Are We Having Fun Yet??

I’m stripped naked and lying face up on a steel table while a group of stone-faced people — all with clipboards and calculators — surround me.

“How much money did you make last year?” one demands. “What’s your Adjusted Gross Income, line x of the IRS tax form?”

“Your cash on hand — and your child’s — how much do you have?” another chimes in.

“Drivers license number? Social security number? Investments, if any?”

“Oh, we see you have a business. What’s its net worth?”

“Did you receive any government assistance — food stamps, TANF, WIC, SSI?”

My head spins. Dutifully I scramble through income tax records, checking and savings accounts, frantic to round up the figures I need to meet their March 1 deadline.

Everybody says February is the cruelest month. Probably they’re referring to how miserable its weather typically is — cold, wet, ice, snow, wind.

I contend February is the cruelest month because of Financials.

That’s right — income taxes aren’t bad enough. For parents of college students, there’s the FAFSA to complete.

Those yet to experience the Wonderful World of Student Financial Aid have a treat in store. My best advice? Save everything!

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is being linked with your federal income tax returns, but you’ll need plenty of other materials, and it’s never too late to become a pack rat.

Nobody (except a few “experts”) claims completing the FAFSA is a piece of cake. Far from it, if you’re like me and your eyes glaze over when you see numbers! It’s especially daunting when they change your ID numbers from year to year (to protect you, of course) or refuse to let you access the system if you’re not using the Internet browser they prefer.

While students are busily filling out college applications, writing essays, taking virtual (and in-person) tours of campuses and such, parents are jumping through government hoops in hopes of proving their son or daughter is eligible for “free money.”

We bare our souls — and our finances. We answer questions never asked in polite circles. We go online and complete page after miserable page of data, sign it all with a government-issued electronic PIN, and pay for the pleasure with a credit card.

Then we wait to see if our student qualifies for grants or loans or work-study.

Oh, and don’t think the FAFSA is everything — some universities (like Notre Dame) require completion of the IDOC (College Board’s Institutional Documentation Service). This delightful gem really gets into your business and has an über number of steps to follow.

One of my favorites? Providing copies of your income tax records to prove you aren’t cheating or lying.

I’ve endured this assault to my sensibilities for three whole years now, but I see light at the end of the tunnel. Checking the box that indicates my son will be a senior next fall, I realize with a start this will be my LAST FAFSA nightmare.


A Status Update on Lent

We’re less than a week into Lent, and already I’m having trouble keeping my Lenten “resolutions.”

As a kid, I did what most of my friends were doing, give up candy. Or chocolate. Or sweets. One year I gave up potato chips.

It was hard, but knowing I only had to do it for six days eased the pain.

Back then, it was common practice to relax the Lenten “penance” on Sundays. I’d lie in bed on Saturday nights, watching the clock for 11:59, then race downstairs and break into that bag of candy.

It never tasted better!

But as I’ve matured, so has the Church. We’ve come to realize that giving up sweets or alcohol or even Facebook (yeah, some people do that!), then eagerly waiting for Sunday, isn’t exactly what Lent is about.

Lent is that period of 40 days reminiscent of our Lord’s desert fast, when at the end He was tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1). It also recalls the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert for 40 years (Nm. 14:34). Catholic and some Protestant churches urge members to become more like Jesus, giving up sin and turning our lives over to Him — not just for 40 days but forever. It’s all about conversion.

A tall order, huh?

So imagine my distress when I looked at the calendar and realized how often I’ve “broken” my Lenten intentions!

You see, this year I decided I’d try to root out my growing tendency to be critical and complaining.

When things don’t go my way, I grumble like the Israelites of long ago. When other drivers make “stupid” moves, I criticize. When politicians play “fast cash” with my hard-earned dollars, I complain.

I’m not proud of it. I don’t like it, and I want to root it out. Lent seemed like a good time for that. After all, “experts” generally agree it takes 21 days to break a bad habit, and Lent would give me nearly twice that.

I envisioned myself becoming kind and loving, tolerant and patient. More like Jesus.

So far, I’m failing. Miserably.

A guy in a pickup nearly slammed broadside into me yesterday, and I complained and criticized. Loudly.

Election signs and ads are popping up everywhere, and nobody seems to have a clue how to fix what everybody knows is broken. So I grumble.

Psychologists say the more automatic your bad habit is, the harder it will be to break it.

Small comfort.

