Keeping Dry

18 November

I am grateful to be an athletic supporter. 

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I have never had any desire to learn how to surf. Besides the fact that the Pacific Ocean is considerably colder than the Atlantic, even during our summer (which occurs in October instead of August), there are sharks in that water. And surfers have to be very careful about draping themselves over a board waiting for a wave, lest they resemble something like dinner to a shark on the hunt. Also, I don’t swim very well. I can mostly save from myself from drowning (which was put to the test one summer before college graduation), but I tend to not seek out wild water situations.

Because of this, I have never tried to teach Blue how to surf. Or swim. I leave that to the experts. I think he would probably master it more quickly than I expect, but the idea of sitting in sand while he practices just sounds itchy. Twenty years of vacationing in South Carolina and it took 18 months of living in Southern California to realize that I really hate sand when it is part of life indefinitely. 

But it’s great fun to watch the surfers do their thing. And they are a determined sort. Like golfers. They will float on that board for hours, just waiting on their perfect wave. And, if you enjoy photographing them like I do, it often feels like you are out there bobbing with them. Because once they spring into action, so must you.

Neal and I have been watching Lost L.A. on the SoCal PBS channel on our Roku. That show alone has done wonders for giving me a sense of what we’ve missed by arriving 50 years too late and what is still here, waiting to be discovered by someone willing to open a door, scratch beneath the surface, journey to the middle of the desert. On one episode, the host explains the relationship Los Angelinos have with the environment. And you can’t talk about nature in L.A. without discussing the Santa Ana winds. Apparently, these hot gusts from the Santa Ana Canyon create epic surfing conditions, causing the waves to rise up and stay up, instead of being crushed by breezes coming inland off the ocean. I fear I may have missed my chance to photograph surfers on the ride of their lives since Santa Ana winds have most likely subsided until next year. But if one kicks up, this time I’ll be ready!

Motivated to Move

12 November

I am grateful for fun, unexpected moments in the course of a normal day. 

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I am almost a serf (my initial thought was to put “slave” but that seems hyperbolic considering the actual life of a slave) to my bucket lists. When we get a new assignment, I spend hours and hours on Trulia looking for a house and on Pinterest, looking for things to do. Heaven help us should the assignment ever change mid-move (which has happened to people we know personally). I am not bored easily, but with a high-energy seven year old in the house, I feel a certain level of pressure to keep active during the waking hours. Sometimes that means playing in the dirt until the sun goes down, but sometimes it calls for a grander plan. So, I like to have several options at the ready for when we just need to get out of the house. This has not been a problem in Southern California. The bigger issue is narrowing it down. Beach or mountains. Hollywood or Joshua Tree. Biking or hiking. Museums or playgrounds. Music or silence. OK, I’m not exactly sure where you can go for complete silence around here. We once pulled into a very remote section of Sequoia National Park to have a picnic and someone actually drove by, looking for their own picnic spot. So, music or…traffic, I suppose. As a person who can be frozen into inaction by too many choices, it has been a challenge to just pick something. And then sometimes what’s on my bucket list from a Pinterest post from 2010 has closed or renovated into something completely different than it was before.

Such is the case with Clifton’s Cafeteria, which used to be an actual cafeteria housed in a room filled with taxidermied animals. Think: Blue Boar Cafeteria and the Rainforest Cafe have a baby. With a dash of L.A. tossed in at the last second. How could we not go? Unfortunately, apparently they shuttered a couple of years ago and just recently reopened sans food and with a pricey drink menu. As tempting as it is, I can’t serve my child a Manhattan for lunch just so I can check this place out. So, we ended up at Good Stuff Restaurant on Hermosa Beach. I mean…on Hermosa Beach. You step out of the dining area and onto sand. We watched volleyball players setting and spiking under a smog-cloaked sun and wondered who are these people on the beach at lunch on a Wednesday? And then, when our bellies were full of fish tacos, we walked the Hermosa Beach pier.

Hermosa Beach is the proud home of surfing, which came as a surprise to me because I’ve lived here for almost 2 years thinking surfing was born in Huntington Beach. The pier’s boardwalk incorporates a surfing walk of fame with inlaid plaques on both sides of the walkway. No surfers to be found last Thursday, though, as the tide was on its way out and the waves laid down lazily across the shore. But plenty of folks fished at the end of the pier and an abundance of birds looked for a snack dangling at the end of someone’s line. I was cautiously approaching this feathered friend, snapping away on my cell phone, when Blue made a sudden movement that caused him to splay his wings and take off. I caught the shot and then turned sharply to scold Blue for nearly ruining my picture. He looked at me and beamed. “Did you get it? I did that so you could get the action shot.” He was so proud of himself that I couldn’t quite bring myself to criticize him for scaring the wildlife. He knows better, but sometimes his instinct for the shot overrides everything else. We’ll work on that, but in the meantime, I do love an action photo.

Dangling off the map

8 November

I am grateful for this view, in any weather, during any season. 

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The base housing office has a website which features a cul-de-sac of houses with ocean views. Like “I’m just gonna toss this salad and watch for whales from my kitchen window” kind of ocean views. I desperately hoped to get one of those houses. We didn’t get an ocean view. We got a view of the Von’s sign and one of the many LAFD fire departments directly across the road. Between us and them is a busy stretch of road where people like to test the upper limit of their speedometers and see how much noise they can make while doing it. We don’t have ocean breezes, we have sirens.

