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.

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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Absurdities of Deployment

1. Today, I paid a very nice babysitter $15 to take my sweet 2-year-old to the park for an hour so that I could clean the bathrooms uninterrupted. It was the first time I had been alone in my house in 3 months, and it was the most magical time I’ve ever had scrubbing Clorox into the grout around our bathtub.

2. In a ridiculous, essentially lazy iteration of Bowe Bergdahl’s father’s bearded vigil, I have not shaved my legs since Dave left.  I sure hope he appreciates this charming gesture, this affirmation of my devotion/sloth.

3. I’ve learned that there are some useful (if fairly pitiful) items available to a woman living without a man in the house. I may own two of the following three things:

The Jar Pop.

flying_solo2Mine is plain white, just FYI.

Jar Pop, you are my man-hands — when it comes to opening jars, anyway. Sometimes there’s just a damn jar (pickles, it’s always the freaking pickles!) that resists all my other tricks: running the cap under hot water, tapping it with a spoon, wrapping it in a towel. There’s nothing more traumatic for my children than watching their five-foot-tall mother skid around the kitchen, gripping, swearing, rending her clothes, banging a jar all over the place while hot water steams up the sink, like some kind of ancient ritual of betrayal and despair.

Years ago, “Santa” (that savvy man!) gave me a Jar-Pop in my stocking, and now I can open any jar, any time, any place, all with a placid smile.

The Nik Nak. I bought this thing.

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Yes, I seriously bought this thing after seeing it in the Sky Mall (what kind of American buys things from the Sky Mall??!). I’ll tell you what possessed me: it was a bad sunburn on my albino back, the kind that lasts for days and makes you dance around squealing in the shower. My husband used to gamely slap some sunscreen on my back for me when necessary, but no longer, and we’re living in San Diego and the kids always want to go to the public pool for a swim. I can’t, as a decent woman, ask some stranger to rub sunscreen onto my person, and now we can’t enjoy the convenience of spray sunscreen any more, either. (Do they have to take everything from us?) So I  thought the Nik Nak might actually be a handy way to apply sunscreen to the unreachable regions — although now that I think about it, I probably would have been better off just tying some kind of sunscreen-soaked rag around the Jar Pop. Why am I not more resourceful?

Verdict: It works…..okay. Sometimes the wand flaps up on me and flings sunscreen around the room. I should probably have just bought a rash guard.

The Trader Joe’s Single-Serving Thanksgiving Dinner. Haven’t had to take this baby for a test drive, luckily — and, with three kids, it wouldn’t be enough for us anyway. But a friend once pointed it out in the “Fearless Flyer” and, honestly, there seemed to be nothing sadder than a Thanksgiving for One, a microwaveable approximation of our most venerated American meal: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing. The turkey comes in a bag and honestly looks like a silicone breast implant. Please don’t let it come to this for me.

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4. Final absurdity: When in a vulnerable state of mind, certain music will seem deeply apropos to your situation until you examine the words more closely.

Case in point: The song “Time to Pretend,” by MGMT, brought me to tears on evening not long after Dave first left. It was something about the rather moving little synthesized refrain at the beginning, and the opening line: “I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the time of my life.” Oh my GOD!

Turns out, the song is about becoming a rock star, moving to Paris, marrying a model, overdosing on heroin, and choking on one’s own vomit — not applicable to my own life in any regard. The only thing out of that list I can ever imagine happening to me would be choking on vomit, but even that will probably not happen.

Still, I like the song, and the words are bittersweet, which is exactly how I prefer ’em. They seem somehow applicable to having chosen a military lifestyle; something about the song got to me, anyway.

This is our decision, to live fast and die young.
We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do.
Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute?

Forget about our mothers and our friends
We’re fated to pretend
To pretend

I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.

There’s really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.

how the Johansons got their groove back

After struggling a bit last week, the Dancin’ Johansons were back at the top of their game this week — or, at least, functioning within normal range.

