There is no avoiding life’s “floor chocolate”

My kids and I were at Target late on the evening of December 23 following dinner at Ruby Tuesdays. Officially, we were on a mission to procure a new pair of black fashion boots for my daughter, who had outgrown her previous pair. Unofficially, we were there to watch the 10th-hour Christmas shoppers do their semi-frantic thing.

Just when you don't think retail work can get any crappier around the holidays, someone deposits crap on the floor near the checkout lanes.

Just when you don’t think retail work can get any crappier around the holidays, someone deposits crap on the floor near the checkout lanes.

Note: I refer to this group as 10th hour Christmas shoppers because it’s technically not 11th-hour Christmas shopping until the afternoon of December 24, the time at which you should position yourself at the local 24/7 truck stop for the absolute best in last-minute Christmas shopping people watching.

As someone who isn’t much into gift-giving, it’s especially entertaining for me to watch people who are, speedily trolling store aisles, snatching garments off racks, yanking novelty items off shelves and hastily hurling everything into a heaped cart of crap they pay for with a credit card. All to make sure they have Christmas “covered,” sure as the snow covers the ground each December.

I feel sorry for those who work in retail this time of year, as many customers seem short on reason during Christmas season. I worked at Robinson’s Department store in Battle Creek my first Christmas after graduation from high school and quickly had more than my fill of that variety of customer. I don’t suffer fools lightly and an abundance of them showed up like clockwork at our store that year to make 10th- and 11th-hour purchases. Their crappy, procrastinating attitudes suggested I had personally thrown Christmas, unannounced, onto their already heaped plate of December activities. And they were having digestion problems.

Someone must have had digestion problems December 23 at Target, because as we approached the checkout lane with our purchases, three Target employees and one security company official were attempting to clean up something gross on the floor.

“Please tell me that’s chocolate,” I said to the grimacing 20-something employee as I surveyed the suspicious-looking brownish patch of ick on the floor in our path.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure chocolate’s exactly what it is,” she said with an eye roll, struggling to put a replacement pad onto the small Swiffer mop with which she’d armed herself. But having grown up on a farm and having changed multiple diapers, I knew better.

“Well, it appears to me to be an act of turd terrorism,” I announced, laughing. The Target employees began laughing, too, despite the disgusting circumstances. The security guy was laughing so hard he moved the bag into which the clean-up employee was attempting to deposit the soiled Swiffer pad. The pad dropped back onto the floor, respreading a round of holiday cheer. A collective “aarghh” swept the gathering crowd of gawkers.

I paid for my purchases with a sideways gaze trained in the direction of the fecesatrical production. Having cleaned up the respread mess, the Target employees attempted to move a nearby shopping cart out of the way, only to discover its wheels had made contact with the original piece of “chocolate.” Moving the cart left an even longer nasty brown streak across the store. Triple gross.

At that point, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances, short of volunteering to help with the clean-up: I whipped out my phone and took a photo of the disgusted looking employees attempting to wage battle against the Evil Excrement Empire. As if working retail wasn’t crappy enough around Christmas. I contented myself with the thought that at least I wasn’t the one stepping in it, for a change.

As our family drove away from the experience, the question that remained in our minds was what kind of animal would have deposited something like that near the store checkout lane? Or anywhere else in the store, for that matter. Maybe it had been a four-legged animal. I rather liked the noble idea it had fallen from a service dog. But most likely, it had been unleashed from a two-legged Homosapien.

Pampered pooch or Pampered pre-schooler, there’s no avoiding crap life sometimes deposits from out of nowhere into our paths. We might as well re-frame it as “floor chocolate,” and at least smile as we mop.

Disregard of convention elevates senior status

I turned 50 less than a week ago and don’t feel a bit different than I did at 49, except that other people seem to take the “act your age” adage a lot more seriously than I intend to take it.

