Life Letters

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. ---Antoine de Saint Exupery, "The Little Prince"

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Location: MD, United States

Travel is my passion. I also have celiac disease. Combining the two is what "Way of the Celiac Traveler" is all about. "Way of the Gluten Free Diner" is about specific restaurants, mostly in the DC Metro Area. "Life Letters" is, well, letters about my life!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Breathing In Life

We are on our way to a Saturday morning soccer game when we come upon the scene of the accident. Police cars block the road in both directions, their sober blue lights flashing despondently against cold gray skies, forcing us to turn around and find a different path to the fields. Since I’m driving, being careful not to put the minivan into the ditch as I make a three-point turn on the two-lane road, my husband observes the site. But there really isn’t much to see – a tow truck pulling a battered car from the roadside, a dangling utility pole, and a few police officers making notes for their reports. If there’d been an ambulance, it is now nowhere to be seen. The crash must’ve occurred in the early hours of the morning.

I know this stretch of road well. It’s the last straight and wide-open section of a Maryland state route that drivers traverse on their way to the small town where we live in western Montgomery County. Punctuated by gentle hills and valleys reminiscent of an old-fashioned wooden rollercoaster, this segment has on numerous occasions enticed our youngest son Matthew to wonder out loud what it’d feel like to drive it at 100 mph.

“Probably a teenage driver coming home late at night,” I say with a noticeable sigh. “He was most likely driving too fast.” Matthew wants to know why I’m so sure of this. He is only 12, yet conversations between him and his 14-year old brother Jordan regularly veer toward the day they will drive – fast. In sports cars, naturally, going places and hanging out with their friends.

I want to explain to Matthew and Jordan that mile for mile, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers. That according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, inexperience and immaturity, combined with factors such as speed, nighttime driving, alcohol and drug use, not wearing seat belts, and distracted driving (cell phone use, loud music, and other teen passengers), worsen this problem.

But I say nothing. They should know all of this already.

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It was 8:15 at night when the phone rang, nine months earlier. We were all just getting up from the dining room table, carrying plates and serving dishes to the kitchen after a family gathering to celebrate our oldest son Peter’s upcoming high school graduation. My mother-in-law was visiting from New York; my parents and grandmother, who live nearby, were there, too. Peter and a friend had left about fifteen minutes beforehand, on their way to a graduation party.

My husband answered the phone while I commenced loading the dishwasher. Mildly aware of a shift in the jovial lilt of his voice, I glanced uneasily at the clock. Fifteen minutes. It had been 15 minutes since Peter and his friend left. Or was it 30? Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the time? Opening the back door, my husband walked out onto the deck and then turned and called my name. I didn’t like his serious tone. I didn’t want to go. If I didn’t go, I reasoned, he couldn’t tell me what my heart seemed to already know. So I continued to rinse the dishes. Again he called my name.

There was no need for words as I stepped outside and looked into the deep sorrowful eyes of the man I married over 21 years ago, the phone still pressed to his ear. But I had to hear the truth. There had been an accident. Peter’s friend was driving too fast. The car went off the road on a curve, smashing into several large trees on the passenger side, rendering our son unconscious. The rescue squad used the “Jaws of Life” to get him out of the vehicle. I closed my eyes in silent acceptance of the words, aware that even the sweet evening breeze was holding its breath, while my mind exploded with the sounds of shrieking, crumpling metal. “He regained consciousness as they loaded him into the ambulance.” My eyes snapped open and the universe gasped. We had to go. Quickly. When I questioned aloud why the ambulance was going to a hospital farther from our home, my mother answered in a trembling voice, “It’s known for its trauma unit.”

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Peter wasn’t afraid of ambulances. Not that he liked them either. He just had been in enough of them to know what to expect. Of course, he wouldn’t remember his first ambulance ride, which took place seven weeks before he was supposed to be born.

I was in the early stages of the third trimester of my pregnancy when we moved to the high altitude city of Colorado Springs from Athens, Greece. We’d enjoyed living in Greece for the previous three years while my husband, a military officer, was assigned to the U.S. Air Force base there. Yet we welcomed this new assignment along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and, after having endured one miscarriage in a Greek hospital, we were glad our child would be born in the United States.

