Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best books of 2010

Inspired by the BBC's list of the Top 100 Books (of which, I have read 26 in their entirety; another seven are on my to-read list), I started keeping track of the books I read each year. In 2010, I read 61 books (37 hard copies and 20 audio books). Being that I'm usually in the middle of several books on any given day, I also have five books that I've started but haven't yet finished. Those will have to wait until next year. But on to the business at hand...

Because I love books and because I love lists, I have decided to highlight my favorite books from the past year. The following books are not strictly a list of the best books published in 2010, rather, a list of the best books I read in 2010. I hope you enjoy them too!
  • Best Non-Fiction Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

    I'm a bit of a criminal justice nerd, having studied the subject in college. Because of that, I enjoy reading the books and writings of prisoners. (In fact, I help catalog some of those writings in the Prison Book Program's blog. Though it hasn't been updated in awhile, new posts are coming in the new year!)

    I discovered Orange is the New Black at a local library's list of newly-released books and immediately signed up to borrow it. I've since bought my own copy, as Piper Kerman's book is the kind of memoir I like to have on my shelves. The book details Kerman's year-long stay in federal prison, 10 years after a drug crime. Various reviewers have touched on a variety of themes in the book, but what touched me the most was Kerman's discussion of books. Being an educated woman with a vast network of family and friends, Kerman was lucky enough to have a steady supply of reading material, which she shared with fellow inmates. The fact that most prisons and prisoners do not have the luxury of abundant reading material, is tragic, as books are an easy way for inmates to educate themselves. Additionally, inmates who are busy reading are not busy getting into trouble. Kerman's book is a fascinating look at what life can look like behind bars.
  • Best Non-Fiction Audio Book The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo

    This book is brilliant. Due to a limited selection of books on CD at my local library, I grabbed this one, not knowing what I was in for. It turns out, I was in for a treat! The Poisoner's Handbook is a well-written (and well-read) account of the history of 20th-century poisoners and forensic science. The book details the most widely-used and effective poisons/poisoners of the early 20th century, and documents the history of New York City's first medical examiner and toxicologist who devoted thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to determine how to identify poisons in the body, ultimately bringing poisoners to justice.

    The book is interesting and scientific without being full of jargon. With stories about poisoners and the medical examiner's office, the book is suspenseful and reads more like a novel than a text book.

  • Best FictionThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

    The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of those books that some people loved and others couldn't get into. Count me as one person who loved it.

    The book is narrated by Enzo, a golden retriever who is waiting to be reborn as a man. In the meantime, he is a wonderful friend and protector to Danny, his owner, and the family that Danny eventually has. The story is simplistic, in that the whole thing is told from the dog's perspective, but the simplicity does not detract from the story's beauty. This isn't just a book for dog lovers, but it will probably resonate even more deeply with anyone whose dog has become a member of the family.

  • Best Fiction Audio BookThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, narrated by Jeff Woodman

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a "murder mystery" (a neighborhood poodle has been found dead) told by a 15-year-old boy with autism. The story is beautifully poignant, as the narrator, Christopher, tries to overcome his social issues while he attempts to solve the dog's murder. Everything Christopher does is methodical and follows his many rules and arbitrary habits.

    My heart broke a little at least a dozen times while listening to this book because Christopher is trying so hard and his struggles and triumphs are so beautiful. The book is wonderful to listen to, as the reader makes the story come alive. Having not read the paper copy of this book, I do not know if the beauty of the story shines as brightly on the page as it does in the audio book, but I recommend trying it to find out.

  • Best Young Adult Audio Book(s)Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale

    I read a great deal of young adult fantasy novels because I find the genre so wonderful. (And, for that very reason, I will not be choosing my favorite Young Adult book of the year — I simply can't choose from so many!) I love the wizards, mystical creatures, and dystopian worlds so often found in young adult books.

    The Harry Potter series is no exception. This year, I discovered the Harry Potter audio books, and while I've read the hard copies (a few times, actually), the audio books are even more outstanding. Narrated by Jim Dale, the books come to life on CD. The characters have their own voices and intonation that is so vivid, I actually thought I had seen a Harry Potter movie that I hadn't; I had, in fact, only listened to the audio book.

    Even if you've already read the series, I recommend listening to the Harry Potter audio books as well; they add a whole new depth and dimension to the stories.
In the words of Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton, "But you don't have to take my word for it!" Grab one of these books today — you're in for a treat!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last-minute Christmas gifts that come from the heart: Donate to charity this Christmas

If you haven't pinned down the perfect gift for Great Aunt Suzie yet and you don't know what to get your friend that has everything, fear not! Rather than pawing through the droopy poinsettias and the sausage sets at the grocery store for last-minute Christmas shopping, consider giving a charitable donation.

Why do charitable donations make great last-minute gifts?
  • For starters, you can donate to most non-profits online in an instant. Many, like Heifer International, a non-profit that gifts of livestock and training to impoverished families, allow you to send an e-card or print a card at home to notify the recipient of a gift.

  • Secondly, donations to charity are tax deductible expenses. You can save money on your taxes and do good at the same time!

  • Practically speaking, there are plenty of people who don't need more "stuff." And there are certainly people on your last-minute gift list who don't need a random gift picked up at a convenience store. Making a donation to charity lets someone know that you're thinking about him, without adding to his clutter.

  • Donations to charity are the "gift that keeps on giving". Not only do you feel good about making the donation, but your recipient feels good about being a part of the gift. The organization to who you choose to donate feels great because they get much-needed money to provide much-needed services. And the recipients of those services feel good because they're getting the help they need! Many charities even accept recurring donations online, which continue to the giving! The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, is set up to receive either one-time donations or monthly donations.

  • Think donating just cash is a bit boring? You can send more than just money. With The Gorilla Foundation, for instance, you can support the amazing Koko, a gorilla who knows American Sign Language, by sending an item off The Gorilla Foundation Wish List. Currently on the wish list? A DVD of the STOMP performances (for the gorillas to watch) and things like laptops and cameras for research. You can send any of these gifts in an instant via, and can even send the foundation gift cards.
So instead of braving the crowds for the next few days to finish your Christmas shopping, cozy up to your computer with a cup of cocoa and donate to a few of your (and your recipients') favorite charities. You can even check the validity of your charity of choice with an agency like Charity Navigator, which evaluates and examines non-profits before providing them with a rating. And if you need a few ideas for some charities that could use some love this Christmas, here are a few of my favorites (with links straight to their donation pages):
  • Horizons for Homeless Children
    An organization that enriches the lives of homeless children in Massachusetts through high-quality early-education services.

  • Make A Child Smile
    Such a simple but important mission: to be a source of support to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and their families by having folks send cards, letters, and small gifts to the featured children and their siblings.

