The Last Day of the Year.

It’s here once again.  It’s here regardless of whether we’re holding onto the past or loathing the uncertainty of the future.  It’s here despite our best efforts to make time stand still or to hold on to that special moment.  It arrived quietly.  And, despite its certainty and predictability, it arrived quickly.

For our family, 2016 has been a year of great adventure as we continued to explore Okinawan history and culture.  We’ve also deepened our geopolitical understanding of Asia with travel to Hong Kong and Taiwan.  It’s been a year of celebration, for which we are grateful.  We learned of Russell’s selection for promotion, received word that our adoption paperwork has been submitted for review, and had Russell’s mother visit us in Japan.  Of course, this year also has presented challenges and struggles, some routine, some unexpected, and some unique to living abroad.  And, yes, it was a year of great disappointment in our fellow citizens as we learned that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. 

But whatever I think about the year, be it good, bad or indifferent, it is coming to a close whether I want it to or not, indifferent as to whether I’m ready or not.  And that is the beauty of today.  Today, I am able to hold on to those spectacularly intimate moments that filled our lives this year while letting go of everything else.  Like an iPhone software update, tonight at midnight, whether I’m awake or not, my life will be reset.  When I awake tomorrow, I will do so with the hope, optimism, and enthusiasm of one knowing that I have the opportunity to live my best life–my most authentic life–yet once again.  For tomorrow, I will replace what I wish I had done this year, with what I will do in that one. 

Of course, it’s anyone’s guess what I actually will accomplish in 2017.  Will I make the most of another journey around the sun?  Will I stand up for my beliefs?  Will I better this world?  Will I make the tough decisions?  Will I champion the underdog?  I certainly hope so.  But I also know that if I can’t get it right in 2017, there’s always 2018. 

#HopeSpringsEternal

The Morning After.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s day is my favorite time of the year.  With the Christmas hustle and bustle over, the days prior to the New Year are quiet, calm, and peaceful.  New toys provide a distraction to children young and old and the stress of preparing for the holiday gives way to euphoria that the holiday has passed, yet once again.

Early Christmas morning, [S] found the bicycle hidden behind the curtain and helmet under the tree left by Santa Claus.  After her discovery, it was as if the wrapped gifts sitting under the tree had become invisible.  Indeed, it took us hours to complete opening gifts on Christmas day.  While the number of gifts appeared modest, it became clear that she had received more than enough. 

Judging by the amount of use, [S]’s favorite gift is her bicycle helmet.  She wears it inside the house while she plays; she wears it outside the house riding her bike.  Each time she puts on her helmet, I smile, recalling Russell’s demand that we buy her a helmet when she was first learning how to walk. 

The day after Christmas, we hosted a small cocktail party, serving mostly light fare–black bean hummos, toasted pita chips, chicken teriyaki meatballs, crudite, assorted cheeses served with baguette, herb dip and crackers, bruschetta, deviled eggs, fresh strawberries, chicken adobo casserole, tortilla chips, grapes, uh, you get the picture.  We also had plenty of sweet treats from cranberry pie and homemade cookies to peppermint bark and an assortment of candy.  Clearly, we prepared too much. 

My favorite part of entertaining is grazing on leftovers post-party.  The next morning, [S] ate strawberries, grapes and pita bread and Russell and I indulged in dip, vegetables, fruit, and bruschetta.

With the reality that our refrigerator cannot hold another dish or bottle and that our living room cannot house another book or bear, I know that my fear that we won’t have enough–enough gifts under the tree for our daughter or enough food on the table to feed our guests–is not based in reality.  Indeed, we have more than enough.  For that–and for not having to cook for days–I’m deeply grateful.

The Longest Day of the Year

Its’ Christmas Eve.  During the day, children await nightfall; at night, children await the arrival of Santa Claus.  This year, December has taken on a life of its own.  The days have passed too quickly.  The ingredients for my traditional Christmas morning cranberry nut bread remain in the refrigerator, untouched.  The turkey remains frozen.  The house remains in disarray.  Fortunately, my Husband is understanding and our daughter too young to notice.

