30 November 2013

The Smell of the Greasepaint

When I was 14, I got bitten by the acting bug. I don’t even remember how it happened,  but I think it may have been that one of my mom’s colleagues had a son in a production of “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre in the Park, one of the two repertory companies in Raleigh.

Next thing I knew, a few of my eighth grade girlfriends and I  volunteered to help sew costumes for Theatre in the Park’s production of “Taming of the Shrew.” The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd drew us in and we were cast as ladies in waiting in the next production, “Romeo & Juliet.” I also played a cookie seller, who carried around a wooden post with cookies on it, and my nickname became “Cookie” for the duration of the run. 

Our parents would drop us off at rehearsals and we’d enter this magical world. It was a wondrous time for a kid who felt like she’d never fit in anywhere. The theater is full of misfits and I loved being one of them. It was the first time growing up that I really felt like a part of something and that I was accepted for who I was. 

The cast was a mix of adults and children, but Ira David Wood, who ran the theater and still does, treated us all like adults. It was exhilarating. He was a great director, making Shakespeare’s words come alive for all of us. He had an intuitive way of bringing out the best in us, even though most of us extras had never acted before. He was encouraging, but he also was very professional. This wasn’t “Waiting for Guffman.” This was community theater on a very high level.  

We had a lot of drama in our production and it turned out we needed a little more adult supervision than we were originally getting. I remember making out with one of the stagehands at a party —he was 19, so that probably shouldn’t have happened—but it all felt really innocent. My memories of the production are golden.

North Carolina is a beehive of the arts and some of the folks in the play went on to act professionally, most notably, Terrence Mann, who played Tybalt. Shortly after our production, Mann moved to New York and has been a big Broadway star ever since. He’s been nominated for three Tonys: for “Les Miserables,” “Beauty & The Beast,” and this year for the role of Charlemagne in the 2013 revival of “Pippin.” 

Though he did a lot of professional acting and could have gone to Hollywood or to New York permanently, Ira David Wood stayed in Raleigh. He’s a huge local celebrity, more famous in Raleigh than his daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. 

I didn’t act again until my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Regensburg, Germany. There was an English theater group and lot of us kids from the U.S. and U.K. would play some of the parts, along with the German students who were majoring in English. I played Miss Prue in William Congreve’s restoration comedy, “Love for Love,” and Elvira in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” Though I loved performing in both of them, I was pretty sure that the only reason I got the roles was because of my English fluency. This was reinforced when the actor who played Madame Arcati, the medium who raises Elvira from the dead (the director decided to cast it as a man in drag), left his stage prop from the spell he casts during the seance lying around. Scrawled across the piece of paper were the words:  “Spell for bringing bad actresses back to life.” My hurt was compounded by the fact that he was my boyfriend at the time. However, I kind of knew he was right. After that I quit acting. I took improv classes at Second City in 2005 and that only reinforced that I am, despite what Stanislavsky said, a small actor.  

A few years ago, Ira David Wood and I got back in touch via Facebook. He swore he remembered me, but that seemed impossible- though our production, as I mentioned, had endured a fair amount of drama that probably made it more memorable than some others. 

When I came back to Raleigh a few years ago, my friends and I went to a production at Theatre in the Park and I got to see him. We had a really lovely chat and I got to tell him how much my experience at Theatre in the Park meant to me. Every kid should have someone believe in him or her like Ira David Wood believed in me. He knew I was never going to be a star and I imagine if I had pushed it, he may have had to sit me down, but instead, he nurtured my friends’ and my creativity and all these years later, I have nothing but wonderful memories of my time treading the boards. 

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29 November 2013

Such a fine sight to see

(Today's guest blog is by Jone Bosworth, a colleague of my sister's from when they both were in the world of child welfare policy. Jone now runs Incourage Leading, a women's leadership development firm. She sent this blog to me unsolicited, knowing that my hands were full with certain family issues. I so appreciated it. It’s a loving story of friendship that seems especially appropriate the day after Thanksgiving --Melinda)

Maureen and I took an October road trip from Nevada to Nebraska in my old Mustang convertible. Our plans were loose:  head east, see every possible thing we could, and arrive in six days so that Maureen could make a doctor’s appointment.  

Friends for nearly 30 years, people who love us get a little worried when Maureen and I travel together.  Once, we climbed to the top of Wyoming’s Mount Washington. When we came down, we couldn’t find our car. We’d been talking intently, sped up when we spotted what we thought looked like bear scat, and walked down the wrong side of the mountain. 

That time, a professional bull rider let us jump in the back of his pick-up truck with his saddle and gear. He took us around the mountain to our car and we found a place to buy coffee and pie, the only thank you he’d accept. Sitting on a lodge’s wraparound porch late into the night, our rescue cowboy regaled us late with tales of the rodeo circuit. 