Things might’ve been better, however, if we’d known in advance about a correlation between traveling or moving to high altitude locations and premature births. But we found out soon enough when my contractions started five days after our arrival. Our son was born 10 days later, and then promptly whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, separated from me for nearly 24 hours until he was stabilized. There, with sensors attached to his chest, wires entangling his limbs, and intravenous needles piercing his fragile body, I was so afraid to hold him, so afraid of causing him pain. Most of the time, though, all I could do was look at him through the incubator walls; he was so small, so alone. He would need supplemental oxygen and an apnea/heart monitor for the first several months of his life.

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The only condition we knew about Peter after the car accident was that he had regained consciousness. That’s all the police officer would say on the phone. So I grasped onto that knowledge and tried not to let my mind wander to the places it wanted to go, or to attach myself to the thoughts that filled the silence while we drove to the hospital. Years of practicing yoga had taught me to use my breath to focus my mind. So I consciously breathed deeply, feeling my belly expand like a balloon - inhaling life - and then slowly released my breath, letting the diaphragm relax, returning to the cosmos what I didn’t need. I didn’t need those images of a mangled vehicle, of a wracked body, of my son being alone. I breathed in my desires for him to know we were coming, for him not to be suffering or afraid. Every breath was a supplication. Please let him be all right. Please. He’s already been through so much.

The drive to the hospital lasted an eternity. Once there, though, it felt like I was hurtling through time and space. Because that’s what parenting has always felt like to me. A never ending, exhausting, and uncontrollable race to stay one step ahead of my children - pointing out the cracks in the sidewalk so they wouldn’t trip, cautioning them against touching the hot stove, reminding them to hold on tight when I noticed them loosening their grip as I pushed them on the swings. But how could I anticipate that an overzealous parent playing soccer with nine-year old kids would miss the ball and kick Peter instead, breaking his tibia and necessitating a couple of months on crutches? Or that the one time I let him go for a whirl on his friend’s brand new scooter without a helmet would be the one time he’d fall, landing him in the emergency room with his first concussion?

Peter was only 11 when he took his first solo ambulance ride. Playing basketball at school, he got knocked over, cracking his skull on the shiny wooden floor, ending up with his second head injury. He told me he wasn’t afraid. When he was 12, he chipped a hip bone and tore a quad muscle from overuse playing soccer. At age 13 it was a broken wrist while bicycling with a friend. He went skiing when he was 14. I should’ve known better. The ski patrol first had to get him off the slope before the ambulance could take him to the hospital. A few days later Peter had his first surgery, to screw his splintered ankle back together.

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My husband and I were met in the emergency room waiting area by Peter’s friend who had been driving the car, and the friend’s mother. Since he never lost consciousness, the friend had crawled out the car’s shattered back window, flagged down a passerby for assistance, and then used a cell phone to call his mother. The boy was physically unscathed; his emotional status was a different matter. “I’m so sorry,” were the only words he could conjure from the depths of his guilt while his body shuddered with sorrow and he stumbled into my open arms.

Finally, the attending EMT emerged from the ER. “The boys were wearing their seatbelts,” he informed us. “If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived the crash.” The words echoed inside my brain. How close were we to tragedy? Once again I pulled my attention to my breath, refusing to play the “what if” game. “Oh, and about Peter,” the EMT continued, “I think he’s going to be OK. He talked a lot in the ambulance. But he’s very concerned about his lungs, so the doctors are running some extra tests.”

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Peter was 15 years old when he went to the high school nurse’s office complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. The discomfort eventually dissipated and he went back to class, but something led the nurse to get in touch with me, suggesting I take Peter to the doctor, just to see if anything unusual was going on. There was. Within two hours of entering the doctor’s office, including a side trip to the radiologist, our teenage son was packed into an ambulance, an oxygen mask on his face, and sent to the hospital for emergency surgery. Diagnosis: spontaneous pneumothorax, or collapsed lung.

We were living in northern Italy, near Aviano Air Base. It was the latest assignment in my husband’s long military career. The base had only a medical clinic, so Peter was sent to an Italian hospital where an American military doctor surgically inserted a tube between his ribs to release the air that had accumulated on the wrong side of the collapsed lung and which was exerting dangerous pressure on other vital organs. He remained in the hospital for ten days. Three months later there was another spontaneous pneumothorax. Fortunately, this one was small, and only a little air escaped the lung before whatever responsible defect sealed itself up and the lung re-expanded on its own. When his left lung collapsed a third time, however, Peter returned to the Italian hospital for one more painful chest tube insertion, and then was aero-medically evacuated to a large U.S. military hospital in Germany for a three-week stay and a procedure called apical pleurectomy. It involved snipping off the tip of his faulty lung, and then “burning” the lung to the chest wall, thus preventing any future problems. The doctors never could tell us why the collapses occurred. Just that it sometimes happened to tall skinny boys.

