Category Archives: Local Stuff

Bad News Travels Faster Than Good News… Why?

When something bad or sad happens, word spreads like wildfire.  Technology has only made that wildfire spread even faster.  With email, Facebook, smartphones, you name it… if a celebrity dies, does something criminal or a favorite sports player has retired or been traded (to the rival team!), it can be a matter of minutes before anyone who wants to know… well, knows.

And when a story of child being approached and picked up by a stranger in your favorite playground comes to you in an email, you do not hesitate to react.  After all, with 100+ email addresses at my fingertips, it would be easy and yes, even my duty, to warn as many of my neighbors and local friends as quickly as possible.

Except if the story doesn’t sound right the minute I’m done reading it.

When other copies of the story get emailed to me in a matter of an hour, I’m rattled.  My brain is telling me that something isn’t right about the story yet so many people are clearly concerned about it, worried enough to sound the alarm to everyone they know, so why am I holding back?

Because there’s enough in the story to make me pause and try to confirm or debunk the story before I send it to anyone else.  So I start calling and emailing (separately) people that I know who could shed light on what happened.

After some phone calls, a few separate emails and some monitoring of the police department’s Facebook page, it turns out that the story is not true.  No one knows why the story was created in the first place but it’s no surprise that it spread around as quickly as it did.  It’s our nature, whether human or social, to warn our community of any danger.  We use the tools we have handy, and we do it quickly, urgently, and with good intentions.

Better safe than sorry, we say.  And, while this is true, it is also discouraging that the truth doesn’t often get as much, or any, attention at all.  In the case of an attempted abduction at a local playground, none of the papers have cleared it up nor has the police department issued an updated statement.

No one’s reputation is directly hurt by the false story but some damage has been done nonetheless.  Some people who think the story is true may likely stay clear of the park and playground.  That’s a shame and an unnecessary result of a story that should never have been spread.

One silver lining to be found in this particular phenomenon is that that, if such an incident had truly taken place, we know now that the town can respond quickly.  “Word of Mouth” is no longer limited to a face to face discussion or a phone call.  Technology has expanded ‘Mouth’ to be so much more.

Yet even that good news isn’t in the local paper or clogging my email’s inbox.  That’s a shame, too.

It Takes a Town to Build a Playground

Imagination Station sign

Entrance Sign to the Imagination Station playground

It’s been a while since I’ve brain dumped here, mostly because I’ve been a bit too exhausted to think creatively.   I certainly didn’t feel compelled to do much writing, either.   Good thing I have no plans to make a living off of my creative bent as an author.

It’s been about 3 weeks since the new playground, Imagination Station, was built.  It turned out beautifully – it is a full out colorful, fun, engaging and spacious playground.  There are so many more things for kids to do in/on it.  The artwork is a personal favorite for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I love colorful playgrounds.  There are artistic elements that are unique – mosaic tile signs and a giant mural (climbing wall).  Everything artistic was an original design and hand painted.  I worked with the Art & Design team for the bulk of my volunteer hours there.  There was a motley mixture of young to middle aged, along with a couple of elderly women as well.   To find words to describe the collaborative efforts would make the experience sound almost cliche.   But it’s true nonetheless.  People who didn’t know each other were able to work together to create fantastic work.

Mural/Rock Climbing Wall

Mural/Rock Climbing Wall

Other moments from the build stick in my brain like photographic images yet there are sounds and smells attached to them as well.  The first day was drizzly, the kind of “wet” that ruins any hairstyle and makes everything from wood to plastic feel thoroughly damp.  Forty people had signed up to help that day, and the Food Committee was thusly prepared.  By lunchtime-prep time, however, about a hundred people were working throughout the site.  Extra pizzas were ordered and picked up.  Everyone stopped working promptly at noon, had a damp lunch and were back at work before 12:30.  Volunteers in yellow shirts (including myself) acted in a variety of roles – “runners” to take other volunteers from the registration table to the areas of the work site.  Yellow Shirts also worked in Food, Child Care, Art & Design and, of course, Construction.  There were 2 areas of Construction, too – the actual playground site and the pre-fab tents.

