Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Everything you never knew you ever wanted to know about the Iwakuni commissary...

At a luncheon today, the director of the MCAS Iwakuni commissary, Buddy Kolath, who arrived in Iwakuni in January, spoke about the current conditions and future plans for the commissary on base. For those of you non-military types reading this, the commissary is the grocery store. The very lifeblood of our existence. Well, at least our existence as Americans. Sure, we could go off base to shop for food... there are plenty of Japanese grocery store choices, otherwise known as "living on the economy," but many items on traditional American grocery lists are not available, or are much more expensive.

So, the commissary, especially since we are living overseas, is an incredibly important part of life here. It's where we get 93 percent of our groceries, run in to the people we have been trying to avoid all summer, and, most recently, get kicked out for wearing a spaghetti strap tank top (yes, this happened, no, it did not happen to me. I prefer my embarrassment to come from getting pulled over by Japanese cops).

 I have blogged about the commissary before. You can find the posts here:

Ahhh... the commissary from November 2013
Town Hall Takeaway from February 2014

Today's discussion moved around to various topics, returning to some, and, like all good Iwakuni discussions do, got off topic as well. The easiest way for me to touch on the important points made by Buddy is to simply provide a list... so here it is, in no particular order:

  • The new commissary building is now scheduled to be completed in September 2015, with a Grand Opening tentatively scheduled for the December 2015 timeframe. This was pushed back from Spring 2015 due to a lack of funds. (Yes, I was surprised by this reason, also... I was under the impression this had been planned and budgeted for for years... I think more budget-savvy military wives need to be involved next time. Just sayin'...)
  • If you have a problem with the commissary, go to Buddy. He said he has an open-door policy, his office is in the back warehouse area (think soda, paper plates and pet food) and he will fix your problem to the best of his ability as quickly as possible. When you submit an ICE comment, it actually takes longer to fix the problem, he said. His days off are Friday and Saturday.
  • Dairy shortages (and, as anyone who is friends with me on Facebook, cottage cheese famines) should become a thing of the past. Thanks to some governmental red tape, there was a year that DECA, the company that manages the commissaries across the world, could only use American shipping vessels (boats). This will soon change, and the more available vessels means more available dairy. Yay!
  • But there are still lag times. From when the commissary puts in an order for items, it takes 6 to 8 weeks for that order to arrive in the Iwakuni commissary. Within that time frame, it takes our food 18-20 days to travel from the supplier in America to the commissary. This includes produce, which is why we often have moldy fruit and veggies. If there is any kind of delay in the hot summer, the shelf life of these foods is going to be much shorter. Plus, our food has to be inspected and fumigated (yes, fumigated for American bugs they don't want in their country, like... black widow spiders... if you just got to Iwakuni and haven't heard about the fight against black widow spiders yet, don't worry, you will) by the Japanese government and this takes time. I assume the fumigation chemicals are safe for human consumption...or it could be some kind of long-term payback... but the family and I seem to be OK so far.
  • Despite the delays and fumigation, produce from the States is imported because it is much cheaper than local produce. And, long story short, there is a lot of governmental red tape when trying to reduce imports and increase local purchases. But Buddy said he is going to try and bring in fresher local foods... which turn out to be not so local. All warehouses are in Tokyo, so regardless of where the crops are harvested, everything goes to Tokyo and then comes back to outlying areas. For those of you reading this who aren't aware, Tokyo is about 16 hours by car from Iwakuni. This distance costs money and time.
  • MCAS Iwakuni commissary sales are up 20 percent from this time last year. How odd... the base also grew by 20 percent, thanks to a new squadron being relocated here from Okinawa. ;)
  • Iwakuni residents use 14 percent less coupons than any other base in the Pacific. Free coupons are available at the commissary as you walk in, and outside the Information, Referral and Relocation office on the first floor of building 411 (library building). I save, on average, $200 a quarter (as in calendar quarter) using coupons. And trust me, I don't waste time clipping them. I spend an hour each quarter sorting them and then have them with me when I shop. Coupons overseas are good for 6 months after the expiration date. So give your great aunt Betty something fun to do: Ask her to send you expired coupons and let's get that average coupon use up! I hate being in last place. I'm competitive like that.
  • Want vegan ice cream or dark chocolate cocoa mix but can't find it at the commissary? Special order it. There are forms at the commissary, and they will try to find a vendor to provide your requested item. But be patient: It could take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to get the item in to the store. And that's if there is a vendor available to provide it to the commissary. Again, more governmental contractual red tape is at play.
  • Buddy is aware of the lousy quality of the shopping carts, and the lack of two-seater carts for those families who need to corral their small children to shop. He is looking in to ordering more big carts and working on fixing the safety belts and wheels on the rest. The majority of these carts are only a year old and the company that provided them is contractually obligated to maintain and fix them... however, the company does not have any suppliers near us, so they can't be forced to fix and maintain the carts. Um... who signed off on that contract? Clearly it wasn't a petite mother of three having to live and shop here... and replace any of the broken merchandise her wayward cart decided to plow in to.
  • The commissary offers special services, such as deli party trays and fruit/veggie trays in various sizes. Just give them 24 hours notice. When we get the new commissary next year, there will be additional special services offered.
  • Did you know there was a meat department button you could push to have a butcher come out and do special cuts of meat for you? Yeah, me neither, but there is. I am going to hunt for the button next time I am at the commissary. Supposedly they will provide the cuts of meat you want and ground your sirloin for you, all for free (with the price of the meat, of course). Oh, and ox tails will be back soon. But don't expect any fresh fish. This commissary doesn't have the facilities required for it.
  • All meat at the commissary must be USDA approved, per military order. So, yes, your chicken will always be sold frozen. Buddy is also looking in to providing more organic chicken and turkey choices.
  • Want to place a big order of turkeys or hams for the holiday squadron functions? Place your special order at least a week in advance. Want to roast a whole pig? Order it at least 8 weeks in advance... and then tell me how you plan to cook it because if there is a pit barbecue somewhere around here, I am crashing your party.
  • It's humid here and I already told you about the long shipping delays. Put your bread in the refrigerator to reduce molding.
  • Expiration/sell by dates on food is merely a suggestion provided by savvy marketers. You'll probably toss out perfectly good food and buy more. A marketers dream! Use common sense and, when all else fails, Google it.
  • The lumps found in DariGold milk doesn't necessarily mean it's gone bad. It actually means that you need to shake the milk up because the company didn't do it well enough for you. Consider it an excuse to miss Zumba class tomorrow.
  • There will be a Fall Farmers Market and Sidewalk sale at the commissary Sept. 27-29, 2014.
  • In celebration of Labor Day this weekend, there will be a 50 percent off sale on Bubba Burgers, Washington Beef and Oscar Meyer Sausage. Go get it, grill meisters!
So, if you have any questions about any of this, ask Buddy. I have given you everything I learned today. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Rules of Three...

