Monday, November 30, 2009

Information Overload - Why I Hate Shopping for Appliances

Don't laugh, but my biggest problem right now is my dryer.  Of all the things that can go wrong I know this is small potatoes, but a problem none the less.

Every so often my dryer just doesn't.  It will be working fine and then, POOF, it stops drying.  I start it again, and it does just fine.  If an appliance had the ability to be in death throws, I think this is what it would look like.  It is like watching an oncoming train and I don't like it.

I finally admitted to myself it was time to start looking for a new washer/dryer to replace the 13 year old pair we have.  To my amazement I have no idea what I want.  There is so much information out there that I have absolutely no idea what to buy.

I am fairly certain I want a front load washer.  If for no other reason, a front load washer is the "hip and cool" trend.  I remember seeing a front load washer in Chile when I lived there years ago and I thought they were soooo old fashioned, but now I must have one.  Can anyone say sheep...baaaaa?

I think I also want the pedestals, let's face it, this old gray mare just ain't what she used to be, and I don't want to bend down.  (You may ask yourself why I want a front load washer then, but you must remember they are hip and cool and I am a sheep.)

Now is the real problem, do I want steam?  Am I willing to pay for steam?  Do I even know why steam is important? Do I want to steam my clothes anyway?  Agghhhh! I hate struggling with the mysteries of the universe.

Here is the rub, these beasts are expensive.  I can get cheap units made in the old style, but remember I want hip and cool.  Right there I have doubled the price.  Now I am considering this magical steam, which once again doubles the price.  Then I have to add the pedestals, which adds almost $400 to the price.  I have just given up my first born's college account and I still don't know if I have the right machine picked out.  grrrr

After stewing on this all weekend and missing some great sales, I realized the problem is the amount of information I am being asked to digest.  There is Consumer's Report, which I LOVE.  I use it for all major purchases.  Then there are the individual store web sites where you find not only manufacturer information but customer reviews as well.

Have you ever noticed how different customer reviews can be?  One person will love the item with a passion to last the ages and someone else will hate it so much it burns your eyeballs to read the review.  How can one item cause such passion?  More importantly, who do you believe?  I am on serious reviewer overload.

So here I sit, no washer and dryer set picked out, my dryer mocking me and me just as lost as I was when I started.  I want some unbiased knowledgeable person to knock on my door and explain all of this to me using regular English and data based analysis.  I want this mythical person to then sum up the conversation with a decision, preferably one I can afford.

As I doubt this will happen I am forced to go back to my original options.  Option one is to ignore the problem and hope my dryer has a burst of new energy.  (Did I mention my dryer sucks energy? Yet one more reason to get rid of it.) Option two is to throw a dart at the list of options and just buy that one.  Option three is to let my husband decide.  He did a great job last time and as we already know, I am a sheep.  My last option is to lock the door, hunker down, wade through the information and make a choice.

So anyone want to buy me a dryer?  No...?  I told you I had a problem.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My Elf on the Shelf - Why Adults Believe in Santa Too

Today my kids found out about the Elf on the Shelf.  We now have a little elf named "Ollie" who sits on our shelf and watches the kids all day.  At night he returns to Santa and reports on good deeds.

Why oh why have we not had an elf on our shelf for years?  My kids got ready for bed so quickly I almost got whiplash as I watched them run down the hall.  They put themselves to bed and fell asleep in record time.  I think I am in love!

So this got me to thinking, why do my kids (and most adults I know) only put forth their best behavior when there is someone watching?  I can promise most bedtime routines are filled with the wails of protesting children, the pleas for more time and the sounds of feet running in the opposite direction from bed.  Tonight I had my children replaced by obedient angels. hmmm 

Santa is a powerful and amazing man.  He judges you and rewards you based on effort and deeds.  This kind of sounds like my last boss.  He was also an amazing man.  He watched what I did, evaluated my effort and the result, then rewarded me accordingly.  So why is it I didn't get giddy when I knew he was coming for a visit?

Have you ever seen a cubical farm full of employees dash to their desks when they think someone in management is watching?  It reminds me of my kids diving into their rooms tonight.  Have you ever seen coworkers explain their amazing productivity at a department meeting? It reminds me of my kids explaining why they "earned" toys from the man in the big red suit.

After thinking about these parallels I have come to the conclusion all adults believe in Santa Claus, if they didn't why would they behave the same way my kids do?  All adults want to be recognized for their good deeds.  All adults want rewards.  All (ok, most) adults try and be good when someone is watching.

That makes us all grown up kids who want a reward, preferably one stuffed in our stocking.  We know "Santa" is all around and we hope he will notice how good we are and how much we deserve praise.  We may no longer giggle in anticipation, but our hope is still the same.

Think about this and start to notice the people around you who could use a little "Santa Cheer" in their lives.  My mom always said Santa was the spirit of Christmas, if that is the case may we all join in and bring a little spirit to those we associate with.  Just like my elf on a shelf, may we take this opprotunity to report on good deeds.  May we reward those who deserve it and acknowledge the efforts of others.

The holidays can get crazy.  Please remember, Santa is watching!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tis the Season for Gratitude

A few years ago my sister hosted thanksgiving and had us list the things we were grateful for. In fact she had us draw pictures of the things we were thankful for and we displayed the pictures around the room while we ate.  My toddler was thankful for toy cars, my mother was thankful for family and someone was thankful for the earth. I have no idea what I mentioned.

I find it interesting the number of stories I have read about gratitude this year.  This morning I was reading an article in USA Today talking about how people are cutting back, but not feeling deprived.  They are realizing they went to excess in the past and have self corrected.  Even those who have lost jobs and been forced to drastically change their life styles seem able to find a silver lining to their cloud.

In times of economic change, and especially economic downturn, we find people reevaluating their circumstances and discarding the unimportant, the trivial and the frivolous.  They embrace the important parts of their life and enjoy what they do have a little more.

I hope you have the chance to enjoy a few traditions this year.  Cherish the memories you make and be thankful for the loved ones you hold dear.  May the silver lining to this economic correction be a return to values and principles and a reminder of the important aspects of life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding Down Time - An Exercise in Listening

I have to admit blogging this week is hard.  As Thanksgiving looms and the shopping season is gearing up to take off, my mind is elsewhere.  I have a list of personal things to get done, I have an even longer list of business things to get done, and somewhere in there I need to find time to clean my house, prepare for the holidays and find some down time. 

Have you ever noticed we live in a society which does not look kindly on down time?  An occasional vacation is great, as long as it is short and doesn't happen too often.  If you spend too much time relaxing or being non-productive you are considered to be a slouch or a freeloader.  Heaven forbid you be called the "L" word, as being lazy is a sin.

