The Beginings of Peace

My middle son and youngest son do not get along. They used to share the largest room in the house, but their differing personalities led the youngest to move to the basement. And yet, there are glimmers of hope that they will find a way to be in the world and maybe the house together without fighting.

A few nights ago, while I was washing dishes in the kitchen, I heard them in the dining room and the elder (who often makes disparaging remarks to his brother) began singing, “A very merry unbirthday to you, to you. A very merry unbirthday to you!”



And his brother in typical call and response singing replied, “A very merry unbirthday to you, yes you. A very merry unbirthday to you.

Gives one hope.

Top Nine Reasons I Do Not Pay for Entertainment


1) I would rather learn how to do something new, or do it better than watch someone else do it. For example, I would rather learn to dance than watch Dancing with the Stars.

2) It is not in the budget. I might get Netflix if I had a severe injury and couldn’t get up off the couch for a couple months. Maybe.

3) Watching my kids play baseball or jazz or perform with their improv troupe is more thrilling than watching professionals do it. I’ve heard Dave Brubeck’s Take Five thousands of times. The first time I heard my son play it, I cried.

4) There are only so many human stories. Romance. Betrayal. Coming of age. Epic war of Good vs. Evil. Once you know the plotlines, it’s just a matter of dressing it up in historical language and costumes.

5) During my job, everyday, I experience raw human drama. People facing life and death situations, heroically (or not) dealing with loss. It’s complex and messy and never resolved in 30 minutes or two and a half hours. Entertainment resolves the complexities (or sometimes leaves you dangling till next week) in the allotted time frame, which feels unreal to me. If it’s complex and messy and doesn’t resolve things, there is a good chance that it is not entertainment, but art. I think this holds true for books and movies and music.

6) My library has more art (music, movies and literature) than I will be able to enjoy in my entire life, even if I quit my day job and do nothing else. Once I pay my property taxes, it’s free.

7) Entertainment is not a need, though to hear people talk about it you might think so.

8) If I am too tired to do something I want to do, I need a nap.

9) Entertainment does not help me accomplish anything on my life-goals list.

Kids Pull You Out of Your Comfort Zone

Our kids make us uncomfortable. In a good way.

For us moms, this often starts when they are still in utero with all the physical discomforts that pregnancy brings. And the first time that it happens, it is kind of surprising. I’m sick to my stomach, my boobs hurt, I can’t see my feet and I’m glad about it.

And then they are infants and we are sleep deprived. And toddlers and we learn we don’t have as much patience as we thought. And they go off to school and get their feelings hurt by their friends or their bodies hurt by their enemies and we know what it is like to remove our hearts from our chest every day and send it off into a world that is often not kind and sometimes dangerous.

And many of us, when asked, say that we would not give up the experience for anything.

I have done many, many things I would never have done if left to my own devices, because one of my children had an interest I did not have. It has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to grow.

My oldest was three when I got free tickets to a baseball farm-team game. He was enthralled. Thousands of baseball games later, he is a Division II baseball coach. I didn’t learn to love baseball as much as he does (probably not possible) but all those hours spent in a lawn chair in the midwest summer taught me how to make small talk with other parents, which was painful for my introverted, single-mom self. But, I’m glad I learned how to do it. You can plunk me down almost anywhere English-speaking  and I can make people feel relaxed and comfortable.

My daughter wanted to take Tae Kwon Do, so I enrolled her. Then her brothers, and when I saw how much fun they were having, I enrolled myself. I’m never going to sign up for a Mixed Martial Arts fight, but I know enough to defend myself against someone shorter, older and weaker than I am.

My youngest is a rock and roller. He plays drums, electric guitar and electric bass. My album collection in high school included Joni Mitchell and Harry Chapin. I liked folk music and acoustic guitar. But, now, I find that I can really appreciate and enjoy music that makes my house shake.

By encouraging them to pursue their dreams, my world has gotten bigger and my life is the richer for it. Thank goodness. Otherwise, I’d probably still be in my room reading library books.

Day of Volunteering

One of the reasons I was so pleased to go part-time (36 hrs/week vs. 55 hrs/week) one and a half years ago is that life is short and there are so many fun things to do that do not require acquiring or spending money. Case in point, a day last week.

Between 8am and 2:30pm I was a bus chaperone for one of the marching band buses as they did their middle-school tour. Once the band members master the routine that they perform pre-game and at half-time for the football games, they tour three local middle schools and perform for the band students. It is good practice for the marching band and it is a recruitment tool for getting new members. I rode with 1/3 of the band members, many of them students I know from other extracurriculars, and help them into their jackets. (Note to whoever selected the new uniforms–putting the zipper in the back and covering it with a cape, so that the musicians can not get in and out by themselves is a bad design. You know, for next time.) I watched them perform their routine at each of the schools and I ate bad pizza provided by the Band Parents Association. Total fun.

