The Tax Man Cometh Thrice This Year

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taxes-412-274I hate the weeks leading up to April 15 when I have to prepare and file my tax returns. I start worrying about taxes in January, but don’t start doing anything until February. Or maybe March. Then the days between the Ides of March and Tax Day turn frenetic.

In prior years I have always prepared our joint tax return myself. The federal return. The Missouri state return. Because my husband’s law firm has an office in Kansas, we have to file in that state also. And Kansas City, Missouri, where we have lived for the last thirty-five years, requires a local return for its earnings tax also.

Even though I fret for weeks about getting the returns prepared and filed, in the approximately thirty years since my husband became a partner in his law firm, I have never been able to finalize the documents until he received his Form K-1 from the partnership. That never happened until the end of March or early April. So most of my fretting time was wasted.

When my husband inherited farm land from a grandparent about twenty years ago, I did insist that he prepare the farm income and expense forms, including depreciating the cattle. (Did you know there is a difference between the taxation of feed stock and breed stock? Only breed stock are depreciated. Feed stock are expensed.) But though my husband took on the farm calculations, I have had to nag him to get the task completed. Which was not conducive to marital harmony.

For the past ten to fifteen years, I have used TurboTax software. I got pretty good at knowing what portions of the questionnaire to complete and which sections were easier to fill out using the IRS forms themselves. With TurboTax, although I hated the process, I was in control.

Every so often in the last ten years or so, as our financial situation became more complex, my husband would suggest hiring a CPA to do the returns, but I resisted. After all, if two competent attorneys could not prepare their own taxes, then there was something wrong with the system, I argued. (Well, there is something wrong with the system, but I still took pride in doing it myself. And in maintaining control.)

I am not an organized record keeper. I know where things are (mostly), but they are not filed neatly. I liked being able to do the tax returns piecemeal—input the 1099s today, the charitable contributions tomorrow, the tax payments next week. And wait for that blasted K-1 to appear at the last minute. If we used a CPA, I’d have to gather all the records sooner, I rationalized.

But our finances and the tax laws are only growing more convoluted, and I’m not getting any younger. And I hate it so much. This year, having someone else responsible finally sounded like a good enough idea to be worth the expense. Besides, the cost of the accountant is deductible. So last fall, we pulled the plug and hired a CPA firm to do our 2014 tax returns.

Unfortunately, by delegating responsibility for the preparation of the returns, I lost control. As I had suspected, I still had to pull together all the information from my haphazard files. I still had to nag my husband to get the farm documentation completed. And we still had to wait for the blasted K-1, which we didn’t receive this year until April 6.

We didn’t receive any draft of our returns until the morning of April 14. That was the first time I saw how much we owe this year. (It’s bad. Not unexpected, but bad.) I went through the returns and passed my question bad to the CPA. As of 7:30pm on April 14, the CPA recommended we seek an extension, which he would handle for us.

I hate getting extensions, which my husband and I have only done once before. But rather than send out a potentially erroneous filing, I agreed to the extension.

Even with an accountant on my side, the weeks leading up to April 15 still stink. (I could use stronger language, but I want to keep this blog family-friendly.)

TTC envelope 20150413_095305

One tax envelope from my father, as of his death on January 5

Making my tax woes even greater, this year I have been responsible for the returns of three taxpayers—not only all the returns for my husband and me, but also a joint return for my parents covering my father for all of 2014 and my mother until her death in July, and another return for my mother’s estate covering the estate income and expenses after she died.

Fortunately, unlike me, my father was a very organized record keeper. He died on January 5, but had already gathered all his deductions for last year. He had one envelope for medical receipts, with a Post-It stuck to it listing his mileage for all the doctor’s visits he made for both himself and my mother. He had another envelope for charitable contributions. He had printed out a record of all his bank transactions from Quicken by category.

All I had to do was add everything up and wait for his W-2s and 1099s.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy. I also had to divide the income between the joint return and the estate return. And determine which expenses went with which return. And hope that another 1099 didn’t trickle in late or that I had misinterpreted any of his Quicken records.