I felt a sudden abundance of patience and long-range-vision. The things I love about my kids seemed even more pronounced than usual — the way Nora can flop in the blue armchair and read for four hours straight while her brother’s football whizzes past her head; the way she spotted a bar called “Phileas Fogg’s” and cried out, “Mom! That’s named for Phileas Fogg from Jules Vernes’s Around the World in Eighty Days!” (which she read in about two days last year).

The way Soren focuses when he plays baseball — told by his coach to take right field, he grabs  his hat and glove from his gear bag and runs to his position, all the way mouthing “Right field, right field” silently to himself.

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The way Susanna insists upon pushing a stroller with a stuffed lion in it all the way to school and back to drop off the big kids, pausing to “feed” leaves to Lion and chat with him. “It’s a beautiful day, Lion. Do you see the dog? DON’T YOU TOUCH DAT DOG!,” etc.

This week was special because it was Nora’s 9th birthday. We celebrated at a local bounce house with some of her friends. When I asked her what kind of cake she wanted, she requested “alien cupcakes.” This was an unusual request; I was energized by the challenge. Nora cracked me up; in her typical funny way she said, “Mom, there are the most successful cupcakes I’ve ever seen.”

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My mom was in town, which went a long way towards improving our daily condition. She watched Susanna so I could get out and write in the morning; she did dishes like a maniac even though I kept telling her to stop.

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Dave was able to participate a little, from afar.

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I’ve always loved the way that man writes bubble letters. Pointy bubble letters — so unexpected, such an oxymoron!

He even sang “Happy Birthday” with us and patiently sat there all flatscreen while we ate cake:

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(He’s the glowing light behind the cake, there.)

Nora got to bring the class tortoise home on her birthday. He’s a Russian tortoise named Ivan — clever, eh? And he was quite the celebrity around here.

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So, life went on. And it felt pretty normal and good. Instead of wishing that Dave were here, I tried to think about how much fun all these little, daily things will be for him when he gets back. I’ll be totally jaded, but it’ll be like new again for him to see Soren play baseball, or hear Nora’s geeky little anecdotes from school, or listen to Zanny rattle off an earful of important-sounding nonsense.

It reminded me that, while it may not hold up in a strict cost-benefit analysis, the occasional deployment does serve to call into focus the things that matter. It helps you not take things for granted. Now, if this were a really high op-tempo and Dave were doing back-to-back deployments like some people were forced to do five or six years ago, I would never dare sing this tune (and I still feel like I might be struck by lightning for it).

I’m thinking in particular of his first deployment in 2006. It only worked for us because he had just that one deployment that year and returned unharmed. But it really did make me see him in a new light, and really appreciate him, when he came home.

One morning, not long after Dave had returned home from his six months at sea and was back at work, I went to a meetup of moms with babies roughly one year old. After doing the usual swapping of birth stories (a requisite, female version of the proverbial pissing match), the conversation turned to marital challenges during our babies’ first years. Many of the moms were describing what a difficult time they had with their husbands during that time: the squabbles, the resentment (he doesn’t do as much as I do, he doesn’t handle the baby the way I would, etc.). I listened and while I felt sympathy for the other moms, I had nothing to add to the conversation because, between schools and training and the deployment, I had seen so little of my husband all year (I think we had spent 10 days together between January and July, 2006 — I have it written in my journal).

In some situations that might strain a marriage, but in ours it didn’t. It felt like magic to have him around again. I could not believe my good fortune. Nora and I had gone from being alone together all the time, to suddenly having this handsome man around who would come home from work and help out with stuff. He would take the baby out for a little stroll around the apartment complex while I made dinner. And then, when she went to bed, he liked spending time with me! It was a freakin’ miracle! I felt like I had hit the jackpot. He’d arrived in Virginia ten days before we got there, and single-handedly moved all of our stuff out of storage and into the new apartment he’d found for us. I love this image of him, so determined after having to be away from us for so long, moving all these boxes like some superhero, teeth gritted: “I AM GOING…TO REUNITE…MY FAMILY! Raaaarr!” Is that not sexy as hell?

So, while I wouldn’t recommend deployment for the casual reader as any sort of marriage rejuvenator (way too risky!), I do want to focus on that feeling of gratitude that I get whenever my husband comes home. I want to milk that good drug for all it’s worth. Because all those signs and letters, all those words you write when someone is away,

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they are all true.

