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every electronic device I own, from my cell phone, to my computer, to our television, is manure-like: hopelessly outdated, uncool and smelly.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.

Is the time ever right to have “The Talk”?

It’s a rite of passage, right? When the kids start getting moody along with getting acne, it’s time to have one of life’s more important chats with them. This discussion, which often turns out to be more of a one-sided conversation with the parent(s) doing most of the talking, is usually dreaded by parents and children, alike.

Having what is known as The Talk can be awkward and frustrating. Not just in family homes, but in other educational settings, too. Perhaps you’ve heard what I suspect is an urban legend about do-gooders in a country where there was no running water, but hormones raging like whitewater rapids with no means of feeding and clothing the resulting children.

As the story goes, the do-gooders decided to introduce condoms to the primitive peoples of that region in an effort to control population growth. Lacking the type of sophisticated anatomical models that are sometimes used in the teaching of reproductive health, the person in charge of education picked up a stick and used it to illustrate the correct use of a condom.

When he was finished, he stuck the stick in the ground, condomed-end-up, so those in attendance could reference it. Satisfied the smiles and nods he received communicated non-verbal understanding, he distributed condoms to his audience. He and the other do-gooders retired that night, confident their educational session would make a real difference for the community’s residents.

So you can imagine their chagrin the following morning, when a walk through the village yielded a condomed-end-up stick stuck into the ground outside most huts.

Maybe that’s why so many parents fear giving The Talk: despite the best of intentions and you can still miss the target, nothing sticking except a stick in the ground. It doesn’t matter what you thought you communicated, the only thing that counts is what your listener received. Or didn’t receive. It doesn’t help that you are up against hormones and an invincibility mindset.

Some people don’t have any kind of talk with their kids. Others are happy to have school personnel or public health educators do the talking. I never gave it much thought. I have always spoken openly with my kids about all kinds of health issues, contextualized by relationship and faith. Granted, some of the discussion was forced by bizarre circumstances – my receiving a false positive blood test for syphilis and being incorrectly diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Our dinner table conversations were never bland.

My kids were good readers (who also liked pictures) early who discovered anatomy books around the house, as well as a Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s puberty book for kids, the Jan and Stan Berenstain (of Berenstain Bears fame) teaching kids about sex book, and another question and answer format publication. Pretty interesting stuff!

I will never forget the time my son had a conversation with another boy who apparently was the bearer of misinformation. My son came home from school, went straight to the book rack and pulled out a couple of reference books to search for the truth.

“Aha,” he concluded after researching the answer. “I told him that was normal.”

I never asked what the question had been, but I was pleased he knew where to seek answers. A couple of years later, as his school was preparing to officially offer reproductive health information to interested parties, my son wanted to know why I had never had The Talk with him.

“We have talked, just not a capital ‘T’ kind of talk,” I told him. “Throughout your life, I have casually provided information, shared bits and pieces on a need-to-know basis and answered your questions. I didn’t save it all up for The Talk, but informed you gradually as you could comprehend it. So you’re ahead of the game.” He liked that. He also liked that he was well-informed when quizzed.

For parents who have their backs against the wall regarding The Talk, Common Sense Media suggests instilling the following guidelines regarding relationships and sexuality: Be kind, keep private things private, don’t believe everything you see, don’t overshare and stand up for others. It’s no condom on a stick shtick, just respect and positive expectations. Better yet, be a good example.

