My Month Writing with The Legacy Project, by Mil Spouse Author Stephanie Carroll

Hi, Stephanie! It’s nice to have you back on the Military Spouse Book Review. (For those who don’t know, Stephanie is the author of an historical fiction novel,  A White Room, reviewed here this summer.)

Stephanie has spent the month of January working on something called The Legacy Project. Here, she discusses her involvement with it, the story she’s writing, and where we can find the final result.

So, Stephanie, can you tell us about #30Authors and the Legacy Project?

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Yes! Allison Hiltz, founder of the The Book Wheel, a wonderful book review blog, and creator of the #30Authors event, has joined with Adria J. Cimino, author and founder of Velvet Morning Press, to put on an interactive writing challenge. The project challenges authors to write a short story or nonfiction piece on the theme of legacy in thirty days, starting at the beginning of January.

Throughout the month, the authors are posting updates on Twitter and Facebook about our process and experience. You can check out all the posts and discussions by searching for the #30Authors hashtag.

At the end of January, we will all submit our stories which will be included in an anthology called Legacy, to be published by Velvet Morning Press in the spring of 2015. Proceeds from online sales will go to the adorable charity Paws for Reading, a program that allows children to read to therapy dogs, cats, and even bunnies, to improve their reading and communication skills.

Is writing a short story in a single month a challenge for you and other authors?

Yes. I’m used to writing longer pieces, so writing a short story on its own is a challenge, and then making it good enough to publish in thirty days is an intimidating challenge. I, like many writers, take time away from my projects in order to gain perspective because after a while, you don’t see your words or even your mistakes. So far, it has been difficult, but exciting and rewarding as I am loving what I am writing and that this story will be a part of my portfolio.

What did you come up with based off of the theme of legacy?

At first I was at a loss. As I am a fiction author, my goal wasn’t to write about my desires regarding my own legacy, but that of a fictional character. When I think of legacy, I automatically think of someone winning a gold medal in the Olympics, or passing on their life lessons to their grandchildren, or an author writing something that will be remembered, but all of those happy things just don’t inspire me to write a story. I think it’s because my stories are bit darker.

So I got to thinking a little bit more about my darker feelings about legacy, and my mind went to this desire I’ve had since I was a child. I’ve always wanted to do something important for my maker, for God, but all my attempts seem to flop. At times, I have thought of this almost as a curse, something about my desire to make an impact is wrong and has doomed me to die without having done anything truly important.

Dark, I know . . . but that gave me the idea! What if a person knew they were going to die without a legacy and their last days were filled with these failed attempts to make a difference?

So a part of this challenge is sharing your process as you figured out your story. Where did you go from there?

After having that idea, I still didn’t know what to make of it for several days, so I started listing things I wanted the story to have, such as time period, setting, etc. I listed these words: Dark, magical realism, strange, unexpected, subtle, bitter-sweet, sad, female main, turn of the century, Gothic, mysterious house.

I started to piece things together and finally wrote out several paragraphs about my character and what I thought would be her back story, i.e. her dilemma, family life, etc. At first, I thought this would be something like a beginning, but after looking at it for a while, I realized I’d pretty much written the story in summary form.

I had written about a character named Lauraline Rosland who knows that the day after her thirtieth birthday, she will die. All she wants is to do one thing that will make a difference before she dies, but she only has three days left.

Have you had any hiccups or gotten stuck at all?

I did get stuck with the setting. I imagined Lauraline living in her grandmother’s old house, which I saw as being one of those tall rectangle-like Victorian houses you see in San Francisco, which I learned are called Stick-Eastlake houses.

Stick-Eastlake Residence, 1321 Scott St., San Francisco

I researched the houses with great delight but was struggling to figure out how to represent historic San Francisco accurately without much time to research. I finally decided to send the story to a friend who lives there, and he pointed me in the direction of Colma, California, a city where the dead outnumber the living. Inspired!

In 1900, around when my story was set, San Francisco passed an ordinance preventing any more burials in the city limits, so everyone buried their dead a little bit south of the city in Colma. At the time of my story, there were already ten cemeteries there, and several years later in 1914, San Francisco sent eviction notices to those with family buried within the city limits, and guess where the graves were relocated? Colma was much easier for me to represent and so I had my setting!

Setting seems to play an important role in your work.

After writing this story, it’s clear to me now how much of a major role setting plays. This is pretty obvious with A White Room, my historical novel where the house and furniture come to life, but I didn’t realize when I wrote that story that setting was going to play character-level roles in almost all of work. What can I say? I just love old houses and creepy little towns.

After January ends and your story is turned in, what else are you working on this year?