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The ER nurse at last admitted us through the doors that stated Authorized Personnel Only. “Does your son have a sarcastic wit?” he asked. Glancing at each other with crazy grins, my husband I replied that yes, he did indeed. Alas, one shaped by misfortune. But for us, that one question meant Peter was still conscious, he was coherent, and was acting normal. Tears flowed down my cheeks with this revelation and I exhaled a quiet prayer of thanks.

Several hours passed in the emergency room while medical personnel continued to monitor Peter’s condition. The countless images that were taken of his head, neck, spine, and lungs had to be read and were in time reported to us. There were no broken bones or internal injuries. His lungs were fine. A skin abrasion where the seatbelt held him in place and slight bruising from the airbag impact were the extent of the external damages. The attending trauma physician was concerned about Peter’s concussion, though, as there was still the possibility of intracranial swelling and hemorrhage. He was eventually transferred to the Intensive Care Unit for round-the-clock monitoring. Less than 24 hours after the accident, Peter was allowed to go home. He couldn’t remember much about the crash, and repeatedly asked us what happened. The doctor said our son was an extremely lucky guy. Many are not.

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A group of teenagers is now gathered at the location where we saw the accident this morning on our way to the soccer game. In the freshly churned up earth a small wooden cross has been planted. The snapped utility pole sways in the crisp air, and a pony-tailed girl raises her hand to wipe the tears rolling down her cheeks. Slowing down as we drive past, I scan the faces, looking, and yet hoping I won’t recognize anyone there. My husband searches the group, too. Jordan thinks some of the kids are from the local high school. Matthew remains quiet. We all know what’s happened here.

Continuing homeward along the familiar and well-worn path, our individual thoughts of sadness slowly swirl into a collective fog of sorrow that presses heavily against my chest, making it hard to breathe. My mind loses its focus and wanders to the places it wants to go, where it shouldn’t go. That’s when I realize I’m holding my breath. And consciously exhale.  

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The College Trip

There comes a time in every parent’s life when we have to let go. Even though I’m not quite there yet with my oldest son, I know it’s coming soon. He’s a senior in high school, after all, with college looming just around the corner. So why do I feel so unprepared for this next stage?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been so darn busy lately. Just moving back to the U.S. after living in Italy for two years has kept me on the fringe of insanity, what with all the packing and traveling, my husband’s military retirement, his months of searching for a new job in the civilian world, deciding where to live, buying a house, and getting the three kids settled into yet another new school system. And, of course, there’s the celiac side of my life, following me around like a shadow, with its own set of needs and demands. My focus was firmly in the present.

Fortunately, my son, Peter, took the lead with regard to his college career. He wrote to schools, collected information, talked with peers and counselors, narrowed down his choices, and set up dates to visit the schools that interested him the most. The only thing he couldn’t do by himself was drive to the schools because, after living in Europe where the driving age was 18, he still didn’t have a driver’s license.

So one recent and beautiful fall day, my husband, son and I, with Map Quest directions in hand, pointed the minivan north to visit five small liberal arts colleges in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Since the timing of this milestone trip came amidst such an overall tumultuous time in our lives, however, I didn’t do too much preparation for it celiac-wise. For even though I instinctively knew what to pack in the cooler for the car trip, including snacks and breakfast food, and I’d actually made reservations at hotels for two of the three nights we’d be away, I was still nervous. That’s because it had been two years since I was a person with celiac disease traveling in the U.S. It was almost as if I were navigating foreign territory!

More than half way through the first 340-mile leg of the trip, we pulled off the highway and into a Wendy’s. Recalling that Alamo Celiac (http://www.alamoceliac.org/) member Debbie Holladay included this fast food place in her April 2007 newsletter review I felt it was a safe bet for a quick bite. Inside the restaurant, a nutrition poster listed the top major food allergens for all of Wendy’s food items, making it easy for me to choose chili and a baked potato for my lunch. Just to be sure I hadn’t poisoned myself, I also later checked Wendy’s website for their updated gluten-free list.

