Archive of ‘Sentiments’ category

Adventures in Lawyering: Being Right


Photograph from To Kill a Mockingbird from pbs.com

I got sucked into one of my more notable cases shortly after I finished law school and entered the work force.

It involved feuding next door neighbors and was venued in Miami-Dade county, which meant I had the treat of riding on planes, staying the night in swanky hotels, and eating at fancy restaurants when I had to travel from Tampa for hearings and other case-related events.

Both of these neighbors were wealthy beyond comprehension and had money to burn on legal fees and costs.

We will call them Hatfield and McCoy.

Hatfield grew up poor and made a ton of money in the phosphate industry in the early 1990s. He was dishonest, generally disliked, and was on his fifth marriage by the time I got involved in the case.

Hatfield accompanied his wife to her deposition (along with their private chauffeur), and introduced her to the group as “Lydia… my Trophy Wife.”

(Lydia looked like a Playboy Bunny, so I guess she really was his Trophy Wife.)

Hatfield only stayed at this home in Miami for two months out of the year and lived in California for the remainder. It was my understanding he also owned property in Martha’s Vineyard.

McCoy was a lovely man who worked hard his entire life to support his family, started a successful business manufacturing widgets for cellular phones, and acquired enough wealth to put his (unborn) great-grandchildren through college.

McCoy purchased a lot next to Hatfield’s multi-million dollar home on an exclusive island close to South Beach.

McCoy demolished the existing home on the property so he could build a new one. There was also some weather-related structural damage to his dock for which he had to take down the old one and start from scratch.

Every resident on the island needed a dock so they had somewhere to park their luxury yachts.

McCoy had no interaction with Hatfield until construction on his dock was nearly finished. One day in the middle of summer, Hatfield came out of his house screaming the location of the new dock obstructed his view of the bay.

McCoy explained that several engineers from the county “vetted” the location of the dock and he received all the necessary permits for constructing it.

Hatfield disagreed and filed a lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, Hatfield added claims that McCoy’s mailbox was in the wrong location and that vibrations from pile driving during construction of the new home crossed Hatfield’s property line and created cracks in his olympic-size swimming pool.

Hatfield never attempted to work out these issues with McCoy as an alternative to suing him- he just wanted to sue.

He was petty.

He would never admit his pettiness and “let it go” because he was so fixated on one thing: being right. 

Hatfield wanted to be right about the location of the dock.

He wanted to be right about the placement of the mailbox.

He wanted to be right that the construction of McCoy’s home cracked his swimming pool.

But how was “being right” going for him when it cost him peace and friendship with his neighbors and tons of money in legal fees?

Not very well.

I don’t know Hatfield’s personal background, but I am willing to bet that “being right” cost him his first four marriages.

It probably cost him business opportunities.

More than anything, it probably cost him happiness and satisfaction.

Here was a guy who seemingly had it all: a successful company, plenty of money, a beautiful wife, multi-million dollar homes in three different locations and he still wasn’t happy.

None of it was enough.

So he had to fight with his neighbor about dumb things like a dock, a mailbox, and a swimming pool for the sake of being right.

(Important Note: McCoy ended up winning the lawsuit after a judge agreed that the location of the dock and mailbox were appropriate and the pool cracks existed before the home was built. Basically what everyone knew all along.)

This incredible scenario triggered some self reflection about how many times I’ve been so concerned in my personal life about “being right” about that I didn’t look at the big picture.

Guilty.

It’s stupid.

How many times have we jumped to conclusions about petty things without investigating all the facts?

How many times have we bid adieu to people who were “true and blue” friends or family members about something that didn’t really matter in the scheme of things?

(You gotta look deep deep deep deep down and really admit to yourself that what you were mad about was dumb.)

How many times have we been upset when someone didn’t meet our unexpressed expectations and so we wrote them off?

How many times have we been so hell bent about being right about something that we didn’t consider the people we were hurting or alienating?

It’s time to let it go.

Thank goodness for job security, but I see this all the time in my profession. People who can’t let go of being right that they will spend years of their lives and tons of money to prove it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a divorce lawyer. Oy vey!

Do you have an issue with dock?

Let it go.

What is your mailbox?

Let it go.

Cracks in your swimming pool?

Let them go.

Look left. Look right. Up and down. Look at the big picture and consider all you have in your life that is going well and focus on that.

You don’t have to be right about things that really don’t matter. 

Cheers.

    Adventures in Lawyering Part Deux: Cleanup in the Garden Center


    Funny moments stories about being a lawyer | The Champagne Supernova

    Disclaimer. This story is crude and disgusting. But I just report the facts. 

    Where many attorneys feel they are “too good” to work on the less “sexy” cases like slip and fall matters, I have a confession: They are not beneath me and I love them.

    99% of the time, slip and fall cases don’t involve sad things like death or catastrophic injuries. The person falls down, goes boom, gets back up, hires an attorney three days later, and starts treating with a chiropractor for “soft tissue injuries.”

    Absent complicated health issues or outrageously high medical bills, slip and fall cases usually aren’t stressful and are a nice respite from the fatality, traumatic brain injury, or child molestation cases that are also found in my assignment list.

    So I’ll take ’em with a smile.

    Slip and fall plaintiffs are often “career plaintiffs” who make nice little wads of cash making claims in connection with other accidents including fender benders and other premises liability issues.

    Why work when you can get something for free? (I once had a plaintiff tell me it was foolish for him to work when he received disability benefits and could sit on the couch all day. He was young and fully capable of working a desk job but I guess he had a point…)

    Reading through their medical records is equally hilarious.

    I worked at a law firm that represented a large international retail chain. Most of the cases involving this client involved slip and fall events that happened in the stores.

    One thing I learned is nearly everything is a slip (or trip) and fall hazard and, frankly, it’s just the cost of doing business.

    Grapes.

    Detergent.

    Soft drinks.

    Other human beings. (No joke, I represented this same client in a matter where a plaintiff made a claim against the store for negligent mode of operation after the plaintiff tripped and fell over the store’s employee when the employee was crouched down in an aisle stocking canned goods on a bottom shelf. The plaintiff admitted at her deposition that she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and that she “just assumed” nobody was next to her in the aisle. A local judge entered Summary Judgment against the plaintiff, and she got a goose egg for her wallet to go with the goose egg that was on her head after she tripped over the employee.)

    I was routinely assigned to the same Southwest Florida location of this retail chain and, because of the large volume of cases, I became friendly with the store’s general manager.

    At the time, I was pregnant with my second daughter and, as he too was in his mid-thirties with young children of his own, we often spent time laughing and sharing “war stories” about having kids.

    We’ll refer to him as Manager Mike.

    One morning I had to meet with Manager Mike to prepare him for a deposition involving… dun dun dun.. a slip and fall case.

    He was late for our meeting and appeared flustered and overwhelmed when he arrived.

    Sorry I’m late. Last Friday was the worst work day of my life and I’ve been playing “catch up” at the store ever since. 

    Worst than the time you discovered a customer committed suicide with a machete in the handicapped stall of the men’s room?

