Saturday, December 6, 2014

Protesters and Police

I volunteer at an abortion clinic in Granite City, IL, and have done so for about 15 years now.  My responsibility is to escort the patients and their drivers through the protesters and into the clinic building.  While I cannot speak for the patients and their drivers, I will say that many of the abortion protesters and their actions do not bother me.  I recognize their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly and I appreciate their unobtrusive protesting actions.  The Catholic group arrives at 9 a.m., prays the rosary, and heads out at 10:30 a.m.  Some individuals come with red duct tape over their mouths and they stand silently as protest.  In general, these protesters do not make the patients and drivers cry, they do not escalate emotion, and they abide by the letter of the law.

Then we get to the protesters whose passion cannot be contained and who have taken more vocal and aggressive tactics.  About 10 abortion protesters congregate for the morning, hold signs, shout, block pathways, block car doors, and generally take whatever action they deem reasonable to get their message across.  They also call out other Christian groups for not being vocal enough against abortion.  While I understand the protesters’ belief structure, I have always been frustrated by their tactics – mostly because I believe yelling hurtful comments at someone you don’t know is just cruel practice, but also because there are clear laws about what actions are legally acceptable at the clinic and the protesters push the boundaries of what is legally allowed.  (If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out a previous blog here.)

Why cover old ground, Krystal?  Well, I have become one of those overly passionate, vocal, and aggressive protesters myself, except I’m protesting racial injustice and police brutality.  Exercising my First Amendment rights of speech and assembly, I have held signs, shouted, blocked pathways, blocked cars, and generally taken whatever action I deem reasonable to get the message across.  I have called out my friends and community for not being vocal enough on this issue.  My civil disobedience has been limited to occupying streets, but I fully recognize that there are laws about what is legally acceptable and I’m pushing the boundaries of what is legally allowed.  I have become one of the zealous protesters that folks tell stories about, wishing that we’d abide by the rules and not be so damn loud and disruptive.

These similarities with the abortion protesters and their tactics are not lost on me.  We’re using similar tactics and arguing a similar message that all lives matter.  The differing police response is not lost on me either.  In Granite City, a police car drives by about once a Saturday morning to view the protesters’ and Clinic’s interactions.  The police officer does not leave the car and, in many cases, the police officer does not slow down or stop.  It is an incredibly rare instance in which the police interact with the protesters in any way, despite the protesters’ repeatedly aggressive tactics.  In contrast, I am greeted by police in riot gear when I protest.  The police have arrested many Ferguson protesters, hit them with rubber bullets, sprayed them with mace and tear gas, and attacked them with batons.  The police have forcefully reacted to these acts of civil disobedience, to these Ferguson protesters pushing the boundaries of what is legally acceptable. 

I mentally prepare for an aggressive police response each time I go out to protest and I am, admittedly, terrified that the police will physically harm me in their response.  I sincerely doubt that the abortion protesters have this fear.  Why not?  Why is the police response so dramatically different for such similar actions?  Is it because the abortion protesters are generally white and the Ferguson protesters are generally black?  Is it because the Ferguson protests are so new and the abortion protests are status quo?  Is it because the police officers struggle to contain their own emotional response to accusations made against them?  Is it because the Granite City police actually support the abortion protesters’ message?  Are the rules somehow different in Illinois?  Why are abortion protesters who violate federal law on a regular basis under no fear of repercussion or consequence from law enforcement?  Why are their First Amendment rights more protected?  This double standard infuriates me.

I do not have the answers, clearly.  What I do have are the Jail Support phone number Sharpied on my skin, a protest buddy who watches my back, and a fear that the police response will scare me so much that I don't come back.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Geek in Training

The Whomptons adults are fantasy and sci-fi loving, videogame and board game playing geeks.  And we aspire to raise geek daughters. 

I’ve been dropping fantasy books in Raina’s lap since the beginning – children’s books with interesting creation stories, fairy stories, etc., and then small chapter books about magic, and then fully solid fantasy books.  The Wizard of OzThe Dark is Rising series.  His Dark Materials trilogy.  The HobbitHarry Potter.  She didn’t enjoy my Tamora Pierce books but who cares?  My nine year old loved His Dark Materials!  She’s hooked. 

Eric is doing his part too by playing adult level tabletop games with her: Forbidden Island, Carcassone, Pandemic, Fluxx, Magic the Gathering.  Then he decided she was ready for the big, intensive games that last over an hour and require substantial strategy.  Raina and Eric play The Lord of the Rings The Card Game – a highly complex deck building game – and she’s getting really good.  Even better, since she’s read The Hobbit, she’s very interested in the cards and characters; in some cases, she knows more than Eric because Raina has actually read the book!  Her first preference of spending free time is playing games with Daddy.  It’s incredibly sweet.

To move wholesale into geek-world requires some media knowledge of movies, television, and games.  The girls watched Star Wars (4 – 6, then 1 – 3) for the first time this summer and The Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers (extended edition) this month.  We’ve debated about TV shows – Star Trek Next Generation?  Deep Space Nine?  Babylon 5?  Buffy?  Firefly?  Battlestar?  – and then realized that we don’t have the time in our lives to re-watch all these shows with her.  We’ll spend part of winter break watching Firefly because my daughters must adore Joss Whedon.  We should make it a Whompton requirement! 

