Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Little Nonprofit That Could

Thirteen years ago I asked myself why nobody was already doing what I was thinking of doing – starting a nonprofit organization to help restore the arts to public schools in my community while bypassing the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.  
Was I na├»ve?  Had others tried and failed? Or did nobody really care?

Unaware and oblivious to all that would ultimately lie ahead of me, and what would be demanded of me to create, nurture and protect a new nonprofit, I set about learning all I could about how to file the necessary paperwork with state and federal governments, how to form a corporation, a board of directors, write bylaws, and how to fundraise.  Since my husband had a really good job at the time, we could afford for me to donate all of my time for several years, not only as the primary administrator and director, but as creative director and art teacher too.  I wrote the curriculum and taught all of the classes pro bono until “the little nonprofit that could” made it to the top of the mountain.  Arts in Education Aid Council (AEAC) was my third child.  I loved and cared for it (and worried about it in the middle of the night) as if it were one of the family.  The secret of my success in getting myself and my little nonprofit to the top of that mountain was that I never looked up.  I just kept doing what was put in front of me, taking it one step at a time, never worrying about when I might get to the top of the mountain or what would be there once I got there.

Once I got to the summit, I could see all around me.  AEAC had gone from being a “stage 1 organization” (run out of the founder’s home) to a “stage 2 organization”, autonomous from me (the founder), with a paid staff, separate office, lots of volunteers, and many different community partners.  We had found a place for ourselves within the arts education community of Los Angeles.  The organization continued to grow.  More and more schools and kids were being served.   We sponsored more events.  Our annual family arts festival grew so much every year that it got too big.  We were getting sizeable donations from the most notable foundations in Los Angeles.  We had made it to the mountaintop.

Then the recession hit.  

I, and AEAC, got knocked off of the mountain top.  It would have been much harder to take if I didn’t see every other small to mid sized nonprofit leader I knew tumbling down the mountain alongside me.  The foundations that had been so generous before had suddenly stopped giving.  Instead of giving less so that the nonprofits could make it through the recession, most of them gave nothing at all.  Individuals and companies could no longer afford to give anything to charity.  Many of them had suffered so much from the recession that they worried about their own survival.

Many nonprofits went out of business or merged with other nonprofits, just to stay in business.  With more and more people in need of food and shelter, arts nonprofits saw even less in the way of charitable giving because basic human needs needed to be taken care of first.  Limited charitable dollars went towards organizations that helped feed, clothe, and shelter people.  But they too were struggling because there were more and more people in need.  

The responsibility of keeping things together, both at AEAC and at home, took a toll on me physically.  I had never known such stress before.  My husband was self employed, and he was going through the same thing with his business.  He continued to work, but people couldn’t afford to pay him.  We went through all of our savings and retirement just to pay the bills.  We were lucky we didn’t lose our house.

In fear for my health, I decided to practice what I preach and I got busy making my own art.  Painting relaxes me and stops me from getting too stressed out.  Cartooning forces me to see the lighter side of life.  Listening to my favorite music while I paint or draw puts me in a good mood.  I walk out of my studio much more serene and balanced.  I’m easier to live with when I’m being creative.  

A lot has happened since I fell off the mountain top.  I spent the last year in treatment for breast cancer.  I continued to paint, draw, and listen to music while I underwent various therapies.  Making art not only helped my physical recovery by keeping me relaxed, but it made a huge difference in my mental and spiritual attitude.  When you’re fighting for your life, a positive attitude matters a lot.

I’ve stopped tumbling down the mountain.  I’m strong enough to stand.  After all that I have been through, I’m not afraid to look back.  I so appreciate all that went into getting to the top.  It’s a pretty amazing story.

And although I and The Little Nonprofit That Could are battered and bruised, we’re re-grouping and back on the trail again, living proof that the arts literally save lives.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joan of Art

Organized religion is not for me.  It’s not the God thing, it’s the people thing.  It seems to me that human beings have just made a mess out of religion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people who go to church, temple, etc.  I’m actually very interested in religions, large and small, and have been studying them for over thirty years.  It’s just that I, like a lot of other anti-Status Quo, free spirited people I know, am not much of a joiner, and could never choose one religion over another in order to fence myself in spiritually.  One over the other?  I don’t get that.    My spirituality has evolved and changed as I have evolved and changed.  It’s personal and simple.  My philosophy?  Leave the world better than you find it.  That’s my religion and that’s what I teach my kids.