I have multiple projects going on at the moment, and I can’t really say which will be finished first because I tend to take a break from one thing and work on another for a while. I wish I could say I know I will publish something new this year, but I have found that as an artist, a project might seem near completion and then turn a corner and require a complete overhaul.

I have three major projects going right now. I’ve been working on a new novel for several years called The Binding of Saint Barbara, which revolves around the history of the first death by electrocution which took place in Auburn Prison, Auburn, N.Y., 1890. The story follows the fictionalized story of the prison warden’s daughter as she discovers the realities of good and evil through her interactions with several prisoners, including the ax-murderer condemned to die.

In addition to that piece, in January 2014, I wrote a science fiction novel, S0L M8, about a not-too-distant future when the environment is destroyed, but mankind has survived by retreating to isolated underground homes where they live and interact via virtual reality, except for their immediate family units and their soul mates, who are accurately chosen during childhood via an algorithm. It’s still in its first draft.

Whoa! Sounds very cool. These are some pretty diverse projects. What’s the last one?

This past October, inspired by Halloween and a research spree into the classic Gothic tradition, I wrote my own Gothic novella about a young women who is sent to the dilapidated home of an out-of-work spinal specialist in order to receive treatment for her mysterious pain condition. Also, still in its first draft.

How can people find out when Legacy and your other books are released?

I write about my experiences with authorship and publishing all the time in my quarterly newsletter. It’s also where I announce new books and special opportunities for those who want to become test readers. Sign up for Coming Unhinged with Stephanie Carroll today!

Velvet Morning Press and The Book Wheel’s Twitter pages are also great places to find information about Legacy’s debut. Velvet Morning Press is also looking for test readers for Legacy, so if you are interested in reading an advanced copy ebook (mobi, epub, or pdf file) and posting a review on Amazon, send an email to contact@velvetmorningpress.com.

I heard you also have some announcements regarding your blog Unhinged and Empowered.

Yes! Unhinged & Empowered is looking for new writers. We currently have three Navy Wives and a Navy Girlfriend writing for the blog, but we are looking to “branch out” and include wives, girlfriends, husbands, or any significant others from other branches of the military. Unhinged & Empowered is a blog focused on support and encouragement for those who support their military men but at times feel like they might come unhinged! We also support our writers and feature any books or products they have. If you are interested please feel free to contact me!

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About Stephanie Carroll

As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. She holds degrees in history and social science and graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.

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Her dark and magical historical fiction is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights). She also writes science fiction and nonfiction, including the blog Unhinged & Empowered. A White Room is her first novel.

Stephanie lives in California, where her husband was originally stationed with the U.S. Navy. Check out her website at http://www.stephaniecarroll.net and sign up for her quarterly newsletter, Coming Unhinged with Stephanie Carroll to be notified of new books and free goodies. Also, find her @CarrollBooks on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Book Review: Scandals of Classic Hollywood

reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)

After a year of heavy (but wonderful!) military reads, I was actively seeking out lighter options. My ears perked up when one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You, happened to interview Anne Helen Petersen about her upcoming nonfiction book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Petersen has a PhD, she blogs, and she is able to draw a connections between the Kardashian family and Pride and Prejudice. I needed this book. Needed it.

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ahpauthor Anne Helen Petersen

In the podcast interview, it became clear that Petersen takes a smart look at gossip. It’s not about rehashing the hard times that people of the past have finally lived down; instead, she wants to dig deeper and analyze what those scandals say about us. The fact that someone is shunned for drinking, or their sexuality, or for looking a certain way is much more telling about our society than it is about that particular person. The little taste of her approach in the 40 minute podcast is fully fleshed out in the 304 page book.
Petersen discusses the interesting lives of the likes of Mary Pickford (a silent movie actress from the turn of the century), James Dean, and many a star in between. Although most of the stars were people I had heard of, their respective scandals were news to me.

The Clara Bow chapter stood out. She was the original “It Girl” and a 1920’s version of Lindsay Lohan.

clara bow 1926 - by eugene robert richeeClara Bow

After achieving colossal film fame, her money and the pressure of the spotlight left her dissatisfied. Bow searched for happiness in parties, alcohol, and drugs. Stardom of 100 years ago wasn’t so different as it sometimes is today. She had crashed and burned by the time she was twenty five.

I had never heard of the love story between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Sure, he was still legally married to his second wife when he fell in love with her, but it sounds like Lombard was Gable’s true love. (A few of his close friends said as much despite the fact that he racked up half a dozen marriages over his life.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGable & Lombard

Lombard brought out the best in him, and they lived a relatively boring life despite the image that was presented of them in the tabloids as a big time party couple. On a flight returning home from selling war bonds, Lombard’s plane crashed. Everyone aboard died. Later that year, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Force, even flying combat missions. He wasn’t the only star of his day to put life and career on hold for World War II. Still, I’m impressed by his eager participation in combat.

