Inadvertent Exposure

Steaming Coffee by Dan Derrett

Mondays always start so clean and crisp.

There are neat stacks of white paper in rows, and a full calendar and freshly brewed coffee. There are smiling people, refreshed from the weekend, and I have to do lists and emails that are unread, waiting all clear and hopeful and new in chronological order. I’m holding a healthy sack lunch in a recycled bag in one hand as I enter the break room to greet a colleague, and there is a smiling receptionist who greets me. I make my way to my office, stack my briefcase near my coat, and lay my gym bag next to my door. It’s morning, and I’m ahead, and there’s a new list to tick off.

But by Friday the scene has changed drastically. My gym bag is overflowing with sweaty clothes and wet towels which I have neglected for two days but serves as a useful tool for keeping unwanted others out of my office. The briefcase is stuffed with crumpled drafts I took home with good intention, and the emails are half-read, half-answered, blinking angrily. I’m working on about twenty cumulative hours of sleep for the whole week, and my lunch will consist, if I remember to eat, of whatever might still be left in a vending machine or my bottom drawer stash. By 3:30 on Friday I am slumped over the slop piles at my desk, peering over the week’s morass of requests, motions, and deadlines. I’m starting to shuffle the leftover piles into “on fire” or “already smoldering” for the Monday morning charade, and my colleagues are all doing the same.

This was exactly the scene when my cell phone rang this Friday. I sprang to life believing it was from friends who wanted me to come to happy hour. Every Friday I beg and hope and will it to ring. My excitement was dashed when the caller ID blinked “school” back at me. I answered immediately, hoping it wasn’t an injury but knowing it was probably a behavior report. As I heard the patient voice of my son’s saintly teacher, I knew it was the latter. I had one hand on a pile of hand-written notes and I noticed my palm starting to sweat, melting the blue ink.

I shouldn’t sweat like a Pavlovian Mom when the teacher calls, but Coop, also known as NAFOD – which in military speak stands for “No Apparent Fear of Death” – has had trouble dealing with his world lately and it usually results in a phone call from school. Bottom line, Cooper believes he’s the world’s youngest SEAL. Everything he does is a mission, and everyone he encounters is a threat “in his world.” He actually uses that phrase: “in my world,” as if the rest of us are just spectators. And we are. When my husband was still in the desert, I attended three parent-teacher conferences in the first six weeks of Kindergarten. I reasoned the difficulty then stemmed from only getting half as much discipline. Now, with my husband home, it’s even worse: he’s now getting twice as much discipline.

The teacher’s words shocked me back to reality, breaking my train of thought on the discipline express. “I need to let you know what another parent reported to me today. I thought you’d want to know. I’m sorry.”

I looked at the piles on my desk and wondered who had the rougher week. My money was on the teacher. I didn’t try to talk. I just waited quietly until the awkward silence forced a response from her.

“He told another boy that there are places where ladies get naked and men pay to see them.”

“I  – I – he – he …”

I attempted to articulate a response but after some stuttering all I managed to say was, “thanks for letting me know. We will discuss it.” I wanted the conversation to be over so badly. I imagined my kid, in his camo, huddled football-style in a circle of six year-old boys on the playground, imparting his vast knowledge of naked ladies. This was the very definition of ring-leader. Was he really going to be that kid? I assumed he would not be invited to any sleepovers in the near future, which I thought was a good thing. I hate sleepovers.

Knowing Cooper, he told that kid. The one who had no older siblings. The one who had never seen a naked lady, not even his own mom. The one who had told his mother within two seconds of being picked up at school what men can do for money in some places.

The teacher tried to make me feel better by saying “I’m sure it was an inadvertent exposure, like something he saw on the television or the internet.” I started to agree with this sound logic until I wondered what she must think of my television and internet selections. Then, in the continuing uncomfortable silence, the actual “inadvertent exposure” came when she concluded with, “because in all my years I’ve never heard a kid his age say anything like that.”

Wonderful. I really needed that happy hour call, now.

Later as I picked up the kids we sat stoicly once everyone was loaded up, and I was very serious. I wore my very serious mom face which I reserved for very important conversations. The radio was off and I wasn’t chatting about the day. The engine was idling. There was a moment of silence. My son looked at me gravely and was uncharacteristically quiet as well, sensing that the seriousness in my demeanor should concern him. I waded into the naked lady waters with a straightforward, “I need to ask you a serious question.”

“Who me?”

