Boston, books, and love that lasts


This Memorial Day weekend had my husband and I traveling — without the kids!! — to Boston to attend a friend’s wedding. It was quite an experience to board a plane in sunny, ultra-casual Southern California, where the golden hills and bright blue sky seem to foster a sort of perpetual blissed-out amnesia — and then land just a few hours later, 3,000 miles away, in a brick-and-cobblestone, history-steeped city where no one was wearing Cali shirts or  Vibram Fivefingers, accents honked across the narrow streets like horns, and Pinkberry and “CorePower Yoga” have hardly made a dent. (Horns were also honking, in addition to accents. Bostonians are impatient drivers.)

Add to this the fact that the fabulous wedding we attended was an intricate, breathtaking affair in the high Boston tradition, and it was quite a welcome little culture shock.

And we were, as usual, running late. Memorial Day weekend also seemed to coincide with Harvard graduation and a cheerfully boisterous indie music festival.

My poor husband grappled with impossible traffic (we had driven in from New Hampshire, where we’d been staying with my uncle) and when we finally found a metered parking space, we didn’t have enough quarters.

Luckily, I learned that there is no more honorable pursuit in Bostonians’ eyes than trying to make it to a wedding. (Everywhere we went, if we just blurted, “We’re trying to get to a wedding,” people would shout, “Oh my GAWD! Here are some quarters/ get in front of me in line/ etc. You’ve gotta get to that wedding!”) And indeed, when I sheepishly approached a family and asked to exchange a dollar for four quarters, after their initial glance of suspicion at my request the husband and wife did shout almost in unison, “Oh, my GAWD! No, keep your dollah! Take the quartahs, you’ve gotta get to that wedding!”

So, yes, we made it to the wedding.

Saved by the nice people with the quarters. That’s Dave lookin’ smooth, and me lookin’ like Christmas.

I am fairly certain we were the only military couple there, surrounded by  Harvard profs (like the groom) and musicians and artists and architects (and lots of teachers too, which made me feel at home!). The bride and groom made elegant remarks, danced the foxtrot, and were whisked away in a white horse-drawn carriage (after which a member of the wedding party cried out, “Now THAT’s a Boston wedding!”) Little signs proclaimed that their signature cocktail was the Kir Royale (Dave joked, “I think our signature cocktail is milk.”) But everyone was so kind and friendly that we never felt out-of-place, and could just enjoy all the classiness that surrounded us. It was very sweet to see my friend so happy, moving on to another chapter of her life.

Before we could get back to our own ongoing and somewhat intense life-chapter (the three kids!), we had to spend the night in Boston. With the parking situation so bad, Dave actually had to park on the nearby Coast Guard base (thank you, Coasties, for the hospitality!).

My friend the bride, a master of thoughtful and meticulous planning, had taken the time to recommend custom lodging for many of her guests and for us, that was the Mariner’s House — a small, historic hotel “for active members of the seafaring services.”


 “Founded in 1847 by the Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society, Mariners House was and remains a respite where seafarers and their families can find comfortable, affordable lodging and meals, professional guidance and religious counseling. In addition to the inn itself, Mariners House offers a breadth of services designed specifically to address the needs of professional mariners. ” (from the web site)

The lodge was historic, clean, simple and cozy — and affordable. Just our style. In the morning we elbowed our way to the register at Mike’s Pastry and enjoyed the best croissants we’d ever tasted.


IMG_4936Amaretto cannoli, whoopee pies, German brownie and black-n’-whites to go…



We collected our car from the Coast Guard base, admiring their pretty white ships — so much nicer than the Navy’s functional, endless gray. (Haze gray and underway!)

*          *          *

It was the perfect weekend to read two of the most-opposite books on the planet: Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War. Honestly, those books could not have been more different — a smart, frothy, hilarious novel about an artist in Paris trying to reclaim his wife, his integrity, and a very special painting — and a vivid, edge-of-your-seat modern Western set in Afghanistan. (Review of Wynne’s War forthcoming — I loved it.) They were each just what I needed, such satisfying books that I was not remotely tempted to watch the in-flight movie on either arrival or departure.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is not officially out until June 10th, and another military spouse has already clamored to review it, so I won’t do a full review here– consider this an excited little nudge in the direction of Here’s a great summer read.

