Fire Fighters Watching Canadian Blaze, Worried About Summer Conditions In U.S.

A wildfire burned down neighborhoods in Wenatchee, Washington, in June of 2015. Last year was a record wildfire season in the Western U.S. and forest managers are worried about an equally, if not more, destructive season this year.

A wildfire burned down neighborhoods in Wenatchee, Washington, in June of 2015. Last year was a record wildfire season in the Western U.S. and forest managers are worried about an equally, if not more, destructive season this year. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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The out-of-control wildfire burning in northern Alberta has fire officials south of the border casting a nervous eye toward the summer.

The latest news that the Canadian blaze has moved into oil fields after destroying parts of an entire city comes as the U.S. Forest Service issues its annual wildfire forecast for the western United States Tuesday.

And the latest forecast is nothing short of a warning to communities in the western U.S. that a similarly destructive wildfire there is quite likely.

“This year we are facing a serious circumstance in California and potentially above normal fire seasons in the Southwest and the southern portion of the United States,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service.

Just consider California, which is entering its fifth year of severe drought. Forest officials say upwards of 40 million stressed trees have died during the period; 29 million of those occurred last year. That in itself amounts to a historic fuel load buildup, and it’s not lost on Vilsack that millions of people live in and around tinder dry forests in the state.

“You’ve got forty million dead trees, you’ve got forty million opportunities for very intensive fires,” he said.

Last year, the country’s most destructive wildfire occurred in northern California, engulfing about half of a small town.

Vilsack also used a Tuesday press conference to renew calls on Congress to change how the federal government pays its fire bills.

Last year, the government spent roughly $2.6 billion fighting fires that destroyed some 4,500 homes and claimed the lives of seven firefighters. The Forest Service shouldered the bulk of that expense, and as in previous years, the agency dipped into other programs — such as forest health and restoration projects — to pay the rising fire suppression costs. The agency also had to divert its staff working on projects that could actually prevent future wildfires, Vilsack said.

It’s a predicament — if not outright irony — that only seems to be amplified as the wildfire seasons get worse.

In the meantime, U.S. forest officials say they are prepared for a potentially catastrophic wildfire season this summer such as the one that Canada is already experiencing. Ten thousand firefighters, 300 heavy air tankers and dozens of other aircraft are now on call. While not as bad as the situation in Canada, already five times as many acres have burned in the U.S. so far compared to this time last year. And last year set records.

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Sanders Doubles Down On Nevada Convention Controversy

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says his campaign and supporters were not treated fairly during last Saturday's Nevada Democratic convention.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders says his campaign and supporters were not treated fairly during last Saturday’s Nevada Democratic convention. Charlie Neibergall/AP hide caption

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After an unruly and chaotic Nevada Democratic convention over the weekend, Bernie Sanders is doubling down on accusations that the state party treated him unfairly and has denied that his supporters were inciting violence.

“Within the last few days there have been a number of criticisms made against my campaign organization. Party leaders in Nevada, for example, claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence.’ That is nonsense,” the Democratic presidential hopeful said in a statement Tuesday. “Our campaign has held giant rallies all across this country, including in high-crime areas, and there have been zero reports of violence. Our campaign of course believes in non-violent change and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.”

Sanders also argued that his campaign had been victim to violence in the state before, pointing to a possible shooting that occurred at one of his campaign offices.

The Sanders campaign says that in Nevada on Saturday, “the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.” It is alleging that the chair of the convention incorrectly ruled on a voice vote, unfairly deeming 64 of its delegates ineligible, ignored floor motions from his supporters and wouldn’t accept any petitions to change the rules.

“If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November, it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned,” the Sanders statement continued.

Rival Hillary Clinton won the state’s caucuses back in February by five points, and the 23 delegates were split proportionally between the two, 13 to 10. The remaining 12 were set to be awarded last Saturday at the state convention. The Sanders campaign had worked to make sure many of its loyalists were at that gathering though, where they hoped to win a majority of the delegates and narrow Clinton’s lead to 18 to 17 delegates out of Nevada.

But chaos followed after Sanders supporters allege they were denied being seated at the convention and that the state party chairwoman Roberta Lange was slanting the rules in favor of Clinton. In the end, Clinton ended up with 20 delegates out of the state to Sanders’s 15.