  • Prison Book Program
    Featured on IT&O before, the Prison Book Program provides quality reading material to inmates across the country, many of whom are working to better their lives by educating themselves and becoming literate.

  • Special Olympics A world-wide organization changing lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing Special Olympians with access to sports and the camaraderie of a team.
There are also dozens of local charities that need your support. To find one in your area, you can search via Network for Good or Just Give.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A time for thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and though I try to remind myself daily that my life is full of blessings, it seems especially relevant to do so in light of the holiday.

I am thankful for my family. Not just for all of the generic love and togetherness stuff, but because I am lucky enough to have amazing people to whom I am related. I appreciate my mother's understanding, my father's sense of humor, my brothers' goofiness and friendship, my sister-in-law's upbeat personality, my grandmothers' ability to triumph through adversity, my boyfriend's sense of adventure, my cousins' unique fabulosity (it's a made-up word... so what?), my aunts' advice, and my uncles' protectiveness.

I am thankful for my friends. Again, it's not just because there are people with whom I can hang out and have a good time, but because my friends are unique and wonderful. I won't mention them all by name, but I will say that it's wonderful to have friends who love to talk about books, friends who are up for adventure, friends who are musical, friends who like theatre, friends who I can call late at night, friends who know my past, friends who will be part of my future.

I am thankful for a place to live. It's not just any place to live; we just moved in this month, and I love it. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to paint the walls, to decorate, to reorganize, and to clear out the clutter. I am thankful that I have room to move in this house. I am thankful that I can walk to the post office, the grocery store, and into town. I love that it's in a part of the world that I think of as home. Most of all, I am thankful to have a comfortable place to call my own (even if it's just a rental).

I am thankful for fuzzy friends like the hedgehogs, dogs, hairless rats, and other pets I have had the privilege of knowing over the years. (I am also thankful for non-fuzzy pets!) Animals give us such strength and comfort; I believe that they are every bit as soulful as people. I also love learning about the work people do with animals like Koko the Gorilla (who has been taught to sign with humans) and service animals who help their owners overcome a number of challenges.

I am thankful for language. I love to read and I love to write; I realize that if I had grown up in another country I might not have had such easy access to books and language. I might not have had an opportunity to be educated and to come to love words. My life would be very different without words and language. I also love American Sign Language — it's a beautiful language and one that I feel privileged to learn.

I am thankful for my faith and the ability and strength to believe what I want to believe. My faith is a hodgepodge of beliefs and customs from a variety of religions (for a breakdown of your own medley of beliefs, try taking the Belief-O-Matic), but it is completely me. Having faith helps me get up in the morning and say thank you before I go to bed at night, and for that kind of calm and comfort, I am eternally grateful.

Most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to be me. I am grateful that I am able to see my family when I want, love whom I choose, live where I want, interact with animals, speak my mind, read about everything, and keep the faith. I know that many people don't feel comfortable expressing who they are because of where they live or who they live with. I am thankful to have been blessed with a pretty good life, overall, and the opportunity to be me — flaws and all!Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trying youth as adults is ineffective

The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report this month that tells the stories of young people tried and incarcerated as adults in Virginia. The report concludes that trying youth as adults is ineffective.

Virginia is hardly the only state to try children as adults. In fact, all states have provisions for trying people as young as 14 (in some states as young as 10!) as adults in certain cases. The problem, however, is that children are not adults and shouldn’t be tried as such.

The report summarizes four major findings:
  1. Trying and sentencing youth in adult courts increases recidivism;
  2. Youth convicted as adults are not offered therapeutic services (like their peers in the juvenile justice system);
  3. Juvenile justice professionals “support reform of the system”; and
  4. The threat of being tried as an adult is used as a plea bargaining tool and hampers a meaningful defense for the youth in question.
Though this report was only released this month, its findings are hardly new. Juvenile justice professionals have long advocated for a juvenile justice system specific to the needs of young offenders. These professionals request funding for social service programs that would help rehabilitate young offenders, while many communities push for “tough-on-crime” stances that end up increasing the rates of recidivism when juveniles don’t get access to the education and therapy they need.

Inner Thoughts & Outbursts has covered juvenile justice issues in the past. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles. One of the major factors in the ruling was the fact that teenagers’ brains are not fully-developed. This seems like such an obvious justification for education and rehabilitation that though it shouldn’t surprise me, it still irks me to find that many people possess a lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality when it comes to juvenile offenders.

In fact, I was disgusted when I read a recent article about the conviction of Steven Spader, who was convicted of a 2009 murder and sentenced to life without parole. Though his crime was horrific and reprehensible, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson was out of line when she addressed Spader, reportedly saying, “you belong in a cage… for the rest of your pointless life.” A juror on the case later said that he believed Abramson would have imposed the death penalty if possible, but that Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder and, due to state law, not eligible to be put to death for his crime.

Quite frankly, it is not whether or not Spader should be punished; that fact has already been determined by the law. Instead, I take issue with the fact that the judge felt it was her place to be insulting. Though an adult in some senses, Steven Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder – not old enough to drink alcohol or even rent a car without surcharges. Calling Spader's life "pointless" was unnecessary.

Ultimately, we need to start thinking about the criminal justice (and especially the juvenile justice) system logically, rather than emotionally. If trying and sentencing juveniles as adults leads to increased recidivism, we need to change! It seems obvious that surrounding an impressionable teenager with "hardened criminals" might affect his future in regard to crime; if we instead provided him with an education and counseling, perhaps he might grow up to be a productive member of society.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not surprisingly, the AP reports that college costs are rising

Earning the award for the least-shocking news of the day is today's AP story claiming that college tuition costs are rising.

According to the article,
At public four-year schools, many of them ravaged by state budget cuts, average in-state tuition and fees this fall rose 7.9 percent, or $555, to $7,605, according to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing." The average sticker price at private nonprofit colleges increased 4.5 percent, or $1,164, to $27,293.
Though the news is far from unexpected, it is worrisome. While political bigwigs and financial experts (like the folks from the National Bureau of Economic Research) claim that the recession officially ended last summer, regular folks just aren't seeing it. Prices are still high, millions are out of work, and most people are still pinching pennies. When families are weighing whether to spend what little money they have left on house payments or food, they aren't thinking about college for their kids. The cost of college seems an enormous expense for many families, making a college degree an unattainable goal for their children.

While I believe that college is not for everyone, I do believe that everyone should have access to education. Anyone who wants to go to college should have the ability to do so without taking on catastrophic amounts of debt. The Project on Student Debt recently released information stating that the average college graduate has $24,000 in student loan debt. Of course, many students wind up with even greater debt. In addition, the statistic does not include the thousands of students who take on student loan debt and find themselves unable to finish college. In particular, it is those students who are pushed out of school due to rising costs that I most worry about. Those students end up with large amounts of debt and nothing to show for it.

