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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Are we heading toward an American version of Romanian orphanages?

The cruel, inhumane, “zero-tolerance” Trump immigration policy, under which children are taken from their parents at the border, has already been much compared to Nazi Germany. I don’t object. It ought to go without saying that there’s absolutely no point to “Never Again” if one isn’t allowed to invoke the Holocaust until there’s an all-out Holocaust.

The problem I have with the comparison is that it’s too broad to be instructive. Yes, it’s part of Trump’s campaign to vilify and dehumanize a vulnerable population in order to stir ultranationalist sentiment. But what, exactly, does this particular chapter in our history say about who we have become and where we’re headed? I’d like to offer what I think is a much closer and more useful comparison: Romanian orphanages.

In 1991-1992, my husband and I spent nearly a year in Romania, which was just emerging from a Communist regime that was even more brutal and bizarre than what most of the Soviet bloc had experienced. My husband was a newly minted pediatrician when the news reached the West of more than 100,000 Romanian children living in squalid conditions in so-called orphanages. (Many, if not most, were not actually orphans, but had been institutionalized by parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, but had not relinquished custody.) Worse still, a pediatric AIDS epidemic had spread through those institutions. My husband joined a small group of pediatricians who scraped together some funding for a study, and that’s what brought us to Romania. He gathered data for the study and provided medical assistance in several orphanages and hospitals in Bucharest and Galati; I served as a woman Friday, providing logistical and administrative support to his efforts, alongside my own writing projects.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories: tens of thousands of children warehoused in facilities where they were, at best, neglected, and at worst, abused. Children up to age six or seven or even more, small with malnutrition, spent their days in white metal cribs, rocking and banging themselves against the bars in an effort to self-stimulate, because no one interacted with them, no one held them, no one played with them. Infants had flattened heads because they spent their whole lives lying on their backs in those cribs. Eerie quiet hung over rooms full of children who never cried, because crying brought no response; no one ever came for them. Children with AIDS were transferred from bleak orphanages to even bleaker hospital wards, where they died not from the disease, but from exposure, because their fatal illness became an excuse to deprive them of even the most basic necessities like clothing, food, and heat.

It’s all true. I was there. I saw it. It was a nightmare of inhumanity.

By all reports, the American institutions where immigrant children are being held today are very different. They are, for now at least, only temporary, and the children receive food and clothing and have access to toys, television, and activities.

But here’s the thing: Once upon a time, the Romanian orphanages weren’t that bad, either. There was a long history of orphanages in Romania, and even in the early Ceausescu years, they had not yet become hellholes. But government policy, dictated by an unhinged megalomaniac with his own strange agenda, created the crisis the world saw when the Iron Curtain fell. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, determined to increase Romania’s population in order to grow the work force, banned contraception and abortion, causing a spike in unwanted births and the mass abandonment and institutionalization of children. As children poured into the overburdened system, conditions deteriorated. In a nation where propaganda and rumors replaced facts, where people lived in fear, and where resources were scarce, the disaster inside the orphanages went unchecked.

It seems like a stretch right now to compare Trump’s America to Ceausescu’s Romania, but there are important similarities. Trump is another pompous, self-serving, reality-denying leader who implements inhumane policies to further his own bizarre agenda. He rose to power by stoking fear and hatred of immigrants, particularly those from Muslim and Latin American countries. He believes that, by playing the strong man at the expense of vulnerable immigrants, he’ll reinforce his popularity among his virulently xenophobic base. He’s not interested in what happens to the system as a flood of children hits it, and like the Romanian dictator, he lacks the empathy to concern himself with the effect on the children. Also like Ceausescu, he’s demonstrated a singular willingness to pick the pockets of the masses in order to line his own.

Still, these detention centers, which were originally created to house unaccompanied minors who crossed the border before Trump even became president, provide only temporary shelter and are well supplied, right? No one is going hungry, and the kids eventually move on. What’s the fuss?

