New planner signals new year can get started

I started to pay bills on December 30, but remembered to hold off for a couple of days. Why? Because if I write a handful of checks on January 1, it will jumpstart my mind into 2016 mode and writing 2016 (versus 2015) on everything. Well, until it’s time to do my tax return and I have to revert back to all things 2015.

This Christmas, I thought I did an extra good job of curbing spending. Unfortunately, my car noticed this and ran up repair bills just shy of a grand. Happy post-holiday to me! So much for entering 2016 in the black. But red really does make a statement. In my case, it’s “Why me?!”

I really shouldn’t have begun that sentence with the word “so,” as it’s the first of the words Lake Superior State University had on its recently published list of words that should be banished from the English language. While it’s okay to continue to use “so” as in “for the Bible tells me so,” the word needs to cease being used as an empty lead to a sentence.

Keeping track of such things, including the annoyingly overused words I plan to send in for consideration on next year’s banished word list, got swallowed up during December amidst all the musical, medical, employment, family and community happenings that came at me fast and furious. So fast, in fact, I had to stick up a butterfly net to catch the tail end of the month. That was tough, as I was already booking ahead into 2016 as far back as August.

Problem was, I had no date book or planner for 2016, so I mostly just wrote on my hands any upcoming appointments I needed to calendar, followed by making a mental note not to wash them until I had transferred the details to a more permanent location. It’s not the kind of system I would recommend, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

Clearly, I needed a planner, but not just any planner. Historically, I have messed up big-time by rushing out and buying the first one I saw just so I could check off “obtain planner” on my to-do list. Allowing my employer to pick one out for me was an equally bad office-kind-of arranged marriage. I should know. I suffered all last year trying to fit 10-daily appointments in boxes approximately the size of a head of a pin. Even repeatedly reminding myself that 2015 planner was free did not lessen my annoyance with it.

While I have in the past ordered planners online and through mail-order catalogs, I’m too persnickety about them to trust that process. I like to personally feel the pages between my fingers, mentally transfer daily data entries onto its lined spaces and see if it will physically fit into my purse and/or camera bag.

Relying on both objective and subjective criteria, I ventured in to Barnes & Noble last week to check out datebooks and planners. They had the usual nature-scened offerings, others featuring the works of prominent artists, and still others with photos of either dogs, cats or quotes adorning the covers and pages. Unfortunately, some of the ones I liked stylistically, did not address the practical functions I desire.

Call me concrete in my thinking, but I like to see full-month calendar pages throughout my datebook/planner. I need that visual more than I need cutesy day of the week divisions that defy my sense of time and offend my sense of space. I need days and dates to fall in a linear order, left to right, even more than cool graphic design.

I spent nearly an hour sorting through all Barnes & Noble calendars before settling upon a gold-colored Gallery Leather 2016 Weekly Professional Planner. It was originally priced at $19.95, but was 50% the day I purchased it. In addition to the full-page monthly calendars and anal user linear date listings, it sported approximately 30 lined pages at the back for note-taking. To someone who forgets what is not written down (and much of what is!), that became its selling point.

New planner in hand, I officially decree 2016 open for business.


2015 served a lifetime of valuable life lessons

This year was one to remember. Everywhere I look, someone has made a specialty list summarizing what happened in 2015, from who died, to the top songs, to the major news stories. So I decided to come up with my own list: what I learned in 2015 that I can take with me for the rest of my life.

Notice, I did not say “will” take with me, but “can” take with me. It’s a choice. Just because we attended class the day a life lesson was presented doesn’t guarantee we will internalize it. I use “will,” as in “free will,” which conveniently allows us to forget the point life/God was making through the lesson. Too often, it’s in one ear and out the other!

As you may have discovered with your own life, it’s far easier to pay attention, take notes and complete related assignments while the life lesson is being presented, when the information is fresh in your mind, whether or not you want to learn it at that time.