Today, I called a time-out on December’s frenetic pace.  Rather than bake cookies or clean the house, we headed to Southern Hills Ice Rink in Naha.  There, we introduced [S] to ice skating and wearing gloves.  (In an attempt to protect skater hands from injury during a fall, gloves are required to skate at Southern Hills.)  Fortunately, small cars and chairs were available to rent for those uncomfortable or unable to skate on their own.  The extra support gained from pushing [S] on the ice ensured I remained upright, despite last donning a pair of skates nearly 30 years ago. 

As we drove home, Russell and I discussed tonight’s dinner plans.  Popcorn?  Baguette, fruit, and cheese?  Lasagna?  Russell suggested I cook our Christmas meal this evening, allowing Christmas to be a mostly kitchen-free day.  So it came to pass that I prepared a spinach mushroom lasagna this evening.  In between baking and broiling, we were able to read the Christmas story and help [S] prepare a note and snack for Santa and his reindeer.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her more proud of efforts.  After much to-do, [S] headed to bed with Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas as her bedtime story.  As she dreams of visions of sugarplums, Santa got to work putting together her first bicycle. 

While this year’s Christmas no doubt appears unorthodox to some, for me it is a liberating departure from tradition.  Tomorrow, I will be focused on Russell and [S], not the oven and stove top.  Of course, the turkey will be cooked.  But we will leave that to the New Year.

From our family to yours, Happy Christmas. 

A Labor of Love. Literally.

All states have passed laws to make it easier for people with spouses in the military to get professional licenses to work after crossing state lines. But that doesn’t mean the laws always help.

Military Spouses Struggle To Stay In Careers, Despite State Laws, The Huffington Post (Dec. 13, 2016). 

This weekend, my Husband ran into someone he knows from work while we were out in town.  I was introduced to his spouse and before I knew it, she and I were following our children, casually discussing our time in Okinawa.  Our conversation turned to the topic of employment.  “I don’t work,” she stated flatly.  She continued, as if to explain her prior statement, “It’s not like I can practice law here.” 

Like any other professional group, lawyers speak their own language.  Unlike other professionals, I believe there to be a unique bond among attorneys fostered by the general disdain for members of the bar.  Indeed, since moving to Okinawa, I have had the privilege of meeting several intelligent, dedicated, and competent attorneys, who are spouses of servicemembers. 

The Huffington Post article reprinted below tells only part of the story.  Yes, the number of unemployed servicemember spouses—23%–is far too high.  Yes, the laws passed to assist the military spouse gain employment despite licensure requirements may be helpful under specific circumstances.  But for attorneys, such laws likely are unable to ameliorate the key demands of the profession:  (1) having a book of business that will follow you from place to place; and, (2) finding firms willing to hire an attorney for the length of orders (on average, three years).  Indeed, the typical partnership track requires an attorney to remain at one firm for many years.  If partnership is not reached, the attorney oftentimes will move on, open his or her own practice, or remain at the firm in a non-partnership track position. 

As a young, impressionable attorney, I listened intently to a senior female attorney and mentor, who had just returned to work from taking twelve weeks of maternity leave.  As she was complaining that several people had walked into her office while she was using her breast pump, despite her closed door, she looked at me and said, “Kimberly, my career is not a hobby.”  “I didn’t attend law school to not practice law,” she stated. 

Likewise, my career is not a hobby.  So instead of taking a hiatus from the practice of law, I volunteer my time as an attorney.  It keeps my research, counseling, and analytical skills sharp.  It requires I use new technology.  It ensures I keep up-to-date on relevant legal developments.  But such a practice fails to provide a paycheck, which is in no way insignificant–just ask anyone who has labored without compensation.  It means my work is not valued in the traditional sense–that my time and effort are not worthy of compensation.

Of course, if I wanted to give up the practice of law completely, I have a ready-made excuse for doing so:  I’m a military spouse.