On another trip together, Maureen’s family held a Catholic Mass when she didn’t call home for a week. We were on Carriacou, an island in the Grenadines. It was before cellphones became appendages and honestly, we tried to call home the first day but couldn’t seem to make the one local payphone work. Somehow, island life consumed us and checking in slipped our minds. 

This road trip, we vowed we’d be more responsible. This time, the trip held more meaning because Maureen is legally blind and her eyesight is rapidly diminishing. 

Most of the trip, we lost ourselves in America’s beauty and dreamed out loud of being painters who could capture it. Maureen pulled out her iPad to record what we convinced ourselves were great potential song lyrics, like the “Roll for Freedom” sign in Tonopah, Nevada. It actually read “Roll Dice for Free Room” and we began to question my eyesight too.  
We snapped photos on the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada and wondered if the Ufologists’ suspicions might be right, that anything seemed possible that eerie stretch. 

Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is definitely one of the 10 places you must see before you die. We recommend you stop for Aunt Sue’s wild berry pie in Duck Creek to fortify yourself for hiking the Hoodoos.

Meandering through Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation, we experienced the feeling of joyful smallness, of nature and time and peoples who came before. When we saw a sign reading “Coral Sand Dunes” we detoured 50 miles to prove to ourselves that pink sand really exists and that although we’ve now hit middle-age, we still have it in us to take the road less travelled. 

At one point, our GPS screeched “unnamed road” for so long that it froze. That happened on Indian 2, a road through Hopi Lands that gets you faster to Winslow, Arizona than U.S. highways will. On Route 66, Winslow’s corner is a mandatory stop; we sang "Take It Easy" alongside the Jackson Browne statute on the corner he and the Eagles made famous.  

By day five we’d hit the gorgeous Turquoise Trail in New Mexico. Stopping in Madrid, an artists’ colony with a population 350, we got invited to the Halloween party that night. Regrettably, in our new responsible traveler mode we decided we had to press on. Late that night outside Last Chance, Colorado, a 14-point buck leapt out and bounded across the highway. Thankfully, it wasn’t even a near miss.  

The forty-five degree winds made it uncomfortable, but Maureen took my arm and I led her behind the Nebraska Welcome Center by Ogallala to see if the horses pastured there would come to us – they did.

Seventeen miles from home, we heard a strange noise coming from the car. Maureen’s husband and son came to get us and diagnosed the situation:  two tires had gone bad.   
When we met in the late 1980s, Maureen mentioned she was having trouble driving at night. A few years later she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. RP is a genetic condition that roughly 100,000 people in the U.S. inherit. RP progressively takes your sight and for Maureen, every day she can still see is precious. 

The Foundation Fighting Blindness, Inc. is an organization dedicated to driving the research that will provide preventions, treatments and cures for people like Maureen who are affected by retinitis pigmentosa. They also focus on macular degeneration, Usher syndrome, and the entire spectrum of retinal degenerative diseases. 

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28 November 2013

Oh, it's a fragile thing, this life we lead...

On Thanksgiving, and every day, I’m thankful for my life. 
As I get older, I feel the preciousness of life and the fragility of it more and more and that makes me cling to it with a greater grip, but I know that’s not the way to live. 
The way to live is with an open heart and with a grace and acceptance of the path that I, uniquely, am on.  It doesn’t look like anyone else’s map and when I compare it others’ lives that’s when I find myself in deep trouble. 
When I look back on my life, it has surpassed my expectations in so many ways. So much so that is seems ungrateful to complain about the parts that haven’t worked out the way I’d hoped. I certainly thought I’d be married by now and possibly have had kids, but that isn’t the way that part of my life worked out. And, I don’t know if I’d trade any of the complicated romantic relationships I’ve had (and the ones to come) for the security that marriage brings. How can you ever know something like that?  Though my friends assure me otherwise when I say this, I’m not so sure I would have made a very good mom.  I’m way too selfish and way too fearful. I can’t imagine ever letting my kid out of my sight. My heart would be in my throat every minute. 
My life so far has felt like one great adventure. An adventure where sometimes I feel so clearly in control (yeah, right) and other times where I feel like a  leaf being blown by some force so much greater than I and I have no idea where I’ll land.
And it’s all led me to this point. This point where I am in the middle of my life and all I want is more. More of it all. As I’ve written before,  my father’s in failing health — he was even in the hospital earlier this week and had a small heart attack—and I see him with the same spirit I feel even though he’s 36 years older than I am.  Even though it’s not the life he used to have and wishes he still had, he still so wants to stay around for more. These last few weeks, I’ve been in awe of his spirit and the sheer life force —there’s no better term that I can think of — that he possesses.  And I understand it. 
Writing this blog this year has taught me so much about myself and it has changed me in fundamental ways that I am still trying to figure out. I know it’s made me kinder and I know that kindness is more important than any other virtue. That and being of service.  It’s made me feel more connected to the world and less lonely. I don’t remember a year where I’ve had so few down days. I was never a particularly depressed person, but I certainly had periods where I would feel down and very, very alone. That has happened so little this year and when it has, it has been fleeting. Even on the days I haven't wanted to write an entry, the blog has never felt like anything less than a blessing in my life. 
As I head into the last month of the blog I already feel a sense of loss that it will be over in 33 days...yet, as of now, I plan to still end it on Dec. 31, 2013. Though the wrenching pang I feel as I write that line makes me realize I really need to come to grips with what happens on Jan. 1, 2014. But I have a feeling it will be time to look at the lessons I’ve learned this year and put them into practice. 
Pearl Jam put out a song called “Sirens” earlier this year and it has resonated with me from the first moment I heard it while I sat in the living room looking out on the waves at the condo I rented in September in Topsail Island, N.C. The song is about love and life and letting go and wondering when the sirens will be coming for you. It’s this verse that gets to me every time:  “Oh, it’s a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed by the graces by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders.”
I hope you’ve had a good Thanksgiving.