If you fail to take immediate action, the school of life doesn’t just dock you a few points for turning in late homework or failing a pop quiz. It relentlessly pursues you with other “opportunities” (nicer word than the reality) to assimilate the information you were trying to avoid or weren’t yet ready to learn. The longer you hold off on studying, the harsher and more butt-kicking the lesson required.

As the most omniscient of teachers, God has a great handle on our learning styles and knows exactly what it takes to gain and keep our attention. Through several rough episodes in His classroom, I have learned it’s wiser to tune in sooner rather than later. As a result, His teachings have become more gentle and straightforward: no need to turn up the butt-whooping volume when I am already turned in to the call letters of station WGOD.

It’s no wonder I accidentally typed “lesions” instead of “lessons” when I was creating the working title for this column. Freudian slip? No doubt, as this year involved being life-schooled through some pretty severe wounding of our family, from my daughter’s mysterious heart infection, stroke and open heart surgery on one end, to the piriformis muscle issue on my read-end.

I’ve read the difference between wounds and scars is that wounds remain fresh, while scars signify healing has occurred. I appreciated that distinction. How often have I have interfered with both physical and emotional healing by picking at a scab, resulting in keeping the wound fresh? I run into a lot of other active scab pickers, too, who for various reasons seem equally committed to deterring healing.

We get caught up in the unanswerable “whys” something happened; the assignment of blame, with its accompanying bitterness; and the re-trying of the case with the self-incriminating shouldas, wouldas and couldas. No lesson can be learned or healing can happen while we continue to wrestle with the unfairness of our circumstances and/or deny the role we play in them.

The overwhelming nature of the circumstances in which I found myself this year, jobless with a critically ill child, reiterated I could not walk this road alone. I would need to trust God and hold countless others’ hands to get through it. So I surrendered.

What lessons did this teach? More than a semester’s worth: You don’t have to understand why something happened to get through it. It’s okay to be needy and to ask for help. Follow in the steps of others who have walked this path. Adversity is a necessary part of life and ingredient for growth. Crises reveal who you are and who is truly in your corner. Attitude is everything when it feels as if you have nothing. You are stronger than you think. Chaos begets new opportunities. Prayer matters and makes a difference. Helping others stops you from feeling sorry for yourself.

Instead of temporarily memorizing these truths, I have written them on my heart for future-referencing and sharing with other school of life underclassmen. Thus I enter 2016 with a grateful heart and positive expectancy. To quote Robert Browning, “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world.”


Avoid being a sitting duck for mystery pain

I have been in a lot of pain lately. Not as much during December, where the agony is decidedly on a uphill slope compared with October and especially November. The latter was especially excruciating. At least by that time I knew why.

October’s pain was a combination of physical torment along with having no idea of what was going on except that it hurt like heck. More pain than I’d experienced in my life, including the pain of childbirth and recovery from three abdominal surgeries.

“I feel like I broke my butt,” was how I described my condition when my children asked why I was moaning and walking around more awkwardly than a zombie from “The Walking Dead.” Next they wanted to know how someone could break his/her butt without it traceable to a specific incident.

I had no idea. I was too busy trying to escape the intensity of the pain. Some days it seemed to be radiating from my left hip socket. Other times, it felt like it was coming from the area of my pelvic girdle where the doctors at Harper Hospital in Detroit had harvested bone marrow 20 years ago. Could I have cracked my pelvis, I wondered? Did I have a deteriorating hip joint? Rheumatoid Arthritis? I took a couple more generic Ibuprofens and didn’t call my doctor in the morning.

At that juncture, most people would take the time to get it checked out. But most people haven’t just begun a new job or have a child who has a ton of medical appointments that take priority. So I did the next best thing: I went online to places like the Mayo and Cleveland clinics and researched symptoms.

Next, I started polling everyone I knew who’d had hip trouble to survey what their early, pre-hip replacement surgery symptoms had been. All this only made things worse, as no one had a good report and their stories of taking weeks off from work seriously discouraged me from making an appointment with our family doctor, as I assumed he might order strict bed rest, if not directly hospitalize me. Hey, when you are in extreme pain, your mind goes all kinds of strange, non-reality-based places.

