Children receive security from unusual items

Ever have one of those discussions with someone else and discover the formative, normative experience you should have had like theirs was anything but? I ran into that not long ago, when I had a group of female friends over at my house.

NAKED BABIES ABOUND - Lisa Pueblo of Kalamazoo, MI was kind enough to send a photo of her family's Naked Baby that belongs to her now adult daughter, Lucinda (25). This Naked Baby underwent multiple repairs, including neck binding reinforcement and crotch re-stitchery. She manages to live on in family memories.

Lisa Pueblo of Kalamazoo, MI sent a photo of the Naked Baby that belongs to her now adult daughter, Lucinda (25). This Naked Baby underwent multiple repairs, including neck binding reinforcement and crotch re-stitchery, but lives on in dishevelment.

Talk turned to sensory issues that sometimes characterize Autism, attraction to certain fabrics, as well as the comfort afforded by particular textures. That, in turn, led to a discussion of comfort items in general favored by small children.

Mothers shared tales of their children’s battered, one-eyed Teddy bears; grimy, decapitated and broken-limbed dolls (injured from being pried from growing children’s hands?); stained scraps of former satin-bordered quilts; and Elephant-man misshapen past pillows possibly headed with grown children on their honeymoons.

Neither of my children had a security item. Sure, there were a few toys they favored, but nothing they couldn’t leave home without. Not like my niece’s favorite doll up to about the age of eight, the name of which still haunts me. Christened not Barbie, Chatty Cathy, Raggedy Ann or Mrs. Beasley, this doll answered to “Naked Baby.”

It was definitely truth in advertising. My niece’s medium-sized baby doll had long lost luster, along with her clothes, due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s a good thing she wasn’t a talking doll or she might have cried foul play. Then, again, she might have been able to scream for help before it was too late.

At any rate, the doll was as naked as the day she had been manufactured. By the looks of her, it had been a traumatic delivery. Her full head of blonde, matted, acrylic hair stood straight up in tribute to Don King. One eye refused to stay open unless you jerked back her head by the hair at just the right angle. And Naked Baby was forever filthy, as if the OB nurses had refused to clean her after birth, dooming her as a magnet or doormat for the world’s dirt; pariah of the playthings.

My niece didn’t see the flaws, only the comfort of cuddling with the once soft plastic and cloth. She loved her rag-tag companion and valued its companionship above that of all others, especially Aunt Kristy. For although my niece and Naked Baby enjoyed the Sunday afternoon they spent at my Kalamazoo home 35 miles from home, the world stopped for at least one of them when Naked Baby accidentally missed the return trip.

I received a cranky phone call at work the next morning from my sister. “You sound like you haven’t slept in days,” I told her. My read was accurate, as no one in her household had got any shuteye due to Naked Baby’s absence. Could I please find it in my heart to drive to Battle Creek during lunch and deliver Naked Baby to the construction site my brother-in-law was supervising before total family breakdown occurred?

The security guard at the construction site shouldn’t have granted me access, but he readily let me pass when I held up the dirty, disheveled doll and communicated my sister’s desperation. My story was too pathetic to be a lie. A few grizzled looking construction types actually bowed their heads as my brother-in-law gently received Naked Baby from me and threw her into the cab of his pick-up.

Now that I think about it, my children did have their own version of Naked Baby. It came in the unlikely form of a small plastic bag of cocktail stir sticks they spotted for three dollars at an antique store and cherished for years after purchase.

These weren’t the flimsy plastic swords my sisters and I used to fight for and with from the rare restaurant cocktails my parents consumed in my youth, but a collection of sturdy, colorful advertisements from the 1960s Las Vegas strip. The Desert Inn, Sands, Stardust, Aladdin and Dunes lived on in my diaper bag.

I remember being in church when someone commented on the teething toy in Kate’s mouth. My child proudly waved a bright red plastic rod gold-emblazoned with “Caesars Palace.” It’s a good thing her mother doesn’t give a Rat Pack’s behind about what people think, for life is full of Naked Baby moments.

Practice doing the expected without complaint

While waiting for one of my students from work to finish with a trumpet lesson, I visited the Marshall District Library and found a thought-provoking book in the music section: Practicing Sucks, But It Doesn’t Have To!

