Free gas-fueled vehicles full of freeloaders

Filled my smallish gas can the other day at the corner station so my mower wouldn’t run out of gas. Although the gas can stopper fortunately held tight on the ride home, multiple memories leaked out.

I can remember my father getting disgusted with people running out of gas. We had tons of drivers run out of gas along the main road on which we lived. Then they would hoof it as far as our house, (probably because we were a farm with a gas pump sitting prominently in front of our milkhouse) and expect us to supply them with gas.

While Dad was willing to gallantly rescue anyone who was the victim of his/her own stupidity (unless he/she was a member of his own family!), these victims felt entitled not just to gas, but a complimentary container for it. I mean, can you realistically expect someone irresponsible enough to run out of gas to be responsible enough to carry a gas can in his/her gasless vehicle?

Worse yet, in addition to the gas and a container to put it in, they expected us to give them rides back to their vehicles, especially now that they were carrying a couple bulky gallons of fuel. And if that weren’t enough, they also expected us to simply donate the gas to them, like they were somehow doing us a favor by asking for it and inconveniencing us. But if you think about it logically, how could someone lacking both gas and a gas can realistically be expected to be carrying money?! C’mon, now!

Logistically, our farm was located just a little over two miles north of the nearest gas station. Yet, gas-seekers would drive on fumes past that last gas station in town, sputter for the first mile beyond, coast the second, then abandon their vehicles and march our way.

When I was young, I thought these drivers were just poor planners who had forgotten to stop at the gas station. I actually felt sorry for some of them. But as I learned more about the ways of the world, I realized the gas askance scam they ran on my father would never fly at the real gas station, where they’d heard every excuse under the sun and would refuse to give them anything. Therefore, all low-fuel dashboard lights pointed in my Dad’s direction.

As far as I can tell, the gas-entitled never stopped at the farm of our neighbor, just a quarter-mile south of us – the neighbor who also had a gas pump visible from the road. Perhaps because his dog barked ferociously and/or that farmer had (wisely) developed the reputation for turning down gas requests. Another possibility is he waved people in my dad’s direction, “There’s a farmer down there who seems to be running some kind of a gas ministry.”

Most maddening about the situation was that while my father never purchased birthday or Christmas gifts for his children, he unhesitatingly, year after year, gifted stranger upon stranger with gas. He, who refused to help me change a flat tire and didn’t think twice about ripping me or my older sister a new one if we made the mistake of asking for money, exuded a weird, no-pain,Wal-Mart greeter-on-morphine hospitality whenever an adolescent stranger trudged up the driveway in search of a fuel fix.

What happened when Dad asked them for payment? We’ll never know, because he never did. And if he didn’t personally accompany them back to their vehicle with the gas, they would keep his gas can, to boot.

A few gas-runner-outers mumbled hollow promises, such as, “Hey, man, I’ll return the can and pay you back the next time I come this way.” But they never did. Instead of deliberately taking a different route out of shame and personal humiliation, they continued to drive past our farm – guilt free! Some even waved, the ultimate audacity! More interestingly, some became repeat offenders, who my father continued serving. No kidding.

The other day, it hit me: Perhaps the gas chiselers of my youth have been trying to pay us back, but with kitten drop-offs instead of cash. And to think I ever doubted their integrity. Hiss!

New job builds upon old career aspirations

My cousin RC messaged me the other day: “Hey, don’t you think it’s time to update your employer on your Facebook page profile?” He was right. I was overdue to change it, but not without an explanation.

Call it superstitious, but employment and employers have not treated me well over the past few years. It’s made me wary of bosses and workplaces, so I’ve tried to keep a low profile with my recent job change. I was reared to believe that giving your best gets you treated accordingly. But I have discovered that doesn’t hold true.

I was fortunate for the first 30 years of work life (post-Smith Farms) to have favorable employment settings and good bosses. They outlined fair expectations, gave balanced feedback and trusted my judgment. I responded by meeting and/or exceeding their expectations and treating their organizational priorities and budgets as my own: with responsible care.

