Monthly Archives: December, 2008

Snow Day

The night before the big storm everyone was at the Stop and Shop buying bread and milk. I picked up some beef and potatoes and carrots because my husband wanted to make stew. There was an 80% chance of unscheduled time off. I had hopes of curling up with a glass of wine while the snow swirled outside our little blizzard love nest.

On blizzard day I was in 1978 mode. I went to work at the office in North Providence, but I kept the radio on, sure we would get out of work early. And as I hoped, the owner, who had to drive home to Attleboro, decided to call it quits around lunch time. My cell phone rang, John needed more ingredients for the stew. I have vegetarian sympathies, but he thought this recipe needed more beef. Okay, he’s the chef. I’ll eat soyburgers tomorrow. You need your strength in a snowstorm.

I left the office, taking 146S toward Branch Avenue. It was an hour before the snow was scheduled to start–but the weather gods weren’t listening to the forecast. A flake drifted slowly to the ground, and then it was instant blizzard.

Because the roads were turning white, I cut my speed when I got off the highway. Because of the weather warnings traffic was light. That’s why I was able to see the woman walking over the highway bridge. She was wearing light shoes, slip-ons, and a skirt and a waterproof jacket. A boy walked alongside her. She stopped to pull the collar of his coat closed.

That did it for me. I pulled over and asked them if they wanted a ride. She accepted and they got in. They were going to the Stop and Shop to stock up before the storm, but they started too late and got caught in it. Maybe she was waiting on a check to arrive in the mail before she could get the groceries. Who knows?

Anyway, having decided to give them a ride to the market, I was committed to getting them home. They weren’t going to have an easier time with more snow and stuff to carry. They lived off Charles St. We agreed to meet by the exit, and I got busy shopping. Half of Providence had been there the previous night, the rest of us were there now. It was hard to find a cart. I got the stew beef, and a few staples like potato chips and ice cream and got in line at the checkout. There were a couple of guys ahead of me who were speaking a language I had never heard before. I had to ask them. They were from South Africa. Maybe they were speaking Xhosa. Everyone comes to Rhode Island. It’s the center of the universe.

I waited by the exit for a while before the woman and her son found me. She didn’t have a lot of bags, but it would have been a heavy load in the storm. The snow was blowing sideways now. We went out to my car, I put my bags on one side of the trunk, she put her’s on the other, so we would not mix them up.

She was a nice woman and very grateful for the ride. She told me that Jesus had arranged this. She knew God set it up, and I would be Blessed. She didn’t know that I was a Pagan, a Witch, a Unitarian, and an Atheist alternating with Agnostic (even and odd days).

I don’t know if I would be considered worthy of her charity, if she knew who I was. But she was absolutely right about one thing. This encounter was a blessing, and the grace was mutual.

I was blessed with a chance to follow my heart, my truest compass of right and wrong. It hurts to see need every day and feel helpless to make it right. It erodes the joy of life to have to shut out what is plainly there. It was a balm on my soul to be able to help. Step by step, a wise man said. You can only take one step at a time.

So I dropped the woman and her son off at their apartment, and drove slowly home. I made it back safely to my nice warm house.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is worth contemplating. If it were a story of virtuous charity it would be pretty bland, wouldn’t it? It’s actually a story about a virtuous man having to accept charity from a person he considered to be unacceptably ‘other’. And if someday I am lost and that woman, who I won’t recognize after all this time, or her son, offers me direction, I hope I will accept with grace.

Labor Dealt a Holiday Kick in the Teeth

These are tough times for labor, as indicated by the bailout deal being offered to US automakers by the government which requires major concessions from the unions including a reduction in their hourly pay so that their wages are the same as the wages for Nissan, Toyota and Honda. This post by Kevin Drum has a chart showing that the difference in wages is about $3 an hour — $29 for Ford, and $26 for the Japanese makers in the US. The bigger concessions will need to come from wage-related costs, benefits, and legacy costs.