As many have already pointed out, any forced separation of a child from a parent is traumatic and can have lasting impact. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in no uncertain terms after visiting a facility in Texas that what the children there had been subjected to was “a form of child abuse.” No amount of food, toys, or TV change that. These aren’t children whose parents don’t want them or who have hurt them. In many cases, they haven’t even committed a crime (seeking asylum is not a crime, which is why previous administrations didn’t prosecute people for it). The practice of separation, in and of itself, temporary or not, is both unethical and damaging to children.

But more than that, numbers tell the story about where we could very well be headed. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is bringing more and more children into an already overtaxed system. From October 2017 to April 2018, 700 families were split by the Trump administration, and from April 18 to May 31, 1,995 children were taken from 1,940 adults. The temporary housing facilities are bursting at the seams. The government has already opened one tent city in Texas; more will surely follow. While the policy is to eventually release the children to family members, many of those relatives are undocumented themselves and are afraid to come forward to receive the children, lest they run the risk of deportation. Foster care is an option, but that system, too, will inevitably max out. Now there’s talk of deporting the parents without their children. How long before we see in America the beginnings of Romania’s nightmare scenario: an explosion of institutionalized children left parentless due to stupid government policy, with conditions deteriorating due to underfunding and neglect? It’s not hard to imagine. We’re already hearing about staff who believe they’re not supposed to pick up or handle young children, who are being left to cry inconsolably for their absent parents. Maybe it would never become the living hell that Romanian orphanages became, but how close is too close for comfort?

And then you have to wonder: Who would work in such places, and how would they treat the children?

When we first arrived in Romania, my husband and I were plagued by one question: How could anyone treat children like this? The caregivers, administrators, and medical staff came to work every single day and maintained a status quo that made outsiders sick to their stomachs. We didn’t personally observe any physical abuse, but what we did see was more than enough: rows of cribs filled with undersize children with vacant eyes who were permanently developmentally delayed and whose most basic needs were not being met.

Not only did orphanage workers fail to show any tenderness or compassion toward their charges; many stole what little they had. Again and again, we heard the stories from foreign aid workers. One in particular stands out. Soon after the fall of Ceausescu, a group of Dutch nurses arrived at a hospital in Galati to work in its pediatric AIDS ward, where HIV-positive children were transferred from the local orphanage to live out their final months. The nurses brought with them many donated supplies, which they stored on the premises, and they retrained the Romanian staff, who began to demonstrate a more caring attitude toward the children. But early on, the nurses made a critical mistake: The entire group traveled to the Netherlands for several days to attend a conference. When they returned, everything they’d brought was gone: medicine, clothing, blankets, even the electric washing machines. They had to start over from scratch.

Eventually we, like all the other aid workers we encountered, began to understand the twisted logic by which this world operated. First, there was the process of self-selection. The people who worked in the orphanages for any length of time lasted precisely because they could tolerate it. No one was there to advocate for the children; everyone worked in service of the system, which demanded only that these unwanted children be kept out of sight and out of mind, and at very little cost. Meanwhile, Ceausescu was busy perpetrating countless other violations of the rights and dignity of the entire nation, sowing terror, demanding absolute fealty, and creating a society where the social contract had entirely broken down. It was every man for himself. Theft and black-marketeering were a way of life in every workplace, and no one hesitated to put their own needs and those of their family ahead of others. And if there were some really horrific bad actors who would commit even worse abuses in the orphanages, we had no doubt that blind eyes would often, if not always, be turned, because no one wanted to rock the boat, attract attention, or cause trouble that could cost them their jobs and even their personal safety.

