Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mother Nature: Still Better Than You Tube!!

Photo by Susan Prisant
By Alexander & Susan Prisant

Thank God. Real life is still better than You Tube. And we have the miracle to prove it, right in our own backyard.

It was a bright August morning when we opened the bedroom blinds and were stunned. Centered in our window pane, not 15 feet away, a larger-than-life land turtle was laying her eggs. A dozen perfect white ones plopped into the hole she’d made just under our bushes.

It was just like
Only better.

Like the difference between watching National Geographic and actually going to Botswana.

That August morning, we instantly became official Protectors of Animal Life, or PALs. It was only 7 a.m. on a Saturday, but Susan went into action. She phoned the fire department, animal shelter, humane society and three endangered turtle protection groups.

They all told her the same thing: turtle young cannot be moved. This had happened on our property and so it was our solemn duty to protect those eggs. At all costs.

A flurry of google searches ensued. It turned out that ours was a Peninsula Cooter, native to Florida. They’re huge -- up to a foot and a half in length. In a big, dusty book we found, we discovered the turtles' love-making ritual: “males court females by swimming backwards in front of them and gently stroking the sides of the females' faces with their long claws.” What more would you ever want to know?

That You Tube video looked like our kids’ Mom had posed for it. And there were others -- how to protect eggs from predators and disinterested chainsaw-bearing ex-felons, posing as “gardeners.’ We learned about clever uses for refrigerator shelves and red pepper. Dead leaves were reborn as camouflage.

Having laid precisely a dozen eggs -- just as the dusty book said she would -- Big Mama decided it was now our problem and slowly ambled down to the canal in back. We nervously approached and looked at how well she’d covered her young and her tracks. And then promptly proceeded to turn the site into a 4th rate Times Square, with red reflector and 3-foot full-color sign, to warn off the literate, and lots of that red pepper to warn off the illiterate

Our garden is like a jungle.
Photo by Susan Prisant

We have scores of seasonal births: microscopic frogs jumping 20 times their height or slipping under the two-mm gap below our terrace door, while baby geckos cling to the screens, halfway up.

A larger lizard once set up shop in the sun at our garage door -- dicing with death every time we rolled up and honked. He’d force us to get out and finally shoo him into the bushes. An absolutely wild cotton-tail, aka Mr. Bunny, is shrewd enough to come for his carrot, most evenings, precisely at cocktail hour, while blue jays and cardinals vie for the bird bath.

And all the while, the newborn of several Florida species scream for food from their nests in our trees. The whole place is like a four-legged, two-winged maternity ward.

But the really hard part about hatching turtles is that they run on a schedule even less dependable than the old Erie & Lackawanna Railroad. Those experts told us we
were looking at a two-to-seven month mission -- the babies could hatch at anytime in between.

As the weeks dragged on into months our anxiety grew. We spent half our lives staring stupidly down at the ground. Were they already dead? Was it our fault? All the usual, irrational concerns of the (self-appointed) Keepers of Life.

Then, at the very end of October, a miracle. My wife went out on patrol to discover a perfectly shaped hole in the soil, with our grate undisturbed still on top, meaning no predator had come in from above.

It had happened after all. In spite of everything, Mother Nature refuses to quit.

We missed the births, but in the face of some pretty ugly stuff in the world, it still made our week. If we were still in the scouts, I just know we’d have gotten the Tortoise Merit Badge, with Oak Leaf Cluster.

Writer Alexander Prisant and his wife, Susan, live in Florida.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Older Americans Arrested As They Protest Health Care Reform

Photo by Susan Prisant

By Alexander Prisant

Once upon a time in America, people would say: "Sometimes I have to stand up and be counted." That was in the past.

But a few days ago, I had a glimpse of the past. So did this woman in Florida. 70 and cuffed, Patty Bender was among a group of Floridians arrested outside the corporate offices of Humana in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Similar protests against large health insurers took place simultaenously at corporate insurer offices in nine U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Reno and Washington. This was a bold display of old-fashioned civil disobedience -- an orderly sit-in to protest the outrageous behavior of insurance giants like Humana.

The wild-eyed radicals who demonstrated across the country were mostly senior citizens and mostly middle class, except for some like Leslie Elder who lost all insurance when her cancer recurred twice. Elder now risks losing her home because of medical bills. (That''s the way a majority of Americans go bankrupt these days.)

In West Palm, protester Patti Bender was up against eight police cars, 20 sheriff's officers, plus two paramedics and one growling police dog. A lot of power to face down that 75-year old lady.