Day 1 had me starting at the Registration table, where I was labeled “blue” (unskilled construction).  So, blue label on a Yellow Shirt.  Fine with me!  I then was a Runner for a while, handing off a steady stream of volunteers to one of the 14 Orange Shirted Construction Captains.  At some point, I morphed into a “red” (skilled with a circular saw) label and was cutting the ends of  a seemingly unending stack of pickets.   I worked alongside both friends and strangers.   The construction captain, a dry humored but exceedingly helpful guy named Stu, kept us all busy and always made sure we had whatever we needed.  This was to become “the expected” way to do business for the duration of the build – dry humor being optional.

Day 2 of the build found me at the Bronx Zoo with Nicholas’ class trip.  It was a hot day and the bus ride was, unfortunately, longer than expected.  But we made the most of our time there, touring our particular “must see” spots with another mom and her son.  As always, we enjoyed what we saw and made a list of what to see the next visit.  The bus ride was better on the return trip.  As the bus drove by the lake and the playground, the kids on the bus all looked eagerly out the side windows to see the action.  It was great to hear them so excited – they are the age where they will probably play there now and then for just a few more years, but if the playground lasts as long as we’ve been told it should, then these kids can actually expect to have their kids playing on it some day.  There is something inherently awesome about that idea.

At the end of Day 2, my parents arrived for a visit.  They would both be helping at the build as well, and Dad even arrived with tools that had been lacking and needed (cordless drills, routers).

Day 3 was going to be a hot one.  My parents and I headed over to the park in separate cars, as we figured one but not all of us would need to be back at the house in the afternoon to get both Alicia and Nicholas squared away.  I ended up being a Runner then landed in Art & Design, where I’d essentially stay for the rest of the time.  Dad checked in his tools and was given a red label (well deserved) and assigned to a Construction Captain directly on site.  Mom went to Food and then the Registration Table, where she’d end up for the rest of the time, too.

The 3 of us had lunch together before splitting up for our duties, then Mom went home in the afternoon.  Dad stayed on until dinner time, when he and I both headed home.  Mom and I returned in the evening for a few hours.  All of us were exhausted that night, too.  But we all agreed that it had been a great day – the playground was going up quickly and already looked great.  Everyone was working hard, cooperating wonderfully, and there was more than enough food & drinks.

Day 4 was another long and hot one but not nearly has brutal, weather-wise, as the day before.  Nicholas hung out in Child Care while Dad, Mom and I worked in our respective areas.   I was now painting just about everything I was directed to – the pyramid “tops” of the towers (to be installed by crane on the final day), the train, the dollhouse and parts of the pirate ship.  Being more or less within the construction zone of the playground itself was amazing.  It’s easy to become focused on a job close at hand, but when I would take a breather or move to another area to paint, I was completely blown away by the amount of people working in just about every square foot of space, on multiple things at the same time, and somehow – like a bee hive buzzing with activity and profound organization – everything was simply coming together.  Dad was working with another man to install the hundreds of spindles that enclosed the maze walkways and staircases.  Mom was efficiently checking people in and making friends.

And I had blue, red, purple, yellow, and magenta paint all over myself – and I mean, ALL OVER.  My hands, my arms, pants, shirt, legs and sneakers.  Somehow, my baseball hat escaped all evidence of the work I’d been doing.

At some point on the evening of Day 4, the crowds that had been gathering around the perimeter of the playground work site had trickled down a little.  As I was painting a dollhouse in the Tot Lot, a neighbor and her young daughter called out to me.  Her husband was part of the crew that was installing 850 personalized pickets to mark the perimeter, and they’d come to see him and the playground.  As I talked to them, I could see the little girl look at the house, with all of its pastel yellow-purple-and-magenta-ness, and I knew that this was going to be her favorite part of the playground.  (Three weeks later, this is still true)

Painted House

Painted House in Tot Lot

Day 4 ended late for me.  Dad had gone home a bit earlier and Mom came home with me.  I’d finished painting the house with 2 women whose husbands were both doing construction work while their kids were in Child Care.  As tired as all of us were, it was amazing how much we were still willing to put in before it got too dark.  The forecast for Day 5 was not good at all – rain, rain and more rain.  Crews stayed past the “lights out” time, from what I found out the next morning, too.

