Monday, April 25, 2011

Something Wondrous for Your Monday

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fiscal Reform in Michigan: Lean and Mean

Apologies to readers on Google Reader, who may have a duplicate posting for the early part of this post. Blogger pulled a fast one and left me unable to edit the post. I had to publish it in order to recapture my editable text. Networked Blogs readers will get an error notice if they click on the prior version of this posting. And to Blogger: Grrrrrrrrrrrr! *stab* into the Blogger doll. ~ Marzie

(Image from:

As readers of my blog and Cynical Nymph's blog well know, the Comtesses, a group of women bloggers who share friendship and a love of Portlands, get fired up about all manner of topics. We have rapid email discussions about news items, blogs, books, films, clothes and accessories, our children, cats, dogs, James McAvoy (other actors or actresses are occasionally mentioned here, but let's be frank that The McAvoy dominates because of a minor obsession, excuse me, appreciation, on the part of one Comtesse). Usually we're pretty quiet on the weekends. [Redacted] and I will play Words With Friends, CN, Glam and I may exchanges photos of our kitties. CN and I might chat about books or corsets. Personal Failure doesn't always have much chance for exchanges on the weekends and so we keep it pretty low key. Unless we read something that is so objectionable it can't wait until Monday morning. Some like this, for instance:

Foster children would be allowed to get clothing only from second hand stores.

which was located by [Redacted] and forwarded to us late last night with the subject header "This makes me sad". It's also discussed over at Michigan Public Radio. (That bastion of elitist communism, that should be destroyed by cutting all congressional funding to Public Broadcasting Corporation/National Public Radio, because it is totes obvious that they are UnChristian and UnAmerican. So help me we had better destroy them just like those feckers at Planned Parenthood, who kill unborn babies and make it possible for people to have sex without getting pregnant, which is against God's will and especially denies us the ability to have an increasing number of taxpayers and consumers for... Oh, wait a minute... I digress)

Yeah, Michigan State Senator Bruce Caswell thinks that his state really needs to make sure that money in those clothing allowances for kids is spent on clothing, goddamit! Of course, the best way to do that is to make them buy used clothing at Salvation Army or Goodwill stores. Caswell's statement:

"I never had anything new," Caswell says. "I got all the hand-me-downs. And my dad, he did a lot of shopping at the Salvation Army, and his comment was -- and quite frankly it's true -- once you're out of the store and you walk down the street, nobody knows where you bought your clothes."

According to MPR, Gilda Jacobs, the CEO of Michigan's League for Human Services was rather dismayed.
"Honestly, I was flabbergasted," Jacobs says. "I really couldn't believe this. Because I think, gosh, is this where we've gone in  this state? I think that there’s the whole issue of dignity. You’re saying to somebody, you don’t deserve to go in and buy a new pair of gym shoes. You know, for a lot of foster kids, they already have so much stacked against them.”

I posted the link on my personal Facebook page and one of my American friends said: "Honestly, how do people think of these "solutions" in the first place?? And how do they have the balls to actually say them out loud?" (Hence the Picard image above...) A British friend, said "I'm sorry. I am having trouble stretching my head around this."

The Comteseses had a lot to say about Mr. Caswell's splendid plan, too. I'm giving you the short version.

Cynical Nymph: "This is awful.  I get wanting to make sure the money goes to clothes (which is what the bill is nominally about, according to some comments), but oh my word, this is just hateful."

Personal Failure: "fuck? we hate foster children now?  oh, right, poor and possibly brown. got it." 

CN: "Duh. Also, don't know if you knew, but thrift stores are renowned for having the bestest A'murr'cin bootstraps there ever were!"

PF: "they have, however, had all their pulling used up already."

Glam: "It makes me want to cry. :( (Once I got over my jag, I'd be ready to find that asshat and slap the taste out of his mouth.)"

PF: "at which point he'd forbid foster children from tasting things because he couldn't."

[Redacted]: "I'm with the commenter who said that guy gets paid with tax dollars, so I say he can only drive used cars and buy used office equipment. Stewardship, right?"