What we’re really missing from this list is engineering.  She has really enjoyed programming in her computer class at school this year, and I’ve occasionally plunked Raina down with my computer and she’s spent 4 hours straight programming with Scratch.  She’ll have her own laptop next year, and I hope that she chooses to tinker around with coding and creative problem solving in her free time (rather than watch continuous youtube videos).  I look forward to seeing what she creates. 

In the end, Raina is an amazing person and we are amazed by her.  I love that we can share these parts of ourselves with her and have her appreciate and love them as much as we do.  That makes me incredibly happy.  I look forward to the day where she returns the favor and shares her awesome geeky loves back with us!  J

Sunday, October 19, 2014

In the Streets

As a Saint Louis resident, the Mike Brown shooting and Ferguson protests have felt especially close to home.  I have friends who have front-line protested in Ferguson essentially every day; conversely, I have friends who are the forefront leaders of the “I am Darren Wilson” movement.  My Facebook newsfeed blows up each day with continuous stories about police brutality, cover-ups, conflicting news media reports, racial divide, segregation, and shows of support and disgust for both sides.  I presume I am not alone in this.

I cried and cried when Trayvon was murdered; I would put my kids to bed and then stay up late reading accounts and feeling so furious and sad and powerless.  My grief for him and his family was palpable.  Knowing this about myself, I purposefully kept separate from Mike Brown’s death for a long while.  Confronting this loss – in my own community – and the ramifications of it were more than I was willing to try to handle.  Mike’s death is a tragedy and the consequent civil rights violations are frustrating, disappointing, and just plain wrong; however, I kept most of these things at arms’ length emotionally.  I tried to distant myself from an emotional response – supporting reason rather than reaction – and it was, surprisingly, really easy to do.  I just went about my normal days and weeks (teaching, working, volunteering, parenting) and I thought about this explosive situation only occasionally and when I wanted to.  I fully recognized that my white privilege gave me the space to distant myself, and I more than occasionally felt guilty about it, but I kept that at a safe distance too.  In conversations with folks, I spoke intelligently and with appropriate outrage, but all I did was speak.  I did not act.  And this is where I have the most regret. 

I drive by Ferguson, Missouri, each time I volunteer at Hope Clinic for Women.  I have driven past Ferguson three times since the shooting.  I have never stopped.  I have not gone to Ferguson to protest or show support for those who do.  It didn’t fit into my schedule and I would be out too late and it seemed dangerous and I wasn’t certain that my being there would be helpful anyway and I just had foot surgery.  These were the things I told myself.  And yet.  My inaction is an action, and it’s not the right one. 

Last weekend was Ferguson October, three days devoted to activism.  My schedule was packed with other things already (Girl Scout camping, five Ethical Society obligations, school) and I agonized over whether to cancel my participation in these other events so that I could participate in Ferguson October.  I tried to (unfairly) pressure my spouse to take on an activist or volunteer role in my stead so that our family would be represented at all these events.  And all the Saturday and Sunday Ferguson October events seemed so tame – I struggled to imagine any safety risk for myself or the kids.  In the end, I attended the only event that did not require cancelling my other responsibilities, which was the interfaith rally on Sunday night.

Samantha and I packed our crocheting and settled in for an evening of clergy members giving speeches.  And that’s what we had for quite a while.  And then members of the audience got tired of hearing the same message over and over again and they started shouting back.  Youth leaders and Tef Poe took the stage and shared their thoughts – it was so energizing to hear from them – and they issued a challenge:  “White allies – you can call yourself what you want, but if you’re not helping then you’re not an ally.  Get in the streets and help us!”  That line punched me in the gut, because it was spot on and told me that I would be of service in Ferguson, provided that I put myself there.

During the drive home, Samantha and I agreed that it was time to join the movement with actions, not with words.  Yesterday, we joined hundreds of women in the Mothers’ March in Clayton, in which mothers who have lost their children to violence in the streets raised their voices and shared their stories.  And I cried and cried.  During the four minutes of silence for Mike Brown, I imagined being Mrs. Brown: dealing with the violent loss of her child and wanting to turn to the police for justice but being unable to because the police had shot her child.  How would I express my intense grief and fury?  I felt such an overwhelming wave of hopelessness, and yet these women did not stop.  These mothers continued to live their lives, care for their other children, and survive.  And yesterday they issued a call to action to mothers everywhere – to raise our voices and say “no more killing our children!”  

I urge you to spend four minutes imagining being in Mrs. Brown’s shoes – or in the shoes of the parents of the 110 people shot in the Saint Louis streets so far this year – and consider what you would do as a response.

Join us in Ferguson.  It’s time for mothers and fathers to be in the streets.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Leading a Generous Life

Good morning.  Today, we’re discussing generosity – about being kind and understanding and willing to give things that have value.  I will share how my life has been enriched by community service and philanthropic giving to others, and how you may foster a culture of generosity in your own life, in your home, and in your communities.  I hope that my experiences are thought provoking for you and that you walk away from this talk with compelling reasons to become more generous and some tangible action steps of how to do so.

So, my backstory:  I grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I am descended from very prolific Catholic farm folk.  My mom’s parents ran a farm and, as you might imagine, my grandparents made good use of their progeny as labor.  My mom and her siblings fed the cows before catching the bus to school, planted rows of crops before starting their homework.  Years later, we grandkids snapped beans, shucked corn, canned tomatoes, and did whatever was needed to make the farm run smoothly.  The motto “see a need, fill a need” definitely fits farm life; running a successful family farm is an impressive amount of work and every person had a designated role and each person contributed to the best of their ability.  

