Less Is Maybe More

So some of you may know that I just celebrated a milestone birthday, which was less traumatic then I thought it would be. I was blessed to be feted with a surprise party at which so many people I love so dearly attended and made me feel so extraordinarily special. And one of them was my younger sister who flew clear across the country for the weekend to be at the party.

My sister has a wonderful eye for the aesthetic, a sense of what works in decor and what doesn’t. She sees what others don’t and has a vision that works, a skill I hope she’s able to leverage into a business some day because she’s so awfully good at it. Anyway, for a while she’s been telling me I need to pare down my possessions and streamline the things I’ve accumulated, some over a lifetime and some just in the last 15 years that I’ve been on my own.

It’s always hard to see your own things from a fresh perspective, whether it’s your house or your closet or even what’s going on in your life. Maybe it’s tunnel vision, maybe it’s denial, maybe it’s lack of perception; I don’t pretend to know. But her suggestions got me thinking and I’ve been trying to reassess and – to quote the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem – let it go.

I’ve started with my house, donating what I can and repurposing other things or sharing them with someone else. Why I had several hundred DVDs I’ll never know but I don’t any more. And I have to admit that it’s rather freeing to see stuff go out the door and find a new home somewhere else.

Clothes have been a little harder challenge because – and I don’t know if this is just me – there’s always a sentimental attachment to a piece of clothing. I don’t want to let go of the dress I wore when my great kid was christened, even though I’ll probably never fit into it again. I’ll never part with the shirt I was wearing in the hospital the night my father died – even though it’s got a hole in it – because letting go of that would mean letting go of another connection I have to him. But there are plenty of things that I have sent to new homes with the thought “what was I thinking when I bought this” and hoping that the new owner will get just a new piece of clothing without the emotional baggage that was attached to it here in my tiny space at home.

And then there comes the big stuff, the life stuff. Letting go is much harder in this category. What or who makes the cut? What is worth hanging on to? Who is not worth fighting for any more? And why are these decisions so hard?

So the big stuff, the road not traveled decision, the path I choose next is the place at which I find myself. I suspect some decisions will be easy while others I’ll struggle with. And maybe I won’t make the right choices all the time but I have to think that I’m at a crossroads for a reason, that if I pay attention to the signs obvious and less so that I’ll figure it out.

Or so I hope.

 

 

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Being Book Smart Is Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

So when my great kid decided to drive across the country to head back to school after his Christmas break, he – by his own admission – overestimated his stamina and his judgment in thinking he could make a 2500 mile trip in about 4 days or so. And I’m not sure he would have admitted said overestimation if he hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket along the way, a ticket which was mailed to our  home address, which is why I saw it. A ticket he says he got because (pick one) the middle of the country is too boring to look at so he wanted to get where he was supposed to be more quickly or he was too tired and really need to get to his hotel to go to sleep or maybe he just plain ol’ drives too fast. In fact, don’t just pick one; you can pick all three, as I think all of them are true to some extent.

In any event, he didn’t have the option of paying said ticket online so he told me he’d send them a check. Big mistake.

Like any Generation Y kid, he had lived his life using a debit card (sometimes his, sometimes mine but that’s another story). A check was the equivalent of using a VCR instead of streaming video on demand, at least in his eyes. He didn’t know how to write one. So he asked me what to do and I told him – or at least I thought I told him – how to do it. (And I know this makes him sound kind of dopey and he’s really a bright kid so, if by chance he’s reading it, I’m sorry for making you sound dopey!)

Done and done, he told me, and we thought all was well. Until about 3 weeks later when a lovely letter arrived from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suggesting they might want to suspend his driver’s license since he hadn’t paid his ticket. I couldn’t reach him so I gave them a call and asked them to double-check the check. Oh, we got the check – the lovely lady on the phone told me – but we couldn’t cash it because he didn’t sign it so we sent it back. Sigh. 

All’s well that ends well with that story but it got me thinking that maybe in lieu of – or in addition to – all the history and geography (do they even call it that any more?) and other subjects they teach in grammar and high school (and even college), maybe we should be pushing our educators and our schools to teach our kids some life skills. Balancing a checkbook doesn’t always come naturally, nor does filling out a job application, or writing a college essay, or applying for auto or health insurance, or any of the other tasks that we as adults have (hopefully) mastered. These types of skills are not intuitive. 

