Summertime breeds humidity and humility

I am a horrible slacker, a terrible parent and a poor excuse for a human being. How do I know? Because my teenaged son tells me so. Usually following me setting limits regarding what I won’t allow him to do, or conversely, when I am attempting to get him to do something around the house that he doesn’t want to do. In other words, all the time.
Under normal circumstances, this would be annoying but laughable under the heading “that darned, self-righteous teenager behavior,” but our family has not bumped into normal in so long we wouldn’t recognize it if we met up with it on the street. And in view of the large-scale devastation our family has experienced this year, Connor’s “you’re a terrible parent” routine is downright demoralizing.
Connor is pretty smart and undeniably clever. However, like most 14-year-olds, he lacks wisdom. Knowing answers alone doesn’t provide big picture understanding of the context into which they fit. The result is excessive, self-centered armchair quarterbacking from someone with no investment in our family franchise. Dealing with his lopsided shallowness takes more energy than I can muster, given all the other variables with which I am having to deal surrounding unemployment and the fallout of his sister’s recent critical illness. Being in survival mode overdrive has greatly reduced my tolerance for adolescent posturing.
Absent a fair-minded, community-oriented male role model in his life, my son is quick to proclaim my thinking is flawed. He’s annoyed that despite our circumstances, I still try to be of benefit to others (except him, of course) with how I spend my time. He chastises me for my other-helpful actions, from giving someone a ride or donating blood, to volunteering to help people or causes, to awarding scholarships to other people’s children. According to him, it’s all a waste of time and something I do just to make myself look good. Gratitude and community-building can’t possibly be anyone’s motivators, least of all mine.
When told I would not transport him to athletic team weight-lifting until he put away the combat boots he’d left for three days in the kitchen, removed the shorts he’d thrown onto the dining room table, and retrieved a pair of (dirty?) underwear he’d tossed into another corner, he began ranting I was blackmailing him.
“You never do any work, yourself,” he admonished.
What about the ongoing job-searching, mending, meal planning, shopping, cooking, appointment-coordinating, transporting, lawn-mowing, cleaning, bill-paying and errand running? In addition to holding down at least two part-time jobs at all times. Nope. They don’t count. “You are a terrible mom.”
Fortunately, I have positive role models in my life who help me weather his hooey. One of them is a friend with two children, one of them a younger, special needs child and the other a couple years older than Connor. Let’s call her “St. Mom.” She has coped with far more issues and she’s still standing. Some days, that’s the best a person can do.
At any rate, it did my heart good when, while watching the Memorial Day Parade with me, St. Mom asked, “Have you ever been driving down the road with your ungrateful, clueless, potty-mouthed teenaged son next to you in the front seat of the car and mentally picked out a tree or light pole you’d like to run into with the passenger side only of your vehicle just to get him to shut up?”
I cracked up. I completely got where she was coming from and respected the fact she wasn’t afraid to have and share those baser thoughts. Yes, I have had those fantasies. In fact, I had one on the way home last night from my son’s baseball double-header. I had not been able to get there until it was ending, as I had to play piano somewhere late afternoon and then continue on to a speaking engagement in another county, both paying gigs.
Interestingly, he who had been berating me as worthless for not having a job instantly switched to criticizing me for my jobs interfering with watching his ball games. Talk about winless season! Here’s hoping I survive not just the humidity, but this summer’s humility.