Montgomery Clift, known only to me as a pretty face in From Here to Eternity, had more than his share of scandal. He bucked Hollywood tradition by refusing to sign with a particular studio, which was unheard of at the time.

cliftMontgomery Clift

Instead, he hand-picked every movie he appeared in and turned down most parts he was offered. Clift was one of the first actors to use the method acting approach. He was brooding and mysterious. For years, many thought that he and Elizabeth Taylor were Hollywood’s most perfect couple. However, they weren’t actually dating. Clift was mum on his private life, only adding to his mystique. When he suffered a horrific accident in 1956, Taylor rushed to the scene and saved him from choking on his own tooth. Clift survived the accident, but it left him in constant pain and dependent on pills and alcohol. Though he lived another ten years, they were tortured years.

I picked up this book looking for an escape, to a different time, to a different place. But I also appreciate that the scandals, in essence, are the same as today. People fell in and out of love, lost their careers and got them back again, made and lost millions. Despite the fact that many of the stories lack a happy Hollywood ending, it’s an upbeat book. Petersen brings her depth of knowledge and keen observation to the tale of each story. She illuminates them in ways that are funny and smart and relatable. She made me think about my consumption of gossip, which I have zero plans of curtailing. She taught me a thing or two about some of the industry’s elite. And, just like we always hope movies will do, this book entertained me.

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moiAmy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. She’s written for Spouse Buzz and the Huffington Post,  reads multiple books a week, and recently wrote a very moving post called “This is a War Like That.”

just like that

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On Tuesday, after several changes in Dave’s travel schedule, we finally got word that he and another member of his team were on a flight home to San Diego and would get in that afternoon. I got Susanna bathed and she chose a dress to wear along with her “sparkle shoes,” and then we went to pick the big kids up from school about an hour early. They’d known there was a good chance that their dad was coming back that afternoon, but I’d been a little noncommittal because they’d had their hopes up (falsely) several times over the last week. So when I went to the front office and the secretary called each of their classrooms for them, it was fun to look out the window and see them coming into view from their separate rooms. Nora couldn’t contain herself and broke into a run. I gathered everybody up and we made the drive to the airport.

Once we got there, the kids were a jumble of nerves. I bought them some crackers to keep them occupied and we staked out a row of seats by the baggage claim.

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I saw another little girl waiting with her mother and grandmother, wearing a blue sailor dress and waving a small American flag; the mom had a bouquet of balloons. I recognized them as Dave’s teammate, Miguel’s, family. Miguel was seated in a different section on the plane, so he got off before Dave. He was so excited to greet his family that he went right out the door with them, completely forgetting his bag. He was back, smiling sheepishly and waiting with us by the baggage claim, a few minutes later.

When we saw Dave, the kids yelped and ran toward the bottom of the escalator, but a rather grumpy security guy held up his hand and told them to stand back. The combination of excitement, relief, and her mortal fear of reprimand made Nora teary-eyed, but she held it together and was the first to hug Dave when he got to the main floor.

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Soren was a little hesitant, and Susanna came tripping along clinging to my leg. I’d been worried that she might be very shy or even a little scared of him; she hadn’t seen him in 6 months, which is a long time for a two-year-old. But she stood next to me and watched him curiously and smiled a little. He had, cleverly, brought along a Hello Kitty necklace for her which he whipped out of nowhere like David Copperfield. She stood very still while he put it around her neck. I noticed that his hands were shaking, sweet man.

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Well, Susanna’s not above being wooed by material objects, apparently, because she admired her necklace and then trotted along with us, holding my hand, already warming to her daddy quite nicely.

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And just like that, we were a family of five again.

——

So far, things have gone smoothly with Dave home. Susanna bolted into my room to wake me up the first morning, saw Dave in the bed, and ran back out again in a silent panic. But each morning it takes her less and less time to warm up to him, and today it took about two seconds. She even let him put her to bed two nights in a row. When he did have to go back in to work for two days of redeployment processing, she asked about him a dozen times: where had he gone? when would he be back? When I’d answer, “Tonight!,” her little face would light up.

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The bigger kids have also done well, other than being a little over-hyped at times and driving me bonkers. Soren desperately wants to rough-house with Dave, and play tackle football and roll around on the living room floor, but then he gets so excited that he’ll forget the rules and smack Dave on the arm or in the stomach. (BOYS!) Of course it’s not painful, but then Dave has to stop and remind Soren not to get so rough.

