Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Nest Transformations

Film crew in the living room
     After several serious blogs about worldwide events, I decided it was time for a light-hearted look inside my small family’s Never Empty Nest.  Coming in for a close up on our 2nd Avenue, ninth floor nest, last week you would have seen a film crew, with all the requisite equipment, filling our home to the brim.  Keep the Change, (co-starring my daughter, Sarah) filmed in our apartment for 12 hours, after transforming the d├ęcor to look like “a funky grandmother’s house.” (!?!)  In addition to cast and crew—upwards of 25 people—our nest welcomed not only film equipment, but also lighting, bubble wrap, and enough cardboard and faux Tiffany lamps to fill an entire “storage” room.  
BEFORE: Max's bedroom
Beverage disposal in our son's bedroom
     Storage room? Once upon a time (about a year ago) the “storage space” was my son’s bedroom.  Then, shortly, after Max moved out, we transformed his bedroom from a chaotic college kid’s mess into a cozy, peaceful (adult) den. But when the film crew for Keep The Change arrived and started moving Sarah’s bike, stuffed animals, paintings and excess furniture into Max’s room (along with all the above-mentioned items), I couldn’t help but wonder: Was my son’s room cursed? Pre-destined to return to chaos despite all my efforts to the contrary?
Sarah's bedroom being prepped
Pikachu, Muffy and a koala bear  hang out on a lounge chair in the den
     It was 10:30 AM when I flew out of the nest to make way for Sarah’s movie.  (Fortunately, the film crew did not need MY bedroom, which
allowed Henry to come home from work and relax before dinner.)  According to the location manager, the only areas to be filmed were our entry foyer, living room and Sarah’s bedroom.  When Henry returned home, he chatted with the producer and enjoyed a glimpse of our smiling daughter, Sarah, basking in the glory of stardom, being fussed over by hair and make-up people— literally the center of attention, bathed in spotlights and cameras.  I, on the other hand, made it my business to stay clear of the nest for the full 12 hours.  In preparation for my self-imposed exile, I posted my blog a day early and enjoyed being outdoors on a picture-perfect Friday.

Den restored
    Now the film crew has departed, a sudden absence of activity after so much hustle bustle, and our nest has been temporarily transformed back to its semi-empty state.

     However, next week our son will be staying with us in the new den/guest room (that used to be his).  Will he pack up more of his books and clothing to take to California, or will he leave everything behind?  Henry and I are going away for Labor Day weekend, allowing Max to live alone in the family nest for most of his visit.  I wonder what his room will look like when we return.  Will the new den resemble a college dorm room?  Stay tuned.
Is this next?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Three American Heroes

 After last week’s post (“Religion, Rape and Slavery,” 8/21/15), what could be more uplifting than the story of three young Americans, whose heroic efforts to subdue an armed terrorist saved the lives of  over 500 people aboard a crowded bullet train between Amsterdam and Paris?  Alek Skarlatos, a National Guard specialist from Oregon was vacationing in Europe with a friend in the Air Force, Spencer Stone, and another American, Anthony Sadler, when they saw a man carrying an AK-47.  Another passenger had already thrown himself on the armed man, and the gun had fired several times, shattering glass and hitting a passenger.  “Let’s go, go!” Skarlatos shouted to his friend Stone, a powerfully built martial arts practitioner.  Stone chased the heavily armed gunman, and with the help of his friends, pinned him to the ground.  Barely twelve hours later, Skarlatos remarked in an interview: “I mean, adrenaline mostly just takes over…. I didn’t realize or fully comprehend what was going on.”
     Maybe adrenaline and incomplete comprehension played a role in the heroics of these three brave Americans. But I’m guessing more than adrenaline motivated them to protect themselves and the other passengers.  What happened to the adrenaline pumping through the veins of French passengers and train personnel?  Well, we can see what the personnel did with their adrenaline-driven fight or flight reaction:  they ran away and locked themselves in the engine room without trying to help passengers. Clearly, adrenaline isn’t the answer. The qualities that separate heroes from selfish and cowardly people are courage and caring about others, even strangers on a train. 