Sanders supporters, believing they had been treated unfairly, rushed the stage, threw chairs and were shouting obscenities, according to veteran Nevada journalist Jon Ralston. Even after the convention concluded, many refused to leave and had to be escorted out by security.

Since then, Lange, the Nevada Democratic chairwoman, said she’s been receiving threats from Sanders supporters.

“It’s been vile,” she told the New York Times. “It’s been threatening messages, threatening my family, threatening my life, threatening my grandchild.”

The dent Sanders supporters hoped to make in Clinton’s insurmountable delegate lead would have been minor — she leads Sanders by 283 pledged delegates, and that grows when superdelegates are factored in.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had said earlier in the day that he was confident Sanders would condemn the violence — which he did not later in his statement.

“This is a test of leadership as we all know, and I’m hopeful and very confident Sen. Sanders will do the right thing,” Reid said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee said it would “be reaching out to the leadership of both of our campaigns to ask them to stand with the Democratic Party in denouncing and taking steps to prevent the type of behavior on display over the weekend in Las Vegas.”

“There is no excuse for what happened in Nevada, and it is incumbent upon all of us in positions of leadership to speak out,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.

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Olympic Committee Could Bar 31 Athletes From Rio Games

A major doping crackdown dating back to 2008 could result in 31 athletes being barred from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

A major doping crackdown dating back to 2008 could result in 31 athletes being barred from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Felipe Dana/AP hide caption

toggle caption Felipe Dana/AP

After retests of samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 31 athletes from 12 countries in six sports could be banned from the this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday.

In a statement, the IOC said it retested 454 samples from the 2008 Beijing Games, using “the very latest scientific analysis methods.” The retesting yielded suspicious results from dozens of athletes.

“All those athletes infringing anti-doping rules will be banned from competing at the Olympic Games Rio 2016,” the statement from the IOC said.

The IOC said it is expecting 250 more results from retested samples taken at the 2012 London Games.

“The aim is to stop any drugs cheats coming to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro,” the IOC said.

Retesting samples from Olympic Games is not a new practice. As drug testing technology improves, the IOC is able to better analyze samples. The Associated Press reports that a few months after the Beijing Olympics, the IOC “reanalyzed nearly 1,000 of the total of 4,000 samples with a new test for the blood-boosting drug CERA. Five athletes were caught, including 1,500-meter gold medalist Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain.”

The news service also reports that “nearly 500 doping samples from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin” have been retested, but the IOC has not revealed whether any of the tests came back positive. The AP adds: “five athletes were caught in retests of samples from the 2004 Athens Olympics, including men’s shot put winner Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine.”

The IOC’s Tuesday statement also announced an investigation into the drug testing during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The scandal surrounding allegations of a massive state-sponsored doping operation in Russia has been gathering strength since the former head of the Russian anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, disclosed the details of the illicit enterprise to the The New York Times last week. The newspaper wrote that it was “one of the most elaborate — and successful — doping ploys in sports history.” It described the setup, as confessed by Rodchenkov:

“In a dark-of-night operation, Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence service surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said. For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day, he said.”

The IOC requested the the World Anti-Doping Agency fully investigate the allegations. The IOC also directed its lab in Switzerland — where the Sochi samples will be stored for 10 years — to cooperate with WADA’s analysis.

“All these measures are a powerful strike against the cheats we do not allow to win. They show once again that dopers have no place to hide,” said IOC President Thomas Bach in the statement. “The re-tests from Beijing and London and the measures we are taking following the worrying allegations against the Laboratory in Sochi are another major step to protect the clean athletes irrespective of any sport or any nation.”

The revelation about corruption in Russia’s anti-doping lab also prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation, according to the Times.

A spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York would not confirm the probe to NPR, citing DOJ policy to not comment on investigations, but the Times, citing “two people familiar with the case,” said “prosecutors are believed to be pursuing conspiracy and fraud charges.”

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President Obama Is Familiar With Finland's Heavy Metal Scene. Are You?

Children of Bodom is one of the many bands in Finland's vibrant — and unique — heavy metal scene.

Children of Bodom is one of the many bands in Finland’s vibrant — and unique — heavy metal scene. David A. Smith/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption David A. Smith/Getty Images

At White House state dinners, it’s customary for a president to nod to the strengths and contributions of guest countries. And when hosting Nordic nations on Friday, President Obama paid tribute to a particular Finnish export.