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27 November 2013

Things I'm grateful for, Day 4: Good Health

As my countdown to Thanksgiving continues, today, I’m thankful for my health.
It sounds hackneyed, but I somewhat subscribe to the overused cliche, “If you have your health, you have everything.” 
The Dalai Lama has said “Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
I definitely feel like I have sacrificed my health in order to make money. Since leaving Billboard and going freelance in 2007, I have probably vowed almost every single day that I will work out. I have a treadmill in my guest bedroom, I have workout videos, I have a Wii with exercise programs. I can’t ever blame the weather as a reason to not be getting exercise, and yet,  the days I work out are far less frequent than the ones I do. I get up in the morning, check email and get absorbed into the work demands of the day.
Last year, after sitting with an ultra-fit Army Colonel on a flight who talked about how he runs marathons with each of his eight daughters, I, once again, vowed to get more exercise in and challenged myself to work out every other day for at least 30 minutes for 90 days. I almost made it... I worked out 40 of the 90 days and I felt great. Not only did I have more energy, but I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  
Similarly, I also vow to lose weight. I lost a great deal in 2003 and starting running/walking races, working up to a half-marathon in 2007. The weight has slowly crept back on and I seldom run more than a little bit now.  I know that my health would be improved if I even lost 20 pounds. Losing that amount was one of my goals for 2013 and I haven’t met it yet and, God knows, losing between Thanksgiving and Christmas is so hard it seems like you should get double weight loss for every pound you drop. I did give up diet soda on Jan. 2 and I gave up desserts and any kind of recreational sugar (i.e.: cake, cookies, ice cream, etc) in July. That has to have helped somewhat... 
I have family and friends who have poor health and I’ve seen the way it limits their lives in ways both big and small. Though my lack of being in good shape has kept me from achieving certain physical things, I have been tremendously blessed to have never suffered from any kind of illness or debilitating injury that has slowed me in any way...though if I don’t start working out more and eating less and reducing stress, I fear it’s only a matter of time.
I’ve seen how disease doesn’t discriminate. I look at someone like Las Vegas titan Steve Wynn, who is going blind. All his millions can’t regain his eyesight. Same with Steve Jobs. His money didn’t keep him from losing his battle with cancer. 
So once again, and this time publicly, I’m vowing to treat my health with more respect and to not take it for granted. I know how quickly it can all change: how a bad diagnosis can put the brakes on a life that seemed just fine hours earlier or how certain habits can limit the ability to live life to the fullest. 
Plus, I want to prove the Dalai Lama wrong.
As I mentioned Saturday, for the next several days, I’m giving to food banks in the nation’s poorest cities. The fifth poorest city/area is Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Arizona. It has a poverty rate of 21.7% Only 11.2% of Lake Havasu residents have college degrees, the lowest percentage in the U.S. 
Today’s $10 goes to the Lake Havasu Community Food Bank, which provides food to the needy in the area three days a week. 
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26 November 2013

