Praying for a pass on dealing with passwords

Usually I’m fine with computers. They’ve never staged a digital meltdown on me. However, over the past several years, they’ve participated in a large-scale conspiracy: I can’t go anywhere or do anything on them without a blasted password!

Overall, I have embraced technology. I was one of the first people to write electronically, through purchasing a word processor three decades ago. But, I’ve seen other people take an armadillo-style stance against digitalization and retreat into their shells in the middle of the digital highway, mistakenly believing that will somehow protect them from what’s coming down the pike. Not unlike real-life armadillos do on Texas Highways, they become road pizza, often courtesy of a Best Buy semi-truck loaded with fearsome computers. Oh, the irony of it.

When I worked for the State of Michigan, it was during the corporation-wide computer conversion era. Clerical staff had already been assigned computers and trained on their use. Mid-level employees were still dictating reports that clerical staff transcribed on their new-fangled computers. In retrospect, I am embarrassed at this huge waste of time and energy.

Because I was also skilled at transcription, I was a better dictator, so to speak. I spoke very clearly, as if I were enrolled in the elocution lessons (look up that one, younger readers) of my grandmother’s youth. And to literally spell out unusual words, while when using the most-widely used form of a name, for instance “Kelly,” I would verbally add the tag, “common spelling” to indicate no funky “i” or “ie” ending.

After dictating a report, I would turn in my dictation cassette to the clerical pool. A feeding frenzy followed, as well-done dictation was a prized commodity among the clericals. I didn’t know this dirty secret until a clerical friend told me there were certain agents among our 40-agent probation/parole staff who dictated so poorly, no one wanted to type it. The air-headed agents who couldn’t decisively complete a sentence during regular conversation created Hellish transcription through thinking poorly aloud, for sometimes 10-page pre-sentence or parole violation reports. But I digress.

During this adjacent era, the State had just lost a crop of employees to the “you can no longer smoke at your job” wave of workplace reforms. Another group of mid-level employees was threatening to quit on the spot if forced to learn computing. This amused me, as I viewed computers as a work enhancement tool and already used one at home.

As someone who has significant difficulty learning any new information (including with things I do fluently and am motivated to do, such as playing piano, writing and photography), I use persistence and knowing the value of applying what I am learning to overcome my learning deficits. It was odd to watch people retire rather than face their technology phobias.

That same thought crossed my mind, recently. Not due to technology, itself, but its devil spawn known as computer passwords. Apparently, the criminals I supervised did not retire and instead sharpened their digital deceit. Everything now has a password to “protect” us from them. But who will protect us from the passwords?!

I am weary of coming up with, remembering and hiding so no one (including myself!) can find them, and updating passwords for everything, from financial accounts, to library cards, email and eBay: every electronic device and application. Help! My mental RAM is on unrelenting overload.

In addition to passwords, I also need to retain the images various applications set up as supposed clues, but instead run together and enhance my cluelessness. I got locked out of one program because what I thought was a shark image was a dolphin.

In addition to generating nonsensical words with strange capitalizations, numeric digits and symbols, I am asked insane security-establishing questions. Who was that first guy I kissed? Ron? No, Jimmy. My dad? Who was my third grade teacher? Mrs. Weirich? Or was that spelled “Weirick?” Too confusing! And what’s my favorite food? It’s ever-evolving, which amounts to multiple episodes of lock-out on my computers and phone. I can never remember.

But what I can’t forget is to remember these passwords in prayer: “Praise the Lord and pass on the passwords!”

School of Hard Knocks announces tuition hike

Amidst ongoing world crises and increasing prices, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened: the School of Hard Knocks has instituted a tuition increase. While things are tough all over, this signifies they’ve gotten even tougher. Talk about low blows!

Although not prestigious, the School of Hard Knocks, hereby referred to as SHK, is one of the oldest and widely-attended learning institutions. You’d be hard-pressed to meet anyone who has not enrolled in at least one course through it, albeit unknowingly. Some of us have taken multiple classes.  I’ve personally spent so much time in its unhallowed halls they should confer an honorary degree upon me!

