Make America Great Again

So even though it’s 432 days (I counted, really I did) until the next Presidential election, we’re already in the thick of it with every Sunday talking head show, every news broadcast, every magazine cover already promoting or bemoaning or posturing or pontificating about that uniquely American method of the slash-and-burn, bullying and slick-talking process we engage in to elect the person who leads our country. Already I’m tired of it.

And Donald Trump is, not surprisingly, sucking up all the air and energy out of this beauty pageant of candidates. Trump always follows the golden rule: he who has the gold rules. So that he can garner attention by speaking louder than anyone else is not a surprise. He’s on offense; everyone else is playing defense, probably as well as the New York Jets play defense. And his big catchphrase is that we need to make America great again.

I object.

My America is great and always has been. No matter what your financial situation is, we’re better off than many millions of people around the world. We have clean water to drink, we have food to eat, we have fresh air to breathe. We have freedoms like few other countries: to speak our minds without fear of retribution, to worship our God freely, to travel without fear of detainment, to prosper and succeed when given the opportunity.

But we – individually and as a country – can be greater because growth is always a good thing. Here are some good ideas (at least I think they are) about how we can start.

Let’s bring back civility into our world. Please and thank you go a long way whether you’re dealing with the guy who serves your coffee or the cleaning person in your office or your child’s teacher or the police officer who protects your neighborhood every day.

Let’s stop calling each other names. Every immigrant is not a rapist or a drug lord. Women are not cows or beasts. Senator John McCain is a war hero, not a dummy. I could go on but you get the gist of what I’m saying. This is what passes for intelligent dialogue from someone running for the greatest position in our country. But why would we want to be that person or have that person represent us so that we have a President who believes insulting people is how you achieve maximum results?

We should be celebrating people, being kind to each other, lifting each other up. Every day I try to pay my blessings forward, whether it’s telling someone I like the way they look to thanking the stranger for opening a door when my arms are full of packages to waving my gratitude at the person who lets me merge in to a busy lane of traffic to the acquaintance who I give a shoutout to for liking something I said on social media. It makes me feel better and I hope it makes them feel good too. And it costs you nothing, save a few moments of your time, and can be a defining moment in that person’s day, or maybe even their life.

Let’s help each other when we can. If you’ve never been down on your luck, bravo to you and remember to count your blessings. But that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on someone who needs some temporary help because of a situation that may or may not be anything they have any control over. Don’t blame or shame someone who has to ask for help because if you take away their pride, you might be taking away all they have left. It takes a very strong person to humble themselves and ask for help. Let’s honor their strength, instead of labeling them with stereotypical words. Believe me, I have been in the position of having to ask for help when I found myself in dire straits. That I had angels who supported me in every way made all the difference in my ability to face my challenges the next day with a renewed determination to move forward.

Let’s educate ourselves and our children to make this world and our country a better place. Read a book to your kids, write a poem, listen to your parents tell their stories again and again and write them down so you’ll remember them when they’re gone. Pick up the phone and call your friends, walk your dog and say hi to your neighbors, write a check to your favorite charity. Donate your old clothes, listen to your cubicle mate’s problems without judging, thank a veteran. Hug someone, kiss someone, tell them you love them before they’re gone and the chance has vanished like the sun setting.

Make your life count. Make a difference. Make America greater. But you’re wrong, Mr. Trump; America is already great and you can’t convince me otherwise.

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Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

So I’ve been taking a social media break for a while for reasons important only to me and not worth wasting your time with. In the past, I might have commented long and loud about that insufferable creature, Donald Trump, and the particular brand of divisiveness and hate and insulting rhetoric he has been spewing. But no one really cares what I think about this and my opinion is not going to change your opinion on this or any other subject if we’re on opposites sides of a topic. Still, this whole Trump debacle really irks me and made me wonder why he – and others too, lots of others – don’t apologize or say they’re sorry or mask a faux apology by offering it up in a passive-aggressive package to you when you’ve been wronged. Since when did “sorry” become a four-letter word?

