Spring break was spent going on a ‘decaytion’

It was fun receiving the postcards and viewing the Facebook posts of people who were able to “get away from it all” during the nine days in April affectionately known as spring break.

Whether sunning in Mexico, sand castle-building at Myrtle Beach, or standing in line for rides in Orlando, everyone appeared to be having the time of his/her life spending time and money in parts other than Michigan. If I hadn’t been so busy working, I might have found the time to be envious.

“Let me guess, we won’t be going anywhere again,” my son observed the week before our traditional spring non-break. “So what’s this year’s excuse for not vacationing? Money, time, catastrophic illness or transportation?”

“I came up with something new,” I informed. “We can’t vacation because I’m starting a new job after spring break and I’ve got to work more this next week to close out the job I am leaving.”

“Sure, likely reason,” his smile said. “I’d at least hoped we’d go to Elkhart to CiCi’s Pizza, like we did last year.”

There’s something pathetic about your kids’ favorite memory of spring break centering around a half-day trip to a chain eatery, where the only line that got crossed was the one separating Michigan from Indiana. Hard to top, unless maybe we drove to Ohio to pick up some Yuengling brew. We’d say it was a homeschooling field trip following studying the “Bring Yuengling to Michigan” community on Facebook.

No, I’d need to come up with something better. And that’s exactly what I did while visiting our dentist the first weekday of spring break.

“Guess what?!” I quizzed my daughter while her mouth was still numb. “We’re doing a unique version of a vacation this week.” She regarded skeptically and said she knew what I was about to say. “You’re going to have us stay home and call it a ‘staycation’ instead of vacation.”

“Nope. I’m sending you and your brother on a couch potato trip of sorts where you get to color outside of the nutritional lines all week long. I’m calling it a ‘decaytion’ because I intend to let you eat whatever kind of junk food you want – this week only. Rotten stuff to rot more of your teeth!”

“Really?! You can’t mean it,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears of joy. “We get a steady diet of crap all week? You’re the best bad mom!” Then she spontaneously threw her arms around me.

Together, we compiled a list of normally “no-no” foods as I drove to one of the largest chain supermarkets, to stock up on typically taboo foods of the processed, overly-sugared and -salted, fat-saturated, gluten-laden, caffeine-contaminated and nutritionally-shallow variety.

By the time we finished, we looked like a couple of Little Debbie debutantes, our cart piled high with low-life junk: multiple varieties of Pringles, Heath Klondike bars, crispy crunch ice cream bars, two flavors of ice cream, nutty bars, Cheez-Its, candy bars, Hot Tamales, cold fried chicken, chicken fingers, hot wings and Tator Tots! For breakfast, I bought some of the gooiest, cream-filled, chocolate-covered sweet rolls and a bottle of spray whipped cream to swallow straight from the can.

All this was topped off with two-liter bottles of highly-caffeinated blue, red and orange Mt. Dew, and a 12-pack of sickeningly sweet cherry Pepsi. I couldn’t have done more nutritional damage if I had erected a gingerbread house in the back yard. And it was only Monday!

The kids spent all day Tuesday eating like there was no tomorrow. There shouldn’t have been, given those empty calories. But by Wednesday the novelty of a steady diet of junk food was losing its lustre.

“I’ll trade you some of your bagel for a sticky bun,” my daughter offered me that morning. Later, I caught her brother feverishly brushing his teeth to rid them of the sugar he said he could feel seeping into cracks and crevices. On Thursday, I caught them snacking on apples and sneaking rice cakes. By Friday, they asked me to cook something from scratch and to include a vegetable with the meal.

Dear friends: our decaytion turned into something to write home about!


Get dog poop in a group to avoid DNA testing

Wanna hear a guilty pleasure? I like reading stupid news stories that involve socially-retarded human behavior and beg social commentary. Although you couldn’t pay me to watch reality TV, court TV, zombie series or soap operas, I genuinely love reading about over-the-top practices and overkill responses.

When catching up on nearly a week’s worth of lukewarm newspapers I’d been too busy to read hot off the press, I spotted an article recently that astounded me and more than made up for my tardiness.