But I’ll keep pushing toward Easter. A few misses along the way won’t derail the process.

And even if I can’t totally eradicate this habit during Lent, at least I’m conscious of it. And that’s really the first step.

How are you coming with your Lenten observance?

Happy Dance! I Got a New Award!

We writers are a needy bunch, aren’t we? Who but writers would feel compelled to invent blogging awards and then pass them around to their online friends?

But hey, recognition — in any form — is a heady thing, and I for one certainly won’t turn it down!

Liebster Blog Award

Which brings me to my latest accomplishment. My friend Izzie over at The Whatever Factor recently passed on the Liebster Blog Award to me — Thanks, Iz, I ‘preciate it!

Now most of the time it pains me to admit ignorance, but here goes: When I saw the Liebster Blog Award, I had no idea what it was.

It sounded like “lobster” to me, and at first I thought it had something to do with food. Or Lent.

So I did what any good writer would do — opened up another window to research the term.

“Liebster” is a German word meaning “dearest” or “beloved.” Its connotation also extends to “favorite.” (Since I don’t have a single drop of German blood, no wonder I wasn’t familiar with this word!)

But somebody considers me a favorite. Cool! I’m almost speechless!

As with most other blogging awards, the Liebster Blog Award carries some heavy responsibilities, none of which I take lightly. Without further ado, here’s what is supposed to take place next:

  1. Thank the blogger who gave you the award and link back to them.
  2. Copy and paste the blog award on your blog (get it from Google Images, if you’d like).
  3. Pass the Liebster Blog Award on to five other bloggers you admire.
  4. Let your recipients know of the award by leaving a comment on their blogs.
  5. Bask in the love of the blogosphere.

Now, the Liebster Blog Award is supposed to be presented to relatively “small” blogs — those with fewer than 200 followers. But I have NO IDEA how many people are following these blogs, nor do I have time to try to figure it out! If your name is listed here and you have w-a-a-a-y more followers than 200, don’t shoot the messenger, okay? Just re-read Rule #5 above and be happy!

And now — Ta Da! — my choices for the Liebster Blog Award:

So off you go — congratulations and don’t forget to spread the love!

Revisiting Junior Parents Weekend

Today marks the beginning of Junior Parents Weekend at the University of Notre Dame.

That three-day period when parents and their students come together with other parents and students for various activities, to meet the professors, visit campus, and affirm that their hard-earned dollars are being put to good use.

But I’m missing it.

My Favorite Domer turned thumbs-down on this event a long time ago. He’s too busy for such orchestrated activities, he said. His friends’ parents aren’t coming. He didn’t want me to spend money for tickets and clothing and transportation and lodging — when I’m already on campus monthly.

‘Are you sure?’ I wondered.

Yes, he said. It’s not like we’ll have quality time together, with all the planned activities. And you know how hard those large-group gatherings are.

I certainly do.

Some folks excel in a cocktail party setting. They mix and mingle, kiss everybody within grabbing distance, and make small talk like they’ve known those people forever.

I’ve never been like that.

‘Shy’ would have described me as a kid. Or ‘Wallflower.’

Today, I prefer ‘Introverted.’

Nothing wrong with that. Introverts (and many writers fall into that category) choose our companions and friends after they’ve been tested and found true.

When the invitation came in the mail, I assumed we’d go. Despite the certain cold weather, the itchy new clothing, and the uncomfortable socializing.

I never expected Domer wouldn’t want to attend.

The schedule of events was full, to say the least:

  • An Opening Gala, complete with music, dancing, and fancy food.
  • Hall Luncheon to meet my son’s friends and see his quad in its “natural” state.
  • Saturday Mass at the Joyce Center (nobody does Mass the way ND does Mass!)
  • President’s Dinner.
  • Closing Brunch on Sunday, with tearful good-byes all around.

‘Are you certain?’ I kept asking.

His reply continued in the affirmative.

Some parents would have signed up and coerced their kid to tag along. Not me.

ND is his school, his home. Right or wrong, the decision on attending these festivities would be his.

And he said No.

A big part of me is sad. Sad at not seeing him this weekend. Sad at not being on campus, even at this dismal time of year. Sad at not being part of the students’ enthusiasm, their intelligence, their wit.

You see, I love ND as much as is possible for someone who didn’t go there!

But growing up means assuming responsibility for our choices. The world (and our own family) might not approve. But we each must listen to that quiet, inner Voice which leads us in the direction that’s right for us.