It’s felt a little funny having Dave back in our mostly-civilian neighborhood again. The first morning he helped me walk the kids to school, I felt like I was with a celebrity. It was almost a little embarrassing! Everyone stopped to talk to him, and I trotted out my, “Have you met my husband?” joke to so many neighbors in a row that I could hardly stand myself.

And it’s been sweet to see Dave take in all of the changes in the kids. He was most fascinated by Susanna, who’s running all over the place and telling long, half-comprehensible stories and lining all her dolls up to brush their hair and feed them plastic cabbage. “She’s like a little walking, talking doll,” he said, in wonder, as we left the airport that first day.

——

There are plenty of things I won’t miss about the deployment. I won’t miss doing all of the dishes by myself, that’s for sure. I won’t miss the spotty communication caused by wildly different time zones (Dave was a day and a half ahead of us), vagaries of technology (I just LOVE seeing myself frozen for 120 seconds in some bizarre half-sneer), and the weirdness of young children — for instance:

– Susanna clamoring for the phone, only to get ahold of it and shout, “SOREN SAYS MOMMY HAS YELLOW TEETH!” and then running away laughing, thereby cementing my husband’s mental image of his sweet bride for a week;

– or that call when Soren decided to try to communicate with his dad in a new language, via thumps of a foam LightSaber. (Your dad still speaks English, son!)

I won’t miss Dave-less holidays — my birthday, Nora’s birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s (and that, for only a half-year deployment, when some families give much more)!

I’m loving the ease of having a second parent in the house. (My mind was blown the other night at bedtime when Dave suggested, “You take the big kids up and I’ll put Susanna to bed.” I had to stand for a minute to realize that my workload had just been cut neatly in half. “…..That would be…..GREAT,” I said.) I’m loving the subtle change in a house’s feel when there is a man in it; it’s a warmer, more secure place with Dave here. (One of his first moves was to pull down the weird-looking cloths I had safety-pinned to the sheer front windows so that I wouldn’t feel exposed in the evenings — something that dawned on me right before Dave left, when, having gone out to grab a few items one night, I experimentally peered into the front window through those gauzy, useless curtains and realized that Dave was spotlighted on the couch in the living room, scratching his nose and watching TV, and that once he left I’d be just as illuminated in all my tired, sweatpants-wearing, equally nose-scratching glory.)

I’d dreaded the last six months and feared they would be horrible. They weren’t horrible. They were slow at times, and challenging, and tiring, but our rallying cry (“FAMILY TEAM!”) — as well as the help of my mom and dad, who tried to visit whenever they could — got us through. There we were, six months ago, all anxious and full of trepidation. Now it’s done; here we are.

heading toward the finish

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Here we are, at the tail end of our deployment. It’s been a little over 6 months.

It’s interesting how your state of mind changes over time. I dreaded this deployment at the start, mainly for my own slightly-selfish reasons: I was anxious about being alone with three young kids, and I had just hit a little career stride of my own, which I knew would be blasted back into the stone age with half a year of single parenting.

One thing that makes me laugh is how much I feared doing the whole bathtime-bedtime-with-three-kids routine by myself every evening. Now, I can’t even imagine what seemed so bad about it. We just go through our paces, we sit together and read our Beverly Cleary, the 2-year-old hollers once or twice that her blanket is “not right” or that she needs more water; and then the lights are out upstairs and I have the run of the downstairs for a few hours, me and my books and my computer and a beverage of choice. It’s not so awful.
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A few of Dave’s pictures from the “Establishment Ceremony” to mark the new command they’ve set up. Commemorative coins are placed in a Seabee-made concrete structure.
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But, even so, it’s not us. We’re family people. The kids have changed a lot since Dave went away, and I know he wishes he could have seen all the ways. Soren was reading beginner readers when Dave left, and had to be cajoled into his 15 minutes a day; now he devours 200-page books in a weekend, reading on the couch with his green blanket pulled up around his head.

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Nora has grown taller and more statuesque. Susanna, being two, has changed the most, of course. She was a soft-spoken little chub-a-lub when Dave left,

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Here she is, last week:
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Now, she tells long, involved stories and has used words like “actually,” “disappointed,” and “insane” (that’s my girl!). She’s left her high chair and crib in the dust. She puts on her own shoes and has a strong little will but, luckily for me, an even stronger desire to people-please.

