Santa Clause, The Ice Cream Man, and The Hookah

Working in a prosecuting attorney’s office changes the way I see certain activities.  I don’t patronize pawn shops. I leer at all Santa Clauses and track their nice white gloves with skeptical disdain. I don’t go into certain mini-marts after midnight. I walk down the street with my kids to get ice cream from the mobile purveyor of frozeny-goodness, so that the creep behind the wheel doesn’t know where we live. And I don’t ever, ever, EVER go into “glass shops.”

Until now.

I hope you enjoy reading about my foray into the world of hookah. I originally wrote this piece for SpouseBUZZ, the military.com site where I write from time to time, because I thought it would get the best exposure to my intended military spouse audience. However after reading it again, I can see that it will resonate with anyone who has ever tried too hard to find a way to bridge the gap between two people.

spousebuzz

Happy Hour

court house

photo credit: Adam Fagen

There are certain people who understand the numbness you can get working in a prosecutor’s office. Mostly that includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops, journalists, medical professionals and military folk. I don’t bear the burden of knowing my actions will incarcerate or release a criminal; I’m in the civil division. My coworkers refer to me as a “fake prosecutor.”  But hey, we do review contracts and enforce land use codes and collect taxes and advise elected officials. We’re very civil over here in the civil division.

Yet one of the duties even the civil division cannot escape is the responsibility to advise officials who are making decisions about high-profile public record releases. A couple of months ago I had to look at some pretty nasty crime scene photos and read some interviews with very young people who should never have to experience such things. Unlike my counterparts, the “real” prosecutors, this part of my job often bothers me because there’s nothing I can do; I can’t prove guilt, advocate, or counsel anyone. I’m just there to decide which of the photos are too gruesome. It feels like purposeless voyeurism.

So there I was, flicking through glossy photos as fast as possible, looking away between each one in an attempt to cleanse my brain’s palate before exposing it to the next image. I braced myself not knowing when I’d reach the ones I had been warned about by the police. I felt sweaty.

I left early that day and went to happy hour, because it seemed like the right thing to do: be happy. I called my longtime law school friend Kelly. She’s a former DA, the one who always responds to my calls for happy hour, and the one who makes me laugh until I cry by saying completely inappropriate things like “douche nozzle” just a smidgen too loud in public places. Plus she always brings along with her a crew of other ne’er do wells that sufficiently numb my headaches: a video producer I once married (as in I was the justice of the peace), a banker who likes to be called “The Sheriff,” and a securities salesman who infrequently dresses up as a leprechaun. In other words, non-lawyers. My kind of people. And they were all there.

Kelly saw me and said it first: “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. But I wasn’t about to fake it, either. Kelly Walsh comes from a big family of Irish Catholics in Montana, and she doesn’t take anything fake from anybody without calling them out on it. Instead of answering her I raised my glass for an air-clink and she hugged me before settling into the chair next to mine. Without looking up I told her I’d been looking at crime scene photos for three hours and she nodded in my peripheral vision. She knew just what I meant and she wasn’t about to ask questions. Likewise, I knew enough not to share the details because those are the kinds of things that can infect you. There’s information you want to share because it feels like it might somehow purge your memory, but you learn quickly that it doesn’t. So you don’t share, out of courtesy. Anyway I knew she already had plenty of old images and cases bouncing around in her own head. She was probably suppressing more than one of them at that very moment. So we talked about everything else for the next two hours.

When I finally got home, Randy was tucking the kids in bed and he came downstairs to find me seated at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine and a glass. I wasn’t drinking it. I was just staring at it, remembering the day that I poured an entire bottle down the garbage disposal after finishing a particularly sickening case, because I realized I had turned to wine ten consecutive nights in a row. This was night number one, I thought. He grabbed another glass, poured himself one, and sat down. “So what’s going on?”

That shocked me a little.

It seems that over time (i.e. twenty years of marriage) when I’ve come home in a work-induced foul mood he has traditionally and successfully taken the “ignoring it till it goes away” strategy. But yet here he was, sipping wine and looking at me. It completely disarmed me.

So I did what I always do. I started talking. I told him about the bad man. I told him about the child, the blood, and the dead body. I told him about the interrogation and the police report and the autopsy. And then I told him the part that was bothering me. I told him the part that got to me. I told him the one thing that I wanted to purge. The one thing too many.

“Her hands looked like Sweet Pea’s.”

I buried my face in my hands, sobbing. I’d finally lost it, and a whole day’s worth of tension came out at once. That was it. I was identifying as the victim’s mother. I was feeling guilty but I wasn’t sure why. All the small-talk from happy hour, all the light-speed photo flipping, all the distracting office chit-chat … it all fell down at once.

And he sat very still right across the table from me as I sobbed. He didn’t move.

