Code Switching

by Lisa Stice

(poet, Marine Corps wife)

My husband’s difficulty in code switching between military-speak and you’re-talking-to your-spouse-speak simultaneously irritates and amuses me. I understand that some things, like how he measures time – 2200 instead of 10:00 pm – is so ingrained that I really should expect it to last the rest of his life. Plus, that’s no big deal to get used to, subtracting 12 is easy, and a lot of other countries use the same standard for referring to time of day.

When my husband says things like “roger” at the dinner table, then he sounds like a caricature from Gomer Pile or the character Mike Watt from the BBC series Spaced, and it makes me giggle. For those of you who haven’t seen Spaced, here’s a clip to give you an idea of what my husband sounds like when he comes home from work:


We meet Mike about three minutes in.

It cracks me up when I send a text or email saying, “On your way home, can you pick up_______,” and he replies, “wilco.” Still, those aren’t too crazy. I know what they mean, so I get that message that he understands and will comply. I’m sure there’s civilians who use the same terms or refer to dinner as chow or do some damage assessment after a storm, but few civilians would say, “I’m going to the head” or “Let’s deconflict this situation.” Is deconflict even a word? It’s not in my dictionary, and those stupid acronyms that my husband likes to throw around certainly aren’t either.

The acronyms are the worst. How am I supposed to know the foreign language of military acronyms? If we’re talking in person, I can stop my husband and say, “Talk like a normal person. BLT? What the heck is that? All I know it as is a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Or in back and forth emailing about buying a big ticket item, he writes, “You’re the CINCHOUSE.” I can write back, “I’m what?” and get the answer, “You know, Commander in Charge of the House.”

And because these things are just a part of his normal vocabulary, it doesn’t cross his mind that he should probably share the ones that pertain to me, like PCS. Not too long after we were together, I stopped by our bank (it serves military) to give them the paperwork they needed for my change of name. The employee asked, “Are you going to be PCSing soon?” That was the first time I’d heard that one, and I was too embarrassed to ask the meaning because she gave the impression that I should know the meaning of that letter combination. I just said, “I don’t know.” She gave me a folder just in case I would be PCSing soon, and then as I thumbed through the papers and packing labels in the privacy of my car, I put two and two together that PCS had something to do with moving.

My favorite, though, is when he emailed me a cryptic message that just said, “FYSA” followed with an attachment. Of course, he sent it in a brief moment at his office computer before he left for some daily training or meeting or something, so I got no response to my “What?” I was like, “OK, I’ll just do an Internet search.” My search came up with lots of things related to youth soccer: Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association, Florida Youth Soccer Association, Fluvanna Youth Soccer Association. The search came up with other things, too, that didn’t seem to fit the context: Funny You Should Ask and First Year Spring Admission.

So then, I refined my search to “What does the military acronym FYSA mean?” For Your Situational Awareness. To your wife? How about a nice, casual, personal “So you can plan ahead…” or something more along those lines.

Some years have passed since that email, and For Your Situational Awareness now is the first result for a “What does FYSA mean?” search. Maybe it’s because were living in a texting/Twitter world where people clamor for acronyms to pack in as much info into as few characters as possible – and the military has a lot to offer – or maybe it’s because military related answers are the most popular from cryptic emails and texts regularly sending thousands of mil-spouses to the search engines.


stice_profile Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform(Aldrich Press, 2016). You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.

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.

Happy Birthday Nora 003  Happy Birthday Nora 005  Happy Birthday Nora 006

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.

Many Forms of Service: An Interview with Caroline LeBlanc

Caroline LeBlanc is a poet, playwright, and nonfiction writer who’s also currently the Writer-in-Residence at the American Museum of the Military Family. She’s also an Army veteran, military spouse, and advocate for military families. She leads a writing group for women veterans, volunteers with Operation Footlocker, and is the producer of “Telling Albuquerque,” the local segment of The Telling Project.

I appreciated Caroline’s honesty and humor about her self-professed “problem with authority,” her long career as a “not very good Army wife,” and her work with military families. Enjoy! — Andria

Caroline_LeBlanc_2Caroline LeBlanc, left, with Gen. Judy Griego of the New Mexico Air National Guard

1. Mil Spouse Book Review: Caroline, can you tell us a little bit about your background, growing up?

Caroline LeBlanc: I grew up in a first to third generation Franco-American family.  My mother’s family had immigrated to Massachusetts from Quebec, Canada, one and two generations before, to work in the American mills, as did many French in Canada who wanted to escape economic, religious, and cultural discrimination under English rule. Mine was the first generation to have the opportunity for higher education, and I am sure our family’s Jesuit patron at Holy Cross College played a big role in my love of learning, and my chance at an education.

