Monday, August 19, 2019

My last first day of school 

Twenty seven years ago, in August of 1993, I sent my first child off to her first day of Kindergarten. Today my 3rd and last child is off to her senior year of high school. So my nearly 3 decades long K-12 journey is coming to an end. Of course this called for a nostalgic trip down memory lane through my photo albums. 

I found every first day picture for all 3 girls from 1993 to 2019 except for 1997. We had just moved from Oklahoma City to Alexandria, Virginia and there are all kinds of pictures in the album from that hectic time, except of what would have been Ariel’s 1st day of 4th grade. So I used her formal school pic instead. Oh well, 29 out of 30 is pretty impressive.

These days everyone has a camera on their phone, so it was a lot easier to find all of Zoe’s pictures than Lacey’s and even further back, Ariel’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any first day pics from my school days.

I’ve always been a picture taker. My memory has always been terrible, even in my younger days, so I think I’ve tried to preserve all the moments through pictures. My kids have spent a lot of time complaining about having to pose for pictures through the years, including Zoë this morning, but I think they’ll appreciate it when they get older.

Here are Ariel, Lacey and Zoe’s K-12 first day of school pictures through the years.

Ariel 1993-2005 K-12 1st days of school

Lacey 1998-2010 K-12 1st days of school

Zoe 2007-2019 K-12 1st days of school

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Discovering Television

I’m learning to like watching tv after a lifetime of mostly ignoring it. As a kid, my siblings and I didn’t watch much TV - I have memories of corny after school specials ("My Mom’s having a baby") and being forbidden to watch "Saturday Night Live" while my parents were out (we mostly didn’t). "Happy Days" on Friday and "Love Boat" on Saturday were OK if my parents weren’t watching anything else.

Honestly, I’d so much rather have been reading a book.

My TV - with its also antiquated cable box
This is probably why I have a library in my house today, and an old TV with a screen that is measurably smaller than my laptop screen. I just never really got in the habit of TV.  When I got my first apartment I couldn’t really afford a TV. Cable was new, and financially out of the question.  A few years later, married with a child, I moved to England and our TV wasn’t compatible with UK voltage (and I have some vague memory that you had to pay tax on watching TV, so that was a nonstarter).  Mostly I remember reading books while Ariel, my youngest, watched episodes of "Sesame Street" that my friend Darryl sent me on VHS for 3 years, bless him to this day. I also went through a strange cross-stitch* phase in England.

Life is different when you lack the TV habit. Famously, I never even notice TVs in hotels. I once swore there was no TV in my hotel room at a work conference. I just simply do not see them.

But, on to the real reason for this post: TV has gotten so much better. Like amazingly better. So how can I not pay attention now? Also I really have to figure TV out so I have a clue how it all works when I’m in the nursing home in 20 years catching up on all the shows. ;)

My TV awakening started a few years ago when I was recovering from surgery. I was off for 2 weeks over Thanksgiving and I watched 4 seasons of "Game of Thrones." If you fast forward through all the sex and violence you can do that in less time than you’d think. I know that sounds like you'd be leaving out the best parts, but I was trying to catch up, so I focused on the dialogue. If their mouths weren’t moving, I was skipping it.

I didn’t only watch GOT during my convalescence. I asked for recommendations, and so I watched the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and it was highly entertaining. Then "True Blood" which was unbelievably addictive and satisfying. "Breaking Bad" was like a car accident I couldn’t look away from. I have since watched all of "Outlander" - a book series I had adored for years- and most recently, "Killing Eve," which has some seriously kick ass female characters.

I’m increasingly amazed at how good TV can be. This is a far cry from Love Boat, am I right?

My next post will feature my predictions for who is most likely to sit on the Iron Throne, because I am now in the TV Club. 

One of my cross stitch projects while in England

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Fundraising: The New American Pastime

It's too bad that the tax laws changed right around the time that everyone became a fundraiser.

It was crazy enough when anyone could start their own 501 c 3. That at least required some knowledge, planning and goals.  But now, you too can become an Instant Fundraiser by creating a page on Kick-starter or GoFundMe, or some other platform from a fast growing list. Even my elderly relatives are raising money for a cause on Facebook.  Last week, I read that Instagram is getting a donate button.