* * *

RE:PRINT (The Huffington Post): Military Spouses Struggle To Stay In Careers, Despite State Laws

12/13/2016 09:51 am ET | Updated 6 days ago.  By Jen Fifield

 

Patti Ruby is a rarity among military spouses. She has been able to stay in her chosen career, speech pathology, for nearly 13 years, through the birth of her three children and a cross-country move, from Virginia to California. Last week, the family moved again, to Florida.

Ruby said she thought a new Florida law that provides temporary occupational licenses to military spouses would make it easy for her to get back to work. But she realized last month that she may not be eligible. Soon, she may be among the 23 percent of military spouses who are unemployed.

Florida and all other states passed laws in the last five years meant to help military spouses like Ruby who already have occupational licenses to quickly get back on the job after crossing state lines. But it’s unclear if these laws have made a difference. States were selective about which privileges to provide: Some of the laws allow the state to recognize out-of-state licenses for military spouses, others allow the state to expedite the licensing process, and others allow the state to issue temporary licenses.

Military spouses report having problems. About one-third work in licensed or certified professions, and about 63 percent of them said they encountered difficulties this year with licensing because of a move, according to survey results released Thursday from Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit aimed at helping military families. That’s down 7 percentage points from 2014, when the organization first asked the question.

The laws were driven by a White House campaign aimed at decreasing the unemployment rate for military spouses — 92 percent of whom are women — as it is significantly higher than the unemployment rate for all women over the age of 20, which is 4.2 percent. The high rate largely is a result of how often military families move, said Eddy Mentzer, a program manager for spouse education and career opportunities at the U.S. Department of Defense. They move once every two to three years, which is more than twice as often as the average family, according to a 2016 paper by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

The high unemployment rate takes a toll on the economy, according to advocates for military families. Difficult working conditions for military spouses lead to a social cost ranging from $710 million to $1 billion a year, according to an April report from Blue Star Families.

It’s also a national security issue, Mentzer said. Keeping spouses satisfied with their careers helps with military retention and recruitment, he said. Military spouses are 36 percent more likely to recommend military service to others if they are able to maintain a career, according to Blue Star’s survey.

If working conditions for spouses don’t improve, families will be more likely to leave the military and it will be hard to recruit new members, said Cristin Orr Shiffer, senior adviser for policy and survey with Blue Star Families.

“It’s like a death spiral,” she said.

If working conditions for spouses don’t improve, families will be more likely to leave the military and it will be hard to recruit new members, said Cristin Orr Shiffer, senior adviser for policy and survey with Blue Star Families.

Long Way to Go

Military spouses say their employment is a top concern. The unemployment rate for military spouses has gone down slightly recently, from 26 percent in 2010 to 23 percent in 2015, according to a Department of Defense report.

In 29 states, the law provides for three allowances supported by the Pentagon — recognizing out-of-state licenses, issuing temporary licenses and expediting licensing. But even in those states, the laws only include spouses in certain circumstances and certain professions, and the state may not be required to provide the allowances. And in many cases, spouses don’t know the laws exist.

There still is a long way to go, Mentzer said. “This is not a challenge that will go away for military spouses,” he said.

In Florida, Ruby, whose husband is in the Navy, said she thought the law, which allows the state to issue temporary licenses to military spouses with a current license in another state, would help her. But the law only applies to spouses who were active in their field for the last three years. And when Ruby’s family moved to California two-and-a-half years ago, she took a year off to care for her small children while her husband was deployed overseas.

She said the exception in the Florida law makes it so very few military families will qualify, because moving so often inevitably leads to gaps in employment. “You’re trying to help me out, but you’re also putting a clause on that’s a little unrealistic,” she said.

Jill Qualters, a friend of Ruby’s whose husband is also in the Navy, has moved across state lines six times in the last 13 years, the last time about a month ago to Colorado. She said that although she has stayed home with her children the last seven years, she wanted to get back into her career as a school counselor once the family got to Colorado.

