we are going to have a problem because every gift giving holiday will include something from this couple.

10. Daisy & Elm Jewelry

Wait…was that pure, shameless self-promotion? Uh, yeah…it kind of was. I have been out of the game for a year, partly because moving across the country is no small feat and partly because I had run head-first into a creativity block. I had been designing jewelry since 2009 and I simply no longer craved the excitement or satisfaction that came with each finished piece. And, to be very honest, dealing with the public can make a person crazy. I started out designing jewelry for myself and to give as gifts. Then I turned it into a business. Then I was miserable. So, I took some time off and went back to creating just for me. I firmed up some personal boundaries, picked up a few new tricks and made designing a priority while Blue is in school. I feel like I’m ready to come back and re-launch D&E, just in time for my 10th anniversary in 6 months.

And that’s my top 10 small businesses for 2018. I know I have barely scratched the uppermost layer of all of the wonderful businesses there are out there. I’m counting on you all to share your favorites with the rest of us! Sharing is caring….and it’s also helping us finish our Christmas shopping!

When It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee

I’m not going to sugarcoat it…the week leading up to Veterans Day was pretty brutal in Southern California. It began with a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks (about 90 minutes up the 101 from us), which was carried out by a decorated former Marine with PTSD. Before the first funeral could be held, a spark from a fire in Malibu jumped the 101 and scorched a wide swath through the same region. All the while, the Camp Fire absolutely leveled Paradise, California and took dozens of lives in the process. Although our home on the south side of Los Angeles was never in any danger, the air quality took a hit as the smoke hung ominously between us and Catalina Island. It blotted out the sun and the ocean seemed to glow with shades of yellow and orange. Simultaneously beautiful and devastating. We weren’t impacted, but we were definitely affected.

IMG_1143

So, when the box arrived from Blue Star Families in the middle of the week – a volunteers’ kit with buttons to hand out at Starbucks on Veterans Day, I was filled with a sense of dread. The death toll north of us was climbing daily and I was supposed to hand out buttons to people buying coffee and thank them for supporting military families? I hadn’t really laughed in a week. The last thing I wanted to do was half-ass something for Blue Star Families, an organization that has given our family more than we could ever give back. But I had no idea how I was going to pull out of my funk enough to be convincing. I set the entire box to the side and decided I would worry about it later.

When I woke Sunday morning, I was no more cheery than when I went to bed on Saturday night, but I put on the t-shirt from the box. The front of the t-shirt read ” It’s more than a cup of coffee.” The back proclaimed, “It’s all about communities.” The Blue Star Families and Starbucks logos almost seemed to be holding hands. I felt a little better. I picked up the bag of buttons and started walking out of the neighborhood, to the Starbucks across the street (where we all go because it’s so dang convenient). When I entered the store, I asked to see the store manager and when I introduced myself, her entire face lit up.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” JayIssa said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I felt the some of the week’s burdens let loose and float away.

“Me, too. Thank you so much for supporting military families. It means everything.”

The lunch rush began and 2 of my neighbors, Ashley and Candace, joined me. We distributed the buttons while mentioning that if they purchased a tall brewed coffee that day, 15 cents from each cup would benefit Blue Star Families. We also let Servicemembers and their families know that Starbucks was offering them a free, tall cup of brewed coffee to celebrate and honor their service. I certainly wasn’t at the top of my game, but with each smile, with each thank you, with each proclamation of “Happy Veterans Day”, the load seemed lighter. We were all neighbors and we were gathered at our Neighborhood Starbucks. It was about the coffee and it was about communities.

When we ran out of buttons, we chatted a bit more with JayIssa, who is eager to partner with and support the military community. She showed us the postcards that are available for customers to write notes to Servicemembers who are deployed or injured and the gift cards that were available for purchase, which also benefit military families.

She mentioned future possibilities like providing coffee and baristas for military events. Her passion for linking civilian and military communities is exciting. JayIssa’s offer to provide her store and staff as a way to do that is a substantial commitment to supporting military families.

Finding the places where civilian and military communities intersect and looking for ways to broaden that overlap is one of the many strengths of Blue Star Families. But they also work diligently to improve the quality of our lives, including sharing data results from the Annual Military Lifestyle Survey (which I completed last spring) with Congressmen and women so they have a better understanding of our challenges and ways in which laws can be crafted to address those challenges. They also partner with the National Endowment for the Arts to host Blue Star Museums every year and the National Parks Service to provide the America the Beautiful Park Pass. Their partnership with Disney has allowed us to visit Disneyland FOUR times this year, which would be out of our price range otherwise since every little thing costs more in Southern California, but Neal’s income doesn’t reflect that steep increase in the cost of living. We have not yet taken advantage of Blue Star Theatres, but as soon as the holidays have passed and life calms down a bit, we will get tickets for a children’s play that Blue has been asking to see. But they also provide support in other ways, like the Caregivers programs, which are so important for military spouses who have become caregivers for one reason or another. They truly address all of the challenges that come with serving our country.