But I can walk across the street, down the ocean path…less than a block away…and look at this. It’s not quite as great as looking at it from my bedroom window, but maybe I’m not supposed to have that. I believe in the grand scheme and I have always felt like we were offered this house for a reason. Even though we had to evict a gang of mice living in the garage and we have termites that pop up in unexpected places every few months…we are supposed to be in this house, with the perfect hill for finding lizards and the wide flat yard large enough for a trampoline and a Derby party at the same time. And whenever we want, we can walk across the street and see the ocean, reflecting the sunset with Catalina Island peeking through when she feels like it. I don’t love the beach. Blue and I both hate sand. But being able to walk from our house to a place where we can see it from up on the hill…watch it ebb and flow into eternity, that’s something special. Water as far as the eye can see. That has a way of making you feel like a very small fish in this very cold ocean.

Orange is the New Happy

6 November

I am grateful for beauty that springs eternal…or at least until the Instagrammers destroy it. 

The greatest irony about a “super bloom” in Southern California is that it springs from an unusually wet winter…which, in large part, is due to how many wildfires we’ve had the previous autumn. The fall of 2018 brought the disastrous Camp Fire in the north while we were experiencing hazy, orange sunsets from smoke blowing down the coast from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu. Driving through Zuma Beach one afternoon this summer, we saw the burned-out shells of multi-million dollar homes dotting an otherwise pristine neighborhood. Blowing embers are funny things. I always wonder if it’s Karma or just plain bad luck that makes them take flight and light where they do.

And I think it’s interesting that California’s state flower, the Golden Poppy, looks like a field on fire when it’s in full bloom. The orange flames licking at the coast gave rise to acres and acres of new, orange life inland. It’s not enough to forget the devastation of the year before, especially for those who lost families and homes, but it does soften the blow a tiny bit.

It’s illegal to pick a California Poppy. It’s also illegal to step on, sit on, or otherwise trample it, which is probably why Californians lost their ever-lovin’ minds last spring when scores of Instagramming social media influencers took to the fields with their floppy hats, big sunglasses, and jumpsuits. They sprawled out on a bed of flowers, picked them and then stuck them in their teeth, their hair, between their boobs, between their…well…never mind. They destroyed nature in an effort to prove that they were capable of being one with it. Thank goodness they were in the minority, although their destruction was magnified by their drive for more likes. On the whole, visitors stayed on the paths, refrained from picking them like weeds, and respected the fact that once a California Poppy is plucked, it could take generations for it to grow back in the wild.

Two weeks ago, we had 330 wildfires in 24 hours. I couldn’t believe that statistic but the local news said it, so it must be true. Fueled by a significant Santa Ana wind event and seriously low humidity (producing some pretty impressive lizard legs on everyone), anything that sparked was in danger of becoming a raging inferno. And that will probably lead to another unusually wet winter this year. Just right for one more super bloom before we go. I think I’ll leave my Instagram account at home.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

3 November

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about different cultures and share them with our son. 

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Southern California has spent the better part of the weekend celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Technically, I believe, it falls on 1 November for children who have passed on and 2 November for adults, but it was extended to the 3rd this year because of the weekend. So, festivals kicked off Friday night and didn’t stop until late this afternoon. All the better because everyone got an extra hour of sleep last night so they were fresh for today’s festivities.

My introduction to Dia de los Muertos was, like most other white girls who grew up in the southeast, wholly thanks to Coco. Although the first time we watched it, Blue only stuck around for the music, I remember thinking, “this is a beautiful, Mexican tradition that keeps the memories of those who have passed on from fading over time. It ensures that even more importantly than being honored, they are not forgotten.”

I have begged my parents to sit down and write out the stories they remember from childhood. Because the telling and re-telling of the story, from one generation to the next, is what we have left of those we may have never known. Right now it’s not as pressing because if it isn’t the plot of a Pokemon episode, Blue doesn’t have time for it. But someday that will change and I want to be ready. I can tell him that his great-grandmother loved eating at Carino’s and shopping 3 malls in one day until she was so tired, she didn’t know which one of the girls she was. I can tell him that his great-grandfather grew a garden that was the envy of the neighborhood and he knew the names of all the tellers at the credit union. But I can’t go much further back than that. If Dia de los Muertos was part of our family traditions, perhaps I would know more. I could re-tell more. I would certainly be able to remember who was who in the grainy black and white photographs that fill the shoebox in the top of my closet.

The ofrenda, with its punched, paper flags that flutter in the breeze, let family members know that the spirits have arrived. The sweet scent of Aztec marigolds draw those spirits even closer and their favorite foods and drinks adorn the alter, welcoming back those loved ones who have passed on. And, of course, the sugar skulls with their delicately piped features, colorful and creative.

I suppose we have Memorial Day. But that has become more about kicking off summer with a rack of ribs and a nap in the hammock. You don’t see Dia de los Muertos mattress sales or discounts on bulk meat. Maybe an influx of brightly decorated cookies, but I think it’s safe to say this holiday still revolves around remembering, in vivid detail, and sharing the stories of those who have passed on with younger generations. And there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing your stock.