     But there’s even more to learn from this story.  Stone—the first to grab the gunman by the neck—was cut and slashed so badly that his own thumb was nearly severed. Despite being wounded and bleeding, Stone continued to pin down the gunman in a choke hold until his friends disarmed the
man, Skarlatos hitting him in the head with the AK-47. After Skarlatos, Sadler and a British citizen finally succeeded in subduing the resistant gunman, Stone went to the aid of a gunshot victim—despite his own serious injury. According to Sadler, the passenger “would have died without his (Stone’s) help.” Stone took heroism to an even higher level when he helped save the life of a stranger. After the immediate danger of the gunman had been eliminated, the young American could have nursed his own wounds and still been hailed a hero. Surely, one of the many unscathed French passengers could have pitched in to help? But that’s not what happened. Instead, the ferocious determination of one American hero would not allow him to rest until he had done everything in his power to correct the evil perpetrated by the train gunman.
     The gunman, a 26 year old Moroccan named Ayoub El Kahzani, was known to Spanish and French security services, and had reportedly travelled to Syria last year.  Spanish authorities notified French intelligence services in February 2014 that El Kahzani had joined “the radical Islamist movement.” The French then classified him as a security threat and gave him an “S” profile. France has about 5,000 people on their “S” list, according Agence France Presse, but apparently nobody knows how many "S" profiles are active or how the list has expanded over the years. (!?!) What does that even mean in light of the fact that El Kahzani continued to travel freely among European cities?  Some so-called experts and officials have suggested that the gunman wasn’t a terrorist because he was ill equipped and poorly trained to shoot up a train, or because his Kalishnikov was jammed and his pistol incorrectly loaded.  Really?  Does the fact that the shooter was incompetent make him less likely to be a terrorist?  (There’s a chilling thought.) Unfortunately, watching the investigation unfold in the American news media, I feel compelled to point out that the train incident was NOT a scene from a Pink Panther movie, but a real life tragedy only narrowly averted—no  thanks to the French police who are allowing armed "S"listers to ride their trains.  Doesn’t the world deserve a deeper, more intelligent analysis and investigation than the one conducted by a collection of Inspector Clouseaus?
     All three American heroes have been honored, as they should be.  President Obama called them “to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action.” French President Hollande phoned Obama “thanking him warmly” for the “exemplary conduct of the American citizens” who had prevented “an extremely serious act.”  The French president also awarded all three Americans with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration created by Napoleon in 1802. The award is intended to honor meritorious deeds of ordinary people, rather than chivalrous acts linked to nobility.  Will the gratitude of the French government expressed toward our brave young Americans be echoed by French citizens, who tend to be snobbish and condescending toward Americans in general? Or will the negative stereotype of boorish American prevail? When does “boorish” transmute into heroic, and when does stylish politesse and nonchalance devolve into self-absorption and betrayal of your fellow man? (Hint: on a train with an armed gunman.)
     I’d really like to think that the world can learn from the handful of heroes on our planet. We ought to be using social media to cultivate courage and humanity in children, instead of  standing by while ISIS recruits vulnerable youths in pursuit of insanity and evil. Somehow the best and brightest minds must come up with strategies to nurture and reward heroic behavior, while finding ways to discourage evil and violence.  If you think there’s something more important we humans need to be doing at this time in history, think again.

     In the meantime, it would be nice if the French would develop a kinder, more appreciative attitude toward the USA. After all, hundreds of their citizens are alive today because of the bravery of three young Americans.
     Will the French remember our heroics on their behalf?  Stay tuned until next summer when I plan to travel to France.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Religion, Rape and Slavery

 Libraries are filled with books on religion, rape and slavery, so this week’s post is just another tiny drop of commentary in the ocean of man’s inhumanity to man (or in this case, woman).  Normally, I wouldn’t even attempt to express my reaction to the horrors of history, but last week’s New York Times article “Enslaving Young Girls, The Islamic State Builds a Vast System of Rape,” 8/14/15 caused me to gag (and nearly choke) on my morning coffee. All weekend long, I couldn’t forget the 12-year-old girl who endured a culturally sanctioned rape by an Islamic State fighter—simply because she practiced a religion other than Islam.
     This is the story that I couldn’t stop thinking about: After binding and gagging the preteen girl, an ISIS fighter explained to her that the Quran not only gave him permission to rape her, but also stated that this rape was an act of “religious devotion,” no less sacred than kneeling in prayer to Allah, which he did after his sexual assault. (!!!)