Have Passport, Will Travel

As my countdown to Thanksgiving continues, today, I’m thankful for the ability to travel. 
Few things have influenced me as much as seeing the world. I’ve been to six continents and when I think about items on my bucket list, almost all of them include travel. 
 Even though my father grew up in China and then London before emigrating to the U.S. when he was 22, there was no emphasis on exploring the world when I was growing up. My father was a workaholic and he was also in the National Guard, so much of his time away from the office was spent at Fort Bragg. Other than traveling to Los Angeles when I was 10 to visit my paternal grandparents and make the requisite childhood pilgrimage to Disneyland (in part because my father won a sale contest), most of our travel was limited to North Carolina and trips to see my maternal grandmother in Atlanta, where my mother grew up. My father was seldom with us because we would go when he was on military maneuvers every summer. 
We also had a cottage on Kerr Lake on the North Carolina/Virginia border and so any spare time was usually spent there. Looking back as an adult, I get it and I had a great time fishing and water skiing (or trying to), but as a kid, I really resented that while my friends would come back with great stories from Florida and Hawaii, my farthest adventures were 60 miles up the road. 
Perhaps because of my father’s background, but more likely due to her own curiosity, my sister took her junior year of college abroad in Reading, England. The summer after I graduated from high school, my dad, mom and I went to meet her. It was my father’s first time returning to the U.K. and my mom’s and my first time out of the U.S. 
Want a recipe for potential disaster? Put together a family who has never really traveled together and dump them in a foreign land and reconnect them with a daughter/sister who has experienced her first real taste of freedom for the past 10 months. We had no idea how to navigate that. While we had some great memories, especially meeting Dad’s best friend from college and my parents spending their anniversary in Paris on Bastille Day, it was a little like the Griswolds’ European vacation. 
Inspired by my sister, I spent my junior year abroad in Germany and I never pass up a chance to go somewhere new. I’ve probably been to around 25 countries, including Mali and Lebanon, places most tourists don’t go. 
I’m the me I want myself to be when I travel: adventurous, open to new things, alert, listening more than talking, absorbing, respectful, curious, and, most of all, happy. A citizen of the world. 
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Isn’t that so true? I’ve found it impossible to go somewhere and not come away feeling that despite language differences, political differences, cultural differences, etc. we really are much more alike than different. And we are all united.
Travel has enriched my life in ways that nothing else has and made me the person I am today. I can’t wait to see what country the next stamp in my passport comes from.
As I mentioned Saturday, for the next several days, I’m giving to food banks in the nation’s poorest cities. The fourth poorest city in the U.S. is Gadsden, Ala. The town has a poverty rate of 21.2% and it has been socked by the recession: 25% of the homes in Gadsden were valued at less than $50,000 in 2012. 
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25 November 2013

You Gotta Have Friends...

As my countdown to Thanksgiving continues, today, I’m thankful for friends.
I grew up in the same house that my parents moved into when I was a few weeks old. But after I left for college, I never lived in Raleigh again other than for summers before graduation and since then, I’ve lived in four different cities.
The beauty in that is that I still have friends that I made in second grade, as well as friends I’ve made in each one of those cities. A few years ago I had a birthday weekend in Sedona with my five best female friends and they all came in from different cities. I loved that. Only two of them knew each other before that weekend, but now they’re all Facebook and email friends and they see each other when they happen to be in the same city. There’s no better gift they could have given me.
I’ve written before about my three friends that I grew up with who stayed in the Raleigh area. In many ways, our lives couldn’t be more different, and though I’d like to think we’d be friends if we met as adults, I don’t know for sure if we would. As my parents have aged, these friends have proven their love and loyalty to me over and over again in ways that surround me like a warm hug. One of my favorite stories is 12 years ago we were cleaning out the aforementioned house because my parents were moving into a continuing care facility following my father’s stroke. If you haven’t gone through it yet, a continuing care facility is one of those places where you can go in living independently and then as your health declines, you go to a higher level of care. For example, my parents moved into independent living, but my father is now at the highest level of care in skilled nursing. Trust me, if you ever have any questions about these kinds of facilities, I’m your gal. Time and experience have made me and my sister unintended experts. 
Anyway, my mom had so many wonderful qualities, but being a good housekeeper was not one of them. Plus, my parents had lived in this house for decades so lots of stuff had accrued. The move had turned into more of a recovery mission than a rescue. We were just throwing things out left and right as we tried to meet the moving deadline. My friend Brenda was standing on a chair reaching into a cabinet over the stove that I didn’t remember our ever using. She pulled out an empty glass coffee pot-- or at least we thought it was empty-- until she realized there were several dead cockroaches in it. She just looked at the three of us and said, “I guess we’ll be throwing this one away.” No judgment, no disgusted face, nothing but love. 
That’s what good friends feel like: nothing but love. 
One of my friends is building a new house. Another friend and I have already picked out which spare bedrooms will be ours when we're old and grey. My friend thinks we’re kidding.
I remember when so many of my friends were getting married, I thought they wouldn’t have room for me anymore. And for a while, they didn’t. Especially when their kids were little. But as the years passed, it became so obvious that even if you consider your spouse your best friend (and I think more men think that way than women), you still need your girlfriends. There’s honestly not a difference in the depth and richness of my friendships with my friends who are single and my friends who are happily married. 
I’m also so fortunate to have some really great guy friends. Some are married, some are single, but they are so important to me and I get a completely different energy from them than I get from my female friends. I’ve never bought into the myth that men and women can’t be friends. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t go to my guy friends for advice.
And yet, with all my friends, there are times I still feel lonely, especially if I can’t find someone to do something with, like use an extra concert ticket (you’d think that would never be a problem, but you’d be surprised) or to take a trip. I got a wild hair to go to Barcelona a few years back and no one could with me when I wanted to go.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at realizing that if I can’t find someone to go with me to a certain event, it doesn’t mean I’m a loser, it just means my friends have very busy, full lives. It doesn’t mean they love me any less. 
My friends have made me a better friend. I still fall down on the job occasionally, but when I sometimes feel at a loss as to the right action, I just think about how they’ve acted in the past and mimic that. I’ll  always remember after my mom had died, I was emailing a good, but still somewhat casual, friend, and I told her. Two minutes later my phone rang. She knew that was the kind of news you didn’t answer in an email, you picked up the phone. Ever since then, when a friend has brought up a death in the family, I’ve picked up the phone. My friend’s simple move made us much closer friends and taught me how to treat others. 
Each day building up to Thanksgiving I’m giving to a food bank in one of the poorest cities in the U.S. Today’s $10 goes to the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, which includes McAllen, Texas, the third poorest city in the U.S. 
Here’s a sobering and very unsettling fact, according to the food bank, 1 in 2 children in the Rio Grande Valley live below the poverty level. 1 in 2...how can that happen in America? 
McAllen also has the highest rate of residents without health insurance: 37%. Less than 64% of the adults have a high school education. This is like the perfect storm. May they find at least some solace and food on Thanksgiving. 
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24 November 2013