“I do want to point out, that Finland has perhaps the most heavy metal bands in the word, per capita,” he said, “and also ranks high on good governance. I don’t know if there’s any correlation there.”

Albert Mudrian is the editor-in-chief of the heavy metal-loving Decibel Magazine. He says that many metalheads took note of President Obama’s comment.

“The metal underground got pretty excited about the President of the United States referencing the Finnish metal scene,” he says.

He says Finland has one of the most vibrant metal scenes in the world. It’s estimated the country has 54 metal bands for every 100,000 Finns. But why Finland?

“I’m sure the 200 days of a bone-crushing winter have something to do with it,” he says. “And perpetual darkness.”

He might be on to something. Finland does share that climate with its neighboring Scandinavian countries, and metal is a flourishing genre all over the region. But while Sweden is known for its death metal bands, and Norway is famous for black metal, Mudrian says the Finns are less homogeneous.

“There’s so many different types of bands, but the one thing, to me, that kind of unites them is that they all have kind of a difficult sound,” he says. “Finland is making the weirdest heavy metal imaginable.”

Whether there’s a connection between bizarre heavy metal and good governance, however, is still anybody’s guess.

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Older Voters To Candidates: Don't Forget About Us

A voter enters a polling place on May 3, in Whiting, Ind. Older voters feel that the issues that concern them haven't been mentioned enough on the campaign trail.

A voter enters a polling place on May 3, in Whiting, Ind. Older voters feel that the issues that concern them haven’t been mentioned enough on the campaign trail. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images

Older voters might wonder this campaign season whether presidential candidates are taking them for granted. People 65 and older up make up more than a fifth of the electorate, but the issues that concern them are rarely mentioned on the campaign trail.

Rudy Pavini, 81, and Tommie Ward, 84, who recently spent lunchtime dancing at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, north of Los Angeles. It takes their minds off of their worries about Social Security.

Rudy Pavini and Tommie Ward dance at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center near Los Angeles.

Rudy Pavini and Tommie Ward dance at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center near Los Angeles. Ina Jaffe/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ina Jaffe/NPR

“Some people say they’re gonna change it, destroy it. And I live on Social Security, so we need more,” Pavini says. “We need to live. We can’t survive; we’ll be out in the street.”

Ward lives with her niece because she says she doesn’t get enough money from Social Security. “If something should happen to her, I don’t know what would happen with me,” she says.

To be fair, candidates have discussed Social Security some. Months ago, Republican candidates talked about cuts, though the apparent nominee, Donald Trump, has said he’s against that. Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both want to expand benefits, though their plans differ. And they’ve both talked about opening up Medicare to younger people.

But at the senior center, people raised other issues, too, like continuing education for older adults and affordable housing. Without exception, Clinton was their choice for president. But concern about these issues — and their neglect in this campaign — cuts across party lines.

David Cole, 60, was a delegate to the recent California Republican convention, so he follows politics pretty closely.

“I’ve heard nothing from any candidate other than some doublespeak we hear in every election,” he says.

Cole finds that’s unfortunate. He has a particular interest in older Americans not just because of his own age, but because he’s a developer of assisted living facilities. Those aren’t cheap. But he notes that people now in middle age have saved next to nothing for retirement.

“Those people who are in their 60s, 50s and 40s, I don’t know where they’re going have their money to afford what I do for a living,” he says. “So there needs to be another model [for retirement] out there, and no one’s talking about the future. And it concerns me a lot.”

It concerns Ken Dychtwald, too. He’s the CEO of a research and survey company called Age Wave. By the year 2030, he notes, one in five Americans will be 65 and over.

“Are we prepared?” he asks. “No. Are the candidates addressing this age wave and offering innovative solutions? No.”

In a conference call with reporters, Dychtwald lists a host of issues that the candidates should be forced to address, including the retraining of older workers, finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and combating ageism.

“I am absolutely outraged that these core issues have not been meaningfully covered, if covered at all, during the presidential debates and interviews,” Dychtwald says.

There’s a good reason for that, says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

“Hillary Clinton will be 69 on Election Day and Donald Trump will be 70. This will be the oldest pair of nominees that we’ve ever had,” he says.