To do so, she had to move a few weeks ahead of her family to take a test that would allow her to get her license. The test is offered only twice a year, and if she missed the November test, the next one wouldn’t have been until May.

Qualters said it was hard to not only take the test in the midst of the move, but to navigate the system.

“People who may not have the skills I do may just be throwing their hands up,” she said. “It just gets really frustrating. And that worries me because two-income families are the norm now.”

Hiring Spouses

The constant moves don’t just make it hard to stay employed, but also to get promotions and pay raises. The average income of a military spouse married to someone in active duty was $23,132, compared to $31,393 for a military spouse married to someone not in active duty, according to a 2014 report by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

Over the course of a 20- to 30-year career there is so much lost income, and that can be demoralizing, said Michael Richter, an attorney in New York and chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Military Affairs and Justice Committee, which advocated for a law in the state.

“These folks have made a significant sacrifice,” Richter said. “We don’t really need to add to their burden.”

In September, New York became the 50th state to pass a law to help spouses get a professional license when they move, a milestone celebrated by the White House.The bill should have been approved quickly, Richter said, as it was a bipartisan issue and wouldn’t cost the state any money. Instead, it was stuck for years in the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

There was hesitance in the Legislature about giving spouses a waiver because New York doesn’t typically grant exceptions for licenses, said Democratic state Assemblyman Félix Ortiz, who sponsored the bill.

With so many military spouses being well-educated, the legislation will help military families by allowing them to take better jobs and make more than just minimum wage, said Ortiz, who served in the Army.

Some companies make it a mission to hire military spouses because of what they bring to the job, said Andrew Schwartz, program manager of Virginia Values Veterans, a state program that encourages companies to commit to hiring veterans and spouses.

One Virginia company, Liberty Source PBC, has a social mission of hiring veterans and military spouses and training them for future work. More than 70 percent of employees at the company, which provides operating services, such as office support, financial services and accounting, to other companies, are veterans or military spouses, said Ashley Dolor, military spouse ambassador for the company.

Military spouses make for great employees, Dolor said, as they are used to adapting to new situations, which makes them agile to demands in the workplace.

“It’s in their blood,” said Dolor, whose husband is in the military. “That’s the way they live their lives on a constant basis.”

What’s Next

The Department of Defense recently contracted with the University of Minnesota to evaluate states’ implementation of the new laws to see where gaps exist. The study is expected to be done next year.

The Pentagon also is encouraging states to pass new laws, including ones specific to occupations such as teaching and nursing that aren’t covered by most existing laws.

Despite the efforts, some military families will still choose to leave the military because of the effect moves can have on a spouse’s career. Johanna Thibault’s husband just left active duty Army service primarily so the family didn’t have to move so often. “He didn’t want to watch the stress on my career anymore,” she said.

Thibault, a lawyer, is the communications director for the Military Spouse JD Network, which has since 2011 been advocating for state laws that allow reciprocity of law licenses between states. So far, 22 states have passed the laws.

Being a lawyer and having a spouse in the military is particularly hard, Thibault said, because of the time and cost of sitting for the bar exam, which can cost a few thousand dollars in each state.

“Once you pass, it’s painful to walk away from it,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for military spouses who are lawyers to live separately from their husband or wife just to maintain their career, Thibault said. A state can change that by passing a law, she said.

“It will keep good marriages together,” she said. “It will keep good spouses in the workforce. And it will keep good leaders in the military.”

* * *

Walking in a Wonderland

fullsizerender357This past Saturday was the first time I’ve sipped hot cocoa in years.  Although Christianity is not a dominant religion in Japan, the commercialization of Christmas has been embraced.  In Okinawa, Christmas decorations adored storefronts and holiday music was piped into malls immediately after Halloween.  But Okinawans have also embraced the beauty of the season with brilliant, creative, and intricate light displays.  Fortunately, most displays remain open well past the ringing in of the New Year. 

This weekend, we headed to the Southeast Botanical Gardens.  And we were delighted.  [S] found carriages to sit in, bridges to walk over, and brightly lit orbs to occupy.  She also had her first sip of cocoa.  For Russell and I, walking the festive grounds reminded us of the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of a child. 

