Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Pewter Panther’s Brush With the System

He was sprung from the joint at 6:13 pm on Tuesday. Bail was set at $450. He’s scheduled to appear in 10 days. Staff took care of the financial details and met him for out-processing.

Boy, was he ever glad to see his staff.

He does not like that jailer-dude. At all.

Further indignity was visited upon him as staff tried to put him in the transport cage. He displayed his acrobatic prowess and grew three extra paws to lever against imprisonment. He was outnumbered. At least they took him away from the joint.

Forced to endure a ride in the car, he made sure staff was aware of his disapproval all the way home.

Later, staff cornered him and forced vile potion on him.

Buffy, a ginger tabby who is also his litter mate, is still hissing at him.

All in all, it’s good to be home.

Staff’s version of events

Our gray shorthair cat, Smokey Joe, a.k.a. the Pewter Panther, was acting weird and wouldn’t eat so we took him to the vet. They kept him overnight. They called late in the afternoon to say he could go home. He has to eat special food and take amoxicillin. He likes the special food and doesn’t mind the medicine mixed in. No more vile-potioning.

The folks at the vet office call him Grumpy Joe. He really gave them what for. Normally he is the friendliest, most sociable dude on the block. We call him the Doorman because he sits out front and greets everyone who comes by. People all over the neighborhood know Smokey. Even the mailman knows him. Everyone, from the little old ladies next door, to the big tough-looking guys down the street, stops to talk to him. The tough guys look around first to make sure no one is watching, and then they bend down to pet and talk to Smokey. When finished, they straighten up and resume the tough/cool stance. It’s fun to watch.

Smokey’s feeling pretty good but he hasn’t resumed his post yet. If he goes too many days without doorman duties the neighbors start asking if he’s okay. We live in that kind of neighborhood. I still marvel at our luck.

Of course, the bail money was originally slated for car maintenance, but I held off. I listened to that sixth sense that said I’d need the money for something else. Is it a Mom thing? Does it go with being broke most of the time? (Broke means you have a job but no money once the bills are paid. Po’ means no job and no money. Important distinction.)

It’s funny how things work out.

Ditch the parenting magazines.

One of my favorite gifts to give at baby showers is a big, thick beach towel. One with vivid colors and a busy design. It’s not traditional but it’s really quite practical. Aside from its obvious purpose, it has several other uses for new parents:

1. Babies love bold designs and bright colors. Beach towels are fun to look at.
2. They’re perfect for wrapping up wet, wiggly babies.
3. They make really warm blankets that are easy to wash.
4. They can stand in for mattress pads on those nights when the baby is sick.
5. They last a long time. As the child grows older the towel can take its normal place as a beach or pool accessory.

I also tell new parents not to read any of the parent magazines. Seriously. Don’t even look at them. Throw them away in between the mailbox and the house. No peeking. Send them to the guy who heats his house with junk mail. Pass right by them at the grocery store. Check out the tabloids with stories about the movie star's love child by Sasquatch or alien house cats in Peoria instead. Your time will be better spent.

Parent magazines are not designed to help us be better parents. They’re designed to make us feel inadequate. They chip away at any confidence we might have so we’re more prone to buy the many products advertised in between the articles detailing the hidden dangers posed by Velcro on bibs or the glue used in books made before 1981. (Fear sells. Just ask a politician.)

Being a parent is stressful enough. How can something that makes you even more stressed be helpful? How did parents manage to raise children without being informed of the danger posed to a child’s self esteem non-gender-neutral toys? How did any children ever survive to adulthood without the plethora of safety devices every toddler’s parent is supposed to install in their home or places said toddler might explore? How else would a parent know that everything they think and do is absolutely wrong? Parent magazines to the rescue! They’ll show you how to be the perfect parent!

Phooey!! Perfect is not an option.

Making sure you have all the newest-and-most-correct toys, tools, and devices won’t help you be a better, saner parent. Trying to keep up with the latest fads in child-rearing techniques won’t produce a problem-free child. Neither you nor your child will be perfect. You’re human beings. Perfect is not on the table.

Opt for happy instead.

Even if you’re one of those super-organized, highly energetic people, you’re not going to be able to do everything. Focus on you and your children, not whether the house looks like the set of Leave It to Beaver. Remember: Trying to live up to false standards set by people who have no skin in the game is a losing proposition. It just distracts us from what really matters.

I will confess that I’m no housekeeper. My place was always a mess (and still is). My kids were always clean and they wore clean clothes. They ate off clean plates and slept in clean beds. I figure that covers what’s really important. The rest you catch when you can.