Subtitled, “Surviving Music Lessons,” this helpful volume by Phyllis Sdoia-Satz and Barry Satz commanded my attention not just because the word “sucks” was in the title and a scowling piano student cartooned on the cover, but due to the important concept contained within. It occurred to me that among the many wrong things I have done in life, one right that stands out is my willingness to do the hard things that need to be done. Like practicing piano.

This may be genetic, if there is such a thing as a self-discipline gene. Most likely, it’s learned through example. There were many things I admired about my grandmother, but perhaps her most attractive quality was her ability to go through life, uncomplainingly taking care of business, no matter how difficult it might be.

My grandfather was difficult to get along with. But you wouldn’t have known it to watch my grandmother interact with him. I never witnessed her pouting, kvetching over his latest scheme, plotting revenge or visibly carrying on over him. Granted, the ability to read her mind might have painted a different picture, but outwardly, my grandmother always appeared unruffled when there was clearly no reason to be so steadfast. It was unnerving.

As we reminisced over family stories on my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I asked if she had it to do over again, would she have married Grandpa. “Hell no!” I about fell out of my seat. Who would have known? Obviously not me, or I wouldn’t have asked the question.

What a gift to give yourself and others: the ability to uncomplainingly make yourself do the thing you need to do, when you need to do it, whether or not you want to do it. My father was of similar ilk. He never whined about his extensive daily responsibilities or lot in life. He never negatively compared his lot in life to that of other people. He was too busy living to stop and take the time to complain.

I want to be like that all of the time. I absolutely hate crybabies and weenies; the person who carries on worse over a sliver in his finger than does the person who lost a leg to cancer. And the only thing I hate worse than crybabies and weenies are the times I have been one, acting as though it were the end of the world when it clearly wasn’t. Even if it temporarily felt that way.

Fortunately, during adulthood, I can pretty much count on one hand the number of times I have allowed myself to totally wallow in alleged pain and hopelessness. When I caught myself doing that, I eventually came to my senses and was able to laugh at my level of patheticism. Usually due to the help of other people who refused to buy into my crap.

I can’t remember exactly what the issue was, but one time, I tried via email to make my husband feel guilty about something I was upset about. His swift response was not just face-slapping, but eye-opening. “I’m not coming to your pity party.” His honest deflection of the hooey I hurled his way caught me so off guard it actually made me laugh – well, as soon as I got over myself. “Like you were invited,” I replied, humorously letting him know he was right.

It may be foolishly prideful, but just like I never wanted my parents to have to remind me about practicing piano back when I was taking lessons, I prefer to practice bucking up versus forcing other adults (or my children!) to call me on my being a crybaby or weenie.

While practice doesn’t always make perfect, it makes life easier. The best use of limited personal energy is to simply wade in and get busy tackling life’s challenges versus looking for wriggle room, waiting for things to get easier or throwing a hissy fit. Practice dealing with life on life’s terms. It works.

Warning signs viewed as placecard placebos

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy catapulted to success with his, “You might be a redneck if . . . . ” one-liners. Fellow Blue Collar Comedy Tour performer Bill Engvall found fame and fortune behind the steam of his signature “Here’s your sign” catch-phrase and examples. The two go hand in hand.

I’ve noticed there are a lot of signs geared toward those with apparently less intelligence than the rednecks Foxworthy references in his stand-up routine. Signage can be a placecard – something in place of what it supposedly represents, but without real enforcement power.

It’s been my experience that people purchase and post “Beware of Dog” signs to fool would-be trespassers or thieves from messing with their property. In reality, all the sign posters have is a dinky little dog that answers to the name of “Trinket” and would rather beg for bites of friends’ food than bite strangers’ankles.

If someone’s dog actually is vicious, her/she shouldn’t be posting signs advertising it because that would be an upfront admission of intent to harm. A potential liability just waiting to slip on a banana peel. Try telling the judge in the personal injury lawsuit brought against you that your Pitbull named “Killer” didn’t really mean to tear into that guy just south of his beltline slightly north of your “Beware of Dog” sign. Here’s your sign.

