Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 11: Birthday Dinner & Time

Today was a pretty straightforward day of giving. First, Amber and I went through her mother's neighborhood looking for more people who would be willing to help out with the formation of a community garden. (Really, one of these days Amber will post explaining this in greater detail. I promise.) We had some nice responses, including one fine gentleman who's friends with the mayor and said he might be able to help us at least get a funding request through to him, though he obviously can't guarantee us actually getting any funding.

Then this evening, a friend had a birthday dinner at a fairly pricey sushi bar/buffet. She did not, however, want any gifts, although she did say that she'd accept cash gifts which she'd donate to charity. Everyone thought she was kidding, implying that she herself was the charity, but in fact she is collecting for our very oven Heifer International team goal.

Anyway, Amber and I attended the dinner. We picked up the tab for our friend and her daughter and mother, along with a generous tip.

Tomorrow I will not be blogging on here, because Elijah informed me today that I work every day. While this is true, it's also true that I play every day, so I don't see this as a problem. Still, I have decided that I'll not worry about blogging tomorrow, so that I can give my full attention to my family. That's a worthwhile bit of giving on Day 12, I think.

Day 10 (Belated): On Tithing

Yesterday, my "day job" paycheck came in, and we now have some money in our giving fund for this project ... but first, some housekeeping issues. We have an auto-deduction of 10% of my paycheck to various charities, which is matched by my company (a very nice perk), before I ever see it. Also, since January, we have been tithing another 10% of all our income to our local church. We did this religious tithing on a trial basis, from January through March, to see how we felt about it and include our experience as part of the 40 Days of Giving project.

Our giving started back when Amber first mentioned the idea of tithing. If you're like me, you either don't know what it is, or only have a vague sense. I remember learning about it in high school history class, where it was presented as a sort of tax imposed by the Catholic Church during the middle ages. To be honest, while I knew it was based in the Bible, it didn't occur to me for many years that this was a doctrine still being practiced by Protestant churches today. Though I'd put some money into offering plates when they were passed over my life, it never occurred to me that this was equated to the tithing I'd learned about in school.

In 2008, Amber and I started giving 10% of our gross income to charities (predominantly non-religious ones) that we found worthwhile, and noticed that not only did it not hurt our finances, but it actually seemed as if our finances were running more smoothly than ever. (More on the details of this in my hypothesis post.)

While our local church has discussed giving quite a bit, they don't address the specific issue of tithing all that much. In fact, one thing that I really like about the church, is that they specifically say when speaking about giving that the people listening don't have to give to them, but they want them to give somewhere. Last December, the church implemented a series of sermons based on the book The Blessed Life by Robert Morris, which brought tithing, as opposed to just giving, front and center.

Essentially, Morris puts forth a fairly strict view of tithing. In his interpretation, the Bible calls for 10% of your income to be given to the local church. And, most importantly, this has to be the first amount given on any income, or else it doesn't count as a valid tithe.

His basis for this stance is actually fairly logical, if you assume the Bible as the literally true word of God, and I'll try to do it justice in the brief discussion below, then offer my criticisms (of his interpretation, not of the Bible itself). He also recounts many personal anecdotes on giving which support his interpretations, which I will not address here.

Why the First of the First?
One of Morris' big points is that the money you give needs to be the first check you write, before you put other things first. If you write your mortgage check before your tithe check, you're actually putting the mortgage company (or the house) before God. Here's the Biblical argument:

In Exodus 13 (seemingly moments after Israel is freed from Egypt), God goes at length to talk about how the firstfruits of all crops and firstborn of all animals, including people, belong to him. If you do not offer these firstfruits back to God, in the way he outlines, then you are stealing from God.

This passage details two ways you can deal with the first products of abundance: sacrifice it or redeem it.

Redeem it, in this sense, means that the firstborn is an unclean animal, and you should sacrificing a clean animal in its place. So, regardless of what happens, a sacrifice is needed for every firstborn, which belongs to God, or else you're stealing from God ... which means that you are living under a curse.

And while this is laid out in Exodus, Morris supports it with evidence from even earlier. For example, God was able to kill all the firstborn in Egypt because he had a "legal" claim on them, but the Israelites got out of it by sacrificing a lamb in their place (redeeming the firstborn). Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, but is allowed to avoid this at the last minute, though a redemptive sacrifice in Isaac's place was still called for.

(The astute reader and biblical scholar may realize an issue with the Abraham situation described above, in that Isaac is not actually Abraham's firstborn son. That was Ishmael. However, Isaac was the firstborn of Sarah. Exodus 13 describes firstborn as the first to "open the womb," so I guess Isaac still qualifies under that interpretation. In fact, I suppose that God could legally lay claim to both Isaac and Ishmael under this rule.)

The story of Cain and Abel, from Genesis 4, appears to be about this principle as well. Abel is specifically cited as giving the "firstborn of his flock" in an offering, and God accepts them. Cain, on the other hand, provides his offering "in the process of time," and God didn't accept it. In other words, since Cain's offering wasn't the first of his firstfruits, God was unable to accept it. Cain murders Abel in revenge, so the first murder comes about because of a tithing issue.

And this lack of acceptance doesn't appear to be just egotism on God's part. Since God is perfect, anything which does not recognize him first cannot help but fall under a curse.

Still, the idea that God cannot help but be perfect runs into some logical problems, the most famous of which is whether an omnipotent God can create a rock that he himself cannot move. If he can create the rock, then he cannot move it, and is therefore not omnipotent. If he can move any rock, he cannot create such a rock, and therefore is not omnipotent. Either way, there are fundamental limitations on God's power. 

Though Morris doesn't go this way in his discussion, it appears that he accepts the idea of limitations on God's behavior. Morris seems to be saying that God literally had no choice about accepting Abel's offering and rejecting Cain's. Even if God had wanted to accept Cain's offering, He cannot accept an offering that is not the first of the first. It's literally impossible for Him to accept second best as an offering.

In other words, to use an example that Morris makes in his video sermon series, if God were playing golf He would get a hole-in-one every single time. And, it seems (though, again, Morris didn't point this out), He would be unable to miss a shot even if He tried.

This appears to be a theologically complex point, and one that I've heard referenced before. It reminds me a bit of the Kevin Smith film Dogma, the plot of which centers on the idea that proving God wrong - even about a minor, insignificant thing - would result in the collapse of all existence, because existence itself is held together by the divine thread of God's infallible will.

And, in fact, the tithing story that Morris lays out goes back to the very creation of the universe, too. The Genesis Creation story itself (or rather "the Fall of Man" portion of it), in Morris' view, is about tithing and respecting the things that belong to God. God declares the Tree of Knowledge off limits. It belongs to him. Stay away from it. If you take anything from it, you are stealing from God and therefore will be cursed.

In this view, the entire the history of humanity is therefore about the cursed consequences of stealing from God ... but you can alleviate the curse by offering a tithe, and turning the curse into a blessing.

Why 10 Percent?
The 10% figure comes in part from the word itself - tithe means "one-tenth." There are various references throughout the Bible, but probably one of the most relevant is Genesis 28:22, where Jacob (also known as Israel) says, "of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you."

Why Brought to Local Church?