    (This actually happened at this same store.)

    Wayyyyyyyyyyyy worse than that!

    Worse than the time one of your cart retrieval dudes found a dead body in a car in the parking lot that had been there for days baking in the hot July sun?

    (That also happened.)

    Oh girl, even worse than that. 

    Alright, folks.

    It actually was worse.

    Manager Mike went on to tell me that an adult customer had entered the property through the garden center, pulled down her shorts, and defecated on the floor in the middle of an aisle. It happened somewhere between the hibiscus and hydrangeas. A couple minutes later and before the store’s employees had time to realize the shit-uation and do anything about it, another customer came along and slipped and fell in it.

    Apparently, this customer was pushing a shopping cart and was unable to see it on the floor in front of her. She fell and cracked her head on the cement floor.

    The customer was nonresponsive and the employees were worried she sustained a brain injury. Paramedics arrived and there was a huge scene in front of the store trying to get her medical attention.

    After learning of the ordeal, Manager Mike hurriedly went to the store surveillance room to pull video and determine whether the poop-etrator was still in the store.

    Lo and behold, the entire incident in the garden center was captured on video and the woman who did it was shown entering the interior of the store.

    Manager Mike was able to get a general idea about what she looked like and undertook efforts to locate her in the store. After a few minutes, he spotted an older female (but not too old to know better!) pushing a cart and walking next to a younger woman, who appeared to be her daughter. The manager was certain it was her because she had feces streaked down her right leg and it appeared to be crammed into the heel of her Keds-style shoe.

    She didn’t have a care in the world and was busy checking out the picture frames and decorative pillows in the housewares section.

    Manager Mike approached this woman, aggressively tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, said:

    Did you go to the bathroom on the floor in the garden center?

    Her defense was simple.

    Sir. I had to go realllllllllll bad. 

    Well, you should have told an employee what happened so it could be cleaned… now another customer fell in it and is seriously injured. 

    The woman didn’t seem to mind and continued shopping.

    A few things.

    While most normal people can control their bowels, would tell someone if they had an accident, and certainly wouldn’t stick around and shop with dirty clothes and shoes, this woman didn’t give a damn.

    Zero cares.

    I’m not sure whatever transpired from this situation, the health of the customer who fell, or whether she ever initiated a claim against this store for her injuries. The store would have a good defense, given the short amount of time between when the first customer went to the bathroom and when the second customer fell, given Florida’s law about notice in premises liability cases.

    It doesn’t matter much.

    The bottom line is that when you’re having a bad day, just remember it could always be worse.

    You could be the lady who fell.

    Cheers!

      Loose Lips Sink Ships: You Can’t Tell a Kid Anything


      Kids have the biggest mouths and will say the most inappropriate things at the worst times | The Champagne Supernova

      Teachers always seem to have the best stories.

      Laughing through tears, one of my longtime friends, an elementary school teacher, told me about how one of her students provided her with a detailed play-by-play of their family vacation the Monday after Spring Break.

      Gory details the student’s parents would likely die if they knew she had disclosed.

      About how dad got locked out of the rental house in his “tightey-whitey” underwear when he went outside in the morning to get the newspaper.

      About how the student hated applying sunscreen to her mother’s back because of “all her moles that look like Cocoa-Krispie cereal.”

      And about how mom and dad got into an argument during dinner and mom called him a “stupid ass clown” in front of the student and her siblings.

      Really.

      If you don’t want a child to repeat something, don’t say it in front of them.

      Especially when you think they either don’t understand what you’re saying or aren’t paying attention.

      Trust me. I have found through personal experience (the hard way) that kids do understand and they are paying attention.

      When you live under the same roof, this is much easier said than done. I find my husband and I sometimes speak in “code” or text each other if we don’t want to communicate something in front of the kids.

      Which brought back a childhood memory of my own.

      When I was in preschool, we attended a church where one of the other members was recently divorced. The story was especially said because the woman’s husband left her for another woman, which was relatively taboo in the late 1980s. (At least more so than it is now in 2017.) As they had a young child, the former husband essentially abandoned his family and now this woman was struggling to make ends meet by raising their young child as a single mother.

      Fun fact: I have a freakishly good memory about the most random things. Too bad that good memory didn’t extend to academic things like Civil War history, the Pythagorean Theorem, or Latin when I was in high school and college. I digress.

      It is also noteworthy to mention that my mom and this woman were very active in the church together and regularly interacted with each other at Sunday school, in the choir, on Wednesday spaghetti dinner night, and on mission trips.

      Somehow I caught wind of the situation and all I can remember hearing about is that this woman’s husband left her. I was four or five years old and completely unaware of social rules about what one can and cannot acceptably say to another person. I assume I overheard my mother telling this to my father or other people in the house.

      So.

      In a likely act of kindness, my mom invited this woman and her child to spend the afternoon with our family at a local swimming pool. The plan was for them to meet us at our house and then we would head over.

      The woman helped my mom load up our Dodge Caravan with towels, sunscreen, chairs, and rafts. As she was in the process of strapping me into my car seat, I inquired, extremely matter-of-factly:

      My mom said your husband left you. Is that true?

      I could see my mom’s mortified reaction to this question in my peripheral vision. She looked like she wanted to jump into the middle of the street and get hit by oncoming traffic.

      I don’t remember this woman’s response, but my mom later said she handled it with class and went on the rest of the day unfazed, as if I never asked the question.

      Several hours later, I remember my seeing my mom crying. She was horrified that her friend clearly knew we must have been discussing her personal life in the house (hey… it happens… totally get it and we do the same thing in my house! Isn’t there some sort of “household privilege?”) and equally horrified that she had to sit through several hours at the pool with her when she was humiliated and pretending the conversation never happened.

      My mom was also mortified by the reality that she would regularly have to see this woman at church in the future, and feared they would constantly be uncomfortable around each other.

      I know my mom was upset I asked the question, but she also knew I was young and didn’t do it on purpose. She was likely more upset at herself for mentioning this around me.

      Kids!

      The moral of the story: if you don’t want your child to repeat something, then don’t say it in front of them. If you do want them to repeat it, then by all means, say it.

      Because it will happen at the worst possible place and time.

      And while I’m at it, Mom, I’m so sorry!

      Cheers!

       

        How to Talk to God


        MC Hammer A wise philosopher famously sang:

        We got to pray
        Just to make it today
        I said we pray(pray) ah, yeah, pray(pray)
        We got to pray
        Just to make it to pray
        That’s word, we pray.

        Yet so many people don’t want anything to do with prayers. They think they are foreign and reserved for religious fanatics.

        I can see where it’s hard asking for help in the midst of our shame and guilt.

        I’ll go first.

        I’m not perfect. Sometimes (lots of times) I cuss. I have regrets from the past and sometimes wonder if I’m fulfilling my life’s purpose. I might beat myself up over a flabby stomach or eating too much junk food. Or maybe I get snippy with a co-worker who didn’t deserve it. Perhaps I took a bad day at the office out on my husband when I got home. Or I feel like I’m screwing up my kids when I’m not in the mood to read them a book before bedtime. It may be that I lazily slipped Cool Ranch Doritos in their lunchbox instead of an organic, gluten-free granola bar.