My mother married up, and out of her family’s restrictions—or so she hoped— when she married a Franco-American from another region of Canada. He was an Acadian, born in the Maritime province of New Brunswick. When my father was a child, the family moved to Massachusetts, where my grandfather became a successful builder. My grandmother, matriarch of matriarchs, saw to it that my father got an education. He left for service in World War II after he completed dental school. Through the war, he served as a dentist in Seattle and on small staging islands in the Pacific.

While he was in the service, my mother’s husband fathered a child with another woman—a fact I learned as an adult, and only when we thought he was on his deathbed. At that time, I had worked as a psychotherapist for about twenty years.  The news should not have shocked me. But it did, and I was bitter for quite some time—about her existence (I was no longer the oldest), and about the fact that her existence had been kept a secret from me and my brother. Eventually, I attempted to establish a relationship with her, but she was unresponsive.

After eleven years, my father divorced my mother and married his new dental assistant.  In the 1980s, family research and reconnections became my passion, due in large part to my studies as a family therapist. I discovered the differences between Acadians and French Canadians (now Quebecois), as well as both their Franco renaissance that accompanied a host of other ethnic group re-discovery and pride movements in the wake of the American civil rights movement. My genealogical questions to family have been met with kind, tolerant politeness, but little enthusiasm, especially if I inquired about anything sensitive.

Over the next twenty years, I gradually moved from the privacy of listening to people’s stories in my psychotherapy office to an interest in the poetry and writing of others with ethnic histories similar to mine.  I studied what Quebecois/Acadian writings I could find in English translations, since, despite many efforts, I have not become proficient in my ancestral tongue.  Irish poets, especially Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, and Thomas Kinsella have inspired me. I devoured the writings of modern day refugees–modern survivors of worse, but similar, sufferings to those I imagine my Quebec and Acadian ancestors lived through during centuries of oppressive English rule, including the Acadian deportations, during the 1700s.  It is a mistake, I believe, to dilute what our ancestors lived through in the optimistic Madison Avenue melting pot of the United States.

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“Coming from a working class background … I never did get comfortable with the chasm between the officer and enlisted ranks. I often felt like I was on the wrong side of the tracks.”

2. You were an Army nurse from 1982-88. What made you decide to become an Army nurse, and what was the experience like for you?

Caroline: I became an Army Nurse because I needed to support my family when, at the age of 37, my husband went to medical school on an Army scholarship. The story begins during the Vietnam War days when there was a draft, but also deferments for college students.  After he graduated from college, my husband, who had been in ROTC, became a Special Forces officer who eventually was in charge of an A team.  His team was based out of Okinawa. Against my new husband’s and the Army’s instruction, I went to Okinawa as an “unauthorized spouse.”  While in Okinawa, I worked as a civil service nurse in the Ryukyu Island Army Hospital in 1970. By 1972, my husband’s obligation was up, and he was a civilian again.

Caroline_LeBlanc_5Caroline and her husband with a palace guard in Seoul, South Korea

In my job in Okinawa, I had taken care of too many soldiers being medevaced back to “the world” from Vietnam. When my husband seriously considered re-upping, I could not see losing him in a war with which I did not agree.  And lots of people were getting killed in Vietnam. I told my husband I would not be an Army wife.  It was me or the Army. In those days, SF was pretty new, and the traditional Army machine looked down on this rowdy and glitzy step-child. Promotion meant paying your dues in regular infantry units.  SF guys and wives all had a rebel—dare I say renegade—streak. I might have been able to manage that—though the risk of widowhood still loomed large.  But the infantry wives’ (“spouse” not yet PC) hierarchies I had encountered were rigid, competitive, and unfriendly.  They were particularly unsupportive, even scolding, toward lower rank wives—especially wives who wanted a career of their own. Not for me, thank you.

And, coming from a working class background myself, I never did get comfortable with the chasm between officer and enlisted ranks.  I often felt like I was on the wrong side of the tracks.

Fortunately, my husband chose our marriage. For the next decade, we made multiple moves for jobs and school. Eventually, my husband became a Physician’s Assistant (PA) in a rural health care clinic, and I became an Assistant Professor of Nursing at a rural university.