I want to be clear.  My grandparents were rich in land, hope, faith, and children, but not in cash.  Although their family was 12 people strong, they lived in a two bedroom farmhouse with no indoor plumbing.  Even so, my grandparents made the financial sacrifice to tithe regularly and send each of their children to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school.  They also regularly volunteered with their parish as lay leadership and with the St. Vincent de Paul, an organization that strives to help those in poverty. 

Despite many clear indicators that my grandparents might be poor and needy themselves, they chose a more positive outlook and recognized that many folks in their community were much needier than they.  In their early 80’s, my grandparents “slowed down” their farm obligations and increased their community service.  They volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul every day of the week for multiple years.  These acts of service were extensions of their faith but also were methods to deepen their faith.  My grandparents were exceptional role models for sacrifice, continuous service to others, and walking the walk of care and compassion.   

Being surrounded and supported was the standard with my extended family.  When both my parents lost their blue-collar jobs, and we children moved onto the free-lunch rolls at school, my extended family came together and brainstormed ways to support us.  They hired my mom to care for their children during the day and after-school.  They supplied gifts for birthdays and Christmas.  They lent money to cover the monthly mortgage payments.  Collectively they did whatever it took to ensure that my family weathered the financial storm of unemployment for multiple years.  Thinking back, I am simply astounded by my extended family’s unquestioning generosity, by their desire to do best by us. 

I was raised in this environment: where having less was the norm, looking out for others and pitching in to help were expected, and generosity was the standard. 

My mom was instrumental in fostering a sense of giving in her children.  According to the Corporation of National and Community Service, “a youth in a family where at least one parent volunteers is two times more likely to volunteer herself and is three times as likely to become a regular volunteer.”  It should not be a surprise that we became huge advocates of community service, because my mom modeled this behavior and she continuously made opportunities for our family to volunteer together.

Of course, my family spent many hours working at my grandparents’ farm, and I had family chores at our house as well.  But we did more than service to family; we broadened our service to include service to school and service to our local community.  Service became our family tradition.  For five years, my mom, my siblings, and I designed scary spaces, donned costumes, and transformed a full wing of our elementary school into a Haunted House.  We made and served elaborate Thanksgiving dinners at the local homeless shelter for six years.  We had a winter tradition too.  For 8 years, we helped make and deliver food baskets to benefit needy families in my high school.  Once I graduated high school, I was entrusted to make deliveries of the food baskets on my own.  I cannot express how powerful an experience that was – bringing a food basket, which represented the overwhelming care and generosity of an entire school, and personally handing it to someone who needed it.  The immense gratitude they had, the immense gratitude I had – I still tear up when thinking about it. 

Doing these service projects as a family was an easy win.  We had so much to be grateful for and we were eager to share our good fortune with others.  Also, it was incredibly heartening to give to others, to lift others up as we lifted ourselves up as well, and to do this service together.  I know that I found it inspiring to be part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my family.  There’s nothing more powerful to a teenager than looking outside of herself and making a difference in the community.  Working together as a family and serving others are some of my fondest childhood memories.

There is interesting psychology here too.  If a person self-identifies as “generous,” then she begins choosing and taking more generous actions, which reinforces her self-perception as a generous person.  Additionally, she is more likely to be generous if she knows the people around her are also giving of their time or money.  In other words, thinking about times when she’s helped others and having a peer group of visible and vocal volunteers both increase her likelihood to take generous actions.  So, hold yourself to a higher generous standard and share that in your network.  Families, friends, schools, faith organizations, youth groups, sports teams – each has the opportunity to establish a generous standard within that group and, thereby, help develop empathy and generosity in others. 

Volunteering has significant positive health benefits as well.  Volunteers have improved physical and mental health, higher levels of happiness, greater life satisfaction, lower rates of depression, lower rates of heart disease, and they generally live longer.  Giving promotes cooperation, social connection, and gratitude. 

I have experienced additional benefits in my 30 years of volunteering.  I knew a much more diverse population of folks as a result of community service, which increased my understanding of other people, religions, cultures, and backgrounds.  I gained an appreciation for complexity and difference.  Older adults actively reached out to mentor the teenage me and include me in decision making.  I made many wonderful and lasting friendships.  I pieced together a network of contacts in a new city.  I developed substantial leadership and executive functioning skills; I practiced time management, listening, written and oral communication, planning, delegating, compromise, patience, self-control, and public speaking.  I helped build houses.  I sampled teaching and tutoring before choosing it as a career.  I learned how to fundraise.  And I developed an unshakeable belief that my individual actions had great impact. 

When I was 16, I became active in the Democratic Party and I participated in voter registration and get out the vote campaigns; I also actively canvassed for a gubernatorial candidate.  I was thrilled when he was elected to office and then supremely honored when I was invited to his inauguration.  I was too young to vote for him, but through service I was able to make a difference in my community and an impact on a state-wide level.  I’m still amazed by some of the life experiences I’ve had as a result of volunteering.

Now, did my mom plan to turn her children into avid volunteers?  According to the research, she took all the right steps:  she made service a family expectation, let the kids see the results of their efforts, gave each person a voice in choosing how to help, and established a tradition.  Honestly, I doubt my mom had this strategic process in mind; instead, she modeled the exact same behaviors and concern for others that her parents modeled for her and, as a result, she fostered generosity and compassion in her children.