Thankfully, he had an accountant he had worked with for the past few years. None of my questions fazed her, and she was comfortable with the decisions I made in allocated expenses between the joint and estate returns. Still, I had to familiarize myself with her process, which, of course, wasn’t the same as the process my new accountant used. Similar, but not the same.

So I have had a crash course this year in how accountants handle tax preparation. I’m not sure whether I prefer the control I had with TurboTax or the delegation to the accountants, which requires as much record keeping and retrieval as doing it myself, though they do do the grunt work.

Truth be told, I’d prefer to delegate the grunt work AND retain control, but that is never the way things work. Delegation, by definition, involves a loss of control.

At this point, I’m just hoping we get the information from the accountant in time to file on April 15 without seeking a last-minute extension.

Does anyone out there actually like preparing tax returns?

You Know Your Children Are Grown When . . . [Part IV]

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Here’s another list of instances when I have been struck by how independent and mature (well, most of the time) my children are.

You know your children are grown when . . .

1. You see them for the first time after your parent dies and you burst into tears and they comfort you like you comforted them when they were toddlers.

2. You’re cleaning out your parents’ house to ready it for sale and they volunteer to take the wine.

3. They move to the same city as a significant other.

4. They spend more on dog care than you spent on child care when they were kids.

IMG9505155. They travel so much for business they’ve earned elite status with an airline. Something you’ve never had.

6. When they consider changing jobs, they think about health and retirement benefits. (I taught them well.)

7. They buy a nicer car than you have. New. For cash.

Some of these occurrences may be amusing, but they are milestones nonetheless.

Have your children impressed you with their responsibility recently?

Snowed Out On My Birthday

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Forgive me one more birthday story. After this post, I’ll move on with my year.

Forty years ago, on my 19th birthday, I was in my second year at Middlebury College. It was spring break, but I stayed on campus that week. I didn’t mind remaining on the almost empty campus. I had lots of course work to do. Plus, I checked a novel out of the library—something I didn’t usually have time for, because I had 1000 pages per week to read to keep up with my classes. I relished spending some down time around my studying.

The only difficulty was that the college food service was closed, because so few students remained on campus. I was making do with soup and cereal—things that could be made easily in a dorm room with no stove. At least it was cold enough to keep milk in my window sill. But still, I wouldn’t eat well that birthday week.

But I had one consolation—my father was coming to visit. He had arranged a business trip on the East Coast for the week before, and he planned to stay east for the weekend. My birthday, April 5, 1975, was on a Saturday, at the end of the spring break week. My dad promised to take me out to the best restaurant in Middlebury.

The small town of Middlebury, Vermont, boasted the usual soup and sandwich eateries and bars near campus where students hung out. But there were several good restaurants in and around the small town. Students went to these establishments only went when someone with deeper pockets (i.e., a parent) was paying.

My favorite was The Dog Team, which featured prime rib and sticky buns. The campus food service rarely served good beef. Steak and sticky buns would make my birthday special. I salivated over the thought of a good dinner after my week of soup!

Photo courtesy of Middlebury College. But this picture does NOT capture the grey gloom of a Vermont blizzard, only the pretty aftermath.

Photo courtesy of Middlebury College. But this picture does NOT capture the grey gloom of a Vermont blizzard, only the pretty aftermath.

Unfortunately, Vermont weather did not cooperate. A blizzard hit the Northeast on Friday. A foot of snow fell all over the state and beyond.

Imagine my horror at a blizzard in April! I had never experienced snow on my birthday before.

My father was unable to drive north on Friday night from New York or Boston or wherever his business had been. He finally made it to Middlebury late on Saturday—too late for that nice dinner I had planned.

I had soup again for my birthday meal. No cake.

He did arrive in time to take me out for brunch on Sunday, and we spent the afternoon in his hotel room watching a golf match. (His choice, not mine. But that’s how we often spent Sunday afternoons at home.)

That 19th birthday—forty years ago this year—ranks as one of my loneliest. But as I look back on it now, I realize how fortunate I was that my father planned the trip at all and that he continued it despite the inclement weather.

Now that he has passed away, I would welcome a brunch and golf match with him, even a day late.

When did someone go out of his or her way to visit you?