Soy capitan, soy capitan.

 

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my Zanny, in a rare sleepy moment

I’ll start by acknowledging that the first 2.5 weeks of deployment have gone pretty well. Despite the curve ball of my two-year-old giving up naps (a.k.a. turning from a sweet, sleepy baby to a crazy little ‘roid monkey who thinks the world is her personal Mt. Everest), things were going fine, and I was surprising even myself with my high level of patience. A kid would knock a whole cup of milk onto the floor or spill a bubble wand indoors, ants would come coursing into the kitchen overnight as if they owned the place (a real southern CA phenomenon, I’ve heard), or the cat would puke energetically by my bed at 2 a.m. — no matter! Deployment Andria would just laugh and say, “Oh, isn’t life a hoot!”

Then today happened. We were going to fly out this evening to Monterey (or so I thought!) to visit my mom and some old friends of ours who are taking a summer tour of the States from their native England (more on them later — they are fascinating people; he is a former Royal Air Force pilot whom we met while stationed in Illinois. He flew for Tony Blair on the UK’s version of Air Force One! And yes, I will tell you this factoid every time I mention them.)

While I dashed around trying to pack for four people, one of whom needs a seriously silly amount of stuff (diapers and cookies and stuffed bunny and whatnot), I ran to the washing machine to switch the loads, when, in the midst of a sodden pile of clothing, out tumbles — my cellphone. Full of water and dead as a doornail.

The kids and I hauled over to the Verizon Wireless store, where the apologetic Ivan informed me that he could not provide me with a phone, because our entire account is listed under my husband’s name with my own name mentioned nowhere. I babbled positive-identification info at him like a crazed auctioneer but there was no sweetening up this Ivan fellow, who said I’d need to get my husband to add me to the account himself before any new phone came my way.

Back at home, at least I had an internet connection to print out our boarding passes. But when I tried to do so, Alaska Airlines informed me that I couldn’t check in online more than 24 hours before my flight. Say what, Alaska Airlines? Don’t I leave in a few hours? No, you fool [I guess this is the voice of…Alaska Airlines]. Turns out our flight is actually tomorrow, but I scheduled an airport shuttle (and been convinced that we were leaving) today.

I’m sure I sounded like a real gem when my mom, whose help I enlisted long-distance, explained to the shuttle service, “Hi, I’m calling on behalf of my idiot daughter. She made her airport-shuttle reservation for the wrong day, but she can’t call you herself because she put her cell phone in the wash this morning. I know! I’m not sure how she survives either! Ha ha ha!”

Add to all this that my sweet baby daughter has gone off the chain where sleep is concerned. She just gets out of her bed whenever the hell she wants. Naps are a total joke; I don’t even try anymore. I make the big kids get in the car with me and we all drive around for 10 minutes until Zanny falls asleep, and then I park in the driveway, let the big kids sneak back in the house, and tip my seat back for a little 10-minute nap with the a/c running, which my neighbors must find … curious. Couple minutes later and a now-sweaty Zanners is ready to take on the world again.

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I’ve noticed an upswing in the number of photos I take of my baby sleeping. Totally mommy porn.    IMG_6648 Heh, Zanners. She don’t even know what’s up.

Then there was her escapade last night. Around 12:30 a.m., shortly before I planned to turn in, I went upstairs for something and decided to peek in on Zanners in her bed. Her door was closed, which I took to mean that she was soundly sleeping (if she gets out of bed, she almost always leaves the door open behind her in her scramble to evacuate). Imagine my surprise when I opened the door, peeked into her dark room and saw AN EMPTY BED. YEAH. A TWO-YEAR-OLD’S EMPTY BED. I went flying around the dark upstairs, silently freaking out — I’d been downstairs all evening, writing, and I hadn’t even heard her door open! Girlfriend is a freaking ninja. I darted into my bedroom and then my closet where Zanny was cheerfully arranging towels IN THE PITCH BLACK DARK like the creepy kid who senses your death in some horror movie. She turned to me and said, “Oh, hello, Mommy. I just do dis,” and I was like, “Get back in bed!” Meekly, she did….. and then got up five or six more times before finally taking pity on me and giving up. Is it bad parenting to stroke your toddler’s back and say, in a gentle but whacked-out sing-song, “Good night. Mommy loves you. And if you get up out of your bed again, Mommy will be very, very mad” ?