Now, my husband is an Alpha male. The PA thing did not work for long. In 1982, when we had a 3 & 4 year old, he received an Army scholarship to attend medical school in Philadelphia. It covered his tuition & other school expenses, but not family living expenses.  Since I had worked in an Army hospital in Okinawa, I felt comfortable with the idea of working in one again. At the time, the Army was short of nurses and was pushing their “Dual Career” program, which promised “concurrent” assignments to married couples in the military. With my Master, and my experience as a Lieutenant in the US Public Health Service Corps (1972-4), they gave me the assignment I wanted (a promise I got in writing), as well as the rank of Captain. It was peace time, with no wars were in sight, so I took the calculated risk.  In Nursing School, I had thought I’d like to take care of troops in combat areas, but it had never happened. Now, I was a mother with two young children, so my priorities had changed.

I did well in the Army, got both rank and assignment promotions, despite what my husband calls my “problem with authority.” After working a year on the Psychiatric ward, I became Head Nurse of the Family Practice, and  I carried a psychotherapy case load of my own. My nursing supervisor, a dear woman, even asked me if I thought I’d like to be Chief Nurse one day. I most humbly say that I think she was sincerely offering to help me move through the right slots to make that a possibility, if I had such ambitions. I did not. Plus, I soon discovered that the Army’s idea of “concurrent” assignment was different than mine. Often couples were assigned to duty stations hours away from each other—which is what the Army personnel office eventually offered us. My husband would be at Fort Gordon, and I would be at Fort Benning—4 hours apart.  Both posts are, after all in the same state.  After 4 years of active duty at Fort Dix, I finished my obligation as a reserve IMA officer at Fort Gordon, Georgia where I was promoted to Major.  However, I resigned my commission before the 3 years required to make that my discharge rank, so my DD214 states I left service as a Captain.

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“My affection and loyalty are to the individual service member and his/her family members, rather than to the military as an institution.”  

3. You were also an Army wife for 20+ years. In your beautiful poem “Mission Creep,” you write

This is mission creep,

he grumbled.

After all, I had asked him to help me

do one thing. Now I had him doing

 

his fifth garden chore. He seemed to forget

the five deployments he’d gone on in ten years.

For them, he had been an unusually keen volunteer.

 

I could identify with some of the residual soreness of the poem — not being part of that connection your spouse feels to his job and his unit. Can you speak to this a little bit, and to your experience as an Army wife, overall?

Caroline_LeBlanc_1Working on the script for “Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family”

Caroline: After medical school and training, my husband owed the Army 6 years, which he paid back at Fort Drum, NY.  By the time he did his payback time, he had over 10 years of service, so he finished out his 20+ years as a Reserve Officer, which is when he went on most of his deployments. Somehow, I had become a military wife, living through one war after another.

I must say, though, that the hoops for a medical officer’s wife were not nearly as strenuous as the hoops for an infantry officer’s wife, so I had it much easier than I would have 10 years before. We lived off post. I had my own professional practice as a nurse psychotherapist, and I did very little with my husband’s units, even when he was active duty.  Once he was a reservist in an IMA slot, I had almost no connection with the military, except for living through deployments and losing my husband to the post gym for at least 20 hours a week.

Fort Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed units in the Army. Unless you are HOOAH, or at least in uniform, you don’t have much visibility.  Beyond the VFW, there was no veteran’s community and certainly no community for women veterans in the area. In our civilian neighborhood, it simply went unnoticed that I had been in an Army nurse, and that I had a spouse in the military.

When Desert Storm came along, all kinds of people who thought they were done with the Army got called up.  Fortunately, when I finished my original obligation I took the advice of a kind soul who told me to fully resign my commission, unless I wanted to be subject to re-activation in the future. Many women and mothers my age were totally, and sadly, surprised when they got orders to deploy to the Middle East.  My hardship was limited to living through my husband’s deployments. I often thank that kind soul for his advice. While, being a non-combat vet gives me less status in the veteran community, I am glad that my children did not have to live through having two parents deployed.

In the end, I was a military wife, despite my ultimatum, and my husband’s decision to choose our marriage over a military career immediately after his Vietnam era service.  As Carl Jung insisted, we cannot escape our fate.  I can’t say I’ve enjoyed all of my association with the military, but I am grateful for the opportunities and life experiences it gave me—and for the many wonderful people I met. My affection and loyalty are to the individual service member and his/her family members, rather than to the military as an institution.