Pitney said the candidates may not want voters to wonder how old is too old while they’re making up their minds.

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French Labor Protests: Tear Gas In Paris, Truckers Block Highways

French riot police clash with protesters during a demonstration in Bordeaux Tuesday as the French government pushed ahead with a controversial labor bill. The legislation has sparked two months of street protests.

French riot police clash with protesters during a demonstration in Bordeaux Tuesday as the French government pushed ahead with a controversial labor bill. The legislation has sparked two months of street protests. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images

Riot police in Paris used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters who had hurled rocks and other objects at officers. Truckers blocked roadways and railroad workers joined the strikes.

Here’s the big issue — French leaders say they have to make their country’s economy more flexible, competitive, and productive. To do that, they say they need to end some long-standing worker protections. Legislation that’s moving forward would make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers. Truck drivers would also see their overtime pay cut. As NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reported for our newscast unit:

“Truckers are vehemently opposed to the labor reform bill, which would reduce their overtime pay from 150 percent to 110 percent of their regular salary. Dockworkers, rail workers, postal workers and air traffic controllers will join in before the week is over.”

The work-rule overhaul bill has cleared the lower house of Parliament and will likely be cleared by the Senate in June.

Critics of the bill say would be a giant step backward for workers’ rights and social progress.

French President Francois Hollande’s popularity has plummeted due to his support for the changes in labor policy. Despite that, the 61-year-old Socialist leader told Europe 1 Radio, “I will not give in.”

Hollande says loosening France’s rigid labor code will help the economy and job creation.

Meanwhile, the protests this week continue. Hollande said 1,000 people have been arrested and more than 300 police injured during the sporadic clashes that have spanned the past few months.

The French Interior Ministry says some 68,000 people took part in demonstrations on Tuesday. That’s a much smaller number than the 390,000 people who turned out in March.

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Top Scientists Say GMOs Are Safe, But Don't Always Deliver On Promises

Worker Javier Alcantar tends to corn crops at the Monsanto Co. test field in Woodland, Calif., in 2012.

Worker Javier Alcantar tends to corn crops at the Monsanto Co. test field in Woodland, Calif., in 2012. Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The National Academy of Sciences — probably the country’s most prestigious scientific group — has reaffirmed its judgement that GMOs are safe to eat. But the group’s new report struck a different tone from previous ones, with much more space devoted to concerns about genetically modified foods, including social and economic ones.

The report marks an anniversary. Twenty years ago, farmers started growing soybeans that have been genetically modified to tolerate the popular weedkiller known as Roundup and corn that contains a protein, extracted from bacteria, that kills some insect pests.

But in those years, arguments about these crops have grown so contentious that the National Academy can’t be sure that people will believe whatever it has to say on the topic.

Even before this report came out, an anti-GMO group called Food & Water Watch attacked it. The group accused some members of the committee that prepared the report of receiving research funding from biotech companies, or having other ties to the industry.

“The makeup of the panel is pretty clear. People are coming in with a perspective that is pro-genetically engineered crop,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch.

The preemptive attack frustrates Fred Gould, the North Carolina State University scientist who chaired the committee. Gould has been known in the past as a GMO critic. He’s pushed for restrictions on the planting of some GMO crops. “I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, they denied me seeds and plants to do my experiments,” he says.

Gould says that over the two years that he and the other members of this committee worked on this report, they had one important rule: “If you had an opinion, you had to back it up with data. If you didn’t have the data, it didn’t go into the report.”

The report tries to answer a long list of questions about GMOs, involving nutrition, environmental effects, effects on the farm economy, and monopoly control over seeds.

The most basic conclusion: There’s no evidence that GMOs are risky to eat.

The committee also found that GMOs, as promised, have allowed farmers of some crops to spray less insecticide to protect their crops — although there’s a risk that the GMO crops may not work as well in the future, because insects could develop resistance to them. Also, there’s no evidence that GMOs have reduced the amount of wild plant and insect life on farms.

But the report found that some claims about the benefits of GMOs have been exaggerated.

For instance, the productivity of crops has been increasing for a century, and that didn’t change when GMOs came along. “The expectation from some of the [GMO] proponents was that we need genetic engineering to feed the world, and we’re going to use genetic engineering to make that increase in yield go up faster. We saw no evidence of that,” Gould says.