But here we are, still standing. Phoneless, crabby, and sleep-deprived, but hopefully on our way to Monterey tomorrow, and on to easier and less-stressful days!

And also, if you have a nightmare tonight that you open your closet and some tiny lily-white child is sitting there smiling eerily and whispering, “I just do dis,” well, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you.

This is Marriage (Now, Let’s Get in the Truck)

Well, here we are, two days before Dave leaves. I wish I could say I’m full of wise thoughts to share, but really I’m mostly in a panic.

Susanna, our 2-year-old, who up until last week was a reliable little napper, suddenly decided to spend nap time teaching herself to climb out of her crib and running gleefully in and out of her bedroom. I really relied on her nap times to just get a grip on the day, clean up the dishes and have a quiet moment (sometimes even to get some writing done), but now I have to keep a constant ear out for her and make sure she’s not doing something dangerous —  because frankly, her common sense leaves a lot to be desired.
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What? Sleepy time? No, I’m more in the mood for a sing-along, stories and some s’mores, thank you

She hasn’t napped once since learning to climb out of her crib. But she’s too young to stop napping, so she’s spent all afternoon crying and whining because she’s so tired. And she’s only one of the three kids!

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Luckily, all three of them spend every waking moment reading quietly together on the couch without bickering while I cross-stitch and listen to NPR

I’ll admit, I feel tired most of the time even when Dave comes home from work, so I’m not sure where the reserves are going to come from to get through the next six months, but I guess they’d better come from somewhere!

I feel a bit like I am preparing for some kind of really slow solo marathon, and that I need to save all my energy for it.

Logistics also scare me. Recently, I earned my first paycheck in nine years, and it was a great feeling, and I used part of it to buy plane tickets to Minnesota to visit family this summer. So, that was liberating. But then I thought about what I had just bought and I felt terrified. The sheer act of mobilizing three kids with car seats and clothes and snacks, getting us to the airport with documents in hand (by 6:30 a.m!), checking luggage, and then having them BEHAVE for 4 hours on a cross-country flight (twice!) seems like some kind of crazy gamble. (It’s really all Susanna, again. I can’t imagine her sitting still for four hours. She never has, yet. What makes me think she’s going to want to on a crowded plane?)

And then I tell myself: Williams, that flight is more than a month away. Stop psyching yourself out. Live in the moment, like those Dove “Promises” wrappers tell you to do!

(Then again, a Dove “Promise” once told me, “You look good in red!,” and I am a redHEAD, something the Dove “Promise” was obviously unaware of, because everyone knows redheads look awful in red. So, Dove, I don’t think I can trust you.)
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Dove, you don’t know me.

Dove Chocolate
All right, Dove, now you’re just being a jerk.

I know most people have had much bigger hardships than this in their lives — this is, relatively speaking, small potatoes. But it’s still a lot to adjust to. And not just for me — I think Dave is particularly going to miss Susanna, who’s still changing by the day. Every day she trots out some new, funny phrase or goofy habit, and dozens will have come and gone by the time he gets back. Dave’s been jumping to put her to bed every night,  even to change her diaper — he just wants to spend every second with her.

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There’s been quite a bit written about the strain on marriages during a deployment and even after the service member returns home (Army Amy recently had some great thoughts on this topic), but what about the weird span of time leading up to deployment? Last time we did a full deployment, we had six days’ notice, it was wartime, it was all such a whirlwind that I hardly remember a thing. Well, the flip side was that it was a lot more romantic that way.

This time around, I’ve known about the deployment for four months — just long enough to put Dave through the world’s slowest, lowest-grade guilt trip for something that is not even his fault. I’m no angel. The sighs, the “Just-think-how-hard-it’ll-be-for-ME-in-two-months”-es — they’ve all been there.