My husband’s family is from Michigan — many of them worked for the GM plants. It’s hard not to feel afraid for the Michigan people and their economy when Chrysler announced that it will cease paying union workers for four weeks in January, leaving people to rely on unemployment payments and some supplementary payments from Chrysler. I don’t know about you, but January is when the big credit card bill comes due from the holidays, and even with belt-tightening, it would be hard to take a pay loss at that time. It means more debt for ordinary people.

On the brighter side, at least they are not announcing that they are closing down for good. It is disappointing, though, to hear that the new factory for building the Pontiac Volt is going to cease development – this was to be their entree into the electric car market.

The most shocking stat I’ve heard in a while: Chrysler sales dropped by 47% last month.

A Rose for Bettie Page

She was a victim, she was a survivor. She was trash, she was an American Icon. She was the dirty magazine under the mattress. She was a missionary of the Baptist Church. She wasn’t perfect. She was a woman trying to make it one day at a time.

Bettie Mae Page was born on April 22, 1923, in Nashville, one of six children. She and two sisters were sent to an orphanage after her father went to jail and her mother could not cope on her own. Page later described her father as “a sex fiend” who started sexually molesting her when she was 13.

She was smart and beautiful. She had good genes and the right stuff. But she was not born at the right time.

A strong student and debate team member at Hume-Fogg High School, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”. During her early years, the Page family traveled around the country in search of economic stability. As the salutatorian of her class,on June 6, 1940, Page graduated from high school with a scholarship and enrolled at George Peabody College with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying acting, hoping to become a movie star.

Remember that in those times a woman could be a teacher, a nurse, a nun, a secretary, a spinster, a wife, a whore, or a famous and admired actress. There were other options, but she would have had to cut her own path, and few of us are able to do that. The privilege of being able to be a woman in an ordinary job — mathematician, cab driver, convenience store manager — is not to be taken for granted. Bettie Page did not come from a place where her mind was respected, or her childhood was protected. Judge not.

Page, armed with an arts degree with Peabody College in Nashville, did her first modeling work in the 1940s after moving to San Francisco with the first of her three husbands. After they divorced in 1947, she pursued modeling in New York. Photos from a shoot with Miami photographer Bunny Yeager ended up in the pages of Playboy.

The layout featured Page winking at the camera wearing only a Santa hat as she decorated a Christmas tree. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner described it as “a milestone in the history of the magazine,” which he had founded less than two years earlier.

Later in life, Page was furious that Yeager made a fortune from the photos and never compensated her.

Decades later, a young woman in a more liberated time, Madonna Ciccone, would make sure she had the copyright.

Some American lawmakers were not as impressed with her modeling abilities. Page was served with a subpoena to appear before U.S. Senate investigators trying to discover a link between juvenile delinquency and pornography. Page never appeared. Soon after, she completely disappeared from the scene.

After two other brief marriages failed, Page battled acute schizophrenia beginning in the early 1970s.

‘Schizo — characterized by or involving cleavage’ — Webster’s dictionary. We used to call it a split personality. Could someone go crazy from the pressure of contrary demands? Imagine a woman who sold her soul before she knew what it was worth — who watched her ‘friends’ get rich while she ended up poor. And then a financial rescue from Hugh Hefner and some of the guys who hid her pictures under the mattress. She was an erotic fantasy, but unlucky in love. Three divorces. She was so alive, so carefree in her image, but she gave herself to a religion that promises salvation in exchange for your life, and fulfillment after you’re dead.

It’s amazing she survived as long as she did. She sold her young self at the going rate, but her mature self was not for sale. She didn’t allow herself to be photographed, though she was said to be a beautiful older woman with a gleam in her eye. She said she wanted to be remembered as she was when she was young. But maybe she had something precious in her maturity that she saved for those who loved her.

If there’s a heaven, Bettie Page, I hope you are there. You were no saint, but you never killed anyone. You never started a Pogrom or an Inquisition. That’s more than they can say for many of the Saints. And you might have despised me. But this bluestocking feminist only wants one thing. That women have choices. And that their choices be truly free.

Happy Endings?