After a moment I stopped crying, and he spoke. “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel. You have to get someone else to look at those photos. Someone who doesn’t have kids.”

We disagreed quietly, and there was conversation after that which resolved nothing but was still oddly comforting. It wafted of a late night debate from a moonlit log on Glorietta Bay, a memory I had from a very long time ago. A young Navy pilot in flight training was debating with me over the pros and cons of euthanasia, and we were learning from each other. Midway through that conversation I discovered it wasn’t just theoretical for him. He’d watched his grandmother struggle with cancer and refuse treatments. His comments sounded different to me after that.

I watched him as he got up from the table to go back to whatever he had been working on before finding me and my wine bottle. Initially I felt empty when he walked away without hugging me and I wished that part of him would come back soon. But then I thought about the first thing he said: “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel.” And his comments sounded different to me after that. This wasn’t theoretical advice. Our experiences overlapped. It felt like connection.

Post-deployment reintegration turns out to be a series of small Paula-Abdullish cycles. It’s a two steps forward, two steps back kinda thing. (What? I’m over 40. It works for me.) But even as I’m going back and forth, it starts to feel a little like a familiar dance. It’s klutzy and outdated and I step on a lot of toes – and yet the footing beneath us is common ground.

Anyway, I say it’s high time to head over for happy hour, now. He’s been home for ten months, and the “suck phase” of reintegration is supposed to be officially coming to a close, now. So let’s just cut out early, find a leprechaun and a cop-impersonating banker in a bar, and, well … let’s just be happy. It seems like the right thing to do.

Cheers!

cheers toast

Lonely Things Come in Small Packages

Late Saturday night I lay in bed under the only light in the house that was still on, staring at my thighs. On the night before Jesus’ resurrection from the dead I was thinking about my own burgeoning thighs.

“They were smaller once too,” I thought. I’d been previously staring at my sleeping boy. This night he managed to convince me to let him crawl into my bed, and successfully cajoled me into letting him stay a little longer, a little longer … a little longer … until he was now asleep, his lanky legs tenderly infringing on my personal space, threatening to keep growing until they could no longer fit in my lap.

And my thoughts drifted away from my thighs. Because staring at my long-legged children always makes me wonder what it must feel like to be Husband. To have missed things I cannot imagine missing, and to miss them without any way to reclaim them. I looked down at my phone, and my fingers typed out the first thing that came to my mind: “I can’t remember the last time you were home for Easter. That can’t be good.” Send.

It was dispatched across the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t take it back.

I flopped my head back on the pillow trying hard to recall our Easters past, rubbing the little ankles sprawled over my thighs without looking at them. I sometimes stare upwards for mental support in my moments of greatest need, like there’s an answer up there, in my ceiling fan.

There was that first kid Easter. He was home then. Sweet Pea was in her little red poppy dress and white gloves, trying to eat purple hard-boiled eggs with the shells on as she wobbled to sit upright in the cool wet grass. That was seven years ago. There were a few minutes of silence as I struggled to think of another Easter, when my phone buzz-interrupted. I slowly shifted my gaze from the hypnotizing ceiling fan to a solitary word on my phone’s screen: “Sorry.”

He couldn’t remember, either.

I put the phone down. There was no follow-up I could muster just then.

He’ll be on a training exercise while I sit through the Easter service, admonishing my kids not to snicker at the lady with the big purple hat. He’ll be in a windowless room for twelve hours while I smile at children scrambling mercilessly over each other in search of neon plastic eggs. He’ll come back at the end of a day to musty quarters eating a commissary snack plate out of a plastic dish while I prepare for a houseful of friends, smelling the rosemary as the sun floods my kitchen with yellow light. He’s the one missing all this. I’m here. Staring at my thighs.

It’s just. I’m just. You know. I’m alone. Again. Still. Or not alone, but. Lonely. A lot. Still.

It’s my ridiculous first world “complaint.” I feel lonely. WAH WAH WAH. But it’s still real. And I still feel it. I still look around Starbucks and hate the couple that sits on the same side of the table. I still drive with the radio on too loud  after I’ve dropped the kids off at school, hurtling down the freeway screaming lyrics of unrequited Adele love, tears streaming down my face, until I realize I have a meeting in ten minutes with an unrepresented man who wants to discuss the Magna Carta. “Do you even read French?” I like to say to distract him from my running mascara. I wish I could actually say that in French. That would be cool.

But then, there’s this moment. There’s always this instant where the momentum from the lonely is too much and it all turns. I rarely see it coming, but it comes …

On this night Sweet Pea came in to scope out whether her brother had managed to secure a spot in the coveted Bed of Mom. Because there must be complete and absolute fairness at all times between siblings when a father is away and there is a potentially empty portion of mom’s bed to be occupied.  She’s  learning to be subtle, though. She smiled and slipped under the covers next to me, wiggling in under my free arm. “Mom, guess what? We’re doing reports at school. And I got Louisa May Alcott!”