A great summer read, but the perfect thematic read for a wedding weekend. It occurred to me during my friend’s wedding that part of the purpose of such ceremonies, nearly as much as the act of sealing the betrothed couple, is the refresher course on commitment it gives everyone in attendance. Watching two people take that big step, you remember when you took your own, and how you felt about your partner back at that new and daring time. It’s kind of like getting a fidelity-booster-shot.

Fun Here Without You has a similar effect — the literary equivalent of watching When Harry Met Sally (a classic if ever there was one!).  The novel is about a man named Richard who has, through his own error, lost his wife, and the funny and fumbling road he takes to try to get back to her. He’s looking for a grand gesture, the one big act that will sweep her off her feet — but along his journey he learns that it’s actually the everyday gesture, the little act of patience and love, that builds a marriage. He starts out lamenting “the dead cell cast of seven years of marital fidelity”: “How did married people do it without cheating? Sweating and grunting and drooling on their pillow nightly side by side, expected at some point to reach over and caress the person who had become as familiar and uninteresting as an extension of their own arm, and fuck?”

But Richard begins filming his parents and their friends, sitting back-to-back and while they talk about love and devotion.

“And what do you love most about her?” My father looked up at the camera when I said this.

“She’s kind,” he said. “She’s silly. She doesn’t get uptight.”

“And what do you dislike?”

“…She’s not, you’re not — she’s not a good driver.”

…Mum twisted around in her chair again. “Well, that can’t be all, George. Personally, I have a lot of them! He’s a hummer, but he’s only got one tune. And he never puts the top back correctly on the malt bottle. ..But he’s a good dancer. …And he makes the bed in the morning, how many people can say that? And you know, he doesn’t disappoint me.”

As Richard studies the importance of kind gestures, he recalls a picnic his own wife, Anne-Laure, made years before, on the day he realized that he loved her.

On that particular Sunday, she’d suggested a bike ride out to Barrington beach and promised me a picnic…In common Anne fashion, she had everything prepared: a blanket, towels, a small umbrella just in case, and a cooler full of treats…[She got me] with the care she put into this picnic, the things she’d done to transform a Sunday afternoon into a moment that would make me look at my life and realize that I wanted her with me, in it. Always.


(Somehow, my own obsessive picnicking habit does not have such an intoxicating effect on my own husband. This is my picnic basket. You can click on the picture to enlarge. You know you want to. And yet, Dave merely tolerates this — my endless Tupperwares and balls of tin foil and my crowing about “how much money we’ve saved!”  — as other families walk past unwrapping round hamburgers and scarfing steaming boats of French fries. How can he not see this picnic basket and look at his life and realize that he wants me in it? Always?!)

Watching the care with which my friend had planned her own wedding — the church service, the hymns, the signature cocktail, the 1940s and ’50s music on the dance floor — I realized that she was making a statement about her life with this other person, and doing it with great care. She and Anne-Laure would make great friends.

And me and Dave? We are great friends, too. If the little things matter, then he is a champion. Halfway through our six-hour flight I wanted to use the restroom, but the line at the back of the plane was six people deep. I pointed this out to Dave who said, sweetly and inexplicably, “Oh, do you want me to wait in line with you?” And I almost laughed, because it would never have occurred to me to ask someone to keep me company in a boring, crowded plane-restroom-line. But still, he thought of that. So I just smiled at him, because I knew that whether I was dancing at a wedding or waiting in a line on an airplane, nobody would make better company than him.


Courtney Maum, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Simon & Schuster, June 2014.

Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War. Houghton Mifflin, May 2014.


an authentic life: Pastaveia St. John

pastaveia1“Live your most authentic form of self,” Pastaveia St. John encourages readers in her popular blog, Be Fearless. After twelve years in the Air Force (getting out just last year), earning an MBA and holding onto a love of reading and natural health throughout all that time, she’s gotten this down to an art.