The report urges federal agencies to change the way they regulates GMOs. Up to now, companies have introduced just a small number of different kinds of genetically modified crops. That could change very soon, because there’s new technology, called gene editing, that isn’t exactly genetic engineering, but it’s not traditional plant breeding, either.

The report urges regulators to look at all new crops, no matter how they’re created, if they “have novelty and the possibility of some kind of risk associated with them,” Gould says.

Many scientists who got their first look at the report today praised it. Some called it the most comprehensive review of GMOs that anyone, so far, has carried out.

But long-time critics of GMOs were less impressed.

Patty Lovera, from Food & Water Watch, the group that attacked the Academy’s committee for being too closely linked to industry, took a quick look at the report and didn’t see much that seemed new. “It’s not the final word” on GMOs, she says.

The National Academy of Sciences is trying to make this report more easily accessible to the public. It has set up a website where people can read the report and also look up the sections that address specific comments that were submitted by the public.

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Mindy Kaling's TV Character Is Called A 'Coconut'

THE MINDY PROJECT — "Bernardo & Anita"

THE MINDY PROJECT — “Bernardo & Anita” Evans Vestal Ward/Universal Television hide caption

toggle caption Evans Vestal Ward/Universal Television

Last week’s episode of The Mindy Project finally addressed a lingering criticism of the show — that it doesn’t explore Mindy’s “otherness.” In it, Dr. Mindy Lahiri – the character played by series creator Mindy Kaling — goes on a date with an Indian man named Neel. He is, as Mindy admits to him, the first Indian guy she’s gone out with. She also tells him she knows little about the place her parents came from. “I wanna say there’s a river there,” she says. “And some tigers?”

Neel, on the other hand, values his Indian identity and is put off by Mindy’s lack of awareness. “I don’t think I could date a coconut,” he says — “brown on the outside, white on the inside.”

Neel and Mindy may be fictional, but this dichotomy isn’t. They represent the two extremes of South Asian immigrants in the United States: One is determined to assimilate (and loses touch with roots in the process), the other holds on to the culture for dear life even while forging a new identity. And my conversations with friends whose parents moved here from other parts of the world, especially developing countries, have led me to believe that many immigrant communities have their versions of Neel and Mindy.

When I first arrived in the United States in 2002 for graduate school, I was unwittingly a little Mindy-like. Not that I was trying hard to assimilate, but I didn’t really think much about my cultural identity. I fancied myself a citizen of the world even though this was my first time traveling abroad. (Yes, I was a bit of a brat.) I didn’t yearn to be part of an Indian community. I had a handful of good Indian friends in the States, and that was enough for me.

What I loved about the United States was being able to meet people from all over the world. I cultivated a multicultural circle of friends, including a Croatian, a Vietnamese, an Australian, two Costa Ricans, a Georgian, a Ukrainian and some Germans, Americans and Indians. When we hung out, our discussions easily went to similarities and differences between places we’d grown up in. Questions ranged from “What festivals did you celebrate growing up?” to “Did you wear uniforms to school?” and the all-time favorite “What do dogs and cows say in your country?” (In my home state of West Bengal, India, the answer is “bhow bhow” and “humbaa!”)

After graduate school, I felt as if I didn’t fit in. As the only foreigner or one of a few in places where I worked, I began to think more about my identity. I had little in common with most people, in terms of childhood experiences, food, movies, music. That hadn’t stopped me from connecting with someone before. Having grown up in urban India with many cultures, languages, music and cuisines, I was used to openly discussing people’s backgrounds – that’s how I got to know them better.

But here, I felt I was hitting an invisible wall — there seemed to be an awkward silence around cultural differences. Only a handful of well-traveled and curious people asked me about India or my childhood. Most others simply declared their love for yoga, Slum Dog Millionaire and mango lassi!

Some American friends have said they worry about offending people from different backgrounds by pointing out differences.

Meanwhile, another friend (her parents are from India) told me she didn’t want her childhood friends to ask her about her culture, because she didn’t want to feel different. Kind of like Mindy.

I was beginning to understand why the need to assimilate in America combined with the tiptoeing around differences might create a Dr. Mindy Lahiri. But in that recent episode, even Mindy was pushed to deal with the “coconut” issue. So she decides to have a Mundan ceremony for her new son. It’s the shaving of a Hindu baby’s head as a symbol of freedom from its past life. “I just don’t want my kid to learn how to be an Indian from a Bombay Palace menu on my fridge,” she explains to the guests at the ceremony.

