Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to feel great about yourself for $2.74

It's been over a year since I last wrote about the Prison Book Program.  In March 2010, the Prison Book Program ran a dictionary drive.  I sent in a donation to cover the cost of five dictionaries and was so impressed by the organization that I started volunteering with them.

In the past year I've worked to set up a blog featuring essays and artwork from inmates who write to the Prison Book Program.  I've donated books, sorted mail, packaged books for inmates and worked the organization's postage machine.  I've recruited a few friends who now volunteer on a regular basis, typing up essays from inmates and sorting through donated books.  In short, I've become involved in an organization doing good work and I'm glad to be a part of it.  

Now, the Prison Book Program is running another dictionary drive.  Inmates use dictionaries to improve their spelling and vocabulary.  They use them to check Scrabble words and to help solve crossword puzzles.  These prisoners are using dictionaries to improve their lives by making positive choices that focus on education. 

Please join me in donating to the Prison Book Program's dictionary drive.  $2.74 will buy you a large cup of iced coffee, or provide an inmate with a life-changing dictionary.  A mere $13.70 provides five prisoners with dictionaries (or it might buy you a movie ticket and—if you're luckya small popcorn).  You can change the life of 20 inmates by donating $54.80—the price of a dinner out. 

So, consider skipping one cup of coffee, a movie ticket, or a dinner out with your partner and change a life instead.  The warm fuzzies you'll receive will be worth it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Tornadoes hit Western Massachusetts

Yesterday, tornadoes touched down in my city and some surrounding communities.  My family is safe, as is my home, but I'm still shaken.  I think I'm feeling shaky for three main reasons. 
First, I've always lived in Massachusetts and I've always believed that my little corner of the world is relatively safe from disaster.  For the most part, we don't have earthquakes here or hurricanes.  Volcanoes don't erupt.  We're not in danger of tsunami waves.  New England has always felt safe and free of the natural disasters that plague other parts of the country.  This tornado business caught me completely off guard.
Then, there's the fact that the tornado struck so close to home.  One tornado touched down only two miles from my house; it hit a neighborhood I drive by frequently, and an area where friends live.  While I am grateful that the tornado avoided my house, it's eerie to think about how close it really came.  It's even more unsettling to think about the danger my boyfriend was in.  He works in a nearby town and a tornado touched down in the parking lot next to his building.  Windows were blown out, power lines went down, and trees crashed everywhere.  Nearly all the cars in the lot were damaged; some flipped over completely, others were hit with tree branches and debris, and some simply had their windows smashed by rocks.  My boyfriend and his coworkers managed to get out of the building safely, but the building is now uninhabitable. 
The final reason I still feel shaky is because in the worst-hit areas, the damage and destruction is so complete.  Cars were tossed around and landed top-down.  Trash barrels, tree branches, and lawn furniture blew together to create small mountains of debris.  Roofs were ripped off of schools.  The scene that struck me most profoundly was a damaged three-story apartment building made of brick.  The whole front of the building had been ripped away by the tornado; what was left looked like some sort of tragic dollhouse—furniture and appliances still inside, but the front wall completely missing.  All this complete destruction, and yet, in areas just a couple of miles from the flattened neighborhoods, people were back to business as usual. 
I guess that's the eeriest part—the fact that there was a lot of sunshine today and that my house looks no worse for wear, but just down the road, entire homes were blown off their foundations.  Four people have already died in Massachusetts as a result of the tornadoes.  Towns have declared a state of emergency and the governor called in the National Guard.  My little piece of the globe is both completely devastated and wholly unaffected, depending only on which end of the road you happen to be on.

The extremes make my head feel a little woozy.  I feel blessed and relieved that my family and friends are safe; a few of our friends suffered some property damage, but to my knowledge no one was seriously hurt and none of their homes were flattened.  That being said, neighborhoods I know and love have been destroyed and it will likely take a long time to rebuild.  For now, I'm hoping to support my community and help out when I'm needed.  I'm also saying a prayer to thank God that everyone I know is all right.  

