Spending it all on Christmas

When Josh Brolin’s character in Wall Street Money Never Sleeps is asked how much is enough he replies, “More”.  It must have been the Christmas season.  Although we do not openly agree with him, most of us, deep down, wish we had “more” even as we tout how grateful we are.  We talk about the reason for the season, but the truth is Americans plan to spend an average of $700 on Christmas gifts and we all know how those well-planned budgets fail at Christmas time.  The electronic gadgets we crave are guaranteed budget-breakers; my iTouch comes in a close second to the best Christmas present I ever received.  I do not expect anything will ever beat the joy I felt upon discovering an orange Huffy under the tree when I was six.  Why do we get caught up in frenzied over-spending during what is supposedly the most blessed time of year with family and friends?  Is it our herd mentality that is so evident on Black Friday?  Is it our desire for our children to feel the kind of joy I felt when I spied my Huffy?  Is it the endless TV ads, emails, and catalogs that lure us in with their touted deals?  I keep telling myself that I have everything I need, but the diamond commercials make me drool.  My husband puts me in check by yelling “Blood diamonds!” with faked indignation.  I never should have let him watch that movie. Honestly, what makes me overspend is that I want to buy special presents for everyone I love.  We get more pleasure from giving than receiving, but I wouldn’t try telling that to a six-year-old.


Paris Hilton more popular than Congress

The U.S Congress has hit a new low with a dismal approval rating of 9%, the lowest since the New York Times began tracking it over 30 years ago.  Is it any wonder that Paris Hilton is now more popular than Congress?   Although many of us are perplexed by Ms. Hilton’s fame, even more confusing is what those people up on the hill are doing, or rather not doing for the people they purportedly represent.  Paris’ inane “that’s hot!” ratings of who-cares subjects hold more weight than the President’s, “we can do this” assurances.  I say we cancel their show.  It has gotten stale with the same old plot being reworked month after month.  There aren’t any good guys to root for nor any bad guys that ever get their comeuppance; very unsatisfying.  I am eagerly looking forward to piloting third-party candidates in the 2012 election.  I hear the man responsible for making Paris Hilton famous, Jason Moore, is available if a Libertarian or Tax Payer party candidate is looking for a campaign manager.  Or perhaps Paris should be on the ballot.  During her service as an ambassador for the USO she stated, “There is nothing more worthwhile and patriotic than supporting our troops.”  She should have been made an ambassador to the Super Committee.

A local giant says goodbye

Frederick Meijer, the founder of “one-stop-shopping” died on Friday at age 91 after suffering a stroke earlier in the day.  Fred, as he was known in the community, was a free-thinker with common sense values who with the help of his friend Earl Holton built a small empire of Meijer retail stores.  In 1934 Fred’s father Hendrick opened a grocery store in Greenville Michigan at which Fred worked 40 hours a week while attending high school and where he met his wife Lena, who was a clerk.  In 1962 Hendrick and Fred opened the first Meijer Thrifty Acres.  Every child that grew up in Michigan after the mid-sixties remembers riding the mechanical horse at the front of every store for a penny.  I just noticed the other day that there is still a horse at the front of my local Meijer and amazingly it still costs a penny to ride.

My admiration for Fred was born when I went to work at a newly opened Meijer store in the late 90’s.  I was hired as an “everything gal” for the store and met Fred several times during those few years.  His favorite ice cream was blue moon and he would hand out pennies to children so they could ride the horse when he came in for a scoop.  He always had a pocket full of pennies.  Occasionally I was asked to deliver gallons of milk and other sundries to Fred’s friends’ homes when they were ill.  I thought it was nice that they shared this personal information with an errand girl, but it was not surprising.  I was such a believer in Fred Meijer and Earl Holton that after a year I became a Hiring and Training Manager.  Earl was President of Meijer and had started at Meijer as a bag boy.  Fred’s Dad Hendrick was not nearly as fond of Earl as Fred was because it bothered him that Earl always had a smoke when he retrieved the grocery carts from the parking lot.  Up until a few years ago every Meijer store had a smoking break room so that customers never saw employees smoking out in the lot.  Earl’s approach to customer service was inspirational.  In the early years a customer asked him for a fry pan that was locked in a storeroom.  The only set of keys were with the store manager who had left for the day, so Earl removed the door from its hinges to get that fry pan for the waiting customer.  Fred empowered his employees and trusted their judgment because he believed that he could not possibly know everything.  Thanks to his wife Lena, all of the store’s bathroom doors swing out so that you don’t have to touch them with clean hands.  I’m surprised that sensible idea hasn’t caught on.  Sam Walton said he got the idea to include groceries in Wal-Mart from Meijer, and several other chains followed suit.