We as a nation have already learned the value of teaching art and music in our schools (and my darling cousin, Dan, does that for his students exceedingly well). It’s a matter of record that early exposure to the arts while in school helps students in all kinds of areas of their life, including math and reading and critical thinking. (Unless, of course, you’re the geniuses at the New York school who just cancelled the kindergarden show because – to paraphrase what their acting principal said – it takes up valuable time that could be used preparing 6 year old kids for college. Save us from people like this). 

Anyway, if we know that teaching the arts to our children helps them become better and smarter people, why don’t our educators realize that teaching our children some life skills will also help them become more rounded and better able to navigate the difficult world they’ll all face one day? (And, yes, I know that we as parents also have to teach our children life skills but teachers and parents should be partnering on efforts that will ultimately benefit our kids).

And my great kid now knows how to write a check properly. Let’s hope the next one he writes is for a far greater purpose than the one that the fine folks at the DMV in Pennsylvania got from him. 

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All Roads Eventually Lead You Home

So some of you may know that I took an early retirement from my job to spend more time with my parents and my great kid. I had been at work for more years than I can count and missing too many milestones, too many moments with the 3 people I loved the most. And while it was not an easy decision, it was made easier by the fact that the job I was doing – while it paid well – was not much more than pushing paper around, creating endless spreadsheets to defend or justify or rationalize money for the number-crunchers, and defend prices to people who didn’t really understand them (and that included people in the company I worked for).

But the one part of my job that I loved – and that I missed dearly after I left – was the interaction with people. The conversations with co-workers like my great good friend, Deborah, still the bravest and hardest-working woman I know. The business relationships that started off as phone conversations and eventually evolved into true friendships that I value even to this day, with special people like Dawn and Cindy and Smoochie (and since I’m the only person that calls Smoochie by that name, he/she shall remain anonymous in this post). These friendships have been blessings in my life.

The job though was just a job and one that – for reasons too long and boring to go into here – was morphing less into being of service to my customers and more about satisfying increasingly arbitrary benchmarks. So when I left, I was not missing the concept of working but the people who made the days not only tolerable but enjoyable.

So after the few years since my beloved Dad died and now almost a year since my great kid has relocated his life across the country,  I knew that I needed to do more than I was doing. When I was writing my financial blog (an experience beyond rewarding for me and one I hope to revisit soon), I worked from home and while that can be a very liberating experience to be in control of your time, to be on the schedule that works for you, to skip the horrific traffic jams and winter storms and derailed trains that make up a commute to work, it is also an isolating experience. Because I guess it’s true that no man is an island and when I ventured out of my tiny house into the real world, I found myself soaking up conversations and spilling my guts to anyone and everyone who would listen.

I missed talking to people and I missed the part of my job that had been diminished by others over the years, the part that involved helping people, solving problems, providing good – and maybe great – customer service. I knew there was good I could do and I knew I could be good doing good.

Anyway, I have taken a long way around to talk about the job I am blessed to do now. I work for a great company that is all about helping people, caring for people, making the lives of those people we love and honor better and safer and happier. And I work for the most amazing woman, someone who has a light within her that shines on everyone, a woman with a passion for helping. But how I got here is why I think that you have to watch out for the road placed in front of you.

When my Dad came out of rehab after one of his many stays at the hospital during the last few months of his life, someone suggested to us that we should get help for him at home, not only to make sure he would be okay but to take some of the physical burden off of my mother and also to enable her to take care of herself as well. Because being a caregiver for a family member is a hard and often thankless job. All the attention almost always goes to the patient, while very little praise or recognition is directed towards the caregiver. And so my Mom and I interviewed multiple companies, represented by people ranging from extraordinarily competent to those about whom the less I tell you, the better.

One of those people turned out to be my boss and the caregiver she personally selected for my Dad was a wonderful man who made both of my parents’ lives better. And since I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason, when I stumbled last year across an ad she had placed looking for someone to provide customer service and utilize their people skills for her business, I had to apply. And so happily for me, I got the job.

But it’s not just a job to me. Because every day I can go out into the real world and interact with people and listen to their stories and educate them about how and why we can help their parents, their spouses, their friends, even themselves. I’m doing real good in the world. I’m not pushing paper, I’m not doing busy work; I’m making people’s lives better. In my heart of hearts, I feel like it was the work I was always meant to do. I followed the road and it led me to Right at Home. And I learned that it’s never too late to jump start your career, or point your ship towards a different star, or reinvent your dreams. As that great philosopher of our time, Yoda, says “Mind what you have learned. Save you it can”. I did and it did.