A few more miles down the road we arrived at the first college on my son’s list. We joined up with other potential students and their families for a one-hour information session followed by a one-hour student-led campus tour. Then we took a quick jaunt into the nearest town (bookstore, jewelry store, smattering of eateries, not too many bars) before hitting the road again. We needed to log an additional 200 miles that night to reach our hotel so we could attend another school’s information session and campus tour early the next morning.

Our route from New York State to Vermont took us through Albany right about the same time that evening rush-hour traffic and nighttime darkness engulfed us. Struggling to focus on the miniscule letters on my road atlas, I directed my husband to a highway exit that led away from the city along a dark and twisty road, in a sparsely populated area, towards Vermont. Noting it was nearing dinnertime, and doubting I’d find a place that could accommodate me, I was resigned to snacking on hard-boiled eggs, crackers, and fruit I’d brought along for just such a scenario.

Right about then, however, a hand-painted sign above the doorway on a barn-like structure at the side of the road caused me to do a double-take. “Did you see that?” my husband asked excitedly. With a hard brake and a quick U-turn, we all sat dumbfounded outside a place called Sherry Lynn’s Gluten Free Bakery & Café, in Brunswick, NY. Run by celiac Sherry, and her non-celiac husband, the restaurant was birthed from their frustration over not having a safe local place where Sherry could eat out. In their two months of business, a steady stream of celiac customers, in addition to a loyal local non-celiac following who just like the food, have made their way to Sherry Lynn’s. They also recently catered a support group meeting in nearby Albany. The night we were there, a large pan of gluten-free pasta and oversized gluten-free rolls tempted our palates. Neither disappointed. On the way out I also purchased sweet cinnamon fritters for breakfast the next morning.

Back in the van, rechecking our route before setting out, I noticed something strange - we were on the wrong road to Vermont. Somehow I’d mixed up the directions and had pointed us towards a college we’d be visiting later in the trip instead of to the one where we had an appointment the next morning. Quickly calculating what we should do at this point (backtrack all the way to the interstate or forge ahead on the dark county roads), I marveled at the improbability of it all: I was in New England, visiting colleges with my son, when I took a major wrong turn and found a newly-opened totally gluten-free restaurant. Call it what you will – fate, fortune, destiny – but I’d like to think of it as the wave of the future; that dining gluten-free in the U.S. will just keep getting easier!

But my story doesn’t end just yet. This is just the first day, after all. We still have to get to Vermont and we still have four more colleges to visit.

So off we went (we chose the dark county road), arriving several hours later at our hotel. When asked by the hotel clerk if we wanted the morning breakfast buffet, I told her I probably couldn’t eat most of their offerings because I had to eat gluten-free. “That’s so weird,” was her reply, “you’re like the third person this week who’s told me that.” Naturally, then, I asked her for any recommendations about places in town where I’d have the best chance of getting a gluten-free meal. She immediately suggested a restaurant that serves mostly local organic fare, and said she’d leave a note for the morning clerk to call them for me.

The next morning I checked with the morning clerk, who did indeed have a note from the night clerk about calling the restaurant. Since it was still early, though, she said she’d have to wait a little later to make the call, and asked if I had a cell phone number where she could reach me later to give me the lowdown. At the exact agreed upon time, my phone rang, and I was given the good news that a gluten-free meal would be no problem. What the hotel clerk didn’t know, however, and what I discovered upon dining at the restaurant, was that one of the owners has relatives with celiac, and right there on their menu they mention being able to handle special dietary requirements, including gluten-free. I had a burger, no bun, spiced up with hot sauce and peppers, smothered in melted cheese, and a rather wild-looking salad with ingredients that seemed to have been freshly gathered from the nearby river bank!

And so the rest of the long weekend went. Hundreds of miles in the van, punctuated by information sessions and campus tours of small liberal arts colleges, fortified by healthy snacking, gluten-free dining, and restful hotel stays. The New England area is dotted with charming and historic Bed & Breakfast accommodations, several which apparently can provide gluten-free meals (see http://www.1-888-inn-seek.com/) but this was not the type of trip where such ambiance and pampering could be appreciated.