The attention-grabbing headline stated, “DNA now being used to identify dog feces.” My thoughts were “Why?” and “Who would care?” I mean, if you are having trouble identifying dog feces, give me a call and I’ll come over and tell you far more than you need to know about dog crap. One thing’s for sure: there is no substitute for the texture or the odor of the real thing, no siree!

The phrase “identify dog feces” instantly had me picturing a police line-up where someone in a giant dog turd costume, looking remarkably similar to someone dressed as a hotdog on Halloween, is standing amidst a row of other suspects, making quarter-turns on command. A witness paces back and forth behind a two-way mirror, mentally deliberating, before pointing a finger in the direction of the oversized, vertical-oriented piece of excrement, exclaiming, “That’s the POS who did it!” Hence POSitive identification.

Did what? Got left behind in stepping range: a shoe-in for prosecution. However, it’s not the dogs that are to blame, but the feckless owners attached to the other end of their leashes. By the way, feckless isn’t the F-word slightly misspelled. Rather, it means “lazy and lacking initiative,” which describes many irresponsible dog owners.

Where am I going with this? To mock the Grand Rapids area Cascade Township assistant manager Anna Holmes, from The Ridges of Cascade apartment complex, who is apparently hot on the steaming trail of unbagged canine crap left behind by some feckless (I used the word a second time in accordance with the repetition learning principle) individuals living in her $30 million housing development.

According to the short newspaper article I scanned, an estimated 60% of Holmes’ tenants are pet owners, several of whom have stopped cleaning up after them in community areas. Without going into too many specifics about what eventually hit the fan, let’s just say dog waste can be very annoying, even moreso than stepping on a giant piece of ABC (already-been-chewed) bubble gum lying in wait on hot pavement for an unsuspecting pedestrian on a hot day.

Dog poop is more stealthful and unhealthful. It favors lighter-colored shoes and victims who are both hurrying and on their way somewhere special, for instance, to an important job interview. Dog poop has nothing, if not time on its hands, to strategically position itself where the naked eye cannot discern it apart from grass, leaves or shadows – until it’s too late, of course.

What qualifies me as doo-doo guru? Back when I lived in an urban setting, I regularly walked my dogs in public areas and did my share of “Poop-Scoop Boogie” maneuvers and dog log retrieval. Unfortunately, no reprieve was granted for that thankless act, as sometimes I’d literally “step in it” – crap left behind by less-conscientious dog owners – while I was doing my scooping. The ultimate irony and outright turd terrorism!

No wonder The Ridges of Cascade has required its residents to DNA-register their dogs in conjunction with signing an apartment lease and has contracted with doggy doo experts at “PooPrints” to DNA-test stray poop. The owners of the offending dogs are fined a pile ($350) for each offending pile.

According to a December 26 article in the Washington Post, PooPrints is a “dog poop DNA matching service” and the most successful product of BioPet Vet Lab in Knoxville, which specializes in canine genetic testing. At the end of 2014, PooPrints had on record the DNA of more than 30,000 dogs from Canada and 45 states. Awesome use of DNA technology!

Clearly, dog poo forensics are turning into big business with big consequences. Dog owners be warned: don’t just get your poop in a group, but remember to scoop!

Family reaches anniversary of mysterious illness


LEVERAGING LIFE’S LEMONS – Our family has been running a veritable lemonade stand this past year with all the life’s lemons we have had sent our way. Fortunately, God is good and has helped us put to good use all that should have devastated us. That’s faith!


April marks the one-year anniversary of one of the worst chapters of my family’s life: I was abruptly fired from my job last April 6 and on April 11 my (then) 13-year-old daughter suffered a major stroke related to a mysterious, undetected heart infection, requiring open heart surgery.

A year later, we still don’t know why the illness occurred. We wish we could offer up some cautionary lesson so other families could avoid similar illness. But alas, we remain clueless about both the cause of Kate’s mysterious infection and which came first – the mitral heart valve-eating infectious vegetation that broke off and caused an occipital brain region stroke or the bacterial meningitis.