From ages 18-48, I enjoyed getting up in the morning, going to work, getting the job done and feeling as if I had made a positive difference through my service. My character and performance were valued and validated by my supervisors. My initiative was rewarded through the implementation of my workplace improvement suggestions. I was compensated and promoted. It made sense.

But from 2011-2016, my full-time employment settings were dominated by dysfunctional personalities, land-mined with ugly politics and peppered with competing priorities. None of it made sense. Work was one big double-bind. Sometimes I was punished for taking initiative, then punished again when I stopped. Crazy-making!

With my 2013-2015 employer, much of the staff endured rampant emotional abuse. Multiple conscientious employees were snared in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t work net. I have never witnessed such large-scale rank and file employee persecution to allay top brass insecurities.

In a short time, I went from singing on my way to work to cringing at my desk. No matter how I put on my big girl panties, I couldn’t deal with it. The highlight of that job was getting fired, making it to possible to collect unemployment and be with my daughter during her stroke and heart surgery recovery.

While unemployed and taking Kate to multiple post-hospital appointments, I became available to play piano for some funerals at Lighthouse Funeral & Cremation. That led to my helping with visitations, errand-running and other duties. I continued to help at Lighthouse even after returning to full-time employment elsewhere.

Lighthouse owner Tate Goodwin was great to work for: a throwback to my past good bosses and probably the most ambitious and hardworking person I know. He possesses exceptional planning skills, an eye for detail and a true heart for people. He made thorough mental notes when he was an employee elsewhere and they guide his leadership. He makes sense.

Quality service and follow-through are not just buzzwords to Tate, but a way of being. He’s genuine and likeable; people like to do business with people they like. It was a pleasure to work with someone I liked, trusted and respected, so you can imagine my excitement when Tate recently invited me to work full-time.

Most people don’t know this about me, but back in Mrs. Merchant’s middle school career education class, I explored funeral home careers. I still have the summary report I wrote. Got an “A.” My dad helped local mortician Ernie Jenkins back in the day. I can imagine a big farm kid was pretty useful to accompany Ernie when he got an ambulance call. Maybe the funeral home work is genetic. Or just maybe God has enough sense of irony to use the death business to breathe new life into this emotionally-recovering mom.

For the first time in 13 years after moving back to this area, I get to work in my hometown. That’s very important to me. It’s where my heart is. While there’s a lot to learn at Lighthouse, I’m already using my counseling, writing, speaking, music, hospitality and faith experience to serve friends and neighbors in their times of greatest need. I don’t have an official job title or description other than to trust God, help others and listen to Tate. Works great.

Think I’ll go ahead and update my Facebook profile.

Out to lunch with prep for specialty dinner

Ever wonder what got into your ever lovin’ mind? Are you technically still out of it, the victim of your own zeal that thrust you into circumstances way over your head? A lot of things sound good at the time you sign up, but feel not-so-wonderful when it’s time to put your butt on the line. Take the recent specialty dinner I hosted.

For 10 years, I have donated a special multi-course meal to Fredonia Community Grange’s annual St. Patrick’s weekend auction. Event proceeds support the yearly “Words for Thirds” project, where the Grange gives rural Calhoun County third-graders cool, personalized dictionaries.

My donated dinner adds a new and welcome spin to items on which auction-goers may bid. Instead of donating all white elephant kinds of articles, I create a unique dinner for 6-8 people, prepared from scratch and served in the dining room of my 1875 farm house.

With the exception of last year’s auction dinner, which was not (yet) executed by me because it took backseat priority to getting my seriously ill daughter to medical appointments, my dinner parties typically go off without a hitch.

In creating dinner themes and menus, I have learned to consider not only enjoyable food, but the feasibility of preparations within realistic time frames. With only one person (me) with only one small, built-in oven (mine) and two working stovetop burners, I must get creative with production within those limitations. Imagination often exceeds equipment.

I try to put myself in the shoes (or napkins) of potential dining patrons: If I spent a lot of money on an auction dinner for 6-8 people, what standards would I expect?