It was also interesting to note that chain restaurants were conspicuously absent in many areas of New England, so it was only when we were back in the New York suburbs that we found a Bonefish Grill with their gluten-free menu. En route, I also tapped into the GFRAP website and located a hot dog joint, named Soul Dog, in the downtown area of Poughkeepsie, NY, not far from the final college on our list. Much like the school, the restaurant was fresh, lively, and artsy. Unlike the school, it was incredibly affordable!

Run by yet another husband-wife team, and with a Zagat listing, Soul Dog's specialty was gluten-free hot dogs (Sabrett brand – the kind New York City hot dog vendors sell) served on homemade gluten-free buns that didn’t fall apart! All varieties of their hand-cut fries (Soul Fries, BBQ Fries, Jamaican Jerk Fries, and Cajun Fries) were also gluten-free, and they served gluten-free chili, salads, pizza, and beer. But the best part? All of their desserts were gluten-free! On the day I was there, the owner was making gluten-free cinnamon fritters and donut holes, samples of which he passed out to all his celiac diners. I believe there was one of us in each group of diners, which strongly confirms the point that celiacs can and do drive business. That is, any place a celiac can dine, their non-celiac family and friends will follow. Soul Dog also did a brisk business with seemingly non-celiac locals.

After visiting the five colleges, Peter was hard-pressed to say which one was his hands-down favorite school. Realistically, he knows he’s done his best to obtain admission to these schools by being a good student, doing well on standardized tests, participating in extracurricular activities, and using his written essay to set himself apart from the other thousands of students also applying to the schools. Most likely, he’ll go to whichever school accepts him and gives him the best financial aid package. Selfishly, one of my top picks for him is the school that boasted it had culinary school trained chefs working in its kitchen who could accommodate special dietary needs (I’ll need to eat when I visit him!). If only it wasn’t the farthest one from home. For, while I know that I’ve done my best to prepare him to take this giant leap into adulthood, and that it’s now up to him to choose the path he wants to follow, I’m just not sure I’m prepared to let him go.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No Longer in Italy

I no longer live in Italy. And I say that with a true heaviness in my heart. Like most of the other places I've lived over the past 20 years following my husband's military career, I'd made a home in Italy. Now we're no long there; that home is gone. We've moved on.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

How's Life Treating You?

"How's life treating you?" was the appropriately welcoming comment I received last week at a women's clothing store called Kharmah. As the first customer of the morning, and not wanting to cast a pallor on the day, I toyed with the idea of giving the pat reply of, "Everything's great," but just couldn't bring myself to do it. So smiling weekly, I answered, "It's been a little rough lately."

A look of concern settled around the sales clerk's eyes, piercing my own, and then we both turned away. "A little rough." The words played over and over again in my mind, stinging my conscious, as if to ask, "Is that how you describe the death of your father-in-law?" Moving around the store, I began my investigation of all the black clothing items, searching for a funereal outfit.

Actually, my father-in-law's fall to cancer was only just the latest in a year-long string of life-defining moments, yet it was the most poignant. How more life-defining can you get than death? His was over. Ours was going on without him.

We knew he was dying. We just hadn't known it would come so soon. Nearly a year had passed since his diagnosis of melanoma, during which time he'd received numerous types of conventional and experimental treatments. All to no avail. The cancer was on a rampage, attacking his lymph glands, his lungs, and other vital organs. Mid-way through the year, one doctor had leveled with him, telling him he had 6-9 months to live, and to get his affairs in order. He got only five months. And the only affair he seemed to want settled was the assurance his family would be together, which we were - all throughout Christmas Day. He died just a few hours into December 26.

So, yeah, it'd been a little rough lately. But it wasn't something to share with everyone who's path I crossed. Yet the reality was that the wake was a few hours away, and I had nothing to wear, having flown with my husband and children from Italy to New York for the holiday, unprepared for the sorrow we'd be receiving. Noting the sales clerk's compassionate look, and hoping for the best given the store's name, I explained I needed an outfit for my father-in-law's funeral - one not too flashy, but neither too dowdy. With her expert help, I was out of there in no time, with clothes that I loved, and a good feeling that I couldn't explain. Somehow, she'd lifted a small burden for me, thus enabling me to focus my energies and face what was ahead. Good Kharmah.

Written in memory of Pantelis (Bill) Psaltakis, who tried to take care of us all.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Grape Harvest


The Grape Harvest

Winding our way through the Friulian countryside of northern Italy, there was no mistaking what day it was: the grape harvest. At nearly every small farm we passed, families were standing together, facing six-foot tall grapevines, scissors in hand. Snip, thunk. Snip, thunk. Bunches of bluish red grapes, only slightly bigger than the plumpest blueberries, were quickly being loosed from the vines, and dumped into waiting buckets on the ground.

