First….fix the harm we have done.

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The opioid crisis.  It could have been predicted, after all.
Today you hear the smart young health advocates talk about setting up “pain clinics” as the “NEW” answer to the opioid crisis. You have already seen holistic wellness centers and alternative medicine practices cropping up on almost every corner.  But, let’s remember the ’70s.  When you had unlimited visits to chiropractors and physical therapists; when doctors could take their time to talk to you and treat you – when triple booking patients was not an industry best practice – but reserved for flu epidemics and such?  If you’re under 45 years old, you won’t have any idea about this – unless you are a medical history buff.  If you’re a physician you won’t even get this “old school” information taught to you in med school.  But this was before managed care – before big pharma, big health-insurance-business, big hospital-business, and big government regulation – when these things weren’t just tried here and there – they were a staple of medical care.
In the early ’80s a severe sciatica problem had me going dutifully to my chiropractor 3 times a week.  The most I did for pain outside of those visits was Tylenol and an ice blanket.  I was re-educated about how to not cross my legs at the knee, but instead at the ankle, when I sat for long periods of time; how I should get up and walk around about once an hour at work; and why carrying a heavy pocketbook and briefcase over one shoulder was no longer advisable.  I also learned about anti-inflammatory foods, and got advice on the proper exercise to do – and not to do.  It was a struggle, and it didn’t go away quickly, and there was one bout of a prescribed muscle relaxer for a few days – but, slowly, I learned the triggers and the treatments.
What would that treatment look like today?  What would the pill of choice be that I would be prescribed?  And how many would I get?  Would I get beyond 5 to 10 office visits to a chiropractor?  Would physical therapy be covered at all – and what would the wait time be to get in to see someone?  Would there be some counseling provided as to a good diet and proper exercise – and preventive techniques?
90% of pain clinics ceased to exist – yes, they were closing up shop, except for those serving the more well to do – out-of-pocket patient base. Other than that, compensation and reimbursements were drying up.  People were still in pain – and there was no miracle new drug that had been discovered.  Big-everything changed all that.  Managed-everything was faster, cheaper, and less holistic. And, today we find ourselves in an addiction and overdose epidemic of epic proportions.
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I agree with this article, by Cindy Perlen, LCSW, and posted on KevinMD.com.
Now that we are in this crisis – in 2016 – what are we talking about to deal with this opioid prescription crisis and a population increasingly in need of pain control? We’re talking about opening pain clinics, and encouraging (not paying for) people to seek alternative methods of dealing with pain – get a massage, go to an acupuncturist, utilize exercise.  Only if you really get hurt will it be paid for, and then, that treatment will also get restricted as to numbers of visits and/or costs.  We’re also talking about limiting pills doctors can give their patients.  We’re investigating doctors.  We’re criminalizing the medical system – and people who get hooked. Of course, there are real reasons to do some of that.  But in our rush to criminalize, to sanction, and to walk government right into the hallowed privacy of the doctor patient examining room, we have forgotten what got us there.  We have forgotten that we already know much about how to fix people in chronic pain.
For those who, because of their brain wiring, being prescribed opioids was the worst possible treatment. Now, they are on an addiction spiral, and we struggle to know what to do.  We have never seen a crisis like this.  Our drugs won’t take care of it.  Our prisons won’t.  Our mental hospitals won’t.  For now – it is our graveyards that are.
It is time we face this square on.  Pay for proper treatment of people in pain.  Open the pain clinics.  Pay for “alternative” care.  Re-educate the medical specialists who know so little about other ways to treat – other than pills and surgery. Stop the problem from continuing. And figure out how to clean up the mess that has been left behind.
Put the blame where it belongs.  We did this to ourselves.  I swear if you live long enough, you really do begin to see everything “old” become “new” again – functional exercise replacing use of complex equipment; simple, real foods replacing fast food grazing; custom-made anything replacing manufactured goods; “made in the USA” a better brand than the magic of manufacturing “made in China”, natural materials over plastics, organic over GMOs.  Eastern medicine looked at with new eyes, as Western medicine struggles to keep the healthy healthy, but has a pill for every ailment.
Don’t blame the doctors. Don’t blame the patients. Blame big pharma, big business, big medical-training, and big government…
Retraining and new curriculum for medical professionals. Healthcare for all might be the only answer – with a prevention and holistic focus – that’s two places to start.  Pay for proper treatment of people with pain.  Invest in prevention.  Help the addicted and the overdosing.  Sometimes it seems as though the plan is to wait until they all die away, and we can hit reset.  Sometimes it seems that we are on that road. We simply can’t do that. Nor can we fail to address that as we live longer, and are more active, people will have pain.  Intense pain.  Pain that we already know much about treating.  And we’re only offering half the treatments that are out there. Or will we only stoke the science machine to develop that next new pill?