Clearly, I was not a good Army wife. Nor was I a good doctor’s wife.  I’ve always had a great need for my own identity in the world, and the two roles felt mutually exclusive.  Years ago I decided that I would not join any organization that granted me no more than an auxiliary status.  In my opinion, my husband had to succeed at his career on his own, just as I did.  What we did together was raise a family and share a marriage. We were supportive of each other’s careers, went to each other’s important work related social activities and ceremonial events.  But he had his network of work relationships, and I had mine. When I went away for work, he took care of the children and visa-versa.  We could always reach each other. Combat deployments were the game changer.  No longer were our contributions reciprocal. No longer could I reach him if I needed him.  This is the subject of my poem, “Not Just Another Business Trip.”

After my husband left Active Duty and became an IMA (Individual Mobilization Augmentee) reserve officer, we lived like other civilian families except for his 3 weeks ADT (which were really like a business trip) during peacetime years, or his deployments during the war years.  I don’t think the deployment experience for reservist families is any worse than for active duty families, but it is qualitatively different because their lives are much less intertwined with the military community.  Many reservist-families understand little about how the military works—its benefits and restrictions.  The realities of deployment, especially if they never lived through any active duty service, can be mind boggling.  Civilian family members and friends understand even less.  Even when well intentioned, the teachers in the civilian schools not located near a military base do not understand what the children of a deployed reservists’ member go through.  As an IMA spouse, I had no unit to turn to for information, even if I needed to.  Someone, I think from Army One Source, called me once or twice, told me I could call if I needed anything.  But I’d have had to be desperate to call. Though I never served in combat, I had lived through the Vietnam years and, later, had been in the Army, so I was confident about taking care of my end of business while my husband was gone.  And I had a pretty clear idea of what my husband had to take care of at his end.

I hope this does not sound judgmental of women who find fulfillment in helping their husbands’ succeed in their military careers, because I am well aware of and appreciate the important contributions many of these women make in the military community.  For better or worse, it was just not something I wanted to do.  Maybe because I had a single mother, maybe because in my family, it was the women who were stronger than the men, but who still had to pretend the men were stronger.

I feel great loyalty and devotion to my marriage and family.  I don’t know what was harder about my husband’s deployments:  the actual deployment, or the fact that it felt as though he was often more devoted to his “army family” than to our family.  I understood that when he was deployed, he needed to dedicate undivided attention to his work.  I just wanted him to tell me that he’d miss me/us, or that he wished he didn’t have to go, instead of being so obviously psyched about leaving for his next adventure.

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“For the first time in years, I remembered [that] I am a woman veteran.”

4. Nowadays, you are still very much involved with the military community: you host a Women Veterans Writing Salon every other week, and you are a Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family. Can you tell us a little more about these commitments, why you undertook them, and what the experience has been like?

Around the time I was finishing my MFA at Spalding University’s low residency program, I wondered how I would make the transition from psychotherapist to writer.  My husband had also retired from the military a few years earlier.  One day when I was using the indoor track at the Fort Drum gym, I watched a group of soldiers from the TBI program play an adapted form of basketball—sitting down, scooting on their bottoms, as do children who are just learning to walk.  That day, I decided that I wanted to offer writing programs to the military population. As a psychotherapist, I had worked with many military families, particularly wives. First, I started WFYL meetings for family members at the library, because the sentinels at that gate were less suspicious and more welcoming. After a while, I chanced to meet the post Occupational Therapist, an enthusiastic and open minded woman, who facilitated my leading a writing group with the soldiers in the TBI program, which ran in cycles—6 weeks if I remember right. During a delay between cycles, I started working with soldiers marking time in the Warrior Transition Battalion. While the family members were all women, the WTB soldiers were all men.

Then we moved to Albuquerque. There is a small Air Force Base in Albuquerque, a large VA, and a very active community of veterans, including a network for women veterans. For the first time in years, I remembered I am a woman veteran. Various feature articles about how female veterans discuss how they often don’t think of themselves as veterans, or even realize they are eligible for the same services as male veterans, so I was not alone.