If you think none of that could happen in America because of some higher moral standard, you’re kidding yourself. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric has given the stamp of approval to those who value blind obedience and fatuous patriotism over fairness and the rights of individuals. Already, Americans relegate the poor and the mentally ill to prisons and to the streets. We allow health care and education costs to bankrupt families. We shrink our social safety net, leaving kids without food security. Is that so far from warehousing children in inhumane conditions? As detention centers for immigrant children multiply, and as Americans become ever more distracted by our financial troubles, addictions, culture wars, and manufactured fear of the Others who are supposedly stealing our jobs and threatening our security, the separation of immigrant families will become background noise, and the children will be treated in whatever manner the Trump administration sees fit. Not only could it happen; it could happen quickly. This is no time for complacency.

UPDATE: Just hours after publishing this piece, I read this: "The former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told NBC News that migrant parents separated from their children at the border are sometimes unable to relocate their child and remain permanently separated." And so it begins...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Riddle me this: What do Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and Star Trek Discovery have in common?

You wouldn’t think two of my favorite shows, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Star Trek, have a lot in common. But as of recently, they share one very interesting feature: Both are asking die-hard fans to pony up a lot more money than one normally expects to pay for such entertainment. MFMM, after three seasons on Australian TV with international streaming distribution, launched a crowdfunding campaign to make a feature film (and hit their goal within days). After five Star Trek series on ad-supported broadcast TV and 14 films, Star Trek Discovery is being used as the flagship series of CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access, on the theory that Star Trek fans will be willing to pay a monthly fee.

What’s even more interesting is the very different reception these strategies have gotten. With MFMM, it’s very positive. Fans are eagerly pledging, with some even kicking in thousands of dollars in exchange for a chance to appear onscreen or get a piece of wardrobe after the shoot. The tone of the chatter on social media is excited and hopeful. The press coverage emphasizes the dedication and enthusiasm of the fan base rather than the fact that thousands of people are paying a lot of money, most for very minor incentives like a postcard or access to “inside info” (more or less a fan club), so they can get to see a movie they would otherwise have paid 12 bucks for at the theater.  ("Put your sassy magnifying glass away because there’s no mystery here, fans are absolutely humming for a ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ movie,” says this HuffPo article.)  

But the response to ST:DSC on CBS All Access has been far more negative and cynical. Even die-hard ST fans who plan to pay for the service (like me) seem to be resentful. While fans on social media debate whether the series is likely to be any good (as ST fans will), the response to putting it on CBS All Access for U.S. viewing (it will be on Netflix elsewhere) is universally negative. There’s a lot of grumbling about CBS’ greed and abuse of the franchise. The tone of media coverage is more like, “Will rabid ST fans fall for CBS’ money-making ploy?” ("CBS hopes that fans will embrace that vision — and, with credit cards in hand, help build a new business to carry the company forward,” says Variety.)

There are some obvious reasons for the disparity, like the fact that MFMM fandom feels like the little engine that could, since the show isn’t widely known, and the fandom is young and hasn’t been overtly exploited for decades. Also, a crowdfunding campaign on the front end of a project feels voluntary, while a streaming distribution scheme for a finished product feels like being overcharged. The different responses the two efforts have received are more psychological than anything else; MFMM feels inclusive and optimistic, while ST:DSC feels coercive and mercenary.

But in the end, they’re not actually so different. For whatever reason, the producers are calculating that a dedicated fan base will pay well above market price for access to this particular product because they want it so badly. What’s more, MFMM fans are handing producers their hard-earned money with no guarantee they will actually get a movie. (Do people realize that Kickstarter itself offers no guarantee that a project will be completed? I wonder how many people have actually read the terms of service? “The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.” In other words, if you sent the creator money and they didn’t make the thing, you could sue them. Good luck.) At least with ST:DSC, you don’t have to pay a dime until the product actually exists (which it does; the premiere is a few days away!), and for that matter, until the product has actually been seen and reviewed. And yet, people are more negative about the ST:DSC model. Humans are funny that way.