These are the words of guilty man, I thought. We had been down this whole denial road before. I was skipping the part of the cross-examination where he turned the tables on me. I was going for something more direct, more pointed.

“Yes, you. Today Mrs. Hutchin called me.”

“Oh.”

“She says you told another boy something that really worried her. Do you know what that might be?”

I was giving him the chance to come clean. He looked at me and blinked. It was that moment where he was making a decision about the merits of volunteering the truth versus the risk of playing the game a moment longer. He finessed his way through the first question by using the tool I utilized for Santa Clause questions: answer a question with a question. So he tried it a second time.

“What did Mrs. Hutchin say?”

“Objection. Nonresponsive. I asked if you know what that might be.”

“I don’t.”

So there it was. This was going to be a longer conversation than I had hoped. It was going to be a conversation not just about naked ladies, but about honesty and integrity and becoming a man. And of course, it was going to be had by me, a woman, because his father was gone on a trip. Again. I sighed and took a shortcut.

“She says you told another boy about naked ladies. Know anything about that?”

I was bracing for the answer. This was the moment. The only thing standing between me and my boy’s naiveté was the weight of the words he was about to speak. It was truly the end of the innocence. I felt a tear well up in one eye.

“Well Yeah. You know, mom. Naked ladies. Dancing ones, too.”

The innocence wasn’t just gone, it had been rightly trampled upon. I wanted to gasp and let my mouth hang open and press my manicured fingertips to my chest as if I had been offended by such a statement. But he wasn’t smirking or even looking up at me. He was fiddling with a piece of paper, folding it perfectly into a precision aircraft.

“No. I don’t know. Enlighten me.”

That’s when I got his attention. He heard the sarcasm and realized there was something strange going on. He rolled his eyes, as if to say that I knew very well what naked ladies were, and let the air push out of his mouth in a loud, “huhhn” before continuing. Then he took another deep breath, and he began to sing:

“There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance. There’s a hole in the wall where the men can see it all. But they really don’t care ‘cause they’re in their underwear.”

Olivia snickered, covering her mouth as if it would somehow hide her audible laugh and smiling eyes. “Where did you hear that song!?” I demanded, looking at the snickerer. The response was his golden ticket straight out of trouble, and probably the one and only thing he could have said to form a viable defense:

“Nana taught it to me.”

My own mother. The beloved Nana. The one who has them believing in fairies, watching out the back deck for wolves to protect the Elven village presumably living in the woods behind our house because of the notes they leave us. Nana. The one who feeds them brownie mix for dinner. Nana. The one who encourages them to paint in their brand new white shirts and tells them to become Democrats despite what their parents might think. Nana. The one who lets them taste wine, “just a sip, just a sip, just to taste …”

Nana.

I’m on to you, Nana. This is not the end. I’m so totally on to you.

By the way, I’m giving Mrs. Hutchin your phone number.

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

My Boobs. On the Internet.

This was a big week. First I realized that I’ve poisoned my kids. Both of them. Then I put my breasts on the internet. And believe it or not, the two things are connected.

I mean it was one thing when, on the way to the emergency room during Husband’s deployment, I was thinking “what a great blogpost this will be someday!” But it’s another thing when my kids start parroting my own insanity.

Case Study #1:

Me:          Cooper, let’s go! We’re late!
Cooper:   Wait, wait one sec!
Me:          No, no more “secs” Coop.
Cooper:   Mom, no. “No more sex,” Mom? Really?
Me:          (crickets)
Cooper:    Mom. That’s bloggable.
 

Case Study #2:

Olivia:     I hate this. I hate it when Daddy leaves! AND DON’T BLOG ABOUT THAT!

(sorry, Sweet Pea, I just did …)

And how does this relate to boobs, you ask? Well, right after that, I went and I put my boobs on the interwebs. Because despite the slow family poisoning I’ve caused, there are still these moments where, in the blogging world, you are rewarded for your wit and wisdom, and suddenly, in that flash of fame, that instant of poor judgment, it feels okay to put your breasts on display just for a good story.

See I write not only here, but at SpouseBUZZ.com, a site for military spouses. THE site for military spouses. And they got this ridiculous advert in their email inbox, and they wanted someone to mock it. And they called me. Me! “And so of course, we thought of you. Will you do it?”

(Honorific)!

So, for your Friday entertainment, and in honor of all the military boob controversies that have been floating around the net this week, I give you something much lighter: my boobs. Yep. And right on the front page of military.com too, by the way.

And yes, this message was pre-approved by Husband. He’s a good sport that way.