P.S. For Dog Team friends, click here for the recipe for their sticky buns.

Happy Birthday (and Easter) to me!

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April 5 is my birthday. This year, for the first time in my life, my birthday was on Easter.

The date for Easter, as most people know, floats around during the spring. In theory, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. But the vernal equinox was set as March 21 under the Gregorian calendar, which means Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

My father’s birthday was on April 25—the latest day Easter could be—and Easter was on his birthday in 1943 when he was ten years old (though that was the only year Easter fell on his birthday during his lifetime).

Me on my 1st birthday

Me on my 1st birthday

So how can it be that in the fifty-nine years I have been alive, Easter has never before fallen on April 5? Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair.

My birthday seemed to always be on Friday as I was growing up, although in reality it didn’t happen that often. My first birthday was on Friday, but I don’t remember that one.

The first Friday birthday I remember occurred when I was seven. It was during Lent, so our family couldn’t eat meat, because we observed Catholic Lenten regulations. I couldn’t have my favorite meals of steak or fried chicken. My mother tried to compensate by having my birthday dinner on Saturday, but it just wasn’t the same as celebrating on My Day itself.

My 12th birthday, before the oysters

Me on my 12th birthday, before the oysters

I spent my 12th birthday—Friday, April 5, 1968—at my step-grandfather’s vacation home in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We went out to dinner at a seafood restaurant, and my father gave me one of his raw oysters to eat. I was deathly ill that night, and have never again eaten raw oysters.

When I spent my birthday with friends during college—on Friday, April 5, 1974—they served me a very nice cheese casserole and a lovely birthday cake, but I sighed inside at the lack of a hearty meat and potatoes meal.

When my birthday was on Good Friday—which has happened twice since I became an adult, in 1985 and 1996—I even had to fast. I couldn’t eat much of anything on my birthday!

I suppose there were some compensations for my often Lenten birthdays. When I attended a Catholic grade school, our Easter break was always the week after Easter. But once I started in a public school in ninth grade, we didn’t have “Easter breaks” any more, we had a non-religious “spring break”, which was always the first week in April. The same schedule applied at Middlebury College, when I was there. So from 1970 through 1976, I never had to go to classes on my birthday, regardless of when Easter was.

Unfortunately, Stanford Law School wasn’t as enlightened. And then I started working. So my respite from obligations on my birthday ended. Some years, my kids were on spring break for my birthday, and I took vacation time also. But as any mother will tell you, her birthdays are not as important as the kids’ activities and desires.

The odd thing is that after a very long drought of Easter falling on April 5 (which last happened in 1942), there will be several occurrences in the next few decades. I might celebrate my birthday on Easter again in 2026, in 2037, and in 2048. Will I make it to my 92nd birthday in 2048?

What memories do you have of your birthdays—good and bad?

Two Poets in the Family: Happy Easter . . . and an early Happy Mother’s Day

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In going through the mementos my parents kept, I’ve discovered another way in which my mother and I were alike. We both wrote poetry to our families as children.

Here’s a poem I wrote for Easter as a child. I can’t date it exactly, but because I referred to “grandmother” and not “grandparents”, I think I must have written it after my grandfather died and before my grandmother remarried—which would put it at Easter 1966 or 1967, when I was ten or eleven years old. The handwriting looks about right for me at ten or eleven. (Another clue is that I refer to only one brother, and my second brother was born when I was eleven and a half.)

MTH poem Easter 20150311_152535

I had no memory of writing this poem, but the handwriting is clearly mine, so I must own it.

Then I found a poem my mother wrote her mother for “her special day”. She dated her poem May 9, 1948—Mother’s Day of the year when she was fifteen. Her poem shows more maturity than mine did. (Her handwriting remained quite similar until the last couple years of her life, when she struggled to write anything.)

MFC poem to Mother 20150311_152522

Neither poem is very good. In fact, both are quite dreadful.

But when I found them both on the same day, they made me laugh. Another example of how my mother and I were alike. Not only do the poems contain similar themes, but the pages are both decorated with flower borders, in typically young girl fashion.

I will end by wishing you all, as I titled my poem—

Happy Easter Family! . . . (and friends)

What Is Cottolene?

