Saturday, December 27, 2008
I got to spend a short, but ever so sweet, holiday visit with both my sons and their sweethearts at Zac and Erin's new apartment in Santa Barbara. Alex and Heather drove up from San Diego and I drove down from Palo Alto for an impromptu gathering. Though three out of four of them had to work at one point or another, we spent some relaxed, super-enjoyable time hanging out, making latkes, exchanging gifts, eating out, and watching movies and sports. It was my first time seeing them in Santa Barbara since Zac and Erin relocated from New Orleans in October.
I took a walk one afternoon and was flooded with the memories of my Mom's visit to me not too long after I moved to Santa Barbara from Illinois – about 38 years ago. (38 years!? Objects look so much larger in the rear view mirror.) I remember how nervous she got as we drove on a narrow winding road going upward from the Mission. And how we got high and giggled through a drive-in movie. My dad also made a weekend visit at a point when I'd just moved into a no-longer-standing cottage on State Street – furnished only with a mattress on the floor. To his credit, he held in his reactions and got me a used dresser to complement the mattress. As I walked along State Street, I felt the closure of a very long, elliptical, family orbit.
I remember feeling an awesome dual-sided awareness when the twin boys were born twenty five years ago. On the one hand, they were so vulnerable (4 lbs and 2 lbs) and were connected to nobody on the planet but me and Deborah. It was the deepest feeling of connection I'd ever experienced. On the other hand it was like these two beings had dropped from the stars into our care. That second feeling totally blurred during all the years of parenting.
Watching them as full-grown men making their own ways into the world of jobs, apartments, relationships, etc. I am again struck by both our deep connection and our separateness. I wonder if my Mom or Dad felt that duality during their visits to me? It's another orbit (or revolution) to mark in amazement and appreciation.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Civic leaders in East Palo Alto organized a march to the Palo Alto City Hall and also spoke out at a Palo Alto city council meeting and a Human Relations commission meeting. Many recounted frivolous traffic stops by Palo Alto police over the years and many said they try to stay out of Palo Alto to avoid problems. The Palo Alto officials were extremely apologetic for the wayward remarks and policy, expressing a zero tolerance for racial profiling. All parties expressed the need to keep a dialogue going.
It's not easy to find concrete guidelines for police practices that avoid racial profiling, though they are desperately needed. The Palo Alto city manager needs to to hire a new chief who is fluent in methods that eliminate or greatly limit profiling, but do such chiefs exist? If you are familiar with any leaders and practices in this area, it would be great to hear from you.
How can police avoid it? The police are expected to keep residents feeling safe and when a crime wave hits they are under greater pressure to be proactive. When most of the suspects are Black, in a largely White and Asian community, it's easy to see how cops might multiply their traffic stops of minority persons in the hopes of turning away or maybe even catching the few criminals they are after. The cops are like industrial fishing outfits that cast a large net even if they end up throwing away many of the fish they capture. Only, in this case the practice leaves a trail of humiliation, resentment and inequity for a lot of innocent people.
It's similar to the way police will park outside of bars at closing time and stop drivers who emerge from the parking lot with a faulty taillight or an expired tag in the hope of netting a drunk driver before they hit the road. They are playing the odds; using their powers strategically. But these are not the rules of the game we want them to play by. These are Orwellian rules that make many law abiding folks feel that Big Brother is watching them.
Recognizing and talking regularly (not just at an annual diversity workshop) about our prejudices and biases is a valuable start for any police force (and community). Keeping stats of every traffic stop and who was in the car is also good as a starter. But without training in clear-cut procedures and practices that are alternatives to profiling, those statistics and dialogues don't change much. Palo Alto instituted the statistics-gathering a few years back after the"Driving while Black or Brown" movement made a convincing case for them. The stats became a hard-to-interpret footnote of quarterly Human Relations Commission meetings and no actions followed those reports. In fact, the Chief had successfully lobbied for fewer reports and fewer stats to collect.