Terror at Christmas

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Christmas past…

Every Christmas I waited for one gift.  It would usually come a few days before Christmas, and it was never wrapped.  But I knew it was coming, when I heard my uncle bound up the stairs, rather than plod one step at a time. “Is she here?” he’d bellow.  I was always there. Where else would I have been?

As the only boy in his family, growing up with two sisters, one my mother, and a father who was more into gardening and puttering, than hunting or big physical exercise, I imagine he was thrilled when my mother was having a baby.  I imagine he was a little disappointed when it was a girl.

But quickly he figured that it made no difference at all.  And he would simply treat me like a boy.  So, gifts of clothing, of which there were very few, were often blue sweaters or orange and black gloves and brown boots bought in the boy’s department. As I said, he didn’t buy clothing very often.  What he did buy, though, was pretty spectacular.  Especially for an “only child” being raised like a princess (as a recall). Barbies!  Carriages!  Baby dolls!  All were plentiful. But they never came from my uncle.

No, when my uncle would come bounding up those stairs, I would just wait for it!  What magical toy would it be?  Lincoln Logs.  Those little plastic Indians and Soldiers in their war stances.  We’d play and make forts and have some big battles! Sets of tinker toys. And we’d build giant spaceship type structures. One time there were racing cars, complete with a curving roller coaster track.  There was the police car, all black and white and heavy, that you could rev up by running it back and forth and then letting it go and the red light would shine and the siren would shriek.  There was the police gear. And a badge I could wear. And we would play and run around the house. Never for very long, though. We’d start to play and then he’d run off to do some adult thing that he needed to do.

My mother would say “Sonny!” (what we always called my uncle) “Sonny! She’s a girrrllll!” But, I loved it all.  The gun shot caps.  Then he bought me real caps – the kind you stepped on and it sounded like pistol shots.  There was a science kit or two, and then, one day, there was a “pearl” handled silver gun.  It was big and heavy.  You could cock it back and it would snap out a loud POP.  I can still remember how it felt in my hand and how there were ridges on the inside of the hammer.  Better, yet, this gun went into a holster – a black holster that went around my waist.  Eventually I got a cowboy hat to go with it. And bullets on a cross strip.  And boots.  I was banned by my mother from playing outside dressed up like that because the neighbors might see.  So I played inside.  Lost in a world of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Even Andy Griffith carried a gun!  And, for that matter, Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies prided herself on her shooting prowess.

As growing up will do to you, it changed things.  And the Christmas came when the boy-toy didn’t get such a gleeful response from me; and it stayed unopened.  “Hey, you didn’t open it… yet” he said, a few days in a row. Eventually the boy-toys stopped coming.  Eventually we didn’t play together anymore.

These memories are vivid this year; the same year my uncle passed away at 92.  I remember it because of how things have changed. And also for how they have not changed very much at all.

Christmas present…

Today, gun toys for young children are not cool.  But yet, they are on our shelves…waiting to be bought for little boys and little girls this Christmas.  The violent video games target the slightly older children, whose unformed minds bounce between fantasy and reality. This December begins with terror. Terror from San Bernardino – but living inside all of us today. When we’re shopping at a crowded mall.  Eating in a restaurant. Attending a concert.  Now, when we’re at work at a holiday party?

