A farewell to Upattinas

On Wednesday October 16th a group of 50+ current and former  students, parents, teachers, board members and even grandparents gathered to make the unanimous decision to close Upattinas School at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

The mood was surprisingly upbeat. The board had already recommended that the community formally agree to close the school; the decision was not unexpected.  The last few years had included several failed attempts to increase enrollment, including diversifying advertisements, and a search for a potential new location. For those of us who had been involved in the struggle to keep the school alive for the past few years, there was a comfort in certainty, even if it wasn’t the future we’d hoped for. Still, I felt sad about the closing of a school which was instrumental in influencing some of the ideals that helped shape the person I am today.

photo 3I began going to Upattinas after a torturous 9th grade year at Friends Select, a Quaker prep school in center city Philadelphia. Memories from that year include:

  • Receiving detention for skipping Spanish class to participate in a protest against the impending Iraq war, and sitting afterward in an assembly where an administrator preached, fighting for what you believe in is important, but school must come first.
  • A teacher using Quakerism (my religion, not his) as a reason why we shouldn’t use swear words.
  • Watching the school struggle to accommodate one of my close friends who was grieving after his father had passed away, putting him first on academic, then behavioral probation and eventually asking him to leave the school.

My grades, self esteem, and relationship with my parents all suffered. Because my grades were poor, my mom wouldn’t let me go outside until my homework was finished. I felt that the homework was busywork, irrelevant and stupid, and I couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I felt imprisoned in my room, playing my hundredth game of solitaire, becoming increasingly stressed about the impending due dates, and resolute that it simply wasn’t worth giving a fuck

I elected to be “sick” rather than attending school so often that there was talk of holding me back a year due to the quantity of class time I’d missed. What started out as me choosing to be ill became me actually feeling sick to my stomach. I would lie in bed all day under the covers and debate whether it was better to go back to school the next day or to be sick for the rest of the week.

The final straw was chemistry class. I felt completely unable to connect with the teacher and uninspired by the topic. As I fell further behind, it became clear that I was in danger of failing the course. I would have been happy to accept a “fail”, but the school informed me that I would need to retake it if I didn’t earn a passing grade. This was baffling to me. I had already wasted a year in a class where I was learning nothing, and I’d be damned if I had to waste a second. If I crammed hard enough for the final exam, I would never have to take chemistry again. In the end I spent two hours with an outside tutor and aced the final. I finished the year feeling stifled, uninspired, pissed off, and stuck.

After this horrific year Upattinas seemed magical–in every way the antithesis of Friends Select. Classes and homework were optional; there were no tests or grades. They encouraged independent study, and valued students who were willing to pursue their passions and ideals. At about 100 students from Kindergarden through 12th grade, Upattinas was a tight-knit community of individuals in the rawest sense of the word.


At Select, I felt like I had been pushed into a box, whereas Upattinas allowed me to be free. I was part of a community of both students and teachers, who were enthusiastic about helping me to realize my passions and goals. Where the staff and teachers at Select felt rigid and callous, Upattinas ran meetings by consensus, allowing everyones voices to be heard.

Upattinas introduced me to the idea of self-directed learning. I was moved by Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, and my fellow students were proof that young people could and should be supported in making real decisions about their educational pursuits.

Field day 6When I think about Upattinas closing, there is a sense of losing a childhood home. I remember listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication while playing volleyball on a gorgeous fall day near the beginning of my first semester, with everyone outside, k-12th grade. At Upattinas, the perfect fall day trumped whatever chemistry lesson was scheduled. There was something profoundly satisfying about that logic.

I remember my first icebreaker trip–a three night stay at a state park with the entire school. During the second day several bears descended on the campground, invading the dumpsters and raiding the cabins for food. We all ended up sleeping in one of the larger buildings on the last night for safety, ice thoroughly broken.

Donald, one of my heroes

Donald, our basketball coach, resident outdoorsman, and edible bugs teacher, accounted for more than his fair share of the magic that was Upattinas. He could regularly be heard shouting cheese and rice (rather than Jesus Christ) or cooking bugs (there are two kinds of people in the world, those that know they eat bugs, and those that don’t know they eat bugs) and road kill with the help of students. Every spring he would bribe us with ice cream to pick dandelions so that he could make dandelion wine (Let me know if your parents want any and I’ll be sure to save them a bottle!).  He might sound eccentric, but he was also genuinely extremely knowledgable in the fields of outdoor education, first aid, survivalism, and by far the best basketball coach I’ve ever had.

206699_17241857224_5955_nUpattinas could often feel like a summer camp, with mostly out-of-class learning (epitomized by a giant Trebuchet that a group of particularly ingenious students built from scratch), however, I also have fond memories of logic classes with Anna, math with Alden, and literature with Sandy. In theatre class, we put on Little Shop of Horrors several months after a potential drama teacher elected not to teach us, claiming that we didn’t have enough motivation to put on a musical.