You might note a little sarcasm in my tone, and rightly so.  It is amazing to me the importance we put on checking items off our to do list.  I am no exception, but I find the practice a little disturbing.  Other countries expect their citizens to vacation and de-stress.  In the US we are impressed by workers who never take a day off.  hmmm

I was watching a PBS special years ago about a family who went to live in a village in Africa.  I don't remember exactly where they were, but it was remote and had no contact with modern conveniences.  The family had a daughter and son who were used to electronics and fast paced living.  Slowing their lives down was a bit of a challenge.

The family they lived with in the village had a father who was a quiet man.  Every day he would take long walks looking for firewood.  He started taking the son of the American family with him.  They would be gone for an hour or so at a time.  As an audience we started to see this boy open up.  He stopped complaining about all the things he was missing and started helping out around the village.  His parents were stunned and asked the village father what he was doing on those long walks.

The interesting part was he wasn't doing much in an active sense.  He didn't coach the boy on better manners or polite and respectful behavior.  He simply would ask a few questions and listen.  He listened to his hopes and fears, his worries and anxieties.  He would ask thoughtful questions about situations the boy was facing and offer insights from his life.  More often than not he would just be silent and listen to the wind.

The American parents weren't sure how to make this work for them, so the African father took them on walks and taught the American dad what it was like to listen.  Eventually both dads would take the son on walks and the son began to open up to his own father.

I remember the African dad commenting about listening and how it is the most important thing you can do for your child.  He made reference to the fact that you can't listen when you are doing.  In order to learn to love your children and for them to learn to love you there must be quiet.

I was inspired by the kind and soft words spoken by this humble man.  His point was heartfelt.

When the American family returned to their home in the US they vowed to remember the lessons learned, however in a few short weeks they were too busy to follow through.

How do we take the time we need to forge relationships?  How do we eek out time to learn to love and how do we prioritize the quiet time our minds so desperately need?  How do we reconcile the need to complete our to do list with our need for human connection?

The silly thing is this: The media reports on the lack of community and the rising crime rate all the time.  They also mention the increase in productivity.  Is there a link between the shift in values?  The more we spend time accomplishing things and the less time we spend building relationships the weaker our communities become.

As we get closer to this Thanksgiving holiday I will try to remember to slow down.  It won't happen in a day, or even a week.  It may take me a lifetime to get it right.  But I believe the African father has it right.  I need to learn to be still and listen.  I need to listen to my family, my community and most importantly, myself.  If I can pull that off I may just be able to find some down time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wrong Turns and Amazing Experiences - A Lesson in Embracing the Unexpected

I was reading the BBC news headlines this morning and found a story about a man who went out for a newspaper in the morning and didn't come back for 9 hours.  His wife got worried and called him on his cell phone only to find he had driven 370 miles away.  This is akin to leaving your house in Phoenix only to find yourself in San Diego.  The man said, "I didn't know where I was going but I knew it was somewhere, and with a bit of luck I would eventually find my wife again."  Wow.

Have you ever started off on a journey and found yourself someplace other than your destination?  I mean this as much philosophically as I do literally.

Of course you have, everyone has.  While you may have reached your physical destination chances are you took an emotional detour somewhere along the line.

I had plans when I went to Chile as an exchange student the summer before my senior year of high school.  I was going to immerse myself in the language and become one with another culture.  I was going to integrate myself into another country and learn to love another way of life.  (If that sounds a little flowery and naive you have to remember I was a teenager...)  Oh yeah, and I was going to spend a summer away from my parents.

When I arrived in Chile I was tired and ready for a shower.  After 5 years of Spanish classes I could only remember one sentence "Que es bonita" or "how pretty."  I didn't recognize the food, I drank the water without realizing it and I had jet lag that knocked me out for almost a full day.  My host family spoke English, so there went the "immersing myself in the language" part of the plan.  We lived in a mining town 45 minutes from the nearest community, so that shot the "culture" aspect as well.  And here was the most unexpected part, I was homesick, VERY homesick.

So what next?  I was sitting in a foreign country, I didn't understand the local Spanish, and I had no idea how I was going to survive 6 weeks of strange food while avoiding the water.  I had made a wrong turn somewhere along the lines and I wasn't sure what to do about it.

The amazing part is all of those "wrong turns" led me to the best experience possible.  I had to ask for help, something I didn't do at home. It taught me humility but also showed me how similar we all are.  The teenagers in Chile were exactly like the ones in the US.  They had friends and schoolwork.  They had crushes and heartaches.  They were as interested in my culture as I was in theirs.

I also had to pay attention to everything.  As my language skills were almost nonexistent I had to pay close attention to my surroundings.  I memorized intersections, bus routes and store signs.  I learned to use hand gestures to explain my needs and depended more than once on the kindness of strangers.  I had to take a lot of risks because I never had any idea of the outcome of a situation.  I tried new foods in the local bakery, mainly because I had no way to ask for what I wanted.  I learned to shop for only the basics because I had limited money and almost no understanding of what I was buying.

I left Chile with an amazing experience, one I could not have planned and one I cherish.

My guess is we take detours all the time.  Some detours we may not be very happy about, but some are a stunning gift.  We may not realize how important the detour was until years later, but every detour changes who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

Like the man who left for a newspaper and found himself 370 miles away, I challenge you to embrace the "wrong turns" in your life.  Learn from them, or at least laugh at them.  Find a way to incorporate what you discover and adjust your views accordingly.  I came back from Chile with a love of the people and the culture, and I even learned a little of the language.  It didn't happen the way I expected but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

What "wrong turns" have you taken in life?  What did you learn? What adventures did you have? Did you ever make it back with the newspaper?  Have a great day, even if you end up someplace unexpected.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting Through Hard Stuff - A Little Perspective

I have a dear friend who has stuff going on in her life.  This stuff isn't fun, this stuff isn't exciting.  This stuff is hard.  This stuff is miserable and this stuff has no end in sight.  Ick, ick and double ick!

I was talking with her a few days ago and we spent the time having a good laugh.  While the things going on around her are nuts we found numerous reasons to laugh until tears came to our eyes.  We giggled and chortled.  We he-hawed and guff-awed.  We poked fun and mocked.  It was great.

When we took a breath from our jovial expression of craziness she told me something I needed to hear.  She said when she was at her lowest a friend had said to her, "Well, at the end of the day, they can't eat you."  How right she is.  They may try and gnaw at your leg, but they can't eat you.

I think back to the times in my life when someone seemed out to get me.  Nothing I did was good enough, nothing I said was right and no where I went got me ahead.  I think Anne of Green Gables referred to that as "the depths of despair."  It wasn't my favorite place to be.  It still isn't.

So what do we do when we get to that spot in our lives?  No one enjoys it, but my friend is able to laugh.  How come?  I don't remember laughing too much, unless you count that hysterical cackling sound I made after loosing my marbles.

I would suggest a few things now that I have a little hindsight.  