Time to invest in your own dashboard deity

A few years ago, WWJD (“What would Jesus Do?”) wrist bands were all the rage. Everybody had them, whether or not the individual wearer was clear on the acronym’s meaning. As usual with what began as a good idea, it became trendy. Before long, the Christian-messaged bracelets took a pop-culture left turn, stopped prompting thought and became just another accessory. Worst case scenario, they were used by non-Christians as artificial lures to attract datable Christians. WWJD, indeed!
I’m sure there have been many more shenanigans over the past 2,000 years using the name, image or words of Jesus for less-than-noble purposes. In my lifetime, WWJD jewelry wasn’t Jesus’ only foray into pop-culture of questionable taste. Nearly 60 years ago, members of the entertainment industry spoofed this hokey tendency in a folk song. You all know which one I mean.
Plastic Jesus photo“I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin’ on the dashboard of my car. Comes in colors pink and pleasant, glows in the dark ‘cause it’s iridescent. Take it with you when you travel far.”
That’s the first stanza of the “Plastic Jesus Song,” written in 1957 by Ed Rush and Joe Komarty. The song vaulted to fame a decade later, along with Paul Newman, whose star was already rising when he sang it in the 1967 classic film, “Cool Hand Luke.” However, Newman’s version was patterned more after the 1965 Marrs Family recording of the ditty.
Plastic Jesus Song originally had been penned as a humorous spoof of an advertising jingle. Rush and Komarty had performed it as the fictitious Goldcoast Singers on World Pacific Records. According to Rush, the idea was inspired by a hokey radio show he’d listened to that had been run by a fanatically-religious Texas dentist. Rush and Komarty positioned their plastic Jesus to be as outrageous as the items with alleged healing properties that were sold during the Texas-based radio show.
“Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones, sittin’ on a pedestal of abalone shell. Goin’ 90, I aint’s scary, ‘cause I’ve got the Virgin Mary, assurin’ me that I won’t go to Hell.”
After watching Cool Hand Luke one too many times, I vowed if I ever found a plastic Jesus at a reasonable price, I would become its new owner. And that’s exactly what happened at Antique Salvage in Union City during M-60 Garage Sale Days in June.
The much-desired five-inch rendering of Our Savior was located in the same dollar item bin as had been the decoupaged cow pie I wrote about purchasing earlier this year. More kitschy than reverent, plastic Jesus sported a goofy, knowing grin, shoulder-length black hair, waxed brows and a miniature goatee. His outstretched arms were hinged and four flimsy plastic wheels adorned his undercarriage. This Jesus was made for speed.
I could picture kids placing him on their Hot Wheels tracks. Or perhaps putting a small object into his screwed-on, outstretched hands and then making him either bowl it forward or hurl it backward, depending on the direction they wound the arm. If you manually raised his hands at the same time, plastic Jesus took on the same look of Ohio’s huge, wooden, roadside Jesus that parody performer Heywood Banks immortalized in his “Big Butter Jesus” song.
Only Plastic Jesus was all mine. You might wonder why he was so important to me. Well, because I need him not just every hour, but ‘round the clock, on the dashboard of my life. It’s prompted my friend, Terri Montgomery and I to own matching vintage red, rotary dial phones we designated as our “Jesus hotlines.” Again, because we know the importance of remaining in communication with Him. Plastic Jesus is an amusing reminder of our serious faith in the real thing. And I’m not talking Coca-Cola.
Interested in your own faith-reminding Plastic Jesus? The same 2001 Accoutrements version is selling on eBay for $10 a pop. One eBay vendor also had Edgar Allen Poe and Jane Austen plastic action figures for sale. Now that’s creepy. What an odd, accident-causing dashboard grouping that would make.
But it’s nice to know, whether rain or snow, I’m good to go.