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Bise Village

Our heat is on and I am wearing a sweater.  Really.  It’s 59 degrees outside and I’m chilled.  Although I’ve become used to the warmer temperatures, winter in Okinawa remains my favorite time of the year.  Indeed, we are able to take long walks without worrying about the sun and heat.  Last weekend, we headed north to Bise Village, just a few minutes’ drive north of the aquarium. 

Bise Village is known for its roads being lined by fukugi trees, which provide a dense canopy and a delightful walking experience.  Despite the canopy, visiting Bise Village during the summer isn’t recommended–if the heat doesn’t get you, the mozzies will.  Bise Village also is known for its bike rentals.  And we did just that. 

We walked the tree-lined streets, following the signs, until we reached the sea.  After enjoying the scenery, we had lunch at Ultra Blue, a French restaurant, and then walked to the bike rental.  It’s been nearly 20 years since I rode a bike.  The first few minutes reminded me of my first time riding a horse–I was both uncertain and unsteady.  But 10 minutes into our ride, I held a better appreciation of the old adage, “it’s just like riding a bike.” 

Of all of our experiences on Okinawa, this was one of my favorite. 

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An Act of Love.

fullsizerender336Since [S]’s birth, I have watched both with fascination and gratitude as family and close friends have bestowed on her their time, attention, and affection.  As a result she’s received plenty of playtime, warm hugs, and an abundance of cuddles.  She’s also been the recipient of thoughtful and generous gifts, including classic children’s books (think Dr. Suess’ The Lorax and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh) and an educational activity table that teaches the alphabet, numbers, directions, music, and animals. 

This week, a friend of ours gifted [S] a kitchen play set, consisting of a sink and an oven.  Unlike many–if not most–of the play kitchen sets, this one wasn’t made of bulky plastic.  And it wasn’t pink.  This kitchen set was made entirely from recycled and/or recyclable materials.  Various-sized cardboard boxes were used as foundation; black plastic bags were used to cover stove burners and dials; Gatorade bottle caps were repurposed as knobs; and, white paper was used as a finish.  The kitchen set was personalized with a “[S]’s Kitchen” embellishment on the oven and came with its own muffin tin (a rusting no-longer used tin, painted a kid-friendly red). 

fullsizerender337
[S] washing dishes.
The woman who created these gifts did so without my knowledge or input.  Indeed, one day, when everyone was recuperating quietly at home, she texted a photo of the set and asked if it would be okay to stop by.  I was rendered speechless.  Literally.  I was deeply touched by her thoughtfulness and amazed by her ingenuity and creativity.  “I left it white so [S] can paint it whatever color she wants,” she explained.  “When you leave Okinawa, you can just take it apart and recycle the pieces,” she continued.  “I thought you might want it for her to play with because everyone’s been sick,” she finished. 

[S] has played with the set every day since she received it.  The first day, she bent down and peered at the closed oven door.  “Where’s the light, Momma?,” she asked.  Then, she was baking cookies.  The next day, as I started washing dishes, she moved the kitchen set across from our kitchen.  “Look Momma, I’m washing dishes,” she delighted.  This evening, after a long day of work, I prepared [S] a peanut butter and jam sandwich for dinner.  After eating, she went straight to her refrigerator (the cabinet under the sink).  “Here Momma,” she said handing me an imaginary item.  “It’s a sandwich.”

I am equally entertained and intrigued witnessing [S] at play in her new kitchen.  Using a burp cloth as a dish towel, [S] casually threw it over her shoulder when she was finished, imitating me.  “I do that,” I said, laughing aloud.  My inner voice cautioned me, remember this.  As caregivers are aware, my affectations, habits, and mannerisms are being passed down to a new generation, just as are my attitude, outlook, and actions.  

To that end, I am proud that [S] is grateful for–and delighted by–her new environmentally-neutral kitchen set, for I am as well.