Sometimes we call that Voice, ‘conscience.’ Other times, it’s ‘compass.’

Domer is blessed with a strong one, and I couldn’t be prouder.

A Tricky Test for Tuesday

Look at this picture, then let me ask you a question — Which one’s the shampoo?

Garnier shampoo & conditioner

Are you sure? Look again.

Now imagine taking this scarlet duo into the shower. Add a bit of water to your eyes, dim the lights (to simulate your shower curtain or door), and take off your glasses.

Not so easy-peasy, is it?

Let’s try another pair. Which one is the shampoo?

Herbal Essence shampoo & conditioner

That’s obvious, you say. Why, even the bottles are shaped differently.

Okay, smartie. Try these, then:

John Frieda shampoo & conditioner

Getting a littler harder, isn’t it? Remember, you’ve got water in your eyes and the lighting is weak.

One more, then I’ll make my point:

Dove shampoo & conditioner

No, I’m not trying to trick you. I really did use one bottle of shampoo and its coordinating bottle of conditioner for each photo!

You know, I never gave much thought to the difficulties “old” people encountered when they turned 40 and started needing reading glasses.We’ve all heard the jokes about the guy who mistakenly used hemorrhoid cream instead of toothpaste.

But “old” people aren’t the only ones who use glasses for close up seeing.

And young people don’t corner the market when it comes to shampoo and conditioner.

Why can’t manufacturers help out a little, instead of making these duos identical?

A few weeks ago, I guessed wrong and put the John Frieda conditioner on before shampooing. Not a pretty thing, I’m telling you. Who wants to stand in the shower, get all pruney, and double-shampoo?

The only reason I buy matching shampoo and conditioner in the first place is their sales pitch — you get the best results when you use products from the same line together. Who knows if that’s true? And who wants to find out by mixing ingredients from one company with those of another, ON THEIR HEAD?

Maybe the manufacturers are concerned with making a fashion statement in my bathroom.

Maybe they just like having matched bottles on the supermarket shelves.

Maybe it’s cheaper to make matching bottles for this stuff.

I don’t think so.

I think it’s a concerted effort to make me feel older than I am and to ensure I use all the hot water trying to figure this stuff out.

What do you think?

(By the way, the shampoo is on the left in each photo. Did you guess correctly?)

One Day I’ll Get My Wings

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to fly.

Not so much in a machine, mind you, but to fly. On my own accord.

When I was a kid, my sister and I would drape rain slickers — fastened at the neck by one button, our arms hanging free — across our backs, then race down our swing set slide, flapping like mad. The plan was, once we neared the bottom of the slide, to give a mighty leap and take off into the air!

Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

But I never quit hoping.

My parents, I’m sure, figured I’d outgrow this “nonsense.” Unlike me, they never wanted to be in the air, even in a plane.

When I became an adult, I casually entered a contest in which the prize was a flight around town in a hot air balloon.

My parents thought I’d gone mad.

“What if it crashes?” they fretted. “What if it tangles up in power lines?”

I come from a long line of worriers, you see. Anything and everything has the potential for being life-threatening. Dangerous. Scary. Better off avoided.

But I wasn’t concerned.

I never win contests.

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Imagine my surprise when the phone rang to inform me I’d won!

My Favorite Domer was just a little kid, and part of me wondered what would happen to him if the unthinkable occurred and my balloon did crash. The other part of me, however, looked into his little eyes and knew I had to model brave behavior — for him.

He had to see that Mommy didn’t let fear hold her back. That sometimes, you’ve just got to suck it up, turn a deaf ear to the naysayers, and live your dream.

My heart was tripping the day of the balloon ride. But the sky was cloudless and blue, the temperature was warm, and there was a perfect light breeze.

I watched the couple who were my pilots ready their (our) balloon for flight. Before I knew it, we were off!

What freedom! What glory!

Floating over the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois, high over the country roads, cars, and buildings.

It was truly as the balloonists’ say, “Mother Nature has taken you into the skies and returned you gently to Earth.”

Too soon, it was over. Besides my memory, I’m left with an empty bottle of champagne, autographed by my pilots and used in their “christening” ceremony for my virgin flight.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat!

As I’ve gotten older and people in my parents’ generation are dying around me, I’m reminded of something the nuns used to tell us in Catechism class:

One day, we, too, will die.

As a child, that didn’t worry me too much.