But back to the budgetary issue where I began this report. The tuition increase was actually announced a few weeks ago, but as usual, I missed the news flash, sound bite and memo. It won’t matter anyway; like it or lump it, I will still be affected by it.

Naturally, I was the last one to hear, such is my lot in life. Perhaps because I have only one good, functional ear, which I am terrible at keeping to the ground. Although it’s finely-tuned for gossip, it has difficulty picking up mass-scale monetary machinations like this that have the ability to challenge my world.

From now on, instead of just having to pay through the natural consequences wrought through inexperience, poor planning, thinking errors, carelessness and/or being taken advantage of, those who find themselves on the doorstep of the SHK, however inadvertently, will be assessed a $100 application fee (Please note, there’s no rule that says the money must be come by honestly . . . ).

In addition to the new admission fee, the SHK will also be assessing an activity fee to anyone who has a documentable track record of stupidity. Discounts will be offered to first time fools who have not yet established themselves as having consistently substantial stupidity potential for decision-making deficits. But habitual mistake-makers like me will no doubt feel the pinch.

And don’t forget the student services fee that will also be rolled into the tuition increase, along with the technology fee, considered essential, as so many of the SHK students are “learning their lessons,” so to speak, at the hands of insidious technological issues, in which they mistakenly believe they are the exception to the rule and will, somehow, be able to out-maneuver the consequences, as is everyone’s fantasy. Also, an additional laboratory fee will be charged for SHK courses that require using specialized equipment, material and supplies to totally muck up one’s reputation, career or life.

Historically, SHK alumni have protested the easing of requirements for new students, so they have met with open arms the added administrative costs of the tuition increase. Similar to how hazing rituals are perpetuated, those who have been there and done that with regard to difficult life experiences and financial distress enjoy witnessing the pain of those who follow.

Leadership at the SHK is tired of students climbing over and/or digging under its walls (akin to sneaking into a drive-in movie) to avoid paying their way. So school officials have deputized alumni to help enforce the new, pay-even-more-as-you-go system. They will rat our cheaters. This squealing may actually be appealing to the most masochistic enrollees, offering a bonus lesson of getting screwed financially while simultaneously being spanked by another painful life consequence.

But alas, that’s what makes it the School of Hard Knocks: while regular education systems teach a lesson, then give a test, the School of Hard Knocks tests you through adverse life situations that teach you a lesson.

In  popular culture, the idiom “school of hard knocks” originated in a 1902 autobiographical piece written for Cosmopolitan magazine by Elbert Hubbard. He postulated that the worst experiences are often the best teachers. I have to agree. But unfortunately, I still dislike the times when I find myself once again a member of the SHK student body.

Because these painful lessons are ultimately for my own good (and it’s not as if I have a choice!), I’ll reluctantly pay the new, inflation-adjusted tuition price for the School of Hard Knocks. Errors and stupidity are costly, indeed!

Character education based on community characters

When a friend’s daughter complained about having to work on character education-related homework. I barely stifled a laugh. Surely, complaining about one’s character education assignment is a character defect; a cry for help and evidence of the great need for character education.

Having watched my own children write, last-minute, in the car (on the way to Young Marines) essays about self-discipline and integrity, after stealing a pen from my purse and plagiarizing ideas, reminds me of the rampancy of societal characterological issues.

Character deficits also abound in the rearview mirror of that same vehicle. Embarrassing to admit, but I sometimes drive like a madwoman, cursing, while taking my children to their character-building sessions. But enough about me. In flawed character fashion, let’s talk about programs and other people.

What are character education programs? Curriculums that address those hypocritical issues and try to replace the wisdom that is no longer passed down to children by parents who never acquired it (or by Sunday schools that have replaced moral education with arts and crafts sessions) because speaking to the issue of character is difficult and unpopular. That leaves it to me.