Interesting thought experiment: What if the two were reversed? What if ST:DSC had had a crowdfunding campaign and MFMM were being used to anchor a paid streaming service? Would the responses be reversed as well? Possibly not, because MFMM is still relatively small and hasn’t already been monetized to death the way ST has. But still, I wonder.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The end of the line

This morning, a Facebook friend posted this wonderful New York Times article from 2008 called “The Curious World of the Last Stop.” Reporter Andy Newman rode to the end of every subway line in the city and wrote about what he found there. Reading it, I was reminded of my own end-of-the-line story. I think about it surprisingly often, but I’ve never written it down before.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to spend summers in a rented beach bungalow in Far Rockaway. She was one of a shrinking group of old folks from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who still did that. The neighborhood out there was getting rougher and rougher, and those who could afford it had long ago started summering farther out on Long Island or at the Jersey Shore. But my grandma never left Williamsburg and Far Rockaway. That was her world.

When I was little, my father used to take me to visit her there. Sometimes, we’d go just for the day; sometimes, Dad would leave me with Grandma for a little vacation. I'd stay a few days, going to the beach and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. As I got older, we stopped going. But when I was in high school, I decided it would be nice to visit Grandma in Far Rockaway, maybe one last time. I called her and told her I was coming. She was so excited. I knew she'd be out buying fruit and stale marzipan as soon as we got off the phone. She insisted she would meet me at the subway stop so I wouldn't get lost finding her bungalow, so I gave her an arrival time.

This was the 1970s. No internet with interactive trip planners, and no cell phones. I was a Manhattan kid. To me, a long subway ride was, like, 45 minutes. So off I go: transfer to the A train, get a seat, I'm all set. I ride. And ride. And ride and ride and ride. The time I gave Grandma comes and goes. And still I ride. I'm starting to feel kind of bad, because now I'm late, and my old grandma is standing there waiting for me. I figure I'm going to keep her standing for 15 minutes…no, 20…no, 25. No. ONE HOUR. The ride to Far Rockaway, the end of the A line, was a full hour longer than I had thought possible. And when I finally arrived, Grandma was standing there with a big hug and a smile. She never said a word about the time. We walked to her bungalow, where there was fruit and stale marzipan, which I ate gratefully. It tasted like humble pie.

To this day, I can't even tell this story without feeling horrible. Forty years later, this is still my greatest regret -- I made Grandma wait for an hour at the end of the line.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

That mysterious pain is an underregulated industry kicking you in the face. Again.

Freeze your credit, they said. That'll protect you from identity theft, they said. Except: "A security freeze doesn’t protect you if the thieves break into the vault of the company that maintains the freeze. That’s what happened here, and we will now spend years seeing what happens next."  (NY Times) Yup. The bastards broke into the system where they keep the magic PIN that unfreezes your credit file.

That said, you should still freeze your credit, on the theory that maybe you're not already doomed. Not a very sound theory, but what the hell, hope springs eternal. That’s what they told my husband and me to do when we discovered we had an identity-theft problem. I believe their exact words were, “When you’re done waving goodbye to all your horses as they run down the road, never to be seen again, why don’t you go ahead and lock that barn door?”

You can freeze your credit with each agency online, by phone, or by snail mail. (More info here.) Depending on state law, it might cost a little money. Based on a sample size of two (my husband and me), each method offers advantages and disadvantages.

Online: You get your magic PIN immediately (for all the good it does you — see above). But you feel all queasy about sending your social security number and other identifying information over a system that seems less secure than the diary you had in junior high with the little lock and the key you kept in the special-treasures box in your desk drawer. And for some reason, sometimes after you input all your info, the damn thing still says “Sorry, Charlie, no can do,” forcing you to try calling anyway.

By phone: It’s still an automated system, only you have to wait to get your PIN by snail mail. But for some reason, it might work even when the online one doesn’t. Same queasy feeling applies. Plus there’s that robotic voice reminding you that your finances are actually overseen by AI gnomes from the uncanny valley.