The City Manager has proposed a $20,000 contract to a police auditor firm to review our department's practices and suggest better ones where appropriate. At $200 an hour, that will buy a week of evaluation of Palo Alto practices, study of alternative practices, and a report. Hopefully those alternative practices are more prevalent and easy to find than I imagine them to be.
Like so many millions of us who are wanting Obama to succeed in his upcoming presidency, we found ourselves sharing our hopes for him and for the transformations we hope to see in our country and world. Deborah said that along with all the other cabinet positions Obama is appointing, he should appoint a "spiritual adviser" like the Dalai Lama, to help him stay internally strong and genuine amidst the flurry of advice in every political and policy arena that he'll be deluged with daily.
Given my recent blogs picking cabinet secretaries for Obama, I wanted to share Deborah's idea. Maybe he should pick Alice Walker who wrote the internet-distributed open letter to him about taking the daily time he needs for himself and his family.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I wish the bailout terminology were more accurate for those of us non-economists who are trying to keep things straight. How can it be a "taxpayer bailout" when:
Whether you look backward or forward a couple of years, we are getting tax CUTS not tax hikes.
It would just make more sense if - at least periodically - they reminded us that this bailout is being brought to you by foreign creditors who are buying a trillion or so in new treasury bills.
At some point, it will be us taxpayers who pay back the loans to these creditors like China and at that point, we will owe them a chunk of interest in addition to the 1 - or is it 2 - trillion we've just borrowed over the past couple of months. Will these creditors ever get tired of buying our treasury bonds? Will they ever get surly and start breaking legs if we don't stay on a payback schedule?
Monday, November 17, 2008
More Fantasy Cabinet Picks - to add to those I made in the last entry.........
Secretary of Agriculture: Michael Pollan
author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma"; he would end the farm bill subsidies that has the Agribusiness growing corn to go into everything from poptarts to doorstops. Pollan would find ways to revitalize and bring back the family farmers to provide food for the folks nearby.
Backup pick for Secretary of Agriculture: Frances Moore Lappe,
author of "Diet for a Small Planet" and "Democracy's Edge"; Director of "Food First" and "Center for Living Democracy." She knows how to "spread the wealth" worldwide while engaging our highest citizen-selves.
One last backup for Secretary of Agriculture: Wendell Berry. We need a poet in the cabinet and why not this eloquent, champion of rural America, poet-farmer.
Secretary of Commerce: Van Jones, the founding president of Green For All and author of "Green Collar Economy." This amazing orator from Yale, would catalyze a win-win formula for renewable energies, energy conservation, and jobs for the urban poor. He recognizes the overwhelming urgency of global warming and the parallel urgency to create jobs and equity for the health of our cities and the evolution of our country.
Press Secretary: Bill Moyers, hands down - the greatest journalist of our time and one who will always put integrity above spin.
Secretaries of Music: We need a duo for this new Ambassadorial type of Cabinet position. Carlos Santana and Michael Franti.
Carlos is the guitarist who could make even a tyrant weep and bring comfort and joy to every corner of the globe, and Michael, the courageous visionary whose lyrics can get us all moving in one dance across every conceivable border.
Secretary of Education: Jonathan Kozol, author of "Savage Inequalities." No more rich districts and poor districts as a fact of life. All children deserve an equal investment of education resources.
Still puzzling over Secretary of Transportation as well as Health and Human Services.
Would love some suggestions......
Can we all agree to deep six the Secretary of Homeland Security post?
Sunday, November 16, 2008
An article in the Washington Post (11/16) about the world leader economic summit held in D.C. last week, said that "the gathering in Washington for the nearly two dozen nations - from every region of the world - reflected the new balance of power emerging in the aftermath of a financial crisis that has devastated even well-run economies..."
Journalists Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola would do well to check their chauvinism at the "fact-check-door" before their next article. If the U.S. and Western European economies were so "well-run" why would we be bailing them out for enabling a greedy, short-sighted financial sector (complete with an army of lobbyists, "Enronistic" executives, and happy-to-please government officials) putting profit-orgies above every human and environmental value?