Anyone who has played “avoid the doctor” knows how the game ends. Eventually, you experience a high enough level of pain that you cry not just “uncle,” but “grandma,” “cousin” and the name of every other family member down to “never-acknowledged, illegitimate, half-cousin thrice removed.”

My condition escalated from barely being able to bend over enough to throw wood into the furnace, to having to strategize the best way to slither on my back out of bed after being unable to sleep all night because any movement re-pressed the pain activation plunger. The tipping point came when I had to ask my daughter to help me on and off the toilet, which she was actually glad to do because it meant silencing my screams.

When I finally and tearfully explained my symptoms to my family doctor, he pushed a few places in my hip region, noted my winces and stated, “Piriformis.”

What? Piriformis Syndrome, an uncommon neuromuscular disorder that is caused when the piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve. The piriformis muscle is a flat, band-like buttock muscle located near the top of the hip joint, hence my broken butt sensation. If the piriformis becomes inflamed or spasms, it encroaches on the sciatic nerve, thus the horrible pain I was feeling.

What originally caused the irritation of this buttocks-region muscle? If not traceable to direct injury, such as a fall, there are two other typical causes: repetitive, vigorous exercise (traceable to the past five years’ time spent on gym elliptical machines) and sitting for long periods of time (this year’s marathon sitting at hospitals and doctor’s offices with my daughter). No wonder.

My doctor gave me short-term prednisone and stretching exercises. Worked like a charm. While I’m not completely healed, it sure feels good to not feel so bad! To those who have accused me over the years of never sitting down, this is my concrete rationalization of avoiding it wherever practically possible. No more sitting duck!

Farewell to my fuel/firewood furnace friend


Farewell Firewood Furnace 2015

FAREWELL TO MY FUEL OIL/FIREWOOD-BURNING FURNACE. This was the last piece of wood to go in before the furnace and self-reliant tradition of heating with wood went bye-bye.


Breaking up is hard to do, especially from a long-term relationship. But sometimes it’s your only option: the flame isn’t burning as brightly anymore; the cost of being together is starting to outweigh the benefits; and you feel the coolness when you walk into the room.

While you vowed not to be unfaithful, you eye prospective replacements and consider trading for a newer model. You forget the good times you had and build a case against the relationship. You forget the warmth exuded on your behalf and instead focus on the breakdowns, filtering problems and temperature flare-ups followed by cooling off periods. And finally, you announce the relationship isn’t worth the energy needed to make it work.

Those who have faced the challenge of changing furnaces know where I’m coming from. Bittersweet experience. And although I was able to successfully accomplish my mission, I was left feeling unfaithful. But to whom and what?

Heating with wood was a grounding aspect in my life, an invisible generational tie to my dad’s side of the family, especially Grandpa Paul Smith, who had lumberjacked in Canada. His decision to find work in Canada coinciding with the start of WWI, begs separate commentary, but we’ll focus here on the wood.

After starting married life heating with fuel oil, my dad got the bright idea of supplementing the oil with wood and stuck a Franklin stove in our kitchen. It should be duly noted his decision to start cutting and burning wood coincided with having four daughters to exploit as slave labor.

Ideally, I would contextualize Dad’s sudden urge to burn wood as a response to the energy crisis of 1974 or as an ideological statement of his burning desire to reduce environment-destroying fossil fuel use. In reality, he wanted to save a buck.

The Franklin stove took up so much room it crowded the rest of the kitchen into a corner. Plus, the stove got ridiculously hot. My chair was closest to it. I sustained burns multiple times just trying to get to my seat or passing the salt and pepper. Dad viewed it as the cost of saving money. We had health insurance to address injuries.

Sundays after church became official woodcutting times. My older sister and I suddenly became devoutly religious and objected on the basis that we should not be working on the Sabbath. Overruled! That lead balloon was as transparent as the time I begged to attend St. Philip Catholic High School to become a member of its championship volleyball team. It didn’t fly.