I, on the other hand, do have a strategic plan and I am determined to turn my own daughters into empathetic community service gals.  My eldest daughter Raina started joining me at the Saint Louis Area FoodBank when she turned five and we volunteer there regularly.  She really liked it at first – she was doing something special with me and my sister, Samantha – but after a few years her enthusiasm lagged a bit.  Rather than quit, I pulled out our family’s standard lines of “Mandatory fun!” and “Gratitude, not Attitude!” which got us through the door a few times.  I invited her friends to come with us.  I organized our Girl Scout Troop to go. 

At this point, Raina has volunteered at the FoodBank often enough that she is an expert; she understands the place, she feels real control over the process, and she can train someone in the ropes.  Last week, Raina told me, “Mom, I really love coming here” – service and helping others had become a source of joy for her.  My other daughter, Lola, turned five this February, and she had her first FoodBank experience over Spring Break.  Lola was so enthusiastic to finally get to join the Mommy-Samantha-Raina bonding experience and she listened actively as Raina took on the leadership role and explained the process of volunteering to her. 

I’m laying the groundwork: by showing that this problem bothers me so much that I’m willing to do something about it – not once, but on a regular basis.  I’m showing that when many people work together big results occur, and, most importantly, that in this family we care for others and we do community service.  It’s a tradition of how we spend our time, it’s a demonstration of our values, and it is a defining characteristic of what it means to be in our family. 

Now, it should come as no surprise to you that, as a child, I had little experience with money, except to know that it was important and my family did not have much of it.  If you have less, do you appreciate what you have more?  If you have more, is it harder to appreciate the bounty you do have?  I honestly don’t know.  What I do know is that my family struggled to get by but we did get by; I learned that life is pretty happy with less – that having something just because it’s the coolest, newest, whatever in the end is rather meaningless; and no matter what your financial situation you always have something to give – whether that’s time, talent, or treasure. 

Those life lessons stuck.  I am extraordinarily lucky to be in a place of financial security now; it is my responsibility and my privilege to help others. 

Because we’re logical Type A folks, my husband Eric and I made a list -- we ordered everything money-related in terms of importance to us and our values.  As a result, we now have a philanthropy budget, because our initial monetary giving wasn’t very organized, strategic, or sizeable.  Organizations like the United Way asked for money and we generally gave something, but we never gave that much to any one organization and we really didn’t give much at all considering our collective capacity.  All of our giving was reactionary; it was just a quick brush-off response rather than a thoughtful response to our priorities and values.  And Eric and I are in a place of great economic and societal privilege – we owe more to our community than to brush off its needs. 

So we changed our mindset, and decided to be intentional, thoughtful, and strategic with our donations.  We asked ourselves some questions.  What do we really value?  What are we grateful for?  Where can we create positive change?  What is needed?  What should we invest in? 

To help switch from reactionary to thoughtful giving, our family started keeping a gratitude journal, which helped us in three ways.  First, it helped distinguish between needs and wants.  Did anyone at any time say “I’m grateful for TV or cell phones or a particular toy!”  No.  We were grateful for bigger things: security, family, love, education, opportunities, food, clean water.  Second, it honed our thinking.  While we were grateful for many things as a family, we were exceptionally grateful for a select few.  Those were the areas we targeted for strategic and thoughtful service and philanthropy.  Third, it reminded us of what is important, of how lucky we are to have so much, it grounded us in our values, and it compelled us to share that with others.

So we created our list from there – poverty relief, education, and the Ethical Society – and we increased our giving from essentially nothing to a traditional tithe of 10% of our income. 

Our first area of philanthropic concentration is the Ethical Society of Saint Louis.  Eric and I are so grateful that this place exists.  It’s a place for us to fit in, for us to raise our kids, for us to create a positive impact.  It supports causes we believe are important and it avoids the dogma that makes us uncomfortable.  This place and this community help us to be better people and that is incredibly valuable to us.  Contributing to the Ethical Society is an investment in our family, in our character development, in our capacity to grow, in our relationships with others.

Eric and I also tremendously value education.  We recognize that our college degrees set us up for lifelong financial success and security, and we want that for others.  But how?  And for whom?  We decided to focus that attention to our five nieces and nephews who might not be able to afford college otherwise.  We set up college funds for each and we contribute monthly to them.  Compound interest is a wonderful thing, so our modest gifts now will grow to large amounts over time.  These funds won’t cover the full cost of college, but they will help offset some of the burden for five people we care about deeply.

And we looked globally.  All the research indicates that financial security for families and educating girls are linked.  If there’s not enough money in the family, then girls are kept home – to collect water, care for younger siblings – and then are married off, where they start families at a young age and start the cycle again.  Breaking that cycle is essential to combat poverty, and we’re targeting it through Heifer International. 

This is how it works.  We purchase an animal, like a goat or a cow, and then Heifer gives that animal to a needy family and teaches how to care for it.  The family raises the animals and then profits from the labor or protein produced.  The families have a singular requirement: once the animal reproduces, the family must “pass on the gift” and give a female animal and some training to another family in their community.  I love this benevolent model.  The families work hard to emerge from poverty and they share their bounty with others; together, entire communities work hard, improve their situations, and create a sustainable economy.  A small act of generosity on our parts here will pass from family to family there over many years; according to Heifer International, the original monetary donation causes a chain that passes along to 9 families!  Each one of us is a philanthropist then, and the culture of giving grows. 