Surely there must be a "fantasy cabinet league" started yet for the Obama Administration. If so, here are my first picks.
Secretary of Energy : Al Gore
guaranteed to get us back on track starting with signing the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gases and the Bali Agreement;
will reintroduce the term "global warming" to the national agenda as the biggest reason of all to restructure our economy. (this somehow got virtually dropped in all the presidential debates in favor of "reducing our dependence on foreign oil".)
Secretary of State: Samantha Power - Professor of Public Policy at Harvard
she wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning: "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide"
She'd hold fast to the commitment to do something in Darfur.
Unfortunately, she was the Obama adviser that got dropped after she was quoted calling Hillary Clinton "a monster."
Backup Pick for Sec of State: Hillary Clinton
If she can take Obama's direction to talk to every world leader - friend and foe - you can trust she's powerful and brainy enough to come away with something big.
Secretary of Treasury: Jeffrey Sachs
Economics and also Public Health Professor at Columbia
Author of "The End of Poverty" and "Common Wealth"
You can actually understand him when he explains macro-economics and how to restructure.
Backup Pick for Treasury: Paul Krugman
New York Times columnist and Econ Professor at Princeton and Nobel Prize winner
He would not be writing blank bailout checks to banks without significant reform conditions.
Secretary of Peace: Dennis Kucinich
oh, we first have to create this new position in the cabinet
Secretary of Defense: Colin Powell
He'll definitely want to redeem himself and reestablish his reputation for integrity after the big lie he made at the UN regarding WMD in Iraq.
I have to review the draft pool for the other positions. To be continued.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Last week California voters overturned the State Supreme Court ruling that allowed same sex marriages as an equal civil right. Hopefully the courts will step in again and rule that civil rights aren't for sale. In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom approved gay marriages within the city, our Palo Alto PTA executive committee wrote a statement of support. That unleashed a furor among some parents and a PTA general meeting was called to discuss and vote on the action. There were many eloquent speakers, but I won't forget one Asian-American woman who told the group that before 1948 she would not have been allowed to marry her Caucasian husband in California or many other states. A lot of people hadn't even realized there was such a law and it was not something they would ever countenance. But a room full of PTA parents in 1947 would have probably stood firm behind those laws - fearing what would happen if whites started intermarrying and bearing children with non-whites. I think some people saw the parallel to same sex marriage when this well-respected Asian-American PTA Mom spoke up - realizing that in a generation or two, the community will have a hard time understanding those who tried to prevent two gay persons from marrying.
Many states dumped their anti-miscegenation laws in 1948 when Asians were allowed to marry Whites in California, but there were still 16 states who banned Blacks and Whites from intermarrying as late as 1967. Finally, all such laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. I was 14 years old, so it's far from "ancient history" for me. In fact it's later than the voting rights act; much later than the integration of public schools and Brown vs. Board of Education; later even than the emergence of the Beatles. But if you'd have held a popular election in many of those states, just imagine how it would have ended up. A 1968 Gallup poll found that 72% of Americans disapproved of marriage between Blacks and Whites (as opposed to only 23% since 2003). Sometimes it takes a court to get people on the right track and over time the prejudices and fears slip away.
Sunday, November 02, 2008
There are so many reasons to be excited and hopeful about electing Barak Obama our next president. Even as we bite our nails til election day, hoping those voting machines aren't Republican, we can taste his victory. A man of color leading and representing the U.S. after 232 years.....how awesome is that milestone? And after 8 years of a man who can barely put together a coherent sentence, we so deserve a man who speaks eloquently, thoughtfully, and genuinely. After 8 years of marching to a neoconservative script, our soldiers fighting and dying in the wrong place for the wrong reasons; our planet withering as we were afraid to stop stoking our economy that sullied it........we are so close to having a leader who will know better..........a leader whose values will connect US policy to the planet we live on and the many peoples we share it with. It's been so long since I didn't rush to change the channel whenever I saw the president speaking.