Given the narcissistic nature of human nature, we generally look upon signs, and warning signs in particular, as hard and fast “rules” for others, but mere “guidelines” for governing our own behavior. For instance, it would be wrong for someone else to park in the spots closest to the mall stores bearing the pictures of storks, but it’s different if I’m in a hurry and can’t find another spot.

Hey, Immaculate Conception occurred once before. And with God’s vast power, there’s no reason to believe a post-hysterectomy miracle might not be in the making. That’s just about how delusional my and your thinking becomes when we’re seeking to rule ourselves out of rule following.

Of course, as with everything else, there’s the other side of the issue. Are some signs erected more as scarecrows than sword-bearers? I’ve come to bet on it. The other morning when I attended an economic development breakfast held annually at the main hotel in downtown Battle Creek, I parked my vehicle directly in front of a large sign that read, “VALET PARKING BY PERMIT ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED AWAY AT OWNERS EXPENSE.”

Clearly, I was not an official patron of the hotel, save for showing up to claim my free breakfast while I took notes for a story about the event being held there. My reasoning (and there was some)? was as follows:

It’s 7 AM and the time most people who are in town for business are checking out, not into the hotel. So therefore, those highly coveted, close parking spots weren’t truly needed by the hotel at the time I needed one. And more importantly (for me, anyway), the valet, if he/she is actually on duty, is too busy attending to the paying customers to have time to have my vehicle towed away at my expense. At least I hope so, or the price of my previously free breakfast just shot way up.

A tree trimming service that sells home heating wood as a part of its business has signs at the perimeter of the office property, stating, “SMILE. Property is under 24-hour video surveillance. For your convenience, wood sales are by honor system. Wood is priced accordingly. Place payment in box at porch.”

Sounds like a double-dog dare. It appeals to both my sneaky side and my inner skeptic. Really? You have video running out in the middle of BFE that’s gonna capture me first in the act and then later in-person for helping myself to wood? I almost feel curiously obligated to put that to the test.

Interested in creating your own warning sign? Go to www.warningsigngenerator.com. Input your information into their program and you’ll be successfully firing warning shots of your own in no time. My warning sign with bear the random phrase, “Tow or be towed.”  Referencing, of course, towing the line. Here’s your sign.

Dying a slow, due diligence death via surveys

Is anyone else sick of being asked his/her opinion about everything under the sun and over the moon? Holy O! As in short for “opinion,” stemming from “opinion poll.” Market researchers are on a relentless roll to get us to give up the ghostess of the mostess that rhymes with Hostess, or, “So, ma’am, how did you like those Twinkies?”

Just when you thought Twinkies had gone by the wayside, I am here to announce they remain symbolically alive and well and as fluffily devoid of nutrition as ever in the form of bogus information gathering. And I’m their target. So are you and whoever else comes within 10-foot polling distance.

Is my opinion so very important as one of their “valued customers?” They would certainly like me to think so, whoever the “they” is behind the great and powerful survey machine. I’m tired of monkeying around with Survey Monkey and all the other polling mechanisms allegedly designed to capture my feelings regarding customer service.

Have you ever noticed the one question that NEVER gets asked regarding customer service is whether you feel their company’s customer service surveying is excessive? They also rarely have open-ended questions where you can address the issues of YOUR concern, not THEIR concerns. Often, surveys only inquire about areas where the company is doing well and amount to “Please tell us how to make our well even weller.” I’d rather talk about how to make their bad gooder.

Anyone who has been forced to survey their own customer base knows many of the surveys designed to be forced down the throats of others are perfunctory, or simply going through the motions. Either someone on the board of directors asked if customer service is being addressed or a funding source told the organization it needs to be measuring service satisfaction levels. This pressures the marketing department to quickly create an instrument to allegedly prove due diligence in that area. No wonder we’re being due-diligenced to death.

I’d like to think I would feel better about being sentenced to surveys if I believed my opinion was truly desired or at the very least, my thoughts are being survey-gathered for a legitimate if not life-changing purpose. But wasting my time and thoughts just so someone anonymous someone can check “survey our customers” off his/her to-do list pisses me off.

