Do you have too many friends dying young?

I lost both my parents years ago, and my grandparents, aunts and uncles, before that. When you’re a kid and almost everyone you know who dies is “old,” it seems to make sense. Then there was a War – albeit undeclared – and I lost school friends: Tragic but understandable. Soldiers die in wartime. Then I started losing more friends, mostly to cancer. That hurt. Now I’m losing more friends and acquaintances and it’s getting harder, somehow, because most of them were younger.

Recently I lost two friends to preventable, manageable health issues, and one to suicide, which seems even more tragic. Their services were sad reminders that live is short.

Here’s the advice I’m giving myself: You may have a few better ideas.

  • Value what and who you have in the moment.
  • Take care of yourself, at least for those who love you, if not for yourself.
  • Reach out for help when you need it.
  • Help when you’re asked.
  • Minimize regrets for actions not taken.
  • And maybe – go to more dinners and fewer funerals, with friends and family
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Life races by: Are you paying attention?

A friend recently asked if I blog anymore. Truth is I’m nearly unable to keep up with real life, offline. I’m a part-time many things: Freelancer, volunteer, pet caretaker, chef, shopper, investor, wife, sister, and mother, BodyPumper, cyclist, reader, news hound… and Don Draper fan. Oh: And part-time patient. The older I get, the more things I acquire that require a physician’s attention.

Real life made me cry today. That’s something I rarely do. Catching up on email I came across one describing some critical Guardian ad Litem cases awaiting a volunteer guardian. These are high-risk cases where the judge ordered appointment of a guardian, but no guardian has yet volunteered. These particular cases have aged in place and are headed for dismissal, like lost pets at the pound too long, that haven’t been adopted, and can no longer stay in the system.

The descriptions are heartbreaking. Parents, almost always drug abusers, abusing and neglecting their children. Families with major physical and mental health issues. Infants to teens who need someone on their side. The state only removes children for the most egregious parental misbehavior. I tell myself that I have to find the time to take another case – can I do it? I’m overwhelmed on a regular basis.

Former colleagues and friends say I’m, “so great,” for volunteering as a guardian. I say, “You can do it too.” The thing is, once you know about these kids, even one of them, if you have 5-7 hours a week, how can you not help? That’s all it takes to look out for one kid at a time, to visit and talk to him or her every month, to make sure he or she is getting the health care that’s needed and is OK in foster or relative care, observe occasional parental visits if they occur, and periodically check in with your guardee’s teachers and on parental compliance with court-ordered classes or treatment. You also are the one who will speak up for your guardee’s interests when the case comes up in court, or support your kids who are old enough and have the courage to speak up for themselves in court.

Right now in Hillsborough County, Florida, there are more than 800 children who’ve been removed from their home, who need a Guardian ad Litem.

Yes, I like to blog. Right now I don’t have the time. Life races by and I want to, I need to pay attention to what’s more important.

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Have some time? Like kids? There’s a great job in your future

I promised my friends I would periodically blog about my volunteer work as a certified Guardian ad Litem. I work in support of the Circuit Court in Hillsborough County, Florida. The Cliff Notes version of this post: Being a Guardian is tough. It’s rewarding. It makes you cry. It can make a difference.

Guardians are trained and then appointed by the court. They are unpaid. We collect school and medical records, talk to our assigned child and his parents/caretakers, other family members, teachers, physicians, and other adults who have direct knowledge of our child’s needs and circumstances. We work independently but hand in hand with the family’s assigned caseworkers and the government agencies involved in the case. Our focus is making sure the child’s best interests are served.

Our conduct and what we can say about our work as a Guardian are bound by strict behavioral and confidentiality rules. I can say that when a child is removed  from his or her home for what’s determined to meet the legal definition of child abuse, neglect, or abandonment, no one is happy and everyone suffers, even and especially, that child. It’s just a different suffering than the suffering that led to the child’s removal from his or her home. I have an assignment now. I can’t afford to acknowledge the anger I could feel toward the parents in this case. Better to focus my energy on their child’s needs and do the best I can to make sure he gets the better future he deserves.