Paying off student loans and trying to earn a decent wage becomes a vicious cycle for those who were unable to complete their degrees due to rising costs. When a student drops out of college, his or her loans soon go into repayment status. The student must then work to raise enough money to pay off the debts, but is unlikely to find a decent-paying job without a degree. Without a decent-paying job, the former student is less likely to repay the debt. The student may then try to take out more loans to obtain a degree, which will, theoretically, earn him enough money to pay off his student loans. The cycle then repeats itself.

The problem of students taking on debt without completing degrees is easiest to spot at our nation's community colleges. Though community college offers a more-affordable option for many students, their costs have also been steadily climbing. Combine higher costs with students who may be following a nontraditional path through college (night school, part-time classes, etc.), and you wind up with students who take on debt, but don't graduate. In fact, only 40% of community college students complete their programs, while many students take five or six years to complete two-year degrees. Regardless of whether or not a student completes his or her degree, any student loan debt must be paid off. In fact, most student loans are not forgiven even if the borrower files for bankruptcy.

These days, you need some form of higher education to get a decent-paying job. Whether that education comes from college, trade school, or an apprenticeship, it is becoming apparent that in order to make money you need an education. But in order to get an education, you need money. Quite frankly, fewer and fewer people are finding themselves able to keep up with the rising costs of college. Higher education was once a luxury for the rich, and if we're not careful, we'll be back to that model before we know it. The costs of higher education (even at public schools) are already edging out the poor and middle class folks. What will happen once only the richest can afford college?

With large amounts of debt and low rates of employment, students may start to believe that college is not worth the expense. When people become disillusioned with higher education, it affects the nation. Fewer people find decent-paying jobs, lower- and middle-class earners find themselves getting more and more frustrated, college costs rise because of a poor economy and fewer students, and we end up with a population that is angry, uneducated, and unable to do much about it.

The bottom line? We must put an end to the upward trajectory of college costs. Americans at all income brackets need access to college. By educating our students we are investing in the future of the nation. We need people from all socioeconomic statuses and a variety of backgrounds to run the country, with its schools, banks, public works, and companies in need of quality workers. A diverse workforce is a happy workforce, and to find a place in that workforce, people need to have access to higher education.

There must come a point where the cost of a college education does not overshadow the benefits of that education. We need to reach a place where people who earn college degrees can count on earning enough at work to pay off their student loans. The rising costs of college are doing nothing to convince the public that the recession is over, and the fastest way to wind up in another recession is to scare people into not spending, not investing.

Simply put, in order to inspire people to invest in the fiscal health of our nation, we must invest in the education of our people. To do so, we must cut the costs of college and make education affordable for everyone.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Important DREAM Act stalled by Republicans

Yesterday, Republican lawmakers stalled a Senate measure that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or, more commonly, the DREAM Act)
Supporters of the DREAM Act, which provides citizenship for children of illegal immigration through service, sit in on a a press conference on the upcoming Senate procedural vote on the National Defense Authorization Act in Washington on September 21, 2010. The upcoming bill has legislation to authorize the DREAM Act and repeal Dont' Ask, Don't Tell,  UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom
, would provide immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools, are "of good moral character", and arrived in the U.S. as minors to obtain temporary residency. During the six-year period of temporary residency, these students must complete at least 2 years of a college degree and be in good academic standing, or have served in the military and received an honorable discharge. After the six years, the students (or former military personnel) who have met the conditions of the Act can apply for legal permanent resident status.

Versions of the bill were circulating as early as 2001. Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last week that the DREAM Act would be included as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011. While the act would "give hope" to undocumented students, Republicans blocked the measure, claiming "the Obama administration of seeking amnesty for illegal immigrants through administrative changes within the Department of Homeland Security."

I have been a proponent of this bill since its first incarnation in 2001. Since minors cannot obtain permanent status without their parents, the DREAM Act would give undocumented students the chance to remain legally in the United States. Many of these students came to the U.S. at such a young age that they do not remember their home countries. These same students work hard to complete their high school education and many go on to college. Of those who don't go to college, a lack of financial aid, rather than a lack of motivation, is usually the reason. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal higher education grants, such as the Pell grant. The fact that children who grow up and succeed in U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools cannot apply for federal grants is another issue, entirely. (And one, quite frankly, that I hope to see addressed as soon as possible.)

I grew up in a low-income family. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in a college-preparatory program for students who would be the first in their families to attend college. While in the program, I met a number of students who worked hard (some worked much harder than me) to excel in school. Many of those students were immigrants. Some came here legally, others illegally. Some had acheived residency or citizenship, others were undocumented. What shouldn't matter though, is the status of children.

Children have no choice about whether or not to accompany their parents who arrive in the United States illegally, and many of them are not even aware of their undocumented status. Even if they were, I find it hard to believe that people would deny them the right to financial aid in college, or a legal path to citizenship. Immigration isn't something that shady people do in the middle of the night to "stick it" to the United States. They aren't looking to get something for nothing; they're looking to provide better lives for their children. These are real people just trying to do what they can to raise their families in safety.

When thinking about immigration laws,
Newly sworn in U.S. citizens recite the Pledge of Allegiance after taking the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington on September 20, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom
we must consider the real people who are involved. When Poland declared martial law in the 1980s, my friend Marta (then just a toddler) fled the country with her parents and arrived in the U.S. illegally. My friend Jorge left the Dominican Republic as an eight-year-old, after his family fled the violence of their neighborhood that resulted in his getting shot while playing in his own yard. Maria came to the country from Columbia when her family was threatened by corrupt government officials engaging in the drug trade.

Not only were these people my friends, they were hard-working students. They wanted to be hard-working Americans, but couldn't become citizens without their parents. Their parents, like many others, were too afraid of deportation to go through the process of applying for residency. We should not only provide a way for families to apply for citizenship without risking deportation, we should make sure that children have a way to apply as well. The DREAM Act is an important first step in investing in the future of our country. Any child who grew up in the United States and successfully completed his or her public education should be allowed to apply to and attend college. If that child also needs financial aid, he should be allowed to apply for and receive it. That same child should also have access to a clear path to citizenship.

I am saddened by the great numbers of people who oppose the DREAM Act and take a strong stance against immigration. I find it ironic that people want to "take back the country" when nearly all of them are immigrants themselves. Sure, many of them come from families that have been here for generations, but nearly everyone immigrated here at some point in their family history. Native Americans are so christened for a reason -- they were native to the Americas. The rest of us, when you get right down to it, are simply immigrants. Whether or not our families came here legally, we have benefited from all this country has to offer, and have blended our cultural histories to become one of the most diverse and beautiful nations in the world.

I simply want more children to be able to have access to what I had: a solid education and the ability to "make something" of myself. The DREAM Act will help children achieve their goals of becoming productive and active members of our society.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is doing away with recess dumbing down our children?

