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.
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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Posted: April 1st, 2014

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of Dancing with the Stars, but I have watched it every now and again. Like last night, when paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy took the floor with a special set of prosthetics for a tribute dance to her father, who donated one of his kidneys to her to save her life.

Reread that last sentence. It says more good things about humanity than just about anything else I’ve read in a while. It speaks to courage, overcoming insurmountable odds, compassion, selflessness, gratitude and, most importantly, love.

Moments like these bring me up short–in a good way. They reduce my complaints and so-called struggles to mere whining. I mean, the young woman has no legs, and not only is she a world class athlete, she’s dancing on television. Professional, ballroom dancing, that is. If you’ve never tried it, you have no idea how hard it is. My husband and I took lessons to learn the basic foxtrot years ago. Overwhelmed doesn’t quite describe how we felt. After eight weeks, lots of sweat and stress, we admitted that it was above our skill set. And we have all of our legs.

We all have disabilities–many of us create our own, for whatever reason. So when someone with a visible challenge can overcome and rise above it with grace, there’s a priceless lesson there. And I am determined it’s not lost on me.

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Posted: March 31st, 2014

It’s a seemingly simple question. What happened to the plane?

Like you, I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on about the disappearance of Malayasian Airlines flight 370 that vanished on its way to Beijing. I’ve heard some of the debate about how impossible the task of finding the debris will be given the current theory: namely, whatever it was that brought down the plane is widely believed to have occurred quickly, catastrophically and at high altitude. That would mean debris would be scattered over a massive area of ocean.

And experts say that finding anything in water is incredibly difficult. The two areas being targeted are the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. You’re talking about almost 2 million square miles.

All of this is very daunting to think about, especially because it involves not just locating debris to help understand what exactly happened, but because it would give some comfort to those grieving the loss of the 239 people onboard.

What’s vexing, and not just a little bit disturbing about this whole terrible incident, is that much of whats being written is speculation. We still have no more insight into what happened to the airplane. Nothing but theories. And along the way, I’m learning quite a bit about airplanes, airlines, radar, how safe air travel actually is, and that much of what I assumed to be true once I stepped onboard a plane, quite frankly, isn’t. For instance, radar doesn’t work over oceans. And, clearly, planes can vanish into thin air.

No one in a position of power or authority is talking. Either that’s because they can’t or they won’t.

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Posted: March 28th, 2014

I’m not really sure how I feel about this as I write it, but we’re currently the titleholder for the snowiest city in America (over 100,000), with a whopping 133.1 inches of snow this year. That’s a solid two-inch lead over Syracuse, who had plowed ahead of us last week but fell back this week.

I’ve been taught to root for the home team, no matter what the competition. I guess I need to put my personal craving for warm weather aside and plunk on my rally cap. Let’s get this thing done.

We can’t rest easy this late in the game, especially with Syracuse nipping at our heels. Don’t let the enticing, warmer weather of today deter us from our focus and eventual goal. For while we are being flirted with and possibly seduced by today’s 50 degree temperature, Syracusians–if that’s what they’re called–could be doing some ritual snow dance to bring on more of the white stuff. While we’re getting our cars washed, they’re revving up their snow plows. We have formidable opponents in these seasoned snowfolk.

The one question I have is when is this race over? It’d be nice to know the finish line is in sight. And I can stop writing about snow.

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Posted: March 27th, 2014

A couple of years ago, the topic of unplanned teen pregnancies came up with my son. Not necessarily part of the birds and the bees talk, which took place aeons before, but a topic relatively relevant because he was dating, and these things happen. So, in an ‘if this were to happen to me,’ with all things considered, he asked me if we would raise his child so he could finish college.

Let’s first establish that there is no grandchild. This was a hypothetical discussion with a 20-year. I promptly said, “Probably not,” adding that we would be as supportive as possible, but at his age, I would see no need to step in and raise the child for him and the mother, given his circumstances. I explained that he would have to adjust his lifestyle for the baby, finish college but with the responsibility of caring for the child first and foremost. We would be there to ease the load, of course, but as the father, it would be his primary responsibility to raise the baby.

He was shocked and put off. I was shocked and put off that he was shocked and put off. He harrumphed about me not loving his child. I pointed out there was no child, so the whole discussion was moot. And hopefully, we would not have to cross that bridge at all.

But it got me to thinking about what parents everywhere eventually think about, and many have to actually do–raise their own grandchildren. I love kids–all ages. I go out of my way often and to great inconvenience to spend time with my little neices and nephews. But looking at the hard reality of having to actually raise them? Unless it’s the only reasonable option, I can’t wrap my head around it. I loved each second of raising my son, but technically, my child rearing days are behind me.

I bow to those who are doing this and have great admiration for them. With 2.5 million grandparents raising their own grandchildren, according to AARP, it’s become much more common. And interestingly, for my son, and perhaps others in his generation, an option, with little thought as to the sacrifices made by these heroic people.