National Novel Writing Month begs editing

I wish I had a dollar for every person who has told me I should write a novel. It would mean I wouldn’t need to write one because I would have enough money to retire comfortably now. But I don’t think they really mean I should write a novel, for a novel is a fictional work and I traffic heavily in non-fictional reality. Write a novel? Heck, I lack the will to even read one.
Once upon a time, I read works of fiction. As a middle schooler, it was books such as The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time and Heidi. As a teen, I absorbed some of the classics, from authors as far flung as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Aldous Huxley and John Steinbeck. But once I became an adult and economically responsible for myself and others, I put down the fiction and actively sought non-fiction. Figured I needed all the information I could get my hands on to improve my chances of survival.
Several people have urged a return to fiction, explaining they think I could benefit from at least an occasional literary “escape” from reality. I must really seem like I need it, because even my pastor weighed in on the issue and gave me a couple works of fiction he thought I would appreciate. Instead, I put yet another daily devotional on my stack of morning reading, the time when I am most fresh and more likely to retain what I read.
Escape? Isn’t that making fiction into a drug of sorts? What’s next, prescription reading? “Read two chapters and call me in the morning.” I’m not into distorting reality, let alone circumventing it. I kind of appreciate it, even when it’s harsh.
Alas, there is to be no escape for me into a literary leisure. I feel disinclined toward that luxury. Give me a good biography or an insightful dissertation on a faith-related topic and I will read and journal volumes on it. No matter how authentically written a novel might be, it just doesn’t ring true for me. I have encountered too many bad novels that were ill-advisedly written and never should have made book. I don’t want to join the ranks of the rank.
This is the long way to say that if I cannot even bring myself to read a novel, I shouldn’t be writing one. My characters would be thinly-veiled variations on real people I know, or have known, which would likely land me a lawsuit, which I can ill afford at this time. Plus, I don’t think I have a good novel inside of me.
Two Christmas breaks ago, I wrote a full-length play, “The Winston Circle.” Finishing it in four days nearly finished me. It also further reinforced I am NOT a writer of fiction. I had to put myself in my characters’ shoes and look through their eyes until I was cross-eyed, to determine what they might do next. That was exhausting and more work than I wanted to put into anything.
But if I were an aspiring novelist, November would be the month to come forward, name it and claim it, during “National Novel Writing Month.” All kinds of writing classes and competitions are held annually. “NaNoWriMo,” as it is abbreviated, caters to novelist wannabees by supplying technical assistance, writing forums and even cash prizes, all of which are in support of liberating and refining the fiction writer within.
Along those lines, I keep getting emails from an annoying self-publishing company known as Author House, offering to help me birth the book its editors absolutely know I have within me, for roughly twice as much money as I have spent purchasing other people’s books during my lifetime. Right now, publishing packages are half off, or slightly less of a rip-off.
Problem is, absent an imaginative story that begs telling, I have nothing of length to say. I have no novel in me, only relatively short, albeit snappy, commentaries that bubble up to the surface. They’re mostly on what’s wrong with me, you and the rest of the world. Nothing novel about that, just the unvarnished, non-bookworthy truth. Why pay when life gives it for free?

Sleeping always trumps entertainment

I am a good sleeper. Granted I don’t require a lot of sleep and the advanced sleep phase disorder I am saddled with has me two to three hours off-kilter with everyone else in my time zone. When it’s time to go sleep, I get straight to business.
Anyone who has made the mistake of trying to hold a phone conversation with me after 8 PM knows it won’t likely end well, especially if I answered the call from my nightstand phone. If I have already retired that early, beware! It’s one of those nights when I absolutely can’t stay awake. No matter what. That’s just the way it is.
In 2011, I took a certification course through Allegiance Health in Jackson to become a polysomnography technician: someone who monitors sleep study patients. I didn’t sleep through any of the program. Surprised? Don’t be. It started early morning and ended mid-afternoon over a two-week period. I learned a lot about sleep patterns, CPAP machines and other sleep disturbance interventions.
I thoroughly enjoyed the class and scored high on the final exam. Only as I started seeking sleep study jobs did I fully-recognized the not-so-small issue that I would have to do daytime hour sleep studies on night-owls (that just aren’t done), as there was no way I would be able to stay awake from 11 PM-7 AM to monitor those who had signed up and were wired up for a night sleep study.
Ironically, I would have slept more soundly than the patients I was monitoring. The fact that did not register with me far earlier in the process still amazes me. I got the cart so far ahead of the horse it’s a wonder I could even move forward.
There was also the secondary issue of God refusing to bless the sudden career change I chose to implement. He wasn’t about to allow me to abandon my daytime work of speaking the truth to resistant people in creative ways that helps prompt positive lifestyle change. It was yet another scenario where I was capable, but not called. Still, I was bummed I had invested a bunch of time and money in the training. Plus, I was truly interested in the topic.
Guess I should have slept on the idea. Why not? I sleep on and through everything else. Two weekends ago, “Jersey Boys,” a musical about the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was playing at Kalamazoo’s Miller Auditorium. I thought about going, but couldn’t justify the price. Then Tibbits Opera House made it more affordable for patrons to attend the show. But fortunately, reality set in as I was calling the ticket hotline.
I knew perfectly well that as soon as they lowered the auditorium house lights, I’d be snoozing before the singers started crooning. Unwilling to give up the thought of seeing the musical, I checked for weekend matinees. Again, reality reared its ugly head and forced me to admit to myself that I was just as likely to sleep through at least the second half of a matinee, as past practice had me groggily missing at least two-thirds of a Saturday afternoon production of “Wicked” in Toledo.
As long as I’m getting honest, I must reveal that I’ve slept through “Phantom of the Opera” at MSU’s Wharton Center, as well as “Will Rogers Follies” at the Fisher Theater in Birmingham. I snored through “Our Town” at Jackson Community College and drool on myself annually during multiple tale tellers at “Storyfest,” also in Jackson.
As a teen, I slept through two school trips to the opera, a “Lover Boy” concert at Wings Stadium and “REO Speedwagon” at a county fair. Obviously, I was warming up for eventual sleeping through a Harry Connick, Jr. concert at Miller. It doesn’t matter how much tickets cost, putting me in a darkened room in a comfortable chair is, in polysomnography lingo, “good sleep hygiene.” Out I go.
The only concert for which I remained fully awake was an 8 PM Bela Fleck show a year ago at Kalamazoo’s Chenery Auditorium. His banjo and other stringed-instrument musicianship was so superb I didn’t even blink. But usually I stink and let sleep trump entertainment.