These small and mid-size gifts matter and cause great change.  Consistent donations allow non-profits to plan and create a reliable budget, to start or continue programs, to grow in impact.  Small, consistent donations are the life-blood of non-profits world-wide, and they have a measurable impact in their communities.  For instance, in 1938, the March of Dimes began its fundraising fight against polio.  In its first year, it raised $1.8 million, $238,000 of which were 10 cent contributions.  By 1959, this model had raised $622 million, which was enough to fund Jonas Salk’s vaccine and eradicate the disease nation-wide.  This mind-boggling achievement occurred as a result of small, steady donations from folks of all walks of life.

You have the capacity to make great change in the world.  I encourage you to think about your own volunteerism and philanthropic giving.  If you are participating in reactionary ways rather than thoughtful ones, then you can get more from your giving.  I’m not talking tax deductions or your name on an Annual Fund donor roll; I’m talking personal inspiration.  Giving is more rewarding than receiving, and what we do with the money and time we have is key to personal happiness.  My family is inspired to give more because we are giving thoughtfully; my family has more of a personal connection to our gifts because we are giving thoughtfully.

If you are interested in increasing your service, you have so many options.  You can think about what your passions are and do advocacy work in those areas.  You can research what your community needs and step in to fill that role.  You can ask a friend if you can join him on a service project he already does.  Get together and do service rather than getting together to do coffee!  See what your children are passionate about and volunteer together to target those areas.  You can use resources like or the United Way Volunteer Center to connect your talents and abilities with worthwhile people and organizations. 

If you’re looking for ways to introduce your children to philanthropic giving and the wide variety of needs in this world, I recommend checking out Foundation Beyond  Each fiscal quarter, FBB highlights charities that have measurable evidence of making a positive impact in their service area.  As a family, you select a contribution level (which starts at $5 a month) and then you allocate your donation among the recommended charities.  Talk about the charities with your children and then let them choose the allocation.  Have your kids track the donation’s impact.  Model empathy – let your children see that you value and understand the needs of others – and let them practice it as well.  Start a family gratitude journal.  These conversations and these actions will help broaden your children’s perspectives on the world, foster a sense of agency, and develop a philanthropic mindset of giving.

Once you’ve figured out your own gratitude list, it’s time to determine your generosity goals.  What do you hope to accomplish with your donations of time, effort, and money?  How will you measure success?  How will you stay connected?  Then explore various options out there and choose philanthropic and service paths that suit your income, outlook on life, giving philosophy, and faith.  You will find your right fit, make new friends, have great experiences, and reap the benefits that giving brings.

In the end, a philanthropic gift of time or money is an expression of love.  Whatever you thoughtfully give – no matter its form or size – has significant value that exceeds its monetary amount.  Feeling good about your gifts will help you get more from your giving, and it will inspire you to be a better person. 

I know that money is a touchy thing.  American consumerist culture teaches us that our primary pursuits in life are to get more money so that we can get more things; at least, that’s how it feels to me sometimes.  This model is self-centered and ignores the basic needs of so many in our world community.  I really don’t like it.

My favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss, has this to say on the subject:
“If you have one piece of cake, and you eat it, that’s fine.  If you have two pieces of cake, you should probably share some with a friend.  But maybe not.  Occasionally we could all use two pieces of cake.  But if you have a whole cake and you eat all of it, that’s not very cool.  It’s not just selfish, it’s kinda sick and unhealthy.  And if you already have two cakes and you keep trying to get more cakes so you can eat all the cake yourself … well, that’s really awful.  Some people out there don’t have any cake at all.  Some people don’t even have dinner, let alone dessert.  There are kids out there who are hungry all the time, with no books at all to read, no beds to sleep in, no homes to come home to, no safe places, no sweet dreams. 
That’s why I do all the charity work.  Because the world isn’t as good as I want it to be.  […] And my philosophy is that people are inherently good.  I believe when given the chance, people will happily line up to make the world a better place.  The truth is, you don’t have to be a billionaire to change the world.  The truth is, if you donate 30 bucks, it will change someone’s life.  Forever.” 

My family could have chosen a more self-centered model for our lives; we could have hoarded all of our time, energy, and money over multiple decades and focused it all on us.  But that’s not the environment I was raised in, and it’s not how I want to raise my kids.  It’s not the Ethical humanist way.  I would rather have a culture focused on giving, sharing, helping, and recognizing the worth of others.  Through small daily actions, we’re doing our part to make it happen. 
Thank you.

Three post notes:  First, whatever money you donate today to the Ethical Society, my family, with the help of Thomson Reuters, will double its amount and send to Heifer International.  Please consider giving generously.  Second, on October 5th, at 10 a.m., the Parent Talk discussion will focus on how to do community service as a family, and I encourage all who are interested to come.  Third, if you’re interested in pursuing the ethical questions regarding philanthropy and international poverty, please check out Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save.  Kudos to Christine Floss for recommending it to me and implicitly challenging my family to give even more.  It sparked many conversations this week.

Thank you for your time and attention today.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

New-to-us Piano

The Whomptons have had an upright piano with an interesting life story for quite a while.  It was purchased in England and had a good run there.  When its owner Barb decided to move to the States, the piano was shipped across the Atlantic and ended up here.  When Barb was unable to play it anymore, it was passed along to her daughter Catherine and her granddaughter Olivia.  Olivia loved this piano and played it for many years.  When Catherine accepted a job in China, she sold the piano to us.  We, of course, offered to return the piano back to her or Olivia if they ever returned stateside and they did just a month ago.