Next year, Blue and I will construct an ofrenda. We will include pictures of his great-grandparents, his “Aunt” Traci, our cousin Chris, our friend and neighbor Sunny, our dear Lulu and Poppy. And perhaps we will include Shep, as well. There will be cat toys, a baby blanket, a plate of bacon, some beaded jewelry, and plenty of chocolate. We will, as they say in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, “commune with the dead so that we might understand the living.” And, perhaps, in doing so we will make death less about the devastating, permanent loss of someone we treasure and more about finding ways to relive, refresh the memories they made with us before they passed.

What I Now Know.

I am a Virgo who was raised by a Virgo. If you know anything about astrology, you know that results in an adult who is wound fairly tightly. I give Neal a lot of credit for marrying me anyway. But I think he also saw some potential for loosening, especially when I got pregnant. I didn’t see it. I had grand plans for this child. Mozart before birth, no TV for 3 years, wood toys, cloth diapering and homemade baby food. Nothing that needed batteries. I didn’t even buy a swing because it seemed so unnecessary. A month in, I was at Target with my best friend buying a swing, a package of diapers, and the latest V-Tech (not to knock any of these things…it was just not in my vision because I was raising something like Tarzan mixed with a Scandanavian love child). I did eventually go back to cloth diapering, but only because the “experts” said that cloth diapers made it easier to potty train. That’s a load of poo in a plastic diaper. That child outgrew his cloth diapers, it took so long. And that’s saying something because each diaper had like 14 different levels of snaps. But 3 years later, there I was…back at Target buying diapers and cursing the load of laundry I had done everyday for 36 months.

I say all of this because something somewhat revealing happened to me last month. I half-assed Halloween. Remember the year I had 3 different costumes? Or the year I made mummy hotdogs? Or the year the whole family dressed as characters from the Peanuts strip? None of that happened this year. In fact, this is what happened this year:

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A Hobby Lobby, half-off, find from 2 years ago that I still haven’t gotten around to finishing painting. And it hung in our hallway for a month like this. Maybe it looks intentional. Or maybe it looks like I’ve stopped caring, in my daily yoga pants, sports bra, messy bun, and worn-out Birkenstocks. Maybe this sign says, “Hey, at least the family was fed a homecooked meal almost every night, the sheets were washed weekly, and Blue has learned how to add double digits in his head.” Or maybe it says, “Nothing to see here. She thought she could…but then she quit.” And the thing is, whichever signal it’s sending, I didn’t give it more than a passing thought for more than 30 seconds for all of October. It is what it is and this is the season we’re in. The season of hiding food wrappers behind the couch, and squeezing in workouts during an episode of Wild Kratts, and fighting about the need to be educated instead of just agreeing with the 7 year old that he already knows it all. There are priorities and, right now, this sign was not one of them. I’m not even a little bit sorry.

I know that this blog (and my other one, Behind the Garage Door) have not been a priority, either. Instead of writing posts and then boosting them on blog author Facebook pages, I’m on Pinterest downloading math worksheets and trying to find Youtube videos with a catchy melody and an easy way to explain multiplication. And at night, all I want to do is finish Ken Burns’ new docuseries, Country Music. By the time we get through it, it won’t be new anymore. We’ll probably have a new Ken Burns docuseries to catch up on. I have 8 years of photos on my laptop, made worse by how many pictures I take of the same shot on my cell phone. I have a running commentary of blog posts that live in my head and never quite make it out the door and onto the page. That’s probably the worst. Right now, Blue is re-watching The Spy Who Lived Next Door and practicing yo-yo tricks and if I was a better mom, I would be playing a board game with him or making pancakes with blueberry eyes. But I want…I need…to get some of this out. Not for you, but for me. Anyway, he isn’t complaining…yet.

One more thing. We are in our final months of L.A. living and I’m not even a little bit sad. It has been hard to write here because I try to keep this a positive space, but this duty station has brought out the worst in me. Me…an Army spouse who has been called a “chameleon” more than once. I just could not change my colors enough to fit in or love it here. I’m not even sure I like it. I tolerate it. But most days, I have not tolerated it very well and Neal has probably caught the worst of my frustration. My only saving grace has been my friends, this neighborhood, this family that lets me vent and then gives me wine.

But this L.A. life is not for me. Maybe it once was, back in the 70’s. When you didn’t have to pay $20 to park at the beach or smell weed seeping from every corner or constantly worry that your curious child was going to pick up a meth pipe. But I am not leaving L.A. better than I found it and L.A. has not changed me for the better. I’m more suspicious, jaded, angry. And we’ve paid through the nose to feel that way. We are still waiting on the assignment list to come out, but I’ve never been so eager to see what our next adventure is. To leave L.A. in the dust, taking only photos and friendships with me.

I recently got called out by a friend here for being so negative about this duty station. She said I’m going to miss this place. She said I’m going to look back with fond memories and recall adventures with Blue as he gets older. And I don’t doubt there’s some truth to that. I probably needed that fairly harsh scolding because it will stick in my head and I will hear her voice over the next few months. Every time I begin to complain about the 110 or the drug addicts roaming like zombies down Gaffey, I will hear her say, “There is more to it than this and that’s the part you’ll miss. It’s not all bad.”

So, to that point, I’ve decided to blog my SoCal gratitude for the next 26 days. Filed under: The Virgo Loosens Up a Bit, I’m already a day late. But I’m used to playing catch-up so for yesterday and today:

1 November

I am grateful for negative tides.