A hushed frenetic conversation about Little Women ensued between us in quiet whispers so as not to wake Captain Exacto Ninja Star Master of the Transformers’ Deathstar of Doom. I was enthralled to have a connection. And it was a book! It was like there was this panoramic camera hovering over our heads, rising straight up into the atmosphere. We were there, huddled together in our frenzy of favorite characters. In one moment, I could see every blemish and flaw with amazing high-definition clarity. In the next I was looking into the concave lens with myopic dysfunction. And in the next, I couldn’t focus at all. The camera kept rising: there was the street, and then the other houses, and then our sleepy little town. And the higher it went, the more generic things got. Blurrier. Prettier.

I always look prettier in low resolution.

And then, as the camera was rising up high into the sky, she spoke. “And I was thinking” she said, “that for my presentation,” she said, “I could use the guinea pigs as the Little Women and reenact a scene from the book and we could buy them little mini outfits on eBay and Buddy could be Beth!”

Guineas. In clothes. And she was deadly serious.

This was going to be what saved me. This was going to be that moment where I toggled over from thinking I wanted to die of loneliness to wanting to die of embarrassment from the snot slinging right out of my left nostril. Wait. This was going to be what saved me? The guinea pigs? The guinea pigs that tortured me the day Husband left? The brilliant (stupid) idea that Husband had to provide an endless array of distraction for our children upon his departure was now the thing distracting me?

Husband was brilliant. Latent, but brilliant. Again.

The camera hovered very high up there in the sky that night as we relished those last few moments before bed, laughing and snuggling and discussing the merits and design flaws of miniature turn-of-the-century guinea pig bonnets. I reiterated that any “sewing” on my part would be accomplished solely via glue gun. And then, as always, I said something out loud that made me stop.

“It’s all going to be very, very small, isn’t it?”

And in that moment I realized the gravity of my statement. Because someday it will all seem so very small. Very small indeed. Ahem. Just like my thighs. Were.

When Reality TV Calls …

Take it Back

Lori VolkmanLast weekend I escaped from the pelting rain and drury skies of the Northwest and enjoyed some sun in 29 Palms. I was there to talk to a group of military spouses about a tough topic: Reintegration. The theme of the SpouseBUZZ event was “Take Back Your Story.” As organizer Jacey Eckhart pointed out, dramatic television coverage of military life showcases the ups and downs, the romance, and the tragedy. We, the spouses, are revered and admired like toughened modern pioneer women on the one hand, and yet portrayed as fragile drama stripper-queens on the other. Okay, so that might be my own paraphrasing. But if you’re a milspouse you know you snicker and secretly wish you had the guts to wear that t-shirt you’ve seen: “Military Wife: Sexually Deprived for your Freedom.”

But it’s time, she said, that we take responsibility. It’s time, she said, to let our real stories be heard. It’s time, she said, to take back our story!  We cheered and puffed like the underdog team at half time listening to the rally cry of their inspirational coach. She even used a colorful personal vignette to drive the point home. She spurned us on with her story about the time she had a chance to tell her story on national TV, for hours and hours. And she described her shock and disappointment when the program aired and it was about the other young mother they interviewed. It was about the wife who cried on camera. The one who was falling apart. They didn’t want Jacey – the strong independent woman slinging a baby on her hip tending the garden and fryin’ up the bacon. They wanted the waif who tugged at everyone’s heartstrings when she bawled her ever-lovin’ eyes out.

“But that’s not us! No! We’re takin’ back our story!” I says to myself. “We’re changin’ the game,” I declare. And so we told our stories in 29 Palms. We took it back. We had fun. But at the end of the day, we only took it back from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – I felt empowered. But as I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I was left wondering how that would translate for me, personally, down the road.

“Down the Road” Arrives

As luck would have it, “down the road” arrived the very next morning. That happens to me a lot. Gah. I opened my email and found this:

Dear Lori,

I came upon Witty Little Secret while I was researching military families and wanted to reach out to you with a request. I work for a prominent production company that creates original programming for a national TV network and we’re creating a new series featuring relationship expert Iyanla Vanzant.  For a new program in the series we’re featuring three couples who are on the brink of divorce.  We’d like to include a military family because there are so many unique challenges presented in these marriages. I’m wondering if you’re amenable to soliciting marriage stories from couples who are interested in starting the healing process and being featured in our program?

I knew I wasn’t the only one getting this email, but it intrigued me. I thought immediately about what kind of story, what kind of real-life couple could pull it off. It seemed so many of us had felt “on the brink” of something terrible at some point during reintegration.

I had.