Shaking the magnetic attraction of negativity

“You are a magnet for trouble, Kristy Ann Smith.” That’s what my mother, my grandmothers, Catechism teachers, 4-H Leaders, and a whole slew of teachers used to say about me. To have argued with them about it would only have served to confirm their point. That’s the only reason I didn’t. Guilty as charged.
While I’ve earned my journeyman’s card for stirring the pot, I’d just as soon not. I’m no longer motivated by revenge and can’t remotely relate to the motives of most of the characters in the movie “Unforgiven.” Grudge-holding would take more time, energy and focus than I possess.
Somewhere along the road, I also ditched my desire to debate, or arguing just for argument’s sake. Even if you are right, it’s not worth the cost of the relationship. I no longer delight in shocking people with (real or trumped up) extreme viewpoints. Being a contrarian has lost its luster. Try to engage me in political discussion and I’ll go as neutral as Sweden on you. Attempt gender- or race-baiting and I won’t bite, but stare straight through you.
I no longer correct people’s grammar mid-sentence. If I know what they meant, that’s all that counts, however it came out. I only keep score with extreme jerks to later story-tell of their jerkishness. Even more incredibly, I’ve misplaced my red pen and can no longer circle errors in print and send them to editors. Maybe if my stuff were perfect or if my own house were in order. But alas, neither is.
With all my work at personal reform, you’d think I might be a better parent, daughter, sibling and friend, but I’m not. I continually struggle with my own insensitive tendencies, only occasionally winning a round against pettiness.
Joblessness and struggling to manage the multiple facets of my daughter’s recent health crisis, in addition to single-parenting two teens, managing a household and fulfilling community responsibilities have finally pushed me over the edge mentally and emotionally. Writing is apparently one of the last skills to go; thinking went by the wayside three months ago. The process had been gradual, but medical crisis was the camel’s back-breaking last straw.
While I can still carry on a (mostly) coherent conversation, I have lost my marbles, been out to lunch and embodied even more colorful craziness cliches since April. One day, when returning to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, where my daughter was a patient, I instead got in my car and unthinkingly drove to Okemos, where I formerly worked. Pretty scary!
As unsettling as that was, at 2 PM last Friday, I took my son to a baseball practice that had been scheduled from Noon-2 PM, as clearly outlined in his coach’s text to parents. The next day, I thought the baseball tournament was in Union City, but the empty field that greeted my arrival suggested it was elsewhere. Holy last-minute scramble! Apparently, I completely lost my mind somewhere among the scores of medical forms and scads of job applications I’ve had to complete.
On the home front, I have been misplacing things, from checkbooks, to appointment notices, to pills. Sometimes I haven’t really lost them, but am staring straight at them, but I still can’t make the connection. Perhaps most disturbing was my losing a piece of music I’d just played – and I was still sitting at the piano bench when it happened. Yikes!
I attribute this to the recent trauma and extended oxygen deprivation. With all that’s been going on, I haven’t had time to breathe. To counter the problem, I finally engaged in a massage, funded by a former co-worker who sent money expressly for that purpose. I’d planned to disregard her instructions and use it to pay bills, but my muscles screamed release, so I relented. Turns out, it was exactly what I had needed to help rejuvenate my over-wrought system.
However, midway through the heavenly body work, I noticed the masseuse wasn’t stroking my left wrist the same way she had my right. “I’m still wearing my watch, aren’t I?” I asked. We both laughed, for I’m never fully off the clock these days, just my rocker.

