Gut Check: Making simple sense out of life
By Lenore Skomal Erie Times-News staff blogger
Lenore Skomal is an award-winning author and veteran journalist in all forms of media. She is a weekly columnist and daily blogger for the Erie Times-News. She’s authored 17 published books, including an anthology of her columns, Burnt Toast available on her website www.lenoreskomal.net.   Read more about this blog.
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Posted: April 18th, 2014

Not too hot and not too cold. In keeping with my personal promise to myself to never complain about the weather again, I am presented with the challenge of repackaging the climate to my liking on a daily basis.

This winter, simply and brutally put, kicked my behind. I found myself wrestling with feelings of depression and futility with every dark day that dawned. And I don’t have much practice with depression, not the clinical kind, any how. Pulling myself out of the house and forcing myself to interact with people every day helped a lot. Especially because I work at home and could easily hermit myself up with my words–which trust me can get pretty easy when it’s freezing cold and gray outside.

But isolating is one of the signs of depression, I’m told. So, even with the wind whipping and the snow drifts piling up, I went out. And I honestly think it saved my sanity.

With that weather behind us–and I predict this with great hope–I will never complain again. This winter has been a fantastic lesson in the power of a positive attitude. Whether the sun is shining or hiding; whether the rain is pouring down in sheets or it’s as parched as the dust bowl, it’s all good with me.

And today, I don’t even want to complain, because it’s a Goldilocks day–not too hot, not too cold. But just right.

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Posted: April 17th, 2014

I always feel bad for the guys I see hanging outside the dressing rooms at women’s clothing shops, looking emphatically bored to the point of numbness. I can only assume it’s their wives or girlfriends they’re waiting on.

I thought of them when I read the brief in today’s paper about the man who attacked his wife at Walmart because he was fed up with her shopping. Apparently, she rode one of those motorized carts aimlessly around the store, provoking him to excess violence.

Of course, there is no excuse for choking your wife, or husband for that matter. I happen to love shopping, under most circumstances. I also have been blessed with a husband who enjoys it, too. But I’m careful not to abuse that by dragging him along on every shopping spree.

I also know a lot of people who hate shoppping. One of them is my son, who has had the luxury of having me shop for him for his entire life and trusts me implicitly with buying his entire wardrobe.

When he was really little–like confined-to-a-stroller little–he didn’t mind it in the least. As long as he had something to eat or preoccupy him, he stayed in a general good mood. I recall the day all that ended. He was eight, and even though our shopping day was peppered with fun stores for him, half way through J. Crew, I heard him moaning. There he was, stretched out on a small bench, face down, his legs flopping in loose kicks. “I hate shopping. This is sooooooo boring.”

I wonder if that’s the internal dialogue of the blank-faced men I see holding their significant other’s purses, suspended in the vaccuum of time, waiting. Always waiting.

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Posted: April 16th, 2014

My husband’s first day of retirement is today. After 50 years almost to the day in the same career, he’s decided to start his vacation. That’s what he calls it, anyway. The word retirement doesn’t roll that easily off the tongue yet.

Retirement used to scare the wits out of him. For years, he’d ponder aloud how anyone who suited up and showed up every single day of the week–he had perfect attendance at work, by the way–could just stop doing it one day.

Now he knows. And this morning, at least, he’s found it quite easy. Much of the ease of this transition he’s embracing has occurred thanks to his transformation over the last several months. It’s required letting go. A job, afterall, like a marriage, is a nontangible possession, but a possession nonetheless. And it has to be let go in order to move on.

And that can be a scary thing, especially when it has defined you for almost your entire life. Especially when you’ve been the boss for nearly all that time, too. He jokes that since he no longer has a staff, he will have to be the boss of me. I sort of feel sorry for him because I am a terrible employee, which is why I work for myself. So in that regard, I already have a boss. But I’m open to a change in management if I get a longer lunch break.

My husband is officially retired. And I couldn’t be happier or prouder of him. But as he starts his vacation today, I have to remind him. I’m still working.

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Posted: April 15th, 2014

Yes, it’s a Steely Dan lyric. When I read today in the newspaper that this iconic band that virtually defined what I consider my coming of age was going to be playing in Erie, my stomach leapt.

