Monthly Archives: September 2013

From Marines to the Air Force: Inside the Hierarchy of Military Fitness

The other night I attended a dinner party with a few fellow veterans and we began to reminisce.  As sailors and marines are wont to do, we eventually got around to mocking the Air Force (“the Air Farce,” “the Chair Force,” etc.).  We shared many laughs at the expense of our soft-bellied airmen brethren, with their pristine golf courses and fancy officers’ clubs.

But then I got to thinking…maybe I was employing more than a little revisionist history.

The truth is, much of the US military is not very fit. Forget the movies with buff, bulging heroes in uniform. Active duty soldiers, sailors and airmen don’t typically look like Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Jarhead.” The marines, well, maybe. I’m not looking to piss off any marines.

fit marines

Advice to writers is always to “write what you know,” so this isn’t a commentary on infantry troops, marines, or anyone who carries an 80-lb pack for miles and miles (I thought the army had invented trucks by now but hey, maybe it makes them feel more like real men to carry their own bedrolls). I’m writing about sailors, having been one and lived among them. And we were not a fit bunch.

A typical day in the life of a sailor unfolds thus: after a snooze in a warm bed, the mess decks await. There, in all its glory, lies a spread that wouldn’t look out of place on a Carnival cruise. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, grits, biscuits, toast, muffins, oatmeal with all the toppings – enough to feed thousands of strapping 18-year old men. Except that they aren’t “strapping.” They’re a bit soft around the middle from meals like this.

mess decks

These calories weren’t going to be worked off anytime soon.  A few jobs on the ship involved minimal exercise, like standing instead of sitting. The most active sailors were the ones with the least desirable jobs (like chipping and painting, which was only slightly better than sweeping and scrubbing).

sailors sweeping

Only one job on my frigate required physical strength: handling the ammunition rounds for the five-inch gun. They were indeed heavy. But let’s put this in perspective: I was a 5-foot 7-inch woman who weighed about 130 pounds, and I could carry them.

Nevertheless, we didn’t want to strain anyone – the brunt of this ammo-handling went to a gunner’s mate who was by far the biggest guy on the ship. He’d played division “something-that-was-not-1” football as a linebacker before landing this fine job. His branded, tattooed biceps were the size of my thighs.

You may be thinking, “So there WAS indeed someone physically fit on the ship!”  Sadly, no. This gentleman regularly failed the PRT (physical readiness test).  His massive frame was not made for running. Of course his actual JOB didn’t involve running and he managed it just fine, but rules are rules and everyone had to pass the PRT two times a year to maintain combat readiness.

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A bigger mockery of “readiness” would be hard to invent. The 275 members of our ship’s crew had a variety of jobs and we were very good at them. We could drive and maneuver the ship, maintain and repair its engines, track and prosecute enemy submarines, and serve as part of a carrier battle group. Somehow the powers that be imagined that we couldn’t properly do ANY of those things unless twice a year, we disembarked, headed to some nearby patch of grass, and counted how many push-ups and sit-ups we could complete in two minutes.

As if that indignity weren’t enough, we also had to RUN. A mile and a half. In the Navy, you need to be able to run fast about as much as you need to know how to land a back handspring. We could WALK the entire length of our ship in less than 60 seconds. But there we were, slogging out this minimal distance in the mid-day Texas sun. Thanks to the laughably low standards, most of us passed. A few didn’t.

The marines noticed our low standards and always called that portion of the PRT the “run / walk.”  On the sliding scale of military fitness, they proudly set the highest standard.  They ran a lot farther. They did many more push-ups.

We members of the regular Navy knew we were not worthy.

But at least we weren’t in the Air Force.

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A California Surfer Uses Food Stamps to Buy Lobster – Here’s Why I Don’t Care.

Fox News watchers are up in arms about a recent segment featuring Jason Greenslate, a Californian who spends his days drinking, surfing, and living the apparent good life thanks to American taxpayers. Mr. Greenslate receives SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits amounting to around $200 per month, and he bragged to the Fox News cameras that his “free food” was lobster and sushi.

Let the wild rumpus start.

