Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Have No Enemies

I have no enemies. There are people out there who want me, or those I love, dead for some abstract reason, but such a person is not my enemy. I wish them no ill. I have no deeper desire than that they find something in their life that brings them pure love, joy, and peace. I wish for them - as I wish for my sons, dearest friends, and myself - nothing but the best that the world has to offer.

(Originally posted this on Facebook, where it was composed on impulse, but decided to repost here.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Gift of Family Time

Throughout the 40 Days of Giving project, I realized that one of my biggest issues is with giving time. I am fairly self-sufficient, so don't need a lot of time devoted to me in order to feel needed, nor to feel a connection to others. A few hours here and there, and I'm honestly good.

I just don't need to go through the sorts of rituals that most people go through to establish their emotional ties to each other. Surely my friends know that they're my friends, and I don't need to invite them over to make that clear. If they wanted to see me, they could just as easily ask me over. The fact that they don't doesn't mean that I don't think they like me. I assume they do, unless something happens which indicates to me that they have stopped liking me.

Because of this willingness to have my relationships by mutual understanding rather than through actual interactions with people, I sometimes joke that I have Asperger syndrome.

Having a family, of course, doesn't quite allow for that. For reasons that I don't quite fathom, Amber and the kids like having my direct attention for more than just an hour or two a day. It's really quite baffling, since I'm not that interesting.

But there's where the conflict arises, because I'm something of a workaholic. I always have a bunch of projects going on (and, in fact, at present am approaching something of a train wreck as many deadlines approach all at once), and while I'm happy to schedule time for family events and activities, just planning generic family time that has no real point has never made much sense to me.

However, with schedules and family life growing more hectic - my elder son in kindergarten, my freelance work, my day job, Amber's school, Amber's internship, Amber's new job with Lia Sophia, a 10-month old baby who's closely approaching the walking stage, and so on - it's becoming more crucial to set time aside.

So we've begun setting Monday evenings as Family/Date Night. We haven't quite worked out what this entails, other than that we are not allowed to schedule any non-family event for Monday night. So far, it's been nice.

We also set this weekend aside in a similar fashion. On Friday, when I finished work, I came into the back yard and set up two tents. We camped out the last three nights, and have spent most of the weekend outdoors. We considered going out to a nearby campground but, frankly, money is kind of tight these days.

It's been a great weekend, filled with a continuous campfire, sleeping bags, s'mores, roasted hot dogs, bugs, and other outdoor adventures.

And, in the midst of all of this, I've still gotten some things accomplished. I wrote a blog post for on multiple universes and one for Black Gate on a possible The Sandman television series. I've cleared over a hundred pages of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (quite good so far, though not as action-packed as I was expecting from a steampunk zombie tale). I'm also making my way through the pile of role-playing games that I have to review for the upcoming issue of Black Gate. And now this blog post.

In short, I've actually gotten about as much done during a camp out weekend as I normally get by hectically holing myself up in the basement for a couple of hours and getting as much done as I can. But instead of being a frantic rush of activity, it's been nice and leisurely, interspersed with time spent around the campfire with Elijah, roasting marshmallows. Even Amber commented that watching me work yesterday was a lot different from how I normally seem to work, and it looked (and felt) more relaxed, while I got just as much accomplished.

Back in February, I reviewed The Generosity Factor, which listed the Gift of Time as one of the many ways to give. This strikes me as one way of doing that - focusing on the here and now, and detaching a bit to give some time to those you care most about.

Or, to put it in a more intellectual way, consider this interview with William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. In it, he suggests (as many others have done over the years) that our modern society is not built to adequately embrace the connections among people that we desperately need for happiness. Like Thoreau, he believes in building a bit of space for contemplation. His family practices disconnected weekends - Internet Sabbaths - which is something of a sacrifice in this connected age.

I'm not sure if I've quite reached the point of embracing weekend-long Internet Sabbaths, but it seems to me that putting tents in the backyard every once in a while is a good place to start. It's a gift not just to your family, but to yourself.

What other ways have you found to really set some good quality time aside, especially when life is at its most hectic? How do you make sure that you can give the gift of family time?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Changes in the Way We Give

On this morning's The Today Show, there was an interview with the founder of Living by Giving's founder Kate Atwood. She talked about a great trend where people ask for donations given for their birthday, instead of gifts. There are a number of ways to do this, but I think it's a great idea. If you're like me, you really don't need more stuff. (Of course, you may want more stuff.)


In addition, today's USA Today (what's with all the "Today" titles?) had a Special Report on "Corporate Philanthropy" in their Money Section B. It had some interesting information, including a list of 11 companies that donate over 5% of their profits to charitable causes. I will admit that I was kind of surprised that Chik-fil-a wasn't included, since S. Truett Cathy was a co-author of The Generosity Factor and strongly advocated tithing 10% of income, even as part of corporate policy.  It's possible that they give this much and just didn't fall under the companies analyzed in the article ... or that Cathy gives on his personal profits after extracting them from the business in the form of a salary.

Anyway, here are the links to some of the giving stories from today's USA Today.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unity Church on Giving

The wonderful people of Unity Church have done a nice profile on the project. The article, Giving It All Away, is available on their website. They based the article on reading the blog plus a couple of e-mail exchanges with us to flesh out the details.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Presbyterians Affirm the Charter of Compassion

It was late in the evening on November 12, 2009, a little more than 24 hours after my son had entered the world. Mother and child both lay sleeping, but I was wide awake. I opened my laptop, checking the mail that had accumulated in the last couple of chaotic days, and find an e-mail from TED announcing the formation of the Charter for Compassion, as part of the fulfillment of Karen Armstrong's TED wish.

This e-mail (or, more specifically, the Charter of Compassion that it introduced me to) started the cogs in my brain working, and ultimately led me to come up with the idea behind the 40 Days of Giving project. I think it's a great idea, and firmly embrace its tenets. The day after my son was born, I affirmed the Charter for Compassion ... and to date, over 50,000 people have joined me, including the Dalai Lama, Desmund Tutu, Paul Simon, Queen Noor of Jordan, Meg Ryan, and many other people (some famous, most not).

And now, apparently, so does the entire Presbyterian Church (USA), who earlier this month affirmed the Charter of Compassion. (It's mentioned in a bullet list at the end of the article, but there's more detail here.) According to the press release from the Charter:

The PC(USA) will send the Charter to every congregation, where it will be used to help embody compassion in education, worship, and community events. Congregations are already using the Charter as a focus for adult education classes and plan to invite a diverse array of religious leaders to share with the PC(USA)’s congregations how compassion is lived in their own traditions.

So, this Sunday morning, I have to ask ... Why hasn't every religious denomination affirmed the Charter for Compassion? Why haven't you?

P.S. - On a related note, Karen Armstrong appears to have a new "vook" (a video book) available entitled A Compassionate Life in 12 Steps. It looks interesting, and costs a mere $4.99. I'm going to wait until I finally receive my free iPad, and then check it out ... and I'll let you all know what I think of it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Karma Update: I Won a Free iPad!

I haven't been particularly diligent about updating this blog, I know, but this recent news was of such import that I thought it was worth sharing:

I won an iPad!

