Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

This is vacation week for me and the Little One. By vacation, I mean a week in the frozen expanse of Northwestern Ohio at my mother's house. Ice underfoot, steel grey skies overhead and relatives for days.

No fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. No coconut-scented suntan lotion to be rubbed onto my back. No deep tissue massages. No surf sounds to soothe me to sleep under the Caribbean sun.

On the upside, I haven't had to empty the dishwasher yet this week.

As I sit here, still in my pajamas (I'm on vacation!), tapping away on my laptop, my kiddo is watching her 37th "Andy Pandy" of the morning. (She's on vacation!) I felt guilty for about a minute. Then I remembered the warm, white sand I don't have between my toes.

I know I just told you that I don't make resolutions. And I don't. But this year, I'm flying in the face of this self-imposed restriction. This year, I resolve that next year I will take a warm, kidless, relation-free, totally indulgent vacation. A vacation involving lots of sand, sleep and sarongs. And sleep.

I'm so excited about this decision, I'm going to start researching destinations right away. After all, next year is almost here. And anyway, I have a little time to spare this morning; another episode of "Andy Pandy" just started.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy New Year

It wasn't all that long ago when I wrote something here about change and my Little One's infectious, relentless optimism. That day, as every other, I learned an important lesson or two from her.

As 2009 is packing the last of its bags for departure, I find myself being brought back to that autumn afternoon, when she reminded me how important imagination is. When combined with a little effort, we can do pretty much anything we decide to do. All we have to do is try.

What better invitation to test our potential than the New Year? Admittedly, New Year's celebrations have never really been my thing. (Alright, in college they were.) And I don't usually make resolutions. There is something, however, that I can and do appreciate about the holiday: The act of beginning again. It's only a symbolic new beginning, sure, but symbolism has its place.

For us, 2010 is shaping up to be a year full of changes big and small. Thanks to my kiddo, my arms are now outstretched, ready to welcome it all. See, the other thing she taught me that autumn day was about the power of joy. When we greet life, in all its enigmatic uncertainty, with audacious joy, how can we help but soar?

We can't. We just can't.

So, Mamas, here's to 2010: new, uncertain and bursting with limitless opportunity.

I say: Bring it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Great Joy

The countdown to Christmas has reached a critical point: T minus four days, and counting.

In the last minute scramble for things Merry and Bright, the essence of Christmas can sometimes be lost, buried under so much tinsel.

Kate DiCamillo's story of homelessness, charity and great joy is a gorgeous and poignant reminder for parents and a wonderful introduction for children. Glowing illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline will warm you and yours on the coldest of nights.

"Great Joy" reminds us what joy really is, and how capable we all are of giving the gift of joy to one another.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Redefining Christmas

Almost exactly a year ago, I told you Mamas about a terrific organization dedicated to a more charitable holiday season. Redefine Christmas is still around and stronger than ever. What are they about? Well, they're not out to reinvent the holiday. They just want us--all of us--to take another look at how we define gift giving and receiving. They want us to consider giving more charitable gifts--gifts that give multiple times, "to the giver, the receiver and to people truly in need."

This is gift giving for the 21st century: sustainable and sustaining.

Not convinced yet? Consider this: The amount of money we spend in this country on candy alone in the last three months of the year exceeds the annual budgets of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and Habitat for Humanity combined. I don't think anyone would argue that we could do with less candy and more caring in America, especially at this time of year.

So consider giving a gift that goes a little bit farther than usual this year. Don't know where to get started? I have a few ideas. And so do the charitable elves at Redefine Christmas. Happy giving!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Joy of Giving

Most 3.5 -year-olds know what Christmas is about: Santa. Presents. Rudolph. Presents. Snow. Oh, and presents.

We're working on combating this culture of consumerism in our house. But it's a fine line to walk. My Little One believes in Santa. (Go ahead, cast your stones at me, all of you who have decided not to perpetuate one of Life's Great Lies and have omitted Old Saint Nick from your family's Christmas traditions. I say: We spend most of our lives as jaded adults who lack imagination. I'd like her to embrace the magic of childhood for as long as possible. For me, that includes leaving cookies for Santa, hunting for Easter Eggs and buying into the Teeth for Cash program run by a little fairy with a big penchant for incisors. Really. You should watch 'Miracle on 34th Street" again.)