What has guided me all of my life, in the absence of organized religion, is what I call my inner Joan of Art voice, the “still, small voice” within that always knows what to do.  I have listened, and relied upon, this voice all of my life.  As a small child, I trusted that voice when I couldn’t trust the adults in my life.  I escaped into my own world and expressed myself freely with my art. When I was being creative, I was safe and in control.   Music, art, humor, and my curiosity of anything outside of the norm are what sustained me through my teen years.  As a young adult, I took a leap of faith and jumped out into the great, wide open, and found my way with the same music, art, humor, appreciation for anything outside of the mainstream, and the written word.  I had started writing.

Then I became a mom. I love my kids!  I love all kids.  Kids are all artists – naturally inquisitive, uninhibited, trusting, and one with the moment. They make me laugh.  When I started teaching art to young children, laughter took on a whole new dimension as I got to be a big goof with them.  From that, art and teaching led me into my activism, a natural continuum and expansion of my creativity, and a challenge to my rebellious nature.  

My Joan of Art voice has guided me through every stage, impasse, and crisis throughout my life.

When I got cancer, I was scared to death.  I felt so lost.  For the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear my Joan of Art voice.  “Even if I survive the cancer, I am as good as dead without Joan of Art,” I would say to myself.  I didn’t know what to do.

Then I decided that if I could not hear Joan of Art, I could at least remember Joan of Art.  So I went through the motions, and started writing, drawing, and painting, whether I felt inspired or not.  In time, I laughed. That laughter reconnected me to that voice and I found myself again.  Once I had myself back, I knew I was going to be OK, no matter what the outcome.  The only way I could find myself, after losing myself, was by making art.

Listening to music, painting, drawing, laughing, reading great literature and writing are what has kept me going and helped me make sense of this whole crazy cancer ordeal.  By staying creative, I keep connected to God, The Source, The Divine, a Higher Power, or whatever you want to call it.  Making and appreciating art is my daily practice.  That’s how I stay regular…..by being creative every day.  A dose of art is like getting a spiritual chiropractic adjustment.  Creativity is what straightens me out and puts me back on track.  

Artists, even though most people don’t stop to think about it, are who make the daily grind for the masses more bearable, interesting, or meaningful.  Whenever people stop to appreciate music, art, humor, or literature, they are getting a spiritual chiropractic adjustment, whether they are conscious of it or not.  

Joan of Art has spoken.  And she did not leave the building!  Phew!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Think Public Education Doesn’t Affect You? THINK Again

I’ve been thinking about how serious the education crisis in America is for two weeks now, ever since I got back from Washington DC. I went there to tell my story about how my family and I were nearly destroyed by the recession, and how the Affordable Care Act is saving my life. After the recession hit, we were forced to have to choose between our house and our health insurance. As self employed people (my husband owns his own small, computer business, and I am an artist and arts education nonprofit leader), we had been purchasing health insurance on the individual market. It’s the most expensive policy you can buy, with the least amount of coverage. By the time we cancelled our insurance, it was costing us as much as our mortgage. Two years after cancelling, I discovered I had Stage 3 breast cancer.

I have been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for three months, but since my life is being saved by the Affordable Care Act (“aka Obamacare”), I feel it is my civic duty to share my story whenever and wherever asked, if able, so I can help pay it forward. I got the chance to tell the country about my story by participating in a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 27.

I was invited to take part in this historical event by another nonprofit organization, Affordable Health Care for America Now (HCAN), whose mission is to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care. They set up a media center directly across the street from the Supreme Court where radio stations from around the country were set up to interview people like myself. I did radio, TV and newspaper interviews (resting in between as much as I could) for three days. Side effects of chemo aside, I was energized and quite comfortable doing the interviews as I have had a lot of practice going up against the Status Quo for the past twelve years, fighting for public education and the arts in schools out on the streets, on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, in countless meetings, with my own nonprofit organization, through my leadership with school PTAs, or with my own art. I had prior experience with radio, TV and newspaper interviews, so I was prepared. I’d just never gone all the way to Washington before, and of course, I’ve never stuck myself out there while being sick with cancer.