A Rhode Island school district is doing away with recess this year. The district is taking away the 10-15 minutes before or after lunch during which students were formerly allowed time for free play.

Reports claim that the East Providence Elementary School will teach its teachers to recognize the need for stress-release and will facilitate in-class breaks, but will this in-class downtime replace the benefits of recess? Regardless, should school districts have the ability to remove children’s opportunity to play?

As an early childhood educator, I emphatically disagree with any district cutting recess. Not only do children need breaks (adults need them too – are you reading this post from work?), but children learn best through play. As the famous Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” With this in mind, I would advocate for the introduction of in-class breaks in addition to recess. In short, taking away recess (and other opportunities for free play) will lead to the dumbing down of our nation's children.

In addition to simply needing time to play, recess allows children to make much-needed social connections with their peers. Though students need be respectful of all children in their classrooms, true friendships develop during lunch breaks, recess, and after-school activities. Encouraging our children to develop social skills is critical to their success later in life; taking away recess limits children’s ability to develop those skills.

The world is becoming a scary place, where recess is being removed, politicians are considering abolishing summer vacation in favor of year-round school, and children are pushed into structured activity at every turn. When are kids allowed to be kids? If all of their time is scheduled and regimented, when will children invent their own games, write their own songs, and draw in the dirt? When will they build tree forts, hold tea parties for their dolls, and host impromptu talent shows with their friends? Scheduling every moment of a child’s day takes away the very meaning of what it means to be a child.

TIME Magazine's article The Case Against Summer Vacation outlines an argument for year-round school that emphasizes the "summer slide" -- the notion that children "slide backward" after not learning all summer. While the summer slide is a real phenomenon for many children, the solution isn't to have kids in school all year, but rather to offer opportunities to kids in the summer. Making camp and summer programs affordable and accessible to all children would prevent a loss of knowledge, while engaging children in things in which they are truly interested. It would also allow children to play -- a vitally important part of the learning process that is more and more often being pushed aside in favor of longer school days and more "academics." The same goes for recess; allowing children to make their own choices will ultimately enrich them further than teacher-mandated classroom breaks.

Ultimately, we need to let kids be kids, while also providing them solid opportunities for learning, growth, and development. Enriching the school day by making it more interesting (incorporating the arts, for example) will teach children valuable skills without overwhelming them. It's worth repeating that allowing children to learn through play is not only sensible, but absolutely necessary. Without the opportunity to play our children will, in fact, be less independent and creative than if they were simply given the opportunity to explore the world through play.

No recess? No, thank you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dust yourself off and try again...

Not surprisingly, I fell off the health-kick wagon.

In a nutshell, I went through some seriously stressful things at work and at home and decided that I had bigger things to worry about than getting my butt out of bed early every morning. That, coupled with the fact that this was one of the hottest summers I can remember, didn't do much for my new exercise kick. I'm sorry to say that I schlumped around for much of the summer. I didn't just give up on being healthy over the summer, I gave up a lot of things (like writing for Inner Thoughts & Outbursts... sorry about that), and am just now starting to get in the groove of things again.

Some of the other healthy habits stuck, though. I'm hardly drinking any soda (only at the occasional weekend party) and I only have a glass of wine on the weekends (and not many weekends at that). I've also been able to give up table salt on most everything (except eggs... I love salty eggs). Last weekend I even went on a mini-vacation and spent the weekend riding a hydrobike, swimming laps before breakfast, and biking.

I'm also learning (perhaps confirming is more accurate) that I don't like feeling like I have to do something. Maybe my morning walks felt like torture because they were an obligation. I've been trying to do other things instead, like walk whenever I need to run errands, take the stairs whenever there's an option to do so, and other similar things. I'm trying to make exercise more fun and purposeful than just dragging by butt around town in the morning.

I even bought a bicycle.

Yes, folks, a bicycle. I haven't owned a bicycle since the sixth grade. Up until last summer when I spent the weekend at a mountain resort, I hadn't even ridden a bicycle in years. So, I went out and bought a bike. It's pretty snazzy. I even bought a basket for it. (That's a shot of the bike, at right.)

So far, I'm not a very good cyclist. I'm slow and out of shape, and small boys fly past me on BMX bikes that leave me in the dust. That being said, riding a bike is immensely more fun than aimlessly wandering to nowhere, and even though I feel out of shape while I ride my bike, I feel like I'm getting in shape while I ride it. I haven't been riding on a schedule or anything, but now that the weather is cooler I'm taking the bike out more often and hoping to ride all through the fall.

So, recap: I want to get back on track with my HEALTH plan. It's time to restart the process of being Healthy in my Eating, Actions, Language, Thoughts, and Heart. I'm thinking of this post as the next step toward healthy Language and Thoughts. I've always thought that it's okay to fall off the wagon, so long as you back on it again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Supreme Court rules life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles

The juvenile justice system reached a major turning point this week when the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing non-violent juvenile offenders to life in prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment.

At the end of 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to review issue of juvenile life imprisonment by looking at two cases. For the first case, a jury in 1989 found 13-year-old Joe Sullivan guilty of sexual battery. About a decade and a half later, 17-year-old Terrence Graham was convicted of committing armed burglary and violating his probation. Though both boys were too young to vote, buy cigarettes, or enlist in the military, they were not too young to be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). Both boys were convicted of non-homicidal offenses and both were sentenced to LWOP. The juvenile justice world has been waiting anxiously since these cases made the docket, as a ruling that overturns life sentences for juveniles affects approximately 2,600 currently incarcerated inmates nationwide, and will impact future sentencing.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the majority opinion (which included support from the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association), which was in favor of banning LWOP for juvenile offenders. Support for the ban generally falls into three categories:
  1. Kristin Henning, co-director of Juvenile Justice Clinic and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, cites research that states that juveniles brains are not fully developed, causing children to act impulsively. The research also states that children are likely to outgrow the impulse for criminal behavior, though juveniles sentenced to LWOP are not given that chance.
  2. The United States is possibly the only country that currently sentences juveniles to LWOP. While the U.S. currently has about 2,6000 juveniles serving life without parole, Henning claims that no other countries have children serving such sentences; other sources cite no more than 12 foreign juveniles are in prison serving LWOP.
  3. In 2005, the Supreme Court reviewed Roper v. Simmons, and declared the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional. Proponents of overturning LWOP in juvenile cases cite the 2005 ruling combined with a national consensus against juvenile life without parole in their arguments.
The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, as Justice Kennedy cited the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which "does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime."

