Thursday, December 30, 2010

Confronting the Nightmare Reflected in Jonathan Foster's Murder

Jonathan Foster was a 12-year-old boy living with his mother in Houston.  Two weeks ago, a family friend and her child moved in after the friend separated from her husband.  Last Friday, Jonathan stayed home alone while his mom and her new roommate both worked.  When his mother came home, he was gone.  Initially, it seemed like Jonathan might have run away from home, but on Tuesday his body was found, burnt, in a ditch.  An acquaintance of the roommate has been arrested and charged with his murder.

I can't imagine anyone reads a story like this and thinks anything positive.  This is not a feel good news story.  There are some of you out there who read this and think something like, "that's too bad" and move on.  There are others who read this and feel a punch in your stomach.  I am definitely of the latter category.

So, am I an inherently more sensitive person?  Am I morally superior because I notice and care?  Am I weaker, because I am more easily affected?  Is it a female thing?  I'll say it's "none of the above."

This story punches me in the gut for the simple reason that I have a 12-year-old child of my own.  Sometimes she stays home alone while I work.  We have gone over and over various safety rules for when she's alone, and I believe she follows them.  I also recognize, however, that Jonathan probably broke the one that's hardest to remember -- don't open the door for an unexpected visitor even if you know them.  Even if you know them.  It's easy to say in theory, but how may 12-year-olds would find it easy to keep the door closed if the neighbor, an aunt, or a family friend stopped by?  There's the rule, and then there's common courtesy.

I feel a punch in the gut because there is nothing in this story that makes me believe this could not happen to my family.  There is no, "I would never let my child do that" or "My child would never do that" for me to fall back on.  What separates my family from Jonathan Foster's family is depending on how you look at it, dumb luck or the fact that, as far as I know, I'm not acquainted with anyone who would kidnap and burn my child.  That I know of.  I'm sure Jonathan's mother thought the same thing.

Our minds are wired to look for patterns in stories like this.  We look for signals that can help us either know how to prevent such an incident from happening to us or can help convince us that it couldn't happen to us.  The punch in the gut isn't from being caring or sensitive or weak or female.  It's the result of the realization, conscious or not, that the signals, rather than protect or reassure us, are telling us we can't prevent this at all.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chilean Miners: Now Comes the Hard Part

Tonight, 33 Chilean miners are above ground for the first time in 69 days.  For two months, they have been living in a space the size of a one bedroom apartment, communicating via video hookup and receiving food and supplies via a small hole bored from the surface.  Doctors have been monitoring their physical and mental health during their extended ordeal.

As hard as it might be to imagine, getting out of the mine is probably a mixed blessing for these men.  First of all, this situation has caused some unexpected family problems for some of them -- at least one miner's wife was surprised to meet his girlfriend at the camp where family members have been waiting.  Second, the change to their living situation is just as radical going in this direction as it was going in the other direction.  There is going to be an odd type of culture shock.

For the last two months, as awful as the situation has been, the miners have had round the clock support from the surface and, most importantly, from each other.  They have managed to form their own mini-society, dividing up labor, creating shifts, and coming up with their own norms.  Whatever they were going through, they were going through it together.  They may have been miserable, but they knew they weren't alone, and their experiences were common to their group.

Now, they're out.  They're safe.  The uncertainty is over.  You would think that things would be  better for them.  Maybe they are.  But it's not that simple.  First of all, they are moving from being in a group that completely understood what they were experiencing to a group -- their family and community -- that can fundamentally never truly understand.  They're also moving from a context where their needs were everyone's sole focus to a context where they're expected to pay attention to other people.  As much as their family and friends are going to try to give them space, they're going to need to refocus on living, and that isn't going to be easy.

While they were underground, these miners were surviving.  That took up every minute of every day, and they learned to do it well.  But surviving is not the same thing as healing.  69 days ago these men almost died.  That would be traumatic enough.  They've lived with hope but not certainty of rescue for 69 days.  For 69 days, every day, something could go wrong and kill them.  Now, their safety is pretty much guaranteed.  Convincing their minds of that is going to take more than a little while longer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The World Isn't Coming to an End -- It's Only an #X24

If you were killing time on Twitter around noon Eastern Time today, you might well have gotten the impression that there was something big going on in California.  Shortly after noon, news filtered out of an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale near the Aleutian Trench, south of Alaska.  A tsunami warning was issued, and a few minutes later a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit California.  Then came the tsunami.  If you weren't paying close attention, you might have been alarmed, but none of it was real.  It's part of an exercise running today and tomorrow called Exercise24, or X24.

The purpose of X24 is to test the use of various tools on the Internet in the event of a major disaster.  X24 has been using Twitter (with the hashtag #X24 and clear warnings of "This is a test.  This is not real."  They have a page on Facebook.  They are using Google Docs to exchange requests for aid and match providers with requesters.  The idea is to see what works and what doesn't, and whether there are uses for social media and the Internet in such a situation that folks might not already have thought of.

Exercises like this one are used in emergency response organizations all over the world.  Sometimes they are simulated using actors to portray victims or criminals, and sometimes they are done entirely virtually, merely sitting around a table and talking through what should happen next.

The idea is that having a great plan is wonderful, but you won't really know if you have a great plan until you try to use it.  The problem is, if you need to use it, it's really too late to discover it's not all that wonderful.  In addition, being taught or trained how to do something in an emergency is different than actually doing it.  For example, if you had a choice between two surgeons with exactly the same education, one who had done your procedure five times this week and one who had only watched other people do it, who would you want?  Simulations also serve as inoculation training for first responders.  They introduce various traumatic possibilities to people in a relatively controlled way.  When a real emergency hits, there are fewer elements that the responders' brains have never encountered before.  This makes them more resistant to the effects of the trauma exposure, and more able to stay calm and do their jobs.

There are two truths about exercises like this.  Truth #1 is that something will happen or not happen during the exercise that no one, in all of their planning, ever thought about.  This is, in some sense, the entire point.  By running a drill, you can discover what is missing from your plan.  Truth #2 is that, no matter how extensive your drills are or how many you have, during an actual emergency something will happen that never happened during the drill.  There are, in turn, two reasons for this.  First, every emergency is different and you can't possibly simulate every possible scenario.  Second, people behave differently in an actual emergency than they do if they know it's just for practice.

X24 is an interesting exercise because it uses the Internet -- and hence the whole world -- to practice in.  The organizers should be cautious, however, in leaning too much on this exercise to answer specific questions about how the Internet would handle an emergency.  I strongly suspect that the number of people retweeting the #X24 tweets and posting information to Facebook, as well as looking for information on emergency and news sites, during the exercise is a tiny fraction of the number who would do so if an actual tsunami hit California.  You can tell from this exercise whether you can use Internet tools to share information, but until it actually happens we won't really know if those tools have enough capacity to make it a good idea.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

After the San Bruno Explosion, What are You Scared Of?

Thursday night, a giant explosion ripped through a neighborhood in San Bruno, California.  The blast and subsequent fire, apparently caused by a ruptured gas line, leveled 38 homes and killed at least 7 people.  Six more are missing. 

I don't know about you, but if you gave me an hour to list all the horrendous things that could happen to me I could come up with a pretty long list, but I doubt a gas explosion destroying my neighborhood would be on it.  It certainly wouldn't be on the top.  We all know, in the back of our minds, that there are certain things that could happen to us -- car accidents, homicide, natural disasters (different ones, depending on where you live) -- but there are other things that just don't make the list because they are so rare we don't know about them.  Gas leaks?  Sure.  Gas explosions?  Maybe.  The entire neighborhood detonating?  Not so much.

I'm not sure whether that makes the typical person's reaction to this better or worse, but it does make it different.  When we hear about, say, a horrible car accident that killed multiple people, it may make us more afraid to drive.  We may lose our own sense of safety on the road.  We may imagine what it would be like to be a family member getting that call, or to be on the road and witness or be involved in the crash.

Our reaction when something so bizarre happens is a little bit different.  Yes, we probably are more sensitive to the smell of gas or more careful not to leave the stove on.  We probably don't spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be in the incident itself, largely because we just can't.  Even once it's happened somewhere, our minds can't yet process fully how such an event would play out.

The most important difference is the quality and amount of fear we may feel.  When we hear about a car accident, if we feel afraid we feel afraid when we drive, or when our loved ones drive.  The fear is specific to the incident.  An extraordinary incident like the San Bruno explosion, however, can cause two different kinds of reactions:  either it seems so unlikely that even though it's happened it doesn't seem possible, or it seems so random that the entire world seems less safe.  Our fears, if we have them, are not specific to gas lines or even to sitting in our homes.  They are about something completely random coming out of nowhere and hurting us.  We don't react to the sudden discovery that a specific situation is not safe, we react to the discovery that the world is not safe.

Most of us experienced this kind of reaction nine years ago, after the 9-11 attacks.  The fear we felt and the reactions we had were not necessarily about flying or working in an office building or even about the type of person we presumed to be the terrorists.  It was fundamentally about the notion that a day could start as normally as that day did, and turn into such a nightmare without warning.  Our worldview was violated not because we used to think flying was safe and now it wasn't, but because we used to think that life was safe and we found out maybe we were wrong.  The people of San Bruno found that out again this week, and in some small way, so did the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Calm Under Fire at the Discovery Channel

Last week, a man walked into the lobby of the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland and took three people hostage.  He was heavily armed and had what appeared to be explosives strapped to him.  The building was locked down and then evacuated.  When the incident was over, the hostages were unharmed and the perpetrator was dead, shot by a law enforcement sniper.

So, imagine you're at work and a man with a gun and explosives comes in, yells a lot, tells people not to move, and you run.  You call 911, from inside the building or from outside.  What do you imagine you would say, and what would you sound like saying it?  I'm not asking what you should say, or how you should act, but how do you imagine you would actually behave?  I know I've had to call 911 for much less serious situations which were much less threatening to me personally, and while I say what needs to be said I am pretty agitated and upset. 

Over the weekend, the 911 tapes from the Discovery Channel incident were released.  Clips were played on various television news broadcasts, and summaries were printed in the press.  What is truly remarkable to me in listening to these is that the callers uniformly sound calm and are able to give extremely detailed descriptions of what is going on, what the man has in terms of weaponry, and how he acted when he entered the building.  No one is crying.  No one is screaming.  No one is yelling for police to hurry.  They say what needs to be said, they appear to be very accurate, and they remain calm.

To what can we attribute this calm and accuracy on the part of people who had just narrowly escaped being killed?  There are probably a number of things at work here.  First of all, the man who was responsible for this was a known quantity.  He had been arrested outside the building before and, until two weeks before, was under a court order to stay away.  His picture was posted around the building as someone to look out for.  This means that when people called 911 and described him, they weren't only working from what they had just seen, but also from pictures they had seen and information stored in their long-term memory.

Having pictures of this man posted around the office also served another purpose.  On some level, everyone who worked at the Discovery Channel and saw those pictures had considered the possibility that something like this might happen some day.  They may not have believed it, and they may not have imagined the specific details, but the thought that this man was dangerous and could harm them had already crossed their mind.  When it actually happened, they didn't have to process something brand new.  Instead of thinking, "Something horrible is happening and I don't know what to do with it," they could think, "The horrible thing that I feared is happening."  That left more brain power available to notice the details.

My daughter also points out another important fact*.  When we're scared, our senses are heightened and our memory for what we perceive is also heightened.  This can turn out not to be very helpful, because we often remember the wrong things.  In this case, however, it seems that people remembered the right things.

Finally, it's important to note that feeling out of control and acting out of control are not the same thing.  We can imagine that, under these circumstances, we'd be scared out of our minds.  And certainly being scared out of our minds can affect how we act.  But people often experience a remarkable ability to do what needs to be done in an emergency, and fall apart later.  Bravery does not mean not being scared.  It means doing what you need to do even though you're scared.  I think we can all agree, there are a lot of brave people over at the Discovery Channel.

* You know you're bringing your work home when your 12-year-old child can analyze a crisis situation and come up with insightful commentary!

Ross Douthat at the New York Times had an excellent piece yesterday about what we should -- and should not -- draw from the politics of the perpetrator in this incident.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

We Are the World, Except for Pakistan

Frequent Quarterbacker Edwin dropped me a note earlier this week to suggest that I might like to write about the flooding in Pakistan, seeing as how it is being branded one of the worst natural disasters ever.  In case you missed it, 20 million people have lost their homes and an estimated two thousand have died.  Those surviving are, aside from being homeless, at tremendous risk for disease and starvation. 

This is certainly a crisis, and certainly the sort of thing I write about.  So why haven't I?  My reasons are somewhat specific to me.  The flooding in Pakistan hit the news in this country during the second week in August.  It may have gotten coverage before that, but certainly not a lot.  My regular readers know that during the second week in August I was in Haiti, doing crisis intervention following their earthquake in January.  I first heard about the flooding the day I returned and, to be perfectly honest, I was resentful that there was another natural disaster.  My gut, emotional reaction was that Pakistan was stealing the spotlight from Haiti, and they should wait their turn.  That was not a rational reaction, of course, but it was real.

I shared that reflection with Edwin when he asked, and he said that, in some ways, he had a similar reaction.  The floods were too much, too soon after the Haiti earthquake (not to mention the Chile earthquake, the gulf oil spill, etc.).  It's interesting that he described it as being too much, as though he (and by extension, we) couldn't absorb it all.  Others would say that the rapid succession of disasters has made us numb.

Edwin and I are no alone, however, in not really focusing attention or assistance on Pakistan.  In contrast to the reaction to Pakistan, international aid has been very slow in funneling to Pakistan.  I haven't seen any cell phone text message fundraising campaigns, and there is no "We Are the World for Pakistan."  I'm absorbed with Haiti.  Edwin feels like it's too much too soon.  What's up with the rest of the world?

I think there are a number of factors in play here, and any one of them may play more or less of a role for one person or another.  If one doesn't resonate with you, keep going down the list.  Something will.  In addition to what I'll call the "natural disaster overload" described above, here are some things I think are going on:

  • Floods are calamities in slow motion.  Unlike an earthquake, there is no shocking breaking news that shakes us all out of complacency.  The moment when a flood goes from a problem to a catastrophe is not clear, and the more time we have to get used to something the less likely we are to feel like it requires action.
  • The impact is measured in lives displaced, not lives lost.  Two thousand people is a very large number, but the death toll from the Haitian earthquake was more than one hundred times as great.  Death gets our attention.
  • It's Pakistan.  Americans, at least, don't particularly like the Pakistani government, despite the fact that they are technically our allies.
  • It's Pakistan.  The Pakistani government is notoriously corrupt, and the country has a significant Taliban presence which makes operating there very difficult.
  • It's Pakistan.  There is a tremendous anti-Islamic sentiment in this country right now.  While relatively few Americans would consciously decide not to help because these are Muslims, the anti-Muslim rhetoric makes it much easier to not notice that these are people.
I've taken way too long to start blogging about the situation in Pakistan.  I'll devote some more space to it in a few days.  In the meantime, I'd like to recommend two of my favorite disaster relief charities, both of which are doing relief work in Pakistan because they already had people on the ground when the flooding started.  Please consider a donation to Doctors Without Borders, the American Jewish World Service, or the relief organization of your choice.  Disaster is disaster, and disasters shouldn't have to compete for whose is more important to get our attention.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Non-Terror Attack that Wasn't

Two Yemeni men living in the United States were arrested yesterday in Amsterdam after flying there from Chicago.  Initial reports indicated that the men were under suspicion for carrying out a "dry run" of a terrorist attack.  The news reports this morning said that one of the men had been stopped in Alabama by TSA officers and found to be carrying $7,000 in cash.  When his checked luggage was searched, officers found a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, several watches taped together, and knives and a box-cutter.  Since none of that is prohibited, he was allowed to travel to Chicago.  Instead of continuing on to Washington as planned, however, he booked a flight to Amsterdam.  The other suspect did the same.  The suspicious luggage continued on to Washington and was checked through to the United Arab Emirates.  Authorities returned the flight out of New York to the gate and removed the luggage, and alerted authorities in the Netherlands.

American authorities now suggest that, in fact, this was all a big misunderstanding.  The two men did not know each other.  They both missed the flight to Washington and were rebooked by the airline through Amsterdam.  Passengers traveling to foreign countries, particularly third world countries, frequently carry cash for relatives and friends, and they frequently tape valuables into bundles or to large objects to make them harder to steal. 

In between the first version of this story and the second one, news organizations seemed to have every expert (real or imagined) on airline security commenting on this incident.  The consensus seemed to be that everything that could have been done wrong was.  People suspected of terrorism were allowed to fly and allowed to be separated from their luggage.  Imagine what could have gone wrong!!

First of all, I hate this line of reasoning.  Boiled down to its bare bones, what these folks are saying is that the conclusive proof that we can't stop something bad from happening is that something that was judged not to be imminently dangerous was, in fact, not imminently dangerous.  If that's true, what would be the conclusive proof that we can stop something bad from happening?

I actually have an easier time imagining what could have gone right in this situation, had this been handled differently.  I don't know enough to know whether arresting these men was the right or the reasonable thing to do.  However, it seems to me that if it took less than 12 hours to go from being sure they were evil to thinking it was all a coincidence, then maybe they could have waited 12 hours to go public with the information in the first place.

You may remember that I'm generally not a fan of sitting on information in a crisis.  Withholding information from anxious people is almost universally a bad idea, because it makes them more anxious.  In this instance, however, it's not clear to me that anyone would have been anxious if they hadn't released the information when they did.  If there was a leak, and the preliminary information would have gotten out anyway, then certainly the authorities were right to talk about it.  But they missed the opportunity to, instead of saying that they thought this was a dry run for a terror attack, say that they were still investigating and they'd get back to us.

Crisis communication shouldn't be this hard.  Tell what you know.  Don't speculate.  Stick to the facts.  Acknowledge the anxiety.  Make it clear that more information will be forthcoming.  Then stop talking.  It's common sense, really.  Unfortunately, it's not so common.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Impact of Nicole John's Death

Nicole John, 17, died at about 4:15 AM on Friday, after she climbed out onto a ledge outside a 25th floor apartment in Manhattan and fell onto a 3rd floor outcropping.  John, who was the daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John, was to have started classes at Parsons New School of Design this fall.  A statement from Parsons indicates that the school's "crisis management team" will be available to counsel those who were at the party that Ms. John was attending when she died, or others affected.

To answer what seems like the natural question, there is plenty of evidence that John was either drunk or under the influence of some other substance when she fell.  It appears she may have decided to step out onto the ledge to take a picture -- a camera was found near her.  The host of the party, who is 25, has been arrested on charges relating to having alcohol at a party with a minor present.  Ms. John had a fake ID, and had been at a club with friends until about 2 hours before.

The crisis management team at Parsons has an interesting job to do here.  Since John was a new student, the number of people affected by her death is probably lower than would be in even a few weeks.  However, those who are affected are probably also new students, many away from home for the first time, all relatively young, and therefore particularly vulnerable.  One could imagine that having a new friend die tragically just as school was starting would color your freshman year in school, and beyond.

The themes the team can expect to hear are complicated, too.  Those who were not at the party are likely to be angry, and not to be comfortable with that anger.  Ms. John did something dangerous when she drank too much, and that caused her to do something she would never have done while sober.  Her friends are going to be mad -- at the people who were there, at the host of the party, and at Nicole John herself.  But being mad at the person who died is never easy, because it's hard to reconcile being angry at someone and being sad that they're dead at the same time.

For those who were at the party, you can add a layer of guilt on top of all that.  Folks will feel guilty that they didn't stop her, guilty that they let her get drunk, and guilty that they themselves may have been too impaired to realize what was happening.  On top of that, there has been an arrest, which, rightly or wrongly, makes them wonder if something they express at this point will make the police look at them.  So they feel guilty, but may be afraid to talk about it for fear that their guilt will make them look, well, guilty.  Our society doesn't deal well with the difference between someone feeling guilt because they could have done differently and someone being guilty of a crime.

As for Ambassador John's family, one can only imagine what they might be experiencing.  All of the above seems likely.  Published reports suggest that Nicole John was not new to drugs and alcohol, and perhaps this was the moment they knew was possible but prayed would never come.  Or perhaps they didn't know, or couldn't acknowledge, the trouble she was headed for.  No one deserves to die the way Nicole John did, no matter what else they may have done.  And certainly no parent deserves to get the phone call the Johns family got early Friday morning.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Haiti -- Reentry and Reflection

Me, with one of my new friends

It's been 12 days since I returned to Michigan from Haiti.  That seems both the blink of an eye and an eternity.  My return and reentry has presented an interesting opportunity for me to experience some of what I hear when I talk to people who have been in emergency situations first hand, because, while I was not in the earthquake itself and I was fairly comfortable for a brief week in Haiti, the shock to my worldview presented by what I saw and heard was real.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had some foresight to recognize that I might not be firing on all cylinders when I returned.  In addition to upgrading my flight to first class, I also prearranged with colleagues from the community crisis team on which I serve to have someone talk to me when I returned.  I was not surprised that I needed it.  I was somewhat surprised at the reasons I needed it.

I expected to come back with visions of destruction and tales of horrible trauma running through my head.  For the most part, that did not happen.  What I did not expect was to come back feeling as attached and responsible for the people I met as I did.  The conditions under which virtually everyone is living are of a type we simply would not permit in the United States.  Even after Hurricane Katrina when, it might be argued, we as a country failed our fellow Americans in a way never before seen, we did not permit this kind of living conditions for this long.  It felt callous to spend a week and then pack up my things and go because I "had" to leave.  It even felt callous to be asking for help with what I had experienced.  I experienced a week.  Those kids are experiencing a lifetime.

This brings us to another layer of how I was feeling.  Yes, it has been seven months since the earthquake.  In reality, however, while things are worse for these families now than they used to be, they weren't starting from a great position to begin with.  The level of poverty in Haiti is incomprehensible to someone used to US standards.  Most of the poor here would be doing fairly well compared to Haitian poverty, and in Haiti there is no government safety net.

I came back feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything.  I hadn't helped anyone.  I had come down, picked up my gold star for going, packed up and gone home.  Worse, that was all I could do, because the level of need is so high that even the most fabulous volunteers are not even going to make a dent in all that needs to be done.  I felt, and to some extent still feel, truly helpless.  And I feel that the world community has, throughout the 200+ year history of Haiti, failed in a moral obligation to at least try to give everyone a decent chance at a decent life.

At the same time, I feel guilty for talking like that.  Yes, things in Haiti are bad.  But this is people's home, and now I know some of those people.  I wouldn't walk into a friend's house and comment on how small or broken down it is.  Can you imagine going over to the neighbors and saying, "Geez, your house is a pit?"  In the same way, while it's no secret to the people in Haiti that they are poor and have little, it doesn't seem right to insult their country or their living conditions.  The fact is, they are making do with what they have, much better than I think I ever could.  They are playing the hand they've been dealt, and they're playing it pretty well.

So, I have mixed feelings.  That is the name of the game when it comes to complex, traumatic situations.  In these moments, I find myself thinking about the teaching we have in Judaism that, when God made the world, it was intentionally left imperfect.  It is up to us to repair the world, in partnership with God.  This, of course, is an overwhelming task.  No person could possibly repair everything that is wrong in our world.  Rabbi Tarfon, one of the great thinkers, is quoted in the Pirkei Avot (ethics of the fathers) on this subject:

It is not for you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
I know I did something in Haiti.  Was it enough?  No, because it could not possibly be enough.  But I did not desist from the work, and I find some small comfort in that.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Haiti.  You can read this series from the beginning here.  We now return to your regularly scheduled Quarterback, commenting on the news as usual.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part IX

Sun rising over Leogane as we left for the airport

Day 9 -- Saturday, August 14, 2010

I woke up Saturday morning at 3 AM and absolutely could not fall back to sleep.  I finally got my iPod and played some games for a while and then dozed off.  My alarm woke me at 5.  Hillary and I were both leaving that morning, so we had arranged to share a ride to the Port-Au-Prince airport.  Fearing "Haitian Time," we told the driver that my flight was an hour earlier than it was, and then left extra time on top of that.  We were supposed to leave at 5:30.  One of the women who works at the camp came into the guest house shortly after I got up to make sure we were awake, and we quickly finished our packing and got ready to leave.

Those of you following this whole series may recall that when I came to Haiti I had donations of clothes for the kids and lots of workbooks in my luggage.  On the way back, the main compartment of my suitcase was filled with dirty laundry, and both my carry on and checked luggage were much lighter.  It also helped that anything I did not have a definitive purpose for was left with the kids.  I packed up my mosquito net and left it and my repellent for Christopher.  The two boxes of snack bars I had brought with me were long gone, given to kids who told me they hadn't had anything to eat on a given day.  My fan, flashlight and batteries were given to Daniel's family.  I had my clothes, my journal, my iPod and not much else.  We left the property at 5:30, with no opportunity for a morning goodbye to anyone other than Amelia. 

Driving back through Leogane and into Port-Au-Prince was again surreal.  The relative tranquility of the camp was replaced with more visions of rubble, collapsed buildings and tent cities. 

We had been warned not to let anyone "help" us with our luggage at the airport.  However, a porter had grabbed my suitcase long before I even got out of the car, so I let him bring me to Spirit for check-in.  I got out a dollar to tip him, and he said, "For fast check-in, price is $5."  I knew I was being had, but it wasn't a lot of money, so I dug out a $5 bill, whereupon he said, "For fast check-in, price is $20."  I told him no, and took my luggage and placed it on the first security scanner belt.  In Port-Au-Prince, you actually have to go through security to get into the airport, on top of the screenings to get on a plane.

After waiting in line for an extremely long time, I checked my bag and went upstairs to where the shops and cafeteria/bar is.  I wandered around and bought gifts for my kids.  My son collects vehicles of all sorts, so I bought him a model of a tap-tap.  My daughter collects keychains, so I got her a keychain with a tap-tap on it.  Finally, I bought a bottle of rum for the friend who was meeting me at the airport in Detroit, and went out to the counter to get something to eat.  A snack and a coke later, and it was time to go through security.  After a few minutes they called my plane, and I started down the hall to the entrance.

Before we could get on the plane, a handful of security personnel rescreened our luggage by hand.  I then picked up the rum (which of course couldn't go through security so it had been dropped at the plane door for me) and got on the plane, settling in next to a Haitian man.  He buckled himself into his seat, clutching a manila envelope for dear life.  I looked at it, and realized it was an immigrant visa to the United States.  I offered him words of welcome.  The plane took off, and I started to cry, the first of many times that day.

Customs and immigration in Fort Lauderdale were relatively speedy, and I got my bag and headed over to Delta.  I had truly not known how I was going to be feeling when I returned, and so I had made some plans before I left on this trip to deal with the real possibility that I would be a wreck -- physically, emotionally or both -- coming back.  I had cashed in some frequent flyer miles to upgrade this last leg of the trip to first class, which turned out to be wonderful.  I just needed to feel pampered, which a bottle of water (which I really needed since I had probably been mildly dehydrated all week) followed by a beer, unlimited snacks and wide seats were just what the doctor ordered.  Before I knew it, we were in Detroit.

My husband had left for the weekend to pick up my daughter at camp, but I knew that I might not feel much like driving myself home from the airport.  We had therefore arranged for a dear friend to watch my son for a few hours and pick me up.  I highly recommend being met at baggage claim by a 5-year-old who loves you and hasn't seen you in a long time for anyone whose ego needs a little boost.  As I came down the escalator, a little voice screamed "Mommy!!!" and my son came tearing down the terminal towards me.  I felt like a rock star.

My bag was the first one off the plane, and my friend, son and I headed out to her car.  We headed up the highway, chatting, and I described some of what I had seen.  As we drove along, we came to a place where an overpass had been demolished and a new one built.  The remains of the original bridge were in a pile by the side of the road.  As we drove past, I caught myself about to point out the pile as an example of the kind of destruction the earthquake caused before I realized that, of course, that wasn't earthquake damage.  I realized then that the reentry to my life at home was going to be even bumpier than expected. 

After a nice dinner, we headed home.  I enjoyed my first hot shower in more than a week, although of course I hadn't wanted hot showers in the heat of Haiti.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed being able to control the temperature.  I got out in my centrally air conditioned house, tucked myself into my nice soft bed, and went to sleep.  As I drifted off, I thought about Daniel, sleeping in his tent almost 1800 miles away, and I cried again, not sure if the tears were for him or for me.

Tomorrow -- Reentry and Reflection
Monday, August 23, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part VIII

The kids with perfect attendance get their crowns.

Day 7 -- Friday, August 13, 2010

While the property where we were staying in Leogane was not really a farm, there were a smattering of farm animals hanging around.  Cows and goats were on the field to one side, and most of them belonged to people from the area who brought their animals to graze.  There were two or three roosters and a family of ducks that roamed free throughout the property, and the occasional dog, cat or pig happened by.  Each morning as the sun came up, I was awakened by one of the roosters crowing.  It bothered me the first night, but after that I got used to it and went back to sleep each day.

On Thursday night, however, something was different outside.  Some dogs appeared to be getting into a fight of some kind directly outside the bedroom window.  They were barking and growling for what seemed like hours, and I had a terrible time going to sleep.  No sooner had they stopped, it seemed, when a rooster and one of the dogs appeared to get into a heated argument.  The rooster would crow, the dog would bark, the rooster would crow again, the dog would bark louder, the rooster would crow louder, and on it went.  Once in a while a cow would chime in from the field, making for a scene that would have been downright funny had it not been the middle of the night and had I not been trying to sleep.  I finally gave up around 5 AM, and so I was quite tired and downright cranky as I entered my last full day in Haiti.

The plan was to grab the three kids we were most worried about before the assembly started that morning, but there was general chaos and disorganization, and we weren't able to do it.  The entire morning was devoted to the last day assembly, during which the various groups of children reported on their activities, performed music, dancing and skits, and generally had a good time.  Hillary had some Burger King crowns she had gotten donated for a craft project, and the kids with perfect attendance got crowns.  Soon, everyone, even the adults, was wearing a Burger King crown.  This might not have gone over very well in the United States, but in a place where Burger King does not exist, the difference between a BK crown and some other kind of crown is nonexistent, and the kid were very happy.

Sometime around 11:30, I hit the wall.  I could not keep my eyes open any more, so I snuck back into the guest house and laid down.  While the music from the assembly was substantially louder than the livestock from the previous night, I was able to put some white noise on my iPod next to my head and go to sleep for about 45 minutes.  When I woke up, the festivities were still underway but almost over.

Amelia got hold of the head counselor for the older children and made it clear that we needed to talk to some of the kids before they left.  Her first thought was to get all 16 kids who had scored high on the assessment, but in the time we had I felt it was most important to reach the children who were suicidal.  Two of the three of them were there that day, and we took them aside together. 

I explained that we wanted to talk to them because they were two of the children who said they had thought about killing themselves, and we were very worried about them.  I gave them the choice to talk to us together or apart, and they both wanted to be apart.  One of them, Olivia, waited off to the side while we spoke to the other, Nicole.  As it turned out, while Nicole was clearly upset and depressed, she was not currently suicidal.  She was 18 and had lost both of her parents in the earthquake.  She was one of the few kids who had a house, but she had no family and no way of supporting herself.  We spent some time problem solving with her, trying to come up with ways she could make sure she had food and was able to go to school, and ways she could find adults to talk to and confide in.  I was not at all sure we had really helped her much when we moved on to Olivia.

Unlike Nicole, Olivia was clearly suicidal.  I went down the usual assessment questions with her:  How often do you think about killing yourself?  What do you think about doing?  Would that be hard or easy to do?  What do you think are the chances you will actually do it?  This girl was straight out of a textbook on suicide, and she was at tremendous risk.  While we were talking to her, her mother came along and she gave us permission to bring her mom into the conversation.  

A Doctors Without Borders clinic in Port-Au-Prince
Had this been a student at my school or a person I was working with in the community at home, I would have referred her to the psych emergency room and made sure she went.  I was in no position to do that, in part because there is no hospital in Leogane right now.  I did the best thing I could think of, which was to impart to her mother how very serious and dangerous this was, and ask her to take her daughter to Doctors Without Borders right away.  I tried to give her language to use with them that would convey the seriousness of the situation.  I said to tell them that a mental health volunteer had assessed her daughter and felt she was in serious danger of hurting herself, and that the volunteer insisted she needed medical attention right away. 

I have no idea whether the mother took her daughter there, or whether Doctors Without Borders had any way of helping Olivia.  It was the best we could do to make the referral and to tell Olivia she was important, that we understood how much pain she was in, and that there was help for her if she could just hold on.  She seemed to believe us.  As I went back into the house for lunch, I said to Amelia and Hillary, "That is the work I came here to do."  While I was worried for Olivia, I also knew that this, unlike any other problem I had worked on all week, was a situation where I had specialized knowledge that could make a difference.  I just hope it did.

After lunch, Daniel attached himself surgically to my hip.  He knew that this was my last day in Haiti, and he clearly wanted to be around me.  The feeling was mutual.  We sat on the porch for the entire afternoon and into the evening, sometimes just us and sometimes with Christopher, playing cards, drawing in my journal and playing Doodle Jump on my iPod. 

My confidence in my ability to communicate with Daniel in French had improved over the week, even though my French itself probably had not.  Still, I ventured into some heavier topics with him.  We talked about my family, his family, and our respective religions, and about stereotypes of Haiti and of black people that are common in the United States.  We talked about his school, and I told him about how important it was for him to do well in school.  We even discussed the possibility of him going to college on scholarship some day.  He asked if it was difficult to come to the United States, and if he could come visit me someday.  I gave him my contact information and email address, and he and Christopher gave me the email address of Christopher's uncle, who also lives on the property, to use to contact them.

As the night drew to a close, I gave Daniel my battery-operated fan, my flashlight, my extra batteries for both and an extra bottle of bug repellent.  I gave Christopher my cards, which he was constantly playing with, and promised him I would leave my other bottle of repellent for him when I left in the morning.  Daniel admitted he was sad that I was leaving, and I certainly was as well.  He asked me if I would return to Haiti, and I told him the truth -- I didn't know.  I told him that if I did, I hoped he had a house when I returned.  He said he wanted one too, but that he really wanted a telephone and a DVD player.  He is, after all, thirteen.  In my lousy French, I summed up the trip, and our newfound friendship, before I headed off to bed:

Before I came here, I didn't know that I loved Haiti.  Now I know that I love Haiti and I have people I love in Haiti, so maybe I will come back.
Tomorrow -- The Journey Home

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part VII

The Quarterback, Amelia and Hillary at the beach
Day 7 -- Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thursday was beach day, and we were told we would be leaving at 9:30.  It soon became evident that this meant 9:30 "Haitian Time," since the assembly didn't start until around 9:30.  In addition to the usual prayers, the head counselor lead the children in prayer for their safety on the trip.  I don't want to read too much into this, because I suspect the prayer was exactly the same one she would have offered any other summer.  However, Eloise had told us that many parents were still quite skittish about sending their children to the beach.  There was a small tsunami with the earthquake, not like the big one in southeast Asia a few years back but just big enough that if you happened to be standing on the beach or in the water when the earthquake happened you probably would have drowned.

At around 10:30, a school bus painted blue and white drove onto the field next to the gazebo, and the children began to pile on.  There were about 125 kids and about 10 adults going on the trip, and any teacher will tell you that far exceeds the safe capacity of a school bus.  The kids and regular counselors got on, and the volunteers were told we would take another bus.

After the kids had been on the bus for several minutes, I heard voices yelling my name.  Christopher and Daniel were leaning out the window, and when they saw they had my attention, they motioned to me to come to the bus.  I jogged over, and they asked me why I wasn't going to the beach.  I explained that I was going separately with the other volunteers, and they seemed very happy.
Our tap-tap

The "other bus" we were taking was not what would pass for a bus in the U.S.  Haiti has an informal system of vans and converted pick-up trucks called "tap-taps" which function as somewhere between buses and taxis.  They are brightly painted, and people stand on the side of the road and hail them, or you can call them if you and they both have a phone.  People ride in, on and on top of these vehicles to get around.  One had been called for us.

It was about now that we noticed that the school bus wasn't leaving.  The kids had been on it for a good half hour, and we imagined the heat was horrible.  The driver was now standing in front of the bus with the hood open.  It had broken down.  At about 11:10, we piled into the tap-tap, the bus driver got the bus going, and we headed towards the beach.

Having spent five days inside the grounds of the camp, it had been easy to forget that we were actually at ground zero for the earthquake.  While the living conditions of survivors were in evidence daily, the destruction caused by the quake was not.  As soon as we ventured out of the gates, however, it was back to reality.  Rubble, empty foundations and collapsed buildings were everywhere.  Where there weren't building remains, there were tent cities.  Very few buildings were standing and undamaged.  We continued through what, I suppose, had once been the center of town and out onto a dirt road which wound its way to the shore.  At 11:30, we got out of the tap-tap and waited for the kids to arrive.
The remains of a building near the beach

What was perhaps most striking about the beach was that it could easily have been on any island in the Carribbean.  With all the poverty and misery in Haiti, it's easy to forget that it is, in fact, a beautiful tropical island.  The beach had a lot of garbage and debris on it where the tap-tap let us off.  There had been heavy rains for several nights in a row, and it probably wasn't that clean to begin with.  Once the kids arrived, we headed down the beach to a much cleaner and nicer stretch, and to a house owned by Eloise which also had withstood the quake. 

As soon as we arrived, the kids started taking off their clothes and putting on whatever they were going to swim in.  A majority had bathing suits, although the two-piece suits didn't necessarily match.  The smallest kids were mostly in underwear.  Some kids wore shorts and t-shirts, or suits that obviously were too small or too big.  No one cared.  As soon as the counselors gave permission, everyone headed into the water.  I took my time getting ready, and by the time I walked towards the beach, a little girl decided I was late and needed to be pulled into the water.

The scene in the water was unlike any that would be permitted at any camp or school trip in the U.S.  Adults stood around the perimeter of a relatively small area of water.  125 children all squeezed into this area and jumped all over each other in what, in my experience, is "no horseplay or you're out of the pool" behavior at American venues.  I asked one of the counselors how many of the kids knew how to swim.  He had no idea.  The motion of the children kicked up sand from the ocean floor, meaning that when children went under water they couldn't be seen.  I spent most of my time praying I wasn't going to have to rescue or, God forbid, not rescue any children.

Once I had been yanked into the water, four or five kids at a time clung to me for dear life.  While I understood the impetus, I was truly afraid they were going to send me under the water and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get back up with them on top of me.  Add to this that Christopher and Daniel very much wanted to be around me, and showed their enthusiasm by leaping on top of the pile of kids who were already holding on to me.

After a swim it was time for lunch.  Some men who appeared to be camping on the property brought out freshly picked coconuts and, while the kids played, the adult paid them 25 gourdes (about 60 cents) each to hack off the top of the coconuts with a machete so we could drink from them.  It was fabulous.

The plan had been for Amelia and me to grab the three children who said they were thinking of suicide and talk to them sometime today.  However, it was pretty clear we were not going to be able to do that in all the hubbub.  This was difficult for me, since my training is certainly not to let it go when a child says they are suicidal.  The fact that we had already let it go for 24 hours was disturbing enough, but there really wasn't a way to even find these kids (whom we did not know), let alone assess them.  Finally, Amelia went and spoke to the head counselor, and we agreed we would talk to the kids before assembly the next day.  After another swim, we headed back down the beach to the bus and the tap-tap, and back to camp.  We were due back at 2:00.  We arrived close to 3:30.

After dinner, Amelia asked Daniel if he would like to talk to us about the earthquake, and whether he thought some other kids would too.  He said yes, and told us he would ask around to see who wanted to come.  At about 8:00, we sat down on the porch to talk to Daniel, Christopher and Christopher's cousin, Marie, age 10.  Each told us what had happened to them during the earthquake*.  I asked each of them what they thought was happening, and they all had different ideas, but each of them mentioned that it had crossed their mind the island might be sinking into the ocean.  This was not something that had even occurred to me, but then, I don't live on an island.

We discovered that none of them had much of an idea what causes earthquakes.  This seemed important.  Even though earthquakes can't be predicted reliably, I surmised that the idea that they "just happen" made their fear that it would happen again more pronounced.  I was right.  After a brief lesson in plate tectonics, all three of them visibly relaxed.

We spent some time talking about the definition of bravery.  The kids, both this group and the many others, did not seem to feel they had been brave during the earthquake.  They were using a definition of bravery that equaled not being scared, and they felt that no one had been brave.  I asked them what they thought the most important thing to do during the earthquake had been, and they told me it was to get outside and away from buildings, to pray for survival and to find their families.  I pointed out that that is exactly what they had managed to do.  They may have been scared, but staying alive was their number one priority, and they had done it.  I also told them that I knew it was hard to talk about this, and so the fact that they told us their stories and how scared they still were meant that they really were brave.  They like that.

It was 10 PM, and Marie was visibly exhausted and wanted Christopher to walk her to her tent in the dark, so they left.  I told Daniel he needed to go to sleep, but he refused.  I asked him what time he went to sleep usually, and he said 11 or midnight.  I asked him what time his mother wanted him to go to sleep, and he said 9, looked embarrassed, said goodnight and headed toward his tent.  I went inside and, as I tried to sleep, contemplated something that another volunteer, a Haitian-American, had told me at the beach:
It's good that you're here.  Only by coming here can you know that these children are human.
* You might reasonably be expecting me to relate the children's stories at this point.  I have struggled with how much to share, because what they say is supposed to be confidential.  I have decided to strike a balance by only relating what I believe anyone who knows them already knows and what I said to them, rather than all of what they had to say.

Tomorrow -- The Work We Came Here to Do
Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part VI

Kids getting ready for our group.
Day 6 -- Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Today, Amelia and I planned to go through the assessment at the back of the workbook with the kids.  First of all, Amelia had been told by our coordinator that if nothing else we had to do the assessment, and second, we figured that given that there were so many kids and time was short, this would give us a good idea of where to concentrate our efforts.

The assessment is essentially a checklist in two parts.  The first has to do with what the child experienced before, during and after the earthquake, with each thing given a certain point value.  Some items are factors that put the child at psychological risk.  For example, having a parent who had died before the earthquake is worth +15 points.  Having a parent killed in the earthquake is +35.  Other factors are protective.  For example, having reliable housing within one month after the earthquake is -5.  Having daily access to the people close to them is -10.  The second part of the checklist is a list of post-traumatic stress reactions the child is currently experiencing and which are new or have gotten worse following the earthquake.  These also are given a point value.  Difficulty sleeping is +5.  Thoughts of suicide are +35. 

The instructions for the checklist are adamant about two things.  First, the checklist is to be filled out by an adult who is familiar with the child, and second, any child who scores more than 100 points is to have a medical evaluation.  Those of you closely following our heroine, however, may notice two problems.  First, we had 50 kids and limited time.  Second, we had no medical personnel on our team.

Amelia and I decided the best way to do this, which was suboptimal but probably sufficient, was to go systematically through the checklist with the whole group, asking kids to self-report on each item.  We told them not to worry about the numbers, just write yes or no (or, more accurately, either "oui" (French) or "wi" (Kreyol) or "non") and we would score it later.  Of course, the questionnaire was not worded in what we in the education biz call "kid-friendly language," so for each question, I would explain the French and Kreyol questions in their books in English developmentally appropriate language and Amelia would translate my explanation back into Kreyol.

The first thing we noticed was that a large handful of kids were not responding to the questions at all.  The second thing we noticed was that a fairly large number of kids said that they had not had one parent die before the earthquake, but had had both parents die before the earthquake, which was both not possible (you can't have two dead parents without having one) and not true (these were uniformly kids with two living parents).  Eventually, she started trying to help kids better understand questions individually while I continued on, using Krystal, a Haitian-American woman who was there with another volunteer group, as my translator.

When we were done, which took absolutely forever, I took the stack of questionnaires back to the guest house to score them before lunch.  I was stunned.  Of the 45 children who answered the whole checklist (some had left in the middle), 16 had scored above the magic 100 point threshold, and 3 said they were thinking about killing themselves.  Every single one of the 45 said they had multiple stress symptoms, seven months after the earthquake.

I need to emphasize that these kids did not appear, to the casual observer, to be troubled in any way.  I had watched them play and work for three days, and while I didn't know what they had been like before, I would not have pegged this as a group of kids with "issues," and I certainly could not have picked the highest scoring 16, or even the 3, out from the others.  The level of suffering they said they were enduring was tremendous.  At the same time, I knew that they had had a lot of trouble understanding some of the questions, so it was possible that some of the scores were artificially high or, I hated to think it, artificially low.

Amelia and I talked about what to do after lunch.  We had discovered, at the end of the camp day, that there was a beach field trip planned for the whole camp for Thursday, and we already knew that Friday would be devoted to a big celebration for the last day of camp.  That meant that, effectively, we had no more time to work with the kids.  At the same time, we had 16 kids who might be in significant distress, and three who might well be in imminent danger.

One of my CISM instructors used to say, "Do what you know you can do well, and get out of there."  With that in mind, we decided there were two things we could do.  One was to try to help some of the kids who were staying on the property, since we could work with them outside of camp hours.  The second was to try to assess how much danger the three who said they were suicidal were actually in.  We hatched a plan to do both of these things on Thursday, and I went to bed.

Tomorrow:  When Fun Gets in the Way of Trauma

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Trip to Haiti -- Part V

The picture that caused a broken heart
Day 5 -- Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When I woke up Tuesday morning I made the mistake of reading email, mostly hoping to hear from my family.  Unfortunately, there were a few fairly petty work emails that really struck me the wrong way.  Between how ineffective I had been feeling the day before and these, I went quite quickly into a funk.  I went into the bathroom and stood under the shower and cried.

After breakfast, it was time to go out to the gazebo and get ready for the morning assembly.  This day, a little girl who I didn't remember at all from the day before decided to attach herself to me.  She liked having her picture taken in a variety of poses with a variety of people, and also enjoyed telling other people where they should stand and what they should do while I took their pictures.  When the assembly started, she carefully made sure I had a chair and sat down beside me with her chair (and leg) touching mine.

The kids sang their morning prayers and then sang the same welcome song they had sung the day before.  Three new volunteers had arrived the night before from a different project, and they needed welcoming, too!  I should mention that this welcome song has motions to it and involves standing up, sitting down, shaking hands and various other things. 

My little shadow for the day felt strongly that I needed to participate in this, but of course I didn't understand most of the words to the song.  This was not of concern to her.  She stood me up and sat me down, grabbed my hand, and, at the very end of the song when they sang "we're glad you're here" she kissed me on the cheek.  At this point, I started to cry.  I couldn't help it.  The whole scene just struck me as so touching, and I had gotten off to such a rotten start that morning.

Today Amelia and I were not given time to work with the kids in our group.  Instead, they were learning a particular way to braid string to make straps for sandals.  The counselors showed each of the volunteers how to do it and we each took turns practicing.  Once we had it, we were sent to teach it to the kids.

Those of you who know me know that handicrafts are not exactly my strong suit.  I could do the braiding . . . sort of.  Add to this the fact that while I had learned to do it with four strands, kids were coming over to learn who had been given six or eight strands, and I hadn't the slightest idea how to braid them.  Plus, of course, I didn't really speak the language.  I'm embarrassed to say I did a lot of demonstrating a step or two, badly, and then giving the string back to the kid and hoping that he or she figured out what to do.  Some of them did, most of them didn't.

After lunch I was extremely tired and my mood was lousy, so I went and took a nap.  I then went out to the porch and, almost immediately, Daniel and Christopher showed up.  They wanted to play cards and Doodle Jump on my iPod.  We frittered away the rest of the afternoon hanging out, drawing and playing.

I asked the boys to draw me pictures of their houses before the earthquake.  Then I tried to find out what had happened to their houses, but this was easier said than done.  As it turns out, three years of high school French included very few of the necessary vocabulary words to discuss earthquake damage.  However, pantomime holding my hands apart vertically and then slapping them together worked well to convey the concept of a house collapsing, and Daniel said his house had indeed collapsed. 

Christopher said his house had not collapsed, and also was not broken.  This seemed somewhat unlikely given that he was living in a tent on the property.  I asked him what had happened to his house.  He stood up and started shaking, first to the right, then to the left, then forward, then backwards, saying, "Il fait comme ça, et comme ça, et comme ça . . ." ("It goes like this, and like this, and like this . . .")  I'm still not exactly sure what happened to his house, but it was pretty funny!

The high point, such as it was, of the evening came from a man who also lives on the property named Jean.  He had been watching me and Daniel after Christopher went back to his family, and he was starting to make me a little nervous -- he clearly was watching pretty intently.  Then he said, "Je t'aime," ("I love you") and then something else I couldn't quite catch, and then he told me I was beautiful.  Then he said, in English, "I said I love you.  You did not say you love me."  Given the cultural and language barriers, I really couldn't tell if he was goofing around or actually trying to pick me up.

Better to be safe than sorry, I always say, so I went into the house and got my little photo album with pictures of my family.  He looked through it and asked how many children I had and commented on how good looking they were (and who was I to argue?).  Then he came to a picture of me with my husband, and his face fell.  He asked if I was married.  I said yes, for 18 years.  He asked if I had gotten married as an infant.  Then he again told me he loved me and I was beautiful, and again said something I didn't understand.

At this point Daniel started to laugh uncontrollably, and all kinds of ideas were racing through my head about what Jean, who loved me and thought I was beautiful, was trying to tell me.  I offered to go get Amelia to translate, but he was insistent that I not.  This only made me more suspicious.  Finally, when it was time for dinner, Amelia walked by on her way into the house.  I flagged her down and asked her to find out what Jean was trying to tell me.  They talked animatedly for a few minutes, and then she whispered to me, "I'll tell you later."  My curiosity was certainly piqued. 

After dinner, I pulled Amelia into our room and asked her again what Jean had said to me.  She said, "He likes the way you keep yourself and your body after two children."  No wonder Daniel was laughing!  Amelia said she had registered her disapproval with Jean, and he never tried to say anything more than hello to me for the rest of the week.

Tomorrow:  Assessing the Damage

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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