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter. What counts is the blessing that Kate has lived to turn 14. She hasn’t just lived, she’s back engaged in the activities important to her: competitive sports, singing, drawing, photography, talking to and spending time with friends. And yes, she’s still a parental handful.

Regarding my firing? From a philosophically shallow place, it was financially frightening, but good riddance to a dysfunctional workplace and awful daily commute. From a deeper place, being jobless enabled me to remain unencumbered at my daughter’s hospital bedside for several weeks and to take her to dozens of follow-up outpatient therapies and medical check-ups.

The absence of income qualified me for public assistance programs that helped our family get back firmly on its feet. God’s hand was clearly at work medically and through our community serving as His hands and feet with financial support, love and prayers throughout Kate’s illness and recovery.

The only negative residual is Kate’s permanent loss of vision on the left sides of both eyes – homonymous hemianopia. I don’t mean to trivialize it with the word “only” but to contrast it to even worse possible outcomes. While Kate won’t be allowed to drive, a real game-changer if we aren’t careful how we approach her future options, I’m profoundly grateful when I compare that to the post-stroke physical ravages I’ve witnessed among other people. Kate may not yet be able to appreciate it, but she overcame this relatively unscathed.

So often we’re unable to appreciate what’s still going right for us in the face of what’s going wrong. Oh, how I long for greater understanding and reassurance in the middle of life’s worst storms – the faith of Romans 8:28, that I’ll get through them for a greater purpose! It’s difficult to imagine eventual calm seas when there’s no dry land in immediate sight and the “bigger picture” remains submerged.

The perspective of Fr. Joseph F. Girzone, author of Never Alone, resonates here: the totality of multiple life experiences are being knit together for a greater good that we can’t know at the time we are going through life perils. Like it or not, we sometimes need perils to re-direct our life courses. God’s ways are decidedly not our ways!

“He is not a God of quick fixes. He is a very patient God who heals gently and thoroughly,” Girzone writes. “Now that I am older, I can see the orderly way God works in people’s lives. Our early years, while they may seem rife with turmoil and pain and so many loose ends, when viewed from the distance of later life and our personal development, we can see as being the foundation and the training process for the rewarding work God has planned for our future.

“I don’t mean the jobs we may have for our subsistence. I mean the thrust of our personal life with all its encounters and relationships and the various ways we affect people as well as the influence we have on the world around us, in our family and in our social as well as our business life.”

I’ve begun doing more sharing of our family’s story to encourage others. For visual accompaniament, I put together a video of Kate’s heart/brain recovery, in tandem with that of Athens’ teen Luke Lamson’s farm accident recovery. It’s set to Christian singer/songwriter Laura Story’s song, “Blessings.” In it, Story asks God, “What if the trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?” I’m counting on it.

Not-so-divine life appointments need cancelling

I have long been a slave to my calendar. Once I schedule something, it seems there’s no turning back. It might as well be written in blood, for I will strive to accomplish whatever I slated. Even to my own detriment. Even if blood will result.

Back before multi-tasking had a name, I’d already embraced the practice. There was no limit to what I could take on or put upon myself. I’d simply work faster, harder or later, thriving on the adrenaline generated. My ability to accomplish the impossible was how I proved and defined myself.

However, that could last only so long. Eventually, one has to slow down, pay the piper, ante up and perhaps cry “Auntie Em,” an even more desperate plea than “uncle” when you truly need something to stop. In this case, I’m begging, “stop the world, I want to get off!” I’m at my breaking point. Would somebody please call this fight!?

Actually, I reached that point months ago, but the universe either didn’t receive or choose not to acknowledge my distress signal. I continued to cry out, flail my arms skyward and to fire flares, but to no avail. What’s a person got to do to throw in the towel?

In the absence of my cosmic butt-kicking and surrender being noticed, I simply kept going, trudging ahead each day, but feeling increasingly more behind. No reserves left. As the old jingle goes, “My get-up-and-go has got up and gone,” leaving no forwarding address. Unfortunately, my patience and stamina also expired, leaving me running into my calendar like a board into a buzz saw.

This is alike, yet different from when I was a county department head whose chief calendar complaint was boring meetings: everybody always wanting to meet about something. It drove me crazy. But the current scenario is even worse: mandatory appointments of the mostly unavoidable kind!