To help with relief efforts, consider making a contribution to the Red Cross

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The heartbreaking effects of homelessness

For a few years I worked for a non-profit that helped homeless children and their families get access to early education services and become self-sufficient. Our communications director used to joke that we never needed a public relations campaign because the thought of homeless children was compelling enough on its own. She was right, of course, as no one likes to think of children being homeless. As a result, people donated time and money to help our organization help these children.

As heartbreaking as the thought of a homeless child is, I had an even more profound experience with homelessness today. As I was driving to work this morning, I saw a young woman standing near the off-ramp of the highway with a cardboard sign that read "Homeless. Please help." As my car neared the place where the woman was standing, the light turned green and I drove past her with a line of cars both ahead of and behind me.

I knew as I passed, however, that I had to do something. For the first time, I saw someone who looked like me, standing on the side of the road, and it broke my heart. It really made me think—she could have been one of my friends. She could have been me.

We've all seen homeless men sitting around with their paper cups out, asking for change, walking around with their cardboard signs reading "Help a homeless vet," and "Will work for food." We've seen the woman with her shopping cart wearing eight layers of clothing. And when you've worked with homeless families, like I have, you've seen all kinds of women and their children. Black, white, recent immigrants, native speakers, old, young, educated, uneducated... I thought I'd seen it all.

But today I saw that woman and she looked like me. She was younger, granted, but not by much. She was probably in her early twenties. She wore a light jacket and carried a messenger-style bag over her shoulder. She looked like a college student.

For a minute, the thoughts of a scam ran through my head. She's so young! How could she be homeless? It must be an act.

But it was dreary today and raw. It had been drizzling all morning and showed no signs of stopping. Who would stand out in that weather looking ashamed if it was just a ruse?

Scam or not, I decided to go back. I stopped at a convenience store just down the road and bought some food. I tried to choose things that were both appealing and would provide some nutritional value—a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, a bag of trail mix, a bag of snack mix. I asked for a plastic bag and drove back to the girl on the side of the road. I had to honk, since she was on the far side of the median and her back was toward me. I motioned her over and she came in an instant.

"Here," I said. "I don't really carry cash, but I stopped and bought some food for you."

She looked at me with wide eyes and just said, "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"You're welcome," I said. "I hope it helps. Good luck."

She thanked me again and we looked at each other for a few seconds before I hopped back in my car. As I pulled away and turned around to drive to work, I saw someone else talking to her through the window of a car. I hoped that whoever it was might be able to help her.

I thought about that girl all day. Would she be okay? How did she get there—both literally and figuratively—in the first place? I wished that I had contacts in the area who could help her get the services she needed. My contacts from my former job were all hours away on the other side of the state, and it made me feel helpless.

Regardless of how the woman got there, homelessness is a real problem in America. It's easy to say "he brought it on himself!" when we see a grisly old man drinking on the street. And in some ways, maybe he did, but he—like 39% of the homeless, up to 76% of homeless vets—may be fighting a debilitating mental illness. The homeless woman with small children may have lost her home to a fire. A young woman may have left an abusive relationship. A young man may have aged out of the foster care system.

The point is, homelessness is devastating—not only for those who experience it firsthand, but for those in the community. It broke my heart to see that girl today; people shouldn't have to live like that in this country. We should all worry a little less about how people got in the situation and worry a little more about what we can do to prevent it from happening to other people.

And to the girl I saw today, I hope you're okay and that you've found a safe place to stay the night. Tomorrow is a new day; may it be the day you get back on your feet.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Riding along in my automobile...

When I was in high school my stepmother bought a used convertible. It was a late-80s-issued VW Cabriolet with a maroon exterior and tan interior, and considering that it was now into the late '90s, the car looked a little worn, but it didn't matter to me. Being that I was a licensed driver without a car of my own, I was allowed to drive the Cabriolet often.

My favorite time to drive the car was in the summer, with the top down. I'd toss my mixed CDs into the passenger's seat, pop my cassette adapter into the car and plug it into my Discman, then ride off into town.