My older sister and I bundled up and donned masking-tape-repaired jersey gloves. We’d go with dad to wherever farm fencerow trees needed removing. Dad ran chainsaw and we threw the wood into his old, red Ford truck. If we complained of boredom, he’d hand us the splitting mall to divide the bigger chunks.

He didn’t notice the freezing cold, but we did. Briefly getting into the truck’s cab was allowed, as long as it was used as a windbreak. Don’t ever make the mistake of starting the truck and its heater. Dad considered that mutinous! Don’t be a wuss! Heating with wood was our tough man/tough girl frugality tradition.

When I posted on Facebook the picture of me putting the last piece of wood into my Yukon Eagle multi-fuel (oil and wood) furnace and explaining a high efficiency condensing gas unit was replacing it, I received verbal applause. From “Yay!!!” and “Yippee” to “You will miss the warm heat, but not the dust & smoke and having to go stoke up a fire in the early morning!”

Only Nathan Cross seemed to understand the tradition I was abandoning. “I think it’s a damn shame. Another piece of America will soon be gone,” he posted. “The days of cutting and splitting and stacking a seasons worth of wood. Just a damn shame.” Amen.

My dad would roll over in his grave if he knew the model name of the new furnace: “Comfortmaker.” So I’m putting a piece of duct tape over that name and writing “Liberator” on it. May Dad rest in peace, along with my wood-wrangling tradition. I promise to use my newfound time and energy wisely.

Teens have no concept of needs versus wants

“Mom, I can’t play the computer game I like most because the so-called management around here is too cheap to buy me a decent laptop and our Internet service is also a too slow piece of crap.”

According to my son, who can’t even properly use the word “budget” in a sentence, every electronic device I own, from my cell phone, to my computer, to our television, is manure-like: hopelessly outdated, uncool and smelly. Why, if he were in charge, everything would be cutting edge, including the credit cards we would eventually be forced to cut up because our spending had far exceeded our income.

So many things (few of them good!) run through my mind when my 15-year-old son attempts to make me feel guilty for placing our family’s basic food, shelter and clothing needs ahead of his adolescent wants. Give him our (my) money and he would make some really bold moves that would show the world just how coolly capable we are at living beyond our means.

Fortunately, I outgrew that desire roughly 30 years ago, when it first dawned on me that how I felt inside was vastly more important than what outside onlookers thought. So my spending patterns shifted accordingly, to what was necessary and meaningful versus what proclaimed my spending superiority. Makes sense to at least one person at my house.

Despite growing up under what has sometimes (and necessarily) bordered on fanatic frugality, my children have internalized few of the associated concepts, i.e. “if you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.” They use the words “need” and “want” interchangeably and resist any attempts at being educated out of that bit of financial ignorance.

Recently I made a decision to de-rail the gravy train I saw picking up momentum. I discouraged kind others from trying to be extra nice and continuing to send gifts and gift cards their way, as they had done supportively while my daughter was hospitalized and I was not working. “Subway is not your birthright, kids,” I explained. I also turned down an offer to be the “Christmas Family” for a group to adopt, as well as a well-meaning friend’s request to make some special purchases for us.

We don’t need more perks, we need to get back to the basics of putting people and relationships ahead of playthings. Through studying my Bible (which I do the low-tech way by manually turning the pages of the one on my used-store-purchased nightstand instead of a cool phone app) I have learned that waiting and suffering, aka “deferred gratification” are God’s preferred ways of working for us and through us.

As hard as it is for my kids to conceive, they will benefit from a return to good, old-fashioned suffering: temporarily doing without, while at the same time doing for others with what they already have. Lending a hand or an ear to someone in need is free and the best way to express gratitude for what you have been given.