In Hillsborough County there are thousands of children  who are removed from their homes every year, and not  enough Guardians to watch out specifically and only, for these children’s interests. These children need a friend. They need you. If you have the time and the desire, look into your local Guardian ad Litem program. Here’s a link to Hillsborough County’s GAL program. You don’t have to be retired to make a real difference in the lives of children who were not born as lucky as yours – that is, to a parent or parents who are willing and able to give their children the love, support, and attention each child deserves.

 

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Is your life at a crossroads?

Since I stopped working full time I’ve been traveling a bit, I work out more often, I do freelance work, and I’ve continued to serve as a volunteer project leader through my local HandsOn group. While I enjoy HandsOn projects (sorting donations, packing food, etc.), I’ve been giving some thought to how I might better invest my skills and education as a volunteer. After some research I’ve decided to apply to the guardian ad litem program. GALs are appointed by the court to advocate for children who’ve been removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect. More than 9000 volunteer guardians currently serve more than 23,000 children here in Florida, so there’s clearly a need for more volunteers.

Their website suggests I won’t be left out there on my own. Extensive training and ongoing support is provided to GALs to help them advocate for these kids in the courtroom and with child welfare agencies.

It seems like a great opportunity to make a difference. As I begin my training I’ll be posting on my experiences with this program. If there are working GALs out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this program.

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Are you keeping your work-life balance?

The truth is, there is no such thing as work-life balance unless your work, and your life, make very few important-to-you demands on your time and attention. We continuously make choices, juggle options, prioritize. In the end, we do the best we can and move on, ideally applying lessons learned and forgiving ourselves for our retrospective errors.

When I worked full-time, I always felt like a circus juggler. There were work responsibilities, personal needs, family wants, aging parents, the occasional heath crisis. Once we got one, my DVR was always full of shows I hoped to watch. I regularly tuned out discussions of new movies I hadn’t yet seen. Getting a physician’s or hair appointment at a time good for them and me – a challenge. A traffic tie-up often meant rescheduling; I seldom allowed extra time (who has extra time?) to get anywhere.

Yet I know I was one of the lucky ones. I worked in salaried positions most of my career, which meant I had more choices. I rarely missed a child’s school event, or another must-make appointment. But as a daughter, wife, and mother who worked both in and outside my home, I regularly felt I fell short, feeling that familiar guilt that plagues everyone from time to time, with more needs than time.

Some see balance as a solvable problem. There are literally thousands of articles and billions of words online that purport to help people – especially women – balance their own needs with their family’s and their employers’ or clients’ needs. Most  of that advice involves ignoring or delegating some of those needs to others. Duh, like we didn’t already think of that. Or cloning. I often wanted to clone myself so I wouldn’t miss everything I wanted to attend to, myself.

Today things are different. I work part-time on my own schedule, and my child is grown, and my parents are gone. I also have realized something very important: The guilt I often felt at being unable to “do it all” was unavoidable. No one can do it all. Conflicts and choices are inevitable. You can use strategies to maximize your time and flexibility, but in the end, absent a conscious decision to drop your concern for your chosen responsibilities, you make choices and sometimes those choices suck and you have to suck it up.

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I’ve taken a big bite of the Apple – have you?

Little Android robot, forgive me. I’ve fallen prey to the forbidden fruit: the Apple iPhone.

I know Androids have the largest share of the smartphone market: Just ‘Google’ 2014 statistics on Android versus Apple. And truth be told, I loved the big, brilliant screen and fabulous camera on my Sony Xperia Z (possibly the best Android ever)! But here’s the problem. My Xperia didn’t fit in most of my purses and peeked out of the pocket of every pair of pants and jeans I own. Well, more accurately, often fell out of most of my pockets.

I did look at smaller Android phones, but none of them looked as cool as the iPhone 5s that caught my eye. Cool is compelling. Still, it was a hard decision. I still might go (back) for the new Xperia Z2, coming out later this year to a store near you, but the newest available Xperia is even longer than the one I owned. (A problem: See previous pocket issue.)

I have 30 days to decide if this i-flirtation will grow into an i-commitment, or send me back into the arms of a YouTube videos and photo-friendly (and pocket-phobic) Xperia. I know I’m a late comer to iPhone mania but hey, the early adopter doesn’t always benefit, assuming the standard learning curve.