So stock up on beach towels and throw out the parent magazines (or delete the bookmarks to the their sites). The towels are more useful and way more fun.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Teamwork Is Essential Part II

The traditional American family is the mother-father-children unit. It is considered the “norm”. In fact, less than half the family units in the country are two-parent households.

And yet, those families that are not traditional are considered “broken”. The reality is that “non-traditional” families are the norm.

Forming your family into a team is essential to surviving as a non-traditional family. There are a lot of social pressures out there to view single parent families as invalid, broken, or somehow lacking. You need not accept the labels.

I visited a local church once and attended the Sunday school class for “Single Parents”. The premise of the class was that single parents are poor quality parents who need constant help just to be mediocre. It also assumed that single parents would never achieve full quality levels. I haven’t been back. I was incensed by the automatic assumption that divorce had negated all of my parenting skills in one fell swoop (or that marriage somehow made poor parenting less of a problem).

Social pressure is why it is essential to build your family unit into a strong team. Schools have a tendency to treat children in non-traditional families differently than they treat kids from “traditional” ones. Kids themselves will make an issue of the difference in status between traditional/non-traditional families. It’s unfair. It’s not supposed to happen, it might not be politically correct, but it is an unfortunate reality of single parent life.

Don’t allow the social power brokers to marginalize you.

If you and your children feel like you’re members of a strong family unit that be depended on, you’ll be better equipped to resist the social negativity. Encourage your kids to help each other. (They will naturally anyway.) Design chore assignments as a team effort. Making beds is a lot easier when two people do it. Have one child hand dishes from the sink to another loading the dishwasher. Younger children can help sort laundry. They can put things in the dryer if someone taller takes it out of the washer. The point is to make each family member part of the process, which builds stronger bonds. Doing things together is what’s most important.

There are forces on the world who are constantly trying to undermine family cohesion. Tribe and family ties are some of the strongest on the planet. They have survived many different governments and economies. Families are the single biggest competitors for a laborer’s time. Family values are not compatible with the political and economic aims of people in power. There are many ways to isolate people from familial ties, technology being one of them. Single-family homes and a highly mobile workforce are isolating forces. Encouraging adult children to move out on their own by a certain age, regardless of economic stability, is another. The latter standard has been around for less than a century. It seems like the norm, but it isn’t.

Difficult economic times tend to emphasize the importance of family. When the chips are down, sometimes family is all you have. I know people who never thought they could live together peacefully are now managing to do so for survival. Individual autonomy takes a back seat. Avoiding conflicts and the need for “our own space” tends to fade in the face of survival challenges.

Being poor can strengthen families. If sharing is the only way that some things can be enjoyed, then sharing is what will happen. Having to share televisions and computers can lead to conflict, but it can also teach us how to work things out. Kids who know how to share will pool their resources, and maximize benefit for everyone. So don’t worry if you don’t have the standard number of devices in your home. The kids will survive and thrive. They’ll find cooperative ways to achieve their desires.

And load the kids in the car and go to the park for the afternoon. They’ll whine and complain, but that’s what kids do. It might be not be “cool” to have to hang out with siblings and parents. It might be lame to take hikes on nature trails and see ducklings, tadpoles, and turtles in the mud. Being caught having a picnic with your family by a classmate (who, by the way, is out with family too) might be embarrassing. But, the things your kids will remember are the hikes, the parks and the picnics, far more than when they were being “cool”.

Don’t be afraid to be a full-fledged family, even if certain social forces want to define you as otherwise. You and your kids have the right to a rich family life. You’re the coach and the captain, so making it happen is up to you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Waiting to Download

One of the classes I’m taking right now is about geographic information systems. It’s necessary to download a trial version of ArcGIS software for this class. The file size is 3.75 Gb.

That’s GIGA bytes.

Even though my internet is theoretically supposed to have a 3.6 Mbps pipeline, after a few minutes of downloading at about 500Kbps, the speed dropped to around 70Kbps. That means 11 hours or so of downloading. All day long. I understand why the theory and practice don't coincide, but good grief!

Positive note: It wasn’t too long ago that it took all day to download 10 megabytes, only to have the server reset when you had 9.9 Mb downloaded.

As the evening approaches, so do thunderstorms. Severe ones. Luckily, Firefox has a download manager applet that allows you to pause a download, then resume whenever you like, even if you shut down the system in between sessions. You don’t have to start over. So when the storms got close, I paused the download, and turned off/disconnected the computer equipment. About 30 minutes later, the power went off. It didn’t come back on until after midnight.