My children say they hate me for it, but they know who I am NOT: the parental source of Play Stations, high speed Internet, video games and cell phones, but rather the parental supplier of socks, underwear, school clothing, athletic wear, athletic supporters, shoes and boots, jackets and coats, soaps and deodorants, razors, feminine hygiene products, medical check-ups, vaccinations and treatments, dentistry and braces, packed lunches and lunch money, homework project supplies, dance and ball game admission, technology fees, school and team pictures, yearbooks, daycare, summer camp, church and community service.

So when my daughter tried to convince me her life will be incomplete without a Keurig for Christmas (with which to brew over-priced cups of coffee someone 13 shouldn’t be drinking, anyway), I simply smiled and voiced my oft-repeated, gravy train-braking mantra, “Sure – you pay the first half of the cost and I will match it.”

I’ve found asking them to do their part is a sure-fire way to bring perspective and prioritization to proposed unnecessary expenditures. While free with my money, when asked to pony up their own cash, my kids suddenly withdraw their horse from the race. Just say “neigh” to the unnecessary.

Values available at Vermont Country Store


Well, it’s finally arrived, and with less fanfare than it probably deserves. But just before the tsunami waves of Black Friday circulars washed over America, the folks from the Vermont Country Store already had their annual Christmas catalog safe and dry in my snail mailbox.

One look at the bright blue cover of Volume 69, Number 43 of this intriguing mail-order publication, complete with an old-fashioned Santa Claus winking at me, got me feeling as if the Wells Fargo Wagon had already pulled up out front of my house with a special delivery just for me!

For those of you who are wondering what the heck I am talking about, the Vermont Country Store is a mail-order and online catalog that boasts of being “Purveyors of the Practical and Hard-to-Find.” And it is just that. The print catalog’s index and its website version boast of items as diverse as Irish sweaters, tinsel trees, nightgowns, classic wooden toys and tins of nostalgic candy. What’s not to like?

The Vermont Country Store is owned by Lyman Orton and his three sons, Eliot, Gardner and Cabot Orton. The sons, with unreal, soap-opera names, are smokin’ hot, pictured wearing trendy flannels in that eastern, L.L. Bean model, perfect five o’clock shadow manly way. Always good for business! And their dad looks like he just came in from fly fishing. It’s the kind of family illusion of the way we never were that makes you want to get some for yourself – available as close as the pages of the catalog.

The Cabots are fourth- and fifth-generation proprietors of a throwback breed of general store. Great-great grandfather, Melvin Teachout (real, working-person’s name), opened the original retail establishment back in 1897. His family has continued to follow in that tradition, with Lyman’s father, Vrest (Scandanavian toothpaste brand name?), christening their Weston, Vermont operation with the clunky, but memorable “Vermont Country Store” tag back in 1946.

The Vermont Country Store hasn’t done a great deal of advertising. Its greatest unofficial boost comes from the perception the rest of the world is going to hell in a technological handbasket. The Vermont Country Store likely carries a line of handbaskets just like your great-grandma used to take her eggs to market during the Great Depression, when she’d go into town to trade doomsday stories with other rural residents, recalling turn-of-the-century “glory days” when life was more secure and merchandise better-crafted.

I have ordered a few things from The Vermont Country Store. I especially like the old-fashioned looking 12-cup tea kettle that matches perfectly the era of my home. I also appreciate the wool-lined leather mittens I got to wear over my gloves to keep my hands warmer when I am out snow-blowing.

If I had grandchildren, I would purchase some of the Fisher-Price classic toys, originally in stores from the 1930s-70s. Far fewer moving (and no digital) parts to get damaged on the 1965 See ‘N Say, 1971 record player and 1975 cash register models.

Better mousetraps of the vintage variety is what The Vermont Country Store specializes in, from the flannel pajamas that won’t dissolve in the washer to the old-fashioned licorice that leaves a taste in your mouth for days. But you’ll pay through the nose for that trip down memory lane.

However, unlike many catalog businesses, The Vermont Country Store has an extremely strong customer service approach to doing business. Or at least they say they do, which is what counts most.