The irony of this trip, for me personally, is that while I had to abandon my first cause (public education and arts education) to commit to this new cause (affordable health care), I came back to Los Angeles thinking long and hard about my first cause. My take away from the whole experience was that most people don’t have a clue about what is going on with health care reform. The majority of Americans are completely misinformed about the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t stop them from expressing strong opinions about it. That got me thinking seriously about our education system in this country. We’re in big trouble.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to dupe people into believing just about anything in this country. I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, while participating in my democracy at the very epicenter of the free world. I had a lot in common with many of the other demonstrators. It wasn’t just that we all agreed about the Affordable Care Act. It was that we could articulate, in our own words, what the Affordable Care Act meant, not only to ourselves, but to the country. We all thought for ourselves. Educated, liberated people in a free democracy can do that. On the contrary, there were others (who the media paid way too much attention to), who could not articulate their own points of view, but relied instead on silly, empty talking points based on fear and lies. For all of the screaming and yelling about Obamacare being “socialized medicine”, and how our freedoms and liberties are being threatened, I couldn’t help but wonder why these people find it so easy to let others do their thinking for them. Ignorance is the real enemy, not Obamacare.

I spent my last day in Washington looking at historical sites. There are so many monuments and museums (which are all free! I spent a little time in the National Art Gallery and was blown away – I want to go back again with my family soon.) As  I thought about our nation’s history and the symbolism of the monuments, I feared for the future of our country. After what I heard with my own ears, and saw with my own eyes during my stay, it looks like my friend from England may be right; America is the best half educated country in the world.

If we did a better job of educating our citizens, people wouldn’t be so easily manipulated and controlled. Our current education system does not teach kids how to think, it teaches kids what to think. Controlled, collective thought is DANGEROUS, especially when it is voiced on the steps of the Supreme Court and echoed all over the country at the end of the day by the media on TV.

Education and personal responsibility are the antidotes to the social poisons of apathy and sloth. All of the hysteria and paranoid anti-Obamacare hype that I witnessed exposed the root problem: fear, ignorance, and lack of education. So it’s back to my first cause: arts education. Here are the reasons why a well rounded, high quality public education must include the arts:

  • A world class education must address and exercise both sides of the brain. Our current “skill and drill” education system addresses only the left side of the brain which focuses mostly on memorization (to prepare kids to do well on standardized tests). Creativity, individuality, and critical thinking (right brain function) are not only discouraged, but children who are more right brained in their talents and abilities get labeled as having some sort of learning disorder such as ADD.
  • A well balanced arts curriculum exposes children to other cultures via exposure to different styles of music, dance, art, and literature. This not only helps build understanding between children from various cultural backgrounds, by creating creative bridges between students, but it also opens schools up to the greater world beyond them.
  • Participating in music, dance, art, creative writing, etc., gives at risk children an opportunity to express themselves in a safe and constructive way. Many children who exhibit behavior problems at school have secrets, or live in homes that are not at all safe or nurturing. By being given the chance to write poetry, get their frustrations out through dance, or lose themselves through drawing or making music, we are teaching children that there are healthy, constructive ways to express anger, fear, or sadness.
  • By asking students to use the right sides of their brains, we are asking them to search for more than one answer, where there are no preset, defined boundaries, to step “outside of the box” into unknown territory. This may be a welcome relief for the more free spirited, artistic types, but this can be threatening for some left brained learners who are more comfortable in a more restricted learning environment. They learn how to be, and deal with, feeling uncomfortable. By being challenged in this way, they learn valuable life skills on how to deal with uncertain situations, how to think on their feet, and how to risk putting oneself out there. The arts also teach children how to handle rejection and failure. They learn that others may or may not respond well to their interpretation of things. That is life.
In summary, offering a well rounded arts education curriculum in schools challenges all learning styles. They encourage students to question, to think deeply, to have their own thoughts, to handle rejection and negative emotions, and to risk……all elements of an educated mind and a healthy democracy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Best Candy Playlist

I've been receiving chemotherapy for Stage 3 Breast Cancer for seven weeks now and I'm happy to report that my body is responding to the treatment really, really well. It's rough, though, and I'd say that I've been pretty useless for half of those seven weeks, because the side effects of chemo are pretty debilitating. There is nothing I can do but ride it out.