Fred and Lena Meijer kept the company family owned, choosing not to take it public several times over the past 30 years.  Their philanthropy is well-known throughout our community with the Meijer Heart Center and 125-acre Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park standing as living testaments to their generosity.  I am positive that there are many individuals who remember small acts of kindness from Fred.  I will always remember him as the billionaire that did not act like one, who spoke to me as if I was his equal.  It may be cliché, but it is fitting to say that they just don’t make them like Fred anymore.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Wal-Mart

Black Friday even sounds ominous.  Signifying sales that retailers hope will push their profits into the black, it also represents the dark side of Christmas.  A California shopper felt the frenzy of competition when she turned on her fellow shoppers with pepper spray in an L.A. Wal-Mart last night.  That is what the news reported the incident as this morning- competitive shopping.  On any other day pepper spraying a crowd of 20 adults and children would be labeled outright as assault, but in the name of consumerism today it is deemed part of the competition for deals that can only be attained today, unless you shop during the two weeks before Christmas.  I know a lot of people who shop at Wal-Mart because I know a lot of people who do not have much money.  I have found that the irritation is not worth lower prices and does not make me “live better”.  Perhaps there is something in the air in Wal-Mart that brings out the worse in shoppers, and most of the minimum-wage clerks.  Perhaps I am only justifying my own bad behavior.  The only time I embarrassed myself by losing control and screaming at a store clerk was in Wal-Mart.  I told the guy checking me out that he double-rung an item, so he finished ringing me up and said that I would have to go to the courtesy desk to get the overpayment back which I had not even given him yet.  After a half hour in the “courtesy desk” line with at least 25 other people, another clerk snapped at me that the cashier would need to take care of my refund.  I let her know in my not-so-nice, barely restrained voice that they should change the sign because I certainly was not receiving any “courtesy” and she would take care of my refund or let me speak to a manager.  I also told her that it is common sense to apologize to an inconvenienced customer.  But, at Wal-Mart it isn’t.  Once again displaying her polished customer service skills, she told me to watch my language.  I do not know what overcame me.  I laughed like a maniac and yelled, “Watch my language?  Well, here’s some language for you…”  I am at a loss to repeat exactly what I said because I sort of blacked out.  I remember flinging quite a few expletives and the people in line clapping and saying, “Yeah!”  I swore I would never return to the place of my shame, where I became another crazy Wal-Mart shopper.

Marriage 201 (Prerequisite Marriage 101)

The syllabus for Marriage 201 includes an independent study portion during which the enrollee identifies a specific challenge and develops a plan to address it.  Many of us wish to skip the fundamental lessons of Marriage 101, mistakenly thinking that we do not need it.  It is basic knowledge, after all.  Although the syllabus for Marriage 101 may appear to include sparse enlightenment, these lessons are so difficult that half of the enrollees either drop or fail the course.  There are several variations of Marriage 101, but courses typically contain the following lessons:

  • Another person cannot complete you or fill an empty hole inside that only you feel.
  • Your spouse is not responsible for your happiness.
  • No matter how long you dated or lived together, marriage will change your relationship.
  • Changing your spouse is a futile and destructive endeavor.
  • Physical intimacy strengthens your bond.
  • Monogamy equals trust, and is required.
  • You have the power to hurt your spouse more than any other person on earth.  Do not be mean to him or her.
  • Learn to apologize for bad behavior without excuses.
  • Do not hold grudges; they add up quickly in marriage.  Either forgive, or drop the course.
  • Neither husband nor wife can unerringly read their spouse’s mind all the time; do not assume that you know what your spouse is thinking.
  • Communicate your needs even when you think your spouse should know.  (See previous lesson)
  • Take a team approach to finances even though there is typically a Captain.  Be transparent and share.
  • Have fun together.  It will sustain you during serious reality.
  • Do not consider divorce an option and never threaten to leave.  You will work harder on your marriage if you believe that there is no way out.

Successful completion of Marriage 101 assumes that both parties possess basic knowledge such as the importance of similar core values, how to drop off excess baggage from past relationships, and primary communication skills.  If these lessons have not been previously learned, Marriage 097 should be taken prior to Marriage 101, preferably before entering into a marriage contract.

Subsequent marriages require a repeat of Marriage 101 because each marriage is different, even if it is to the same person.  Many spouses skip the familiar territory of Marriage 101, preferring to address specific needs prior to building a foundation.  60% of second and third marriages fail, many because participants are not entirely healed from the first go-round (see Baggage lesson).

Marriage 201 builds on the 101 lessons, introducing complex problem-solving skills for a lack of communication, too much time spent on social media, runaway spending, alcohol over indulgence, chronic illness, and managing in-laws.  Participants are encouraged to assign themselves topics that are relative to their specific needs, and can propose topics as long as the subject matter does not involve changing your spouse.  Both Marriage 101 and 201 are given a passing grade when participants are still married at the time of death, as the vows state.

Occupy Wall Street “News”

The majority of the 99% watched from our couches and computer desks as the Occupy Everywhere protesters had a very busy and contentious week.  About 50% of the 99% do not agree with or simply do not understand what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about.  Although we live in an age of information overload, I believe that much of what we are fed is bullshit. If I care about something I have to go to several sources to collect different views and then do background searches on the veracity of stated “facts”.  This is how I know that they feed us a lot of bullshit.  We also have a tendency to ferret out information that supports our beliefs and reject any news that contradicts those same beliefs, so we must take some responsibility for media catering to a captive audience eager to be validated.