Upattinas gave me three years of great memories. More than that, it gave me the ability to pursue my own educational path, which meant concentrating on activism, and thinking about the world of education. Almost everything I’ve done since high school has been influenced by my time at Upattinas. I’m so thankful to have been a part of the Upattinas community, and am grateful to those who worked tirelessly to create and run the school for over 40 years.

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A better mouse trap? Another vegan post.

I gave my brakes a squeeze as I turned left onto 16th street, swerving my bike into the slow lane of traffic while scanning the area for subway entrances. Center city is where all the major trains and trolleys converge, so there were about 10 separate stairways to the underground in a two-block radius, all of them crowded with people entering and exiting. I was hoping to be discreet, which wouldn’t be the case if I made the drop off at any of these entrances. I sucked exhaust as the light turned green and the bus in front of me revved its engine. I crossed the street and immediately saw the perfect location. Why hadn’t I thought of Love Park before? I pulled my bike up onto the sidewalk, then rode slowly into the park, next to a circular building that appeared to be closed at the moment. The coast was clear, I grabbed the small black plastic tube out of my backpack, placed it under the nearest bush, and unscrewed the cap.

Photo Credit: vic15

Photo Credit: vic15

I rarely enjoy talking about being vegan. I think my non-enjoyable to enjoyable conversation ratio on the subject is about 20 to 1. One problem is that vegans have a reputation for being preachy. There are two reasons for this. The first is that some vegans are annoyingly zealous about veganism, like tofu eating Jehovah’s witnesses. The second is that most people are vegan for ethical reasons. It is extremely hard to hear someone talk about why they believe a choice they’ve made is ethical, when you make the opposite choice on a regular basis. Hey man, you asked.

Another common annoyance I experience is people who say something along the lines of wow, I’m so impressed, I could never be vegan. Well, actually you probably could, and I’m not particularly interested in how hard you imagine it might be for you. I put I could never be vegan into the same category as I could never ride my bike to work or I could never go without a cell phone. Sure, there are a small quantity of people for whom these things are true, but mostly what you mean is that you don’t want to, which is completely fine by me. What I’d like to hear instead is that you’ve made a choice to be an omnivore or a vegetarian because you think X about animals. These are the 5% of conversations that are actually interesting!

I'm not as fixed in my beliefs as this guy. Photo Credit: Drew_Blood

I’m not as fixed in my beliefs as this guy. Photo Credit: Drew_Blood

Finally, I want you to know that you don’t need to be impressed. I’ve been vegan for 7 years, 95% of the time I don’t think about it, it’s just part of the way I live. I don’t feel like a martyr for animals or the environment or anything like that. Being vegan isn’t even hard at this point, with only a few exceptions. Which brings us back to the original story:

Helen and I (well, mostly Helen) have been dealing with mice in our apartment for the past few months. We’ve mouse-proofed as many things as we can, but its come to the point where we need to forcibly remove them. We acquired a highly-rated no-kill mouse trap and caught our first mouse last night. Since I didn’t want the mouse to go live in another house, I decided to take it downtown, where the largest population of mice live along the subway tracks.

As the terrified mouse bounds out of the plastic tube in the bushes of Love Park, several thoughts cross my mind:

1. I don’t think this is a sustainable way to get rid of the mice in our home.
2. I think realistically his chances of survival are slim.
3. Goodbye Ralph S. Mouse, or Stuart Little, or Benjamin (the meetinghouse mouse), or Algernon, or Martin (the warrior). Why did I read so many books that made me love mice?

In case you think I’m the only one who is soft on mice. Here is a transcript of my conversation with Helen this morning:


Photo Credit: Natasha Fadeeva

Helen: What are you gonna do with it?
Me: Take it to work
Helen: Don’t you think it will get scared being so bumpy?
Me: I’m not too worried about him being scared, he’s been stuffed in a tube for who knows how many hours
Helen: Well can you try to put a lot of padding around him so he won’t bounce as much?
Me: Yep

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A new 30-day goal, increase productivity, decrease facebook/email time!

31 days ago now, I decided to commit to brushing my teeth twice a day. It wasn’t the most challenging of goals, but certainly something worth doing! I suspect future Matt will be extremely grateful for savings in dental bills, pain and hassle. I even went above and beyond and bought some floss picks from Costco (which I’ve used several times, but not every night), and scheduled a cleaning for next Tuesday.

One of goals for 2013-2014 is to set a new goal every 30 days that will improve my life. This month I’ll be taking on a slightly more difficult challenge. Awhile ago I read Tim Ferris’ book The 4-hour workweek. In it, he describes a number of productivity tools he uses to increase efficiency, and therefore cut total time spent at work. Some of the biggest villains from his book: Meetings, and failure to batch similar activities to complete them in an efficient manner. 