In Exodus, God gives the rule to the people of Israel that "The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God" (Exodus 23:19). This and many other places in the Old Testament that discuss tithing make it clear that the tither should bring it to the "house of the Lord." Not television ministries, or distant Christian (or, heaven forbid, secular charities!), or anywhere else - the actual house of worship that you frequent, and you shouldn't really designate it for anything. It is, after all, God's money, not your money.

The church itself, of course, is free to designate it however they want, presumably guided by whatever religious principles upon which the church is founded. If you're going to a church, you have likely assumed that the church's leadership has some idea of what they're doing, so they can be trusted with the allocation of these funds. If not, then you should really choose a different church. Our local church funds a lot of community programs and international aid work, including ministries which help out in developing countries, so it's not just all going to pay the pastor's salary.

More Good Stuff
Morris goes on to discuss the idea of "mammon," which is a spirit of greed, and how it is diametrically opposed to love of God. You can't be greedy and spiritually righteous, and I certainly agree with this.

He also outlines a "principle of multiplication" which expands on his idea of being blessed. The blessing is obtained by the tithe, but when you give over and above the tithe amount, God will multiply what you give many-fold. The key example of this is the 12 loaves of bread that Jesus uses to feed 5,000 people in Luke 9. Jesus blesses the bread, but it multiplies only when the disciples give it away. (It's a cool analogy, but I have to admit I found the expansion of this into a general religious principle to be a bit of a stretch.)

My Criticisms
Even if you assume that the Bible is literally true, I have some problem with Morris' interpretation in one respect - the bit about the tithe only being valid if it goes to the local church. I disagree with this not only on grounds of personal belief, but also on theological grounds.

Morris is right that there are numerous references to bringing the tithe to the temple, but most of these are found throughout the Old Testament. And in the Old Testament, the temple wasn't just a church where people held meetings, it was literally the location where the ancient Hebrew people believed that God was physically manifested on Earth. He was in the back, behind the curtain, in the Holy of Holies. So you weren't just taking the money to a building and handing it over to some intermediaries, you were literally taking the money (or firstfruits or firstborn) to God Himself.

Under the New Testament, however, the rules are changed around. When Jesus died, the curtain was ripped asunder in the temple, symbolizing that God was no longer contained within the back of the temple, but was out in the world. In fact, Jesus says (Matthew 25:31-46), "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.... Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" and "the kingdom of god is within you" (Luke 17:21).

In other words, theologically, the New Testament untethers "God" from the temple itself and places him squarely inside of each and every person, especially those in need. So if you give your 10% to those in need, you are tithing under New Testament theology. You are giving God's portion of your money back to God's people, the needy. It does not matter in the least if the money goes through a church. 

Throughout The Blessed Life, I was continually thrown off by the author's repeated insistence that the money should only go to Christian organizations. It just seems like that was his own prejudice, in the midst of a discussion which, otherwise, I found quite compelling and internally consistent.

Of course, if you go to a church and find that it's servicing the spiritual needs of you, your family, and your community, you should certainly help to support it. But for those who don't, there are still many ways to give, and you shouldn't feel compelled to give to a church just because you think you'll be cursed by God if you don't.

All that having been said, though, I still enjoyed the book, and I think that everyone who claims to be a Christian should read it. If you believe the Bible is literally true, as many Americans do, then it presents powerful teachings that will make you question whether you're doing enough.

The book is extremely well thought out and written, and I do believe that he makes a very strong case that the Bible tells us that, at minimum, 10% of our income should be given away. Whether or not you're "cursed" if you don't do this, I'm not sure, but part of the point of this experiment is to find out if you're "blessed" when you do it. We've been donating it Morris' way - 10% to our local charity, right off the top - since January, and have not noticed any substantial change over the abundance flowing into our life over when we were giving 10% just to secular charities for the past year and a half. (There is, of course, the very odd incident of selling the pick-up truck just as I wrote the first tithe check, so I'm not ruling it out completely yet.)

My company has a really good charitable matching program. Back in October, we decided that instead of giving a single payment to be matched, we'd sign up for their auto-deduction program. Ten percent of my gross salary from work is auto-deducted before I ever get the paycheck, and is split up among various charities. It gets paid out at the end of the year, along with the matching funds from the company. Here's how we decided to break down the donations this year:

This was before we decided to also tithe to the church, or decided to do the 40 Days of Giving project. If I'd known back in October that we'd have made either of those decisions, I can honestly say that I probably wouldn't have wanted to give a full 10% into the matching program, which commits us for the entire year.

Giving 20% (church tithe plus matching program) through January and February was manageable, but just barely so. It pretty much ate up any financial margin we had, though we didn't have to actually do without anything ... we just couldn't really splurge too much.

As you may be able to tell from this post, I'm personally feeling like our secular donations are doing more good than our religious donations, and that may be a bit unfair. Our church was able to send someone to help in Haiti, for example, and that was certainly worthwhile. They help fund worthwhile works in the community. But compared to healing a kid with a cleft palate or offering a starving family a means to provide meals for their family, it just seems kind of paltry by comparison.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Annabella's Story

A friend (let's call her Annabella) related the following true story to me, which happened to her in the weeks leading up to the project:

Annabella's boss was taking part in a fundraising activity where he was "arrested" and had to be bailed out, with the money going to a muscular dystrophy children's charity. On that cold Tuesday morning off he went to the restaurant that served as a "jail."  The company would match the funds raised by employees.

When Annabella was asked to donate, she pulled out her checkbook. She wrote a check for $50. She was generous in donating things (to Salvation Army and similar organizations), but rarely did she designate actual money toward charity. As she wrote the check, she thought about other expenses she had. Her garage door had broken just the day before, and that morning she'd gotten a quote of over $700 to fix it. Living through a harsh Detroit winter, this was not an optional expense; she needed to be able to park in the garage. She also needed dental work, a new crown, that was going to cost her about $550. Still, she knew that she had a tax rebate coming which could help her with those expenses, so she could afford to give the $50 ... but she was in a position where giving away $50 stung a little bit. She donated the money and went on with her business.

Later in the day, she called her condo association to get some information about the specifications for her garage door repair. She didn't want to get the wrong color or style, accidentally violating the condo regulations. Also, she thought, maybe the condo association had a deal with a specific repairman who could replace the garage door at a lower rate than the one that she had been quoted.

The woman she spoke to at the condo association told her that they'd look into it and get back to her later. Two hours later, Annabella got a call back.

The condo association had decided to take care of the full cost of repairing or replacing the door.

Although it could be argued that the the problem arose from the original installation, Annabella has lived in the condo for about 6 years and the original builder has long since gone bankrupt.  The woman from the condo association offered no reason why the condo association had made such a strange decision, nor was Annabella going to tempt fate by asking questions. She hung up the phone, somewhat in shock, because only hours after donating $50, which she almost didn't give because of the garage door, she had received the alleviation of a $700 expense.

This happened on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, the association's contractor came out to evaluate the repair needed, and agreed that a whole new door was required.  However, her garage door was very drafty, which made it uncomfortable in those Detroit winter mornings when she went out to start the car. Since she had gotten the new door for free, she asked how much extra it would cost to get an insulated garage door. The cost was $180, so she agreed to it. She was still over $500 ahead, and she would end up with a better situation than she had before. Instead of a flimsy metal door, she had a solid steel garage door with insulation, which no longer showed the light from outside and let the air flow in.