Enter the Fur-People, a.k.a. Four-Footed Tyrants

As kids get older, they are out of the house doing their own thing a lot of the time. It should be a time of peace and non-interruption. Alas, it is not to be. I have two cats and a labra-beagle. They seem to think it is their bounden duty to take up the slack where my children have left off. They shower me with love, affection, and demands for attention when the kids aren’t around. I’ll never be lonely. Sigh.

They also live by routine. Rigid routine.

Which is why the ginger tabby was tapping me, the gray shorthair was saying “Ahem”, and the dog was shaking her collar and flapping her ears at 5:45 this morning to remind me that it was nearly breakfast time. They have no concept of the sanctity of weekend mornings.

But it worked out this morning. I fed the pets and started up the computer to finish downloading the software at high speed. So we are all happy campers. Tummies are full and the download is complete. Getting the software to recognize the authorization code the ArcGIS people sent me is another matter. One battle at a time.

That is not to say that once the feeding is done they leave me alone. They come get me at 8:30am because I really should be up by then, don't you think? My daughter gets until noon. Then she too is commanded to rise.

I thought I was in charge. I'm supposed to be. What happened?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Attitude is Everything

Every so often I come across a poster or magnet or some other decorative item that tells me that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% attitude. What is attitude? It comes down to how we respond, internally and externally, to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes” (Hamlet). Do we take a position of victimhood, or do we retrench, make new plans, and move forward by a different path?

First, it’s necessary to examine how we respond to obstacles internally. It’s easy to beat ourselves up over things that are, in truth, beyond our control. Learning to separate the things we can control from the things we can’t is key to changing our attitude. We can’t do much about another driver’s bad behavior when they cut us off in traffic, but we can change our response. We can ask:

“How could they do that to me?” (victimhood)

Or we can say:

“Geez, that was a lousy thing to do!”

We can acknowledge that the bad behavior is theirs, and then let it go. For some this may not seem to be an important distinction, but it is. It moves us from taking responsibility for what is not ours, to putting the responsibility where it belongs. It lifts a great weight from our shoulders.

As we learn to cast off that which is not our responsibility or in our control, we also have to learn to accept responsibility for that which we can control. Facing our own accountability can be humbling at first. It means we no longer get to blame others for things we are causing ourselves. But once we get it all straight, we have far greater power in our lives.

Once we have the internal processes working in the right direction, we can change what we do externally. We can take action that helps instead of hinders. In the case of the jerky driver, we can take steps to make sure we aren’t involved in a collision because of his or her driving, and feel good about it.

Let’s extend the driving analogy. Instead of focusing on what goes wrong as we drive through heavy traffic, we can celebrate what goes right. Appreciate several green lights in a row. Be thankful when someone lets you in to their lane. Even if most of the ride is frustrating, we can be grateful if we get to our destination in one piece. I know this can really have a positive effect on my frame of mind.

Now I’m not saying it’s always possible to be upbeat. Some days it seems like all I do is grit my teeth over one thing after another. Changing our attitude takes practice, and we’re not always going to get it right. My attitude is being constantly revised. Maybe I can start my life when I get the attitude thing straight?

But then, another part of a good attitude is forgiving ourselves for not being perfect. Life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect either.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Worrying

Teamwork II is still a work in progress. Patience.

I used to be a championship worrier. I worried loyally, with dedication and diligence. I’d worry about bills that were a little late right up to the day I was able to pay them. In the early years following my divorce, there was plenty to worry about, and I excelled at it.

I think we somehow get the idea that worrying is a virtue, that we’re being true to our friends, relatives, and society if we worry when and how we’re supposed to worry. Rubbish.

So here’s the thing:

Worrying Doesn’t Change the Outcome.

It just makes the journey needlessly stressful. As time passed, I gradually realized that worrying didn’t help. The key is to turn worry into problem solving. I went from feeling helpless to feeling like I had the tools and means to work things out. I learned some coping strategies along the way.

Some things haven’t changed all that much. There are still too many bills and too little money. There are still hurdles presenting themselves every day. But I no longer worry about them. Bills that are due are listed in a spreadsheet then left alone until payday. I let them out of my mind until I can address them constructively.

What’s really better now is my attitude. The things that overwhelmed me in my 20’s no longer crush me. Even if I have less spending power than I did a few years ago, I’m much better at managing it now, and it feels like I’m a whole lot better off.