First, know they can't eat you.  Yes, it's true.  You will come out on the other end in the same number of pieces you started.

Second, know it will pass.  Are you still upset with the girl who didn't play with you in second grade, or the boy who didn't share his toy at recess?

Third, don't become part of the problem.  It is tempting, oh so very tempting, to get down in the mud and wrestle.  The desire to give back what you are getting can me overwhelming.  Just don't.

Fourth, find a good support network.  Identify friends, family or coworkers who are safe and able to prop you up.  You won't need them forever, but use them while you can't stand on your own.

Fifth, get on with your life.  Do not wallow or dwell. (I add this to the list because I am particularly bad at it.)

And last, but not least, learn from it.  There is a lesson in every trial.  The lesson may be simple, like don't stand in front of a moving train...or it may be a little deeper.  For me, knowing I am a different and stronger person who learned an important lesson makes surviving the incident all the sweeter.

So buck up, start laughing and make it through, because in the end, they can't eat you!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thinking Ahead

Tax Time.  (Did you just shudder?) I know tax time strikes fear into the hearts of the strongest and smartest.  While we all try to pay the correct amount throughout the year it doesn't always turn out the way we hoped.

As I get older I find tax season to be a little stressful.  It is not that I am a wasteful doofus who can't control my spending, I promise. The stress comes in the form of paperwork gathering.  Every year I have these amazing intentions to organize as I go.  If I receive a statement I put it into a "safe" place for tax season.  The problem is remembering where that "safe" place is come tax time.

This year I have decided to start early.  I will collect information as I see it and put it into a slightly less "safe" location so I can find it.  I will collect receipts and document expenses.  I will submit all reimbursement forms for my medical flex account on time.  I will rotate my files on December 31. I will have my information to the accountant on Feb 1.

Apparently I will also need to keep dreaming.  I think I will do all of this, but I won't.  I will struggle just like everyone else.  I will flip and flop, staying awake thinking of all the information I need to gather.  I will remember deductions after I have submitted to the IRS.  I will wait by the mailbox (or inbox) for proof of my return.  (Yes, I am optimistically thinking I will have a return...)  I will be relieved just like everyone else when it is over.

So why am I bringing this scary thought to the surface in November?  I have almost half a year before it is a true crisis.  Lest you forget, I am the "Prepared Binder" lady.  What kind of preparedness nut would I be if I wasn't prepared for tax season? hmmm?

I will raise my right hand, you can follow along if you wish, and I will swear to calm down, relax and not worry about it.  I will also promise to dutifully collect information as I find it.  I will start my return in a timely fashion.  I will enjoy my rebate or survive my payment.  I will NOT shy away from this task, but I will not obsess over it either. (You can put your hand down now.) 

Okay, now I am prepared.  That felt good...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Walking the Road of Adversity and Change

Every morning I sit down to write these blogs and wonder what to say.  Some days I have a burning desire to discuss a topic and other days nothing pops into my head.  Today I was looking at the articles on my news feed for inspiration and saw an article regarding Charla Nash, the victim of a chimp attack.  If you remember the story she was attacked by her friend's chimp and lost both eyes, 9 of her 10 fingers and most of her facial features.  The chimp was eventually shot and killed.

What I found interesting about this article is the resiliency Charla is showing.  As a 56 year old woman with a teenage daughter, she appears very optimistic about her life.  While she can not take care of herself or her family anymore she has not crawled into a corner and given up.  Instead she appears to be exploring what she can do.  Admittedly what she can do is a very short list right now, but she is working on it.

I wonder how many of us find ourselves in a position just like Charla's.  Most of us will never suffer the horrible attack and subsequent physical deformations she has, but many of us are stripped of our own status quo and forced to forge a new path.  I think of women who are recently divorced and thrown back into the work force.  I think of men who have worked for one company who are laid off and must find work in a new industry.  I think of people fighting illness or seniors struggling with dementia.

Millions of people find themselves changed every year.  The question then becomes one of surviving or thriving.

I was a very sick child.  In hindsight I wonder how many times my parents didn't know if I would make it.  I was in and out of hospitals for six years and it was difficult.  Unfortunately for my family I wasn't the only sick child.  My sister had the same problems I did and spent a similar amount of time needing hospitalization. 

To say I was used to being incapacitated was an understatement.  I didn't run like other kids, I didn't participate in sports like other kids and I definitely did not go outside to play like other kids.  While I learned to ride a bike and play on the swing set in our yard I had specific rules about the temperature, the wind, and the germs around me.  To me it was normal, but I assume other kids thought it was strange.

I got used to this version of my life and was even a little shocked when I got better in my teen years. I started leaving home without my rescue inhalers in tow and I was stunned when I realized I no longer had a bin of  medications to take daily.  I was healthy for about 4 years.

Then things changed.  I started getting sick again, but it was different than before.  I didn't need to be in the hospital, but wasn't functioning very well.  I went off to college and during that first year was diagnosed again.  This time it was really scary.  I was told what I had was terminal.  Now before you get too upset, please know it is manageable and I am doing fine.  I often tell people what I have is as terminal as getting hit by a bus...and just as likely.  As long as I am proactive about my health I will live to a ripe old age.

My point in this narrative is not to tell you a sad story so you will feel bad for me.  I want to point out the life I have lived so far is very different than what most of you experienced.  I have had my share of pitying looks and head shaking.  I know some people felt bad for me.  In truth, I felt bad for me too.

So back to Charla.  She was given a one-two punch.  Not only was she attacked by her best friend's chimp, she was mauled and lost the use of her body in the normal way.  Her reality changed quickly.  She had to adapt. When I think about it, most people do.

I was a sick kid, a sick teen and a sick adult, but here is the funny part.  When people ask about my health, I tell them I am healthy and doing great.  I know from experience it could be so much worse, because it has been.  While I am not even close to understanding Charla's pain, the adjustments she will need to make and the psychological ramifications of loosing her physical identity, I do understand the need to adapt.  I understand the need to find good things among the bad.  I understand the need to live life on whatever terms you have been given.

Now we are at an end of this blog and I hope I have not depressed you too much.  If you take any message away from this, please let it be one of hope.  Nasty stuff happens.  Being sick is no better or worse than going through a divorce or loosing you job in uncertain times.  Each of these situations challenges what you know about yourself.  Making the choice to start where you are and go forward is a brave choice and it will take you much farther than looking back.

On the trite side, you learn the most from challenges, you grow the most from adversity.  Looking around me, I see a lot of strong people with amazing challenges in their past. If you are in the middle of one of these "growth" opportunities I challenge you to keep going.  There is life on the other side, and it is amazing!