There’s no doubt that of all of the military focused, non-profit organizations out there (and there are a lot), Blue Star Families is the one that we feel most directly impacts and improves our daily life. Because of that, we are happy to support their #GivingTuesday challenge on Tuesday, November 27th. This actually links to Ashley’s Facebook event so if you are having problems viewing or donating, please let me know and we’ll fix that. The funds raised on Facebook will be matched by Facebook and PayPal so your donation is actually doubled! And it directly benefits military families through the work Blue Star Families does on our behalf everyday. Funds raised will create more programs like Blue Star Museums, Blue Star Books, Blue Star Parks, and Blue Star Theatres – all of which are available to the entire family, not just the Servicemember. If you are going to give on Tuesday, this is a great organization to give to!

Things have started to calm down a bit around here. Blue and I took my mom to Santa Barbara yesterday, straight up the 405 to the 101 and although you can still see where fire suppressant was dropped by helicopters to protect the towns, the air has mostly cleared and it’s business as usual. The cloud has lifted, it’s once again sunny in SoCal and we are grabbing a coffee from our Neighborhood Starbucks on the way to the beach today!

Friday Favorites

Hip Hip Hooray for another edition of Friday Favorites! Just so y’all know, this is a carefully curated list that I keep updated in the notes app on my phone. I add to it all week and whenever something strikes me with its awesome, I add it to the list. So, here we go!

1. On Saturday, I experienced my first ever Bunco night. And all of my hand-wringing over how hard it would be suddenly seemed silly. Roll the dice, count, drink, repeat. A game of chance pairs perfectly with a slightly chilled bottle of Chardonnay. It was also, of course, Halloween-themed, so everyone was encouraged to dress in costume and bring a dish to share. I bought 2 cans of crescent rolls, a can of black olives and one bag of sundried tomatoes for these squiggly snakes. Apparently, if you take 5 minutes to loop your food around a skewer, it makes your food all curly and Instagram-worthy. The recipe actually called for pizza dough, which is what I will use next time, since that would be better suited for the marinara sauce I bought. But seriously, how freaking cute. And even easier than the mummy hotdogs I made last year. Thanks for everything, Pinterest. But most importantly, thanks for not being around yet when I was planning our wedding.

20181013_221626

2. Speaking of Halloween-themed Bunco, I couldn’t resist getting a selfie with my Birthday Twin. I was a character from a popular children’s book and she was the liquor that had me praying for mercy to the porcelain god at my friends’ wedding (here’s to you, Matt and Ginger). Any guesses?

IMG_20181013_224859_117

3. There aren’t any pictures of this, but that was also the night I discovered the sweet nectar of the gods: warm apple cider and caramel-flavored vodka. Fortunately for me (and anyone else who would encounter me the next day), I didn’t come upon this combination until the end of the evening. But just one glass was enough to make walking home a bit perilous. And when I sat down to remove my hooves, I nearly sat on this guy, who was the only one still waiting up for me. He was the last person I expected to see lounging on the couch.

IMG_20181014_074525_761

I texted the girls and they immediately shot back with a slew of jokes about being surprised by a little Woody. Yes, of course they did.

4. Our neighbors down the street, who have 4 boys that are 7 years old and younger (one set of twins in there for y’all who are doing the math at home), invited us to their Halloween Cooking Challenge. One parent + 2 boys form a team and one parent + 2 other boys form a team. One night during the week, the chosen team prepares an appetizer, entree and dessert, all of which must feature a Halloween theme. We arrived after the appetizer (Mummy Hotdogs), but in time for the entree (Bug Guts Stew) and dessert (Witches’ Brew). Costumes were also strongly encouraged. We didn’t get that memo before leaving the house, but luckily for us, they had a trunk full. So, I grabbed a hat and Blue morphed into Creek-Wading Captain America. We drank crow’s blood from claw goblets and sipped our stew from cauldrons. The battery-operated candles flickered as 6 boys debated if the soup was better with shredded cheese or without. And I knew instantly that our friends are killin’ it as parents. Most of the time it’s like herding cats trying to get out the door to school and often there is something going on with at least one of the kids, but on this night, I completely understood that these 4 boys are having a most enchanted childhood. It’s not always slaying dragons and saving the princess, but it will be happily ever after, for sure.

20181017_181509

5. Sitting in traffic on Thursday, I looked over and noticed this piece of weathered sheet music just laying in the turning lane.

20181018_134203

It was such an unexpected thing to see in the road and it immediately brought forth all sorts of questions about how it came to be there. Was it a mini-van full of musicians on their way to play at the Hollywood Bowl when it suddenly blew out of the back seat? Did it fall out of the shopping cart of a once-famous violinist who now lives on the street, but longs for her Stradivarius? Was it shoved carelessly into a backpack while hastily packing for piano lessons and then whipped by the wind all the way down Sepulveda Boulevard? I will never know, but I did think, just for a second, about leaping out to grab it before the light turned green. Then I remembered my mom reading a news story last year about a scrap of paper that was covered in a powdered drug and left in a parking garage. A toddler picked it up (as they tend to do) and the drug entered his blood stream and killed him. They just had a nasty outbreak of Typhus on Skid Row. I left that piece of sheet music, along with all my unanswered questions, at the intersection.