Well, I have to admit that I was pretty much dumbstruck by the whole thing. (I believe I said something along the lines of "Unfuckingbelievable"?) But you know, if evil foster children are misappropriating clothing money from the great state of Michigan... o_O  Although, in actuality, my mind sorta spun at the whole idea of finding the sizes that one might need for a given child in a thrift store, and how many thrift stores a foster parent might have to visit, especially since not all of them carry children's or youth sized clothing. (Visions of the challenge of squeezing Snow White's 34DDs into a prom dress bought in a Goodwill or Salvation Army that just happened to fit her and wow, made her feel like she was going to the prom just like any other kid in her high school, or fitting Tanya into anything regular sized because she's got that dwarfism thing going on, or hey, how's about underwear bought in these stores or what about shoes? I bet those shoes are gonna be all nicely broken in, in all the right spots. Because all kids have the same gait, right? And even if you found a pair that fit you and the heels were worn the opposite of the way you normally wear shoes, all that fuss about achy-ness from wearing the differently worn shoes is just... fuss! Poor feet are strong feet! Or they better be...) But then I started feeling excited for Mr. Caswell, because he is just so insightful about how to save his state money! His plan is so very clever and so many people, maybe even Paul Ryan (oooo! ahhhhh!), are going to be needing a lot of his time and assistance now that he's coming up with these great ideas! Yes, I was struck by how experienced Mr. Caswell is about buying clothing for children in a wide range of ages and sizes and needs in thrift stores. He's spent way more time looking than I have, clearly. As we all know, thrift stores have the widest selections and the best discounted prices for everything. Plenty of clothes that really suit all shapes and sizes and their stuff is always in almost new condition, so that yes, indeed, as you walk down the street, no one would know you bought your clothing looking like it was already worn or, um, I mean gently used, because that's all that they have in Salvation Army and Goodwill in Michigan, of course. And even if the clothes and shoes were looking a bit worn or faded, hey, people will probably just think you're poor, and really, if you're in foster care, you are poor, right? (One commenter on MPR, Lyttle_Bird, said : "The gift card idea wouldn't save the state any money" but it will sure keep those poor people from getting above themselves, won't it?" Has LB got it, or what?!) I'm also struck about how much Caswell understands the foster child experience. I'm sure he's been in lots of foster homes and spent oodles of time with children in care and that in his state, these children are just spoiled rotten, always getting overfed with the best food, having posh rooms and tons of things like all the other kids. Getting new clothes or shoes or undergarments on top of all that would just be the final straw that would ruin their characters by providing them with excess.

But Michigan has other fine plans in play to save their state money. Cynical Nymph came across this little gem, for instance, which led me to: 

Let me tell you, it is worth 9 minutes of your time to watch that report.

The successes of Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young (Pregnant) Women, and its demise caught the attention of E.D. Kain at Forbes. Among the stats for the school were a 90% graduation rate, and 100% chance of college admission for graduates, since it was a requirement for graduation that you be admitted to a college or university. Of course, such programs are expendable because the very last thing that Detroit needs are teenage moms who are getting an education and bettering themselves so they stand a chance of getting jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their children rather than subsist on public funds like the WIC. The letter-writing campaign and sit-in staged by the school really just show that this place needs to be closed down. Those teachers and especially the pregnant girls needed to be arrested. Who the heck did they think they were? Sure it's April and many were no doubt close to graduation, but they can just sort it all out, including their daycare options if needs be, later, okay?

Ferguson's successes, which might, on the face of it, look like something the Detroit Public School system would want to hold onto, made no difference to appointed Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, whose powers obviate the entire elected School Board's power to make decisions. (Elections = Pointless?) He decided the school was just as worthless as a whole bunch of other schools, evidently.

As Rachel Maddow's rather frightening report states, the idea of side-stepping democracy in poor areas is taking hold in Michigan. Maddow mentions the idea of dictators and it seems potentially hyperbolic.

Unless you start having more people like Bruce Caswell and Robert Bobb dictating. Because then, my friends, I think we are going to be looking at a very different America.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Bureaucratically Impaired"

Breaking Point
digitally modified from a photo of unknown attribution

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life-the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
-- Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, November 1, 1977.-Congressional Record, November 4, 1977, vol. 123, p. 37287.

Back on March 30, I almost resumed blogging. I awoke to something that made me really mad. It was an article in the Miami Herald stating that our shiny new Governor, Rick Scott, was planning to make up some budget deficits by invoking his emergency powers and cutting funding to the Agency for Persons with Disability by anywhere from 15 to 40%. As many readers of the blog know, I'm the permanent legal guardian of one of my former GAL youth, whom I'll call Marina. Marina will be turning 22 in June. She is severely autistic, mentally retarded and virtually nonverbal. She is completely dependent upon her caregivers for just about every aspect of her life you can think of. To say I have strong feelings about the 15% cut passed onto her Group Home providers at the beginning of April would have been the understatement of the year, possibly of the decade. In the race to see if his influence could be even more corrosive and damaging to the welfare of those most vulnerable, Rick Scott surged ahead, at least in my mind, of Paul Ryan, with his cavalier plan to save our state some money by reducing care of the most vulnerable, least vocal, non-voting (cynical much?) sector of Florida's population.

To say that there was wholesale panic in the service sector that provides for disabled children, youth and adults would be no exaggeration. There was a lot of negative press about it, too. Take for example the case of Behavioral Services of Brevard County, which closed for several days because they simply how no idea how they could cope with the 15% cut, which came after all the other cuts that happened under Charlie Crist's and Jeb Bush's administrations. APD Support Coordinators, APD Group Homeowners, parents and families of the disabled rallied and protested statewide. After two weeks of vehement protests on the part of those worried about this most vulnerable sector of Florida society, Scott has, possibly, succumbed. He announced on April 14 that he was rescinding his order.  I'd call it averting disaster, but hey, that's just me. And I'm not sure that I really believe he won't still find some back-door way to screw over the disabled in my state.