I started out this post intending to complain about how hard nonprofit fundraising already is without every single person old enough to get on social media as competition. But then I got a Timehop notification of an old tweet asking why couldn't we give bigger tax breaks for donations that reduce the tax burden?

So I thought maybe I'd write instead about a new charitable taxing system that factors in average citizens as fundraisers.

Right now, all I have are questions.  Does it make sense to stagger tax benefits around what cause a donation goes to? For example, would it make any sense for a donor to get a bigger tax break if he/she gave money to a cause the government has to pay for? So, if you donated to a food bank, you would get a bigger tax break than if you gave to the symphony. Not that I have anything against the symphony, but I don't see anyone complaining about how many tax dollars are being spent on the symphony. The idea here would be to utilize the American desire to support a cause as tax relief.

Or take it even further, and say that a donation to a "teach a man to fish" effort got a bigger tax break than a "give a man a fish" effort, because prevention has a better ROI than intervention and warrants a larger tax break.  Or maybe, only donations that go towards charities that directly relieve government social programming are even eligible for a tax break.

As many as 87% of Americans donate according to this Gallup poll. Nearly everyone does, according to this report.  Combine that with American's "profound yearning to change the world," according to this great TED talk, and we might be on to something.

Americans hate paying taxes. They hate the IRS and they hate the idea that someone is cheating on their taxes or paying less taxes than they are, or both.  But they don't hate all taxes. Obviously, the majority of Americans understand the need for taxes to pay for things we collectively need and benefit from.  Where we get into trouble, is having to pay taxes for things things like social services.

Charitable deductions were established form the beginning in part as a way to to relieve taxes and help nonprofits. But faith in the system has damaged the efficacy of that plan. It's time for a reboot. Although there is evidence that nonprofits do a better job of providing social services than the government does, it's also a fact that the general public is as distrustful of the nonprofit sector as it is of the government. It's no wonder we struggle with proving value, producing outcomes.

I'm not saying that nonprofits should replace government, just that nonprofits that develop expertise in social service delivery are more likely to be effective than government at actually solving problems. Just like in the private sector. And further incentives to support those nonprofits could be a really good thing. 

I know little to nothing about taxes, other than how to how to fill in boxes on Turbo Tax and pay it to file for me. But I know a lot about nonprofits and social services and fundraising.  Fragmentation of funding has been eroding the effectiveness of social services for years.  This trend where everyone's a fundraiser is only going to lead to more problems with the stability and sustainability of critical nonprofit services.

I know a lot of people who’d be even more incentivized to raise money on social media if they knew they were reducing taxes and solving problems. It’s time to evolve the system.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our kids need a break 

There’s something very wrong with kids being stressed out by extracurricular activities to the point they aren’t enjoying them.

A few weeks ago my 16 year old daughter, Zoe, was on her way to a choir competition. On the way there I asked her how she was feeling:

"I’m too busy. I need more time to do nothing," she said.  This made me worried, and a little sad. 

There’s been a lot of attention over the last decade or so around the over-scheduling of our children. If you think about it, it starts before they’re even born:  reading to them and choosing their schools while they’re still in utero and such. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do those things, but the foreshadowing might warrant caution. 

I never did much as a kid other than going to school, reading books and playing with my friends. We usually went on a vacation in August before school started back up. My siblings and I did nothing but play all summer and it was pretty glorious. We might have been bored at times, but then we found things to do, which, of course, helped develop things like resourcefulness, initiative taking, and creativity .

We also had chores, a lost art these days. In my house it’s a chore for me to wait for a time when Zoe's home to unload the dishwasher, pretty much her only household responsibility.

My parents might have put us in a bunch of programs if they’d thought about it, or could even afford it. I remember being briefly in the Girl Scouts at school, which mainly reinforced my love of reading. I got to go to summer camp for a week once, too, which was cool. I think my younger siblings did more things because my parents were more experienced by then, but I don't remember any over-scheduling.

I wonder about all this frenzied activity today, and who it’s for. In my 30 years of parenting, I’ve seen a lot of stressed out, resentful kids along the way, on soccer fields, in gyms and cafeterias, and on stages. They have so much pressure on them already to perform academically. And we heap on more responsibility all the time. Why?