        Don’t we all have our days where we are feeling “less-than”?

        Good thing I have a God who I can turn to who will comfort me and help me lay all my troubles aside.

        I can see where having an intimate, trusting relationship with God can be difficult. Especially in these volatile times where so many around the world are fighting in His name.

        There is a belief that God is a punisher to be feared. That He is an intolerant critic who is disappointed in our bad choices and will send us to the fiery furnace on judgment day if we don’t immediately clean up our acts. That He has ordered His followers to be the “sin police” and polarize those who don’t adhere to His commands.

        This belief suggests that God is an ornery old man incapable of forgiveness and compassion.

        How terrifying. It’s understandable why so many people are too afraid of God to love Him and let Him into their lives. I can see why so many are afraid to pray. They don’t want to go there.

        That is not my God. My God epitomizes love and benevolence. He teaches forgiveness and love. He is a genius with a sense of humor. He is inclusive and a good parent who loves all His children the same. He created a set of life tools to direct us toward our best lives and not because he is trying to rob us of a good time. He is a best friend who created the inner depths of our hearts and planted our struggles so we can come to know and trust Him. Which is exactly why He has his own compassionate judgment for each of us that we on earth can’t comprehend. (He is the judge: not us.)

        Nobody who knows me would describe me as a Bible Thumper, but the relationship between me and God is strong and it is real.

        And you see, that’s all he cares about. The relationship. A good one. You and Him. Together. BFFs. 

        I pray several times a day. Here’s how I do it.

        The urge pops into my head and I just go for the gold.

        It ain’t formal and it sure as heck ain’t frilly.

        Sometimes the prayer is five words and other times it is twenty sentences.

        The prayers can be silly.

        Please God, don’t let me murder my husband for leaving wet towels on the floor.

        Dear God, if you cure this hangover I won’t ever drink again. This week. 

        Other times the prayers can be serious.

        Please heal the cancer in my friend’s brain.

        Please Lord, help that father find a new job so he can feed his family.  

        There’s usually no kneeling or hand-folding (although you can certainly do that if you want to.)

        No rosaries or candles.

        No gospel music.

        No priest to confess anything to.

        It doesn’t have to happen in a church or a synagogue or any other traditional place of worship.

        Good prayers can happen anywhere. 

        At your desk when you’re waiting for someone to respond to an e-mail.

        At the gym on the treadmill.

        In the carpool pickup line.

        At grocery check-out.

        In the front office waiting for your doctor’s appointment.

        God doesn’t care. 

        You can be in your bathing suit or your pajamas.

        On a yoga mat in the studio or on a towel at the beach.

        In front of the TV or behind a book.

        Doesn’t matter to God. It just matters that it happens. Come exactly as you are. No formalities and nothing fake. 

        You see, God doesn’t want the fancy, Shakespearean language. He doesn’t want you to feel like you have to dress up.

        He just wants you. 

        After all, he is the One who created you and will be the first to know if there’s any insincere B.S.

        He wants you to go to Him when you have problems and for you to completely trust Him. Even when you are hurt and confused and angry and defeated. (But especially when you are those things.) He wants to give you His peace and His blessings. He wants you to thank Him when you are grateful.

        He wants you to pray however suits your fancy. 

        Just do it however you do you.

        Cheers!

          Life and Focusing on What Matters: The Give a Damn List


          Create a Give a Damn List to help you balance the things and people that really matter | The Champagne Supernova

          We have a limited number of damns in our lives.

          Yet, we somehow end up giving them away on the dumbest, most insignificant things.

          Confession.

          I can be a compulsive damn giver-outer.

          Doling out the damns like Oprah gives away cars.

          You get a damn!

          That other person gets a damn!

          Everyone’s getting a damn!

          People who don’t really matter.

          Things that are stupid.

          Stuff that happened in the past that I can’t control.

          I’ve had it.

          I recently traveled out of town to attend a conference. The main attendees were women like me: moms of young children who were bloggers and authors. All of them were in their mid 30s and the majority were married.

          When we arrived at the conference, we were randomly placed in small groups where we performed team building activities and brainstormed about how to grow our businesses.

          Here’s the problem.

          Despite our ostensible similarities, I really had nothing to talk about with these women. Yes, they were friendly and no, there was no drama, but beyond the casual formalities, I just had nothing. to. talk. to. them. about. (The three-hour time change and my exhaustion didn’t help things. Being forced to be “on” does nothing but perpetuate my pre-existing social awkwardness.)

          Some people you click with and some people you don’t.

          There wasn’t any deep and meaningful clicking.

          Bummer.

          On the plane ride back, my negative thoughts started getting the best of me.

          Why couldn’t I connect with these women?

          Is something wrong with me?  

          I called my close friend and former roommate, Amy. She’s usually the voice of reason.

          Tell the truth, is there something I’m doing wrong?

          No…. and be honest with yourself, do you give a damn about any of these people anyway?

          Silence.

          No.

          No, I don’t.

          Which forced me to consider why I give so many damns.

          In an effort to be proactive, I got out a journal and created a list of people and things I was going to give a damn about in the future.

          A Give a Damn List.

          Moving forward, the list will serve as the Holy Grail of things and people that do and do not matter.

          Things I will make a priority and things I will not.

          That way, when I am wallowing in self-doubt and stress, I can open up the journal and refer to the list.

          If the “trigger” is not on the list, then I’m not going to give a damn.

          (Realistically: I will try really hard to not give a damn. Old habits die hard.)

          When you are trying to figure out what matters in your life, create a Give a Damn List in your journal. This contains a list of things that will be a priority. | The Champagne Supernova

          The journal that contains my personal Give a Damn List.

          Here is my hierarchy of people who get my damns.

          1. God;
          2. My husband and two daughters;
          3. My parents and sister;
          4. Other relatives who are close and super special (e.g. my grandparents);
          5. A group of close friends. Some I have known for twenty years and some I’ve known for only a few years. The type who I love and love me back… amazing friends like the “Ashleys” I wrote about here– the type of friendships where we are there for each other in a bind and can be forthcoming about life’s tribulations; and
          6. My boss. Because bills.

          Then, there was the list of things on my Give a Damn List:

          1. Fostering a close relationship with God;
          2. Marriage/ family time and making memories;
          3. The emotional and academic growth of my children;
          4. Nurturing the relationships of the people listed in 2-5 above; and
          5. The blog work and “work work”.

          That’s it.

          There’s all my damns.

          I don’t have any more damns to give. And here’s the thing. None of us do. 

          Even those damns are damn consuming.

          Anything and anyone else is just icing on the cake or nonsense, depending on the situation. If something does not facilitate the growth and nurturing of someone or something on my Give a Damn List, then I’m not going to stress myself out about it.