In the interest of trying to clarify just what Florida taxpayers hard-earned money is going for, I thought I would tell you more about Marina. She is not an exceptional case. In fact, I would have to say that she's probably a little too typical, sadly.

Marina came into the foster care system at age 14. Her parents, who are themselves cognitively and physically disabled, could no longer manage her care. She was removed by the Florida Department of Children and Families and her parents tearfully signed surrenders admitting that they could not provide for her needs. I came into Marina's life when she was 18 because her public school was making repeated calls to the Florida Abuse Hotline about their observations of neglect of care. My GAL supervisor requested first that I become Marina's Surrogate Parent in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, because Marina already had a GAL assigned to her case. But the GAL wasn't a MDCPS certified Surrogate Parent. A Surrogate Parent follows the educational interests of a child or youth who is dependent (a ward of the state) and who has no family member or foster parent that can or will fulfill the role of signing documents like the student's Individual Education Plan, requests for psychoeducational evaluations, and in general asking questions about whether the child's needs and educational best interests are being met. A good Surrogate Parent can make a huge difference in a child's education. They can keep the child from being expelled or inappropriately suspended by requesting Functional Assessment of Behavior evaluations, demanding Behavioral Intervention Plans, questioning implementation of those plans, and a variety of other things. Your arsenal, if you're a thorough SP, is knowledge of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and familiarity with a slew of different evaluation instruments like IQ tests and achievement or functional assessments and which are appropriately used to accurately determine a child's disability if one exists. The majority of children who enter the foster care system, especially in situations where the children are raised in foster care, have significant educational delays or learning disabilities. Whether they suffer from emotional/behavioral disabilities because of their social history, or whether they have significant learning impairments because of abuse and neglect on the part of a parent, I can think of only a handful of cases I've had as a GAL where the children did not have something going on that would require them to be in a special education setting. Even the one gifted child I've been the GAL for since 2005 had to repeat 3rd grade because he couldn't pass the reading portion of the FCAT. Though he was, after fighting with MDCPS like a Tiger Mother on my part, determined to be mathematically gifted. Anyway, Surrogate Parent = very important for child in foster care. Bad things happen to children in foster care when they have no educational oversight and foster care case managers cannot fulfill this function because it is a conflict of interest in my state.

When I entered Marina's life in 2007 I was puzzled by all the stuff that was flying around like a maelstrom around her. Her foster care management agency claimed they didn't know what was going on or what to do. She was residing in a behavioral-focused Agency for Persons With Disabilities Group Home that claimed she was a "very difficult consumer." (Consumer is what they call their residents in these homes- they are consumers of their services.) When I went to her school to meet with her Special Education Specialist, I felt like the maelstrom stopped. This quite polished and elegant woman sat me down in her dingy office on the cushionless, well-worn chair and had my rapt attention for over an hour as she took time to tell me of her, and of Marina's teacher's, concerns about the young woman. She was being sent to school on days she menstruated with no feminine products, often already soiled with menstrual blood, and in clothes that appeared to have been bought used and many sizes too large. She was aggressive, biting people or herself until she bled, wailing, grunting, crying, agitated, dirty, smelly, and in general, miserable. This woman and Marina's teacher had reported this to the Florida Abuse Hotline multiple times. The young woman I saw in the classroom was slumped over and almost non-responsive on her desk. Today, I was told, she had hardly been awake at all and now they thought she was being over-medicated. The teachers, several teachers, who came to talk to me told me that they had known her for years and knew her parents, who had surrendered her to the state and that the young woman had deteriorated in state custody terribly. I was, to say the least, shocked. First I was shocked that all these people in what was supposed to be this "F" rated school were taking all this time and trouble to talk to me when they were so busy and understaffed. But the stories they told me- of having to take her to shower her off because she was so filthy, of their getting school uniforms or food for her with their own money, left me utterly speechless. They suggested that I check out the Group Home she was living in and one of them broke confidentiality to tell me that two other young ladies who had been in the same home at their school had been removed from it by family members who said they found the conditions there unacceptable. I reported the whole thing to my supervisor and then met with the assigned GAL who was extremely reticent about doing an unannounced visit at Marina's Group Home. So... I went with her.