     REALLY?  If I were a law-abiding Muslim, I would consider that interpretation of the Quran to be not only false, but also an extreme obscenity, far worse than any cartoons about Allah which led to the murders of journalists at Charlie Hebdo.

     HELLO!? Is anybody listening? Or have people all over the world become so jaded and cynical that we just keep on turning the page? First, for my generation was the deep remembrance of 60 million people who died in WWII and the Holocaust, ( Next we saw the Tutsis in Rwanda and their version of mayhem and genocide; then the Kurdish women in Iraq, followed by the Christian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria (See "Missing on Mother's Day,"5/16/14). Now I’m reading about (and gagging over) the Yazidi religious minority, but honestly, this is just a taste of the myriad atrocities being committed all over the globe.

     Did I forget to mention that while the Yazidi women were being kidnapped, enslaved and raped by ISIS, the Yazidi men were being executed?  Yes, that’s genocide.  Everyone exclaims in horror: “Never again!”  But like Edgar Allen Poe’s raven, the refrain repeats as long as the poem continues. “Never more” is a vow we do not keep. Over and over again, men are executed, women are raped and enslaved, losing not only their identities, but their minds, bodies and souls, as they are consumed and subsumed by the (insane) majority in power. Meantime, here in America, we allow the tribal gang bang and genocide to continue. (They’re not OUR women after all.)
     According to The Times, “the systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and radical theology of the Islamic state in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution.” And we’re OK with this? Could there be a more dry and detached description? The explanation of ISIS’ modus operandi went under the subtitle “A Bureaucracy of Cruelty.”(!!!) Where is the sense of outrage? Why aren’t moral, law-abiding people of all religions taking up arms to destroy this rapidly spreading terrorist group who are attempting to legalize slavery of women?  I used to think the main purpose of the United Nations was to intervene in worldwide human suffering.  But it’s been clear for quite some time that international corporate interests have taken priority over terror, rape, slavery and everything we once held dear. What we are seeing now is a collusion between the most impoverished and uneducated third world tribal governments and the very smart, but amoral international billionaires who profit from the resources available in these downtrodden and chaotic tribal regions. Let the Hunger Games begin!
     Last year a total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted, and at least 3,144 are still being held captive, community leaders say. In fact, the "trade" in Yazidi females has created a thriving business with a network of warehouses where women are held, viewing rooms where they are "inspected and marketed," along with a dedicated fleet of buses to transport them.The "bureaucracy of cruelty" developed by ISIS has even included sales contracts on sex slaves, all notarized by ISIS-controlled courts. The practice of raping and enslaving young girls has also yielded a bonus in secondary gains: a fantastically effective marketing tool to "recruit men from deeply conservative Muslim societies where casual sex and dating are forbidden," The Times reported.  Do any of these crimes against humanity remind you of other criminals in history that were eventually--and belatedly--crushed? (Hint: Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Attila the Hun.) 
  How many times must history repeat itself before conscious humans will commit to eradicating religious extremists with their megalomaniacal desire to impose insane belief systems on the rest of the world? Until 9/11 Americans blithely imagined we could enjoy our democracy and freedom from the safety of our shores.  Atrocities happened in other parts of the world. We might read horrifying headlines, but we could throw out the newspaper.  We could view blood and carnage on the evening news on our living room TVs and go blissfully to sleep afterward, feeling safe in our American homes. We told ourselves that our lives were unchanged and unassailable here on this continent. 
     Those delusionary days are long over now.  Rape and sexual enslavement have recently been re-codified into an insidious and sophisticated “religion” by ISIS.  Yes, we are allowing ISIS to get away with claiming that genocide and rape are religious activities, commanded by Allah! Worse than that, young and disaffected people on the fringes of society here in the USA and Europe are being seduced into trading their freedom (and civil rights!) for the chance to be “heroes” and/ or martyrs.  How much longer is the civilized world going to sit on the side-lines and allow ISIS to spread its evil? Our children’s future may depend on the answer.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Helping the Homeless vs. Political Prattle