6. I have discovered another wonderful blog. I’m not even sure how I came to click on it, but I’m sure it had something to do with the title of the post: I Millennial Mom So Hard. I believe the person who had shared it on social media commented that finally someone else was unapologetic about the internal contradictions many of us live with everyday: like why I will spend $5 on a quart of organic strawberries, but let Blue have a bag of frosting coated animal crackers after school…or why I limit his TV viewing to mostly PBS shows, but we have a growing collection of Pokemon cards. Parenting is hard and I think she absolutely nailed the reason behind our decisions, which seem erratic and inconsistent to most, but make perfect sense to us.

7. A welcome (and rather exotic) addition to our neighborhood Momfia is the Lizard Lady. I’m not sure exactly how many lizards she has, but I think there are at least 10. They lounge in the Rubbermaid storage container under the SoCal sun (and right next to the sea because the Lizard Lady has one of the best views in the neighborhood) and wait to be showered with attention, whether it’s at school pick-up or Friday afternoons when the kids don’t have to finish homework first. Filed under, “You can get used to anything”: I don’t think twice now about seeing the Lizard Lady at the school gate, with a lizard tucked under a bra strap, waiting for her little one to meet her at the top of the stairs. The other day, she had one swaddled in a Crown Royal bag and as we chatted about duty stations and military stuff, he just crossed his little claws and listened intently. It was just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen a reptile do.

IMG_4839

Here’s what it looks like when a lizard lives the good life.

That’s all for today! I would love to hear YOUR Friday Favorites!

Our Family of Four

Shortly after September 15, 2009, I learned all about October 15, which is the date that has been set side for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I didn’t know the significance of that date because there was no reason to. But by the evening of September 15th, everything had changed. In just a few short hours, my and Neal’s lives altered course, drastically. I used to think it was wholly for the worse, but as time has passed, I can see just the faintest glimmer of a silver lining.

The day I found out I was pregnant with Shepherd, I was vacationing at my sister’s house in Florida. As the 1 line became 2, she hugged me and said, “Welcome to The Club, sis!” On September 15th, I joined a completely different kind of club. That one came with hugs and tears, too, but also immense feelings of guilt and isolation. In the 9 years since, I’ve met many more women in The Club; some have been members for awhile, others newly inducted and gasping for air in an ocean of pain. Angel Moms don’t always recognize one another upon first meeting. But once we share our stories, there is an instant acknowledgment of our shared journey. All feelings of alienation fall away as we silently affirm, “I know your pain because I’ve felt it, too. One day we will be whole again.” What’s remarkable is that there has never been any comparison of experiences. We describe them, but we don’t measure them against what another mother has endured. We all simply agree: there is no greater grief than burying a child.

IMG_3746

I have always believed, although I am loathe to ever say it to someone in the depths of despair after a loss, that everything happens for a reason. I could blame my Southern Baptist upbringing – an indoctrination that God’s Plan is like one giant game of Life where we are all just buying houses and cars and having kids as we move along the squares, racing towards The End. I’ve long since abandoned that particular denomination but some ideas sunk their claws in and just refuse to release. As if my physical and spiritual growth couldn’t expel them so they just grew around it, all-encompassing, no matter how irrational and incongruent those ideas are with my current belief system. That means that, for me, losing Shep is part of The Plan. I believe it now, I even believed it 9 years ago, although that didn’t make any of it easier. God had some serious ‘splainin to do.

But, of course, God doesn’t explain. He doesn’t need to. We simply don’t understand. We can’t. But we can begin to see a little something good bubble up from the black. For me, it happened about 6 or 7 years ago. We were stationed at Fort Knox, 90 minutes from my hometown. Blue and I drove back almost every Sunday to attend church and visit with family. One Saturday afternoon, Mom called to tell me about a childhood friend’s baby, who passed just a couple days after birth. The funeral would be the following week in my hometown. I sat down next to Blue, who was immersed in a fierce battle between Thomas the Train and his best friend, Percy, and cried a river of tears. I cried into Dear Liza’s bucket, y’know…the one with the hole in the bottom so it never fills up. What could possibly be the reason for this? It was September 16, 2009 all over again. Except…it wasn’t. I had 3 years of being an Angel Mom on my resume and I had found a level of peace that this new Angel Mom couldn’t even imagine existing. She was surrounded by well-intentioned family and friends offering their platitudes of hope because they didn’t really know what else to say. But I knew exactly what to say. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear, but I had the words because they had been forming on my lips for 3 years. Most importantly, I could look her in the eye and offer her my guiding hand through the rockiest terrain during the darkest days. She didn’t take me up on it, but I didn’t know her that well, either. Still, she knew it was there if ever she needed to reach for it.

Ah. The Plan. I could be a Guide for God. I always thought when God finally decided to talk to me (or, more likely, when I finally decided to listen), there would be some great flash of light or maybe a movement of earth under my feet. But instead it was a small voice, sounding much like my own, rising up to form an idea. Had I not been paying attention I would have thought it was my idea. But I knew better. It would never be my idea to put myself out there as a person who can be called upon to sit with someone experiencing bottomless grief. That was God’s voice, God’s idea. My calling.