Entering this Group Home was sad thing. Marina was indeed the only "consumer" still living there, although the owner had several other homes that were not empty. It was passibly clean but dark, minimally furnished and Marina was in bed, on a Saturday afternoon, wearing the same clothes I'd seen her in the afternoon before at school. She smelled bad, wouldn't get up and rocked when we entered and tried to talk to her. Her well-intended GAL had had only baby or younger children cases before and had no idea of what to expect from a APD Home, or a severely developmentally disabled youth. But even she saw that this was not what to either expect or accept. The Group Home owner, who I later reported in part for the conditions in the home and in larger part for many other things, was short staffed and said the staff she had was frustrated. Marina wasn't being medicated consistently and clearly some of the staff that tended her just simply didn't care about her hygiene or much of anything else. But clearly the Group Homeowner didn't care, either. I took over the case as GAL in late 2007 and one of the first things I did was recommend we get Marina out of this home and into a better one. Her Case Manager concurred and said he thought he'd agree with any home that I could recommend. I interviewed several prospective providers with the assistance of a very helpful team at APD and settled on a home that was run by a woman who had worked at an aggregate care facility (that's wraparound residential, medical, dental, occupational, vocational and rehabilitations services for the disabled) in Miami, called the Community of Landmark. After closure of that facility in 2005 she had opened a series of group homes in Miami with staff drawn from the women and men she had worked with for decades. They offered a bright and airy home, a vast amount of experience, full staff, behavioral analyst services that appeared to be quite detailed, and recreational therapy that might help her lose weight or at least be fitter, since I was concerned about a family history of fairly serious diabetes and high blood pressure. They seemed confident they could help her have a better life, were willing to facilitate visits by her parents, who still cared about her and were so worried about her. At that point I was mostly just confident she would be safer and cleaner. 

This is the beginning of where the Florida taxpayer needs to really pay attention, okay? 

Marina moved over the Christmas holidays. She had to be taken to the emergency room within a day or two. Baker Acted because of a meltdown, because change is so hard for autistics? Oh no. No, not at all. The Group Homeowner called me and said she and her staff decided there was something wrong, that she was ill, that she was probably in pain. A staff member noted her urine was dark and didn't smell right. Always given to stress biting of her own wrist, Marina was having a field day on that wrist. But that was her only sign of adjustment issues to the new home: that she was biting herself. Where was the expected affect? She seemed really... flat. No, the GHowner told me resolutely, there was something about her affect that was just off. They didn't know her all that well, but they were pretty sure she wasn't comfortable. So the Group Homeowner insisted on taking her to the ER, even though she didn't have all the placement documentation for her yet. Good thing, too, because Marina, it turned out, had a fairly nasty urinary tract infection. What's reality of things when you're functioning with the intellectual capacity of a toddler? Do you learn to toilet on your own? Hmmm. Maybe not. But nor may you be happy lying or sitting in your own urine for long periods of time and getting cold and smelly. Because you can produce a lot of urine when you're 5' 6" tall. So maybe sometimes, you exhibit a little more control and hold it. But... wait a minute... if you're nonverbal, how do you tell someone you need to go? Hmmm. YOU DON'T. Then there was the whole business of the fact that she was doing a lot of... well, how graphic does my grown-up audience want me to be? See, just because you've got the intellectual capacity of a 2 year old doesn't mean that you don't have the hormonal drive of an 18 year old. Mother Nature, wow, she's got goals. So masturbation, including public masturbation and self-stimulatory behaviors of all sorts are really common in the disabled population that Marina exemplifies. And so is rectal digging. And really, when you put those three things together, it's not at all hard to see how you might get a urinary tract infection, is it?

Toileting habits is where we begin, people. Bathroom schedules. Staff that pays attention and makes notes. Staff that has experience reading non-verbal cues that indicate that a person may be in discomfort. Maybe you can't pay someone to care but you sure can pay someone to care for you. A myriad of changes ensued in Marina's life. Her hair, which had been a dirty, too tight-braided mess on top of a raw and irritated scalp, was washed and over the course of several days, so that she didn't end up in stimulatory overload and start biting herself or others, slapping herself or banging her head, was carefully re-braided. Clothes were bought with her social security funds, toenails were trimmed, fingernails clipped short so she couldn't scratch herself and, gasp!, painted a pink shade that seemed to make her smile. She went back to school in early January in new clothes, with a uniform shirt and with a sheet of contact numbers for Group Home staff members and changes of underwear and feminine sanitary products in her backpack. A more comfortable harness, required for her bus ride to school, was purchased. The staff slowly began to get to know Marina and inquired about her dental care (hadn't been to a dentist since 2006 and her teeth were thick with tartar) and whether maybe we could ask the dentist (since she'd have to be under sedation anyway for the exam and cleaning and any fillings) if he could round off her eye-teeth so she couldn't gouge quite so deeply into her wrist when she was agitated and biting. A wristband, just like those worn by tennis players, appeared on her wrist to cover the area and extras were sent in her backpack to school. She was moved to a bedroom with a big window, because she likes sunshine and looking out, whereas another young lady new in the home appeared to be agitated by windows and things going on outside. Anyway, a few weeks later, this is what was on the cover of the report I presented to my beloved Judge:

That was in early 2008. I eventually became Marina's permanent legal guardian, after promising her parents that she would be taken good care of, even after she was out of the Dependency Court's extended jurisdiction at age 19. Yesterday, Wednesday, I participated in what is called a QSI interview with someone from the APD at Marina's Group Home. The QSI, or Questionnaire for Situational Information, is where they capture what they call information about "your life and need for service and support." That's code for saying it's where they try to figure out if you need all this stuff they're paying your Group Home provider for providing to you. If you don't participate, you can be cut off from funding or at a minimum your funding can be sharply reduced. During the course of the interview it was first determined that Marina could not be interviewed herself (that nonverbal thing is such a drag....) and then that she:

  • Needs scheduled trips to the bathroom and hygiene assistance in the bathroom.
  • Needs assistance bathing herself safely.
  • Needs assistance dressing and prompting to remained appropriately dressed in public.
  • Needs assistance selecting and cooking food for her meals because is not able to do so safely herself.
  • Needs assistance feeding herself, both in the form of provision of smaller meals, especially at school, where she is likely to eat too quickly (choking risk) or too slowly (frustration when asked to transition and has not finished meal) and to not steal food that looks attractive from peers thereby putting herself at risk of harm from those peers. Also must have all food prepared in small bite-sized portions as she cannot use utensils other than a spoon.
  • Needs regular recreational activity to prevent further weight gain and to keep blood sugar in normal range and blood pressure low.
  • Needs redirection from self-injurious behaviors that include biting self, pica of her own stool, rectal digging, masturbation with objects, and hitting herself.
  • Needs constant supervision in any public location to prevent wandering.
  • Needs assistance managing her medications for aggressive behavior and anxiety.
  • Needs assistance for going to doctor for medication and overall health management.
  • Needs assistance for dental care because she must be fully sedated and needs watchful recovery time afterwards to prevent falling etc.
  • Needs careful monitoring because she appears to be unable to communicate in any clearly identifiable fashion when she is in pain or has any other needs, whatsoever.
  • Needs full-scale removal assistance in the event of a disaster.

Not surprisingly all of the above was deemed highest tier, around-the-clock care. I feel so lucky to have identified someone who can meet Marina's needs and so worried to think that maybe they may not be able to continue. Because the many good people who work in her home work hard for the six women living there. Paying people to provide that level of care does not come cheaply. 

Just look at that before and after photo again. Every day of her life 'before' led to what you see in that before picture. She communicated the only way she knew how about her misery- she hurt herself, she hurt others. She was Baker Acted a number of times because of her uncontrollable aggression, which I'm going to go out on a limb and call her justifiable outrage.

If Rick Scott had gotten his cuts, how many APD Group Homes would end up being like that first home that Marina was living in? 

I'm betting quite a few would.

❧ ❧ ❧

So Florida Taxpayer, here's your assignment. I want you to try to imagine that Marina doesn't have anyone to make sure she takes her bathroom breaks and how much her hospitalization for the ascending UTI that becomes a kidney infection might cost? Or what if she bites herself because she has pain from a UTI and gets a worse infection from that bite, like MRSA, that requires expensive care? Or what if she bites or otherwise injures a staff worker in an understaffed Group Home who then goes on disability leave because they can't work. What if she eats too fast and chokes and she deteriorates to an even lower level of functioning? Or what if someone takes their eyes off her and she simply wanders away when they are on an outing?

Yesterday, the APD worker conducting the QSI shared with me his story of a wandering disabled adult, the 38 year old son of a personal friend in the Tampa area. Someone took the man with them to pick up their child at a daycare. They left the man waiting in the car while they went inside to pick up the child. They came out, he was gone. The police searched to no avail. Everyone hoped he'd turn up. Two days later his body was found in a nearby lake. Apparently he had been attracted by the sparkling sunshine on the water. He did not know how to swim. I guess he wasn't getting the assistance he needed.

Dean Cannon, Florida's Speaker of the House, the man who thinks that uterus is an ugly word, is going to resume his drive on trying to limit reproductive choice in my state next week, evidently. I ask, for about the millionth time on this blog, why if life still in the womb is so damn sacred, life that is already here, in the form of dependent children, the disabled, the genuinely mentally ill or homeless is somehow counted as less sacred than a mere clump of cells in a uterus?

The disabled in my state have no voice other than that of those who try to provide care for them or who are willing to stand up and advocate for them. The truly decent people of this state, the ones with the real family values, for their fellow human family, are those like the teachers in Marina's school, spending time they don't have to safeguard her, or those at the Behavioral Services of Brevard, who were willing to take salary cuts of as much as 25% just to try to keep serving their clients who would otherwise be literally service-less. It's not about conservatives demanding that people take responsibility to pay for their own healthcare or disability needs nor is it about maintaining or creating tax cuts for Florida residents. But it is, most assuredly, about taking responsibility. And being willing to lead. Being willing to say that government does have a moral imperative to safeguard society's vulnerable members.

Decent and moral people of any reasonable financial wherewithal do not deny the disabled their duly needed care, Governor Scott. I hope that you've seen the light for real on the topic. But I, like so many others, am not holding my breath.

I just want to clarify here, since I'm a lover of thrift shops, in particular for kids, who outgrow things quickly, that Ms. XXXXX's version of "used" meant, badly used, as in worn, not clean and clearly not appropriate.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Palate Cleanser #150

My favorite tree at Fairchild...