Through mutual friends, my family had been invited to help an Italian family with their grape harvest. This was not some large winery, but rather the family's personal vineyard. Their English was minimal, and my family's Italian language ability not much better, but that wasn't a barrier to the business at hand - plucking the sun-ripened, juicy sweet grapes that they would use to make their yearly supply of wine. Their wine, not for sale, served only at the numerous family celebrations they would hold throughout the year.

With many hands, the work was quickly done. Buckets overflowing with grapes were picked up and carted off to the farmyard. There, the grapes were dumped into a de-stemming machine, and then the juice, seeds, and skins, flowed into immense wooden buckets big enough to hold half-a dozen children. Indeed, children were very much a part of the scene - picking grapes, eating grapes, riding in the back of the pickup truck on the way to the de-stemming machine, and holding the tube through which the grape products flowed into the buckets. I watched as grandfather and grandson together sampled the grapes, agreeing they were at their peak for picking.

As soon as the harvest was complete, several long tables and benches were carted out and set up in the farmyard, alongside the house. Italian and American children ran around together, playing hide-and-seek, chasing the kittens, and feeding the ducks. The men washed up and sat down at the tables, while the women who had not been in the vineyard proceeded to set the table with basketfuls of bread, bowls of chips, and bottles of water, soda, and homemade wine. Once everyone was seated, nearly 40 in all, pasta with ragu sauce was served from the largest stovetop pots I'd ever seen, holding nearly thirteen pounds of pasta. I couldn't eat the pasta because I have something called celiac disease, which prevents me from consuming any food or beverage that contains wheat, rye, an barley. The hosts felt bad, wishing they'd known ahead of time, because here in Italy rice and corn pasta (that I can eat) is widely available. I told them not to worry, though, as I could eat the numerous other foods that were served after the pasta. There was a latteria fresca and a parmigiano grana (both cheeses), several green salads doused with olive oil, and plates of thinly sliced meat.

Coffee was served after the meal, as were several types of cakes. Again, I couldn't eat the cakes, but never being much of a sweet eater, this didn't bother me. What I could have, though, was a sample of the homemade grappa that was being liberally added to the petite cups of espresso. The grappa was followed by a bottle of one of the family's specialty wines, followed by another type of homemade liquor, and then followed by something I think was alcohol-soaked fruit. It wasn't long before family stories were being told and the men began to sing. The words I didn't understand, but sometimes that's not the point.

We were the first to push away from the table, and reluctantly at that. One of my sons had a soccer game that afternoon, playing with an Italian soccer club, which our hosts certainly understood. Loyalty to a hometown or regional soccer team often follows closely on the heals of an Italian's loyalty to family.

As a parting gift, we were given a bunch of the family's highest quality grapes. In exchange, we gave them something to talk about at their family gatherings for years to come: the time an American family wanted to help harvest their grapes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Postcards from My Life

Postcards from My Life I've been trying to figure out which direction I want to take with this blog. Spending so much time in the "process" rather than the "product," worrying about "perfection," is one of the major drawbacks of my personality type (I'm an Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Perceiver- INFP). But I've just about got it all figured out in my head, so soon the plan will filter down through my fingers and out onto this keyboard. Seeing that so many other people have personal blogs, surely I can do it too!

Postcards from My Life will remain the title of what will become my online journal. The one post that is already there will serve as an introduction. It's rather lengthy, I know, but life is complex, and so am I. The entries that follow will not be so long, instead taking on the likeness of those 4x6-inch blurbs that people on exotic vacations write when they want to make you jealous that they are there and you are not. Only, I don't want to make you jealous. Instead, my Postcards will apply an introspective eye to both the commonplace and the unusual stuff that are a part of my life. Maybe I will make you think.

I also will be setting up a separate blog, posting travel articles geared towards people with celiac disease. Affecting 1 in every 130 Americans - about 1% of the population - celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that inteferes with the absorportion of nutrients from food. I was biopsy-diagnosed with celiac disease over five years ago, and for the past three-and-a-half years have been writing restaurant and travel related articles for the Alamo Celiac Support Group in Texas. I do not currently live in Texas, but continue to write for the support group's monthly newsletter. www.alamoceliac.org.