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Posted: March 26th, 2014

I was never bullied–well, unless you consider what my brothers did to me as bullying. Based on my knowledge of this emotionally-charged word as it is used these days, their teasing was a bit more benign. It was more of the routine back and forth between siblings, and I did my share of it as well.

No, I wasn’t bullied on the playground or in school, but my son had a brief encounter when he first entered third grade as the new kid. Thankfully, he broke down in tears one morning, telling me that he was a woosie because he couldn’t take the routine stomach punches of another classmate.

Fairly honked off, I met with his teachers that morning, the situation was addressed and, over the course of several weeks, my son oddly ended up friends with the bully. His bullying days ended and he found making friends a better option than beating kids up.

Later that school year, his mother died–not so unexpectedly. I would find out that she lived with a debilitating, congenital heart condition that left her weak and unable to do much. The condition worsened when her son entered third grade. Apparently, she, her husband and the school administrators, even her sons’ teachers knew she was on borrowed time.

I suspect the bully knew, too. I’m no counselor or psychologist, but I can only imagine the stress a small boy would be under carrying that burden for most of his short life.

Scroll forward some 10 plus years. I heard the bully had some tough teeenage years, including a few brushes with the law, and he took some of the former bullied kids with him. My son had long since moved away, but who knows? I might be writing this about him, too.

When it comes to bullying, no one wins. Not even the bully. And I also believe, no one bullies without a reason. And until that is addressed, we will continue to have much larger problems than just a punch to the gut before school.

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Posted: March 25th, 2014

Sometime in between winter and spring is another season: pothole season. Like Track 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series, this season doesn’t actually exist except for those of us living in heavily wintered parts of the world. Which this year is pretty much everywhere.

Pothole crews have taken to mending the battered and holey roads. We’ve all sat in more than one long line of traffic witnessing the ministering and healing of our weather-torn roads. It’s patch work stuff at best.

But there are plenty of holes yet to fill, as it’s almost impossible to drive any length of road without feeling the rumbling and pitching of the car underneath you. Every attempt to lessen the jostle is futile. And it’s pretty much touch-and-go, navigating around the really big ones.

Winter potholes are created when water, which has seeped into porous roads, freezes and expands. The asphalt puckers up. As cars and trucks drive over the roads, their weight breaks apart the surface and thus a pothole is born.

Potholes–well, the word, anyway–became part of the American lexicon to the early 1900s after the advent of cars. Apparently, in the west, the word “chuckhole” is used–a carryover from the 1800s and the westward expansion when chuck wagons and covered wagons routinely created pits and divets along well-traveled paths.

But the word’s been around a lot longer than that, according to

“Folklore has it that the famous road builders of the Roman Empire, more than 3,000 years ago, were hampered by potters who dug up chunks of clay from the smooth highways of that time. The clay became pots, and hence the name.”

Another root for the word comes from the 1820s, when civil engineers and geologists were pondering geologic features in glaciers and naturally occurring gravel beds. “Cylindrical cuts into river rock are also called potholes, sometimes kettle holes, and are due to erosion of the rock over eons of time.”

So for all they nuisance they are, it can be argued that a pothole left alone for a long period of time, could eventually become a Great Lake.

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Posted: March 24th, 2014

When asked about how he’s doing, a friend of mine has a favorite response, which I can’t repeat here, but essentially means that the same things are going on his life, only it’s a different day. And none of it is good.

While it’s mildly funny, I guess, it pings me that he really believes it. I’ve been dumb enough to press him once or twice about the meaning of his sardonic, even dour view of his life. And he gets his back up, warning me not to tread there because I couldn’t “really understand” how crummy his life is. I think that can be a very isolating and depressing feeling.

He’s right, for the most part. While I don’t wear his moccasins, I have traveled a long time on his journey with him, and watched how life has unfolded, the good and the bad, and his response to all of it. Some of it, without question, has been unfortunate, shocking and even sad.

But what has been sadder to me, up until now, is how his attitude has continued to change to the point where there appears to be very little joy in his heart, thanks to his personal philosopy that has been shaped by how he internatilizes his life experiences. I think we all do that–create our own philosophies based on experience, interpretation and response.

I say “until now” because it’s dawned on me that how he views his life is completely and solely his business–not mine. And it must work for him, or why would he continue to do it? Friendship can be challenging when the two people have such opposing views on life. But it’s not my place to try to convince him that life is great or remind him of the inherent good in people. Nor is it his to do otherwise  for me. And, to tell the truth, he has never tried. But I have. And that’s been judgmental and pushy on my part. If I am  a true friend, I should approach our bond with respect and unconditional love. He doesn’t have to believe what I believe for me to love him.

So I’ve adopted my father’s philosphy of live and let live. Now let’s see how I do.

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