I've photographed it about a hundred times but never get an image that does it justice. I really think it's part Ent.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Julie Dermansky's One Year Remembrance Album

Friday April 15th, 2011 Waveland, MS

Dead sea turtle on the beach in Waveland Mississippi,  painted red by the Institute for the Marine Mammal Studies so it wont be counted a second time, left on the beach until a crew comes to remove it. 

An unprecedented number of dead young  Kemp's Ridley and Loggerhead  sea turtles have washed up on the shores of Mississippi along the Gulf of Mexico starting almost a year after the BP oil spill. 

Test are being done on the high number of turtle and dolphin corpses found on the beaches but results have not been released. ~ Julie Dermansky

I got Julie Dermansky's Newletter this afternoon when I was sitting in the pediatrician's office with my son. It's really hot in Miami these days and I was drinking a too-sweet Sprite in one of those weird-shade-of-green plastic soda bottles that's made from petroleum. (For a refresher on what we make from petroleum, revisit this post. We might have one like it on things made from corn soon, btw.) Anyway, I opened her email on my little iPad and felt ill, sad and small. About an hour before, I'd just posted my Memo blog post below, saying I'd never forget Deepwater Horizon. But Julie's photos, her most recent blog post, and her recent additions to her Flickr photostream show that sadly, the ones who are not forgetting the most are the animals. And not just marine animals, either. Poisoned water works its way inland. Even terrestrial animals can't forget, if you look at that poor little armadillo in her flicker stream. 

I couldn't finish my soda. I looked at the bottle and all I could think was what price...? What is the real price of this plastic?

So much beauty has been lost to us with BP's Deepwater Horizon spill. Julie relentlessly documents it all. I am proud to help disseminate her work.

dead bird with blue feathers

Saturday April 16- Gulfport Mississippi

All images, and text captions, in this post: © Julie Dermansky, All Rights Reserved, Used With Permission

You can follow Julie's work at The Atlantic. She was in Egypt at Tahir Square in February. She also currently has an exhibit in New Orleans, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art featuring her work after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. You can see much more of her work at

Post text © Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Memorandum: Not forgotten, not planning to forget.

To President Obama, the US regulatory bodies involved, the US Congress, Florida Governor Rick Scott, the Florida Legislature and most of all to the Big Oil PACs:

I will NEVER forget the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, all the cheap cutting of corners and guidelines and the lies built into their safety plans that were not worth the paper they were printed on. I'm getting my Nissan Leaf in the Summer (been on order for a full year now!)  and I'm going to fuel it with hopefully safer-than-Fukushima nuclear generated power from Turkey Point.

So don't kid yourself into thinking that everyone has too short an attention span to remember what BP, Transocean, Halliburton did to the Gulf of Mexico and all our marine and wetland life a year ago.

Ain't happening.

All these beautiful images are Associated Press photos with clear attribution, used for educational purposes.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Poisoning the Well of Human Caring

If you're reading this on email, you may want to read the post below first, so you know what I'm referring to here.

Image credit: Empathic Perspectives (and I am so hoping this is photoshopped....)

I've had a lovely email from a reader. So, I'm clarifying, since I think email war might be  counterproductive, that yes, I am actually audacious enough to be saying that I think that poisoning trust, empathy and concern for your fellow humans among children and youth has the capacity to be more deleterious than being dead in the Japanese earthquake. Because when you're dead, you're dead. If you're dead, your suffering is at an end. Done deal, over and out. Of course, the people who are left behind, having lost homes and loved ones, suffer greatly. But will you trust non-profits and NGOs enough to donate to their cause?* What does large scale non-profit fraud of one agency do to your willingness to donate to another? Does predisposing young people to being distrustful and unwilling to contribute to a greater common good really have an effect? (I can tell you in ultra-small sample size,  what my 15 year old now thinks about his "wasted" total $20 donation to Pennies for Peace, his future likelihood of wanting to donate to non-profits and my sincere hope that he's non-representative but my firm suspicion that he's going to be quite representative and therefore my hope that you, my Reader, never have need of aid from this upcoming generation: "Why bother?")  Because when you suffer adversity, be it because of earthquakes or tsunamis or people bombing and marching into your country because it's been hijacked by religious militants who want to foment hatred, keep your women ignorant, treat them egregiously and in which you may endure all manner of ongoing suffering every single waking moment of your vastly-diminished-compared-to-other-cultures lifespan, you might want to think that someone, somewhere, would give enough of a damn about other people on this planet to offer a helping hand if they could spare a dime. Or, as it were, a penny. So, um, yeah. Harm potentially much greater when you teach your youth that it isn't worth trying to help their fellow man because the guy collecting funds is probably just a con artist, committing fraud. Which is part of the whole point of the piece. If you erode people's capacity to care or trust enough to help their fellow man, where will we all be?