I especially loved getting on the highway. Though the Cabriolet couldn't go much faster than 60 miles per hour, I'd hop on Route 2 and happily drive 55 mph with the top down and the stereo cranked. I sang along to rock and roll and pop songs at the top of my lungs, with the wind whipping my hair around and the sun beating down on my skin. I loved the feel of the air blowing around the car and the sticky-hot burn of the sun turning my arms pink. I wore sunglasses and often swooped my left hand in the wind as I drove.

Since then I've maintained that there's little better than driving around in a convertible with the sun shining and the music blasting. Even a rusty convertible is infinitely cooler than the sensible sedan I drive now! And while I haven't driven a convertible in many years, today's warm weather inspired me to roll down the windows of my boring ol' Chevy and crank up the tunes. I even dug out an old CD full of random songs that I had burned while in high school. Driving home in the bright sun listening to Dave Matthews and Coldplay, the Counting Crows and Journey put me in a good mood and I smiled all the way home, thinking of summer days in my Cabriolet.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Still shaking my groove thing

I'm happy to report that (Just) Dancing my ass off is still working.

So far, I haven't gotten bored by exercising. I'm sticking with my change-what-you-do-every-time routine and it seems to be keeping me motivated. To keep the momentum going, I splurged on a copy of Just Dance 2, and added a few similar games (like Dance on Broadway and Zumba Fitness) to my wish list. Even more exciting, perhaps, was my discovery of the Exercise TV channel that I can watch "on-demand" through my cable box. With the click of a remote I was dancing along with Billy Blanks Jr. for 20 minutes and bumbling my way through a hip-hop workout with a perky twenty-something. Either way, I was burning calories.

The best thing about the on-demand workout videos is that they're free! A close second, however, is the fact that there are enough videos to keep me entertained for quite some time and the selection changes with relative frequency. It really is much more appealing to turn on the TV, scroll through the options, and decide if I'm more interested in a Latin dancing workout or an arm-toning session, than it is to run to nowhere on a treadmill.

I haven't yet stepped on a scale during this latest attempt at fitness. Right now, I'm more interested in getting in the habit of getting moving than I am in wondering if the scale shows any progress. Given my proclivity for getting discouraged, I've decided that moving is better than not moving, and for now, that's all the motivation I need. I don't need a scale to tell me that I'm doing something good for myself.

Note: If you need some dance-like games and videos to inspire your own routine, try one of my favorites (suggestions in the widget below). The widget also includes a few pieces of exercise equipment that I've found helpful.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bring on spring!

Today marks the first day of spring and I am relieved.

I have lived in New England my whole life and I'm one of those stubborn Yankees that rolls my eyes and crosses my arms when someone complains about winter in New England. My thoughts were always, Too much snow? Why do you live here? or the classic If you don't like the weather in New England, wait five minutes. I had no patience for people who grumbled about winter; I always just dealt with the snow and haughtily embraced my Yankee grit.

But this year, Mother Nature got the best of me.

Surrounded by mountains of snow, I woke up each morning, peeked out the window, and cursed as I saw the inevitable snow that fallen in the night. I woke up hours earlier than usual to shovel. I crept along to work each morning as my 35-minute commute stretched into 45 minutes, then an hour, and sometimes nearly two. I gave up on wearing anything other than my sturdy boots. I bundled up like I was preparing for an excursion along some frozen tundra and I complained about the weather to anyone who would listen. In short, my hearty Yankee spirit got tossed right out the window into a snowbank.

Now, of course, I'm unbelievably thrilled that spring is here. It's such a relief! Yes, there's still snow on the ground, and yes, I know it could still snow, but the sun is warm and spirits are high. It's just the push I need to forget about winter for awhile.

Happy spring!

Friday, March 11, 2011

(Just) Dance your ass off

Okay, okay. I don't have the best track record with exercise. I get bored. I give up. I abandon my workout for a plate of nachos and a glass of wine.

But this time I've figured it out! (Don't roll your eyes! I can see you rolling your eyes!) The answer? VARIETY.