Let’s not talk about the iPhone’s cost. Think of it as a really small laptop (or two). Truth be told, most smartphones today are more powerful than my first desktop computer. In fairness my first computer had a bigger screen and a real keyboard, though it didn’t fit in anyone’s pocket. And virtual keys are a bit tricky to navigate, yes? But I digress.

I’ve had a few previous bites of the Apple.  I use my husband’s iPad, I love my latest iPod, and I’ve never lacked admiration for all of the elegant i-products. Plus, going into the Apple Store is always fun. (A Genius Bar? I’ll take two.) Despite its issues, I also was happy with my latest, 5″ super-screen phone….  until T-Mobile made me an offer too good to resist. (Damn you JUMP program!) The 30 day regret period (well, they’ll charge me a restocking fee) was the kicker. In this case, contrary to Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again.

Wish me luck as I try to navigate iOS 7 and remember the passwords for my favorite Android apps that are available for the iPhone.

i, oops, I, will report back on this new romance.

 

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Remember your first real home?

Our 20-something son just bought his first home – a studio condominium. I assisted with a few tasks he couldn’t accommodate in his work schedule. Each week of the hunt, and after his offer was made and accepted, I made a list (of needed work) and checked it twice.  Let’s just say the previous occupant, a renter, was not the cleanest, most careful person; several repairs had to be bid and managed.

Our son knows he’s lucky to have some family help and a solid job, which made this move possible. Many of his friends are un- or underemployed, living with their parents or in small, shared apartments. Others, back in school seeking an edge in the job market,  live in student housing.  They’re the norm: A Gallup economic survey conducted last year found that only 21% of Americans ages 18-29 are homeowners.  Still, 7 in 10 young Americans who don’t own a home told Gallup they want to buy a home within the next 10 years – assuming they find a home they can afford.

While Gallup found that income has a positive correlation with the ability to buy a home, it’s not a cut and dried equation:

“… the hope of being able to buy a house is relatively strong even in the minds of those with below-average incomes, given that between 35% and 40% of Americans making less than $50,000 a year say that while they currently don’t own a home, they plan on buying one in the future.” – Gallup 2013 Economy and Personal Finance survey, April 2013

Even if you find a reasonably priced home you love, have the down payment, and can afford the payments at prevailing interest rates, buying isn’t always right for you. The New York Times has a nifty online calculator you can use, that considers such factors as how fast prices and rents are predicted to rise, and how long you plan to stay in your home. The calculator doesn’t account for personal preferences or emotional factors, but it’s a good start if you’re analytically minded.

I’m excited for our son. It’s a milestone in his life. Fingers crossed no appliances blow up after his warranty expires, before he can afford to replace them.

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Would you default on your obligations by choice?

It’s unanimous. The U.S. Treasury, The International Monetary Fund, and just about every economist and financial expert agree: Failure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, to pay bills the U.S. Congress has already incurred, will be a costly disaster that would tank the U.S. economy for years to come. So why is any alternative being discussed?

Holding an increase in the debt ceiling ransom to gutting the Affordable Care Act – which incidentally, is garnering huge interest among Americans who are willing to take responsibility for their health, if they can get affordable insurance – makes NO sense.

It’s clear some people still haven’t gotten over the last Presidential election.

Polls show that even though many remain skeptical of the ACA, they support its specific provisions and benefits when those provisions are polled without the mention of “Obamacare.” For example, see,

We are required to have car insurance to protect others from financial harm. Those without health insurance drive up care costs for everyone, but often, their lack of health insurance isn’t a choice. The concept of requiring health insurance, making that insurance affordable with socialized subsidies, and precluding insurance denials for those with pre-existing conditions (does anyone not have a pre-existing condition?) speaks to the American values of personal and shared responsibilities. Is anyone really listening?

Come on, people. Republican, Democrat, Independent – It seems one thing we can and should agree on is that another recession would be a dumb choice. The U.S. Congress has approved past spending, the money has been spent, and America must be good for its debts. Pass a damn budget, pass an increase in the debt ceiling, and then work on reducing the cost of government, if that’s your goal.