That kind of return to heritage is a step many hyphenated Americans take (although unlike Mindy, they may not turn to Yelp to find the top-ranked Hindu priest in their neighborhood). Over the years, I found myself wanting to understand better where I came from. I made an effort to find like-minded, young Indian people. I celebrated Indian festivals at home and included my friends, both South Asians and American. I felt I was connecting my present to my past, gaining a sense of continuity that I was missing. Lighting lamps and sharing meals with my friends during the festival of Diwali became an annual ritual, opening up conversations around different cultures and bringing me closer to my friends.

I began to see why immigrants hang on so tightly to their traditions in their adopted country. It’s a mix of homesickness and wanting to belong in a foreign country. Because identity becomes more important when you can no longer take it for granted.

Now, 14 years since I first moved here, I have arrived at a middle ground when it comes to my cultural identity. Early on, I wouldn’t bring up India or my upbringing unless asked. Now I make it a point to do so. My poor friends have to suffer through stories about my childhood or updates on the weather back home — which is often a variation of “Gosh it’s superhot in India!” I make it a point to wear Indian fabrics and saris more often, partly because I enjoy wearing them and partly because it’s a way to open up conversations around cultural differences. I’m also trying to get my American husband to learn my mother tongue, Bengali, but that’s a work in progress.

Like Mindy, I too am thinking of the next generation. Mindy’s Indian parents raised her as an American, assuming that meant keeping their heritage from her. So her mother is surprised when she embraces her roots once again with her son’s ceremony. “Mindy, I’m very happy you want to be more Indian,” she says. “We weren’t sure you’d ever want that.”

As for me, I hope someday when my husband and I have children, the definition of American will be different. I hope that celebrating Indian festivals with their sari-wearing mom will feel just as normal and American to them as eating hot dogs at a baseball game with their dad.

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Treating Opioid Addiction With A Drug Raises Hope And Controversy

A man in Mt. Airy, Md., shakes Suboxone pills from a bottle in late March.

A man in Mt. Airy, Md., shakes Suboxone pills from a bottle in late March. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Scientists and doctors say the case is clear: The best way to tackle the country’s opioid epidemic is to get more people on medications that have been proven in studies to reduce relapses and, ultimately, overdoses.

Yet, only a fraction of the more than 4 million people believed to abuse prescription painkillers or heroin in the U.S. are being given what’s called medication-assisted treatment.

One reason is the limited availability of the treatment. But it’s also the case that stigma around the addiction drugs has inhibited their use.

Methadone and buprenorphine, two of the drugs used for treatment, are themselves opioids. A phrase you often hear about medication-assisted treatment is that it’s merely replacing one drug with another. While doctors and scientists strongly disagree with that characterization, it’s a view that’s widespread in recovery circles.

Now, the White House is pushing to change the landscape for people seeking help. In his 2017 budget, President Obama has asked Congress for $1.1 billion in new funding to address the opioid epidemic, with almost all of it geared toward expanding access to medication-assisted treatment.

The White House is also highlighting success stories. At the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit held in Atlanta in March, President Obama appeared on stage with Crystal Oertle, a 35-year-old mother of two from Ohio. Oertle spoke of her spiral into addiction, which began with prescription painkillers and progressed to heroin. She tried unsuccessfully to quit on her own several times, before being prescribed buprenorphine a year ago. “I personally couldn’t get through the withdrawal symptoms,” Oertle said in Atlanta. “I couldn’t tough it out. I know some people can. I couldn’t do it. This last time has been the most successful recovery for me.”

Her experience isn’t unique.

“I’ve seen people with opioid-use disorders go through inpatient treatment without medications time and time and time again, without ever being offered alternatives,” says Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House. “We wouldn’t do that with any other disease. If one treatment failed for you, we’d say, let’s look at other possible treatment options.”

David Lidz runs the organization Ladders to Leaders in Hagerstown, Md., where he offers both beds and jobs for men transitioning out of drug treatment.

David Lidz runs the organization Ladders to Leaders in Hagerstown, Md., where he offers both beds and jobs for men transitioning out of drug treatment. Meredith Rizzo/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Botticelli says patients should consider the evidence for medication-assisted treatment and together with their doctors make a decision about what’s best for them.