Day 5, the final day, started grey but dry.  Mom and I got to the build around 8:30, and there were already well over a hundred people there, mostly on the playground site itself.  The playground was now entirely visible except for the tower tops to be installed that day.  The shapes that had started as 250+ vertical posts and a confusing series of platforms were now as they had been designed: a pirate ship, a castle tower, and a rocket ship.  The Tot Lot had a dollhouse and a train, with swings, teeter totter and those crazy innocent looking animals on the giant springs of doom.

There was a celebration planned for the evening, around 6PM.  By noon, it was clear that we’d be cutting it close.  Some things were done more hastily and the tons of mulch that needed to be dumped then spread interfered with construction and painting.  And somehow, some woman and her 2 teen sons designated themselves artists and painted sections that were not supposed to be painted.  She and the boys were stopped but it was too late – they’d used up precious paint (to be used on other areas) and now created an unfinished look in parts.   As of this writing, touch up paint work still needs to be done and I’ll be helping with that this week.

One of our town councilmen had been involved with the playground committee since its inception nearly a year ago, and he worked each day in the Tool department and was also going to be our celebration’s Emcee.  He preferred to keep it simple, which was best, given that most people were less interested in fancy speeches come the Grand Opening and more about letting their kids explore every inch.  We had special t-shirts designed with the images of the 2 main coordinators of the project, with the words (roughly): “If you see these people, thank them!”   The steering committee members wore the shirts at the Grand Opening celebration and I think many people in the crowd noticed them and thanked the coordinators.

The weather improved as the afternoon progressed, and by celebration time, it was a perfect spring evening.  Crews that had worked nearly non-stop all day were still somehow still standing.  I found out that a great number of the construction volunteers that day had shown up as early as 6:30AM (start time wasn’t until 7AM) to get a jump start to get it all done in time.

Nicholas was with me for a while before the celebration, Mom and Dad had already left for home.  I wished they could have seen, in person, the final product AND the reactions of the hundreds of kids who climbed all over it later on.  Nicholas’ reaction was, for me, worth it all.  I brought him close to the still on-going construction about an hour before it was done.  His eyes took in everything – the mulch still being spread by a ton of teens and adults, the last minute construction work by college kids to grandfathers.  And yes, a few last minute paint touches here and there… Nicholas asked what his grandfather had helped with and I was able to point out a few areas.  He saw where I’d painted, and we both felt that it was only fitting that I’d painted the train.

When it was time for the celebration, he was among one of the first 20 kids to get inside – I lost sight of him immediately.  But I knew he was safe (there’s only 1 way in/out) and I found him after a few minutes.  He found some friends and they were blurs of flying hair, arms and legs as they ran everywhere.   It was simply amazing to watch.

I saw many friends as well, and some of the new ones I’d made during the build.  I don’t think any of us who’d been a part of it could truly quite grasp, on that evening, just how awesome, yes, awesome, the whole thing was.  It had taken approximately a gestation period to come to fruition and it was a wonderful sight.  It was also a great sound – hundreds of kids laughing and shouting in excitement, murmurs of awe and appreciation, and the sound of running, climbing and sliding.  The smell of mulch was also strong but, thankfully, not as bad now that hundreds of people were standing/running on it.  It’s power to overwhelm had been diminished with sudden and intense use.

The glow of the experience wasn’t just felt by me.  It was common to find someone else who had that same satisfied, tired but happy expression that said “Holy cow, this is just incredible.”   At one point, as I hung around the entrance/exit, looking around for Nicholas’ in-motion self, I also noticed a young man standing next to me.  I’d seen him on site on the 4 days I’d been there, and he was rather distinctive because of his choice of neck accessory.  He had been working hard at the times I’d been painting nearby, helpful and upbeat.  I hadn’t talked to him before but thought I’d thank him for doing so much to help out.   He was wearing the same expression I’d described above and was smiling as well.  So I thanked him and then asked if he had any kids there, enjoying it.  He said no, he was only 20 and home from college.   He’d stopped by on Day 1 to help out because he wasn’t currently working and it seemed like a “cool” project to work on.  He never expected to return for Day 2, let alone Days 3, 4 and 5.  And he was the first one who told me about arriving at 6:30AM that morning to help out.  He then said that he was looking forward to bringing his kids, when he had them someday, to the playground and showing them all the parts he’d helped with.