First, I would expect the food to be something I cannot easily access at local restaurants. It should be non-standard fare. Second, it should be cooked from scratch, not processed food, pre-packaged and/or frozen through GFS or some other supplier. Good as they may be, those entrees are simply no substitute for scratch cooking. I would expect something unique.

All this must be executed within budgetary challenges. My household budget allows for $80 in groceries per week, which includes foil, plastic wrap, cleaning products, cat food and litter. Extra purchases strain things, especially when the extras are items for an impressive dinner. So I try to purchase a bottle of wine here, a jar or something there in the weeks prior to the auction dinner. However, I always find myself at the grocery store the week of, the majority of items in my cart going toward the auction dinner. Sorry, family.

Another hitch: especially long work hours and a crap-ton of activities this spring conspired to make heavy duty cleaning (okay, ANY kind of cleaning) impossible at my home. And just when I didn’t think dinner plans could go further south, I learned my dinner-serving helpers (my kids) were heading north that weekend to visit their grandmother.

Unholy crap! In desperation, I appealed to the wife of my former high school boyfriend to borrow him to help serve. They had just put together their daughter’s wedding reception the weekend before, so I knew he was still in order-following mode. Thanks, Kathy Mandoka, for the loan of Homer!

The night before the dinner party, I didn’t get home from work until 9 PM. That meant zero cleaning time and necessitated putting together a large German Chocolate cake and a complicated Tuscan soup before I went to bed.

Before dawn the next morning, I hustled the international-themed dinner’s London broil, multi-layered Irish custard potatoes, Greek salad veggies and herb bread slices into readiness. By noon, I had out the broom, vacuum, dust cloth, cleaning rags and alcohol to tackle my least favorite part: cleaning. Fortunately, my good friend and neighbor, Julie Camp Seifke, showed mercy and came to help. Not only did she help keep county government clean as my county commissioner, but she runs a mean sweeper!

Thanks to the help of my friends, Julie, Homer and Jack (Daniels), the house got cleaned, the food got finished, and the guests got served with time left over for fun. Let me know if you want to volunteer to help with the next dinner. Taking reservations now!

Feelin’ groovy in a Simon and Garfunkel funk

“We Will Rock You.” There was something appealing about a medieval jousting contest set to that 1977 hit song. Two things happened when my kids watched that movie, “A Knight’s Tale.” First, they became Heath Ledger devotees. Second, they fell in love with the music of “Queen.”

It really struck a chord with my son, Connor, who was only five at the time. He could feel his musical mercury rising. As in FREDDIE Mercury. A decade later, he still listens to Queen and is hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“You know, Freddie died of complication from AIDS,” I told him one day, not long ago.

“Say it ain’t so,” he replied. “I mean, I knew he was dead, but assumed it was due to typical musician’s drug overdose.” He hated the thought his new/old musical idol may have suffered a chronic illness. Nope. No dope. But something just as deadly that Mercury managed to keep low-key, the same way he was always on key with his magnificent four-octave range.

I appreciate my son’s appreciation for “classic music from when Mom was young.” Although Toto had long ago confirmed we were no longer in Kansas, I smile, knowing my son has been listening repeatedly to Kansas singing “Dust in the Wind,” which also came out in 1977. Keep in mind (my carrying on, wayward son), I was only 14 at the time, and danced to it in middle school. But I knew even then it was especially good and had staying power.

Fast forward to 2015, when David Draimon of the group “Disturbed” released a lower and slower version of “The Sound of Silence.”

“You’ve got to hear this song,” my daughter told me. Truthfully, I tuned out in advance of the tune she was determined I listen to, as I was certain it would be another John Legend ballad or Meghan Trainor song built on the foundation of a 1950’s beat. Instead, I heard a deeply haunting rendition of a familiar Simon and Garfunkel hit.

“Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again,” Disturbed’s lead singer Draimon mined the minor pathos of this classic musical product of the 60s. “Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping,” I openly sang along to it in the car.

