Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Frankenfood and Famine

The fight over genetically modified foods is a battle that has carried on for years on many different fronts. What opponents have called playing God, those in favor of the scientific advances being made in agriculture see a solution to a worldwide problem. Once again, the mediator in this debate is good old fashioned propaganda, and, like so many other situations the media sticks its nose in, the results can be and have been deadly for decades.

The genetic modification of foods started as nothing more than the interbreeding of different species in a laboratory. Experimenting with such began as purely that, experimentation: out of simple curiosity, researchers wanted to know what would happen if the genetics of one species were manipulated with the genetics of another. Becoming an expedited process of unnatural selection, the results of these trials produce strings of both unremarkable and fascinating organisms which grow and develop in ways never before thought possible. With the exchange of some proteins, individual chromosomes, and full DNA strands, plant species were created that could grow larger and in different climates.

Of course, once you mention that a lab experiment encompassing what is abstractly the slicing and dicing two beings and pasting them into one, a Frankenfood of sorts, the crazed pitchfork wielding mob screaming “monster!” is not far behind. This mob, littered with various personalities like environmentalists and theological zealots, is mostly headed by Greenpeace. And once they nabbed the media’s ear, common sense gave way to ignorant fear.

The media was thrown into its usual disarray as when any group has an aversive agenda, shoving misinformation down the general public’s throat and frightening them into submission. Erroneous claims were splashed across newspapers and websites such as animal and plant genes being mixed and sold, upsetting the natural course of life by playing God with a Petri dish, untested, unregulated sales of produce that would ultimately replace all produce in American stores, and worst of all, fighting the technology that could end world hunger. I recall in my undergraduate program in an ecology class, we were given various environmental issues and had to give a presentation on the pros and cons of each. While most projects had differing arguments and points to make, the group presenting on GM foods presented and debated facts that mirrored each other, as if one side stood in Bizarro world and the other in our own. “Foods are unregulated” “Foods are regulated by the government.” “They mix animal genes with plant genes”. “No they don’t”. “They’ll sell nothing but GM!” “No they won’t.” If soon to be college graduates couldn’t extract from their in depth research more compelling arguments than this, how can the average American by simply watching TV?

As mentioned before, science is driven by curiosity, and all the advances that come with it are the result of experimentation, simple trial and error. We would not be where we are medically, environmentally, or socially if someone somewhere hadn’t asked themselves “what if?” These lab explorations began with switching the genes of plant species with one another, and gradually migrated towards playing with animal genes. However, in spite of the outrageous claims, these animal-plant experiments are simply that-experiments. The Greenpeacers insist that labs are taking fish genes and putting them in lettuce and taking rat genes and putting them in tomatoes and stocking the shelves with them, therefore vegetarian and vegan practices are undoubtedly in danger! Once GM foods infiltrate and overrun the produce market of America, vegans and vegetarians will be unable to find animal friendly vegetation and they will starve and vie. I mean die. Unfortunately for the anarchists, universities and agricultural researchers alike assure us that though they are observing what such changes in an organism these manipulations create for the purpose of science, these specimens were never meant to be used as a food crop, and will never be sold in any store to the general public. Even if they wanted to, the government would never allow it.

One statement that has been a widely used favorite of the GM opponents is that these crops are completely and totally untested and unregulated by the U.S. government. This produce is created in labs, grown in crops, cut and sold in stores, without the government even bothering to glance over their shoulders at, let alone examine the process. Right. The Federalians are good, but they are not that good; they would never get away with that. As a matter of fact, GM foods are more carefully tested than any other produce sold in stores and it took millions of dollars and years of testing to be approved for human consumption. They are also heavily regulated by the U.S.D.A to determine the effects on the surrounding environment where they’re grown, the F.D.A for food safety, and the E.P.A if a pesticide is involved in the crop growing. To be perfectly clear, it’s probably safer to eat GM produce than organic or even plain old pesticide riddled regular vegetables. But, thanks to the American way of business, never fear! You will always have a choice on what types of produce you want to buy. If you don’t want the Frankenfood, you can pay extra for that crazy organic crap, which, mind you, you spend more time washing off bugs, slugs, and caterpillars (yup, found ‘em all in my lettuce). If you don’t like the added protein from the insecta class, and don’t trust the GM stuff, you will always be able to buy the regular veggies. To monopolize the market with one type of food is not just frustrating, it’s communism. But hey, even if we had one choice, and one choice only, who are we to bitch if we are lucky enough to have food?

Many have also argued that by manipulating the natural order of these species DNA strands and creating hybrids is like playing God, and therefore is an abomination. I believe that letting people all around the world starve to death is an abomination. Now I’m not a Bible Thumper myself, but I believe that God is as much like a parental figure as anyone else. No parent who wants their child to grow and become successful believes that doing every little task for them will help them achieve this. No decent parent comes running the minute their child cries out, ready to pull them out of the mess instead of letting them learn to find their own way. Like any good parent, they provide the tools and sit back to see what their child can accomplish with them. God has provided us the tools. He has provided us the brains that developed the technology to resolve our own problems. And not only do we keep crying for help, straddled by religion-induced self-helplessness, but we actually fight the people who might just have the answer.

The various hybrids created by these experiments have been engineered to not only grow larger and feed more people, but they can actually sustain life in harsher climates with fewer necessities. Many people in third world countries starve, not because they’re lazy, not because they don’t want to help themselves, but because in most countries, the summers are too hot, the winters, too cold; the region too dry or far too wet, the soil, useless. They cannot grow their own crops because no crops survive. Many of these GM foods can last in dry heats with minimal water or in flooding rains. They can survive permafrost; they can survive with few nutrients most other crops require in rich soil. They would thrive in nations in Africa or Southern Europe. And people would live. Norman Borlaug knows this story well. Using similar technology, he helped engineer various strains of grains (wheat and rice) and introduced these specimens to Mexico, India, and Pakistan, doubling their food production in less than 5 years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970 and has been credited for saving over one billion (yes, BILLION) people from starvation. Way to kick ass, Mr. Borlaug.

So taking this into consideration, some Americans are still not happy with GM foods being sold in America. Fine, but this technology is not just for you. We are fat. We are gluttons. We really don’t need it. But others do. So let’s send the food and technology over to the other countries and let them enjoy it, right? Wrong, said Greenpeace. Damn it, those little tree-hugging hippies are at it again! And this time, it wasn’t just propaganda through interpretive dance that we could all ignore. At the 2002 Environmental Summit in Africa, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth crammed their misinformation down the throats of several African presidents, convincing them GM foods were poisonous and harmful. Therefore, many countries turned down tons of GM foods that had been donated by the U.S., leaving their people to continue starving. One fact Greenpeace forgot to mention? In the last 50 years, not one person has ever become ill or died as a result of consuming a GM food product.

It never ceases to amaze me that the people who are fighting the biotechnology that could feed the world are always the ones who have enough food in their refrigerators. Even if there were risks, could you look at your starving child and deny them food that may make them sick in 30 years, even though without it, they will die in 30 days? As one Greenpeace hippie dude said about GMs, “yeah we could save the world but, like, uh your kid might grow four eyeballs!” Watch out world, we’re in the presence of a mental giant here. Norman, we miss you.

Minhaj Gedi Farah, starving baby weighed just over 7 pounds at 7 months old. Weeks later, after receiving nutrients through an IV, he's almost at a normal weight for his age. Come on Greenpeace, you're doing this to everyone.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Violence in Occupation

The occupy protests have taken the spotlight in news as of late, but not for the reasons they should. Across the nation protesters are gathering to begin a peaceful revolution in the corrupt system that has been misguiding our country and our economy, steering us into this crippling recession. Unfortunately, that’s all old news. The headlines today are covering the police brutality that’s taking place against the usually harmless people who are sitting in on the demonstrations, and the country is split between horror and justification.

In most locations where protests are taking place, the local law enforcement has asked for the crowds to disperse for a wide array of reasons: sometimes it’s a traffic matter if they’re blocking roads or sidewalks, sometimes it’s a safety matter (some protesters have been killed and raped at the camps), and sometimes it’s simply a way for law enforcement to rid themselves of the nuisance the people have become, an attempt to silence the rising voice of the 99%. Most protestors believe it to be the latter, and all have refused to dissipate, bringing the tension between police officers and demonstrators to a head.