That pretty much nails why this project worked out the way it did:  the people who had interest – regardless of the reasons – in helping out did so.  It wasn’t just the people who turned up those 5 days, either – there were many other people who donated money, services, tools, food, drinks and other supplies.  All told, about 1,000 people helped out from what I heard from another member of the Steering Committee.  We needed at least 750.  We had to feed everyone – we had food and bottled water left over.  We needed at least $120,000 for materials/services, and we raised about $150,000.  We had sponsors for every aspect of the project and materials.  Businesses, organizations, families and individuals all contributed.  It is incredible what this town was able to do because something needed to be built for kids – without politics, egos and a tax burden.

As the playground gets used, and the town gets used to the playground, the project evolves into Maintenance and Enhancement.  Already there are a few things to be repaired or replaced, while landscaping and fund raising plans are being discussed.  And I’ll be back there, painting here and there, to keep it looking as good as new.

Why I Would be Better Off Not Going to Board of Ed Meetings…

So tonight I spent many hours (4, actually) attending a joint session of our local Board of Ed and our Township Council.  It’s been a rough spring for the BoE, as our school budget was defeated on April 20th as yet another annual rite of spring in town.  In NJ, the law is that a city or town council must decide on a dollar amount to cut from a defeated budget and pass along that amount, with recommendations for where to obtain that amount from, to the BoE within 30 days.   Sounds OK but the kicker is that the BoE is legally bound to cut the amount only; they are under no obligation (other than, say, common sense) to cut from the recommended areas.

From what I can gather from discussions with a few people post-vote, the resounding NO was largely due to 2 reasons:

1) the local teachers’ union had not shown any inclination to agree to a 1 year wage freeze (like all of the other collective bargaining units in the school district)

2) no administrative jobs would be cut, such as the extra Assistant Superintendent (and accessory, oops, I mean secretary)

In the weeks that followed, there was much finger pointing, both publicly and privately.  Sides had long since been drawn and the heels of all were digging ever deeper.  Some residents in town, whose professions were either CPA or Forensic Accountant, stepped up and volunteered to have a look at the defeated budget and see where some money could be cut – hopefully with efficiency, responsibility and accountability in mind.

Meanwhile, the Town Council paid money (hey, isn’t that tax payer money?) to have a Defeated School Budget Auditor pour through the voluminous budget and also make recommendations for cuts – total and from where.

Tonight’s meeting was a perfect storm in many ways.  On the high school stage, the town council took up one half of a large semi circle of tables and chairs while the BoE members sat at the other half.  The ensuing performance seemed sadly appropriate while also darkly ironic.   The Defeated School Budget Auditor and the Volunteer Review Committee politely reported their findings, copies of which had been delivered (allegedly) to the BoE’s Business Administrator at the very last possible minute.

This was, of course, a blatant attempt to show how unprepared the Business Administrator was!  Or… it merely shone a very bright and sparkly light on what has been obvious at previous meetings… hmm….

Showtime!

I was sitting in the back half of the large auditorium.  It was not a packed house but there were certainly a lot of people there.  All ages, too, I noticed a bunch of elderly people among the high school students, parents, teachers and occasional Guy with a Surly Expression.

The teens are always a well intended bunch of young people, the bravest of which makes his or her way to the mic for the Public Session part of the meeting and earnestly tells the folks on stage how much the teachers, sports, the arts, and awesome classes all matter.   I truly respect these kids but I also cringe (on the inside, I wouldn’t want any of them to see it).  They are so young still, pay no property taxes, and have no idea how hard it is to make decisions that stretch not only beyond their classes and clubs, but also to the grades below them and the students who will follow them for years to come.

Back to the drama… once the Council and BoE members went through the reports, line item by line item, a few things became obvious to me.