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Negative tides are a result of the moon and the tilt of the earth (or something like that) and they only happen during daylight hours in the late fall. We caught one last week and were able to see my first bat star in the wild. More to come in November and we’ll be on the lookout for octopuses and sea stars. But the best part is that we can be at the beach in about 4 minutes. Of everything we have experienced in California, this has to be in the top 5.

2 November

I am grateful for our little military family Cub Scout Pack.

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(I’m also grateful for Mr. M’s new Samsung that can take pictures practically in the dark.)

This was during the first night of our fall campout last weekend in an area of SoCal that I was sure was going to catch fire any second. But the most exciting thing that happened all weekend was the pack of coyotes that howled their way past our campsite when half of the boys woke up needing to pee. The port-a-potties were not that close. We weren’t sure if this Pack was going to happen this year, just because everyone is busy and the pot of volunteers changes, literally, every year. Such is life with a military-only Pack. But we pulled it together and I couldn’t be more pleased. Neal and I, as Cubmaster and Committee Chair, are having a blast and we are solidly backed-up by gung-ho parents who only ask, “How can we help you next.” I am going to miss this.

A Field Trip to the Fair

Field Trip Friday fell on a Wednesday this week. It isn’t preferable to be “out of school” in the middle of the week. Coming back to Math and Language Arts felt like pure drudgery, even after I made up a fun song about our grammar lesson. (And it’s no small thing to find something that rhymes with “simile”.) But we were taking advantage of Homeschool Days at the L.A County Fair. We attended the Orange County Fair last year and because we can’t afford to do both of anything in the same year out here, we saved L.A. for this summer, knowing it was our last chance.

So, for those of us who have set a high bar for county fairs (and really anything short of what you conjure up in your head while reading Charlotte’s Web is just a night at the carnival and should not rise to the esteemed level of county fair), let’s talk about what the L.A. County Fair does well.

1. Anything life-sized. Life-size condiments, snack foods, books, toys, creepy as hell Halloween characters. I mean, there’s no 1000-pound carved butter sculpture of a remote Amish homestead, but I guess you can’t win em all.

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2. Capitalizing on area attractions. Since you can no longer hike anywhere near the Hollywood sign without LAPD tight-circling in their chopper overheard, we thought this was a decent consolation prize. (Fun L.A fact: When LAPD helicopters fly in wide circles, it means they are just checking out the area below, but tight circles mean whatever you are doing, you are so busted. Hide the weed! Oh wait, never mind. You can keep that.) We also could have indulged in a Randy’s Doughnut (which gives me a cavity just thinking about it) and a Pink’s hotdog (minus the 45 minute wait on a heat-trapped downtown sidewalk).

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3. The Midway. Filed under, “Y’all are making me smarter,” I just looked up why it’s called a midway. Apparently the term originated with the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It became the common noun for the area reserved for amusements at a state or county fair. According to Wikipedia, the Canadians use the same word. Although I’m sure it sounds much nicer when they say it. Anyway, the midway of the L.A. County Fair is more than just mid…it’s like 2/3rds of the party. Not one, but two, Ferris wheels spinning simultaneously. And ride after ride after ride of screeching fun, guaranteed to drop your stomach and bring back up that hot Cheetos-encrusted doughnut turkey leg you just ate.

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But we didn’t ride a single thing because it was hot and I’m cheap. Wristbands were $50 and we didn’t drive 75 minutes on 7 different interstates to get closer to the sun. We came to learn about the life cycle of a goat and what a chick looks like when it’s just hatching from the egg.

But that’s where we would be wrong about the L.A. County Fair. Because we didn’t learn about any of those things. We saw brand-spankin’ new, barely walking goats, but no one to ask when they were born or how long it takes them to learn how to walk. We Googled it.

We saw a calf chillin with some sheep, but no one to ask how old cows are when they first start mating and producing milk. We Googled it.

We saw some sheepdog puppies hanging out with the sheep, but no one to ask what their role is in herding or how long it takes for them to learn the skill. We Googled it.

We did watch one cow-milking demonstration and learned that the 3 healthiest dairy foods are yogurt, milk, and cheese (not Blue Bell ice cream, I guess). We also heard the dairy farmer refer to “almond milk” and “oat milk” as “almond juice” and “oat juice”. (He later blamed zealous animal rights activists for the loss of public access to the local dairies. He said that to me privately and I don’t think he’s wrong, but also this is why we can’t have nice things. California is the largest dairy producer in the country and we are hard-pressed to find a cow we can milk this side of Kansas. If they aren’t careful, California kids are going to grow up thinking all straws are supposed to disintegrate in your mouth and their milk hatched in the dairy case overnight).

And we didn’t see any exotic rabbits, roosters, turkeys, chicks straight outta the egg, draft horses, alpacas, sheep being sheared, cattle being hosed down, 4-H high schoolers cuddled with their cows, or baby chicks tumbling down a slide. (OK, to be fair, the animal rights activities probably did away with that one a long time ago.)

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This is obviously where the cool kids are every January in Pennsylvania. 

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This is everything that’s great about the PA Farm Show. And somewhere above their heads, Charlotte is weaving, “SOME PIG.” 