Like sharks fighting over a bucket of bloody chum, legislators who were already itching to vote for a reduction in SNAP benefits began chomping on this story.  It’s like the icing on the cake celebrating the marriage of ignorance and heartlessness.  They claim that reducing benefits will simply take from those who don’t need or deserve any help, like Mr. Greenslate.

After all, doesn’t he embody everything that’s wrong with this country?

Nah.  I’m not so worked up about this.  And here’s why:

 It’s a free country; he can do what he wants with his SNAP benefits.

Stop fanning yourself with your monogrammed hankie and hear me out.  You might not like his choices, but he didn’t commit fraud.  He qualified for the program fair and square, as far as we know. He’s playing by the rules, whether we like them or not.

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“But shouldn’t there be rules against this?” wails the collective right.

Be careful what you wish for, oh Lovers-of-Small-Government.  More rules means more oversight, more bureaucracy, and more government employees on the payroll.  Making welfare recipients take drug tests in order to receive benefits is currently VERY popular (at least 29 states have proposed laws to require this) – states claim they will SAVE MONEY because they’ll no longer have to support lazy drug users living the high life on the taxpayer dole.  Right?

Wrong.

It turns out that administering the tests is expensive, and most welfare recipients don’t actually use drugs.  Just ask Utah, which spent $30,000 in the past year to find 12 people who failed the drug test.

Similar results in Florida.  Only 2.6% of welfare applicants tested positive for drug use, compared with 8% of people found to use drugs in any given month based on national surveys.

Oops.

Relax – Mr. Greenslate is not your typical SNAP recipient.

It might be easy to fool Fox News watchers (and apparently, our elected leaders in congress) into believing that anecdotes are a fabulous substitute for data, but we know differently, don’t we?

Typical SNAP recipients live in households that earn less than 130% of the Federal Poverty Level. 30% are employed and most of the rest are elderly, children, or disabled. 

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And while I couldn’t find the data on this, I’m pretty sure they don’t eat lobster very often.  Many don’t even own a surfboard!

But hey – if our leaders in congress think making policy based on anecdotal outliers is a good idea, I have some thoughts.  Serious vehicle accidents are more likely at high speeds, so highway speed limits should be capped at 25 mph.  The US Post Office occasionally damages mail, so shouldn’t each and every item get hand-delivered by a courier?  And let’s not allow men to buy guns because they are responsible for nearly all gun crimes (oh, wait, that’s actual data…my bad.).

Sushi – eater or not, Mr. Greenslate still deserves my compassion.

I wouldn’t want to change places with him. He’s obviously bad at budgeting ($200 a month and this is what he spends on a meal?) and he’s homeless.  The Fox News segment doesn’t present him as a very sympathetic character, but if you listen closely you learn that he is employed (they don’t say where), he just doesn’t earn enough to buy his own groceries. Does that sound like the good life?

The poor are people, too.

That means they aren’t perfect.  Just like the rich (and the middle class, and anyone else we care to categorize), they make mistakes.  Humans are like that.  Mr. Greenslate may have decided to splurge at an inopportune time, but he will live with the consequences (probably by eating Ramen noodles for the rest of the week).    For every hard-working single mother in the projects who beats the odds and raises her daughter to become a neurosurgeon, there is an average person who has average luck and makes both good and bad choices.  He still deserves to eat.

Even lobster and sushi once in a while, if he chooses.  It’s a free country.

“Don’t Stop the Game for Fights” and Four Other Ways to Improve Professional Sports

What’s more thrilling than sports?  If you’re a fan, you’ve felt your blood pressure skyrocket in the last seconds of a close game.  You know the heart palpitations, the crushing stress, and the helpless, hopeful misery of double overtime in the last game of a best-of-seven series.  Can sports be any more exciting?sports fans

Of course they can.  Baseball games sometimes last 13 innings and end with a score of 1-0.  Soccer can be scoreless for an eternity.  Don’t even get me started on golf.

After 40+ years of watching sports (not playing them – this writer freely admits to hand-eye coordination that barely allows me to tie my own shoes), I’ve developed a few suggestions for the powers that be. Please hold your applause until the end.

Don’t stop the game for fights.