– I was going to have to say something at some point, which really pissed me off

– I was watching a pissing contest, with many pissers

– our school district was in the hands of some incompetent, unprofessional and sulky adults

All of these realizations made me want to cry and hit something, hard.  It is sad to see numbers argued like they were merely symbols – not the actual programs and services that affected thousands of kids.   The more the numbers were tossed around and dissected, I at one point wished I had a financial background so that I could have a shot at cutting through the crap and instead move toward real solutions.  That thought was immediately overruled by the thoughts of “Thank God I don’t have to do this stuff” and “This is bad, this is really, really bad…”

The reports were temporarily exhausted and the Public Session part of the meeting began.  That meant, let the public comments begin.  I was shocked that so few of the crowd planned to speak.  We’d just witnessed contradictory “facts” bouncing around like ping pong balls, the polite veneer of 2 committees wearing awfully thin, and the realization that the students were going to return to a vastly different school district in September.

A few comments were sad in tone, with reality sinking in.  One, from a highly respected elderly man showed me just how different my generation generally views education than his generation.  He talked about 80 students in a graduating class, with 40 kids in a class being “OK!”  He talked about his fixed income, how volunteers mowed the park grass, and how kids can do without the fluff we current day parents feel is mandatory.  Everyone listened patiently but his words were then shredded to pieces by other speakers, who pointed out that the world really has changed quite a bit in the past 40 years.   I felt bad for the old man but also had to shake my head – he has a pension and Social Security.  We most likely won’t have both, and Nicholas will most definitely not have either.  Forty years ago, most products were still made in the U.S.  Now, that’s the exception.  Yes, a lot has changed…

A few more speakers, including an angry rant by one of the Guys with a Surly Expression.  Finally I got up.  The regular symptoms kicked into gear as my feet started moving.  Heart pounding?  Check.  Face turning red?  Check.  (At least it felt like it was…)  Stomach turning over a few times?  Check.  Angry and concerned enough to tell the symptoms to eff off?  Check.

Based on previous comments earlier in the meeting, I had 3 questions/points: privatization, lying, and mistrust.   Basically, I told everyone there that someone (or maybe a few!) – in the BoE, the teachers’ union leadership, or the Town Council was lying and, as a result, there was a lot of mistrust by the public.  And, ta da! there go a few reasons why the budget was defeated.  I’m a genius.

By the end of the meeting, I’d seen enough to know a very simple fact:  The Superintendent and BoE will cut the Council’s recommended amount of $1.4 million but NOT from where the Council, the Defeated School Budget Auditor and Volunteer Review Committee recommended.  As long as the current Superintendent is on the job, no administrators will be cut.  Why listen to 3 different, respected groups.  Why listen to the public?  Nah, screw all of them!  Our Super knows better.  He only needs to listen to himself to know what we all really wanted to say, but those silly facts and crazy suggestions got in the way.

No, no, he thinks.  It’s far better for a top heavy district to continue to cut from the bottom, leaving the kids to have a sparse education and a town that no one with kids will want to move to.

In the end, I drove home, tired, cranky and resigned to the worst case scenario.  No doubt my blood pressure went up a few points tonight, my opinion of a few elected officials dropped quite a bit, and my mind wandered a bit with the idea of us moving.  I would have been better off to just read about the crappy outcome tomorrow.   It’s not like I couldn’t have predicted it.  It happened the same exact way last year.

What Volunteerism Panic Feels Like

In exactly a week from now, I will be probably in bed – hours before my usual bedtime.  I will be exhausted, probably a bit sore, and thoughts and lists will be racing through my brain.  We will have had God knows what for dinner, I’m thinking take out.  If I cooked over the weekend like I’m planning on doing, then we’ll have something homemade – defrosted and reheated.  Add that cooking to my ever growing list of things to do in the next 11 days.

For the past 8 months, I’ve been a part of a big project in our town of Succasunna, NJ.  The old playground at the local park, and play-hub of the township, for the past 19 years was going to come down for safety and insurance reasons.  It had been built by volunteers “way back when” and the plan was that the new one would come together the same way.

But things are different now, in many ways.  First, we’re in a recession.  The playground isn’t free or even cheap.  Second, the materials are recycled composite instead of treated wood.  The upfront costs are outweighed by the safety and longevity.  Third, our town is struggling with rising property taxes (hello, NJ!), a defeated school budget, a controversial turf field installed at the high school, and fewer businesses in town.