How I Won an iPad
My company has recently had a couple of contests which have offered iPad 3Gs as prizes. I signed up for their Twitter contest, but did not win. Then I signed up for the Facebook contest ... and I won!

The iPad itself hasn't arrived yet, due to a backorder situation, but still ... very cool! I'm not saying that this is karmic payback for the giving experiment, but the iPad is cool, I wanted one, and I would not have shelled out that much money for a fancy electronic toy. I'm not saying it's karma, but I'm not saying it ain't, either!

Karma's a Bit... Weird
Also last week I had a flat tire, which was unrepairable and required the purchase of a new tire, but that was just a little over $100. And twice my car refused to start and required a jump, so very likely needs a new battery. Still, in total, I consider myself way ahead on the rewards versus losses chart.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Microfinancing Student Loans

I recently stumbled upon a new take (or at least new to me) on microfinancing, in which you offer relatively small amounts of money to impoverished people, so that they can help themselves out of poverty and pay you back. These programs have proven incredibly successful since they were initiated by Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank as a means of providing them in his native Bangladesh. The Grameen Bank and Yunus were jointly awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below."

Student Loans

Many people have looked into new way expand the microfinancing model into new areas, but this is one of the most interesting that I've see. Vittana allows you to search for a student in a country that does not have many college loan opportunities, so that you can help microfinance student loans.

I don't have the experience with Vittana that I have with some other microfinance organizations discussed below, and since Vittana's new there's little on record about it. They don't yet have a Charity Navigator profile and only a very barebones GuideStar profile.

What is Microfinancing?
In short, it provides those in extreme poverty a way to get money for start-up capital to get ahead in their small, entrepreneurial businesses. For example, Yunus found that poor craftswomen were being charged such extreme interest rates by loan sharks to borrow money that, by the time they bought the materials and paid back the interest, they had no money left. Even worse, many money lenders demanded that the women could only sell their wares to them, which essentially gave the money lenders a bank of slave labor ... for as little as $27, as he discovered. Yunus paid this money out of his own pocket to break the hold the money lenders had on the women, and sought to expand the program.

However, because these were poor women, they could not get loans from any other source. Many were illiterate, and therefore had barriers to completing the required paperwork to get loans. His story of expanding this program is really inspirational, as you can learn in his Nobel Lecture. Here's an excerpt, discussing how the emphasis of our current economic system robs us of some essential elements of our humanity:

I am in favor of strengthening the freedom of the market. At the same time, I am very unhappy about the conceptual restrictions imposed on the players in the market. This originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives − to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Now, microfinance is becoming a very popular form of philanthropy. Individuals can take part through Kiva (a non-profit which provides no interest back to the individual lender) and Microplace (a for-profit which does provide an interest-yielding return on the investment). There are some other differences, too. On Kiva, you choose a specific person or group to loan money to, while on Microplace you're investing in a lending note that will be provided through a separate agency to needy people in the region chosen without ever knowing precisely who the money actually goes to.

There are several nice aspects to microfinancing. First, you don't actually lose your money. Assuming that the borrowers don't default on you (and the overall default rate is low, at around 2%), the money is paid back. You can either re-loan it out to a new borrower or withdraw it. This makes these sorts of programs a nice place for socking away some extra money as part of your nest egg. It's not highly leveraged, and is far less volatile than the stock market.

Second, it's not a hand-out, but instead a business agreement. There is no social stigma or loss of dignity for someone who accepts a business loan.
    Third, the systems in place allow you to really have a lot of options in how you direct your money, moreso than with some other charities. In general, a charity is either local or global, and either way you don't have a ton of say-so in how your donation is spent. This, however, often lets you target a specific type of entrepreneur or borrower, so that you can be sure you're supporting a project that you really want to support.

    Finally, the benefit of microfinance is that it's based upon the actual needs of the local people in impoverished areas. They need the money to achieve necessary goals, and are asking for the money. It isn't a case where someone in the United States just decides that these people need a certain sort of service. (Not that there's anything inherently wrong with these programs, such as One Laptop Per Child, but the fact that they are not locally-centered is a bit of a drawback.)

    What do you think about Vittana, or about microfinancing in general? Have you had experiences with any of these programs?

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    Charity Navigator Upgrade

    One of my favorite resources to check prior to donating to a new charity is Charity Navigator. They rate non-profits on a four-star rating system. Each organization has an overall rating, which is obtained from evaluations of two sub-categories:
    • Organizational Efficiency
    • Organizational Capacity
    New Accountability System
    This week, though, Charity Navigator announced an upgrade their site involving a new rating system which begins to add a dimension of accountability that has been missing from the existing rating system. Here is a description of the new accountability and transparency system and the factors that will now contribute to their analysis.

    The first charity that they've rolled out with this new accountability rating system is Nurse-Family Partnership. Their only negative mark on accountability is that the organization does not post their latest Form 990 (the form that non-profits must file with the federal government) to their website, which is an ethical best practice but not an actual requirement for non-profits.

    Issues with Current System
    There are still some issues with the current evaluation system, of course, as with any evaluation process. For example, Heifer International has a bit of a hit on the site, having only a three-start rating, in part because:
    • The CEO makes a fairly large salary ($258,246)
    • They spend a large percentage of their budget on fundraising (16%)
    • They don't have a big Working Capital Ratio (they couldn't run off of their savings if donations dried up)
    However, when you consider that this charity is a massive international project, requiring a substantial amount of coordination among diverse groups, the CEO's salary doesn't necessarily seem out of line. And they don't have much working capital because the majority of the money is immediately spent on livestock, per the organization's mission. Their expenses are directly linked to the donations, in other words, and if donations dried up, then the purchase of animals would also slow down in proportion. The work of education and the Pass on the Gift program would continue in these cases, but the purchase and distribution of livestock would cut back significantly, so they'd last a lot longer than their current financials would really indicate.

    The current rating system doesn't take all of this into account, and there are other issues - some of which are even more important - which have been left out.

    Other Non-Profit Vetting Resources
    Guidestar - Guidestar's mission: To revolutionize philanthropy and nonprofit practice by providing informaiton that advances transparency, enables users to make better decisions, and encourages charitable giving.

    GiveWell - GiveWell attempts to look beyond the financial data, to evaluate organizations on how well they effectively accomplish their mission. I admit, I haven't delved into this site too much. They are, admittedly, fairly strict in their evaluations - of the over-400 charities they have evaluated, only 11 have received any stars in their rating system.

    Philanthropedia - Philanthropedia brings together experts in fields such as climate change, education, and microfinance (as well as some San Francisco Bay Area local issues) to evaluate charities seeking to have an impact on these issues. They have created "Expert Mutual Funds" based on these suggestions, which have distributions among the top organizations for each issue. Donations to a fund are split accordingly among the various individual organizations, but you only have to worry about going one place to donate (which also helps keep track of things for tax purposes, if you happen to itemize your deductions).