In the debate on human trafficking in Rhode Island one point of view is conspicuously absent — that of the women concerned. Who are the women who live in the ‘spas’ advertised in the Providence Phoenix? Are they here illegally? Are they underage? Are they forced into prostitution? Tara Hurley spent three years interviewing spa workers, johns, police, politicians and activists. She takes you through the doors, covered with police association stickers, that lead into the spas. She says that her documentary film, ‘Happy Endings?’ is a tough sell because it offers no easy answers, and no one comes off looking good.

Human trafficking has been referred to as modern-day slavery. In the US and worldwide, women, men and children are tricked and coerced into working involuntarily in factories, farms, homes and brothels. This is fact, and a heinous violation of human rights. ‘Rescue and Restore’ is a viable strategy in these cases. But what is the strategy when the ‘victim’ is free to walk out the door?

On one side are the ‘New Abolitionists’ who see themselves as rescuers, on the other ‘Sex Workers’ who don’t acknowledge the damage that prostitution can do to women, children and communities.

“In a roundabout way, they’re being held against their will.” says ‘Greg’, an undercover police officer on the vice squad.

As Providence police Major Steve Campbell testifies, the women in the spas are adult, South Korean. Sometimes they are married to Americans, they are here legally.

They are here to make money.

“No one is forced to work.” says ‘Heather’, a spa owner who let Hurley interview her along with her American husband ‘Chris’.

“They’re here to make money.”, says ‘Jen’, a spa worker, with an angry contempt that even comes through the voice distorter, “What do you think? They want to have sex?”

“In your life, everybody’s for rent.” says Chris. He seems happy with this state of affairs. As the police lean harder on the spa, Chris becomes more powerful, wheeling and dealing, talking to his lawyer, getting the women released.

Heather goes to Boston for immigration hearings, seeking a green card that always seems just about to be granted– and always delayed. Her homesickness becomes more evident as the documentary unwinds. She seems to regret what her life has become. She arrived here single, 43 years old:

“I heard from the people I work with you could make a lot of money just by giving massages. I had just failed at operating my own business and I didn’t want to be a burden on my siblings. I could be brave because I was uninformed. I wasn’t planning on getting married, so I thought that would be the best solution for me… Many underwent working as a prostitute before becoming owners.”

The film takes a turn down lurid, neon-lit streets in Korea where the spa industry grew after Korea suffered a financial crash in the ’90′s. Lack of money creates desperation. And money becomes addictive. The women live in the spas, and can earn $18,000-$20,000 a month. And then lose it at Foxwoods. Compulsive gambling is common, and then they are back working off their gambling debts.

Jen, who appears in silhouette with her voice altered for anonymity, explains why she does it:

“There’s no fun, no babying. I want to make money so I can pay my bills. My kids…I’m single and I have two sons. There’s no life for me, and I don’t want a life for me. What’s good for my family. If I have to die, I am going to die for my family.”

There is a deep alienation. The alienation of the women from their own feelings. The language and culture difference that allows both prostitute and john to project their fantasies on each other. If Jen is harsh with herself, she has more contempt for the customers. They in turn can act out a racist fantasy of the submissive Asian woman. In any case, it’s all about money.

Is prostitution a victimless crime? Danielle tells how she lost $80,000 in a failed attempt to open a spa in a working class neighborhood. That was on a corner in Fox Point adjacent to an elementary school, a children’s library and the Fox Point Boys and Girls Club. Danielle seems not to want to understand why the Neighborhood Association did not want johns cruising their streets.

At one point Heather, who is truly hurt and frightened by a police raid on her business, says that it’s racial discrimination. But these women who live in their half-world don’t know how much hurt they are dishing out. Rhode Islanders don’t want our state to be a destination for sex tourists. As Rep. Joanne Giannini says in the film, “What a thing for Rhode Island to be known for!”

