Sense & Sensitivity

Sense & Sensitivity

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DEAR HARRIETTE: I have been staying at home for weeks, only venturing out occasionally to go to the grocery store, although I have mostly organized that for delivery. Now that things are loosening up, I'm still concerned about how much I should go outside. I have a couple of medical conditions, and I am very worried that if I catch this disease, I won't survive. I haven't told anyone in my neighborhood or my job that I have these health challenges. I don't want people to look at me with pity. I manage my life just fine, thank you. But I don't know how well I will do if I put myself out in the general population.

One neighbor keeps asking me to take a walk with her. She has been great about walking a few miles every day. I, on the other hand, have sat around for weeks, and my body is not happy about that. I do need to get more exercise. I'm just not sure what to do. How should I handle this? -- Weighing the Odds

DEAR WEIGHING THE ODDS: Schedule a call with your doctor and discuss your health and your activities to determine what he or she recommends. Review your health challenges and how you have been taking care of yourself during this period of quarantine. Talk about your lack of exercise. Share any details you know about your job and the plan to reopen. Provide all of the facts so that your doctor can give you advice based on a clear picture of your life.

What I have read is that doctors are continuing to recommend that people wear masks the entire time they are out of the home; that they keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others; that they avoid touching their faces; and that they regularly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. If you do that every time you go outside, you will reduce the chances of contracting the virus. If you get the green light for walking with your neighbor, remember to keep your distance. Be vigilant.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My father passed away a few years ago, and we just got around to packing up the rest of his belongings because my mother decided to sell her house. While we were going through the things in his office, we found a box with letters in it that turned out to be from another woman. It turns out he had an affair for an extended period of time, as detailed in this pack of letters. My mother immediately took the letters away and has refused to talk about it, but she seemed visibly upset. Should we press her on this? I am curious about this new discovery, and I wish I could actually read the letters, but she has them now. Should my siblings and I query her on this situation, and would it be wrong for me to ask if I can read them? -- Troubling Discovery

DEAR TROUBLING DISCOVERY: Your father's affair is none of your business. You should not ask to read the letters. You should not press her about this at all. If she wants to talk about it, she will open up to you. For now, leave it alone.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My mom lives in a retirement community, and she has been quarantined for more than two months now. She can't come out of her tiny apartment for any reason. They drop off food packages to her each day and pick up the trash every week. We hired an attendant to organize her meds and to give her a shower, so there is one person who puts her eyes on my mom. But she is deteriorating. When we talk on FaceTime, we can see that she's not doing well. She no longer puts on street clothes. She doesn't fix her hair or put on makeup. I am so worried that if we aren't allowed to see her soon, she will perish. But the community is strict, and they will not allow my family to enter the building. What can I do? -- Saving Mom

DEAR SAVING MOM: Contact her doctor and ask for advice. In most cases, medical professionals are saying that it's safer to keep elders sequestered -- even though they are bored during this period -- because they are isolated from the virus. That said, the risk of depression due to extended social isolation is real. Schedule an in-person doctor's visit so she can get checked both physically and mentally. If you can take her, that would be one time you can see each other.

Talk to the attendant you've hired. If possible, arrange for that person to stay a little longer each day and keep your mother company. Have that person get your mother to tell stories and reminisce. Do the same when you call your mother. Ask her stories that will jog her memory about her life. For more ideas, go to homecareassistance.com/blog/activities-to-keep-seniors-engaged-during-covid-19.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I'm worried that my best friend is going to be homeless soon. She lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic, but she wasn't making much money and had very little savings. She did get the stimulus check, but that only bought a few groceries one single time. Right now, she is safe because the governor has suspended evictions, but what happens this summer?