In any case, we're doing the Santa thing. We're also doing the Jesus thing. By that I mean we have the creche set up and she knows Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. But somehow this has still translated into "getting presents." Christmas, birthdays, it's all the same: You get stuff.

So I've been trying to instill in her an appreciation for giving as well. I mean, she's 3-and-a-half, so I can't really say how much of it is sinking in. But some of it is working. Here's proof:

We started weeks ago, actually, when we went together to an emergency homeless shelter in a neighboring town to deliver bags of her outgrown clothes. At first, she wasn't so jazzed about the idea of giving away her stuff. To be quite frank: She was pissed at me. But I kept talking to her about the little girls who maybe didn't have quite as many nice things as she did. I told her about little girls who wouldn't be able to play in the snow without warm snow boots. I made her put her feet into her old ones so she would understand that they really didn't fit, that she really couldn't use them any more. I reminded her that she had brand-spanking new ones just waiting for the first snow. I tried to build up her sense of pride in her own generosity, make her understand how many little girls she would be helping, just by getting rid of stuff she couldn't use any more anyway.

She was still pissed.

But then, when we went to the shelter, she saw some kids. She saw a little girl who was there with her mother, half asleep on the mother's shoulder. We dropped our bags in the overcrowded, understaffed, dingy little office. The Little One was silent. And she was looking around. When we left, she asked me "Will that little girl get my old snow boots?" I told her that maybe she would and she didn't say anything. We got in the car and went about the rest of our day.

But a few days later, I tried to squeeze her into a sweater from last year. After first getting her stuck then unsticking her little head, we decided on another sweater. Then, out of the blue she said "Maybe that little girl would like this sweater? It's warm. And now it doesn't fit me."

What a moment! The feeling that I had actually reached her, that I taught her something, that she could wrap her little mind around the very big concept of charity was thrilling! It was kind of a Christmas Miracle.

We have since made another trip with more bags to the same shelter, this time with no protest at all from the Little One. And while her letter to Santa still reads like an inventory check list from Toys 'R Us, this latest trip was proof she's also learning to embrace the joy of giving. At 3-and-a-half, I'd say she's way ahead of the curve on that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Share the Joy: Mama's Charitable Gift Guide

'Tis the season to shop. So while you're searching for the perfect presents for all those special someones, why not check out these online outlets selling great stuff for good causes.

The Joyful Heartshop

Gourmet chocolates, personal pampering items, cozy blankets and fine jewelry are all available in the Joyful Heart Foundation's online Heartshop. A portion of each purchase benefits the foundation's groundbreaking work with survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. There's truly something for everyone in this online store. (Seriously, the Fran's artisan Smoked Salt Chocolate Covered Caramels are about as good as chocolate gets. Better.)


This global program dedicated to the welfare of children around the world always has beautiful cards, handcrafted ornaments and other holiday wares at more than reasonable prices. This year, you might also consider something even more inspired. UNICEF's Inspired Gifts program allows you to purchase lifesaving items for needy children, gifts like High Energy Protein Biscuits, Oral Rehydration Salts, books or soccer balls. Make your gift to these children who need your help and dedicate it to a friend, complete with a card. Really, it's the perfect gift for most of us who have everything. Everything we need, anyway.


This international program dedicated to creating lasting change to children around the world has a similar giving program. Just $30 will buy a sheep for a needy family, giving the gift of warm wool, nourishing milk and the potential for additional income. Thirty dollars. Most of us spend that much on coffee in a month. Save the Children lets you dedicate your gift to a loved one of your own and will even send a plush sheep toy as a reminder of the difference you made. Spend $100 dollars and Save the Children will donate in-kind, brand new books to a suffering U.S. library. Many more inspiring options are available here.


Like many Mamas I know, I'm a real sucker for just about anything that smells good. At $5.50 a piece, these soothing soaps in scrumptious scents make perfect stocking-stuffers. These fair trade items were created to "help women worldwide gain economic security for themselves and their families." The soaps are also eco-friendly. And, if you're not convinced yet, the Literacy Site will donate one children's book to a needy American family for every soap you purchase. Talk about stretching your dollars. Interested? They have many more gifts here

Check back before the holidays for more gifts that do double duty. This is what I call happy shopping.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Virginia Witt: Blue Sheild of California Foundation

A veteran of the non-profit, philanthropic and public policy worlds, Virginia Witt's presence is not surprising at today's "It's Time to Talk" event, sponsored by Liz Claiborne. As Director of Public Affairs and Policy for Blue Shield of California Foundation, her job is to make sure people are talking about public health issues. She also wants to make sure people are listening. And acting on what they learn. Because apart from 20 years of experience, she also brings a relentless optimism to this fight.