What to do? Hurley follows the spa raid in 2006 that led the National Council of Jewish Women to organize a community forum that drew more than 300 attendees. About 50 of them formed the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking. A year of work and lobbying brought the passage of a law against “Trafficking of Persons and Involuntary Servitude.” Which so far has changed nothing. The reconstituted Coalition is lobbying for the Federal Wilberforce Act, which they hope will be a more effective legal tool. But the dilemma still exists. How do you save people who don’t want to be saved without running over personal freedom? And how do you stop prostitution? Harsh laws have never done anything but drive the trade underground, and make it more dangerous.

As Danielle says of her gambling habit, but it could apply to her life — “You get lucky you win, but you lose more.”

Heather speaks though a Korean interpreter, seeking to explain herself, to reconcile her conscience with who she has become. She pursues her receding goal of enough money and a green card, and in the end loses everything. Meanwhile the spas multiply, women are picked up in raids, the johns walk.

“Happy Endings?” has no answers, but brings up better questions. It’s a film that gives a voice to a group of women who are much talked about, but seldom heard. With heart and objectivity, and with courage, Tara Hurley walked through the doors and let the women speak. We have to listen to them if we want to help. I hope that Tara Hurley will find a place to show her film.

To read Tara’s blog, follow the link here.

To see a trailer from the film, go here.

Pharmaceutical Enhancement for All

(Cross-posted from my private practice site at kierstenmarek.com)

Nature Magazine has a new article in which a group of scientists and ethicists lay out a platform for supporting the idea that healthy people can and should seek cognitive enhancement through whatever means necessary — including psychiatric drugs. From the article:

Many people have doubts about the moral status of enhancement drugs for reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical, including concerns about short-circuiting personal agency and undermining the value of human effort. Kass, for example, has written of the subtle but, in his view, important differences between human enhancement through biotechnology and through more traditional means. Such arguments have been persuasively rejected (for example, ref. 17). Three arguments against the use of cognitive enhancement by the healthy quickly bubble to the surface in most discussions: that it is cheating, that it is unnatural and that it amounts to drug abuse.

In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today’s allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.


As for an appeal to the ‘natural’, the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food — to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy — bear little relation to our species’ ‘natural’ state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?

As for enhancers’ status as drugs, drug abuse is a major social ill, and both medicinal and recreational drugs are regulated because of possible harms to the individual and society. But drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.

Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs.

I have written on Kmareka more extensively with concerns about the rapidly increasing use of psychiatric medication on children. While I have seen the benefits of medication use for children at times, I have also seen a full range of side effects including increased tolerance for the medications used, major medical problems, tics, sleep issues, growth issues, and more.

With adults, I think there is more room for accepting the idea that cognitive-enhancing use of medication is appropriate. Adults usually have a stronger sense of their baseline functioning and they are not as subject to developmental changes. But unlike the reasons for objecting to cognitive enhancements cited in the article (it’s cheating, it’s unnatural, and it amounts to drug abuse) my main concern remains that we do not know the long-term side effects of many of the drugs which are becoming more prevalent in their uses.

It comes down to what you consider to be a healthy level of caution when dealing with the unknown. Sometimes it seems like we’re playing with fire, but we humans have been known to enjoy playing with fire.

Domestic Bank Makes Amends with Charity

Since we covered the story of Domestic Bank’s problems with lending and mortgage-practice violations, it seems only fitting to also give coverage to the settlement for their wrongdoing. Domestic Bank will pay one million dollars in charitable contributions to support “financial literacy,” with money going to organizations as diverse as the Episcopal Charities of Rhode Island and Progreso Latino. More on the story is here at the Projo.

Pace to Seal Labor Deal Quickens in Cranston

With Mayor Napolitano about to exit office in three weeks, the Projo reports that he will be signing a major labor contract before he is done. This contract for the Laborers, of which there are 75 employed by the city, provides no raise for this year but 2.9% and 3% raises for year two and three of the contract. From the Projo:

Those raises are expected to cost $269,820, but Fung says he is more concerned with the timing of the deal and the fiscal uncertainties the city is facing. The approval would come just three weeks before he is sworn in, and Cranston — like many other communities — is bracing for cuts in non-school state aid and possibly other areas, including state aid to schools. At the same time, Cranston’s School Department is projecting a deficit as high as $10.8 million.