I read an article recently that kids with "hyper-involved parents have more anxiety and less satisfaction with life."  I know these parents mean well, but it can’t be good to fill up every minute of our kid’s time.  The article goes on to say that "when children play unsupervised, they build social skills, emotional maturity and executive function."

Last year Zoe found out she was accepted into the National Honor Society. My initial feeling of pride quickly morphed into dismay because I know what a pain in the ass the required "volunteer hours" were going to be on top of school, theater and choir. But what kind of mom tells her kid she can’t be in the national honor society?

I know I sound ancient, harkening back to my school days, but I was in the honor society and I never had to do one second of volunteer work for it. It was something I was awarded because of all the hard work I’d ALREADY done to be such a stellar student. (Thank you very much.) It’s got to be confusing to tell a kid nowadays that they’re such a great student that they get to go do more work. "Hey kids, how’d you like to do more work that will in no way assist in improving your schoolwork, and may even end up interfering with your schoolwork at some point? Here, let me sign your form."

My daughter also feels like she doesn’t have enough time to be with friends. She has to schedule her friends, another thing that didn’t happen in my childhood. And she is more resentful than any normal teenager should have to be about spending time with family during school breaks. 

Which by the way, when did School Breaks stop being school breaks?

During pretty much any school holiday these days, I guarantee there is a practice or a rehearsal or a volunteer obligation on the schedule.  Sunday is the only day Zoe gets off from theater rehearsal, and they’ve even had a few of those along the way. I just can’t imagine my parents putting up with this. 

The high-jacking of school breaks is particularly egregious once kids get to high school. Over the last three years, Zoe’s father and I have had to come to terms with the fact that Zoe no longer has any free time for us to force her to endure family traditions to the degree that we tortured her much older sisters.

It sucks more for her dad than me, mostly because he does a lot more stuff. I’m kind of over-scheduled at a job that has things going on days and nights and weekends. I’m just grateful I can fit in all the chauffeur duties I’m required to perform for Zoe's activities. I can’t wait til she drives herself next year even though that means I will probably see her even less.  

It’s not that I think Zoe hates all her extracurricular activities. I know she loves performing in plays. I know she’d rather be at rehearsal than going to the lake for spring break. She’s told me so many times over the last couple of weeks. I just hope she’s becoming a more rounded person from all of it because I can see that she’s exhausted.  And I resent that school breaks are not school breaks anymore. Kids need time to recharge and rest their brains.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Inappropriate Reading

That's my adorable little brother, Shane on the stool

As a child, I was a certified bookworm. I remember my parents and other adults constantly telling me to "get my nose out of that book," or to "put down that book and go outside and play."  You can see me in action in this picture.  I'm absolutely engrossed in my Nancy Drew book, circa 1975 at my grandparent's house. Just lost in it.

Can you imagine telling a child to stop reading today?

For the past 3-4 years I've put a great deal of effort into trying to get my now 16 year old's nose out of her iPad/iPhone, and I'm wondering if it isn't pretty much the same.  My parents told me to go outside and play because that's how they were raised.  I want my kids to read actual books cause that's how I was.  My oldest child was also a certified bookworm.  She's 30 and still a huge reader, but of course all of her reading is done on e-devices now.  She grew up with her nose in a book, and I was pleased, to put it mildly.  My middle child was also a reader, although not as epically as her older sister.  Neither of them grew up on iPads or iPhones, so because this is not how I was raised, OR how I raised my two older girls, Zoe my 16 year old is paying the price.  This is her several years ago on the iPad.  See the similarities?  I'm certain that after taking this cute picture I told her to get off the screen. 

I know that kids today are doing all kinds of other things on their phones besides reading books.  My Nancy Drew book didn't have an option to switch over to tumblr or Reddit.  But I was reading all kinds of inappropriate stuff.  One year my mom sent my dad to buy books for me for Christmas.  This was 1977, so keep in mind I was only 11 years old. Because he couldn’t find the books on my Christmas list, he ended up buying me me a trilogy of books by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I still have these extremely well-worn paperback books in my library today, pages missing, covers falling off, multiple dog eared corners.... ahh, the signs of a much-read, well-loved book....