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It Had To Be You

So today is my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, both a happy and a sad day for us. Happy because – in this day when more and more marriages seem to have a shelf life equivalent to how long a quart of milk will last – how many people achieve any kind of loving longevity. Happy because my parents weren’t just married for 58 years when my Dad died, they were crazy in love with each other, best friends, pieces of a puzzle that always fit together.

But it’s sad because – like any good love story you watch on a movie screen or read about in a book – you don’t want it to end, even though logically you know it must. My Mom, God bless her, doesn’t look at today as a sad day. She thinks about the happy times, all the years they had together and all the memories they made,  when so many others never have love at all, or have it cut short by illness, or grew apart and never reconnected. My Mom has always been a glass half full person, something I aspire to be and work hard at becoming.

I have 2 stories to share with you, stories I’ve never told before, one for each of my parents. I share them to honor them and to try and demonstrate how much they truly loved each other.

In May 2001, my Mom became very ill with chest pains and was admitted to the hospital, where quickly we learned she needed quadruple bypass surgery. They told us to let her talk to people that night (and we did, putting the phone near her ear and letting her speak  to her grandchildren and my sisters) and that – if she made it through the night – they’d perform the surgery the next morning.

Eventually I sent my Dad home to rest and I was back at the hospital at the crack of dawn, resting my head on the side of my Mom’s hospital bed, holding her hand and trying to sleep a little while we waited for them to take her to the operating room. Finally they arrived and I accompanied her there. She had no fear, no apprehension. She believed she was in the best hands possible at the great St. Peter’s Hospital and that all would be well. But . . . as she was wheeled into the room, she stopped the attendants and called me over. “In case anything happens”, she said, “take care of Dad for me”.

That’s all she could think about. She was more worried about what would happen to him, the man who burned a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven when he forgot to take the plastic off the cheese slices, than she was about whether she’d survive. And, honestly, I knew what she meant because my Dad would have been truly lost without her. He wasn’t the same person when she wasn’t around. There was an emptiness in his eyes that only her return could take away.

And fortunately she not only survived, she thrived and has done so very well in the 13 years now since she had the surgery. She looks at every day with optimism and joy and embraces what life either has to offer or throws your way. She rocks our world.

And now for the story of my Dad. As some of you may know, I was the lucky one in my family, the person who got to spend that last night with him in the hospital. We talked a lot that night because we knew, we all knew that the end was very near. So I read him his favorite Bible passages and we talked about what kind of life his grandkids would have and how sorry he was that he wouldn’t see it. I told him he was the best Dad ever (although I think he already knew that) and that it was OK to stop fighting the fight if he was ready to go.

About 5 hours before he died, when he really began to struggle and his ability to speak was becoming compromised, he gestured me closer and he said to make sure my Mom always had flowers on their wedding anniversary. It was the next-to-last thing he ever asked me to do; the last thing was to call my Mom and my sister at 5:00 a.m. and tell them he wanted them at the hospital. They came and he was gone by 8:00 a.m.

So today I honored my Dad’s wishes and bought my Mom a big bouquet of her favorite flowers and told them they were from Dad. I know that he knows I did it and that he’s proud of me. And I made my Mom happy today and he knows that too. How many people get to play a small part in a great love story? I did, I do, and I always will.

 

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A Time To Every Purpose, Under Heaven

So I sit here and look forward and back at the same time and take stock of where life is for me these days. Life has been a roller coaster for me for a long time now but whatever the bad, it’s always balanced – and often trumped – by the not-just-good but sometimes the spectacular.

I have a major birthday coming up soon, a milestone that many of my high school friends and I are hitting at the same time. So I have a lot of company in assessing where you are when you can no longer pretend that you haven’t even reached the halfway point of your journey yet. If I was a football game, I’d be in the third quarter (but hoping that there would be overtime played).

I don’t know that I can or want to try to do justice to all the things I’m thinking about these days in one blog so I suspect I’ll be writing a few of these. As some of you know, I was very blessed to have a great job writing for a financial website for a long while, an empowering experience for me and (I think or at least I hope) a good use of my skills in trying to help others. But the site shut down temporarily, as many start-ups do, and my writing muscle, the one that keeps my brain sharp and my mind engaged, has fallen into disuse and atrophied a bit.

So I want to stretch again, to capture my thoughts and memorialize them not only for me but one day for my great kid to read so he can know some of the stories that we all tend to not share with those we love because we don’t want to worry them or make them think that we haven’t got it all under control. (Although I don’t know anyone who has it under control these days. Do you?)