It has been 9 years and I’ve met or known at least 9 new Angel Moms. Honestly, it is heart-wrenching. Every single time. Because for about 5 minutes, I time travel back to the morning of the 16th, climbing gingerly into that old Prius. Reaching over to scrape off the remnants of dried blood from the previous day before I will allow myself to get in. We make that awkwardly silent trip down Nicholasville Road, from the U.K. hospital to the house, with Neal’s hand on my thigh and my head resting on the window. I dread going home, to the nursery and the clothes and all of the baby items I had been buying in eager anticipation just a few short days before. I wanted to run away, maybe with Neal…maybe alone. I did not want this life and I sure as hell didn’t want to face anyone in it. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live, either. And there I existed for longer than I ever care to admit. Yes, my beloved Angel Moms, I know your pain and I’m not going to tell you that everything happens for a reason. I’m simply going to remind you as often as I need to that you are not alone and that it is not your fault. And that God loves you. We all do.

IMG_3722

Not all of us can (or will) talk about it. I tend to gravitate most quickly to the ones who do, but that’s only because we don’t mind to attach words to our feelings and I always get along better with someone who I feel comfortable communicating with. Nothing is taboo with me because to make it unspeakable is to give it more power than it deserves to have. Grief does not get to rule (or ruin) my life. I will call it by name, give it the time it needs, and then ask it to move to the back of the line. It’s someone else’s turn – Happiness or Joy or Peace.

IMG_3724

Every now and then I meet another willing guide; someone who is open and honest about such unimaginable pain. She talks about the thing that no one wants to talk about. She offers a glimpse into this grief, without apology or reservation. She seeks to help those who haven’t experienced it understand, in a judgment-free space. Yes, we welcome your prayers. No, we don’t want to hear that it will be better when we get pregnant again. This most recent Angel Mom and Guide is blogging at A Mother’s Journey to Healing, which I have found to be an astonishingly courageous recount of Candice’s life, beginning with the passing of her Angel Daughter during the beginning of the 3rd trimester. What is the best way to support an Angel Mom (or Dad, for that matter)? To simply be willing to hear (or read) our stories. If you will take the time to listen to our perspective, it will undoubtedly alter yours. And when that occurs, you become more aware of what you say, what you do. Being a little more mindful of those we occupy space with is never a bad thing. And it keeps you from looking like an egocentric power couple when the Miami Herald reports that you’ve just announced your pregnancy on the one day set aside (in the U.S., as well as the UK, Canada, Norway, Italy, Kenya and parts of Australia) to honor and remember those women affected by pregnancy and infant loss. There’s nothing quite like looking royally apathetic or, at best, oblivious.

Tonight we light a candle and say their names. We take some solace in seeing others do the same. We tell ourselves that those babies have found each other Up There, that they are playing hop scotch and tag. We remind one another that we will see them again. Until then, we have each other.

footprints

Friday Favorites

I’m taking a tiny break from Disney posts to share my favorites from this week….

20181005_184004

We had a girls’ night out on Friday to say “See ya later” to one of our Momfia. She and her family are headed to the other side of the world, where they will have grand adventures and eat phenomenal food (and *ahem* have a driver…color me jealous). Until then, we got to have one last meal with her under the stars and on the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. I had been wanting to eat here so this evening checked another box for me. The food wasn’t as divine as I had hoped, but the company more than made up for it.

 

On Saturday night, the Moravian/Episcopalian church that we attend hosted their annual lobster dinner. It was my intention to just help serve, but with 3 lobsters left, waiting to be claimed and enjoyed, I decided to pay my money and dig in. I needed some lobster extraction lessons, but by the second claw I had a pretty good idea of where to find the meat. Then they convinced me to eat the tomalley (the lobster’s liver and pancreas). Someone said, “It’s like eating the ocean.” And I can’t think of a better description. I ate some ocean and then got a bit of melted butter for the rest. Also, even though I was wearing my UK blue, we still lost to Texas A&M in overtime and now I owe my neighbor a Facebook live video of me singing the A&M fight song. That was a bitter pill to swallow…on many levels.

Towards the end of the evening, we were treated to a 20-minute concert in the sanctuary given by Katherine Cash on the violin and Norm Freeman on the vibraphone. Together they make up the duo “N2K”. A soulful excerpt from Dearest to Me can be watched here. It is a lovely way to spend 3 minutes on a Friday afternoon.

20181007_160619

After church on Sunday, we called into our book club discussion and then headed down to Corona del Mar for their 57th Annual Sandcastle Contest. After we checked out the larger-than-life sculptures, we were inspired to try our hand at some castle building. Or hole-digging. Whatever. Turns out, creating something that resembles…well…anything…is significantly harder than it looks. I’m not sure the winner earned $100,000, but they definitely should have gotten a bucket of tacos.

20181008_114146

On Monday morning, Neal and I took to The Strand, a cycling/pedestrian path that runs parallel to the Pacific from Torrance to Santa Monica. We turned around at Manhattan Beach because about 20 minutes into the ride, we realized that 44 miles roundtrip is far. Too far to be back in time for school pick-up, actually. But next time we’ll start at Manhattan Beach and see how far we can make it before we have to be back…kind of like hiking the Appalachian Trail, but with less humidity and blood-sucking insects.