But this wasn’t the Pennsylvania Farm Show, where kids from the countryside are competing for blue ribbons in everything from baking to bull-riding. This was, if we are being precise, a city fair plus a petting zoo thrown in for good measure. And it was a perfectly fine petting zoo.

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But I paid $36 for 2 cheeseburgers from a food truck, not from the California Cattleman’s Association. And $6 for a root beer float from the Esports Gaming Hall, not the California Dairy Association. Food that was fried, on a stick, between 2 doughnuts, dipped in flaming Cheetos, on the bone, and wrapped in a tortilla. But none of it seemed to be from here. Even the “L.A. Made” section of the expo hall was disappointing and underwhelming. It could have been any county fair anywhere. Where is the Los Angeles pride? One of the most unique cities in the world is hosting the most vanilla fair we’ve ever attended. Los Angeles is so not vanilla. It’s horchata and edamame and dirty chai and Sriracha. Flaming Cheetos? Maybe if they are rolled in guacamole and lit on fire. That’s Los Angeles.

I don’t expect the L.A. County Fair to be the Pennsylvania Farm Show. The Imperial and Central Valleys can’t leave home for a month just to show off their award-winning pigs and heirloom chickens to those high-fallutin’ Hollywood types down in the city. And those 4-H kids are probably hesitant to get any closer to the INS office. But it sure would be nice if someone learned how to carve butter, or put a shade over the garden area so we could learn what squash looks like when it’s shooting off the vine without melting under the Inland Empire sun. And maybe the Cattleman’s Association could set up a grill. I would buy all. the. burgers. And a Dairy Association milkshake to wash it all down.

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An Unsanctioned Field Trip

Honestly, I blame myself for the rain this winter. I spent all summer and most of fall complaining about the L.A. River, or lack thereof. Although more than once I was tempted to throw on my Pink Ladies jacket and race my Prius through the dry and dusty channels. I looked longingly at the new chicken wellies I had bought at the Tractor Supply Store on our way out of state last May. October approached and they still had the tags on them. 70 and sunny every day. I didn’t even bother to check the Weather Channel app before getting dressed. I didn’t check to see if we could play outside or needed to seek shelter indoors. Groundhog Day, Jim Cantore-style. I was completely bored.

And then the first storm came. Unfortunate timing, though, because wildfires had just ripped through Malibu and Thousand Oaks. Parts of the Pacific Coast Highway were buried under mud and debris. Traumatized wildfire survivors were put on alert: your house withstood the blaze, but it might slide down the hill. It rained for a week. Everyone thought winter had passed.

When Mom and Anna arrived on a Delta flight on the second day of 2019, the sun was shining. But then it rained for pretty much their entire visit. We scrounged for things to do because everything in Southern California is outside (or closed on Mondays). Soon after, the murmuring started…There might be a super bloom this year. I didn’t know what a super bloom was, but it sounded like a reason to stock up on lemon, lavender and peppermint oils. And Kleenex.

We had already been let in on the secret of Antelope Valley when we first arrived.

“That’s the place to see the poppies in the spring,” they said.

“It’s a drive and you have to go north of L.A., but it’s worth it,” they said.

And then Lake Elsinore, which is significantly closer to us and south of L.A. (that’s an important distinction when accounting for traffic), reported a super bloom in one of the canyons.

And people lost their damn minds.

There were Instagram followers to delight and photos to be re-tweeted. Everyone was ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Until Lake Elsinore was forced to shut it down and re-group. And still someone landed their private helicopter in the middle of the wildflowers, jumped out for a selfie, and took off as authorities were racing toward them.

And although I was appalled, I wasn’t shocked. Because when you have 40 million people living side-by-side, someone is bound to drop their aircraft on private property just to say they did. The other 39 million will spend a week on Facebook threads trying to sleuth out who it was. Just settle in with a bucket of popcorn and read the comments.

So, we passed on the $30 shuttle to the Lake Elsinore super bloom and by the time it seemed like things were calming down, I overheard a gentleman at the Grunion Run say there wasn’t much left. Nature had taken its course, hastened by human nature. Next up was Antelope Valley, where the Poppy Reserve staff had gone to great lengths just a couple months before to say they were not expecting a super bloom this year. I didn’t blame them. Who would want to reveal their hand after the shit show at Lake Elsinore? But thanks for taking one for the team, Riverside County.

Pictures were starting to trickle in, though. The woman who runs the Mommy Poppins, Los Angeles website posted some photos she took of her kids at the fields over the weekend. It didn’t look mobbed. And what if we went on a school day? What if we left at 7:00 in the morning and tackled the 110 with the Fast Trak pass and a cooler of snacks? I talked myself into it. Then the night before, I saw a story in the L.A. Times about a 15-passenger van, loaded with poppy field visitors, that slammed into the back of a Mini-Cooper, presumably because the driver was too busy looking at poppies to drive.

I talked myself out of going. It just isn’t safe. Too many people. It’s not worth it.

And then I talked myself back into it. We may never see this again. What if next winter is dry? We can leave early. Super early. We will have zero expectations. That last one is crucial for being happy in L.A.

We were packed and ready to go by 7:15, but then a peacock walked across the street in front of our house and it was such a delightful surprise that we spent the next 15 minutes following it around the neighborhood.