“We consider our customers friends, and we believe friends should help out when there’s trouble,” says the Vermont Country Store’s no-risk shopping guarantee, “So if you have trouble with any item you’ve ordered from us, or it just doesn’t suit your needs, call us right up at 800-211-4741. We will refund your money without hassle or haggle or arbitrary deadlines.”

Dealing with this business is so straight-forward and no-brainer that in no time at all, you forget how over-priced the merchandise is and focus strictly on the two-fold feel-good shopping experience: downhome products and downhome values.

So don’t just shop for products and monetary values. Shop for lost national values. They can be had as close as the pages of The Vermont Country Store Catalog.

Wristwatch defies wisdom, requires watching


With Thanksgiving this week, I should be writing about gratitude and/or turkey dinner memories. This time of year reminds us what we should be grateful for, two of which ARE NOT my cow yoga monthly calendar with its torn heavy cardstock hanging loop that keeps causing the months to flip back to May or July and my junk wristwatch that refuses to keep accurate time. It’s a wonder I get anything done without accurate date and time reminders.

While the cow yoga calendar randomly jumping months really bugs me and would seem to be more annoying than the watch, it’s not. For I reference it only occasionally, not several times an hour like I do the watch. Plus, when I look at the calendar and see, for instance, hearts illustrations and the word “February” atop a page, I remain oriented enough to time and place to recognize it’s actually November, not February. Conversely, a watch that’s slowly losing time is not immediately and/or obviously detectable, which carries great potential for getting its wearer into trouble.

My watch first began losing time two years ago, when I was supposed to be a speaker at a regional conference. I went in well in advance of the session I was to facilitate and set up the room and my materials. Glancing at my watch, I saw I had at least another 30 minutes to kill before I’d need to speak, so I went to find the conference’s emcee about a later session where we’d be partnering.

When I returned to my speaking room 25-minutes later, I was shocked to find the chairs filled with participants, all waiting for me. It was horribly embarrassing, believing I was working ahead of schedule when I was actually running behind. Must be the watch’s battery running down, I thought. For the duration of the conference, I used my cell phone as a substitute timepiece.

Timepiece. Now there’s a word you don’t often hear, unless you hang around in old-money European circles. But there was nothing cultured-looking about virtually wearing my phone on my sleeve. And my conference wardrobe selections lacked pockets, so there was nowhere to put the darned thing, except atop my conference folder. What I would have given for a pocket protector and a pocket to which to fasten it!

When I got home from the conference, I went to Batteries Plus for a replacement watch battery. “Would you like one of our lifetime warranty battery plans?” asked the manager. He explained that for around $15, roughly twice the cost of a new battery and installation labor, I could get a lifetime battery replacement certificate – essentially medical insurance for my watch.

Heck yes! I have spent a fortune on replacement batteries. Some were easy enough to access through popping off the backs of my watches. However, some watch backs refused to go back on once they were removed, necessitating me going to a watch or jewelry professional for help, thus immediately skyrocketing the price of battery replacement – the very thing I was attempting to avoid.

You’re probably thinking the watch I am writing about must be pretty special to warrant lifetime battery replacement. But you’d be wrong. We’re talking a basic woman’s Timex Expedition that retailed for around $25 max. I initially paid a dollar for it at Goodwill with intent to part it out and use its band on another watch. However, when I noticed it was an Indiglo (lighted face) and actually kept time, I started wearing it all the time.

The lifetime battery replacement was my attempt to legitimize my purchase. Throwing of good money after bad is a time-honored American tradition, as is praying for God’s wisdom and then ignoring it. Turns out, the battery wasn’t the issue, anyway. Something else deep in the watch bowels continued to malfunction. Grrr! So my watch-specific lifetime battery was of no help to me.

This Thanksgiving, I am going to be thankful God gives me the wisdom to make better decisions, should I choose to listen to Him and not keep doing things my own, ridiculous way. Gotta go now and re-set my Timex again for the umpteenth time. I’m still wearing it.

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