All of this took time and experience. Only a few people are so lucky as to have it all at a young age. The rest of us have to come to it the hard way.

Getting older has its perks.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Single Parenting: Teamwork is Essential Part I

It’s perfectly natural to want to shield your kids from the effects of divorce. There is a very strong inclination to try to maintain their lifestyle as much as possible. You want their lives to be the same as they were before separation.

Except it isn’t the same, and it never will be.

If you’re facing a significant decline in income, you need to set a workable budget as soon as possible. You may have to face the fact that lessons, soccer, and other activities may need to be curtailed or even eliminated. You may need to revamp your food strategy by cooking a lot more at home and passing right by Starbucks.

Most importantly, you need to sit down with your kids and have an honest discussion about the changes that need to be made. Talk about what’s possible and what isn’t. They’ll whine and complain about how it just isn’t fair, but that’s what kids do. They’ll adjust and thrive.

You may need to replace a teenager’s iPhone service with a pre-paid cell phone*. It isn’t as cool as an iPhone, but it gets the job done. You may have to do away with extended cable. Upgrading game systems when new ones come out may no longer be possible.
* Yes, I know you could do away with cell phones, but they are an absolutely essential communication tool for single parents. No guilt here.
This is also when you need to find your spine and reinforce it.

The good news is that you’ll all be fine without the extras. Really.

You also need to realize that you can’t do everything by yourself. You’ll drive yourself to exhaustion and insanity. This is where teamwork comes in.

You and Your Kids Must Form a Team

You are the coach and the captain. Your kids must become team members who help out and make things run smoothly. Trips to the grocery store must be a team effort. If they’re small, have them get lightweight, reachable items off the shelf and put them in the cart. Show them how to find things in the store. When they get older, you can send each of them to different parts of the store for different items. Have them help put items on the conveyor belt. Have them help put bags in the cart and load the car. They should help unload and put away groceries as well, within their abilities. They’ll whine and complain (at first) about how it just isn’t fair, but that’s what kids do. They’ll adjust and thrive.

And when they move out on their own, grocery shopping won’t be a big mystery.

Initially, forming a team takes some extra time and effort, but the results are well worth it. Remember that spine.

Because you really, really, can’t do everything by yourself.

More about team building in part II.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Used Book Stores & Other Great Inventions

There is a large used book/media store in our city that has been a favorite destination for years. They sell used books, cd’s, video tapes, dvd’s, and textbooks. They also carry game systems, ipods, and graphing calculators. It’s a really popular place. Most of my book collection comes from there. My kids have an impressive collection of movies, all purchased at this store for $1-$3 each. Game systems and a few ipods were purchased there too, at a large discount over new retail.

My kids don’t worry about the fact that they don’t have the newest and fastest. They just enjoy being able to have movies, game systems, and ipods.

We also have pre-paid cell phones (and no landline). One can be had for as little as $10/month (or less if you just want to carry one for emergencies).

Thrift stores are the favorite destination for fashion. Why pay $45 for a sweatshirt when you can find one gently used for $6? We’ve found some of our favorite clothes at thrift and consignment stores.

It is possible to live well on a small income. But you have to give a few things up.

Like “status”.

Or rather, the illusion of status.

You can’t buy all your clothes at the Gap. You won’t have the latest-most-up-to-date fashions. You won’t be able to keep up with your friends and neighbors. You may have to put up with a few snide comments about pre-paid cell phones. (As if paying 3 to 10 times more for the same basic service makes them superior.)

Soon, you’ll begin to realize that status doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as you thought it did. People aren’t paying as much attention as you think they are. If friends and associates are judging you on how much you spend, you may need to rethink your associations. Pleasing others who have no skin in the game is a losing proposition.

Which brings me to another point:

Pride Has No Nutritional Value

Status is related to pride. It’s something we achieve to stroke our pride. But you can’t put pride in a bowl and serve it for supper. Everyone will go away hungry.

So you have to let it go. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a multi-step process. Eventually you’ll begin to understand there is no need to be ashamed of not living up to an essentially false standard. You’ll discover inner resources you didn’t realize you had. You’ll start to really “get” that how you treat others is far more important than what you wear and drive.

Once you let go of the false gods of status, you’ll discover a whole new world. A far better one.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

There’s no such thing as an EX-Marine.

Once a Marine, always a Marine. There are no ex-Marines, only former Marines.