     Why are there so many more homeless people living in our streets? New Yorkers all over the city are asking.  No wonder Mayor De Blasio’s approval rating has plummeted. The New York Times reported that more than half of New York voters (53%) disapprove of the way our mayor is handling poverty and homelessness, according to a poll released last week. De Blasio’s approval rating on handling homelessness was only 36%, a trend that was consistent across boroughs and ethnicities.  In response, the mayor has announced a $22 million mental health effort that will include more caseworkers at shelters and more outreach personnel to tend to mentally ill people. A plan to deal with the low-income housing shortage is expected to be forthcoming in the fall. Like all politicians, De Blasio also blames his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, for contributing to the homelessness of the poor and mentally ill. While De Blasio has rightly claimed that living on the streets “is not against the law,” urinating on the sidewalk or apartment building wall is a crime and a quality-of-life issue for all New Yorkers. Besides, doesn’t it seem like arguing about the legality of living on the street is missing the point in a big way?

     I don’t claim to have the answer to homelessness, but one thing I know for sure: New York is on the verge of becoming an exclusive playground for the rich.  (Think Hunger Games.) As real estate prices sky rocket, owning a home anywhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens is becoming more and more out of reach for the middle class. Rentals are becoming less and less affordable as the supply of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments continues to dwindle. In some ways, I believe we have created a culture that is the modern-day equivalent of pre-revolutionary France. Whatever the politicians say or do, they might as well be quoting Marie Antoinette who famously said of the hungry poor: “Let them eat cake.” With the exception of Michael Bloomberg, Jimmy Carter, and perhaps a few others, politicians are funded by wealthy individuals, corporations and super-PACs.  None of them are going to play Robin Hood and risk losing their financial backers. Certainly De Blasio—despite his stated good intentions—has not made any headway in providing more or better quality housing for the most vulnerable members of society.

     What I keep wondering every time I see a homeless  person on the streets of Manhattan (an alarmingly frequent occurrence) is what happened to that individual’s family? Once upon a time those men and women who now huddle in filthy sleeping bags or under cardboard boxes were innocent babies, some of whom must have been welcomed into a family nest and loved.  Obviously, the fairy tale was fleeting, and for all kinds of reasons the nightmare of living on the streets became a reality.  For me, this type of reflection is dangerous and worrisome.  What will happen to my daughter Sarah and other adults on the autistic spectrum when their parents pass away? Will they end up in the streets or warehoused in sub-standard living conditions?
     Maybe we should look at the Israeli solution for housing young adults with autism. Last fall the ALUT Fellowship House opened as a home-for-life for 24 young adults with autism, who function at various levels and range in age from 18 to 28. Some of these residents interact with their environment, have jobs or attend college and operate independently in many areas.  Fellowship House is located in a desirable area of Tel Aviv, overlooking two rivers and next to a well-maintained park, so residents can ride their bikes or stroll and shop in the neighborhood. Young adults at Fellowship House are divided into three groups of eight. They each have their own room, but eat together and share common area where they can watch TV and interact. The goal of the facility is to provide a family lifestyle, while taking the needs of each individual into consideration.

     In The Journey Magazine, ALUT’s stated mission is to ensure “the well-being, rehabilitation, future and economic status of persons with autism in Israel.” While providing educational, residential, vocational, and leisure-time services to people with autism, ALUT works to promote their rights and improve the services available to them and their families. Now that sounds like a plan with vision, doesn’t it?
     At the opening ceremony of Fellowship House, Rabbi Eckstein addressed the crowd and said: “If we want to progress and set an example for the world through our values and care for our fellow man and society’s weakest, it can only be done by all three sectors—the government, the non-profit sector, and the business sector—working together. ‘A cord of three stands is not quickly broken,’ we learn in Ecclesiastes 4:12. The Fellowship House is an example of all relevant factors coming together.” Of equal importance, he emphasized, was that this house represented “Christian and Jewish friends around the world coming together to offer compassionate support for Israelis in need.”
 Hello, America, is anyone listening?