Originally, the members of the playground steering committee, myself among them, speculated that we’d have more volunteers than funds.  We set up a long range plan for recruiting volunteers as well as planned a comprehensive fund raising schedule.  Sub committees were formed, tasks assigned and off we went.

Lo and behold, here we are, just one week from the build.  And we have plenty of funds, amazingly,  from individuals, families, businesses and organizations.  Fund raisers were widely supported and local businesses stepped up in ways that absolutely surpassed what anyone could have reasonably expected in this economy.

And, yet, I’m panicking.  On the inside, of course.  Outwardly, I’m composed, organized and confident. Yes, hundreds of people will sign up in the next few days or walk up during the build itself.   The weather will be perfect, attracting all sorts of people that otherwise would have stayed home instead of helping for a few hours.

The tools, materials, miscellaneous supplies, food and beverages will be plentiful.  There will be a reliable generator, and the heavy equipment will all work perfectly.  No glitches!

But I am still panicking on the inside.  We need people.  LOTS of people.  As in, hundreds of people.  We need people over the course of 5 full and busy days.  I’ve talked to friends in town, extolling the fun – yes, this will be fun! – and hard work, culminating in a fantastic playground that our kids, and their kids, will enjoy.  This playground is truly designed to last for 30 years.  I do expect my (future) grandchildren to play on it, with Alicia and Nicholas telling them that we helped make it possible now and then.

So how do you get people to volunteer for something?  It’s a no brainer for me, as I’m drawn to helping someone, something, etc. without financial payment.  Mike and I are light years apart on this.  What is natural for me is inconceivable to him.  He supports my efforts, knowing that they are intrinsically important to me as well as rewarding to me, our family, our town, etc.  But he also looks at me with a shake of his head – he simply cannot understand why I spend my time and skills at something that I will not be paid for.  I’ve seen the looks, and I’ve given up trying to explain to him WHY and HOW it feels to help out.  I’ve also given up appealing to him to join me in some of the work.

During those 5 build days, he will either be working or home.  He will not be at the playground site at all.  If I can’t convince him to help, can I really expect to talk anyone else into it?

Let’s look at who have I been able to recruit so far – Nicholas, who easily signed up for the idea and has been (mostly) enthusiastic about it – he contributed to the design, collected pennies, wears his “Built it” t-shirt, and will be helping out on one of the build days.  Then there are my parents, who are taking time off from work (!) and coming from their home, out of state (!!), to help.   They are the trees, as it were, and I am an apple from either/both.

Sure, I could pull out the guilt card.  I fully intend to lay it on thick with Alicia (who is working all of those 5 days, so she has a good reason, but still….).  The carrot will be a spa day for she and I.  It’s a win-win, actually.

And, yep, I have no problem begging a few friends who may be on the fence and just need to be assured that their time will be well spent.  And that they don’t have to use a tool if they don’t want to, because, so far, mostly they don’t want to.

My experience with this particular project so far has already been extremely fun (at times) and rewarding.  I’ve met some wonderful people, gotten to know a few folks better than I knew them before this all started, and I am already proud of what we’ll accomplish.  I’ve honed some writing skills by writing press releases on a regular basis, collaborated on publicity measures, and worked with other committees to get some things coordinated smoothly.  I could possibly put some of these skills to work in an paying capacity at some point down the road.  Who knows?  My motives aren’t exclusively noble.  I benefit in many ways by helping, both short and long term.

But back to the playground…

Naive, maybe, as I really do think it will be a great bonus for the town.  The park is already wonderful with a beach, a walking/running/bike path, numerous fields, a performing arts center, and now, of course, a gem of a new playground.  We spend a lot of time at this park, almost all year long.  Now it will be even nicer to be there.  Build it and they will come and all that.

I wish I could, somehow, find the words to explain to Mike, and others, just how great it feels to be a part of something that extends beyond your family and home.  Maybe then the playground, and every other well intended and worthy project that will follow, will be successful because lots of people came together to make it happen.

Maybe then, I wouldn’t feel like so panicked.  On the inside only, of course.

In the meantime, it’s time to dust off the cape, don the suit and smile.  I have a long ‘to do’ list to tackle and the clock is ticking.  Loudly.