Pastaveia, an avid reader who volunteers at her local library (“because I’m a nerd and I want to give back to my community!,” she jokes) shares everything from good reads to health and beauty knowledge to daily affirmations on Be Fearless. (Stay tuned for her upcoming review of Chimamanda  Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah here on the Military Spouse Book Review.)

Over the last year, she’s also begun sharing her gradual process of reducing her family’s debt (much of it from student loans). She’s been able to cut their debt load nearly in half over the last 11 months, with the goal of becoming completely debt-free by May 2017. “Alright…here goes,” she wrote in October 2013 when she first began publicizing her debt-free journey. “I’ve decided (with consent from my spouse) to post our budget online for everyone and their mama to see…This is to be an inspiration to others who may be trying to eliminate their debt as well and manage their money better.”

Apparently, this was an inspiration to many people, as her blog has over 130 followers. I’m grateful to Pastaveia for answering a few of my questions about her military service, her outlook on life, and overcoming personal challenges.


1. Mil Spouse Review: Tell me a little bit about your childhood growing up.

Pastaveia St. John: Hmm, let me go deep into my mind-palace [Sherlock Holmes reference – BBC]. I grew up in northern Florida and being the oldest of five, my siblings and I were always creating our own games and exploring our imaginations. The local library was our hangout of choice in the summer and our babysitter after school. We would fantasize about what life would be like as adults, and in retrospect I’d like nothing more than to be ten again — so I can hang out in the library and read all day.

2. Mil Spouse Review: When did you decide to join the Air Force and why? Was it a surprise to anyone in your family?

Pastaveia: I toyed around with the idea of the military as a junior in high school because I thought it’d be easier than college (I was so naïve). It wasn’t until my father became ill during my senior year that I wholeheartedly considered it. He and I had a conversation about my future and I told him I wanted to see the world — he gave me his blessing. Sadly he passed away shortly after my graduation and I left for the Air Force the following month.

No one in my immediate family was surprised at all but my extended was shocked!

3. Mil Spouse Review: What was the biggest challenge for you as a woman in the military? What was the biggest reward?

Pastaveia: Expressing confidence was a challenge for me as a person and that insecurity held me in fear during my first few years in the Air Force. After reading some good books, getting advice from people I trusted and ultimately trusting myself, I overcame that challenge.


4. Mil Spouse Review: Do you have children? If so, how have you balanced personal goals and ambitions with motherhood?

Pastaveia: Not today but we’re hoping to expand our family in the near future.

I’ve watched my mother master the art of motherhood and personal ambitions and what I’ve learned from her that I, too, hope to accomplish is to say “no.” I think understanding that you can’t do everything and come to terms with [the fact that] control is an illusion — will take away the pressure to be superwoman. Simply do your best and leave the rest to God.

5. Mil Spouse Review: On “Be Fearless,” you’re very open and honest about financial goals and overcoming debt. What prompted you to be this honest, and have you received positive responses from your readers?

Pastaveia: I’m still surprised that my husband agreed to this. He’s usually my scapegoat — I’d be like: “Oh my husband wasn’t in agreement, so I can’t commit to [insert activity/course of action here].” Our readers are glad he agreed as well. They enjoy seeing the possibility of being debt-free from everyday people like us — we’re not trying to sell anything.

Honestly, the October 2013 government shutdown is what prompted the public postings of our financial situation. I spent twelve years in the Air Force (July 2001 – September 2013) and I thought the government was stable and secure in its business — wrong! I watched friends who had higher paying positions than mine complain about how they may not be able to make their mortgage payments or other bills because paychecks would be delayed.

I’m grateful to God that we didn’t have a situation where we’d be behind on bills if a paycheck was delayed, but the circumstance was a wake-up call. I realized that the money we put towards debt should be going towards savings — you know, in case the government shuts down and our income comes to a screeching halt.

It was in that moment I decided to do something about it — really do it this time. I read a few financial management (Dave Ramsey) books and put my overpriced MBA to use. I plan and forecast our finances and budget just like a business would, and it’s working!

My husband and I are visual, so it’s helpful to see where the money is going and I’m happy on the progress we’ve made — with one primary income. On July 18, 2013, we had $33,261 in credit card debt and as of May 19, 2014 we cut it down to $16,234.36 — a 49% drop in 11 months!!