Gun control.  It seems an impossibility.  The little tweaks are purposeful, but in fact, all the guns we will ever need are already out there.  Guns are forever, but ammo degrades. It has a shelf life.  Ammunition is gun food. If we can starve the guns a bit, or change the way ammunition sales are regulated and controlled, perhaps we can change the way guns are used. As Marc Ambinder wrote in The Week in 2012, “Guns need food. Starve them”.  We can be distracted by all the focus on gun control – let us ask ourselves, what else can we do?

Here’s another thing we can do – we can ask to have these toys removed from our shelves. We can stop buying them. These are some of the gun type toys available for purchase on this one day in December in Rhode Island. They are at Benny’s, K-Mart, Toys ‘R Us, and Walmart stores.

The first store I visited was Toys R Us and while there were a few gun-like, nerf-type toys available, I didn’t see the more realistic looking, AK-47 types.  When asked, the department manager told me, “I haven’t seen them here in this store in about 10 years.  We stopped carrying them after Columbine.”

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Christmas Future…

What will be our Christmas future? What terror will hold us close?  How will we harden and adapt?  Is this our new normal?  I think about my children.  My grandchildren yet to be. I hope they can find the answers.  And we – the elders now – must stay engaged.  Let us bring our memories of our own childhood and see what we can do to our tenuous hold on happiness and peace in our loved ones’ future.  As Scrooge said at the final ghost appearance, “the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!”  Let us pray there is truth in this tale.

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“I am fearless now….”

th-2There are different kinds of memories. Events and happenings. Climactic moments. Hallmark days, such as a wedding, a funeral, a graduation. There are other memories that run deeper.  Memories of…scents…sounds…sight. Memories of emotion and feeling are perhaps the strongest.  The overwhelming moment when something happened inside of you; it changed the way you thought or felt about something. Like you could almost feel your brain morphing. The light bulb went on. The “aha” moment. The door shutting – for good this time – on a path of the past, a path that had been worn down and was going nowhere, and you struggled to get out of its rut, and now you can. These moments are, as they say, more ’emblazoned in our memories’ – because they go to our core – our heart and soul – they become more memorable because we were changed in that moment, that moment that we’ll always remember. We are different going forth.

This week the President gave an interview on radio which was somewhat controversial – but he stood rock solid, with a smile to his critics.  Something had changed in him.  A light bulb moment. An “aha” moment. A door shutting, or perhaps opening.  He put it simply when he said it: “I’m fearless now.” With that familiar jaunty full-faced smile we see more of these days.

This week I listened to a speech made by our new “fearless” President, this new Barack Obama.  And as he was expected to do, but no one could have truly anticipated, he gave a rousing one. But he went beyond rousing. He made a substantive one. He used high emotion, tragedy and deliverance to talk about issues that our country has yet to solve – poverty, poor educational systems, unfair housing, gun control, mass incarceration, jobs, racism, subtle prejudice – and he couched it all in the word “grace”.  Not “hope”, but “grace”.

And as natural as the gently waving program books in that church of 5,400 people – and in our homes and offices as we listened – our President began to sing. Low and deep he began. With the words, “Amazing grace. How sweet the sound…”.

Amazing-GraceI closed my eyes. I wanted to remember this day. Friday, June 26, 2015.  I wanted to emblazon its memory into my mind. I wanted it to change me. I wanted to call my children to gather and listen, but I was frozen watching this all transpire.  And as I thought of my children, grown and working now, I remembered Tuesday, January 20th, 2009.  My daughters were 20 and 22. Just coming of age in this adult world. We sat in the living room with snacks. Dip and chips, Guacamole, Nachos, and fruit. We wore our baseball caps of red, white and blue – one for each of us – with the word “HOPE” stitched right on them. And we watched our President take the oath of office. He delivered another speech that day – and it was a rousing great one, too.

getPartI remember thinking back to another day – September 11th, 2001.  The day when hope died. When ‘future’ seemed grim and hard to imagine. My daughters were 12 and 14. I knew on that day as I watched them come home from school, that their lives had changed. Forever. 2001 began a time of war and fear in our country – faded only somewhat into the hope and change promised to us in 2009.  Things seemed so bright. There was hope again.