What has helped me endure all of this is MUSIC! I have loved music all of my life, and have made it a priority that kids in our schools continue to participate in our orchestra and band programs, produced through the Children's Music Workshop, in spite of the recession, because frankly, music saves lives.

What has kept me going for the past few years, as I try and keep my and my nonprofit's heads above water, are those precious kids whose lives have literally been turned around by being able to play in the school band or orchestra. Some of the kids who have benefited come from homes where they have witnessed unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. I think of these kids whenever the Status Quo has suggested that my, and many other small arts education nonprofits, are well meaning, but that our efforts are small in comparison to theirs. Whenever I have been insulted like this, I think of our kids. Knowing that a few kids' lives have been changed for the better is good enough for me. I don't need, or want, the Status Quo's approval.

After all it's boasting and bullying, the Status Quo has announced that it will cut 100% of its elementary arts programming, which it has been bragging about for the past ten years!!! I'm not at all surprised by this news, but I am disgusted. The kids and the arts lose again, yet the Status Quo lives on.

I can't get too worked up about this, because I need to focus on staying positive for myself so I can keep up the good fight to beat breast cancer. The stress of trying to stay afloat during the recession, and keeping the Status Quo as far away from me and my nonprofit as possible, has taken its toll.

But the music plays on! Arts in Education Aid Council has managed to keep our band and orchestra program going in two schools in the Valley, and I'm very proud of that (all I had to do was find the money to pay for it, the Children's Music Workshop, under the direction of Larry Newman, does all the work). We have received grants from the ASCAP Foundation and the Colburn Foundation for this program and are waiting to hear about another music grant in a month or so. That makes me really happy.

What else makes me really happy is my own, personal sound track that I created, just to help me get through this tough time in my life. I call this playlist, "Best Candy", inspired by my nine year old daughter's desire to change "breast cancer" to "best candy" because breast cancer sounds so creepy and scary (she is the writer in the family!) On my Best Candy playlist is every song that I love so much that it makes me want to stop whatever I am doing, turn it up, and dance. I listen to this playlist every time I get chemo and while I take my daily two mile walks. What happens to me while I listen to my favorite music, is so good, so permeating, so strong, and so joyful, that I know I am being healed in that very moment. I have always felt this way about music, and now I am living proof (pun intended) that music heals. I know it, all musicians and music lovers know it, music educators know it, and music students know it. It's too bad the Status Quo doesn't know it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

After ObamaCares

It’s been 2 ½ weeks since the op-ed piece that I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Obamacare to the Rescue” was published, and I’m still getting emails from people, thanking me for outing myself as another middle class, uninsured American. Many people wrote to say, "Me too!", and best of all, some people wrote to say that they were now benefiting from PCIP, thanks to my piece. I already knew plenty of hard working, ordinary middle class people who could no longer afford their health insurance premiums. I outed myself awhile ago, locally, just to get people thinking………

"Your PTA president can no longer afford the monthly $1,500 in health insurance premiums. If it could happen to her, it could happen to you……”

Now I’m faced with everyone’s worst fear: I have cancer. After getting the dreaded news on November 7, I went into shock, intensified by the fact that I was uninsured, without any sort of financial safety net, because the recession had robbed my family and I of it all. Thankfully, through the fast thinking of my good friend and fellow nonprofit leader, Becky Constantino of Access Books, who did some online research, I found out I qualified for PCIP through the Affordable Care Act.

Before I knew I was sick, I had channeled all of my frustration into my own art, because that’s what artists do. And I’m still doing it, only now I’m writing and drawing about cancer and health insurance. I started writing about the recession’s impact on me and my little nonprofit a couple of years ago. I had managed to mitigate my resentment and heartache that whole time by making my own art, cartooning and writing. I made so much art that I got my own solo show in October. And I published a book of cartoons, ART by Spike Dolomite, taken from the latest cartoon strip that I created, all about my favorite subject: the arts. I have also managed to keep my nonprofit going during this time, but at a huge personal cost to my health. Keeping it going has been really, really stressful.