I would love to hear about your challenges and what you have learned from pushing through them.  I think we all find strength from knowing we aren't the only person who has walked this road.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Choosing to Choose - Lessons Learned by Sitting Up Straight

I had the opportunity last week to help a dear friend edit his thesis.  While I have no idea how helpful my comments really were I found value in the act of reading his ideas.  One such idea continues to bounce around in my head, thus I am throwing it out for discussion today.

The thesis introduced me to the concept of Choose to Choose.  Based on the Alexander Technique, a turn of the 20th century movement and alignment technique developed by F.M. Alexander, Choose to Choose goes beyond the original ideas utilized mainly by artists and dancers.

The concept is this, each day you are given choices regarding everything from how you stand to how you speak.  You can sit with your back straight, you can bite your nails.  You can speak in a whisper or you can run around in circles.  We usually make conscious decisions on the big stuff, but most of us do not think about the small stuff. Instead of allowing our actions to happen without thought, we choose to choose what we do.

While the Choose to Choose idea mainly formed for use in stage awareness and habit formation, it started me thinking about my life in general and the applications it has almost everywhere. Self help groups have extolled the virtues of self awareness and leading an "intentional life" for decades if not longer.  But as is the way with all great ideas, it means nothing until you incorporate it into your life.

As I was driving down the street yesterday I chose to sit with my back straight. I thought about it and then did it.  I discovered quickly I must slouch quite a bit when driving.  The first thing I noticed was my mirrors had to move.  The second and somewhat more uncomfortable realization was my back ached.  Not good.  By making a conscious decision I realized I had a habit of slouching, something I would like to change about myself.

I am sure you are wondering why you bothered to get out of bed to read this.  Whether or not I slouch in the car does not, on the surface, seem very interesting or pertinent.  The interesting part, and I promise there is one, is the simple act of sitting up straight showed me I was doing something unconsciously to hurt my back.  It then dawned on my, and yes I am a bit slow sometimes, I likely have a myriad of other small habits hurting me every day.  I am aware of many big habits I should change, but the small ones have escaped my detection.

Now is the part where I tie this into preparedness.  I bet you just gasped, as I do not tie my thoughts back into Prepared Binder very often.  Here you go, the tie in....

"Preparedness, when properly pursued, is a way of life, not a sudden, spectacular program." (Spencer W Kimball)  To me that quote means preparedness should be part of our little habits, not a big and special exception. Is it part of your little habits?  Do you even know?

Everyone looks at preparedness slightly differently.  To some it means food storage, for others survival skills and equipment, for others it is a disaster plan.  Prepared Binder looks at preparedness from the paperwork standpoint.  Anyway you slice the topic, there is work required to make it happen.

To be prepared we must Choose to Choose.  We must make conscious decisions about learning new information and acquiring new skills.  We must challenge the small habits in our lives that keep us from our goals.

So today I choose to become aware of my food storage.  I will look at what I have any my buying habits.  Do I have a balanced diet stored or only mass amounts of dessert?  (Do you do that, store the most of your favorite food?) I will challenge my habits and determine what needs to change. I will become aware.

In case you were wondering, the idea of Choose to Choose has many profound implications.  Given the interest, I suggest incorporating it into your own life.  You may surprise yourself with a few amazing discoveries.

I need to thank David Poznanter for his wonderful thesis which started this change in thought for me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Camping, Cookies and Good Deeds

Growing up I heard a lot of catch phrases from my parents.  Some were more intelligent than others.  Things like, "Eat your dinner, there are starving kids in China (and/or Africa)," made no sense.  If the kids in China wanted it, why had my mom wasted the food by making a horrible science experiment of a meal at our house...and what did that have to do with me?

Another phrase always baffled me as well.  "Be nice to your sister, she is your sister" seemed like an obvious statement, but once again it didn't seem relevant.  My teenage observation skills had shown me most people are mean to their family and nice to strangers, so if they wanted me to be nice to her they shouldn't have pointed out she was related.  Something like, "Be nice to that random girl, she will be your friend," would have worked better.

Even with the mocking of parental authority I have just shown, I did have respect for a few thoughts my parents dumped into my head over the years. While "eat your vegetables" did not make the list of personal mottoes to live by, another phrase did.

My dad said something while I was growing up that will always stick with me.  I have no idea if he said it very often, but he must have said it enough times for me to remember it.  "Leave your campsite better than you found it" was a phrase my dad patterned his life after.  Now before you wonder if we spent my formative years living off the land in random KOA's across the United States I will tell you this phrase is meant to be much more encompassing than just a spot of dirt for your tent.

While it is true my dad always leveled the tent site, cleared dry leaves from the area and reconstructed the fire pit, the phrase was meant more about life than camping.  Being a good citizen is about leaving more than you found and putting value into society, not removing it.

So how can I leave my campsite better than I found it on a regular basis? What is in my power to change?  In reality, quite a lot.

When I was in college I had the chance to see a troop of girl scouts selling cookies in front of a pharmacy.  This may not seem odd, as girls scouts tend to do this every year all around the world.  These girls caught my eye however because it was late in the year, very late in fact.  Being a scout myself in younger years I knew cookies were supposed to be sold March-April, not mid summer.  The other reason I noticed them was the desperate look on their faces.  As I love cookies I stopped to chat.  It turned out the girls were on their annual troop trip.  They had not sold enough cookies to afford the entire trip, but were selling their remaining cookies as they went.  If they sold them all they could finish the trip, if not, they went home early.

Apparently cookie sales had not been going well and they were getting desperate.  At this point you should know I was a senior in college and I had almost no money.  I worked as much as possible, but for a college student in a low paying job that still wasn't saying much.  When I looked at the girls and the slightly frazzled leaders I realized the money to buy those cookies was nothing compared to the relief it would give both the girls and the ladies in charge. So I asked for two.  The girls handed me two boxes of cookies and I smiled at them.  I had meant two cases, or 24 boxes.  I promise the look of joy I received was worth much more than the $72 in cookies.  In fact one of the leaders teared up.  Walking away I had 24 boxes of cookies to give as presents (okay, I didn't give ALL of them away...) and I left those girls in a better position than I found them.  I still smile when I remember that day.

The funny part about the story above is it took me longer to write about it than it took for the actual event. That is probably true with most cases.  Opening a door for a mom carrying a baby, or holding the food tray for an elderly person in the lunch line are simple things we can do.  Picking up the neighbor's newspaper and putting it on their porch before the sprinklers come on or letting someone cut into traffic are easy actions.

You don't need to organize an army of volunteers to build a house (although Habitat for Humanity would love to have you) but you could put the stray shopping cart away in the parking lot so it doesn't hit a car.  You don't have to bake cookies for the entire second grade at your school, but you could write a thank you note to a teacher. Just being aware of the situations around you will give you plenty of ideas.

Now for the confession part of this blog.  I don't always leave my campsite better than I found it.  For the record, I still don't eat all my vegetables either. Sometimes I am a lazy selfish waste of space within society.  But not every day. Some days I contribute, I hope most days I contribute.