Many character education programs available, mainly in school settings. While I will spare you a full literature review, I will mention here a couple of the best-known curriculums.

Character Counts focuses on what it terms “The Six Pillars of Character” – Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship and includes activities that emphasize the importance of these relational qualities and developing them for the greater good.

Character First Education is more ambitious, naming 19 dimensions of character: attentiveness, availability, compassion, conservation, courage, determination, diligence, enthusiasm, flexibility, forgiveness, gratefulness, honesty, loyalty, obedience, orderliness, patience, respect, responsibility and self-control. It is more individually-focused, on the premise society as a whole automatically reaps the rewards of individually-improved character.

At, these six character-defining principles piggyback on Character Count’s six pillars:

  • Your character is defined by what you do, not what you say or believe.
  • Every choice you make helps define the kind of person you are choosing to be.
  • Good character requires doing the right thing, even when it is costly or risky.
  • You don’t have to take the worst behavior of others as a standard of comparison for yourself. You can choose to be better than that. (BIGGIE!)
  • What you do matters, and one person can make a big difference.
  • The payoff for having good character is that it makes you a better person and it makes the world a better place.

That’s a lot to digest. Which do I believe? All of it. But I most believe that every choice defines the person we are each becoming. Sorry, but everything counts toward character. A sign above my fireplace reads, “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are; it is our choices.” I would like to say I truly believe that, but if I truly did, wouldn’t I do a better job of truly embodying it? Consistently walking the talk is the toughest part of character development!

Back when I was growing up, my parents had their own version of character education: they would point to various “characters” in our community as extreme bad examples of what we shouldn’t become.

Why just say “just say no” to alcohol when you can point to the town drunk to illustrate your point? Stealing an issue among the young? Tell the story of a certain cousin who swiped family chocolate bars until her crafty parents substituted chocolate ex-lax, resulting in catching the thief with her pants down (literally!) about 3 hours later! Tend to spend too much? Reference the cautionary tale of Mr. Conspicuous Consumer, forced to live in an ice shanty after maxing out his VISA financing his frivolity. Overly uppity? Talk to Ms. Spinster, who long ago chased away all the men via her impossible standards.

My parents were light years ahead of their time in both character assessment and assassination. However, their choice of methods show them to be either resourceful seizers of educational moments or succumbers to that old Casearan trap: when in Rome . . . Both choices reveal their character.

Sewing with a thread that weaves us together

I’ve sewn as long as I can remember, beginning with the cardboard sewing cards and yarn I practiced on in pre-school, followed by someone giving me and my older sister a set with which to practice at home. I still remember the over-sized pink plastic needle I used to clumsily “sew” the cartoonish outline of a lion, with bright orange shoelace-like “thread.”

Noting my interest in needlework, Grandma Smith took out her “workbasket,” (not to be confused with the needlework publication called “Workbasket” to which she subscribed) and got me started with real thread, an over-sized darning needle, a thimble and cloth from her massive scrap collection.

Although Grandma Smith nimbly wore a thimble to protect her needle-guiding finger, it did more harm than good with my first sewing projects. The thimble kept falling off and either rolling across her gray-flecked linoleum floor or tumbling into the deep recesses of the living room chair where I sat. When Grandma Smith wasn’t looking, I would take off the thimble, which resulted in some painful needle sticks to my fingertip.

Typically, I ended up bleeding on whatever item I had been sewing, usually some kind of Barbie doll blanket, thereby grossing out the other passengers aboard Barbie’s Beach Bus. I would either work it into my doll-play storyline, pretending Barbie and Skipper had picked up a crazed killer (played by Ken) on the way to Malibu, or I’d asked Grandma Smith for blood red fabric to hide the evidence of ineptitude.

Over time, I became adept at thimble management and moved from sewing doll goods to household items. I became our family’s go-to person for mending frayed curtain seams, repairing lace tablecloths and hemming slacks. But sewing on buttons was my main duty. Practice improved my speed.