Through the Albuquerque branch of the national Veterans’ History Project, I was introduced to several remarkable women who work at the VA. Two ran the Recreational Therapy Department’s weekly writing group for veterans, most of whom where men who had served in Vietnam. They were a nice bunch of guys, but I soon realized that women, especially women with military sexual trauma issues, would not feel very comfortable in the group.  So, the Recreational Department staff member and I started a writing group for women veterans. That evolved into the Women Veterans Writing Salon, which I plan to open to family members in the fall.

Simultaneously, I met another woman, Circe Olson Woessner. Circe was a DOD BRAT and the wife of a retired Army officer. When I met her, she had already started the virtual Museum of the American Military Family (http://www.museumoftheamericanmilitaryfamily.org/ ).  The first leg of the MAMF has been its Operation Foot Locker traveling exhibit (contained in a foot locker).

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OFL was started by a military brats’ organization, which eventually turned it over to the Museum. Mobile foot locker exhibits have been shipped around the nation.

Mil_fam_museum_2Caroline, left, with Circe Olson Woessner

Circe and I started working together on mutual interests. As the Museum took on greater form, Circe invited me to be the Writer in Residence. We’ve hosted a number of book readings as well as films viewings,  including Service: When Women Come Marching Home, Brats: Our Journey Home, and Brown Babies.   

Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family, an exhibit mounted by the MAMF at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Nuclear Science (here in Albuquerque), opened on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day, 2014 (http://americanmilitaryfamilymuseum.wordpress.com/ ). Part of the display is a mobile constructed of postcards collected from individuals connected with the military over the previous 9 months (http://www.southwestwriters.com/newsletter/past-issues/ , March).

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The exhibit has been very well received. I had the honor of writing the script. On July 4, I will be one of three military wives, and one Navy Brat, performing our collage spoken word piece, “4 Voices on the 4th.”   Currently, I am also the local producer for TELLING ALBUQUERQUE, our local production of The Telling Project (http://thetellingproject.org/ ), a performance by veterans and military family members who are ready to perform their stories on stage.  TELLING ALBUQUERQUE will premiere on 9/11/2014.

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As I look back at how I have gotten so involved with veteran and military family activities after so many years of distancing myself from the military, I repeatedly arrive at the same explanation. I believe I felt trapped by my husband’s dedication to the military while he was active duty and, later, as an enthusiastic reservist. Once he retired, I could breathe without the worry about deployments or command expectations.

My Acadian ancestors were libertarians of sorts, and I am more and more aware of how their blood runs through my veins. I’ve met many wonderful people because of my connections to the military, people who make outstanding contributions despite government bureaucracies that often undermine their efforts with inadequate funding, support, and questionable leadership. It is these individuals—service members, veterans and family members—I hope to honor with my service now.

Caroline_LeBlanc_3Caroline at her son’s wedding in South Korea

Gradually, especially as my husband’s deployments slowed down, my son’s deployments increased, and my writing skills developed, I began writing my own poems and non-fiction pieces about my heritage and my experience as a military wife and mother. Recently, I’ve branched into more playwriting and fiction.

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Thank you so much, Caroline, for taking the time to talk with me. Best of luck with “4 Voices on the 4th” — coming up tomorrow!

And I respectfully beg to differ when you say you were “not a good Army wife” — anyone who has done so much for other military families has served a hundred times over.

 

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.

Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014

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The Johanson Family Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014 has begun! Here’s our attempt to pack half a year’s worth of family time into Dave’s one week off work.

We started by taking the big kids camping on Palomar Mountain. (My mom stayed with Susanna, who’s two. We’d already taken Nora and Soren camping by the time they were two, but we are wiser now. My memories of chasing a toddling 16-month-old Soren all over a campground in Missouri while a gang of drunk, bearded biker dudes swore and cursed about 10 feet away …. and then trying to get little Soren to fall asleep in the tent, feeling his hot breath on my eyeballs for hours and hours while he repeated, “HI. HI. HI” in my face and I pretended to be asleep …. have finally scared me straight).

We drove east from San Diego, gradually gaining altitude past wildfire-charred hillsides and through Indian reservations (the La Jolla and Luiseno bands) on our way east.

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We stayed at Doane Valley Campground, named for an 1880s pioneer named George Doane who composed poetry — all of it, apparently, about the many “school marms” he had courted and been rejected by.

(One of his little ditties was posted on a placard — something like “I like apples and clams, But what really moves my soul are the school ma’ams.”)

Kids, can you feel the rejected spirit of George Doane in this here meadow? He is among us still, wooing the “school ma’ms.”