The last few days, I just felt very dull. I didn’t really put out much wifely effort. Today, realizing time was running short, I knew I needed to step things up. I straightened my hair (God, what a pain that is), put on a “look-what-you’ll-be-missing, pal” dress and heeled shoes. (Let me clarify that in my case, “look-what-you’ll-be-missing, pal” devolves very quickly into a crabby housewife wearing a Cruella DeVille grimace, trying to wipe smeared avocado and grilled cheese strings from the fancy dress while she teeters in the unfamiliar heeled shoes, sloshing black coffee out of the mug she’s got her death grip on. In reality, “Average, Comfortable, Slightly Sweaty (for no good reason) Housewife” is probably the much more attainable look for me.) Also, when I dress up without warning I think it scares Dave. But all I meant this time was, Hey, I’m gonna miss you, so I’ll try not to look like a total slob while you’re still here.

Sometimes, everything just feels like a lot of work. But partway through the day today, I remembered the scene from the movie “Parenthood” (it is so worth watching. look, I found the clip for you) where Keanu Reeves crashes his little race car, and his pregnant fiancée Julie starts freaking out. When it’s revealed that 1989 Keanu will be okay (with his hilarious, “Did I win?” and cheezy wobble as he emerges from the car), Julie starts to back away, but her mom (played by Dianne Weist) grabs her by the shoulders to demand where she’s going. Julie shouts, “I can’t. This is too intense!” and her mother, who to this point in the film has mostly been everybody’s doormat, roars back, “This is MARRIAGE! Now, let’s get in the truck!”

And I just love that line. Even in such a funny movie, it has power. This is too much for me. I’m tired. But this is parenthood. This is marriage.

Now let’s get in the truck!

And what the heck, Dove chocolates — you should have put that in one of your little silver wrappers by now.

Salad Days: Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” and the Predicament of Dinnertime

Dave took the past week off work to spend with us. We all just reveled in it! We took in the Natural History Museum, went to a pool party, and on Wednesday he even took the big kids to Disneyland (!! — I stayed with Zanny, who had a nasty little head cold all week). He’s also been taking care of all kinds of stuff on the business end, like packing, and planning things for his team, finalizing his will (standard operating procedure), practicing using Face Time with the kids from one room of the house to another. (“I don’t know how to use Face Time,” I said. He said, “Don’t worry, I showed Nora.” He’s been saying that several times a day, which should probably worry me, but if anyone will hold this place together it’s Nora. She’s eight, and she’s our techie.)

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 We also hired a groundskeeper. Her habit of working without pants is unorthodox, but we appreciate her spunk.
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Just kidding. Her job is actually Director of Morale.

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I’ve been putting Dave through the paces with my Honey-Do list, too, asking him to hang a heavy, framed picture we’d had in the garage for a while, and to show me how he gets the baby’s car seat in so tight, and remind me where he keeps the charger for his iPod, which I get to inherit during his absence (yeah, I’ve had my eye on that thing for a while). He’s been reminding me about bank accounts, garbage day (changes on holidays — sheesh, I knew that), and on and on.

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I’ve tried cooking some of Dave’s favorite meals this week (when he’s away from home, he never cooks for himself, only eats in the galley. LAZY!). I’ve been having conflicting thoughts about cooking as we lead up to this deployment. I was raised by a mom who worked full-time and then came home and made delicious Italian meals from scratch. Our family’s big on “real food,” home-cooked food.

Half the time, I’m all for this. I get all excited — I’m gonna cook great, healthy dinners, and my kids will have plates full of brightly colored vegetables, and they’ll learn to enjoy real tastes and reject the chemical-tinged temptations of junk food!

And then the other half of the time it’s the exact opposite, and I find myself in a hot, messy kitchen begging the kids to stop running through it so they won’t get burned or impaled by something, and I realize that when I set this pasta-with-pine-nuts concoction in front of them one will invariably blurt, “How much do I have to eat?,” another will be suddenly seized by the need to urinate and will spend half of dinnertime clanking around in the bathroom, and a third will work diligently for fifteen minutes picking each and every expensive little pine nut from her fettuccine with a barely-concealed scowl of disgust, as if they are ticks on a dog.
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 Well, Dave thought this was good, anyway.