Goodbye FB, see you tonight!

Working for a Quaker organization makes meetings seem inevitable, but one of the easier changes, according to Mr. Ferris is batch emails by committing to only checking twice a day. This is a concept that makes sense to me. I spend tons of time being distracted by the latest email to come in. For some reason, each new email feels urgent, and necessitates an immediate disruption in whatever else I’m doing. I’m sure this makes both my total time spent reading and responding to emails greater, and the other projects I’m working on slower. Well, no more, (at least for the next month!) I will be checking both my work on personal emails only twice a day. And in order to make this a meaningful exercise, I’ll be applying the same rules to my Facebook account. 

I’ll be checking work emails at 10:30 AM and 2 PM. Personal email will be checked at 10:30 AM and sometime between 7 and 9:30 PM (after dinner, but not right before bed). If you desperately need to contact me before my next scheduled check, give me a call!

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A public goals list for 2013-2014!


Photo Credit: RambergMediaImages

This year Not Back to School Camp’s season ended with a ‘create your own adventure’ retreat, four days of life planning, goal setting, and motivational advice. One of the more popular activities was to sit down and set 100 goals. No size or difficulty requirements, no self censorship, just 100 goals as quickly as I could come up with them. I typed out about 65 in my first 45 minutes, and I’ve slowly filled in another 35 over the last week.

I spent today looking over them, crossing out the ones that I’d already accomplished or failed, and the ones that no longer seemed relevant, interesting, or important. I combined a few, and kept the long-term ones to myself (although I may post them later), got rid of the ones in which success was only measurable subjectively, and now I’ll take a page out of Blake’s book, and post the remainder. I’ll probably add goals throughout the year, and update the list whenever I’ve made progress or failed.

Personal Growth:

Take on a new small challenge that tweaks my habits for the better for the next year


Continue a regular workout habit for a full year
Gain another 10 pounds of muscle this year to hit 160 pounds
Finish the November 17th Philadelphia Marathon in under 4 hours and 30 minutes
Go on a long distance hike (60+ miles)
Go on a long distance bike ride (200+ miles)

Art and Music:

Learn to play the guitar well enough to play at least three Avett Brother’s songs
Spend 30 minutes drawing every day for a month this year
Take a regular dance class for at least 2 months during this year

Reading and Writing:

Read at least one book every month for the next year
Spend 30 minutes on personal writing every day for a month this year
Write regular blog entries for the rest of the year


Complete at least one Coursera or other online course

Money and house:

Save $16,000 for home repairs, so that I could replace the roof, and heaters if they should break
Save at least $1,500 a month to put towards the mortgage and/or a mutual fund
Rent out the third floor by November
Complete all of the small but important repairs on the house by December


Increase enrollment at Middle School Friends events over last year
Take on a new role at a session of Not Back to School Camp (night owl, dishes, cook?) in 2014

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Trying something new for 30 days:

I first watched this TED talk about a year ago, and I thought it was brilliant, but failed to take any action. I’m feeling very fortunate to have stumbled upon it again, because its the type of thing I mentally tell myself to try, but often never actually do. Well, this time is different:

I’m new to this, so I’m going to start out small. This is sort of embarrassing, but for most of my life I’ve been a once-a-day teeth brusher. The advice of every dentist, pamphlet, or online resource on dental care that I’ve read is to brush teeth two or more times per day, but I only brush my teeth before going to bed every night. So for the next 30 days (and hopefully beyond), I’ll be brushing my teeth when I get up in the morning and before I go to bed at night. 

It sounds like a simple thing, but I’m having visions of thousands of dollars in dental bills saved, and hours of painful dental procedures avoided. I have no idea how realistic this is, but its a nice motivator. 

Finally, I instructed my personal assistant Siri, who lives in my Ipod touch, to remind me to set a new goal on October 12th, 29 days into this 30 day challenge. 

What would your 30-day challenge be? 

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Working out and motivation:

Photo Credit: Roberto Trm

Photo Credit: Roberto Trm

A few months ago, I decided it was time to start working out regularly. Actually, this wasn’t the first time I’d set this goal.

Several times during the last few years I’ve noticed myself slipping into a particularly sedentary lifestyle, based mostly around staring at my computer screen. I’m someone who spent most of his high school years playing multiple sports regularly. By regularly, I mean almost every day I would exercise in some form for at least an hour, if not longer.

As I said before, I’ve made the decision to get back to regular exercise several times. I even bought a medicine ball, a cheap set of adjustable weights, and made my own kettlebell, but I’ve never been able to motivate myself to work out for more than a few days in a row. 