 

We spent a lot of time at the beach this week and that always sets my soul at peace. Every time Blue gives me grief about hitting up the beach after school or church, I gently remind him that going to the beach in 18 months is going to take major planning and at least a week’s worth of vacation days. He doesn’t get it so I just drag him along anyway. Someday he will thank me. Right?

I hope you all have a fabulous weekend, full of tiny moments that bring you immense joy. Until Monday…xoxo

Day One in Disneyland: Part One

The 2nd and 3rd Disney posts are taking me forever to write. That has nothing to do with finding the right words to describe the experience and everything to do with whittling down the 1,973 pictures to what I want to use for my posts. That isn’t an exaggeration. My photo software conveniently counts them for me, in (I feel) a somewhat judgmental and deriding way. Sooner or later it’s going to completely lock up, give me the black screen of death, and I will feel some guilt about my photo hording habit.

This post will recount our experience in Disneyland, from the rides to the food. We spent the third day in California Adventure and that will be a separate post.

All of my research, up until the day we left, told me that Disneyland was going to consume 2 solid days. And even then, because some rides don’t have the FastPass option, we weren’t going to get to it all. And we didn’t. We completely skipped Mickey’s Toontown (an executive decision I made based on the face that Blue is right on the cusp of aging out of their target audience) and Pirates of the Caribbean (something I deeply regret and will remedy when we return at Christmas). There were also several rides that were in and out of commission, based on the Disneyland app, and Matterhorn Bobsleds is being renovated so it was down the entire time we were in the park (not that we were going to ride it anyway…speed + scary = 3 in the bed and the littlest one said Roll over, roll over).

20180928_092405

Birthday buttons on, ready for Day 1! It was overcast but this is southern CA and we knew we would stay as dry as the Sahara. No ponchos needed!

The Monorail

Is there anything more iconic in Disney than the Monorail? Coupled with the teacups and It’s a Small World, there is just no Disney without that holy trinity. By the time we arrived Friday morning (after the “magic hour” – the hour before the park opens officially to the public and only available to guests staying in one of the resort hotels), Downtown Disney was already hopping. We decided to hop on the Monorail to see where it went.

It dropped us at Tomorrowland, which is themed around space and the future. It also happens to be one of the five original “lands” of Disneyland, but the Imagineers of Disney have striven to keep the land relevant with a ride centered around Buzz Lightyear, as well as the new Star Tours. But more on that in a bit.

Autopia

Our first stop was Autopia, a slow, driving ride through the “countryside”. Autotpia is the only existing attraction in Tomorrowland that dates back to Opening Day in 1955. But you would never know that this ride is 63 years old! Sponsored (I assume) by Honda, it features Honda’s Humanoid Robot and Bird, guiding you along the “path”. The old-timey cars at Hersheypark was Blue’s favorite ride last year so we knew this would win him over right from the start. The only rules were: no bumping the car in front of you and keep your seat belt on. Both translate nicely to real life and this was the least stressful drive I’ve taken since we arrived in SoCal.

 

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

The next ride was the one attraction that every Disney blogger on Pinterest said was a waste of time. But Blue wanted to go and this was 93% about him, so I acquiesced. Most bloggers said something along the lines of, “It’s a cramped, smelly space where everyone gets a tiny portal to peer into a fabricated underwater world.” Well, it’s Disney…everything is fabricated, but usually to a satisfying degree of detail. I was willing to try it once. The submarine has 4 or 5 narrow steps you must descend/ascend and once inside, it is a bit cramped. If you are severely claustrophobic, this may not the ride for you. Mom is claustrophobic, but in that “don’t-close-me-in-this-cell-at-Alcatraz” kind of way and she was just fine. As we embarked on a “research expedition” to an “active” volcano site, we encountered several characters from Finding Nemo, who were on their own underwater adventure. The entire cruise lasted about 5 minutes and is a welcome break from the thrill rides and lines, which explains why, even though this ride is criticized by Disney bloggers, the wait time can still creep up to 30 minutes or more.

 

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters

One of the handful of rides we went on more than once, this slow-moving attraction with its shooting gallery element was a huge hit. Once we figured out what our intended target was (the Zurg insignia: a square with a “Z” inside), it was game on! After we battled the Evil Emperor Zurg and emerged victorious (of course), the next words out of Blue’s mouth was, “Can we do that again?” Fortunately, it has a FastPass option.

 

After our intergalactic battle, it was time to refuel. Eating at Pizza Planet has been on my bucket list since before I knew there was a Pizza Planet to eat at. Throughout the first Toy Story, I was fixated on how much I wanted to eat at Pizza Planet. As it turned out, it was right next door to Buzz’s ride. Unfortunately, they were experiencing (what I would consider) a major flood.

20180928_110847

That lady in the black wasn’t super pumped about me taking this picture. She looked up right as I took it and said, “Do you need some help?” Well, no…but I document everything, so #sorrynotsorry. Here’s the thing, though…this was a significant water event. They had jackhammered part of the sidewalk up and there were sandbags everywhere. However, when we returned the next day, it was as if nothing had ever happened. There has to be a place in federal government for that kind of expedited problem solving.