Then she went to her dental appointment.  As the dentist did the preliminary work and installed the temporary crown, Annabella listened to him talk, and it was clear from what he was saying that it took more work than he had anticipated. When it was all over, he took off his mask and said, "I'm not charging you for the post & core (the preliminary work).  The fee for those is $250.  I'm not charging you for that."

This time, however, there was a reason. The crown appointment had originally been set up for September, and had been pushed back five times until the end of January. One of these cancellations had been because the dentist's wife went into labor with what turned out to be a lovely daughter.  Through all of this, Annabella had been very understanding about the delays. (She was actually somewhat thankful when these delays happened, since she literally looked forward to it about as much as a root canal!)  The dentist just decided that since it had taken so long, and she'd been so nice, he'd cover the expense.

On Friday morning the garage contractor arrived.  As he began, his supervisor called Annabella to offer her an extra add-on to the installation.  It was a small detector, which had a red and green light. When the garage door was closed, the light was green; when open, the light was red. This meant that when she was upstairs in her second-story condo, she would know for sure if the door was open or closed without having to descend her narrow stairway into the garage itself to perform a visual inspection. The cost for this add-on was $45.

Annabella declined, because she really didn't need the extra expense.  Still, though, she has a roommate, which means she sometimes might genuinely not know for sure if the garage door was left open. And she is the sort of person who occasionally gets anxiety about such things.  Annabella, a smoker, regularly goes through her apartment checking ashtrays to make sure there are no smoldering flames before leaving the apartment. So a mounted indicator that can verify that the garage door is indeed closed would have been a big help. But it wasn't essential, so she decided to avoid the expense.

When the installation was done, however, she noticed a small red/green indicator light mounted in her condo. She told the repairman that she hadn't wanted the indicator included. He said that he knew, but when he called it in to his boss, the boss had said to go ahead and install it anyway, at no cost. Again, there was no real explanation for this.

So Annabella had gotten her garage door substantially upgraded, and instead of nearly $1,000 it would have cost to install all of this, it cost her only $180. A savings of  $800!

In Annabella's words, "It just went from serendipity to spooky." Within 48 hours of donating $50 to charity, she went from having to shell out over $1,250 ($700 + $550) in garage and dental expenses to paying only about $500, but with an extra $225 value over the garage door she would have ended up with!

Now, if there were actually a causative link between the donation and the savings - if this is somehow the "karmic bank" kicking in - then Annabella saw an astounding return on her "investment." A $50 donation resulted in $700 worth of savings. So $700 divided by $50 results in a 14-fold increase (an 18-fold increase if you count the extra value from the insulated door and the indicator).

This is a better return than anyone on Wall Street can bank on, including Warren Buffett, one of the greatest minds in modern finance. Of course, now that I think about it, Buffett has donated 85% of his wealth to those in need. Maybe he knows something that we don't.

Maybe he is banking on precisely the same sort of return that Annabella saw.

The Generosity Factor

I love audiobooks, because I commute for about 2.5 hours a day and sit in front of a computer the remainder of the day, so they're a good background noise, and I can learn stuff. Big fan of the audiobooks.

Yesterday I listened to The Generosity Factor by Ken Blanchard & S. Truett Cathy (founder of Chik-fil-a), which detailed the role that generosity could play in leading a life of significance. While the narrative is a bit campy, as these sort of self-help books usually are when they try to go fictional (the primary goal isn't a good story, after all, but is instead to beat you over the head with their message), the book has some great insights. It is religious themed, but the main character balks at that somewhat and is still able to understand the importance of generosity, so the book's really aimed at everyone to some degree. It's a quick book - the audiobook took up just two disks - so anyone can fit this into their schedule.

So, the actual details of the book.

Ways to Give:
According to the book, there are four things that a person can give: Time, Treasure, Talent, and Touch.

While Time, Treasure, and Talent are fairly self-explanatory, let me take a moment to discuss Touch, which is the idea of literally a hands-on connection with those who are close to you. They don't get into this idea in much detail in the book, but one of the major characters wrestles with his "adopted grandkids" and this is the idea of touch. Hugs and that sort of thing, to the people you care about, as a means of showing that you care. It is true that people need touch with others to feel connected, and I know a lot of people who just don't touch people.

So touch people, already!

(With their permission, of course.)

(And not in pervy ways.)

(Or, at least, not in pervy ways without their permission ... but then you're going from generosity to a whole other emotional state. I need to get back on topic.)

Of the other possible ways to give, Time and Talent often seem linked to me (such as tutoring poor kids or adults), although I suppose there are many ways of giving Time which require no particular Talent (answering phones at a telethon). Answering questions on is a nice way to give time, because it helps enhance your talent!

Comparisons and Contrasts
Ken Blanchard is a writer who specializes in books on business management, so the majority of his market are people who want to become successful in business. In fact, in a note at the end of the book, Blanchard points out that part of the reason it took him so long to write a book on generosity is that he had trouble figuring out how to translate the concept in a way that would seem relevant the modern day businessman.

He achieves this mainly through two distinct contrasts that he sets up in the book:

The first is: successful life vs. significant life

The second is: driven people vs. called people

So, for example, if you are driven and successful, the question that you should ask (according to Blanchard) is whether you are also called and significant. Are you truly doing the most significant work that you can, and the work that's in line with your fundamental nature? Are you just consumed with acquiring "things" or with building meaningful relationships?

While Blanchard means "called" in a religious sense, I would argue that a religious viewpoint isn't necessary to believe this way ... anyone can be called to serve their fellow men (and women), even if you believe that the calling comes from within instead of without. Also, being "called" instead of "driven" means that the work involved is more enjoyable. If you are driven to do something, it implies that you don't really have control. If you truly love doing it, then you don't have to be driven ... you just do it whenever you can. That is a calling.

No matter how we were designed (either intelligently or natural selection, or some combination of the two), we appear to be constructed in such a way that we want to reach out to others and have significant lives, so even without an active belief in God, it's natural that many people want the richer significant lives over just material success.

The Guidelines
Finally, Blanchard and Cathy offer up the following guidelines for how to live by "the generosity factor."
  • He owns it all.
  • Every day is an opportunity.
  • Action is required.
  • Remember your blessings.
  • Thank Him.
If you're paying attention, you may have noticed the secret message inside the above guidelines. (If not, then look at the first letter of each line.) Again, even without a religious viewpoint, these seem like useful guidelines to follow. Let's consider them one by one.

He owns it all
Even if you don't believe "He" exists, the fact is that everything you have is on loan from the abundance that exists within universe itself. It's in your hands for a while, but eventually you'll have to pass it along to someone else. Keeping this in mind helps keep a lot of things in perspective, I've found.

Every day is an opportunity
This is part of what this whole experiment is about - specifically trying to look for the opportunities to give in our daily lives. And, really, it is true that every day is an opportunity to make a new connection with someone else, to form a new relationship, and to move a little closer to the sort of person you want to be. Don't beat yourself up if yesterday didn't go so well, just take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves today. If you want to be a more generous person, then every day is indeed an opportunity to do that.

Action is required
This is where a lot of people trip up, because they have great ideals but then don't act on them. (I have this problem with exercise and eating right.) You have to really make the choice to act when the opportunity presents itself. Again, this is at the heart of this experiment.