As to how big a deal Greg Mortenson had become? Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and 2010 by members of Congress. Your president gave him $100,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize funds. Three Cups of Tea, Mortensen's first book and bestselling memoir, helped to found and raise $60M USD for the Central Asia Institute. Some of that money came from kids and schools. One of my GAL kids gave money because she thought it was "the Christian thing to do." (Like kids in foster care have money to burn???? “In 2009, schoolchildren donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace. But CAI’s total 2009 outlay for the things P4P is supposed to pay for—teachers’ salaries, student scholarships, school supplies, basic operating expenses—amounted to a paltry $612,000." - Jon Krakauer) People who could ill afford it gave to this cause. And they were burned. Money from those funds was evidently funneled directly into promoting Mortensen's books under the guise of such promotion being "outreach" and "fundraising". Some of that fundraising was travel, which required private jets, of course. ("In 2009 CAI spent more than $1 million to promote sales of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, and another $1.4 million to fly Mortenson around in chartered jets.” - Michelle Goldberg) Profits from the sales of the books do not go to the CAI, however. Did I mention Mortensen's nice spread in Bozeman yet? I'm sure you get the picture. 

Yes, he founded and supported, with his voice, a magnificent cause.

But let me tell you, if you read Krakauer's article, it also supported him.

Let us hope that the magnificent cause survives the storm. Because it will be a travesty if Greg Mortensen's future of possible fraud charges (a rolling stone, when sticky gathers moss) impacts the public's trust for programs like those that CAI has promoted and been strongly associated with. Actually, agencies that had partnered with CAI are reportedly fleeing the association.

Who can blame them?

And for the record, the Japan mention? That link was to the Global Giving Fund for Japan. But here's another one, for the Japanese Red Cross Society. So, um, how cynical and apathetic are you? You could donate if you're feeling so inclined.

Anyway, yeah, I'm cynical. But no, I'm not apathetic yet. I still believe in universal healthcare, food stamps for the hungry, better mental healthcare, support for persons with disabilities and educating girls as a means to better some of the most impoverished and adverse places on this planet. I still believe in otters, puppies and kittens, Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn and countless causes to aid people in some of the most difficult places to live on this planet.

In spite of my vast disappointment in Mortensen.

*I am not even going to get into the whole business of whether people are more willing to donate to causes in more Westernized countries like Japan than they are in Congo, Indonesia, Afghanistan or Haiti. Can't. Go. There. Right. Now.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Turns Out The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Pennies for Peace 
(Image credit: Amy Frost for The Oklahoma Daily)

"L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs" - Bernard of Clairvaux

Pennies for Peace? I've heard about that, you're saying? Sure you have. At your child's school, on the news... hey, you've even heard about it right here.

I'd told my stepmom and my husband a few weeks back that it was going to take a lot to get me out of my writer's block/depression/weariness with the woes of the world/anger at the US political scene/pain from arthritis in my hands and a herniated disc enough to post. The terrible destruction and nuclear problems in Japan didn't do it. The heinous flogging death of a 14 year old Bangladeshi rape victim at the hands of a Sharia-loving village that thought her an "adulterous woman" didn't do it. Ever charming Koran- and Torah-burning Reverend (and I use that term with no small derision, since there is so little to revere there) Terry Jones's actions instigating killing mobs didn't do it. No, the incendiary device was potentially bigger than those. Bigger because it involved killing a dream, and potentially killing the trust of millions of people, many of them children who will long remember that their first experience with philanthropy or altruism was all a sham. It was a sordid little tale of a man who encouraged children to give up their lunch money to help build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who traveled the world telling people that the way to end terrorism was to provide education to children, especially female children. A man who has evidently snookered children, politicians, the wealthy, the famous and who even got $100K of President Obama's Nobel money. What did he do with that money? Some of it when to schools and children, some of it went into empty buildings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of it went to fundraising ("outreach") and a whole lot of it went for travel and private jets and a fancy lifestyle.

How, you may ask, can I possibly compare what Greg Mortenson has done to the epic, raw disaster in Japan? How, I ask you, are we ever going to convince people who were so openly giving, and at such a young age, to look at anyone asking for help in quite the same light? Three Cups of Tea and Stones into School, along with the Pennies for Peace school charitable giving program have been presented in a compelling fashion at schools all over the country, if not all over the Western world. All with the idea of making young people look outside their world, beyond themselves and to give, even if modestly, to help other children. The damaging 60 Minutes episode on Mortenson, along with Jon Krakauer's even more damning 89 page document at Byliner are a veritable tsunami, with the potential to have wiped away a sense of altruism and the desire to make a difference, from millions and millions of children. Not just the children that gave are affected. Their peers who will see and hear how the children who gave were ripped off are, as well. They'll potentially think, like some freshly minted cynical teens I know, that none of it was worth it. That nothing much really changes anyway, so why bother to give at all? That people with a cause for good, in some far-flung corner of the world, are probably just liars and con artists. And then they start thinking about just spending their money on themselves. Before you know it, that whole idea of caring about others becomes a little more remote. Except, maybe when something is big and splashy about your trust getting burned, it's not such a little bit. (You can follow the yellow brick road to the place where maybe your tax money shouldn't help people who can't afford to pay for their own healthcare, or hey, why should you care about people who are disabled or homeless? Let their families take care of that. It's all about taking personal responsiblity, people!)