By 9 AM, we were enmeshed in the 110 traffic, which leads right through the heart of downtown L.A. And I was deeply regretting that cup of coffee on the way out the door. I just have to make it to the 5. Then I can pull off somewhere and pee. It took a long time to get to the 5 and I seriously considered my ability to simultaneously drive and pee into a Starbucks coffee mug. And on that note, thank goodness that guy sued Starbucks for barring him from using their bathroom. At least I always know that when the need arises, there’s a public restroom in Starbucks. And they usually get an order of egg bites out of me in the process.

Blue and I started seeing the hills turn orange about 12 miles south of the preserve. Blue had been full of questions on the way north…like why there’s no Easter chicken (because bunnies are mammals and don’t lay eggs) and what he would use to wash Jesus’s feet (Children’s Motrin because it smells like oranges) when all of a sudden, the landscape blazed with color. Orange, of course, but also yellow and purple, all of which was edged in green. We had grown so accustomed to seeing brown all year, that we couldn’t stop looking. I checked for 15-passenger vans.

The road to the reserve is lined with places to pull-off, not just to step out and take a picture, but to leave your car and hike the trails. I made a mental note of that as we inched closer to the entrance of the reserve.

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Turning in and taking our place in a line that snaked all the way out to the main road, I realized that the parking lot was probably already full and they were only letting people park as other people were leaving. I calculated how long that would take. I decided the appropriate answer was forever. We didn’t wait to reach the turnaround point. If the mini-van behind me could turn around completely after 5 tries, I could do it in 3. It’s kind of like driving a lawnmower sometimes.

We parked at the head of a trail (where a sign was posted that we would not be able to access the reserve from this point – which we decided we were cool with) and started up the hill. We met the jolliest woman coming down the trail and she offered to take a picture of us, which is decidedly better than any selfie.

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Then we took out our cameras and began to explore. Blue tried to figure out what the life cycle of a poppy is (there are buds and small discs at the base of each bud, so which comes first?) and I tried to figure out how to accurately photograph the majestic beauty of a million wildflowers setting the hills on fire.

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And I don’t know that I nailed it. It’s like trying to capture the vastness and the detail of the Grand Canyon. Plus it was almost noon and the sun was hot, high, and unforgiving. Blue was hungry and all I had was water on the trail. We were starting to sweat through the sunscreen.

“Take 40 more pictures and then let’s go,” Blue bargained. I thought that was fair. But I’m the mom so I took 42, although the last 2 sort of looked like the first 40. We made a game of counting the snake holes. We lost count at 29 when a woman in an RV stopped to tell us we should hike to the top of the hill for a better view. She had just driven there in her air-conditioned Winnebago. We said thanks and kept walking.

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The road had gotten busy and people were now parked in front of and behind us. The trails closest to the cars were clogged with visitors, squatting for the perfect poppy shot. Look, Marge. If you take it in this direction you can get it without any people. I used to be Marge. But Mom taught me that it’s the people in a photograph that make it interesting. Neal still asks me why I’ve taken a picture of strangers – on the beach, at the farmer’s market, in an art museum.

20190408_110652Because people are part of the landscape. And besides, maybe someday my photo will help to solve a crime or reunite a family. Well, maybe not this photo…

We devoured our pb&j sandwiches, drank the sun-cooked water, and said goodbye to the poppies. It was someone else’s turn. Plus, when they number in the millions, they don’t smell very good. It’s almost rancid and made me wish for just a second that it was a super bloom of jasmine or mint.

And then I saw the sign…

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Oops. But that’s typical. A rule with no one enforcing it. Sometimes California is cool like that.

We decided it would be in our best interest to stop at the barn of antiques on our way back to the freeway.

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And we weren’t wrong. Blue found a microscope, some Army patches, a wood folding rule (which smelled like every trip I have ever taken with my dad to Lowe’s), an old hotel key tag, and some Cub Scout books from 1968. He also made a friend.

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I almost bought a glass juicer, but saw a chip in the top and thought maybe I shouldn’t juice a lemon over broken glass. With our arms full and our tummies empty again, we cruised down the Civic Musical Road (which plays about 10 seconds of the William Tell Overture as you drive over it) and headed for Baskin-Robbins. And then to Starbucks for their bathroom.

By the time we got on the road at 4:00, Waze was routing us through the Angeles National Forest, which is a spectacular landscape, but not for anyone who gets car sick or is hesitant about heights. Some of it had burned recently and the charred trees were fascinating to Blue. He begged me to pull over and get a piece of rock so he could study it under his microscope on the way home. I had already indulged him a raggedy Security Officer patch and some peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. What was a rock going to hurt? He exclaimed his findings from his mobile laboratory. “It’s a rock from an asteroid! It has space dust!” I started to correct him and then remembered he’s 6. There is plenty of time for that later. Today, he just found a piece of the universe under a burned out stump on the side of the road in the Angeles National Forest. And he is examining it under the lens of a $15 microscope we found at a barn of antiques next to a field of poppies (where he is convinced a coyote went savage because…poppies). There is nothing to be corrected. It’s perfect, exactly as it is.