After all, I reasoned, when I die, I’ll probably get wings.

And wings will help me soar.

On my own!

Won’t THAT be cool?!

How do you tame the Social Media Monster?

Are you, like me, sometimes overwhelmed by the proliferation of social media and the expectation that we ALL participate — in everything?

The arguments are persuasive:

  • Writers need a platform, a following, to show agents they’re able to promote their manuscript
  • Businesses need to connect with potential buyers and generate “buzz” about their services or products
  • Nobody in the entire world can possibly connect with as many people in real life as is possible online

But all that connecting can be exhausting, especially for writers (who tend to be introverts anyway and often find it easier to hole up and just write).

And perhaps it’s lots worse on those writers who, like me, can’t write full time right now because they must work at a paying job. Or those with small children. Or aging parents. Or…whatever.

We can all find excuses for NOT connecting online. Yet the reality is, there are only 24 hours in a day and, if you listen to the “experts,” we need to be sleeping 8 of them. That leaves 16 hours. For those who work, subtract 8 more (or 10 if you have a long commute), bringing your total “free” time to 6 hours.

Six hours to do basic personal maintenance (like bathing), run errands (banking, grocery shopping), taxi the kids to and from lessons and sleepovers, kiss the spouse, walk the dog, cook meals, and clean the house.

That doesn’t include time for yourself — to read, soak in a spa, exercise, paint, take up piano, or write.

What’s the answer?

If you look at the history of social media, you’ll find that blogging started in 1997. Facebook debuted in February, 2004, Twitter in March, 2006, and Google Plus in June, 2011. More than 845 million people are on Facebook and at Twitter’s five-year mark, some 350 billion “tweets” are delivered each day. In addition, countless webinars are now available, on everything from how to make your small business successful to how to plot that story lurking in your head.

No wonder we feel deluged!

Some people address this problem by periodically scheduling a vacation from online activities. They fold up the laptop, turn off the i-pad and phone, and unplug from the busyness.

That’s a good idea. We all need to recharge occasionally.

Other people set a timer. When their hour (or however much time they’ve allotted) is up, that’s it. No looking back. No cheating.

Do our online friends miss us when we don’t show up? I’d like to think so because I miss them when they’re absent for a time. But, if we announce that we’re taking a sabbatical, at least we’re letting everyone know we’ll be out of touch.

My suggestion (and it’s more a “Memo” to me rather than something you need!): Remember why you started down the social media path in the first place. Enjoy your time connecting. But don’t feel you have to be connected 24/7!

How have you tamed the social media monster??

Blessing of the Throats

“Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from ailments of the throat and from every other evil. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Blessing of St. Blaise).

Many Catholics today will attend Mass and participate in the traditional Blessing of the Throats, in honor of St. Blaise, a third century physician and bishop.

According to legend, Blaise was born in Armenia into a noble family and raised as a Christian. When a new round of persecution began, Blaise fled to the hills to escape. There, he befriended the wild animals — wolves, lions, and bears. One day a group of hunters recognized him and captured him, intending to turn him in to the governor for trial. On the way, a woman brought him her son, who had a fish bone caught in his throat. Blaise prayed over the boy, and the bone dislodged, saving him from certain death.

When the governor attempted to get Blaise to sacrifice to pagan idols, Blaise refused. First he was beaten, then tortured, and finally beheaded.

The Feast of St. Blaise is celebrated around the world. Some Eastern Churches consider his feast a holy day; Germans and Slavs, in particular, hold him in special honor.

The Blessing of the Throats is a sacramental of the Church. Like Rosaries or genuflecting, sacramentals are Church-instituted objects or actions that work through the power and prayers of the Church to drive away the evil spirit.

Traditionally, the Blessing of the Throats will be performed at the conclusion of Mass.

The priest (often with several lay assistants) takes two blessed unlit candles, usually tied in a V-shape with a red ribbon, and lays them at the throat of each congregant, reciting the words of the blessing at the top of this post.

A simple and quick ceremony, but one that’s effective, particularly at this time of year when respiratory illnesses are rampant!

Blaise is the patron saint of wild animals and of those with throat maladies. When we seek his intercession, we should remember to ask for God’s protection not just against physical throat disorders (sore throats and colds, for example), but also for spiritual help (avoiding profanity, gossip, etc.) As St. James told us, “If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is self-deceived; his worship is pointless.” (1:26)

The Blessing of the Throats is one ritual I try not to miss. How about you?