Ah, Mr. Greg, Mr. Greg... From the elaborate fabrications to the fraudulent financial statements to the fewer-than-claimed built, but then woefully unfunded and teacherless empty school buildings, it all just takes my breath away. (Just look at page 7 of Krakauer's article, with claims that Mortensen's charity Central Asia Institute has issued overtly fraudulent financial statements and that a former treasurer on the CAI's Board of Directors resigned saying "Greg regards CAI as his personal ATM." Unless you've read Mortenson's books, it probably wouldn't be worth it to recount some of Krakauer's interviews, including the particularly devastating interview with Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani Think Tank scholar, who was among those purported to be "Taliban kidnappers" who went on a congenial trip with Mortensen into Waziristan ('kidnappers' who, I might add, can present photos with him holding an AK-47 according to the 60 Minutes episode.)

As Krakauer notes in his Three Cups of Deceit, Greg Mortensen has done some good. He is (was? because I doubt we'll be seeing much of him from here on out...) a tireless advocate for girl's education. And yet he also says baldly that Mortenson has "recklessly betrayed (this) trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair." 

So what, you say, lots of charities commit fraud or exhibit appalling waste of funds. But you know what? Lots of charities don't go into schools all across America and tell kids that they should skip lunch and make a difference in the life of another child. And they don't have those kids sit down after Sunday dinner and watch 60 Minutes and have their trust so shaken.

Sure there are worse things than ruining the trust among young people, who will be facing a hard future with waning resources on this planet, negating their hope that someone will take their money and do the good they promised with it. No, the immediate risk is to the potential perception that organizations that aid learning for girls and young women, are not worth your giving. As Michelle Goldberg puts it, fraud by Mortensen raises doubts for all similar programs in the minds of the giver. And it's a tough economy in which to be asking people to give.

Goldberg reports Shalini Nataraj at the Global Fund for Women said, sadly, of the revelations about Mortensen “It raises cynicism about the role of nonprofits in general, because I think that all of us who are in this space now are going to have to prove ourselves or do that much more to re-engage with our public, especially those who are not already donors.” Adds New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, author of the empowering Half the Sky, said “It's probably true that advocates sometimes exaggerate how easy it is to help. But I worry that the latest round of sour news will leave people thinking it's almost impossible to help.”

Evidently I'm in good company, then, for wondering who will pick up the slack in the sector of educating Pakistani and Afghani girls. I contributed to CAI on a modest level (I'm sure Obama, Krakauer and quite a few others have way more to steam about.) And I sponsor Fatima, a 41 year old Afghani woman, married mother of 12, through Women for Women International. While I'm glad to think she will learn a trade and some financial skills and be eligible for a microloan, I'd like to think her daughters, as well as her sons, of course, might learn to read and write in Pashto. That just got a little bit less likely after Sunday night. It just got a bit harder.

The children of Pakistan and Afghanistan that were to have been helped by CAI, and those who might have been recipients of charitable contributions for their education to other organizations deserved so much better.

Mr. Mortenson, I would have been quite happy with modest truths to further your cause, similar to those you began with at the American Himalayan Foundation in 1994. And I, like Tom Hornbein, who as a true believer, was on the Board of CAI until he resigned in 2002, and Jon Krakauer, Barack Obama and so many others who were carried by the beauty of your mission, mourn the potential for loss of what that mission promised. Hornbein put it best in a note he wrote to Krakauer and with which Krakauer closes his article:

“My transcendent emotional feeling is grief for the loss
of what might have been,” Hornbein wrote. “Like you, I feel
as if I was stupidly conned, wanting to believe in the cause
and its value and Greg’s motivations. Part of me still wants
to believe that there was/is something sincere in what he was
setting about to do to change the world a bit for the better.
Another part of me is just downright angry at his irresponsibility
to the cause with which he was entrusted, the lives of
so many whom he sucked in and, in effect, spit out, and not
least Tara (his wife) and their kids and other loving bystanders to
the play…. I wish I understood the pathology that has compelled
the unending need to embellish the truth so flagrantly. With
one hand Greg has created something potentially beautiful
and caring (regardless of his motives). With the other he has 
murdered his creation by his duplicity.”

But then I guess that killing of dreams thing is a story as old as time, isn't it? Recently I was joking with the other Comtesses that Cynical Nymph was misnamed and that she ought to be something like Inspiring Nymph. I, on the other hand, have reached new depths of cynicism. Perhaps I should change the name of the blog to Cynical Crone?

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Palate Cleanser #149

And now for something completely different. A post! OMGosh A Post!

Spring Field

Photograph by Giuliano Mangani, My Shot
This Month in Photo of the Day: Nature and Weather Photos
The slim sun of February heats the ground waiting for the spring.

Rumors that I might return to blogging are probably gravely exaggerated but I might have a post up later.

palate cleanser concept © Bright Nepenthe, 2011