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   Read more about this blog.
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Posted: March 18th, 2014

Happy birthday, Barbie…uh, and me, too!

Yes, Barbie and I are the same age, give or take two months. Both born in 1959, both tall, slim hipped and owning dream houses, it’s a wonder people don’t see the similarity when I’m walking down the street. Maybe it’s because Barbie doesn’t look 55. No jealousy here. I’m fine with admitting that my twin sister has aged better than me. But I do think much of this has to do with genetics. There’s something to be said for plastic. It’s much more durable than human skin.

Barbie and I grew up together, literally. I had Barbie dolls. I even had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), Francie (her hip cousin), Ken (her anatomically vague boyfriend) and  Skipper (her little sister), too. Back then, I didn’t realize that Barbie would become a lightning rod for controversy. She was just a doll. And had regular doll adventures–all of them not being in the subservient or submissive role.

The invention of the co-founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler, Barbie was named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Barbie was introduced to the world at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959 and her job was a teenage fashion doll. Her full name was Barbie Millicent Roberts and she hailed from from Willows, Wisconsin.

As Barbie and I grew up, we grew apart. She would end up having 125 different careers and multiple reinventions, becoming multiple races. I, on the other hand, became a writer. And stayed white, middle class and fairly average. If she had been a real person, her measurements would be an impossible 36-18-38. I won’t bother to mention mine, because I just can’t compete with that.

Given our history together, I remain conflicted about Barbie because I am, of course, a feminist. But I am her friend, first. Which is why I in every novel I write, I include one character whose name is in homage of her. I name that character Millicent. Millicent in my two current novels is a strong, level-headed woman, who cares nothing for fashion or beaus, but lives a straightforward life with none of the nonessential trappings. In a sense, she’s Barbie’s alter ego.

Or is she?

Here’s Ruth Handler’s take on the doll she invented:

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer. I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters-who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals–but also with mothers.”


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Posted: March 17th, 2014

As a family, we never celebrated St. Patrick’s Day–because we’re not Irish. But plenty of my friends did. Thanks to my Catholic school upbringing and the time period when I was brought up, I’ve always had plenty of Irish schoolmates and friends who donned green and brought Irish soda bread to class this time each year.

But I never really “celebrated” the holiday until after college when I “became Irish.” Well, for at least a few years. It all happened when I joined the Gaelic-American Club in my hometown, at the urging of my Irish friends, and was half-jokingly anointed O’Skomal. I took ceili dancing, learned a plethora of Irish folk songs, and listened to AOH members talk about politics and the IRA. In all honesty, the camaraderie of being part of an ethnicity–even though adopted–was wonderful. And something I never really had with my own mixed bag of ethnicities.

I still have plenty of Irish friends–some first generation–who take great pride in this holiday. Several even took the day off from work today. And if I didn’t have to work tonight, I’d consider catching up with them at the tail end of their all-day reverie. They’ll tell you that St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal here in America, where over the past few centuries, Irish Americans basically used the once-quiet feast day to help establish their identity. Obviously, it’s worked since Congress has even declared March as Irish American Heritage Month.

I doubt I’ll wear green today, since I don’t own anything that color. But I will happily wish anyone who is a top of the morning.  How about you?

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Posted: March 14th, 2014

When I read in today’s paper about the Notre Dame college freshman who has been doing the interview circuit because of her partime career as a porn star, it reminded me of the college girls I’ve known who turned to stripping for that same reason.

I’ve lived near strip joints a time or two in my long life and I’ve taught college. I can say with some level of accuracy that yes, college girls in need of help paying tuition have woorked at them. And probably always will as long as college tuitions continue to escalate to the point of being virtually prohibitive.

By choice or by chance, these young women often feel the work in what is labeled the sex industry, is high paying for the level of talent and skill needed to apply. I am no moralist, so I don’t look a this from the right-wrong, good-bad perspective.

But I am a realist. And while I don’t frequent strip joints or partake in any activity that objectifies or sexualizes women, I do know men who have and I do know how to read and do research. Morality aside, the sex industry has a dark underbelly that can be particularly impacting on the young and the vulnerable, of which most college freshmen are both.

And while I don’t view myself as parent to society’s daughters, I am concerned that strip joints aren’t the best work environments for girls barely of legal age. Being involved, even on the outskirts, of a questionable experience with far-reaching negative consequences that they could otherwise easily avoid, only because they need money, doesn’t seem worth it.

But regardless of all of this, I’m against judging anyone for the choices she makes, primarily because I walk not in their shoes.

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Posted: March 13th, 2014

This is my very public thank you to all the nuns who helped school me. And all the nuns everywhere who have dedicated their lives in such a committed manner to something greater than themselves.