    Other Resources of Note
    Charity Navigator Blog
    Tonic - Getting the Most Bang for Your Charitable Buck
    Newsday - State eyes possible fraud in car donation charities

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    The Face of Empathy

    If you've ever known an older couple who just look like they fit together, you aren't just imagining it. Our bodies are wired to recognize and mirror the emotions of others, including the physical way those emotions manifest, and this results in these similarities, according to biologist Frans de Waal in his book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society:

    Mood transfer via facial expressions and body language is so powerful that people doing it on a daily basis literally start to look alike. This has been tested with portraits of longtime couples: One set of pictures was taken on their wedding day and another set twenty-five years later. Presented with separate portraits of these men and women, human subjects were asked to match them on similarity. For the set taken at an older age, they had no trouble deciding who was married to whom. But for the pictures taken at a younger age, subjects flunked the task. Married couples resemble each other, therefore, not because they pick partners who look like them, but because their features converge over the years. The similarity was strongest for couples who reported the greatest happiness. Daily sharing of emotions apparently leads one partner to "internalize" the other, and vice versa, to the point that anyone can see how much they belong together.

    While I certainly don't want my wife to begin "converging" toward my own ugly mug, I do think there's something beautiful and profound about this scientific evidence. It shows that the connections between us reach every level, down into our very flesh.

    Despite being profoundly (and thankfully) emotional and mental, love is also, if you'll pardon the phrase, skin deep.

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    Gates, Buffett, and Philanthrocapitalism

    In the last couple of weeks, there's been no shortage of coverage about Bill and Melinda Gates, together with Warren Buffett, offering a Giving Pledge. The goal: to convince their fellow billionaires to pledge to give away 50% (or more) of their net worth to charity during their lifetime (or, at the very least, upon their death). If you've missed the coverage, then here is some of it.

    (This Bill & Melinda Gates video is from January 2010, before the challenge was made public.)

    Coincidentally, this announcement came as I was reading the book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World by Matthew Bishop & Michael Green. (The newer version of the book, according to, has been rebranded with the subtitle "How Giving Can Save the World" and an introduction by Bill Clinton.) The book begins, understandably enough, with Buffett's 2006 decision to give the majority of his vast fortune to charity - the bulk of it to the Gates Foundation, for their work in world health and development.

    In the Charlie Rose interview on this new challenge, Buffet lays out some of his philanthropic thoughts (also detailed in this article):

    So the truth is I’ve had everything in life, everything in life I’ve ever wanted. I have never given away any money that’s caused me to give up a movie or dinner or trip to Disneyworld or anything of the sort.
    So it’s cost me nothing. So I have these little pieces of paper in safe deposit box which I bought about 40 or 45 years ago and they’ve grown in value enormously. And what they are is they’re claim checks on something in the future.
    I don’t have anything I need in the future. All kinds of other people have all kinds of needs. And it’s a way of cashing those claim checks in a way where people’s lives are changed for be the better. Mine’s already changed for the better. It couldn’t get better.
    If those little pieces of paper translate whether it’s into children avoiding diseases, becoming better educated, people having a better life in their own age, whatever it may be, that’s terrific. I think a lot of people feel the same way.

    This is a profound statement, and certainly true ... for billionaires.

    For most of us, of course, choosing to give something does mean that there are some sorts of desires that we have to pass up. People with this degree of wealth don't run into this problem (financially, at least), but when you think about things on a global scale, this situation extends to the majority of people in America.

    Worldwide: The poorest 75% of the world lives on only 25% of the resources! At least 80% of the human species lives on less than $10 a day.

    By extension, living on $3,650 a year means that you are among the wealthiest 20% of the people on the planet Earth! (Note: This is 2005 data, so the number would be a bit higher now ... but not much.)

    Depressing, isn't it?

    So the arguments that Buffett make are all, by extension, arguments that could apply to the majority of us. We can all afford to give a bit more, even if all we can give is of our time or our sympathy.

    Elsewhere in the interview, Bill Gates recounts an early dinner party where these three billionaires gathered with other billionaires in an effort to help convince them to give more. The group of billionaires share their stories of philanthropy - how they got involved, what causes they're committed to, and so on - and there was a tangible energy and enthusiasm among the group, which Buffett and the Gateses wanted to harness. Gates makes the observation:

    And one thing more I would like to say is no one said that they felt bad they’ve given the money. Everybody felt more fulfilled, were able to use their creativity in some special ways.
    I would certainly agree with this. There have been a handful of people who have come forward to me, saying that they were motivated give in part thanks to my 40 Days of Giving project. Not a single one of these people has said, "You know, I gave this money, and just think it was a waste!"

    The amazing thing about this isn't just the money itself (although Carol Loomis makes a strong case that this will profoundly increase the money going into charitable giving). Many billionaires are self-made entrepreneurs and businessmen, like both Gates and Buffett themselves, and if they turn their eye toward philanthropy, it's unlikely that they will do so in a passive way. The sheer amount of innovation, brainpower, and overall resources that this could turn toward philanthropic goals is astounding.

    And this is the the whole point of Philanthrocapitalism, which talks about the way that these powerful capitalists can leverage their talents in that area toward philanthropic goals. A similar case was made by David Bornstein about social entrepreneurs in How to Change the World.

    And these sorts of thinkers are crucial, because the problems we face today - climate change, oil spills, clean energy, clean water, diseases such as malaria and AIDS, rogue states, terrorism, and so on - literally cannot be solved solely by throwing money at them. These are real problems that require careful thought by innovators, and it's important to get the innovators engaged.

    That is the real goal of the Buffett-Gates challenge, because they know that they are in a position to turn serious people onto these issues. The money can be used for good, but it's the human capital that they really want. They want solutions ... and as businessmen and innovators, they know that you can never predict where the real solutions are going to come from. They want to get as many people as possible into the marketplace of solutions.

    It's saving the world, free market style. You've gotta love it, America!

    Friday, June 4, 2010


    Oenophile (or Enophile): Someone who appreciates wine. (Wordnet)

    Philanthropy: Voluntary promotion of human welfare. (Wordnet)

    Oenophilanthropy (or Enophilanthropy): Appreciating wine in a way which actively seeks to promote human welfare. (Coined at 6:02 pm Eastern time, June 6, 2010, by AZJ. Feel free to use to your heart's content, but please link back to this posting!)

    So let's imagine - just for the sake of argument - that you like wine. And let's assume that you're the support of person who likes to support worthwhile causes. How can these two things be linked together?

    Well, I suppose that one option would be to establish some sort of wine-tasting charitable function to raise money for your favorite cause. And certainly that's a clever and worthwhile goal.

    But another action that even the laziest of oenophiles could perform is to orient your wine-buying activities so that the money goes to businesses that themselves support philanthropic activities.

    And there's certainly no shortage of them, as I learned when my mother handed me a page form Food and Wine magazine with the clever title "Grape Causes." (Although I think that Oenophilanthropy is clever, too.) They discuss some great wine-related giving programs:

    Wine to Water: This group of oenophilanthropists have done just what I suggested above: raise money through benefit wine events, such as tastings, and use the proceeds to support water access projects around the world. The lack of clean, fresh water is one of the biggest world-wide problems, affecting over 1 billion people worldwide. The organization also produces their own wine label as a means of generating funds.

    Indego Africa: This organization sells fair-trade handicrafts, with proceeds going to the Rwandan artisans who craft the items, as well as providing training in entrepreneurship, literacy, and computer skills. How does this impact the oenophilanthropist? Well, they have wine coasters and wine bags.