It’s neither political nor partisan to call John McCain a war hero and Trump disrespected not only the Senator but all veterans when he once again let his mouth go into auto drive before he had turned his brain on to engage mode. But instead of saying “I misspoke. I was wrong. I chose my words carelessly. I’m sorry”, we got lots of posturing and demands that the Senator apologize to him.

And it got me wondering whether Trump has ever apologized to anyone in his adult life. Did he apologize to any of his wives when he (allegedly) cheated on them and moved on to the next younger model? Did he apologize to his creditors as they were forced to write off his company’s bad debts when he filed for corporate bankruptcy not once, not twice but four times? Did he apologize to the President when he accused him of having a fake birth certificate? If he offered an apology on any of these occasions, I must have missed it.

I have spent more time than I care to recall apologizing to people for imagined slights, most specifically the other person in my ill-advised marriage who – like Trump – was never wrong about anything. It was easier to apologize and keep the peace then be honest and try to present rational arguments to someone for whom rationality was the equivalent of learning Greek; it wasn’t ever going to happen.

But I have also apologized many times when I have hurt – mostly unintentionally, I hope – not only people I loved and cared about but also some I knew only casually. I’ve said I’m sorry to people for saying something that offended or bothered them. I’ve apologized to friends for unintentionally creating a tempest in a teapot by mentioning an idea in passing. I’ve regretted the times I’ve been impatient or short-tempered with my great kid, the person I love more than any other, and told him so many times over. And I do apologize when I know I have wronged someone because words wound, particularly words said in haste without benefit of being filtered through your common sense before they’re uttered.

An unkind word, a misspoken phrase, a passive-aggressive posting on social media – they’re all like a pealing bell. Because once said, they can’t be taken back; the bell can’t be unrung. So when – not if (because we all inadvertently say or do the wrong thing occasionally and hurt someone) – you cause pain or anguish or sadness to someone with your words, please say you’re sorry. With a nod to the great Elton John, sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word.

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There Are No Back Roads Anymore

So a few weeks ago I spent a glorious weekend with my sisters, my Mom and my Burke cousins celebrating my birthday and the not-often-enough opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and relive (mostly with laughter but sometimes with tears) the moments we’ve all shared throughout our lives. We were out in the Hamptons, a wonderful place to be once you get there but it’s the getting there – and the getting back – that is mind-numbingly slow. An area designed to keep the locals safe from the invasion of seasonal tourists and wannabes by consisting for a good chunk of the trip of one lane of traffic each way.

Not surprisingly my sister – who is able to ferret out the fastest way to get anywhere – had found a route comprised of back roads out of the Hamptons years ago, a route guaranteed to slice a nice amount of time off the journey home. Except now everyone knows about the back roads and – in a statement so common-sensical that I had to remember it – she said “there are no back roads anymore”.

And it got me thinking that while maybe that’s true for some things, it might be just the opposite for so many others. We all have our routines, our practices, our schedules that give us comfort by their regularity. We know where we have to be, what we have to do, sometimes even what we’re supposed to say because we traverse the road that’s set in front of us and perhaps never question if it’s the right road. Or if it was the right road at one time, is it still the road we need to be headed down? Should we be looking for the back roads, the ones that take us out of our comfort zone? The ones that force us to look at things differently, to make different decisions, to consider things we might not have before. Would you make the same decision today that you made yesterday if even one thing was different?

About 7 years ago, I started to wonder why time seemed to be slipping through my fingers so quickly. Work, of course, was one reason. A 50+ hour week and a 3-hour round trip commute each day didn’t leave much time for myself, let alone to spend with my great kid, who was on the cusp of beginning his journey towards college. Nor did it allow that much time to spend with my parents or friends or other family. Life seemed an endless loop of the shampoo equivalent of lather, rinse, repeat. I woke up at 4:30 and went to bed at 9:00 and tried to sandwich everything I needed to into that time period without giving short shrift to anyone or anything. I wouldn’t use the term “succeeded” but I somehow pulled it off. Some days were easy; most were not. And I know that there are millions of others like me who faced the same life-juggling moments every day. Where is the balance?