          (Important note: this doesn’t mean to be dismissive or unkind to someone or something that is not on the Give a Damn List, it just means you shouldn’t prioritize it and shouldn’t worry too much overthinking about it.)

          Go ahead and make a list for yourself.

          It feels good to write those names down.

          It feels good to write the things down that will be your biggest priorities and then refer back to the list later when you’re feeling frustrated.

          The modern American family is stressed, rushed, and tired. No more. We need to stop spreading ourselves so thin and start worrying about who and what really matters.

          Here’s to giving a damn about the people and things that matter most.

          Here’s to the Give a Damn List.

          Cheers!

            Life: The Playing Field is Not Equal


            Life is not always fair and we are not always on equal playing fields | The Champagne Supernova

            We are not all on equal playing fields.

            Life isn’t always fair and, for some, it will never be fair.

            I observed this pretty early.

            The summer between 7th and 8th grade, my parents moved me and my younger sister from private to public school in my hometown of DeLand, Florida.

            Speaking from experience, the middle school years can be especially tough for adolescent girls. Probably tougher than high school. Already trying to figure out who I was and navigate my way through the world, I was now faced with starting from scratch at a new school where I didn’t know a soul.

            I was terrified and didn’t want to be “The New Girl.”

            The week before school started, I had my parents take me to the local mall so I could find a trendy Yaga t-shirt (which was actually too big) and Vans shoes (that looked ridiculous on my skinny legs) so I had something to wear on the first day that screamed, “I’M COOL. BE MY FRIEND.”

            The first day of eighth grade was a success, mainly because I met a girl named Michelle in homeroom.

            Introduced herself, acquainted me to other classmates, and made me feel at home. By lunchtime, we were already exchanging notes in class (we had three together!) and talking about which boys we thought were cute and how we hope we didn’t have to “dress out” in P.E. since it was just the first day.

            Michelle and I instantly became best friends. We would even sign our notes “BFFLAENMW” which is middle school shorthand for “Best Friends For Life and Eternity No Matter What.”

            It was the beginning of a serious friendship.

            Michelle had tons of amazing qualities. She was smart (way smarter than me) and easily caught on to complicated algebraic equations I could never understand, even if I was armed with a fancy calculator.

            Michelle wanted to be a doctor when she grew up.

            Not only was she hilarious, but she was also socially gifted and could easily navigate a conversation with a diverse array of groups that included the skaters, jocks, “hicks,” teen moms (yes, we had some), and even the faculty.

            Everyone knew and liked Michelle.

            As the school year progressed, I started seeing things that were unusual.

            One of five children, Michelle’s parents were divorced and her mother had sole custody of all of them. One had special needs. Michelle’s mom had a medical condition that apparently precluded her from working and she was on Disability. Michelle’s dad lived in Ohio but kept in touch.

            Michelle didn’t have a landline at her house. Her mother couldn’t afford one and these were the days before cellular phones, so if I needed her to call me, she would have to walk to the convenience store near her house and call from a pay phone.

            She routinely came to school wearing clothes that were either stained or were what she wore the day before.

            Her shoes had holes in them, exposing her equally-holed socks.

            While Michelle was open to going to other peoples’ houses (the logistics had to be planned days in advance because of the phone situation), she was guarded about having anyone come home with her.

            My first glimpse into her housing situation came one day in English when a boy, who happened to be one of her neighbors, embarrassed her in front of the entire class by loudly declaring that her house was “disgusting.”

            Like a scene from a movie, Michelle literally ran out of the classroom mortified and hysterical.

            Apparently what her neighbor said had struck a nerve.

            (I subsequently saw her house when my parents drove her home from school one day. It was a two-story yellow dilapidated wood frame house with a wrap-around front porch littered with trash, clothing, and old furniture. Michelle’s family was poor beyond comprehension. Not long after, the house was condemned by the local government as unfit for human occupancy.)

            As time went on, Michelle confessed that her mother was mentally and physically abusive. The stains on her clothes were usually remnants of food and beverages Michelle’s mother would sinisterly throw on Michelle and her siblings as they left for school. Through tears, Michelle confided that her mother routinely said unthinkable things to her.

            I should have had an abortion when I was pregnant with you.

            You’re garbage, so eat this garbage off the floor.

            I wish you were dead. 

            There were many times when Michelle would come to school with bruises and her face would be swollen from crying.

            Sometimes she would tell the truth about what prompted the tears, and other times she would make excuses.

            Toward the end of the school year, Michelle moved to Ohio to live with her dad. Though I was broken hearted for losing the other half of my BFFLAENMW, Michelle’s relocation was for the best.

            Eventually, life got in the way and Michelle and I lost touch.

            For whatever reason, Michelle returned to live with her mother our junior year of high school. By that time, I had a new group of friends with similar interests and backgrounds as me.

            While I tried to include Michelle in my established life and friendship circle, it appeared we had too many differences. My friends and I were active in student government, service clubs, honors societies, and preparing for college. Michelle was interested in skipping class and smoking in the school bathrooms.

            Things changed. We changed.

            One summer when I was home from college, I took a part time job hostessing at a popular restaurant. To my surprise, Michelle was also working there as a waitress.

            Like our middle school days, Michelle showed me the ropes and got me acquainted with the staff.

            I remembered why I had been instantly attracted to her charisma and sense of humor so many years before.

            As the weeks went on and during work breaks, Michelle and I were able to slowly catch up on happenings of the last few years. She dropped out of high school when she got pregnant following a one-night stand. The State declared her an unfit mother and took the child away. She was arrested on multiple drug-related and prostitution charges (she claimed she was set up). She had been in several abusive relationships and was living with a man two decades her senior in the outskirts of town.

            She thought she might be pregnant.

            Michelle still had a lot of animosity over the strained relationship with her mother. The physical and mental abuse never stopped and was driven primarily by her mother’s own self-loathing, which she projected onto her children. All of Michelle’s brothers and sisters had significant emotional and developmental problems.

            Michelle told me that her mother was addicted to crack cocaine and living in a shed behind a friend’s house.

            The type of shed someone would use to store things like ladders, paint, and lawn equipment.

            Michelle was having a hard time and we again lost touch after I returned to college when summer was over.

            Fast forward fifteen years.

            My knowledge about Michelle’s whereabouts is limited to Facebook posts and digging around on the Internet.

            Michelle has had four children taken away from her and has been incarcerated more times than I can count. She’s been hooked on drugs and her once beautiful smile has fallen victim to addictions like nicotine and methamphetamine. According to one family member, Michelle has significant problems with depression and has been Baker Acted multiple times.

            Michelle was good and smart and kind and ambitious.

            However.

            Based on her upbringing, Michelle never stood a chance.

            There is a school of thought that in America, the land of opportunities, everyone has an equal chance to learn, lead, and to be successful.

            “All you have to do is work really, really hard and success will naturally come!”

            A belief that we are all on the same playing field with the same opportunities.

            It’s not true.

            We are not all on the same playing field.

            Kids whose parents are doing drugs and physically abusing them are not on the same playing field as kids who come from a loving, stable household.