It was hard to explain to Raina that the piano she learned to play on had another owner with more of a claim to it than we had.  Raina loved the piano too, of course.  But they loved the piano more and we returned it to them two weeks ago.  It was time for us to find a new piano!

Okay, I'll be honest.  We didn't want a new piano.  New pianos are expensive and I'm too frugal to buy one.  We wanted a new-to-us piano that was guaranteed to be in good shape.  We perused CraigsList and, with the help of Bing's Piano Services, we selected our new piano.  Bing fixed a few small problems (with Lola's help) and Raina declared her new piano lovely.

Here's to many happy years of playing!

Grandparent Love

The girls and their grandparents have been together a lot these past few months: winter holidays, Grandparents and Special Friends day, Raina's 5K, Grandparent Camp, and the beach trip.  Here are some photos from those adventures.  (This included the first Ted Drewes trip for Terry, Darlene, Raina, and Lola.  It was well received!)

Raina's first 5K

Raina joined Girls on the Run this year.  GOTR is an organization that coaches girls on leadership, empowerment, and running a 5K race.  Never one for organized sports, Raina found she excelled at running and she beamed with all the praise she received from her coaches.  She determined that she was faster than many of her peers and she had more endurance than she realized.  Eric and I started to invite her on our morning runs and Raina began accepting the invitations.  Raina began to associate the term “runner” as an attribute for herself. 

Then she had her practice 5K race at school.  I was told that I should follow Raina’s lead on how she wanted to run her practice 5K and just encourage her verbally throughout the race.  I worried about this plan – on our weekend runs Raina wanted to sprint and then walk, which is not a successful distance model – but I deferred to the experience of her GOTR coaches.  The practice 5K day was cold, windy, misty, and miserable.  Raina sprinted and expended all her energy early and then was completely defeated by the fact that she was walking when everyone else was finishing the race.  She wanted to quit, she cried, and I negotiated with her, cajoled her, dragged her, and irritated her through the remainder of the race.  She finished but it was a trial for everyone.  Raina left that experience crushed and she told me that she did not want to run the GOTR 5K in two weeks.

This was not an option.  Our good friend Tina Kearney gave the #1 race bib to Raina for her first race.  Raina’s grandparents were coming to see her run.  And we had paid the registrations.  She was doing the race!  We just needed to do the 5K differently.

We talked a lot about strategy of running, of efficiency, of pacing, of attitude.  We did a few runs over the next few weeks together, trying to regain her confidence.  And we talked it up as a “complete, not compete” model. 

The 5K race day was beautiful: sunny, cool, and full of energy.  The GOTR folks really know how to put on a party!  They had colored hair spray and lots of music, everyone was in the same bright colored shirts, there were cheerleaders and supporters everywhere.  Raina refused to be excited by these things.  She was clearly nervous.  I was BOUNCY with energy, which embarrassed Raina even more. 

Finally the race began.  We let other folks run around us as we picked one pace person to follow.  Raina warmed up and wanted to run faster, so we picked up the pace and found a new person to follow.  We stuck with a ridiculously happy guy pushing a stroller with a boombox inside.  He blared high energy music and sang at the top of his lungs and I knew we wanted to connect with his energy for as long as possible.  He saw us to the last half-mile, where Raina sprinted to the finish. 

Raina walked on occasion but ran most of the distance.  It was hard but not as hard as she thought it would be and she was incredibly proud of herself for making it all the way through.  I admit to crying tears of relief mid-way through the race when I could see the experience was going to positive for her.  Thank goodness!

Here are before and after photos of our #1 runner!

Beach Trip 2014

The Compton – Whompton – Astorian tribes converge together in Litchfield, South Carolina, and enjoy each other’s company for a week.  The Whomptons break the drive into two days – one long, one short – and then truly celebrate once we’re free of the car.

Samantha came on this trip.  While the Whomptons can cram 5 people into the Prius, it’s not a comfortable fit for any length of time and really wasn’t a good option for this trip.  So Samantha drove her Prius too.  Everyone was out of the house by 7 a.m. on Friday and the beach trip began!

Friday was a frustrating day, where it felt that nothing went our way.  The police closed the interstate highway outside of Marion, IL, so we were stopped for a long time and then were diverted on side state roads.  Lunch was in Clarksville, TN, where Samantha was rear-ended so forcefully that she hit the car in front of her.  Yep, a car accident 4 hours into our trip.  We spent multiple hours in Clarksville dealing with the police report and trying to determine whether her car was safe to drive 950 miles there and back.  We decided yes and off we were again.  Our original Chattanooga dinner location was closed so we audibled to an absolutely scrumptious FoodWorks dinner.  (We finally found a meal that defeated Raina – look at that lasagna!)  Then there were multiple accidents in Atlanta, which held us up.  In the end, we arrived at our Atlanta hotel 4 hours later than we planned and went straight to bed.

Saturday was much smoother.  The Atlanta traffic was perfectly reasonable and both Krystal and Samantha happily joined the crowds who drove 20 mph over the speed limit in the SLOW lane.  We arrived in South Carolina in record time!  J  The South Carolina leg is a lot of state roads and we were only stopped once – for the county fair of a small SC town.  We arrived in Litchfield early and ran errands, etc., as we waited for the beach house key.  We had dinner at 5 p.m. and spent the evening visiting the beach.

