What Does the Island Fox Say?

7 November

I am grateful for things hidden in plain sight. 

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This is the Island Fox. It only lives on the Channel Islands and this one happened to take up residence on Santa Cruz Island. It was cold and rainy when we took an island packet from Oxnard last January. The seas going to the island were rough, but they were worse on the return trip. The wind kicked up and I was glad I had splurged on that insulated wind breaker that was on sale in the gift shop. We brought a lunch, our cameras, not nearly enough layers, and the hopes of seeing an island fox. Just one. We saw about 6. One jumped up on the picnic table where Neal was sitting. One was rooting around in the grass next to the restrooms. If you caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of your eye, it was probably an island fox slinking by. They are not as elusive as I thought they would be, but you aren’t going to see one on your way to Von’s. You have to get out of town, you have to get on a boat, you have to pack in your own food and pack out your own trash. But if you can do all that, you will be rewarded with up-close encounters with one of the cutest little critters around.

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.

What’s Trapped in Tar

5 November

I am grateful for a place where the Ice Age comes to life. 

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Let’s be honest…when I tell visitors that I’m taking them to the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown L.A., the response is usually an amusing mix of confusion and anticipated boredom. Branding does not seem to be the museum’s strong suit. Perhaps I should start selling it as, “A day spent exploring the current excavation sites, filled with the bones of saber tooth tigers and giant sloths.” That sounds like we might run into Indiana Jones, or at least Catherine Zeta-Jones, at any given moment.

The La Brea (“bray-uh”) Tar Pits were just a check-the-box item at first. It was on every single Pinterest L.A. bucket list so it had to be something, right? But as soon as you step through the gates, you can smell it. It smells like every interstate construction site between Cincinnati and the Smoky Mountains. Orange cones, speckled black, dot the grass. These mark the places where tar is actively bubbling up…presumably so social media influencers don’t accidentally drop a Jimmy Choo in a puddle of goo. The tar lake at the front of the property, which is bordered by Wilshire Boulevard (considered the “symbolic spine of L.A.”), is constantly burping air bubbles that have escaped. The woolly mammoths trapped in the tar lake might be fake, but the gas exchange going on under the surface is definitely real. Walking around the excavation sites is free, but if you really want to be wow’d, pay the museum admission. The Ice Age animals that were dug up outside have been reassembled inside and they. are. massive. Like no kids’ movie featuring Denis Leary and Ray Romano can prepare you for. Mammoths, ground sloths, an entire wall of saber tooth tiger skulls.

And, really, the Tar Pits are kind of an allegory for L.A. herself. The siren song of something wonderful (water on a hot day, an extra part in Modern Family…whatever) draws you to downtown L.A. You drink from that watering hole (of fame). Suddenly, your weight shifts, your feet sink, you are stuck. You struggle. You sink deeper. You are drowning and no one is coming to help. Here comes someone. No, wait. That’s someone who has been waiting for you…waiting for you to come here and die so that they can eat you. OK…maybe that just took a weird turn. But you’re stuck here in this awful place with no way to escape and things are looking pretty grim. The only twist of Karma is that the predator ends up getting stuck, as well. Looks like you’re going down together. And that is the story of the La Brea Tar Pits. And roughly half of Skid Row.

And now we are all marveling at your bones and paying $14 each for the pleasure.

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Although as a homeschool mom, it’s just really cool to see something so abstract as saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths being extracted from the ground on a daily basis. It teaches Blue that the world has not run out of discoveries. He just needs to put on his safety goggles and go find them.

The Great Escape

4 November

I am grateful for a place where we can lose ourselves. 

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It was never a question of if we would visit Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, but, rather, when. So, when some of us in the neighborhood started chatting at wine time one Friday afternoon about what our next adventure should be and someone mentioned these sibling national parks, it was almost a no-brainer from then, on.

When we arrived (after a somewhat harrowing journey down a narrow road that was barely meant for passing Priuses, much less trucks towing RVs), I had a headache, a pain in my right side that had been there for nearly a month, and sinus drainage that was threatening to become something worse. I had also started giving some serious thought to moving back to Kentucky for the duration of this duty station.  I needed to get out of L.A. 

After 3 days in the forest, Neal had to drag me home. I didn’t want to leave the place where I could finally breathe, hear nature, feel nature, feel relaxed, be unafraid. I did not worry that Blue ran out of sight for a second. I didn’t scold him for picking up trash, worried that meth residue might be on it. We ate our meals under the stars, listening to the crackle of fire and the creatures moving around under the cover of darkness. For over a year I had been lulled to sleep by the sound of drag racing between the stop lights behind our house, the sudden sirens of the fire station across the street. It’s like every small-town-country-girl-goes-to-the-city movie ever made…where she beds down for the night in her roach-infested motel room and drifts off to the sound of cursing spouses, screeching sirens, and the constant whine of traffic. I think maybe I hadn’t slept well in 14 months. But for 3 days I slept so deeply it almost made up for it.

And during the day, we explored shaded paths, lined by ferns, and found shelter inside the Sequoias. We looked up, as far as our stressed-out, city-dwelling necks would allow, stretching a little further each time. And we knelt down to smell the forest floor, the crushed bay leaves, and the pine needles that softened our step. We made a mile hike last for 3 hours. We went to bed by 9. We were 5 families escaping the city and, no, I did not want to come home. But having been in the flesh, I can now return any time in my mind.

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.