     If Israel—a tiny nation perpetually at war—can provide a home and dignified lifestyle to young people with autism, why can’t we do that here in the USA, with greater resources and more power? Come to think of it, why limit the Fellowship House model to people with autism?  Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but why not expand Fellowship philosophy to help house our homeless poor, mentally ill and learning disabled populations?  Instead of allowing the chaotic avarice created by various “interest groups” contributing millions of dollars to campaigns where politicians give speeches about complicated problems that they hope will please their constituents, why not invest in concrete solutions? What about something simple and obvious like homes for all humans?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Dying For Success

 In the “Education Life” section of
 The New York Times (8/2/15), author Julie Scelfo described the progress of freshman college students—the super-ambitious, high-achieving, high school students—who spiral into deep depression and sometimes even commit suicide. Who did the author blame for the increase in suicide rates among 15 – 24 year olds?  The main culprits are (you guessed it!) parents—particularly “helicopter parents” (those who hover) and the more extreme “lawn mower parents” (those who presumably “mow over” their kids while micro-managing them even at college).

      Do you remember when mothers were blamed for schizophrenia? Supposedly mothers were driving their children into madness and hallucinations with verbal double binds, according to R. D. Lang. (Later research proved schizophrenia was biological and genetic, and Lang’s treatment methods were exposed as dubious at best.) Remember when mothers were blamed for autism? Supposedly “refrigerator moms” withheld touch and created emotionally disconnected kids? (Autism has zero relationship with early parental touch, BTW.) Yeah, and not too long ago the psychology community even blamed mothers for creating gay sons. Remember that in the 1960’s? Or maybe you don’t want to?
     As a parent, are you tired of being blamed for doing your best for the people you love most in a difficult world?

     Does it ever occur to whoever is writing these articles and cooking up recipes for parent bashing that there might be more going on than individual parents making mistakes? There are powerful forces in our culture and our environment that encourage precisely those parenting styles which create stress and depression in today’s young adults. American parents are not raising their children in the Garden of Eden or some other Utopia. Like our troubled and overwhelmed teenagers, we’re struggling with chaos, economic scarcity and urban crime, along with aging and caring for elderly parents. At the same time we want to set our kids on the path toward a better life than we had. Isn’t that every generation’s dream?

     Dreaming used to be part of being American. Daring to dream was declared a birthright. But somewhere along the way the American dream turned into an advertisement and then a reproach for failing to live up to glossy magazine covers, media expert advice and perfect TV relationships. Instead of historical figures, movie stars become role models; movies glorified clever cheats (Catch Me if You Can) instead of hard work and kindness (It’s a Wonderful Life.) To be fair, Julie Scelfo also blamed social media for promoting the outward illusion that students are happier, more popular and confident achievers than they are on the inside. But haven’t TV shows and magazine covers been doing this for decades? Did anyone ever meet the family in “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch?” Where are these perfect American families? Only on TV.

     According to the Times article, some Ivy League schools have nicknames for faking it when students are feeling hopelessly depressed and unable to live up to an unattainable (but nevertheless stereotypical!) picture of happiness and success. At the University of Pennsylvania, appearing confident and happy even when miserable or anxious is called Penn Face. Being “effortlessly perfect” at Duke is called Duck Syndrome. Here the duck floats calmly across the pond, while its webbed feet paddle furiously below the surface.
     While it’s both alarming and tragic to learn that six Penn students committed suicide in 13 months and Cornell faced six suicides in the 2009-2010, can we really assign ALL the blame to parents and social media? That seems an easy way to avoid looking at the bigger, more complicated picture. Why initiate sweeping cultural change when we can keep up the status quo instead, blaming parents (the old standby) and social media, the new whipping boy of the conservatives? Cut-throat competition among high school students to get into elite colleges may be worsening, but academic pressure from parents is NOT a new phenomenon.