Kristys Birthday

There seem to be all kinds of stereotypes I am apparently unaware of, but am supposed to be following. That, in itself, might very well be symptomatic of getting older. Who? What? Nobody tells me. Of course, it might also be more indicative of my Alfred E. Neuman approach to life: “What, me worry?”

There’s just no point in getting my (now granny) panties in a bunch over getting older. When I last checked, my biological clock was controlled by Mother Nature pretty much the same way some timepieces are radio-controlled by the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. Not a whole lot of operating system changes possible. Sure, you can keep the wristband looking okay, but the ongoing march of time cannot be completely de-activated.

My thought is that it’s a bunch of other people having their respective styles of underwear creeping upwards toward their brains that has them confused that getting older is an all-purpose excuse for letting themselves go to Hell in a wrinkly, sagging handbasket. Some may have misheard about the atomic clock and thought it meant all biological clocks detonate at 50, leading to geriatric fallout.

Fortunately, I don’t watch a lot of television, take to heart tabloid headlines, or regard Facebook postings as gospel. Uninfluenced by popular culture, I make up my own mind and determine my own outcomes. Healthy skepticism has kept me and my attitude healthy.

Someday, I want said about me what appeared in the obituary of a friend’s father, who died at age 87, “With his gentle and positive attitude, he was young at heart.” I spent last Sunday afternoon visiting with two friends of mine, one 98 and the other 103. During conversation, neither complained about their health, looks or lives. There were too many more interesting things to discuss, including how young 50 is.

Unfortunately, that may be the minority opinion. Some people think this refusing-to-succumb-to-senior-stereotypes person needs some help – mainly relationally, as evidenced by the number of senior dating service ads that appear in my email. I ignored them at first, but then started checking them out in hope the subsequent laughter would keep me feeling young. Maybe they’ll be good for you, too.

At seniormatch.com, self-proclaimed, “the largest and most effective dating site for baby boomers and seniors,” I learned the service is a great platform to meet activity partners, travel companions, my dream lover or my soulmate. All that and no one under the age of 30 allowed!

That’s fine with me because I wouldn’t want to hook up with a 30-year-old guy. Sounds pretty cougarish to me! Grrrr. If 30-year-olds seemed too immature to date back when I was 30, why would I be interested two decades later? Plus, that arrangement did not end so well for actress Demi Moore. And I’m not frequently mistaken for her body double.

Online senior dating service members connect with one another on the basis of interests and qualities, including size and shape. Not unlike selecting fruit in the grocery store. However, I’m reminded of all the times I’d thought I procured the perfect melon only later to discover that I had selected an inferior product that was hollow, rotten or both.

Not to fear, seniormatch.com supplies dating suggestions to maximize matchmaking. But the magical ideas I thought I sought instead ranged from tame to lame. A couple of them made me laugh. Just what do they mean by “random nighttime activities?” Would we sleepwalk together or go out and vandalize tombstones under the cover of darkness? And does “errand dating” really mean what it implies? Would we return library books, pay bills and do tag-team grocery shopping? The non-thrilling possibilities seemed endless and endlessly foolish.

Left to my own 50-year-old devices, I have reconnected with someone to whom age is only a number. Untethered by social constructions and able to make anything fun, we’ve already engaged in a variety of interesting activities. Act our ages? No way.

Turning 50 needn’t be a traumatic milestone

I was only 10 years old when my parents turned 40, but, judging by the smart-alecky comments made by their friends, colleagues and relatives, it must have been monumental. I can remember thinking they were ancient and teetering on the respective brinks of their graves. Dad was already getting gray and Mom, well, she’d acted 40ishly responsible for as long as I could remember, so over-the-hill seemed more like just around the bend.

For me, turning 40 was great. I had just moved to the house of my dreams and acquired the most prestigious job of my career. I had two young children just emerging from the diaper stage to keep me on my toes and no gray hair, wrinkles or cellulite. What wasn’t to like?