I love this band, even more so now than when they were at their peak in the late 1970s. Why? Primarily for the universal effect music has on all of us. It can take us back to a time in our lives like nothing else can.

When I hear Steely Dan, I’m a sophomore in college once again. I’m barging into the room of my suitemate–the one with the cool stereo and all the latest albums. It’s morning, right before our first class. I grab her Aja album and toss it on the turntable, calling out to anyone within hearing distance, “Song of the day!” Whichever song I picked, Peg or Black Cow, or one of the other great songs on any of their albums—that was the song for the day. Everyone was expected to sing at least part of it during their morning abultion. Even if it meant soloing into a hairbrush.

I can recall the feeling, the nostalgia and even what I was doing when I hear those songs. It’s the thing music does. And it does it so very well.

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Posted: April 11th, 2014

So I’m sitting with my brother in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, waiting for a train on the lower level. Sitting at the table next to us as we drank our tall boys, a big man with a shaved head struck up a conversation about beer and sunny days. You know, the usual stuff you share with strangers. An ink guy, his forearm sported the New York Yankees logo, and peeping out from under the neck of his T-shirt was a tattoo shaped like a small rectangle. I noted the obvious–his love of the Yankees, a passion my husband happens to share. He said the tattoo was of the ticket stub to the first Yankee game he’d attended some 40 years before. Impressive.

Noting my interest, he spun around in his seat and said, “Take a look at this.” Emblazoned across the his entire back were the heads of famous Bronx Bombers, whose numbers are retired–the same players who grace Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Staring back at me were inky depictions of Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson–the only ones I could easily recognize. This sparked another half hour of conversation, which made us almost miss the train. His love for the Yankees had clearly crossed over into obsession, but not the bad type that turns a normal person into a nut. Listening to this man speak with such pure passion and I dare say, love, of his team was like hearing someone speak of a beloved pet or partner or homeland.

I wondered out loud the response he got when he pulled his shirt off at Fenway Park, when the Yanks played their arch rivals. He smiled and said, “Not a problem. They were in awe.” Perplexed, I asked why he thought that was. He said, “Because it’s baseball, man. And baseball fans respect those who love the sport.”

photo (19)

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Posted: April 10th, 2014

I know for a fact, my cousin is. I’m not being fascetious. He had his lineage traced back 10,000 years via a DNA sample, courtesy of the website 23andme.com. For $99 your unique combination of 23 chromosomes will be analyzed, and you can find out where your roots sink. Ancestry.com provides a similar service.

According to the 23andme website, “our DNA comes from populations around the world, ranging from East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and more. Break European ancestry down into distinct regions such as the British Isles, Scandinavia, Italy and Ashkenazi Jewish. People with mixed ancestry, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans will also get a detailed breakdown.”

My cousin found traces of Neanderthal, too, which shouldn’t be surprising since a new study has now concluded that Neanderthals and humans interbred. I suspect I might have the same lineage, given we’re related.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet. From what I understand, the report breaks the percentages down for you, but beyond that, you’re on your own understanding what it all means. I am fascinated by it all. Looking at our genetic makeup over tens and hundreds of thousands of years can reveal some surprises. And many of our ancestries ultimately overlap. And if we go back far enough, maybe we’ll find that we are all related.

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Posted: April 8th, 2014

The first spring I lived here, one of the locals corrected me when I whined about the rain. “At least it’s not snow.”

I thought it was a genius response to my negative attitude. And being from Connecticut, which up until this winter, isn’t one of the snowiest or coldest parts of the country, one I had never heard before.

Now I use it all the time. And no matter where I travel, this year especially, everyone chuckles. This has been the longest winter and, like you, if I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times.

Just yesterday in fact. “I can’t seem to get warm,” my brother from California said to me. And he’s only been visiting a few weeks. Try being here since October, I want to chide him. But he has a point that I believe most of us agree with. So when I look out the window and see gray skies, I just smile and breathe a sigh of relief.

Soon these rainy days will break apart. Sunshine will be the norm, and then the hot days of August. And we will bite our tongues and not complain because it’s exactly what we wished for during this endless winter.

Funny how Mother Nature teaches us some of life’s most important keys to being happy; namely, appreciate what you have when you have it, because it can and will change. Might as well love the change, too.