I am wondering if I should invite her to come and stay with me. I have a small house with very little room, but it would put a roof over her head. Obviously, that isn't ideal, but I can't watch my friend be put out on the street. If I do bring her into my home, I feel like I have to establish house rules. She and I live very differently. I don't want to strain our friendship or drive us crazy. What do you think? -- Rescuing a Friend

DEAR RESCUING A FRIEND: Now is the time to be generous with our loved ones. If you can bring your best friend in, that would be a blessing. Talk to her about the idea. Be honest: You know it won't be easy, but she is welcome. If she wants to come, talk about how you run your home and what your expectations of her would be. Agree that you will talk through any questions or issues as they arise. Establish a month down the line when you will revisit how long she will stay.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I overheard my daughter talking to her boyfriend the other day. He was pressing her to take topless photos to send to him. They are seniors in high school, and I know that they have engaged in some degree of intimacy. I'm not so happy about it, but I know this is true. But sending nude pictures is a bad idea and will likely lead to embarrassment -- or worse -- for her. How can I get her to listen to me when she already thinks she is grown? -- Drawing the Line

DEAR DRAWING THE LINE: Ideally you should be in constant conversation with your daughter about life choices and cause and effect. As she is growing up, she needs to have your family's values repeated to her often so that when she makes decisions, she can hear your voice in her head.

In this case, be direct. Tell her that you overheard her conversation with her boyfriend. Point out that you weren't snooping, but you did hear it, and you are concerned. Explain to her that sending nude pictures via the phone or computer can be dangerous for a number of reasons. For starters, once the photos leave her device, she no longer has control over them. Anyone may potentially see them, leaving her vulnerable to ill-meaning people. If discovered sometime down the line by the wrong people, it could hurt her chances to get into the college of her choice or the internship or job she has been longing for.

She probably doesn't know that it is also considered child pornography if she is under 18, and both she and her boyfriend could get arrested if it were ever discovered by the police. Strongly suggest that she not take this action. It will be bad for her and her boyfriend in the long run.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I'm really concerned about how much I drink. Ever since we have been quarantined at home, I have been drinking more than ever. I know it's too much, but I can't seem to stop myself. I have even taken to ordering from my local liquor store and having them deliver once a week. I know it's because I'm bored and lonely, but I need to stop. What do you recommend, given that I am stuck in my house? -- Alcoholic

DEAR ALCOHOLIC: Congratulations on taking the first step to helping yourself. It takes a lot to admit your vulnerabilities. By stating what you know to be a problem and asking for help, you are setting yourself up for success. The good news is that there are online resources that can support you. A trusted source is Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization of people who are working to become sober and stay that way by talking to each other about their lives and their challenges. They now offer virtual meetings. Go to aa.org/pages/en_US/options-for-meeting-online to sign up. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 800-662-HELP, or go to their website for support, samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. Good luck to you.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I have some friends who are not working. Either they lost their jobs because of coronavirus, or they were already retired. Whatever the reason is, they have a lot of free time on their hands. Meanwhile, I'm still working two jobs in order to take care of my family. I am grateful to have them, but I am also worn out at the end of each day.

My friends call the moment they think I am home. They want to talk. I need some time to wind down, but if I don't answer the phone, they call incessantly, claiming they are worried whether I am safe and healthy. I appreciate their concern, but I need some space. How can I manage my friendships? I love them and want to be there for them, but I also need to take care of myself. What should I do? -- Seeking Balance

DEAR SEEKING BALANCE: Suggest that you do a group text check-in with your friends so that everybody knows you are all OK. Make it clear that you cannot talk every night. Schedule longer conversations every week or every other week at a time when you can devote an extended period of time to conversation. Manage that chat by inviting them to talk about their lives. People love to talk. If you let your friends unload, you will have to say less while still being engaged and present with those that you love.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I suspect that my super sometimes comes into my apartment when I am not at home. He's the only one with a key. I come home on occasion and it looks like things have been disturbed a bit. This is creepy. There is no reason for him to come into my apartment. As far as I know, there have been no emergencies that would warrant him needing to enter. Plus, shouldn't he tell me if he does? The rules of my building require that the super keeps a key. How can I get him to stop letting himself in, or even prove that he does? -- Creepy Super