I remember well the words of one very wise gentleman, Walt Rutledge, who came to the senior center I directed. “Kristy,” he said, “Forty is both the youth of old age and the old age of youth. It’s all in how you look at it.”

If I hadn’t believed Walt’s wisdom then, I would have come to later. When he died, it was on his knees, beside his bed, his head bowed in prayer. What a way to go. Moreover, what a way to live. He was right. It is all in how you look at it. Not just age, but everything.

What would Walt have said about turning 50? Probably plenty. But I think he would encourage me to live it with the same enthusiasm he did his 80 plus years. He lined his life with faith and enthusiastic friends and caring relatives who helped sustain his positivity on the off days we all have, but into which he refused to give. When in doubt, he smiled and worked his way out of it by finding someone else to encourage. His cheerleading for others kept him in the game.

I was reminded of Walt’s positive testimony with a “JOY” plaque I purchased the other day as a gift for another friend who radiates a similar optimism. It read, “I’ve heard it said that JOY is a word that when taken letter by letter can make us understand just how such a small word makes things better. The J of course, is Jesus. The O, why that means others, the Y means you come last yourself, after all your sisters and brothers. So when you’re putting Jesus first in everything that you do, then it really is no wonder that others see JOY in you!”

The plaque resonated with me to the point I almost don’t want to give it to my friend and instead hang onto it as a reminder to myself. I haven’t ruled out going back and getting one for myself, but alas, I purchased it when out of town on business. Plus, keeping it might be venturing a wee bit into the selfish realm. So I’ve instead etched the thought into my heart.

Amidst the secular reminders of aging, including receiving AARP literature in my roadside mailbox and offers from senior dating services in my email box, I’ve decided not to become too wrapped up in the number “50” on my December 19th birthday. Granted, that’s easier when you don’t have any of the stereotypically-associated symptoms, such as gray hair (or care if you get any, which I know is easier to say when you don’t yet have any), still have children living at home and are not taking any prescription medications. However, caving in to aging is still a choice.

One of the many reasons I read the Bible is because it’s populated with characters who didn’t come into their own through God until they were of a significantly, “mature age,” shall we say, and got over themselves. God also regularly used fools for good. I’ve been steadily working on all three areas for some time.

In the words of one of my favorite famous pastors, Dr. Charles Stanley, “Rest in His care, wait on His timing, and trust Him to work on your behalf.” That’s what I intend to do during the rest of the second half of my life. I want more of what God has in store.

Christmas giving too focused on materialism

Am I alone in finding Christmas, or the “holiday season,” as it is known by some, to have become increasingly tedious, if not downright annoying? Very little about Christmas has to do with celebrating the birth of Christ. It’s more like hedonistic ritual time and its name changed on the holy scrolls to reflect that. How about “Feast of Entitlement” or “Unchecked Greed Grab?”

This is the second column where I’ve addressed entitlement. Perhaps because it looms as the overarching problem of our time. As a society, we feel we’ve gotta have, have, have in order to be good enough. For what? Compared to what? Well, no one knows, we’re too busy making demands and out acquiring stuff to be able to know for sure.

Fortunately, I’m busy enough with real work and real life issues that I don’t have the time to get caught up in much of the sugar plum-spun artificial demands associated with Christmas. I’m not in overdrive to shop and decorate my way toward the “perfect Christmas,” however it might be defined. At the rate I am going, I’ll be lucky even to make a small batch of caramel corn and a dish to pass for our family’s annual buffet at my aunt’s house.

According to my cousin who drives truck and is therefore an airwave expert, the regulars on the Bob and Tom radio show recently said it’s wise to stay out of a relationship between the end of November through mid-February in order to avoid the stress and hassle of having to purchase a gift for someone. That special someone is likely to want something bigger and better that what was received, or might read incorrectly the intentions of the gift-giver (ala “Take Back Your Mink”), so it’s altogether better to avoid the whole set-up.