I am a former Marine. I joined the Marine Corps out of high school to play in the bands. I’m proud to claim the title.

I was in Platoon 2B, L Company, Women Recruit Training Command, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC, for basic training. I arrived on October 18th, 1983, at oh-dark-thirty in the morning. By mid-morning I was burning up because I’d worn a turtleneck and an all-wool sweater. Luckily, I got to trade them in for camouflage utilities and combat boots by the late afternoon.

It was an experience. Nothing much like I’d expected. It was hard but never beyond my capabilities. You don’t think of basic training as a lot of time in classrooms, with notebooks and tests, but that’s what a lot of it was. Of course, there was the rifle range, physical training, marching, and all the great stuff that goes with boot camp. Every minute of every day (and night) was dedicated to training. No wasted time. Literally.

And, boy, did they ever emphasize “acting like ladies” all the time. Along with classes on rifles and gas masks, we had etiquette and poise classes and makeup classes. We were required to wear lipstick and eye shadow every day during basic training, mind our manners, sit up straight, and represent the Corps as ladies. We spent more time ironing our uniforms than we did cleaning our rifles. That isn’t the case now. Women go through the same training the men do from start to finish. No more checking for fresh lipstick.

You think I’m kidding. Not so. We really did have to wear makeup in basic training. The colors they gave us were atrocious. They really complimented the black cat-eye glasses. We were something to see.

I’ve been to some really cool places. I marched in the 1984 Tournament of Roses Parade. I lived in Hawaii for 3 years. I was stationed in southern California for 15 months. I liked it there. There is so much to do there.

I’ve learned not to bring it up when I first meet people. People won’t talk to me anymore if I mention being a former Marine. I wait until they get to know me first. A few HR people have accused me of lying about it. “You just don’t look like you could have been in the Marine Corps.” Do they think I faked the DD-214 (discharge papers)? Do they think you have to be 6 feet tall and built like an oak tree to be in the Corps?

Being a former Marine colors my attitudes. I have different concepts of professionalism and pride. I have more patience for some things but less for others. It’s an important part of who I am. The few, the proud, the Women Marines.

Semper Fi.

Check out for the history of women in the Marine Corps and other cool stuff.

About Me and the Reason for This Blog

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

I've been separated/divorced for 18 years now. I've remained single through that time. More on that later.
 A bit of history: My ex-husband left when the going got tough, telling me he "just wasn't having enough fun". At the time my kids were 9 months, 3 and 6 years old. They are now 19 (Rosie), 21 (Middy), and 24 (Dude). Dude had meningitis when he was 4, lost hearing in his right ear, and he has some speech difficulties. Rosie had a congenital heart defect that, luckily, was repaired and considered cured when she was 8 months old. Both of them spent a lot of their childhoods catching up from these big setbacks, but are doing pretty well now. Middy is married to a guy who loves her very much and she works really hard at two jobs.

As I slogged through the day-to-day of getting my kids through school and launched toward better futures, I dreamed of the days when I could start living my own life. You know, get a good, well-paid job that doesn't need to work around school hours, evenings to myself, the ability to put something away for retirement, and generally become the boss of my own life. Freedom from the constant needs and demands of others. The ability to make plans or do things on the spur of the moment.

That isn't to say that I/we haven't come a long way since 1993. When my ex first left, I had a minimal roof over my head, a $32/wk job, and child support of $70/wk. I confess, I was terrified at first. Efforts to find a job/affordable child care combination were not successful.
 My ex, of course, had it all planned out. I was to find someone who would watch the kids for $45/wk--he knew someone whose neighbor did that for them--and get a job at one of the manufacturing plants for $12/hr. He planned to be relieved of child support obligations within 6 months. Oh well...
We spent a few years on public assistance. It was a great help. Particularly fun were the nasty glares from cashiers when I handed them food stamps. Oh, the glory days. But now I live in a small rented house in a decent neighborhood and it's pretty nice. Rosey and Dude live with me while they attend local colleges. I work full time at a low-pay, dead-end job, but we don't need public assistance and we live pretty well. It isn't fancy but it's a vast improvement over other times.

But I figured I'd be doing better by now.

In the intervening years I've earned two associate's degrees and I'm working on my bachelor's. None of it seems to count. I really want to break out of the low-income bracket. Here's hoping the next degree makes a difference.

Anyway, I'll be posting on being a single mom, the challenges of a low-cost life, older kids, work, and whatever else comes up. I have a lot stored up.

I might as well do something while I wait for my real life to begin.