    Boisset Family Estates' Fight Against Hunger: Each bottle of wine sold by the Boisset Family Estates winery results in the donation of three meals for families in need! This is an astounding donation, but it may be over. Though the Food and Wine report is from April 2010, the website itself indicates that this was in place for June through December 2009, with no indication (that I can find) that the program has been extended. They exceeded their goal of 1.2 million meals!

    Fledgling Wine: A joint project of Twitter and Crushpad's custom winemaking, this new wine label is created to provide funds for the wonderful Room to Read project. Room to Read provides local-language books to impoverished areas around the world.

    O Wine Company: 100% of the net profits from this wine goes to fund scholarships for at-risk youth. In 2009, the owners signed a contract with Oregon State University's Science and Math Integrated Learning Experience (SMILE) program to fund 5 scholarships over 5 years, resulting in a total of 25 needy students who will achieve financial assistance from O Wines.

    Korks 4 Kids: This wine cork recycling program uses proceeds to support programs that help children, focusing initial efforts on the Autism Society of America (ASA). The organization's Rubber 4 Rugrats program also recycles rubber-based goods, such as tires, to raise money.

    Help for Haiti: Wine producers were among the many people donating to Haiti relief, of course. The Spirit of the Americas (funded by Diageo) donated more than 45,000 pounds of food to Haiti. Constellation Brands provided medical supplies through an ongoing partnership with InterVol.

    Friday, May 21, 2010

    Andrew Returns with Word of Other Givers!

    After nearly a month-and-a-half absence, I'm back to the blog. I wish that I could say the absence was entirely due to my immense giving efforts, or because I was hard at work on the book, but the fact is that I have mostly been distracted by the day job and the coming of spring.

    And, to be honest, after 40 days of giving away my entire income, I was slightly burned out, so needed a break from blogging about the subject, for at least a little while. Through this sabbatical, I have had some time to work on the book. From now on, I will continue to use the blog to detail great giving opportunities, as well as to present my thoughts on giving.

    My colleague in giving, Brigid Slipka, has been more diligent about continuing to chronicle her giving thoughts and activities on her Actually Giving blog. If you haven't checked it out, it's truly a great, thoughtful read, and well worth the time. Brigid isn't the only giver out there, of course, or even the only giving blogger, and I figure that my return to the blog is as good a time as any to cover some of the other major voices out there talking about this subject!

    A Year of Giving
    A Washington, DC, gentleman named Reed is doing a Year of Giving project, which involves giving $10 a day for the entire year. Amazingly, he started this project when he got laid off, which shows far more commitment than even my full-income-for-40-days giving plan! If I didn't have an income, I have to admit that I'd find it really hard to give. Kudos to Reed!

    Reed is clearly also a more social than yours truly, who tends to be fairly introverted and hesitant to approach people he doesn't know. Reed gives the $10 to individuals by walking up to them and having a prolonged conversation. On his Year of Giving blog, Reed chronicles the stories of these recipients, including a page of people that he's encountered who need some help beyond what he's in a position to offer. With his year-long timeline, he's even caught the attention of CNN.

    One of Reed's goal appears to be to establish June 15 as a Worldwide Day of Giving, where as many people as possible give $10 (or more, if able) to a complete stranger. I wholeheartedly endorse this project, and hope that the readers on this blog will join with Reed, myself, and others across the country and world in this endeavor!

    Giving One Day's Wages
    Eugene Cho believes in giving, so he started an organization called One Day's Wages, which tries to motivate people to give their wages from a single day toward solving problems of severe poverty in the world. The organization was founded by Eugene and his wife, Minhee, who clearly believe in their mission - they donated 100% of their 2009 income (a total of $68,000!) to the cause of fighting extreme global poverty. They continue to give to the organization, trying to reach a personal goal of giving $100,000. This is a major "put your money where your mouth is" step, and lends them a great deal of credibility when they ask others to give just one day's wages.

    How much is one day's wages? It turns out to be just about 0.4% of your income. This is certainly an amount which could be given away without a severe hardship on most people, so is something worth considering. And, of course, if you have a more specific charity that you'd like to support than Eugene's, then you can take this philosophy of giving and use it toward the charity of your choice. My guess is that once you start giving, though, you'll find that one day's wages aren't nearly enough, and you'll begin looking for ways to give more.

    29 Gifts
    Gifts of money are nice, but of course they aren't the only way you can give. In fact, on an interpersonal level, I'd argue that they aren't even the best way to give. Enter Cami Walker, the author of the wildly successful giving book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, who began her giving activities while having trouble dealing with the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. The gifts she describes are more spontaneous giving activities, which are not focused on the giving of money. Her first gift was, in fact, a supportive phone call to a fellow MS patient. As she details the story, she had amazing mental and physical benefits from this emphasis on giving, and she's founded a 29-Day Giving Challenge to spread the message that she's learned..

    This confirms my research - both the reading that I've been doing, and my personal experience with my own giving project. Giving really does have profound, scientifically-proven implications that it will improve many aspects of your life.

    Yes, after 40 days I was slightly burned out ... but it wasn't a bad kind of burned out. I imagine that it is sort of how one feels after running a marathon. You're very happy that you've reached the finish line, you probably want to curl up into a nice bed for a few days, but you're immensely satisfied at the sense of accomplishment. That was me.

    Now the fatigue has worn off, and I'm looking for the next marathon, the next way to get the rush that comes from giving to others. I've got some great ideas, and I look forward to sharing them with you.

    What are your ideas? What givers have motivated you? What is your giving story?

    Friday, April 2, 2010

    Radio Interview & Dollhouse Essay Contest Winner

    A couple of things have happened this week which may be of interest to those who have followed the 40 Days of Giving project.

    First, on Monday, I was on the Baltimore radio show Midday with Dan Rodrickswith Baltimore Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen and Joyce Davis, an author focusing on Islamic culture. The three of us were on to give different cultural perspectives on the act of charity, and it was a fascinating discussion. You can listen to the whole interview by following the above link and scrolling down to the Monday, March 29 entry, the 1:00 - 2:00 hour, and clicking on the entry ... or you can just click here.

    Second, my essay "The Redemption of Topher Brink" was a winner in the Smart Pop Books Dollhouse essay contest for essays about the relatively short-lived Joss Whedon television series Dollhouse. This means it will be in the upcoming anthology Inside Joss' Dollhouse. This is especially rewarding because, in a breakdown of the submissions, it was revealed that nearly 20% of the essays were based on the character of Topher Brink, so I knew that editorial concerns would mean that no more than two or three of them (four tops) could be chosen. So it seemed that I was likely in sort of a contest-within-a-contest. Given the clear popularity of the character, I'm looking forward to seeing what fans think of the essay.

    And, finally, I just now got an e-mail announcing that I am officially on the Be the Match registry, so if someone needs my bone marrow, we'll find out about it. Signing up for the registry is completely painless, and any pain from actually donating (if you're ever needed) will be for the specific sake of saving someone's life.