DEAR CREEPY SUPER: It's time to invest in a device that will show you every time someone comes to your door. You can also install a monitor for inside your apartment so that you can see when someone enters. Many security companies offer these devices now, often with immediate alerts on your smartphone that will show you the activity that is happening at your door. With proof, you can go to your management company to file a formal complaint about the super.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My husband and I have been married for a long time, but we have not been close for years. We look good at a party, but we don't share any type of intimacy. In part, it's my fault. We were at each other's throats some years back, and he was not nice to me at all. That's when I stopped being intimate with him. After a while, it just started being habit that we weren't romantic. Now, our son is about to go away to college. I worry that if things don't change, we won't have a reason to stay together. I can't make it on my own financially, but I also don't know how to turn the romance back on. Do you have any suggestions? -- Turn It On

DEAR TURN IT ON: You can't have it both ways. Either you work to repair your marriage, or you prepare for the potential of a life on your own. If your husband is interested in intimacy, figure out how to reignite your own interest -- assuming you want to. Would the two of you consider going to counseling? You could choose marriage counseling or even sex counseling. You need to address the problem before you in an open and thoughtful way, which is why professional help may be in order.

You have to decide what you want in your life. Staying with your husband for financial reasons while withholding intimacy doesn't necessarily seem like a fair trade. Once your child is gone, you are probably right: He may no longer feel obliged to stick around. You need to answer the questions of what you want and what are you willing to do to have it. After that, the work begins.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I got into a stupid fight with my sister the other day, and I realized that we had fallen back into childhood behavior.

We had to make an agreement about something that we are doing for our mother, and the conversation -- over text -- got extremely testy and childish. When my sister, who is older, started digging in, I did, too, until we reached a standoff, and our younger sister ended up stepping in and being the adult in the situation. How ridiculous. Can you recommend ways to avoid falling into childhood behavior patterns with siblings? This is getting old. -- Stuck in the Past

DEAR STUCK IN THE PAST: Review what happened between you and your sister, and consider how you might handle the situation if it were between you and a colleague or friend. What would you have done differently? Make a list. Next, think about different times when you have interacted with your sister and fallen into childhood behaviors. What were the triggers? List them.

Next time you engage with your sister, pay attention to the conversation. If you feel things beginning to sink into old reactions, take a pause. You can stop communicating for a bit and take a few breaths to collect yourself. You can use a tactic that you would use with a colleague or friend. You should remind yourself that you have the power to stand up for yourself and not need to become unsettled by your sister's behavior or your former way of responding to her. You can become the adult in the room.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I absolutely hate it when people come up to me to ask me if I remember them. I almost always do not. I have a horrible memory. Plus, half of these people are random -- at least as far as I'm concerned. They are not people who have been important in my life. One woman who pressed me to figure out who she was told me that we were friends on social media but hadn't actually met yet. Really?! Another guy said that we had gone to the same high school, 30 years prior, but we weren't in the same class or year. I can understand if the person is somebody who was my friend from back in the day or something more meaningful, but I feel like now people feel entitled to quiz you on whether you know them, even when they know you probably don't. How can I protect myself in these situations? It always feels so awkward; I'm afraid that one of these people will be someone I should know but don't remember. -- Who Are You

DEAR WHO ARE YOU: When you encounter people whose names you don't remember or whom you do not think you know but are unsure, just say something like, "It's so nice to see you." People mostly appreciate being acknowledged. If the person asks you if you remember them -- something I never recommend -- you can respond by saying, "Please remind me." If the person pushes back trying to get you to guess, admit that you have a bad memory and you do not want to do that. If the person continues, you can excuse yourself. There is no reason for you to go on and on attempting to guess who someone is if the person is unwilling to say.

For those people who like to quiz others about their identity, I implore you to stop. Usually you are the one whose feelings get hurt, plus you create an awkward situation that need not be uncomfortable. I prefer leading with my name to most people. That way, anybody who is having a memory lapse will be supported by the reminder.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I have been on my own for most of my life. I had a boyfriend many years ago, and we lived together, but that was then. Now that I am approaching retirement age, I realize that I will probably be alone forever. This makes me sad. I enjoyed having a companion, but I haven't met anybody for a long time who is compatible with me. I have enough retirement to take care of myself, but I feel lonely. It's no fun getting old by yourself. What can I do to make my life less lonely? I don't have much family left. I am all alone. -- By Myself

DEAR BY MYSELF: You do not have to be alone. You can join a senior center to participate in a wide range of activities with people your age. You can learn about activities in your city that attract mature people and go out to participate in them.