Don't feel bad if every campsite you stay at isn't perfect when you leave.  Do your best. Look around you.  Stay aware.  Be grateful for the people before you and conscious of the people after you. There may always be starving kids in China, and my mother still wants me to be nice to my sister. Some things will never change.  Hopefully my dad's motto won't either.

P.S. I would love to hear your "campsite" stories, so add them here!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Have you ever done anything you could categorize as simply “kind?” It wasn't spectacular, it wasn't over the top, it was just kind. I hope you have many such experiences. In fact, I hope the people around you have shown you kindness as well. 

To me the word “kind” is a little deceptive. In our society it may seem tame, even boring. There is no star power attached to “kind.” It implies lukewarm, but why is that? 

I think most people would rather be called “compassionate” or “generous” instead of kind. The first words have a note of action and imply great personal strength. Kind seems plain and involuntary. 

I would disagree. Being truly kind is difficult. It is hard to do nice things for others without wanting credit or recognition. The problem is, once you seek those things you are no longer being kind, you are now self serving. True kindness is a very humble action, one that is hard to duplicate in our current world of recognition seeking activity. 

While I was in Scotland last year I ran into more people who could genuinely be considered kind than any other place I have been. They committed small acts of kindness in ways that surprised me. When I was traveling on an unknown bus system there was always a person who would tell me where my stop was. There were drivers who helped me figure out the correct coins to use to pay my fare. (They could have let me over pay.) There were shop keepers who gave directions and even a homeless man who drew me a map so I could get where I was going faster. Strangers smiled and waved, crowds parted to let people through. Even the employee at the airport was kind when they lost my luggage.  While it was obvious she was overworked she took the time to look me in the eyes and tell me how sorry she was I was without my belongings. It was very kind of her. 

We have heard the quote, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Blanche, Streetcar Named Desire) Why is it we notice kindness from strangers but not the kindness from our own families and friends? Think about it. Do you consider anyone in your immediate family to be kind? Chances are the people all around you commit acts of kindness every day. 

So here is my challenge to you. It is a two part challenge, so get ready. I want you to commit two acts of kindness today, if you want to be crazy, go for 5. To be a kind act it must be simple and heartfelt. Holding a door for a person with bags or giving up your seat on the bus are great examples of kindness, but the options are endless. 

The second part of the challenge is to notice 2 acts of kindness around you. Once again, if you want to go crazy try and notice 5. At the end of the day examine how you feel. 

I believe as we improve our kindness skills we will be able to look at others with more compassion. As we head into the busy holiday season and we see hurried shoppers and rude drivers the compassion we have learned will go a long way to keeping us calm and in a good mood. And who doesn't like to be in a good mood? 

Tell me how the experiment goes. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Missed Opprotunity to Thank our Veterans

So I just realized yesterday was Veterans Day and I said not word one on the subject.  How sad is that?

I have a long history of military service in my family.  I have grandfathers (and a grandmother) on both sides of the family which proudly served our country.  There have been Marines and Army Soldiers.  I have officers and enlisted whose talents have ranged from engineering to guiding.  Many of them have seen combat.  Too many in fact have seen combat.

Yesterday was about honoring our military and the sacrifices they made.  I would also like to point out the way their service has enriched our lives.  In my family we have many values formed by the military we served.  While there are jokes about why the Marines are better than the Navy and in fact why they are better than anyone, military service has given my family a great respect for people and culture.

My grandfathers traveled the world in a time when travel was reserved for the rich.  They experienced culture and saw things only found in encyclopedias.  They saw combat, they saved friend's lives and they saw friends die.  They grew up with more responsibility than they could have imagined.

I had a grandfather who worked on the Panama Canal as a surveyor.  I had a grandfather who took pictures and measured roads in the Philippines. I had one grandfather who was a drill instructor. Another ancestor was an Indian guide for the American military.  Others fought in the Civil War, and before that the Revolutionary War.

I have heard their stories.  I have seen the look of sorrow on their faces as they tell of comrades lost and missions gone wrong.  I have seen the joy as they talk about our country.  I have seen their pride as they talk about being part of our freedom.

In today's age, as in ages past, we hear a lot of people talk about the role of the military in the world.  There is discussion about the rights, the wrongs and the indifferences caused by our soldiers.  When it comes to honoring their lives none of that matters.  Our military works hard to protect our freedoms.  They have bought our rights with blood, sweat and tears.  They have stood against the storms for the good of the people.

You do not have to agree with the missions to know our military works hard.  As I have watched my grandfathers age and leave military life I have seen them struggle.  There is a pull back to the service they knew.  There is a desire to be part of the action, part of the solution.  They watch the conflicts currently going on and remember their time abroad.  A veteran will always be the person who served their country.

I honor them.  I honor my family.  I honor my country and the ideas we fight for.  May we always remember our values and offer others the same freedoms we enjoy.  May we find peace whenever possible.

To our veterans I say thank you.  May your efforts bring our world to a better place.  We will not forget your sacrifice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Where There is a Will There is a Way - Why Preparing for Death is So Important

By a raise of hands I want to see how many of you have the following documents: a trust and/or will; durable powers of attorney; living will; and medical powers of attorney.

Wait, did I just see a few of you slip down in your chairs and pretend to disappear? Now, now, don't do that. Millions of other people couldn't raise their hands either.

Why is it we put off taking care of these documents?  Are we afraid to face our mortality or are we just distracted by a busy world?  Are we still immortal and invincible?  Or are we just not ready to think about it and make decisions?

Before I go any farther I want to point out I am not a lawyer and I am not trying to give you legal advice.  I just want to talk about why it is we don't take care of this stuff.  I think most of us will agree it is very important.  Intellectually we know we will need it at some point.  But it can be unpleasant to think about our own demise, which is what this is all about.

I knew a lawyer once who told me she went into estate planning because it was one of the few areas of law which was proactive, not reactive.  She said she enjoyed helping people plan to avoid trouble instead of helping people get out of trouble.  Interesting thought.

Why do we go to the effort of having these documents made? Do we enjoy spending our time and money with lawyers?  Probably not.  I think it comes down to how much we care about the people in our family and if we want to shelter them from some hard decisions down the road.

I think we all know at least one person who died without leaving a will or trust.  The details involved in resolving that are staggering.  If the person was single/divorced or widowed the details can get even crazier.  The government likes a clear path of ownership.  Think about it, when you buy a car there is a title which shows your name on it.  The seller signs it over to you and we all agree you own it.  So what if the seller just handed you the keys and said, "take care of this for me?"  The car would not be yours in the eyes of the law.

So why do we tell our family/kids "take care of that for me?"  Unless we have legal proof we gave them our belongings they really don't own anything.  Well, at least they don't own them until there is a court process.