 

Putting the Wonder in Wonderful: A Screening of Wonder Park with the Bob Hope USO

Ask any service member or military family member what they know about the USO (United Services Organization) and you will probably get some sort of vague response about it being a place to rest and recharge in the airport, but outside of the security checkpoint…which is sort of the problem. Unless your layover spans multiple hours, the likelihood of someone willingly leaving the terminal (with kids and carry-on luggage) to find the USO is slim. I think Neal and I have been in one USO the entire time we’ve been together. There were some snacks, a few games, a small library of books, and the volunteers were incredibly nice. But we’ve never even flown with Blue, much less stepped foot inside another USO. Interestingly enough, since moving here, the Bob Hope USO is challenging everything I thought I knew about what the USO does.

About 2 months after reporting to his new assignment at Los Alamitos, CA, Neal mentioned that the unit’s family day was approaching. It would be held on a Sunday afternoon at a municipal park about 45 minutes south of where we live. Having been to a fair number of family days and even been in charge of a few, I set my expectations pretty low (which is also how I’ve started to live my life now that we have a kid who likes to tell people that his sister is a cat). I was so wrong.

The Chargers showed up, the Anaheim Ducks were there, but more importantly, the Bob Hope USO was serving lunch. And the 2 gentlemen in the front of this picture at the bottom left-hand corner are Tuskegee Airmen. They are native Los Angelenos and I could have talked with them for hours. So many stories about how the city used to be and what they miss about those days! I thought that was the last we would see of the Bob Hope USO.

But then I got a phone call from my neighbor.

“Did you get the email about the Wonder Park screening?”

“No. Who is hosting it?”

“The USO.”

“The Bob Hope USO?”

“Is there another?”

Not in this neck of the woods.

She forwarded me the email, which invited local military families to a Saturday afternoon screening of Wonder Park, complete with free snacks (ideal movie food like Swedish Fish, M&M’s, popcorn, and Twix bars), water, and photo ops throughout the lobby of…and this is the best part, y’all…the Paramount Studios theater. Is there anything better than watching a movie in the theater that is owned by the company that made the movie?

Nope, I think not. Except maybe the free parking that was included. No chance of me getting a $63 parking ticket for busting a meter by 9 minutes? Where do I RSVP?

Shortly after we arrived, our neighbors realized that if you stood in this one spot in front of the fountain, you could get the perfect picture with the Paramount sign and the Hollywood sign in the background. We are probably not the first people to ever take this picture, but that really didn’t slow us down any.

There were coloring sheets and yard games to keep the kids busy until the lobby doors opened promptly at 2 PM. This was a great set-up because after living in L.A. county for the past year, my typical plan when traveling into the city for the day involves checking Waze obsessively until time to leave and still arriving somewhere 30-45 minutes early. They had accounted for that.

Once the doors open, attendees were greeted by enthusiastic and friendly USO volunteers, multiple tables of snacks and drinks, and several spots to snap that perfect photo for your milfam Instagram.

I gave up posting beautifully posed photos to Instagram when Blue discovered he had free will. Now we are just adding to the collection of photos that I’m going to show in a looping slideshow at his wedding.

The lesson here? Mama don’t play. Either look excited or I’m going to do it for you.

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#WhenYourNeighborhoodDoesEverythingTogetherAllTheTime

As if the fine folks of the Bob Hope USO already knew, the doors to the theater opened about 30 minutes later, just as the kids were starting to get antsy and the parents were running out of ways to entertain them. The theater is huge and we had no problem finding a row plus 3 seats for our party. Yes, we are that on-post neighborhood that does practically everything together. We took up an entire van for the wine tasting in Temecula a few weeks ago, we took over an outdoor patio at the local brewery last year, and we needed one whole row plus some for the screening. Also, this is only 5 families. Heaven help you if we all show up.

On one end of the row, we are all kind of doing our best to ignore Mike’s mustache. Only 10 days left in March, Candace. Hang in there, sister. On the other end, Matt and Rebekah are watching a movie in a theater for the first time together. And they’ve only been married for like 13 years.

Before the film started, someone from the Bob Hope USO came on stage to welcome us and introduce one of the stars of the movie, Ken Hudson Campbell, who plays Boomer in the movie.

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Mr. Campbell explained a bit about the movie, taught us how to say (and then scream) SPLENDIFEROUS!, and teased us with Boomer’s soon-to-be-famous snore. Then the curtains opened and the show began (without any previews, which, I’m just going to be honest, was amazing).

The film itself was a roller coaster ride and without spilling the beans on any of it, bring some Kleenex and your kids. It has a great message, which is delivered with an immense helping of humor.

After the credits rolled, volunteers from the Bob Hope USO called out the winning numbers for the raffle (free tickets were distributed at check-in). The culminating prize was 4 tickets to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards this Saturday, which Rebekah’s son won. (This isn’t surprising as Rebekah is the luckiest person I know and she seems to have passed that on in utero.)

It was a great afternoon that brought joy to our children and delight to us as we watched them. Truly, I can’t say it enough: THANK YOU to the Bob Hope USO and to Paramount Studios/Nickelodeon for hosting us. What a fabulous morale booster for those who were able to attend. Being stationed near L.A. and being able to participate in something so unique to the area makes it worth it. We all felt appreciated and we appreciate you!

Silencing the Noise

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It’s funny how a brain dump at 10 PM after a long week can, unexpectedly, result in a slew of responses from friends who are having the same thoughts and feelings. I fully expected to piss off a lot of people with that last post. It was just a cathartic ripping open of my heart, with little regard for who would be reading it or what their reactions would be. It wasn’t journalism. But it made me feel a helluva lot better. And I slept great that night.