6. Mil Spouse Review: Any advice for women starting out in the military?

Pastaveia: For young women entering, I give the same advice I gave to my sister (Air Force) and brother (Marines) when they joined and that is: “Don’t give anyone reason to throw salt on your name.” If you are polite, do your job with integrity and commitment — you’ll succeed and go far. No one can hold you back from your blessings.

Thank you so much for stopping by and answering some questions, Pastaveia!

Follow Pastaveia:


Tent City; and What Mil Spouses Are Reading



With four consecutive no-school days due to the wildfire evacuations, my kids have run amok. Half of them are shirtless at any given time; a tent city has sprung up in our living room; a guide to our “new language” has been posted on the refrigerator. Basically it’s Lord of the Flies in San Diego. We need some structure.

Nora and Soren drafting signs and a new constitution for the imaginary land over which they reign when school is out of session







But we’re reading! The mil spouses are reading, and coming up we’ll have lots of good reads to share with you…..

Army Ranger wife Simone Gorrindo is reading Un-Remarried Widow, by Artis Henderson.


Artis Henderson was a free-spirited young woman with dreams of traveling the world and one day becoming a writer. Marrying a conservative Texan soldier and becoming an Army wife was never part of her plan, but when she met Miles, Artis threw caution to the wind and moved with him to a series of Army bases in dusty southern towns, far from the exotic future of her dreams. If this was true love, she was ready to embrace it.

But when Miles was training and Artis was left alone, her feelings of isolation and anxiety competed with the warmth and unconditional acceptance she’d found with Miles. She made few friends among the other Army wives. In some ways these were the only women who could truly empathize with her lonely, often fearful existence— yet they kept their distance, perhaps sensing the great potential for heartbreak among their number.

It did not take long for a wife’s worst fears to come true. On November 6, 2006, the Apache helicopter carrying Miles crashed in Iraq, leaving twenty-six-year-old Artis—in official military terms—an “unremarried widow.” A role, she later realized, that her mother had been preparing her for for most of her life.

Artis and Miles on the day Miles left for deployment

In this memoir Artis recounts not only the unlikely love story she shared with Miles and her unfathomable recovery in the wake of his death— from the dark hours following the military notification to the first fumbling attempts at new love—but also reveals how Miles’s death mirrored her father’s death in a plane crash, which Artis survived when she was five years old and which left her own mother a young widow.

In impeccable prose, Artis chronicles the years bookended by the loss of these men—each of whom she knew for only a short time but who had a profound impact on her life and on the woman she has become.


Steal the North
Former Army Ranger wife Jenny Fiore (love that the Rangers are representin’!) is reading Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom. From

A novel of love in all its forms: for the land, for family, and the once-in-a-lifetime kind that catches two people when they least expect it

Emmy is a shy, sheltered sixteen-year-old when her mom, Kate, sends her to eastern Washington to an aunt and uncle she never knew she had. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her sister, Beth, when she fled her painful past and their fundamentalist church. And now, Beth believes Emmy’s participation in a faith healing is her last hope for having a child.

Emmy goes reluctantly, but before long she knows she has come home. She feels tied to the rugged landscape of coulees and scablands. And she meets Reuben, the Native American boy next door.

In a part of the country where the age-old tensions of cowboys versus Indians still play out, theirs is the kind of magical, fraught love that can only survive with the passion and resilience of youth. Their story is mirrored by the generation before them, who fears that their mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. With Louise Erdrich’s sense of place and a love story in the tradition of Water for Elephants, this is an atmospheric family drama in which the question of home is a spiritual one, in which getting over the past is the only hope for the future.


As for me, I’m reading (and loving) Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, a whimsical but heartfelt novel of art and fidelity (or lack thereof!) set in Paris. Out officially in June.


I’ve also been given a copy of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta for review, and am conducting interviews with several active-duty and former-active-duty female service members. Good things coming on the ol’ MilSpouse Book Review….stay tuned!