"I see the situation a little bit differently," she tells me after I greet her with a disturbing statistic from a study conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission. The survey was conducted in the days following the breaking news of Rhianna's brutal physical assault at the hands of then boyfriend, Chris Brown. Several hundred teenagers were questioned about their opinions regarding the assault, which became front page news and tabloid fodder, complete with graphic and disturbing photos of Rhianna's swollen face. Almost half of the teens surveyed--46 percent--placed the blame for the assault on Rhianna. This is a statistic that continues to haunt, anger and sadden me, and I tell her so. "The way I see it, this is an incredibly important, teachable moment for American teens and their families. All of the sudden, people are paying attention to this issue, they're talking about it because it's happening, out in the open, and affecting two successful, attractive, creative people. On so many levels this unfortunate incident is shattering the current thinking about who this happens to, where it happens and why. So, rather than be disappointed by the survey, I see it as a window of opportunity."

I have to concede her point.

"This is a topic that requires new thinking, new conversations. Almost everyone knows someone touched by this violence. But no one talks about it. And starting the conversation is where change can begin. So whether it's an event like this Liz Claiborne day or a Public Health Commission study, the point is that we have people's attention. And now that we do, we need to act."

Tim Gunn: You're IN

Tim Gunn is stylish and sweet. And he's as impressive in person as he is onscreen standing next to fashion diva, Heidi Klum. He's also very real. (He even oohed and ahhed with me over photos of the Little One.)

So what was he doing at today's Liz Claiborne "It's Time to Talk" Day event?

"This is my third year participating in this event," he tells me. "I also attended a Domestic Violence awareness conference in LA in October. And one of the things that's really being clarified for me is that we need to fix the abusers. So much of the focus in on girls and women--and it should be. But we also need to broaden the scope of the conversation. We need to reach out to the boys and the men, to help them identify abusive behavior and stop it before it escalates. I see this as our responsibility."

Whose responsibility?

"Everyone is responsible for this. The education needs to be to both genders. Look, the most egregious cases are easy to identify. But in an age of prevalent technology--texting, IMs--dangerous patterns can be established before anyone knows what's happening. Nowadays, there's this machine," he points to my laptop, "that sits in between the relationship. So many teens today communicate through technology--through computers and smart phones. At least on a telephone call you hear my voice. But using machines as a preferred form of communication leads people to say and do things they wouldn't necessarily do in person--or even over the phone. With machines, abuse gets easier to perpetrate and to hide."

How do we get this message to teenagers?

"This is the great conundrum; your children's peers, the influence they wield and the role of what they see played out on TV. I mean, I don't want to sound like an old prude, but some of what's being shown on television is part of the problem. Some of these shows glorifying people behaving badly, violently, it's not helping."

So what role does the media play in this discussion? What role should they assume? How responsible is the media for putting a stop to this violence?

"I don't believe in censorship, in any form. I want to be clear. And, let's face it: These shows persist and proliferate because people watch them. But when parents are watching, kids are watching. Maybe there needs to be a conversation that happens at home like, 'You see this? This is a lesson in how NOT to behave.'"

But how do you make that message clear for a teenager? Don't do this, even though it might get you on television?

"Maybe the thing to do--and I think you've just given me an idea--is to make public service announcements that correspond to the action on the shows. I mean people in the public eye and people who make the decisions about what the public views need to accept responsibility for what they're doing. They need to make responsible decisions. If you're showing this kind of programming that glorifies bad behavior, maybe it's wise to address it in a public service kind of way. At least it would seem a more balanced approach, wouldn't it?"

Joanne Sandler, Deputy Executive Director, Programme of the United Nations Department for Women (UNIFEM)

Joanne Sandler is a ray of light walking across the Liz Claiborne showroom to my little blogging table, windows looking over a bustling Times Square. She has a broad smile and a warm demeanor as she shakes my hand. She doesn't have the look of a woman who has been working on the issue of domestic violence since the movement began in the mid-seventies. She looks positive, encouraged and really happy to be at the New York nexus of discussion today. As she sits down across the table from me, I like her already.