Methadone and buprenorphine have been tested in scores of clinical trials. Researchers have found that when combined with counseling, they significantly reduce opioid use and keep people in treatment longer.

“We have tons of experience with patients who remain in treatment for months and years, who do very well on relapse-prevention medicines,” says Dr. Marc Fishman, medical director at Maryland Treatment Centers in Baltimore. He says among his patients, primarily young people, about half remain with the program six months into treatment. Studies have shown far worse outcomes for patients who detox without follow-up medications, with relapse rates topping 90 percent.

Still, there are many people who stand by the so-called abstinence route — recovery without the use of medications. Their views are informed by personal experiences and deeply-held beliefs about what constitutes true recovery.

For years, Juan Ramirez, 56, led a high-risk lifestyle to support his use of prescription painkillers. “When you start robbing drug stores and drug dealers because of your drug habit, your life is not working right,” he says.

A friend told Ramirez about a doctor in Baltimore who prescribed Suboxone, a brand of buprenorphine. He liked the way Suboxone made him feel, so he would often exceed the dosage, buying pills from other patients so he wouldn’t run out. The good news was he stopped using other narcotics and, overall, he felt more functional. Still, after three years of seeing the doctor, he never felt like he’d achieved full recovery. “I was still an addict,” he says. “It was just legal.”

Lidz runs a group home in Hagerstown, Md., for men who are moving from drug treatment back into daily life.

Lidz runs a group home in Hagerstown, Md., for men who are moving from drug treatment back into daily life. Meredith Rizzo/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Meredith Rizzo/NPR

That line of thinking extends to some people whose mission is to help people in recovery, including David Lidz, a recovering alcoholic, who runs a group home in Hagerstown, Md. The home has 10 beds for men who are transitioning out of intensive drug treatment back into daily life. In addition to beds, Lidz offers the men work with his contracting business, refurbishing houses. The emphasis is on hard work, personal responsibility and purpose. It’s what worked for Lidz in his recovery, but even he knows it doesn’t work for everyone.

When he started his work as a recovery advocate, Lidz knew little about medication-assisted treatment and had yet to form an opinion about it. Soon, he started getting reports from the group home that someone’s Suboxone had been stolen, or someone looked high, or that people were trading, selling, and snorting Suboxone. “That to me just looks like heroin,” Lidz says.

So he made a decision: He wouldn’t accept anyone on it.

Today, that stance is threatening the group home and his business. “Now we’ve been told by clinical settings that we’re essentially blacklisted, that they can’t even mention our program if we won’t take people on opiates, on Suboxone,” Lidz says.

He worries it could lead to missed opportunities for people like Charles Testerman, who came to Lidz’s group home after several months in drug treatment. Testerman describes his years of drug use as “doing everything to excess.” He drank, smoked marijuana, and got hooked on prescription painkillers and later heroin. When he couldn’t afford heroin, he bought Suboxone on the street, hoping it would help him stop using other drugs. It didn’t work.

“I was doing Suboxone in the mornings, as well as Adderall to bring myself up. Then at night, I was taking Xanax, smoking weed and drinking, just to go to sleep every night,” Testerman says. “It was just a constant cycle.”

Charles Testerman (left) learns from David Gibney how to restore an early 19th century barn in Waynesboro, Pa.

Charles Testerman (left) learns from David Gibney how to restore an early 19th century barn in Waynesboro, Pa. Meredith Rizzo/NPR hide caption

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Today, he has an apprenticeship with a master woodworker at a place called The Stoner Farm, Anglicized from Steiner, the name of the family that originally owned the place. Testerman is working to restore an early 19th century barn there. “I feel great, happy to be out here doing this,” he says. “It’s just nice to wake up in the morning and not have to do anything to feel normal.”

Testerman left an intensive drug treatment program and now lives in a group home run by Lidz.

Testerman left an intensive drug treatment program and now lives in a group home run by Lidz. Meredith Rizzo/NPR hide caption

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Fishman, the addiction doctor in Baltimore, knows there are people like Testerman who find the strength to have what he calls a life-changing conversion without medications. But, he cautions, not everyone can do it, and it’s not scalable. He wants to persuade the doubters that medication-assisted treatment is the best tool available at the moment, and, in making his case, he’s willing to acknowledge its limitations.