I'm not sure why I didn't think of this before. As we all know, I figured out that I have to exercise when it doesn't feel like I have to, but apparently that isn't enough. I also have to have some fun while I'm exercising. Moreover, I'm easily bored so I have to change things up frequently. (Damn, I'm picky.)

So I finally found a bunch of things that I like in small doses and I've been rotating them. I feel brilliant. (Seriously, why didn't I think of this sooner?)

I know why I didn't think of this sooner. Because fit people have exercise "plans" and "routines." They get up at 6 a.m. and run for an hour. They take Zumba on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work. They do yoga before breakfast and take walks before dinner. They toil away at the gym five days a week. They track their progress on pedometers, charts, and online forums. So if fit people have plans, shouldn't I have a plan if I want to be fit?

The answer is a resounding "no." It's obvious that I've never been able to stick to a "plan". So it makes sense that my new plan would be no plan.

The only routine in my new plan is that I get my butt in gear doing some cardio every other day. On the off days I try to do some strength training by lifting weights and stretching (or just carrying colossal loads of laundry up and down the stairs).

On my cardio days I boogie in my living room to Wii games like Just Dance and shake my groove thing to exercise DVDs like Bollywood Booty. (No, seriously, I do.) When the weather is nicer, I'll add riding my bike and taking walks around the neighborhood. I'm even trying yoga (though yoga via DVD is hard to do, since you can't look at the screen and bend over at the same time).

The trick, I've learned, is not to do the same thing two sessions in a row. The appeal of even the most enjoyable workouts wears off too quickly when I do the same exercise DVDs over and over, or even walk the same loop around town.

So, maybe this time it will work for me. Maybe not having a plan is the best plan I've ever had when it comes to exercise.

Of course, if anyone knows any cheesy dancing games or workout videos, feel free to send them my way. There's always room for variety in this girl's workout.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Parents worried about 'racy magazines' should worry about parenting instead

Actress Lea Michele, who plays Rachel Berry on the popular television show Glee, has come under fire for "racy" magazine photo shoots.

The newest cover of Cosmopolitan magazine (left) features Lea Michele in a dress with a plunging neckline. The photo, combined with a story where Lea Michele apparently discusses a "perfect night" that includes a glass of wine and chatting with her boyfriend, is too much for some conservative parents who think Lea Michele is sending the wrong message to children.

Fox News recently published an article claiming that "Lea Michele's Sexy Switch Has Moms Mad". One such mom, Kim Trefcer, mom of a 12-year-old boy, told the news outlet that she thinks Lea Michele "is sending the wrong message. She plays such a 'good girl' on Glee and a lot of kids look up to her persona. Then she poses very provocatively on two magazine covers which makes my almost-13-year-old son very confused and offended." She continued by saying, "I find it frustrating as a parent who is trying to teach right from wrong to their kids and then you have things like this happen which is showing middle schoolers things like sex sells and all that goes along with that."

Here's what I find confusing and offensive: letting your prepubescent son look at Cosmo magazine. Cosmopolitan is intended for adult women; nearly 60% of the magazine's readers are between the ages of 18 and 34. Besides, Cosmo doesn't exactly have a reputation for being squeaky-clean. Word on the street is that the magazine has long-attracted readers who want to read racier stories than those found in other women's magazines.

Lea Michele is 24 years old. Yes, she plays a teenager on television. Yes, many teenagers watch her show. Yes, her recent photos show some skin. But Lea Michele is a grown woman posing for a magazine aimed at grown women. And while a past shoot in GQ included some pretty provocative photos, the bottom line is that parents need to stop blaming actresses and magazines for "showing things like sex sells".

Of course sex sells! The question is to whom is it selling? Parents need to start parenting and stop blaming. If Kim Trefcer is concerned about her son looking at photos of Lea Michele in low-cut dresses, don't let the kid buy Cosmo! If the boy stumbles across a copy of the magazine in the checkout line, maybe his mother should try having a discussion with him rather than shelter him from the real world. How does Trefcer plan to "teach right from wrong" to her child if she's not capitalizing on the teachable moments in front of her?