Because Pizza Planet was temporarily incapacitated, our only real food option was Galactic Grill, just a few steps away. I had categorized Galactic Grill under “foods that we should only eat in an emergency because there is really nothing special about them.” It was 12:15 PM and our last meal was at 6:15 AM. This was a true hangry emergency. I took that list of Disneyland foods we must eat and chucked it in the trash with the burger and fries wrappers. It felt like I was disposing all of the impending disappointment from preconceived notions. I should do that more often.

20180928_113834

We were also just in time to watch the 12:40 performance of the Jedi Training Academy. With 6 training opportunities per day, it’s pretty easy to catch one as you’re passing by and/or get your tiny Jedi registered for one (as long as you do it earlier in the day). This worked out perfectly because Blue likes to know what to expect before diving into something. I have no idea where he gets that…

After lunch, having done just about everything we wanted to do in Tomorrowland on our first day, we began making our way down the street to Fantasyland, another one of the five original “lands”. The official entrance to Fantasyland is through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, unless you come in the back way like we did. It is home to many of the classic Disney stories that we grew up with, from floating over London in Peter Pan to trying to evade the evil witch in Snow White’s Scary Adventures. And these rides almost always have escalating wait times as the day goes on. We were able to step right on (or wait for 15 minutes or less) for several rides on Friday and then used the FastPass on Saturday for the rest.

It’s a Small World

This attraction was both bigger and more annoying than I remember from my youth. First of all, it would be awesome if the song had at least 6 more verses. Secondly, I understand what they were doing by incorporating some of the Pixar characters into the scenes, but I wanted this ride to be 100% vintage Disney. When Jesse and Woody showed up in the “heartland of America” display, it sucked just a tiny bit of the joy out of it…for me. Blue, on the other hand, was delighted. I see what you’re doing there, Disney. Always pander to the one who is the youngest. But I loved seeing so many nations, cultures, and skin colors represented, all side-by-side and joined in cherubic chorus. It’s a ride full of hope, even if that is also fabricated. Also, could the outside of this experience be any more beautiful? I am looking forward to seeing it decorated for Christmas next month!

And the inside…

Also, the site of the most awkward family selfie we took during the entire trip…

20180928_120916(0)

 

Storybook Land Canal Boats

Another slow ride through the bedtime stories of our childhoods, the Storybook Land Canal Boats sail right into the mouth of Monstro, the whale, and past the miniature recreations of such classic tales as The Three Little Pigs, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid. The designers have also included the village of Arendelle from Frozen. To add to the festive Halloween feel, several tiny pumpkins were hidden throughout the ride, ready to be discovered by observant visitors. To get us started, our captain/guide pointed out the first one. If you are the first kid on the boat (I’m assuming around 4′ or taller), you can ride on the bow. I’m a little surprised this isn’t some sort of safety violation, but Blue was thrilled and wasted no time climbing up.

 

Mad Tea Party

I did mention in my last post that none of us were interested in spinning for 90 seconds, but I had to make an exception. How do you come to Disneyland and not do the tea cups? I just couldn’t justify skipping it. Even when Blue was fiercely opposed. I vowed not to use the center wheel to make the cup spin any faster than it was already and by the time he had launched his argument, we were at the front of the line. Mom has a video of this and it’s irrefutable proof that once on, Blue had a blast. I’m keeping it forever and replaying it every time he fights me about trying something new.

 

Random Odds and Ends

As I wrap up this post at around 2000 words (because no one is going to sit and read a post that takes 15 minutes to get through…not even the most ardent Disney guest), here are a few photos from the things and people we stumbled across as we made our way from ride to ride. This is the stuff that you can’t plan for and part of what makes this place so stinkin’ magical. You just never know what (or who) will be around the corner.

 

Please check back for part 2 of Disneyland. And possibly part 3. Hopefully not. But…maybe. It might be a small world, but Disneyland is a huge park.

Mastering the Magic of the Mouse

I meant to write this last night, but then I was wooed into watching Elon Musk launch things into the sky over our house. As SpaceX sent a satellite into orbit and successfully landed the booster back on earth, the 3 of us sat on the balcony mesmerized. And then I took 14,000 pictures on my cell phone and attempted to capture it all on my Canon, without the help of a tripod because it’s still packed in a box somewhere, probably labeled “kitchen towels” by the movers. And then Neal and I got sucked into RBG: The Movie and I fell asleep on the couch about 10 minutes from the end. So, here we are.

The last time I went to Disney World, I was 10 and although I’m sure it was magical, I remember very little of it. I can faintly recall riding the teacups and some mini-coasters. And, of course, all of my memories from that trip play out over a continuous loop of It’s a Small World. I don’t remember Mickey-shaped food or meeting any of the characters. And because it was the age of 35mm film, there just aren’t that many pictures. Most were blurry and got tossed years ago, I assume. And I had never been to Disneyland. When Mom suggested we go for a long weekend and stay in the Disneyland Hotel to celebrate our birthdays, I was hesitant. It was so. much. money. The pressure to plan each moment perfectly weighed heavily on my mind. So, I sat down with a legal pad and pen and went to work.