“This doesn’t change my claim that it should be the standard of care,” he says. “But we don’t have the penicillin for addiction. These are not curative medications. In having a nuanced, thoughtful discourse with people who might disagree with us, acknowledging those limitations I think would make us more credible.”

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After 50-Year Legal Struggle, Mississippi School District Ordered To Desegregate

A group of public school students in Cleveland, Miss., ride the bus on their way home following classes on May 13, 2015.

A group of public school students in Cleveland, Miss., ride the bus on their way home following classes on May 13, 2015. Rogelio V. Solis/AP hide caption

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Exactly 62 years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision was historic — but it’s not history yet.

Just this week, a federal judge ordered a Mississippi school district to desegregate its schools.

The case on which the judge was ruling was originally brought during the summer of 1965. The first named plaintiff, “Diane Cowan, minor,” was a fourth-grader at the time. Now she’s Diane Cowan White, a 57-year-old clerk with the U.S. Postal Service.

The legal saga that bears her name continues because, for 50 years, the Cleveland, Miss., school district has failed to integrate.

The town of 12,000 people — like many, many towns and cities in America — is racially segregated. A railroad track runs through town. Black people live on the east side of the tracks; white people live on the west side.

(Last year, The Washington Post published a stunning set of visualizations showing how American cities are separated along railroad tracks and highways. Suffice it to say Cleveland is not alone in this.)

In the early 1960s, the town’s schools were explicitly segregated by race. There were white schools and black schools, and no matter where children lived, their school attendance was determined by their race.

So began the case against Cleveland School District — and a five-decade saga of resistance and inadequate action.

There was some backlash to a judge’s first order, instructing the district to desegregate. The Wall Street Journal wrote that, according to a historian, some Cleveland residents proposed segregating schools by sex if they couldn’t segregate them by race, to keep black boys and white girls from interacting at school.

But Cleveland agreed to allow black students into white schools, and vice versa. However, the federal government later alleged that the district established “dual residency” policies to cheat and send students to schools based on their race instead of on their neighborhood. They also built new schools in locations designed to keep black students in all-black schools, the U.S. said in a motion in the ’80s, and assigned faculty based on race.

Fifteen years passed. Schools remained segregated.

So Cleveland agreed to make an effort — to stop distributing faculty based on race, to encourage students to transfer to classes where they’d be in the minority, to set up exclusive and attractive classes to give them an incentive to make such a transfer, to establish appealing magnet schools in majority-black communities.

Fifteen years passed.

And … schools remained segregated.

In 2011, the U.S. revived the case with a motion stating that Cleveland lacked the will to “meaningfully integrate.”

“In a school district where approximately 67 percent of the students are black and 30 percent of the students are white, half of Cleveland’s schools — the schools on the east side of the railroad tracks — are all black or virtually all black,” the federal government wrote. The other schools were disproportionately white.

A judge noted that “despite the District’s attempts to attract Caucasian students to the majority-African-American Eastside High, today, the school is attended by 99.7% African-American students.”

And in the eyes of residents, it’s both separate and unequal, The New York Times reports: “Testimony given in court by both white and black residents described a stigma associated with the black schools and a perception among families that white students received a better education.”

The district said, basically, it would try harder — with better course offerings to tempt white kids to cross the railroad tracks, or with an intense high school magnet program.

But the U.S. argued that none of that had worked before. This time around, they didn’t accuse the school district of active resistance or any ill will — just of failure.

Time for the nuclear option: merging both high schools into a single school with around 1,000 students, and similarly combining middle schools.

Some residents thought that would be too big and that the town couldn’t afford new buildings.

They also argued that forcing integration by merging would cause white families to turn to private schools, causing a drop in enrollment.

No dice, said the judge: The fear of white flight doesn’t override students’ constitutional right to an integrated education.

“The delay in segregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education,” Judge Debra Brown wrote. “Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the District to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.”

The Associated Press writes that the case may be eye-catching, but it’s not unique:

“Merging black and white schools was a common desegregation method in the 1960s and 1970s, and the opinion is a reminder that desegregation lawsuits never ended in some places. As recently as 2014, the U.S. Justice Department was still a party to 43 such suits in Mississippi alone.”

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