They say that smartphones and e-devices will be the downfall of modern youth - much like rock and roll in the 60's and 70's or video games in the 80's.  I was spared most of the demonizing of rock and roll by my parents.  While my father was generationally contemptuous of bands like Led Zepplin and AC/DC, he grew up loving Elvis Presley and rockabilly bluegrass music.  He famously brought home the 1972 live double album, "Hot August Night" from Neil Diamond's Los Angeles outdoor Greek Theater concert, which became a staple of my and my younger sibling's musical childhoods.  I grew up smack in the middle of the video game predictions-of-horror-period, though.  As a teenager, considering all the doomsday opinions I had heard from adults, read about in magazines and watched on tv, I was positive that all the kids who played video games were going to be either vegetables or serial killers by age 25. This turned out not to be true: My brothers are relatively normal.* Also, Dad, I did not become a drug addict after listening to Ozzy's "Diary of a Madman" album my sophomore year of high school.

But back to those books my dad bought me, when I was 11 years old.  First in the trilogy, The Flame and the Flower, is " epic historical romance with a strong heroine and actual sex scenes...spawning the modern romance genre, becoming the first romance novel to [follow] the principals into the bedroom."**  You can bet this was not what my parents wanted me to be reading, even though they gave it to me for Christmas.  Much like when I gave Zoe an iPhone, I hadn't intended for her to watch Shameless at age 15. Kids today bypass smartphone parental controls with the same kinds of dexterity, zeal and ingenuity that I displayed figuring out how to sneak out of the house nearly every night during my freshman year of high school, ending up at places like the rest stop on interstate I-35 North right around the Garden Ridge Pottery exit.  The way I look at it is that while my 16 year old may not physically travel as far, she's still exploring the dangerous world, just in a way that is way different than I did. 

Even more significantly, instead of being irrevocably scarred by my inappropriate Christmas gift of literature, the 2nd book in the trilogy, "The Wolf and the Dove," inspired me with an enduring love of European history, and a strong desire to read more about it.  The smallest details about the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 are seared into my brain for all eternity. Eventually, (some 500 historical years later) I developed such a strong obsession with with Elizabeth the First that over the next 20 years I  devoured everything ever written about her. What a badass queen she was.  #rolemodel

I guess my point is that being glued to the screen might not be as evil as we predict.  It's just a different way for kids to explore the world.  And their world is far bigger as a result of the e-device resources.  It wouldn't have taken me 20 years to fully study Elizabeth the Great if I'd had an iPad. 

*for the most part...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30

The first picture of Ariel

In March 1988, I was a 22 year old pregnant military spouse living in Alamaogordo, New Mexico.  I remember it like it was yesterday. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

I only lived in Alamogordo for a few weeks, just long enough to finish gestating and give birth to Ariel Marie, 9 lbs 1 oz, 21 1/2 inches long, and perfect. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

We moved on to Clovis, New Mexico only a few months later, where we learned to cope with the smells of herds of Texas cattle and the sleep deprivation of having a newborn. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

When she was 9 months old we flew to live in England. When we came back to the states she was 3 and spoke with an English accent.  

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

When she started Kindergarten we were living in Lubbock, Texas, and her beloved sister, and playmate, Lacey, was born. 

Pour me a drink, THAT kid is turning 25 in June! 

In middle school Ariel refused to go to her Confirmation and started reading Ayn Rand and Ann Rice. She was my first, and I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

In high school she cried before and after debate tournaments and became editor of the school newspaper. She looked like a fashion model in her prom dresses. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

Trinity University awarded Ariel the President's Scholarship and she double majored in English and Communications. I thought maybe I'd done something right. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

I knew day would come when she would move away but I wasn't expecting the news that it was 1,111 mikes away (I looked it up). She went off to Ft Lauderdale, Florida to be a newspaper reporter. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30. 

When she moved back home 4 years later she told me that journalism was dying, and she was depressed. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30. 