“How do you know this?” my daughter demanded. “You never listen to the radio or youtube.”

Don’t have to when it comes to musical visions like this that are planted in my brain and still remain. Paul Simon started writing “The Sound of Silence” the year I was born (1963) and finished three months into the next. It was so poorly received by record executives that he and Art Garfunkel parted ways over its failure. But an associate took the song and remixed it behind their backs and got airplay. The result was a #1 Billboard Charts hit and the reuniting of the duo that had recorded the initial flop.

Back when “The Sound of Silence” was written, my parents were in their early 30s and likely still somewhat into the pop culture of the day. As a teacher of high school students, my mother would have been exposed to a variety of teen music; hence the Simon and Garfunkel vinyl that appeared in their record collection. My older sister and I played it endlessly in an effort to be as groovy as the record’s tracks and the high school students we knew liked it.

I liked the ethereal feel of the song and its abstract lyrics. Admittedly, they held little personal meaning in my pre-school days. Five decades later, my interpretation is based on personal experience: “People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening” describes society going-through-the-motions without actually engaging – the kind of stuff I often write about. Just not as poetically.

At 52, I think the stanza, “and the people bowed and prayed, to the neon God they made,” describes worshipping false idols and creation, rather than the creator. Again, I’m not nearly as poetic as Paul Simon’s lyrics. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have darkness, my old friend, in which to process it all. Sometimes silence is too bright and noisy for my taste.



Bandage possibilities overwhelm via variety

Recently, I told a friend of mine that my daughter will be going this summer with several other Rotary Interact members on a trip to the Dominican Republic.

“Oh my, I can’t believe you are going to let that girl out of your sight after all she has been through medically over the past year,” she said. “If it were my daughter, I wouldn’t sleep or eat the whole time she is gone.” Like that ever might happen with me.

She was not the only person to make a similar comment. People pretty much seem to think/assume I should never let my daughter out of my sight since she had a critical illness.

“How many times each night do you go into her room just to watch her sleep?” the same person asked. “I would be in there every 10 minutes, taking her pulse, just to make sure she was still alive.

“Zero times,” was my answer.

While I probably shouldn’t openly confess this, especially so close around Mother’s Day, I have NEVER walked into my daughter’s room to monitor her breathing or heart rate: not before, during or after her stroke and heart surgery. That’s just not how I roll. I have no overriding urge to monitor her vital signs. I simply don’t keep those kind of close tabs on anyone or on anything. Plus, God’s got it. No need to keep re-checking His work.

“Hey, Kate,” I facetiously asked in my best Romper Room host voice, “How would you feel about me showing up at your room, night after night, asking you how you were feeling and checking your vital signs?”

Kate raised a “you’ve got to be kidding me!” eyebrow in my direction. “Creepy, that’s what it sounds like. I would say to quit interrupting my sleep,” she said, adding, in a lowered voice, “but if you did, I would worry that something really bad must be going on,” she said. “Otherwise, why would you suddenly start monitoring me? You just aren’t that kind of mom.”

Not exactly a Hallmark mother and daughter moment. Maybe in my next life I will be a better, more soothing Clara Barton character to my kids. But circumstances this round have made me more of a Larry the Cable Guy kind of mom: git ‘er done and get back in the game!

Case in point: two nights ago my daughter came and showed me an arm itch she had been scratching during her sleep. She wanted it bandaged and had already contacted one of her Young Marines officers about it and learned the most frugal solution was to go to the Tractor Supply store to buy the necessary farm animal bandaging at a fraction of the price.

I pounced on the $1.99 roll of arm wrap in her favorite color (black). We had just received world class healthcare Monday at the University of Michigan Hospital, but it was now Tuesday and this second-class mom was out purchasing veterinary supplies as her personal choice of healing materials.

To affirm the practicality of the purchase, I went to the medical products section of a large department store, where I was instantly overwhelmed by the ridiculous breadth of bandaging materials. Choices included sheer, flexible, waterproof, breathable, antibiotic-saturated, blister-targeting, and/or superior-cushioned, sports-strength sterile strips, which translate to, “cushioned foam protection that moves with you when you are active.” Add patented “Quiltven Pad” for superior breathability! Holy head-spinning options.