Everyone has heard of the Rule of Three, or some version of it. It's either a writing guideline, the way well-known celebrities die (in threes... James Garner, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, anyone?) or a basic rule of photography (Rule of Thirds), not to mention other, lesser known rules of three. Seriously... some time when you're bored or writing a blog post, Google "Rule of Three." It's a whole new world out there.

For me, this month, there were three Rules of Three that guided my existence.

1) The Military Dependent World Traveler Rules of Three

I traveled back to the States to visit family for a few weeks this month and air travel can be... challenging. Even when you only have two flights to take you to and two flights to take you from your destination. Here are the rules and how I followed them:

Delayed in Tokyo
  1. You will be delayed somewhere along the line. It may only be a few minutes, it may be a day, or two, but when you travel between Japan and the States, you will be delayed. Every time I have traveled, whether it be commercially or with Space A, I have been delayed. Sometimes it is because I accidentally mail my passports to myself. Sometimes, like this time, TSA delays my flight from LAX to Tokyo because they can't examine some Marines' bags fast enough... try an hour and half delay, which meant my kids and I missed our flight to Hiroshima and spent the night in Tokyo... luckily at the airline's expense (and I think they should bill TSA, but poor customer service will be discussed later). So, as you follow this rule, remember to pack a full change of clothes and a tooth brush in your carry on. You never know where you might be spending the night.
  2. Take a copy of your sponsor's orders with you. Even if you have been stationed overseas for years, having a copy of these orders can save you time, money and a ton of hassle. Some of these savings are are in a "gray area"of what is "allowed" and I don't condone any misuse of anything ever and this is merely a suggestion from what I have seen and heard other people do... yep. But, because of these... stories I have heard... it's gotten to the point where I have the passports, military ID's, orders, itineraries and a pen in one easy-to-access pocket of my purse. And whenever one item is requested, I pull everything out and plop it down on the counter/table/kiosk. And then act blonde and helpless (which, depending on how long I have been traveling thus far and who I am traveling with, may not be far from the truth). Take what you want, official travel people. Whatever it takes for me and my kids to get where we need to go when we need to go here for as little money and hassle as possible. Oh, and the pen is because there are forms to fill out every time you leave and enter any country. Having your own pen handy saves a lot of time. Especially if you can write quickly, yet legibly and accurately, while winding through immigration and customs lines.
  3. Both Japanese and American iPhones are must-haves. This is strictly my opinion, of course, and I am sure it is not the cheapest/smartest/most travel savvy option. BUT, it was easy and I always had communication options. The spouse and I have our U.S. AT&T accounts held for us, as a specialized option for military members, so we don't rack up charges while we are stationed overseas, but we can turn our accounts on and off for a week or month at a time. We've kept our old iPhone 4S's as our "American" phones, and simply call AT&T to have it turned on while we are in the States. We have our same phone numbers, so our friends and family already have them, we have our same calling and data plans, and thanks to whatever "G" network is up and running that year, we always have Internet access. As a woman traveling alone, sometimes with two kids in tow, getting delayed and needing to find whatever hotel we've been assigned to for the night in whatever country we are in, this makes me very happy. And having access to my Candy Cush account at all times is a happy bonus. For me and anyone who is in my proximity when I've been told I've missed a flight.
2) The High School Reunion Questions Game Rules of 3

Ready to reunion!