The key is that you have to choose to be in the company of other people. The range is broad. Your spiritual community could be an opportunity. Volunteering at a charity that needs help could be gratifying. Figure out what you like to do that includes other people -- and do it.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I live in a duplex building with my cousin. I have a pretty simple life, but my cousin is another matter entirely. He is an attractive young man in his early 20s, and he constantly has women coming in and out of the house. I know because I often run into them. I get that he doesn't have to have a steady girlfriend, but this is ridiculous. I know it's only a matter of time before one of them runs into another. Plus, I worry about my cousin's health. You can't be that promiscuous without the chance of contracting some type of STI.

What can I say to my cousin to get him to think differently about his choices? For me, if he keeps this up, I want to move. I don't want to be in the middle of what will surely soon be a mess. I moved here hoping to have peace and a bit of protection by having my male cousin in the same house. -- Promiscuous Housemate

DEAR PROMISCUOUS HOUSEMATE: You are smart to know that you have no power in getting your cousin to curb his promiscuity. This is his life and how he chooses to live it. You are also smart to consider that things could get ugly if one woman discovers another when they are coming and going from your building. Your best bet is to tell your cousin how you feel: You are disappointed in what you consider to be his reckless behavior, and you believe it is unsafe and unsavory for you to stay in this environment. Tell him that you intend to move if he continues.

Start looking for a new place right away. You have no reason to believe that his behavior will change. Just know that when you move to another location, you will have to deal with whatever your new neighbors' proclivities are. So weigh the odds before you take your next step.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a recent college graduate, and I have been looking for a job for about nine months. So far, even with my degree, I have found nothing in my field. I am sad about this; I put my all into college, believing that it would set me up for success. Now I'm broke. Student loan debt is looming over me, and I don't know what to do. I need a job. Should I look outside my field? I don't want to start out as a failure. -- Need a Job

DEAR NEED A JOB: You are not alone. It can take time to find the right fit for a job, especially when you have built a career plan that doesn't seem to be unfolding as you would like. Do not dismay. Your job will become apparent to you, but it may take longer than you would like.

For now, it's time to be practical. Look beyond your narrow search, and consider what other skills you have and how you can earn a living. Look broadly -- from customer service, to tech, to telemarketing. Basically, right now you want to find something that will give you income while you are on your search. It could be best to look for a part-time job at night so that you have time during the day to search for a career position. Instead of giving up, get more creative. And don't think any job is beneath you -- it is not.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My teenager comes home almost every week trying out new slang. So far, nothing is profane. Some of the sayings hail from back in my day, a thousand years ago. She hates when I tell her that, though. She wants to think that she and her friends are original. Should I just let her think that her new words are new to the world? Part of me wants her to have a sense of history, but I don't want to spoil the moment when she is sharing her discoveries with me. -- New Slang

DEAR NEW SLANG: Right now, what's most important is for you and your daughter to enjoy your time together and for her to feel open to sharing her experiences with you. Bite your tongue until a moment comes when you can share a story with her about your life and the ways in which you expressed yourself. There is no need to rush. Feel comfortable letting her have her space to try out the sayings that she is bringing home. Let her define them for you, based on her generation's understanding of the terms.

Consider that you have plenty of time to tell her what happened when you were growing up. When you do, trust that she will take in your stories, even if she doesn't react to them in the moment.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I totally disagree with your response to the person who stated that her workplace -- which smelled of body odor due to people not wearing deodorant -- does not allow employees to wear fragrances. You advised her to wear it anyway.

