The Places Where We Gather

Ever since I finished my undergraduate degree, after a college transfer and about 8 years of stops and starts, I really hate leaving something unfinished. Even if it takes a minute, I want to finish what I started. So, yes it is practically the end of January, but I’m finishing this month of SoCal gratitude starting now…

20180528_100811The USS Iowa is a gem in our little town. During World War II, it carried President Roosevelt across the Atlantic to a meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. She has served in numerous campaigns and wars and has now come to permanent rest in Berth 87 at the Port of L.A. We had been here all of 3 weeks when we decided to attend the Memorial Day ceremony held next to the ship every year. A somber moment, observed by local residents next to a piece of history that has seen its fair share of fallen servicemembers. Since then, we’ve toured the USS Iowa and next month we will participate in a Cub Scout camp-out on the ship, where we will eat in the mess hall and sleep in the quarters below deck. For us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For people around here, it’s an everyday sight…but still a constant reminder that freedom is not free.

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:


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.


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.


(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.

The Importance of Being Seen

When I was in high school, I discovered the other Richard Gere classic, An Officer and a Gentleman. I can’t remember why I rented that VHS, but it probably had something to do with a film class I took my senior year. Mrs. Kelley was always trying to introduce us to something filmed in black or white or a movie rife with ironic plot twists. So, I both blame and thank her for this gift of becoming temporarily obsessed with marrying a military man. And it taught me that in the military spouse world, there are 2 camps: #TeamPaula and #TeamLynette.

Fast forward about 10 years, after college, when I was working for the Department of Defense and my favorite movie was When Harry Met Sally. I wasn’t looking for a newly commissioned officer to carry me out of the factory and off into the sunset. And I certainly wasn’t telling any 2nd lieutenants that I was pregnant just to land a proposal. I had 2 cats, an apartment with a capitol building-view, and a job that valued me as much I valued it. But between issuing boots to Camp Shelby, MS and undergarments to San Luis Obispo, CA, I was introduced to a (relatively) newly commissioned officer.


And I let him carry me to England and then off into the sunset.


And all the while I did not once think about what it meant to be a military spouse. My husband was in the Army, but as a Reservist, it was more of an inconvenience than a sacrifice. He was pushing troops through Basic Training at Fort Jackson, SC on our first wedding anniversary. He was unavailable one weekend each month.

And then he got orders to deploy a second time. And that changed everything.


We smiled through the tears and said goodbye for another year. I began to volunteer more with the Family Readiness Group (FRG). I began to identify more as a military spouse. It was defining me in a way that I felt I could no longer ignore. And, for the first time, I felt the incredible burden of isolation. My husband, a Reservist, was attached to a unit out of Las Vegas. The closest unit support during the deployment was 2,000 miles away. I faked happiness almost every day for 12 months. Thank goodness we did not yet have a tiny human that depended on me. I barely kept the cats alive.

No, I cannot recommend telling a servicemember that you are pregnant just so he will propose. This life is not worth that. Besides, we have not-so-nice names for those people. No…you have to be a Paula to make it in this world. You have to love the servicemember first and only then are you willing to make the sacrifices that the uniform demands. And some days it feels like it just never stops.

To the spouse who stands in the parking garage of an airport and wipes the tears of a toddler who just doesn’t understand where Daddy is going and why…

I see you.

To the spouse who Skypes during the Cub Scout Crossover Ceremony so Mom can see her baby boy move up in rank, even while the Army keeps her on the other side of the country…

I see you.

To the spouse who juggles parenting duties while running an at-home business because it allows her to be creative, make money, and work on the military’s schedule…

I see you.

To the spouse who never gets promoted at work because it’s hard to reach a new level when you are only there for 24 months…

I see you.

To the spouse who orchestrates an international move with children underfoot and a deployed husband who will be returning home just in time to leave again…

I see you.

To the spouse who writes military obligations first in a new planner before anything else because the mission supersedes everything else, because you don’t have to show up at that Change of Command/Hail and Farewell/Promotion Ceremony, but you are a team and you support one another…

I see you.

To the spouse who not only doesn’t “bloom” at that new duty station, but damn near withers on the vine, despite an honorable attempt at finding something good about it…

I see you.

To the spouse who must become a caregiver, who widens the hallways and installs a ramp, who misses the arm that used to wrap around her and the man he once was, but is determined to make it OK…

I see you.

To the spouse who spends hundreds of hours researching great school districts, then cross-references that with safe neighborhoods, then cross-references that with the closest grocery store/swim lessons/soccer team/dental office/veterinary clinic, then finds out the duty station has changed and starts all over again…

I see you.