We're small, but mighty

As we lead up to Thanksgiving, each day I’m writing about something for which I’m grateful.
Today, it’s my family. I come from a really small one. It’s me, my older sister, and my mom and dad. Both of my parents only had one sibling each, with whom they weren’t close so I didn’t have the experience of growing up surrounded by cousins and extended family, etc. If we had a family reunion, we wouldn’t need a very big table. In fact, I’ve never been to a family reunion.
I never met my maternal grandfather and both of my paternal grandparents died before I was out of high school. I was probably closest to my maternal grandmother, who died when I was 24. As an adult, I met my first cousin, who lives in Australia and whom I love very much and wish I lived closer to, and also five of my second cousins, only one of whom is a girl, and whom  Jeannie and I have made an honorary sibling.
So you get the idea. 
Last weekend, one of my friends brought up that I seemed like a kid who always knew she was loved. That is undeniably true. Whatever issues I may have with my parents (and doesn’t everybody have some?), there are two things I absolutely know for sure and which I am endlessly grateful. My parents always made me feel extremely loved and wanted. I not only knew they loved me very much, I knew they liked me. My mom used to comment on the delight she took in considering me a friend as an adult and someone she loved spending time with. Secondly, both my sister and I were always made to believe we could do anything and were very encouraged in whatever we pursued. My parents weren’t so happy when I said I wanted to be a go-go dancer when I was six, but I still got a pair of white go-go boots from Payless. There are so many ways to fuck up a kid but calling her stupid has to be one of the worst and my parents always praised me and Jeannie and encouraged us to think for ourselves.  The older I get and the more friends share with me that their experience was not the same, the more grateful I am. 
After my parents’ health started to fail, they counted on me and Jeannie to make more and more decisions for them, both medically and financially. We have power of attorney over all their affairs and in some ways, they trusted us more than I think I ever could have...but that probably has more to do with my trust issues than with anything else (Come to think of it, after just writing about how great my parents were, I have no idea where those trust issues come from, but that’s another blog).
When my mom was dying in 2007, she, Jeannie and I formed a little pack. For the two weeks she was in the hospital, Jeannie and I traded off nights and days staying in her hospital room. One of us was always with her. Not only because anyone in the hospital needs someone advocating for them, but because we were all in it together. My dad’s health already didn’t permit him to travel to the hospital much, so it was just us girls. Like it had been so much of the time we were growing up. My father traveled during the week very often, so it would be me, Jeannie and mom. Jeannie and I still talk about the movies we saw with mom at the drive-in. She’d put us in our PJs and we’d watch the double feature from the back-back of the station wagon.
After mom died, Jeannie, dad and I created our own little tribe. Both of these triads operated very differently than the way we did as a quartet. I loved my father very much growing up, but I can’t really say I got to know him until I was an adult. Our relationship grew much, much richer the older he got and the less he concentrated on being a financial provider for us (also because that wasn’t need) and the more he focused on being there for us emotionally. Though for the last eight or nine years, whenever I leave from a trip to Raleigh to come back to LA, he hands me a $20 and says to use it to get something for Callie, my cat. Without fail.
Now Dad’s health grows increasingly fragile and I know that at some point our foursome will become a twosome. Neither my sister nor I have children, so our end of the Newman clan will die with us  (my first cousin--my father’s brother’s daughter-- has a boy and a girl so the gene pool will live on that way). I'd love to be a step-mom if I marry, but that won't carry on Newman line.
One day, it will be just me and Jeannie. In some ways, she’s always been like a mom to me more than a sister even though she’s only three years older. That may be because I look up to her to much or depend upon her so much, but we have an unbreakable bond. Over taking care of our parents for more than 10 years and making decisions on their behalf, we have never disagreed. And I know how rare that is. 
Like all families, my family is flawed, but love has flowed abundantly and deeply through us my entire life and sustained us through some horrible times and lifted us up. The pluses outweigh the minuses a thousandfold and for that, I am grateful beyond measure.
As I mentioned yesterday, for the next several days, I’m giving to food banks in the nation’s poorest cities. The second poorest city in America is Dalton, Ga., with a 21% poverty rate and an unemployment rate hovering over 11%. 
Dalton is very close to the Tennessee border. So much so, that it is served by the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, so today’s $10 goes to the Northwest Georgia Branch of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, which serves Dalton.