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Another, more upstanding local from the days of yore was an escaped slave named Nathan Harrison, who lived as a free man in the valley, raising hay and hogs, from the 1880s onward, and was thought to have been 101 when he died. I am glad he got a good, long time as a free man.

We pitched our tent and went for a walk around the pond, where bullfrogs croaked and mama ducks settled in with their babies.

Don’t let us bother you, mama

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Don’t bother me. I’m serious about mallows

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It was a nice, warm night, and other than a toddler who threw a mega-fit downrange around 11:30 p.m. (not our kid, so who cares!) , it was a peaceful one. Come morning, we had hot coffee over the fire

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and the kids went nuts over those little boxes of cereal you can buy in 10-packs at the grocery store, which we only get when we go camping. They were perhaps more excited about the little boxes of sugary, non-organic cereal than they were about any other part of the camping trip. All evening they’d talked about which ones they’d choose, swapping and bartering (“If I get the Frosted Flakes then you can have the Corn Pops. But if you get the Froot Loops then I want the Cocoa Krispies”…) After they’d cherry-picked the selection, Dave and I were left with the handful of healthful cereals they’d passed over. “What do you think would happen,” Dave mused, “if I mixed the Corn Flakes with the Special K?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

He shrugged and grinned. “You only live once.”

Life is short. Enjoy your cereal.

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 And if you’ve got it, flaunt it — in the case of Soren’s shorts-and-knee-socks combo. Kid’s got some serious gams.

Our morning’s adventures took us to the Palomar Fire Tower, built in the 1930s. Lookouts here spotted two of the recent San Diego wildfires first.

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 Now that’s a hat

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 The charming interior, with original stove and fixtures

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This is where the lookouts sleep

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From there we checked out the Palomar Observatory — its 200-inch Hale Telescope was the largest in the world until 1993. It’s responsible for the discovery of quasars and gave scientists the first direct evidence of stars in distant galaxies.

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Here’s what it looks like at night, when it’s open. Amazing! (This was a picture on the wall —  no visitors, only scientists, after 4 p.m.)

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Well, what more could you ask for in a weekend (ducklings, and telescopes, and hiking, and the cereal selection of our dreams)? It was time to head home. The closest restaurant was a crunchy-but-hip, vegetarian biker-stop, where we had fried-egg sandwiches and meatless tacos slathered with avocado and sour cream. It was very good!

Fortified, Dave was ready to come to the aid of some folks whose VW bug had fritzed out on the switchbacks.

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Dave rallied another young, able-bodied bystander and they helped the driver and his son push the car, at a good clip, up the steep hill. Then the driver and his family (which, I almost forgot to mention! included a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever — one for my list!) hopped in.

“I hope they can get the car going!” the kids said. A mile or so down the road, our own kids buckled in and finally underway, the Bug zoomed by us, its family waving as they passed.

I’m thankful for this week of compressed family time. Camping was great, and I have photos to show the kids a few months down the road. And I can look back on this weekend myself, if the next few months get a little slow — I can think about the fresh smell of the pine needles around our camp site, and looking down from the top of the fire tower with the kids, and Dave and Soren playing catch in the parking lot, and the kids’ joy over their silly little boxes of cereal — and hopefully it will keep me from adopting the spirit of poor, lonely George Doane, with his limericks about “school ma’ams,” because I really don’t think a foray into that genre will help me with my own writing goals. (“I like toast and I like jam, But what I really miss is my Navy man.” No. If it comes to that, someone, please, stage an intervention.)

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All posts about our family’s experience with deployment are collected in Our Deployment Journal.

what does a shooting range on the Mexican border look like?

IMG_1473Turns out it’s really beautiful!

IMG_1485Apparently, judging by the repeat image of the guy on the paper targets, the US military’s worst fear is an army of Peter Sarsgaards making their way across the Mexican border on stick-legs. He has strangely rubbery arms and is shooting from the hip, Deadwood-style. (you can click on an image to enlarge)

My husband, unlike a lot of guys, can still smile while holding a rifle. Maybe it’s the hat. It might be impossible to look too cold-hearted in that hat. It sort of says “friendly neighborhood postman, but he’s got his eye on you.”