Many demonstrations have simmered into a boil as police encroach upon the gathered civilians and civilians respond by banding together and refusing to move. Some confrontations have become face to face showdowns, where police and civilians stand nose to nose waiting for the other to blink. Frustrations mount as a war of words flies between the two adversaries, and then someone makes the first move: a shove from a civilian or a baton to the stomach by an officer, and all hell breaks loose. Civilians are beaten as officers throw punches, jab their batons, and pepper spray the living daylights out of the crowds.

Given the excitement, the massive numbers of the crowds and officers, and the muddle of the two meshed together in extremely close proximity, 20 years ago it would have been difficult to know who started what, which side was justified, and who was the innocent party. But in this day and age, thanks to the incredible advancements in technology (and let’s face it, even with the simplest of inventions like cameras) one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to realize in most cases, the police are using excessive force in trying to “regain control” of the crowds, some of which weren’t out of control to begin with, for example a group of students at Northern California’s UC Davis. Protestors sat on the ground, arms interlocked, refusing to move as police officers circled and marched along the line like power drunk dictators. Suddenly, completely unprovoked, officers began shooting pepper spray over the heads and in the faces of the peaceful individuals. Many ducked, most had their heads covered with their jacket hoods, but if you’ve ever been around a fresh cloud of pepper spray, you don’t need it to be shot directly in your face, you don’t even need to be present when it is sprayed for it to have an effect on you, stinging your eyes and burning your throat as you breathe in the residual vapor that lingers in the air.

Other protests have resulted in harmless non-violent civilians being pepper sprayed as well, including 84 year old Dorli Rainy, and a priest. Elizabeth Nichols (pictured above) said a police officer actually began the dispute by jabbing her in the ribs with a baton then pressing it against her throat. When she reacted verbally by shouting at the officer that she was being mistreated, she was met with a steady stream of pepper spray at approximately a range of no more than two feet.

Driving out to dinner tonight with my dad, he had the car radio tuned to his favorite talk show, and they were discussing the typical debate of whether the force was necessary. Some on the show agreed that police are justified to react to any violence portrayed by the demonstrators. “What are you going to do when you have people standing right up in your face, shouting, spitting, and shoving you? Are you going to stand there and let them shove you and spit in your face? You do what you have to do,” said one. And I sat, thinking, "you couldn’t be more wrong."

I’ve frequently and very recently discussed my experiences working in group homes with troubled teens and the violence we were usually faced with when intervening in their crises or simply being in the way when they were having a bad day. The rules were clear: do not ever put your hands on a client, do not ever use physical force unless they are a clear and immediate danger to themselves or others. Such work is a high stress job and it takes a very patient and dedicated individual to do it and do it well. Usually, employees like this were in short supply, thus the several reports that speckled the news headlines when teens were dying in restraints in various facilities; employees who lost their cool and patience and used too much force. But at our facilities, the preceding policy usually meant if you had a client in your face screaming and shouting, if you had a client spit at you, or if you had a client shove you with minimal-moderate force (if they didn’t shove you hard enough to make you fall down), you were expected to take it, walk away, or call group therapy. Sometimes, even more violent behavior was tolerated, simply because you managed to keep your cool or because restraints require a minimum of two attending staff members and you were alone. Whatever the case, there were several times I was threatened and injured without resigning to physical force: being pushed down the stairs, being cut with a small piece of glass, being slammed into a wall, being hit with a metal folding chair and other various pieces of furniture, the list goes on.

Of course it’s easier to maintain one’s self-control when starting at 0, but what happens when you’re rushing towards 60? Many cases of police brutality occur after a high intensity event, such as car chases, or during riots or stand offs, when the adrenaline is rushing and some claim it's hard to maintain control. Well, sorry boys, but that’s usually bullshit too. There were plenty of moments where we were forced to engage in restraints at our facility, those moments where they were a danger to themselves or others; at one time in our facility when we housed a few more colorful characters, we were engaging in, on average, 15 restraints a week, sometimes as many as four restraints on four different clients in one day. Of course company policy also stated if it was determined to be required, place them in a restraint that would immobilize them, NOT harm them, making sure to never use more force than necessary. This meant stop them, get them to the ground or wall, and hold their arms and legs still until they calmed down, making sure they could breathe and their circulation was adequate at all times. Now at times, restraints did not go smoothly. Sometimes the clients were difficult to get on the ground. Sometimes there was a chase or a great struggle before they could be effectively immobilized. Sometimes their struggles and attempts to break free resulted in their own injuries. Our adrenaline was usually pumping by the time we hit the floor, and with a kick to the face or chest, a bite on the hand, or a sudden grasp of hair that is quickly ripped from your scalp, the test of maintaining your calm becomes almost impossible.

But we were trained to handle those moments, to avoid reaching what our training supervisor called the level of “pisstivity”. Now everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes. I recall the moment when I finally reached my level of pisstivity with a client. She had attempted to strangle me with a lanyard draped around my neck. After trying to evade her until I was backed into a corner, I finally went into a wall restraint with her and another staff member. She was too strong for us to hold against the wall so we transferred her to the floor, where she proceeded to struggle for the next 30 minutes, biting me on the hand twice. After she claimed she was calm, we allowed her up. She slowly rose to her feet, straightened her clothing, then turned to me and snapped “Bitch! You can’t hold me down!” and shoved me with brute force. I flew back and slammed into a steel pole, my head flying back and cracking against the metal. We immediately resumed a wall restraint and at one point, as we struggled with her, I became fed up and forced her to the wall a bit harder than I needed to. It went unnoticed by the belligerent teen, but I still felt guilty when all had passed.

It’s reasonable to assume that at some point, even a police officer is going to be pushed to the brink; they are, after all, human. But if anyone should be better trained in maintaining their cool in high-stress situations, and using appropriate force at appropriate times, it’s those who have to face these types of behaviors on a regular basis. If people who are given guns, batons, and pepper spray can’t be trusted to use it effectively, why the hell are we giving them these things? Why are we entrusting our safety to people who have no knowledge of how to provide and maintain it? They are given weapons and limitless power, practically free of consequence and responsibility. But someone needs to remind them that having power doesn’t make you powerful. Having the power to control yourself is true strength.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Troubled Teens and Jaded Juveniles: Failing Our Kids Part 2

The ominous situation most juvenile delinquents find themselves in is that no better than the punishments typically reserved for adults. Though some may think that Juvenile Hall is a playground for the young offenders of today, the nature of the environment is unfortunately exact to the nature of prison. There is an element of survival, a hierarchy one must navigate through in the social construct of federal and state reprimand. To prove oneself, through acts of structural defiance, acts of loyalty, and further criminal behaviors, is to guarantee one’s protection. Other times watching and learning the inner workings of the placement assists the convict in manipulating the system to best meet their needs. And such behaviors are hardly limited to imprisonment.

As an alternative, in order to provide juvenile offenders with a better opportunity for self-improvement and successful reintegration into society, many convicted delinquents are sent to behavioral treatment facilities, high level group homes, and work camps. Through tightly structured days, afforded slightly more intervention and support than that found at the Hall, these facilities were ideal compared to the juvenile prison. But it was far from perfect, and here, the kids are expected to grow and fall on the right path. But what really are the odds?

One event I noticed on occasion both in my work with the teen girls at the BT facility and working with the male juvenile delinquents at their facility was that at times, teens are misplaced for one reason or another, a decision that compromises their future. With the boys, I found one young man placed in the facility for a very minimal offense (stealing a bike and truancy from school), though the rap sheet of his peers typically included robbery, grand theft, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and in one case, manslaughter. Though we were a level 12 facility for the girls with specific behavioral criteria for admission, some girls were merely placed with us because extraneous circumstances left them with no better placement. They had mild behavioral issues, usually depression, but significant medical issues such as diabetes or epilepsy, conditions far too risky for a level 10 or 8 home. Therefore they were placed with us, though we were no medical center either.

When it came to the young man, achieving protected status in the dormitory of 24 other delinquents became his priority. A typical 13 year old, he was well-mannered, polite, seeming to be of middle-class status, and terrified of his new surroundings. When a fight began to ensue between his roommates, he did what he believed to be the right thing, alerted the staff member on duty. Unfortunately for him, in this society, he was now labeled a snitch, and became a target. After one beat-down, he quickly began what Jane Goodall would refer to as displaying in the chimp community, proving his worth by showing off his machismo. He began to break rules, disrespect staff, and fight with other clients to climb the social ladder. After proving himself, he was accepted into the protective circle of the thug society and was deemed a pain in the ass by staff throughout the facility. After a confrontation between him and other peers took place, fearful that he would be moved to the Hall, he ran away from the facility in the dead of night and I never heard of him again.