I’m still on duty as an adult, sometimes taking mending to my kids’ activities. Understandably, they prefer I limit my public sewing to button-reattachment versus underwear and/or bra repair. Interestingly, sewing can be a social activity.

When I was a therapist at Starr Commonwealth’s residential complex in Albion, Michigan, I did a lot of mending for the students in my cottage group. However, one boy never asked for my help – until winter when three of the six buttons had come off his coat.

Although this15-year-old was desperately in need of a friendly touch, he shied away from all physical contact. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, I helped him put on the coat for me so I could pin the button sewing locations.

After I had sewn on the buttons, he again tried on the coat for me, which gave another excuse for physical contact as I tugged and touched the repaired spots to test the alignment. That proved to be an important turning point for him. Afterward, he was much less adverse to physical contact.

Sewing’s simple importance was driven home last summer, when my children’s paternal grandfather died and I drove four hours north for his funeral. At my former in-law’s house, I found three of the guys in button jeopardy. I went to work parting out cuff buttons to replace missing button-down collar buttons and stitching in spare buttons on shirtfronts. It was one last thing I could do to honor my former father-in-law.

Not long ago, the funeral home where I work had me go pick up a burial outfit from someone’s caregiver. When I got there, the caregiver was lamenting the suit jacket’s sole button was missing.

“If you’ve got a spare, I can sew it on,” I volunteered. The older woman thanked me and added her diminishing vision made needle-threading and sewing difficult. She produced a button box and I selected the closest match and set about sewing the button onto the jacket. We sat at her kitchen table, chatting about faith and her long-standing friendship with the woman who had died.

I think it was both cathartic and comforting to have someone there, engaged in the very domestic acts of sewing and listening. I recognized God was using my sewing hands as His hands. The simple act of stitchery was made sacred through connecting the threads of our lives. No thimble required; enough blood already shed.

Remembering anniversary pain not forgotten

I swore I wouldn’t write about it again, but it will haunt me one way or another, so I might as well share what’s been on my mind lately: July 7 is the 25th anniversary of my father’s death.

Working at a funeral home means experiencing somewhat of a “Groundhog Day” movie effect when it comes to grieving the loss of my father. Hearing others’ stories of loss on a regular basis triggers thinking about my own loss(es). It’s only natural and has been aided by the growing number of his friends and relatives we’ve said good-bye to in recent years.

I’m not seriously traumatized by this. I don’t lose sleep over it and rarely shed tears anymore. Thoughts of my dad’s dying don’t interfere with my living. He died a relatively quick, albeit painful death in 1991 after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. We had time to make our peace and share our love. Friends and family couldn’t have been more supportive. And in typical Smith fashion, we had more fun together than should be allowed at both the hospital and when we brought him home under hospice care.

When people share stories about my dad, it’s with huge smiles on their faces and difficulty containing the laughter associated with his memory. Women tell me what a good dancer he was. Former classmates and his siblings say he was musically talented on saxophone and clarinet. We loved his singing and whistling, as well. Former opponents recall his card playing skills.

People talk about how compulsively my father loved to talk and how hard he worked at running his dairy and crop farming operation. They share how he diplomatically handled property owner complaints on the township board of review and speak of his generosity when someone needed help.

To me, he was a bigger-than-life figure who was well-read and intelligent on a variety of topics. He always had something to say, and occasionally was right. He had a friendly, accepting quality in interacting with others. He did not gossip. Dad was also too busy to hold grudges. And as farming allowed, he was at as many of my sporting and musical events as he could be.

That said, he wasn’t a conventionally supportive father who voiced his love daily and bought us Christmas or birthday gifts. Perhaps that’s why I cherish the small, copper piano pencil sharpener he purchased for me out west: a rare display of gifting. There was no point in waiting for him to facilitate a Fred MacMurray-style, understanding discussion when I was troubled. Nevertheless, I sensed his dairy-laced relational advice meant he genuinely cared, “That boy will never buy the cow if he can get the butter for free” and “don’t get your teats in a wringer!” Other advice tidbits remain too colorful to print.