Normally, I’m not one to want attention drawn to myself; not comfortable with it and never have been. There are others around me who not only bask in being the sun around which the planets revolve but seek it out. Not me. And I realize that putting pen to paper – or in this case – fingers to keyboard – and talking about both the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the great joy coupled with the overwhelming sadness is the antithesis of not seeking attention.

But try I will to see if anything I’ve done or thought or questioned or missed or tried or failed at while time not only marches on but seems to be racing away from me these days might resonate with you. Because I always think that – no matter our background – our similarities in how we think and reason, feel and doubt, try to move forward and sometimes have to step back, and hope against hope make us more alike than our differences will ever separate us.

So even if I’m the only who reads this (although I can always count my on Mom and my great kid to partake in my musings, no matter whether it’s done because they’re legitimately interested or have embraced their guilt-induced obligation), I already feel that my long-neglected writing set of tools are at least headed back to being used. And as my birthday approaches, that’s a great gift to give myself. Stay tuned because – no matter what – I always believe that the best is yet to be.

 

 

 

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What Will You Pay More For In 2014?

When you put together your 2014 budget (and you’ve done that or at least thought about it, right?), you usually have to make some assumptions about what certain things will cost you. While there are a number of fixed cost items (your mortgage) that you can budget for, other things – food and gas, for example – have prices that can and do fluctuate.

Here are the things that will likely cost you more money in 2014 according to the people who should know about such stuff. According to Forbes.com, economists in America think that the U.S. inflation rate for 2014 will be slightly below 2%. But all of the following things are likely to increase at a higher rate than that.

I can’t recall a year when anyone has ever said the price of food is going to decrease and this coming year is no exception. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food prices are expected to increase overall by about 3% this year. But that’s just an average. Some individual food items – mostly staples – are going to increase by even higher percentages.

Bread and cereal will increase by a much higher percentage, primarily because wheat and flour prices have gone up significantly just in the last quarter of 2013. And although some might not call it a staple, chocolate is for a lot of us and a cocoa shortage in 2013 is helping fuel predictions of nearly 25% increases in the cost of chocolate products this year. What can you do? Back in May, my blog on PrimeRates gave you some suggestions about how to save money at the supermarket without sacrificing quality. It’s worth taking a look at some of our prior suggestions about tips you can follow to trim your food shopping bill.

Clothing is also likely to increase this year, particularly clothes made of cotton. Bad crop conditions have increased the cost of cotton and, naturally, this is being passed on to you as the consumer. DailyFinance.com is predicting 5-7% increases in cotton and cotton-blend clothing in 2014.

If you’re thinking of buying a new house, home prices should be increasing this year. After a number of years watching prices decrease because of the global financial market meltdown in 2008, the housing market is finally started to rebound and that – coupled with continued low interest rates – means that buying a house will cost you more in 2014. US News.com reports that real estate analysts noted that home prices increased about 11% nationwide last year and that trend is expected to continue into 2014.

Cable and satellite television prices are also going up this year. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the average cable bill jumped from $48 in 2001 to $128 a month in 2011”. Since providers like DirecTV and Dish Network announced price increases just before Christmas (way to get positive press, guys) averaging about 4% for DirecTV and about 5% for Dish Network, now – more than ever – is the time to consider cutting the cord from cable television. In my PrimeRates blog last April we reminded you that more and more households are cancelling their cable television packages (because of the ridiculously high costs and packaging requirements) and instead watching movies and shows on online video subscriptions or pay as you go services. If you haven’t thought about pursuing that option, now may be the perfect time to get a better deal at less money to help your 2014 budget.

Is there any good news I can offer you on 2014 prices? Yes, actually, there is. According to experts, gas prices are not only expected to not increase, it’s very possible that they’ll decline in 2014. At least for that, we can give thanks.

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The Mirror Has Two Faces

So I write this on the evening of yet another birthday, a day that seems to arrive more quickly with each passing year. I have never been a fan of birthdays and maybe that makes me the odd one out. I have always felt a sense of sadness, of being alone on my birthday. And it’s not for lack of attention because people shower me with love and affection. My mother, of course, and my darling dad when he was still here. My sisters. My great kid. My friends.

And now, with the advent of social media, more people than ever reach out to me on my birthday and say such lovely things, things I’m quite sure I can’t measure up to but which are nonetheless so deeply appreciated and treasured. On days when I’m not at my best, I take a virtual walk down the memory lane of Facebook and see the words the special people in my life have written and they help me deal with whatever I’m dealing with, or remind me that I am important to some people, that I matter in this world which is so filled with transitory images and useless knowledge and endless rhetoric. And I thank people for that with the grateful face I show to the world.