With the girls, while there were several instances of behavior changes to graft a niche into the group home society, one behavior I typically observed was the modification to get one’s needs met. This is where the key element of the Social Learning Theory, first presented by Albert Bandura, comes into play in these environments. Individuals observe behaviors others engage in, note the pay off of the behavior (are they punished or do they receive some kind of reward) and in turn imitate the behavior themselves.

When girls were placed in our facility who really didn’t belong there, they were typically the better behaved kids who followed the rules, went to school, completed chores, and offered to help around the facility whenever possible. While staff attempted to provide as much praise and rewards as possible for their efforts, it becomes difficult to give the individualized attention these teens so desperately needed when 17 or 18 other girls in the house were acting out. The girls who were more problematic were constantly requiring attention, redirection, and crisis intervention, and it didn’t take long for the better behaved girls to become frustrated, as they should have been. “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and yet I’m invisible.” I imagine they concluded. Eventually, they made themselves heard. Resorting to similar behaviors, we had several girls display about the house, sheepishly throwing objects at windows that never broke, spraying fire extinguishers, and threatening to kill themselves by jumping off the second story balcony, after which they would march to the balcony and hesitate, glancing over their shoulders to see if we were following. Naturally, whether or not we knew they weren’t serious, we were obligated by company policy to follow, and reinforced their attention-seeking behaviors. Once, however, when we became distracted with another girl threatening to kill herself, the one who had dashed off to the balcony realized we were not coming to rescue her, and returned, loudly displaying in the hallway, stomping her feet and cursing. Eventually behaviors escalated in severity, and the girls rarely returned to their sweet dispositions.

Though social problems in the group homes and treatment facilities largely contribute to exacerbating the issues these teens are faced with, it seems they are set up for failure right from the start by being placed in these facilities to begin with. It was mentioned in part one of this blog that compliance with the teen girls was difficult to come by. With the boys, it was not quite so hard. Given that these boys were placed in this facility as an alternative to the Hall, they understood that whatever problems they faced here, they were much worse there. With the threat of being replaced in the Hall looming, they were more motivated to try. As previously mentioned, the structure was tighter, interventions and support was more readily available in order to help these kids. In other words, they were placed in a laboratory.

Every moment of their day was planned out for them, from getting up in the morning to breakfast, school, group therapy, activity, showers, homework, dinner, more group, and sleep. Their roommates were carefully selected, they had emotional support and guidance from staff, and limited temptation from outside sources. They were removed from the environment that created so many of their issues to begin with: friends who were bad influences, families who were dysfunctional and damaging, freedom and free time to make bad decisions. What else could they do but succeed in such an intricately designed program? Many still struggled as they found other ways to get in trouble: fighting, gambling, refusing to attend school, being disrespectful to staff. But when you take into consideration the things they were placed there for, these offenses pale in comparison. They thrived in a strictly controlled environment.

After their time is served, however, they are returned to the defunct natural environments that bred them. They go back to their broken homes, back to their crime-riddled neighborhoods, back to the friends whose opinions mean so much and who always have access to drugs and booze, back to unlimited free will with little motivation to make the right choices in everyday life, and left without much aftercare. No one bothers to come out and check on them, no one bothers to take time out of their day to keep them in line. If they don’t go to school, no one really cares. If they don’t do their homework, they rarely have anyone to answer to; no one holds them accountable anymore. How long do you believe it takes them to revert to their previous lifestyle?

Such is the problem for adult convicts as well, and is a distinct answer to the question of rampant recidivism in prisons and juvenile halls. You cannot take an unruly chimp, teach him how to behave in a cage, then release him to the world and expect the same results you achieved in lockdown.

A better alternative, argued Richard Mendel in his report Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime… was instead of removing the teens from their homes, to provide care within the natural environment. Offering therapeutic treatments in the home with the entire family, assigning a mentor to keep close tabs on the teen, and facilitating a collaborative effort between the multiple facets in their lives, such as family, teachers, and outreach programs, Mendel believed that the individual had a higher chance at success. The program’s therapeutic approaches, titled Multi-Systematic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy, addressed the issues at the root of the presenting problems, and guided the teen to make better independent choices in the current environment, instead of within a superficial one where the possibility to make their own choices was significantly reduced, thereby teaching them nothing. After longitudinal studies were conducted, not only did these programs prove to be more effective than treatment facilities and group homes, they were also significantly cheaper, costing anywhere between $2,000-5,000, whereas facilities and homes cost approximately $50,000 annually.

Granted, placement in this program is not appropriate for everyone, higher risk offenders that have been convicted on charges of violence, for instance, need alternative placement, but many of the offenders for drug use, minor theft, and behavioral issues such as truancy would benefit from it, rather than being placed in “criminal college”, where they will learn to be better convicts from more seasoned offenders, where their behaviors only get worse, and where emotionally, they’re as lost as they ever were.

So the question now is: when are we going to save them from themselves?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Troubled Teens & Jaded Juveniles: Failing Our Kids Part 1

As I begin that perilous feat of pounding the pavement again in an unstable economy, I find myself reverting to positions where I hold the most experience: severely emotionally disturbed teens in foster care. Spending over two years working and volunteering with this troubled population, most of which were delinquents by one measure or another, I found the time to be often unpleasant, but invaluable. I was exposed to the dark world of child abuse and neglect, the typical underlying causes of behavioral problems and psychological disorders. I was frequently abused myself, be it verbally or physically, a punching bag for children who had no one else to lash out at. But, even in most difficult times, I found myself fighting to be the stability these children so desperately craved, the mother figure who disciplined and loved unconditionally, the parental figure who applauded good math grades and held numerous correctional meetings with principals and teachers, the mentor to guide them down the most beneficial path available to them, most of which were in short supply. Unfortunately, time and time again, experience proved there was little if any hope for lasting improvement in their lives, be it the group home, the treatment methods, or the environments they would inevitably be thrust back into once their time was served. This was a reality that threw me into a depression and I find myself asking if this is really where I need to go again.

Given the shortage of viable foster families, most mildly troubled teens are placed in group homes. These homes are evenly numbered in terms of severity of behavioral issues, going from 6 to 14, above which you find juvenile hall or psychiatric placement. Children are removed from biological families for various reasons: child abuse, neglect, criminal behaviors, or even voluntary placement when the parents have determined their behaviors are far too unmanageable for them.

Unfortunately, most group homes are in short supply as well, therefore more severe children are placed in lower levels that are not necessarily capable of providing the children the supervision or interventions required. Once I worked in a level 12 facility, typically reserved for teen girls suffering from depression, self-mutilation, anger management issues, or in recovery from drug abuse; however given the lack of adequate facilities, we were accepting intake patients suffering from suicidality (one girl was brought to us after attempting to hang herself in her basement with an electrical cord), bipolar disorder, aggression and assaultive behaviors (one client had recently been released from Juvenile Hall for stabbing a peer with a screwdriver), continuing drug use (a social worker dropped a client off at our facility still high after a three day bender on crystal meth), schizophrenia, mental retardation, and even autism. For the most part, we didn't know how to handle our clients; we were not properly trained and found ourselves struggling to do our jobs the best we could. It was frustrating, to say the least.

The behavioral interventions in place to manage these kids were largely ineffective. A hierarchical grading system providing four levels of achievement or failure, finding the rewards lackluster and the punishments unenforceable, the kids ignored our feeble attempts to discipline them. Level A, the highest level, promised rewards of larger weekly allowance ($20), more phone time, a later bed time, and the opportunity to take part in an outing reserved for high levels, usually a cheesy weekly trip to the mall or movies, once in a great while a reward of a night at the theater or an expensive theme park. Level B was largely the same, though slightly less allowance ($15). Level C was lower status, less allowance still ($10), restricted phone time, earlier bed time than higher levels, and participation in a weekend activity that was also usually quite pathetic, a trip to a skating rink, perhaps a few hours at the local arcade they frequent every month. Level D/C (Daily Contract), has a minimal allowance ($7), restricted phone time, earliest bed time, and losing the chance of any activity on the weekend, instead participating in group therapy taking responsibility for whatever action landed them on D/C status. Levels were determined collectively in group therapy sessions, whereby the individual's progress for the week was reviewed and their status voted upon by their peers.