            Kids whose parents mentally torture them are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents are ready and able to provide emotional support.

            Kids whose parents live in and perpetuate an environment of cyclical poverty are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents provide basic needs such as food, shelter, electricity and clothing. (Let alone the kids of parents who are able to provide the lavish comforts of country clubs, exotic vacations, and prestigious boarding schools.)

            Kids whose parents don’t care what they are doing and who they were hanging out with are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents observe their friendships and hold them responsible for making wise decisions.

            Kids whose parents show no interest in academic success are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents help them do their homework and hold them accountable when they earn poor grades.

            Kids who are emotionally and physically abandoned are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents are exposing them to books, hobbies, and spirituality.

            The playing fields aren’t always even and this disparity makes a huge difference in the long run.

            Michelle is proof of that. Based on her upbringing and short of a miracle, she never stood a chance of being the doctor she wanted to be.

            She never stood a chance at much of anything.

            All of us know a Michelle. I have known and observed many Michelles, both personally and in my career. If the dice were rolled differently and I was born into a different family, I could have been a Michelle. So could you.

            Sure, there are always outliers. The people who overcome unimaginable adversity and go on to be contributing members of society.

            But that is not the norm.

            In the United States, 21% of all children live below the federal poverty line. Nearly 700,000 are abused annually. More than 8 million children live with at least one parent who’s addicted to alcohol or drugs.

            Persistently poor children are 13% less likely to finish high school and 43% less likely to complete college as their peers.

            If you have parents who gave a damn about you and met your basic needs, then you’re lucky.

            Does this mean that kids who come from families that are intact and financially responsible should be punished for things they cannot control?

            No.

            But it does mean that we should want to see disadvantaged kids succeed, even if it means they are receiving assistance or special privileges to push them along the way.

            It does mean that before we judge someone’s outcome, we should seek to understand the bigger picture of how they got there to begin with.

            It does mean that we feel sincere compassion and empathy for other peoples’ unfortunate circumstances.

            Cheers.

             

              Crying Uncle: Showing Up and Asking for Help


              How to Have the Courage to Ask for Help and Seek Therapy | The Champagne Supernova

              Have you ever had a secret you were ashamed of and didn’t want anyone to ever know?

              I have.

              But I don’t care about the secret anymore. It needs to be out in the open. I want it to be okay and for others to do the same thing I did and feel good about it.

              No more shame.

              As background, I went through a rough bout with the baby blues following the birth of my oldest daughter in 2012.

              Crying all the time. Hot flashes. Feeling lonely. Wondering if I was crazy. Becoming a person I didn’t recognize.

              I called my baby blues The Gremlins and wrote about them here.

              Once they became a distant memory, I never wanted to see The Gremlins again. Not ever.

              My second pregnancy started out rough. While I didn’t have the morning sickness that I experienced with my first daughter, I became an insomniac as soon as I  discovered a positive pregnancy test.

              I never had trouble sleeping before, but I saw a pink “plus” sign and suddenly had to learn to survive on 4-5 hours of sleep.

              This was on top of caring for a toddler, managing a household, and having a stressful career as an attorney.

              Now I can see why sleep deprivation is a form of torture.

              (I continue to struggle with insomnia to this day.)

              Then came the tipping point.

              I vividly remember sitting in front of my computer at work, three months pregnant and exhausted from lack of sleep, and making up my mind that while I couldn’t predict whether The Gremlins would creep up on me again, I was going to be prepared if they did.

              I wasn’t going to die on that mountain.

              It was time for me to do myself a favor and take control of the situation.

              I got on the Internet and did some Google searches.

              “Downtown Tampa” “Family therapy” “Female Therapist.”

              I kept scrolling down the search engine results page until I arrived at the photograph of a nice middle-aged woman named Ann Witt. The picture was taken outside and I thought she looked welcoming and had a pretty smile. (I completely judged a book by the cover. Thankfully, it worked out.)

              I called Ann, made an appointment, and saw her twice a month through the duration of my pregnancy.

              Ann provided me with resources on how to manage stress and respond to hormonal changes. She provided tips on how I could respond to feelings of hopelessness. She helped me create a schedule for after the birth of my daughter that would help me keep my focus off my feelings, if the situation warranted. She gave me the idea of hiring a Mother’s Helper to take the pressure off by assisting with cooking and household chores.

              I didn’t meet The Gremlins following the birth of my second daughter. I’ll never know whether its because I went to therapy and used what I learned or because I didn’t have the same hormonal surge that I had during the first pregnancy.

              I’ll never know but it doesn’t matter.

              Know what?

              I still go back to Ann every so often for some brain-picking and fine-tuning.

              In fact, Ann also served as a career coach by encouraging me to start a “Mom Blog” (The Champagne Supernova!) and making a LeaderShift by finding part time employment so I could have more time for my family. I don’t know that either of those would have come to fruition without the nudge.

              (I still remember when she threw out the idea of a Mom Blog, I thought it was nuts. Until that point, I thought mom bloggers were middle-aged women who lived in America’s Breadbasket sitting around in their pajamas and curlers all day writing about shepherd’s pie and homemade aromatherapy oils. Not me!)

              The therapy helped. A lot.

              But here’s the thing.

              I was scared to tell people I was going to therapy.

              It even took me a while to tell my own husband.

              Therapy has a stigma.

              You’re crazy.

              Can’t control your own life.

              Something is wrong with you.

              You have mental issues.

              I was ashamed and didn’t want people knowing about it. Even if these people were my close friends and family members. Not because they were not dear to me, but because I told myself lies that I would be perceived as weak and would be rejected.

              Then came a point where I had the opportunity to share my experience with other people who were going through rough times.

              Divorce. Death. Anxiety. Depression. Post Traumatic Stress.

              I told them my story.

              They called a therapist. They got the help they needed.

              Look.

              Life can be brutal.

              We need to be able to lean in with others without feeling judged.

              We need to start being vulnerable and we need to start showing up. Nobody wants fake and everyone, deep down, knows who the fake people are. People want real. 

              Does this mean we need to be Debbie Downer and constantly air the dark sides of our lives on the Internet and real life? No.

              It does mean that we should create a zone where people show up with each other and are not be afraid to be vulnerable?

              We need to be able to acknowledge, without shame, that we are experiencing a rough time in our marriage. We need to be able to say that we are having issues with our self-image. We need to be able to be honest about feeling lonely and insecure. We need to be able to talk about not feeling a sense of purpose in our careers. We need to be able to discuss problems we’re having with our children. We need to be able to own up about having poor money management. We need to be able to be honest when we are having difficulty overcoming grief.

              We need to be able to admit to seeing a freaking therapist.

              We need to be able to ask each other for help.

              Sometimes in life, you must unashamedly “Cry Uncle.” And if you do, its perfectly okay. You will still be loved.

              Courage asks for help. Weakness does nothing.

              Cheers!

               

                The Last Bad Act: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss


                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                This picture of Mario Simoes personifies his spirit. Antisana, Ecuador, February 20, 2016.