IMG_1495He was a little unsettled when I piped up, “Ooh, you were shooting M-4s, not M-16s.” He said, “How did you know that? Where is the sweet girl I married?” Well, for one thing, they are lighter and shorter than M-16s. And also, he married a fiction writer. We are obsessive takers of mental notes. But I guess I can see why he finds it almost creepy. As my friend and former classmate Suzanne Rivecca once wrote in an essay, “For a certain type of man, there’s only one thing more discomfiting than a woman who notices everything, and that’s a woman who writes it down.” Luckily, my husband can take it. And I can take him in that hat.* So it’s a fair trade.

* just teasing, babe. 

Oh, Navy, we just can’t quit you

IMG_4460This Sunday found us at Naval Air Station Coronado, always an interesting place for the family to visit. For the kids it’s like Richard Scarry’s Busytown, with every kind of flying or driving vehicle you can imagine zooming or lumbering past and crisscrossing the sky above. Dave actually works on a smaller base south of NAS Coronado, an amphibious base for expeditionary units, SEAL teams, etc (he is not a Navy SEAL, however! — don’t go spreading rumors) so visiting the “big base” is kind of a treat.

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Part of a refueling ship with huge hoses:

IMG_4464This ship pulls alongside other ships to refuel them en route.

 

There’s just something fascinating about these big carriers — floating cities that house 5,000 people at sea, powered by several small nuclear reactors.

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NAS Coronado is home base for the Navy’s helicopter fleet, so there are retired helos everywhere.

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Base Housing Far Too Good For the Likes of Us:

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And here’s what we came for! Old friend/nemesis, we meet again:

IMG_4477CVN 76, a.k.a. the Ronald Reagan, where Dave spent the better part of 2006. It was the Reagan’s maiden voyage as well as Dave’s — he was a freshly minted officer sent to meet the ship on its way to the Gulf. We had six days’ notice before he left, and I’ll admit it is not the happiest memory of my life because I had a three-month-old baby and was thousands of miles from any of our family. But now that it’s said and done, we can look back on the whole thing with some nostalgia. Dave had the exciting experience of landing on the ship at sea via cargo plane. The interior of a carrier is an endless network of little gray tunnels and steep ladders everywhere, like an M.C. Escher painting, and I think it took him a week just to stop fearing disorientation every time he left his stateroom (p.s. don’t let the word “stateroom” fool you; it was no more stately than a postage stamp).

Not long into the deployment, the ship crossed the equator for the first time, which is when newbie sailors like Dave become “shellbacks” — you’re grabbed out of your stateroom, apparently, by deranged salty dogs who drag you around the ship and put you through a series of bizarre rituals, like swimming through giant vats of Jell-o.

Dave spent most of the deployment on watch in the Gulf, helping to develop and implement aerial technology to identify IEDs on the ground, so it was meaningful work for him.  He also spent a lot of time gazing down at the water in horror at all the sea snakes wriggling below, apparently some of the few things that have survived Saddam Hussein’s multiple attempts to burn the Gulf to death. (Dave has a phobia of snakes, so I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that he had to see them all the time from the ship.)

Well, godspeed, CVN-76, and may we never meet again (sorry! — that’s the Navy wife in me coming out).

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Our destination: to meet up with a friend who was staying at the Navy Lodge:

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Last spring, Dave had to attend a month-long Expeditionary Combat Skills course in Mississippi. Dave is one of your quiet, brainiac military men and will probably never use these skills, but the Navy likes to send people on training whether they’ll need it or not, and of course Dave loved the experience, like Boy Scouts on steroids: tromping through kudzu-choked jungle, navigating at night, shooting seven million kinds of guns. He had to practice spitting on a nasotracheal tube and shoving it up his friends’ noses and down the back of their throats (and having the same done to him). Once you’ve done that to a man, I imagine you’re friends for life.

At the time, he was all sweetness and regret, like, “Oh, it’ll be all right, but really I’d rather be home with you and these three crazy kids.” But any military spouse knows you can get the real scoop from his friends….

IMG_4532Dave’s friend Manooch (on the right) gave me the real rundown about how much fun they had, without incriminating Dave too much. (Two words: New Orleans.) Manooch is a Naval reservist who’s out here on orders for 7 weeks, and Dave’s had a great time catching up with him. On Sunday Manooch hosted us for the day at the gorgeous Navy Lodge, which was a paradise for the kids. Like most military men I’ve met, Manooch is great with kids, laid-back and fun, and we all had a great time.