Snail mail: Didn’t do it, but I suspect you’ll send off your request and forget the whole thing until you get a reply. If you get a reply. And that queasy feeling isn’t going away. Especially given the fact that one of the easiest ways to steal someone’s identity turns out to be putting in a change-of-address request for them, because the U.S. Postal Service has no security whatsoever. My husband and I learned this the hard way. In no time at all, all your mail could start going somewhere else. Oh, the post office will notify you of the change…AFTER it’s been made. And good luck getting it changed back. But I digress…

Be warned, the credit agencies' websites will do everything possible to direct you toward their credit-monitoring products, which cost money. They make it really difficult to find the free and/or cheap stuff, like requesting your free credit report or placing a freeze. That's because, unless and until you pay for their monitoring service, you are not their customer, you are just a pain in their ass. In fact, you (or your data) are the product they are selling to their real customers, the lenders. So when you freeze your credit, you’re making it harder for them to make money off you. Navigating credit agency websites is not unlike trying to find the bathroom in a casino. You just want to take care of urgent business that should cost you nothing, but somehow you keep winding up back at the slot machines.

WHY ARE WE NOT REGULATING THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF THIS INDUSTRY????

(Hint: "The Wall Street Journal reports that in the months leading up to the attack, Equifax spent at least $500,000 lobbying federal regulators and Congress to relax regulation of credit-reporting companies. Among the focus of its requests? Data security and breach notification, cyber security threat information sharing, and the coup de grace: limiting the legal liability of credit-reporting companies.")

PS — In an effort to control the free-fall of its reputation, Equifax has dropped its credit-freeze fees for those unfortunates in states where such fees are legal. For 30 days. And they’re not paying your fees at the other two agencies. But hey, you can always still pump quarters into their slot machine.

PPS -- The Equifax website told me my data was probably compromised, so I signed up for the free credit monitoring. That process was suspiciously quick, and the confirmation message said only something like, "your request has been received," so I suspect my data just went to a holding pen to be dealt with later. Probably a dot matrix printer in back of a Denny's somewhere. Which is probably more secure than whatever they were using before. And if those bastards start charging me for the monitoring service after the free year is up, so help me god, I will blog about it so hard. Not like it matters anyway though. A free year of credit monitoring is like saying, "This bank is protected by armed guards. Who go to lunch in an hour."

If the Star Trek series were beers

TOS: Heineken. It’s the first beer you discover that actually tastes like something, and you fall in love. You order it again and again and again. It certainly beats that godawful piss from Anheuser-Busch. Lord knows there are times when you overindulge and later have regrets, but that’s ok. You have standards, and Bud is not gonna cut it. After awhile, you discover there are other good beers – maybe even better beers – and you stop ordering Heineken. But now and then you go back to it for nostalgia’s sake. Yep, still satisfying. In some ways, your first love is always your favorite.



TAS: Shandy. Is it beer? Is it soda? The answer is YES! You feel like, as an adult, you shouldn’t be drinking it at all, but it becomes a guilty pleasure. Hiding underneath all that fizzy lemonade is a unique buzz you come to enjoy – a combination of sugar and alcohol that you keep coming back to. But you don’t tell people because, let’s face it, you’re putting soda in your beer.





TNG: Amstel Light. Finally, a new beer! After all those Heinekens, everyone is talking about how great this is going to be. And it looks so classy in that brown bottle with that impressive coat of arms. You try it – and it tastes like nothing. It’s not bad, exactly. It’s just bland. Inoffensive. A watered-down version of a decent beer. All around you, people are guzzling it like it’s the greatest thing ever, and you just can’t figure out why. But still, you’re just grateful people are finally branching out a bit, so you keep your opinion to yourself, and when offered an Amstel Light at a party, you just smile and say thanks.