    Monday, March 29, 2010

    First Reflections - By the Numbers

    Over the last 40 days, Amber and I have given all of our actual realized income to others - mostly in the form of donations to worthwhile non-profit organizations, but also in some more personal ways, such as giving out gift cards to a local grocery store, some generous birthday gifts, buying breakfasts for random people at a restaurant, and so on.

    We have kept some money, as I outlined at the beginning. For example, we used the child support we receive from our oldest son's biological father to help with groceries, childcare, and other expenses. We also have a rental house which clears about $50 a month in profit, after the mortgage and other regular expenses are paid, and we put that $50 back for maintenance expenses. And we of course didn't give away money that we didn't get - so my paycheck deductions for taxes, insurance, 401(k) contributions, and so on were all done before the money was given away.

    So we had two net paychecks from my day job and a monthly payment from which we gave away. In addition, shortly into the project, we learned I was getting a bonus, and decided to give that as well ... but, again, taxes, 401(k) contributions, and some other things were taken out of that, and we only gave the remaining balance that made its way to us.

    I say all of this to make it clear that we really focused on giving away the money that came into our lives during these 40 days, in an effort to stay true to the spirit of what we were doing. Even the $100 I received as the first payment on our sold pickup, which was given to me a few days prior to the start date, was mostly given away.

    So now that it was all said and done, I was curious ... how much did it actually cost us financially?

    Fortunately, I keep my financial records in Quicken Home & Business, so it's easy to check. This tracks everything - retirement accounts, business accounts, student loans, car loans, mortgages, checking accounts, savings accounts ... I even track how much I have in PayPal on this thing! So I can pull up a report which tells my net worth at the start of the project and my net worth at the end of the project, and figure out exactly how much my net worth changed over the course of giving all of our money away. (The only thing that isn't taken into account is any depreciation on our home or vehicles, or any other physical assets that we have.)

    The difference in our overall financial picture, after having given away 40 days worth of income, is ....


    That's right. From February 15 to March 29, our net worth dropped by exactly $674.37.

    But over the course of the project, I also taught a writing workshop which I haven't yet been paid for ... so once that's taken into account, the actual cost is less!

    And that's in the immediate aftermath, not even taking into account anything else that may come along as a benefit in the coming weeks!

    How is this possible?

    Well, my first answer is: I'm not really sure.

    I was expecting to be down about $2,000 or so dollars, to be honest, when I ran my original pre-project estimates. That was with us being incredibly frugal ... which we weren't. We normally are fairly frugal (or outright cheap), with a substantial portion of our income going toward debt repayment and savings. Once we unlocked the "emergency fund" and began living off of it, we didn't really exercise a ton of restraint. With the amount of time I was devoting to work and to the project, and Amber being in school full time, and a four month old baby, we spent much of our time fairly exhausted ... so if one of us suggested eating out, the other one typically jumped on the idea.

    Since I knew it wasn't from frugal money management, I looked at the accounts to see where the increases were. They were pretty exclusively in our retirement and investment accounts, which is understandable, since these are the only accounts that can go up without putting money into them.

    There was some inflow into these accounts, of course. The money that came in was from my 401(k) contributions and the company's match, on two paychecks and the bonus I received. In addition, there's a strange event I haven't been able to investigate yet, where more shares were deposited into my retirement account! I believe this is a result of my company's profit sharing plan, but I'm not sure. I'll have to investigate this further.

    Still, these contributions account for a little bit over half of the increase in my retirement and investment accounts. The rest can be attributed to only one thing ... the stock market going up during this time.

    Here's the curious thing about these numbers. Once I figure up the actual amount our net worth is down over these 40 days, and the amount we gave out, I notice an interesting relationship. We lost only about 10% of what we gave.

    For the math challenged, let me provide an example. (These aren't the actual numbers involved, because I don't want you all knowing my exact salary.)

    This would be like giving away $7,400 dollars and then finding that your net worth only dropped by about $700!

    It's truly unexpected, and this almost ten percent ratio is a bit chilling. To quote my friend Annabella, "It went from serendipity to spooky." A unexpected tenfold increase in giving is not something that I expected.

    I need to let it sink in a bit more to really have an opinion on this.

    But your opinions, of course, are more than welcome!

    Sunday, March 28, 2010

    Day 40: The Finale, or the First Day of the Rest of Our Lives

    So today I woke up with a sense of relief that this crazy roller coaster ride which I got us on was finally coming to an end. Don't let this seem as if I'm disappointed in the experiment - far from it, I think this has been one of the best experiences of my life.

    Still, the fact is that by setting a goal to give in this way, I turned it into a bit of a chore. From time to time, I'd reach the end of the day, exhausted, realizing that I hadn't really given anything ... and I can honestly say that, at those moments, I wasn't really a cheerful giver. So, while goals are nice, and it's good to set aside a portion of your income, I don't suggest turning it into a chore in any way.

    But the project was what it was, and today it ends ... and my work of turning it into a book which people will want to buy begins. I'm actually really looking forward to it, and I have a great deal of confidence that the giving experiences I've had in my life and in this forty days will prove compelling enough to get the attention of a publisher.

    So ... on to the day 40 gives:

    First, some catch-up. You may recall that we were buying Joy a membership in the Aspire Indiana Farm, to provide her massive family with fresh vegetables over the summer. I went onto their website and signed Joy up, but did so by entering her contact information, including her e-mail. They sent a confirmation e-mail to her, but I need the invoice number from that e-mail in order to actually pay for it. It's been two weeks, and I'm still waiting on that invoice number. So I wrote a check to Aspire Indiana Farm for the amount of the CSA and am sitting it aside to pay for Joy's invoice once I get the number.

    Similarly, my sister's birthday present (swim lessons for her 16 month old daughter and herself at the YMCA) continues to go unpaid, because she hasn't gone to the YMCA to find out the cost. So I just wrote a $50 check to the YMCA and am mailing it to her, which should be enough to cover the lessons.

    With those expenses caught up, we were able to look at the money left over today and decide what to do. First things first, we stopped by the grocery store on the way to church, which was have a potluck lunch, to pick up our food.

    Then, following lunch, we went out to my mother's house and I unloaded things from the back of her pickup truck. She'd moved up from Vincennes to Anderson (a three hour move) last fall, but hadn't been able to bring some of her outdoor supplies, including some spring flowers and bulbs, and so Amber drove down with her yesterday to collect some of those things. The truck, therefore, needed unloading today ... and I did that in relatively short order.

    After Mom's truck was unloaded, I then proceeded to my dreaded give of the day ... Locks of Love. Yes, you are correct, I came nowhere close to reaching my $10,000 goal for Heifer International in 40 days, and originally I set this as a condition for me to contribute my hair. The problem is that it just didn't work, so I was left with a decision ... either give up or not.

    We decided not. Amber and I remain committed to raising the $10,000, even if we now realize that a 40 day time limit is perhaps a bit limiting (at least in our current situation). And since we will raise the money, I figured I might as well go ahead and donate the hair now and get it over with. So now .... the before photos:
    And the "after" photo (more to come):

    It feels strange to be without the tail, and I'm certainly not too sure how I feel about the new do (although Amber claims she likes it), but ... it was (relatively) painless, and the hair will be used to make a wig for a child with medical hair loss, which is a far better use than being on my sorry old head!