Six years we have walked this path with the first black president in our country’s history.  We have seen polarization and stagnation – and yes, we have seen change, and progress. Healthcare. Immigration. Employment. Yesterday we watched as same-sex marriage become the law of the land – and in a moment of glory and grace it became – just – “Marriage”.

We have watched our President age and turn grey. The memory of that promised hope has tinged grey, too.  But he has moved beyond hope. As legacy looms in his mind and for history, he has moved the conversation along and called upon ‘grace’.  He says he’s fearless now. He carries this new state of being with him, as he carries forth with a song from deep inside. He’s making new memories. With new words. Grace. Fearless. Legacy. He says he would have been a better president – today – than he was. Self-awareness is not lacking here.

520976963_295x166But what can we learn? Have we learned that “hope and change” is not a plan? Do we need to conjure up some grace to lead ourselves along? And, if we can conjure up being fearless…think what we might do? Legacy looms closer at my age. The older-agers that 20 year olds grow weary of having around, are so important to moving hope and change along. The young-invincibles with a lifetime ahead of them, with things we need in this country – spark, energy, new ideas, and yes, hope.  But fear stalks the young. It limits them. It holds them back. Fear of speaking out. Of repercussions. Of loss of friends, colleagues, or opportunities. Of career short-circuiting. Of brass-ring missing.

But with the legacy years comes a sense of fearlessness. And that is power. Yes, it’s time to perfect the chocolate chip cookies – to be remembered forever for.  And to try for that hole in one.  But let’s not drift away too far. Together, wrapped in hope, wrapped by grace, together, think what memories we could make. Think what legacies there could be, not just for us as people, but for these United States.

We are every one of those 50 shades of grey…

Yes, I’ve seen the movie and bought and read all the books. I am 50 Shades of Grey literate. I watched the live debut in London yesterday afternoon, on the internet, complete with the red carpet walk, and interviews with the producer and the writer who said she never dreamed she would be at a debut of a movie made from her books.

I thought the movie would not live up to the books, such as they are.  Regardless of the success, or not, of the movie, the success of the books cannot be denied – if you judge success on books sold and money made.  100 million women anticipated to have read it.  The formula these days seems to be in writing trilogies and in something that lends itself well to images, blogs, and social media – to hype the hype.  50 Shades has all of this.  The book – as in any book – brings images to mind. Images that are as private as the image of each of us reading the book – in our easy chairs, in bed, late at night, on our computers, or ipads, hidden in our offices, or even reading on our cell phones, if we didn’t want to have the book in the house.

As the movie has come closer to opening, we hear a variety of words – anticipatory giggles, “when are you going”, “are you going with your husband”, “…with your boyfriend”, or “with the girls”?  We hear angry words, mainly from women.  Women talking about violence towards women, disrespect, abuse, and challenging each other to boycott the movie on behalf of the cause of feminism.  Or we hear psychologists talk about the damage it will cause to young girls.  We hear little from men.  They say it’s a chick flick. And they don’t know what it’s about.

The Valentine’s Day opening was moved to the 13th, so ladies could go with their lady friends and still have their date nights on the 14th.  Would couples attend together?  Would there be giggles?  Shifting in one’s seat?  Sighs of mutual acknowledgement? Nods to each other when we leave the theater?  Rushes to our cars?  Would we post our thoughts on Facebook? Or would we be as quiet as we were in the private time when we read the book?  Alone with our thoughts.  With our ponderings. With a smattering of confusion.1423712148300The theater was filled.  Mainly women, but a few with male dates, too.  We began with quiet applause, as if we had all been waiting a very long time in our lives.  Popcorn at the ready, we snuggle down.  Women in sweat pants and comfy clothes, no dress-up needed. There is humor in this film.  Mainly it is comedic timing and natural instinct by Dakota Johnson.  Jamie Dornan does not meet our expectations of Mr. Grey as neatly.  How could any actor meet what each of us had imagined and created in our own minds?  A little too slim.  Curling up of the upper lip makes him always appear as about to giggle. Shoulders not broad enough. Though his hands are striking, and brought about an audible gasp from the audience as he clasped a table edge.