I agree with the majority opinion in this case, though I am disappointed that the ruling does not include the seven states (including Massachusetts) that allow LWOP in homicide cases. Though homicide is a horrific offense, I think that juveniles convicted of any crime should have the opportunity for parole. A juvenile incarcerated at the age of 15 and living the average male's lifespan, for example, has more than 60 years to spend in prison. A juvenile sentence that long is ridiculous regardless of the offense.

The bottom line is that the U.S. was virtually alone in its practice of sentencing juveniles to LWOP. With any luck, the practice will be completely overturned in my lifetime. At the very least, nearly 3,000 inmates incarcerated as juveniles will now have the opportunity to be paroled. It is my firm belief that with the appropriate resources, juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated to successfully reintegrate into society. This ruling is a victory for all those juvenile justice workers maneuvering to secure rights for juvenile offenders. May there be many more victories in the future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Does posted nutritional information lead to smarter food choices?

Slashfood (one of my favorite blogs) ran an article this week that claims Burgerville (a fast-food chain in the Pacific Northwest) has started printing calorie counts on its receipts, along with suggestions on how to make your next meal healthier.

Some of the article's commenters were thrilled with the idea, hoping that other restaurants would soon start doing the same thing. I, however, think its ridiculous. What good is it knowing the fat and calorie counts of your order, after it's paid for? What restaurants should really start doing is putting nutritional information right on the menu or the ordering board; then, people can make informed choices about what they eat before they buy.

In 2008, New York passed a mandate requiring that nutritional information be provided on menus. When I traveled to the city last year for a vacation, I got to see the effects of this legislation first hand. Every restaurant I entered -- from Sbarro to the Olive Garden -- had nutritional information prominently featured. I found the information incredibly helpful in choosing what to eat. Since I found a number of things I'd like to eat in each restaurant, having calorie and fat counts readily available made it easy to narrow down my decision.

When I ate at the Olive Garden, for instance, I was trying to decide between the Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto or the Chicken Parmigiana, which both sounded wonderful. When I glanced at the nutritional information, however, I quickly learned that the risotto was one of the healthier dishes on the menu, while the chicken parmigiana would have cost me over 1,000 calories and 49 grams of fat. I ordered the risotto (which was still delightfully decadent) and saved myself over 400 calories. Without the nutritional information, I would have perhaps mentally flipped a coin in my head, rather than making the best nutritional choice, and when I have two otherwise equal options, why shouldn't the healthier dish win?

It seems that the people of New York are making the same kinds of choices. A study by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently illustrated that since 2008's nutritional mandate was put into place, "people purchased lower calorie meals at 9 of 13 fast-food restaurant and coffee chains that were included in the study." While I (and many other patrons at these restaurants) know that fast-food isn't good for a person, it's nice to know that people have the option to choose a healthier meal when they're eating in New York. When I'm on the go (or on vacation) and have to eat out, I'd like to have information about what I'm about to consume before I commit to buying it. Otherwise faulty logic can sabotage a person's attempt to eat right. (Fish is healthier than hamburger, so the Filet-o-Fish must be a better choice than a Cheeseburger at McDonald's, right? Wrong. You'll go through an extra 80 calories and 6 grams of fat with the fish sandwich. Blame the breading and the deep fryer.)

While some areas have followed New York's lead when it comes to nutritional information, most have not. If seeing posted calorie and fat counts leads a consumer to purchase one slice of pizza instead of two, or the risotto instead of the chicken parm, the mandate will have been worth it. Restaurants don't have to worry that people will stop eating out. People will continue to eat at restaurants and there will always be someone willing to down a colossal cheeseburger (or two) or an enormous bucket of fried chicken. The rest of us would just like the ability to make smarter choices when we're out, even if that just means eating the thin-crust spinach pizza instead of the deep-dish pepperoni.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beauty and the beach

Someone famous (the Internet attributes everyone from Albert Einstein to Benjamin Franklin, so who knows?) once said, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I think about my daily life and its routine. I wake up, get ready, drive to work, work all day, drive home, get ready for the next day, go to bed, and do everything over again the next day and the one after that and the one after that. Occasionally my evenings are peppered with classes or dinners with friends, and on the weekends I like to the theatre or a sporting event. But for the most part, my life is predictable.

So as I wait (as I believe many young people do) for "the next big thing" to happen in my life, I shouldn't be surprised that something new and exciting is unlikely to happen to me by doing the same things over and over.

This week I'm on vacation. On this trip, as with any other I've taken, I find myself torn between relaxing and exploring. Catching up on sleep and packing as much into a day as possible. So while I relished the idea of a lazy morning, I was more interested in the unexpected. It was time for different results.

Though I like to think of myself as a morning person, those mornings rarely begin before seven. Today, however, I woke up at five o'clock and dressed by the light of the fireplace in my hotel room. I enjoyed a quick breakfast there as well, then grabbed my camera and headed out into the still-dark morning.

Now, I'm no sunbather, but I've always loved the ocean. I love the sound the waves make as they rumble along and crash into the surf and the rocks. I love the smell of the salt water, the briny air, and coconut-scented sunblock. I love sticking my toes in the cold surf, finding bits of sea glass, and searching for shells. So I chose this vacation spot to try to sneak in some time with the beach before the summer crowds hit.

When I reached the waterfront this morning, it was completely deserted. Not a single soul was walking or running along the beach, and the birds weren't yet awake. I breathed in the salty fresh ocean air and smiled. It felt incredibly indulgent to have the beach to myself and I took the time to drink in my surroundings. Here was the ocean, stretched before me (and only me): a deep dark line and a slightly lighter blue one, split across the horizon by a tiny strip of pinkish orange.

I took a hundred photos of that sunrise. As dawn broke brighter across the sky, joggers and dog walkers started to speckle the path along the beach. Most of them looked like they were engrossed in their own routines; I suspect I was the only tourist among them. And I wondered if they were appreciative of the beauty of the ocean and the sunrise, or if this was merely their own version of the same thing over and over again. If I spent each morning greeting the sun on the beach, would I feel as though I have achieved my "next big thing"? Or would that, too, become a piece of my day to day routine, easy overlooked and under-appreciated?

I like to think that not only can I do different things for different results, but I can do the same things differently. I'd like to appreciate the little things in my life that seem monotonous, but really do bring me a lot of joy. I love waking up to the sun streaming in my window each morning, and I'm forever grateful to see the Boston skyline each morning as I drive into work. I'm lucky enough to have colleagues with whom I get along, and a family that loves me. So while I try new things and pack in new experiences, I'm also going to make a new experience out of the routine. It's my hope that just by looking at things differently I'll be able to produce a few new results. That way, I don't have to wait for the next big thing to happen to me -- I can go looking for it.

Photos by Danielle E. Brown.

