2011 – Well, it wasn’t all bad…

December 30, 2011 – If you read my sob story, belly aching blog post from yesterday and were brave enough to come back today, you may be happy to know that since this is the last day of the year, this post focuses on the good aspects of 2011.

I’m still happy that 2011 is about to wash away with the tide, but focusing on the positive is definitely a better way to end the year.

Topping the list are the two major thorns in my side from 2011 – my mother’s three major illnesses and my long period of unemployment. Thankfully both rectified themselves rather nicely in the last quarter; my mother pulled through the major trauma and is doing pretty well considering and I found a great job.

Through that my job, I may have the opportunity to do some global traveling, which I’ve never done before, although I’ve seen enough of Detroit and Minneapolis from my previous position to last anyone a lifetime. That new job also has me trekking into center city Philadelphia each day, which has led me to a few more of the good things about 2011.

For one, I’d like to thank the man at the Market East Station in Philadelphia who plays the banjo every morning. As I make my way up those train steps to step outside onto Market Street, he makes me smile and ready to face my eight-block walk to my office, no matter what the weather is outside. Although I don’t know his name, I know he’s incredibly talented and I wish him much success with his music. I particularly like the days when some passerby stops to join him to harmonize in song. Rock on, Mr. Banjo man…

And on those rare days when I drive to work, the men at Laz Parking at 7th and Sansom also bring a smile to my face and greet me each morning with a joke or a song. They’re the friendliest bunch of parking attendants I’ve ever come across, and two of them actually serenaded me with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as I was leaving the building last Friday. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And finally, now that it’s the last day of 2011, I can officially state that I made it through the “2011 Post Each Day” challenge presented by Word Press. There were days when I didn’t think I would, when I posted something at the last minute just to keep going, and strangely some of those posts turned out to be my most popular. I’m not sure if I will take on that same challenge in 2012 – part of me wants to because I know I will miss it, but I’m busier now than I was in 2011 (thankfully) – so we’ll see.

Thanks for visiting me this year, and be safe if you’re going out tonight.

Here’s to a happy and healthy New Year for all of us!

2011 – So long, farewell and good riddance

December 29, 2011 – This year has been incredibly difficult and I’ve thought long and hard about writing about my trials and tribulations in this blog. I don’t want to complain or appear negative, but in the end I feel that writing about my experiences is cathartic.

I know I’m not alone. Many have muddled through in crisis mode all year long and perhaps like me they anxiously await a fresh start in 2012. So let’s get started:

Approximately 10% of Americans started January 2011 just like me – unemployed. I had been unemployed for a year and a half by this point, the economy was still sluggish and the job market wasn’t improving one iota. As bleak as things looked, I tried to believe my next job was right around the corner.

A few weeks later driving home from an interview, I totaled my car. I’ve had a few fender benders in my life, but this was the first I was responsible for and it stung. I’m still puzzled by how it happened. I was stopped at a red light and then I plowed into the back of a truck that was stopped at the same light. I don’t consciously remember flooring the gas pedal, and since I don’t drive a Toyota, which has been known to surge forward while stopped, I still can’t explain it.

After coasting through the next several weeks a little poorer because I had a car payment again, my mother was hospitalized with a severe lung infection. She spent her 79th birthday in a coma unaware that family and friends surrounded her. Thanks to the help of wonderful doctors and a great nursing staff, she recovered.

After a month in the hospital, she was off to a rehabilitation center to gain back her strength. The facility was nice, but she begged to come home every day. Making things more difficult, she temporarily lost her memory. While she did amuse us by saying the funniest things like, “What am I doing in rehab, I haven’t had a drink in weeks,” there were also plenty of tears. She didn’t remember, for example, that many of her family members had passed away. She would talk about her mother and father coming to visit with her brother, and when we told her they were gone, it was as if she was hearing it for the first time again. How sad is that to have to live through every day?

My mother’s release from the rehab facility at the end of June coincided with a major move for me. Still jobless with no prospects on the horizon, it was back home to mom and dad for me…temporarily. It wasn’t easy admitting failure and moving back home, but I am grateful that I had my parents to turn to. Still the jokes were made as friends lovingly referred to me pulling a George Costanza.

Little did I know, we’d soon be in store for round two at the hospital, as my mom needed to have some minor surgery due to complications from the first illness. But due to her age and health, it was touch and go. Thankfully it was a short stay.

A week or so later, an interview for a part-time job turned into one of those curve balls life likes to throw at you just to see if you’re paying attention. I first saw the ad in a local paper, had a phone interview, and then received a phone call asking if I would be interested in working from home. I said I would consider it although it wasn’t my first choice and was told that they would send me petty cash funds by mail to purchase a computer and software that was needed. The check arrived the next day with instructions on what to do with it and where to buy the equipment. It seemed like an odd process, and I asked why they just didn’t send me what I needed instead, but they explained that this was their process. I was leery, but I didn’t think it would hurt to deposit the check and see if it cleared. I waited three days to make sure, and when the money showed up in my account I followed the instructions. The bank contacted me a few days later and told me the check was fraudulent, and that unless I covered the cash, I would be arrested for fraud. The police and FBI started an investigation, and although I wasn’t held criminally accountable, it was a mess and I’m still trying to straighten it all out. So here’s something everyone should know: it takes 10 to 14 days for a check to actually clear. Banks simply make the funds available a day or so after deposit for their customers’ convenience, which turned into a big inconvenience for me.

In the midst of my bank crisis, my mother was hospitalized for the third time. After trying to treat an infection known as c-diff, it spread to her colon, and after a few days, the doctor explained that there was no alternative. Surgery was necessary to remove her colon if she was to survive. The doctor was honest with us that most patients in her condition normally do not survive the major surgery. But my mom, proving that she’s much tougher than I ever imagined pulled through again, and she came home in early November.

I should also mention that at the beginning of October, I received a good job offer and returned to the workforce ready to go, yet a little weathered.

I won’t be sorry to see 2011 go, but I agree that the year ended much better than it began.

Bill Maher Twitter controversy has some calling for boycott of HBO

December 29, 2011 – Looks like the “New Rules” author and “Real Time” host has done it again.

Maher is well-known for his anti-religion rants and is a self-professed atheist. Although I don’t follow those same beliefs, I’ve always supported his right to his opinion. But his latest tweet about Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has me scratching my head wondering what he hoped to gain.

Sure, he’s a comedian, and comedians like to stir the pot, but his tweet wasn’t funny. It only served to upset a lot of people, and now conservative Christians are once again calling for a boycott of HBO, the home of Maher’s “Real Time” show, which returns on January 13. I’m not sure it will do much good since the audiences who want the boycott probably aren’t HBO subscribers anyway, but they have as much of a right to their opinion as Maher has to his.

Interestingly, the recently departed Christopher Hitchens — a fellow atheist — was a frequent guest on Maher’s show. What a ratings grabber it would be if Maher could interview Hitches via séance about what he’s learned since his death. After all, he knows one way or the other now.

‘Twas the night after Christmas and all through the house

December 28, 2011 – If you’re house looks anything like mine, it’s filled with tattered boxes and gifts still strewn under the Christmas tree.

And if you have kids, there are probably some broken toys, around, too.

I hope you got everything you wanted this Christmas season. But just if you didn’t, here’s a fun list of “30 things you wish you got for Christmas” from Buzzfeed.com that you can pretend are yours.

A New Year’s Resolution to Last a Lifetime

December 27, 2011 — While most people are making New Year’s resolutions to exercise more and eat less, consider committing yourself to making 2012 the year you shape up your finances.

Trim Debts

Excess debt is one of the biggest obstacles in financial planning. For instance, you may have $5,000 in a certificate of deposit earning 6 percent, but if you owe $5,000 to credit cards at 15 percent interest, your cost savings are still 9 percent in the red. Consider paying off your high-interest debt by transferring it to a lower interest loan until the amount is paid off.

One of the best loans to use for debt consolidation is a home equity loan or line of credit. You can not only get a low interest rate, but the interest you pay on a home equity loan is most likely tax deductible.

Set Your Financial Goals

Just as a builder must use blueprints to construct a building, you need to follow an investment plan in order to build your nest egg. Your plan should include both short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals focus on more concrete objectives, like investing $100 a month in a mutual fund. Long-term goals relate to more abstract objectives, such as saving enough to retire when you are 55.

Treat Your Savings as a Bill

Most people pay their bills and save what’s left over. That strategy is fine, as long as there is something left over. A better system is to regularly save or invest a portion of your money every payday. Even better, many employer-sponsored 401(k)s make your investments automatically. Or, you can put a portion of each paycheck into a savings with direct deposit.

Making a few small changes in your finances in 2012 may add up to big savings for you down the road.

Unimaginative buzzwords, and how the workplace is changing

December 26, 2011 – Looking for a job in the coming year? No doubt that social media will play a part in your search.

If you’re going to create a profile on LinkedIn or update the one you already have, here is a list of the 10 most overused profile buzzwords that you may want to avoid. The list appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of Philly Metro:

1. Creative
2. Organizational
3. Effective
4. Extensive experience
5. Track record
6. Motivated
7. Innovative
8. Problem solving
9. Communication skills
10. Dynamic

LinkedIn analyzed the 135 million profiles on its network to come up with this list. I’m guilty of using a few myself and will have to come up with some “creative” and “effective” alternatives.

Here’s another interesting list I came across on Time.com, which lists three reasons for companies to embrace workplace-flexibility programs, as desired by many of Generation Y workers. Read the article in its entirety here.