I had mixed feelings about that. For one thing, I just started seeing someone, so I can’t very well put the relationship on hiatus, let alone come up with a dishonest, yet compelling reason for doing so strictly to avoid gift exchange. For another thing, I have next to no interest in the giving or receiving of gifts, so I don’t spend much time sweating it.

If I do give gifts, they are much more likely to be activity- or service-oriented. Past such gifts have included special event tickets, a resume makeover, a theatre gift card, piano playing for a special event, a tanning package, publication subscriptions, a piano-tuning, and a custom-cooked dinner party. Acts of service are not just what I like to give, but what I prefer to receive. A gift certificate for therapeutic massage was one of the best gifts I ever received.

My daughter is the opposite. The bigger the better, and tangible gifts! When it came time on Thanksgiving Day for our extended family to draw names for Christmas gift-giving, she produced no less than a three-page list of not-so-subtle, but certainly over-the-top, can’t-live-without items. I kid you not! Since she knows I am not much on gift-giving, she was banking someone else would compensate.

Kate’s list ranged from sweet tooth stocking stuffers such as Life Savers and Tic Tacs, to mid-range items, such as clothing, books and movies, to series of books (including a by-name listing of all the Lemony Snickets books) and movies, to major purchases, including a black leather jacket and full-scale computer and stereo equipment. Guess there’s no harm in asking.

In anticipation of a gift windfall, I brought up the unpopular suggestion we go through her existing clothing population and cull from the herd the too small and no longer cool. That followed an email advertisement from my garbage hauler that read, “Forget stockings. Stuff a dumpster instead.” Now those are some words of real wisdom! Plus, it would lead to the reward of a $25 virtual reward card in addition to gaining a dumpster.

I asked for a smaller-scale waste elimination item: A replacement Rubbermaid tall trash can with an easy access lid to hold returnable bottles on my back porch. Not the most romantic of gifts, but certainly pragmatic. And it would play a small role in making the world a less entitled place.

Slow leaking tire deflates sense of entitlement

I am an American, which means I am likely to take things for granted. From food and heat, to  running water and freedom, I expect to not have to do without any of it. Well, if ever I stopped feeling entitled long enough to pause and think about it. As an American, I feel entitled to the point it’s even too inconvenient for me to conceive of being inconvenienced, let alone actually having to do without something.

That all changed when three days before Thanksgiving, the driver’s side rear tire of my vehicle developed a slow leak. I wouldn’t even have thought to check for such a possibility to occur, had not the vehicle’s information center flashed the warning across my dashboard. The phrase, “Why me?!” flashed across my mind.

Naturally, the tire issue occurred when I needed to be away from the office, on the road across the state. That could be accomplished by driving a company vehicle, but it did little in the way of getting my tire problem remedied in a timely manner.

So I just kept adding air to it, the closest thing to duct tape I could find. At first glance, that would seem like a relatively simple temporary solution, but it was not without its own share of complexities. It necessitated acquiring and carrying extra quarters with me. It forced me to sport a tire air pressure gauge in my pocket. It demanded I start out extra early, toward my destinations, so there would be ample time to stop as often as needed to add air to the tire that never tired of depleting.

If you haven’t used a gas station tire pump in a while, let me be the one to enlighten you that there is currently a wide variation and great disparity among their set-ups and functioning. About the only thing each has in common is a shared history of abuse by and to the public. After my experience, I no longer wondered why.

While each air pump costs the consumer a dollar to operate, that one dollar will dispense anywhere from three to five minutes worth of air. Who knows why. I hadn’t imagined there could be so much variance until I found myself a connoisseur of public air compression. Scrounging for quarters in the console and side door pocket of my vehicle, I began to wonder if there is such a thing as inflation inflation.