My 20th high school reunion happened to be two nights after I arrived in the States for my visit. I graduated with a class of 500-800 people, depending on who you ask, and it was rumored that our class was the smartest, most ambitious class the school had had to date. Trust me, it sure felt like it. I was the dumb side of the smart kids... I was in the same classes as those smart kids, but the A's did not rub off on to my report card just by me passing the geniuses on the way out the classroom door. I didn't win any awards and all of the photos I am in in the yearbook, aside from the individual picture everyone gets, were in huge group photos, like Drama Club and Girl's League. And, I was terrible about keeping in touch with anyone from high school ... but I went to the reunion anyway, because that's tradition... a right of passage, so to speak, and I'm all about adventures. For this adventure I wore a blue maxi dress, flip flops and a top shelf margarita. Well, I didn't actually wear the margarita, (try explaining that to the cop on the way home) but I did carry it for a few minutes... until I drank it. The perfect reunion accessory, if you ask me. But no one did. Instead, everyone asked me the same three questions. I share them here so that you are prepared with interesting, witty answers... like the ones I thought up, but didn't dare say.
  1. Do you have kids? Yes. I do. I have two boys, they are 12 and 8. Beyond that answer, any details sound like bragging. For example: They are funny, intelligent and receive compliments about their behavior and attitudes on a regular basis. They both got straight A's or the equivalent (because second grade STILL doesn't get letter grades - Why, people why?!) and their baseball team won the base championship for their age bracket. Well, actually, the younger one played up a couple of years because the 7-9 year old bracket doesn't keep score yet (Why, people, why?!), and the poor kid couldn't stand it any more. Neither one of them have figured out rocket science or the meaning of life yet, but we expect that from them in the next 12 to 18 months. Follow me on Twitter and I'll keep you informed of their progress. (Jokes on my classmates, I do not have a Twitter account.) Some of my classmates just had their first baby this year. I smiled, congratulated them and thanked my lucky stars I wasn't one of them. I love my full nights of sleep and diaper-free life.
  2. Where do you live? I live in Japan. Really? Yes, really. I have no motivation to lie. If I did, I would come up with something even more exciting, like Fallujah, Antarctica or the Moon. I am pretty creative. Of course, I have to explain: My husband is a Marine and is stationed overseas. Yes, I am enjoying it. No, I don't want to live there forever. I'm too American. And I speak about 10 Japanese phrases on a good day. For someone who likes to communicate, that's frustrating. But not frustrating enough for me to want to try and learn the language, which has three different alphabets. The good news is that, despite the fact that I do not live on the moon, I won the bottle of wine for "the classmate who traveled the furthest," beating out a drunk woman who thought Tennessee was further than Iwakuni, Japan. I didn't remember her from high school. Obviously she wasn't in the "smart people" classes...
  3. What do you do? I breathe, eat, shower on occasion... oh, you mean as a job? Well, as I mentioned before, my husband is a Marine, so that means any traditional career path for me has been sliced apart by a Marine Corps K-bar (for civilians, that's a big knife) so, like my resume, my current means of earning money are splintered: I am a photographer, scrapbooker, an online adjunct instructor for the University of West Florida, I teach English, photography and crafting, I have owned/own some small businesses... I guess I am a bit of an entrepreneur. Of course, just when I am feeling good about my answer, in a room full of doctors, lawyers and financial analysts, a fellow classmate, with an air of skepticism, chimes in with: "Like, how are you an entrepreneur?" Like, I don't know... like, I like to start stuff from nothing and then maybe run it or sell it off. Like, follow me on Twitter and I'll, like, keep you posted. Turns out, she, like, just had her first baby... I will chalk up her lack of imagination to 'baby brain' and call it good. The good news here was that, while I wasn't the classmate who had been married the longest, 13.5 years put me solidly in the top 5 percent of those in the room. #winning #thankshoney
Wine winner... and geography knower... I know where both  Tennessee AND Japan are!