    For that matter, my hair will probably be a bit healthier now and this may prevent the slow thinning that I was beginning to notice. So, once again, this act of giving holds within it a reward, which has been a recurring theme throughout this experiment, and is of course the very concept that inspired me to start it in the first place.

    And having started it, it's now time to finish it ... which means that the last bit of my income has to go away. We gave a $25 tip to the hairdresser who performed the cut above. (The Great Clips hair salon chain, or at least the one we went to, do not charge for Locks of Love donation cuts, so in order to tip the stylist on the debit card we use for our giving fund we had to buy some hair product. It cost under $10, which is less than the haircut itself would have cost.)

    When I got home, I was ready to pay out the last of the money ... and then the phone rang. Our local firemen association was soliciting donations. Yes, they could have some money. (If they'd called 20 minutes later, they'd have been out of luck.)

    The final two donations are in honor of my friend Robert J. Sawyer, the science fiction author who wrote the novel FlashForward, which provides the basis of the ABC television series of the same name. (He's known for many other things, but at the moment that's the biggest one.)

    Early on, I reached out to a handful of friends and asked for some ideas of charities they like to give to, so that I could profile them. Unfortunately, the 40 days slipped by faster than I really anticipated, and I didn't get to focus quite as much on profiles of individual charities as I would have liked ... but still, these two charities are incredibly worthwhile, so I decided to split the remains of our giving money between them: 
    Note: Rob is Canadian, so he donates to the Canadian branch of these charities.

    I recommend Rob's 1997 novel Frameshift, which features a main character who does, in fact, suffer from Huntington's Disease, a horribly debilitating and ultimately fatal neurological disorder, as a enjoyable way to learn further information about the disease. (And yes, I do realize that's a slightly ironic choice of words.)

    To learn more about Diabetes, just follow a modern western diet of fast food and high fructose corn syrup ... you'll get it eventually and learn all about it.

    And with those donations ... the 40 Days of Giving project is officially complete, but the giving does, of course, continue. In the coming days, I'll be posting some immediate reflections on the whole experience but one thing is certain - this experiment is just the beginning. Amber and I are continuing to raise money for Heifer International, and other charities, and we're looking for ways that we can get the proceeds of the book (once it's published) to help promote further giving as well.

    I think some of the results of this project will absolutely fascinate you. Stay tuned!

    Saturday, March 27, 2010

    Day 39: Breakfast of Champions

    This morning, Elijah and I went out for breakfast at a small local diner, Eva's Pancake House. After having breakfast, I walked up to the counter and told the manager of the restaurant that I would like to pick up the tab for everyone in the restaurant. This amounted to me paying for 9 meals (plus our own, but that didn't come out of the giving fund), and on top of that I tipped each of the waitresses $25. (Waitresses who were on multiple tickets did not get tipped multiple times. My hope is that the customers were so thrilled by having their meals paid for that they tipped generously on top of the amount I paid.)

    Let me tell you, though ... if you want to be treated like a king, try a give like this. Early on a Saturday morning at a relatively low-traffic restaurant, it wouldn't even cost that much money ... especially if you cut the tip down to a normal 20% or so. (If I'd done the give about 20 minutes earlier, when we got to the restaurant, I'd only have had about half as many tables to pay for.) People came up to me to shake my hand, talking about how appreciative they were.

    "I was having breakfast with my mother and sister. This just made our day," one woman told me.

    A guy came up and said, "My kids wanted to thank you," and two teenage boys offered their thanks and asked questions.

    One waitress said she had goosebumps over it. "God bless you! And he will!"

    This was a big change over some of the earlier personal giving experiences. It's enough to give you a bit of an ego ... which makes it probably just as well that I saved this one until the end of the experiment. If I'd had an experience like this early on, I might not have given to any charities ... I'd have been out there giving every cent of the giving fund to people on the street.

    The waitresses and some of the customers got my website info, so if any of you stop by, I'd love to hear from you in the Comments section about what you thought or felt about the experience.

    Just one more day to go!

    Share Your Giving Experience

    Have you ever had an experience where giving has seemed to, remarkably, result in a reward?

    How has giving (either as the giver or the receiver) impacted your life?

    On this blog, I've been sharing my own giving experiences and thoughts, but that's just one life ... and one of the things this has helped me learn is that one life is fairly meaningless unless it's connected to other lives. So, in that spirit, I'm asking all readers of this blog to share their own stories of giving by leaving a comment on this blog post. 

    Please, when leaving your story, keep in mind that this is a public site and anyone can view the posts left here, so personal information should be left out of the post. (If you wish to share something very personal, or would like a response from me, contact me at Some of these stories may be included in the book 40 Days of Giving, so by posting you are giving permission for that, but anything that goes in the book will be edited and any personal details will be removed.

    Day 38: Educational Giving

    Education is very important to me, and in fact to my whole family. Both of my parents were teachers. (My father still is.) My grandmother was a teacher.  I've worked in the educational field for over a decade ... five years in the classroom with Project SEED, and now for over five years with an educational publishing company that focuses on educational assessment.

    In my opinion, education is the single most important political issue there is. Every election, my most intense analysis goes to the candidate's stance on education (assuming the position has anything to do with education - for example, I don't really care too much about the county coroner's educational stance).

    Why is this more important than the wealth of other issues? Because, simply put, a good educational system, which teaches young people to think critically (a skill often sadly neglected at home), puts us on a firm foundation for solving all other problems ... including the problems that haven't even come up yet! Raising an ignorant, unthoughtful generation of students just pushes problems off so that the next generation can mess things up worse.

    The Status of National Education
    As I mentioned, my current occupation is in educational assessment. This is at the heart of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. One of the issues, though, is that each state has different standards to be assessed. In addition to creating inconsistencies in American education, this also increases costs, because each state has to create (or pay a company to create) educational and assessment materials.

    Recently, several states (along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have decided to voluntarily join together and work on a set of common standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has just released their draft version of English-Language Arts and Mathematics standards that would apply across most of the country. These are not federally-mandated standards, though ... they're a voluntary set of standards that are being developed to provide a foundation for the instruction in each state  (except for Texas and Alaska, who aren't a part of the process, probably in part be because they feel they already have adequate standards).

    The draft versions are now open to the public for comment, so one of the best things that I can think of to help education nationally is to review the standards and offer my own expertise by commenting on them ... and to urge everyone else out there to do the same. This may well provide the basis for the next wave of educational reforms, so it's important that we see that these common core standards reflect the education we want our children to have.

    Project SEED
    Another way to help is to support programs that promote academic excellence. Project SEED is a great non-profit, and since I worked for them for five years, I fully know that they get great results. SEED has been using Socratic teaching methods to provide instruction in advanced mathematics to elementary and middle school students since the 1960's. This program really enhances the ability of students to think mathematically, and has been shown in a number of research evaluations to have a powerful, prolonged positive impact on student performance. The following video, which shows some student activity, is probably the best way to get an idea of how the program works.