My father was a one-of-a-kind person and an important influence in my life. Watching him die was unbearably awful. He spent over two weeks on a respirator within the hospital ICU, unable to talk. It was torturous for everyone. He’d just received a cancer death sentence and couldn’t share his feelings with us. Plus, with the chemotherapy and heavy-duty painkillers, we had no idea how cognizant he was of his situation.

Somehow, Dad communicated he wanted paper and pen. With a rapidly-weakening grip, he scrawled a list of names: Dale, Dale, Greg, Norm, Donnie and Homer. We figured out he meant Spooner, Schrader, Hull, Korn, Hoenes and Mandoka. Then he wrote what we assumed to be a seventh name: Pal. “You spelled Paul wrong,” my mother told him. So he added another “l” on the end. He was listing his funeral pallbearers!

Those memories got stirred up recently when our community lost Dale Spooner’s son, Denny, and Greg Hull helped eulogize him. The same feelings register when I chat with Hoenes family members at funeral visitations, run into Joyce Schrader socially, sit by the Korns at their grandchildren’s activities, or hang out with the Mandokas.

Twenty-five years later, there’s still no escaping all the relational connections to my dad’s death. Laughter and losses are the common threads, but that’s okay. Sometimes you simply can’t keep all your body parts out of the wringer.

Small towns beget interesting biz pairings

Admittedly, I am not much of a traveler – at least not to vacationesque sites or to do lengthy sightseeing that takes me for days away from our small town. As I have written before, growing up playing an active role on our family’s dairy farm put me on some kind of invisible tether from which I cannot seem to slip. Not having a substitute pianist to play in my absence at church on Sunday also eliminates the luxury of taking time off to go somewhere for a long or short weekend.

That leaves the option of regional travel, which translates to places where I go for work purposes, attend trainings to earn continuing education credits to keep my professional license active, and out-of-town medical appointments to which I take my daughter or someone else who needs transporting.

Within those parameters, one of my favorite things to do is to patronize locally-owned businesses in other small towns. Eating breakfast or lunch at some local haunt, the equivalent of Athens’ Copper Kettle, brings me the greatest pleasure. In addition to the interesting combinations of overflowing omelets, the waitress who keeps my coffee overflowing is often best the source of hometown information on what’s what and who’s doing who. I leave with a sense of gratitude for my own community’s issues, scandals, eyesores, resident characters and assets.

Getting ahold of another community’s newspaper is also educational. While sopping up my over-easy eggs with toast and eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I like to read through and ponder which members of the cast of characters in that community most closely resemble the cast of characters in my own community.

While certain roles are predictable in most small towns, you sometimes run into some refreshingly original folks who are successfully coloring outside of the lines in perspective-changing ways. They offer approaches to small town business and living that you just couldn’t find at a tourist trap. Such impromptu road trip education sessions are priceless.

Something I have noticed in small communities is there are a lot of strange-bedfellow business partnerships. What do I mean by that? Real estate constraints and budgetary restrictions conspire to bring together diverse businesses operating out of the same shop: two can do business cheaper than one; remarkably diverse businesses, at that.

I’m not talking the “Duds & Suds” laundry mat that gained national attention by putting in an adjacent bar (great idea, incidentally, as every time I visit a public laundry facility, I feel the need for a drink). No, I’m referencing unique, unintentional partnerships that spring up to meet community needs.

Locally, we have a gas station where you can rent movies and/or a tanning booth. We’ve also had an automotive repair shop with a florist business inside of it. In nearby Athens, you can buy a hammer and sandpaper at the same place where you get your prescription filled – Larmour’s Pharmacy. Meanwhile in Marshall, the popular “Jill’s Addiction” vintage clothing and household items business got its start in the showroom of a family member’s plumbing business. Go figure. And while you’re scratching your head over that one, consider the golf driving range, batting cage and mini-putt course in Battle Creek that sells cake and candy supplies.