Random thoughts on many random obstacles

Although it’s comforting to pretend life is predictable, the reality is that while the alphabet is ordered from A to Z, there are times you can’t seem to go from point A to point B without encountering a series of obstacles. Case in point: my last-minute decision not too long ago to attend church at the Free Methodist Church in Sherwood following Sunday morning church at my church south of Marshall.
Lest you think I am some kind of a weird church groupie or major league sinner who attends multiple Sunday services out of guilt, let me explain why I sometimes attend more than one church service on a day of rest.
As a church pianist, I have a different church experience than most congregants. I play a minimum of eight pieces of music before, during and after each service. Making sure I hit all my marks and don’t miss any of the pastor’s cues makes absorbing the message more difficult, not unlike when you photograph a sporting event and sacrifice the big picture for capturing specific moments. Whole different game.
I decided while seated at the piano bench I would attend church in Sherwood after the service. I almost wish I hadn’t mentally declared it because obstacles immediately began forming. It was communion Sunday so our service lasted a bit longer than usual. We also corporately learned a new song. And then someone whom I hadn’t talked with in forever came to catch up afterward.
When I finally hit the road, a farmer driving a road-hogging sprayer slowed my pace for miles. To save time, I turned off Old-27 west onto M-60 and took it to the M-66/Athens Road intersection. Although a little longer than going through Union City and traveling Dunks Road to Sherwood, it promised to be faster – until a sign along Athens Road said “Bridge Out” and scenically detoured me around Oliverda Lake. When I reached the Sherwood Free Methodist Church parking lot, I was seven minutes late.
My life has been especially unpredictable lately, complete with unexpected surprises. I got home extra late the other night and got up extra early the next morning. When I went to get something off the shelving unit in the bathroom hallway, I pulled back the curtain and saw our white kitten, “Bentley,” sleeping on a stack of towels. I shooed him away and the movement and noise triggered some kind of squeaking/chirping sound from the shelves.
“Bat?” was the first thought that came to my mind, as most of our living quarter bat visits have occurred during humid weather. Frankly, experience has taught me indoor bats are a lot easier to catch than are indoor birds, although I do have a dishtowel netting of a sparrow and a bare-handed hummingbird catch-and-release to my credit. However, the sound was not quite bat-like. Good thing, too, as I still can’t find my “bat-minton” racquet.
Whatever its source, I knew I would not rest until it was wrested from my house. Except I was so dead-tired I forgot all about it in the short time it took to change out of pajamas. You know it’s a bad day when!
I didn’t remember the critter invader again until morning. When I reached to don my best critter-catching shoes, which were on the floor in front of the shelving until, I spotted a chipmunk’s tail sticking out of them. Oooh! I walloped the shoe, but no chipmunk was attached to the tail. I shook the shelving unit. Another squeak. My watch informed the chipmunk circus would have to wait. I shut the doors to other areas of the house and left our best mousing cat in the quarantined area.
That night, I was ready to do varmint battle. I vigorously shook the shelving unit, but no squeaks. Great, the thing had probably died. Yuck! I started pulling items off the shelves to find it when out jumped a startled chipmunk, right at equally-startled me!
The closest cat was our peaceable, neutered, de-clawed, suspected vegetarian male. But he valiantly snatched the chipmunk in his teeth and ran out the open porch door into the night. Don’t know and don’t care what happened next. Obstacle overcome.

All God’s children got wings that need clipping

Father’s Day got me thinking about my father, who is no longer living. I no longer shop for a card or gift for him. Instead, I get to spend more time contemplating fatherhood. Not just familial, but national.

With Independence Day in close proximity to Father’s Day, my thoughts turn to our country’s Founding Fathers. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about shopping for them, either, because what could I possibly give in appreciation of the liberty they fought to ensure for future generations like mine?

And what about spiritual patriarchy from my Heavenly Father? He has granted grace with a free will chaser. Technically that’s independence in its purest form, but functionally amounts to enough rope to hang myself. God is the easiest entity to shop for, as he doesn’t need anything and doesn’t ask anything in return for what he so freely gives. Well, except some behavioral expectations that are as easy to trip over as they are reasonable.

Sometimes, instead of trying to live up to Christ’s example, it would be easier to simply toss Him a clumsily-wrapped grill tool set and call it good. As with my real father and our Founding Fathers, I relish liberty, but fall short on the accompanying responsibility. You can’t have one without the other. But I sure try. My friends who are fathers verify their children also spend inordinate amounts of time trying to avoid accountability.

Some of the same ways kids irritate their earthly fathers are how we, as adults, grieve our Heavenly Father. In His eyes, we are all little children, too often perpetually selfish teens. That thought hit me fast and funny during church. I tried to ignore it, but the notion persisted. Finally I gave up, concluded the idea came from God, and started scribing it instead of making sermon notes while my pastor was preaching. Sorry, Pastor Bob, but this is what resulted:

CHILDISH WAYS WE MISUSE OUR GOD-GIVEN INDEPENDENCE:

Praising Him only right before we intend to ask for something – We are justifiably suspicious when our children suddenly pay us compliments. How many times have we demanded, “What do you really want?!” I’m guessing God notices our disingenuousness, too.

Making Him ask us several times before we finally obey – When have we been deaf to God’s call because we had the volume turned up too high on something less important?

Asking Him for advice after rather than before we have botched a situation – Protective prayer works as a first resort, not as a last resort. We need to consult God in our planning, not habitually relegate him to clean-up of our mess-ups.

Expecting Him to bail us out of self-constructed jams – Divine Daddy, won’t you please come down and post bond, no questions asked?