So the uppity little angel on my shoulder is trying to convince me that I must keep up the home-cooked meals in Dave’s absence, to show my kids that good food is love and good food matters ….. while that slippery devil on the other shoulder is whispering, If paper plates and microwaved nuggets are so bad, do you really want to be right?

It didn’t help that I saw Jon Favreau’s new movie, Chef, this past week.

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It spoke, shall we say, to the better angels of my nature (at least that one on my shoulder, pestering me about food). In Chef, Favreau plays the talented Chef Carl Casper, who’s fired from a choice restaurant gig because of his creative stagnation and a hilariously hostile exchange with a snobbish restaurant critic. When life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade (or at least a really mean mojito) by going rogue in an affable and affirming way — buying a food truck and taking his best friend Martin (Jon Leguizamo) and his adorable son, Percy, on a cross-country cooking tour.

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Percy, who, like my Nora, has tech savvy that far exceeds her parents’, brings their new operation success by tweeting, Facebooking, and many-other-social-media-things-I-can’t-remember-ing their exploits so that a line of devotees awaits them at every stop.

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Sofia Vergara is also in this movie. Pictures like this make me think we have a lot in common — you know, being everyday moms and all.

Chef is a fun, sweet date night movie, with great shots of New Orleans and Miami, lots of good music (Favreau and Leguizamo’s rendition of “Sexual Healing” is still making me chuckle — Dave turned to me and hissed, “Do you remember, like, driving around in the car with your mom and hearing that on the radio? Can you believe we all did that??!”). The whole film was kind of like a long, happy music video. I was never too concerned about any of the characters, but I was happy to see them happy, you know?

But what Chef did best, perhaps, was remind me of my favorite food-movie of all time: Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Oh, that film, that film!

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Released in 1996, Big Night’s got all that mid-nineties earnestness we’re way too cool for now, but it’s such a good, bittersweet story. It contains some of my favorite music and most beloved little vignettes of all time. The two leads are played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, with Ian Holm, the gorgeous Isabella Rossellini, an appropriately pensive Minnie Driver and an adorable Allison Janney as the supporting cast. (It’s also got singer Marc Anthony in a very early role — he must be something like twenty — almost without spoken lines, but still memorable as the sweetly beleaguered line cook, Cristiano).

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The opening scene of that film, with Cristiano arriving to work (set to a gorgeous Claudio Villa song,  Stornelli Amorisi) is a pure pleasure, but the closing scene is nearly hallowed ground for me, and I can’t even think about it without getting goosebumps.

 

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In some ways Big Night is the opposite of Chef: where Chef is glitzy and full of social media, Big Night is set in the fifties, among a group of people for whom the telephone still seems like something to get excited about. Where Chef rides high on the thrill of upward mobility, Big Night wrangles with the sadness of immigrants who are watching their dream, and all that they have, slide through their fingers. But both movies share a similar value system, which is that there’s nothing more important than love and family, and that for some people, the truest way to show love is through making someone a damn fine sandwich.

So where does this leave me as I decide how to approach all my duties in the upcoming months? I can’t say for sure. Maybe I can alternate a good home-cooked meal on china one night with, say, three nights’ worth of pizza on paper plates (those really biodegradable ones they sell at Sprouts, that turn back into soil practically while you look at them!). Stanley Tucci would think pizza’s a respectable choice, right?

I can just show my love through food sometimes, and other times I can demonstrate love through playing a board game, or making sure everyone’s showered and clean, or, hell, sweeping the floor, ’cause let’s be honest, I don’t do that for my own entertainment. Thank goodness there are many ways to show you love someone, and that you don’t have to be on-the-ball with every single one all the time. Maybe that’s really the gem hidden within Big Night and Chef: that love is about all the little things. It’s about being there, it’s about showing up. It accumulates over years and years, and sometimes you might misfire, or peter out, or just biff, but as long as you keep coming back and trying again, day after day, you’re all gonna be all right.