So after much thought and time and prayer, I decided to take the back road. I crunched the numbers with the help of a brilliant financial guy (thank you, Shaun) and told my company I was leaving at the end of that month. No pleas for me to stay, no thank you for your contributions to helping our bottom line, no fuss, no fanfare. (Although my fellow workers and my customers were ever so kind and sent me such lovely words that I printed and saved each e-mail that was sent my way). My back road was a chance for the company to shed itself of a too-highly-compensated, over-the-hill employee (not that they ever said that in words but they didn’t have to) and a better chance for me to open the door onto a new future, one that let me do all sorts of things yet to be determined.

Now it’s 7 years later and my life has taken lots of twists and turns. The plusses are immeasurable. My time with my son, my parents, my friends is a gift that I never will regret. The opportunities to write both professionally and personally (through this little blog, which I am ever so grateful when someone reads it and tells me it meant something to them). The chance to travel a bit and meet people I would never have met otherwise. The phone conversations I’ve had with nary a thought about rushing the other person to finish because I had laundry to fold or dinner to cook or homework to check. All of it was a blessing and still is.

But some things haven’t worked out the way I had hoped because I took that back road. I won’t bore you with what hasn’t been successful or fulfilling because I’ve tried to take a lesson from each – I won’t call them failures – experience. When the writing gig ended, I was able to find a great local job working for a wonderful woman whose life work has been enabling and empowering and caring for our seniors. I’ve learned a lot, I think I’ve helped some people and what I do matters.

When someone I loved and trusted betrayed me, rather than go down the bitter road, I chose a different path. I felt sorry for them, that their life had been such as to bring them to a point where they needed to hurt others. I couldn’t change what had happened – none of us can because we can’t turn back the clock – but I could learn and grow from it, make the best out of it that I could. And doing that led me down another back road, a road where I learned to reach out to people and accept their kind offers of friendship and support. I was and am blessed with friends and family who lift me up each and every day.

So while there may be no more literal back roads any more, making a decision to take life’s back roads (and a great shout-out to my DC girl, Carol, who pointed me in the right direction when writing this) may be the best thing you can do. Be open to what may not seem comfortable. Be receptive to things that might have scared you before. Be willing to try something different or new. Try. Try harder. Try again. Find your back road to happiness. It’s out there, I promise you.

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Two Days

So a few days ago my mother and I were having our daily morning conversation (snuck in between me leaving the house, hitting Dunkin Donuts and arriving at work; hands-free talking, of course) and bemoaning what was going on in the world. There had been yet another random terrorist attack on a beach, innocent people slain for no apparent reason. Two dangerous men were still on the loose as they had been for nearly 3 weeks with no one being able to track them down. Another hate crime was being reported. Yet another angry man with a gun had killed people in a house of worship.

And I told her what I always do, that it pains me to know my great kid is growing up in a world like this. When I grew up – in a galaxy long ago and far away – everyone kept an eye out for each other. During the summer, you went outside after breakfast and – except for a lunch and dinner break – stayed out until it got dark. And that’s how you knew when it was time to go home. The street lights came on and it was like magic. Kids raced off to their homes (which were really apartments or railroad flats in the neighborhood I grew up in) and, if we were lucky, we got to watch a little television. Life was simpler, we didn’t have fears, we trusted and knew our neighbors, we didn’t worry because we didn’t have to. Nothing bad ever happened.

When you have children, you hope that their world, their life, their future will be better than yours. And all that changed on September 11, 2001, at least for my great kid and me. Did you ever feel truly safe again after that? Do you worry that something bad is always lurking around the corner? Did you ever think this is the future my kids, and their kids, have in front of them? That they’ll never have a truly safe childhood has always pained me.

But there are days when I am still optimistic about this world, our country, my great kid’s future being better. And two of those days happened this past week.

I once had great health care through my former employer and it was pretty affordable. And then I didn’t (a long and tedious tale about how much a company values your contributions to their bottom line until they don’t any more). Until the Affordable Care Act came along, I struggled every year trying to balance good coverage with affordable costs. But after the ACA became law, I was able to get very good health insurance at a price I could truly afford. I was grateful, so grateful that our lawmakers recognized that everyone is entitled to be able to get good health care.