I know there will be plenty of work for those who want to see progressive change during an Obama presidency. I know there are things in his platform that worry me. But I trust in his leadership qualities more than I have ever trusted before in a U.S. president. It just has to happen this Tuesday.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
my favorite part of the 3rd debate:
McCain: "He wants to spread the wealth around... That means class warfare."
It's as if he was pointing and shouting, "Socialist, Socialist!" as though that's guaranteed to mobilize the US electorate against Obama.
Where does a $900+ billion dollar bailout charged to taxpayers score on the "commie-meter" compared to higher taxes on the richest 5% of Americans?
Maybe when the money goes to corporate America, it's not socialism....but every tax dollar that goes to health care and education for regular people, has got Karl Marx on the front of it.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
We taxpayers are reeling from the shock of a $755 billion dollar bailout for banks that made bad mortgage loans that appears to be a done deal this weekend. But the government budgeted nearly the same amount for military expenditures in 2009 last week, and that somehow slips under our radar.
The 2009 Defense Authorization Bill was passed last Wednesday to the tune of $612 billion. This does not include nuclear weapons research, maintenance and production (~$9.3 billion, which is in the Department of Energy budget), or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are largely funded through extra-budgetary supplements, ~$170 billion in 2007). So the total annual investment in our "defense" is more like $790 billion dollars.
Ten years ago, the Defense Authorization Bill was $270.4 billion dollars.
It was eerie not hearing Obama talk about reducing the defense budget in the first debate, and instead watching McCain position himself as a defense budget cutter with the expertise to do so. Ouch!
How do we feel about building a war machine with our earnings that accounts for almost 50% of all the military expenditures worldwide? No other country spends more than 4.5% of the world's military expenditures. Are we safer for all this killing power?
How do we feel about this amount when we look at these alternative ways to spend it?
• $19 billion is the annual shortfall to eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally.
• $12 billion is the annual shortfall to provide education for every kid on earth.
• $15 billion is the annual shortfall to provide access to water and sanitation.
• $23 billion is the annual shortfall to reverse the spread of AIDS and Malaria.
(source is The World Bank)
Resouces for this blog:
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Friday, September 26, 2008
Can't say I understand it very well. But I was very happy to sign a petition put out by Credo, my phone service, and write emails to Congress with their points - more a reflection of my outrage at the high-rollers than my knowledge of how to orchestrate the financial steps.
"1. If the taxpayers are shouldering the risk, the taxpayers should reap any eventual benefits. We accomplish this by giving the government an equity stake in every company we bail out proportionate to the amount we give them.
2. If we're paying (more than) our fair share, the CEOs and executives should have to, too. All of the fat cats who got us into this mess should relinquish their stock options and salaries until they start showing us, their investors, that they can once again be profitable. Future salaries should be linked to profitability.
3. No more campaign contributions from Wall Street executives and PACs. Taxpayer dollars should be used to get our nation out of a crisis. They cannot be used to fund giant, powerful lobby operations that will be used to strong arm Congress into making bad policy.
4. Better regulations start right now. Wall Street can't expect to take thousands of dollars out of your paycheck without agreeing to increased transparency and more stringent oversight - the kind that might have helped avoid this mess to begin with.
5. Bankruptcy judges get broader leeway to help homeowners. Why should we lose our homes so the CEOs can keep theirs?"
Sunday, September 21, 2008
In June of 1965, President Johnson had a phone conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stating that he saw "no way that there could be a US victory in Viet Nam either militarily or diplomatically." Speaking of the North Vietnamese, he said, "I don't believe they ever goin' to quit."
At that point, fewer than 2,000 US soldiers had been killed in action. The following 3.5 years of Johnson's presidency saw a steady escalation of troops and bombing, continued by Nixon who pledged "peace with honor" in his winning 1968 campaign. Nearly 50,000 US soldiers and 3,000,000 Southeast Asians were killed by the end of the war, ten years later.