"In 1975, when I started this work," she tells me, "shelters were at their incipient stage. Hotlines were just beginning. There was little governmental support and even less public awareness. For the first 5 years, all we did was try to convince leaders and people in power that this was a public health issue."

And now?

"Sure, there have been changes, good changes," she smiles. "You'd be hard pressed these days to find a politician who will tell you that this isn't a public health issue. And that's a far cry from the seventies. That's the good news." I sense the approaching caveat. "But this isn't an easy issue. It isn't purely a public health issue. It requires a huge, multi-sectoral response. Every single part of our society needs to be working on this. Parents and teachers are on the front line, there's no question. But we need a major, coordinated response: law enforcement, public health officials, anthropologists, star athletes, presidents and prime ministers--everyone needs to be working on this. Everyone needs to be directing messages to young people about this. And right now, they're not."

Why not?

"You know, I think most of us who work on this issue believe the data we have--while shocking and awful--is inaccurate. This epidemic is so pervasive, crossing every possible line, that it's kind of hard to talk about domestic violence or violence against women and girls without addressing the culture of violence we inhabit. More poverty means more violence. More unemployment means more violence. Less education means more violence."

Does the media perpetuate this "culture of violence?"

"The media definitely gives confusing messages about this issue, about how men should treat women and how women should expect to be treated. We need to make girls and young women understand at a fundamental level that it's not OK, it's not acceptable to live with violence," she pauses, reflecting on what she's said. "Basically, you have to unpack masculinity--you have to redefine what it means to be a man."

Before I can turn the conversation into a media-trashing diatribe, she reminds me of the power the media has to do good. "We had a real breakthrough with a public service announcement campaign in India, called Ring the Bell or Bell Bajao, reaching out to men and boys. It's been very effective and it's reached over 150 million people in India. Basically, it encourages people--men--to get involved. It helps them understand that they do have power to help stop the violence."

"It's pretty clear what we need to do, but the focus, the money, the determination that this is something we can do something about still needs to coalesce. We need that pivotal moment--that Al Gore "Inconvenient Truth" moment that tips the scales of public awareness and determination. Something that says, 'Look, we know that this is a problem. Now is our moment to solve it."

Who should make that movie?

She smiles, "I don't know. But maybe because of today's conversations, someone will start working on it."

Patrick C. Lynch, Attorney General, State of Rhode Island

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch commands a presence, even in a showroom filled with other commanding personalities. He's direct, intelligent, handsome and highly knowledgeable about the issues of dating violence. A committed activist against this violence, he backed the very first law in the United States, Lindsay's Law, mandating dating violence education for grades 7 through 12 in all Rhode Island schools.

"I met Ann Burke," he tells me right away as we share a table in the Liz Claiborne showroom, "and she's why I got involved. Rhode Island is one of the only states where the Attorney General also does all of the D.A. work. So I handle every crime that happens, assign a prosecutor and get the case started. Unfortunately, domestic violence is the crime we see the most often. When the Lindsay Burke case came through, it was particularly horrific." He doesn't elaborate on the details of Lindsay's brutal murder. He doesn't have to.

"I met Ann at the outset of the case and I told her not to expect closure, even with a conviction. Closure is pretty hard to come by for surviving family members. Most just try to live with the pain in whatever way they can. But some are able to actually rise out of it--out of their suffering--and ask what else can I do? Ann is one of those special people. She told me 'I want to do something. What should we do?' We looked at her family's background in education, at Lindsay's love of education, and it was clear what we needed to do."

"We're at a deficit of education in our schools in this country. I challenge anyone reading this--moms especially--to look at your schools. Call them, ask them specifically if there is existing dating violence education programing in their curriculum. If the answer is no, challenge them to implement one."

"You know, I'm coming at this issue not just as an Attorney General, but also as a parent. This type of violence starts much younger than most of us realized. All the studies I've seen, studies by attorneys general, put the onset between ages 12 and 14. Our kids need to know what this is, they need to know that they're not alone and they need to know there are informed people they can talk to and trust. A coach, a teacher, a friend, a friend's parent--whomever. Because these days, with new technologies, texting and everything, your middle schooler can be sitting quietly next to you experiencing abuse in the form of excessive, invasive, bullying text messages and you could have no idea. And she might not know that it's not OK and that she can talk to you about it." As he talks, the Attorney General in him recedes a bit, and the concerned father comes to the fore.