But we all have two faces, don’t we? The face we put on when we leave the house in the morning, to deal with what the world has to throw at us that day. The face we put on for the public even when we’re struggling with sadness, or coping with an illness, or worn out from too much worry, or stressed because we can’t turn our minds off. Because – and maybe it’s just me – I think we’re all programmed to some extent to be brave in public, be stoic, be assured, be calm. When you ask someone how they are, do we ever expect to get an answer other than “fine”?

What if someone really said to you what they were really feeling behind that public face. What if they said to you, I’m awful. I’m in pain. I’m brokenhearted. I’m weak. I’m disillusioned. I’m hurting. I’ve been betrayed. I’m angry. I’m sick. I need help. I need you. What would you do? What would anyone of us do?

Our lives are lived sometimes inside a little bubble that shields us, we think, from the bad stuff. We assemble a house of cards to try and make our lives appear to others – or maybe even to ourselves – that all is well, that we are safe and sound. And that will get you so far for so long. But it only takes a single pin to pop our bubble of security or a tiny gust of wind to knock down the house of cards, to open the doors and let the light shine into the dark corners of the stuff, big and small, we never share with others.

Why do we do that? Are we afraid of being perceived as weak? Do we think others have burdens worse than ours so we don’t want to contribute to the load they carry? Is it pride, or shame, or guilt, or fear, or the hope that tomorrow may just be the day when the page turns, the dawn breaks, the worries subside. Maybe it’s all of those things. Or maybe – as one of my very smart DC girls once told me – we live in a world where there are too many Eleanor Rigbys. (I promised you, Dolores, that I would never forget that and I never have and I never will). All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

Right now I am struggling, trying to manage too many crises, juggling too many things, trying hard, trying harder and solving nothing. Right now, as I take stock of where I am now and where I was on my last birthday, it’s hard not to be discouraged. I have trusted foolishly, I fear. I have made some good decisions but also some bad ones, terrible ones. I have succeeded in a tiny writing career this year, a passion I’ve had since I was a teenager and one which I have finally been able to explore with a little success, more in the way of accolades that financially. I have survived the scare of an illness and been given a new appreciation of life and its random nature and its ever-dwindling days.

I am a deeply religious person, a very spiritual being. I go to church regularly. I say my prayers every day and I never ask for anything for myself from God except to please show me the way. I try to live a good life every day. I make mistakes but I try not to make them again. I am surrounded by so many examples of courage and grace and strength and hope that it makes me ashamed that I am not stronger or braver or more determined right now than I am.

Not that long ago, I talked to my Mom, bemoaning the fact that I was alone. Telling her I was tired of living in a world full of couples. Not everyone you see as a couple is happy, she told me. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, she said. And she’s right, of course. But still, I see the public faces of happy couples and I wonder why not me? I spent too many years married to someone who I shouldn’t have been. The man I loved more than any other became sick, became sicker and was gone in a few months and there is still a spot in my heart where he resides and always will. Another man I trusted cheated me, stole from me, ruined me, a setback I am still recovering from all these years later. But I survived all that. I have to believe that there’s got to be something still ahead of me, some person who will love me the way my Dad loved my Mom, the way my cousin Dom adored my cousin Cooky, the way I see so many of my friends talk about their husbands or partners or boyfriends.

And so far there hasn’t been and maybe there won’t be. And maybe it’s just because it’s my annual take-stock-of-your-life inventory that causes me to wonder. To lower my guard. To show you the face that is never out there in public. To share my insecurities, my hopes, my fears, my worries. Maybe tomorrow I’ll regret it. But for tonight, I’d like to think that maybe it will inspire you to not hide behind the mask of happiness when you have a day where you really need someone to hold your hand, to tell you tomorrow will be better. Maybe it will convince you that showing vulnerability, asking for help, sharing your woes is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Strength because you are reaching across that bridge of being uninvolved that we all hesitate to cross. Strength because you are saying to others that you don’t want to live the solitary life, detached and afraid to reach out. Strength because you realize that being Eleanor Rigby is no way to go through this life when there are so many hands to lift you up, so many voices to say the right thing, so many ears waiting to listen, so many hands to hold yours, so many arms to hug you, so many prayers waiting to be said for you.

So remember that it’s okay to let the world look at your other face. Trust that you are not in this alone. Remember that we are all a community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of shared experiences and hopes and dreams and fears. Try to see behind the face that I show you, that everyone shows you. Because I think we all, deep down, want to let someone else in.

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