The week had a lot of firsts.  Raina learned how to ride waves on the boogie board by herself.  Krystal learned how to body surf.  Eric and Raina constructed an elaborate tunnel system in the sand.  JoLynn and Emily saw a loggerhead sea turtle nest.  Krystal and Samantha sacrificed hats and sunglasses to the ocean.  We experienced our first hurricane.  Eric and Krystal ran on the beach during the hurricane.  We stood on the beach and watched Independence Day fireworks in every direction.  Raina and Lola learned to love showers.  The girls watched ET with Jerry.  The temperature ranged from the low 70s to upper 80s (by far the coolest beach trip we’ve ever taken).

And the week had a lot of standard activities as well: eating peaches and other tasty food, reading books, digging in the sand, long walks on the beach, hours splashing in the waves, taking required Compton photos, and lots of games.  We played Bridge, Hanabi, Barbu, Escape from the Temple, Zombie Fluxx, and Lord of the Rings Card Game.  The five year olds continuously played with each other, devising games and activities that were attractive only to the younger set, and Raina felt a tad lonely. 

Our drive back was relatively uneventful.  We were stopped outside of Chattanooga briefly and our plan to return to FoodWorks for dinner was foiled due to fire.  (All the news reports indicate that everyone who works for the restaurant is okay and the restaurant will re-open soon.)  We reached Nashville with plenty of time to lounge around and be tired and crash early, and we reached Saint Louis the next day with time to do the same.  There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed after a long trip! 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Creating the "Right" Childhood

There is this continuous complaint that kids today aren’t experiencing the “right” kind of childhood – you know, like the childhood that person remembers as his own.  Kids today are too protected, too indoors, too electronically focused, but in the “good old days when I was a kid” ….

Comments like these reek of presumptive parenting, of insinuating that one parenting style is better than others, of mothering condescension.  I admit, I don’t know what “kids today” are experiencing; I only really know what my kids are experiencing, and that is a world I help create for them.  My parenting responsibility is to offer them the “right” childhood (as determined by Eric and I) and then to emphatically support the girls as they navigate their own childhood and development.  I absolutely adored some elements of my youth and they fundamentally shaped me into the person I am today; of course I want to provide a similar array of experiences and opportunities for my children.

I had some primary loves when I was younger.  At Lola’s age, I loved playing in the dirt bed in the backyard.  My mom is a serious gardener and, to prevent the kids playing in her gardens, she provided a big rectangular space of dirt for us.  Theoretically it could have been a garden too, but we kids were more interested in digging in the dirt, making tracks for trucks and cars, making mud, etc.  Eventually I graduated from always playing in the backyard to playing with all the kids on our cul-de-sac.  We had endless afternoons of tag, hide and seek, kickball, and other outdoor games and we came home when the streetlights came on.  I was not involved in any sports or activities or instruments; my time after school and on weekends was my own and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  Eventually I moved into an endless desire to read books and to explore worlds described by others and I left most of my childhood loves behind.  (Some aspects of my childhood I just do not remember.  Did my family eat dinner regularly?  Did I have homework each night?  When did I bathe?  I just don’t remember those time restrictions.) 

My daughters do not have a dirt bed to play in, which is unfortunate because I’m sure the girls would have played in it incessantly.  Raina was an enthusiastic sand box gal – she created small sand piles at home from dumping all the sand out of her shoes – and Lola just enjoys being outside.  We do have a big common ground that abuts to our backyard and the girls go exploring out there unsupervised.  Lola finds fallen sticks and creates mini-sculptures or uses them as weapons in her pretend play.  Both girls enjoy just running around in the common ground, kicking balls, blowing bubbles, biking, and being free. 

Our street does not have streetlights or sidewalks or many kids.  Lola plays outside by herself – chalking or running or talking with neighbors – and she abides by the boundary of not playing in the street.  I worry about her navigating the street on her own – she’s small and cars are big and fast – but she has developed a smart strategy of walking through the common ground to a sidewalk or a friend’s house as a way to bypass walking on our individual street.  I am immensely comfortable with this arrangement and it’s remarkably similar to the one I used as a child.  Yes, theoretically, I could have wandered multiple streets away in my neighborhood and explored/played there, but I was more interested in playing on my street and with my friends there.  The girls have a similar mindset.

The Whomptons do not a backyard playground – no slides or swings or anything of that ilk.  We have an elementary school about ½ mile from our house instead and, when the weather is nice, the whole family walks down to the Ross Elementary playground so the girls can get their willies out.  The walk from our house to the school is mostly sidewalk, except for our street and three other streets we have to cross.  It is an easy walk and is one the girls are physically well trained to do on their own.  I’m not certain when it will be appropriate for them to make that venture on their own, for them to say “I want to go to the Ross playground!” and for me to respond, “Awesome!  Have a great time!” 

We are slowly training the girls to get to this point, to be comfortable with more and more distance between parent and child.  On any walking venture, Lola runs ahead on her own and explores but she stops at each cross street and waits patiently for an adult or Raina to arrive.  Lola knows that she crosses streets only with a bigger person.  I trust her to respect that boundary and, therefore, I respect her independence and desire to have a different speed than the rest of us.  The girls are rarely lockstep with the adults on a walking venture – the adults have a consistent speed, where the kids gallivant about and explore more – and I’m proud of them for stretching out that imaginary parent – child leash.  I trust my kids to make smart choices in regard to their safety.