While it seems fool-proof, the system is heavily laden with problems and flaws. First being the horrible reward system in place for high levels, most didn't care enough to work for activities they hated, there was no point in staying up late because the TV was broken, and though larger amounts of allowance were given, they were only permitted to have no more than $20 in their possession at any given time, therefore any more money was locked up out of reach. Lower statuses hardly cared for the punishments. Having hardly any privileges at all, there was little they could lose. Understanding limitations of our power, the girls realized we could not physically force them to bed, so most stayed up as late as they wanted, playing in their rooms with their friends, while staff stood in the doorway, doing the only thing they could: redirect them to bed until we grew tired enough to leave them alone. Finding that legally we could not restrict them from using the phone to call family, they typically requested to talk to "relatives", most of whom were probably friends and boyfriends. The state of California requires that children in foster care are given a minimum of $7 weekly for allowance. For those on D/C, usually for running away or not following the rules, $7 was more than enough for bus fare to any friend's house for the weekend, doing drugs, drinking, eating whatever they wanted, watching TV whenever they chose, only to return to the facility, remain on D/C level, and continue the tirade next weekend. Daily Contract also allowed the girls to complete a series of chores for access to any one privilege for the day: cleaning the house could mean time on the computer, going on an outing, or any one of the privileges afforded to high statuses. This usually meant momentary good behavior, which immediately returned to typical delinquent behaviors once the reward was given.

Additionally, there were a few aspects of the program that continually interfered with our interventions, one being day treatment classes. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the girls engaged in day treatment, which meant an off-site activity, usually to the mall or movies during the winter, to the local pool or beach during the summer. Though it was said to encourage appropriate behaviors within the outer community, not only was it ineffective (we were frequently banned from various venues for disruptive behaviors), but knowing that they would have the opportunity to engage in bi-weekly activities, motivation for additional activities was minuscule. Why work hard for a trip to a tar pit museum on the weekends when you know you're going to a nail salon to get a manicure for day treatment? Especially since Day Treatment was considered an integral part in their program, we were not permitted to pull the girls from it; it was a guaranteed activity, no matter how poor their behaviors might have been.

Likewise, state laws and restrictions interfered. California state law prohibits staff from taking clients' property from them without their permission. We soon found that this meant we could not confiscate desirable recreational items such as portable DVD players, radios, iPods, laptops, skateboards, etc. when a client was misbehaving. Though we frequently removed radios as they were a source of high motivation and clients would do damn near anything to retrieve them, we were instructed to replace them all. What parent could be successful in child-rearing if unable to take anything away from their child?

Given the problems that continuously presented themselves, we soon found the program was an expensive facade, and most of the administration was consumed with making money, not helping these teens. In the time I spent at one agency, a 43-bed facility, probably more than 150 girls rotated through the houses. Only one was successfully rehabilitated and reunited with her mother. One. The numbers don't lie, and yet hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars are thrown into this black hole every year. The future for these girls is bleak and hazy, emotionally unstable and alone in the world, they are ticking time bombs waiting to self-destruct. And the plight for juvenile delinquents and society as a whole is no brighter...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Syringes and Halos: The Battle of Capital Punishment

Throughout the years I've struggled with my position on various issues. As new information becomes available, as I become more educated on these matters, as I learn to decipher propaganda from truth, my belief system is altered. Such is the case when it comes to the very controversial issue of the death penalty. With evidence and emotion thrust on the balance, which becomes more weighty? Which guides our minds or stays our hands, especially when we hold in them another's life?

I must admit that my stance on the death penalty changes depending on which side of my brain is engaged at the moment you ask for my opinion. If the left brain is tapped into, the analytical side of the mind, I can say whole-heartedly that I am against this ghastly act. Almost every point brought to the debate can be logically argued into opposition of the practice. From a moral standpoint, the hypocrisy of the "eye for an eye" mentality is painfully obvious: to kill someone for killing someone doesn't resolve the matter and only leaves the justice system as guilty as the convicted. From a sociological perspective, some may argue that such an extreme consequence as capital punishment will dissuade potential convicts from committing crimes. Unfortunately, several studies have demonstrated that the death penalty does not deter tomorrow's criminals from becoming exactly that. Crime is no higher or lower in states without or with the death penalty, respectively. From an economic perspective, some believe that it would cost tax payers less money to execute someone than to pay for them to remain in prison without the possibility of parole. This is also untrue. Given the legal costs of the numerous appeals processes made available to convicted killers, the manpower invested in reviewing appeals cases, granting or denying retrials, appealing to higher courts, etc., the cost of living on death row for the sometimes decades-long movement, and the actual cost of the execution, sustaining a death row convict is far more strenuous on our wallets. The total amount? Roughly $3.5 million. The cost of housing and feeding an inmate for life? Approximately $700,000-900,000.

There are few logical arguments proposing capital punishment left to stand on, but the most compelling opponent is the ever-looming concern that we may just kill an innocent person. With the development of advancing technologies that can quickly exonerate a wrongfully convicted criminal, such as DNA-testing, many death row inmates have been set free just shy of a devastating fate. Who knows how many more never quite made it to the appeals court and never will. One recent story is that of Troy Davis. Convicted of shooting and killing an off-duty police officer in 1989, Davis was sentenced to be executed. In spite of a conviction based on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of seven eye witnesses who later recanted, claiming the police department pressured them to finger Davis, it seemed nothing could save him. Following the typical harrowing path of appeals and denials, little hope was left. After the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution, Davis was killed on September 21 at 11:08 EST, while crowds of supporters stood outside the prison and cried.

Now, engaging the right side of the brain, the emotional realm, we come to a different story. When looking at the broader perspective of things, it's easy to analyze and rationalize why murderers should be allowed to walk this earth, even if it's in a 10X8 foot cell. But when the focus zooms in on individual cases, emotions take hold of the reigns and it's a wonder we don't expel them. Hearing the specifics of any heinous crime against humanity, premeditated, cold-blooded, remorseless, heartless murder is enough to elicit the strained painstaking scream for justice. When I read of the murder of Samantha Runnion, I couldn't ask for anything less. A five year old girl playing with a friend in her yard, just feet away from her front door, snatched up and stuffed into the backseat of a car. She was taken to a barren field, raped and then strangled to death. The murderer, not quite finished, posed her body in posthumous seductive poses for child pornography photos, then dumped her naked body on the side of a highway. Recently acquitted of child sexual abuse charges, Alejandro Avila kidnapped Runnion just months after his release. With her DNA in his car and his DNA under her fingernails, Avila was convicted and sentenced to die. He still sits on death row.

Also executed the same night as Davis was Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who was convicted of murdering a black man in what could be called one of the most horrific hate crimes in the history of Texas. James Byrd was walking home one night and crossed paths with Brewer and two of his friends. Though details as to what happened next become hazy, hours later, the sheriff's department was deployed to find a mass on the road that was initially mistaken for animal road kill. A decapitated body missing a fair amount of appendages and flesh lay bloodied on the pavement. Byrd had been tied to the back of Brewer's pickup truck with logging chains and dragged behind the car for more than three miles on rough asphalt. Brewer and his friends were found and arrested that same day with Byrd's blood still on them.

There are many more cases where one could argue that execution was justified: Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Saddam Hussein, all criminals with little chance of remorse or rehabilitation. There are many more cases best left to guess as to whether they are truly guilty and truly deserving of losing their lives. Entangled in my corpus callosum, I've yet to find a happy medium in between the two. So for the time being, I leave it at this: when it comes to logic, be it finances, morals, society and the wrongfully convicted, I say let them be, but when it comes to pure convictions with absolutely no doubt of guilt and horrific murders on their blood spattered hands, emotionally I scream light the bastards up.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pure Hearts in Lost Souls

Throughout the years, I have struggled with my relationship with a higher being and the following that has convened in the name of that entity. I have battled with the corruption of the very foundation of religions as the roots of belief systems have been torn from the ground and implanted in a pot of carefully manipulated lumps of soil, nourished with tainted holy water.

I cannot, with a clear conscience, completely banish the idea of God from my mind. Perhaps it’s the fear of the unknown, the possibility of some dark retribution awaiting me in the flickering shadows of a fiery afterlife. Perhaps it’s simply the wiping away of an ideology that has been deeply ingrained into my mind since I was a small child that I find impossible. Or, perhaps it’s the simple comfort He provides, an omniscient guardian to keep us safe.

A host of questions arise, with answers upon which one can only postulate. What would become of a society that has no basis for moral values or beliefs? Who would we become without the looming threat of eternal damnation, or the glorious promise of paradise after death? Would people still be generally good without being morally accountable to anyone but themselves? Such inquires send the mind hurdling back to the ultimate question of human nature: are humans inherently good or evil? Without the social influence of theology, would we grow to become saints or swine? Or would we simply exist, driven by biological forces of survival rather than of greed or just rewards?