How often do presidents lead us down a disastrous path because they do not have the imagination, courage, or advice to do something radically better?
(You can listen to the LBJ phone call at the 25:16 mark in an 8/19 edition of "Fresh Air" when Terry Gross replays an interview with historian Michael Beschloss.
(casualty statistics are at: http://www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html)
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the October, Atlantic Magazine - "The Wars of John McCain" – illuminates John McCain as a military hero first and last. Forget the economy, forget education and health care. When it comes to McCain's passion and deep rooted political will, it's all about war strategy and preserving the country's honor and that of its soldiers. Both McCain's father and grandfather were US Navy Admirals. Candidate McCain wrote a book on the two of them and noted that Kissinger would bring his father to see Nixon periodically because his father was consistently certain that our troops were close to victory. Candidate John McCain III was critical early on of the Bush administration and Rumsfeld in particular for not deploying more troops to Iraq when the occupation became so strained and deadly. The "surge" has been McCain's redemption and his constant refrain - even though there are those who argue that the surge is a small part of the decrease in killings.
Years ago, the psychologist, Erik Erikson wrote psycho-biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi, describing each one's dynamics with his father and how those dynamics revealed themselves in their history-shaping lives. Would it be so much of a stretch to see both the military decisions of George Bush and John McCain III to be colored by their respective father-son "schtuff?" George Bush I was roundly criticized in conservative circles for not finishing off Hussein in Gulf War I, and Admiral McCain II was the loser in a war
he had every confidence of winning with his troops. George II and John III may well be engaged in battles that their fathers left for them to finish.
Add to that, the general sentiment of McCain and his fellow, courageous POW's that US soldiers do not cut and run. It's understandable that they would have a much larger investment in that perspective - as opposed to many soldiers in the field who bore witness - or more - to the horrors wreaked on Vietnamese villages.
Once a military campaign is underway, you don't imagine a McCain indulging in thoughts about whether the war is justified or moral. They are military leaders bound to honor, duty, and victory as that culture demands of its chiefs.
Speaking of McCain's flip flops on a variety of domestic issues, Goldberg writes "....tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor – two notions that for McCain are throroughly entwined – that he becomes truly unbending."
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Last night we went to a screening of the documentary "Soldiers of Conscience" that will air on PBS channels on October 16th. It crosscuts interviews with four U.S. soldiers who became conscientious objectors after some time in Iraq along with some soldiers who do not question their military role. The C.O.'s are very eloquent in recounting their change of heart and the consequences of their respective decisions to stop fighting.
Following the film, there was a discussion led by Producer/Director, Catherine Ryan. One of my favorite authors, Tobias Wolff, was on hand to interview Ryan. He himself is a Viet Nam veteran and wrote "In Pharoah's Army" about his experience. Wolff and one other in the audience raised variations of the same difficult question. Are all wars wrong? One of the C.O.'s says that when people challenge him asking what would have happened had the world not fought to stop Hitler, he responds with his own hypothetical. What would have happened if most German men had declared themselves "conscientious objectors?" Another C.O. in the film says he could no longer fight this particular war of occupation. Wolf and the audience member both cited tyrannies or genocides that seem to call out for armed interventions.
Nobody criticized anyone else for the views or questions they raised, but it seemed that most of the audience felt there was no situation in which war was a good answer. One man, himself a "Viet Nam Vet," said that most of the world calls that war, the American War in Southeast Asia, and considers the three million people we killed to be an atrocity. He decried the fact that our government has never entertained that perspective.
Is there such a thing as a "nation of conscience" that decides to intervene militarily to stop a genocide? Can war and killing qualify as a national act of conscience in the same vein as Denmark's decision to wear yellow stars and protect its Jewish citizens during World War II? How many would condone a person who did not kill an intruder who was about to kill their child, if they had an opportunity to save their child? Where does the slaughter occurring in Darfur fit into this "conceptual dilemma?" In this benighted world, I think there are times when a multilateral force ought to use its violent power for a greater good. Then get off the slippery slope as quickly as possible.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
2003 - 79 suicides
2004 - 67 suicides
2005 - 88 suicides
2006 - 102 suicides
2007 - 115 suicides
They started keeping records in 1980. Of the record number in 2007, 31% were fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan while another 8% killed themselves within four months of their return home. The army report said there was "limited evidence" that repeated deployments were putting more of its soldiers at risk from suicide. My guess is that if they looked at it harder, they'd find a strong correlation.