I can easily find slanted news reports  to support either my dislike or empathy for the Occupy movement.  The media and Mayor Bloomberg tell me that Zuccotti park along with protest sites in Portland, Oakland, Denver, and Salt Lake City were rife with health and safety concerns.  Protesters were unhygienic and even urinated and defecated in the parks, despite the availability of  portable johns a few blocks away.  In order to avoid a confrontation, a coordinated police effort raided protest sites in the middle of the night.  Mayor Bloomberg graciously offered Occupy protesters readmittance to the park once it is cleaned, but they will not be allowed to camp out because this whole thing has a hefty price tag for already financially strapped cities.  I use the term “graciously” because it is how he is portrayed in the news of the eviction, along with being unerringly reasonable.  The movement in our neck of the woods is Occupy Grand Rapids, which was never allowed to camp in the park where they protest daily because we have a city ordinance against it.  Grand Rapids prefers to keep our homeless safely tucked away in shelters and under overpasses, out of the public eyes that are spending money in the downtown hub, especially visitor’s eyes.  We also have a church on every corner, one of which offered up their parking lot to the Occupy Grand Rapids protesters for overnight accommodation.  I hope that the Occupy movement is here to stay until we see big changes like job growth, fair trade, and regulation of trading and speculation that drive prices and fleece retirement funds.  Judging from the solidarity protests across the country yesterday, it seems like a good possibility, but winter has not arrived full-force yet.

The media also gives me plenty of fodder for my angst on these issues with new unemployment numbers each month.  The good news is that unemployment decreased in Michigan by half a percentage point in October.  The bad news is that it still stands at 10.6%.  National Public Radio gives me plenty of news on the state of the top 1% and even told me this week that the top 5% hold 40% of the nation’s wealth.  I believe that these reports are not necessary information, but are related with a transparent incendiary purpose.  My personal experience requires that I consider that some of the wealthiest Americans extended their post-college education to attend graduate, medical, and law schools, while others launched successful businesses.  I do not begrudge them their fruits, only wish that the Bush-era capital gains tax breaks would be allowed to expire.  It is harder to not react to these reports of surplus while I am unemployed, but I hold onto my beliefs and keep reminding myself that they are not situational.

The media is feeding the fire of those that sympathize with the Occupy protesters by giving us stories of police brutality such as the Marine who was attacked by officers and suffered a life-altering head injury and 84-year-old Dorli Rainey who received a face full of pepper spray in a Seattle Occupy protest on Tuesday.  I would love to meet this gal, who stated the next day that she will continue to participate in Occupy Seattle protests because, “I’m pretty tough, I guess.”  Images of conflicts between police and Occupy protesters show us what the punishment is for civil disobedience and likely influence many supporters to stay home and search for safer means of aiding the movement.

My measuring stick of Occupy Everywhere’s impact is whether the Bush tax cuts will be extended by the Super Committee tasked with cutting the national budget by November 23 and the subsequent congressional vote.  I keep hearing the old Kent State memorial song, For What its Worth, “There’s something happening here, What it is ain’t exactly clear, There’s a man with a gun over there, Telling me I got to beware, I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, Everybody look what’s going down”.  Today I am grateful for the Occupy protesters fighting for our American Dreams (in my not-so-humble opinion), their focus uninfluenced by the media coverage on any given day.


ASPCA “Tommy P. Monahan” Kid of the Year

In Tilden, Nebraska last year Stevie Nelson’s two black Labradors went missing two days before his fifth birthday.  Stevie was heartbroken when the Labs were not found despite the best efforts of his family who even hired a pet investigator.  The family and investigator expanded their search to three states and offered a reward, but had no success in finding Stevie’s lost dogs.  This child was understandably heartbroken after his only birthday wish was not granted.

As Stevie’s sixth birthday approached he saw the saddest ad on television.  We have all seen it, the Human Society’s plea for donations which includes picture after picture of the saddest looking animals with Sarah McLachlan’s Arms of an Angel playing in the background.  I turn the channel unless I need a good cry, but this kid was so moved by the commercial that he decided instead of toys, he would request ASPCA donations for his sixth birthday.  By his birthday on March 16 Stevie had surpassed his goal of $6,000 and continued his pledge drive which has raised $28,000 to date.  A mere five-year-old took his heartbreak and turned it into charity thereby healing himself and providing instruction to others who are hurting.  This is not the first time that I learned humanity from a child and I hope it is not the last because their perspectives are not hindered by the complexities and frequent self-absorption of adulthood.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agrees and is awarding Stevie Nelson with the “Tommy P. Monahan” Kid of the Year Award at their annual awards luncheon today.  Stevie changed his painful memory of losing his beloved pets and the new Northeast Nebraska’s Animal Shelter stands in testament to his desire to heal by helping others.  Today I am grateful for Stevie Nelson.

Matthew 11:25 – At that time Jesus made answer and said, I give praise to you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have kept these things secret from the wise and the men of learning, and have made them clear to little children.