Having a host of friends who are active atheists, I have many times had this discussion with them, debating the existence of God and the purpose and benefits of believing on pure blind faith alone. Being a lover of science and the knowledge it has provided me, I’ve struggled with the notion of blind faith and am usually left questioning, always questioning, with no answer given. I remember as a small child in Sunday school our teacher was arguing against the Big Bang Theory, stating “someone had to create the Earth, you can’t say that it was ‘just there’”. I raised my hand, in innocent curiosity, and asked “Well if God created the Earth, who created God?” My teacher fumbled briefly for an answer before sputtering out, “well…he was just there”. And as I sat back in my chair, I knew the answer was not satisfactory, but my religious education continued on. We moved to a new church and for a moment, the experience was fulfilling. I became a diehard Christian, bumping Christian rock music, joining the Christians on Campus club, doodling crosses and crucified hands on my notebook, preaching and recruiting to anyone who would listen. I loved my faith and my church, before we merged with an upscale church from the hills where snobbery and presumption was not in short supply. The hypocrisy of Sunday do-gooders drove me mad; you know the types, those Christians who do God’s thing on Sunday and do their own thing every other day of the week. Jaded by superficiality and morning preaching of religious superiority, coupled with a deepening crippling depression, issues with my sexuality, and dwindling faith, I finally threw in the towel and left the church before my 14th birthday.

Though I had given up on believing that God actually gave a damn about me, I could never quite bring myself to believe he wasn’t there at all, and in spite of walking away from the church, I never walked away from aspiring to be the best human being I could be. As a 13 year old, I used my miniscule allowance to support a starving child in South America. Throughout my high school years, I donated to various causes and participated in charities, rejecting the extra credit my fellow students needed to be motivated with to take part. During my college years, I worked with foster children and emotionally disturbed teens, I volunteered at an after school program, and I started a cancer fund raising over $2,300 for cancer research. Post graduation, I became an advocate of tolerance, specifically for the Muslim community after 9/11, and I became a therapist, working at a non-profit organization for autistic children.

Now, am I providing this repertoire of activity in some vain attempt to secure my status as a pompous ass? Not so much as to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to be perched on a pew, singing some poorly adapted verse, keeling over a man-written document in search of a purpose and an explanation to be a good human being. Having an understanding of our shared humanity, being an active global citizen, taking care of one another and trying to have the most positive impact on the world around us that we’re capable of makes us good human beings. In fact, getting away from the church and out into the world is probably more beneficial to anyone’s spiritual journey. Where God fits into this, and how much, is dependent upon the practicing individual. For me, he’s there, and I’m here, and we acknowledge each other’s presence. I do what I feel I need to do to sleep at night, hoping I’ve done the best I could, and if it’s in agreement with him, great, if not, maybe next time. I do believe we can be an ethical and moral community without accountability to a higher being. Likewise, I don’t believe the immediate presence of that being automatically makes one ethical, moral, or accountable.

The hypocrisy I’ve previously mentioned is rampant in all organized religion. Many people, especially as of late, pick and choose which parts of the Bible they wish to enforce and which they wish to sweep beneath the rug. They utilize their religions as a vehicle to further personal agendas and cite their holy books as justification for discrimination and hatred. In the process of writing this blog, I was compelled to track down my old youth pastor, and found a site pushing religious superiority and a video of a panel he participated in arguing against homosexuality and equal rights. Many just don't practice even the most basic of principles that they preach. Last week I was set in a Christian school awaiting a lecture from my boss, and found myself in the throes of a mini-sermon, discussing Bible passages of delighting in the Lord and praying before my boss took center stage. I made a conscience effort to keep an open mind before a slight cutting comment towards Jews was made, then I shut down. But the tone of the room was one of devotion, love, and kindness, a tone which quickly changed once my boss, there to lecture on teaching techniques and brain functionality, began her speech. Met with criticism, snide remarks, and constant argument, a level of unexpected, unexplained hostility slowly rose through the three and a half hour presentation. It ended with a verbal battle between entities, one I did not witness because I left out of frustration and anxiety. The tension in the room was overwhelming and the difficulty of seeing a colleague and a mentor being attacked was too much to handle with quiet grace and decorum. While it would be unfair to overgeneralize this experience to all Christians, I think it’s fair to say, given this situation and numerous others, that the presence of God in one’s life does not guarantee that individual to be moral, ethical, accountable, or even to have an ounce of integrity.

I still struggle from time to time with my relationship with this God, but I figure at this point, I will continue to do my best and hope it’s enough. If God’s there in Heaven, I’m sure he’s watching, and if he’s not, well I’ve still done my duty as a human being and helped someone here on Earth to have a slightly easier existence than before. And in the end, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiroshima: Lessons Unlearned

Einstein envisioned it. Oppenheimer created it. Truman deployed it. Little Boy, the first ever weapon of mass destruction, was nestled snugly in the belly of a B-29 fighter jet and sent sailing over the town of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The explosion left the world both horrified and awestruck, and left a large bloody stain in U.S. history books. It also began the race and opened the flood gates for the development of more powerful artillery. And in the continuing wake of international turmoil, throughout the years our awareness of this clear and present danger has bred a very real fear into daily life.

With the second World War hinging on its fourth year for the U.S. and Japan still clinging by a thread, common sense and humanity gave way to frustration and impatience. Just a few years earlier, Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt noting that a bomb of mass destruction must be built in order to definitively end the war. A top secret assembly of scientists and engineers gathered under what would be called the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the helm. Soon, the atomic bomb was born.

Though it seemed that Roosevelt had no intention of utilizing the bomb, as Europe seemed to be losing power and Japan was slipping along with them, after his untimely death in April 1945, Vice President Truman took over. Once victory was achieved in Europe, Japan had little to lean on and ran dangerously low on artillery, planes, and manpower. Despite the fact that the Japanese seemed to be on the verge of raising the white flag, Truman saw an opportunity for the gross demonstration of power the U.S. had suddenly come to wield with this bomb, and ordered it be dropped.

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, Little Boy was released over Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 feet in the air, the bomb detonated, and a radiant white flash lit the morning sky. Waves of heat exceeding 7,000 degrees raced through the town. Everything within a one mile radius of the explosion was incinerated; within 5 miles, the city was completely destroyed and everyone killed; within 10 miles, a severe risk of exposure to radiation that injured and killed thousands more weeks, months, and even years after, but not before putting them through the agonizing pain of radiation poisoning, burns, and cancers. The casualties topped 150,000. Three days later, in Nagasaki, we dropped a second bomb that killed another 80,000.

While a few narrow-minded people regarded these attacks as sufficient reciprocity for the Pearl Harbor tragedy, bear in mind that while devastating and terrible, Pearl Harbor was an attack on armed forces preparing for war, which resulted in the deaths of 2,300 soldiers. The atomic bombs were attacks on civilian towns (Little Boy missed his target by 800 ft and exploded over a hospital), and resulted in the deaths of 230,000+ innocents who had no say in the matter of Pearl Harbor or whether they desired any part in the war at all. It goes without saying that these two matters are a dark mark on our records (but you wouldn't think some people had gotten the memo, given the petty responses that littered Facebook following the Japanese defeat of the US women's soccer team at this year's World Cup).

Nowadays, we have moved on to more deadly substances: nuclear power, and the looming threat of such power falling into the wrong hands is ever-present. The Nuclear Club, an unofficial title for the states that acknowledge they possess such warheads, consists of eight countries: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is suspected of having nukes, but it has yet to be confirmed. The first five of the preceding list are nuclear-possessing members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an agreement which in short states that it will prevent any countries who do not have nukes from obtaining them, will allow for the use of nuclear energy without the threat of abuse, and more importantly, binds the participating countries of the treaty to gradually move towards a total disarmament and abolition of nuclear warheads. The latter pillar seems a little more difficult, given that the language of the agreement is hazy, lacking a timeline or any real obligation to succeed, and suspicions of one another leave the states acting like five criminals in a room, holding one another at gunpoint, and no one trusts the others enough to lower their firearm first.