Ariel proposed to her fiancé this past year and they're planning a wedding for April 2019.  They live and work and play and travel together. Her birthday is today and she is in Nevada at a conference for her work in the marketing department of a gaming company. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is a beautiful, accomplished young woman turning 30. 

Make it a double!  I hear 30 is the new 20. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Prevention is Hard: A prison pipeline story

For over 20 years I have been working in the nonprofit sector youth development space.  Over that same span of time my brother has been working in the federal prison system.  He says his side is winning. 

What he means by that is that he wins in the revenue department.  His system is more well funded than mine. Way more.  He recognizes this despite the fact that he is constantly lobbying to stop cutting federal funding for the prison system.  So here we both are:  Me struggling to find revenue to keep kids out of prison, and him struggling to find revenue to adequately care for them when they ultimately get there. 

Isn't that a happy family story?  

My brother (left) in a picture not involving work. #gospursgo
We came to this realization sitting around a bunch of beer coolers in a parking lot about 7 or 8 years ago.  The story is fuzzy in my memory* except for that vivid illustration of the consequences of a lack of funding for prevention in the youth development space.  My brother's union had a conference and the hotel they stayed in was right across the street from my nonprofit.  They basically packed out the hotel and one night they brought a barbecue grill across the street, and the prison guards and social workers had themselves a party.

We told them about our waiting list of kids needing mentors.  They told us about guard to prisoner ratios and how often that rule is broken. We talked about the challenges the kids in our program face, and how long they stay on the wait list; some til it's too late.  They were familiar with the dysfunctional cycles that plague the families of kids who end up in jail; they knew how common it was for multiple family members to all end up in prison.  We talked budgets and they laughed at ours (around $2 million).  They said the cycle of incarceration was inevitable and it was "nice of us" to try - but we would lose way more often than we win. As the beer flowed, they even laughed at us a little for even trying.

It's not a question of can we prevent kids from going to jail?  At my nonprofit we know that mentoring works.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that it does. But as I wrote about before, outcomes don't really matter in the current system.  One of the craziest things I have ever experienced in my professional career was when a state government department-head told me that it didn't matter that we were 100% successful in our program, and that had nothing to do with being funded.

A year or so ago we got a list of kids from our local probation department referred to us for mentoring services.  They were all between the ages of 14 and 17.  Most of them were already in our system - un-served back when they were 7,8, or 9 - what we called "file closed, unmatched." They were unmatched because we have around 1,000 kids on the wait list all the time and never enough  funding to meet the demand. You have to wonder if those 7,8 and 9 year olds had had mentors back in the day, would they have gone down the same path?  Probably not. 

Recently I spoke with a juvenile court judge and told him that getting kids in our program graduated was not a challenge.  He said that "can't be true," or he "would have heard about it.**  Why is it so hard to believe?  Because it sounds too easy?  Well, it's not easy. Running a quality mentoring program is very difficult.  Human relationships are complicated, and a quality mentoring program is a massive challenge to implement.  Part of the problem is that many mentoring programs are not quality, don't even track outcomes, and everyone assumes we are as marginally effective as they are, if at all.

Prevention is hard to measure. It's a challenge to prove that something that didn't happen might have happened if not for that intervention. But preventing the problem from happening is arguably less expensive - and easier- than fixing the problem once it's occurred. Those teenage boys referred to us from juvenile probation are now criminals.  Changing who they are now is a far greater challenge than teaching them to avoid that path when they are 7, 8 or 9. 

Just when we thought the situation couldn't get worse, along came the proliferation of for profit prisons. That's one way to solve a problem. There's no doubt in my mind that decreasing funding for juvenile delinquency prevention is related to the increase in for profit prisons.  When the future is all about keeping beds filled, why in the world would we invest in preventing it now?

So what's the point of this post?  I'm not sure, but I wrote it while on vacation from my nonprofit work.  The lack of investment in the prevention of juvenile delinquency weighs on me. One of the ways I cope with things that bother me is to write them down.  It doesn't solve anything but it tames the chaos in my brain, perhaps preventing madness. The situation is enough to drive anyone crazy, so you never know. I'm pretty sure that it would cost more to admit me. 

*there was a LOT of beer
**as if I have the funding to make sure everyone hears about my program! Can you say "nonprofit overhead?"