Do the folks at Taco Bell who have “Tell Us About Your Visit!” printed on the back of all their receipts really want to know my thoughts? We’re invited to www.TellTheBell.com to weigh in with our opinions. More amusing is that their system issues the survey invitation to absolutely all their customers, including me, who only orders the $2.29 meal deals. Isn’t it obvious that I’ve already voted with my feet by not walking into their establishment, instead using the drive-thru and ordering their cheapest stuff. I’m there for convenience and value. Period.

The service person who came to replace my old satellite dish handed me a customer survey and announced not to put anything less than the highest score on it or he would be in “big trouble” because his company takes these things “really seriously.” Really? When I recently got a new cell phone plan, the Sprint employee who helped me also said that any marks she received less than excellent represented failure. No pressure there to answer honestly. I’d surely hate to be graded on that non-curve.

I suspect personnel management is the real reason behind many surveys. The data being collected regarding customer service is not to actually help the company improve things, but to justify the promotion and employment of certain employees. Makes me feel even more pawnlike.

It’s got my cynical mind wondering if some companies use surveys to discourage use of their services. When my son accidentally locked both sets of keys in our new vehicle the first week we owned it, I had to call Onstar to ask to get it open. The next time I opened my email, there was an Onstar survey waiting for me, asking about my service experience during the lock-out. Indirect message: don’t use our services if you don’t want further contact. I won’t. I don’t. Objective achieved.

Pathetic pizza chain groupies cross state lines

My Christmas break was every bit as exciting as my summer non-vacation. While some friends and relatives were off to warmer climates, boarding cruise ships, visiting amusement parks, tanning on beaches or partaking of timeshare times, my kids and I took a far less glamorous approach to our vacation from school and work: We went for pizza.

Not just any pizza and not just anywhere for it, but we crossed state lines to follow the object of our affections: CiCi’s pizza.

CI CI, I WAS RIGHT - I knew what I was doing when I took my kids and their friends across state lines to re-experience the CiCi's Pizza "stuff yourself silly" experience. We were not disappointed.

CI CI, I WAS RIGHT – I knew what I was doing when I took my kids and their friends across state lines to re-experience the CiCi’s Pizza “stuff yourself silly” experience. We were not disappointed.

I know, I know, some of you wouldn’t go across the road for CiCi’s pizza, let alone down 67 miles of icy highway like we did to reach the nearest. But mind you, we weren’t going for the pizza, but for the experience, including the hokey “Ci Ci you laters” shouted as customers leave the restaurant. When the next best thing you’ll be getting to Disneyland is a day trip, you learn to trip on that which is available to you. In this case, that which is no longer available locally.

For a single-parent family on a shoestring budget, CiCi’s pizza represented a simple indulgence we could partake of together, although we often shared with similarly low-brow friends. We held Connor’s 9th birthday party at CiCi’s Pizza, complete with a homemade kitty litter gross-out cake and four of his friends and his little sister tagging along.

My now-deceased elderly friend, Stan, regularly invited me to lunch with him at the Jackson CiCi’s. He’d starve himself for a couple of days and then see how many slices of pizza he could eat at one sitting (I think his record was 11) for $5.49, less the senior discount he would always be sure to remind them he was entitled to.

While there was no connection between the pizza and Stan’s untimely death, as all of the Michigan CiCi’s had closed by then, there may have been a connection between his discount price piggishness and the death of that particular restaurant. That probably makes many of us accessories to business murder, with the economy and a difficult to perform to business model as contributing factors.

Our family observed a long moment of silence when the Jackson, Kalamazoo and Portage CiCi’s closed. We wore black for a week when the doors shut on the Battle Creek establishment. I wasn’t aware there were any CiCi’s left until last fall, when I started to receive email messages and coupons from CiCi’s national headquarters. Using Yahoo, I discovered CiCi’s Pizza lives on in Indiana, the closest restaurant in Goshen. It was then the wheels started turning in Hoosierly direction.

I rounded up a couple of the kids’ friends, Gavin and Schale Lindsey, who are generally up for any bit of nonsense we feel like dishing out. I also researched the best antique and secondhand stores to visit in Goshen. Hey, might as well make the trip as productive as possible.

“Welcome to CiCi’s!” owner Heath Mendenhall greeted when we entered the pizzeria, nearly the first customers of the day, as I had forgotten Indiana was an hour behind Michigan. I sat guarding our bright-colored coats from a suspicious-looking Mennonite couple as the kids made a mad dash to the buffet. Three of the four bypassed the salad and headed straight for the pizza, piling slices as high as feasible onto reinforced plates.