Last year, CBS News did its own investigation of suicides by veterans when it couldn't get much pertinent information from the government. CBS found that recent U.S. war vets were 2 - 4 times more likely to kill themselves than other people their age.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Mother: "So I don't think Melissa invited Jessica to her party. Why do you think that is? Are they not friends with each other anymore?"
Mother:"When I ask you a question, I expect you to answer me."
Mother: "You are eating like a pig. That is an embarrassment to me. We're leaving right now. You embarrass me. There's nothing you can say to make me change my mind. Get going."
I turned and saw them walking out.
If only a giant hand on an infinite arm could have pushed through the door and grabbed that mother by the ear and proclaimed in a sonorous blast, "Your parenting embarrasses me. Get your butt in the car and wait for your daughter to finish her buritto. Also I'm getting her a sweet churro for dessert."
On second thought, that's mean spirited and I've had enough of that watching the Republican convention.
Better scenario: the giant hand pins the mother on the floor and tickles her mercilessly while she laughs and squeals uproariously, the tears streaming from her eyes, caring nothing about her bunched up dress, or the fact that her daughter - looking on with eyes as big as full moons - eats her burrito wholeheartedly.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Last month, my son Zac and his girlfriend Erin left their jobs in New Orleans and moved to Santa Barbara. They found an apartment and then joined Alex (Zac's twin brother), for the annual group camping trip he organizes to Bass Lake, in the Sierras. On the second to last day, Zac calls to tell me he thinks he just broke his arm while wakeboarding. He'd returned to the campsite and was awaiting all the others who were going to continue wakeboarding for a few hours.
It reminded me of the night - when they were about 13 - that I got a call from Zac from the skateboard park in Palo Alto. He reported to me that Alex had taken a big fall, hit his head, and had trouble remembering much of anything. Zac asked if I could come get Alex and after a brief pause, asked if he could stay out later skateboarding.
There was one big difference from this medical emergency from all the previous ones he and Alex have accumulated. This was the first time there was no insurance coverage. It's Murphy's Law that this would occur during the interlude between Zac's job with Habitat for Humanity and whatever he will find in Santa Barbara. He intended to keep his coverage through "COBRA" - a law that allows people to continue their medical insurance policies for up to 36 months after leaving a job, but the COBRA forms had never arrived.
The next day, when he got back to Santa Barbara and went to an emergency room, they stabilized his broken arm with a splint and sling, but told him he needed to see an orthopedic specialist to determine if it required a cast or surgery. That's when he started his crash course on the failings of the US healthcare system.
1. The orthopedic specialist cannot see him without an insurance policy or cash up front.
2. Zac does not qualify for Medi-Cal. Having no income or significant savings no longer counts if you're not a senior, disabled, or a child.
3. The plan he was on in New Orleans was an HMO and the Orthopedic Specialist referred by the emergency docs does not take HMO patients.
4. The COBRA administrators couldn't figure out what plan he is eligible to sign up for in California. He had Blue Shield in New Orleans but "Blue Shield of Louisiana" is considered a different company than "Blue Shield of California."
5. There is no non-profit agency that gives advice to uninsured people who are trying to navigate the fractured U.S. healthcare system.
Finally we found a clinic that operates on a sliding scale basis. Zac will see an orthopedic specialist this Thursday - about 12 days after the accident. If he needs surgery, then we'll pay a Blue Shield doctor up front and get retroactive coverage from the Cobra plan when it kicks in. The COBRA plan is expensive though because (after repeated calls somebody came up with the information) his only option is to continue with Blue Shield of Louisiana and pay "out-of-network" costs. If he doesn't need surgery, then he will probably wait to get a job that offers medical benefits.
