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Money … to spend, to save, to make, to donate, to put in its place

Money — the M in HOME — is a commodity that affects everyone’s lives. You may have a lot, you may have a little, you may inherit some, you may work hard for it, you may invest it, you may waste it. It may make you comfortable, it may make you complacent, it may make you reckless. You may always be looking to make more, you may be happy with what you’ve got, you may spend more than you have. You might use it to travel and study, you might only have enough to rent a room and look out the window. You might use money to eat well, you might only have enough to eat occasionally. You can buy works of art, you can buy cigarettes and crystal meth. You might obsess about money, you may not give it much thought, but do know that money will play a role in your life.

That said, a lot of people at this moment are worrying and/or wondering about money because their place of business is closed, they cannot pay their bills, they have no idea what’s ahead. And while I do want to speak at some point about how to view and assess your financial situation and your handling of it, right now I will not talk about money per se but about five tips to help you get and maintain a rhythm in daily life. These suggestions are helpful at any time but can really make a difference when times are hard.

  1. Make your bed. Seriously, whether you are sleeping in a king-sized poster bed or on a park bench, make your bed once you get up (even if that only means to move your pillow to your cart). Doing so signifies that your day has begun and you have decided so. It’s very easy to get sloppy and mopey and leave the bed or the couch or the sleeping bag undone, but taking the three minutes or so to make or wrap it all up begins your day on an organized note in which you are in control.
  2. Reevaluate your schedule and adjust accordingly. I know there is a school of thought that everyone should wake up early, be productive in the morning, eat three squares a day, and turn into the sack by 10:00 p.m. If that schedule fits your day and you find it fits you, go for it. If it makes you irritable or leaves you exhausted, change it. People have slept and waked and worked at all hours since the beginning of time (see Luke 2:8-11). You the night owl can be as productive at 1:30 a.m. as your day lark neighbor is at 1:30 p.m. and both of you can be successful. You might be one of those people who feel best eating only two meals a day or you may rather work on weekends and have Wednesdays free or perhaps you dig seeing the sunrise on your morning jog. Find out what is your timing and work with it.
  3. Do not overindulge. If you are going through a tough time, you are most likely anxious, worried, angry, and worn-out, yet still need to be clearheaded enough to look for work, budget, and make other decisions. It is going to be a lot easier to do so if you are not nursing a hangover, struggling to zip up your pants, or cursing your maxed-out credit cards. While it may seem the perfect time to treat yourself — with a hot fudge sundae, a double gin and tonic, those cool new boots — it is a time to develop frugal methods. No, it may not be your first choice, but moderation is the smart choice during hard times and it will make being to indulge all that much sweeter.
  4. Give yourself a challenge. When was the last time you had a deadline or goal to meet that was not from school, work, or the government? When was the last time you tested yourself? Can you go one month without sweets? Meat? A glass of wine? Can you save $500 by the end of the year? Can you learn enough Spanish to order in a Mexican restaurant at Christmas time? Can you do 100 push-ups per day for one month? Can you tell a joke a day everyday from here until Halloween? A challenge is a great way to evaluate and improve yourself at the same time.
  5. Develop a sense of adventure for ordinary days. We often fall into routines that become ruts simply because we don’t see the magic in the mundane. Okay, your days are made up of a commute, your job, grocery shopping, dealing with friends or family (maybe kids), washing dishes, paying bills. Pretend you are a spy. Test yourself on your way to work: What is coming up at the next corner? What businesses are two blocks up? How many coffee shops do you pass? Churches? It is amazing how little we notice and how much we miss on a daily commute. At the market, what new veggie or herb can you throw in a salad? Take a peek at those jars with foreign writing on them. What is in the discount bin? Can you switch around your daily schedule at work? Take a break outside instead of in the lounge? Read a poem (or write one) while you eat lunch? What is the favorite color/movie/meal of your friend or sibling or son? Find out what they would do if they could do whatever they wanted. Pay attention when washing dishes. Feel the hot water, smell the soap, and remind yourself that you are preparing to eat good meals in the future. And while bill paying is a drag, is there any way to reduce your bills? Have you ever investigated the possibility? If they are what they are, can you find some great music — 1960s Egyptian jazz, country swing, Christian metal — to add some spice to this necessary chore?