Throughout the past 5 decades, the fear of a nuclear apocalypse rose and fell with the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a narrow standoff between U.S. forces and Russian-backed Cuba which left John F. Kennedy sweating and the world on the verge of a miocardial infarction, brought paranoia knocking on the average American's door. Bomb shelters were built, bomb warnings were developed, bomb drills were exercised at schools and offices, and talk of the Red Menace littered daily conversations. Though the CMC ended at the last moment with Cuba turning away, the reality of a nuclear war came dangerously close. Another incident occurred much later, when the U.S. had scheduled an exercise to test a rocket model. Notifying Russian authorities that the test would take place to avoid suspicion, the message went astray. When a supposedly unannounced rocket showed up on their radar, Russian President Khrushchev was given less than a minute to respond, his finger twitching on the button that would send a nuclear warhead hurtling toward the U.S. With seconds to spare, Khrushchev decided against the move, and after clarifications were given, the near-mistake left everyone with sense of dreadful relief. Today, the daily threat of hostile countries and terrorist organizations obtaining nuclear bombs lingers at the backs of people's minds, but who do we have to blame but ourselves? The fire we started has roared out of control, beyond our power to contain it, and it may prove to be our own self-inflicted demise.

While there is always the growing threat of hostile forces gaining access to nuclear arsenals, we have made progress in international disarmament. In the time from the Cold War to the present, nuclear warheads have been reduced from 70,000 to roughly 20,350. South Africa, once a country that had developed 6 nuclear warheads, acted in good faith and dissembled all before signing the NPT. But if you're thinking that 20,000 warheads and 8 countries are still too many, you're right. All it takes is one bomb to obliterate a nation, one explosion to set off a series of explosions as state retaliations take flight. Without total disarmament and the careful watch of all nuclear sources, we as a global community will never be safe.

"Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." -John F. Kennedy

For more information on the movement to total disarmament, watch Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero

Leaving 'Em in the Dust

As we encroach upon a new school year, districts, schools, and teachers are gearing up to dive back into the remaining debris of our disintegrating educational system, namely the No Child Left Behind policy, George W. Bush's brain child. Copies of workbook pages and practice tests are running hot off the presses, Number 2 pencils are being freshly sharpened, and teachers take another swig off the flask before entering the prison their classrooms have become, devoid of independent thought, creative teaching styles, and fun. A backwards policy that has left students burned out, teachers exhausted, and both dreading going to school every day, No Child Left Behind practically guarantees the failure of our children, and the rippling effects of standardized test obsession are destroying any hope our future may have.

Standardized tests are, at their core, an assessment of performance to determine the level of achievement each grade, school, and district can obtain, and the effectiveness of current teaching practices as they are. When I was in school, these tests were exactly that. The school year went on as it always did, we engaged in fun activities, we had projects and experiments, and we had the leisure of additional subjects such as music and art. Preparation for the annual standardized tests took all of two weeks out of the year, mostly with the focus placed on attendance for the tests. We completed the tests, usually in a week or two, then went on with our regularly scheduled curriculum.

Today, standardized tests have become less of an assessment tool and more of a formal exam that needs to be practiced for, studied for, and requiring extensive preparation with more time and efforts dedicated to these than most students probably dedicate to their SATs. In the stead of the fun, creative, active learning environments teachers had hoped to build, monotonous endless work pages are replacing most class time, boring students and reducing any chances of academic retention. But why is the drive to do well on these tests so high?

It's a given that the school, district, and state who have the best test scores gain national recognition for being just that, the best. The accolades one can obtain from having such high performance marks can be motivating enough, but let's be real here, it's all about the money. Those who receive the highest scores get the most money from the federal government, which filters down through the aforementioned branches into the schools, utilizing money as a motivational factor, a policy that ends up being more ironic than intelligent.

Most people think if one waves money in the face of superintendents, principals, and teachers, they will work harder and produce better scores; however what they fail to see is that low test scores are the result of a multitude of factors, most of which stem from a lack of money in the system. Classroom sizes are too large, school supplies such as desks, updated text books, and advancing educational technologies are missing in action, and lower socio-economic area schools pay less which brings in lower qualified teachers. So why does it make more sense to give money to schools who do better when one of the main reasons they do better is because they have more money to provide the learning environment children need to do well on the tests to begin with? Schools with lower scores should be carefully examined and it should be determined whether or not lack of funding was a direct cause of low scores, then money should be distributed as necessity dictates.

As the various facets of these systems become more and more obsessed with the green, the heat is turned up and flares down the line like a burning fuse with the teachers holding the dynamite. Ultimately, if scores are not up to par, principals and superintendents have decided, it is a direct reflection of the performance of the teacher, which can lead to a pink slip and a nice field trip to the unemployment office. Now, in spite of the glaring examples already provided regarding lack of funds and an overly-structured classroom environment that allows for little actual teaching, additional fault can and should be shouldered by the demographic of the classroom. The best example I can provide is a friend of my mother's, a first grade teacher who had 20 students: 7 of whom were recommended to repeat kindergarten but whose parents pushed them through, 5 of whom could not fluently speak English. Twelve students who really had no business being in this particular class held the fate of this teacher's career in their hands. And, faced with such a harsh reality, teachers became desperate.

In early July, it was revealed that Atlanta public schools had engaged in a city-wide scandal producing fraudulent test scores during the 2009 test period in order to receive the public notoriety and money higher scores would bring. Eighty-two educators admitted to various forms of cheating, including altering their students' test answers. Another 178 educators pleaded the Fifth Amendment, and additionally, 38 principals were charged with involvement. While many will tsk and shake their heads at the city, as we all should, we have to take into account the ridiculousness of this, the level of desperation these people must be feeling to take part not only in cheating on exams, but at such an incredibly large scale. Some driven by greed, others driven by the greedy and the desire to keep their jobs in this crumbling economy, all robbing their students and setting a poor example, to say the least.

So, with limited money where it needs to be, teachers facing undeserved punishments, and moderated teaching methodology that actually hinders learning and productivity, these standardized tests are ruining our education system. The long term effects are already being felt as high school graduates are barely passing exit exams, and the standard of education is lowered so students can move on, whether or not they're ready. This in turn will lower the standard for college entrance and then work standards of quality as well. So in short, we're crashing and burning. While the Obama Administration is set to revise the policy, change is slow, how many more failed academic years will it take before someone has the cajones to repeal this destructive policy? And how many more children will have to suffer in the meantime?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Dance of Love

Can you imagine my horror when, after pondering my next blog topic, I realized that I had not written a gay-themed blog this year? And haven't even mentioned gays in a blog post since last November? I'm such a bad gay! So in hopes of redeeming myself, here's a blog of glittery gay goodness...

We are caught in a dance my friends, one of progress and regression, diversions and delays. The Human Rights Movement has, in the past months, splintered, moving forward, backward, and every whichway, leaving us confused as to whether we should be celebrating or protesting and where we should go from here.

We achieved monumental success in New York last month when the state voted to legalize gay marriage, after years of debate and failed attempts (the senate voted on it back in 2009 as well, and fell short, despite impassioned and infallible arguments such as this). Every state we win is a milestone victory, bringing us just a tad closer to feeling equal, and what is infinitely more important, normal. The country had held its breath as we waited for the chorus of ayes in the tiny room that would decide the fate of millions of New Yorkers, and messages of congratulations arose all over the internet in united support of the new law. One step forward.

In almost immediate response to the passage of the new law, the House of Representatives ordered the Pentagon to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prohibits the Pentagon from granting same sex benefits to gay couples. In spite of the fact that the Obama administration has previously announced that they will no longer utilize DOMA, the government is still running rampant to retain any anti-gay power they once wielded. Likewise, they are dragging their feet on fully repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the grounds that more studies need to be conducted to ensure no negative long term effects will befall the armed forces. One step back, but we had a comeback on the way.

Just a few days ago Governor Jerry Brown of California signed the Gay History Law, requiring that "all contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books" specifically the homosexuals. Now when I first read of this news, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive, given that this was a keynote argument of the proponents of Prop 8, that if gays were granted the rights to marry, children would be taught about homosexuality in school. However, after careful thought and consideration, it becomes clear that this is not about homosexuality, this is about things people accomplished who simply happened to be gay. Children will not be taught about gay culture: glitter and rainbows, U-Hauling and scissoring, it will simply be "John made this, Sara did that and by the way, they were gay". Arguments are already flying as opponents of the bill gear up for a fight, concerned their children will be taught to accept homosexuality. Yeah, they probably will, so fight as hard as you can, because God forbid a public school system teach your children the horrors of open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect for their peers. God forbid as a direct result, school bullying and GLBT harassment and suicides might go down. A flying leap across the stage, but with a shaky landing.