Hopefully, we'll see universal healthcare and a single-payer system before long. At least that promise gets a lot of traction in the Democratic campaign speeches. But dismantling the highly profitable web of insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and doctor pay scales, may be as unlikely as dismantling the firmly entrenched "defense industry." It's probably as unlikely as me being able to order Zac and Alex never to wakeboard, skateboard, or any other kind of board, anymore.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Former Senator Jesse Helms died last month on July 4th. He was reviled by most anyone with progressive views. During his five terms in the senate, he criticized the Civil Rights Act, school integration, and the Voting Rights Act. He opposed funding for AIDS, funding for the UN, gay rights, abortion, affirmative action, and government appointments of gay persons. His financial support was first and foremost from the tobacco industry.
Yesterday, I read something about him that totally surprised me. Helms was one of five senators who sponsored the Prevention of Genocide Act in September 1988. It was a bill that would have imposed hard-hitting sanctions against Iraq for Saddam Hussein's brutal gassing and genocidal attacks against the Kurds who lived in the rural north. This was before either of the Gulf Wars we fought against Iraq. During his eight-year war with Iran, Hussein demanded all Kurds leave their villages and live in concentrated ghetto towns he constructed further inland from the border. Those who didn't leave their homes were subject to mass executions. The army would take over a Kurd village, round up the men and boys and shoot them. Poison gas was dropped on numerous villages during an eighteen month campaign that extended past the Iraq-Iran armistice. Though the Reagan state department was aware of the campaign, it kept mum because we supported Iraq over Iran. There was no outcry from any quarter to stop the violence as Samantha Power documents in her gripping book, "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide."
After the gassing of a large town, Halabja (3/88), the story finally started to become known. The bill was written by a staff member of Senator Claiborne Pell and Pell approached Helms, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. Power writes in her book that Helms "and his wife had been moved by an encounter with three Kurds who were on hunger strikes to protest the Iraqi atrocities, whom they met through their church."
So for all the evils associated with Helms, there is at least one admirable act of leadership in the other column. I'm glad to know that. I'm glad to know that there is something to like about the Senator and that there was a way to reach him and motivate him to do the right thing.
As for the bill, it was passed by the Senate but killed in the House. The U.S. farm lobby prevailed. They did not want to lose all the revenue from their rice and wheat sales to Iraq. Eighteen months later, Hussein was emboldened enough to invade Kuwait.
Monday, August 04, 2008
Last week, a house subcommittee voted to grant a retroactive $500 per month bonus for all the extra months of harrowing duty in Iraq and Afghanistan that our "stop-loss" soldiers are forced to endure. Stop-loss soldiers are those who completed their contractual tours of duty only to be told they aren't done yet.
After I saw the very moving film, "Stop Loss", I did some "googling" and found the court case of a soldier who thought it unfair that his service contract could be extended against his will. Before the Civil War, we had another name for that kind of contract. In 2004, two weeks before completing his 8 year contract with the National Guard, Emiliano Santiago was told he must deploy to Afghanistan. He fought the order all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost at every level. The small print on his contract - since stop loss was invented in 1990 - says that the President can order troops to stay beyond their discharge date if a war or a state of emergency exists. Santiago was shipped out to Afghanistan in June, 2005. I was not able to find any update on how he has fared.
Anyone who sees the film, "Stop Loss," will feel the absurdity of valuing a month of unexpected, harrowing "soldier-ing" in Iraq with a $500 bonus. But we're talking about 160,000 soldiers who've had their contracts changed and about 12,000 extra months of war between them. The total price tag comes to about 600 million dollars. I guess it's easier for stockholders of a big corporation to give their CEO a multi-million dollar bonus since they count it against the profits they've reaped. The soldiers just don't bring us citizen-stakeholders any profits.