My first call was to Carrie Garcia, a Travel Consultant for The Magic for Less Travel. I had gotten her name from a friend who frequently works with her to book their hotels for Disney vacations. We spoke for about an hour on the phone about where we wanted to stay, what we wanted to do and what our budget looked like. Since I was in the very beginning stages of planning, my questions were based solely on what I had read so far by Disney bloggers. What is a FastPass? Can we easily get from Disneyland to California Adventure? What are the character dining experiences like? Where else can we eat? How far or close are the hotels to the park? She patiently answered each question and I furiously scribbled notes in the margin of a Lands’ End catalog I found next to the bed. We ended the call with her promise to send quotes for the 3 hotels in the park and the information regarding the character dinings by the end of the day.

I was aware that Disney has been supporting military personnel and their families for years, with discounted park tickets and Shades of Green (the DoD-owned resort on the Disney World property). But I didn’t know to what extent those discounts spread to the Disneyland park hotels. We ultimately decided to go with Disneyland Hotel, with the Paradise Pier Hotel being a little less than what we wanted for these milestone birthdays and the Grand Californian being way more than we would ever spend unless one of us hit the Powerball. A 2 night/3 day stay with a standard view (as opposed to a pool view) was $800 for 3 adults, 1 child. It could have totally been worse. So, thank you, Disney for your unwavering support of military families.

With the hotel booked and the deposit paid, my attention turned to the dining packages that needed to be reserved well in advance. At Disney World you can secure a reservation months beforehand but at Disneyland, the bookings begin 90 days out. And Carrie was on top of it. She emailed me the day before our window opened to remind me of our options. We chose Goofy’s Kitchen (because it was a brunch that would bring us back to our hotel mid-day on our only full day at the park, forcing us to rest and take a dip in the pool before heading back out) and dinner the first night at Cafe Orleans (as opposed to the ever-popular Blue Bayou with its $30/entree prices). Carrie booked both of these meals and then linked the tickets to my Disney account, which I set up on the app on my phone. This was immensely helpful as it meant I didn’t have to keep up with paper tickets all day. I was already keeping up with an autograph book, 2 park maps and every little trinket Blue was picking up along the way. That bag was getting heavy.

Carrie also asked if we were celebrating any special occasions during the trip. Well…as a matter of fact… We decided to lump all 3 of our birthdays into the trip: Mom turning 70, me turning 40 and Blue turning 6. “You will get birthday buttons,” Carrie mentioned. “You should definitely wear them. Sometimes you’ll get free stuff or extra attention from the characters!”

Now the hard part: planning out each day in a way that didn’t absolutely exhaust us but took advantage of as many rides and experiences as possible…without having any idea of the lay of the land for either park. I needed to speak with an expert. Lucky me, I knew two. So, I set up a conference call with my childhood friends, Dan and Lori. They are on the east coast, but declared they would stay up until the wee hours of the morning if it meant they got to talk Disney.

20181008_074720-1

Some of the stellar advice they gave me included:

  • Which rides have the FastPass option and which ones don’t (like Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean), as well as which rides you need a FastPass for (like Toy Story Mania). This is something you could ultimately figure out from the app, but certainly handy to know in advance.
  • Where is the best place to sit for Soarin’ in California Adventure (and that the staff or “cast” will accommodate you when they are able).
  • What a “magic hour” is and what to do during it.
  • Some of the rides that are less popular but provide a much-needed break from the line-waiting and crowds, like Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Mark Twain riverboat.
  • How and when to sign up for Jedi Training.
  • How to get inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
  • What they wish they had done on their last trip to Disneyland.

I coupled those suggestions with a list of food recommendations I had found from a Disneyland Annual Passholder blogger and then I sat down to figure out what it all meant. I think we want to eat at Hungry Bear, but probably not Bengal BBQ. Definitely pick up something sweet from the Jolly Holiday Bakery, but hard pass on The Golden Horseshoe. None of this meant anything to me, but I wrote it all down anyway. Now to figure out the rides.

There are people in this world who will get on a ride at Disney and video the entire thing, from start to finish. Then they post it on Youtube for everyone to see. I watched those cell phone videos, for every ride in both parks. Although I cut some of them short. No one in our group wanted to spin around in circles (especially the 40+ crowd) so that instantly eliminated about 20% of the rides. The Matterhorn Bobsled was out based purely on how horrifying the Abominable Snowman was when he sprang out of dark corners and loomed larger than life. And anything that had the word, “coaster”, specifically the Incredicoaster, was out. So, that left almost 2 dozen rides where guests are immersed in the reality of the story, from soaring over London in Peter Pan, to deep-sea diving with The Little Mermaid, to sling-shotting through an action-packed (and bumpy, thanks to hydraulics-enabled cars) adventure with Indiana Jones. I made a note of the ones that wouldn’t permanently terrify Blue and then set it all to the side…for almost a month.

As the trip inched closer, I decided to look through my notes again. How would this all come together to create a complete itinerary? As much as I leafed through the pages and poured over blog posts written by Disney aficionados, it was still just bits and pieces of information floating freely in my head. This had never happened to me before. I had planned dozens of trips for our family and even some for other people, why couldn’t I hammer this down into a solid schedule? You are probably asking yourself right about now why I didn’t contact our Disney Travel Consultant? One simple reason: pride. She would have, without a doubt, helped me sort and schedule all we wanted to do. But I had never needed assistance before, I wasn’t about to start now. Also, I stumbled upon a blog post titled “Five Ways I Almost Ruined Our Disneyland Vacation”. The last bullet point? I Over-planned the Trip. And with that, any chance that I may have called Carrie, panicked and begging for advice, disappeared. I was prepared and the rest would just have to take care of itself. What would be, would be.