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23 November 2013

The Poorest City in America

As we lead up to Thanksgiving, I’m going to devote the next few days' blogs to something I’m grateful for and the $10 will go to a local mission serving a Thanksgiving meal. I’ve pretty much depleted the Los Angeles missions, so I’m giving to food banks or missions in the poorest cities in the U.S.  
I have friends and family who keep gratitude journals and every day they write down what they’re thankful for. Sometimes it’s 10 things, sometimes it’s 5. Sometimes they’ve had such a rotten day, they can only come up with one. But they realize that there is always something for which they are grateful. It’s a meaningful way to start or end the day, but I’ve just never gotten into that habit.
However, my daily blog has served the same purpose in many ways this year. Every time I give to a homeless person, I’m reminded to be grateful that I have a roof over my head. When I give to an organization fighting disease, I’m thankful I don’t have that illness. When I give to victims of a disaster, I feel gratitude that, for today, I’m not the one standing in line getting a blanket from the Red Cross.
That’s the other thing a gratitude journal, and this blog, do: they aren’t just reminders of reasons why your life is probably pretty good, despite certain trials and tribulations. They’re a reminder to stay in the present. For today, these are the things I’m grateful for. For today, these are the burdens that I don’t have to carry - so maybe by donating a little bit of money today, I can slightly alleviate that burden for the person shouldering it today. Something I’m very grateful for today may be taken away from me and it’s a reminder to be in the moment and not to take precious gifts for granted. 
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poorest city in America is Brownsville, Texas and its neighbor, Harlingen. A whopping 36% of the citizens of Brownsville live below the poverty level and 37% don’t have the equivalent of a high school diploma. It’s not too hard to see a cause and effect there, is it? 
Today’s $10 goes to The Food Bank of Brownsville, Texas. Part of what the Food Bank does is provide backpacks full of food to children in Brownsville who are homeless. 

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22 November 2013

JFK's Lasting Legacy...

When I think about people I admire most, whether it’s Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama or John Lewis or Desmond Tutu, one tribute they all share is that they are/were in service of something greater than themselves. They were willing to let their lives be used for a higher purpose, even, as we’ve seen, though it may mean putting themselves in great peril.

I look at John F. Kennedy Jr. the same way. On the 50th anniversary of his death, so much attention is being devoted to how he died. I have so many friends who believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and so many who believe in other conspiracies, but I prefer today to think about his life. 

His lasting legacy is the Peace Corps. The notion was created while he was still a Senator. On Oct. 14, 1960, he gave a speech at the University of Michigan. He challenged the students to take the disciplines they were majoring in- whether it be medicine or engineering— and devote their time to giving back on foreign soil. It was an idea that not only embraced service to others, but saw the world as a whole and encouraged people to consider themselves not just Americans, but global citizens whose job it was to take care of our neighbor 10,000 miles away, not just across the street. 