As the GLBT movement/argument takes the forefront and extremists come out in opposition of equality, our children are being exposed to hate that is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement: discrimination of a group of individuals who are different, therefore viewed to be inferior and treated violently. A recent report published by the LA Times has found that anti-gay homicides have risen 13% since 2009, a number which is more than likely grossly underestimated given that not all homicides are automatically classified as hate crimes, as many states have no inclusion of hate crimes for gays in their law books. Even in California, where a transgender man was killed in a university bathroom and had the word "It" carved on his chest, it took a fair amount of advocacy to declare the crime as motivated by hate. And the harassment and violence that don't result in death isn't even considered in this report. Protests, hate speech, and abuse is undoubtedly on the rise as well. Even I was the subject of an attack not too long ago; though I haven't been exposed to much harassment since high school, mostly because I actively hid my sexuality from most people until about 2 years ago, it knocked on my front door (or rather, my Facebook wall) when a friend's account had been hacked and a post was left on my wall calling me a faggot and lamenting that I should die, among other things. Others were hacked as well, but whether or not this was a generalized hacker post or dedicated directly toward me, it stung a bit. Spin and fall.

The tension surrounding gays since the Prop 8 aftermath has widened divisions across the country, and as we disjointedly progress toward equality, the score will climax and hostilities will surge in a final encore before the show is over and the curtain falls. There will be jumps, skips, stumbles, and falls, but we must take the wins, however small, when they come in order to strengthen ourselves for the fights and losses we will inevitably face before we reach our goal. Amid the frustration and anger, sadness and tears, I just keep telling myself, we will get there someday, we just have to keep fighting. What other option do we have?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Anomalies of Normalcy

Normal. The word makes one cringe when they hear it. A word that should have every positive association attached to it carries a hoard of negative connotations when you realize it is a term that doesn't apply to you. A social definition of what is deemed acceptable behaviors and appearance in one's host culture, what is normal is rarely black and white; the boundaries are blurred and surrounded by a sea of gray. Its idea changes from person to person, family to family, to neighborhoods to states and so on; it is hard to know where you stand in the scheme of things and your placement is always determined by someone else, and is always changing.

There is often a movement somewhere in the world that sets out to magnify our differences. Highlighting how unique we are from one another, they call attention to wonderful qualities and talents that help us stand out, so we don't feel that dreaded monotonous sameness the Nazis once dreamed of. What these programs don't warn against is the risk of being too different. "Express yourself!" (but not too much), "Follow your dreams!" (except those dreams), "Love whomever you want!" (but not that person), "Be yourself!" (wait-not that self). And the people who dare to step out of the bounds of acceptable uniqueness are the individuals who are, in essence, excommunicated from society. Met with stares, frowns, abusive remarks, and even pure avoidance, those who go against the grain become isolated, save the small circle of friends with similar quirks who accept them without judgment.

In being a therapist, our business is Normalcy. Leave the people who are normal alone, make those who are abnormal become normal, with the help of societal standards and our handy dandy DSM IV TR (another socially determined collection of defined categories of normal). When a patient comes to my office, I am essentially charged with a Caesarian rule: thumbs up or thumbs down, sane or crazy, normal or abnormal. But how does one truly know what is normal? In one psychology class we were asked to develop a clear cut definition of normal, and few if any could compose an accurate representation of such. So who are we, above anyone else, to wield the power of labeling people who might just be different?

Working predominantly with a severely autistic population, I am exposed to the rare black and white that most of us can't see when it comes to determining "normal". Normal becomes survival in society, the ability to talk, the ability to communicate with others one's own thoughts, feelings, and needs without bursting into tantrums of frustrated screams and physical aggression, and most importantly, the ability to develop and maintain relationships with others, because we are, at our cores, a social specie. But once we gravitate to higher functioning autism, and even Aspergers, one is met with opposition to such labels of anomalies. Thought of as socially deficient, these individuals have found peace with their diagnoses and have learned to function in society without seeking or desiring a cure. They may struggle with interpersonal awkwardness, as we all do at times, but they are content in living their lives as they may, with or without judgment from others, and wish to be left with their oddities and idiosyncrasies.

As one who could easily be described as socially inept, I sympathize with this population, one which parallels much of my own symptomology. Plagued with an at times debilitating social anxiety disorder, I also struggle with interpersonal exchanges: making appropriate facial expressions at appropriate times, making and maintaining eye contact, reading social cues, taking comments too literally, expressing my thoughts clearly, and properly adjusting my prosody (tone of voice). For the most part, I have coached myself well enough to engage in conversation without much difficulty, I mentally develop scripts to various scenarios and can usually respond to others effectively. However, in times of heightened anxiety, I become a bumbling flustered idiot with a flat affect who stares at the floor or out windows and fidgets with any object of comfort that can be found nearby.

Now, for the most part, people have come to take me as I am. There is an understanding that I am slightly odd, that certain facial expressions are not to be taken offensively, that eye contact is not a necessity for listening, and that silence does not always manifest lack of comprehension. For others, they struggle with the nature of our exchanges and, confounded by such, require alterations. What this becomes is not so much a fault on my part, but a need of theirs that is not being met. They need to know I'm listening by making eye contact, they need to know I'm friendly by having me smile when I don't particularly feel reason to, and they need me to respond to feel as though I'm understanding them. So, content in my own ways, how much should I change myself to make others happy? To make them comfortable?

The problem is, we all at one point or another want that normalcy. We want to fit in, we want to be like everyone else, we want to belong. In these times of desperation, we are given to sacrificing ourselves for that comfort of having a niche. But our uniqueness is what sets us apart, even if those idiosyncrasies are not always shining beacons for model citizens. Sometimes our idiosyncrasies are abnormal, and downright crazy, sometimes they annoy the hell out of the others around us, but what would the world be without them? Without van Gogh's inability to fit in, we would not know the pain-driven beauty of his creations. Without Emily Dickinsons' need to isolate herself from the world, we would not have her devastatingly breathtaking poetry.

While I can hardly compare my blogging and sporadic poetry to art, writing is my creation and my best way of communicating with the outside world when my mouth and my face can't say what I long to. I may be odd, but oddities create art, create beauty, and create change. Those who are different are the ones who make history, those who conform are the ones we forget. And yet, when they are living, the world is confounded by them, they challenge the balance of things and are usually scorned. Embrace them. The strange child of today can grow to be the quirky genius of tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Have Seen The Enemy and He is Us

On May 1st, 2011, the streets of America were filled with jubilant celebrations as cheers and chants floated on the night breeze, and painful memories healed somewhat upon hearing the news that our number one fugitive, Osama bin Laden, had been killed. A ghostly image that has been seared into our retina over the past nine years, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the tragic 9/11 attacks lay dead after being shot by special US armed forces.

I must admit I hardly celebrated in a similar manner as my fellow countrymen. Taken partly by surprise, then dull relief, the nine years of chasing down the ever-elusive mountain dweller has taken its toll. What was once believed possible faded into disappointed resignation, then slipped into the shadows of a mission forgotten. And then, out of the blue, his death was splashed across TV screens, computer monitors, and cell phone displays and the deaths of 3,000 American civilians had been avenged. But being the pessimist my mind has condemned me to be through this existence, all I could think of the manhunt that has ensued for nearly the past decade, when the costs were assessed, was that it was utterly pointless.

The attacks of 9/11 were a horrific tragedy, one of insurmountable hatred no one could wrap their minds around; one of heart-breaking pain time will never heal. The video of the plane bursting through the concrete of the second tower, the images of debris showering down over Manhattan, the dark dust cloud that loomed over New York City like Death lingering above a battlefield will never be forgotten. In no way do I wish to belittle these events, but as I’ve written before, our government’s response, backed by our nation, was one of swift, emotionally-fueled retribution without much consideration for consequences or by-product results. Hunting down bin Laden became, in our minds, the ultimate conclusion to this nightmare, the final goal. In our illusion, his death would not only bring justice, but closure, an end to all we’ve suffered. But, in the midst of our tireless efforts, we became reckless, and, paired with our power, we became dangerous. Throughout the years, a transformation occurred: while hunting the terrorists, we became them.