In my opinion, the movie is not about BDSM or violence against women.  Or degradation. Or disrespect.  It simply isn’t about any of that.  It is about the fantasy.  The fantasy of what women – mainly older women – might think about – sometimes.  Maybe it’s even an offering of a fantastical thought, should the woman have run fresh out of them. The exploitations that may roll around in one’s mind, while the reality of acting upon any of it would equal the chagrin of a couple watching mid-core porn in a hotel room. Really, honey? But we might think about it. We might.

So, just what is the appeal of all of this experimental sex?  What were the sexiest moments?  Were they the riding crop, or were they by the piano listening to him play a haunting melody?  Were they the necktie around her wrists, or were they taking her up on an air glider, a day completely planned by him, from beginning to end?

bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky-affair-ftrAs I sit writing this I am listening to some “national expert” talking about the grave damage this movie will do to young girls….and I think about Bill Clinton and his declaration of “I did not have sex with that woman”.  I think about how oral sex replaced intercourse by definition for young girls in an instant.  And how a “goodnight, I had a nice time” with a kiss, became lost to the acceptable act of quick oral sex.  One sided, I would add.  How has HPV been spread exponentially?  By young people – men & women – believing an STD could not be spread this way. Because this is not sex.  The president said so.  Talk to young women today.  The sexual act, for many of them, is about their performance with their man.  Not about receiving pleasure, or sexual skill of their partner.  It is yet another giving act – much like making dinner, and doing the laundry. And if the money equation is tipped on the male’s side, even more.

50 Shades of Grey is fantasy.  Speaking as a feminist, I believe men probably don’t get it (nor will they take the time to read or watch), so we need to tell them how we are feeling about it.  It is not the black and white of sexual pleasure.  It is the grey of our lives, of our minds, of our exhaustion.  It is the grey of our feelings – of what might be, or could have been.  It is a lifetime of fairy princesses and handsome princes, with broken promises for our lives, watched when we were very young. To be followed next by Donna Reed and Lucy and Laura & Dick Van Dyke. We have the ‘right’ to equal pay and our careers.  Yet our “before” lives and responsibilities remain largely intact, too; just with more stacked upon it, very little removed or replaced. Many of us do all of this while also being the sandwiched caretakers of our aging parents. And still we hear we aren’t doing enough and that we need to “lean in” and do more. Be more.

1246217_1373593008227_fullThe fantasy is freedom. It is putting our shoulders down and not worrying about what is for dinner or the buying and cooking of it, or where we will go if we go out (pick the restaurant, arrange for the babysitter, get the concert tickets, call the friends).  It’s not worrying about buying our own car, or servicing it. Or paying all the bills.  It’s not even thinking about what we will wear.  It’s about looking good, being fit, being healthy, being taken care of. It is a fantasy of release.

But as the books and the movies are clear to reveal, the control in this fantasy is always the woman’s.  She realizes it herself, half way through. Nothing is done to her she has not consented to, or actually asked for.  Her inquisitiveness did take her a little too far, but sometimes that happens with a safe situation and a mind free to wander.

This movie is not for the young, and certainly not for tweens.  Much damage has already been done by an ex-President, and what we watch on our televisions every day. Sex mixed with violence is power.  Not sex.  50 Shades of Grey is none of those things.  It is mature content, for a mature life.  It is a gentle, ‘what if’. It is not a blonde princess spinning on the ice singing about her true love. It is, however, fodder for conversation between couples about that private part of their lives.

765d00dde9d4099d_reese-on-setThe fact that this movie is about to enjoy success at a time when the popular movies are showing some of our more famous female actresses at their worst – no makeup, abused, beaten, raped, going through physical challenges, etc. is an interesting coincidence.  This time, we seem to want another fantasy. In the yin and yang of life, this time we want to be the woman offered an easier life, love, and consensually great sex (and of course we want control).  But sometimes we also want to be seen as the woman who has been torn to the ground and has risen again, scathed and damaged, but alive, and the wiser for it, too. A survivor.

We are a complicated hot mess. We are not black and white.  We’ve earned every one of those fifty shades of grey.