It’s hard to single out which nun I would like to personally thank. Sister Mary Josephine was the kindest of all the sisters. She was a slight, tiny woman, but one of the first to wear the short dress and habit after Vatican II. An artist in her own right, she taught our third grade class how to view the world in a visual, tactile way. I loved her.

Sister Mary Denise, a heavy-handed old school Dominican, remains larger-than-life in my memory. Full, floor length black habit and moved from room-to-room as if on castors. A formidable woman, she treated teaching English as if imparting to us the secrets of the cross. I respected her immensely.

Sister Mary Ryan became a close friend of my mother’s. A young woman who taught my younger siblings, she grew conflicted with her decision to enter the religious life and eventually left the convent. My mother never turned her back on her. Making such a tough decision to change her life was commendable. I admired her courage.

And there were so many others: Sister Ann Cecelia and Sister Marian Riley–the principals at my respective schools; Sister Joan Flanagan, my biology teacher; Sister Ellen Jane, the world’s tallest nun, and Sister Carolyn Jean, who taught me to sing. It’s not her fault it never took.

So to all the nuns who have touched my life and the lives of all us good Catholic kids everywhere, thank you.

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Posted: March 12th, 2014

The first numbers are in. The state of Colorado increased its January tax revenue stream by $2 million since the legalization of recreational marijuana in that state. Add to it the $1.5 million from the sale of medicinal marijuana and that’s a hefty number for one month of trying something new to generate money. Forecasting that number out for the year, that’s $40 million a year.

But as far as revenue streams go, it pales in comparison to that state’s lottery, which netted the state $123 million in 2013 after a banner year of $566 million in sales. Seems that residents of the nation’s “Highest State” prefer to gamble rather than get stoned. (Booze, cigarettes, gambling and now weed all come under the moniker of sin taxes in political speak.)

In comparison, Pennsylvania’s lottery had a record year in 2013, with $3.7 billion in sales and a net profit of over $1 billion. That’s a lot of scratch off tickets. Since lottery sales are based, in part, on population, it makes sense thet Pennsylvania would have a lot more of them. (We have over 12 million residents; Colorado has 5 million.)

So what might that mean for this state, in dollars and cents, if legislators successfully changed the law in this state? Hard to tell, but for amusement’s sake, using the percentage increase in revenue we’ve seen in Colorado–which is roughly one third compared to lottery sales–that translates into $333 million in additional tax dollars.

Not that it’s all about the almighty dollar. But isn’t it? Despite the well-meaning arguments for the legalization of marijuana from the masses, uou’ll never convince me that the true reason state legislatures are legalizing weed is because that’s the business they’re in–making money. Now lets make sure they spend all of that on enhancing the lives of those who helped generate it.

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Posted: March 10th, 2014

That’s the question of the day. I’m sure you’ve seen them–at Panera Bread, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, your favorite diner/dinor or coffee house. Folks who order a coffee and stay for a long chat. Or several hours with their computers.

Is it right for them to stay and claim precious real estate? Or is it right for the manager or staffer to ask them to leave?

It happened to an older couple in Virginia last month, who were so outraged, the wife wrote a letter to the editor in the local paper. I happened to be in Virginia this weekend. The two, 87 and 81 years old, had frequented the Culpeper fast food restaurant since their own children were little enough to enjoy the place. They were booted after a server asked them to leave because they violated the 30 minute sitting limit.

It’s brought the question to the forefront about imposing restrictions on the length of time you can sit. And not buy something. While the couple was outraged–the store manager apologized. But it didn’t do much good.

It’s become more common for franchises like McDonalds to post sitting limit seats–restricting seating to 20 minutes in some of them, to discourage booth squatters. This is well within the parameters of running a successful restaurant, but is it right? Many of these places have become community resources.

What do you think?

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Posted: March 7th, 2014

It’s something that my husband and I noticed when we first moved here 12 years ago. The tendency of some Erie-ites to badmouth this city. Or make fun of it–in a mean way.

Cities like ours, rust belt cities, are working hard to improve their self images. Because it has to start with the city, first, for others to take notice. Every city has a vibe, a pulse. I think it’s a resonance of the collective opinion of its residents. When you visit cities with a healthy self image, you can feel it. It’s reflective in the way people walk the streets and go about their business; how you’re treated when you walk in a shop or a restaurant; the general feeling of optimism or pessimism that hangs in the air. Spend some real time in Pittsburgh–you’ll see what I mean.

It’s baffled me as to why Erie doesn’t exude that type of confidence–especially with abundance of beauty that surrounds us, including the limitless natural resources, the historic architecture of manufacturing days gone by, and the palpable efforts to revitalize and invigorate the commerce and economy. Whether you agree or disagree with those efforts, the truth is they emit a healthy pulse that we live in a thriving small city that earns other’s envy.