And then the challenges to the law started and – without revisiting history because most of them are brought by people who’ve never had to worry a moment about being able to afford their health care coverage – they finally got resolved once and for all this week when our nation’s highest court upheld the law. And I knew that my son – who will also lose his health care this year when his father stops covering him – will be able to get health care on his own. I won’t have to worry for either one of us that we’ll be bankrupted by medical costs because we don’t have medical insurance or that we’ll be forced to make a decision about paying for health care as opposed to giving it up. It was a good day for America. That was Day One.

The very next day, the Supreme Court declared that gay marriage is legal. I am a religious person, deeply so, and I understand people being unhappy with this based on religious reasons, I truly do. But my God is a loving God who embraces all people and loves them regardless of who they are or who they love. And since it doesn’t affect my life one little bit who someone marries (except for my own ill-advised marriage, which affected me a whole lot), I don’t know why it matters to any of these angry people who would rather spew hate than embrace love. What I do know, though, is that when my son said to me that night that he had never been more proud to be an American, I rejoiced because it meant he knew that when our founding fathers said that we’re all created equal, they didn’t intend to exclude people.

So for the first time in a very long time, I have optimism that the future my son – and your kids and your grandkids – will face will be better. Because more people have been included in our country instead of being excluded or marginalized. Because we all are better served when we all have access to the same benefits and rights that others have always had. Because we’re the greatest country on earth and we should all want each other to succeed and thrive. Because it’s time to live and let live and love and let love. Our time here is limited and we only pass this way once but this past week our future, our kids’ future just got brighter. Embrace life, embrace freedom, embrace love. It’s easier than you think.

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Regrets, I’ve Had A Few

So another birthday has slipped past me, thankfully. Although I don’t much like celebrating them, I do look at them as a time to assess things, to take my emotional temperature and gauge where I am, where I’ve been, where I need to be headed. And this year is no different in many ways except that I’m trying to figure out whether the regrets I’ve experienced are worth the pain and self-examination they sometimes bring.

I regret the time I’ve spent trying to unravel the riddle of why people close to me chose to wound me with their words, for reasons I still don’t understand. I regret not always being brave enough to stand up for myself, to tell people how I feel. I regret believing certain people despite my better judgment. I regret not being a more patient driver (and honking too often, if you ask anyone in my family). I regret not always following through on things that I know I should do. I regret losing my temper too often over things too trivial to warrant such a reaction. I regret not telling the people I love often enough that I do love them. I regret that I seem to be hardwired to internalize my issues, to not reach out to others to talk things through, to not ask for a hug, a prayer, a good thought, a hand to hold.

But here’s what I don’t regret.

I don’t regret quitting my job when I did so that I could spend more time with my parents and my great kid. I got to drive my son to school and pick him up every day after I left and the conversations we were able to have – without me checking the clock because I had a deadline to meet or a project to complete or a meeting to attend – were some of the best talks we had. I got to spend every waking moment at the hospital every time my darling Dad was admitted the last few months of his life. I got to hold his hand and tell him I loved him as he slipped from the world. None of that could I have done if I hadn’t retired early when I did. I didn’t have to ask for time off from work or have to deal with corporate types who measured your worth in how many days you were there and whose philosophy was straight from a Janet Jackson song: what have you done for me lately?

I don’t regret the brief, too brief amount of time I had with the love of my life, a man who died so young with so much to give, so much talent he hadn’t yet been able to share, so much life to live, so much love to show his children. Because meeting this man and knowing that I was the love of his life too makes my heart soar at the same time as it breaks because our future ended before it could really begin. How many people, though, never have that kind of love in their life? I did and – even if it never comes again – I can live with that and never, ever regret it.

I don’t regret my ill-advised marriage (a term that always amuses my wonderful cousin, Susan) for a moment. Although it was not good on many levels, I don’t and won’t regret a moment of the pain because it gave me my great kid, my joy, my reason for being. It made me realize that my self-worth didn’t depend on the opinion of someone who valued me so little. It launched me into a life where I had to fend for myself, take charge of all the decisions and advocate for my great kid when his other parent walked out of his life. It made me stronger, braver, more resilient, more careful, sometimes less trusting but content in the knowledge that I did what was right.