Not all parents and children have the same philosophy and I noticed it recently when we had another child over for a playdate.  We took two excursions out of the house, something I rarely did with another person’s child until now.  The girl let me know she wanted to use the restroom.  I said okay, pointed to the facility’s restroom 15 feet away, and made it clear with my actions that I wasn’t coming in the restroom with her.  She had the choice to go in alone, to not go in at all, or to ask for someone to join her.  She walked to the restroom door and stood beside it for 3 – 4 minutes, until I called Raina over and asked her to go inside with the friend.  The friend exclaimed “thank you!” to Raina and in they went.  Later, we went to a playground and Lola’s first action was to climb UP the slide and then to slide down it.  The friend was shocked. 

Friend: Lola, what are you doing?  Can you do that?
Lola: I’m going up the slide.
Friend: But it is dangerous!
Lola: No, it’s fun. 

After watching Raina and Lola do the same thing for a while, the friend tried it, slid down, proclaimed it “fun!” and then did it over and over again. 

I tell this story not in a judging way to that child or her family – again, each family is different and makes conscious decisions to be so.  Clearly, the friend was not comfortable taking an action she deemed risky and she communicated that with her words and actions.  However, the adult in the situation (me) and the child had different standards of what constituted a “risky action” and it made me wonder whether the child would tell stories about the playdate and whether I will be labeled as one of those parents – you know, ones who ignore their kids and let them do whatever they want – as a result.

Let’s be clear.  I do ignore my kids.  I don’t spend much of my time entertaining them or shuttling them from place to place.  I do let them do what they want (mostly).  And that mostly is the key.  Eric and I have worked hard to establish boundaries of acceptability so we trust the girls to make good decisions.  I feel like the structure we’ve made and the opportunities we provide to grow are hallmarks of being a good parent.  I am not blasé about my role or responsibility.  But, from another person’s point of view, these actions might look like the hallmarks of a bad, neglectful parent.  More importantly, they may make us look like irresponsible adults – like ones that should not be entrusted with other kids on playdates or sleepovers.  Again, the label of being one of those parents. 

But I digress.  My main point is that my parents trusted me to make good choices and they gave me latitude to make those choices – whether good or bad -- and to live with the consequences of them.  That model makes sense to me, and it’s one I try to embody with my children as well.

Another key component of my childhood was exposure to the outdoors: playing outside at my parents’ house, working on my grandparents’ farm, camping and fishing with my cousins.  I understood the outdoors and was mostly comfortable there.  Eric and I try to provide outdoor opportunities for our girls as well.  Raina is a Girl Scout and both girls are Ethical Navigators; we regularly choose the Zoo or hiking over other more indoor pursuits.  Raina chose to have last year’s birthday party feature a hike and she’s expressed interest in doing something similar this year.  She’s thinking camping out in the backyard as a sleepover.  Really, how cool is that?!  I am excited by how much they have embraced outdoor pursuits and I’m looking forward to future outings of the girls and me camping and hiking in National Parks on our summer breaks.  It’s going to be great.

My introverted self loves games and books.  Gaming allows you to be social – as in there are people with whom you’re interacting – but the level of real social interaction is up to you.  I played ridiculous amounts of Crazy Eights, Rummy, Uno, Canasta, Hearts, and Tonk with my dad, and then plenty of Solitaire games on my own.  Eric plays games with the girls on a regular basis; Raina and he have Zombie Fluxx matches each night and they plus Lola play Incan Gold and Forbidden Island together.  (The girls don’t play any traditional 52 card games together; I don’t know why.)  I have pushed the love of books.  We own loads of books, we take weekly trips to the library to restock, and we actively encourage reading as an activity.  I am so grateful that Raina has embraced the written word so completely. 

Of course, no childhood is completely rosy – at least mine was not.  My family grappled with alcoholism and financial instability and unemployment and these forces had really destructive effects on my family.  While I did not enjoy these catalysts, the life lessons I learned from them were invaluable and directly have impacted the partnership Eric and I have and the environment in which we raise our children.

Eric and I are lucky enough to not have addictions of any kind.  Past that, we do not drink alcohol, do not smoke, and do not use illegal drugs.  While some folks hear that and think “but how do you have any fun!?” I think the counterpoint is important to see.  We lead really happy, fun and fulfilling lives without those additions.  It’s important to provide those models for our kids (even though it’s not the primary motivation behind our actions). 

Our financial story is not as straight-forward.  When Eric and I first married we financially stretched a little past our means to make a sizeable purchase; we spent most of our savings on a down-payment of a home that was larger than we needed at the time.  And, assuming that everything continued on in the same path, we would have been fine financially.  But you should never count on money situations to always be positive – as I should have known from continuous childhood experiences.  When Eric’s company downsized and let him go immediately after we closed on the house, we were saddled with a substantial debt on a single salary stream.  So we switched financial gears and began to conserve as much as possible.  Over the next ten years we made short-term financial security our highest priority; we paid off student loans, car loans, and eventually our mortgage.  Present day Eric and Krystal prize financial stability.  We live well within our means, spend frugally and mindfully, and save aggressively.  We hope to never face unexpected unemployment again, but we have positioned ourselves in a place so that it would not be destructive to the financial stability of our family. 

Talking about the really challenging parts of my past is not easy and I don’t know to what extent – if any – I’ll share those personal stories of my childhood with my daughters.  But I do want Raina and Lola to embrace the same core value of moderation so some conversations will need to occur.  We’ll approach these conversations eventually and I’m optimistic about the girls’ making responsible and reasoned choices.


I ruminated over this blog post for a while, after hearing Kate Lovelady's platform address about "Kids Today" and I read "The Overprotected Kid."  Feel free to check these source materials as well.