I had enough time to run home and put out dinner that the boys warmed for themselves as I was off to the next volunteer opportunity. A dear friend presents a program twice a month at the local single-parent shelter, and sometimes I go with her and help. The topic this week was “Money, Money, Money” and I shared with the moms that came to the presentation some of the single-mom tricks that I have shared with you all. I talked about tracking expenses, setting a cap on expenses that can be a black hole (like your children’s birthdays or entertainment expenses,) and choosing how you spend your money before you spend it. So-no shame in taking the kids to ChuckECheese with the extra $40 you had this month, if that is what you really wanted to do. But, if you would rather Jr.,darling played soccer, set the money aside for that. These women make sacrifices to give their kids better than they got. Sometimes a new perspective on how to give to their children is really exciting. I could see the light bulbs going on. Sweet.

And my final volunteering opportunity of the day was for my own dear hospice. Every hospice in this country has volunteers, people who are not paid for the assistance that they provide to the dying and their families. The volunteers go through a fairly rigorous training program over several weeks. I routinely participate in the training of our volunteers. I enjoy meeting them and hearing their stories of how they came to work with people at end-of-life. They are awesome and inspiring individuals. It is a privilege to work with them.

I got home about 8pm, so a full twelve-hour day spent with three of my favorite groups of people: teenagers, single moms and end-of-life caregivers. So nice to not have to fill every minute with money-making.

Grown-Up Fun

Have you noticed that all my recent posts have been tagged “fun?”

I swear, it’s just all those years of hard work are finally paying off. The last week of September, I was in Kansas City, MO for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s yearly conference. I was presenting on the topic of “Hospice Work As A Transformative Path.”

My kids have always been my first priority and work has been a close second. Anyone who has read my book, A Holy Errand knows how passionate I am about care of the dying and their families.

And those of you who have followed my blog know that I do not think it necessary to spend a fortune to raise children well, create a nice meal for family or friends, or live a life rich in meaning.

So, Holy Expense Accounts, Batman–did I step into another world during my three-day stay at the conference. My travel to and from the conference, my hotel stay and my conference entry fee were all paid by my employer. I was allowed up to $50 per day food allowance (yes, that’s right–me who knows how to feed a family of four on $300 per month given half that to feed myself for three days.) Plus, everywhere I turned people were handing out free stuff–pens, tote bags, food and drinks.

Here is the view from my room on the 34th floor:


I kinda felt like I had fallen through a wormhole to an alternate universe. It was fun. For three days. But the waste! Bleh.

Here’s the thing–not every problem is solved by throwing more money at it. (Are you listening Federal Government?)

In just three days, the excess made me feel soft and lazy. I like the feel of being a surfer–that it is my skill and fitness that gives me the ability to ride those waves. It is exciting and empowering to know how to survive lean times.

So–I’ll put on my beach cover-up until I get back to my pre-conference fitness levels.


Paying for College

This post is both a multigenerational review of how one family has paid for college for the past 100 years and a recounting of what changes I made in the past year to help pay for my daughter’s first year of college. My point is that there are many ways to pay for school, if you want to go. Most of them require hard work on someone’s part.

The first person in my family to graduate from college was grandma Ruby. She graduated in 1926 with a dietician’s degree. It was one of the few “scientific” degrees open to women. Her parents paid for her schooling.

Grandpa Walt and Grandma Mimi didn’t get to college. Mimi was kicked out of Catholic boarding school at age 16 when the nuns found her smoking a cigar behind the sacristy. She got married shortly thereafter and had four children. Two of them boys, who served in WWII and went to school on the GI Bill. My dad was one of those boys, he also got two master’s degrees that he paid for himself. Of Mimi and Walt’s two daughters, one went to college, paid for by a generous employer during the depression. The other daughter did not attend school after high school, but went right into the work force.

Grandma Ruby worked as a dietician for many years, but got divorced when her kids (my mom and uncle) were middle school age, and her ex-husband died shortly thereafter.  She went on to found a successful real estate business and put both my mom and uncle through private college. My uncle, also joined the army after he graduated with his bachelors and then went on to law school on the GI Bill.

My mom and dad always planned to pay for college for their three kids, but the stock market took a dive shortly before we started school and my dad’s business suffered then too. Consequently, they paid for a bachelor’s degree for my older brother at a state school. My younger brother went to a private liberal arts school and they paid for about half of his tuition. One semester they sold the grand piano that no one played anymore. He had to borrow the rest of the money. Both brothers went back to school later, one got a law degree and the other an engineering degree.

My timing wasn’t very good, by the time I was ready to attend school in earnest, my folks were broke. I was newly divorced with a toddler. Luckily, I happened to be living in an economically depressed area and was able to put myself through school with federal grants, scholarships, $10,000 of loans, scattered child support checks and living frugally.