With considerably more decorum and control than I felt, I strolled up to the salad area and discovered a delicious pre-dressed Italian romaine salad with banana peppers and black olives, which hadn’t been standard fare when the Michigan CiCi’s closed. Also new were garlic parmesan (bread) knots and baked potato pizza, as well as a scrumptious Bavarian cream dessert pizza. If that weren’t enough, the soda fountain featured an unusually good Apple Manzana beverage made by Fanta.

We were so busy shoveling in food that we barely talked during the meal. Talk about American-style bonding experiences and non-quality time rolled into one! After blowing a few bucks in the arcade area, we left to shouts of “Ci Ci you later.” Hokey? You bet. But my kids are still talking about it and can hardly wait for our next day trip. CiCi, I was right.

Weathering accidental accusations is difficult

Nothing was unusual about my Saturday trip to the credit union. As usual, I embarked upon it in the eleventh hour to deposit checks at the drive-thru window that would enable me to write a check for a mortgage payment that would enable me to maintain ownership of my home. As I said, the usual.

But when I arrived home late in the day, it was to a voice mail from the credit union teller who had processed my transaction, where I had deposited two $100 checks and cashed a $75 one. She said the deposit was removed from my account, as she had given me back the entire amount in cash.

What?! I think not. The voice mail said to call on Monday with any questions. Questions? No, that’s not what they were going to get. More like angry statements. Nothing gets my dander up quicker than false assumptions, particularly when they are related to my character.

I had 36 hours to mull over the situation and find my receipt from the credit union, which I briefly feared had been discarded along with a Taco Bell cup. While the $200 amount in question was not huge, it might as well have been $2,000, given my current economy. Worse, the hold-up was preventing me from paying my mortgage. While I would like to claim I was most upset about the principle, I openly admit it was more about the money.

I decided to handle the situation in-person, rather than by phone. Showing up is usually the best response to dicey situations, as absence can be regarded as an admission of guilt rather than a scheduling issue. Plus, I already had the day off. I waited until the credit union had been open for an hour, as to not ambush the teller I desperately wanted to ambush. I prayed for civility, which is hard to do when you’re feeling uncivilized.

When I got to her window in the credit union lobby, the teller repeated her voice mail message about having removed the deposited funds from my account because I had received all $275 in cash back. I asserted $75 was all I had received back in cash, adding I had expressly needed to deposit the $200 on Saturday to cover a mortgage payment on Monday.

The teller took a break and re-checked her transactions from Saturday, but was unable to find another error to explain her $200 drawer shortage. The video tape of the transaction would need to be reviewed. She said they could either call me with the results or I could wait, although it might take a while. I opted to wait. Sure of her own innocence, the teller left for lunch. How youthfully arrogant of her, I thought.

Wary of being left in the lobby alone with my negative thoughts, I got from my vehicle the book I was reading, Bill Hybel’s Who You Are When No One’s Looking. The title made me smile. I also smiled that I’d bookmarked it with paper from a pad bearing the name of my church. My hands on the book bore rings engraved with the words “strength,” “fear not” and “faith.” I suddenly felt in good hands.

My faith, integrity and solid credit score are about the only things left intact since my life blew up two years ago. And I hold them dear. To have someone think otherwise felt hurtful. During my time of greatest financial need, I have had abundant opportunities for dishonesty, ranging from using people of means to outright stealing. But I’ve resisted.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering what if I were found guilty of receiving the $200 I never received? Should I take dramatic action, tell off the credit union and close my accounts there? That just isn’t me. But could I quietly accept the loss of $200 with the grace I’ve received when I’ve accidentally messed up?

I became willing to try, but it wasn’t necessary. A credit union official came out and reported the video was inconclusive, so they deposited the $200 into my account. End of the drama. But not of the grace which is always available, with its constantly compounding interest.

 

Mess calls “Whose pet is it, anyway” question

Growing up the second oldest of four girls, my formative years were filled with unfair and unfavorable comparisons between me and my siblings. I was always comparing my family bill of rights with that of my siblings, using their perceived lives of privilege to leverage greater perks of my own.

