Monday, November 19, 2012

At LONG LAST-- The Big Unveil: My Next Project, An Adventure in Mentoring

Henry, in the studio, with cousin Geena. 
When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.
                                                            -- Michelle Obama

For months now, I’ve been hinting at a Coming Soon Big Unveil. Getting to the actual unveiling has taken longer than I planned or expected, which is a nice little lesson about plans and expectations. The thing is, that while I often engage in shooting from the hip and off-the-cuff antics, this time around, the project I’ve been mulling, well I really wanted to think it over before committing to it. And I wanted to make sure I truly had the time and resources to commit. Toward that end, I decided to wait until my new book is out (that happens in a couple of weeks) and I also decided to drop some other activities I have loved—namely a knitting blog and theater reviews— that consume time I would now rather dedicate to The Project.

Another reason I’ve delayed the Big Unveil is that I have SO much to say on the topic—how the project came to be, my vision for it, how you can help— that I’ve been wrestling with how to do a succinct presentation. I’m still wrestling with that. I think succinct is out of the question. So how about I go ahead and reveal what this program is and then ask you to bear with me and read this whole post to give you the background and also learn how you can be helpful, if you’d like to be helpful?

So I am starting a free program that, for now, I am going to call HENRY, in honor of my darling son Henry. The name might change. Currently though, that’s the acronym, which stands for Helping Educate Non-College Reaching Youth. (Yeah, yeah, a little clunky spelled out, but I just love using the word HENRY). The goal of HENRY is to offer inspiration, advice, a leg-up and real-world experience to folks 17 – 25 who don’t want to, or can’t afford to, or aren’t feeling ready yet to attend college. Okay, time for some bullet points:

In 1982, I graduated near the top of my class and was accepted at a prestigious university. My father said I should skip college, that women should get married and have kids. Also, he said we couldn’t afford it. My high school counselor, instead of teaching me about scholarships, concurred that this experience was out of reach for me. I sure could’ve used some real mentoring back then, but I didn’t get it and I missed that chance.

Then, in 2009, when my son graduated from high school, he didn’t want to go to college. I understood pushing him to go would be like me being pushed to not go. I knew it was important to honor his vision for how his adult life was to go. He wanted to pursue his art, which I fully supported (I mean, emotionally—he already supported himself financially). Fortunately, years earlier he’d found a mentor, Kyle Ellison, who had a lot of music experience, having been a member of Pariah, Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, and Ministry. Kyle took Henry under his wing, helped him record Episodean amazing record, and continues to teach him all about music—both the fun part (making it) and the business part (selling it). Additionally, Henry was raised by a whole village, and in particular his first employer, Peg, taught him so much about how to survive in the world.

Consequently, I am mother to an amazing young man who is making his way, pursuing his passion, is grounded in reality, and who is really enjoying his life. My happiness for him is immeasurable. And I believe that similar happiness awaits other young people who pursue their dreams and who are able to do so with the support of passionate adults who have knowledge to share. Instead of saying, “You should…” or “You need to…” I would like to foster a supportive community that says, “What would you like to do?” and “How can I help you get there?”

Somewhere I want to toss in that, while I did not get mentoring when I was a young adult, I did have the great fortune of being mentored later on by Molly Ivins, who left us way too soon, but who left me with a lot of wisdom, and who also was so kind to Henry. I remain grateful to her, and I remain grateful to Kyle and the others who have mentored Henry. And so, time to pay it forward.

Good question. I am looking for organic growth to be the main source of inspiration here, and I hope that as we go along we shape this program into what it needs to be to best serve participants. One big goal is to have the young members build this into what it needs to be to be most effective. (This is a Montessori principle—let the student lead—and I just love Montessori, which was Henry’s very first experience with education.)

That said, we do need a little structure to get started. I’m envisioning a cross between salons and TedTalks to get us going, gatherings at my house (or, if necessary, a bigger location), where we can prepare and share a meal and take in a talk from an artist or entrepreneur with insight to offer.

Also, because I am fortunate enough to know every single person in Austin, I hope to pair up participants with mentors. Let’s say, for example, a participant reveals a desire to be a tattoo artist. Okay then, I reach out to my ink artist friends and ask who among them will make time for a coffee date with the aspiring artist. Maybe they talk for an hour and that’s the end of it. Maybe they form a bond and an apprenticeship occurs. I’ve actually done this already myself—sometimes giving one-off writing chats and sometimes helping shepherd a manuscript from start to finish. It’s a cool way to work, and a chance for older and younger to learn from each other.

I’m struggling with this one. Well, okay, “struggling” is too big of a word for it. As the President of the Office of Good Deeds, where we strive to work in deeds, not cash (except for folks dealing with extreme emergencies), I like the idea of charging ZERO DOLLARS for this program because I’m eager to return to a time when rocks and shells are the accepted currency, but I’m not holding my breath. Then again, there is that alleged psychological effect—that if you offer something for free, folks value it less. But maybe we can disprove this? If it turns out to be a good idea to ask for funds, then the donation will be minimal and it will go to defray the cost of the big salon meals we share. For now, I’d like to see if we can make it absolutely free.