Something else I hadn’t been aware of, in my typical supercilious frame of mind regarding things as pedestrian as public air compressors, was that some of them have gone high tech. The one at the Sunoco station sported a curly, neon green air hose and accepted major credit cards. While those two features were initially impressive, they lost their glitter and snob appeal when, just 10 seconds into tire inflation, a digital error message flashed across the unit’s screen, accompanied by a high-pitched beeping sound that couldn’t be silenced. Before speeding off to escape it, I noted that had the flashy, new machine worked, I would have received a full five minutes of air pressure for my dollar. What a bargain!

Had I known my tire inflation attempt would fail, I would have used my credit card instead. I found myself four quarters down and 15 PSIs short of a road-worthy tire, with 55 miles of work commute left. I drove to the next closest gas station, rummaging under my rump for any change I might have previously dropped down the car seat. Mercifully, I found two much-needed quarters, all the while ignoring the stares of other drivers who were probably wondering what I was so vigorously probing in my backside region.

Unfortunately, the public air compressor at the next station sported a hastily-written, low-tech “Out of Order” sign. However, another old-style public air compressor at the next closest gas station took my last four quarters and worked like a charm. I over-inflated the problem student tire an extra two pounds, per the digital display on my dashboard, then headed toward the vehicle dealership where I had obtained the car, the temporary spare donut tire of my American entitlement remaining largely untested.

Power outage occurred at worst possible time

Severe weather is never a good thing. No, it’s a reminder that Mother Nature, not us, is in charge of the elements. And at no time do I feel more out of my element than when I am scrambling for a flashlight, matches and candles, while simultaneously kicking my own butt for not setting aside water for drinking and flushing the toilet. It’s quite the sight to behold.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. But being the last person on the planet to ever check the weather (on the theory that it doesn’t matter how good/bad the weather is, a person still has to get done that which is on his/her to-do list), I’ll have to say I was surprised that we had the potential for tornadoes.

Last Sunday, I heard secondhand about the unofficial Wizard of Oz reenactment that was to be stated live across the Midwest. And that was through overhearing someone at church that morning questioning whether we should be having a Christmas program planning meeting later that night, due to the severity of the weather that was heading our way.

I had an interview and errands early Sunday afternoon. But I would periodically glance at the sky and pat myself on the back that I had been right not to become too alarmed regarding the storm that obviously wasn’t going to materialize. Scratch that thought at dusk, when, faster than I could cry out, “Auntie Em, Auntie Em,” all kinds of heck broke loose, preventing me for a good hour from even retrieving the groceries from my car.

Under the usual cloud of evening darkness, enormous dark clouds appeared and unapologetically gave us all they had. When I thought nature’s wrath had subsided a bit, I left home to pick up something from a friend’s house. Okay, and I may have wanted to gawk at the storm damage a little, too. The top street name on a road sign in town was spinning circles, propeller-style, around itself in a way that said “beware.” On the way back, I had to reroute myself twice due to large branches that were down across the road.

When I arrived back home, mercifully unscathed, I knew we had lost power. It was most noticeable by the absence of the glow of the television through the lace curtains of a small room that faces the road. However, the absence of technology had prompted my son and daughter to light every candle within 100 miles, turning our home into a grotto, so I approached cautiously, praying they had not already begun burning down the house.

For a few minutes, the fire safety threat successfully took my mind off the storm. Since TV was out and I had not purchased replacement batteries for the radio, we couldn’t receive storm updates and didn’t know how hard the rest of our national region was getting hit. Instead, we settled into a round of feeling powerless and sorry for ourselves.

“I can’t believe we lost power just when I was about to start my homework,” my son declared. “And just when I was headed to clean my room,” my daughter added. They continued to swap lies as I, our household’s only actual performer of productive Sunday night activities, legitimately lamented storm effects. For me, the storm had come at the absolute worst time, the 11th hour of the week when I try to accomplish anything left undone from the previous 6 ¾ days of the week.