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At odd times in history …

Ordinary people have done extraordinary things. Some of these accomplishments have been horrific — the slaughter of innocent people, the destruction of entire countries, the suppression of free thought — but other achievements have been wonderful — the liberation of those oppressed, the exploration of new lands and galaxies, the finding of a cure. And while the people behind these triumphs and tragedies become well-known and may seem bigger than life, they were actually ordinary people who focused and dedicated themselves to a cause, be it good or bad.

Staying inside when you want to go out and hike in the hills, shop at the mall, have coffee with friends, or attend church services may seem nothing more than annoying, but at this odd time in history it is heroic and selfless and a gesture of love. It is the smallest chore you can perform that will yield the largest yield. Not being out and about will help to contain the virus and flatten the curve as they say, and while you may feel anxious or upset or overwhelmed or even angry, know that you are doing an extraordinary thing — you are saving lives.

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To look at yourself, look at your outlook

OUTLOOK: Your wellbeing encompasses more than just your physical and psychological health. Outlook is an aspect of your mental health; it is the gauge of how you view the world and interact with it. You could say that it is the way you look out of yourself and how do you feel about what you see. It encompasses passions, obsessions, emotions, spirituality, flexibility and fortitude. Your outlooks reflects your standards (what they are and whether or not you meet them), your desires (the same), your ability to make a change, and your view of where you stand in your corner of the world.

  • Are you generally content with your life? If not, what areas bother you?
  • Do you feel overly pessimistic?
  • Are you lonely a lot?
  • Do you feel people pester you too much?
  • Do you often feel misunderstood?
  • Do you find it hard to understand others?
  • Do you look forward to meeting new people?
  • Do you wish to avoid people often or always?
  • Do you feel optimistic about your future? The world’s future?
  • Do you think everything is okay and the world’s problems is media-made?
  • Do you have a sense of impending disaster?
  • Do you feel well-balanced – content enough but with goals and plans?
  • Do you feel as if you have enough support?
  • Do you feel abandoned by people you considered to be friends?
  • Do you believe in God? If so?
  • Do you pray regularly?
  • Do you bring your troubles to the Lord?
  • Do you bring your triumphs and thanks to the Lord?
  • Do you attend church or belong to a group of followers?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest to enjoy in your free time?
  • Do you feel a sense of accomplishment at your job, with your studies, or with other obligations?
  • Do you keep in touch with people?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping due to worries?

Again, the list could go on and on, but I believe you get my drift. When taking stock of your life, it is essential to look at your current disposition objectively – not as you wish you were feeling/thinking/acting, but as you truly are – and see where improvements need to be made and where you need not expend more energy. (For example, if you sometimes find the world to be a scary hellhole, you are in sync with most of its inhabitants. If you are continually afraid, however, to travel or attend social functions, you may want to talk to someone about your fears. An occasional thought about slugging your boss or neighbor or best friend is not necessarily bothersome; a constant desire to do so should be addressed.)

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HOME Assessment/Action Plan

How are you?

This is a question that most of us answer quickly (“Fine. Okay. Lousy. You?), but from time to time, you really do need to step back and think it over. How are you? How are you feeling? Are you enjoying life? Feeling any sense of accomplishment? Do you have friends? Goals? Hobbies? Is your garage a mess? Do you have trouble sleeping? Praying? Paying your bills? Seriously, how are you?

Several years ago, I developed an assessment plan designed to help me look at all facets of my life in a systematic way (as opposed to laying awake at night with my mind rolodexing through issues and concerns). I call my plan the HOME Assessment/Action Plan, with HOME being an acronym for

Health

Outlook

Money

Environment

These four areas cover every situation and subject of our life. Your job, your daily habits, your favorite pastime, your wardrobe, your budget, your choice of vehicle, Whatever you are doing on a daily basis Obviously, these facets overlap. If your health is bad, your outlook on life may be lousy. Your environment – home, office, car – is affected by your income (money). Health problems are affected by your finances also. None of these compartments are exclusive from each other, but dividing your life into four quadrants makes it easier to assess your current state of being and take action to improve it (if necessary).

Let us look at each component of this plan, starting with H – health.