My crew, about 2 days after Dave left:
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Here’s me and my girls, last month:
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Originally, we thought Dave would have been home by now, but every day his return has been delayed just a little. It’s been pushed back at least four times already, which, of course, is no tragedy, but an inconvenience. In my somewhat-lonely state I had planned his return down to every last detail: bought a fancy pork loin and ingredients for stuffed mushrooms, a $20 bottle of wine. Now I’ve relegated the pork to the freezer (still not sure when he’ll be home) and am realizing that both the clean house and my fancified self have hit their peak and are already on their way down. The rooms I organized are tumbling into disarray again, one toy or child-shoe after another sneaking forth to mar the vacuumed floors. The flowers I bought for the kitchen are browning around the edges; my manicure (only the second I’ve ever gotten in my life, because I can hardly stand to spend the money!) is fading. I’m already Cinderella after the ball, back to her grimy clothes and housewife-hands. Oh, well. I’ll have to bank on the desperation of long-separation to boost my appeal.

I’m kidding, a little. None of this matters much. It’s just military life, going with the flow. Hopefully, he’ll be home soon and safely, and we’ll be sitting on the couch chatting about books and politics and TV, with kids sleeping soundly in bed and one day after another spread before us, busy, cluttered with kids, but still there, free as we choose.

Three recommendations from Kathleen M. Rodgers

I’m honored that Kathleen M. Rodgers (award-winning author of The Final Salute and Johnnie Come Lately) has dropped by to share three books she’d highly recommend — a novel (Bone Horses),a memoir/nonfiction book (Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life), and a children’s book (Someday I’ll Fly). These are all wonderful suggestions — maybe one of them fits somebody you know!

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Rodgers

Title: Bone Horses (novel)
Author: Lesley Poling-Kempes
Publisher: La Alameda Press, 6/17/13.

bone_horsesI first read about Bone Horses in New Mexico Magazine shortly after the book came out from La Alameda Press, June 17, 2013. I was intrigued by the title and the whimsical cover art that depicted a lonely gas station with red mesas and snowcapped mountains in the background. The cover alone made me homesick for my native New Mexico and brought to mind all the old gas stations that dotted the highway between my childhood home in eastern New Mexico and my aunt’s and uncle’s home in sprawling Albuquerque on the other side of the Sandia Mountains.

After the novel won the 2013 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction from New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, I ordered the Kindle edition. I was hooked from the beginning. Lesley Poling-Kempes is an extremely gifted storyteller who writes with emotional impact. This multilayered story rings with authenticity and is peopled with characters that feel like your own family and neighbors. The author’s use of magical realism worked for me and gave me hope. I never questioned the legend of a phantom herd of horses coming down from the mountains to attend the burial of young men killed in the Bataan Death March. If anything, the legend of the horses lends dignity and honor to a military ceremony.

Lesley_poling_Kempes2The same goes for the conversations that the story’s matriarch, Dorothea Durham, carries on with her late friend, Conchata. For me, these were some of the most unforgettable and emotionally charged scenes in the novel. I highlighted so many lines in the story that made me pause, look off in the distance, and ponder life and death. And what’s out there beyond the mountains of life.

I highly recommend Bone Horses to anyone who appreciates a well-crafted story. This is simply storytelling at its best.
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Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life
Terri Barnes
Elva Resa Publishing (March 1, 2014)

spouse_callsThis story called to me…and I listened.

I hope it calls to you, too.

When I first saw Terri Barnes’ new book, SPOUSE CALLS: Message From a Military Life, I stopped what I was doing and stared at the cover. The image of a vintage typewriter spoke to the writer in me, but it was the sepia-toned photographs in the background that prompted me to get out my wallet and place my order. I was especially drawn to the handsome airman decked out in uniform -complete with wheel hat – to the left of the space bar. That man, it turns out, was Terri’s dad when he was active duty.

In a conversational tone, Terri writes with humility, grace, and humor from the perspective of both a military spouse and a military brat. I found that comforting. Although the book is comprised of some of her favorite stories from her popular column in Stars & Stripes, there is a seamless quality to the narrative. One story flows into the next and you are compelled to keep reading.

Terri-Barnes-210x292One line on page 72 is sobering: “These are people who face deployment with wills written and funerals preplanned.”

As a former Air Force wife turned Army mom, I found this book addictive. All military spouses – former, present, and future – will want to grab a copy and start reading. It’s a page-turner. And it’s not gender specific. It speaks to all military spouses as well as military brats.

It’s not out on Kindle yet, but the paperback is lovely and worthy of any bookshelf. I highly recommend Terri’s book to anyone who appreciates our military families and cares about those who protect our nation and our freedom.

Someday I’ll Fly (children’s book)
Author: Rebecca Evans
publisher: Red Engine Press (2014)

SomedayFlyCover_smallSomeday I’ll Fly is a stunning adaptation of Joyce Faulkner’s award-winning novel, Windshift, an emotionally charged story about the Women Air Service Pilots during WWII. Rebecca Evans has done an amazing job bringing a portion of the story to life through her brilliant artwork and storyline.