     As a proud baby boomer (who graduated from Vassar in 1978), I remember feeling incredibly pressured by my father and mother to get into a top school, as did many of my classmates.  Did I have “helicopter parents?” Definitely not. With little parental academic supervision throughout my school years, I was simply expected to do my absolute best and land at a top college.  Reasoning that tuition costs were pretty much the same for an elite school as a lesser institution, my parents wanted the “best value” for their dollars. “Why go to the Holiday Inn when you can be at the Plaza for the same price?” they repeated throughout my high school years.  Not surprisingly, I remember feeling depressed, anxious and worried about disappointing my family during high school and college.  How many of you can relate to that?
     Maybe admission to the Ivy League is more competitive now than ever before.  But I heard that same story when I was applying to colleges in the 1970’s.  At the time, my college guidance counselor (also the school principal) at Trinity here in New York told me I was an “over-achiever.”  He actually said he didn’t believe I could or should apply to top colleges. But I did anyway.  After I was accepted to Vassar, the principal skipped congratulating me in favor or remarking dryly:  “Let’s see if you can stay in.” Four years later, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in English and psychology.   Over 30 years passed before my son Max applied to top colleges, and his guidance counselor was almost as discouraging as mine had been.  In fact, nearly all my son’s friends were told to scale down their expectations, yet many parents—including Henry and I—persisted in the pursuit of  top colleges.  The good news is that my son and most of his friends got into their top choices, graduated, and are making their way in the world. 
     But, in a cultural climate where popular and talented students at the University of Pennsylvania can commit suicide (as Madison Holleran did last year and as Kathryn DeWitt almost did) the mental health of young adults SHOULD be a priority, in the media and at the universities where these tragedies occur. I’m glad Julie Scelfo wrote her story “Fear of Failing” for The New York Times.  However, I believe that blaming parents (the easy scapegoats) fails to explore the heart of the problem.  Until our society changes the way it evaluates human beings—from nursery school to adulthood—young people will literally continue dying for success (or the perceived lack of it). 

     The world has been, and always will be, a very competitive place.  (Remember Darwin?) Parents need to help their kids explore, identify and pursue their talents and strengths from an early age, while accepting that MOST offspring are not Ivy League material.  Schools must also learn to value and nurture their B and C students, so the message is consistent. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses; academics are not everything. (Didn’t Einstein fail math?) And ALL kids should be encouraged to do their best, learning from disappointments and failures as well as successes. What about teaching respect and compassion for diversity of skills and intelligence (as well as skin color and gender) from an early age? Isn’t it time we started raising kids to become more resilient and confident adults, who can ultimately face the challenges of the 21st century without self-critical perfectionism and crippling performance anxiety?

     The big question now is: how do we redefine the meaning of success?  Can our understanding of a successful life become broader and more inclusive?  Will society make room for young adults, like my daughter Sarah, on the autistic spectrum in myriad professions, not just buried in mail rooms or hidden behind computers at software companies?  When will law firms and large corporations begin to consider non-Ivy graduates who’ve demonstrated ingenuity and achievements outside the classroom? Honestly, are we EVER going to allow the “have-nots” to have a little bit more by raising the minimum wage? Until we can start answering these questions (and many others) affirmatively, high school students will continue to be stressed out, sleep deprived and depressed as they continue to apply to Ivy League schools in droves. Like salmon swimming upstream, how many of our American children will not survive pushing against the current? 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Overcrowded Prisons – Nightmare Nests

   Did you know that America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any Western nation, with 750 humans in jail per 100,000 people?  If that statistic isn’t horrifying enough, consider the fact that over 50% of inmates are in federal prison for drug crimes (many of which are relatively minor).  Regardless of whether you’re a baby boomer, a millennial, or from an in-between generation, I bet there are LOADS of Americans who experimented with drugs.  How many people can honestly say they DIDN’T smoke pot as a teenager? I’m guessing there are also a significant number who snorted cocaine, swallowed speed to study or finish a paper, or popped a Quaalude at some time in their lives.  Most of us were lucky enough to avoid prison and grew up to be law-abiding, tax paying adults who contribute to society in myriad ways. But what about all of the unlucky people who committed similar minor offenses and ended up in prison for up to 20 years simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, belonged to a racial minority, or lacked the funds to hire a good attorney?  Many of these drug offenders are teenagers and young adults who have NOT enjoyed the benefits of a nurturing family nest, and have instead suffered inside over-crowded prison cells with two or three inmates bunking together in claustrophobically small spaces, such as solitary confinement. Oh, you thought solitary confinement was solitary? Not necessarily, with jail crowding there can be as many as three prisoners sharing the same solitary confinement cell.
     With these scary statistics in mind—and with a push from President Obama—it seems that conservative and liberal politicians are finally coming together to reverse the sentencing laws of the 1970s and ‘80s. (See “Bi-Partisan Push Builds to Relax Sentencing Laws,” The New York Times, 7/29/15).  Currently under debate by Congress is whether to dramatically change sentences—including a reduction of mandatory minimum sentences—or seek early release and services behind bars, or some combination of  these changes. Even conservative Republican John Boehner has endorsed a bill that would change the criminal justice system. “I’ve long believed there needed to be reform,” Mr. Boehner stated. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don’t really in my view need to be there.  It’s expensive to house. Some of these people are in there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons.” Amen!
     The cost of incarcerating one inmate in states like Connecticut, Washington and New York is anywhere from $50,000 – $60,000, according a report by the organization, “The Price of Prisons.” That $60,000 could pay the salary of a teacher or firefighter, or maybe provide well-deserved raises to the best and most qualified of these civil servants.  Instead our epidemic of incarceration costs taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.
     Leaving housing costs aside for the moment, what about the human costs? According to a study of Chicago youth incarceration by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle of MIT, young people who went to prison were 39% less likely to finish high school than others from the same neighborhood who were not incarcerated.  Even young offenders from the same neighborhood who were spared from prison were more likely to finish high school than jailed peers. While prison is supposed to deter crime, the Chicago study found that going to jail also made kids more likely to offend again. Incarcerated youth were 67% more likely to return to prison by age 25 than peers who had not gone to prison. Was the pattern similar for those involved in more serious crimes?  Aizer and Doyle found that youths who’d spent time in prison were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those who didn’t serve time.
     Alarmingly, adolescents are frequently sent into the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses, in a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison-pipeline.”  The process begins when students are forced out of school, suspended for bad behavior and sent back to their home environments and neighborhoods which may be filled with negative influences. Forced out of school (some unnecessarily), these students become stigmatized and fall behind in schoolwork, making them more likely to drop out permanently and commit crimes in their communities.

     But how is it possible for nearly 2.4 million people to be in prison, even though the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40% over the last 20 years? Why are there so many prisoners?  Apparently, our country has devised a new form of slavery.  According to California Prison Focus, the private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up.  Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences in order to expand their workforce.  “The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.” (!!!) America needs to wake up and end this prison nightmare.
     What’s the solution to the current criminal justice crisis?  Instead of building more prisons, or adding more beds to existing jails, we should be investing in prevention and rehabilitation—especially for youthful offenders. Why not add more school psychologists and drug counselors to our schools and try to address the issues that lead to early crimes?  Schools in troubled neighborhoods should invite successful alumnae to address students in assembly, provide role models, and possible mentors.  Surely, most Americans would agree that investing in human potential is far more profitable, both financially and emotionally, than locking people away.
       Obama’s effort to seek changes in tough drug policies, allowing the early release of low-level, non-violent offenders is a good first step. If lawmakers can agree to cut in half the mandatory prison sentences for certain drug crimes—now set at 5, 10 and 20 years—imagine the number of lives that could be improved. Young offenders would have a chance at an education.  Incarcerated parents could go home to raise their children—the innocent and invisible victims of the current justice system.  Whenever possible, children should be living with their parents at home, not visiting them in prison.
     If children and youth are our future, we need to find ways to set them free.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hoping, Coping & Letting Go

     In one of my all-time favorite movies, Shawshank Redemption, Red reads a letter from his friend Andy, who escaped from prison after years of being punished for a crime he didn’t commit.  In the letter Andy says: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” The letter encourages Red (if he’s ever released from jail) to join his escaped friend Andy in Mexico and start a new life.  While I love the line, (and it’s very touching in the film) I’m not sure these words always ring true in real life.  While having a positive and hopeful attitude is usually better than being pessimistic, quite often bad things happen, problems don’t resolve, and staying hopeful is NOT the best way to cope.
     For example, take my husband, Henry, a lawyer, who tends to be pessimistic.  In order to defend many of his clients, he must focus on the weaknesses of a case more than the strengths, if he wants to create a winning argument.  Do you want a hopeful, optimistic lawyer, who says things are going to fine for you? Or would you prefer an attorney who worries about protecting you and digs deeply into every nook and cranny of the law? Hint: Think of Larry David’s reaction on Curb Your Enthusiasm when he learned his divorce lawyer was Swedish (instead of Jewish). “Oh no,” he lamented, “my wife’s going to get everything!”
     All of us empty-nesters try to set a positive, hopeful example for our millennial children, particularly when they go off to college.  While most kids won’t admit to being ambivalent about leaving the family nest—excited AND apprehensive—parents also have mixed feelings about letting go: pride, worry and sadness, among others.  Still, it’s much easier to be hopeful and excited about college—a kind of bridge between childhood and adulthood—than it is to remain hopeful when that young adult graduates from college and has difficulty finding a first job. Many parents have fond memories of their college years, and unhappy recollections of their first jobs (especially female baby boomers like me). For parents who happen to have a child with a disability, (like my daughter Sarah on the autistic spectrum), hope will only take you so far. Hope IS a good thing—and perhaps the best thing—when educating and treating a child with learning disabilities.  But what happens to hope after a young adult with autism graduates from college?  Sadly, my personal experience (and that of friends with kids on the spectrum) has been that hope disintegrates for both the parents and now
grown children.
     All of society’s safety nets which are supposed to assist families of young adults with disabilities are woefully inadequate.  Parents are buried in paperwork and a labyrinthine bureaucracy with government workers whom I’d like to think are well-intentioned (even if overworked, under-funded or incompetent).  There’s even a whole new language of terminology and acronyms for frustrated parents to learn: ACCES-VR (Adult Career and Continuing Education Services – Vocational Rehabilitation), OPWDD (Office for People with Developmental Disabilities), MSC (Medicaid Service Coordinator), SEMP (Supportive Employment Programs), Community Habilitation Services, etc. and the list goes on . . . .  Oddly—and mercifully—securing disability payments, Medicaid and Social Security for Sarah has been much easier and faster to do than providing her with life skills support or an actual job.  Wouldn’t it be kinder and less costly for society to offer job support and employment opportunities to people with disabilities instead of mailing them millions of dollars? Or has society abandoned all hope of creating a truly inclusive and diverse workforce?  Sarah graduated from Pace University over a year ago and still has no job, nor has she received a single hour of life skills support despite following up with months of phone calls.
     Nowadays coping substitutes for hoping.  Sarah keeps busy: with friends, the gym, her theater group, and rehearsals for her upcoming film, Keep the Change.  I’m still persevering with the various government bureaucracies. My advice to all parents of kids with disabilities is to start submitting all that paperwork for housing, job support, life skills etc. when your children are in high school. I failed to follow that friendly advice for my own daughter because I couldn’t stop HOPING that Sarah would not NEED government support. Foolishly, I hoped that somehow through maturity and continued brain plasticity Sarah would become capable of much greater independence than has turned out to be the case. In  my defense, I never believed seeking assistance for someone who truly needed it would take nearly as long as it has.                

     Sometimes coping means I must continue to advocate for Sarah and be “the squeaky wheel.” However, 24 years of advocating and “squeaking” has been exhausting (for the wheel).  Now I worry about what will happen to my daughter when Henry and I are gone.  Will her twin brother who lives on the opposite coast step in to help her in the event of a problem? Will he even know if she has a problem?  Or will he be busy navigating challenges in his own life?  I want to be hopeful, but hope—as Henry often reminds me—is not always practical or realistic.   Worrying about both of my adult children, (flown from the nest, or mostly flown, in Sarah’s case) only results in migraines, indigestion and insomnia.

     What’s the solution? Letting go, moving on, “que sera, sera.” My mother had a much easier time saying goodbye when I left the family nest than I’m having with the double separation of my twins.  I moved less than a mile away from my childhood home.  In contrast, my son moved to the west coast, while my daughter is halfway out the door without a job. For me, what’s hardest is taking my mother’s advice, a quote from John Milton’s sonnet on blindness: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Thanks, Mom. I hope you’re right…