Book Review: Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Col. Thomas Manion



Travis Manion and Brendan Looney were a pair of fun-loving, athletic kids fresh out of high school when they entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in Fall 2000. Both from close-knit, Catholic families, they became best friends, running buddies, and honorary second sons in each others’ families. They shared a tenacious work ethic and a competitive streak founded on mutual respect. Manion went on to become an officer in the Marine Corps, known for his compassion toward local civilians as well as his dedication to the Corps, and was killed in action after saving two other Marines on the streets of Fallujah;  Looney became a well-respected Navy SEAL, perishing in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Afghanistan three years after the death of his best friend. Brothers, correspondents, and comforters to one another’s families throughout their ordeals, they are buried side-by-side at Arlington cemetery.

Travis’s father, Tom Manion (himself a retired Marine Corps Colonel) wrote Brothers Forever (along with Tom Sileo) to memorialize his two lost sons, and the book is obviously a labor of love. As you read you can feel the therapeutic value of the book to its author, and the bravery and pain inherent in its writing. I cannot imagine losing a son, let alone recounting his last moments (and the horrible weeks that followed) in painstaking detail. But I got the sense that the writing process was a beneficial one for Col. Manion, a way to share his memories, and his pride.

Brothers Forever is a useful book for readers not impacted daily by the tides of war. It’s a study of the families for whom world news and international politics have a daily bearing; families who listen closely to political debates and presidents’ speeches; who, as the author describes, cried upon learning of the capture of Osama bin Laden, not just from relief but because they knew people involved with his capture, or knew that their son/ husband, if still alive, would have been among them. Manion points out that only 1% of Americans now serve in our military, and that it is an all-volunteer force;  of that 1% , only a fraction have been impacted with such force as the Manions and the Looneys. Their sons volunteered not just for military service but for the most direct, front-lines brand of that service, making them both brave and vulnerable at the same time.

Travis and Brendan were at the Naval Academy during the events of 9/11. Like any other students away from home on that day, they sat glued to their lounge TV sets for updates, watching the horrific attack unfold. Yet it had a very particular meaning for them. The young men and women at military academies saw their futures crystallizing before their very eyes, knowing that they were on a direct path to war. (Jane Blair, author of the memoir Hesitation Kills, shared a similar experience; she was at basic training on Sept. 11th, putting her even closer to becoming an officer in a time of war. “About sixty Marines hovered around a television, watching and waiting,” she recalls.  “…We slowly realized that this was the day our training wheels came off. Our training would be practice for a war we would fight. The global war on terrorism was our war, and with every ambush and live-fire exercise we did, our real enemy was out there waiting for us.”)

Manion and Looney are more than up to the task of fighting this war, and their triumphs and struggles are explained in detail. What the U.S. asked of its young soldiers in the recent wars becomes blatantly clear, especially in the matter-of-fact retelling of a few days during Travis’s deployment to Fallujah. He survives a lung-burning chlorine bomb attack, vomiting  on the rooftop where he’s keeping watch; soon after, he witnesses the bombing and total destruction  of the makeshift base he’d been helping to build, and rescues two Iraqi civilians from the rubble. (These are painstaking, involved rescues.) Less than 24 hours later, the vehicle he’s traveling in is hit by an I.E.D. This is enough trauma to fill a lifetime, let alone a week or two in the life of a young twenty-something, and yet this is how life was for many of these men and women, over and over again.

The book does suffer some of the limitations of second-hand storytelling; the young mens’ conversations — few witnessed firsthand, and all reconstructed years later — are affectionate but vague, centering mainly around sports and basic trading of information like hometowns, siblings, and so on. They reflect the difficulty any parent would have in trying to imagine what their children say to their friends when they’re all just hanging around. Because of that, Brothers Forever  is also much “cleaner” than the vast majority of military books.

There’s also the issue of Col. Manion’s extreme closeness to his subject; his main emotion is of pride, and even his grief is described almost obliquely. (He is most effective when describing his wife Janet’s grief, how each time she recalled her son as a baby she would feel the pain of his loss all over again: “For a moment Janet was calm, until baby Travis’s face flashed through her mind. Each time she saw that enduring image, the agonizing spasms of pain would resume.” This was the first time in the book that I felt my eyes well up, imagining what that mother had gone through.)