I’m not alone. I know of many other nonprofit leaders, who, out of true love for their work, and absolute commitment to their nonprofit’s mission, have managed to keep their nonprofits going during the worst economic time in American history since the Great Depression. People seeking help from various charities have popped up in record numbers, yet many people are turned away because nonprofits have either gone out of business or are beyond their capacity. The recession has kept people from giving to charity which has crippled all of them (ironically, Ron Paul, when asked during a debate about what should be done about a hypothetical, uninsured thirty year old man who shows up at an emergency room, about to die, first implied that he should just die because he made the poor choice of being irresponsible by not buying private health insurance, and then he said “Let the charities and churches take care of him”. HA! How much more out of touch can these politicians be? The charities can’t do it! The blatant indifference and ignorance of our politicians is frightening.)

I’ve thought a lot about my fellow nonprofit leaders and their employees over the past 2 ½ weeks. Most of them don’t have health insurance either. Small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations usually run on shoe string budgets, and can still make a dollar go a lot further than the average for-profit company can, because they are so passionate about the work that they do. They’re not in it for the money. Money is a necessity, it’s not what drives them. Their missions are what drives and sustains them, not their bottom lines, high salaries or hefty benefits.

Before the recession hit, we had developed a three year strategic plan wherein we had positioned ourselves to not only build and expand our infrastructure so that we could impact more kids and schools, but that we could be an arts education organization that everyone would want to work for, not just for our outstanding programs, but because we could offer benefits like health insurance. We were transitioning from a Stage 1 organization to a Stage 2 organization, and we were doing really, really well.

Then the rug got pulled out from underneath us. So much of what we had built came crashing down. The only thing that kept me from feeling like a personal failure was the perverted comfort I got from seeing it happen to everybody else around me. It was horrible. I was really hurt, because Arts in Education Aid Council has been like my third child. I felt like it had been violated and abused, yet I could do nothing about it. As a result, I got very, very angry. I couldn’t turn my back on it and all of the kids and adults who were depending on me, so I kept it going by taking a few steps back (into familiar Stage 1 territory), where I planned to nurse it back to health until the economy recovered, at a great personal and financial cost. One of the first thoughts that went through my mind after getting the cancer news was, “This thing is killing me”. I’ve heard other nonprofit leaders say the same thing.

For every fifty messages that I have received after that op-ed came out, thanking me for telling my story and letting people know about the Affordable Care Act’s PCIP (Pre-existing Insurance Plan), I have received one hateful, mean spirited, narrow minded message condemning me for being irresponsible and lazy. Some lambasted me for being an artist, accusing me of living in a fantasy world. I have been hammered for working for a nonprofit (assuming that nonprofits are not real businesses and that anybody who “works” for one doesn’t really “work” - if these people had any clue what it was like to start and run a nonprofit! I have never worked so hard in my life!). I have been labeled as a socialist (caring about other people doesn’t make me a socialist - look it up). Some people went way out of their way to Google me and dig stuff up on me to make me look like I was working for the Obama administration or I was running for political office or something. Some pointed out that since I am a self proclaimed activist, I must be up to something. Since when is “activist” a dirty word? Girl Scouts are activists, PTA parents are activists, church members are activists, anybody who stands up to right a wrong, speaks out, or goes out of their way to make their community a better place is an activist. Hell ya, I’m an activist!

A couple of these outspoken critics have accused me of being anti-American. The worst emails came from a few people who actually came right out and said they didn’t want to pay for my Obamacare and that they wished I would just die (to such critics: PCIP is an insurance plan. I pay premiums, deductibles and co-pays, it’s not like Obama bought me a car or paid off my mortgage, he’s saving my life. To these same critics: I have been paying into Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance since I was 15 and have never received any benefits from any of these federally sponsored programs, but I am happy to contribute!)