One of the comments I got on my last post was from a friend in my neighborhood. Also a writer, she said something about how interesting it is to watch someone sift through their emotions through writing. And that’s exactly what this blog is for me. It’s a place to sift and sort, to proclaim and then sit with it for awhile. And to absorb your reactions, let them sit with me for awhile, too. Maybe I did piss off some people. They just kept scrolling. After all, who wants to be told their hometown sucks? I can still see the faces of people back in Pennsylvania when I would tell them (usually after they had apprehensively asked me how we liked it there) that we love it so much we want to retire in the area. They absolutely glowed. Pride leaked out of every pore and they stopped dismissing its beauty, if only for a little while. The Lebanon Valley in Pennsylvania is not New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles. It’s not even Atlanta or Nashville. But it is picturesque and quiet. People take pride in their homes and cars, even if the homes are small and the cars are old. We also loved Kansas, Virginia, and Georgia and every resident that I talked to was always braced to hear the worst, but practically giddy when I told them how much we were enjoying the area. I was unprepared to have the opposite conversation here.

And, really, when we get to the heart of the matter, isn’t that the problem? Expectations. I have always placed a high value on knowing what to expect and, intentional or not, I have passed that on to Blue. I mentally prepare myself for whatever I am getting ready to face; from going to the dentist, to moving across the country, to driving on the 405 at 5 PM. It’s why, even before we have orders in hand, I’m on area Facebook pages asking spouses where to live, what the schools are like, where to find great pizza and what we can do as a family. Six times I’ve done this and six times I’ve realized, after about 6 months of living in the new area, that my expectations were wrong. Five of the six times, I had actually underestimated an area. Man, it blows when you overestimate it.

But how do you not overestimate a place like southern California? Palm-tree lined streets everywhere, not just on Rodeo Drive or Sunset Boulevard. Movie stars that could show up at your famer’s market at any time. Old VW buses parked down at the beach with a surf board strapped to the top and 2 guys in the front who may have just started a band in their parents’ garage. Seafood on the pier and taco trucks down the street. And realizing that you know exactly what they are talking about when Jimmie Allen sings, “I see the sun sink down on a coast in California” or when Kenny Chesney sings, “Baby, here I am again/kicking dust in the canyon wind/waiting for that sun to go down./Made it up Mulholland Drive/hell bent on getting high/high above the lights of town.” When Maverick pulls up to Charlie’s house on PCH and when you find out that all of the campus scenes of Larry Crowne were filmed at the college in the next town over, it does make you feel like you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself. Tiny fish in a fast-moving ocean. This is where it is all happening and I think a lot of people crave that atmosphere. It’s just that I don’t. I should have known better. My favorite film maker is Ken Burns and the only series I’ve seen every episode of is M.A.S.H. Sometimes I flip through People at the check-out line and realize I only recognize the actors who are older than me. I’m doing good to remember the names and faces of people we were stationed with 10 years ago, there’s just no space left for famous people. Except Gary Sinise.

Today is one of those days that is saving me, though. It’s January 24th and if we lived almost anywhere else, we would be bundled under at least 3 layers. Our faces would be chapped from winter winds, practically frozen in place, and I would only leave the house if I absolutely had to. But here, today, it is 75 degrees and full sun. Low humidity and warm enough to have all the windows open in the car and still drive with a breeze. It is, dare I say it, perfect. It is that first really warm spring day in Kentucky – when the girls are out on the quad with blankets and bikinis and the convertible top drops for the first time since September. When music of every genre can be heard at a stoplight because everyone has their windows down. It’s the first day of spring break when summer is actually a possibility and not just a promise. And I turn up the country music because that’s what spring break is to me – Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Dierks Bentley. Take off your socks, pour a margarita, soak up the sun before it turns chilly again.

Days like this aren’t enough to keep me here, but they are enough to get me through. I’m going to get off this bucket list hamster wheel for a little while. It will never be completed anyway. I’m going to stop trying to do everything that’s uniquely California…or even uniquely L.A. I don’t need to go to a cat-themed pop-up that’s sponsored by Fresh Step or to a movie premiere every month. I need to find the nature that is out here and remember that that is why people flocked here. For the unpredictable Pacific and the whales that fluke as they pass through on their way to Mexico. They came because you can hike a mountain in the morning and build a sand castle after lunch. And because the fruit trees grow like crazy and the grapes make the best wine. All of this stuff that’s man-made? The museums and the shopping centers, the tourist destinations and the boutique cafes? Those are distractions from what is truly beautiful about California. That is not where my time is best spent and that will not refill my cup. I need to go to the places where I can see God and I need to show the light of Jesus to those who have been kicked down while living here. The rest of it is just noise.

Thank you for always supporting me, even as I publicly sift through this rollercoaster of emotions. While I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned this morning, I was chatting with my hygienist, who is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child. We had a good laugh about how completely lost we were with the first child. Those first few weeks of motherhood with a newborn are frightening, exhausting, and overwhelming.  If I learned anything from giving birth, it’s that I want to get this right the first time. I don’t want to look back only to be disappointed by the fact that I didn’t put more effort into finding the good. And just like childbirth, I won’t get a second chance to do it again. This is it and I need to make it count. I have adjusted my expectations and I’m ready to start over.