This is a hygiene issue. Administration should clarify that deodorant can be worn. Advising a person to wear fragrance is not advised. There are more people allergic to fragrance than to deodorant. -- Follow the Rules

DEAR FOLLOW THE RULES: Several readers wrote in about this question and my response -- pointing out that many people have allergies and other sensitivities to fragrance, and I was not right in saying it is OK to wear fragrance. You are right.

And yet, I will just say that sometimes one action can provoke another. It might be easier for a company to address a fragrance issue than a hygiene issue -- at first. Why? Because whether or not it is correct, it can be difficult for people to tell each other that they smell bad due to body odor rather than an abundance of fragrance. The conversation starter could be about fragrance and then it could lead to cleanliness. People smell lots of different ways, and I have learned that where people come from often affects their body odor, mainly due to what they consume. This is a difficult path to navigate without hurting somebody's feelings. But you can do it. And a good human resources team should be able to speak to cleanliness in a general but direct way, hopefully leading to a fresh-smelling office.

In my book, the reader should do whatever it takes to get the company to double down on hygiene. But it is true that there are plenty of people who cannot tolerate strong fragrances. Let's make sure that when the issue is addressed in a work setting that poor hygiene is considered as seriously as strong fragrance. Otherwise, I am not willing to say that the fragrance wearer has to succumb to peer pressure.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I get requests for donations online all the time. I see birthday fundraisers on social media, charity efforts to support various causes, etc.

Recently, I saw a campaign to support a friend's children's school. This looked good, and I am happy to support a friend. My question is whether this leaves me vulnerable to other people who know me and will wonder why I chose this campaign over theirs. I like saying that I made the contribution, but I do not like others judging me because I didn't choose their charity. How can I handle this? -- Wanting To Give

DEAR WANTING TO GIVE: You can stand confident in the knowledge that you have the right to choose your charity of choice. If others ask you why you chose a particular charity, share your reasoning. If they ask why you chose this one over theirs, tell the truth. It could be that you learned about this one first, you feel close to the child who is attached to the charity, you have a personal affinity for the charity -- or whatever else. If you are new to philanthropic giving, you can say that as well -- this is new to you, and you were attracted to this project.

Part of the reason people donate anonymously is to avoid scrutiny from others, either by virtue of the amount of contribution or the affiliation. Whatever you decide, feel confident about giving to a good cause. And don't allow yourself to be bullied into giving more than you can afford or to charities that do not draw your interest.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My teenage son is extremely shy. When he and I go places and people speak to him, it takes him so long to respond that I often find myself answering questions for him. I know that this isn't helpful in the long run, but there are times when the pauses are extremely uncomfortable between when someone says something to him and when he responds. How can I support him to become more confident and outgoing, and what should I do when people ask him questions and it takes too long for him to answer? -- Shy Son

DEAR SHY SON: Your son may need to venture out on his own so that he doesn't have your support in helping to answer questions. You may want to bring him to events with you, remind him of key small-talk points that are specific to where you are (topic of event, key parties who should be in attendance, personal interests, etc.), and let him know that you want to circulate independently. Encourage him to make eye contact and small talk. If he practices, he will be able to say things when he is nervous. It's easiest for you to bite your tongue if you aren't there at all. Let him go for it on his own.

Make sure he knows you are not abandoning him. Instead, you are setting him up for success by preparing him and then giving him space to interact with others independent of you.

DEAR HARRIETTE: Am I wrong to think that I could find true love with my high school sweetheart after being separated for more than 30 years? I am not a romantic normally, but recently I ran into my old flame, and sparks flew. I truly loved this guy when I was in 10th grade, and it broke my heart when college came and we parted ways. Nothing bad happened -- just life, really.

When I saw this man again at a work event, I was shocked. We had not seen each other since back in the day, and there he was. We struck it up real nice, and we have been dating. Do I dare believe that this could be true? I don't want to get hurt, but it feels real. We enjoy each other's company and have been spending a lot of time together. How can I tell if this is for keeps? -- Old Flame

DEAR OLD FLAME: Stay in the present moment. It's fine to remember your love from the past, but don't get caught up comparing then to now. Instead, trust the moment you are in. As you spend time together, notice what you enjoy about being in each other's company. Pay attention to the things that mesh between you -- and those that don't. This is important for the long term. It is natural for couples to share some interests and behaviors and not be so simpatico regarding others. It is smart for you to recognize the difference between the two.