Halloween haunted by costumes past

FAST FOOD HATS - Part of my kids' letting go of the Halloween trick-or-treating tradition was a transitional year where they wore only partial costumes.

FAST FOOD HATS – Part of my kids’ letting go of the Halloween trick-or-treating tradition was a transitional year where they wore only partial costumes.

By Kristy Smith
Early last October I told my daughter and son, then in seventh and eighth grades, respectively, I thought they were getting too old to go out trick-or-treating. Perhaps they should consider hanging up for good their Halloween costumes. You would have thought I suggested the Pope switch religious denominations or Frank Hull paint his barn maize and blue.
“We’re not too old!” they protested vehemently. So I relented. But as October 31 neared, they were making no effort to acquire costumes, even when I offered to take them or make them. The previous year’s garb was out of the question due to rapid adolescent growth and neither of them gobbled up the idea of wearing my obnoxious, over-sized turkey getup.
I repeatedly brought up the subject of costumes until they told me to shut up. Puzzled and wounded, I mentally cancelled our participation in Halloween and planned not to have plans. Let it go. However, when I arrived home from work around 5:30 PM on October 31, they were ready for me to hit the candy trail with them. What?!
“You guys don’t even have costumes,” I said. “In the eyes of the public, that makes you not trick-or-treaters, but candy extortionists. You might just as well whack the candy-passer-outers over the head with a pumpkin and when they pass out, steal all of their candy at one time and save yourselves some hassle.”
They briefly considered it. Although feeling entitled, they were too lazy to undertake anything that athletic, even on a sugar high. So they settled upon donning all-black clothing and topping their heads with fast food: Connor a hotdog hat and Kate a hamburger bonnet. I appreciated the inspired choice of items I’d picked up at Salvation Army for less than the price of the real things.
We joined together and made the usual haul. Since I thought it was their last year, I felt especially generous. I actually let them ring doorbells and plead for sweets the length of an entire village block, on both sides of the street! Usually we candy-beg only at the homes family and friends. It was a high note on which to retire after a dozen productive candy crop seasons.
Earlier in the fall, I’d suggested we donate to the local thrift store several years’ collection of outgrown costumes. That had met with violent protest. No way! What kind of mother would do that sort of thing?! They shamed me for even thinking it. So I left everything hanging for another year.
At an online post-Halloween sale, I acquired a couple of costume heads for myself, should there be a Halloween gathering sometime in my future. Two pairs of butt cheeks with faces – one wearing a graduation cap and the other a stupid expression: smart butt and dumb butt, or some words close to that. I smiled at the politically-incorrect fun I’d have wearing them.
Early this month, I asked my kids about this year’s Halloween plans. Now 13, Kate said she didn’t want to dress up, but rather go trick-or-treating in town, as herself, with a group of friends. Similarly, Connor, 14, voiced an interest in going to a friend’s house where there’d be other guys eating candy and “reking some noobs.” That translates to going online, finding inexperienced gamers and soundly beating them. However, it all was a moot point, as October 31 falls on their weekend to stay at their dad’s house in another town. I can’t play a role in it.
As if I weren’t depressed enough, I went to the attic later that day to swap out seasonal clothing. Wouldn’t you know, the rack of my children’s Halloween costumes stared me straight in the face; some quietly cute, others in stereotype surround sound: cowgirl, skeleton, pizza slice, military man, gypsy, Centurion, baton twirler, mad scientist, geisha, ninja, Indian and Dorothy, down to the ruby slippers.
I tearfully and carefully tucked them into a big donation bag, except the ninja suit Connor had insisted on wearing annually his first three years of school. He can share it and the story with his own kids someday. Good-bye, Yellow Brick Road of childhood. We’ve officially departed Kansas.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries