Monday, April 20, 2009

4/20, cool dude!

Fire it up, ready to go. It's 4/20 and the debate to legalize the stinky stuff is sparking up across the country. You might even say that support has been growing like a weed. Should smokin' doobie be part of our new green economy?

It would seem that for more and more people the answer is yes. Economists now estimate that depenalizing dope could save the country something like $7 billion in prevention and prison and even make another $7 billion if we tax all the toking. That's a lot of dime bags, baby. And these are not half baked ideas either. We are talking about a group of 500 economists, three of whom are Nobel laureates. See what they have to say for yourself here.

Besides the potential cash to be made from hash, marijuana could be put to medical use. A bit of chronic, as it were, for pain, cancer, glaucoma, MS and more. And what about recreational reefer? Well it's the usual argument, prohibition has proven not to stop people doing it. Is it more toxic than cigarettes? More dangerous than alcohol? When's the last time you saw a bunch of guys smoke-up and then pick a fight? According to the medical journal Lancet, "The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health." They go on to say that "it would be reasonable to judge cannabis less of a threat to health than alcohol or tobacco".

Okay, nobody is saying it's good for you and should replace Wheaties as the breakfast of champions (though it didn't seem to hurt Michael Phelps). It is a drug and it can cause bad things like bronchial irritation, cognitive impairment, accidents and bouts of the giggles. As such, it should be used very carefully, if at all, and only by responsible adults. Not for kids. So we shouldn't allow it to be advertised or anywhere near schools. But what about a puff for grandma who's eyes are tired after knitting? Or a toke for Mom and Dad on the weekend after mowing the lawn? Probably okay, right? So let's all lighten up a bit. It's cool, dude.


Health Care for America Now

I believe health care providers need to be given support in terms of research into which drug and treatment combinations are the most effective--research that is independent of any one pharmaceutical company. They also need to be given the time and freedom to treat their patients as people and to care for them, rather than being encouraged to give unnecessary but profitable tests or race through histories and physicals. Life and death are pre-existing conditions. Health care is a basic human need and the responsibility of any "civilized" society.

Support health care reform. Speak out. Vote.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Twittering away the hours

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You twitter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way...

[start message thread]
Jl: Nespee nespee nespee nespee

Kl: What's up random guy? No time?

Jl: I have new self imposed phone rules

Kl: But that don't include standards of quality?
Kl: About to jam with Nada Surf?

Jb: How did that end up happening?

Kl: Just lucky, I guess

Jb: Holy smokes you can say that again

Kl: Just lucky, I guess

Jb: I would expect nothing less
Kl: Let's stop by Hershe park on our way to Sasquatch.

Jl: Where is that?

Jb: What is Hershe park? A place or a band?

Kl: It's the sweetest place in the world.

Jb: Well who can say no to that?
Jb: Guess who gets to see Dr. Brian Greene lecture on the importance of science tomorrow?

Kl: Me?

Jb: Not unless you have plans to be at pierce college tomorrow. I do have an extra ticket if you decide to go though. :)

Kl: OMG, pierce through the fabric of the cosmos.

Jb: Word!
Dg: At your place - relaxing with a glass of wine. Have fund and don't rush or worry about me.

Kl: You always know just what to say.

[message forward]

Ko: Who's that?

Kl: My gf

Js: I'm so jealous!
Kl: Good times last night

Js: Indeed. Still jealous though

Ko: Haha, totally. Sorry for being the token lush.

Kl: You were token?

Ko: no.
Jl: Did u see the movie le haine?

Kl: Oui, La haine: ce n'est pas la chute qui compte, c'est l'atterrissage.

Jl: Arash ta mere

Kl: It's too late to lose the weight you use to need to throw around.

Jl: Sortie...
[end thread]

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tales from the 'Terp

In a few weeks I will start nurse practitioner school which will put an end to my career as freelance interpreter. "Have dictionary and unassuming JC Penney slacks and shirt, will travel," that's us. I've already taken down my website and packed away my hush puppies (you have to have white ones for nursing school), so the only thing left will be to contact the agencies and file away my resume with those from my other random and short lived careers as Safeway bag-boy, Tanglewood Island boat driver and resort hand, Park City waiter-cum-busboy, Rassias method French language drill instructor, Lycée Lakanal English assistant, financial journalist covering the MATIF (French futures market for financial instruments), customer service representative, away team member, trainer and auctions marketing specialist, and finally IPAC pharmaceutical translation agency assistant. Before adding my time as a 'terp to the "been there done that" file, I thought it would be interesting to share a few memories and thoughts of just what it is like to be a French interpreter in this beautifully broken city we call Brooklyn and the Big Apple.

I started by working for a translation and language service company that was listing on Craiglist. They specialize in voice over type recordings and medical interpreting. In fact, they have an exclusive contract with the New York Public Hospitals. So besides the people in Indiana waiting next to their phone, if there is medical interpreting to be done in the city, it's through them. Nobody at the agency spoke French, or at least to me, and besides the interview the only thing they had me do was take a test in English checking my knowledge of basic, and I mean basic, medical vocabulary. Scary, right? It kind of makes sense because most interpreters speak English as their second or third language so it's more important to test their English skills. Nevertheless, being able to pass a multiple choice test in your second language does not a good medical interpreter make.

Later on, the agency made all of us pay for and take this Bridging the Gap medical interpreting course. But to be honest, taking that remedial sort of repeat everything twice and underline the rest thrice type of class and meeting the other interpreters therein only made me question more whether I had truly found my calling. Were these my people? My colleagues? This, by the way, is about the same feeling of slight repulsion and intellectual/moral elitism that turned me off commercial auditions in acting.

My first medical interpreting job, well before having spent those invaluable interpreting course hours on a somnolent Saturday afternoon discussing the interpreter as cultural advocate etc., was at the Columbia Presbyterian Women's Clinic. A black, Muslim woman from West Africa had an appointment to be fitted with a stérilet or IUD. I remember being slightly nervous as this was my first real job, and it was so bizarre because here I was with someone who was of a different gender, religion, age and culture than me. Talk about bridging the gap!

So we are in the waiting room and I'm translating her sexual and medical history intake form. How many sexual partners have you had in your lifetime? What types of birth control do you practice? Have you ever had a sexually transmitted disease? Have you ever been sexually abused? You know, that type of thing. A little different from the French we used to analyze Proust in college or order a panini in Paris. I'm thinking to myself, this woman would surely be more comfortable if we had at least one thing in common, preferably gender. The next thing I know, I'm standing on the other side of a curtain telling her to relax, and how to identify the small string attached to the end of the IUD used for retrieval should the need arise.

It often happens that while I'm doing this thing, facilitating communication, cultural brokering, bridging the gap, IUD fitting, whatever you want to call it, the doctor or lawyer or whoever will be standing there telling me what a beautiful language French is and how much they loved their recent visit to the Versailles gardens. Oui, j'aime le stérilet. Donnez-moi le stérilet, s'il vous plaît. Que c'est beau!

The medical interpreting jobs are actually my favorite. In fact, those jobs combined with volunteering at the hospital and working as a standardized patient where you pretend to be sick and medical students practice giving you a history and physical, like on Seinfeld are what convinced me that I should apply to nursing school.

After a few months of the medical interpreting, some random voice over jobs and text translations (of which the most interesting was an extremely long and boring police report from the Hague for an international terrorist case), I got on with another agency that specialized in legal interpreting and had an exclusive contract with the Department of Education. Basically, they send me to schools and for EBTs or depositions, mostly for car accident type situations but sometimes for more exotic cases, like the French lighting designer who was being sued because a spotlight fell on someone during fashion week.

As far as schools jobs, there are discipline hearings, parent teacher conferences, PTA and board meetings, and finally, school closures. Attending a nice little private school in Tacoma, Washington does not prepare you for the New York public school system. People in suits from city hall (okay the DOE, but it's the same to most of these poor parents) swoop in to assure parents that their school isn't being closed, it's being phased out. Then they run over a few statistics and aphorisms and spend the rest of the time stonewalling the parents' real concerns, questions, fears and anger.

I'm in the corner with a headset doing simultaneous interpretation for anyone with earphones who needs French. Sometimes, if there are only a few people--and I've been to meetings where there are only four parents total--I will sit just behind or next to the French speakers and do what they call whispering. This has led to some funny situations where a parent turns to me and starts asking me questions or telling me how they just want their son or daughter to have a good education. At what point do you just steamroll ahead and continue interpreting, and at what point do you give up and start trying to listen to and talk to the parent? I usually gave up (if that is the correct perspective) pretty quickly and started trying to encourage them to talk to their teachers (in what language?) about how their children were doing and what they could do to help. How do you say "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" in French? Answer: les rouspéteurs obtiennent toujours satisfaction.

Maybe this was another sign that this wasn't the perfect career for me. The interpreter is supposed to be invisible, without opinion, behind the scenes (gulp!), a mere reflection of the interlocutors and their agendas.

I am called to interpret for several school closures. The craziest is a school right in the Upper West Side, so close to Central Park West and the swanky residences thereon that you would be surprised to find a 95% Black/Latino school, where 68% of the students come from Title 1 homes, 30% don't speak English and where only 33% of students graduate in four years and about half never graduate at all. This school has more security than an Israeli airport (I can't help this one off-topic rant: why is our airport security so reactionary, slow and ineffective? Someone tried to sneak a bomb in their shoes and we all take our shoes off. Someone tried to sneak explosives in liquid and we no longer are allowed to bring water bottles or toothpaste on the plane. If someone invents explosive underwear, we will all be flying naked. All we have to do is send someone from Homeland Security to Israel for a few weeks to see what real efficient and effective airport security looks like and the problem would be solved.) Anyway, back to this public school; I am not joking or exaggerating when I tell you that the school entrance has four metal detectors, two hand held detectors, two bag scanners and about twelve DOE security guards. I don't know about education (well actually I do, because the school is closing), but as far as security goes, no child is being left behind.

I've also interpreted for several standardized tests. We are talking about little 6th graders filling in ovals about science or reading comprehension. This is another situation where I have to remind myself of maintaining a professional code of conduct. The educator in me has a hard time sitting by while little Johnny is blindly copying out sentences from the reading passage and attaching them to phrases from the question. Why? That's what our teacher told us to do. Deontology gets left behind as I watch little Fatima start blindly adding and subtracting numbers from the word problem. Are you sure you don't want me to explain what the French word moyenne (average) means again?

Another interesting job is doing an IME or Independent Medical Examination. This is when you have an injury compensation claim and the government or insurance company wants to be sure that you are really injured or not before they give you money or before they cut you off. The examiner is a doctor who is not allowed to treat you, only examine you and fill out the necessary paperwork verifying that, yes, indeed you are or are not broken. After waiting for over an hour and a half with a very nice Haitian man, our IME lasts about 3 minutes. The doctor, who does nothing but IMEs all day long, ushers us in, asks two questions, tries to get my guy to touch his toes and then vaguely swings a reflex hammer at his leg (the patient hasn't even taken his jacket off, let alone his pants), all with one hand in his pocket. Nice.

Like many aspects of welfare and social support networks, I'm sure there is a certain amount of cheating and freeloading with injury claims. No system is perfect, right? But I can tell you that the vast majority of the people in that waiting room were poor, tired, huddled masses of lower income, marginalized, powerless members of society. To add to these crimes, they have literally broken their backs at their low paying jobs and now have to fight to prove it in order to receive medical treatment and support. I really would love the people who go off on the bleeding hearts and socialists to spend a few hours in an IME or foodstamp waiting room and then decide if scrapping for a couple hundred bucks of Wellfare is really such a cushy, free-ride for lazy people. It certainly doesn't encourage dignity or independence, but that has nothing to do with the pittance people are being given. Did you know that basic SSI in New York for an individual living alone is $761 and you get less if you live with someone or make any income. Could you live on that? This is not a free ride, it's a rundown, bumpy, unsanitary slide into depression.

That's it for the fun tales of moral 'terpitude; though I have to share one more story which seems to fit with this theme of big city life. As part of preparing to go back to school, I have to renew my CPR certification. The last time I took CPR was in high-school, so I was looking forward to a professional AHA certified experience, and this one would be specifically for medical professionals. True to form, the class is a little Hobroken. Okay, that's maybe more of Jersey thing than Brooklyn, but I think it works. Although we have the dummies to practice on, we spend most of the class fast forwarding through the DVD. Periodically the instructor hits pause to make a joke about how everyone in the video seems to cardiac arrest in or near or a hospital, share a story from back in his EMT days or emphasize that we really should remember this point because it's like the first question on the test and a lot of people seem to get it wrong. A couple of times he tells us not to bother getting down out of our chairs to practice the technique on the dummies because he doesn't want to tire us out. One kid arrives late, something like half way through the class. When he asks if he can still jump in, the instructor tells him no problem. As long as he passes the test. Now my memory of the CPR class I took in high-school was that we had to take a written test as well as perform CPR on the Ressucit-Annie in front of the instructor who is holding a pump behind his back to control the doll's pulse and everything. My two-year health care provider certification is achieved after watching a 30-minute video, practicing compressions for about two minutes and then filling out a multiple choice test, for which we have been well, well warned and prepped for.

Kind of like that first test I took to become a professional medical interpreter in the New York Public Hospitals... And so la boucle est bouclée, as the French say. We've come full circle or loop de loop, in other words. From the perspective of a soon to be former freelance French interpreter in New York, 'loopy' seems like the right word to describe it all. Le mot juste, quoi.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Putting the Capital in Punishment

Let's talk about one of America's most rapidly growing businesses. Maybe you've heard of it, it's a huge industrial complex and it's even recession proof. I'm not talking about health care, I'm talking about incarceration. You know, detention centers, correctional institutions, jail, lockups, the slammer. In fact, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, with less than 5% of the world's population and nearly 25% of its inmates. According to a recent study by the PEW center, 1 in 31 adults are now behind bars, on parole or on probation. The number gets even scarier when you add the amount of people being employed by the system. And this is another sector of society that we've allowed to be privatized. Sure, we say let's outsource it; we'll laissez-faire capitalism and the almighty bottom line sort things out. The market knows best. What could go wrong, right? Let me count the ways...

Of the many things that I think are wrong with our correctional system (like the fact that it doesn't do a whole lot of correcting), the one that I'm on about today is how we have let it fall prey to privatization. Ooh, scary word, could it be even scarier than the "n" word (nationalization)?

Let's imagine what might happen when people can make a profit from prisons... Some greedy old judge high up on his bench cuts a deal with the local prison provider to act as a head hunter. He'll guarantee a certain number of convicts per day and in exchange he gets a sum of cash left under his doormat. Maybe he can even offer preferential treatment in the bidding system, or for a little extra, a sweetheart deal giving exclusive incarceration rights to his new found pen pal...

And this goes on for how long? Let's say 7 or 8 years. Okay, I didn't make this up. It already happened, and was in the New York Times. Big surprise, there were actually two greedy judges getting kickbacks, and, yes it took seven years before Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan got caught. Now they're both going to jail. Oh yeah, did I mention that they were railroading juveniles? Shanghai some kids to your friend's jail which is overbilling and overcharging for it's services? Nice. How much is that worth? Probably 7 years in jail. The only remaining question for me is whose facility will they be doing time in and who will be profiting from it?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against making a buck. I just think there are a few things that should not be based on a profit model. It's the principal of principal. Incentives work too well, "where there's a will (or money), there's a way (to get it)". There is just too much at stake sometimes to risk using them, whatever efficiencies or innovations they attract.

There should be no financial incentive to killing people, for example. This is why we shouldn't outsource our army, and why we should be real careful about how we dole out our military contracts. Another example, I'm real wary of a hospital that is deciding what's best for me based on what's best for its bottom line. And then there's education: when schools compete, what happens to the kids in the losing school? I think it's the same thing for jails. Crime shouldn't pay, neither for the criminals nor for anyone else. Otherwise it becomes a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man type situation. You remember Ghostbusters. It's the self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people are paid to make prisoners and prisons, the more they will make prisoners and prisons. Is that the kind of incentive we want for our country?


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas... really should stay in Vegas. I recently went back for a second annual east-coast-west-coast reunion weekend. We had a ball, and you can see the highlight video in my blog's video box or on youtube. Drinking and gambling and stuffing your face with steaks and riding ATVs in the middle of the desert and the lights and the fake décors and breasts is fun, don't get me wrong, but there is no getting around the fact that Vegas is a crazy place and that being there as a sentient being you are sort of morally obliged to vacillate between states of extreme titillation and nausea, energy and exhaustion, winning and losing, control and addiction.

Vegas runs a Carnival atmosphere year-round, a Carnival that never leads to Lent. Or rather it's a very private form of Lent as you board your plane home and sink into a small row of seats to pray for redemption and better luck next time and a decent night's sleep in the next eight high altitude hours. Carnival has always been a reversal of rules, an important time when the poor can don masks and parade as the royal and powerful and the wealthy can do the reverse. And then everyone copulates in the streets, without regard to race, creed, color or blood alcohol level. It has traditionally, and perhaps in more spiritual and respectful forms, played an important escape valve function for many societies. It can be such a relief to blow off a little steam and not be yourself, in your skin, for a little while that we are happy to return to our problems and start daily life fresh again... even if that means being a servant to the fat guy on the hill with all the beans.

And so it is that after four days in Vegas (which is equivalent to like six days anywhere else if you count waking hours), I return home tired and happy to have gotten out alive. Yes, let me shove into a crowded subway car where everyone ignores each other and hides behind newspapers and ipods--at least they're not white-trash, wearing ridiculous clothes, staggering around and yelling things like "Who's the man? Who is the man!?!"

There is definitely something to be learned from poker. Sure some of the games are pure chance like roulette or slot machines, but playing them can be a lesson in the ups and downs, the cycles of life. Poker, particularly Hold'em, is a real interesting study in risk analysis. You can analyze the possibilities (how many cards or hands can beat mine), the people, the odds, the position on the table. People say that playing poker is all about bluffing, but that is so wrong. It's about playing the cards you are dealt, in the position you are in, with the people at your table, with the amount of money you have to the best of your ability. And that, without stretching it too much, is life. Whether you are getting a job, a house, or a date, you are going to have to do some risk taking, or at least risk assessment. Playing poker gives you some practice in assessing and taking risks. You learn not to put all your eggs in one basket, to play a strategy over time. May be you win some, may be you lose some, but hey get used to it, that's life. The one thing you can control is making the right moves that are right for you over the long haul, and you want to be in it for the long haul. It's great to splash the pot now and again for a little excitement and Shamwow! fun, but you want to be able to martial your resources so that you can stay at the table for as long as possible. It's another case of walking down the hill and... seeing some flops, my friends. So let's get stuck in there!

But I digress. Let's just say that I think you can really learn some valuable life lessons from playing some poker.

You definitely see a lot of different types of people in Vegas, but especially people who like free alcohol, bad entertainment, and the chance to win big. Maybe because of it's geographical location, there are a higher percentage of people from the midwest and maybe because they have the time and can afford to spend a little of their nest eggs, you see a fair number of older couples. Unfortunately, you don't find a lot of people displaying good taste, sensitivity, compassion or culture. This is definitely the downside of Vegas and the part that can get you a little depressed about this great land and people of ours.

The thing that really grosses me out is the excess. There is definitely this trend towards the cattle-ization or chattel-ization of people. First there are the omnipresent electric walkers, which reminds me of the movie Wall-E where everyone is overfed and overstimulated and confined to perambulating barka-loungers. Then there are the strap-on containers of alcohol. You actually see people stumbling around drunk out of their gourds, their eyes as large and glazed as any bovine with large containers of Margarita strapped and dangling from their necks like feeding troughs (I am modeling one at the top of the page--they also come in 3' Eiffel Towers!). Finally, there are the people who tether themselves to slot machines (see photo above). You get these cards on a bungee cord around your neck which automatically tally up your winnings and losings from the machines, and which cut out that whole annoying step of adding more money to the machine. To paraphrase Dean Wormer addressing the Delta house: "Tetanized, drunk and tethered to a slot machine is no way to go through life, son."