Remember your blessings
Remember how I mentioned that everything you have will have to be passed on to someone else, and so in a sense is just on loan to you? Well, before it came to you, it had to come through someone else. So now it's in your hands, and it's important to remember that didn't have to be the case. And blessings are not, of course, just material things, but even more important are the blessings of relationships with others and caring for them.

The fact that my wife exists, and is such a wonderful woman and partner, are things that I had absolutely no control over. They are truly blessings, because I had no part in forging these factors. The fact that I had good parents, who helped form me into the person that I am (who didn't screw up the relationship before it started, for example), is also something that was beyond my control.

My first book, String Theory for Dummies, though I worked hard to write it, is also the result of many factors over which I had no control. Consider the many factors that went into just getting the offer in the first place (not to mention the writing of the book itself):

An agent contacted me, which only happened because a publisher was looking for a good science writer and I had shown that I was a good one on The publisher was looking for a good science writer because it was in business, successfully publishing books, and there was a market for science books. I only had the job at Physics because someone (I don't even remember who) had happened to mention in an e-mail that they were looking for writers, I had a physics degree, and I had a good non-fiction writing sample available to send them with my application. I only had the good writing sample because I'd volunteered to write for in an effort to get some exposure and practice writing. I had the physics degree largely because of a lot of support from parents and teachers over the years.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not belittling an ounce of the work I put into the book, my work at, my writing in general, or the work I put into getting my degree. But as the paragraph above demonstrates, there were many aspects of getting the offer on my first book which were entirely outside of my control.

Thank Him
Again, while the "Him" might not sit well with some people, the idea of being thankful hopefully sits well with everyone. There is actually ample evidence that being thankful is a good thing, independent of any religious perspective, and in fact I'll be covering this idea in the weeks to come in greater detail. Every culture and faith seems to manifest some sort of thanksgiving, so just from an evolutionary psychological standpoint it would appear to have some sort of tangible benefits. So, even if you're just talking to yourself, it's definitely good to be thankful for the things that you have in your life, because you certainly didn't do all of the work involved in bringing it into your life.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day 9: Many Efforts, Few Results

Well, I don't know if any of my efforts today amounted to much, but I had some interesting experiences. This was one of the days when I had to actually drive into work, rather than work from home, and I kept a vigilant watch for people in need. In fact, I found a couple, but they ended up already having things well in hand.

Roadside Assistance
I stopped twice by the side of the road to help people who were off on the shoulder. Once on the way into work in the morning, once on the way out in the afternoon. (Different cars, of course.) I saw a couple of other people who appeared to be having car trouble, but I was in the wrong lane, and couldn't get over in time to stop before being well past them. It's 40 Days of Giving, after all, not 40 Days of Reckless Driving.

Unfortunately, neither effort turned into an actual opportunity to help. The first woman said that her sister was on the way, but she thanked me very much for stopping. The woman in the afternoon car had also already called for help and was waiting on a gas tank.

Cellphones really cut out the opportunity for good Samaritan activities.

Other Activities
I signed up for the One Campaign, so I'll begin getting news from Bono's charity to help alleviate international famine, disease, and poverty.

In addition, I earned 5,000 grains of rice. I also dug around a bit more on the website, and discovered some disturbing statistics - the United States only gives 18 cents of every 100 dollars in international aid, tying for last place with Japan. This is only 0.18%! Appalling!

(In fairness, I'm not sure what is counted in this statistic. Does this include money given by religious organizations toward international missionary work and funding churches in these regions, which support their local communities? However, even the best estimate I've heard of religious giving places it at about 1.8%, and certainly the majority of that stays in the United States.)

According to the One Campaign website, Obama's recent budget is making some good steps in the right direction, but still has a way to go. So I went and printed out this letter, which I'll send to the White House. If you believe we should be doing more, you should look into this as well.

Finally, I offered up some help to local city officials who are trying to get a major infrastructure investment in my hometown to improve the internet connectivity through the new Google Fiber plan. I may have to try to look into some innovative ways to get the word out on this, as it would be a major boon to our community ... which needs it, after all of the industry we've had abandon the town in recent years.

Tomorrow, the giving fund coffers fill up, and then things should get really interesting.

Great Minds Think Alike

Early on in my preparation for this project, I became aware of Cami Walker's book 29 Gifts, which chronicles her own giving experience. I got the book from the library, adding it to my own pile of books. Though our giving experiences were fundamentally different, I was intrigued that someone else had chosen to write a book on the subject. (Her giving experience is motivated out of a deeply personal place, whereas mine is more intellectual curiosity.)

Then yesterday, I get an e-mail from Brigid Slipka, who is running a blog on her website,, which details her own 40 Days of Giving project. And, graciously, rather than issuing a cease and desist letter for our communal act of genius, she has donated to the 40 Days of Giving team over at Heifer International ... one step closer to that haircut! (And rest assured, Brigid, that if I ever get on Oprah, I will put forward the suggestion that you also be invited.)

Brigid's blog is quite entertaining, and has a lot of great links, so I highly recommend that all of you actually interested in this check out what's going on at her site as well. She actually works in the fundraising industry, so she's got her finger a bit more on the pulse with these sorts of things than I have.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Speaking of Giving: Ride the Electric Wind

Last night, I received first place in the first round of the Toastmasters International Speech contest, held in our Chief Anderson Toastmasters chapter. (Only three of us presented speeches for the contest, so this isn't as big an honor as it sounds ... but it still gives me a shot to go on to higher levels, so we'll see!) This being my first Toastmasters contest, I'm still waiting for details about how things proceed from here.

Since I am in the midst of an experiment where I am embracing giving throughout my life, my speech was also on the subject of giving. Here is the speech I gave (with heavy editing, since I write far better than I talk):

Ride the Electric Wind
A few years back, in the African nation of Malawi, there was a famine. The Kamkwamba family, in the village of Wimbe, were down to eating one meal a day, of an un-riped corn turned into a sort of porridge. The father was drying their last tobacco harvest, so he was able to get some loans against it ... but the loans soon outstripped the amount that would actually be made from the sale of the tobacco.

In the midst of all of this, the family didn't have the money to pay the fees for their son, William Kamkwamba, to attend the local primary school. He still tried to go to school, avoiding the authorities that would notice him. Finally, though, he was caught and told to leave. But he didn't give up on learning, and spent time at the local library. He especially enjoyed reading about science topics.

Keep in mind, English was not William's primary language, but the books were in English. So to research the science topics, he had to teach himself English. And what he couldn't learn, he had to get other people to translate.

One of the things that he learned about were windmills. He was fascinated by the idea of building one, to bring this "electric wind" (as he called it) to his poor community. The focus of his research became building one of these machines. Using materials salvaged from his local trash dump, he pieced together the turbines that would turn the motion into electricity and the windmill itself and the circuit breaker [to keep his house from burning down - see the Daily Show video below]. He was mocked by his community and family, most all of which (except for his father) thought him insane.

But William Kamkwamba, at age 14, was successful. He built a working windmill for his house.

This is the point where things get ... well, not interesting, because it's already interesting ... but they get worldly, I guess you could say. Because William's windmill came to the attention of newspapers and blogs, and finally to the attention of the people who organized the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conferences, who asked William to attend.