I was up at 6:15 AM on our first day at Disney. I still hadn’t packed bags for me or Blue. The cat needed medicine and her litter box cleaned out. Neal packed the cooler and Mom tried to keep Blue moving in a forward direction. With a 45-minute drive to Anaheim during Friday morning traffic, we weren’t going to make it to magic hour. It wasn’t how I wanted to start the vacation, but as we barreled down the I-5, I had to remind myself that we would make the best choices based on what I had learned in the past 3 months, how much time we had in the day and what our energy levels were. I had come to accept the fact that we weren’t going to get around to doing it all. We would even miss some of the “highlights” that other bloggers raved about. But what we did do would be perfect because we would be doing it together.

If you are interested in speaking with or booking a Disney vacation with Carrie Garcia, you can email her at carrie@themagicforless.com. She is a wealth of knowledge about all things Disney and I would strongly encourage you to allow her to help you more than I did. Also, I got no compensation for writing this post or sharing the love. It’s just what I do.

Friday Favorites

Happy Friday, friends!! It’s a short week for Neal since the Army gives a 4-day holiday for Columbus Day. Blue’s school does not, however, so Neal and I are going to try our hand at kayaking the canals at Long Beach today. I haven’t been in a kayak since 2004, but it’s probably just like riding a bike, right? Get in, paddle and try like hell not to tip over because the Pacific Ocean, in case you didn’t know, is freaking cold. All the time. I don’t know how the kids play in it on our beach days. They say once you get in, you warm up, but I’ve never gone in past my knees so I can neither confirm nor deny that statement.

I think on Fridays I’m going to do a little round-up of my favorite things from the week. Please feel free to send me your favorite things, too! As I’ve been saying all along, this blog is meant to be a community where everyone has a voice. So, please…use it!

I Got Back on Instagram…After a Year Hiatus

I had the opportunity to “take-over” the Blue Star Families’ Instagram for the day. On “Take-over Tuesday”, they posted several pictures and captions from our star-studded evening at the red carpet premiere of SEAL Team. They even included a picture Neal took of me interviewing Judd Lormand and A.J. Buckley! Speaking of the premiere, did anyone watch it? Holy explosions and falling stunts, Batman! When Max Thieriot jumped off that rig, the whole theater erupted in applause and cat-calls. Should you ever get to attend the premiere of any TV show or movie, take it! It is a completely different experience when the cast is in the audience with you. 20180925_213631

I Have Awesome Friends Who Do Awesome Things

A friend of mine in Kentucky posted this picture on her Facebook page this week.

43134074_10155631599991817_1102681399539793920_n

Her husband spent three days repainting the roof of their barn. He had to paint one color at a time. And if you’ve ever heard the expression, You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, then you know exactly how big that barn’s roof is. I’m sure this was a backbreaking task, but what a worthy endeavor! And the result is breathtaking. I look forward to seeing it in person someday.

 

M-I-C…K-E-Y…M-O-U-S-E

Fifteen hours after walking the red carpet, I was sitting at LAX, waiting for Mom’s flight to land. We had a hot 3-day date with a couple of mice (and all their friends) down the road. I am going to quietly admit that Disneyland was significantly more fun than I thought it would be. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the Happiest Place on Earth (because over-stimulation of a six year old is anything but happy), but it was certainly a good time. I’m not sure I would change my stance on the question: Our family wants to go on vacation…should we go to Disney or the Grand Canyon? But I am finally willing to concede that perhaps the answer is: Both, eventually. These are a few of my favorite pictures from the weekend, but you’ll see many more next week (apparently, I have a media storage limit on my WordPress account and I’m at 12% right now. I am wondering just how long it will take before upgrading is my only option.). Beginning Sunday, I will post a 4-part series that will cover what I planned beforehand, what we learned from each park and what we’ll do differently next time (oh yes, boys and girls…there will be a next time).

 

Because One Blog Just Isn’t Enough

I was channeling my grandmother when I started yet another blog this week. She was a woman who, upon finding shoes or clothes that fit perfectly, would buy it in every color. Why have one when you could have two? Or three. Or four. I enjoy writing (obviously, as most of the time I do it for free), so why not create a space for sharing my love/hate relationship with burpees, kale and all of the essential oils that smell so bad but are so good for me. Most of that happens in our garage, which is too small to fit the Prius but too big to not utilize. Also, I don’t have to scrape ice for 2 years and that was a major factor in choosing to convert the garage into a gym. Playing beat the clock while your windshield defrosts is, I’m sure, a game they play in Hell. My paint job will probably suffer but at least I can squat myself to greatness. If you want to join the fun, come find me Behind the Garage Door. I will post Tuesdays and Thursdays.

IMG_0219

Have a great weekend, lovely people! I’ll see you on Sunday!