Reconciling bank accounts and filing by the open flame of a candle sounded foolhardy. Returning phone calls to people who couldn’t answer seemed pointless. Cooking ahead for the week on a non-operable electric stove was not an option. And my Sunday night winter tradition of shaving my legs for the week also became impossible. I felt as powerless as our house.

Then a lone bright idea came to my dim mind: We would go to sleep early. I distributed soft plush blankets to all of us and at 9 PM we snuffed out the candles and hit the hay on our respective couches in the parlor. The dark and stormy night became the best Sunday night in recent history.

Engineer smarts can’t trump leadership ego

It’s one thing to be smart and another to be wise. Smart is actually a lot easier because it simply involves being knowledgeable. The smarts to know that you don’t know is a sign of wisdom. And the wisdom to compensate for your deficits through trusting in the knowledge of others is advanced wisdom. I think it’s safe to say there’s not a whole lot of tripping going on over that.

The wisest people I know seek to align themselves with trusted others who will give them the straight scoop of honest feedback. I learned early as a manager to encourage my staff to tell me when I was full of beans and to prove me wrong through offering better solutions – even when I was smarting from my lack of smarts.

Why is this important? Because the employees live more closely with the problem than does their boss. Therefore, they know exactly what is going wrong and usually have solid opinions on how to fix it – provided their feedback is made welcome. But alas, the boss refusing to listen to truthful information offered by his/her employees is where the system usually breaks down. Trust me, I’ve been on both sides of the coin.

Let me borrow here from the discipline of engineering, the quintessential problem-solving profession. Its practitioners are called upon to develop solutions for technical problems through designing materials, structures and systems within the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety and cost (not to mention the wild hair whims of the bosses assigning the project).

While searching online for another something, I happened across a short, 1996 paper titled, “On Being the Bearer of Bad News,”  authored by Philip Koopman, a former submarine officer with the U.S. Navy, who became an associate professor of computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Because I am a geek, I instinctively knew an engineer would wax as wisely as a philosopher on the topic. But that’s another column. Koopman’s analysis led me to conclude the following about engineers: unfortunately, management regularly uses engineers not to solve the real problem, but to help them devise better ways of killing the messengers.

On a more serious note, Koopman made deadly accurate observations regarding the unenviable position in which engineers find themselves each time they identify a problem and devise a potential solution. Before taking solution-oriented action, they must first enter the lion’s den of calling the identified problem to the attention of those in charge – in a way that does not offend management ego and/or run afoul corporate ambition. Good luck there!

Mind you, the awaiting snarling countenances belong to the same management that hired the engineers specifically to problem-solve. Talk about ultimate irony: hiring technically-competent advisors as an extension of yourself, then disregarding them. Beyond stupid! Not even an engineer could solve that problem, even if believed and allowed.

Ideally, Koopman says, management listens earnestly to the engineer’s description of the problem, then seriously considers the engineer’s suggestions for problem resolution in long-term perspective. However, since many solutions necessarily color outside the lines of immediate project timelines and budget constraints, lasting solutions frequently get rejected so things can move impairedly forward.

However, when great safety or financial risk is involved, some engineers/truth tellers persistently stand firm regarding their concerns. Next thing they know, they find themselves perceived and/or treated as if THEY are the problem. Countless problem messengers are career-slain for the audacity of delivering the bad news someone’s pet project is not working.

Truth-telling can be hazardous to employee health. Should management decide not to fix the identified problem, an alternative scapegoat must be created. The quickest fix is to finger-point the problem pointer-outer as the problem. The obvious solution then becomes to punish, demote or terminate the pointer-outer to preserve institutional denial. Parents are highly familiar with this strategy.

Many smart, conscientious employees with good ideas are needlessly sacrificed each year to the anti-wisdom gods of management ego, which refuse to acknowledge their own short-sightedness. It feels akin to being lifeboatless on a sinking ship of a project, within reach of unimplemented life-preserver solutions, following multiple warnings that fell on ears deafened by the ring of a cash register.

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