At the TED conference, 19 year old William was brought on stage where he, in halted English, explained what had happened: "After I drop out from school, I went to library and I read a book titled Using Energy and I get information about windmill and I try and I made it." [See the video below!]  

William met wealthy patrons from around the world. Now he had funding! He built a new, improved windmill, and now women from his village can access the electric irrigation system, which brings water directly into the village ... rather than hiking for miles to bring water every day for their family. He received the funds to attend a prominent school, where he will learn the skills he needs to be successful in life and to transform his community in ways that even he can't yet imagine. Just last December, he announced that he was leading a project to rebuild his primary school. (The old building was built in 1950 to educate 450 students, but now has 1,480 students!)

This would be impressive enough, of course, but I want to focus on another aspect of this story, which wasn't included in his book - The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - or in any of the other major commentary on the matter that I've read. I only found out about this other aspect because I work for a company which makes textbooks ...  in fact, for the very company that published the textbook, Using Energy, from which William learned to build his windmill. The company offered this textbook, as they offer many textbooks every year, through a program where they donate textbooks to libraries in developing countries throughout the world.

So this whole inspiring story, really, begins with someone, over a decade ago, in a boardroom, or an office, or a cubicle, deciding that it would be worthwhile to give away textbooks to libraries in the developing world. And then that person had to, no doubt, push for their idea and get it implemented as a practice by a major corporation ... to give away the very product they sold to make their profits.

The gift of a textbook changed the lives of thousands of people in a village in Malawi. A good call, in my opinion.

When we give, we don't always know what the full impact will be. But we give precisely in the hope that if we give, there will be a worthwhile impact. And the more we give, the more we reach out to expand knowledge, and learning, and opportunity, and hope, the greater the impact that we can expect to have in the world.
Other information:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
William Kamkwamba
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorThe Olympics

Day 8: Playing for Food

Today, after work, I set to work at, a website where you can play knowledge-based games and earn money for the United Nations World Food Programme.

I've been to Free Rice many times in the past. The way the site works (or so I thought) was that you played a vocabulary game where you chose the meaning of words and, the longer you play, the more rice gets donated to prevent hunger around the world. Each question answered correctly gains 10 grains of rice. The words get progressively harder, and I usually end up fluctuating between levels 40 and 45 out of 60, and find it a fairly entertaining way to pass the time. (The rice is paid for by the banner advertisements on the page as you're playing the game.)

Since I knew I would blog about it, I was paying a bit more attention to the links on the site and I noticed one I hadn't seen before: Change Subjects. By clicking on it, I discovered that "English Vocabulary" was only one of the many subjects that they offered you to play for rice. The full list of subjects is:
  • Art - Famous Paintings
  • Chemistry - Chemical Symbols (Basic)
  • Chemistry - Chemical Symbols (Full List)
  • English - English Grammar
  • English - English Vocabulary
  • Geography - Identify Countries on the Map
  • Geography - World Capitals
  • Language Learning - French
  • Language Learning - German
  • Language Learning - Italian
  • Language Learning - Spanish
  • Math - Basic Math (Pre-Algebra)
  • Math - Multiplication Table
I played the English Vocabulary, English Grammar (reached level 5 of 5), Identify Countries on the Map (level 4 of 5), Basic Math (level 10 of 10), World Capital (level 4 of 5), and French (level 9 of 10 - who'd have guessed the foreign language classes stuck that well?).

According to the Free Rice website FAQ, in countries where rice is a staple, they provide about 400 grams of rice per person per day. About 48 grains of rice is a gram. So this means that 19,200 grains of rice will feed a starving person for a day.

Today, with only about an hour's worth of play, I earned about 5,000 grains of rice.

So, if I can keep this sort of activity up for each of the remaining 32 days, the World Food Programme would be able to provide about 8 days worth of food for starving people in developing countries ... and my own knowledge of vocabulary, geography, and French (who knows, I might try some Italian, Spanish or German) might even increase a bit.

Day 3 Follow-Up
Today, Amber and I received our test kits for the Be the Match National Marrow Donor Program. We rubbed cotton swabs on the inside of our moths and placed them into the envelopes to be sent back. They'll go back out in the mail tomorrow and, in relatively short order, we'll be placed on the registry to donate bone marrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 7: Free Pancakes Around the USA!

I started out this morning by taking my 4-year-old son, Elijah, to the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) for the IHOP National Pancake Day, when IHOP gives away "short stacks" (servings of three pancakes) for free. In exchange, they have a collection on the way out the door for some local charity. IHOP has been doing this for five years, and it generates a lot of money for both IHOP and for the related charity. This is all IHOP restaurants across the country, so if there's one near you, go check it out ... and think about giving some to the local charity they're supporting.

At my IHOP, the local charity was First Choice for Women, which offers various types of support to women who find themselves in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy. Given the nature of the experiment, I felt like I should attend this event, but frankly my bank account is running a bit low, and I haven't gotten the first of the paychecks that I'm giving away yet (that comes Friday), so I didn't really have money to give away. Still, I figured I'd talk to the manager and get some information.

Elijah and I had the free pancakes, and some hash browns and sausage(which we were charged for), and as I was getting ready to pay the bill I realized I had a $100 bill in my wallet. Remember the pickup truck that I'd sold to a relative? Well, we'd gotten the first payment a couple of days before the project began and I hadn't really looked in my wallet since then.

To Give or Not to Give, That is the Question?
So here I was, in the middle of a giving experiment, having just been given free pancakes, with my son across from me, knowing that I'd have to go home and blog about this ... with a $100 bill sitting in my hand.


I paid the bill ($4.30) and then left a generous tip ($10.70), and was left staring at $85 in cash. A $50, a $20, two $5 and five $1 bills. And I did not want to give that money up. Some little voice inside me was declaring, "Listen, you're being more than generous, and you've laid out guidelines for how to do project. You do not have to give this money to prove anything to anybody. You got this money well before the project began. Just keep it."

But I didn't particularly trust these thoughts. The $100 bill had literally shown up right as a giving opportunity presented itself. Was I being greedy by not giving the money in this situation? What was the right thing to give in this situation?

Not trusting my own instincts, I had only one option. I asked Elijah.

I laid the money out on the table, and told him that the restaurant was collecting money to help women who were pregnant - just like Mommy had been just a few months ago - but who needed help paying for their doctor visits (he remembered Mommy going to the doctor a lot) and getting food and things like that. How much should we give?

Elijah reached straight for the $50, and then sat the $20 on top of it, then the $5 bills and then three of the $1 bills. Out of $85, I was left with $2.


I'm still, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, feeling uncomfortable about this. There's the obvious, of course ... for me, $83 is a not-insignificant sum of money. That's about a month's worth of gas in my car, for example. But, of course, this money came to me as extra money from the sale of my pick-up truck. I wasn't planning for it and, frankly, I had enough money in savings to cover my expenses for the 40 days even without this $83. It really just made sense to donate it, yet I was mentally resisting.

Then Elijah began taking more ones, saying "I need change for my magic trick." And, sure enough, we had just learned a magic trick that involved turning a $5 bill into five $1 bills. So I took the $5 bill (which he also needed) and the five $1's and said, "How about we keep these to go in your magic kit?" (He got the magic kit from his Nana for Christmas. It's very cool, although he has some challenges really hiding the secret of the trick.)

