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: 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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Posted: March 21st, 2014

Bear has come up in conversation frequently over the last few weeks. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been around a lot of dogs lately, and for some reason or another, it’s prompted the achey pang of loss and missing.

I hadn’t thought about our dog in a very long time until recently. Watching a recent video of him with my son didn’t help either. It’s one thing to have static pictures of someone in your mind–and quite another when they come alive in front of you, as if no time has passed. Jumpy, happy and still chocolate brown, I watched him race around my son in excited anticipation of some great adventure. And they had many–mostly involving chasing and retrieving what we called “monster sticks.”

As Bear aged, he never lost the puppy. Even with brittle bones and achy, displaced hips, the crazy dog found the skip in his legs when my son came home from high school, dodging his head back and forth, waiting for one more toss of the monster stick. My son would gently comply, tossing the thing fairly close so old Bear didn’t have to prove himself anymore. But old dogs still need to know they can still perform old tricks. And so it was at our house.

Toward the very end of his life, Bear slept a lot until the towering pine of the front lawn. When my son would get home from school, he’d sneak up on him and get on the ground with him. I’d look out the window and see the two of them, cuddling in a hug on the front lawn. Two buddies taking a nap.

He died a month before my son left for college–leaving us with a double loss.

I wonder why my thoughts are wandering to those days of Bear and sticks. It’s not an unpleasant thing, really–you know, missing someone. Especially someone that fundamentally changed me. My friends who are reading this are most likely howling, because they know I am not a dog person. But knowing Bear and loving him made me one.

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Posted: March 20th, 2014

Muttering obscenities to yourself about the snow flying on this first day of spring? Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe we should plunk on our rally caps, fire up our sporting competitiveness and be cheering for more snow.

After all, we’re still in first place, positioned to win the snow derby. But not by much. Syracuse is coming up fast–less than one inch behind us. But today’s snowfall will help us keep our lead. Beating Syracuse would give us a point of pride, besting the perennial defending champion. If you’ve ever driven I-90 through that city, you must have noticed the big sign stuck on the side of the highway, bragging about its average annual snowfall and proclaiming itself Snow Globe King.

Well, not anymore.

My husband is all about March Madness. Why don’t we apply some of that sporty spirit to Mother Nature’s ongoing contest as well? It might make this endless cold even worthwhile. Erie has never won the snow derby. This is our chance to grab the brass ring, carry the day, cross the finish line first, enter the victor, do it for the Gipper, go the distance, bat 1000–or use whatever sports idiom you like.

Beats complaining, anyway.

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Posted: March 19th, 2014

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. No need to answer it. According to weather forecasters, tomorrow should feel more like a typical day in midwinter rather than a spring day–highs in the mid-30s with a chance of snow. Again with the snow.

I don’t know about your friends, but mine are using today as the ceremonious end to winter, even if the weather continues its nose-thumbing at us. They are locking away their snow boots, heaviest winter jackets and scarves and hats. Time to pull out lighter wear and ready our Easter bonnets. Surely we deserve a break from down jackets and Arctic boots. And, dabnabbit, we’re going to take one.

My husband defiantly started wearing his baseball cap the other day, stuffing his wool stocking cap in his pocket. “It’s Spring training, afterall,” he muttered as he launched headfirst into the wind.

I actually saw college kids yesterday donning shorts and T-shirts in their revolt against the oppression of this endless winter. One even flopped his way down the street in sandals, his backpack slung carelessly over one shoulder. I silently applauded him. For even if he was shivering on the inside, he didn’t show it.

I think since we have officially reached spring, we owe it to ourselves to do the same. What is the saying? Fake it till you make it? Maybe that’s what’s needed to coax the warm weather along.

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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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