Anyone with siblings or more than one child knows the routine: “I should get to stay up later because Kara does,” “Kerry never has to wear hand-me-downs,” “I have to do all the outside chores, while Kim gets to stay inside and do the easy stuff,” and the totally insane, “How come my siblings got braces and I didn’t?”

The scales of justice worked overtime in our house. I was incapable of taking action on my own without holding it up to the light of what my siblings were doing or might have unjustly benefited from. And they were just as bad in their efforts of jockeying for perceived justice. While I heard ad nauseum from my parents that life wasn’t fair, I firmly believed it should be.

When I aged out of childhood, I somehow retained an equally mistaken belief that I had left the wages of unfairness behind. But, they somehow found and followed me to college, then into my career and later into my own relationships and home life.

From classmates protesting I had received an unfairly higher-than-theirs grade on an essay, to correctional clients claiming they had been falsely accused and unfairly prosecuted, to my own daughter loudly insisting I like her brother better than her, to campaign leaflets in the mailbox telling me I’ve been duped by the incumbent, adulthood has not immunized me against unfairness. I’m regularly affected if not infected by it.

One of the most insane battles I was called to break up between my son and daughter at ages five and four was when they were dissatisfied with the amount of cherry licorice I had dispensed. “It’s not fair, he got two pieces,” Kate had railed. “I only got one piece and I wanted two pieces.” Without comment, I grabbed back her length of licorice, stretched and snapped it in two and then handed both pieces back to her surprised look.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, when, the other day I walked into the house after work and was greeted by my son saying, “The cat left you a present on the enclosed porch.” Actually, he wouldn’t have had to mention it, as my nose had already picked up on the gift-giving before I heard the offending words and my eyes took in the unseemly pile of turds.

“Why do you assume the present was for me?” I asked. Logical question.

“Because it’s your porch,” my children replied in unison.

Now, isn’t that an interesting assessment of the situation and assignment of blame? So I posed a couple of other questions to the self-satisfied-looking siblings:

1. Whose cat made the mess; and 2. Who left the cat shut on the porch?

Turns out it was Gibbs (aka “Gibby”), Connor’s cat, who likes to sneak out and hide underneath the tablecloth of the long table on the porch, in hope we have left some tempting leftovers atop the table during the cold weather months, when the enclosed porch serves as our family’s auxiliary refrigerator.

“It’s not fair I have to clean up the poop just because it happened to come out of my cat,” Connor was quick to protest. Plus, it seems my daughter, Kate, was the one who actually neglected to play cat round-up the way I have taught them to do to so no felines are left to frolic with our food. However, Kate built her anti-crap clean-up case around the fact that her actions had been accidental and not part of an ongoing pattern of neglect. Therefore, she was not negligent.

According to Nietzsche, “In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair-mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange.” So I got a length of paper towel, some soapy water and the Odo-Ban and cleaned up the mess, once again, getting my nose rubbed in the inherent unfairness of life. It’s my inheritance.

Become more other-oriented in the new year

I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions. Don’t get me wrong. I am big into change. Very BIG. But I need a reason bigger than the new year to inspire personal change. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, all manner of bigger reasons come at me year ‘round and motivate me to change. However, this isn’t about them. Or me. It’s bigger than that.

If you are someone who allows the calendar to dictate when you should stop doing something old or start doing something new, shame on you! An ongoing clean slate is as available as a clean plate at Old Country Buffet – any time you are willing to get off your lazy butt and get it. It’s up to you to fetch the plate, as well as to pick and choose what you pile on it.

Laziness and selfishness seem to be paralyzing individual and collective behavior. Like the Bible-referenced man who spent 38 years lying helplessly next to the pool of Bethesda waiting for change (John 5:1-15 NIV), we often claim to desperately want something, but not enough to desperately do what it takes to get it.

I’m running into passels of people who have become too lazy to even think about what change would require. A short week ago, I turned 49. I note that number not because it was much of a milestone, but rather, because of its leveraging potential. My already-49 colleague, Theresa Walczak, says age 49 has given her a fortuitous opportunity to shame some of the students at our school into examining their excuses for non-change.