Withholding credit for successes, but blaming Him for our failures – Our illusion of independence and false pride prevent us from giving credit where credit is due the Almighty.

Paying Him lip service while taking opposing action – We manage to talk a good game, but our actions rarely align with our intentions.

Thinking He doesn’t already know what we are trying our best to hide – It’s futile to play cat and mouse games with the Omniscient One.

Asking for more without being good stewards of what He has already provided – This is so embarrassingly true and parentally annoying it’s hardly funny.

Working harder at resisting discipline than implementing His suggestions – Our excuses are frequently more sturdily constructed than our faith.

Expecting Him to forgive our trespasses while we continue to hold grudges – Free will begets some ugly double-standards.

Lobbying Him to judge us by our intentions, rather than our actions – Another double-standard that is so common we don’t even recognize we’re doing it.

Pretending we are independent and don’t need His help – Whatever happened to Philippians 4:13? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Acting embarrassed to be seen with Him in public – Although He promised He would never forsake us, we tend to publicly distance ourselves from Him.

If we truly value the independence and grace others have sacrificially purchased for us, the best thank-you for those gifts is grateful acceptance, without entitlement.

Recognizing you won’t get out of life unscathed

To say the last two months have been overwhelming would be an understatement. As anyone who has had life change in an instant can attest, sometimes uncertainty is the only certainty. I am applying wisdom from a therapist I used to see, “You won’t be able to get out of this unscathed, so stop trying to and instead adapt to where the circumstances take you.”

That was more valuable advice than anything I learned while getting a master’s degree in counseling. In the wake of family crisis and critical illness, Freud, family systems theory and denial go out the window and are replaced by simple survival concepts.

Empathy from people who truly “get it,” acceptance of your situation (that you’re not going to get out of it unscathed!) and a willingness to take action based on known variables, along with faith in God’s promises, form survival’s underpinnings.

We’d been minding our own business when I lost my job early the same week my daughter had a heart infection-related stroke. This one-two punch could have been fatal. My daughter could have died at several junctures. She could easily have succumbed to the pneumonia, endocarditis, septic emboli, damaged heart valve, bacterial meningitis or stroke. I could easily have folded emotionally, becoming mired in unproductive “why me” questions and obsessing over the hopelessness of our circumstances.

But in the middle of it all, prayer kept me hope-focused and the recognition we weren’t going to get out of it unscathed kept me grounded. The outcome wouldn’t likely be as devastating as my wildest thoughts, but it also wouldn’t be without consequences.

While losing my job reactivated my deepest and longest-standing single-parent financial fears and made me want to drop everything and find employment ASAP, that was impractical. With a critically ill minor child, someone needed to remain present to authorize care and interface with medical personnel. I was available. God reassured mine was definitely a “fortuitous firing,” if that can be.

Being “scathed” through involuntary unemployment helped me three-fold: it allowed me to be present at the hospital, freed me up for the grueling post-hospital schedule of outpatient follow-up medical and therapy appointments, and financially qualified me for programs, services and medical coverage that were out of reach while I was productively employed. For a change, I was on the receiving end of governmental system inequalities. Quiet hooray!

Right now, we are living on both official and unofficial public assistance. God, in His grace, has given us family, friends and organizations that have formed a safety net to prevent us from hitting an unrecoverable from bottom. He orchestrated multiple bona fide medical miracles, helping Kate recover from potentially-fatal conditions nearly as rapidly as she succumbed to them.

And if that weren’t enough, God has parted the great red tape sea of bureaucracy for me, with Medicaid, the Unemployment Insurance Agency and the Social Security Administration. In my book, that’s every bit as miraculous as converting water to wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead, as chronicled in the Book of John.

At the end of May, Kate was seen by a University of Michigan Hospital ophthalmologist. His vision testing indicated sustained homonymous hemianopia as the result of her stroke: she still does not have vision on the left sides of both eyes. He informed that condition typically reverses itself within the first month post-stroke, if ever. Gulp. Further, the Secretary of State’s office does not issue driver’s licenses to people with homonymous hemianopia. Double Gulp.