I’m tired of this farce. Aren’t you?

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Amazon founder buys WaPo: Are you worried?

Jeff Bezos, the founder of the uber-successful, online, umbrella of a retailer, Amazon, recently bought one of the grand old ladies of newspapers, The Washington Post.  In the interest of full disclosure, the WaPo is one of my favorite reads.  Like The New York Times and few other newspapers, it’s both a national and a local paper. You don’t have to live in the nation’s capital to benefit from the WaPo’s extensive and in-depth coverage of business, industry, markets, society, and government, and international news.

Bezos paid (some say overpaid) for the privilege of buying the WaPo, about $250 million. Yes, it sounds like a lot. It is a lot! On the other hand, it’s something like 1% of Bezos’ net worth. Take a moment and calculate what you could buy if you cashed in all of your assets. Probably not the WaPo. Hopefully more than a few Big Macs.

There aren’t many of us left who like to read the paper on, well, paper. My 25-year-old son loves to read but favors online resources. I lament his loss of the serendipitous find, a truly interesting and useful piece of news you sometimes happen across, when turning an actual page – something you need or enjoy or can use, but wouldn’t have thought to search for. But that’s a different post.

How will the king of digital marketing change the paper of Pulitzer-winning reporters? The daily that in the 70s broke the Watergate scandal story and published the Pentagon Papers – the ones that surfaced President Johnson’s lies about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam? (Younger readers: Look it up.) I was heartened when the WaPo reported that Bezos assured its staff that for now,

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads.”

Will paper newspapers be tomorrow’s nostalgic memory? The only thing I know for sure is that Jeff Bezos knows how to make money, and I don’t mean print it. Which may prove to be the WaPo’s long-term salvation.

What do you think?

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No good deed goes unpunished: Ask McDonald’s

You have to feel a bit sorry for McDonald’s. The company collaborated with Visa to create a website to help low-income workers learn budgeting skills. The initiative — clearly good intentioned — was met with scorn and derision because, its critics say, it’s a tacit admission that McDonald’s employees can’t live on what McDonald’s pays.

Reading the news coverage, I was reminded of the scene in the movie, Casablanca, where the local police captain expresses shock that gambling is going on at Rick’s upscale club, where most of the movie takes place. Come on:  Is there anyone who is really, truly shocked to hear that service workers have a hard time getting by in today’s economy? Did you think the counter servers at McDonald’s do their weekly grocery shopping at Whole Foods?

Many Americans have problems making ends meet, and need all the budgeting skills they can get. According to a study report published in late 2012 by The Working Poor Families Project (WPFP), the number of working families in the United States considered to be low-income increased to 10.4 million in 2011, up from 10.2 million in 2010, and those families included 47.5 million people, about half of whom (23.5 million) are children.

Of course, not all of these low-income families are reliant on a minimum wage breadwinner. Many are headed by adults who work for more than the minimum wage, or multiple working adults who combine their earnings to better meet their household’s needs. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2012, 75.3 million workers in the United States age 16 and over were paid at hourly rates, representing 59.0 percent of all wage and salary workers, but only about 4% of those hourly workers earned minimum wage. (See this BLS profile link.)

Yes, the people at McDonald’s who smile and take and serve your order, and cook your fast food, often are members of low-income households. According to the WPFP study cited above, most low-income families are supported by family members who work in the service sector, “often in jobs that require working long hours and on weekends.”

In 2011, about one-fourth of adults in low-income working families were employed in just eight occupations, as cashiers, cooks, health aids (sic), janitors, maids, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, or drivers… Cashiers make up the single-largest occupational group, with nearly a million people in low-income working families in 2011. (Source: BLS)

Low-income workers may need a second job (according to the BLS, about 5% of Americans have one), or another family member working, to get by in today’s economy. And it’s not just service workers. I know teachers and nonprofit professionals who have roommates and some who ride share, to make ends meet. They drive used cars and don’t take vacations, and worry about health care costs they can’t afford.

Should McDonald’s be castigated for publishing what a Washington Post article points out is, in fact, a realistic example of a budget that reflects the hard financial choices faced by low-income households? I think not. What do you think?

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