If “divine appointment” is viewed as a coincidental encounter that God has orchestrated for some specific purpose in our lives, Satan is the conductor of my current calendar crises. It feels like someone is kicking me while I am down. I haven’t yet had the chance to even consider regrouping since my daughter’s stroke a year ago.

The dirty word in my life these days is “appointment.” Everyone seems to want to meet about something that involves me and/or one of my family members. How bad could it be? Well, even if you didn’t ask, you’re gonna hear it:

Since January of this year, I’ve been on calendar overload. I had to attend both children’s wrestling meets and tournaments; conferences for both kids; orthodontics appointments every three weeks for my daughter; annual dental check-ups for all three of us; cavity-filling appointments for the two kids; annual doctor’s appointments for all three of us; three follow-up suspected melanoma surgeries for what was discovered during my check-up – each followed up by a corresponding appointment for removal of stitches and discussion of the respective pathology report; another family member’s neuropsychological assessment;

An informational meeting about a trip abroad for my daughter; a trip to the Secretary of State Office for her state I.D. card; a post office passport appointment for her; an urgent care visit due to possible strep throat; two trips to U of M Hospital to meet with neurologists and infectious disease specialists; a mandatory children’s special healthcare discussion appointment;

Four funerals of friends/relatives; four car repairs; 13 weekly humor columns; one Friend of the Court hearing; three Friend of the Court presentations in another county; three days of jury duty in my own county; twice-a-month church choir rehearsals; playing piano for Wednesday Lenten services; three-county work travel; Fredonia Grange and Union City Sesquicentennial Committee meetings; Athens Follies rehearsals and performances; Young Marines’ Wednesday drill sessions; and a mandatory social work license continuing education course. Did I mention I have a full-time job?

Geez! Get behind me, Satan! No more devil of my doing in the details. Something’s got to give, just not me. Someone else can prop up the world. This Atlas isn’t shrugging, but slumping into a heap before The One who can help. Stay turned for how God leads me out of this mess.

Job stress determined by a handful of factors

In my work role as an employment specialist, I help many different kinds of people find work. There are as many motives for as there are people wanting employment. I help sort out those kinds of issues, while at the same time help them overcome what I term “employability issues.”

What are employability issues? Personal qualities and circumstances that have the potential to disqualify a person from employment. They range from career-limiting criminal convictions, to offensive tattoos, to lack of transportation and much more. The sky’s the limit when it comes to employment-limiting factors.

Many people have more than one issue that could knock them out of the running to answer opportunity’s knock. For instance, the woman who had “F.U.” spelled out in a tattoo across her lower lips. Not exactly what employers are looking for in someone representing their companies, regardless of her

What about the person who lost his/her driver’s license to a drinking problem from which he/she is now recovering? That person may need to rely on an overworked rural transportation to get to work, thereby throwing in an unreliability factor on work arrival time. Legitimate employer concern. Transportation problems may also rule out working certain shifts, as the safety net of family and friends can only stretch so far and is often fraught with holes.

Then there are people with injuries, illnesses and other medical conditions, waving red flags large enough to cover up the true worth of otherwise highly-qualified and dedicated employees. Potential liabilities loom large in the eyes of the hiring beholders.

Particularly during times of economic downturn, work turns into a country club into which it’s difficult to gain membership and its associated privileges. Add to that the emotional frailty of being out of the employment game and knowing you are trying to move a huge rock up a giant hill (within your physician-ordered lifting restrictions) and it’s dauntin

One person I was working with dared utter the universal unspoken fear of those who have been involuntarily job-sidelined, “I know I need to get back to work, but don’t know if I can handle all the pressure. What I need is a low-stress job to gradually get me back on board.” Tall order in a world that expects everyone to hit the ground running.

In an attempt to meet his needs, however futile it might seem, I did an online search for the lowest-stress jobs. According to CareerCast.com’s 2015 list of lowest-stress jobs, my client was going to need to switch his line of work from tool and die trade to cosmetology, as hairstylist was deemed the least stressful occupation according to criteria I won’t outline here. Wow. Hairstylists, particularly at franchised hair service places, work their butts off serving a never-ending line of walk-ins.