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“We” are not amused…

It is almost a knee jerk reaction.  I hear a politician tell us “I need you to…” or “I will be asking for this in my budget…” and I’ve already had a gut reaction to the start of the sentence, such that I really don’t hear what comes after that.  I imagine myself on that podium, saying that sentence.  And I realize that the word I would be so hard for me to utter.  In writing, yes, I can use it.  But in speaking?  To a group?  No, I just sticks in my throat.  But why?

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Linguistically, there is the use of the royal “we”.  First, made famous by Queen Victoria when a vulgar joke was told in her presence. When she replied, “we are not amused”, she “clearly intended to speak on behalf of the other ladies whom she knew were equally offended.” Later, used by royalty to note the collective body of a politically organized nation – most commonly used as a term of separation – them and those – we and they – the intelligentsia and the peasants.

The use of pronouns such as I and we are called functional words.  When used by politicians, the choice can mean the difference between claiming authority and creating community.

There are even studies done about one’s mental state and the use of these functional words.  More people who are suffering from depression use I as opposed to we or they.  Kind of fascinating.

Having spent almost an entire career in the world of nonprofits, I learned quickly that the use of we was, indeed, to build community. And not at all spoken like the “royal we”.  What seemed so odd, at first, became rote.  “We hope you will…we ask you…we thank you.”  Sometimes I felt almost like turning around to see who else was standing there with me.  Never the bolder use of I.  Never as though the individual, the staff member, even existed, except as a title of function, certainly not a separate person. What mattered was the greater good, the cause.

I would like you to donate a major gift towards research.” Imagine! “I would like you to?”  “We need you to donate a major gift towards research.”  OK, but who is the we?  The we is you – and me – and collectively, all of us.

So, staff were in the background, writing the words, designing the photo opp, poised with conductor’s baton, or wind up key, if you will.  It was an adjustment – to deny one’s self – personality – personae – to become invisible.  But soon I came to understand the benefit of this group-being. So, for 20 years I was on behalf of and quite content in that role.  It was deemed to be a best practice of success for a nonprofit.

Today, the role of staff in a nonprofit is quite different.  Today the staff member is often front and center.  Someone whose life has never been touched by the disease du jour is speaking at a podium about the tragedies of some type of cancer they’ve never had.  Often, the volunteers or ‘survivors’ are right there, and willing to speak, but they are not invited to do so.  It is the staff member’s job now.  One they may truly love and be dedicated to.  But one with distance built all around it. Between community – and cause.

All this goes through my mind when I hear the word I spoken by an elected official, over and over again.  What is the purpose?  It must be to reinforce one’s role of power, surely not to build a sense of community – not to sing kumbaya with the people at all.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vo9AH4vG2wA

I think about the organization I worked for and how the tagline, or slogan, it used, changed over the years, reflecting part of this new word order. “We’re fighting for your life.”  Outwardly focused. Inclusive. Involving. Engaging.  “I’M not fighting for your life.  YOU are not fighting…WE are fighting.”  Kumbaya. Exponential engagement!

Today, that slogan has morphed to several others, with degrees of warm and fuzzy. “Learn and Live”  (don’t listen to me and you’ll find out for yourself);  “Your Life is in Your Hands” (it’s up to you, do what you want, you know what you need to do)’ and, today, “Life is Why”. (we’re tired of giving you all the reasons why – you should know why by now).

We have made today’s politicians into caricatures of themselves.  The media has done that.  And we expect it now.  We tweet about the color of the Governor’s jacket and how her hair looked on any one day.  Our obsessiveness would lead one to believe that we have relegated them to use the “royal we”, yet we have created a new level beyond that. Today politicians ask us to do things, to support things, in first person.  I need you to do this.  There is leadership in that, and a sense of authority, but I suggest there is no sense of community or coalition building.

If I were the speech writer I would reserve the authoritarian use of “I” for select moments of crisis.  Rather, I would bring back the royal we, the friendlier we.  For, “it’s all in our backyard”, isn’t it?  It’s not your backyard, or my backyard, it’s ours.  How might we all better respond if we brought back the use of the plural personal pronoun?  Just as your mother saved the use of your middle name for “those times” when obedience meant right now, and no discussion, politicians might command a more communal sense of engagement with the use of we, forgoing the assertive first person singular pronoun for crisis and woe, for that time when “we are not amused”.