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My favorite story from their time at ECS actually takes place in New Orleans, where Dave and Manooch were on liberty weekend with a group of guys. (Meanwhile, I was spending my “liberty weekends” scrubbing bathrooms, sweeping the kitchen and cutting sandwiches into little crustless triangles for a group of demanding epicures. No hard feelings, guys!)

So, as the story goes, the men from ECS went into Nawlins for the weekend, during which time they took a “ghost tour” led by an earnest man who claimed to have psychic connections to the area dating back hundreds of years (his family were longtime New Orleans folk). So he took them on a very colorful tour of the neighborhoods. Now, my Dave is a straight-laced man, honest to a fault, nearly incapable of lying. But early on in the tour Manooch told the tour guide, “We’re ghost hunters, too!” Dave turned to him in surprise as Manooch spun this long yarn about how he and Dave were budding ghost-hunters from San Francisco, starting up a ghost tour of the old Victorian houses there. Dave, growing pale, had to go along with this story, which the ghost-hunter man (for all his psychic abilities) bought hook, line, and sinker. The ghost-hunter would lead them in front of a particular house and say, “Now, this will be of special interest to you two…” or, “Are you guys feeling anything here?” to which Dave and Manooch would say, “Oh, yes, definitely getting something.” By the end of the trip, everyone on the tour was in on the joke, except for the poor ghost-hunter, who shook their hands and gave them his card. He and Manooch commiserated over the lack of funding available to young ghost hunters, and then Manooch and Dave departed. Manooch owed Dave a beer for that one.

IMG_4548People like this give me such an attachment to military folks — the reason I wave almost goofily when I see a man or woman in uniform, even though they have no way of knowing by sight that I’m a Navy wife and probably think I am just addled. But it’s good stuff, the camaraderie, the importance of some of the work they do, the love of family, and on and on. Manooch made a point of taking me aside and letting me know how much Dave talked about us during ECS. He knows we have a deployment coming up and he was being thoughtful.

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Well, this post was not even remotely literary. Allow me to redeem myself:

— A review of Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post on Peter Molin’s fantastic blog, Time Now. No one in the military writes a book review like Peter Molin, and this one is as thought-provoking as ever. I was excited to read that Peter Molin shares my same feeling about memoir versus fiction. “I draw a line between remembrance and imagination,” Molin writes. “I’m interested in the artistic representation of war more than its factual rendition, and I don’t want to be lured into judging someone’s life or disputing a soldier’s understanding of what he or she lived through.  Plus, there’s just a whole heck of a lot of memoirs out there, and not so many stories, and I think writing a great story is more of an achievement than writing a great memoir.”

That said, Afghan Post sounds like a worthy memoir, by a young Army soldier and Yale graduate — Bonenberger’s tension between his military career and his liberal politics struck a chord with me. My husband, like Bonenberger, entered the military post-9/11 (in Dave’s case, post-UC Berkeley history major) because he wanted to make a difference. He wanted to, in his own small way, temper the “George W. Bushification” of the military and just be there, a thoughtful young person with differing political views in the military. I have respect for this and I am always happy to meet people who share our views, although we have so many great friends whose political views are different from ours and you know what — we just don’t talk politics with them! We admire their babies and hang out and it’s all good.

(p.s. I feel almost ashamed mentioning  a memoir like Afghan Post after putting up all these pictures of our sun-drenched day in paradise. Bonenberger details the poverty suffered by the Afghan people, and the hard work on the ground by American soldiers, and it all reminds me to be so grateful for the people who do this hard work, while our family’s personal military life is very much behind-the-scenes, very much sheltered from many of these harsher realities. We have been reminded of that also now that my husband is attached to an EOD unit [explosive ordnance disposal] here in San Diego, where many of the people he works with did multiple tours on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think my husband’s line of work is very important, and it is suited to his personality and skills — and also, he joined the military while married and with a family on the way, so he did not have the internal struggle of men who are in the military first and then must reconcile the dangerous work they may have chosen with their love for a new wife and kids — but the more I read and learn and talk to folks who have served outside the wire, the more my respect for them grows, even more than I thought possible.)

—- FINALLY (you thought I’d never stop!)  for some fun reading for you military spouses, Army Amy’s got her “Amy Reads” post up. She’s also doing a fun giveaway that I think is a brilliant idea to lessen the monotony of deployment — while her husband’s away, you can enter to win  a free book on her blog — she’ll send it to you and the deal is you send her a little care package in return. Care packages for the mil spouses — I absolutely love it! (And not to gloat, but I won the first book!)