    Unfortunately, I also know enough about how Project SEED works to know that small donations don't really do much toward getting more instruction in the classroom. Even a donation of $500 (a very large donation on my budget) wouldn't do a ton to help actually provide any additional benefits to students (although I'm sure it would be appreciated as a way to defray some of their operational expenses). It takes several thousand dollars to fund a class, which means their funding needs to come in bigger chunks - either from portions of school budgets allocated toward this excellent classroom instruction (and professional development) or possibly grants to cover the costs.

    Having said that, I certainly don't mean this as a discouragement for any educators (or parents and citizens, for that matter) out there who want to seek Project SEED expertise in their own community. These grants do exist, and since Project SEED provides both classroom instruction and professional development, this means that professional development funds can be used to help train the teachers in these instructional methodologies. If you're interested, then I urge you to contact Project SEED to find out more and perhaps get a demonstration at a local school.

    Every Child is Gifted
    Growing up, I was always tagged with the label "gifted." I was in the advanced classes, and excelled at them. I sought out learning experiences for fun. At age 16, I left home to attend the Indiana Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state-run residential high school for the top gifted and talented juniors and seniors in the state.

    I was a geek, in other words, and (eventually) proud of it.

    However, my time in Project SEED convinced me of one simple truth - every child is gifted, and it's only because we draw such distinctions that we become convinced that any child is not gifted. Any child - if given the proper opportunities and encouragement, would find and embrace their gifts ... and even if the child doesn't display gifts in a certain area, if nourished, they will at least develop skills in those areas.

    In other words, I now hold the firm belief that there is no such thing as a child who is inherently bad at mathematics ... or, for that matter, anything else.

    Would every child be gifted in science or mathematics? Would every child want to be? No, of course not. But they would all grow to cultivate the unique gifts that they do have. And it is the cultivation of these gifts that turns them from gifts into brilliance, as beautifully described time and again in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success.

    If the Beatles hadn't practiced for many hours, they may have been gifted musicians, but they wouldn't have been able to revolutionize rock and roll. All great musicians are great because they have devoted themselves to music. No one just lucks into it on the basis of exceptional natural ability alone.

    If Bill Gates hadn't been able to cultivated his computer skills, he may still be a bright guy, but he wouldn't have been able to transform our modern world with technology.

    The fallacy that Gladwell ably debunks is the idea that some people will succeed no matter what environment they're placed in. There is no such thing as a true prodigy, who will thrive even in a situation where their gifts are not nurtured. A gift that is not nurtured will wither ... no matter how great its potential.

    Similarly, a withered ability that is nurtured will begin to flourish. The brain, which contains the skill sets that we develop in life, is amazingly flexible. The plasticity of the brain (as it's called) means that we can always pick up new skills, and research is showing that while it may get more difficult as time goes on, this ability never really stops.

    For example, I'm a horrible musician, but that's in part because it's never been particularly important to me to develop musical skills. Despite some time in middle school band as a percussionist, I never devoted as much time to learning music as, say, reading. But if I decided - even now at age 33, or a decade or two from now - that it was really important for me to play the guitar or piano, or even to sing, I would be able to do learn how to do it. It might be tough, but it's a skill that's reachable. I could even, I'm sure, become competent or even good at it, if I put the proper time into the developing the skill. It would, however, take me years to develop this into an instinctive ability and master the skills.

    Compare this to, say, a Miley Cyrus or a Mozart, whose musical ability has been nurtured since childhood. Both began working in music early so that, by young adulthood, they were each expert professionals in their particular musical crafts. (Gladwell discusses Mozart but, understandably, doesn't draw the parallel between him and Miss Cyrus.)

    While Project SEED utilizes innovative strategies to reach the gifted mathematician within each student, an organization called All Kinds of Minds is dedicated to major school reform, seeking to transform the educational methodologies of American teachers so that they can connect with the many ways different students learn. It is rooted in the principles of Dr. Mark Levine, as outlined in his book A Mind at a Time, which lays out recent research in learning styles. By teaching educators about the profound variability in student learning styles, they hope to create a school system where every student will actually have a chance to thrive. That is certainly a goal worthy of support, which is why they got a check as part of today's give.

    Local Education Support
    In addition to giving to a national educational non-profit, I'm also offering up a donation to the Anderson Education Foundation, which provides grants for classroom instruction opportunities in my local area. There are a lot of these private non-profit foundations created for the purpose of supporting the local public school system ... and as we all know, our school systems need a lot of help.

    If you live in Indiana, you could go to the Indiana Association of Public Education Foundations (IAPEF) to find out whether there's such a foundation in your area.

    Outside of Indiana, you can look into the National School Foundation Association to see if there is a local chapter listed among their affiliates. (Some Indiana public education foundations, such as in my hometown of Vincennes, are listed on the NSFA site but aren't members of IAPEF.)

    These would also be great organizations to approach about the possibility bringing consultants from Project SEED, All Kinds of Minds, or other innovative educational programs into your local communities to help with professional training and development. Where the school system falls short in providing adequate funding, maybe these organizations can help ... if their local communities support them.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    Days 36 & 37: Giving Across America

    A check to the National Audobon Society was the Day 36 give. (What can I say - they sent me a solicitation in the mail! Besides, I like trees.) No muss, no fuss.

    In addition, I went to the bank and picked up four cashier's checks for the Day 37 give.

    Early on in the project, I thought of randomly picking a name from the phone book and sending them money. Then I realized that I didn't want the person showing up at my house, so I struck on the idea of sending it to someone in California. But still, I really didn't think that sending a check, which contained my address, was a good idea. And sending cash wasn't a great option, because I needed to be able to document the giving, in case someone (either a critic or the IRS) someday questions the honesty of my account.

    Giving really shouldn't require this much thought!

    Anyway, I decided that a cashier's check was the best option, since it didn't have my address on it.

    Now it was just a matter of getting the address. I have a friend in California, so decided to send her a message over Facebook and have her select a name and address randomly from her phonebook.

    It seemed appropriate to send the check across the country, and a mental image came into my head of the envelope crossing the country, sort of showering psychic charitable energy all over the place. Crazy, to be sure, but it was a nice image, and it took root.

    Then I began thinking, "Well, why just one, then?" If I could do it from Indiana to California, I could do it some other places, too. I began thinking through my list of friends and found some other ones from around the country who could help me find names.

    I ended up with a set of four names from four "corners" of the country - California, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Florida. Once I had the four cashier's checks from the bank, it was just a matter of writing a letter explaining the situation. Though the checks had no strings attached, I did ask that they get in touch with me to let me know what they felt about getting the check, if they were willing. I provided my name, e-mail, and phone number. (I was hesitant about the phone number, but figured the checks might go to someone who didn't use e-mail, so I should provide an alternate contact.) So they're all ready to go. (They'll actually get mailed out on Day 38.)

    In my mind is an image of positive energy flowing out all over the country, with these four points connected by people sharing this curious experience of receiving money in the mail.

    Is there any reality to this image?

    I guess it depends ... how real is a metaphor?

    As someone who loves science, I believe in the power of metaphor to describe reality. As a human being, I hope that this particular metaphor has at least a little bit of reality to it.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    Day 35: Public Television Give

    Today our give was to our local PBS station, WFYI. We got a solicitation in the mail. It turns out that they lost about 50% of their state funding this year, amounting to a shortfall of nearly $250,000 ... on top of an already tough year economically. We can never really give too much to them because, since we cut out our cable television, it's pretty much the only television that we allow Elijah to watch. He's very engaged with their programming, and remembers a lot. For example, one day he pretended to be a meteorologist (and pronounced the word almost-correctly) because he'd seen it on Sid the Science Kid.

    For reasons beyond this, PBS has a special place in my heart this year, because they've actually helped with one of the big changes which has startled me during this whole process. As I've described earlier, my mother is losing a ton of weight (a figurative ton, that is)... and I attribute it largely to a PBS donation last fall.

    PBS Donation Gives Back
    Last year, when I donated, it was during their regular annual drive and we qualified for some gifts in exchange for the donation. I really wanted the National Parks: America's Best Idea series ... 12 hours of gorgeous footage of our national parks, along with their history. But Amber had other ideas. (It's okay, I eventually recorded the National Parks series on our DVR and got to watch it. Absolutely gorgeous!)

    Amber decided that we should get a set of Wayne Dyer materials, as a Christmas gift for her mother. Her mother, she said, really liked him and it would be a nice gift. So we checked off the box to get the Wayne Dyer book Excuses Begone!: How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, along with the related CD and DVD of his PBS special on the topic.

    Now, honestly, I'd never heard of this guy, but it was clear he was some sort of self-improvement guru, and over the last couple of years I've grown to appreciate that these guys can be helpful, so I wasn't opposed to getting it ... but neither was I particularly enthusiastic about it.

    I grew even less enthusiastic as it neared Christmas and the stuff wasn't showing up. We got two postcards stating that WFYI was back-ordered on their reward materials, and we'd get it when it arrived in stock. So as we neared Christmas, this gift just wasn't ready, so we went ahead and got Amber's mother some other set of gifts, thinking that the Wayne Dyer stuff could be set aside for her birthday.

    The package arrived a couple of weeks after Christmas, when I was in the process of preparing for the 40 Days of Giving project. I sat them out on the table, and quickly found that the CDs had been opened up and placed in the car, where Amber was listening to them as she drove around town. "Mom won't mind," she told me.

    I began to listen, and was fairly impressed. Though Dyer is a spiritual guru, this particular set doesn't require a lot of spiritual commitment - it's just common sense. Basically, he urges people to look at what excuses they use and then consider whether they are really certain that excuse is true. He cites some new research in epigenetics (very cool stuff), which indicates that even our genetic code does very little to lock down the behavior of our biology. Even the most solid excuse - "It's in my genes" - seems to no longer be valid.

    Given that these excuses are never 100% certain, you then have a choice of whether or not to believe them. Some of these very excuses came up when I was in the planning phases of this project, as I began to look at the logistics of actually carrying it out.

    "It'll be too hard." Well, maybe or maybe not. Instead of assuming it will be, why not assume that it won't be, and run with that?

    "I can't afford it." Again - maybe or maybe not. Why not think "There's a way I can afford this" and then begin looking for it.

    As I said, none of this is particularly spiritual ... although the implications of Dyer's epigenetics talk is that you can positively think your body itself into a better situation, potentially curing cancer or losing weight with some positive thinking.

    And that's where my mother comes into the story.

    One day, I'm listening to the disks while I drive my mother to the foot doctor. I had to pressure her to go, despite the fact that she had a gaping, oozing wound on her foot. She'd gotten a large blister on her foot, rubbed them together in her sleep one night, and caused it to split open. Her feet were regularly swollen and red, and I was concerned about circulation problems. She was also diabetic. She needed her foot looked at, so I was dragging her to the foot doctor.

    During the drive, she listened to the CD, just as it was talking about a study where the placebo effect was shown to work even in place of surgery. A group of people with arthritis in their knees were split into three groups. Two groups received surgery to alleviate the problem, but the third group received only incisions, but no actual surgery. Then all three groups, thinking they'd had the surgery, went through physical therapy. The group that thought they had surgery, but didn't, recovered at exactly the same rate as the ones who had actually had the knee surgery! The pain was relieved, the movement increased, at exactly the same rate. The surgery itself, and the skill of the surgeon, appeared to have no actual impact on the patients' outcomes.

    Upon questioning, I told my mother that this was some guy from PBS, Wayne Dyer. Then I took her to the foot doctor.

    Amber and I continue listening to the Excuses Begone! disk, and are fairly impressed. Amber has already decided that her mother wouldn't really like it, because he's kind of "New Age-y" for her. For example, at one point Dyer says, "You are god," as a means of demonstrating how much power you have to influence your own life. Well, for a fundamentalist Christian, that just doesn't fly, so we decided to keep the Wayne Dyer stuff ... and I became quite a fan.

    At one point I said to Amber, "My mother should really listen to this."

    Well, it turned out she didn't have to. The Wayne Dyer Excuses Begone! special was on PBS, and Mom happened to catch it while flipping through channels. Realizing that it was the show I'd mentioned, she watched it.

    What happened next was nothing short of astounding.

    Since String Theory for Dummies had come out, I'd occasionally made reference to the fact that I looked forward to the day when I could write full time. Each and every single time this topic came up, my mother immediately pointed out that I'd be foolish to give up a job with such good benefits and pay. (I was making nearly as much after 5 years with the company as she'd made teaching school for 25 years! This isn't a sign of my immense wealth ... it's a sign of how badly teachers are paid.)

    Then, just a few days into the 40 Days of Giving project, I went over to her house. She said, "I saw that Wayne Dyer show, and I wanted to tell you something." She looked me in the eye. "If you ever decide that you want to quit your job to write full time, you won't hear a word of complaint from me."

    I was absolutely stunned at this total reversal. For my entire life, Mom had emphasized the importance of having a secure job with benefits. This was the woman who had told me, as a young child, that if I wanted to be a writer, I'd better have a job that could pay the bills.

    Something about that PBS self-help show had clicked the tumblers into place for her. And that was just the beginning. I came by her house a week later and noticed some new exercise and diet materials. Within a few days, the change was noticeable: Mom was losing weight.

    My mother had, for well over a decade, weighed well over 300 pounds. At her heaviest, she reached 370 pounds. She'd moved up to be near us in the fall and had put some weight on since then. Now it was coming off ... and coming off quickly. When she went to the doctor about two weeks into the 40 Days of Giving project ... and she was twenty pounds lighter than when she'd moved. We estimate that, in just two weeks on her diet, she'd lost nearly 30 pounds.

    And she has, since then, continued to lose weight ... although it has, thankfully, leveled off. (We don't want the poor woman to waste away.)

    Just today, in fact, she reclaimed some property from me because of how much she'd lost. When we'd gone to Florida this summer, she'd bought me a "Grumpy Gator" t-shirt. She'd wanted one, but the largest size they had was XL, which she hadn't fit into. She bought it for me with the understanding that when she lost the weight to fit into it, she could have it back. Neither of us honestly expected that I'd have to fork it over.

    I've never been happier to give up anything in my life.

    And this all started with a show on PBS that convinced her she didn't have to just accept the excuses she'd been using for so many years ... so giving some money to them is, I figure, well worth it.