1. Gen Y workers won’t accept jobs where they can’t access Facebook. Cisco’s “Connected World Technology” report shows that more than half of Gen Y employees prioritize social-media freedom over a higher salary when evaluating a job offer. Furthermore, more than half say the Internet is an integral part of their lives. Gen Y-ers wants to be connected to their friends and families, not just their co-workers, throughout the day. Although some companies ban social media at work, other companies have embraced it as long as employees use it professionally. “We do want people to use social networks in order to keep in touch with their colleagues and contacts,” explains Gockel, whose company has no formal social-media guidelines or policies.

2. Gen Y-ers value workplace flexibility over more money. More than one-third (37%) of Gen Y workers would take a pay cut if it meant more flexibility on the job, reports a study by Mom Corps. Flexibility motivates these workers to be more productive and loyal to their companies because they feel like they are respected. An employer that allows flexibility in the workplace also demonstrates that it understands the evolving modern-day work environment, which bodes well for the future.

3. Gen Y workers are always connected to jobs through technology. Technology has made the traditional 9-to-5 model blurry — for all workers, of all generations, really. No one is ever out of touch or off the clock. When workers go home, they’re still working because who they are personally and professionally have become one and the same. Workers are always representing the company, and more and more, it seems, work e-mail doesn’t stop for anything or anyone. By no means does time away from the office equal less work getting done.

Long-standing holiday myth debunked

December 23, 2011 – True or false: the most dangerous day to drive in the U.S. is New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day since most people drive home after midnight.

Seems logical enough to be true. After all, lots of people drink and drive on New Year’s Eve — even though we all know better — causing some to refer to the drink fest as amateur night, and even more to stay in or close to home.

The answer is actually false. While there is a certainly a grain of truth in drunken-driving dangers on New Year’s Eve, it’s the patriotic holiday, July 4th that is the most dangerous day for traffic fatalities, according to a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And that’s followed by Labor Day. New Year’s Eve  ranks 7th on the list.

A recent study by AAA proved that while the above is true, New Year’s Day holds the record for more pedestrian deaths – over Halloween when high numbers of children and parents take to the streets – and these deaths are attributed to alcohol in 58% of the cases.

So, when you go to that New Year’s Eve Party next week, tell the host or hostess you’re in for the long haul, and won’t be leaving until January 2. For the sake of everyone’s safety, of course.

Unleashing the appreciation for music one song at a time

December 22, 2011 – Legend has it if you open Pandora’s box, which contains all the evils of the world you unleash grave disaster that can’t be undone.

Ah, the Greeks and their wonderful imaginations.

In reality, the name Pandora means, “all gifted” – and gifted she was as the gods bestowed her many gifts, including the gifts of curiosity and music.

Like Pandora, I have a curious side to my personality, and also love music. I love it so much that I never mind getting caught in traffic jams as long as I have a good stereo system in the car. It’s more important to me than a set of good tires.

I recall driving to a concert on a rainy night years ago with my stereo, defrost and windshield wipers going simultaneously. This particular car was about to be put out to pasture, so something had to be turned off if we wanted it to make it there. The old girl just couldn’t take it. Naturally, I turned off the windshield wipers while my friend looked at me in horror before she burst into laughter. And the music played on.

As music lover, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve just discovered the pleasures of Pandora radio, which has been in existence for over 10 years. I’d heard of it before, but really came to appreciate it this week. I know that probably makes me the last one on the planet to hop on board the great radio wave of the Internet.

If you’ve been living under the same rock as I have and aren’t familiar, Pandora is an online radio station that allows you to set up your own playlists of the music you love. It combines my love of curiosity and music because the folks at Pandora will suggest music by new artists that share the same style as your favorite artists. So, not only do you hear good music, but you also discover new songs and artists that most likely match your musical tastes.

Pandora first hit the Internet in 2000 as part of a Music Genome Project, and is touted as the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken. Their teams of musician-analysts listen to thousands of new and old songs from the well-known to the obscure, paying close attention to musical details such as melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics and more to partner them with existing musicians or songs that you already love. I’m thrilled with the results they’ve presented to me, but if you find you’re not a fan of what they select for you, you can tweak and refine your selections until they get it right.

I’ll admit I typically shy away from listening to new music on the radio, and usually turn to artists I am familiar with instead. That can easily put you in a musical rut. With Pandora, I’ve discovered it’s not actually the new music I did’t like, but rather the style or artist. Recently they’ve presented two artists new to me, Jack Johnson and Mazzy Star. Both are singer/songwriters I would have most likely passed over, but Pandora knew they would likely appeal to my taste. Additionally, I’ve rediscovered artists like Van Morrison and Dire Straits since Pandora offers the deeper cuts on their albums, over their greatest hits, which makes them seem new again. And to think I was given all of this by simply typing in the name of one of my favorite songs.

Thanks, Pandora. I may have taken the long road to get here, but I’ve arrived and I’m a big fan.