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.

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

Movin’ and Groovin’ at the Grammy Museum

Last Monday was the official end of summer, although here in Southern California, it feels like it has only just begun. (Seriously, we were freezing from the time we arrived in May until about 3 weeks ago. I had to locate and then bust into the winter box of clothes. Who saw that comin’? So I’m figuring my white shoes have a solid 3 months of wear left.) Labor Day also marks the end of the Blue Star Museums program for this year. Unlike years past when we’ve managed to hit every museum on the list by the 4th of July, we were really hustling this year to squeeze in as many as possible. We didn’t even get through half of the ones just in Los Angeles alone, much less all of Southern California. I give you props, SoCal, for wholeheartedly embracing this initiative. We salute you right back! It seems we have some catching up to do next summer, but we did visit the Grammy Museum (in downtown L.A.) and the Skirball Cultural Center (right off Mulholland Drive near Bel Air).

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The Grammy Museum was fairly low on the list until our neighbors, who also have a son about Blue’s age, mentioned how interactive the exhibits are. Blue has always loved music (with the soundtrack from The Greatest Showman getting top billing in our house currently), so this seemed like something that he wouldn’t hate…which is kind of where our standards are at the ripe age of 6.

We headed up the 110 after breakfast and found parking at a meter on Figueroa Street (although there is a $5/day parking lot near the corner of Olympic and Figueroa – that’s where we’ll be going next time). The Grammy Museum is located in a complex called L.A. Live, which is adjacent to the Staples Center. There are restaurants, bars, a movie theater, condos, and a hotel. The area kind of resembles Fourth Street Live in Louisville, KY or the Power and Light District in Kansas City, MO. I’m sure a concert at The Staples Center, followed by a yard of beer at The Yard House, has my name all over it sometime before we move.

I always have the Blue Star Museums website pulled up on my phone before approaching the ticket booth because occasionally the staff doesn’t realize they are participating in the program. But there were no questions or issues getting into the Grammy Museum. They showed us where the restrooms were and sent us up to the 4th floor to begin our tour.

So, I’ve written the next portion of this blog post about 5 times. What I want to do is give a beautifully detailed description of everything we learned from each exhibit. What actually happened is more like how it would go if you took a dog to the park and then let loose about 300 squirrels…and maybe a handful of rabbits, just for good measure. Someday, visiting a museum (that is not specifically created for kids) is going to get easier. But since Blue was born, reading the informational plaques that accompany artifacts has become practically impossible. I try to read some, but anything less than about 300-point font tends to get skipped over. (True story: I took a picture of every.single.display at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS so I could read it later. I looked incredibly suspicious. They probably have my picture up in the break room.) Sometimes Neal and I tag out if it’s something we’re both interested in, but mostly we spend a lot of time reading anything in bold and trying to keep Blue from touching or racing around a corner where we can’t see him. So, what did we learn at the Grammy Museum?

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The “Grammy” is named for the gramophone (yes, that should be something that we already knew, but somehow it just never occurred to me). Also, the award has grown substantially over the years. I sort of went a little starry-eyed over being so close to something that I had only ever seen on TV (although that happens almost daily…last month it was that streets actually are palm tree-lined).

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We loved this room! OK, if you get a little itchy just thinking about germs on museum-provided headphones, maybe bring a baby wipe. Personally, I saw our son pet a lizard and then pick his nose with that same finger soooo…. (I don’t condone this, by the way. Kids are fast and also gross.) There is every genre of music that you can imagine, ready for enjoying at the listening station. It was at this moment that Blue learned about African American spirituals, cowboy country, the blues, and hip hop. He just tapped on the genre and then chose a song and listened for a few seconds. We hung out here for at least 10 minutes.

See that entire wall on the right? That’s an exhibit about Pete Seeger. Blue skipped all of that. But I did see this:

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I never realized that the popularity of We Shall Overcome as an anthem for civil rights is largely attributed to Pete Seeger (who I sometimes confuse with Bob but that’s #childrenofthe80’sproblems for ya).

I also made Blue stop and appreciate this.

When asked, Blue will openly admit to not knowing who Michael Jackson is. But he can break some moves to Thriller and Bad. He always asks me if Jimmy Buffett sings those songs. So it was a real learning opportunity for him. Also, that glove. I just stood for a long time trying to soak in the historical significance of these pieces. What a deeply missed icon of my generation.