What about your feelings on death and end of life treatment?  What do you want?  I can't imagine putting my family through the gut wrenching decision of pulling the plug if I hadn't told them what I wanted ahead of time.  That is a burden I do not want them to carry.  I know a family that had to make that choice.  It was very hard and life altering.

I'm realizing this blog sounds very depressing.  That was not my intent.  Many people associate death, dying and illness as a uncontrollable part of life.  They feel a great helplessness surrounding the subject and avoid it, thinking there is nothing they can do.

There is something you can do.  While it is true you cannot avoid death, you can plan for it.  Spend some time and figure out what you want.  Determine who gets the cat, the china and great Aunt Suzie's prize vase.  Think about how you want to transfer property.  Select an executor to handle the process.  Research your medical options and find out what feels right to you.  Make the decisions your family won't want to make.  Then go write it all down.  Make it official.

When a loved one is gone the family wants to grieve.  They do not want to second guess the person's intentions.  Give them the gift of preparation.  Give yourself the peace that comes from taking care of it.  Face your fear of death.  Address the discomfort you feel about planning for a time when you are gone.  Make the decision to think it all through.

You can do it and your family will thank you for it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones - An Exercise in Baking Bread

Do you have a comfort zone?  Of course you do.  We all do.  Your comfort zone is that warm and fuzzy place you go to feel secure.  It includes a list of activities you are familiar with, a list of people you are comfortable around, and a list of places you have already been.

So why do people tell us to get out of our comfort zones?  Do they have some strange desire to see us twitch?

I have often wondered why I cling to my comfort zone the way I do.  I remember a time when I first started working as an engineer when I would become angry (yep, red faced, shallow breathing, angry) when I was asked to do something I didn't know how to do.  This sounds a little nuts as I was a newbie and everything was something I didn't know how to do, but it was my first reaction.  I did not then, and I do not now, like to feel stupid.

What is the best part about my comfort zone?  I don't have to prove anything to anyone in my "zone."  I know I am good enough, smart enough and pretty enough.  The problem is my "zone" starts to feel a little stuffy after a while.  It is like sitting in your favorite chair but noticing everyone at the party is in another room.  Do you stay where you are comfortable or go find out what you are missing?

I have a list of things I want to do.  I'm sure most people have their own version of this list.  My list has some spectacular things on it, such as spending 6 weeks with my husband and kids in Scotland to explore the country.  My list also has some less than spectacular things, such as learning how to make bread, the kind that doesn't resemble a brick.

The problem with this list is that it pushes me out of my comfort zone.  Some items push more than others, but all of them shove in one way or another.  As I do not particularly like change in my life, this can be hard.

The rub is this, I have dreams, and they are not in my comfort zone.  Drat!  I have places I want to go, things I want to experience and people I want to meet.  Not a single one of them is in my comfort zone.  Double Drat! Now what am I supposed to do?

So I have a choice.  I can choose comfort, and eventually boredom, or I can choose growth and possibly fear.  Hmmm.  I have never been a fan of choices that include the word fear.

Now that I have bared my soul and exposed a big weakness, I want to throw a question out to you.  How did you get into your current comfort zone?  Was it an accident?  Did you trip over a log and fall face first into it?  I doubt it.  Somewhere, some time you took a risk, learned a new talent and became comfortable.  You did that over and over until you found yourself right where you are.

So why is it we hit an age where existing comfort is more important than continued growth?  Haven't we figured out the more we try the more we will be comfortable with?  You would think that a world full of bright and intelligent people would know that instinctively.  But we don't.  We sit in our zone and wonder what would happen "if."

So now I am issuing a challenge.  Figure out what it is you want to do.  What is the dream you have that is just a wee bit uncomfortable?  Go for it.  Plan for it, practice for it, and then take action on it.  The worst that will happen is that you don't like it and you can pick another dream.

With this challenge in mind I am off to bake bread.  Wish me, my family, and my teeth, luck.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In a World of Bad News - I Choose the Good

I sat down at my computer this morning and tried to organize the thoughts racing around in my head.  So many ideas, so little sleep last night...
As I read the news feeds I realized one very interesting piece of information.  I was reading the Bad News.  After scanning the BBC and multiple American news services I only saw one article about anything good or nice.  There was plenty of speculation about the health care reform bill passing the Senate.  There were articles about the increases of crime and abuse.  There were plenty of gossip articles and a few about unsolved murders.

I now know who is in jail and who is mad at their spouse (and/or significant other).  I know why a woman is mad about the condolence letter the British Prime Minister hand wrote after her son was killed in combat.  I know why people are mad at the government, well at least today's reason.  I know who is suspected of murdering whom and I know which movies flopped at the box office.

Whew!  That is a lot of knowing!  Even more importantly it is a lot of knowing useless stuff.  I don't think I needed to know any of it.  I am not a better or even more educated person.  I have heard most of it before, different names and dates, but same information.

Why is it that our media, and apparently our population has an intense desire to hear about the most base and degrading parts of human behavior?  Why is it we can't revel in the good as easily as we wallow in the bad?

I heard a comedian years ago talk about the news as the "Bad News."  I think it was Richard Jeni who said there was no way he would watch the news at night because it would scare him to death.  He said it was all about murderers, death, mutilation and other scary topics.  It obviously hasn't changed much.

I was listening to NPR a few weeks ago and they were commenting on how the media dynamic is changing.  The comment was that the local news agencies were important because they delivered local interest pieces.  The subtext there is this, if not for the local news stations we would never hear anything nice.  Why you might ask? Well apparently on a national level the only thing worth reporting is the bad news.  They do not believe we care about good news, good people, good efforts or good deeds.

Is this true?  Do we open the paper each morning (and by paper I mean the internet) and expect to find more proof as to why our world is falling apart?  Do we want to know why we are less safe today than we were yesterday?  Are we excited to know the details of gory murders and grizzley abuse?

So what to do..... hmmm.  Many reporters feel insulted if they are asked to report on the "fluff" of nice news.  How many movies have we seen depicting the cub reporter cutting their teeth on their first "real" story of murder and conspiracy? (You do notice I am using Hollywood as my "proof" of reporters' behavior, cute huh?)  So if the reporters don't want to report it, and the media outlets don't want to print it, how do we hear the good news?

I suggest we write about it.  In this day and age we have more blogs than humans.  Most of the people who read what I am writing probably blog on their own as well.  If not, you likely email or Facebook your friends.  Let's choose to tell nice stories, spread optimistic news and share happy thoughts.  (No I do not think we should hold hands, frolic in daisies and sing Kum Bay Ya together, just for the record.)

It is well known that as individuals what we focus on becomes our personal reality.  The media outlets seem determined to focus on the nasty, corrupt, evil underbelly of greed, hate and violence in our world.  I choose to focus on something else.  I want my thoughts to be uplifting.  I want my world to be peaceful.