Even though this book is designed to appeal to children, especially young girls, I bought this book for myself because the little girl in me still wants to fly. Maybe not in an actual airplane, but I want to pilot my dreams and turn them into worthy goals that give me a reason to get up each morning. I want to take off running, spring my wings, and soar. That’s the point of this book: to teach children to dream big.

Red Engine Press and Rebecca Evans did an outstanding job.

I highly recommend this book for children of all ages…from 1 to 100 and beyond.

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Kathleen M. Rodgers is the award-winning author of The Final Salute and the brand-new novel Johnnie Come Lately (congratulations, Kathleen!). She’s a former Air Force wife (ret.) and Army mom. You can keep up with her here, on her blog.

Book Review: Alison Buckholtz’s ‘Standing By’

Alison Buckholtz’s memoir Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, begins with her husband trying to break up with her. Well, let me clarify: he’s her boyfriend at the time, and he’s doing it because he loves her and fears that her personality — intellectual, career-oriented, politically liberal, working for a successful non-profit in D.C. — doesn’t match up with the job description of “military wife.” But, being gutsy and adventurous (and in love), she reassures him that they’ll make it work.

StandingBy_pbk-cover_300Standing By follows as Buckholtz adjusts to her new role, navigating the many ways she feels different from “textbook” military wives (she was “raised on feminism along with mother’s milk,” chose to keep her maiden name, and — “trump[ing] all the other elements of our lives that made us ‘different weird'” as opposed to “good-weird” — she and her family are Jewish). Despite all that, she gradually learns the ins and outs of military wifehood, coming to feel useful in her role as the “skipper’s wife,” handling the needs (new-baby visits, crisis management) of many other military families.

Everything, of course, gets trickier once children are involved. Though she mentions it only briefly in the memoir, Buckholtz gives birth to her firstborn while her husband is away flying in the “shock and awe” campaign over Iraq. (That’s the ultimate mil spouse “walking-the-walk” in my book; if it were me, I’d trot out that badge of courage every chance I got.)

Later — and this is the focus of the memoir — the War on Terror ramps up and her husband is sent on deployment, leaving her alone with two young kids (the gorgeous children on the book’s cover!) for the first time. Over the course of his six-month “cruise,” she weathers the deployment blues, deals with her son’s anxiety brought on by his dad’s absence, and grows close to the other military wives around her at their far-Northwest post at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington.

Her writing voice is smart, affectionate, and fun, and I found myself devouring pages as she retold some of her early military-wife fumbles, described the heartbreak of watching young children miss their dad (the sad-but-hilarious “Flat Daddy” chapter, based on Buckholtz’s 2007 column for the New York Times, made me laugh til I had tears in my eyes), and examined the way long absences can both challenge and strengthen a marriage.

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Standing By was the perfect read for this time in my life, with my own husband on deployment. I read it mostly in fits and starts when my toddler would doze off in her car seat in the van and I’d shoo my two older kids into the house to play by themselves until she woke up. All of Buckholtz’s feelings of not being “enough” for her kids during her husband’s deployment, her worries that her kids might not understand why their dad has gone away, her exhaustion at the end of the day — not only could I relate, I was living it at that very moment. I was literally not enough for anything — not enough to go around between both my younger and older kids, having to send the older ones into the house by themselves; not a good enough mom to get this stubborn toddler to nap in a bed but instead having to drive us all around for fifteen minutes until she fell asleep with her head canted weirdly to the side and drool rolling down her cheek; not enough to keep up the writing career I’ve always planned for but instead having only enough time and energy to read bits of other peoples’ writing in a messy van while wanting desperately to doze off myself.

But if I defended Alison Buckholtz to herself as I read her memoir — “You are enough!” I’d think, vehemently. “You are doing a great job, Alison Buckholtz circa 2007!” — then wasn’t I also enough, or at least, enough of enough? I’d start to chant little lists in my head: The kids are clean and relatively happy. They ate a good lunch. They are doing well in school. They do not cry themselves to sleep every night.

buckholtzIs this not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Buckholtz’s kids running to meet their daddy — the kind of scene I’ve been dreaming about for the past half-year.

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One of the pleasures of Standing By is that Buckholtz describes her foray into Navy life with an affectionate, anthropological eye.  I’ve grown so accustomed to certain quirks of military life that I’d nearly forgotten how odd they might seem to civilians, but her memoir reminded me. There’s the concept of “mandatory fun,” for example,

mandatory_funwhich a friend and I nicknamed “SAG Duty,” for “Shits-and-Giggles Duty,” back in Virginia Beach. We thought that was hilarious.