3) The Three Rules of Returning to the States After a Year Absence

I am lucky in that I have been back to visit my and members of my husband's family in the States three times in the two years we have been gone. They deserve much of the credit, as they have primarily bankrolled this ability. Thank you. But there are definitely three things to keep in mind when you go back to the homeland:

  1. You will gain weight. Despite the fact that I will be featured in the base magazine next month for having met a fitness goal, I consumed a lot of excess calories upon my return to the good ol' US of A. Wahoo's Fish Taco, Dave and Busters, Outback Steakhouse, Del Taco, Lucille's Barbecue, authentic Mexican food, Sonic Drive-in, Waffle House, Cheesecake Factory, the Donut Storr in Mission Viejo, Calif., ... which are the best doughnuts in the world. And these are only the restaurants I can remember without going back and checking my Facebook wall. I had 19 days to satisfy every craving I have had in the past 12 months. That also included a watermelon that didn't cost $40. Yep, my capris are tight right now. So I wear sundresses. Don't judge. I'm back to eating healthy and am trying to get motivated to start working out again... I have a ball dress to fit in to this fall!
  2. The customer service in America sucks in general... and they want money for it. Seriously... I am spoiled by Japan's customer service. I have heard it from others who have lived here and then gone back to the States, but I didn't believe it until I experienced it myself. I used to tip servers 20 percent most of the time, as long as there weren't any major issues, like our whole ordered being misplaced. This time, most servers were lucky to get 10 percent from me. And I am sure they complained to someone about it. Well... don't make me wait 15 minutes for you to acknowledge my existence in your section, bring me cold food that's supposed to be hot or vice versa, or let my tea glass go empty. In other words, do your job. The Japanese people do their job, do it with pride and don't get tipped. You should taste the McDonald's nuggets here. And the Big Mac arrives on your tray looking just like the picture on the menu board. No kidding. And I seriously don't have time to get in to my thoughts on TSA... but they could learn some lessons from the Japanese airport security.
  3. You will drive on the wrong side of the road at least once. And it won't be on your first day driving, or when there are a bunch of other cars on the road. It will be late in to your stay, and when there are no other cars on the road. That is because you will be 1) too conscious of trying not to be the cause of a head-on collision the first few times you are at the wheel on the left side of the car, and 2) if there are other cars to follow, it's a no brainer as to which side of the road you should be on. My mother, kids and I went on a week-long road trip around the Southwest, where I drove 98 percent of the time. It was not until the last couple of days where I was turning the wrong way on to a side street and then, again, in a parking lot. I had gone in to auto-drive mode, where I stopped worrying about which side of the road I was on and went with instinct, and there weren't any other cars in the proximity moving in the correct direction for me to follow to help me decide which country I was driving in. Fortunately, my mother was there to remind me - remarkably calmly - that I was driving on the wrong side of the road and to get over. Now, you will continue to screw up the turn signals/windshield wipers throughout the duration of your stay. Just accept it and act like you meant to do it by squirting windshield wiper fluid. No one will be the wiser.
Road trip! Tombstone was NOT one of the places I drove on the wrong side of the road.