“Hey, there’s something wrong when I can still do something at 49 you’re unwilling to even try at 15,” she sometimes observes to teens in the face of lazy or selfish behavior. It begs the question Jesus asked of the stagnant man lying beside the healing pool: “Do you want to be made well?”

“Well kinda sorta,” is too ambivalent an answer. But it does explain many of the mini-meltdowns (formerly known as hissy-fits) I’ve witnessed people of all ages resort to when they don’t get what they think they want when they think they want it. While I am not sure any of them want to be made well, I sure am tired of working harder at their lives than they are willing to work.

Our self-service world seems to be evolving into a predominantly self-serving world where instant gratification reigns supreme. We’ve gone from the obsessively self-reliant stance of believing we don’t need anyone and therefore, must to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to a diametrically dysfunctional mindset of thinking a concierge should fetch the bootstraps for us and do the pulling.

Entitlement is not pretty. I am likely to television talk-show pronounce to its practitioners, “You need to get over yourself.” But how, specifically? Having outlined what I believe to be a convoluted problem, I’m poised to offer a straightforward solution: service.

The best way I have found to get over myself is to put others first, or at least in contention for my attention. Not all of the time, because that’s pretty advanced from a remedial starting point, but for a significant amount of the time. Proverbs 11:25 (NIV) promises, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed,” while the late Zig Ziglar put it this way, “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”

Need a more relatable example? Follow the lead of Rotary International, a worldwide service club that has as its objective “Service above self – in the community, in the workplace and around the globe.” That concept encompasses a far bigger picture than our own, pettily self-absorbed lives.

Don’t wait until January 1 to replace a “have it your way” Burger King mentality with other-oriented service. Start immediately. To ease the transition, remind yourself that, per the above wisdom, serving others is indirectly the most self-serving thing a person can do. Why not try it? Re-prioritize your life by resolving to put others first. It may be the most satisfying new year’s resolution you will ever make for yourself.

Training up others to embrace the word “no”

What’s the most important word any of us can learn? Oh, take a guess. I’m guessing many people, especially those who didn’t bother to read the headline above this column, will say love, peace or understanding. But you would be wrong. Or maybe, in keeping with the theme of where I’m going, I should word it this way: “No, you would be wrong.” The “no” gets you thinking.

Yes, I know love, peace and understanding are important. They have been credited with many feats, including but not limited to making the world go ‘round. However, as long as there remains strife in our revolving world, the word “no” packs an even more important punch en route to promoting love, peace and understanding.

While it sounds romantic to be so in love we lose sight of where we end and our partner begins, “no” reminds us to keep our mitts off our partner’s razor to trim our own leg or facial hair. No is not a deal breaker, but a valid warning system to notify others of our limits. People get to know us by our “no’s.” They’re like little fences that keep the unwanted out of our lives to reserve room for the wanted. The capital “N” even looks like part of a split rail fence.

I teach lifelong learning classes at Kellogg Community College (KCC). It’s a favorite activity because I get to research interesting topics and meet interesting people. Before the start of a semester, I pitch the program coordinator my own topic ideas and offer to teach at least one seminar of her choosing. That turns out to be the most fun and makes me more flexible.

I recently received an email from KCC, asking if I would be interested in doing a two-hour workshop tentatively titled, “Saying No for Women.” Interesting concept. Got me thinking about how a woman’s “no” is different than a man’s. I decided to go with a co-educational approach.

The final title of the seminar is “How to Say ‘No’ Without Feeling Guilty.” It runs April 18, 2013. I will have 120 minutes to pack in everything I know about “no.” Tough order because there are so many things I want to convey regarding the magic of the word “no.” It has truly been a more formative word in my life than even the most powerful “yes” has been.

While most of us hate to be told “no,” it isn’t necessarily a negative word or experience – unless we make it so. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn is that a “no” need not be given or taken personally. I’ve had people ask me to try a bite of a particular food, purchase a particular product or join a particular organization. When I’ve said “no” to the asker, my rejection wasn’t necessarily reflective of my opinion of what they were proposing. Rather, it was about fit. Perhaps I was full, dieting, or allergic to the food being offered; already satisfied with another brand or didn’t have the money to purchase their product; or did not have the time to commit or a passion for their cause.