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Hockey is one of the most thrilling sports around – the puck flies so fast you can barely see it, rarely goes out-of-bounds, and occasionally performs involuntary dental work on the players. One of the most exciting elements of hockey (second only to an actual goal and occurring more frequently) is the spontaneous brawl.  Ultimate fighting at a hockey game!  I like adolescent violence as much as the next girl, but I don’t appreciate any diversions that waste time – hence this suggestion.  Don’t stop the clock when a fight breaks out.  The puck should remain in play.  Players must make a split-second decision: do I join the fight, or do I make a quick breakaway with the puck and try to score while my opponents’ eyes are filling with blood?

Put a play clock on the pitcher.

Baseball is dull, dull, dull – this is an undisputed fact.  Look it up.  More than any other fan experience, watching baseball is most often associated with popcorn, hot dogs, and beer – because you can miss several meals trying to sit through an afternoon game.

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You could write the Great American Novel while the pitcher and the batter perform their long distance ballet (step into the batter box, step out of the batter box, spit, scratch, adjust self, swing arms, step off the mound, step onto the mound, spit, shake head, nod at catcher, swing arms again).

JUST THROW THE DAMN BALL ALREADY!  The umpire should blow a whistle to signal the beginning of a play, like in football.  The pitcher has 5 seconds to throw it.  Everyone’s home for dinner.  You’re welcome.

 

Let’s bet on football.

When has gambling not enhanced the fan experience?  Vegas bookies are missing a huge opportunity in football.  The “official review” is one of the few innovations that improved upon the game despite making it last longer.  What to do during this extra time?  Why not let fans bet on the outcome, perhaps against a fan of the opposing team? Surely there’s an app for that.  Speed and accuracy will be rewarded. This could be the only legitimate reason to look  at your iPhone during a football game.

Put the kibosh on all those fouls at the end of basketball games.

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How is it possible for 2 minutes of play to take 15 minutes?  If you’re describing the last minutes of a close basketball game, it’s all but guaranteed.  But if I want to watch someone stand unmolested behind a line and shoot baskets, I’ll stare out the kitchen window at my kid in the driveway.

Besides, if a team can’t build a decent lead in a 38 or 46 minutes of play (college and pro, respectively), I don’t want to see them weasel into a victory by strategically elbowing someone in the ribs a few times.  If you commit a foul in the last 2 minutes of a game, you’re benched.  Out for the rest of the game.  That will keep things moving right along.  

Let’s Get Ready to RUMBLE!!!  (at golf and tennis).

No serious discussion of how to make sports more thrilling can neglect the rampant boredom epidemic among fans of the more, ahem, genteel sports.  What is wrong with those people?  Sitting quietly and respectfully is for poetry readings and Sarah McLachlan concerts.

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I say you’re not an athlete if you need perfect silence to whack a ball around.  Let’s inject the alcohol-fueled team spirit of your average European soccer fan or American college student into golf and tennis.  Painted naked torsos, inappropriate raunchy cheers, foam fingers, and other home-made distractions will separate the truly gifted ball whackers from those who “really need to focus here!” kind of like when I’m figuring out how to use my universal remote.

I hope someone will take my suggestions to heart.  I don’t even want compensation.  Just more exciting games to watch.

And applause.

Celebration Burn Out

My kid is a 5th grader at a wonderful school in a fabulous school system.  I should be thankful for my lucky circumstances, but this is my day to complain about First World Problems.  I’m all hot and bothered about 5th Grade Graduation.

Recently I received an email saying that “the 5th grade class will be handling the food and slushy sales at the upcoming school picnic,”  to raise money for festivities relating to their anticipated graduation.  “OK,” I’m thinking, “so the kids will sell stuff at the picnic.  What does this have to do with me?”

Not so fast!  Closer examination of the email revealed that the PARENTS, not students, are expected to man the sales table.  But of course we are.  This is the new normal.  The kids will graduate.  The parents will fete them as if they are the first kids ever to master the rigors of elementary school.

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The disconnect between the importance of a particular childhood milestone and the related adult-run celebration is disturbing. It starts early.  Tomes have been written about new discoveries in potty training, and they all seem to recommend a “potty party” when the child successfully matriculates from Diaper U.  Sweets, gifts, even guests (Stuffed animals!  Dolls!) are a part of this event.  Really?  For controlling a basic bodily function like every other human being on the planet (not to mention your pets)?