“We need to get more solid numbers before we ratify this agreement,� Fung said of the proposed pact with Local 1322 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I’d like the opportunity when I get into office to negotiate this contract, and all other contracts, with the financial health of the city in mind.�

[...]

Fung also objected to language that provides four hours of compensation, rather than the current three, for employees called in for overtime from Dec. 31 through March 1, and language that would leave employees hired before July 1, 1995, paying 12 percent of their health insurance premiums. Laborers hired after July 1, 1995, pay 20 percent. [full text]

While I’m pro-labor, I have to say that it seems the fairest thing to do right now is to let Allan Fung negotiate this contract. As our country and state face times of extreme financial uncertainty, we should be super-scrutinizing every possible promise of a raise. With the cuts from state and federal funding, the loss in tax revenue from lack of business and housing foreclosures, and the massive debt already incurred by our schools, it seems to me that the best we can probably do is to try not to lay people off over the next two to three years. The more raises we give, the likelier it is that more city workers will face lay-offs. People will lose their jobs. Services will be reduced. It’s that simple.

Obama Supports the Sit Down Strike

CHICAGO – President-elect Barack Obama is weighing in on behalf of workers staging a sit-in on the factory floor of their former Chicago employer to protest abruptly losing their jobs last week.

Obama told a news conference Sunday that Republic Windows and Doors should follow through on its commitments to the 200 workers, who say they won’t leave the plant until they are assured they’ll receive their severance and vacation pay. [link here]

Weirdly, this reminds me of an episode of the Three Stooges. Watching them in the 60′s was scary — three loud guys poking each other’s eyes. But over time I have cued into the context of their humor: Depression era fear turned into jokes. They even dissed Hitler — Harry Moses Horvitz was a mensch. The Stooges were always in trouble trying to get ahead, or even get their next meal. Check it out…

The Sitter-Downers
The Three Stooges are suitors who go on a sit down strike when their prospective father-in-law refuses to consent the marriages. The strike wins them fame and they receive numerous gifts including a lot and a prefabricated house. They win the strike and get married, but the wives decree no honeymoon until the house is built. The boys have some problems with the construction, especially since Curly burned up the plans. The eventually finish the house, a monstrosity that collapses when one post is accidentally moved.

What’s the point, you may ask. Don’t know, haven’t had my coffee yet. Random thoughts: Have we a New Deal on the horizon? A new Roosevelt, a new JFK? The support of the president-elect for workers is exciting. And change, if it is to happen, will have to come from us.

Tom Coderre Takes Big Role in State Senate

If you didn’t see the news in the Projo or at RI Future, Tom Coderre has been appointed chief-of-staff for incoming Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed. Tom is a fellow board member with me for the Rhode Island Center for Law and Public Policy and a tremendous advocate for recovery and improved mental health services for those struggling with addiction.

I look forward to continuing to work with Tom and wish him Godspeed as he takes the reins in his role as chief-of-staff. We are a state in some serious trouble, but with careful planning and research, and by valuing quality-of-life issues for working families, I believe we can get things headed in the right direction. Tom will be playing a big part in this exciting time of change.

Sunny Von Bulow

Did she die 28 years ago, or today?

I remember seeing groups of women standing outside the Providence courthouse, waiting for a glimpse of Claus Von Bulow. They were his fan club. They thought he was innocent, they thought that Sunny was the real villain.

I was just a girl on the bus home from work in a photolab, riding from downtown to South Main Street. The trial was pretty remote from anything I knew or cared about, but I thought it was weird that so many women had a crush on the accused.

I think they hated Sunny for her rich and idle life.

Now that I have cared for people in a coma, I think that if Von Bulow really did inject his wife with insulin, then he worse than killed her. But guilt was for the jury to decide, and they found him innocent.

What a terrible end, to spend 28 years dying by inches. Now she can rest. My sympathies to her children. For everything.

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