So what did she do that made police arrest her?

All she did was respectfully submit a letter at Humana's door. The letter asked merely one thing: allow treatment prescribed by a physician for life-threatened Humana patients. The company refused. So a few gentle people sat down at the door until they got a better answer.

The group Health Care Now, which praises the protesters' actions, says: "Nonviolent action is a worldwide tradition based on an understanding that in a society power flows not from guns or positions of authority but from the consent and cooperation of the people."

Martin Luther King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

The first sheriff's officer who moved toward and prepared to handcuff the gentle old folk sitting peacefully on the lobby floor glowered and said: "All criminals." Photo by Susan Prisant

"I"m doing this for my daughter," said James Elder. "She's 27 and if we don't fix health insurance now, it could ruin her life later."

As I write this, Mr. Elder, a simple man well into his 60's, sits in jail.

Writer Alesander Prisant, formerly a Vice President of a large Silicon Valley company, keeps a blog called Wordsmith Wars at

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hedge Funds, Securities and My Ukulele

Ukulele virtuoso Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, on stage.

By Stephen Lewis

Here I sit, in my dorm at Georgetown University, not studying my finance texts, but instead, strumming my ukulele. I am staring at two graphics on my wall thinking that although my path may not be so clear-cut anymore, that’s fine with me.

Of course grades are important, and I do study plenty. I set high personal standards, but sometime last year, it hit me. Chasing a prestigious degree and a corner office were practical pursuits, but they weren’t things that would fire up my passion. Yet, I didn’t know anything else. So if not this pursuit, then what?

A close friend of mine once told me that she thought I had a ‘God complex’ in high school. She was right. At the time, I held a cut-throat mentality towards schoolwork and always kept the future strictly clear and in focus: I’d attend the best college possible, and then I’d land a cushy job on Wall Street. I didn’t have time for non-practical matters; I regarded artistic pursuits -- say, ceramics or jazz band – to be inferior or only time-permissible.

Once in college, everything changed. Freshmen year was not the work hard, play hard experience that I had anticipated it would be. Rather, days grew sterile. Waking up in the morning became a chore, because it meant more textbook chapters and term papers, even in classes I had once anticipated with pleasure. When I wasn’t sleeping or working, I was thinking about the tasks ahead. Suddenly I felt lost and couldn’t figure out why I had come to college, and where I had made a wrong turn.

Looking through some old photos one day, I found a shot of me laughing with two friends from high school, Maxx and Lee. Maxx hadn’t gone to a typical college. Rather, he was on his way to becoming one of the most successful talents in graphic design in the country. Lee is holding a little ukulele in the picture, and he has one of the best ears for music that I know, playing at least three instruments. Bells started ringing in my mind.

Most of my classes that spring semester happened to include texts from Immanuel Kant, several of which explored the danger of projecting a means to an end as the end itself. I had already fallen into that trap. I thought more about my high school friends. Mike plays soccer at Brown, Angad writes a column for the Daily Trojan at USC, Nick is programming video games at Penn, Jeff plays the flute at McGill, and Kayla has done so well on stage at Emerson that she has earned an understudy position for a Broadway show.

I found myself envying my artist friends. They wake up every morning excited to share their creative expressions with the world. While I knew the reality might not be as quite the romantic scene I envisioned, I began to recognize extraordinary value in their efforts, and slowly it dawned on me: art might help alleviate my stress.

That’s when I stumbled upon music. Music? At Georgetown? Most students here are aspiring politicians or diplomats. The number of visual and performing arts majors (and the portion of the University budget devoted to those pursuits) are minimal. Only a year ago, that wouldn’t have bothered me. Since then, though, I have become something of a musician.

Or at least, I play the ukulele – an instrument I bought for a song one day while browsing Amazon. Now, I play cover pieces by Zach Condon and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. But I didn’t stop there. I have recently latched onto electronic dance music (when people hear it they sometimes call it “techno music,” or, “eurotrash.”) I’m now starting to learn to use live-mixing music software.

But what can a student in business do, practically speaking, with all of this music? Lots of things. Several friends and I are already engaged in building a social networking website for college bands and musicians. Moreover, coming from southern California, where the entertainment industry thrives in my backyard, I now see that my analytical skills as a finance major might one day land me a job in the music industry. While I may not possess the natural born talents of musicians, actors, impressionists or sculptors, there are still ways I might make a living in the world of the arts.