Because you’re wondering, the rest of the top 10 included audiologist, tenured university professor, medical records technician, jeweler, medical lab technician, seamstress, dietician, librarian and forklift operator. Unlikely low-stress companions, eh?

CareerCast.com listed the following professions as most stressful: firefighter, enlisted military personnel, military general, airline pilot, police officer, actor, broadcaster, event coordinator, photojournalist and newspaper reporter.

Those in charge of the safety and security of large numbers of people seem to be under the most stress at work. The others work within very limited windows of time. But actors? Well, too darned bad! I struggle to empathize with their high-stress issues.

What makes a job high-stress? According to bewell.stanford.edu, which referenced the work of Sir Michael Marmot, author of The Status Syndrome, it’s the following: 1. Little or no control over what you do, when you do it and how you are evaluated; 2. Little or no correspondence between your work efforts and work rewards; 3. Random environments in which things happen over which you have no control; and 4. Not having adequate social support (training, encouragement, caring management, helpful co-workers) in the work environment.

What does this mean to job seekers? Target not just certain jobs, but look for employers that allow for employee input and autonomy, encourage personal investment in work, care about employee needs, lend support to efforts and reward performance. It’s the needle worth finding in the haystack.

Unconventional life ends with beautiful death

Earlier this month a couple dozen freight cars that derailed from a Michigan train made the news. During that same week, our family lost an important connecting piece of the social convoy that has seen us through life. While our relative derailment didn’t make the news, it was a much greater loss.

My aunt Bonnie Smith (aka “Beautiful Bonnie”), age 88, died on March 10th after succumbing to her fourth invasion of cancer. As bladder, kidney and colon cancers hadn’t been enough to do the job, it took a fourth to do her in: stealthy multiple myeloma. The derailed grain cars had been empty, but Aunt Bonnie’s life was full and connected to many others’ lives in our community.

My earliest memories of Aunt Bonnie identified her as some kind of exotic creature: ruby lips and nails; cigarette in one hand, soda in the other; lying in the sun on hot summer days; staying up reading late into the night, then sleeping in; golfing in a league; wearing flashy clothing and jewelry; and driving a cool convertible.

I didn’t know anyone else who had traveled to more than one other continent, or who had a pet monkey in a cage by her stairway. And when the dance music started, Aunt Bonnie didn’t just cut a rug with Uncle Elmer, she shredded it!

This was hardly the behavior of the other neighborhood farm wives. I can’t recall ever seeing Aunt Bonnie in barn boots, bathing a 4-H project animal or baking cookies for the open exhibition class at the county fair. I can’t remember her going to work at a regular job like my mom. But she was a sought-after card and dance partner. Even my compliment-sparing father said so.

Bonnie never aspired to be the kind of woman most other women thought they should be. She did what best fit her personality and didn’t feel pressured to be Susie Homemaker. As her daughter, Micki, eulogized, people were Bonnie’s drug of choice.

Clad in a wardrobe that rivaled Liberace’s, Aunt Bonnie outwardly could be dismissed as shallow. But privately, I knew better. We had some deep life conversations where the outwardly confident “Beautiful Bonnie” expressed self-doubt and wondered if she had done enough for others and where she stood with God.

Had Bonnie had the mother she’d lost at the age of three serving as her foundation in life, she might not have developed the carefree demeanor that attracted so many people to her. She might have grown into a more conventional adulthood with a more typical orientation. But her life path and attachments were different. The impact of being a fun-loving person and gregarious conversationalist are harder to measure than the family contributions of a nurturer or breadwinner.

Uncle Elmer, her hard-working, task-oriented husband of 60 years, struggled with that. One of his favorite pastimes was grousing about Aunt Bonnie to anyone who would listen. After he had passed, Aunt Bonnie told of the day he sputtered a little too much about her not cooking enough, travelling too much, unnecessarily spending money, etc. The typically good-natured Aunt Bonnie finally snapped.