Choosing my own adventure: update

Following my request for everyday adventures, I received several suggestions from readers. I'll be trying several in the upcoming months, some for a day or two, others for longer periods of time. I'll be writing about a few of the experiments as they happen, and others I will simply recap after they've been completed.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Choose (my) own adventure

I want to live biblically, learn to salsa, eat nothing but pizza for a month, drive a race car, eat locally, and try out for a reality show.

Okay, not really.

But I do love reading about the way people live, and what I love more than how-I-grew-up memoirs, are George Plimpton-esque experiments that lead to interesting experiences and fabulously wonderful reading. Because of this, I’m hoping to embark on an interesting journey and then blog about it.

So, what should I do? I could try a social experiment like “paying it forward” to various people every day for a week (or a month, or whatever). I could try something with my diet – cutting out meat or carbs or eating a certain number of vegetables with every meal. I could try something with my spending habits – shopping locally, not shopping at all, buying only sustainable products… I could try something creative too, like pursuing a new artistic pursuit every day for a week or every week for a month. Or a feat of stamina – reading the dictionary cover to cover, walking some obscene distance, learning something new every day.

I do have a regular 9-5 job which would require some semblance of normalcy. While I could eat nothing but vegetables at work, for instance, I couldn’t arrive wearing pajamas or communicating solely through American Sign Language or answering all questions with questions. So my exploits would have to be easy integrated into my work day or able to happen solely in the evenings/on the weekends.

Faithful readers, it’s time to weigh in. What could I do that would result in both a novel experience for me and interesting reading? Leave your ideas in the comments. Poll your friends; tell them to join the site and leave their own ideas in the comments. I’ll keep you posted!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Root for the home team (but don't boo the competition)

This weekend I attended the home opener for the New England Revolution, where they challenged fellow Major League Soccer team Toronto FC. The game was great (after being down 1-0 at the half, the Revs came back to score four goals in the second half and won the game), but the fans were obnoxious!

Many Revs fans (not all of us, thank you) booed when Toronto took the field, jeered when a Canadian was injured, and hollered things like "you suck!" when Toronto players had possession of the ball. In return, Toronto fans hollered at the Revs (though they were much farther away from me, and tougher to hear). The overall atmosphere in the stadium wasn't the palpable excitement of opening day, but rather an undercurrent of malcontent and ugliness.

Don't get me wrong: I love a good rivalry. Give me a Red Sox/Yankees game, for instance, and I'm happy grumble about the "Evil Empire" and poke fun at its players, but I do so from home and all in jest. I would never go to a baseball stadium and scream obscenities at a player or team. It's rude and it takes away from the fun of the game. I go to the games to see my team win, not to watch the other team lose. People who do otherwise aren't respecting the beauty of the game.

At the Revolution game, I was upset to hear adults jeering at the opposition, but even more saddened to see clusters of children (some as young as six or seven!) and cliques of teenagers hurling hateful words at the field and being generally disrespectful -- throwing popcorn and drinks, swearing, and standing in front of people who were trying to watch the game. Where are these kids' parents? It's inappropriate to send your children to a sporting game without teaching them the rules of the game and the rules of good sportsmanship.

I'll be attending more Revolution games this season (I already have my tickets), but I'm hoping for a more refined crowd. Though I may not get my wish, perhaps I'll at least remember to bring some earplugs...

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Airline to charge for both checked and carry-on baggage

This afternoon's Bad Idea of the Day has been announced, with Yahoo News reporting that Spirit Airlines will "charge as much as $45 each way" for carry-on baggage. The charge is in addition to the fees passengers pay for checked bags (between $15 and $100 per bag, depending on the circumstance).

Yahoo reports that "Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said having fewer carry-on bags will help empty the plane faster. He said the idea is to get customers to pay for individual things they want, while keeping the base fare low."

Fewer carry-ons will empty the plane faster, eh? Is that a big draw for people? Are travelers going to flock to Spirit Airlines for the prospect of getting off the plane three minutes sooner than with other airlines? Can people set aside the fact that they're being nickel and dimed by an airline? I can only imagine that Spirit Airlines has just committed a big ol' PR blunder. By charging passengers to bring luggage on the plane, the airline is letting its customers know that their needs aren't important, but revenue is.

If the comment traffic under the initial report is any indication, Spirit Airlines is unlikely to have many takers on its offer of "keeping base fares low", since nearly everyone travels with luggage of some kind. Comments range from "Wow, next they will be charging to sit or stand on a plane, " to "Well thanks, Spirit. You just made it easier for me to decide I WILL NOT be flying with you!" and "Sounds like a great plan... if you want to chase away customers to other airlines."

I can't say I disagree. While baggage fees have inspired me to pack lighter, I simply carry on my (fewer) belongings now, instead of paying to have them checked. I can say undoubtedly, that I would never fly an airline that would require such ridiculous fees. I prefer to do business with people who appreciate my patronage, rather than people trying to stick me with unprecedented charges.

What do you think? Will people stop flying Spirit Airlines? Will (far worse) other airlines follow suit and start charging for carry-on baggage?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Prom problems? You must be kidding.

File this one under You must be kidding me.

CNN reported today that an Alabama teenager was suspended from school because her prom dress violated the school dress code. While revealing, the dress is far from risque. What's even more shocking, however, is that the girl, Erica DeRamus, had a choice of punishments and chose to take a three-day suspension over a paddling.

Pardon? Paddling? There are schools that sanction the use of corporal punishment against their students? I assumed, wrongly it seems, that paddling was an archaic method of punishment that long-ago faded away in the school systems. According to one human rights group, however, over 200,000 children were paddled in school in 2008. And in the case of DeRamus's school, 17 potential prom-goers chose to be paddled, rather than face suspension from school.

So while I shake my head in disbelief that this girl was punished for the look of her dress, I'm outraged that missing the prom (or being asked to change dresses) wasn't consequence enough and that the chosen punishment was paddling. According to the school's principal, Trey Holloday, 18 students violated the prom's dress code; all but DeRamus chose paddling over suspension. The principal states that young people make mistakes, and that school officials are "very patient when those [mistakes] are made -- including this -- but we're not tolerant of bad behavior or defiance."

It seems to me that Principal Holloday has several problems on his hands. First, he says he's patient when students -- like DeRamus -- make mistakes, but that he won't tolerate bad behavior; simply stated, he acknowledges that DeRamus made a mistake, but punishes her anyway, as though she was purposefully defiant. Secondly, his opinion of inappropriate dress is out of line; while DeRamus's dress was short, it wasn't a miniskirt, and the top was just as cleavage-barring as most prom dresses on the market. Thirdly, having to change clothes or missing the prom should be "punishment" enough for students who violate the prom's dress code; no additional actions need be taken. And finally, the fact that corporal punishment was even an option (and a widely-chosen one at that!) is barbaric and archaic.