And the real point of all this is that I’m happy. Every free moment I get, I have those nylon strings beneath my fingertips and I’m strumming the work of my oversized ukulele hero, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Stephen Lewis is a sophomore at Georgetown University, where he is majoring in business. This is his first published writing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

DC Students Watched While Police Removed Their Teachers from Classrooms

By Claudia Ricci

If you don't live in DC, chances are you don't know about the troubling things that have been happening in the schools.

Even if you live in DC, you might not know.

There have been local stories the teacher firings -- more than 200 teachers were purged on Friday, October 2nd -- just a few weeks into the school year. But most of the coverage has focused on whether DC Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was justified in firing the teachers -- many of them veteran educators -- and replacing them with new teachers making smaller salaries.

But what is astonishing is how little media coverage there has been about HOW those firings came down. (I saw one mention in the Post.)

It's a horrible story that bears repeating. It's a story that deserves a giant front page headline that screams out:




My source on the story is a good friend who teaches in one of the DC schools affected and was there when colleagues were fired. This friend - who will remain anonymous, because God knows I don't want to see one more teacher fired - called me from a cell phone the Friday before last, frantic, and practically in tears.

"You won't believe what just happened here at school," my friend yelled into the phone. I was working in a crowded office where I couldn't talk, but I whispered back, "what?"

"It was like some kind of armed coup. Twenty minutes before the end of the school day, with all the kids sitting in the classroom, they walked in and fired a bunch of teachers."

I got up from my desk and went out into the hall where I could hear better.

My friend described the scene. It was just minutes before the bell rang. No one knew it was coming. The doors of certain classrooms opened. Armed policemen wearing bullet-proof vests appeared. Accompanying the cops were the new teachers who informed the existing teachers that they had been replaced. No warning at all.

"Teachers were given exactly five minutes to pack up their things and exit the building," my friend said.

Some of those teachers had worked in the schools for more than 20 years.

Some of those teachers left in tears.

And the students? God knows what they thought.

The teachers' union is suing, protesting the firings. At a rally in DC last Thursday -- it attracted thousands, according to the Post - the union accused School Chancellor Rhee of union busting, systematically removing more expensive, experienced teachers.

In their lawsuit, the union noted that more than 900 new teachers had been hired during the summer, about three times as many as normal. These new instructors, the union argues, will cost the system less in salary.

Rhee denies the union accusations, insisting that the teachers were relieved of their duties for legitimate reasons, including incompetence.

The controversy about why the teachers were removed will undoubtedly rage on.
But the story of how they were dismissed is crystal clear.

In my friend's words, "the teachers were treated like criminals."

Even if they deserved to be fired --and that is not at all clear-- "they deserved to be treated with dignity and respect."

Uh, yeah. If for no other reason, consider the kids.

Consider the lessons imparted that day. A person may devote him or herself to a job for two decades, but that matters not at all when it comes time for the budget ax to fall. An employer has no obligation to treat a loyal employee with respect.

So my question is this: who decided how these teacher firings were going to be executed in DC? And did those decisionmakers give even two minutes of thought to how their decisions would affect the kids who sat and watched the debacle unfold?

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Want to Teach English In Vietnam? Prepare to SWEAT!

By Kelly Fitzgerald

Can Tho city. You probably think you’ve pronounced it correctly, right? CAN-TOE? Well, turns out, you probably didn’t. As is the case with so many other words in Vietnamese, nothing is pronounced the way your American mind thinks it should be.

Can Tho (pronounced CUN-TA) is my current place of residence. Located about 180km south of Ho Chi Minh city, it is the most commercial and profitable province in all of southern Vietnam. What am I doing here, you ask? What many other college graduates are doing this fall: teaching English abroad. In other words: hiding from the anticipated rejection letters of potential business employers in the States. And I couldn’t have picked a more interesting country in which to take cover.

Daily life for an English teacher in Can Tho: Wake up. Sweat. Wash my face. Put on my work clothes. Sweat. Flag a motorbike taxi to Campus Two of Can Tho University. Pay the man 10,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), roughly equivalent to forty-five cents in the U.S. Sweat some more. Teach for three hours. SWEAT. Come home and go to dinner with my roommate (which costs only fifty cents, by the way.) Get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Repeat.

Although communism is way less apparent in the southern provinces of Vietnam, it is still evident in the country’s educational system. My students, though sweet and friendly, are very shy. They never raise their hand and look begrudged to come speak in front of the class when I call on them. They are not free-thinkers. They are taught how to think at an early age, and that means two things: acceptance and subordination.

Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam ( is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University. We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.