                How often have we judged someone by the last bad act they committed?

                Remembered their life ending in an act of rage?

                Rolled our eyes as we read newspaper articles or watched TV shows about someone who “snapped” and dismissed them as being crazy?

                Labeled that person for the one last despicable thing they did in their otherwise extremely rich life?

                My law school classmate and friend, Mario Simoes, recently died following a shootout with police.

                These events happened in my hometown of DeLand, Florida.

                According to news reports, Mario drove to his wife’s law firm in his Mercedes-Benz and, intoxicated, began shooting at the building. When police arrived in response to a 911 call, Mario embarked on a high-speed chase with the police on DeLand’s back roads, reaching speeds of 100 m.p.h. His vehicle became disabled after he struck a couple who was leaving a Lowe’s home improvement store (luckily, neither of these individuals were injured).

                Police purportedly advised Mario to “drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun” for two minutes until they opened fire, as they believed he was reloading his gun in the vehicle. He was killed.

                Mario was 45 years old.

                I have known Mario for over a decade and, while we lost touch over the years, he was not the type of person I ever imagined would do something like this.

                He’s actually one of the last people.

                The shooting was all over the local news.

                Just another crazy man with a gun who appeared to be on a murder-suicide mission.

                Newspaper articles claim Mario and his wife, also an attorney, were having marital problems and she moved out of their home the week before. Engulfed in despair, he showed up at their shared law practice with a gun and began shooting at the exterior windows from his vehicle.

                These events are shocking.

                I have been emotionally tied to Mario and his wife, Kim, since mid 2006 when they adopted my family dog, Scout.

                Mario wasn’t just someguyIwenttolawschoolwith.

                He was special and we were connected.

                As background, my parents got divorced when I was in law school and moved to places where they could not have pets. My sister and I were students and unable to care for a dog. This left us with needing to find a new home for our family dog, a rat terrier named Scout.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Scout when he was roughly ten years old.

                We got Scout in 1998 when he was ten weeks old. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school and we put in all the work and training that comes with having a puppy.

                Scout was a great dog and we loved him. When deciding on his new living situation, we thought long and hard about who would take him. One of my best friends, who was living in New York City, offered to adopt him. Like most young and ambitious New Yorkers, she worked long hours and my gut told me that she and Scout would not work out. Another friend asked her mother to take him, but the mother was having health issues and it was not the perfect fit. None of our options felt right, but dropping him off at the Humane Society was never an option because we wanted to maintain control over where he would go.

                One day after my law school contracts class was over, I ran into Mario in the outdoor study area. Knowing that he was a huge dog lover, I went out on a limb and blabbered: “Hey Mario, do you and Kim want another dog?”

                Whatever, all he can do is say no, I thought to myself.

                I explained the situation with needing to re-home Scout and Mario immediately took an interest, despite already having four dogs at home and despite that he never laid his eyes on Scout.

                This worked out perfectly. Mario and his wife lived in my hometown and Mario coordinated a time for my dad to bring Scout to their house to meet Kim. She would decide whether Scout could stay there, as Mario was away at law school in Gainesville and she would be Scout’s primary caretaker until Mario graduated.

                In sum, Mario and Kim ended up adopting Scout and they gave him a wonderful life. In fact, they gave Scout a better life than my family would have given him if he never needed to leave our home in the first place. Mario and Kim lived in a beautiful house on a large piece of property where Scout had plenty of room to run around. He had four new doggie brothers and sisters to keep him company while Kim was working during the day. He had a swimming pool and an air conditioned dog house that was fancier than some peoples’ real houses. He got to travel to cool places like the Bahamas on the Simoes’ private plane.

                Scout had it made.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Flight tickets Mario made with Scout’s picture. He nicknamed Scout “Nubby” because his short tail resembled a nub.

                After graduation, Mario and I kept in touch. He constantly updated me about Scout and how much he, Kim, and the other dogs were all enjoying him. Then, in August of 2014, Mario informed me that Scout passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 16. He had a long and fulfilling life, and Mario and Kim were sure going to miss him.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Mario and me at law school graduation in December of 2007.

                When reading Mario’s message of Scout’s death, I felt a mix of sadness and gratitude. Sadness about the loss, but gratitude about Mario and Kim’s kindness in welcoming Scout into their home during my family’s own time of grief over the end of my parents’ marriage.

                As the years passed, Mario and I would occasionally touch base with each other on social media. I followed his adventures that included flying his plane to exotic cities and embarking on high-stakes adventures.

                Mario was more than an attorney, husband, and friend. His story is remarkable.

                Born in Venezuela, Mario relocated to Portugal with his family as a child and eventually graduated 1st in his class at the Portuguese Air Force Academy. He began his career as a military pilot and, later, as a commercial pilot for a major airline. He graduated 2nd in our law school class of 208 graduates at the University of Florida. He was an exceptional writer, which was especially impressive considering English was not his first language. He was a member of The Florida Bar and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

                Mario was also an accomplished mountain climber. He recently completed the “Seven Summits Challenge” by climbing to the top of the seven highest places on Earth. In addition to Mt. Everest, Mario climbed to the top of the highest mountain in each of the six other continents: Puncak Jaya in New Guinea, Vinson in Antarctica, Elbrus in Europe, Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, and Kilimanjaro in Africa.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Mario and his guide at The Matterhorn.

                His next adventure was going to be the Explorers Grand Slam, which involved skiing to both the North and South Poles. He was supposed to start this challenge in April of 2017, when he would be flown to a block of ice in Norway, 70 miles from the North Pole, where he would ski over difficult terrain until he reached the pole.

                Mario didn’t make it to April.

                In the week preceding his death, Mario published a series of daunting status updates on his Facebook account.

                March 14, 2017, at 5:24 p.m.:

                It’s scary what a smile can hide.

                March 14, 2017, at 8:11 p.m.:

                I have descended to a very dark place. 

                I believe Mario’s last status updates were cries for help.

                I did not reach out to him because I did not see the status updates until after he died, but I am not sure whether or how I would have responded if I would have seen them before it was too late.

                I can tell you how I will respond in the future.

                I will reach out to people who need it. I will not be deterred by the fear of prying into someone’s personal life. I will show people who I love that I love them. I will tell them that I care. I will give them compassion even if it is not convenient.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Mario and law school friends getting ready for a pre-dinner flight.

                People are people. We all have struggles. I haven’t seen Mario or Kim in nearly a decade and certainly don’t know the inner workings of their marriage but, based on my own experience, marriage can be really hard.

                Life can be hard.

                Love can be hard.

                It is painful to think that Mario, despite all of his worldly experiences and possessions, spent the last days of his life in, as he described it, “a very dark place.”

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                Photograph of Mario’s dogs that he uploaded to Facebook six days before he died.

                I don’t know the man who shot up his wife’s law firm and fled from police.

                Nobody knows that man.

                It wasn’t Mario.

                The Mario I love and remember adopted and cared for my dog in my family’s time of crisis. He was a true friend who was respected among our peers. He was adventurous, kind, smart, ambitious and authentic.