I understand that bad things happen.  I know that people make bad choices.  I am glad I am kept in the loop regarding the choices my government is making.  However, I choose to dwell on other things.

If you feel the same, please add a nice piece of news to the comments section.  I want to hear it. In fact I need to replace what I read this morning with something wonderful for a change.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friends Don't Let Friends Quilt and Think - A Lesson Learned

Sometimes I do crazy things.  If you ask my friends and family I do a lot of crazy things.  Right now I am making a quilt.  You may think to yourself, that is not crazy, people do that all the time.  The problem is the one quilt I thought I was making has turned into 3 quilts.  If you add that to the fact it is the holiday shopping season for my company and I have relatives coming into town... well, you get the picture.  I am crazy.

So today while I was piecing together the 2nd quilt top I had a moment of clarity.  (For those guys reading this who couldn't care less about quilting I promise this will quickly leave the sewing metaphor.) I had 10 fabrics that had to be placed into 20 blocks with a "random" pattern.  This sounds simple, but it isn't.  Being random is hard.  I am an engineer by trade and I want to analyze everything.  I wanted a pattern to my randomness.

After about 2 hours of placing fabric on the floor in different arrangements I realized it was mathematically impossible to do what I was trying to do.  For all of those who just scratched your heads, yes I am a big enough geek that I really did pull out a pen and paper and put numbers to this problem.  I am sure my algebra teacher would be so proud.

So I sat there on the floor, covered in thread scraps and realized I had a problem.  I had to basically start over and attempt to be more random.  For an engineer this is like telling me to wear unmatched shoes with different heal heights.  It amounted to being painful and awkward.

So here was my moment of clarity.  My life is like the quilt I was putting together today.  I try very hard to find a pattern in every action, every conversation and every event.  I want things to fit into place neatly and with precision.  The problem is life doesn't work like that.  Just like my quilt, I have many fabrics filling many roles in my life.  They don't always work well together.

So what do I do about it?  I was not happy to be sitting on the floor covered in thread and fabric scraps while having this epiphany.  It would have been much more convenient if it happened after I had the (soon to be amazing) quilt was finished.  I want my life to fit into every slot just right.  I like symmetry and order.  I like understanding things.

Apparently I am supposed to mull this new thought over for a while.  The quilt is getting closer to completion, but I don't know what to do with this new clarity.  I assume I will think it to death before I give up and surrender.

So the moral of this story is as follows:  Do NOT quilt and think at the same time.  It can be dangerous.  You may have some profound thought which will change the way you see your life. Every time you change the way you see things you grow, and that can be hard.  So to be safe, stop quilting.  Or stop thinking.  Either one will solve the problem.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Is This What a Recession Looks Like?

Are we or are we not in a recession?

It seems all the media can talk about is this recession, or lack of recession.  I was reading the news this morning and on the same news site they had two articles, one was about how the recession was over and the other was about how we had a long way to go before it was over.

Excuse me, but how can both be true?

After thinking about it I had a few thoughts.  The first is that this recent economic downturn has taught us a lot of really good lessons about financial stewardship.  I think we forget these lessons.  How many people remember the "Roaring 20's" were just before the "Great Depression?"

We need to remember to take ownership of how we spend money.  Just because we want it doesn't mean we need it or can afford it.  I grew up in a home where we waited and saved.  It was hard to see my friends get what they wanted when they wanted it, but I have to tell you I appreciated it a lot more when I got it.

It seems the recession is only as bad as your advance planning.  Those with money saved and realistic financial habits are feeling pressure but don't seem to be panicking.  Those who were in lots of debt are having a much harder time.  Before I get angry letters telling me about people you know who are in trouble by no fault of their own, I understand there are exceptions.

If you are used to spending all you make or more a recession can hurt.  Less income means cutting back.  Sometimes you can't cut back enough and that is hard.  The cruddy part about a recession is life goes on whether or not you have extra money.  People get sick, you need to move, the kids need shoes, you get the idea.  Life goes on.

So what to do?  Many people are without jobs or are making less at the jobs they have.  Morale may be down, there is less cash to spend and debts may be coming due.  This is a tough situation to be in.  I wish I had all the answers, but I don't.  I would suggest looking at what you do have.  People who have lost it all have told me they learned what was really important, and it wasn't the stuff.

If you need financial help, get it.  Find an adviser, a banker, a wise family member or a counselor.  Don't hide from the problem.  If you are stressed, get help for that too.  Spend your money wisely and don't panic.  If we want to get out of this recession (with all media outlets in agreement over the subject) then we need to make wise purchases and create new jobs.  We need to buy what we can afford and reduce our debt.  We need emergency funds and a "Plan B."  Most of all we need a firm grasp of what is important to us.

So are we in a recession?  Probably.  Do we need to stay there?  No.  Can we come out the other side as better, wiser people?  You bet.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Noticing the "Drums" in Our Lives

I have a little confession to make.  I love Christmas music.  I love the way it sounds, I love the messages and I love the peace.  My favorite song is "The Little Drummer Boy" followed closely by "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." (What a funny song!)

Usually I wait until Thanksgiving afternoon to give into my love of holiday music.  I have a play list which lasts almost all day without repeats so I turn it on after turkey and let it go until bedtime.  I love it.

This year I saw the sales ad at one of my favorite bookstores in late October.  There was a Christmas lullaby CD on sale among the other things I just HAD to have.  I was particularly stressed that morning so I popped it into the CD player in the car and have been listening to it since.

Yes, you heard me correctly, I started listening to Christmas music in October this year.  Now before you roll your eyes too much I would like to note my kids love the soft music and don't fight as much in the backseat, so I must be doing something right.

As I was listening to the soothing lullaby music I realized once again why I like the song, "The Little Drummer Boy."  The entire song is about bringing what you have to the table.  Whatever you have to offer will be enough.

If you expand this idea to life then it can be quite profound.  How many times have you helped a friend?  Maybe you didn't save the world, you were just there when they needed you.  How many times have your kids needed a last minute project finished and your talents helped get them to the finish line?  Those are definitely examples of playing your "drum."

One of the interesting things about the message is the gift was not required.  The value of the gift was in the lesson learned by the drummer boy.  It was his humility and desire to honor the recipient which was important.  He did not bring anything expensive or flashy, he brought his talent.

So I want you to think about the talents you have.  What do you do for others on a regular basis?  How has your willingness to share your abilities helped others?  What "drum" do you carry around?

I want you to think about the "drums" of others.  What talents do your friends and family have?  How have they humbly used those talents to help you and others around them?