Receiving such hate mail has made me acutely aware of how easy it is to manipulate and control the masses. Most of the hate speech directed towards me comes from a few sources – they are just repeated talking points and buzz words that have been designed to carry forth a message to get people to believe that Obamacare means socialism. They have been duped into fearing Obamacare when what they should really be afraid of is their own insurance companies and the politicians who benefit from them by receiving contributions and/or hefty returns on their personal investments in those companies. Americans have been duped into believing that health care is a product to be consumed, which means you can only be healthy if you can afford it. Health care is not a human right in the richest, most powerful nation on earth? Why do some people buy into this idea (literally), that health is a commodity that only the privileged and lucky can afford?

I would like to challenge everyone who has parroted certain talking points propagating the fear of socialism to investigate what they are repeating. Do your own research to fully understand what you have been handed and what you are helping to spread (some of the authors of some of the emails I have received have sparked the public education/arts education activist in me………..if America would only educate its citizens properly and encourage creativity, we wouldn’t produce so many ignorant, hateful, closed minded people!) While you are at it, research universal health care and ask yourself why we are one of the only developed countries that doesn’t have a universal health care plan. Common sense will give you the answer, but look it up anyway.

I turned my back on politics out of disgust, because I felt like our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, were playing with my life. I felt like very few of them actually represented me, or cared about the common American. American politics was just a dirty, power game, and I and the rest of the 99% were just mere pawns. By turning my back on my elected officials, I made the irresponsible choice to disengage, which meant I missed important news that had a positive impact on my life, like what has already passed with the Affordable Care Act. Once a politically astute voter, I had cut myself off from the political process out of desperation and a desire to protect myself and my family. I’m not proud of that, but again, I wasn’t alone. A lot of other smart people I know did the same thing. Bad idea.

I have written several op-eds over the years, mostly pieces about arts education, or how much I can’t stand the No Child Left Behind Act, or why I think parental involvement is critical to public education. I’ve stirred up the local pot a couple of times by writing such pieces, so I’ve had some experience in creating public debate over my written words (the most positive feedback was I should run for school board, the most negative was I was just a clown), but I have never experienced anything quite like what happened with the “Obamacare to the Rescue” piece. By mid morning, the Atlantic’s wire had picked it up as one of their top five picks of the day. It was shared, tweeted, reposted, and republished in record numbers (and in different languages!) all around the world. People were talking about it on radio and TV, and Al Sharpton’s producers were trying to track me down all day, wanting me to go on his MSNBC show. This all happened on the same day that I was to see my oncologist for the first time to find out if I was going to live or die. It was the weirdest, scariest, freakiest day of my life. I only wish people cared this much about public education and arts education!

I was motivated to write that piece for two reasons: The first was I was so paralyzed by fear that I felt like the only way out of that scary dark place would be to get outside of myself by helping somebody else. Others in my same situation would surely benefit by hearing the good news about PCIP, because nobody had ever heard of it! The second reason was to make it up to President Obama, who I had campaigned for, but then turned my back on, because I didn’t get everything I wanted with the Affordable Care Act. After the last election, when voters stupidly voted against their own interests and the political theatre took over, I re-registered as an Independent to send the Democrats a message: Don’t assume you automatically get my vote, work for it! I had also blacked out the top of the “h” and the top of the question mark on my “got hope?” bumper sticker so that it read "got nope." As a well known public school parent and nonprofit leader driving around Los Angeles with that bumper sticker next to the other bumper sticker, “Support the Arts in Valley Schools”, I felt I needed to do more than take the “got nope” sticker off. I needed to replace it with something that I wanted every American to hear, “ObamaCares”. I never doubted that he did. I just got mad at him because he didn’t try to beat his enemies at their own game, by fighting back hard.

I am not an expert on the Affordable Care Act. But I will be by the time I am cured of cancer. I have committed to that. I want to help dispel the myths that have been propagated for political gain. Do I have a simple answer to the health insurance crisis in this country? No, I don't, but the Affordable Care Act is a start. I'm going to do my part to educate myself about all of this, and I challenge all of the doubters and critics to do the same. Do your own research. Do not be used by the few who benefit the most from all of this. And if my critics can't see themselves in me, then picture this: What if your mom or sister lost her job and health insurance and then couldn't find another job with benefits in this economy, and then found out she had breast cancer? What would you do? Would you let her die? Would you pay for the treatment yourself? Or would you tell her about PCIP? We can't afford to play around with this any longer. More and more people have run out of cash and are uninsured. More and more people are going to find themselves in my same situation. We're all a paycheck away from disaster.