There are also several sound-proof recording booths where you can learn how to produce a soundtrack. He skipped right past that, too. But this is why we return to museums over and over…next time he’ll find something new and interesting that seemed boring to him this year.

There is the obligatory dress from Whitney Houston, the lyrics in scribbled loops by Taylor Swift, and an entire exhibit dedicated to John Coltrane (which I will go back and read someday).

But Blue’s favorite part (and perhaps ours, too) was the interactive instrument stations. You can play the piano, drums, or guitar and hear every note or beat by wearing the attached headphones (again, baby wipes). We are not a very musical family so Blue has had limited access to musical instruments. He played the drums for at least 5 minutes, learned a couple of chords on the piano and then we practiced at the mixing booth.

Yep, we could have stayed here for most of the day. But others were waiting so we moved on. But this part right here? Perfect for a hands-on kid who loves music!

The Grammy Museum also has rotating exhibits (which is just one more reason why we tend to stock up on museum memberships). Currently, there is one about Cheech and Chong (which we kind of skimmed because what I know about them involves me explaining things to a 6 year old that I’m not ready to explain). However, what’s not to love about these?

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A decorative light set for your next patio party. And a lunch box that’s just begging for a phone call from the school (even if it did include the metal drink container…I keep my weeeeeeeeed in there).

Also, the World’s Largest Grammy…

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illuminated by a changing spectrum of colors – for anyone who came to the Cheech & Chong exhibit prepared and altered.

But the best surprise was the current exhibit, The Get Animated Invasion, which starts with an ode to Looney Toons (and a giant screen playing some Tom & Jerry favorites)…

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followed by Bugs Bunny on the big screen in the Clive Davis Theater…

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followed by an entire room with popular cartoon activities.

This is also when I realized that we have completely failed as parents. We have forgotten to introduce our child to Space Jam and the Jetsons. And he only knows Fred Flintstone as John Goodman. We will try to do better. I don’t know why Blue insisted I pose with hands together and one foot behind the other while he flung open his arms to the skies above…the whole thing made sense in his mind, I’m sure. I think we would have spent a little more time here, but he was hungry and tired. We did the best we could and then he slept all the way home.

There is so much more to the Grammy Museum than what I’ve included here. Visitors can view the Songwriters Hall of Fame (with samples of handwritten lyrics), Revolutions of Recorded Sound (where you can experience the difference in sound quality from the beginning of recorded music to today and learn how technology has changed how and where we hear music), read the history of the Grammy awards, and view artifacts and footage from the Latin Grammys. Plus, many exhibits that explore the complexities of music (and how it intersects with or influences culture, for example).

If you can’t make it to the Grammy Museum in L.A., there are sister sites in Cleveland (MS), Nashville (TN), and Newark (NJ). If they are half as engaging as this one, they are worth every penny.

THANK YOU to Blue Star Families for including the Grammy Museum in your 2018 Blue Star Museums program and THANK YOU to the Grammy Museum for agreeing to participate!

Kitsch and Class

Thank goodness for the Blue Star Families organization and their collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense. Blue Star Museums, the product of this partnership, offer Servicemembers and their families free admission from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Before I even buy the steaks for the grill that last week in May, I’m searching the website for museums that have, once again, agreed to participate in this incredible opportunity.

As I was telling Neal last night, these programs make it possible for military families all over the country to visit world-class museums. Not every duty station is teeming with free museums, like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Not every duty station’s COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) adequately bridges the gap between what the Servicemember is paid and what it costs to live and thrive in that city, as is the case with Los Angeles. We have become increasingly dependent on Blue Star Museums, the Commissary and the Base Exchange for providing entertainment and necessities at a cost that is consistent with Neal’s pay.

Plus, we find museums that we may have never discovered otherwise.

20180721_151415Like the Velveteria; The Museum of Velvet Paintings in the Chinatown district of L.A.

I would be straight up lying if I said my reasons for wanting to visit this museum were completely honorable. I wasn’t there to discuss the evolution of kitsch art or to debate where velvet painting fits into American art history.  I wanted to see as many Velvet Elvises as possible, even better if one is naked. I wanted to snicker in the back room like a 12-year boy with a stolen copy of Playboy. I wanted to be shocked and wildly amused by the creations of those who live on the artistic fringe. And don’t get me wrong…there was plenty of that to be had.