Click on the photo for the full story … because it really will make you laugh.

funny tit tat

Special credit goes to the Henna Artist Chrissy Rhyassen Smith, and the Photographer, Tiana Meckel, both of whom still think I’m a little wacky. Which, by the way, I am.

TGIF!

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.

First Runner-Up

Miguel AlmaguerLast week my “Open Letter to Kari Bales” somehow became the news. I was very aware that Kari Bales was the queen and I was merely standing in as her first runner-up in her absence. But I was happy to do that, and honored to bring military spouses and their silent sacrifice into the momentary spotlight.

However, that honor and excitement turned to worry and dread when Miguel Almaguer and the NBC news crew came into my house for the interview. As the cameraman was making some adjustments I sat watching the crew erect foreign-looking paraphernalia in my kitchen. The lights flipped on and I was suddenly overcome by the enormous weight and responsibility of the words I was about to speak. It’s one thing to dump my soul into a computer processor; it’s another thing entirely to force the words to out of my brain into the lens of a camera, all while looking at a hunky reporter I’ve only watched in sixty-inch high-definition.

The big fuzzy microphone hanging over my head felt like the day I drove away from the hospital with my newborn daughter strapped into her huge car seat, looking like a cashew bundled in green fluff. I couldn’t believe they actually trusted me. I looked up and wondered if they might konk me on the head with the mic if I answered incorrectly.

“Okay, now I’m nervous,” I told Miguel. “Don’t be,” he said. “It’s just like having a conversation. You’ll be great.”

But it didn’t feel like just a conversation. It felt like I was speaking on behalf of military spouses everywhere: all ten million bajillion of them. I may have been First Runner-Up to Kari Bales, but I was suddenly Miss Military Spouse USA. The cameraman fiddled with various items in the background and it gave me a moment to breathe. Just breathe, I told myself. But it still felt more like an asthma attack than breathing.

As Miguel made one last call, my breathing finally slowed and I concentrated on the fact that the cold air rushing into my lungs was coming back out warmer than it had entered. This was evidence that I was still alive. Then, it hit me: this story wasn’t about me. In fact, it wasn’t even about my letter. It was about the national response to my letter. YOUR response to my letter.

Suddenly the weight to perform blew away as I exhaled, and I was amongst all of you. And I was proud of you. I’ve never felt such pride before, not even peering up into the night sky under fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Not even standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier cruising effortlessly under the Golden Gate Bridge. Not even watching sailors stop, one by one, to salute the flag before running down the gangplank to hug and squeeze their children, some of whom they were meeting for the very first time.

And then that pride, that warm air … it made me smile. YOU made me smile. At that moment the producer said, “Lori, look over here!” and she unwittingly captured that moment by snapping this photo:

NBC Nightly News interview

So this is my thank you card to all of you. Think of it as my acceptance speech for being Kari Bales’ first runner-up. Because many of you have said thank you to me in your comments of support for Kari, but I hope what you realize is that by reading, forwarding, tweeting, and writing, you are the ones that made a difference in the life of a military spouse. You are the ones who shaped a national conversation. You are the ones who voted Kari Bales most likely to succeed.

To view the final result of that NBC Nightly News interview about you, my readers, go here:

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, “Silent Rank” by Miguel Almaguer ~ March 23, 2012

If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you knew I would do something ridiculous. Well I’m not going to disappoint you by failing to self-report here as I always do. As Miguel laid his cell phone down on the table, I saw a picture of him under some spotlights looking somewhat like a ring-master taming a lion. Before I knew what was happening, I blurted out, “is that you – at the circus?”

Really? The circus? The circus, Lori? Uhhh. Hide your face. The CIRCUS!?

I smiled stupidly pretending not to notice how dumb I was. He chuckled, and I immediately recognized what appeared to be the White House in the background. The circus spotlights were actually floodlights on a big green lawn. The lion’s whip was a fat cord attached to a camera crew, trailing from his microphone. I cursed my lost glasses but kept smiling. He graciously answered, “No, but it’s a lot like a circus sometimes, I’ll give you that.”

Gah. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Circus. Jeesh.

This leads me to my conclusion, because no acceptance speech would be complete without a gratuitous thankyou to Carol Costello of CNN,  Miguel Almaguer of NBCJesse Ellison of Newsweek/The Daily Beast , and all of their editors and producers working behind the scenes for chosing to cover this issue and bring the positive and human side of this story into the forefront. On behalf of my readers – on behalf of military spouses – thank you so much.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled program …

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