DS9: Sam Adams Boston Lager. Damn, that is good beer. This is what happens when you really let beer be beer. At first, you think you will never need another beer. But suddenly, there are lots of good beers all around you. Sam Adams is great, yeah, but – it’s not always what you want. Some days, you admit privately, it lets you down. There are all these little craft beers constantly beckoning. “Try me!” they say, and sometimes you do, and sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re awful. But you keep coming back to that Sam Adams, because more often than not, it delivers.


VOY: Corona. OMG it’s like Amstel Light all over again! It’s the holodeck of beers, conjuring up a fantasy of lounging on a deserted, white, sandy beach with your impossibly hot sweetheart, toes in the water, sun in your eyes. You reach out, grasp an ice-cold bottle just deposited there by some mysterious, invisible hand, take a sip, and…nothing. It’s a nice dream, and you check in with it from time to time just for the pretty, but usually you leave disappointed and unfulfilled.



ENT: Guinness. Either you love it or you hate it. It’s rich, dark, and robust – but not to everyone’s taste. What’s more, a lot can go wrong with it. If it’s not fresh, or it’s not poured just right, or it’s too cold or too warm, it can be downright foul. But when it’s good, it’s so, so good. Complex, deeply satisfying, with a thick, creamy head you could just take a bath in. Maybe not the beer you want to drink every day with all your meals – but one that holds special rewards when you’re willing to give it the attention it deserves.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Embarrassment is sort of embarrassing, when you think about it

Embarrassment is a really weird emotion. It’s related to shame, but it’s not exactly the same. Shame is an emotion you can feel about something even if no one else knows about it. It’s connected to your internal sense of right and wrong. Which isn’t to say that shame can’t be influenced by outside factors like cultural norms, religion, the disapproval of others, etc. But whether originating from without or within, shame is about how you feel about what you did.

 Embarrassment, on the other hand, is entirely about how you feel about what other people saw you do. And it’s not even entirely about right and wrong. Sure, you can be embarrassed about getting caught doing something shameful. But you can also be embarrassed about being seen doing something that is totally an accident and not your fault, like tripping on the sidewalk or a bird pooping on your head. Those are misfortunes. We worry people will judge us to be clumsy, or our condition will revolt them. We’re not even sure why we feel so bad. We just do. And the feeling can be really intense, even about something relatively trivial -- as strong or even stronger than the shame we feel about having intentionally harmed someone or failed in a responsibility. Most of us probably still cringe at the memory of some embarrassing moment that happened when we were children, despite our adult knowledge that it was no big deal and is in fact a common occurrence in children (like, say, peeing the bed or forgetting a line in the school play).

 The downside of being social creatures, I guess. Humans are weird.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's art, it's history, it's art history

This article about a pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty made me pull out my college art history textbook: Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 7th edition. Back then, Gardner was divided into five parts that reflected the West's idea of history: the Ancient World; the Middle Ages; the Non-European world; the Renaissance and the Baroque and Rococo; and the Modern World. When it was my textbook, Spiral Jetty was just about a decade old. I remember staring at the black-and-white photo; the book is filled with such photos, which paradoxically utterly fail to capture the art they represent. Also paradoxically, the inadequacy of that photo made it one of my favorites. It appears on page 869 out of 889 total (excluding glossary and index). The chapter is called simply, "Painting and Sculpture After World War II." 

From the epilogue: "The transformation of the world by science and technology is the signal fact that separates the modern epoch from all of the past....The iconic, mythic, and social function of representation has been monopolized by mechanical media -- photography, motion pictures, television. By these means images have been produced and reproduced in countless millions. The art object itself, through sophisticated means of reproduction, loses its uniqueness and it's 'space,' like the original sound of an orchestral performance reproduced in high-fidelity recording....Meanwhile, the Tradition has been dismantled." 

How many more pages are there in Gardner today? The Internet tells me there are now multiple editions; one is called A Global History and another The Western Perspective

We had no idea of the deluge that was to come, just as now we have no idea of the deluge that is to come. Like Spiral Jetty.