I give you Lake Erie. When we moved here, we were, and still are, continually amazed–and not in a good way–at how routinely people who’ve lived here all their lives take it for granted. It’s almost as if they cease to see it all. And that’s more than a shame. I didn’t find this attitude when I lived in Boulder, Colorado, which is located at the foothills of the rockies. Residents routinely awed at their beauty and spent much of their free time exploring them. Not so here. It’s as if the lake doesn’t exist.

Perhaps therein lies part of the reason for this inferiority complex. Those who denigrate Erie haven’t lived anywhere else. There’s nothing to compare it to, so why not just grouse about what’s wrong rather than to truly see what’s right.

I believe Erie deserves to feel great about itself, problems and all. But we need a healthy self esteem, first. If Pittsburgh can tranform itself, no reason we can’t, too.

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Posted: March 6th, 2014

Did you take the SATs? Miserable, stressful experience, but by and large, a necessary one if you want to go to college. And you get to pay for the privilege. A pretty brilliant monopoly the College Board is running, if you ask me.

For many universities, especially the Ivy Leagues and so-called better colleges, it becomes a dividing line. Most outline on their websites, the average SAT scores for accepted students. The message: If your score is below that, you need not apply. But if you want to, we’ll take your money all the same. And then deny you entry.

Watching and living my own son’s experience with this dastardly, multiple hour torture a handful of years ago, reminded me how much I disdain standardized tests and testing in generally. In fact, there was a time early on in my son’s academic career that I lobbied heavily for the abolition of homework, which never made sense to me. Preparation for the next day of class, yes. Hours of repetitive make-work, no. I was a hero in my son’s eyes for that brief year, but a failure in the larger picture.

Standardized tests are simply unfair, biased and, arguably, not a measure of intelligence. Or lack thereof. But, those in the upper echelon of education who make these decisions, say they are the only way to even the playing field and keep a grip on how well our students are doing. And how else would law schools, med schools, medical boards, law boards, and grad schools sort out who gets in and who doesn’t?

To read that the SATs are being revamped brings me a glimmer of hope. Among the changes is making the essay optional. This happened to be my (and my son’s) strong suit, but for many students, it isn’t a clear reflection of their abilities. Other changes would lessen the penalty for guessing and weed out archaic vocabulary.

I do applaud the College Board taking these baby steps. But not too loudly. There’s much more that needs to be done.

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Posted: March 5th, 2014

I’m reaching out to all the garden clubs across the tundra. Unite! Go on the offensive to get a strangle hold on what’s left of winter and take back spring.

I got to thinking about this last night, after my talk at Gospel Hill Garden Club in Wesleyville. The group of gardening women graciously hosted me to speak at their monthly meeting, which one would think at this time of year should have been focused on the joys of spring plantings. But, no. Though Wesleyville Borough Hall was replete with green tablecloths spread piled high with cherry pie slices and white cookies, outside the single digits ruled, along with varying shades of gray and white. And I droned on about the Statue of Liberty, a book I wrote several years ago. It just seemed wrong.

It dawned on me after my talk: Who is suffering the most from this six-month winter? The green thumbs! This area has as many garden clubs and master gardeners per square foot as it does bars and drinkers. They have to be up in arms over the rock hard soil, lack of sunshine and general state of weather affairs. I usually see a deteremined crocus or two poking it’s head up this time of year.

And if I’m missing that, I can only wonder how gardeners must be feeling. It’s time to harnass all that frustration and do something about it. What, exactly? I have no idea.

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Posted: March 4th, 2014

Researchers think so. It’s called morning morality, and yes, of course, there is a study that’s just been released about it, detailing how most of us tend to be forthright in our waking hours. And then things go downhill after lunch, where we are more tempted to lie about half the time. That’s right–we start to lose self control and become pathological. Not really. But read on.

According to Mail Online, “Researchers from Harvard and the University of Utah studied the ‘morning morality effect’ by giving a series of tests to 327 men and women. In one, participants were asked to solve maths problems and report how many they got right, earning a fee for each correct answer. They didn’t know some of the problems were impossible, making it easy to see when they were lying. And they lied far more in the afternoon than in the morning. Depending on the tests, people were between 20 and 50 per cent more likely to cheat after lunch.”

They chalk it up to our energy  levels being higher in the morning and waning by afternoon combined with stress levels being relatively low in the morning and building throughout the day. The two factors, they say, can lead even the most honest among us to lie as the day goes on.

So not only can stress kill us, it can also make liars out of us, too. Yikes.

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