People with celiac disease are unable to consume foods that contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Oat is also usually avoided because of cross-contamination from the offending grains. The only "cure" is a life-long avoidance of foods that contain these grains, which is not an easy task to accomplish in our society. No bread, no pastries, no pasta, no pizza. No mainstream cereal brands, no sandwiches, no flour tortillas. No battered and fried foods. Not even unbattered foods that are fried in the same oil as battered foods. Nothing that's been dipped, thickened, or baked with flour. The list goes on.

Celiac disease is also woefully undiagnosed, and recently the National Institutes of Health (NIH) kicked off an awareness campaign for health care providers and the public. www.celiac.nih.gov. Without public awareness, people with celiac disease can end up living their lives on the social fringe. (My concern here is the public awareness; others more qualified will have to work on awareness among health care providers.) Think about it. What is the centerpiece of so many social functions? The food! Most of it inedible for those with celiac. This makes it hard to grab a quick bite to eat for breakfast, be one of the gang at a work-related lunch, and attend a potluck dinner or cocktail party without having to explain the inner workings of your digestive system. For a child, it means no donuts for breakfast the morning after a sleepover with friends, no school-cafeteria lunchs (OK, no huge loss), no pizza with the team after the big win. And at college? No beer! While people with celiac disease can now purchase gluten free versions of many of the gluten-containing foods from online stores, health food stores, and even some mainstream grocers, it doesn't help much when attending social functions, dining out, or traveling. Traveling can be especially tricky given present-day travel restrictions, the unfamiliarity of the travel destination, and perhaps even a language barrier if traveling in a foreign country.

My goal is twofold. The first is to aid in the awareness of celiac disease by traveling with and talking about celiac disease. The more awareness there is, hopefully the easier it will be to travel. Posts will include general and specific travel information beneficial to those of us with celiac disease.

My second goal is to inspire others to travel - those with celiac disease, as well as those without. For travel is more than just the food. It is an experience that can open our eyes and hearts to new and different things. It helps us connect with other people and other cultures. The faces of the world become more human. There is a better, more compassionate, understanding of world situations. It also fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Travel is, and always has been, my passion. Both blogs hopefuly will reflect this. One will be about the art of traveling with celiac disease. The other about the biggest journey of them all - life! Let's go!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Living the Military Life

When a normal person wakes up in the morning to the sight of cardboard boxes lining nearly every inch of wall space, it’s a bit disorienting. Maybe there’s even a sense of apprehension. There’s definitely some stress. When a person affiliated with the military wakes to a similar sight, the feeling is more like having to hug your Uncle George at the annual family reunion. He’s the one nobody likes, but he’s still a member of the family, so you embrace him.

Military members and their families move a lot. Research indicates that 1 in 4 military families move across county lines in any given year. In comparison, only 1 in 12 civilian families make such a move. Military moves, though, are usually much farther than just “across county lines.” More than likely it’s across state lines, across those invisible time zone lines, and even across international lines

As the spouse of someone who has been a member of the United States Air Force for over 22 years, I often get asked how I like moving around so much. I usually lie and say I love it. After all, what’s not to love about having strangers handle your most personal items, or hoping that the box with the odd tinkling sound being off-loaded from the moving truck is not the box containing your cherished heirloom? Gotta love being told one of your shipping crates experienced a quick dip into the ocean as it was being taken off the container ship, not that this has ever happened to us. We’ve just heard stories.

Right now I’m talking solely about the physical side of packing and unpacking. The emotional baggage is often heavier.

Technically speaking, then, a physical move occurs when a current household is packed up, placed on a moving truck, possibly sent to a port and loaded on a container ship, and then depending on the destination, not seen again for a time period lasting from a couple days to a couple months. Or ever. Even if you think no one is watching, and you quietly bury a small container of jewelry in a moving box, that jewelry will not reach your desired destination. Someone else’s, but not yours. True, packing jewelry is not a smart thing to do, but by the same token, try hand-carrying every last piece you own. For some people I know, that’s enough to fill a small suitcase!

Moves across state lines are the easiest. That’s because there may have been an opportunity for a pre-move house-hunting trip to the new military assignment destination. If all the stars align correctly, you can move from one house to another without missing a beat. That’s never happened with us.

