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.

20190408_103038

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.

20190408_103901

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.

20190408_105410

20190408_112605

20190408_110443

20190408_104953

20190408_105052

20190408_104224 (1)

20190408_114154

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.

20190408_114859

 

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…

IMG_0958

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.

20190408_135437

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.

20190408_135520

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.

 

What Blue Star Families Means to Us #Giving Tuesday

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

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

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

Our first PCS changed everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they aren’t going it alone.

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

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

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

20180831_120429

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

When It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee

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

IMG_1143

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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