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Posted: April 7th, 2014

I saw someone eating ice cream over the weekend. In fact, I saw a lot of someones eating cones. And that alone made my heart soar. Ice cream makes me happy, even if I’m not the one eating it.

Ice cream holds a special place in my life because no matter how crazy life got when I was a little kid, our oldest brother used to take us out for an ice cream treat. It was welcome sanity to the sometimes nutty house I grew up in. When he’d go pick up my grandmother, he would stop at the local Friendly’s for an ice cream treat for both of them. The tradition continued when I and then my other siblings were given the task of driving to get Grandma. In fact, we’d all go together because it meant stopping for ice cream and Grandma would always pay. Of course, she never diverged from her order of a single scoop vanilla cone, even with all our pestering. The world of frozen food treats was just on the brink of bursting into thousands of flavors, but she stayed the course with the bland and predictable.

Ice cream, even my worst flavor, rum raisin, is like eating joy. Not many foods are universally loved. Thanks to people’s dietary restrictions, either by choice or chance, it’s tough to find one thing that everyone I now agrees on. Even if you’re lactose intolerant or a vegan, you can find an ice cream that you can eat–whether it be soy, rice or lactose free. I normally don’t eat sweets, but ice cream is an exception. And I’m more than willing to make it, especially right now, because above and beyond the automatic joy it brings me, ice cream also signals the coming and staying of warm weather.

I hope.

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Posted: April 3rd, 2014

It might seem a odd that someone such as myself, who isn’t a sports fan in general and hardly a basketball fan in specific, would be in first place in Erie Times-News editorial department office pool. It’s surprising to me, too.

Beginner’s luck? I think not. I won a similar pool about 14 or so years ago–the first time I picked brackets for March Madness. This was during what I call my gambling period. Those days I wagered on football games and the like, in an honest attempt to increase my fortune. Well, maybe not that honest. It was shortlived because I wasn’t any good at it.

But I was good enough–well, lucky enough–to win my then-office pool of $150. It was due in part to an upset by a small Catholic college called Gonzaga, which I openly admit I picked because it reminded me of my favorite cheese. That bracket buster helped set in motion the chain reaction that moved me into the winner’s circle. How all that works  is still a mystery to me.

This must be maddening and laughable to real basketball fans, like my husband, who pour over stats, analyze team performances, follow changes in rosters and put earnest time and thought in carefully predicting how the tournament will play out. Something I think is almost impossible, thanks to the exciting unpredictableness of upsets, which allow for rookies like me to shoot to the top of the pile.

Who knows if I’ll actually win this thing. Saturday will be D-day. All I have to say is: On Wisconsin!

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Posted: April 2nd, 2014

Each year for as long as I can remember, I have played at least one good April Fool’s Day joke on someone. Once my son came of age, he became the target of my punkstering. Since he’s gone to college, I’ve pulled off some of my best jokes and got him every time.

Yesterday, however, I was dead in the water because he happened to wake up early–well, early for a college kid–and already knew it was April Fool’s Day. In the past, the element of surprise was key to his falling for the joke because he wasn’t aware of the date. So my first attempt failed.

To console myself, I turned to Facebook to test the waters. Surely no one would fall for the age-old, time-worn, cliche “I’m pregnant” ruse? I posted my status: “The rabbit died.” And added something about being unsure how I felt about being a mother again so late in life.

Throughout the day, unbeknownst to me, while I hatched my second attempt at fooling my son, the comments grew on my wall, with friends congratulating me.

My second joke involved a lot of working parts and my first husband to pull it off–someone my son would never suspect. This is always a great way to prank someone who is onto you. Pull in a third party. I would go into the details, but it would bore you. Suffice it to say, it centered around informing my son we were moving him to upstate Vermont after graduation to take 24-hour care of his grandmother as his summer job. But he’d have weekends free to cut it up in the one-horse town where she lives.

The all day attempt to dupe this kid failed late last night, plagued by a series of screwups that tipped off my son.

My consolation was that my offhand attempt at humor on Facebook, however, was a flying success. So much so, that an old college friend dialed me up last night and his first words were, “Pink or blue?”

I gotta be thankful for that. And I take heart in the fact that there’s always next year.

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