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52 sunday dinners 20150323_095845After helping me clean out my parents’ house after my father died, my husband got the bug to clean out our house. He has never liked clutter. Although most of the clutter in our home is hidden in cupboards and drawers, it is there, and he hates it.

He started with the kitchen. I came home from a trip to Washington State earlier this month to find our dining room table covered with stuff I hadn’t seen in years—wedding presents never used, more coffee mugs than could fill a shelf, baby dishes I’m saving for grandchildren.

“I’m planning to give away everything on the table,” he told me. “But I’ll give you a week to pick out anything you want to keep.”

He was right. We need to get rid of most of the stuff. But I did salvage the baby dishes.

He had put a stack of cookbooks on the table. Most of them I had no interest in, including one called Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners. I don’t make old-fashioned heavy Sunday dinners for multitudes.

But the cookbook looked old. I wondered where it had come from. I opened it.

CRStrachan note 20150323_095901“This Cookbook belonged to Cecelia Ryan Strachan.” The note on the inside front cover was written in my grandmother’s handwriting. Cecelia was her mother, my great-grandmother. My mother must have given the book to me at some point, though I have no recollection of it.

That settled it—I was keeping this cookbook.

A day later over dinner I was thumbing through the cookbook, explaining to my husband why I had to keep it. Every recipe I saw had “Cottolene” as an ingredient. It was used in cakes and it was used to fry potatoes.

“What’s Cottolene?” I asked.

He had no idea.

We googled the word—a modern solution to a question about an old ingredient.

cottoleneTurns out, Cottolene was a brand of shortening, a competitor of Crisco, sold from 1868 until sometime in the mid-20th century. It was made from the waste products of two industries—beef tallow and cottonseed oil, and was the first commercially successful alternative to lard.

220px-Cottolene_adApparently, Cottolene had quite a marketing campaign. They advertised, created tins with their logo, and even commissioned cookbooks. Including the cookbook Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners, by Elizabeth O. Hiller, published in 1913, when my grandmother was five years old. I guess my great-grandmother fell prey to the marketing genius behind Cottolene.

For those of you who want to know some of the recipes in this cookbook, it has been reprinted in its entirety, including all the references to the now-defunct Cottolene.  It is also available on Google Books.

But you’ll have to find your own substitute for Cottolene. And your copy won’t have a note from my grandmother.

What old products do you wish were still on the market?

Sluicing and Beyond: The Gold Rush Develops from Entrepreneurial to Capitalist

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Placermine sluiceI’ve written about panning for gold and rockers and Long Toms. Inevitably, as the search for gold during the California Gold Rush, the miners developed more sophisticated methods of extracting gold. Sluicing was the next development after Long Toms.

While some consider Long Toms to be primitive sluices, the difference is one of scale. Sluicing could process much more dirt than the earlier methods of mining.

The sluices of the Gold Rush were usually long wood boxes with “riffles” in them to catch the gold. As with the rockers and Long Toms, the intent was to get water to do most of the work of separating gold from dirt and gravel. The sluice boxes were placed in water at a slight downhill tilt so that water flowed through them, with enough current to wash out sand and gravel, but not enough to wash out the gold.

The-Sluice-by-Henry-SandhamWhereas Long Toms were around six to twelve feet long, sluices could be hundreds of feet long. The sluice could be a whole series of connected boxes. Because so much effort was involved in building the sluices, the boxes were typically built on the mining claim frrom whatever wood was available.

Moreover, sometimes a whole stream was dammed and diverted to expose the riverbed, and the rich dirt that had been under water was shoveled into the sluices to extract the gold.

Obviously, even though sluicing was a labor-saving method of mining, it still took a lot of manual labor. After building the sluices, men had to shovel dirt into the sluice box. The men needed to shovel fast enough to process a lot of gravel, but not so fast that the riffles were overloaded. If the dirt ran over the tops of the riffles, then the riffles could not function to sort the dirt and catch the gold.

Once the heavier pieces had been caught in the riffles, they had to remove the larger rocks by hand. Leaving the larger rocks would let the current scour sand and silt (and maybe gold flakes) from around the rock. Particularly at the lower end of the sluice box, the gold might escape altogether.

In addition, the miners had to move the tailings from the end of the sluice box, so the water wouldn’t back up into the sluice.

Finally, and most importantly, the miners had to pan the remaining silt for gold flakes and nuggets. That’s the only way to make the sluicing productive—find and retain the gold that was trapped by the riffles.

It could take shoveling several hundred pounds of gravel to get a few ounces of gold. But these large sluices could process hundreds of cubic feet of dirt per day—far more than several men could pan by hand.

As the number of miners in California grew through 1849 and into the 1850s, individual miners were replaced by corporate operations. More complicated machinery using hydraulics and heavy earth-moving equipment became more common. Whole hillsides and mountains were moved, and ravines scored in the increasingly difficult search for gold. Increasingly, water was moved to the dirt in long aquaducts, rather than moving the dirt to the water.

More and more, only capitalists with money to invest could make a profit from mining.

What impresses you the most about the increasing mechanization during the Gold Rush?

The State of Washington Lied To Me When I Was in High School

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WA state flagSometime during my sophomore or junior year of high school, I was required to take the Washington Pre-College Test. This test was necessary to apply to universities in the state. I intended to apply to both Washington State University and the University of Washington, so I dutifully signed up for the test and spent a Saturday morning on the multiple choice exam.

I took the PSAT and the SAT and some AP tests as well, but the Washington Pre-College Test was unique among the standardized tests I took. It included an aptitude section, designed to point high-school students toward career fields in which they might excel.

Or, as a scholarly article put it:

“The program of academic prediction in Washington State is unique among college testing programs in that it is directed . . . at the decision-making needs of the average high school graduate. This typical student is visualized by the program as having to make one or more educational choices (selecting courses or a major) and having to make them against a background of aptitudes and training which may spell success for some choices and failure for others.” [from A RESEARCH REVIEW OF THE WASHINGTON PRE-COLLEGE TESTING PROGRAM, by CLIFFORD E. LUNNEBORG, University of Washington]

As I recall, the aptitude portion of the test required that I select which of two answers best suited me. For example, I could say I liked to (a) read books or (b) clean up blood.

Now that wasn’t precisely one of the questions, but I remember that there were several questions that mentioned blood and gore. This is relevant, because I deliberately chose the alternative that didn’t mention blood or gore at every opportunity I had.

And yet, the State of Washington decided that the best occupation for me would be nursing. When I got the results of the Washington Pre-College Test back, that’s what it said, in black and white.

Keep in mind that this was in the early 1970s. I realized immediately that there was a significant gender bias in the test. Why else would most of the boys have rated highly on forestry, while every girl I knew showed great aptitude for nursing?

And I’m not the only high school student to have experienced questionable results. I discovered another blogger (male) who was one of the boys directed toward forestry. He deliberately chose another career.

So when I saw my Washington Pre-College Test results I immediately discounted them. I wasn’t going to get any help from the state in selecting my career. Ultimately, I became a lawyer. Then a human resources professional. Then a mediator and writer.

In none of those fields have I ever had to deal with blood. I did manage a corporate medical department in one of my HR roles, but I stayed away from the blood.

At a later point in my life, I had to take another aptitude test. That test told me I was ideally suited to be an IRS examiner. I didn’t like that answer either. But at least that career wouldn’t have involved blood. And it was too late—I’d already chosen my own career. Or make that careers.

Have you ever disagreed with standardized test results?

Work for a Healthy Brain During Brain Awareness Week

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logo_homepageThis week, March 16-22, is Brain Awareness Week, a program launched by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. This is the twentieth anniversary of Brain Awareness Week. Because Alzheimer’s and other brain issues have impacted my family, I thought the week was worthy of mention—it is an opportunity to recognize advances in brain science and think about how to keep our brains healthy.

Participants around the world this week are holding open days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions about the brain, lectures on brain-related topics, social media campaigns, displays at libraries and community centers, classroom workshops, and other activities designed to promote awareness of brain science and health.

One fun exercise would be to download the brain puzzles available at on the Dana Alliance website.