So in this year of looking forward because – like driving your car – viewing things only in the rear view mirror of your life gets you nowhere fast, I want to regret less and embrace more. I want to be able to articulate to those special people (and I hope they know who they are when they read this, both friends and family alike) how much they lift me up every day. I want to write again and have someone think it’s good enough that they want to pay me for it. I want to see my great kid succeed and soar in college and beyond, living his dream and never being afraid to try, to fail, to love, to trust, to laugh, to cry, to hope.

But mostly I want not to regret anything any more. Life is too short and my time left on it is not worth wasting on the “what if” situations but better spent on embracing the “what is” scenarios. And maybe if you read this blog in a year from now, you’ll see that I’ve succeeded. I sure hope so.

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My Catholic School Teachers (and How They Made Me Who I Am Today)

So a week or so ago I learned that my son’s Catholic high school – which has been in existence for over 125 years – is closing at the end of this school year due to a decrease in enrollment and rising costs. I can’t begin to tell you how sad this makes me because I know the quality of the education my great kid received there, as well as at his extraordinary Catholic grammar school. I also know that the moral and spiritual foundation that they built upon has helped him – and many other students over many years – become good, caring, honest and spiritual members of their communities.

I too was blessed to attend Catholic school my entire life, right through college. And not only was the experience extraordinary, I still have friends from grammar school (hi, Ginny!), high school (my beloved DC girls, over 100 of them) and college (the best man at my ill-advised wedding. As I’ve said before and am sure will say again, I got rid of the husband but kept the best man as my friend). My parents met their best friends of 55 years when their son and I started kindergarten on the same day. These men and women who came into my life via my Catholic schools are some of the finest people I will ever hope to know and I suspect many of them will say that their Catholic school education was the bedrock that their future lives was built upon.

In a time when most of our teachers were nuns – women who had dedicated their lives to teaching and God – my own mother was a teacher in my grammar school. It was the perfect job for someone who wanted to be home when her kids were home, at a school that is still open and celebrated its 100 year anniversary just a few short years ago. She taught first grade and one year had a class with 68 students. (I’ll wait a moment while you digest that number.) She never had fewer than 50 students in her classes and when she left the school to move to another state, so many children wrote her cards and letters (all of which she kept) that it was an embarrassment of riches. She was told again and again how she had changed their lives, not only through teaching the basic subjects but nurturing her students’ belief in God.

When the school had a Mass to celebrate its 100 year anniversary, all of the teachers who were present were invited to walk down the main aisle of the church to sit at the front. As they walked, they were met with goose-bump inducing thunderous applause as both parents and students from many years cheered them for all they had done, sometimes with little acknowledgement or appreciation and certainly at a tiny salary.

My Mom (and every teacher there) made virtually no money because Catholic school teachers are among the most poorly paid teachers there are. But they don’t teach at a Catholic school to get rich. They teach there because they know that shepherding a child through school doesn’t just mean book learning; it means teaching them right from wrong. It means showing them that you should never look down on another person unless you are helping them up. It means prayer to start and end your day (a practice I still follow). And it means remembering that you can be as smart as can be but if you haven’t learned to be a good person who practices the golden rule (or the Ten Commandments), it doesn’t matter how educated you are.

I was lucky (as were my parents) when my sister and I went to grammar school. There were so many people who belonged (and contributed whatever they could) to our church and sent their children to our school that tuition was free. When I started high school, I think our tuition was a few hundred dollars a year. (It doesn’t sound like much but it was actually a hardship for my parents to send me and my sisters there but they did it because it mattered to them so much. Thank you, Mom and Dad).

College was a whopping $2,000 a year when I went (and I was blessed enough to have won a full scholarship so I didn’t have to pay at all) but I know my parents would have found a way to get the money to send me there. They believed that continuing the education that shaped not only my mind but my heart and soul was an investment worth making.

Times have changed though and fewer of us go to church on a regular basis. Our schedules are too busy, the time for the services aren’t convenient for us, we have something else we need to do. As more people drifted away from church (and as their weekly donations dried up), tuition costs started to rise and admissions started to drop. By the time my son went to Catholic high school, the tuition was over $8,000 a year.