So now I have $75 that I'm giving, and I'm still feeling a little hesitant about it. I stand at the donation box, feeling awkward, and Elijah looks at the money in my hand. He reaches out and fiddles a bit with the remaining $5 bill in it. On an impulse, I take the $5 out. Oddly, I now feel completely fine about putting the $70 into the donation box.

On the drive home, I think realized why I felt so awkward. Over the past two years, I have become nearly obsessive about tracking receipts for business expenses. I was giving a cash donation which I was giving as part of the 40 Days of Giving project ... which meant I would deduct it as a business expense, but had no receipt.

And, in fact, the cut-off expense where you need a receipt is $75.

In other words, if I had deposited $75 in cash, claimed it on my taxes as a business expense, and not had a receipt ... it's possible that, were I to be audited, the IRS could nail me for tax fraud! At $70, my understanding is that they have to take my word on it, but at $75 or higher I actually need the receipt. My subconscious may have been trying to let me know that I was about to get myself into a bit of trouble.

So it wasn't greed (Unless you count not wanting to be on the losing side of an audit as "greedy." This falls under my classification of "common sense."), and just to prove it (to myself, not to all of you people ... I'm not even sure if anyone is reading this far into the post, after all), when I got home, I gave the remaining $5 to Amber, so that she could get cookies for the other students in her afternoon Human Services class at Ivy Tech Community College. (She can't have any cookies, because she's going gluten-free in an effort to alleviate the baby's digestive problems. Talk about sacrifice!)

An illuminating exchange: 
I spent part of the day watching the kids and working from home, rather than taking a day off work (because our daycare fell through). At one point, frustrated that Elijah (let alone the baby, who can't help it) won't leave me alone to get work done, I said, a bit more loudly than was warranted, "Elijah, why can't you just leave me alone to work!"

He frowned and said, "I wish people couldn't make you work. You shouldn't give so much money away, because then you wouldn't have to work so much. Next time, you should keep it."

I do work a lot, on a wide range of projects ... and I am the sort of person who can lose himself in these projects, and focus on them to the exclusion of all else. I have to sometimes consciously remind myself that the projects are not the most important thing in life. Not even this one.

Being a parent is a tough balancing act. In part, you want to teach your kids to have a good work ethic, and to perform their time doing worthwhile things. But, at the same time, you want to be sure that your kids enjoy life and remember how important it is to play. I certainly don't want him to grow up with an emotional aversion to work.

But the truth is that I, too, wish that people couldn't make you work ... but even if I didn't have to work, I'd probably still choose to occupy myself with writing projects such as this one.

I hope that someday he finds a way to do work that feels like play.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 6: You Get $25 ... and I Give $20 to a Charity of Your Choice!

Today's another opportunity to give to people reading this blog ... and also give to someone else.

So, here's the deal. For the last three or so years, I have used an online bank called ING Direct. It's an excellent bank, and provides full service. They have checking accounts, savings accounts, CDs, and some of the best interest rates out there. (These are still poor interest rates in this economy, but they're better than any brick-and-mortar bank. Right now, the checking account is giving 1.35%.)

ING Direct currently has a referral program where I can refer someone, and that person (upon funding a bank account with ING) gets $25 deposited into the account. They always have this plan in place, but the plan normally results in the referrer getting a $10 referral fee. From February 18 to March 31, however, the referral fee is being increased to $20!

So here's today's giving opportunity:

Sign up for ING, get $25 added to your account, and I will donate the $20 that I receive to a charity of your choice.

Here's what you need to do:

  • E-mail me at with your e-mail address and what charity you want the money to go to.
  • Upon receiving an e-mail from ING Direct, follow the steps to sign up for a bank account with them. This will include actually putting at least $250 into the account.
  • You will get another $25 deposited into the account - an instant 10% return, which is better than your $250 will get sitting in any other bank account these days!
  • Leave it there, and save up for a vacation, education, or whatever else you want through their Automatic Savings Plan ... or close the account after April 7. (This is when I actually get the second half of the referral fee, so if you close the account before then, I probably won't get the full fee.)

If you sign up for a checking account, you get a debit card to access the account. You do not actually get paper checks for ING checking accounts, although you can send checks from the website and they arrive in a couple of days. I've used online banking pretty much exclusively for at least 7 years and think that it's great. You can find out more about how they work at the ING Direct website.

Note: If you are one of the people who is part of the Move Your Money movement, seeking to keep money in local banks, then you might resist starting an account with ING Direct, a large international bank. But keep in mind that you're getting $45 from them, $20 of which goes to charity, and you can close the account in mid-April with no penalties. (They are assuming, of course, that people who open the account will stick with them, but they aren't requiring it.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day 5: Want a Free Book?

As I mentioned yesterday, I truly love to read. The unfortunate side effect of this is that since I read a lot, I buy a lot of books. In fact, I buy so many books that it far outstrips my time available for reading. This isn't inherently a problem, because I believe that everyone's library should contain books that they haven't gotten to yet, because it means they always have something to look forward to. (I read that somewhere, though I can't remember where at the moment.) If you only buy books as you have a chance to read them, then you're not really committed to the learning process.

And, for me, keeping books around that I've already read isn't just hording. As a writer, I frequently need to reference some idea from a book I read long ago, so keeping them handy is something of a necessity.

For example, just a couple of months ago, I was reading something which referenced an idea from Plato's Phaedo. Wanting to learn more, I went down into the basement and dug out my copy of Phaedo, which I haven't read since I was taking a classical philosophy course in college over a dozen years ago. I was quickly able to find Phaedo and get the information I needed, since I rarely get rid of books.

(My books are organized thematically and by subject, so I could easily find the classical greek philosophy, a kind of informal version of the Dewey decimal system. This method drives my wife nuts, especially in our DVDs, since she has to figure out if I consider Keeping the Faith to be a religious film, placing it near The Last Temptation of Christ, or a romantic comedy, placing it near Sweet Home Alabama. Such are the trials she must persevere to love a man like me. These days, we watch non-kid films so rarely that I've really given up on organizing the DVD cabinet anyway, as every other trip into it is with the express goal of getting Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. But I digress.)

In fact, the whole book String Theory for Dummies would have been much more difficult to write if I weren't such a pack rat, because there were books on the subject that I'd read over a decade earlier, which I had to go back through for research. In addition, years worth of science magazines piled around my basement were also scoured for resources. So these things do occasionally prove useful.

Despite this, there are a lot of these books which, while perfectly fine books, I just know I won't need. And what's odd is that, despite my near-certain knowledge that I won't need to ever look in them again, and that even if I had free time I wouldn't ever get back to them, it's actually hard for me to give some away. I think, "No, I can't give away my The Elements of Fiction Writing series," even though I long ago internalized (though have not yet mastered) the key elements of these introductory writing books - which, incidentally, I bought in high school! The only way to get better at them is to write more, not to have books sitting on a shelf which I have not and will never reference after reading them the first time.