Make sure you talk about your hopes for the future and how you think you fit into each other's lives. If you are open and honest and willing to see if this relationship will work, you will find out. Be sure to base your assessment on what's happening now, rather than what you remember from the past.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I was hanging out with a new friend the other day, and when we started talking, I learned that he is a Republican. I stopped in my tracks. I thought that all my friends shared my somewhat liberal Democratic views. Before I knew his political affiliation, I would say he fit that description, too. We share many values, but I draw the line with what's happening in our government and was appalled to learn that he is in with them.

I didn't ask him any more questions after that. I was so shocked I quickly ended our conversation and dipped out. But this guy is a friend. How can I handle the fact that we are on opposing teams? Everything is so political these days that I don't know how to handle this. -- Us Vs. Them

DEAR US VS. THEM: My husband argues that the political parties are far more similar than different, though certain philosophies do differ. In today's political times, there surely are some extremes that people are struggling to understand.

Rather than lumping your friend into a category that automatically says that you are opponents, talk to him about his views as you share your own. Have a respectful conversation about what you value and what he believes in. Determine where your values differ and where they may be similar. Agree on topics that you are happy to debate and those that you believe will lead to discord without resolution. You can agree to table those.

You don't have to leave this friendship. Knowing people who have different viewpoints from yours is important in understanding life and how to engage other people. You should not expect or desire for everyone to be your clone.

DEAR HARRIETTE: It's allergy season again, at least for me. I find myself sneezing and sniffling all the time, even though I use allergy medicine. Sometimes I can tell that my co-workers back up a little when I have allergic reactions. I feel confident that I am not contagious. It's just allergies, but they do present like a cold sometimes. How can I reassure my co-workers that I am not going to make them sick? – Allergic

DEAR ALLERGIC: Your allergy sniffles and sneezes may seem like nothing to you, but to most people, it does seem like you are spreading around your germs -- which, in fact, you are even if you're not sick. When you are in the throes of allergy season, be sure to walk with tissues and hand sanitizer. Sneeze and blow away from the group, even if you have to excuse yourself from a meeting or a dining table. Keep your area tidy, and be mindful of touching other people until after you clean your hands.

Check in with your doctor to see if the prescription you are using is strong enough to manage your allergies. Sometimes a medication change can ward off allergy attacks.

Finally, when you are in the midst of an allergic reaction, let your co-workers know that it is allergy season, and you will do your best to stay clear of them. They will appreciate that.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I went to an event the other evening, dressed in my finest -- or so I thought. When I arrived, several people, including the greeters at the front door, complimented me on my outfit. I appreciated that, especially since I haven't been out for a while, and I have gained quite a bit of weight.

Anyway, at a certain point during the evening, I saw a man who I have known for at least 20 years. He walked up and smiled, and as he was saying hello, he grabbed my arm and made a comment that I looked good -- even though I have put some meat on my bones. I didn't quite know how to react to that. Yes, I have gained weight, but is that what somebody should say -- pointing out that I have gotten bigger? He unnerved me for a minute. I didn't say anything, but it bothered me. What do you do in a situation like that? -- Half-Baked Compliment

DEAR HALF-BAKED COMPLIMENT: It sounds like you are especially sensitive about the way your body has transformed over the years. That's natural. The fact that this man you have known forever obviously noticed that you look different but also complimented you on looking good in your new skin can be taken as a compliment. I doubt that he meant to insult you. He saw you and reacted to the person he saw with honesty and flattery. Sometimes it can be hard to notice a compliment when it is cloaked in a truth that reflects your particular sensitivity.

To be fair, it's best if people do not address weight at all in conversations. It is so hard to do so without stumbling into offensive language. But, in this man's case, it seems that he meant to celebrate you, just as those people who didn't know you were doing that day.

Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to askharriette@harriettecole.com or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106

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