Brothers Forever is a tribute, and as such it puts forth the best version of every person involved.  I can’t help but remember the words of writer Lorrie Moore, who’s said that you should write what you would not want to show your mother.  In contrast, Brothers Forever is the book you would read at her funeral.

That said, for readers with a strong love of country and an affinity for military history, Brothers Forever will be a moving book. It’s touching not just because of the two young men involved, but because of the legacy carried on by their families, who  have suffered loss of a tremendous scope. These families have made their pain into good and worked to keep their sons’ memories alive in positive ways.

This story deserves our attention and respect, because, despite some of the particularities of Looney’s and Manions’s situation, they were sadly not the only such sacrifices of their kind.



Brendan Looney, left, and Travis Manion, right (Business Insider)

This photo breaks my heart, as it should.


Note: I was given an advance copy of the book to review.

Watch the book trailer:

stay safe, san diego


view from our front yard Tuesday, 3:30 p.m.

Some people might think Southern California is all about beaches and boardwalks, but I think we may have had the “real” SoCal experience this week when we had to evacuate our rental home due to wildfires.

We were never in any danger, but the fire did come a little close for comfort (above picture was taken from our front yard). Dave was, of course, at work, so I loaded up kids, irritated cat, changes of clothes, bin of photo albums, pack ‘n’ play, etc. and away we went. It’s funny what you notice at such moments — the kids were most struck by neighbors loading bird cages of canaries into their van. When the flames came over the hill, I calmly told my 8-year-old daughter, Nora, “We should go tell the Bergmans [our neighbors] that we can see the fire and they should leave, but don’t scare their kids, okay?” She nodded soberly. We all bustled across the street — my 2-year-old holding my hand and going as fast as her little toddler legs could take her — and Nora instantly burst into the Bergmans’ house, flapping her arms and shrieking, “EVERYBODY OUT! Get out, get, out! The flames are COMING OVER THE HILLSIDE!” The young Bergman boy burst into tears.



We were able to evacuate to my dad’s in Carlsbad (THANKS DAD), and since he’s in Ireland visiting family, my gang of ruffians had the run of his lovely, uncluttered, artsy home. (THANKS AGAIN DAD.) We are back home now and just fine.

But it struck me that one lesser-known benefit (?) of being a military family is that your kids get to sample natural “events” from around the world. We have, luckily, never been in any real danger. But now my kids are the annoying ones in class whose hands fly up when teachers ask, “Who here has been through a hurricane?” “Has anyone here ever lived in a tornado area?” Now they can volunteer stories galore if they’re ever asked about wildfires.

dancin’ in the basement during a tornado warning, Belleville, Illinois, circa 2011.

It’s my hope that experiencing such events will make them more empathic, although so far they just seem to find the whole thing rather exciting. My son Soren, who’s six, confessed, “It might just be because I’m a kid, but I think evacuation is kind of fun.”

I may still have to rely on good literature to promote that real sense of empathy. Nora said, “We can’t complain, Mom. Just imagine if we were like the Ingalls family when there was the fire on the prairie. Remember? How Ma and Pa Ingalls had to dig that trench around their cabin and Pa fought fire with fire?!” And my heart soared and I said, probably with too much intensity, “OF COURSE I remember that, Nora. I remember it as if it happened to me because that is such a damn good book.”

Okay, my response wasn’t quite that weird. But still — good literature gives you a sense of perspective.

view from our window last night — smoke from fires in Escondido, about 15 miles away. Stay safe — and classy! — San Diego.


What military spouses are reading (contributor edition!)

Amy Bermudez (Army wife)

Current station: Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas



Top Three Books of All Time:

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty

“It’s really hard to pick my top three books of all time because I love so many!” she says. “I’ll probably read something that is young adult fiction next — I love to mix it up.”

What’s on her nightstand right now: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

(and she says she’s had to sleep with the light on sometimes after reading!)


Leslie Hsu Oh (former Army Corps of Engineers wife)


Top Three Books of All Time:

Revolutionary Road by Richards Yates

(ooh! Cool Mad Men-style cover)

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

What’s On Her Nightstand Right Now:

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Torch by Cheryl Strayed