If you are one of the millions of Americans out there, clinging to the ledge like I was, not wanting to look down as you ride this economic nightmare out, I'd like to ask you now to please come back and re-engage because, guess what? It could get worse.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Day I Received Rob Bourden’s Drum Kit

If you are 35 or under, you probably logged on to read how I got close to Rob Bourden. If you’re over 35 you may be reading this because you are curious to learn who the hell Rob Bourden is and why I would get his drum kit.

Rob Bourden is the drummer for Linkin Park. He isn’t your typical celebrity who is so full of himself that he doesn’t give a damn about other people (except anyone who might adore him and buy his records). He grew up in Calabasas (at the far west end of the San Fernando Valley) and played music as a kid. He’s one of those exceptionally talented people who became famous but never let his ego get the best of him. He’s a well rounded guy – the kind of son a mother could be proud of, for in addition to his remarkable talent and accomplishments, he has an abundance of friends of all sizes, ages and colors, many of whom are not famous or even in the music business. One of them is my husband, David, who doesn’t care too much for rock and roll recorded after 1972, especially really, really loud rock and roll. He had never even heard of Linkin Park until some teen aged girls came to a holiday party at our house several years ago and freaked out to find Rob Bourden sitting on our couch. That’s when David learned he had a famous friend.

As a soldier for my cause to get music in schools, David hit Rob up for help. He, of course, obliged by saying he would donate something. For readers 35 and under, you might as well stop reading now because the rest of the story isn’t that interesting. If you are over 40, read on.

Ever since I started my arts education nonprofit twelve years ago, I have never, ever refused any sort of donation, and have happily, gratefully accepted whatever gets passed my way. This has resulted in some pretty amazing gifts, connections and experiences, but it has also amounted in more junk piled up in our garage when my husband wasn’t looking. When Rob told David that he wanted to donate something, and that I could pick it up at his apartment any time during a certain week, I assumed I would run in and pick up an autographed drum head or a small, electric drum machine or something. I did not expect to find myself in an I Love Lucy episode.

After driving my minivan to Sherman Oaks, and finding a parking spot quite a distance away from Rob’s apartment building, I walked up the many stairs, through the heavy gates to the manager’s office where I was told to ask for his key (he had just moved out and had left the donation there for me to pick up – the manager was expecting me.) I was directed where to go and after a walk through the pool area and a ride in the elevator, I finally reached Rob’s apartment and opened the door.

There, sitting in the middle of an empty apartment, were lots and lots of boxes. I could see right away that I may need some help and a dolly, because I had neither. As I looked around the empty apartment, I laughed. Teen aged girls in America would gladly sell an organ to get to be where I was at that very moment, alone in Rob Bourden’s apartment. Yet here I was, a middle aged, married woman with two kids, a PTA president, with a mini van parked at the end of the street, waiting to carry my latest charitable load. Alone with this amazing piece of rock and roll memorabilia, I pondered: How in the world was I going to get all of this down to the street, and once there, would it all fit in my van? I was Lucy without an Ethel. Rob’s drum set was John Wayne’s footprints in cement.

After trying to push each box down the hall myself (huffing, puffing and grunting in my sweats), I set about walking the grounds to look for help. After some time, I was finally able to get some assistance from the custodian who had a dolly. We rode the elevator and then walked to the apartment together, chatting. Once he realized where we were going, he paused outside of Rob’s door and asked me dreamily, “Are you his mother?”

Oh God, it's official, I thought. I am not cool anymore. I'm old.

Since my little helper was no longer star struck, we hustled and got everything out the door, through the complex and out onto the street in a pretty timely fashion, for he had no more questions for me.