So, the question then becomes how best to give the books away. My original thinking was that I'd just load them up in a box to Goodwill, but then I decided that it would make more sense to offer them to the people actually going to the trouble to read the blog. So here is a list of the books I am giving away. If you would like them, then e-mail me ( or message me in Facebook with your street address, and I'll send them to you next Friday (when my "giving" fund has money in it). I've broken the book down by category for easy review:

Writing Books:
  • Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
  • Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress
  • Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card
  • Plot by Ansen Dibell
  • Conflict, Action, and Suspense by William Noble
  • Setting by Jack M. Bickham
Science Fiction/Fantasy Books:
  • Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov
  • Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain by Isaac Asimov
  • The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
  • Nemesis by Isaac Asimov
  • Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
  • Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time: Marauder by William F. Wu
  • Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time: Predator by William F. Wu
  • Gamer Fantastic edited by Kerrie Hughes (collection of short stories about gaming)
  • Intelligent Design edited by Denise Little (collection of stories on evolution versus creationism)
  • Cold at Heart by Brian A. Hopkins
  • Deadfellas by David Whitman
  • The Scar by China Mieville
  • The Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  • Sailing to Sarantium (Sarantine Mosaic Book 1) by Guy Gavriel Kay (hardcover, first U.S. edition, autographed)
  • Lord of Emperors (Sarantine Mosaic Book 2) by Guy Gavriel Kay (hardcover, first U.S. edition, autographed)
  • Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey (hardcover, first edition, autographed)

  • The Void by Frank Close
  • 13 Things That Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks

  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • The Darwin Awards: Next Evolution: Chlorinating the Gene Pool edited by Wendy Northcutt
  • The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
  • The 5 Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me About Life and Wealth by Richard Paul Evans

Since I will have to ship these books, please don't get carried away. Only request the books if you really have a desire to read them, or to pass them on to someone else (as gifts - no reselling!) who would enjoy them. Any unclaimed books will be given to either Goodwill, the local library, or possibly our local prison, depending on which one seems to have the greatest need.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 4: Sharing the Food

One of the most basic elements needed for life is food, and the meal has long been a cornerstone of family and community. Celebrations have long featured feasts as a central component and one of the ways that many cultures demonstrate sacrifice is by fasting, both of which are different ways of making you very aware of food. When you're conscious of the food you're eating, you really can't help but appreciate the abundance that we have around us in this world.

Today, this central role of food has been usurped by the mindless eating at the heart of American behavior, epitomized by the ease of the fast food industry and pre-made entrees which can be heated up in minutes in the microwave, many of which are marketed with a glossy veneer of misleading nutritional benefit claims.

Giving has traditionally started with food, because it was one of the few things of valuable that people had to give and which someone else would definitely need. In fact, there's no shortage of charities that focus on food, both locally and around the world. Consider a few examples:

  • Aspire Indiana Farm - a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program run by Aspire Indiana Behavioral Health System (a merger of BehaviorCorp and The Center for Mental Health). The Farm provides work and training for citizens with disabilities, growing produce for the local community. You buy into the program up front, helping offset their costs, and then go in weekly to claim the produce that's part of your share of the weekly harvest.
  • Second Helpings - An Indianapolis-based organization, which reclaims food excess food from restaurants, grocery stores, and other sources, which would need to be thrown out otherwise. They provide training to under-employed citizens, so that they can get jobs in the food services industry. Together with volunteers, the food is prepared into nutritious meals which are provided to other service organizations throughout Indianapolis.
  • Hungry for Change - The organization related to the recent film Food, Inc. (Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary) that seeks to inform people about the various issues that are resulting from the industrial food process, including foodborne illnesses.

Last night, we were reminded of the significant role food plays in community when a couple of our friends, motivated by the project, decided to shop at a local discount grocery and buy food in bulk, getting a lot of extra food for about the same price they would normally pay for their weekly food. They ended up with a lot of extra food, and decided to share some with us, and with some other friends who they know had some need. There was enough food there to probably supply meals for several days, with nothing else added (although we'd probably get full of rice and potatoes).

So our giving today has involved sharing this food that was shared with us, by inviting some other friends over for dinner. We both have a fair amount of work (writing for me, school work for  Amber) that we need to get done, so this is a bit of a sacrifice in a sense ... but it's also important, we both feel, to make time for our friends. There's a lot to do in life, but slowing down every once in a while to make time for others is always useful.

As Gandhi said: There's more to life than increasing its speed.

This, sadly, is something I tend to forget. It is one of the lessons that I have to continually remind myself ... and taking the night off to have dinner with friends is a good way to do that.

Books That Inspired the Project

Of course, in addition to the books that I'll be reading over the coming 40 days (discussed yesterday), there are a number of books that helped inspire and cultivate this project idea in its infancy. They basically fall in two categories.

Project Books
The first category includes what I have taken to calling "project books," which are autobiographical accounts of people who set themselves some specific goal and then go about trying to make it happen. Accounts like the ones below helped me get in a mindset for a project like this in the first place, even before I had an actual idea for what my particular project would be.
Philanthropy Books
In addition, I've also read a number of books that have stressed the importance of philanthropy, which have of course also set the seeds of this project in my mind:
  • Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World by Craig Kielburger & Marc Kielburger: This was a great book, really exploring the stories of two brothers who devote themselves to charitable work, and in fact a whole movement of the upcoming generation who is choosing to turn its back on the materialism that is at the heart of so much of modern American life.
  • The 5 Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me About Life and Wealth by Richard Paul Evans: I read this book right as I was getting ready to marry Amber and begin my life as a family man, and it had a profound effect on my views about money and success. The fifth lesson is "Give Back." In fact, many books on finance and success emphasize the importance of this. In addition to Amber's influence, it was this book that made me decide to begin giving a portion of my salary to charity, even when I felt I didn't have the excess to spare.
  • The Blessed Life: The Simple Secret of Achieving Guaranteed Financial Results by Robert Morris: This is a Christian-based book, which I bought from our church after watching a compelling video series based on it during the Christmas season of 2009. While I certainly think the "Guaranteed" in the title is a bit disingenuous (especially since the author says repeatedly that financial rewards are not guaranteed, even while implying strongly that they are guaranteed - you can't have it both ways, Reverend Morris!), I was intrigued at the strong argument he makes for how important giving, and specifically tithing, is. It's laced throughout the Bible, in places that I would never have expected. I'll discuss some of the thoughts on "tithing" that came out of this book later on.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 3: Bone Marrow Donor Registry

For our third day of giving, Amber and I both registered with the "Be The Match" National Marrow Donor Program as potential bone marrow donors. We will receive cotton swabs in the mail, which we'll use to take cell samples from the inside of our cheeks, and then return for testing. We'll remain in the registry, and when we come up as a match for a needy recipient, our bone marrow will be extracted and donated, possibly saving a life.

We were inspired to this particular giving opportunity by a woman in class with Amber, whose young (three or four year old) son suffered from a form of leukemia. He immediately went on chemotherapy, and they set out to find a match. They ended up finding a matching donor from somewhere along the Pacific coast. The boy is now seven years old and is doing fine, all thanks to a stranger from across the country.

Now all of this testing and tracking takes money, so when you sign up for the registry they request a $100 donation to cover the costs associated with the donation. (We went ahead and put our $200 on the credit card. It's normally not a good idea to give with credit, but since we wanted to get on the registry as soon as possible, decided it would be okay this time since we'll pay it back with the paycheck next week. It just didn't seem in the spirit of the project to sign up for the registry and not cover the associated costs at the same time.) If you aren't able to donate money, though, you should still sign up for the registry, as long as you meet the guidelines. Donations from other sources, such as Jeff Gordon, can cover these costs even if you can't.

What amazed me was that the site also contains information about donating umbilical cord blood, and I really didn't realize that this was an option. I was vaguely aware of medical uses for the umbilical cord, and I knew that there were (expensive) services you could sign up for to save the umbilical cord blood in case your baby had a problem down the road, but in the wealth of information covered with the birth of our recent child, Gideon (three months and one week old!), I don't recall the issue of donating umbilical cord blood even coming up. If it did come up, it wasn't a big deal.

The website has a neat video about it, but it's not particularly informative on the details. It does make it clear that certain ethnicities, such as African-American, have high incidences of blood disorders, so they require a diverse pool of donor blood cells to get the proper matches. The reason why the umbilical cord blood is useful is, according to the site, "Cord blood is rich in blood-forming cells that can be used in transplants for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and many other life-threatening diseases."

At some point, you'd think that a person would have said, "Hey, pay attention - this stuff either goes in the incinerator or saves a life. Which do you want?" I mean, donating bone marrow is a big inconvenience (from what I've heard); donating umbilical cord blood, not so much. They just take that stuff away anyway, and you never see it again.

Part of me wonders if the reason it wasn't more prominently discussed was because we were at a Catholic hospital, but I wouldn't imagine that the use of umbilical cord blood would conflict with the philosophical doctrines at the heart of the Catholic church's opposition to stem cell research. (I'm not a biologist, but I do know that blood cells and stem cells are different.) Maybe people just don't want to be pushy at a time like that, but this is something that I really regret we didn't do.

So, if you're pregnant and reading this, or if you know someone who's pregnant, check out the information (or pass it along). Every parent should make an informed decision about this, and not just trust that your doctors will pass along every relevant option.

After all, your baby's first act in this world could be to save a life.

My Charitable Reading List

While giving is great, my life-long love has always been reading, and I certainly won't give up reading during my 40 Days of Giving experiment ... but I will focus my reading on books that emphasize the importance of giving, or which seem thematically associated to the project. Here's the pile of books, mostly from my local library, that I have sitting before me:

I've also snagged the following audiobooks from my local library, for when I'm in the car:

This list of books should definitely get me in the giving mindset. I might need to occasionally run to the local coin shop and stare at some shiny gold coins just to avoid a full vow of poverty after taking all of this stuff into my brain.

Blessings Already?, or I Haven't Paid for Food in Two Days

Last night, Amber, the kids, and I were invited over to a friend's house for a nice lasagna dinner. Lasagna is, actually, my favorite meal, so I was all over this. The only thing was that I'd had lasagna the night before ... and, like last night, I did not have to pay for it.

Actually, all of my meals for Day 1 and Day 2 of the experiment have been provided for free. I was in work meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so they provided us with Panera Bread for breakfast and lunch. On Wednesday, I claimed some leftover bagels to bring him for Amber and Elijah to have for Thursday's breakfast. Wednesday night, my manager took coworkers and me out for dinner, where I had lasagna ... about half of which was brought home for Amber's Thursday lunch. (Amber ended up eating lunch at her mother's, so the lasagna is still waiting in the fridge.) Then on Thursday night we were invited out for dinner, spontaneously, by friends - again, with lasagna, which is fine by me, since it's my favorite food.

I cannot help wondering if this is coincidence or should be interpreted as some form of synchronicity. That is a large part of why I'm doing the experiment, of course - to get some tangible evidence of whether there is a correlation between the good things that happen to you and the amount of giving in your life. So far, the jury's still out, but free food hasn't been the only reward.

For example, as we were beginning to plan this experiment, Amber recommended that we begin tithing to our local church. I will get into more detail on tithing specifically in a future post, but since we were planning the project, I figured that it couldn't hurt to give some to the church, which does a lot of good work in the community. Some of our money, no doubt, was used to help send one of our pastors to Haiti to help out, and so that alone makes it worthwhile in my book. (And this is, after all, my book.)

However, as I wrote the very first tithe check in January and placed it in the envelope, I thought about the sermons in the preceding weeks. The emphasis throughout the Christmas season had been on how giving really, tangibly, brings divine blessings (sometimes in the form of physical wealth) into your life. Now, to the degree that I have any religion, I tend to be more of a Deist ... God may exist, and may have set things in motion, but I really don't believe in a personal God who intervenes in affairs here on Earth all that much. (This may surprise many people reading this, given the project I'm working on, but keep in mind that if I did believe in such a thing, the whole experiment would be unnecessary.) I glanced up into the sky as I placed the tithe check into the envelope and said something along the lines of, "Okay, it's in your court now." 

Then the phone rang. I stared at it. It rang again. I blinked. It rang again. I glanced at the envelope. It rang again. I stared at it. It rang again. I answered it.

It was Amber, and she was calling to tell me that a family member who was borrowing our old pick-up truck (which we really never used anyway) wanted to buy it from us. We ended up settling on a price of $750. Given the payment terms (requested by the buyer, who knew nothing about the experiment), only $100 will come in during the 40 Days, so this is money that we'll actually see and be able to use, instead of having to give it away as part of the experiment. In addition, this saves us roughly $20 a month in car insurance expenses which, since we rarely used the vehicle, were really kind of a waste of money.

Now that is a profoundly weird experience, I think. Certainly it's possibly just coincidence, but the dramatic juxtaposition of me thinking "It's in your court now" and the phone ringing, bringing money into my life (and removed an expense, which is in some ways even better), is a powerful one that's hard to ignore. The human brain makes it hard to see connections like this and not draw some sort of link between them, even in cases where none appears to exist. Not impossible, but hard. (On a related note, my essay in Pink Floyd and Philosophy addresses the philosophical questions related to human interpretation of these sort of connections, in the context of the perceived synchronization between the Dark Side of the Moon album and The Wizard of Oz film, including the aforementioned Jung's theory of synchronicity.)

On top of that, I've also been asked to teach a local writing workshop for kids, which would potentially bring in about $250. (The workshop would take place during the giving experiment, but I don't know if I'll actually receive the payment during that period or not.)

Furthermore, on Monday, a full two days before the experiment officially commenced, I had a series of experiences where - in somewhat rapid succession - I got several interesting business opportunities placed in my path without really trying too hard for them:
  • A new acquaintance who teaches physics and astronomy at a nearby university proposed the possibility of collaborating on a series of physics textbooks. He'd already begun making overtures to textbook companies on his own to gauge interest.
  • Tony Lakas, a friend who runs The Danger Room comic/gaming shop (and has generously joined as a 40 Days of Giving team member for Heifer donations!) proposed the idea of a monthly comic book series focusing on philanthropic issues. I'm not sure how feasible this one is, but it was interesting nonetheless, and Tony has the connections in the comic book industry that if I wanted to pursue it, I would actually have a chance of getting in touch with the people needed to make it manifest.
  • Another new acquaintance discussed setting up speaking engagements, and provided me with some insider tips on how to situate the engagements so that I'll actually get paid for them.
All in all, what do I think of this? It's interesting, and it certainly is in line with my hypothesis ... especially if any of them end up panning out. These, of course, are long term projects, and have the potential to offer benefits that far exceed the duration of the 40 Days of Giving project. We'll just have to see what comes of them.