Day One in Disneyland: Part One

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

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

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

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

The Monorail

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

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

Autopia

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

 

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

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

 

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Small World

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

And the inside…

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

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Storybook Land Canal Boats

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

 

Mad Tea Party

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

 

Random Odds and Ends

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

 

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

Friday Favorites

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

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

I Got Back on Instagram…After a Year Hiatus

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

I Have Awesome Friends Who Do Awesome Things

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

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

 

M-I-C…K-E-Y…M-O-U-S-E

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

 

Because One Blog Just Isn’t Enough

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

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

 

Our Star-Studded Evening Courtesy of Blue Star Families

If you had told me 6 months ago, as we were following a horse and buggy through downtown Lititz, Pennsylvania, on our way to church, that Neal and I would be mingling with the cast of SEAL Team at their red carpet premiere of season two, I would have slapped you with bread and called you a sandwich. There is no way that was ever going to happen. We aren’t Hollywood. We’re barely Dollywood. But that is exactly where we were last Tuesday night, thanks to a collaboration between Blue Star Families, Academy of United States Veterans (AUSV) and CBS.

The premiere, which was held at the swankiest American Legion I’ve ever been in, kicked off at 5 PM with the press check-in. As the Blue Star Families Social Media Correspondent for this event, I went in search of my spot on the red carpet. I found it right next to a former Marine, who is now reporting for the American Legion, and directly in front of a spotlight that nearly melted both of us by the time we were done. Meanwhile, military families were invited to the lounge downstairs, where they could relax and get a drink.

The cast began arriving around 6 PM, starting with Kerri Medders, who plays Emma Hayes.

This last picture cracks me up because as they were posing, one of the photographers said, “Hold on. There’s a dog’s butt in these pictures.” And that, my friends, is where Hollywood intersects with keepin’ it real.

By 6:15 there was a steady stream of celebrities, each stopping to spend a few minutes answering whatever questions we lobbed at them. Thank goodness I had made the effort to watch all of season one before the premiere so I could ask questions specific to the characters. They weren’t ground-breaking (or even particularly thought-provoking), but they did pertain to how each role addressed military life. And Dita got to give an interview, although as it turns out she’s a pup of few words.

The ladies next to me were asking cast members to record video tweets in the Twitter selfie mirror and create boomerangs for social media. And that is the exact moment when I learned what Twitter selfie mirrors and boomerangs are. I need someone’s tween to school me.

I spent at least 2 minutes practicing my boomerang while I was brushing my teeth that night.

By 6:45 the cast was all there and we finished up our interviews as they gathered for pictures, including several with the Chief Operating Officer of Blue Star Families, Noeleen Tillman!

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By the time I joined my husband and our friends in the theater, they had already met Neil Brown Jr. and A.J. Buckley. And my husband had taken a selfie with Dita, which was really his only bucket list item for the evening.

It’s the world’s blurriest selfie but I couldn’t not share it because he’s just so happy…and that makes me happy.

Soon the lights were dimming and it was time to find our seats. Being able to interact with the cast before the show and then sitting among them as we all watched it together, most for the first time, was electrifying. I had to keep reminding myself as the first few scenes played out that I needed to stop rehashing the last hour in my head and just enjoy the action on the screen. And there was plenty of action to be had. Y’all will not be disappointed by how season two kicks off!

After the credits rolled, the cast made their way to the stage for a Q&A moderated by former Navy SEAL and author of The Terminal List, Jack Carr.

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Mr. Carr’s questions ranged from how the show was created, to what the technical advisors do to ensure authenticity, to what each character brings to the show. An accurate portrayal of military life seemed to be the overarching theme, with a side of explosions and humor to keep us all coming back for more. One of the directors once mentioned in the special features section of the DVD that it’s challenging to convince people to sit down and watch an hour-long show about war every week. But I think it’s like using Lego men to help our son learn how to add and subtract. When you are entertained, you don’t even realize you’re learning something hard. And learning about what our men and women endure on the battlefield and at home is hard. But it’s the first step in helping civilian communities understand our experience so that we can make more meaningful connections with them. So that we can strengthen their community and they can strengthen ours.

With the scheduled activities wrapping up for the night, everyone began making their way downstairs to the after party. But not before Alex and I scored a picture with David Boreanaz. Because…right?

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Don’t worry, Neal. My heart still belongs to you. And Gary Sinise.

And maybe just a little bit to Judd Lormand, but only because Lt. Commander Blackburn kind of reminds me of Neal, circa 2009.

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We were all about to turn into pumpkins, but it was so hard to leave such delightful company. We had discussed everything from deployments to how much homework our first graders have and it had turned into the kind of evening that I didn’t want to see end. But it was a school night and babysitters were waiting. So, we left the party, which was still in full swing and headed home, via McDonald’s. Because if you ever go to the after party at a red carpet premiere it’s hummus and cheese cubes. So eat before you go or pack a hoagie in your purse. We did neither.

For this Kentucky girl, the entire evening was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that allowed us to fully engage with the community where we are stationed. We weren’t limited by how much money we have or who we know in the industry. We didn’t have to win a radio contest or happen to be in the right place at the right time. We simply had to say yes. And what I’m learning is that if Blue Star Families is involved, I will always say yes. Yes to enhancing life for military families, to creating connections with civilian communities, to reaching out, to strengthening our country by uplifting one another.

Movin’ and Groovin’ at the Grammy Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also made Blue stop and appreciate this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, the World’s Largest Grammy…

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

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

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

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followed by an entire room with popular cartoon activities.

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

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

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

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

Kitsch and Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Michael Jackson, from botox to detox.

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

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

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

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to this…

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

And then there’s the black-light room.

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

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

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

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