And to think we only wanted to keep a wound clean and dry! Why, we could also sign on for Latex-free and gel-guard Band-Aids, too, whatever the heck difference that makes. Even among the more basic bandages, there’s no longer a standard model. Many were kid-targeted, from Star Wars themes to The Avengers. Neon and dazzle colors and prints. Who wants a Plain Jane adhesive strip?!

Some products had surprisingly wimpy names, i.e. “Tender Tape” and “Hurt-Free Wrap”. What a bunch of wound wussies we’ve become! If it’s going to be in my medicine cabinet, it needs to be “Tough as Nails Tape” and “Tighter than Heck Wrap”: For people who haven’t got time to nurse wounds because they have to move on with real life.

Failing to competently assess our incompetence

The other day I caught myself doing something akin to spitting into the wind: arguing with my 15-year-old son. It’s an exercise in futility, and highly contrary to Mark Twain’s sage advice, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

Fortunately, we had no audience. Had the shouting gotten much louder, we might have, for I was making the classic blunder of unconsciously raising my voice in an attempt to compensate for another’s visual deficit, the way many people do when they encounter someone who is blind.

It makes no sense, yet we do it in an attempt to make sense of something.

In this case, I was attempting to help my son see the light; that his future wasn’t so bright he’d have to wear shades, but rather that he might want to invest in a good carbide lantern to shed some light on the mineshaft of a hole he’s been steadily digging for himself lately.

Most people with an above double-digit I.Q. are familiar with the Twain quote about arguing with fools. But you never hear it verbalized as much as this proclamation: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.”

What kind of haphazard horse hooey is that?! For one thing, it’s redundant. By definition, an opinion is one’s belief, hence the word “own” is not necessary as a descriptor. Why not simply say, “everyone is entitled to his opinion”? Even worse than the redundancy is the ridiculous thinking bias of illusory superiority contained in believing everyone deserves to have an opinion. Says who?

As it’s a political year, I’ll venture out on an opinion limb on this: I strongly believe a person should earn the right to have an opinion. You heard me right. Yes, I know my right-wing roots are showing, but I would rather see opinion-sharing centralized in the hands of a few, experienced doers, than have opinion-sharing rights proportionately distributed across a largely clueless and lazy populace. Free speech is a great concept, but the assumed thought process that precedes it is frequently absent or lacking depth.

Those who have no idea what they are talking about should follow the fool-directed advice of another American icon, Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

In this seasoned fool’s opinion, there are numerous subjects on which I should remain silent. So I do. Why? Because when I have not adequately researched those topics and know not, I have nothing worthwhile to contribute to a discussion. It’s ill-advised to comment outside of one’s breadth and depth of knowledge. So if I speak up, I preface my remarks with a disclaimer, such as, “My opinion is based on one experience I had” or “I have read that . . . ” I also identify my information source(s), as I have here.

However, sure as that know-it-all Cliff Clavin bellied up to the bar at “Cheers”, there’s someone right now talking out of his butt about something of which he knows virtually nothing. A Cornell University study along those lines was released in 1999, resulting in “Dunning-Kruger Effect” entering our national lexicon.

Researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger observed that people seem unable to accurately estimate their level of competence/incompetence: the least competent people believe themselves to be more competent than they are, whereas the more competent people tend to underestimate their competence. Few people are aware how far off they are with their competence calibration, including conversationally.

Dunning and Kruger explain ignorance of one’s ignorance thusly, “overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” In other words, people are too stupid to grasp just how stupid they are.

We’ve become a nation of out-of-our-butt-talkers, which brings to mind another quote, “Opinions are like butts: everyone has one and they all stink.” So, I stopped arguing with that out-of-butt-talking son of mine. Instead, I suggested he brush the teeth in his stinking mouth and go to bed. Cheers!

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!


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