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The overpriced, nationally branded private daycare my son attended actually hosted a pre-school graduation.  This institution, whose franchises populate the outer parking lots of strip malls across the country, took itself way too seriously.  And yet we (the parents) gamely played along, taking time off work (wait, wasn’t this supposed to be daycare?) to watch our little Einsteins march in a line and sing a little song. The kid even wore gold tassels on their school-branded caps (do tassels hang to the left or the right when you haven’t yet started kindergarten?).  I was jubilant inside, but not because my son was graduating.  I was excited about my upcoming emancipation from the monthly “tuition” bills.  At least public kindergarten would be free.

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I could go on about the prizes and awards for other non-events in my kids’ lives (certificates of participation, ribbons and trophies for showing up, public applause for merely having a birthday).  It’s all part of living in a hyper kid-focused world where the grownups don’t have enough to do.  But this 5th grade graduation thing still rubs me the wrong way.

My child will be treated like a walking miracle for the last year of elementary school.  She’ll participate in a special talent show, perform in the 5th grade musical, and give a class gift (selected by the parents and paid for with money raised by…wait for it…the parents!).  I know, I know – the kids will have a car wash.  After last year’s graduates had theirs, the parent in charge bragged that “some of the cars looked actually clean!”  Ha ha.  There was no serious connection between the kids’ labor and the resulting money they “earned.”

But their parents sure stay busy!  They run fundraisers (see above), publish the yearbook (painstakingly placing each sweet darling’s current school photo beside his/her kindergarten one, just to show how hard our babes have worked on their growing), and create a really nice graduation slide show.  But the kids basically float through school on a pillow of “good job!” stickers and gold stars.  No extra effort required.

good job

I’m not a total killjoy. Sometimes kids do work hard and overcome obstacles, and some things ARE worth celebrating.  Like riding a bike.  If you can conquer the fear of falling, take tumbles, and try again (scraped knees and all), that deserves respect!  A struggling reader who sits for an hour just to get through a really challenging book?  Bravo to that kid!  My son learned to play the violin.  He can actually make music with that delicate combination of wood, strings, and horsehair, and it’s legitimately impressive.  I tell him so.

But I can’t get too excited about graduating from 5th grade.  Almost everyone does it.  It requires nothing outside the norm, nothing unexpected.  When we celebrate everything, we celebrate nothing – and kids know it.  And the more parents “own” the whole thing, the more it becomes about us, not them.

kids workingWhat if the students took the initiative and ran their own fundraisers, organized their own talent show, and made their own yearbook?  That would be something to celebrate!  I’d even plan the party.

Ma’am Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Question:  What do these three ladies have in common?

  1. A Southern grandmother tending her wisteria
  2. The Queen of England
  3. Me

(If you guessed something having to do with hats, you’re wrong).

Answer:  We should be addressed as “ma’am.”

I’ve heard all the excuses and protests from my modern New England neighbors.  “It makes me feel old; just call me Judy!” says a 50-yr old mother to her teenager’s one friend with any manners (the ignorant kid just moved here from Nashville).    “It’s so formal – don’t be so old-fashioned!” declares an authority figure at an elementary school.  By all means, let the little urchins verbally trample your dignity.  They never recognized you had any anyway.

Sometimes I’m tempted to head south on I-95 until I get to a town where even the kid passing my French fries through the drive-through window calls me “ma’am.”  I LOVE it.  It speaks to a certain order in the world, a blanket of decency and respect that we can all sit on while we sip sweet tea.

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I started answering to “ma’am” when I was 22 and I’ve never grown tired of it.  As an Ensign in the US Navy, I was the lowest of the low among the officer ranks – wet behind the ears, a complete novice, a junior officer who was more junior than officer.  And yet – I was “ma’am” and “Miss McTaggart” all the time.  There’s a certain comfort in being afforded the respect of your position.

Sometimes I hear Southerners criticized for being hypocrites: “They are so sweet to your face!”  “They act so nice when they don’t even like you.”  Yes!  This is exactly the idea.  Please apply to teenagers. 

Act nice even though you don’t like me!  Be polite when you’re seething inside from combination of hormones and righteous anger!  Call me “ma’am” when you feel like calling me, well, anything unprintable.  Other sins will be forgiven. 