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50 years ago it was Kitty Genovese who couldn’t breathe…

As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.

Do you remember Kitty? 

Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help.  Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid.  Yet, no one did.

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The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country.  Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.

While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology.  I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”.  How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would?  How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?

We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes.  We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment.  Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.

The collective brain often rules.

The study of this has led to some good things.  It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”.  How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911”!   Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so.  New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order.  “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!”  What did this do?  It charged the specific person with a specific action.  The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective.  Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.

How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?

We know his name.

Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics.  All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day.  And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo.  The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.

Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold.  But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric.  Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?”  Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’.  Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.

What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question.  It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.

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Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him.  Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?

The overlay of race and poverty.

Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course.  Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining.  We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?

“I can’t breathe!”

There were lots of people around Eric.  Lots of people cried out.  But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear.  They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter.  They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!

“We have met the ‘enemy’ and he is us.” – The Parent/Teacher Rift

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The assistant principal of the J.F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick, Subhash Chander, wrote a commentary in the Providence Journal, which ran on September 13th entitled, “Parents must do more than just buy school supplies”.  At first read, I thought – absolutely – excellent points. Well said. But then I noticed the one-sided view that this principal chose to use in addressing parents. And I could actually see a finger waving back and forth, admonishing me, the parent. I started to remember my experiences in my encounters with teachers over the years, when I would ask questions, or suggest something. That awful, tenuous, careful push-pull feel of it all.

Like a presidential rebuttal I feel compelled to respond and ask this of Ms. Chander, “what is a teacher’s responsibility”? And not to plagiarize in any way, I’ll use some of her own phrases. As an administrator are you focusing first and foremost on reinforcing with your teachers, what it takes “to be ready for the school year”?

When sentences begin with, “To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest….” you’ve already lost the ‘we’re a team’ point.

My children are in their mid 20s now. They were educating in public schools in the Cranston school system. They went on to public university education, then beyond to advanced degrees. They have good jobs, here in RI.

No, I was never a helicopter parent. But, I was always ‘there’ – for events, concerts, parent teacher meetings, etc. I even had a strange few years on the PTO. I looked at homework assignments, provided a good dinner and study time at home, pulled back on extra curricular activities when I could see that was interfering. I did the dreaded dioramas and helped in the equally dreaded poster board presentations. I struggled to understand the new rubrics. I agreed to let my kindergartener not worry about mispronouncing words, as the new reading methods didn’t are about that (don’t ask about a 20-something’s pronunciation faux pas, to this day). I gave up on the old math of memorizing “times tables” to the new math (have you gone to a farmer’s market and watched the young people struggle to make change from a $10 when you have spent $5.71 – watch it – it’s the “new math”). That “better way” of doing math far exceeded my ability to understand and keep up at some point around middle school.

They excelled academically and are thriving as individuals. Given a poor teacher year or a year fraught with unresolved school issues, they managed to get through pretty much on their own resolve.

My visits to the schools were few. But they were almost never well received; my requests never greeted with openness and a ‘spirit of cooperation’. Teachers were unavailable, unaccommodating, wouldn’t look you in the eye, didn’t return phone calls, for the most part. Of course, there were a few outstanding gems, to be remembered for a lifetime.

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This principal writes, “To Parents: the least you can do is take an interest in your child’s education” – let me write this: “To Teachers: please take an interest in your student’s life”. Talk to them. Ask them on a daily basis what they do outside of school. Ask them what’s important to them. Don’t ever assume they have all the support they need for academic excellence. Ask them if they need extra help. In talking to your student, please let them know that you will stay in touch with mom and dad. And do it. And when you talk to the parents, do so in a friendly and inviting way – do not stop maintaining those connections, even if you find parents are very busy and may not have the time to talk to you when you can talk to them. After all, these days, it is easy to stay in touch with parents using electronic media.