It seemed that sharing it might actually help someone else. But it was a big BIG scary monster. So I asked a group of bloggers I trust for some thick-skinned criticism, and I was surprised that most of the responses were negative:

“I have a feeling it will show the world that military marriages are doomed … I don’t like it when the media makes military families look bad … Why don’t they ever want the marriages going 20+ years strong despite the military? … Why do they want to show the worst in us? … I worry about how the inner workings and unique struggles of military marriages will be portrayed … We have a unique lifestyle and it plays a big roll in why the divorce rate is so high … Civilians tend to not understand.”

Exactly. We have to be the ones to tell them, I thought. Show them. Take back the story. And then I stepped aside and pushed my girlfriends out in front of me and said, “so yeah – you go first! Go for it, girl! Right behind ya.”

They all keyed on the same thing that triggered me when I first read the email: It all sounded so risky. Really, really risky.

Reality TV is Scarier Than War

So what does this mean? We can send our husbands off to war, give birth to and raise children on our own, build things and pay things and fix things and decide things on our own, even sit with a friend who is waiting for a phone call after we’ve all heard a chopper went down … but we can’t handle a little reality television? We are the bravest people we know (aside from our servicemembers) but we can’t discuss how we deal with the realities of rekindling a long-distance marriage? We can detail our health and even our mental health struggles (and usually even our kids’ weird pooping habits) on the very public internet, but we can’t even look an interviewer in the eye and explain what it feels like when our husbands come home and we realize that homecoming isn’t the magic pill that cures deployment?

So far the answer is “nuh-uh.”

But we can still talk about reintegration. It’s time we were respectful and brave and real about it. And funny about it. Because it’s really funny at times, too. We take ourselves way too seriously. All of us do.

If you’d like to see the official media query, or even if you’d like to answer it, go here.

Or you can always stay here a while. If you’ve ever been lonely, ever banged your head against a wall trying to figure out where to go next, ever tried molding something that was out of your control, well, hang out here.  And we’ll get through it together, like we always do.

Now. Ummm. Like I said. Go ahead. You first.

The Sound and the Fury

humerus
Photo by AJ Gazmen/Flickr

I have a penchant for humor. People around me slap me on the back and say “Oh, you’re sooooo funny.” And that’s usually when I’m just being wry or sarcastic.

But it’s partly true only because I observe and remember things around me. Sometimes I sit and watch events unfold and they seem hysterical to me, though nobody else is laughing. I can find humor in the mundane, the trite, and the ridiculously predictable habits of humans. We are fickle and flawed and yet so determined to be clear and bright. But the key is not only in observing these things; it is in remembering them. And I’m good at it. Or at least, I used to be.

Over the course of the last four months I’ve been so focused on the transition of my husband and my family and my marriage and myself (in that order it seems) back into this non-deployment life that I seem to have lost my funny bone. I’ve either not seen the funny, or I’ve forgotten it. And that’s a crying shame because a good funny bone is an awful thing to waste. I once wrote that my motto was “quit taking yourself so seriously.” Huh. I guess I forgot about that.

Figures that I forgot to take my own good advice.

But today, I remembered. Today, I found humor in the mundane. Because today my six year old protested against his normally yummy after school snack so vehemently that it required cross examination which, after tears were shed, revealed that the true reason for his disgust was the slimy load of boogers he stealthily and invisibly smeared all over the granola bar when he thought said snack was designated for his sister’s snacking pleasure. I momentarily and silently considered making him eat it anyway, until his sister (drunk with power upon observing the scowl on my face) suggested exactly that notion which I was contemplating. Once I saw the resulting look of horror on my second born’s face, it was like a free test drive and I was relieved that I had not suggested it. So of course I did what all good mothers do: I admonished the first-born for uttering such a terrible thing.

At this point, one child was crying and the other was pouting. And suddenly, I laughed.

Oh sure, the gesture drew ire from the crying, booger-infested peanut gallery. But I laughed anyway. I laughed at myself. I laughed at the seriousness with which I approached a courtroom-like exchange regarding boogers. I laughed at the pure maniacal genius of my son and the ironic twist of fate which befalls all evil geniuses: being ensnared in their own booger trap. And I laughed at the thought that he had been unwittingly undone by his nemesis, who, after becoming momentarily power-hungry, had turned to the dark side.

Ah humor, I’ve missed you so. You are so lovely.

What is it about this ridiculous reintegration process that so completely occupies the entire space of my mind and prohibits these exchanges from making it into my memory synapses? Because these are the things worth remembering and talking about, aren’t they? These are the events that will become dinner table fare, homecoming date fodder, and legendary family fable. These are the things I want to think about. Tell you about.

So I’m resolving to focus on the mundane. Not so much because it’s entertaining, but because it’s not reintegration. If I find the funny along the way, we’ll all benefit. But as I told you last year, the shortest distance between two inevitable points is an impossibly long line of distractions. Back then it was in reference to Husband’s departure. This time, it’s in reference to his full return.

To my full return.

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