And trust me, it was a sacrifice to make it work but we did. Because I knew those dedicated  women (and they were all women in my grammar school and high school) had – with every lesson, every discussion, every trip to church to say a prayer, every project – shaped and formed me into this person I am now. A person who still goes to church every week. A person who becomes incensed at the injustice in the world. A person who knows that there is a heaven, a heaven where I’ll see my darling Dad again. A person whose faith in God lets me be open to feeling his presence and accepting the signs he sends me (Baldheaded Woman for sure).  A person I hope my son wants to emulate.

I have great respect for all teachers and in no way mean to diminish what teachers in public schools do. My wonderful cousin, Dan, teaches art in public school and makes the lives of his students better every day. But I am the person I am today because of my Catholic school teachers and classmates. And now a whole generation of children in my community won’t have that opportunity because yet another school is closing. I’m sad for them but I hope that they’ll take the best of what they’ve already learned from their great teachers and pay it forward. If they do that, then they’ll make their teachers proud, their parents happy and their communities grateful to have such caring and compassionate and smart people in their midst. Godspeed, Cardinal McCarrick High School, and thank you for making my great kid who he is today.

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Save Us From Our Selfies

So we all (or a lot of us, anyway) seem to live and die by social media every day. Looked at your friends’ posts on Facebook to make sure you haven’t missed anything major (although most posts rarely rise to that level)? Check. Tweeted your 140 characters about the latest thing that has you engaged or enraged? Done. Posted a photo to Instagram or liked someone else’s? Most definitely. We’re with it, we’re on it, we’re trending.

But selfies have seemed to reach some kind of critical mass. And I don’t pretend to be innocent on this. I’ve taken my fair share of selfies and posted them, telling myself it’s because I want my far-flung friends and family to see where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing or had that ever-so-rare experience – a great hair day.

Just recently I counted nearly 50+ selfies on a social media site from someone I know, all taken within a several hour window. And Kim Kardashian has published a book called Selfies which is just – you got it – pictures of her. (I assume people will buy this. I don’t know why.) And it got me thinking. What happened to just enjoying the moment and not having to stop anywhere and everywhere to document it? Why can’t we just be?

And now we have a new weapon of mass destruction to assist us in this narcissistic path we pursue: the selfie stick. For $20 or so, you can buy this contraption to clip your phone on to so you can get a better perspective of yourself when you snap a selfie. Already these things have been banned on rides in Walt Disney World because the dopes using them think extending their phone on a selfie stick while hurtling through a ride is safe and that their need to document the experience is more important than the safety of those around them.

I love looking at people’s pictures, don’t get me wrong. But many of the best pictures I’ve seen and remember are the ones that exist only in my head, the snapshots my mind has taken and filed away under memorable moments that I can recall any time I want.

The look on my darling Dad’s face the first time my great kid was placed in his arms. My parents’ faces as they walked in on their surprise 50th anniversary party and saw a friend they hadn’t seen in 40 years, who had flown in from North Carolina just for the day to surprise them.

The memory of watching my Mom hold my Dad’s favorite baseball cap in plain sight so my son could know my Dad was with us as he walked down the aisle after graduating from high school, just a few short months after my Dad died. Waking up after surgery and seeing my Dad and my son looking down on me.

Turning around at my last high school reunion and seeing the face of my friend, a girl we had been trying to find for 40 years with no success, and bursting into tears of joy at the sight of her. Seeing the faces of my high school friends last summer when they made me insanely happy by coming to my surprise milestone birthday party. Watching my son get on a plane or in a car each time he heads back to school after a summer vacation or a Christmas holiday and feeling my heart break just a little.

None of these things are documented anywhere. Except they are. They’re imprinted on my brain and my heart, where I get to rummage through the shoebox of my memories any time I want and recall one of them at a moment’s notice.

Have we become such a self-absorbed and narcissistic culture that we have to stop – sometimes in the middle of the street – and snap a selfie to hold on to the memory? Is what we’re doing that important to anyone else besides us?

So yes, while I’ll still take an occasional selfie, I’m going to try to focus instead on snapping a virtual picture of a scene, a moment, a person, a place and keep it in my head. I wouldn’t trade those pictures for anything at all.

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