                That is the man I will choose to remember.

                The Mario I knew was not the man who shot at his wife’s law office and he was not the man who was killed by police officers.

                That is not the man I will remember.

                I refuse to remember him by his last bad act.

                Mario made his final ascent into the clouds on March 19, 2017. I hope that flight was more beautiful than the view from Mt. Everest, more satisfying than time with his beloved dogs, and filled him with all the love and warmth he ever lacked.

                Mario Simoes: Choosing to Remember Love in a Time of Loss | The Champagne Supernova

                This picture of Mario is hauntingly beautiful and is exactly how I envision him entering the light.

                Godspeed, Mario. You were a treasure who will be missed.

                Cheers to you.

                  I Am Retarded: The Extraordinary Life of Mary Janak


                  Aunt Mary riding her rocking horse at the age of 2.

                  Mary Judith Janak was born on April 19, 1962, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Martha Rybar Rees Janak, an elementary school teacher, and Stephen Benton Elkins Janak, a mill worker. She had two older half-sisters, Ann and Judy Rees, who were fraternal twins.

                  She was my Aunt.

                  Aunt Mary and my grandmother shortly after her birth in 1962.

                  On October 25, 1987, Aunt Mary was found dead in the bedroom of a group home where she lived in Portage, Pennsylvania. She died from complications associated with Type I diabetes, a disease she struggled with since she was diagnosed at the age of two.

                  Her life was not easy.

                  She was always “different.”

                  Aunt Mary in 1963.

                  When she was in kindergarten, Aunt Mary’s IQ tested at 56. My grandmother called her psychiatrist friend, Frank Chianise, M.D. The conversation went something like this:

                  Is she toilet trained?

                  Yes.

                  Can she tie her shoes?

                  Yes.

                  Can she dress herself?

                  Yes.

                  He responded, A 56 IQ is an imbecile and they are incapable of doing any of that. She may have a low sugar day, but she is not a 56 IQ.

                  And that was that.

                  Aunt Mary went on to live a life of trials and adversity.

                  I was only five years old when she died and have very few personal memories of her.

                  I remember my mother and father driving us from Florida to Pennsylvania one summer to visit my grandparents and Aunt Mary. I vaguely recall Aunt Mary excitedly approaching me and my younger sister on the steps of my grandparents’ house and hugging us when we arrived. I remember Aunt Mary was missing knuckles on some of her fingers, a condition that often accompanies those like her who had pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism, a rare genetic malady where the affected individual has skeletal abnormalities.

                  I remember Aunt Mary routinely pricking her finger with a needle and then wiping the blood on a small strip of paper that she stuck into a little machine.

                  The news of Aunt Mary’s death is another “standout” memory from my childhood. My family was living in the small town of Palm Coast on Florida’s east coast, and I remember my mother standing in the kitchen nook talking on the phone with whomever broke the horrible news. The look on her face was a mix of despair and shock, as Aunt Mary’s passing was truly unexpected.

                  Yes, she had diabetes, but nobody expected her to die. Not at that age.

                  Those are all the things my young mind remembers about Aunt Mary.

                  It wasn’t until later in my life that I learned Aunt Mary was “slow” and had mental handicaps.

                  Aunt Mary in grade school for the 1973-74 year.

                  To my five year-old self, she was no different than anybody else.

                  Though she only lived to be twenty-five, Aunt Mary’s life was extraordinary.

                  She was a legend.

                  It’s fair to say that every single person who ever encountered Aunt Mary has their own favorite story about her.

                  She had attributes that so many of us lack.

                  She saw her self worth and defended it.

                  My grandmother thought it was important for Aunt Mary to live as independently as possible despite her disabilities. When Aunt Mary was in her early twenties, my grandmother moved her into a group home for the handicapped in Mylo Park, a suburb of Ebensburg in southwest Pennsylvania.

                  One of the staff members at the group home, a college graduate, decided it would be beneficial for Aunt Mary to wear a medal around her neck that read:

                  “I am Retarded.”

                  (While offensive, this term was widely used in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to describe a person who is cognitively impaired.)

                  That way, the staff member reasoned, if Aunt Mary ventured into town and found herself in a conundrum, whoever she approached would know she had a handicap and could try to help her.

                  Aunt Mary was having none of this “I am Retarded” medal business and suggested that the staff member should wear a medal around her neck that read:

                  “I am Ordinary.”

                  Aunt Mary had self respect, spoke up for herself, and put the staff member right in her place.

                  With her ordinary self.

                  Aunt Mary didn’t end up wearing that stupid medal.

                  Aunt Mary (right) at a local pool with a friend.

                  She met obstacles with wit and creativity. 

                  Aunt Mary was routinely mocked about her physical appearance.

                  When she was in high school, Aunt Mary came home crying several days in a row. She told my grandmother that one of the popular jocks, a well-known athlete named Scott, was teasing her and calling her “Moonwalker” in front of all the other kids in the hallways. (This name calling was likely triggered by the fact that Aunt Mary walked with an awkward gait and, because of that, wore corrective shoes.)

                  Hurt and frustrated, Aunt Mary asked my grandmother if there was something she could to do help.

                  My grandmother told Aunt Mary she couldn’t stop the names and she would need to ignore it until Billy moved along and bullied someone else.

                  “Sticks and stones.”

                  Several days later, the phone rang at my grandparents’ house.

                  Is this Mrs. Banda?

                  Yes it is.

                  This is Scott’s mother. I’m calling because Mary started a rumor at school that she’s pregnant and Scott is the father. You need to tell her to stop spreading lies.  

                  My grandmother internally screamed “YES!” and mentally gave Aunt Mary a high-five.

                  Well, my grandmother said, If you tell Scott to stop calling Mary a moonwalker, than I’ll ask her to stop telling people she’s pregnant with his child.

                  That was the end of it.

                  From that point forward, Scott left Aunt Mary alone.

                  Instead of feeling sorry for herself and waiting for the storm of Scott’s browbeating to pass, Aunt Mary took matters into her own hands.

                  She knew what she wanted and went after it.

                  Aunt Mary was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Perfect timing, because she was alive when they won four Super Bowls championships.

                  Don’t get me wrong, Aunt Mary was absolutely not a bandwagon or fair-weather fan. Win or lose, she would have proudly waved her Terrible Towel, an iconic symbol of their fan base. Her bedroom was adorned with Steeler paraphernalia.

                  Bobble heads. Pennants. T-Shirts.

                  Aunt Mary had a particular crush on Jack Ham, a well-known linebacker who played for the Steelers between 1971 and 1982.  Like Aunt Mary, Ham was born and raised in Johnstown and went to the same Catholic high school as my mother and her twin sister, although they were seven years younger than him.

                  He was a big deal and a celebrity. Such a big deal that he was subsequently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

                  One evening my grandmother’s phone rang.

                  A young man’s voice was on the other end.

                  Hi, is Mary there?

                  No, she’s not, may I take a message?

                  Yes, this is Jack Ham. Do you know when she’ll be home?

                  Oh my goodness, Jack, it’s so nice of you to call. Mary is a huge fan of yours. She’s not here right now because she’s over at a dance being held by The Association for Retarded Citizens. Do you want to leave a message and I’ll have her call you back?

                  Mr. Ham didn’t want to leave a message and he never called back.

                  Who knows why he was calling.

                  To this day, nobody knows whether Aunt Mary somehow tracked down his number, called him, and he was returning the call or if she was sending him letters for which he was responding with a call.

                  We will never know.

                  All we do know is that she was fearless and unintimidated.

                  How many of us would have the guts to contact our celebrity crush?

                  Our world is consumed with labels.

                  Everybody has one.

                  Autistic. Depressed. Little Person. Rich and Poor. Anxious. ADD. Schizophrenic. Tomboy. Bimbo. Immigrant. Fat. Republican or Democrat. Druggie. Bookworm. Nerd. Dyslexic. Emotional. Socialist. Adulterer. Disabled. Alcoholic. Obsessive-Compulsive.

                  Retarded. 

                  Aunt Mary didn’t allow her label to limit her. She didn’t care what other people thought about her and lived her life by her own terms.

                  She generally did what she wanted, when she wanted to do it.

                  There is a special freedom that comes with not responding to what other people think.

                  With not being consumed by what the world has labeled us.

                  Like Aunt Mary, the freedom comes with seeing and defending your own self-worth.

                  It comes with meeting obstacles with humor and creativity.

                  That comes with knowing what you want and going after it.

                  Like most handicapped individuals, Aunt Mary had a great personality. She was a happy person who shared easily and was friendly and kind. She had a moral code, lived by it, and expected that it be reciprocated. Mean people confused her perception that life was beautiful.

                  Her funeral viewing lasted two full days. My grandmother was amazed at the many young and old people who came to say goodbye to Aunt Mary, many in tears.

                  One in particular stands out. Linda, the University of Pittsburgh basketball star player who came to view Aunt Mary who said: My best friend died.

                  Aunt Mary had the freedom that so many of us lack and her life was cut short so we could appreciate her and learn from her.

                  She saw that being ordinary was so much worse than any other label.

                  Cheers to you, Aunt Mary.

                  I love you and will see you again.

                  Me (left) and my sister with Aunt Mary the summer before she died.

                  I don’t know why but I love this photo more than any other. My Aunt Mary laughing with her grandfather (my great-grandfather) Stephen Rybar in the late 1970s.

                  Aunt Mary at her high school graduation.

                  Aunt Mary loved to swim. Here she is sliding into the water at BethCo Pines, a pool for high-ranking mill workers and their families, in the 1970s.

                    Happiness: problems vs. PROBLEMS


                    How to cope with your problems | The Champagne Supernova

                    We all have difficult days and need to be reminded that what we consider problems are not problems.

                    At all.

                    Or even close.

                    My husband was out of town traveling for work (and leisure) for the last week and I’ve been on my own with my two young daughters, ages 2 and 4. Sure they are (overall) good and sure I’ve transitioned from full-time to part-time employment, but dealing with getting lunch made, everyone dressed and out of the house in the morning, driving the kids to school and myself to work, doing pickup and attending extracurricular activities, then returning home and making dinner and getting everyone bathed and in the sack are exhausting.

                    Not to mention that on the mornings I have to wash and blow-dry my hair, it’s like the world has been turned upside down.

                    (Curly haired people, you know what I’m talking about!)

                    Pepper all of this with occasional tantrums, backtalk, and refusal to put on their socks and allow you to brush their hair in the mornings. Now add dealing with demanding clients at work, getting stuck at lengthy stop lights when you’re in a hurry, and a rude toll booth lady (this happened to me two weeks ago at the Tampa Airport, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

                    It can be worse. Way worse.

                    You or your spouse got laid off at work and you can’t pay the mortgage. Your parents got divorced or you’re going through one yourself. Your child consistently gets bad reports at school and was recommended to undergo behavioral therapy. A loved one is dabbling with illegal drugs. Your cousin was caught plagiarizing and might be kicked out of school.

                    You likely know people who are going through these things.

                    It can still be worse.

                    Much worse.

                    In my career as an attorney, I’ve seen incomprehensible tragedy.

                    Children who have been sexually abused by their own parents.

                    Young kids who accidentally drowned in the family swimming school while their parents were upstairs napping.

                    People whose lives were cut short in car accidents by other drivers who simply weren’t paying attention to the road.

                    I’ve had to review thousands of photographs of murder scenes, motor vehicle accidents, and autopsy reports. While doing so, I’ve thought about the people in those photographs and about how they had lives with dreams, goals, and other people who loved them.

                    Those are real problems. Not the “problems” you have. Those aren’t real problems. 

                    Because here’s the thing to remember when you’re feeling frustrated.

                    There are problems and then there are PROBLEMS. 

                    It all comes down to perspective.

                    God is amazing at giving reality checks.

                    I was recently stressed about something meaningless and stupid. Sure, to me it was a problem, but it really wasn’t a PROBLEM.

                    That same day, I met a man who was suffering late stage colon cancer. Having been through chemotherapy and radiation several years before, he thoughtfully decided to let the disease make its natural progression after it returned from being in remission. The man told me he had no purpose to live because, twenty years ago, his daughter was murdered by her husband in a domestic violence dispute, and he felt he had no reason to fight for his life.

                    As he told me his story, I sat in my chair and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to survive something so horrific. If and how I could continue if someone I loved so deeply was taken away from me. How I would cope if I had a terminal illness. How my current “problems” will pass, but how this guy deals with ongoing torment.

                    Those are real problems.

                    I was going through problems and this man had PROBLEMS. 

                    So did the people I described in my cases above. 

                    Sure, our lives aren’t perfect and sometimes it’s difficult getting through the tribulations of everyday life.

                    It’s easy to get stressed out about deadlines at the office, but at least you have a job.

                    Sure, you can get upset when your child gets a bad report card, but at least your child is healthy.

                    It’s annoying when your spouse doesn’t clean up after himself, but at least you have an overall good sense of partnership.

                    Waiting in the carpool line is monotonous, but at least you have a car and your kids are able to attend school.

                    One or both of your parents is still alive. You have friends and people in your life who love and support you. You have the cognitive ability to read books, watch movies, and carry a conversation. You don’t need help performing standard activities of daily living. You live in a country that isn’t torn by war and aren’t afraid to go to sleep each night. You have food and clean water.

                    You’ve got it pretty dang good. 

                    This is not to say that I don’t have bad days and that I don’t get frustrated.

                    I’m not Polyanna, I promise.

                    But when the hard times are happening and I’m in the middle of a super stressful moment that I know will eventually pass, I try my hardest to remember that my problems aren’t PROBLEMS.

                    And that makes me grateful for my problems. 

                    But if you’re reading this and you do have PROBLEMS, then drop me a note. I will pray for you (promise!) and I hope you have people who can support you and see you through them.

                    Cheers.

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