Well, I’m proud to say, I’ve been working out regularly for the past 3 months, usually 3-5 times per week. I’ve used two main motivational techniques:

Photo Credit: Multimaniaco

First, I knew I needed to develop a regular workout habit, and in order to make it stick, I was going to have to force myself create a routine that I wouldn’t quit on after a few days. With this goal in mind, I searched the internet for relatively fast workout that would throughly kick my ass. What I found was the 7 minute workout, a short circuit training routine that hits all the major muscle groups in quick succession and left me in a sweaty puddle in just over 7 minutes.

In order to make sure I stuck with the plan, I signed up with Stickk.com. Stickk allows you to appoint a judge to monitor your progress towards an objective. You set the goal, type in your credit card information, and set up a donation to a charity or anti-charity of your choice. If your appointed judge doesn’t verify that you’ve completed your goal within the timeframe, the money is gone. To keep myself honest I appointed Helen as my judge, and set up two consecutive weekly donations of $500 to the anti-charity of my choice: The National Rifle Association. My self-defined challenge was to work out every single day, and with $1,000 to the NRA on the line, there was no way I was skipping a day!

Shortly after completing my stickk.com challenge, I worked at a gathering for self-directed learners called Trailblazer, where I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on gamification. Gamification is when one uses game mechanics to motivate themselves or others to behave in desirable ways, and is widely used as a marketing tool. For example, NFL.com distributes digital ‘coins’ to anyone who reads articles or watches videos on the site. Users are encouraged to accumulate large amounts of coins, which can be traded in for rewards like keychains, hats or discounts at the online store. The workshop leader challenged us to come up with a gamification system for one aspect of our lives, and I immediately knew what I would choose.


I had noticed that with the stickk.com challenge, that while losing money was a powerful motivator, it didn’t make me want to go above an beyond. By the end of two weeks, doing a single run through the 7 minute workout didn’t feel as challenging, but I had no reason to push myself beyond the minimum requirement. I created a new system that gave me points for pushing myself beyond the initial 7 minutes. For every extra 30 seconds, I would accumulate points which I could eventually trade in for one of my favorite treats: a peanut-butter chocolate mousse topped vegan brownie!

Photo Credit: Chema Concellon

Photo Credit: Chema Concellon

This has worked wonderfully, and I now have a regular fitness habit, no regular rewards required. One final important aspect of gamification is having long-term achievements to strive for. My first long-term goal was to weigh 150 pounds, after hovering around 140 pounds (plus or minus 5) since about age 18. I’ve achieved that, and I’m looking for a new long-term goal. I’m also currently training for the Philadelphia marathon (I ran my first half-marathon during session 2 of Not Back to School Camp!), so more weight gain is somewhat counter intuitive. Any ideas?

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So you want to be rich? The magic of compounding interest:

What if you were able to save half your income every month? To make the math simple, lets say you earn $12,000* a year ($1,000 a month), and you’re able to put half of it ($500/month) into a mutual fund account ($6,000/year). You’re a very conservative investor, and the market isn’t very good, so you end up getting the unfortunately low rate of 4% on your investment. How long will it take before the mutual fund account generates more money in interest than the $6,000 you’re contributing annually?


From left to right: years, dollars you contribute that year, interest generated, your total contribution to the account, total interest accumulated, and total account value

It looks like under less than ideal market conditions, you’ll be banking $6,089** in year 18 of your investment.  You’ll also be sitting on $158,322 in savings, nice!  What else is impressive about the chart above? It took us 18 years to reach $6,000/year, but only 2 short years to reach $7,000/year in interest. In fact, in year 28 you’ll be making $12,023! Like in Settlers of Catan, the advantage of investing early is multiplied later in the game. Unfortunately, this also means that the early going is fairly boring, putting $6,000 of your cash into an account that earns you only $131 in the first year can feel a lot like flushing good money down the toilet. It is also likely that your earning power in your late teens and early twenties may be considerably less than later on in life, making it even harder to part with your hard-earned dollars. But remember, later on in life, you will have more expenses as well, at some point you may want to have a family, and you’ll thank former you for taking such good care of future you.

With this compound interest calculator, you can play with the numbers yourself!

*I’m aware that saving $500 on a monthly budget of $1,000 is pretty damn tight, $1000 a month is also less than federal minimum wage for full time work (that would be $1,260/month before taxes, or approximately $15,000/year). My budget is $954 a month and doesn’t feel constricting at all, but I’d have earn at least $1,454 to put away $500. I wanted to keep the math simple though, and I think putting away half your income is a good target, so I kept the numbers.

**of course that $6,089 is subject to inflation over the 18 years, so it won’t buy you the same quality of life as $6,000 did when you began, but its still a significant amount of money! You can account for the inflation by increasing your monthly contributions to keep up with inflation, all of which you can calculate using the compound interest calculator above.

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