Thanks for asking. So for now, I would love to compile two lists—one of eager young participants and the other of eager mentor types. If you are the parent/friend of a young adult and/or if you are an artist or entrepreneur willing to make some time, please email me at Put HENRY (all caps) in the subject heading, and let me know a little bit about you or the young person you think will be interested. And of course, because ideally we want to foster as much independence as possible, it is fine (better even) if the young adult contacts me her/himself. So please, please, help me get the word out-- pass on a link to this post.

Another way you can help—and pardon the shameless plug here—is to support my art. I love heading up these volunteer efforts, they provide their own rewards. But the evil mortgage company continues to bang on the door, month after month, and I have to pay those bills first, before I can dedicate time to HENRY and my other non-paying projects. Fair enough. If you want to help me help myself toward this end, please visit my Write With Spike website to see about my workshops and coaching, and you can visit my Custom Hitches Weddings website to see about my officiant services, and please consider pre-ordering my new book via my KickStarter campaign. The more copies of the book I sell, the more time I can set aside for this mentor program.

And yet another way you can help-- if you know of a cool space we might use to host our salons, one with a kitchen, let me know. I'm cool with hosting at my house, but I think/hope this might soon outgrow my little space.

The time I spent asking myself if I could really make the time and space to implement this program was not time wasted. This mentoring stuff is hardly a new concept (see: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), but it is regaining big time purchase in the collective consciousness right now.

I have, in the past several months, come across countless articles and broadcasts that directly or indirectly touch on how education is going to have to change. So many kids are getting sucked into taking on enormous debt to go to college, and they graduate into an economy that isn’t offering them jobs that can knock out that debt, let alone provide a sense of accomplishment and achievement.

And then there is the whole definition of that sense of achievement. What is happiness? How do we get there? These might sound like Philosophy 101 questions, but they are questions so many people continue to wrestle with. And despite overwhelming evidence that happiness cannot be purchased, a lot of goals remained hinged on the attainment of fiscal wealth. I found a great article about how after a certain point, the amount we make annually drops exponentially in ROI. I’m really eager not only to help participants learn how to gain education without incurring major debt, but also to think hard about what happiness looks and feels like, and to understand this might be more attainable than it seems at first glance.

Anyway, getting back to the collective consciousness thing: there are an increasing number of opportunities—freeonline college courses for example—available for those who can’t or do not wish to go to college, or who want to wait until they figure out what passion to pursue. HENRY will ideally become just one in a growing number of opportunities that remind young people that there are a lot of options out there, you just need to know where to look.

This list is long and still forming, but I want to cover a really wide range of topics. I imagine some salons where our guest speaker speaks about a specific line of work. I imagine other conversations about the entrepreneurial spirit. And I imagine still others that might touch on how to avoid financial ruin, the benefits of meditation, the perils of addiction.

Here is where I want to point out that I do believe a big part of being a young adult is learning by trial and error. And no one wants to be told how they should live their lives. Let me emphasize that these talks will not be the adults talking from on high. Oh no—these will be lively conversations, with the speaker offering insight the way a river guide might discuss known submerged rocks in the river, sort of like a good spoiler alert. The students still have to ultimately navigate the river, they just will be able to do so armed with a bit of advance warning.

The list of people I wish to thank for inspiring this project would tack an additional 5,000 words onto this post, should I name everyone. So let me issue a blanket thank you to so many of you who have encouraged and bolstered me over the years, and supported my projects and cleaned my house when I was down and reminded me of the good things in life. I always want to thank my teachers—teachers are the absolute pillars of our society. I still remember Mrs. Nancy Brzuska, my sixth grade teacher, praising my poetry and hanging it up for all to see, and how good this felt, and I also remember her teaching me to play the guitar, and all those folk songs. And I have to give a shout out to Mrs. Penny Cipolone for demonstrating ongoing chutzpah and how, gasp, even women can succeed in previously male-dominated arenas. I want to thank all of my students over the years, for sharing your insight. I want to give a big shout out to Heather and Martin Kohout, who allowed me two weeks of solace and sanctuary at Madroño Ranch this past spring, which allowed me time to work on my book, and also time to start to really think through this HENRY project. And I want to thank Ari and Sigele who worked for me this summer and who comprised 2/3rds of my very tiny but very helpful focus group. And of course I want to thank Kyle Ellison, and Sparrow Song Music for helping Henry and for being the real inspiration for this new project of mine.

I am so lucky that I have arrived at a place in my life where I can work for myself, make a good living, still find plenty of time to be creative, and am constantly surrounded by love and support. Thanks to everyone who made this possible, I seriously couldn't have done it without you. And I'm looking forward to all of us helping more folks do the same. 

I'd like to close with a jumpy bootleg video of my friend, Matt the Electrician, singing a great song about how college didn't really cut it for him. Matt, you might know, has gone on to pursue his passion madly. 

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