Or there’s pulling your car to a dead halt, for instance, at 5 p.m. on-base, as the sound system plays reveille out across the houses and corn fields and everyone is expected to honor it. Kids pull up short in their military-duplex front yards and the soldiers strolling home from work stand and salute where they are. That all seems normal to me now, this patriotic earnestness, but Buckholtz’s seeing-it-for-the-first-time eyes reminded me of my first reveille experience, when I nearly bumped into the stopped car in front of me and then rolled down my window and looked around (with a weird grimace on my face I’m sure) trying to figure out why every man and woman, in uniform or otherwise, had pulled up short as if a spell had been cast upon them.

In this comedic vein, one of my favorite chapters in Standing By describes Buckholtz’s first “Dining Out” experience as a new Navy wife.

For those who are unfamiliar, there are two types of formal dinners in the Navy: the Dining In, which is limited to Navy personnel, and the Dining Out, to which spouses (or other dates) are invited. A Dining Out is a highly orchestrated dinner which includes a host of archaic little rituals that have cemented the Navy’s “we are an old branch of the military, and a little weird” identity since 1775. One facet of a Dining Out, for example, is the “Grog,” a mix of any and all readily available alcoholic beverages served in a (clean) toilet bowl, supposedly reminiscent of the citrus-laced booze sailors once kept on board to prevent scurvy. In a modern Dining Out, however, its role is more whimsical. Individual sailors are called out for various, generally fabricated infractions and, before all the attendants, given the “opportunity” to slurp Grog from the bowl.

And the night just increases in quirkiness from there. It’s all very well-intentioned and goofy, and everybody laughs a lot, and us gals get dolled up to the hilt.

(In fact — wait — I have a picture from the first and only Dining Out I’ve ever attended, back in 2005.

IMG_1340Dave was wrapping up OCS [Officer Candidate School — boot camp for officers] in Pensacola, which is why he looks a little peaked and gaunt, and I was 7 months pregnant, which is why I’m all resplendent and emotional. Okay, maybe just emotional.)

Anyway, when we attended Dining Out, Dave was the lowest man on the totem pole, a not-yet-commissioned officer who had only just been allowed to eat meals without standing at the back of a room and waiting for every senior recruit to get their food before him. Also, he was practically dying of the tuberculosis-like disease that all of his fellow recruits were swapping around. And he was doing weird things like dabbing clear nail polish onto the seams of his uniform, and hair-spraying his sleeves, because everyone was so petrified of failing inspections. They were all starved and neurotic, those poor recruits, turning into obsessive, muscular dandies.

So, our experience was quite different from Alison Buckholtz’s: she married into the military later, and by the time she attended her first Dining Out, her husband, Scott, was the Master of Ceremonies. If you have never been to a Dining Out, it would be hard to describe exactly how strange it would be to go to your first one and have your husband preside over the whole thing. Being Master of Ceremonies is a very particular job and it requires a knowledge of the event’s history and customs, a rapport with the audience, and perfect comedic timing.

I honestly can’t imagine my quiet Dave doing such a thing. If I were new to the Navy and he had presided over my first Dining Out, I think it would have blown my mind. So when Buckholtz tells about her first Dining Out, seeing her husband almost like this charismatic stranger, sitting at his elevated post in his dress whites before the whole assembly and banging his gavel and leading the whole show, and her mind is kind of blown, I just laughed out loud right along with her. The Parading of the Beef! — I had totally forgotten about the Parading of the Beef. Why, why parade the beef?! Who dreamed that up?
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Parading the Beef — all pomp and fun, but do we ever think of those who must actually lug the beef? (photo by Erik Aguilar, the Epoch Times)

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I’m sure I could write a lot more about Standing By, but I think Alison Buckholtz can speak pretty well for herself. She’s written dozens of columns and essays, and even met the President! Her book has had an amazing reception and I can see why: because you could read it as a civilian and gain an honest, entertaining understanding into what military families do; or you could read it as a military spouse and feel the comfort that comes from a shared burden.

For me, finishing the book (which ends with her husband’s return from deployment) whipped me into a near frenzy of excitement because that day is not so far off from us now, and I’m just craving that relief like nothing else: someone to help me with the bedtime routine, to answer a toddler’s repeated-for-the-tenth-time question, to hunker down for some serious chitchat and TV watchin’ on a drizzly winter evening. Heady days, these.

I have often wondered, she writes, what strange magic transforms a perfectly ordinary woman into a military spouse…In the last few minutes of our deployment as a military family, waiting for Scott to land, I looked at the women around me and realized that if there really is one characteristic that unites us, it’s not patriotism, not politics, and not religion. It’s not even love for our husbands….It’s endurance.

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Buckholtz, Alison. Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War. Penguin, 2009.