Tears came to my eyes for the first time during Kate’s series of serious illnesses. Up until then, there’d been so little outcome certainty that I’d been parsimonious with my tears, saving them up for one really big, salty meltdown when the battle was over and I didn’t need the reserve energy from delayed grief for survival fuel.

I cried for both of us, for what was and wouldn’t be. I had hoped Kate’s survival souvenir would be limited to a patched mitral valve and five-inch open heart surgery scar. However, the ransom for her life ran higher: permanently impaired vision. My daughter is alive, but we won’t be getting out of this unscathed.

Riding low back in the job search saddle again

I’ve noticed the déjà vu feelings the people in the movies have are predominantly romantic, as in “I feel as if we have already met and were lovers in a previous lifetime.” Conversely, the déjà vu vibes I am getting are more like, “Holy crap, it’s another round of that uncertain feeling I hate so much.”

Granted mine stem from the new man in my life by the name of MARVIN, or Michigan’s Automated Response Voice Interactive Network, who’s idea of the perfect date is me relating my job search activities and non-income for the week. Any heavy breathing during our weekly phone calls is on my end as I gasp for air and grasp at straws. There’s nothing romantic about joblessness.

I had just resurrected my cardboard sign from when I was unemployed in 2011, “Will Work for Self-Esteem,” with thoughts of standing along Beckley Road/B Drive North, but the best spots have already been taken and I am too busy running my daughter to doctors and therapists to stand around. So instead I’ve had to hit the information highway.

A horrible feature of joblessness is the digital pavement pounding required. In theory, it’s more convenient than driving all over Michigan to job seek. In reality, job-searching in person is a lot more direct and less frustrating than the un-uniform clunky online application processes that seems only to prove you have the resilience to run the electronic gauntlet.

Kid you not, I wasted a perfectly good three hours and one watermelon cooler trying to complete a seven-part online application for a position for which I was ideally suited. Well, unless I make the mistake of telling them at the interview what I honestly think of their amazingly awful pre-employment maze of hair-pulling online forms.

While each online employment application stinks in its own right, from a hospital’s 100+ question personality test, to federal applications where you break down each former job based on percentage of time spent per job task, this one took the cake.

It lulled me into a false expectation of simplicity by asking me to upload my resume. But that was followed by asking for my resume and a cover letter in plain text form. That meant stripping out each bold, highlighted, italicized and underlined word, and/or bullet point, leaving my credentials looking like newly-plucked chickens. Holy time-waster!

Next, the stupidly-designed system incorrectly imported the “Education” section of my resume, making up far-out majors for each college degree. Really?! I tried to combat that by going to the master pulldown menu of college majors, but it wouldn’t let me change what had been pre-filled. I had to settle for putting not as egregiously wrong information in the “minor” box, although I had no undergrad or graduate minors.

It felt like having a bad, online conversation with someone whose dementia-encroached mind couldn’t grasp either the big picture or details, but stuck to its own, distorted story no matter how I tried to raise a counterpoint. But somehow I persevered to the next screen.

This proved to be equally Hellish. The computerized application had randomly populated three boxes with three of my past eight jobs. Naturally, those pre-selected had little to do with the job for which I was applying, but it would not allow me to enter any further jobs, nor remove those. Sweet Mother of God!!!!

Next, it wouldn’t accept my former jobs as being “real” unless they could be found on its master pulldown list of workplaces. WTF?! It wouldn’t let me proceed without changing the names of former workplaces to something on the list. I am NOT making this up! Thus, Jackson County Department on Aging became “Jackson County Housing Authority.” Lying advanced me to the next section.

That’s where the watermelon cooler came into play. I needed to be alcohol-fueled before attempting the former workplace address section, where the “state” pulldown menu featured states from countries that were not within the United States.

Finally, I went back to the three “state” blanks and typed in “jobless,” “frustrated” and “demoralized.” And the digital application accepted them!! Stay tuned for the job interview, which will be reported here for your entertainment.

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