“Okay, class,” I say, preparing to teach them how to pronounce "sheep."

“Repeat after me: ship-sheep.”

Class: “Ship-ship.”

Me: “Err…bet-but.”

Class: “Bess-buss.”

Me: “Put-pitt.”

Class: “Puss-piss.”

Evidently, we have a way to go, but we’re getting there. And it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for.

There are touristy things to do in Can Tho, of course. The floating markets are the most popular attraction. To see them at their busiest, be prepared to rise at 4 a.m. I have yet to get there myself, but according to my roommate and co-worker, it is quite the site to see: little Vietnamese women in their conical hats, squatting on their long canoes, trying to sell you fresh fish, vegetables and fruit in the heart of the Mekong delta. (I still have yet to develop a taste for seafood that early, though!)

I’ve also grown accustomed to my noisy yet invisible neighbors. The sounds of the frogs and the geckoes (yes, they make noises) are rhythms that I’ve grown quite accustomed to. It’s never a dull night in my front or backyard – I’m just never invited to the party.

Besides its surplus of amphibian life, southern Vietnam is also well-known for its food. Specifically, their sweet-n-sour soup and their “pancakes.” In the traditional American frame of mind, pancakes are thick, lovely slices of carbohydrate heaven. In Can Tho, they are very thin, very crispy flakes of fried rice noodle, jam-packed with a plethora of goodies in between: bean sprouts, carrots, string beans, shrimp, chicken, beef, pineapple, peas, etc. Anything you want in there (except maple syrup) you got it.

All these fabulous things aside, it’s important to note that Vietnam was not my first choice. I originally intended on teaching English in Europe after graduating in May. Preferably Italy, as I had studied the language for seven years. Those plans, however, fell through. Now I can’t imagine having lived in a place where the cost of living would have exceeded my salary almost two to one.

Here, I live like royalty. The food is incredible and the people, so hospitable. Everyone is always smiling at me. And the only reason for that is just my appearance: there are few if any “foreigners” in Can Tho, so I stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, it’s strange but exhilarating to be looking from the outside in, and this country has certainly taken my breath away.

Writer Kelly Fitzgerald is a May, 2009 graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her blog capturing her adventures in Vietnam appears at

Sunday, October 04, 2009

"You Are Protesting My Health, M'am!"

By Lisa Gillespie

I am reading on the subway as we pull up to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC, when a yellow-shirted, middle-aged, slightly over-weight woman with a sparkly home-made visor files in with her husband. She is holding a sign that says, “Hitler gave great speeches, too,” with a picture of Obama and a mustache. Her husband holds a sign comparing the proposed health care reform to socialism. She starts asking the woman next to her, an overweight woman in a similar visor and a wheelchair, where she is from. As I hear they are both from North Carolina, I cringe. They get excited. My home state is represented by the conservative protestors marching on the Capitol.

The woman looks at me, I imagine she sees a young woman, just out of college, white and blond hair, reading. She smiles warmly. I imagine being pulled into this woman’s bosom, just like one of my aunts would do after her niece arrives from the big city. But I cannot smile back at this woman. My mouth twists and my eyes narrow. How can she smile at me.

I do not have health insurance.

I work three part-time jobs.

I do not know when and if I will get a full-time job, which would provide the insurance so that I could go to the doctor.

Last week I had a toothache. It lasted for a week. I called my mother crying one night because of the pain, but, more because of worry caused by that pain. My mind was spinning with the thoughts of the potential decay, my gums and teeth would eventually rot out of my head. Usually, I just do not think about what if something were to happen to me. But I could not avoid it on this evening.

I know I am not alone.

I would like to be taken care of.

But, because I cannot find a full-time job, I am not.

There are logistics to health care, money involved. But the idea that giving care to people is protestable, it angers me. I am one of these people. And so many people at my part-time restaurant job. And so many people I interview.

I do not know if universal health care will go through; it is not within my frame of reference right now to think so, or to even hope so. Because I wake up every day with the hope that I do not get sick, because the small sickness might lead to something bigger. I know I would have resources. I could move home. My parents and the aunts with the bosoms would help. But some people do not have family.

I feel a little guilty for not smiling back at the lady on the train. But, I do not think she feels guilty. So I will try not to either.

Lisa Gillespie is interim editor of Street Sense, a newspaper about homelessness and poverty published in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the sales of Street Sense support the homeless vendors who sell the paper on the streets. This piece ran in the September 18th issue of the paper. Donations to Street Sense are always welcome, go to