At a board meeting soon after I brought the drum set home, we put our heads together to try and figure out what to do with our new kick ass donation (Rob signed the side of a drum head and some sticks and a paper saying his signature was the real thing). One of the board members had a son who was a concert promoter in LA and vouched for the band to the rest of the other middle aged board members. "Linkin Park was HUGE", she assured us, and that perhaps we should just charge teenaged girls ten dollars a piece to touch the stool that Rob actually sat on. We nixed that idea because none of us really wanted to go to where the teenagers were to solicit their ten dollars. We decided to donate it to a very excited high school music department director instead, who promptly gave it its own locked room after dubbing it, “Jesus’s drum set”.

As a nonprofit leader, I am touched by Rob's generosity, for this was a large, personal gift. As a mother, and as an artist, I am moved by how he has managed to follow his bliss, play so well, be so successful, and stay grounded amidst so much fame and all that comes with it. He's the ultimate rock and roll role model (donating this drum set to my little nonprofit is just one of the many things he has done for young people in our community). His mother must be so proud. She raised an incredibly talented, humble, generous human being. He's the real thing.

I was inspired to blog about this because rock and roll is on my mind a lot these days. I have been creating and posting rock and roll ART cartoons all month. It’s funny how life ends up working out sometimes. I didn’t move out to Los Angeles 24 years ago to turn kids on to art and music. I wasn’t even thinking about kids. I was young, cool, and focused on having fun. My only goal in moving out to L.A. as a young artist was to design rock and roll album covers and to party with the boys in the band.

I did better than that. I grew up in L.A. My course changed, and I eventually had two great kids of my own who inspired me to bring art and music into the lives of many other children. While traveling this road I have been given many gifts, one of which was receiving the ultimate compliment: I was mistaken for Rob Bourden’s mom.

To view this month’s daily rock and roll cartoons, visit ART by Spike Dolomite on Facebook.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Who Will Be the Next Steve Jobs?

I have a big art show coming up, not the usual type of show that I have been producing for over a decade for kids, teens, or other artists, but for myself. This is a solo show for me, an exhibition for an artist who has turned to her own art to get her through one of the most difficult periods of her adult life: staying afloat during the recession.

This isn’t the first time that art has gotten me through tough times. Art saved me as a kid, too. I didn’t have a Father Knows Best childhood. I didn’t even have a father. He died when I was eight. The adults in charge in my life weren’t anything like Margaret and Jim Anderson. I was raised by a post-feminist movement mother whose new found freedoms were all consuming. Life for all of us was made even harder and more complicated by the abuse of alcohol. I learned at a very young age to rely on myself. This doesn’t sound that unusual by today’s standards, but back in the seventies, it was novel. The only constant in my life was my creativity. I could trust myself and my art. Making art was safe, dependable, and constructive. Whether I was alone in my room, or down in the basement creating something, I was master of my own universe. I could tune the world out, be free and in control.

This is one of the many reasons why I advocate for the arts in schools. It’s not just that an arts education makes for a complete education, or that participating in the arts raises test scores. It’s about finding and nurturing passion, about turning kids on who would otherwise be lost without art, music, writing, theater, etc. Offering arts education in schools is about giving right brained kids their due respect and much needed dignity, and helping them find and follow their bliss.

Tragically, however, our society is so busy, over whelmed and self involved, that we look upon these kids as being deficient in some way. They’re in the way. They won’t conform. They move too much. They don’t focus. They don’t go along with the status quo (all qualities that are usually revered after someone like Steve Jobs makes his mark, but are shunned, stifled and snubbed until society finally approves). We mistakenly label and medicate these kids so they’ll settle down and go along with the flow, or not upset the apple cart. Or challenge us. Or protest when we tell them to march and take their place in the status quo line.

Labeling and medicating children has become an epidemic in this country (and only in this country – we’re the only society that starves itself, gets depressed, and labels and medicates its young). This is a serious epidemic that needs to be eradicated by having all Americans slow down and take a good look at itself. Quit looking at kids and isolating their behaviors as if they are the problem. Our lifestyle and attitudes are the problem. We need to ask, what are we doing to our children? If we keep dosing our kids, who will be the next Steve Jobs? If the next generation is too zoned out to question, to take on challenges, or to push the envelope, what will become of them? What will become of us?