Nevertheless, my research indicates that not all organizations are on the same page when it comes to recognizing Brain Awareness Week. Although the National Parkinson’s Foundation celebrates this week, the Alzheimer’s Association recognizes June as Brain Awareness Month. The Alzheimer’s Association has a big fundraiser focused on “the longest day” on June 21, in recognition that Alzheimer’s Disease has been called “the long good-bye”.

And in the United Kingdom, Dementia Awareness Week is May 17-23 this year.

So around the world, there are many opportunities throughout the year to reflect on how important our brains are.

We often hear the mantra of body, mind, and spirit. All three components are important to making each of us the unique individuals we are. And we know how interconnected they are—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual together make up personality. Identical twins with the same physiques can have different personalities. Friends who look very different can be quite similar in their outlooks on life.

In addition to reflecting on the importance of our brain, we can work to keep our brains healthy. The National Parkinson’s Foundation website touts “8 Steps to a Healthy Brain”,  which are

1. Exercise

2. Eat healthy

3. Work your brain

4. Stay social

5. Manage stress

6. Get enough sleep

7. Keep track of medications and supplements

8. Avoid illicit drugs and excessive alcohol consumption

These are good recommendations for anyone wanting a healthy brain, and worth thinking about any week of the year. I need to work on getting more sleep and managing stress. All the travel I’ve been doing across time zones has wreaked havoc on my body, and thus my mind.

Which of the eight steps do you need to improve? What do you cherish most about your mind?

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What Is Story (Redux)? . . . And a Sense of Urgency

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My first post on this blog went live in January 2012, but I didn’t start a regular posting schedule until March of that year, so I consider March my blog’s anniversary. This blog is now three years old.

I deliberately set the blog’s theme “Story and History” to be broad enough to let me write about almost anything I wanted. My first post was titled “What is Story?” and began:

This blog is about story and history — my story, the stories in my historical and contemporary writing, and the stories of the world as it was and is.

How am I doing on my plan to write about my story, the stories in my writing, and the stories of the world around me?

My posts deal much more with my family than I anticipated, and less about my writing and about the world as I see it (though I’ve covered a lot of Oregon Trail and Gold Rush history in my posts).

Perhaps I focus on family because of what I’ve had to deal with over the last three years—my mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s, her death last summer, and my father’s sudden death in January. Perhaps I’ve focused on family because to tell my story necessitates that I write about the people who made me the way I am—which began with family. My story requires writing my own history.

Perhaps I don’t write about my writing, because the last few years have been a struggle to feel productive as a writer. I’ve been on too many boards and committees, and I’ve had too many family issues to spend the creative time writing that I want.

Nevertheless, I have accomplished certain goals in the last three years. When I began this blog, I had not yet published a novel. I accomplished that life goal in late 2013 (under a pseudonym).

Now my goal is to publish at least two more novels—the two on the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush that I have drafted. I am confident I will meet this goal, though my timeline has been much slower than I had hoped.

MC900149882As I wrote on January 28 of this year, I am editing my first Oregon Trail novel again, hoping to whip it into publishable shape. I am proud to report that as of last week, I had edited about 60% of it for my critique group, and I’ve got it below 130,000 words. (I’d like to end up around 120,000 words, but I think it’s going to be 125,000 or so.)

My critique group has been through a little more than a third of the book. As soon as I finish my edit for them, I’ll go back to incorporate their comments into the novel. I still hope to have all that done by Labor Day.

The good news is that as I edit I still like the book. The bad news is I still have a lot of work to do.

I have a greater sense of urgency now than I did three years ago. As I said, my father died suddenly in January. My husband had a good friend who was in his early sixties who died later that month. Last week one of my critique group partners died after open-heart surgery.

We know not the hour.

And yet, we plan as if we have time. Life is a balance between striving for more and being ready.

In March 2012, I wrote about achieving our dreams by telling our stories. I haven’t achieved my dreams yet, but I will continue to tell my stories.

I wrote in another post in March 2012:

My challenge to you today is to ask yourself:

— What is your future story?

— What do you want your life to be in five or ten years?

I leave you with these same questions again today.

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