If you’ve been told to be authentic and truthful, that’s a lie!  Act nice.  Be polite.  Who says it’s what’s on the inside that matters?  I say keep it in there.  No one wants to see it or hear it.

Sometimes the words we choose aren’t reflections of our current attitudes, but predictions of our future ones.  It’s hard to craft a sentence using “ma’am” or “sir” that also includes a swear word.  Try it.  See?  Proper clothing has the same effect.  I’m convinced to this day that the military insists on uniforms not because they look good, but because being pressed and starched and spit-shined makes a motley crew of 18-yr old boys behave more like men.  Most of the time.

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Every once in a while, I’m delighted to hear someone use the “m” word.   Good for them.  Cling to tradition.  Remember that it’s what’s on the outside that counts. To use a Southern expression, put some lipstick on that pig!  It may still be a pig, but it’ll be a pig you can dress up and introduce to the Queen of England.

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On The Road

A middle-aged man forking long noodles from a Chinese takeout carton into his mouth. A young woman meticulously applying bright red lipstick. A girl completely engrossed in the screen of her smartphone (online shopping? tweeting? navigating? We’ll never know because we moved to the far lane, pronto).

Those are just a few of the characters we saw behind the wheel on America’s interstates last month, during our annual East Coast to Midwest Family Road Trip. I can’t think of a better way for entitled, slightly judgmental, over-educated Bostonians like us to experience The Real America than to drive across this particular slice of it. West on I-90 from Boston, pick up the Ohio Turnpike after Cleveland, and head north on 23 through Toledo to Ann Arbor and the countryside beyond. Toss in a few crisscrosses through Ohio (Columbus, Dayton, Bowling Green) and you’ve seen The Heartland.

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A few observations about my old stomping grounds from an East Coast perspective…there are parking lots everywhere, all of them with room to spare! Thanks to these ever present acres of concrete, parallel parking has become a lost art like operating a manual transmission or making play dough from scratch. The grocery stores standing watch over those parking lots are meccas of comfort and convenience that put our Boston markets to shame. I saw 2 or 3 Kroger stores that had actual wine bars in them. One of them also sold furniture and automotive supplies. The shopping carts still have that new car smell and look like they’d be offended if you even considered swiping them with an antibacterial wipe. They proudly await my arrival in neat rows, in their very own room (the store’s foyer, if you will).

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I hated returning home to my local grocery store (Shaws), which had always seemed perfectly acceptable but now seemed hopelessly sub-par. Not only is there no wine bar, there’s not so much as one dusty bottle (there’s a separate store for that in good old MA, because apparently the first thing the pilgrims did after landing on Plymouth Rock was establish a liquor distributors lobby that has clung ferociously to its monopoly ever since).

Here are other things you see along the interstates of the Midwest: billboards telling you that Jesus Loves You, cornfields that must have inspired the very concept of infinity, and the sloppy remains of wild animals that tried and failed to cross the road. Every so often you are treated to a vista worthy of poetry. In western New York, there are portions of I-90 that rise high enough to give drivers a glimpse of Lake Erie now and then, and it looks like a mighty ocean. Early in the morning in the higher elevations, fog settles comfortably in the valleys so it seems like you’re driving through the clouds when the road dips below the hilltops.

 

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Not that my children saw any of these sights from the dark cave they rigged up in the back seat (“The better to see you with, My Beloveds!” they whispered to the screens of their iPods and iPads).  A contraption involving blankets, extra sweatshirts, and a pillow pet blocked all light from the back seat, where they tapped away on their screens with a tenacity that would be truly impressive if applied to piano practice or the study of cancer cells.

The road trips of my youth were very different, as the three of us (the youngest in the middle and resigned to deal with “the hump”) craned our necks to look out the windows of our over-sized Buick, desperate to see something interesting. Maybe an unusual license plate, or a truck transporting livestock that we could see through the metal slats as we passed the poor unfortunates going to unthinkable destinations. We loved seeing a house being moved on a flatbed, each half adorned with fluorescent orange flags and taking up more than its fair share of the road. If we were lucky, we spotted a deer in a roadside meadow at dusk.

I saw all these things last week, much to my delight. But that’s because my eyes were on the road…not my cell phone, not my lipstick, and not my lunch.

They were on the road.