People like Principal Holloday shouldn't be educators, nor should the folks who canceled 18-year-old Constance McMillen's prom after she asked to wear a tuxedo and bring a same-sex date to the dance. What, exactly, are these adults afraid of? Are they so scared by the fact that Constance is a lesbian that they're willing to battle with the ACLU and deprive kids of a major rite of passage? Does principal Holloday enjoy being a bully or exerting his power? Randomly subjecting students to punitive actions doesn't teach them anything; it merely gives the impression that people in positions of power get to be bullies, creating and enforcing rules arbitrarily.

It would be nice if kids were allowed to be kids. Put basic safety rules in place and let kids go to the prom in tuxes or dresses and with whomever they choose. The world has bigger problems than whether two girls go to the dance together or whether a student arrives in a cleavage-baring gown. Only once educators start focusing on what's really important will they truly be impacting the character and moral fiber of their students.

Writer's block

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that March was the wettest on record. After excitedly writing about the beginning of spring mere weeks ago, it's been a little depressing to be surrounded by so much rain and gloomy weather. What's more, all the rain has caused flooding and damage to many of the homes and businesses of family and friends here in New England. The resulting exhaustion from cleaning up all that water and from dealing with all that gloom has made this writer at a loss for topics. In short, I've had writer's block.
This is not, of course, an isolated incident. Writer's block has affected me before, sneaking in before deadlines and sitting on my keyboard, taunting me. It's as if someone has crept into your brain, removed all its stories and funny anecdotes, siphoned away its insight and cleverness, and replaced it with mud. Instead of writing with my laptop I find myself distracted instead, playing The Sims or taking endless Sporcle quizzes.

Doom and gloom may have worked for Edgar Allen Poe (a favorite of mine), but I find it increasingly difficult to write anything of substance when the world outside is dark and dank. Perhaps I could channel the gloomy feeling into a mystery novel...

In the meantime, I've been having a blast writing for my new blog, the 15-Minute Party Planner. Things have been going very well, and there's nothing like a party to cheer me up and sweep away the doom and gloom. If you have a minute, go check it out -- the layout alone is enough to cheer me up, with its adorable retro banner and bright pink and white polka dot background. I'm also trying to read (if you can't go outside, you might as well be a book worm!) and find other slivers of inspiration to kick-start the writing process.

At the very least, I've gotten the proverbial pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be) and am shaking off the writer's block one word at a time. Though today's post may not be brilliant, I'm confident that inspiration is on its way back in.

'Til next time...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Small change adds up to big savings when "going green"


This morning, the Associated Press reported that the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has found a simple way to cut costs and "go green". By simply changing the school's default e-mail font from Arial to Century Gothic, printing e-mails will now use 30 percent less ink. The article also states that with the price of printer ink estimated at $10,000 per gallon (yes, that's ten thousand dollars... no typos here), 30 percent savings will really start to add up.

We live in a world where "going green" is getting trendy, which makes many people ignore the problem, labeling recycling and eco-friendly policies as the work of "tree-huggers". Skeptics of global warming and other ecological problems scoff at the idea that doing little things can make a difference, and many people believe that doing their part doesn't make a real impact.

I argue quite the contrary. I believe that it is in the little things that we have the opportunity to make the greatest impact. Not everyone can afford to buy all eco-friendly products all the time, but we can all afford to recycle the packaging of whatever products we do buy. Not everyone can carpool to work or take public transportation, but we can all walk or bike more on the weekends, using our cars less. Not everyone can afford energy-efficient appliances, but we can all turn off lights and faucets and unplug electronics and appliances when they aren't in use. Small change adds up to big change, when everyone is contributing in some way.

Computers and printing are one of the biggest sources of waste in my daily life. My work computer remains on (albeit frequently "asleep") 24 hours a day, seven days a week because my employer requires it. Colleagues print multiple copies of e-mails for filing that never happens, wasting reams of paper and gallons of ink. So while I understand that there are people who will laugh and shake their heads at the idea that changing e-mail's default font is good for the earth, I'm not one of them. If changing the font saves the University of Wisconsin 30 percent more ink, it's also saving them from buying (and throwing away) more packaging and it's saving them money. If the footer of my e-mails (reading please consider the environment before printing this e-mail) prevents even one person from needlessly printing a few pages, I will have made a small difference.

This is not to say that big change isn't needed to combat our environmental problems, but in the absence of a worldwide rallying cry in favor of eco-friendly measures, the little things will have to count. As a frequently cited quotation states, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." —Margaret Mead

So change your e-mail fonts. Don't print out unnecessary e-mails. Turn off your computer when you're done for the day. Buy products with less packaging and recycle the leftovers. Ride a bike. Buy local. Do the things you can that will make an impact without convincing yourself that doing so little will never add up to much. The world (and your wallet) will thank you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books for crooks? Why I donated to the Prison Book Program

Ten minutes ago I donated five American Century dictionaries to prisoners in Massachusetts.

The Prison Book Program is a grassroots organization that has been sending books to prisoners since 1972. Based in my own backyard (just outside of Boston), the organization sends free books to prisoners and is currently hoping to collect enough money to buy 1,000 college-level dictionaries for inmates.

Wondering why I donated five dictionaries to inmates?
  • First and foremost, I believe in a right to education for all. The prison system in the United States focuses on a punitive form of justice, not a rehabilitative one, but an educated prisoner makes for a more useful member of society after his release. By providing books (and dictionaries) we are encouraging inmates to educate themselves and become more productive members of society after their releases.

  • The majority of inmates currently incarcerated are reading at a sub-standard level. Not only are dictionaries are important to understand words in books read for pleasure, but they are important for inmates who are signing important legal documents. It is critical that people understand all the materials given to them and dictionaries allow prisoners to do that.

  • Plenty of people make poor decisions that land them in prison, but many learn from their mistakes and should have an opportunity to better themselves. Other inmates are incarcerated due to a failure of the justice system. All prisoners should have access to books, but I feel especially passionate that those people who are unjustly locked up and those who have a desire to improve themselves through education should have access to all the books they can read.
There are, of course, half a dozen more reasons why this cause is important to me, but I think the inmates say it best. The Prison Book Program website publishes actual requests from inmates. One says,
"I have to have my room mate [sic] help me with the big words... I have only been reading now for about 21 months. I am 46 years old and when I get out of prison, my son will be 11 years old. And I would love to be able to read and write to my son. So please if you all could see to help me I will be able to help my son when I get home. The dictionary will help learne [sic] how to spell big words."
Like this inmate, many of people who end up in prison have the proverbial odds stacked against them. These are low-income people with little or no education, living in poor neighborhoods, and failing to see that there are any positive options. I only wish that the man quoted above had better opportunities for education in his youth; if he had, perhaps he wouldn't be in prison today. Since he is in prison, however, I'm glad that he's making an effort to improve his circumstances by learning to read and write. When he gets out of prison he'll be able to teach his son that it's never to late to learn.