Health focuses on your physical health (which can include mental health issues). Questions to consider regarding your health include:

  • Do you have pain anywhere? Can you banish it? If not, can you reduce it?
  • Are you overweight? Underweight?
  • Does your stomach give you trouble? Indigestion?
  • Are your teeth in good shape? Clean? No cavities? When was the last time you saw a doctor?
  • Do you sleep well?
  • Do you have a decent amount of energy or are you often fatigued?
  • How is your appetite? Do you have healthy eating habits? Do you eat a lot of sweets? Use a lot of salt? Overeat often? Starve yourself? Binge?
  • Do you drink alcohol? Do you ever drink too much? If so, how often?
  • Do you smoke? Have you tried to quit?
  • Do you take recreational drugs? If so, are they adversely affecting your health?
  • Do you have any addictions? (You might want to get another’s opinion for this question.)
  • How is your eyesight? Your hearing? Can you see the horizon and hear others speaking?
  • Do you suffer from depression? Mood swings? Hear voices? (This is actually more common that one might think.)
  • Do you have any scratches, cuts, bumps, bruises, or burns that are not healing?
  • Are you sexually active? If so, do you use birth control? Practice safe sex?
  • Do you drink a lot of caffeinated drinks?
  • Do you eat junk food? Drink sugary drinks?
  • Do you have any rashes on your skin?
  • Do you have arthritis? Is it impacting your ability to get around and get things done?
  • Do you ever get short of breath? Have fainting spells? Get dizzy?
  • Do you have any allergies? Suffer from hay fever?
  • Do you catch colds and get the flu often?
  • Do you have heartburn often?
  • Do you have problems with incontinence?
  • Do you feel anxious for no apparent reason? Depressed? Hyperactive?
  • If you taking medication for an illness or chronic condition, is it working?
  • If you wear prosthetics or orthotics, do they fit properly?

I have probably overlooked a zillion different health concerns that one might have, but I believe you get the picture. Pay attention to your body and take note of how you feel, how you move, what gives you pain, what seems out of balance. Everyone experiences fatigue and aches occasionally, but you should not be in pain or tired continually. No matter what issues you may have – from being overweight to being bedridden – assess what you can do to improve your well-being. The action(s) you might take could include:

  • Losing weight
  • Getting your teeth cleaned
  • Having your hearing checked
  • Taking a vision test
  • Seeing a doctor
  • Seeing a chiropractor
  • Seeing a specialist
  • Taking herbal remedies
  • Quitting smoking
  • Changing your diet
  • Going into rehab for drugs or alcohol
  • Beginning an exercise regimen
  • Using a neti pot
  • Seeing a psychiatrist
  • Eating more fruits and veggies
  • Eating less ice cream
  • Taking a multivitamin
  • Undergoing physical therapy
  • Being screened for cancer
  • Undergoing medical tests
  • Adjusting your medication

How you handle your health issues is your prerogative, but once in a while – once a month, annually, seasonally, twice a year – it is good to focus exclusively on how well is your well-being. Once you determine your physical fitness and how you feel, you can do a bit of decluttering and/or self-improvement in that area. Quit bad habits, start new regimens, go to the dentist, get new glasses, get a second opinion.

While health is important, it is just one of the four cornerstones of the life you are building. Check back in a few days for the next installment of the HOME Assessment/Action Plan.

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Self Improvement

Oh quick — I think you forgot this …

Are you reading this blog post by yourself? Be grateful someone took the time to teach you to read.

Is someone reading it to you? Be grateful for that person.

Are you indoors? Be grateful you have a place to go to get out of the elements.

Are you sitting down? Be grateful for a chair (even if it is a wheelchair).

Are you standing up? Be grateful you can stand.

Do you think I am an idiot for suggesting you be grateful for basic things? Leave me a comment and be grateful that you can do that. In some countries, you cannot speak your mind.

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Self Improvement

A Deep Down Decluttering …

I have done my fair share of decluttering. I have donated or disposed of books, bed linens, clothes, cooking utensils, artwork, and furniture and always enjoyed the end result — a cleaner apartment. Moreover, I find that having less stuff helps me think clearer, feel calmer, and live in a more organized and efficient fashion. And — surprise, surprise — I rarely miss the things I shed. Frankly, I often find myself wondering why I kept something as long as I did.

There is another level of decluttering that goes beyond clearing out your closets and cabinets. The clothes you wear, the books you read, the furniture you use are not the only devices that help you live and enjoy your daily life and move about in the world. A lot of your daily life is lived in your head and that space might need some clearing. Here are some constructs and collections which you might consider weeding.

Obligations. Are you the one always expected to host the holiday party? Babysit your friend’s kids? Give up your weekend to finish the department report on time? Obligations are a part of life, but so is wearing clothes and sometimes we need to weed our closets. Ask yourself: Do you need to be doing all that you are doing? Are you the only one who can do a certain chore? Would dropping this obligation negatively impact your life? Get you fired? End a friendship? Would that be so bad? There are chores we accept as our responsibility, duties duties we take on because we believe in a mission, extra tasks we actually enjoy doing. Grab these gigs and go at it with gusto. If, however, you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you are expected to do, determine what is making you feel put upon and go in decluttering mode. Do you really truly absolutely need to do this? If the answer is no, say no to it and let it go to someone else or go undone. (Note: It is surprising how many “obligations” can be ignored without changing the status quo.)

Standards. Standards can be beneficial, benchmarks to evaluate your quality of life. You can set standards on anything: the way you clean your house, the way you cook your food, the friends you keep, the jobs you take. Sometimes, however, the bar you have set for yourself needs to be adjusted — or even eliminated. Can you actually maintain your current lifestyle on your new salary? Does it truly matter what kind of car you drive? Do all your friends have to share your political views? Are your habits in line with your beliefs? Standards should help one live to the best of their ability but they must be reachable in order to be of any value. When circumstances change, our standards might need to change. While we should not abandon all our ideals, if you find yourself continually frustrated because you cannot meet your own standards, it may be time to remove that goalpost.

Regrets. During the last conversation with my mother, I asked her if she had any regrets. Of course she did, she told me, everyone does. If you have ever thought anything or done anything, you will have regrets — how you did something, what you could have done better, what you passed up. Regret is part of the fabric of human life. We are imperfect, often realize it too late, and remember that fact often. Most people regret things they did not do, although we all have those moments we replay in our minds where we did something we regret. Regrets may help or hinder us depending on how we use them. We may never again speak without thinking or we may never again miss a chance to speak up. We will take more risks or we might be more cautious. We will stop to help others or we might be a little less free with our charity. Regrets can keep us from missing opportunities but they should not keep us up at night. If you find yourself continually mulling over what you did or did not do, remember that no amount of regret will change the past. Acknowledge your regret, make amends or plans if possible, and then toss those regrets or at least put them where you cannot trip over them.

Habits. Obviously, getting rid of bad habits — smoking, gambling, drinking — will help you live better. But even if you don’t have addictions draining you, you probably have habits that hold you back and you don’t notice them until you look closely. Do you always hit the snooze button? Pay your bills late? Immediately accept any invitation? Check your phone constantly? Forget to bring lunch? Blame everything on everyone else? Take a good look at how you handle the mundane moments of your day. Do you have habits that hold you back, waste your time, cost you money? Some of them could be tossed out. (NOTE: I find this to be the hardest type of decluttering. When you decide to dispose of a habit, it tends to sneak back into your life like a stray cat you’ve been feeding. But just as Marie Kondo can help with decluttering up your home, there are others who can help you tidy up your habits.)

Dreams. We all have dreams — that adventure we are going to have, that goal we are going to reach, that life we are going to live. Dreams can get us out of bed on bad days. They can lighten our mood and help us focus. Dreams may give us purpose and a reason to persevere on a difficult path. But dreams can also waylay us. Why put any effort into your current job, relationships, living space, or life if you are going to be leaving town/running your own business/marrying your dream partner and heading off to Tahiti? Dreams can guide us but they can also trick us by giving us the view that our current life is insignificant and not worthy of any investment on our part. Do you have dreams that make you ignore your everyday life? And are your dreams still your dreams? Do you still want to bicycle across the U.S.? Do stand-up comedy? Adopt a child? If you do, please focus on these dreams and turn them into reality. If not, toss them and make room for new improved dreams — or perhaps just more space for all those plans for your current real life.

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Self Improvement

Simple Advice For Improvements Major or Minor

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

This sage bit of counsel comes from the late great Arthur Ashe, an athlete and businessman who was the first African American tennis player to be selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man (so far) to win the singles title at Wimbledon. This advice seems so simple that one’s first response is to either a) nod your head and say, “Why, yes, of course …” or b) roll your eyes and say, “Well, duh, of course …” Either way, these guidelines are great when you are trying to improve any area of your life – finances, athletic pursuits, business, friendships – but while they may seem straightforward, they deserve analysis and forethought.

Start where you are. Are you certain you know where it is you are exactly? You may know your geographic whereabouts, your biological age, and your strengths and skills, but do you know where you are in the scheme of things? Do a realistic assessment. How is your health (mental, financial, physical), what are your days like, what are your responsibilities and restrictions? Is it feasible to start up a business when you’re about to be evicted? Can you handle a cross-country move while you undergo cancer treatment? How much time can you devote to a small business, a creative project, a volunteer endeavor right now? Never mind how you felt ten years ago or how your life might be in a few years from now or what your days might be like if you lived somewhere else – where are you in your life right now? Know your starting point.

Use what you have. Never mind what you might have had in the past or what you could get in the future – what do you have right now? Assess your resources – skills, funds, equipment, connections – and don’t forget to look in the corners. A lot of us have opportunities, advantages, outsiders willing to help, and various sources of assistance that we don’t utilize because we don’t see them. Do be careful, however, of overestimating your resources and be certain to look at what you are going to need for the entire process.

I set up a website which was going to showcase all the great black and white photos I took with disposable cameras. I had bought a couple of one-use black and white cameras, knew how to run a WordPress blog, and had secured the domain. I had ideas where to take photos and what to shoot. I was just about to start this project when the first roll of film came back from the developer. I then found out that processing black and white film is expensive (at least for my budget). I simply could not afford to have my photos developed on a regular basis. The site then sat empty for over a year before I developed a new idea for it. Had I thoroughly assessed what I had and what I needed, I would have realized that I was not in the position to carry out my plans.

Be careful. A great idea or promising future is grand but getting there requires you to work in the present – and you can only work with you’ve got.

Do what you can. Obviously, you cannot do what you cannot do. And while it is possible that you may be able to do quite a lot, it is probable that you won’t be able to do as much as you want to do, particularly at first. That said, even if you can only accomplish a bit, do not squander this capability/opportunity. People will often do nothing when they realize they can only do a little. “I won’t be able to exercise for a full hour today so I won’t exercise at all.” “What good is saving ten bucks a month?” “I wanted to go back to school but I could only take a night course once a week.” We often take the attitude of “Go big or go home” without realizing how much can be accomplished through the accumulation of small steps. Success is rarely overnight, it is the accumulation of small triumphs and improvements.

What’s more, doing something for improvement – even if it is a small step – brings about a mental change. You realize that you have control over your life and that there is always something you can do to improve your lot. Studies amongst the homeless have shown that people who bathe on a regular basis are more apt to find work, get housing, and get off the street quicker than those who do not keep themselves clean. A small step, but a step forward nonetheless.

It is unfortunate but true: It is not that we can only do a little bit, but that we do nothing with that little bit we can do.

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Offbeat Advice

More From a Screenwriter

Bad people do good things, good people do horrible things, everybody — extraordinary and ordinary — does the same things.

My screenwriting pal told me that he had written a piece in which a mother went to prison for [I think] burglary. People told him, “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen! That’s unthinkable. She’s a mom.” Seriously? Tell that to Child Protective Services. There are maternity wards in state penitentiaries, you know? And the ability to bear a child (and possibly take decent care of it) does not make a woman unable to commit crimes. Yet the idea is, well, unpleasant, and folks don’t want to think unpleasant thoughts so they deem it unthinkable.

Prospective audiences also have trouble believing that a killer might be very religious, a prostitute might be a perfect babysitter, or a female executive cries when she burns toast. It just seems out of character. (More on that in another post.) Serial killers eat breakfast, remember people’s birthdays, and suffer toothaches, flat tires, and overdue library books. While their crimes might generate interest, they don’t. They may commit horrific crimes, but for the most part, they are Joe Blows of little note. As Hannah Arendt noted, evil is banal.

Meanwhile, history is filled with accounts of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things — some reported, some not. Soldiers do some heroic deeds in battle and a passerby may put out a fire and we hear about it a news feed, but all day every day regular people are stopping fights, feeding the hungry, and improving someone’s life and we will never know about it. A character who stops to give someone CPR or foil a burglary and then goes on about their humdrum day with no fanfare or even notice is not an anomaly, it is everyday life.

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Offbeat Advice

Life Truths I Have Learned From Scripts and a Screenwriter

I have a long-time neighbor and friend who is also an award-winning screenwriter. He has written screenplays that deal with murder, motherhood, loneliness, lust, insecurity, empathy, being a black sheep, being a fish out of water. While he can write horror and sci-fi, the majority of his scripts are realistic and showcase the thrills, chills, wonder, and weirdness that occurs in real life. Thus, reading his scripts — most for the screen — has brought me some revelations about life offscreen. (In the case of screenplays, art not only imitates life, it examines and evaluates and influences it.) A few things I have learned:

Conclusion does not necessarily bring closure. Situations — an unsolved crime, a family dispute, an illness — may come to an end, but that ending does not necessarily bring any answers or comfort to anyone. The killer gets caught but the victims’ families still grieve. The lonely guy makes a friend but still doesn’t find love. The alcoholic makes peace with his past mistakes but cannot stop drinking. The war is over but the winner is broke. The end of bad times may bring relief but not resolution. An ending — even one with revenge — rarely heals any wounds. This is true in movies and in real life. People may celebrate the end of a bad scene for a bit, but usually they just pick up and move on (and clean up).

When someone is horrible and you wonder what happened to make them that way, the answer is often NOTHING. Or at least nothing extraordinary. While there are people killing children or setting houses on fire due to one very traumatic event, most people are the way they are due to how they learned to handle the ordinary ups and downs in their lives. For every person who is shooting at cars on the freeway and points to a lousy childhood or some injustice or mistreatment of some sort … well, there is a successful business owner or a great teacher or other well-adjusted person who had a lousy childhood, grew up poor, and was picked on and does not rob people or melt down in public. Of course, they don’t get any press. The serial killer is way more interesting than the guy who owns the shoe store, If you scratch the surface, however, you may find they ain’t all that much different other than the store owner chose to take a more constructive path.

More on this subject at a later date … in the meantime, go to the movies!

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Offbeat Advice

A Short Answer and A Sympathetic Ear

I recently formulated some New Year’s resolutions. (Yes, this calendar year of 2019 has been challenging and a bit of a bust regarding changes I planned on making, so I am starting a new year on August 1st.) One resolution I made was to post to this blog regularly — a short post on Monday, a longer one to be posted on Thursday or Friday. In keeping with that resolution, here is my short begin-the-week post.

Life comes with problems. Some problems you may bring upon yourself, some may come upon you out of nowhere, some can be solved, some stick around the rest of your life. It is just the way it is. (See John 16:33.)

Sometimes, talking about your problems can help you deal with them better. Since you and your pals and your neighbor and the bartender all have problems too, they can relate to whatever is bugging you or at least understand why it is bugging you. So when someone asks, “Hey, how’s it going?” you talk about your lousy job or your troubled child or your bad knee or whatever ails you. It feels good to get this weight off your chest. You feel less angry, less overwhelmed, and hey! the listener might even have a helpful piece of advice. And folks just want to help one another, right?

A word of caution: Not everyone wants to hear all your problems. Or at least not every time they see you. And while it is a given that in this world you will have trials and tribulation, your troubles don’t need to be the focus of all your conversations.

If you want to live your life with some modicum of class, find a short answer to “Is everything alright?” You don’t need to say “Oh, couldn’t be better!” but you don’t need to give a detailed account of your bankruptcy either. Then find a sympathetic ear (therapist, counselor, and also prayer) to listen to your woes or find another way (journal, online board, etc. ) to let it all hang out.

Spilling your guts should not be an integral part of your daily interactions.