Here’s an excerpt of his speech: 

"How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."
From that speech, the Peace Corps was born less than six months later with the  idea of spreading peace through service to those in countries less fortunate than America. 
I  know several people who served in the Peace Corps and only one had a bad experience. For most, it was a life-changing event. I sometimes fantasize about being one of those old ladies who joins the Peace Corps when I’m in my 70s. According to the Peace Corps, more than 200,000 people have served (that number seems really low to me) in 139 countries. The average age of the volunteers is 28, but 7% are over 50. See! It may just happen for me yet! 
Today’s $10 goes to the Peace Corps, which operates as an independent U.S. government agency. You can pick your own project to give the money to from a school library in Zambia to an Eco project in Nicaragua to even an Ultimate Frisbee and Leadership Camp in Panama, thanks to JFK. 
Nov. 22: Peace Corps 
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21 November 2013

Blackboard Jungle

There is something especially heartbreaking to me that teachers don’t have the tools they need to accomplish the very basics when it comes to educating their students. 

Earlier this year, I gave to a campaign via Donorschoose, which funds projects by teachers, and today I found another one. 

Richmond (Calif.) High School is in a high poverty area. A chemistry teacher there is trying to get the absolute basics to help his students, whom he desperately wants to keep motivated. When I say basics, I mean items like colored pencils, a pencil sharpener (singular), binders, a hole punch and safety glasses. Items that it is inconceivable the public school system can’t provide. Instead, teachers, most of whom are woefully underpaid, are going into their own pockets to fund these things. 

Mr. Dunn, the chemistry teacher, writes that most of his students are English speaking from Latino backgrounds. “They are full of spirit, constantly trying to outwit me and can be frequently found hiding the fact that they truly do love science. Many of my students come rom a very impoverished background, which means our school and district are severely underfunded...We simply cannot afford to purchase general supplies on our own, and any help is definitely appreciated.” 

Many of the supplies he seeks, such as whiteboards, will be used for group work, which, in addition to studying the material presented, teaches students to play well with others and problem solve as a team. 

Mr. Dunn’s DonorsChoose page has an itemized list of his supplies purchased on Amazon. They are the bare minimum of what a teacher needs to be effective. I don’t know how we got to this, where our public schools exist in this run-down state when every politician will scream from the roof tops that educating our children is a priority (right before they cut school budgets), but it is crazy that he has to turn to private donations for the most basic of tools. 

Today’s $10 goes to Mr. Dunn’s classroom at Richmond High School and his 175 students. 

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20 November 2013

Unless we move with change, we will become its victims...

Today is Robert F. Kennedy’s birthday. He would have been 88. 
Like so many of us, I have a fascination with the Kennedy family: their power, their abuse of power, their service to this country, and so much more. They’re our royalty.
I reviewed some of his speeches and comments today and found so many of them inspiring. 
“The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use — of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.” (1964)

“Just because we cannot see clearly the end of the road, that is no reason for not setting out on the essential journey. On the contrary, great change dominates the world, and unless we move with change we will become its victims.” (1964)

“A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.” (1966)

“The essential humanity of men can be protected and preserved only where government must answer — not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, or a particular race, but to all its people.” (1966)

And my favorite:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” (1966)

Today’s $10 goes to RFK-LA —Robert F Kennedy Legacy in Action — a non-profit dedicated to educating and fostering a more just society. It does so by training people to use social media to promote social justice. By partnering with USC’s Annenberg School’s Media Innovation Lab, as well as LA Unified School District for RFK Community Schools, RFK-LA teaches students how to be civically engaged. 

Nov. 20: RFK-LA

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19 November 2013

Four score and seven years ago...

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most beautiful documents ever written, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. It took a little over two minutes.  It is in its entirety below:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
As I read these words,  it feels like we are still at battle with each other. Not physically right now, but in every other way. We are still fighting to prove the proposition that all men are created equal. And it feels like our elected officials have all but forgotten that this is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
These words are so wise and so artfully crafted (this is one of five different versions of the Gettysburg Address. It is the Bliss version and is the one that is most frequently quoted) and they so skillfully reiterate the message from the Declaration of Independence.  Despite Lincoln believing that the world  “will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” these sentences are a framework for how this country should continue to advance. 
I’ve read the Address so many times today and each time it stuns me with its sagacity and brevity. I’m filled with hope that we will achieve equality one day. It didn’t happen in Lincoln’s lifetime and it won’t happen in ours, but sliver by sliver, we will get there. 
Today’s $10 goes to The Advancement Project, which describes itself as “a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggle for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.” How Lincolnian of them. 
They achieve their goals through fighting for voter rights and providing access to justice for all. Lincoln knew that a country will never be great as it can be without treating its citizens equal. The Advancement Project continues the fight to achieve what he set forth in the Gettysburg Address. 
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18 November 2013

The Walmart Way...