Always remember that you are accountable. And that teaching effectively is your primary responsibility – and you will be reviewed on your performance. I have no doubt that you are busy and overworked and under resourced.

Think of ways to welcome parents to your classroom – establish a hotline if that works well for you. Teach your students to respect education and of course the people who teach them every day. Provide an environment in the classroom that fosters respect for all people. Show your students that you respect their parents, too. Never disparage your student’s parents, or home situation in front of your student.

As teachers it is imperative that you share your student’s educational journey not only as “the teacher”, but also as “a person”. Let your students feel that you are their best support in education. Encourage them to discuss anything with you, that they don’t need to hide the fact that they may need something they are not getting in the classroom or at home; let them know you are right there for them. Create an environment of open discussion around topics related to education. Create that environment with your students’ parents, too.

Yes, “children who are ready to learn are easiest to each.” Remember, parents who are welcomed and know what they can do to help can be your best advocates. Know that some parents will fail their children, and be ready to help support these young people as best you can; it is not their fault. Nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a promising future for your student through education. After all, this is why you chose to do this for a living.

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Here is the link to the original op ed, and it is printed in its entirety, below…

http://www.providencejournal.com/opinion/commentary/20140913-subhash-chander-parents-must-do-more-than-just-buy-school-supplies.ece

The back-to-school frenzy is over and schools have finally opened. Kids have gotten their wish lists taken care of and parents have spent or overspent their budgets in their desire to get their children ready for the new school year. The students are back to the classrooms after a gap of almost three months and teachers are ready to roll out the new academic year.

Are the children ready for the school year?

This is a question that baffles all at the end of every long nonproductive vacation. What does it precisely mean to be ready for the school year?

Because few students faced serious intellectual challenges during vacation, the teachers are going to have to design remedial course work to prepare them for the curriculum. It is every teacher’s wish that the summer vacation would be devoted to some productive academic activities. During the summer break, learning invariably takes the back seat and a sizeable chunk of the year is devoted to unproductive activities only remotely related to education. Hence many students end up losing one-fourth of a year’s worth of education. Staying stagnant and inactive for three months, a child’s brain is sure to regress.

Do the parental responsibilities end with the provision of school supplies?

Education of children is a complex matter and cannot be entrusted to specialists alone. True, teachers are entrusted with this responsibility and paid for it. But children’s education is a joint responsibility of parents and teachers. Teachers cannot fulfill this responsibility singlehandedly.

The majority of the teachers do fulfill their professional obligations to the best of their abilities, but children spend a good part of the day at home or in their communities. That is where parents have a role to play. By doing little things, parents can make a significant contribution toward the success of their children in school.

To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest in your child’s education. It starts with talking to your children on a daily basis about whatever transpires at school every day. Never think that your children have grown up enough to handle their educational responsibilities on their own. The more involved you become in your child’s education, the more successful your child is going to be.

In talking to your child, please stress that you will stay connected with his or her teachers. No matter how unwelcome children find your visits to, or contacts with, school, do not stop maintaining those connections. These days, it is easy to stay in touch with the teachers using electronic media.

Always remember no one is more accountable for the education of your child than you as parents. You do not need to be a college graduate in order to help your child become a responsible student. All you need to remember is that education is important for all, and as parents it is your prime responsibility to continue to inculcate love of learning relentlessly.

I have no doubt that, as parents, you are busy ensuring the supply of things of daily needs and are quite hard-pressed for time. But please note that nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a more promising future for your children through education.

Thus you should establish a hotline with your child’s teachers, and help teachers feel comfortable communicating with you. Teach your children to respect education and the people who provide education to them. Respect for teachers is a cornerstone of successful education. Never disparage your child’s teachers in front of your child.

As parents, it is imperative that you share your child’s educational journey with them at a highly personal level. Let your children feel that you are their best support in education at home. Encourage them to discuss anything and everything with you as this way they will learn not to hide things from you. Create an environment of open discussion in the house around topics related to education.

Remember that children who are ready to learn are easiest to teach.

Subhash Chander is assistant principal of the J. F. Deering Middle School, in West Warwick. He is a former professor of English in India.