To the spouse who holds a child while his best friend’s household goods are loaded onto the moving truck…

I see you.

To the spouse who is also a servicemember…

I see you.

And to the spouse who was also a servicemember, but the logistics of it all just got too damn complicated…

I see you, too.

To the seasoned spouse who is on the cusp of a servicemember’s retirement or has just reached that milestone, who is now worldly but weary…

I see you.

To the child-free, unemployed spouse who is finding it hard to meet people when there aren’t the usual mutual interests like a child’s school or the workplace…

I see you.

To the spouse who moves up from stepmom to primary parent during a deployment, who figures it out as she goes because it all just kind of sucks but, as parents, we want to absorb our children’s pain…

I see you.

To the new spouse who is woefully unprepared for life as a military spouse, even though everyone will forever say, “You knew what you were getting yourself into”…

I see you.

To the spouse who is making plans for after retirement…for a garden that won’t get ripped up every 18 months, to buy that piece of Amish furniture that the movers will just bust up anyway, to take that couples-only trip that will be possible when there are grandparents around to watch the kids, to paint the walls and not have to repaint them white again, to become active in the community and be able to see their participation pay off…

I see you.

To the spouse who spends the days with kids, bravely counting down until Mommy or Daddy comes home, and nights reaching for someone on the other side of the world…

I see you.

To the spouse who realizes things aren’t quite right after a deployment, who is trying to determine if he just needs time or if it’s time to worry…

I see you.

To the spouse who makes it possible for a servicemember to serve this country, in whatever way the mission deems fit, whenever it is necessary, without worry about if things will be OK at home…

I see you.

To the spouse who opened the door to a chaplain and a casualty notification officer…

I see you.

Tomorrow, Friday, May 10th, 2019, our country will honor and celebrate its military spouses. Maybe you will hear about it, but maybe you won’t. Chances are, there won’t be any television commercials advertising lunch specials or radio ads inviting spouses to an event, free of charge. More likely it will be other military spouses who want to make sure their fellow milspouses feel appreciated and honored. Like this blog post. I don’t write it for me…I write it for the hundreds of spouses I’ve met in the past 14 years and what their sacrifices have taught me. But that’s OK. Because if we are getting real, military spouses are the ones pushing their servicemembers front and center. We live in a country that, regardless of politics or religion, race or creed, supporting the military is non-negotiable. That usually means supporting the servicemember and y’know what? That’s exactly how it should be. We did not agree to die for you. We are simply supporting the person who did agree. And we are not sleeping in a tent in a Forward Operating Base that was built in a valley that is surrounded by people who want to kill us. We are just taking care of everything back home, waiting for the day they come back home…whether it’s on a bus or in a casket. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just the reality of the world we live in right now. Maybe peacetime is right around the corner.

The great contradiction that comes with being a military spouse is that we know we do not wear rank, we do not serve, but that does not mean we don’t sacrifice. And when I Google Military Spouse Appreciation Day Discounts and I only get links for Veterans Day, that says something about the value this country places on the people who are making sure Servicemembers are supported at home.

For the record, I have always felt appreciated by Neal, as well as my family and friends. Every time he is in front of a microphone, he takes a second to thank us for supporting him and his career. He hasn’t missed a Military Spouse Appreciation Day since we started celebrating it in 2011, even though it always falls 48 hours before Mother’s Day. But the rest of the country is not there yet. Maybe they think we are all a bunch of Lynettes…ready to bail when life gets challenging.

But the truth is, if you meet a servicemember and his/her spouse and they have been married for more than a year, it has probably already been challenging…especially during this current operational tempo.

So, thank that spouse, too. We don’t want to be rewarded, we simply want to be seen.

And if you are looking for ways to support a military spouse, here are a few ideas:

*Most of the time, spouses are the primary caregivers for children. Offer to babysit so the spouse can have some time alone – even if it’s spent walking around Target!

*Cook a meal when the servicemember is away on deployment or temporary duty assignment. That’s one less thing to worry about that day.

*Be a friend. This is especially true for military families stationed in civilian communities. We can all agree that becoming friends with someone who is going to move away in 2 or 3 years feels like a friendship that is doomed from the start. But joy can be found in just one moment. You don’t have to be lifelong bffs.

*If you own a business that offers discounts to the active duty servicemember, consider extending that benefit to the spouse. If that isn’t a viable option, simply voice your appreciation. Just see them.

*Buy from military spouse-owned businesses. And if you need some help, I’ll be featuring several in the next couple of weeks!

*If you own or work at a museum, consider joining the Blue Star Museums program (an initiative that pairs Blue Star Families with the National Endowment for the Arts to offer free admission to military families at museums nationwide, from Armed Forces Day until Labor Day).

*Join Blue Star Families and become a Blue Star Neighbor. Their mission is to link military and civilian communities so that they are stronger, together. They are always offering ways to support spouses and families.

Dear Blue

Every Mother’s Day, you ask me when is it going to be your day? My standard answer is your birthday and you always reply with, “but you also have a birthday.” And this is true. But you have another day, too.

April is the month the country sets aside to recognize and honor our military children. But there is usually one chosen day, Purple Up Day, when the community stops to exclusively focus on our military kids. Where we live now, that day is today.

Before you were born, when we were first stationed in Georgia, a friend of mine relayed a conversation one of her sons had with the new neighbor kid. Her son fired off 2 questions right away: What is your name? How long are you here for? That interaction has always stayed with me, even 9 years later, because it sums up life in the military…but especially life for military kids. It doesn’t really matter how long you’re there for. Short-term moves aren’t a deal-breaker, it just might mean we’re going to need to hurry this friendship along. Because at the end of a tour, whether it’s a year or three, there will still be tears. And when those have dried, we can talk about what that friend has added to our lives.

Here’s a little secret, Blue: your dad and I go through this, too. You are not alone and you will never be. Even though you have no siblings to hold hands with as you walk through the doors on that first day at a new school, even when we have just moved to a new state a week before your birthday, even as you wave goodbye to the last U-Haul truck of the summer, your dad and I will be right there beside you. But you know what else? You won’t need us for long. Because within a week you will discover that the boy three doors down has a cache of Pokemon cards and an itch to trade. You will be begging me to host a sleepover with someone you met at lunch. You will be doing what you do best: finding your tribe and loving them hard. Then you will get mad at them for getting mad at you and you’ll “never be their friend again.” And that will last until someone wants to jump on the trampoline and look for lizards on the hill.

Here’s another secret: I will always worry about you landing on your feet. Whether it’s after a move or after your friends have moved, I will watch you from the kitchen – looking for signs that it’s all about to fall apart. I will ask you questions and try to distract you. We will always talk before bedtime as I constantly check the pulse of your resiliency. And if the past is any indicator of the future, you will continue to surprise me by simply rolling with it. Our dandelion children, as they say. Hardy, able to take root wherever you are blown. Life is going to try and mow you down. You will meet kids who aren’t kind to the “new kid”, especially one from a military family. Please try to understand it’s hard for them, too. They aren’t as practiced at saying goodbye and it’s scary for them. Daddy and I meet adults like that, too. But just keep showing up, proving that you are worth the time and the tears and they will come around. They always do. We need those people to anchor to and they need us to feel what it’s like to float for a little while. We are good for each other.

And if Daddy ever has to deploy again, we got that, too. In the meantime, you have friends right now with daddies who are on the other side of the world. On the last day of school when you walk hand-in-hand up the hill with your dad, grab their hands, too. Being in a military family means you are part of a team…Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines – we are all for one and one for all. More than once I’ve heard someone whisper about us, “they all stick together.” You’re darn right, we do. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, but always be the first to help, even before it’s asked. See that new kid eating alone and sit down beside him or her because you have been that kid before and you will be that kid again. Remember, as we pull away from friends who have become family, what it was like to be the one left behind. Because you have been that kid before and you will be that kid again. And remember the lessons you’ve learned along the way so you can spread them to your friends who haven’t had a chance to learn them:

Be happy to make a new friend, whether they are white, black, brown, or purple.

Love until the last day, because the world is small and there’s always the chance you will see them again.

Share your snacks, your toys, your trampoline because a day will come when all of that is on a truck and you might be hungry, bored and needing a friend.

Out of sight is not out of mind. Everyone we meet changes our lives, some a lot and some just a little. Some for the better and some remind us of how not to be. You may not remember their names or their faces, but remember the things they did. And know that’s how you will be remembered, too. Act accordingly.

Finders is not keepers, unless it’s put on the curb on Bulk Trash Day, then it’s fair game.

The world is forgetting this, but never underestimate the value of respect or honor. Pick up a wind-blown flag when no one is looking, stop to salute the National Anthem, stand up for someone who is getting bullied.

Earn your medals and your patches. Then you can wear them with pride.

For better or for worse, rank is not exclusive to the military. Whether it’s a job or a sport or somewhere in between, there will always be someone above you and someone below you. If you ever forget how to behave, just remember the Lorax: A person is a person, no matter how small. And don’t forget that your dad has been a private and a major. Someone’s rank only classifies them, it does not define them.

Very few things are absolute in this world. Most of it is unknown. You don’t always have to know what to expect or have it all planned out. There will be flashes of unexpected, wonderful moments that you couldn’t have planned anyway. Enjoy them and share them with friends, when you can.

And finally, you do not always have to bloom where you are planted. Sometimes you just do your best and go dormant for a little while. Life is not always sunsets on Manhattan Beach or the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Sometimes it’s Friday night traffic on the 405, a winter full of snow storms, an oppressive summer heat that burns the grass and kills the peaches. Ride it out, it will get better. And when it does, you’ll appreciate it even more.

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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.


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.


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.



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…


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.


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.


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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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.


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!

Just Another Day

The first time it happened, we were getting ready to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.


Hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband is going TDY on their first wedding anniversary. After all, he’s a Reservist. Maybe Big Army hadn’t gotten the memo…he wasn’t supposed to be deployed 3 times and he sure as hell was not supposed to miss our first wedding anniversary. What cold-hearted bastard scheduled this?

Cynical as it may sound, after almost 13 years of marriage, dates have become arbitrary. Just another number on the calendar. Because most of the time, whatever we are celebrating will have to wait until some other day…when it isn’t a drill weekend, when we aren’t in the middle of a cross-country move, when someone isn’t sick, when we can be together.

Take, for example, Neal’s 40th birthday. He spent it training up for a deployment at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. If you aren’t familiar, Camp Atterbury is a wind-whipped, popsicle of a place (in March, anyway) along I-65 between Louisville and Indianapolis. It is, for me, most famous for its proximity to the Edinburgh outlet mall. The camp itself is known for training HET drivers and serving grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cafe. (I’ve tried several times to replicate these at home and every one has been a failure. Edible, but not the crispy, gooey goodness of the Camp Atterbury version.) This is where Neal turned 40 and while we celebrated during his 3-day pass with Thai food and buying patio furniture at Sam’s Club, March 17th is just not the same as March 9th.

In 2005 and 2011, he was deployed on his birthday. I’m sure we probably talked that day or the next and I always sent him a fun box of Kentucky treats, but I didn’t get to do what I do best – try to squeeze as much of what makes him happy into one 24-hour period. Neal’s birthday has fallen on drill weekends, TDYs, and late nights at work. Sometimes we do get to celebrate the day of his birth on the day of his birth. But usually not and I’m learning that that’s OK, too. After all, we rarely eat out on Mother’s or Father’s Day because every restaurant is packed to the gills, so why should a birthday be any different? But we never skip it. Skipping it is not an option when you are married to me.

PICT0006#39: Last birthday in his state government office

IMG_5692#44: It’s a boy!  (Also, #40-43 were kind of a hot mess of deployments and TDYs)

IMG_1665c#45: Scoring the box set of M.A.S.H. at Fort Lee, VA

2014-03-01 16.09.12#46: Polar bear spotting at the Louisville Zoo while stationed at Fort Knox, KY

2015-03-09 17.30.14#47: One more birthday at Fort Knox

IMG_6471#48: Fun with statues at the Kansas State University Gardens during spring break

IMG_9966#49: Chocolate tasting at Hershey Cafe while stationed at Fort Indiantown Gap, PA

IMG_1376#50: I dragged him to the Philly Flower Show and then we got stuck in the worst traffic trying to get to the Reading Market. Not my best move, but he got a cheesesteak and this AARP photo out of it. So, there’s that.

Today Neal turns 51 and, once again, I will have a blank spot in my March folder for his birthday. This morning, he and his unit will complete drills in the gas chamber and then head to the range for weapons qualification…because nothing says Happy 51st Birthday like Try to get this gas mask on before you pass out. But he won’t complain. He probably won’t even let on that there’s anything special about today. He will keep his head down, do his job, and fall asleep before his head ever hits the pillow. And, just like that, it will be March 10th.

Part of adulting is to keep being responsible, even when you want to celebrate the day of your birth by sleeping late, going out for waffles, catching a matinee, having tacos and tequila for lunch, napping until early evening and then going out for steak and cheesecake. Sometimes life stops just long enough to blow out a candle on a Kroger cupcake after lunch. Sometimes it doesn’t stop at all and you find yourself pushing mushy scrambled eggs around a plate after sleeping in a barracks with 75 other guys. And you wish that just this one time in 7 years that your birthday falls on a Saturday, you could be at home, having a cup of coffee, and a plate of pancakes with the whole day open before you…just waiting to be filled with an adventure. But you shovel in those mushy eggs, drink the tepid coffee, pick up your gas mask and keep on moving. Because there’s work to be done and today the world won’t stop to observe the day you were brought into it. Mission first, cupcakes later.