Just to be clear before you read any further, I’m not a Walmart fan. If you are, you may want to stop reading now. 

I try not to shop there and generally only go into one when my dad needs something that he wants to pick up there because I’d rather make my dad happy than stand by my beliefs. 

Walmart does not have the strongest record when it comes to treating its employees well (to put it mildly), which is one reason I and many of my friends tend to go to Costco instead of Walmart. 

I don’t begrudge any of my friends who shop at Walmart because of the low prices, but I often think they don’t know the whole story. Walmart is held up as such a great company and it’s one of the world’s largest employers, but it pays wages so low that many of its staffers are living below the poverty line, and, therefore, are receiving government aid, such as food stamps, to make ends meet. According to a congressional study conducted earlier this year, local taxpayers could pay as much as $900,000 to support Walmart employees in just one town.  In Wisconsin, where the studio was conducted, Walmart has more employees receiving publicly subsidized healthcare than any other employer (what I couldn’t figure out is if Walmart also had a much higher number of works in Wisconsin than any other employer). I sometimes wonder if those folks who are holding it up as such a great corporation realize it is causing their taxes to go up? 

So Walmart was back in the news today because in one of its stores in Canton, Ohio, employees are encouraged to donate food to other employees who may not have enough for the holidays. Walmart set up containers in employee-only sections of the store where workers could drop off food for other workers. 

What’s wrong with this picture? If your employees don’t have enough money to feed their families for Thanksgiving than maybe you, as the employer, need to change your practices and pay them more. Or maybe you should be donating to the food drive instead of asking potentially similarly strapped employees to help out their fellow employees. A Walmart spokesperson says the food drive showed how co-workers looked out for each other. Have you ever heard of another company doing that? It is heartbreaking. 

The story, which was first published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tells of workers who have been at Walmart making $9.30/hour after working there for five years. Another Ohio employee made $12/hour after a DOZEN years on the job. 

According to the company’s own spokesperson, the average full-time salaried sale associate makes around $25,000/year. For a family of four, that is well below poverty level.

Also in the news today, in Cleveland, the National Labor Relations Board found that Walmart “violated the rights of employees” who striked during holiday season last year by “threatening employees with reprisals if they engaged in strikes and protests,” according to The Plain Dealer. Walmart called the ruling “unfair,” and vowed to continue to pursue its legal options. 

I bet a number of Walmart workers in the Canton, Ohio store will try to help their fellow associates out by donating food when, again, Walmart should be the one helping them out. Why not give employees turkeys or deep discounts to buy food? In the Plain Dealer article, one associate talked about how hard it was to stock the shelves with things that she could not afford to buy. Guess those lower prices aren't quite low enough for their own workers to afford. 

Today I’m giving to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank since I imagine a number of Walmart employees may be having their Thanksgiving meal there...before they head to work. Oh yeah, Walmart opens at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than last year. 

17 November 2013

Blind fools

Throughout this year of giving daily, I’ve written every day about people who are trying to make the world a better place. One of the benefits of the blog for me has been to realize how many folks are doing good, whether it’s trying to spare others pain that they have experienced themselves or taking a need to help and turning their beliefs into action. 

But, often, there is no formal structure for the goodness people do and it arises out of a circumstance. Such was the case a few days ago after US Airways tossed a blind man, Albert Rizzo, and his guide dog off a flight because the dog was getting restless after the plane was held on the tarmac for a long time.  The flight attendants insisted that the dog continue to lie by his owner’s feet, while the dog needed to stretch out in the aisle. 

After removing the blind man and his dog, the rest of the passengers staged a bit of a rebellion, insisting that there was no reason for the removal. 

The pilot ultimately tossed everyone from the flight and bussed them from Philadelphia to Long Island. I hate how the airline, apparently not obeying its own rules on guide dogs, acts, but I love that so many passengers were able to forget about their own needs, and time schedules, and demand justice, even though it meant severely inconveniencing themselves further after the initial delay. 

It feels good to do good. Study after study has shown that showing kindness to others is one of the best things you can do for yourself both physically and mentally. I’ve often wished that I had taken all my vitals before I started this experiment this year and then again at the end to see if my cholesterol or blood pressure had dropped over the 12 months. I know that writing the column sometimes- on the best days- feels almost like meditation to me as I concentrate on what’s right in the world. 

Last time I checked, US Airways was defending its actions. To me, they seem indefensible. 

I don’t know where Rizzo got his guide dog from, but together I’m giving to an organization that has helped a lot of other sightless people.

Nov. 17: Guide Dogs for the Blind http://www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer