Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snow! Obama’s Second Inauguration, Honduras Trip, Cholera in Cuba, Hugo Chavez, Clean Energy, Russian Adoption Ban, Hilary Clinton, Mental Health First Aid, Interpretation Gigs, Field of Dreams, Spanking

Here in DC, it turned cold on Tues. and this morning, when I went out at 6:30am today for a school interpretation, it was snowing! Nonetheless, I got to the school before 8 am just in time to meet a mother from Honduras (!) and her daughter while we waited for the teachers she was meeting to arrive. When we left the school at 10 am, the snow was already melting, but it was exciting while it lasted. Maybe an inch fell, max. So much for global warming!

Lots of symbolism when President Obama’s second inauguration coincided on January 21 with Martin Luther King Day. I had gone down to the mall 4 years ago, located at walking distance from our house, when my daughter Stephanie came out from Hawaii to witness the events. It was a cold day then, in the 20s, with people packed in so tightly we couldn’t even move our feet. It reminded me of being at one of President Carter’s inaugural balls, where dancing was completely out of the question. I was glad to have gone to hear Obama’s first inaugural address in person, but was hardly eager to repeat the experience. The day before this year’s event, several of us who had gone in 2009 met for a commemorative brunch at a local eatery. One friend at the brunch admitted that standing so long out in the cold on that historic day 4 years ago, he had tried in vain to make his way through the dense crowd to one of the port-a-potties set up around the mall, finally giving up and wetting his pants. This year, there was a little sunshine and temperatures near 40, and a smaller crowd, “only” an estimated 700,000 rather the record-breaking 1.8 million in 2009. I’m always fearful when Obama gets out to walk along the parade route because with all those people gathered and the existence of so many fierce, gun-totting types, surely his secret service might not be able to prevent some very determined guy from taking a shot at him. I remember President Kennedy insisting on riding in an open car in Dallas. But Obama got out to walk today without incident. I’m glad now, finally, that Obama has put our DC “taxation without representation” license plate on his car. Most other citizens take their congressional and senate reps for granted, not realizing that we in DC are more populous than at least one other state, Cheney’s Wyoming, and close in size to small population states like Alaska and Delaware. DC has a growing population, unlike that of other eastern cities.

Lyndon Johnson apparently had the next largest inaugural crowd after Obama, 1.2 million in 1965. Bill Clinton got 800,000 in 1993 and GW Bush 400,000 in 2005. Bush had a substantially smaller crowd in 2001, but the count was confounded by the turnout of a record number of protestors, many of whom were arrested.

Just got a surprise e-mail message from a former Honduras PC colleague with whom I haven’t been in contact since 2002: I served with you in the Sur V group, and Will Carter alerted me to the existence of your book. I read it, and it was fantastic. It took me right back in a very vivid way. Thanks for such a good book. I keep telling my wife that we're going to do the Peace Corps after we retire ... she seems a little reluctant, but I have about 20 years to convince her!

Now, it’s official; I will be leaving in mid-Feb. for Honduras once again, my 9th return trip there since my departure from the Peace Corps. I’ll be as careful as I can--travel is always a challenge there and security is a constant concern, especially in cities. Now I'm told that a wheelchair I was going to transport to the south is being used locally. I've said if someone in La Esperanza needs it, by all means leave it there. I wouldn't want to take it away from that person. So if that's the case, one less headache for me. I only wanted to take it to the Choluteca rehab center if no one needed it in La Esper. For about 2 years, it has been sitting at the Red Cross building in La Esper. unused. I told them long ago to look for someone who needed it locally. Now that they've found such a person, they act like I want to repossess the chair. I don't have some proprietary feeling about that wheelchair. Sometimes, even now, Hondurans and I seem to be miscommunicating

Cuba acknowledges 51 cholera cases

Associated Press – Tues. Jan 15, 2013

The above acknowledgment by the Cuban government is rather late, as cholera started there last July, perhaps transmitted by health workers helping out with the cholera epidemic in Haiti.


According to Brazilian cancer specialists close to the Chavez case, he was offered free treatment in Brazil and could have probably had it in other countries, but chose Cuba because of its tighter secrecy and to give a boost to Cuba’s medical reputation (not such a big boost if he fails to survive). But the Brazilian doctors don’t believe that Cuban medicine is so advanced and insist that they could have cured Chavez if he had come to them—they claim to know all about his condition and his type of cancer and that he put himself in jeopardy by opting for treatment in Cuba.

Hugo Chavez’s former wife, Nancy Iriarte, published a blistering letter on January 12 in the newspaper El Universal, berating him for ruining families, pushing Venezuelans to emigrate, and imprisoning his political rivals and critics. Here’s a translation of the gist of it: “What do your powers and accolades amount to now? You are dying in another country, with the poor being poorer, leaving a nation on the verge of civil war. You will go down in history as a traitor and a coward who sacrificed your liberty and that of others.”

Just got a breakdown on my electric bill for last six months, including the sources of energy. We think of electricity as clean energy, but it doesn’t come out of the blue; it derives from fuel. Of our local electricity sources, more than 42% comes from coal, 18% from gas, 35% from nuclear power, and the remaining 5% from oil, solar, and wind, not so very “clean” after all.

A young former Honduras Peace Corps volunteer buddy of mine, Mitch Harrison, who wrote a short blurb for my Honduras book, was in town to get an award. He and his Mexican wife now live and work in Austin, Texas. His mother came from Minnesota to be on hand for his award ceremony. Four years ago, Mitch was selling hand warmers at Obama’s inauguration and desperately looking for a job. But thanks to winning a federal internship, he is now part of the federal workforce, though who knows how secure federal employment is these days? Last year, my former Cuban rafter housemate, Jose Manuel, was laid off from a 10-year half-time federal job because of cuts of federal part-time employees.

One of the hats I wear is as a board member of an adoption agency that does home studies for both domestic and international adoptions. At one time, I was president of an agency that facilitated the adoption of Russian children, among others. Approximately 60,000 Russian children have been adopted in the United States in the last decade and, of those, only 19 have been problematic and grabbed headlines in both countries. One was a sad and notorious case right here in the DC area a few years ago, whereby an adoptive father of a Russian-born toddler forgot to drop him off at day care, leaving him sitting strapped into his car seat inside the vehicle to die in the heat. I’m sure that man and his wife have not lived down that terrible event. Another case was a single woman who had adopted a school-age boy and could not handle him, so she sent him back alone to Russia. Not to excuse those adoptive parents, but when such a large number of adoptions are undertaken, the record of success will not be 100%. Nor does it mean that the other 99+% of adoptions should have been prevented. Of course, every country wants to protect its international image and sending children to be raised abroad is often considered shameful, showing that the country cannot take care of its own. Yet, 100,000 Russian citizens have signed a petition protesting the US-adoption ban. Apparently as the result of these internal protests, the Russian government has decided to delay implementation of the ban for a year, allowing most adoptions already in process to go forward.

I’ve not seen inside Russian orphanages, although when I was agency president, I heard a lot about them. Our agency provided funds to orphanages above and beyond the costs of supporting and processing the children that our families here were adopting, but, frankly, there was much corruption involved. I also saw children’s facilities in Romania in the 1990s, not a pretty picture. So the odds for a child being adopted by an American family are much better than letting that child stay in a Russian orphanage. About half of all Russian children adopted worldwide have gone to the US. Nor do many Russians adopt children themselves, because of both financial and cultural reasons. Last fall, Russia and the US worked out an elaborate adoption agreement that now the Putin government is rejecting. All this is in retaliation for a US visa ban for alleged Russian human rights abusers. The head of the Russian Orthodox church is now urging Russians to adopt children themselves, which, if they heed his call, would be great.

Among other things, I think Hilary Clinton just got worn out by her secretary of state job and, while being in the hospital was not her idea of a vacation, she did get a rest. Surely a book is in the works in the immediate future.

In Virginia, an intriguing initiative is underway to offer mental health first aid. Just what that might consist of and how administered is still being worked out, but it does seem that there needs to be somewhere that people can turn if they feel out of control or observe someone else in that state, though it’s always tricky to label another’s behavior as demonstrating mental health problems. Such a provision must not be used to disparage the reputation of an opponent in personal disputes.

Won’t say much on the Obama administration’s gun control recommendations, which seem reasonable and mild to me, but evidently not to the gun lobby’s liking, which apparently wants no more restrictions or accountability whatsoever. The NRA has accused the Obama daughters of having armed guards at their school, which is technically untrue, although they do have secret service protection, since all members of a president’s family do need extra security. And while all of us would welcome any initiatives to better identify and treat the mentally ill, mental health treatment is inexact, often unsuccessful, would require increased expenditures in an era of budget cutting, and all would-be patients still have the right to refuse treatment unless it can be definitively demonstrated in court that they are a danger to themselves and others, very difficult to do before the fact. Furthermore, most murders are not committed by the mentally ill. Rather, anyone is at risk for “going off,” acting irrationally in an emotional moment, especially young men, indicating that testosterone is one risk factor for violence. Should all men be barred from having guns? That would probably cut down considerably on gun killings if it ever could be implemented.

Conspiracy theorists are now harassing the heroes and bereaved parents of Sandy Hook, saying that the tragic events there never took place. These are obviously dangerous and deluded individuals and all are apparently militant gun owners. If anyone’s guns should be taken away, it should be theirs, since their judgment and moral sense are obviously flawed.

Incidentally, DC’s murder rate in 2012, a total of 88, was the lowest since 1966. That’s still 88 too many, of course, but a far cry from when the city was called “the murder capital.” Obviously, the reduction is due to more than gun controls; it also has to do with a reduction in the culture of violence and drug use.

While at a recent interpretation assignment, involving rather emotional child welfare issues, I suddenly had a senior moment and couldn’t remember the word in Spanish for a [drinking] straw—the word is pajilla. My days as an interpreter will be numbered if that begins to happen too often!

Among other recent Spanish-language assignments was a meeting with a mother and son at a Maryland high school with 3,000 students (!), a hospital MRI session, and a tricky translation of medical documents, so there is considerable variety in what I do, one of the perks of this type of work. In a private home where a child was being evaluated for early intervention services, a TV set was running non-stop with a telenovela, a soap opera. I noticed that one of the actors, who tellingly removing his wedding ring before meeting new lovely lady, was a Cuban film actor whom I had met in Havana in the 1990s. I commented to the mother of the child we were visiting, who told me he had defected to Mexico and started a new career there.

At a hearing center for drivers’ license revocation appeals, for the first time, my Spanish-speaking client was a woman. From my own clients over the years and observing English-speakers waiting for hearings, almost never do women appeal revocation of their driving privileges. The only woman I know personally who did so is my friend now in an Alzheimer’s facility who was found not competent to drive by an administrative hearing judge, despite hiring a lawyer to plead her case.

I also spent two 12-hour days at a detention center for boys in rural Maryland. Our client was a 15-year from Guatemala whose father had brought him here 2 months earlier, in part because of threats from gangs there. However, he was not finding what he had expected and wanted to return to Guatemala to his mother, siblings, and girl friend there. In fact, he was hoping to be deported! He would not tell me why he was in detention, but implied it might be due in part to a disagreement with his father, who had brought him to the US at great effort and expense, either legally or illegally. He had only gone to 4th grade, so was way behind academically. In math class, I showed him for the first time how to carry over numbers when subtracting. He was totally lost, of course, in English and computer classes.

This detention facility posted a lot of signs exhorting the boys to “Show a positive attitude,” Work for success,” “Be respectful,” and “Thank you for using good manners,” all while the staff were yelling at them to pull up their pants, to wear their socks inside their pant cuffs, and to “Shut up!”.

But perhaps the most unusual assignment was a city-wide meeting about the DC Public Schools’ budget where I was on hand to interpret for Spanish speakers. The public school chancellor attended with other staff members. Those testifying included PTA presidents and an ACLU rep. Slated school closings were the most contentious issue, as were teacher layoffs, including a bitter 20-year veteran teacher just laid off, whose grievances exceeded the 4-minute per speaker limit, so that her microphone was turned off and she stormed out. Several speakers lamented the inroads that charter schools have made into the enrollment of traditional public schools, promoting a call for holding the line at regular public school enrollment at 65%. Instead of closing neighborhood schools, it was suggested that unused space be converted to infant and toddler care.

In an era of budget-tightening and school enrollment decline, there were calls for a reduction in central office staff, and by implication, in their salaries, such as the chancellor’s, which exceeds $200,000 a year, and making sure all staff are district residents. But more services were advocated at the community level, including more emphasis on school safety after the shootings in Conn. (some DC schools do have guards at the door, but not armed), as well as more after-school programs, special education, social workers, parent education, college prep, foreign language classes, computerization of documents and records, distance learning, and, even, therapeutic swimming and horse-back riding. How would all this be paid for? Higher taxes devoted to schools and partnering with corporations, such as Microsoft, and the use of company logos on uniforms were suggested. It was pointed out that the district’s population is now growing, which is true, though it’s uncertain whether this means a growth in the school-age population, as many newcomers are childless singles or couples who may move away when they become parents or send their children to private schools. However, in my observation in my interpretation work, DC schools have improved a lot in recent years and most staff seem quite knowledgeable and dedicated, a tribute in part to controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Dreams: do they have any logic or consistent patterns or are they just random snippets of thought that happen to come together? Mostly, they just swirl around and evaporate from our minds, like, I suppose, the subjective experiences of people with Alzheimer’s or some other severe dementia, epitomizing living in the moment with no real continuity. Often, as soon as I wake up, I know I’ve been having a complicated and engaging dream, but unless I consciously try to re-remember it immediately, it’s gone in a flash. The other morning, however, I did recall a dream on waking. I had a car—not so in real life where I go carless to protect the environment and my pocketbook. A small, cute pink pig had gotten into my car somehow and, try as I might, I couldn’t get her out. She kept jumping from the back to the front seat or trying to squeeze under or between the divided front seats. Finally, in exasperation, I called an animal control guy who said to bring the car with her inside and they would take care of the matter. I got directions and asked a young man living at my house to accompany me there, apparently George from Georgia (who actually lived at my house last summer), who ended up taking the wheel. We drove and drove, past lovely forests, lakes, and waterfalls. This was taking far longer than I had expected. Where were we going, I asked George? Then, to my further surprise, we pulled up to a checkpoint at the Canadian border where border guards wore Mounties’ uniforms. These, evidently, were the folks who were going to get the pig out of my car. How in the world had my unconscious imagination invented such a story and how is it that the “I” in these tales becomes so subjectively surprised, angry, or pleased about events that unfold dreams, seemingly occurring outside my control, when I am obviously the author of the whole darn thing? It’s a puzzle that makes me wonder if conscious and unconscious minds are separate entities.

A debate is making the rounds of the internet regarding corporal punishment of kids, outlawed in 33 countries with Brazil soon anticipated to become the 34th and in 31 states and the District of Columbia, although from what I’ve observed here, parents do hit their kids in public with no apparent repercussions for the parents. In Honduras, corporal punishment of children is common, often using a belt or switch—or sometimes just threatening with it to insure obedience. Corporal punishment has been associated with later behavior and psychological problems and I never used it myself except once with my younger son who kept getting out of the time-out chair, an act for which I was remorseful. I myself was sometimes hit fairly hard with a hairbrush by my mother when I was young, I don’t recall for what. Did that do lasting damage? I don’t know. Many people who were raised with an occasional swat think they were not harmed and they deliberately use the same techniques with their own kids, following the motto “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” although now experts saying what actually spoils the child is using the rod. Some advocates of corporal punishment contend that trying to keep parents from spanking children in their own homes is nanny-state overreach and is getting the rest of society way too involved in private family business.

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