Next time Trefcer and her son stumble across a racy magazine cover, she should start a conversation with him. Ask him some questions. Point out the difference between fantasy (magazine cover photo shoots, adults playing teenagers on TV) and reality (Lea Michele is 24 years old; she likes — and is allowed — to dress up in fancy clothes sometimes). If the boy wants to read magazines, offer him a subscription to Boys' Life or Sports Illustrated for Kids.

A person can't claim to "teach" something by standing idly by and hoping that a "lesson" is absorbed passively. It's the same reason that abstinence-only sex education does not work; by avoiding the topic, children don't receive any factual information. The only way to ensure that our children learn right from wrong is to teach them, and teaching requires frank discussions and conversations.

Lea Michele is a talented actress and singer. If she chooses to pose for magazine covers, good for her. If the photos show some skin, so be it. If the photos appeared in a kids' magazine, Trefcer and other angry parents would have a legitimate reason to cry foul, but the photos are intended for adult readers. Ultimately, parents need to take responsibility for teaching their children right from wrong and rely a little less on blaming the media.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amazon's Kindle: A bibliophile's e-book reader review

There's been a lot of talk in the past year about e-book readers. Amazon's Kindle came onto the market in time for Christmas sales in 2007, while the other major players in the e-book world -- Sony's Reader and Barnes & Noble's nook -- made their way onto the scene in late 2006 and 2009, respectively.

When e-book readers first came out I was happy to join in the debate. As an avid reader, I grew up loving books; not just reading, mind you, but books as well. I love the way a well-read book falls open and the way certain childhood favorites retain jellybean-shaped stickers on their covers or bubble bath stains on their pages. I love browsing through the shelves of books at the library, choosing brightly-covered volumes and well-worn novels from the stacks. I love the musty smell of old hardcovers in the darkest corners of libraries and estate sales. And I really love my home bookshelf covered in my favorite books, like little trophies of my reading accomplishments. How could an e-book compare?

Then, I received an Amazon Kindle for Christmas. At first, I was surprised. What would I do with this thing? Where were its pages? Who wants to snuggle up with electronics? (And who wants to pay for books you can't hold?)

Since then I've come to love the Kindle. I don't think it will (and hope it won't!) replace honest-to-goodness books, but I think it's wonderful in its own way.

For starters, a fair number of books are available for free downloads. Many of these books are in the public domain (primarily meaning that book has been around long enough for the intellectual property rights to have expired), so you can read classics like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dracula free of charge. also offers a selection of Limited Time offers which are (usually) free for anywhere from a day to a month or so. Once you've downloaded the books, they're yours to keep, regardless of whether the price eventually goes up. I tend to check the page once or twice a week, downloading any free books that seem interesting. I've found a few gems this way and have read books by both popular and virtually-unknown writers. Downloading free books assuaged my fear of paying for books that I couldn't keep on a shelf.

The Kindle is also incredibly handy for traveling. Instead of packing my carry-on bag with two or three novels and a handful of magazines, I simply pack the Kindle. Currently, I have 67 books on my Kindle. I could never bring 67 (or even five or six) books on vacation! Bringing the Kindle saves space and allows me the luxury of changing my mind on a whim, if I'm not in the mood to read whichever book I'm in the middle of. With a Kindle, I simply switch to another book until I'm back in the frame of mind to finish the temporarily-abandon book. (Bonus: The Kindle saves your place in each book you are reading, allowing a fickle reader like me to switch back and forth between stories without having to find my place again.)

Sounds wonderful, right? I see you skeptics out there... But Danielle, you say, who wants to cozy up with a tiny computer? I hear you. I have to say, however, that the Kindle is hardly a tiny computer. While it has the memory to hold 200 to 1,500 books (depending on which generation you own), the Kindle is not back-lit like a computer. This saves your eyes from the strain you may experience while reading on a computer all day. You need to read your Kindle in the light, just like any paperback. And while you're reading an electronic device, rather than a comfy book, I minimized the cold technology feel by purchasing a leather-like cover for mine that attaches to the Kindle and opens and closes just like a book.