Alison’s web site

Buy Standing By here

a year to remember

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So, it’s 2015! Happy New Year!

We spent a nice Christmas here in San Diego with my family (my parents and my younger brother, who flew down briefly from northern California to join us). Dave took part in our Christmas morning via Face Time, and patiently sat through two hours of the kids opening presents and my intermittent narration and coffee-slurping. He will be home in just a few weeks, which is very exciting to us all even as time seems to crawl by. Why do the last weeks of a deployment move more slowly than any of the ones before?

I was a crabby mom this morning, tired of the big kids’ squabbling and the little one’s clinginess. I wasn’t at my best, and I wasn’t proud of it. Still, I was aware of how lucky I am that this deployment is almost over. Six months, with a husband not in a war zone! I was reminded of Amalie Flynn’s honesty in Wife and War, when she compares her husband’s yearlong deployment to the six-month deployment of a fellow Navy wife:

“Another wife and I are talking, standing in the grocery store…And she is saying how her husband will be gone for six months, and how hard it has been, motioning towards her shopping cart, filled with soda and chips and a child, how hard it has been.

And, in my mind, I am comparing it, six to fifteen, the fifteen long months my husband will have been gone, by the time he gets back, more than twice, twice as long, twice as bad.

But, instead, I say what I always say.

I say that a deployment is a deployment.”

I’m glad Flynn came out and said this, because it is true. Of course a year-plus deployment is worse and harder in every regard than one half its length. Several times in recent weeks I’ve asked myself, What if this were only the halfway point? What if this were only half the distance I’d feel, half the holidays and birthdays and milestones that would elapse, half the nights I’d spend by myself? And I feel grateful that I am almost done instead of halfway-done, because I haven’t fully moved on to relying on myself. There are broken items that I can still set aside, thinking, he’ll be home soon enough to fix that. Things I’ve earmarked to talk with him about, knowing we can discuss them face-to-face. I haven’t forced myself to make new friends.

While my mom was in town, we started watching the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” We both loved it (although I’d recommend reading a few reviews before you consider embarking on that series with your own mom!!). It’s a great show for many reasons, but I was intrigued by a couple of episodes in the first season that dealt with the strain of long-distance relationships. The protagonist, Piper Kerman, is serving jail time for a crime she committed a decade ago, and her blindsided fiancee, Larry, waits patiently on the outside.

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While military service is hopefully a different experience than being incarcerated, the show touches on so many familiar themes — waiting, doubt, boredom, the incredible slowness of time.

Sweet Larry, like any military spouse, wonders what Piper is up to in the strange, intense world of prison, and she resents him his freedom. “Tell me everything you got,” she says desperately over the phone when he returns home from a shopping trip to Whole Foods. Dutifully, Larry recites them in all their exotic, unattainable, organic glory: cucumber, almonds, bell pepper. Later, he’s featured on an NPR segment dedicated to long-distance relationships and, like any mil spouse, measures himself against the hardships faced by others in similar situations. He’s made acutely aware that there are always going to be people who have it harder than him. One of the men on the show with him, in fact, has a partner working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and they haven’t seen each other in two years.

My favorite quote from the show comes from one of the female inmates, a stringy yoga instructor called Jones. Her philosophy for getting through jail time is, funny as it sounds, an apt way to think about a deployment.
It made me think of these past six months I’ve had with my three children, and how much work it has been — how bad I’ve often felt that my older kids were left to their own devices while I tended to their younger sister — and what all that work means, in the larger scheme of things. Jones compares it to a mandala, painstakingly made and then wiped away:

“Work hard to make something as beautiful and meaningful as you can. And when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary. You have to remember that it’s all temporary.”

Beautiful and temporary. That’s not really my style: I’m a long-term, substance kind of girl. But “Yoga Jones” made me think of deployment as a sort of practice. The subdued state of being I’d been living in could possibly be an elevated one: a small trial to be made as good as it could be, and then, just like that, wiped away.

So tonight, we had a New Year’s Eve party. Just me and the kids. We splurged. I let them pick the menu: hot dogs, olives and pickles, French fries AND Lay’s potato chips, green salad with honey-mustard dressing, a sundae bar with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce and caramel and Maraschino cherries. We bought a strobe light and glow sticks. We danced the night away. Dave had celebrated the New Year on his side of the world a full day before. We all kissed at midnight and shouted, “HAPPY NEW YEAR, DADDY!”

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We had fun. We boogied and laughed and did silly dance moves. We danced to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and to Cyndi Lauper, and the Culture Club, and Wham!, and the Proclaimers. We posed for a picture together.

2014, you were a mixed bag. 2015, here we come, and let it be a year to enjoy — a year not to wipe away, but to remember.

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