In the past ten years, it is estimated that the west’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in the deaths of well over 500,000 innocent civilians, in spite of our government’s efforts to “minimize civilian casualties”. Excuses of misguided missiles and cases of mistaken identification did little to ease the daily fear and anxiety Iraqis and Afghanis suffered at the hands of our armed forces as helicopters soared over their homes and tanks rolled through their roads. Gruesome attacks of delusional and/or power-drunk soldiers rarely made headlines here in the states in order to avoid exposing the reality of this war and risk losing popular support, but some tales broke through: the wedding party that was shot up by soldiers on edge reacting to what sounded like gunfire (both the bride and groom were killed). The infamous video of the 2007 helicopter attacks on innocent reporters toting phones and cameras. The rape of a 14 year old Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family. The slaughter of innocent civilians and the desecration of their bodies where soldiers took “keepsakes” for themselves. And the brutal murder of nine Afghani children, mistaken for insurgents, who were just out gathering firewood for their families.

Whether psychologically imbalanced from the strains of war or simply cold-blooded murderers, our government knowingly sent these individuals back into battle, terrorizing the people of these countries we viciously encroached upon without invitation or welcome. And they feared us. Will the soldiers come again? Will they shoot? Will they drop bombs? Will they destroy our homes? Will we die tonight? Our government has, in short, become the largest most powerful terrorist network in the world.

In addition to the overwhelming impact we’ve had on these poor people’s lives, we have sacrificed and lost so much more. Financially this war has become a sinkhole, exacerbating an already strained economy by spending what has become a trillion dollar expense. Our war-mongering antics have soured relations with many other powerful countries and our allies have slowly retreated. Our nation was immersed in a cloud of fear, apprehension, and distrust of the world around us, a distrust of ethnic and religious differences that turned into suspicion then anger and abuse. We have, in short, become a hateful, vengeful, hated, broke ass country that is still responsible for 166 times more civilian deaths after 9/11 than those the terrorists managed to obliterate on that fateful day. And this isn’t even our first time terrorizing other nations in retaliation. Many examples could be given, but the best I could provide to you is our response to the last attack on American soil, Pearl Harbor. A Japanese military attack that killed nearly 2,300 American soldiers, a country scorned and angry, and a bomb named Little Boy resulted in the deaths of 130,000 innocent Japanese civilians when the first atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima over an elementary school, killing women and children. Not quite satisfied with our finale, an encore was sent to Nagasaki three days later, killing 70,000 more civilians. Two hundred thousand innocent civilians who played no part in the decision to attack Pearl Harbor lost their lives so justice could be done. Likewise, the 500,000+ civilians of the Middle East played no part in 9/11, and it cost them just as much.

The wars we’ve fought beneath the guise of some higher cause, be it peace of mind, justice, or stopping the “evil-doers”, have gone above and beyond an eye for an eye as we engage in childish one-up-manship, leaving in our wake more destruction than has ever been dealt to us. And in spite of everything it’s cost us, we feel no safer; terrorism is not over, someone will take bin Laden’s place tomorrow and this war will continue as it has, but terrorism is not a bearded face with a turban. It’s not a particular religion in a particular region of the world. It’s an act anyone can commit. And we have. Was it worth it to become our enemy in order to kill him?

ter·ror·ism [ter-uh-riz-uhhttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngm]
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce,especially for political purposes.

2. the state of fear or submission produced by terrorism.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Children Who Kill, and Those Who Don't

Twelve years ago today, a small town in Colorado became temporarily notorious. Mention it's name out of context and many won't be able to place where Littleton is, let alone why it is infamous to begin with. But, on April 20th, 1999, no one could think of anywhere else after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold glided onto the Columbine campus armed with semi-automatic guns and several home-made bombs that were strategically placed in the building. After just a few short hours, with both boys dead from self-inflicted wounds, they had succeeded in killing thirteen innocent people, and injuring twenty one others.

After this tragic incident, accusations were flying everywhere, everyone searching for something or someone to blame, and most people getting it wrong. From the goth culture to heavy metal music, from video games to psychotropic meds, the media hit each and every viable possibility and shoved it down the general public's throat, simultaneously demonizing the shooters and society as a whole. The one point of focus that probably carried the most merit faded into the background: school bullying. Social outcasts who were ridiculed every day, humiliated and hassled, labeled with homophobic slurs, they eventually reached their breaking points, as many in their positions do.

In reading the book Children Who Kill by Carol Anne Davis, I've come across many similar stories of seemingly sadistic cold-blooded murderers who, in a moment of rage or in simple remorseless apathy have killed innocent people. Some stories are unnerving, others, stomach-churning, but they all had similarities too prominent to ignore: child abuse, neglect, instability, social ostracization, and psychological illness. And much like the Columbine shooters, the media turned to other factors such as games, TV shows, movies, and just hanging with bad crowds as probable causes of the violence. In nearly every story, a blind eye was turned to the long term ill-effects that come with years of pain, suffering, and devastation these children experienced, typically inflicted by the very people who were meant to protect them.

Now over the past months of blogging, my own personal history has gradually been revealed as my blogs have taken a more intimate tone, and many of you are aware of several instances of abuse, various types from various perpetrators, school bullying, and my own resulting mood disorders. What has tapped into my being and struck a chord with me while reading about these kids is how easily I could have become one of them. With very similar backgrounds and long repertoires of emotionally and psychologically altering circumstances, what is that defining factor that sets one apart? What makes some of us killers and others productive members of society?

In Viktor Frankl's autobiography, Man's Search for Meaning, he discusses his own experiences with the continuing battle between Saints and Swine while serving time in a concentration camp during WW2. A prominent point Frankl made repeatedly in his book was the issue of freedom of choice. He argued that although events take place in our lives and we cannot always control what happens to us, what is in our control is how we respond to these events: we become saints, or we become swine. In his example, saints were defined as individuals who cared for fellow prisoners and looked out for one another, and the swine were individuals who adopted a more "every man for himself" approach to surviving the camps. In our lives, this can be more or less the individuals who go on to lead generally successful lives, have families and meaningful relationships, maintain employment and housing, and individuals who fall into more self-destructive and criminal behaviors and end up harming themselves or others.

I frequently utilized Frankl's theory in working with severely emotionally disturbed teens. Sadly, like the kids in Davis' book, most of them had seen the worst of life in the few years they had lived. Many survived neglect at the hands of their drug-abusing mothers, many suffered beneath the iron fist of alcoholic fathers who used them as punching bags. Some had been forced into early sexual awareness by perverted family members. All of these matters were events in their lives they couldn't control, so in a misguided effort to regain that control, they began engaging in their own destructive behaviors: truancy, theft, drug use, promiscuity, self-mutilation, even suicide attempts. In trying to redirect that sense of control into more productive actions, many of such teens can be molded into functioning healthy individuals, in spite of their dark pasts.

Unfortunately, for many of these kids who went on to commit these heinous crimes, intervention was too little too late, if it came at all. For some, any intervention may have proved useless, as the damage had been done and psychopathology had set in, rendering them sociopaths. However, for the most part, it seems that rehabilitation is more than possible, if we can find the missing link that sets us on the right path. Granted, many of the child killers were male and in the midst or on the brink of puberty. With the increased level of testosterone and the effect it has on aggression, it could be argued that hormones play a part. Other factors could be time and type of interventions, variations in abuse and abusers, genetics, etc. In short, I have no idea what makes some people killers and what makes some successful survivors. I don't know why I took the path I did and narrowly avoided becoming a statistic. I had the background, I had the resulting depression, I was a self-mutilator, I had deep-seated anger, a seething hatred for the people who hurt me and resentment and distrust of people in general. My intervention was therapy and medication, and eventually the depression, anger, and hate dissipated and I became a therapist to help others. Some are just not as lucky, I suppose.

Eric and Dylan were two of the unfortunates. Though not much has been written on their home life, I would imagine they were not stable situations with overly concerned and involved parents, as anyone could have seen this train wreck coming had they only paid attention. After Columbine, they were destroyed by the media as crazed psychotic killers who master-minded elaborate plans of attacks, plans which, if read with an impartial eye, come off more as the childish, nonsensical grandiose ideas of manic kids than highly intellectual criminals. Few even addressed what was probably a dark, lonely adolescence for two severely depressed young men. The same happened to Seung-Hu Cho of Virginia Tech, a long-disturbed child also destroyed by the media when "violent" short stories he had written were sensationalized as red flags. In reality, they were poorly written blips about angry high school students cursing their principal.

Criminals are not born, they're made. While some of us can be saved, many many more fall through the cracks, and soon make headlines. So before we allow the media to strip these poor kids of their humanity, let us not forget that at one point, these "cold-hearted murderers" were once someone's baby, and more than likely, that baby was not given much love.