The variations on business buddying are limitless. One time, I went to a tire repair shop on the east side of the state only to find it also inhabited by a seller of candles and essential oils. Even big box home improvement retailer Menard’s has gotten into the act. Makes perfect sense to be able to purchase greeting cards, Christmas ornaments and personal hygiene supplies the same place where you buy landscaping supplies, toilets and lumber.

I am in no position to talk as I have met with people off-hours at the funeral home where I work to help them with resumes and cover letters.

It seems regional travel has made me privy to interesting, although non-postcard-worthy aspects of small town life. Perhaps my time and money travel limitations are not really limitations, but rather a reminder of the abundance of the real, endearing community treasures located in the lesser-traveled parts of Michigan. Remember that on the road.

Waiting for a lazy, responsibility-free “next life”

It’s 5:30 AM on a Friday morning and just getting light enough outside that I can sit out on my front porch, with my laptop without needing to turn on any bug-attracting auxiliary lighting. My trusty thermometer and an involuntary shiver verify the overnight lows truly were down into the 40s.

Although I’m cold, I refuse to put on a sweater and instead try to absorb all the cool I can, like a reverse solar panel. Perhaps bringing this sensation to mind later today, when the thermometer is cruising toward 90, will make the heat more palatable, or at least promote gratitude for the early morning cool.

I got up at 4 AM this morning, knowing it was going to be a long day I needed to get a jump on. A drop of water escapes my wet hair and drips down my neck, ensuring I remain awake. I am dryer fluffing my clothes as I type, pausing from online banking only long enough to eat a bowl of broccoli salad and to wave at friends coming to semi-stops at the road sign in front of my house on their way to work.

I alternate sips between coffee and the 30-ounce glass of water I force myself to drink because it’s good for me, even though I hate how quickly it will cycle through me. It’s all part of today’s insurance policy against whatever strangeness may befall me: the caffeine/hydration/nutrition defense. However powerful, it can’t fully compensate for the effects of sleep deprivation.

Every night, I tell myself I will go to bed early, or at least earlier, and almost every night that backfires. “Just turn off that TV and go to bed, young lady!” the voices in my head from childhood mock my current situation. Oh, to have the luxury of a favorite television show or intriguing movie be what keeps me up at night, stealing energy from tomorrow.

What keeps me up these days is legitimate needing to stay late at work, or coming home late from a child’s out-of-town ballgame or some kind of meeting, then having the only conceivable grocery-getting time fall after dark and needing to practice piano for paid gigs, doing some sort of mandatory writing for hire, and/or paying bills so I can afford a porch to sit on to make these early morning observations.

Sometimes my musings center around my fantasy “next life,” where I will refuse to be conscientious. No returning stray carts in the grocery store parking lot or returning phone calls within reasonable time frames; no putting gas in my car the night before I go somewhere; no stocking food and household supplies ahead; and no paying bills until my creditors catch up with me and threaten my kneecaps.

I will be the last to arrive and the first to leave at social occasions, so I will never have to help with set-up or tear-down. A bag of chips that I pick up at a convenience store on the way to the party will become my permanent dish to pass. And I will carry a Styrofoam to-go container with me and fill it on the way out to take care of my next meal!

In my next life, my children won’t be involved in anything extra-curricular and we won’t lift a finger to share our energy and abilities with others. We will spend our newly-found free-time on comfortable leather couches in front of our idol-like, large-screen TV.

Ah, the parasite in paradise existence! I hear your call. But for now, I’m still waiting. Just like I was waiting last week for the satellite dish technician to come and help me regain signal. I waited five days for my 8 AM-12 Noon service appointment, only to receive an email at 7:45 AM on my service day, stating the technician would arrive sometime between 12:45-2:00 PM.

What?! The ridiculous injustice of it! Maybe I’m just envious that despite having eight years of college education, I don’t possess that kind of command over other people’s schedules. Mentally, I add “make other people wait forever for nothing” to my next life fantasy. I can still dream for free, can’t I?

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