Okay, Danielle, you concede, but what about the feel of the pages? You've got me there. On a Kindle, you do have to press a button each time you want to flip the page. While it may not be as fun as turning the pages of treasured volume, it isn't as distracting as I imagined it might be. I hardly notice any more.

There are of course, plenty of instances where printed books still win over electronic books. For starters, I'd find it hard to plop myself into the bathtub with a Kindle. Electronics and occasional splashes don't mix. And I don't think Kindles are an alternative to children's books, which have a beauty and feeling all their own. Of course, there's also the chance that your Kindle's battery might die while you are unable to plug it in to charge, which is an obvious win for printed books over e-readers.

That being said, I think book lovers ought not worry about e-readers taking over the publishing world; there are far too many reasons why printed books are still wonderful. Instead of saying that the Kindle is better than a good-old-fashioned book, I'm simply saying that there's room for the Kindle at my table. (In fact, I love reading the Kindle at the table -- I don't have to prop it open like a paperback novel.) It's great for travel and isn't so bad to snuggle up with after all.

Why not give it an e-reader a try?

Monday, January 03, 2011

A reflection on last year's resolutions, and a few for 2011

At first glance, 2010 didn't feel like a super productive year. When I looked back at my resolutions for the year, however, I wasn't too far off track.

Here's a recap of last year's resolutions:

Write more/become a better writer. I can check this one off my list. While I didn't write for Inner Thoughts & Outbursts every week, I did, in fact, write more than I had in 2009, and became a better writer to boot. Over the course of the year, I discovered that I wanted to focus on other writing projects like my 15-Minute Party Planner blog. Conclusion: Adapting resolutions so that they better suit your overall goals is still a great form of self-improvement!

Pay attention to the positive. This one can get tough sometimes, but I feel like I did a pretty good job! I faithfully wrote in my Good Thing of the Day book nearly every day, and I've been focusing on the good things in my life. I also drew some inspiration from Erma Bombeck's If I Had My Life to Live Over. The piece reminded me not to wait for "someday", but to use the pretty candles and the fancy office supplies today. I didn't worry about breaking the dishes, I just used them to make dinners fancier.

Get healthier. Alright, maybe this one didn't work out as well as I hoped for. I did set the stage for some good habits -- I bought a bicycle, got a rice cooker (for faster, healthier meals), and tried to walk whenever I could while running errands. Oh well; a less than stellar outcome is inspiration to try again.

Do things for me. This resolution felt connected to focusing on the positive. I found joy in using pretty things for everyday uses and took time to craft, write, and do things I enjoy. Most significantly, I left a stressful job this year. While I left my job because of a cross-state move, it was a bit scary to become unemployed. Instead of panicking, however, I embraced the break from work and concentrated on putting my new house in order, organizing my writing, and spending time with friends and family. I couldn't be happier with the outcome.

Now, when it comes to this year, my general resolution is to keep learning and growing. More specifically, I hope to make small changes that add up to big changes. In 2011, I hope to...
  • Get moving! This year I will exercise every day. I know myself. There's no hope in saying I'll go to the gym four days a week for an hour each time, but I can get my butt in gear for a mere 10 minutes every day. Some days I'll spend an hour with a Wii fitness game, and other days I'm sure I'll ride my bike for an hour, but it's good to know that on the days that I feel like I just can't do it, I can spend 10 minutes doing jumping jacks. Something is better than nothing, and I feel more confident making a small goal than developing a big goal that is bound to disappoint me.

  • Spend time doing things I love. I'm on the hunt for a new job, and I have a few promising prospects. If I have to work for a living (and who doesn't?) I hope that it's at a job I love. And when I'm not working, I hope to spend time crafting, reading, and trying to embrace life.

  • Simplify. Think my resolutions sound simple this year? They're intended to be. There's no need to create 10 resolutions you can't live up to when you can create one or two that you know you can accomplish. I hope this simplicity helps me be the best person I can be!