My “no” response was not against what they were proposing, but rather a reaffirmation of my existing choices. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Often the “no” we receive is more about timing than anything else. As my children learned early through asking, while I’d be draining a boiling pot of spaghetti noodles through a colander, if I wanted to see the picture they had just drawn. “No, not now.” Too many times, we don’t consider the poor timing of our request and we take the “no” personally, perhaps even refusing to try again.

I’ve met many people who’ve let someone’s “no” derail their lives. They spend precious time and energy holding a grudge against the naysayer, rather than using the “no” to think more creatively in variation or in a totally separate direction. Nothing has increased my flexibility more effectively than “no’s.” And nothing has motivated me more strongly than “Hell no’s.” Like the best salespeople know, “no” can be used to narrow down a “yes.” Say “yes” to hearing “no.”

Song interpretation reflective of life and faith

I played piano at church on a Tuesday night at the end of November while other members of the congregation engaged in the draping of the greens. As my Christmas decorating at home is minimalist (Christmas tree, nativity set and stockings hung by the fireplace), I wasn’t a good candidate for decorating other places. Plus, I’ve less than zero interest in it.

As I went through a loose-leaf notebook of Christmas songs I’ve compiled over the years, I was struck by the vast mix of sacred and secular Christmas songs in my musician’s bag of tricks. Whether you’re commemorating Christ’s birth, commiserating snowfall or celebrating Santa, I’ve got you covered.

While I was playing for the merry sanctuary decorating team, one of the tinsel-stringers approached and commented I was finding notes he never knew existed in the church piano. I chose to take that as a compliment. Perhaps it was the blues rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or the strident “Silent Night” arrangement that triggered his remark. Listeners frequently tell me they’ve never heard songs played the way I play them. Good. I think. I try to keep things musically interesting.

I don’t necessarily set out to be different, but it happens regularly. As I’ve more deeply committed myself to authenticity and becoming the best version of myself, many unexpected results have emerged. While I would like to take credit for them, and often have in the past, the real credit goes to God for the unique perspective and talents with which He has gifted me. Now that I’ve quit burying them from dread of their differentness, they’re taking on new life.

For years, people from various denominations have tried to recruit me to be their church pianist. You know, to lead the congregation in song and/or accompany the choir. But I have always declined, save being willing to fill in to help out periodically. Playing rote notes from a denominational hymnal is not my thing. So I knew to say “no.” It fell under the category of “capable, but not called.”

Sure I could do it, but it’s not what I am supposed to be doing. No joy goes into it from me or flows out of it for others. One person’s joy is another’s drudgery. While I respect those who truly enjoy and excel at accompanying singers, for me, playing for the choir is like preaching to the choir. Not the best use of me. And certainly not His best for me. God has trained my sights on more difficult targets: those whose attention needs getting. Like He finally got mine.

The God I worship is not the cheerful God of sunshine and rainbows depicted in the Sunday School coloring books. Nor is He the perpetually upbeat “Jesus loves me, yes I know” that we sang about in youth because the Bible told us so. That’s not to take away from the awesomeness of my God, but an important reminder that he’s got some purposeful expectations of me. He teaches me not through predictable lessons toward earning a good works gold star on a wall chart, but with spontaneous twists, turns, hard work and hard knocks based on which baser behaviors I exhibit.

My piano playing reflects my colorful relationship with the Lord. It’s not unfailingly pleasant and upbeat. Tempos change. Volumes fluctuate. Fingerings challenge. Accidentals ambush. Syncopated notes don’t always fall where you would expect. Or would like. It’s randomly patterned to alternate between pats on the back and kicks in the seat, depending on what attention needs to be gotten. Comfort meets dissonance. Bittersweet beautiful without any sugarcoating.

Chords are regularly augmented or diminished, with little thought. No single note action determines outcome, and therefore can’t be taken out of context. The combination of intention and intensity, as well as the notes that come before and after another note determine the rightness, wrongness or righteousness of a measure or a life’s measure. Subtle makes a big difference. A song’s not over until it’s over. Endings change.

When I play, I surrender all and challenge listeners to bring their own all to the altar. Nothing more. And certainly not less. It’s how I bless.

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