Not to mention the entire hallway devoted to Elvis, which is ironically (maybe) right next to the restroom…

20180721_145138What’s not to love? What’s not to laugh at? Until you meet the co-owner of the museum, Carl Baldwin, and you inhale a bit of his passion. It’s intoxicating and contagious. He and co-owner, Caren Anderson, relocated the Velveteria from Portland, Oregon to Chinatown in 2013. They have an extensive collection of velvet paintings; over 3000 pieces to date. They proudly display about 400 of them at any given time. And Carl is always on hand to tell you the stories (good, bad and ugly) about each painting.

We met Carl at the entryway of the museum, which is just an unassuming storefront in a Chinatown strip of nail salons, Asian grocers and empty shops. It isn’t in the cleanest area of town. And walking through the door of the museum (which is more like someone arranged 400 pieces of art in a nail salon next door to Office Depot) is overwhelming. Paintings stacked on the floor, overlapping each other on the walls. Don’t touch, I whispered to Blue. But I have to go to the bathroom, whimpered Blue. Carl noticed Blue squirming with his hand on his pants and said Oh you gotta go when nature calls. Right through that curtain, straight back, hang a right and then a left. I took Blue and my phone (just in case). The bathroom did not disappoint.

And it was perfectly clean and well-stocked. This was off to a decent start.

We re-joined Neal at the entrance where Carl was recalling story after story to 2 women who were visiting from out of town. Their genuine interest in each piece kept Carl busy, but Blue was getting antsy so we mentioned we were military and that the museum is listed on this year’s Blue Star Museums registry. That’s when we learned that Carl, a seemingly free-wheeling, possibly VW bus-driving velvet art connoisseur, is the son of a war veteran. He has strong feelings about supporting the military and thanked Neal repeatedly for his service. I thanked him for extending his gratitude to the families. After all, Blue had just finished 6 weeks in a new school and I was still unpacking the garage. Showing appreciation for our sacrifice will win me over every single time.

Then he encouraged us to take pictures and ask as many questions as we wanted. In the meantime, we heard him recounting stories of the many studios who have called to borrow a certain piece for a TV show or movie they were shooting.  He mentioned how he came to own some pieces, their provenance. And he talked about the artists themselves. Carl and Caren’s museum features velvet paintings from every genre and from every period of time.

The velvet painting rendition of The Blue Boy, the non-velvet version hung in my grandparents’ house until they died.

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Michael Jackson, from botox to detox.

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Willie Nelson against a backdrop of incredibly detailed Spaniards and Egyptians.

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And these beautiful pieces by another Veteran. If I wasn’t standing there looking at it, I would never imagine you could get paint such a realistic scene on velvet. What freaking talent.

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But the art isn’t the only thing that draws the eye in this museum. Knick-knacks, tchotchkes and hand-scrawled notes describing pieces adorn the walls and furniture. This is Carl and Caren’s way of curating a museum and it’s absolute charming, if a little mind-numbing. When your eye leaps from this…

20180721_151324to this…

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to this…

2018-07-21 15.04.09it’s a little hard to know where to stop.

And then there’s the black-light room.

I would have been disappointed if a velvet painting museum didn’t have a black-light room. This really rounded out the experience. There was also a nude women’s room. And this clever reminder on the restroom door.

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And just so, so, so, so much more. I’m not even sure I can review this museum with the justice and credit it deserves. There are few things in life that must be seen to be believed. This is one of them. After 45 minutes, Blue was over it. He was hungry and, most likely, completely over-stimulated. But if anyone wants to go back, I’m happy to drive. We barely scratched the surface of what Carl knows, what he and Caren own. It is worth checking out during the Blue Star Museums program, but I would also happily hand over my $10 for another walk through.

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If you see Carl, tell him that Army Wife from Kentucky sent ya!

If you go, there is metered street parking on Alpine Street, 2 hour limit. This also 0.3 miles from Olvera Street, in case you hear a churro or taquito calling your name. And check out this little blurb about Velveteria by Atlas Obscura.