If you're interested in donating dictionaries to inmates, know that the Prison Book Program is buying 1,000 dictionaries at the wholesale price of $2.47. By donating less than it costs to buy a latte at Starbucks, you'll send a much-needed and much-appreciated dictionary to an inmate. Give up fancy coffee for a single week and you can send 10 dictionaries to folks who really need them. Besides, you can donate online with the click of a button.

For more information on the Prison Book Program, visit their website:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung! (Or, the crocuses have, at least.)

This weekend marks the official start of spring, but the sun is shining, the snow has melted, and the crocuses in my yard are blooming bright purple and white. Teeny little tufts of green grass are poking through the lawn, and my lilies are slowly poking up from the dirt. I've dusted off my flip flops and optimistically stowed away my winter jacket in a closet. Since it feels like spring, all that's left to do is to wait for Saturday's First Day of Spring announcement, and it's official.

I am one of those hearty New Englanders who actually enjoys all four seasons and extols the virtues of fall foliage and winter snowfalls. I like to haughtily turn my nose up at people who bemoan the weather and the gloominess of winter. Secretly though, I'm glad to see it go. I love a white Christmas and making snow angels, but I hate shoveling and driving in Boston traffic when there's a storm. So I'm understandably excited to see a few days of sunshine; my spirits have lifted considerably! I love that I can go for a walk with a light sweater instead of bundling up in a long winter jacket complete with scarf, hat, gloves, and boots. Ahhh, spring!

In fact, I believe I'll go take advantage of some of that almost-spring sunshine right now...

What are you still doing here? Get outside!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Short and sweet: sound advice from fortune cookies

I am a firm believer in the fact that a steaming container of Chinese food can make a bad day better. If not because of the salty and sweet goodness found at the bottom of a container filled with orange chicken, then at least for the pick-me-up found inside a fortune cookie.

So for today, I simply leave you with my latest fortune cookie message:
Despair is criminal.

So cheer up, dear readers. There's always a sunny side, and if you're due some cheeriness, I'm sure it's on its way.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Upward Bound needs your help: Why TRiO programs need to be fully-funded recently posted a call to action, asking readers to contact their federal elected officials in support of TRiO programs.

TRiO programs are “federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.” In essence, these programs allow low-income and disabled students the opportunity and tools to become the first in their families to go to college.

According to, during the last grant cycle (in 2007) for TRiO’s Upward Bound (UB) program, nearly 200 Upward Bound programs lost their funding, including a disproportionate number of programs housed at historically black institutions. It is my understanding that in response to this loss, an amendment to the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) “provided $57 million each year for fiscal years 2008-2001” to fund UB programs that served approximately 12,000 students. Unfortunately, because the funds were put into effect immediately – and didn’t result in forward-funding like typical TRiO grants – there are no funds to account for these programs once the CCRAA’s money runs out.

Essentially, by not providing additional discretionary funds to cover the costs of these programs, the government has decided to cut the number of active Upward Bound programs from 964 to 788, serving 12,000 fewer students each year. This is in addition to the over 39,000 students who already lost services for fiscal year 2010, due to rising costs.

Why is Upward Bound so important?

For starters, Upward Bound evens the academic playing field for at-risk kids. The teenagers who participate in UB programs can be from low-income or minority families, the first in their families to go to college. Many are also homeless or living “doubled up” with friends or family. Most UB students are a combination of some or all of those things. They also live in economically-depressed areas, like rural communities with high rates of poverty and few social service programs or big cities with lots of crime and few jobs. These are kids who are unlikely to go on to college without the guidance of a program like Upward Bound.

As a former UB student, I urge you – the readers – to encourage your elected officials to support the expansion of TRiO programs and, consequently, funding for the 2011 fiscal year. Because of the Upward Bound program, I was encouraged to go to college and given the tools to do so.

I grew up in a rural, economically-depressed area, where less than half of my classmates made it through four-year college. With Upward Bound's guidance (and financial assistance) I applied to seven colleges and universities, was accepted at six, and graduated cum laude in four years with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology. I was the first in my family to go to and graduate from college. It was something no one else had ever been able to do. In fact, shortly after my graduation, I had to attend the funeral of a family member. At the service, my grandfather pulled me close to him and said to anyone who would listen, “That’s my granddaughter – she’s a college graduate!”

The fact that I went to and was able to graduate from college was no small feat. I didn’t know anything about college until Upward Bound came along and helped me through the process. I wouldn’t have known to take difficult courses and the SATs – kids who have college graduates for parents know those things, but why would it occur to the rest of us? That I was guided through the process and given the skills (academic and emotional) to cope with and excel in college, resulted in my becoming the first person in my family to go to college; I hope that future generations of my family will be able to pursue their dreams of higher education as well.

In addition to helping me as a high school student, Upward Bound was also able to provide me with an internship during the summer, in between semesters at college. That lead to offers of employment every summer thereafter and turned into a fulltime job upon graduation. I was eventually promoted from Office Manager to Academic Advisor, and I was given the opportunity to help guide hundreds of other kids through the college process. I also helped to educate parents, teaching them how to advocate for themselves and their children by requesting AP classes and extracurricular activities at their children’s schools. I helped raise funds to cover the gaps between a student’s financial aid packet and the cost of college. I took everything that Upward Bound taught me, turned around, and taught it to those kids coming up behind me. I know the value of what was given to me and am eager to pay my good fortune forward.

TRiO programs need to be fully-funded. The opportunity to grow up with Upward Bound and then work for the program made me who I am today. The government likes to count things, to prove that their programs are making a difference. I don’t know if you can count the individuals who went on to lead productive lives because of UB, but I’m afraid that you can count the number of people who didn’t – they’re the ones in dead-end service jobs, in prison, in rough neighborhoods, and in bad relationships, because they didn’t have access to someone who cared about them and guided them through high school and college. They didn’t have the support networks that UB students build with their classmates, teachers, and advisors. They didn’t know that anyone believed in them, and they didn’t get the chance to shine.

College should not be a privilege enjoyed only by the rich or the offspring of college graduates. TRiO programs (including Upward Bound) allow children of all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnicities to achieve academic success. These students grow up to give back to their communities and become productive members of society. Eliminating or level-funding TRiO programming is irresponsible and will result in a greater discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in American society.

By not funding the Upward Bound program, we are denying our children the opportunity to take charge of their education and we are most certainly depriving ourselves of a brighter future filled with teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers, social workers, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs who knew what it was like to grow up poor. These are precisely the kind of people we need to make the world a better place. They are the people who give back to their communities by mentoring the next generation of at-risk kids so that the cycle of learning and giving back continues.

Please join the cause and write to your elected officials. You can find them online through the call to action and read more about the issue at the Council for Opportunity in Education.