"As an Attorney General, I see three ways to make a difference on this issue," he says. "In the courtroom, but that's after the fact. The scars are already there, the lives are lost and the Ann Burke's are already mourning their daughters. The second way to make a difference is through legislation. I can try to enact laws to protect women, to protect girls, to prevent more losses. But the third way to make a difference is the most important. It's education." He lets that sit as he looks over my shoulder out the window overlooking Times Square. "If we can reach all those people, if we can reach teens before the violence, if we can help them understand that it's wrong and that they don't have to endure it, then we're making a real difference. That's how we'll stop this violence."

Ann Burke

I'm sitting down with Ann Burke, mother of Lindsay Burke, who was killed in 2005 by a jealous boyfriend when she was only 23 years old. Ann is an educator and an activist and wants all of us to get smart about the issues of dating violence. She's also the founding member of MADE.

"You know, I have Masters in Health Education. I've been teaching kids for years. Shouldn't I have known about this? I didn't even recognize the signs in the beginning with Lindsay. Some things made me uncomfortable, but I didn't really see it for what it was." When Ann speaks, the pain of her loss sits with her, she carries it. But it's clear that she uses it to fuel her work.

"I believe the time to learn about this is before our kids get involved in these relationships. We lull ourselves into complacency, thinking 'I'm a good parent, we have a good home, I know what my kids are doing,' and this thinking sets us up and sets up our kids for experiences they're not prepared to deal with."

"After Lindsay's murder, I spent a whole year researching this topic. I was blown away by the statistics, by the methods abusers use, by how much I didn't know. So when I went back to work in my 8th grade class and I was teaching them about HIV, STDs, drugs, alcohol, I started to think, 'Why isn't dating violence education mandated?'"

That's when Ann set to work to do something about it. She got involved with Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch's office and partnered with him on enacting legislation, which has since been passed. Lindsay's Law now mandates dating violence education in the State of Rhode Island from grades 7 through 12.

"Lindsay's Law got passed in 2007," she says. "Several other states are stating that they support mandated education but have yet to pass laws. There are currently about 8 states with some kind legislation. But a lot of states lack the funding to train the teachers. In Rhode Island, we didn't ask for any funding--we offered volunteer teacher training and materials, but we're a small state. For other states that approach might be harder. But I'm of the mind that if you wait for the money, the laws will never get passed. I'd rather force the issue and make the states come up with the funding. This issue is too important to wait."

At the end of our 15 or so minutes together, I ask Ann if her activism brings her any satisfaction.

I see the tears sneak up as she tells me, "It doesn't bring back Lindsay, but it does bring some satisfaction, yes. I think we've done a lot to honor her memory. After her murder, I thought long and hard about what she would want me to do. I tried my best to think, if she had survived the attack, what would she have wanted to do? She had a degree in education, so working toward education just made sense to me, not just for her memory, but for everybody else. If she had survived, Lindsay would have been talking about it. I have no doubt."

Start Talking

Today is national "It's Time to Talk" Day, started by the tireless activists at Liz Claiborne, Inc. What's it all about? (See my last blog for details.)

Basically, it's about getting educated about domestic and teen dating violence in our society. (See news coverage of Rhianna's ordeal . Or Tameka's. Or Sheena's. Or Claudette's.)

We've got a problem in this country. An epidemic actually. These are the statistics:
  • Of the women between ages 15 and 19 murdered each year, 30% are killed by their husband or boyfriend.

  • 1 in 3 teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

  • More than 1 million women are stalked each year in the U.S.

  • 56% of corporate leaders today say they are aware of employees within their organizations who are affected by violence against women.

  • 54% of parents admit they have not spoken to their children about dating violence.

Well ladies, it's time to speak up.

I'll be blogging and tweeting live this morning from the Liz Claiborne showroom, in the middle of their "It's Time to Talk" day activities. Personalities, experts, advocates and survivors are all getting together on this issue today and raising their collective voices. Today is a day to move this issue out of the darkness and into the light.

What can you do? Well, you can:

Get educated.

Get involved.

Get help--for yourself or someone you know who needs it. (Teens can get help here.)

Blog, tweet, Facebook. Call your best friend. Talk to anyone and everyone who will listen today. Make it your problem. Please? Our kids are counting on us to try to sort some of this out, before they have to.

Suzy is talking about it.

Ann is talking about it.

Stefania is talking about it.

Linda is talking about it.

Are you talking about it?