Now it is story time.  I have a friend who is wonderful.  She is talented, she is smart and she has an amazing ability to accomplish lots of things while being a great mom.  If you only knew how many cool projects her kids get to do you would want to move in with her right now.  On top of all of her great talents she has a very kind heart.  She keeps in touch with many friends and seems to always be there for them.  Now before you start to gag and wonder how June Cleaver landed in the 21st century I want you to know she isn't perfect.  (Her cooking may be out of this world, but she is not perfect.) She jokes about her temper (not to bad as far as I have seen), she mocks her ability to be girly (this is funny as she has two very girly daughters), and she laments her inability to sew like her grandmother (you have to see the costumes she makes for Halloween).

So now for the real story.  Years ago I was pregnant and was very smell sensitive.  Somehow my kitchen became a disaster.  (I say somehow so you won't know it is a disaster almost all the time.)  The hard part was I was hungry, very hungry, and I couldn't get near the kitchen because of the dishes smell.  Every time I got close I would start to gag.  After thinking about it I didn't have what I was craving anyway.  I was talking to my friend and she got in the car, went to the store, bought what I wanted, stopped by my house and fed me.  She then cleaned my kitchen.

This small act was not enough to solve world hunger or find a cure for cancer, but it was important to me.  I needed that food to eat and the smell to be gone more than anything else at that moment.  I still am appreciative years later.  I needed her and her "drum" at that moment in time.

So this almost holiday season I challenge you to look around at the "drums" in your life.  Notice the small acts which come from the heart.  Give yourself credit for bringing your best, even if it is a small offering.  Appreciate those around you who do what they can to help and honor others.

It should make for a wonderful holiday. pa rum pa pum pum

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Being Thankful is Not Just for Turkey Day

Today I choose to be thankful.  I choose to notice the people in my life who have made me a better person. I will also recognize those who hold my feet to the fire, like it or not. I will salute those who challenge me and force me to grow.  I will appreciate those who have propped me up when I was on my way down.  I will be thankful.

As corny as that all sounds, there is a lot of truth to it.  We all have people who challenge us, strengthen us and help us develop into who we are.  They are responsible for holding us accountable when we want to crawl under our covers and disappear.  They may infuriate us, drive us insane and be the reason we speak in four letter words, but they are also the reason we grow.

How many of those people do you have in your life?  I am sure there are members of your family who will make the list.  A few coworkers may be there, for good or evil.  My guess is there are also a few friends and even a few enemies on your list.

What have you learned from these people?  Have you seen yourself through their eyes enough times to get a different perspective?  Do you find yourself rising to their expectations or hiding from their stare?

I have many people in my life who make my list.  Most of the stories are too personal to share, but there is one I want to tell you about.

When I was thinking about starting a company my sister was my biggest cheerleader.  Many people in my family were excited, but my sister was over the moon.  She came with me when I filed my business license and she held my hand through the financial process.  She has been my best unpaid spokesman and coach.

There are days I don't have an optimistic view of life.  She inevitably calls me to tell me how great things are going for me.  The annoying part is she is usually right.  She tells me when I step over the line and it is time to apologize.  She has amazing ideas to help me expand my company and she solicits feedback from others on my behalf.  She is a rock and I appreciate her.

The picture at the top of this post is her.  She loves this picture and so do I.  It used to be on my web site, but when we did a remodel it was removed.  She has asked that I find a place to post it, and so I thought here was the perfect location.  From her on out she can point to this blog and know that not only do I find her to be a very important person in my life, I also love the little girl with the pink balloon.

Thanks sis.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Background Checks for Volunteers

I tried to come up with a clever topic to send out today, but alas, not much came to mind.  I think all of my cleverness was used up yesterday when I tried to help my kids down from the Halloween induced sugar high experienced this weekend.  I will try and do better a little later in the week. 

Something that did grab my attention this morning was an article about volunteers.  As you may remember, I feel strongly about volunteerism.  Volunteering in your community is a great way to give back, but it is also a wonderful way to get to know other people.  As the saying goes, "You love those you serve."  I have found this to be true over the years and cherish the friends I have made.

The article I was reading seemed straightforward enough, the topic was background checks for volunteers.  Many cities and states have laws requiring background checks for all people who volunteer their time with children, the elderly and the disabled.  Some states have stricter background check requirements than others, but because of the National Child Protection Act signed into law in 1993, businesses and organizations have access to national fingerprint databases to weed out volunteers with criminal backgrounds.

The US Bureau of Labor statistics believes nearly 62 million people volunteered at least one time last year.  Not all of them volunteered with children, the elderly or the disabled, but that is still a lot of background checks.  Over the last 16 years I am sure the background check policies of cities and states have kept many child offenders away form children, which is a good thing.

Now for the crazy part.  There is a growing number of people who believe background checks are a breach of privacy and information about them should not be searched just because they want to volunteer. No, really.

So here is my question.  If you want to volunteer and you want your efforts directed at children, the elderly or the disabled, and you know there are background checks involved, why are you complaining?  It was optional and you signed up for it.  There are thousands of places to volunteer that don't do a background check.

Organizations and businesses don't like to do background checks because it is fun.  In fact it isn't fun for them at all and it can cost a lot of money, anywhere from $15 to $150 per person.  They do the checks to ensure the safety of those they care for.

Here is my little story.  Years ago I went to get a fingerprint clearance card.  I wanted to volunteer with kids and was thinking about substitute teaching.  I headed down to the local police department and had my prints taken.  I sent them into the State with a check to cover the cost of a background check.  A few weeks later I got a letter stating my fingerprints weren't clear and I needed to have them redone, which I did, 7 times.  Apparently I don't have great fingerprints.  This is not the result of anything I did, just genetics which gave me ill defined ridges.  (Who knew I would ever be denied the ability to volunteer with children over something as silly as ill defined ridges???)

Anyway, it took over a year, multiple trips to different law agencies, an email to my US Senator and a FBI search before I was cleared.  Whew!  That was intense.

Now at any point in this process was I worried?  No.  At any point was I unaware they were looking at my life in great detail?  No.  Was I offended they kept denying me because they couldn't match my prints?  No.  (I do have to admit I was frustrated that it took so long, but was not offended that they were being thorough.)  The point is this, I started the process when I made the decision to volunteer with kids.  I knew they were going to do it and I actively spent the time to get my fingerprints done and redone.

If I was worried about what they would find, I doubt I would have spent the time and money to start the process.  If I was worried about an invasion of privacy I would have found another way to spend my time.

As a mother I am glad they check out the people who work with my kids.  As a volunteer I am happy to give other parents the same comfort.  It is crazy to believe only good people want to be around my kids.  It is a sad truth we live in a world with people who wish us harm, but it is true.

Now that I have depressed you I want to leave you with a great thought.  Even though these background checks are causing controversy, millions of people still spend the time to volunteer.  They show up week in and week out to be great role models and amazing influences on our community.  They give of themselves and their time to help those around them.  I am proud to be part of a country which values theses individuals...background checks and all.