It’s a common misconception that house-hunting trips are paid for by the military. They are not. The trip is paid for from personal funds, and those expenses add up quickly when it includes airfare, car rental, hotels, and meals. Sort of like experiencing all the headaches and expenses of a vacation, but you don’t get to go where you want and it certainly is not any fun.

Many military members cannot afford house-hunting trips and so do not begin the search until permanent arrival at the new assignment destination. When this happens, household goods are put into temporary storage (at government expense) until housing is secured. Sometimes I complain about the tally of a house-hunting trip to a non-military person, and I get reminded that those expenses are tax deductible. True. If I only had…a house.

To be fair now, I do have to say that the military provides free leave time to the military member for the house-hunting trip. This means that the days off from work for the trip are not counted as vacation days. In my military spouse’s situation, though, these free days are inconsequential. Nearly every year he loses leave days because of a demanding work schedule that does not permit time off. He already carries over the maximum number of leave days allowed from year to year. This is not the case with everyone.

At some military locations, both in the states and overseas, housing exists on the base for both singles and families. It’s just not always available. For example, at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, where the homes are in good condition, fairly spacious (for military housing), and the surrounding school district is outstanding, there was a waiting list of 12-18 months to get into a house when we arrived there in 2002. We couldn’t wait.

Sometimes, too, base housing just isn’t a good fit due to family size, desire for a particular school district, location of a spouse’s place of work, or personal opinions about the area surrounding a base. At first glance the housing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH, would seem like the perfect place to raise a family. Then, you learn that it is located next to a landfill into which hazardous substances were released during waste disposal, spills, fire training, and normal base operations. The EPA says it’s safe.

When a move is to an overseas location, house-hunting trips are not done. Instead, you take what is offered. At Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, the base housing policy resembles the old game show called “Let’s Make a Deal.” In that show, the contestant has to choose between a prize that’s already seen and one that is still hidden behind a door. Likewise, at Andersen, we were shown one house, told to accept it, or we would be required to take the next offered one, sight unseen. What a deal!

Some overseas U.S. military bases do not have base housing. Instead, military folks must find local housing. This is known as living “on the economy.” A housing office run by local nationals (with whose best interest in mind?) assists with this endeavor. We lived on the economy during our first overseas assignment to Hellenikon Air Base near Athens, Greece, and do so now at our current overseas location in northern Italy. Optimally, a house is supposed to be secured within 10 days from arrival. That’s a simple enough mission – find a house in a location where you’ve never been, in a language you probably don’t speak, and try to figure out the various things about that house that are completely different from anything you’ve ever seen.

Consider for a moment the contrast between the arrival of the average jet-lagged tourist to a foreign country and the arrival of the average jet-lagged military family. The tourist is occupied with adjusting to a new time zone, seeing some sights, searching for the perfect cup of cappuccino, and figuring out how to pay for it with foreign money. The military family is occupied with adjusting to a new life, starting a new job, searching for the “it-will-do-for-a-few-years” perfect house, and figuring out how to manage a U.S. bank account into which they get paid U.S. dollars, and a foreign account from which they pay local bills in the local currency. A lot is expected from these "average" families.

Two final points about moving and housing where the military is concerned: 1) the move is paid for by the government, and 2) if members do not reside on a military base, they receive a housing allowance in addition to regular pay. This allowance varies from one geographic location to another.

This military housing allowance is a point of contention with some non-military people, arguing that their place of employment doesn’t pay them a housing allowance. So here’s a correlation: In the civilian sector, employees often receive a pay raise or a cost-of-living increase when their company moves them from, say San Antonio, TX to Washington, DC, where the cost of living is about three times higher. The government cannot grant a cost-of-living increase to military personnel because military pay is strictly tied to rank and length of service. Instead, the government varies the amount of monthly “housing allowance” to try to make up for the uneven geographic costs of living. Note that this scenario also works in reverse: When a military member moves from a more expensive geographic locale to a less expensive one, that member’s housing allowance decreases.

These are just a few of the things military families deal with during every military move. I’ve purposely stayed away from related topics such as weight allowance, shipping a vehicle (only one is allowed for overseas moves), the various categories of shipments, temporary lodging, loaner furniture, etc. because it gets a little mind-numbing. Plus, the physical side of moving is not one of the things I love about living the military life. The things I do love are numerous, and vary slightly with each new destination.

I've been moving about once every three years since 1986.