My first husband attended university paid for by his parents and loans. He never graduated, but won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1980’s–so the lack of a degree does not seem to have hurt his earning power.

Second husband got an engineering degree that he paid for himself with the money he made farming (hogs, corn, soybeans) while in high school in the late 1970s. Most of his fortune has been made in farming.

My oldest son’s degree was paid for by a combination of help from his parents, scholarships and loans.

Summary: in my family 16 degrees earned by 11 individuals. Four of them had a degree paid for entirely by parents, three by the GI Bill, one by a friend, seven were self-paid via loans, scholarships, current and previous earnings, etc. Two, a combination. If you want to go, and are willing to work hard, there is a way.

In Illinois, if your parents are divorced, the court says each parent should come up with one-third of the cost of a state school education. For us this year, that is about $9,000. Here’s what I did to get the money for my portion of my daughter’s first year at college:

~Reduced my clothing expenditures by having fewer outfits and buying only at Goodwill and TJ Maxx. Since I lost twenty pounds this past year and replaced a significant portion of my wardrobe, this saved a lot of the replacement costs. I also eliminated money spent on coloring and cutting my hair by having all the blonde cut off and then letting it grow out grey. Total $2,227.

~Rather than have a professional painter scrape and paint my house for $6,000 last year, I am having the boys do one side per year for the next four years. Last summer, they did a short side for $200, this year they did a long side for $300. Savings this year: $1,200.

~I lucked into having my employer pay for a conference that I was going to anyway. They gave me a car to drive, paid for my conference fee, food for 5 days and my hotel. Estimated savings $1,100.

~I decreased my alcohol intake costs by reducing total intake (which helped with the weight loss goals too) and by only buying wine at Aldi–the $2.89 bottles.) Total savings for the year: $912.

~Youngest son dropped voice lessons after March. Savings: $900.

~Daughter stopped clarinet lessons after May. Savings: $665.

~I changed fitness centers. Monthly cost from $48 to $10 per month. Yearly savings: $456.

~Reduced the amount spent on Christmas from $650 to $200. Savings: $450.

~Sold self-published books. Income $351.

~Decided to postpone getting bifocals another year or so, and bought some drug store readers for $10. Savings: $350.

~Reduced the meat (mammal, fowl, fish) dinners by one per week and reduced the amount of organic/free-range meat purchased. I am mindful to keep the protein served at an adequate amount due to teens still growing and athletic performance concerns.  Savings $208

~Sold a piece of jewelry that I do not wear anymore. $200.

~Told AT &T I was going to cancel my internet. They reduced the monthly amount by $15. Savings: $180.

~Let daughter’s cell phone contract with AT & T expire (she was on our family plan). I did this partially to promote her learning to budget these things from her limited resources. But she got her dad to add her to his plan and buy her a smart phone. That works too. Savings: $180.

~Did not take the family out to eat for my birthday. Savings: $80.

Total available for tuition: $9,459.

(Love you, honey! Thanks for answering my texts.)

A Guilty Pleasure

I hope to live car free someday, and get all the exercise I need in my day-to-day life. But as long as I am a visiting nurse, logging up to 200 miles on my work days in my car, I have to get my exercise another way.

Currently, I have a $10 per month gym plan and I use the elliptical machine and the weights. This place has a bank of flat screen TVs with twenty separate channels playing at any given time. I have no TV at home, so this is my first guilty pleasure…I watch mindless TV, while I work out.



My second guilty pleasure is that I usually watch the “house channel” or HGTV, especially the remodel shows. I love the before and afters, I like to get ideas for things that I can do minimally and frugally around the house here. But like most TV, it just encourages wastefulness. In the interest of getting the remodel done in a certain time frame, when they redo, they usually gut and just toss everything in a dumpster.

When I do work here at home, I carefully plan which elements I am going to keep and work with them. What I do not wish to keep, I carefully remove and donate to someone who can use it, often the Habitat For Humanity Restore.

I find my methods are less expensive and more environmentally responsible. Takes a bit longer, though.

Youngest Child Turns 15

I was out of town at a conference when my youngest turned 15 years old last week, so we celebrated on Sunday, before I left. When the kids were little, like their friends, they had parties at different venues: Skateland, Jungle of Fun, McDonald’s Playplace. I noticed that between paying for the venue (at say $8 per head for the guests) and the gifts I bought them, and sometimes a fancy cake….I was spending about $100 each birthday. As, they got a little older, I offered them a choice in how the $100 was spent. For example, the birthday child could blow the whole $100 on the party, but then there would be no present from mom. The birthday child could choose a$100 gift, but then there would be no party. Usually, they chose a combination–so, the party might be at the local park and some of the money spent on food and pinata and water balloons and the rest for the gift. Or, one might have just a couple friends for a sleepover and an pricier gift. This year, youngest wanted an electric bass and a “chocolate cookie cake.”