“You want to know what people are saying, Elmer Smith?” she demanded. “They aren’t talking about what a lazy spendthrift I am, they are talking about what a fool you are to have stayed married so long to such a worthless woman.” After that, Uncle Elmer cut back on the criticism.

Aunt Bonnie tried not to hurt anyone’s feelings. She was intuitive and didn’t just read books but read people. If you wanted the low-down on a person or situation, she’d accurately fill you in without mincing words. Sometimes the job of mediating between warring parties fell to her, like the times she and Elmer went on trips with their siblings and friends. When people came close to blows, Bonnie adroitly used her humor to defuse the situation.

That all was laid to rest last week. The only kin left from my dad and his six siblings’ shrinking generation are my mom and Aunt Sharon. As the remaining witnesses to that chapter of Smith family history, they agree Aunt Bonnie’s unique beauty will live on in laughter and memory.


OMG, I missed March 9 – National Panic Day!

As hard as I try to pay attention to my Chase’s calendar to keep up on special designation days, they sometimes pass by me with alarming speed. I can’t keep up with the constant assault of unnecessary information continually coming my way. Occasionally, I have to get off Facebook, Instagram and the Internet in general to take care of non-digital (aka “real”) life in all its non-dramatic splendor. That must be when National Panic Day sneaked past.

My first reaction to having missed it? A sharp intake of breath, followed by a shrill shriek of “OMG, I missed National Panic Day.” My heart beat like crazy, I broke out in a sweat and felt all shaky and nauseous. I was overcome with a sense of dread. My panties bunched up on their own. I couldn’t shake the fear I had lost all control and something really bad was going to happen. In other words, I experienced extreme panic (is there any other kind!?) at missing National Panic Day.

Although I suspected some kind of underground conspiracy at play, I had to acknowledge part of this might have been due to my inability to locate my “Keep Calm and Drink Coffee” insulated travel mug. Granted, the concept is an oxymoron, as caffeine is one of the first things complainers of anxiety are instructed to remove from their diets, but at least the “keep calm” sentiment showed positive expectancy.

The original “keep calm and carry on” phrase spoofed by the mug was uttered by that 20th Century king of calm, Winston Churchill, who remained unflinching before his country and the world during the extreme adversity experienced during WWII. If calm was good enough for Churchill, it should suit me fine.

Overall, I’m not a reactionary person, especially in the workplace, where I know no good will come of flying off the handle or into a tizzy. I’ve kept my cool through personnel casualties, program failures, budget shortfalls, resource droughts and logistical nightmares; however, I’m much more likely to be reactive when I am at home and it’s my personal property or finances on the line. For instance, when someone recently left on an iron upstairs and it melted through a hard plastic file box and would have caused a fire had I not accidentally discovered it. Churchill might have melted down along with me on that one.

If that were classified as panicking, I certainly chose the right day. It happened March 9: National Panic Day. The folks at www.daysoftheyear.com foresaw my right to panic:

“Imagine a whole day devoted to what most of us do every morning, at least Monday to Friday. With deadlines looming, alarm clocks failing and traffic jamming, panic comes naturally, yet we’re expected to quell out natural urges, take a deep breath and carry on regardless. No more! Panic Day is the day to let rip and succumb to the terror, giving free reign to this much suppressed emotion. Flap your arms and scream, run around in circles if it helps, or just stay in bed quivering with your head under the pillow.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to either hide or totally lose your head to circumstances. As we approach the one-year anniversary of my then 13-year-old daughter’s devasting heart infection, stroke and related medical fallout, I can recall the ongoing temptation to drown in swirling adversity.

What’s the difference between adversity and plain, old crappy circumstances? It’s when we allow fear to infiltrate an unfortunate situation. In the words of the late New York writer Christian Nevell Bovee (1820-1904), “Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination,” Bovee was considered an epigrammatic writer, someone who observed interesting truths with sarcasm or wit.

Like the dead guy said, there’s no greater enemy than what our thoughts can generate. However, just when I most want to kill or somehow exorcise my imagination, I realize another option: Psalm 55:22 (NIV), “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you: he will never let the righteous be shaken.”

Now “all” I’ve got to do is work on the righteous part. I’ll get right on that. Heaven, help me.

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