Here are the articles and blogs I read:
USA Today 1/2004
Seattle Weekly 3/2005
Blog by a Military Family 4/2005
Armed Forces Journal - 5/2008
Saturday, August 02, 2008
Today would have been Mom’s (Rochelle's) 79th birthday. She’d have had 28 additional years of living and loving than she did. Sally and I will go out for ice cream today as my 25 year-old twin boys, Alex and Zac used to do with me when they lived in Palo Alto. I started the ritual on her “yortzeit” – the anniversary of her death, but the boys said we should switch it to her birthday.
If she were still here, we’d start celebrating as soon as the sunrise streaked the sky in orange, ‘til three stars come out this evening. We’d have whisked her from her St. Louis apartment to a villa in Tuscany and we’d eat a seven-course meal all afternoon, sitting round a table like so many other Saturday afternoons - toasting her with one funny story after another. Josh and Mike (my brothers) would be there too, basking in the presence of the one person who knows and loves each worn and shiny part of us from the inside-out. We’d all state grandiose opinions and then laugh at them. We’d hike past vineyards woven in dark purple grapes, full to the bursting point. She’d have an arm around Zac and the other around Alex and they’d talk over each other in the rush to fill her in on their latest chapters. Not a second would be wasted or taken for granted.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Last night we watched the very intense and powerful, Stop Loss, a film about current U.S. soldiers. The movie gives us an acidic, visceral taste of the horrors and nightmarish violence saturating their days in Iraq. It focuses on a unit where many of the boys come from the same Texas town and focuses on their leader and beloved friend who gave his all throughout his "tour of duty" (a very strange juxtaposition of terms). A day after the hometown heroes' parade he is informed of a fine-print policy in his enlistment contract called "stop loss," that mandates he go back and do another stint in Iraq because the president has ordered an extension.
I'd be very surprised if any of the recruiters mushrooming across our country's high school campuses, tout or even mention this rule that allows the president to extend active combat of an enlistee for as long as the war continues. John Kerry called it the "backdoor draft." It can be used even when the U.S. is not officially at war - as it has in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.
The film depicts numerous, poignant challenges that our soldiers face. For those lucky enough to return alive and in one piece, they are likely to experience some debilitating PTSD experiences, nightmares, hallucinations, and violent outbursts. Some don't want to go back to "normal" lives, working 9 - 5 and fitting into the role of spouse. Others, with their bodies burnt and deformed don't even have that choice. But the central issue is the shock of the "stop-loss" order for the soldiers who want to come home, hoping and expecting to put the nightmares behind them.
While many of us have some familiarity with the stories of soldiers who fled to Canada or Mexico to avoid the draft during the Viet Nam War, we are clueless about the current wave of enlisted soldiers who have followed the same pathways to avoid going back into the hell from which they just emerged....a hell in which the politicians calling the "shots" wouldn't last a week. These soldiers experienced years of screaming bullets, maiming bombs, and horrendous deaths of their friends and their foes - only to find themselves outlaws and fugitives in our country, Canada, or Mexico if they resist the stop-loss orders.
I know it is sketchy to base one's knowledge on a fictional movie. In this case the writer-director Kimberley Peirce had a deep personal involvement as her brother was one of the "surge" of enlistees following 9/11 and she was in daily contact with him (via instant messaging) throughout his time in Iraq. She also spent months doing research with soldiers before putting her story together. As sources go, she's probably no worse a starting point, than the Iraqi politicians that our own senators interview on their investigative trips to the country.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Last night as we walked to see the July 4th fireworks, an old friend of mine told me she was trying to become a U.S. citizen after about 30 years of marriage to a citizen and several decades of paying taxes in California, raising a child, etc. I was surprised to hear that she made a check out for $650 to the Homeland Security Department as part of the process. Also she will take an oath stating she will bear arms to defend our country against enemies.
Are we really sure we want to let foreigners call themselves U.S. citizens with such a low "allegiance" threshold? Shouldn't they have to pay a larger share to "Homeland Security?" It takes a lot of money to protect the US from the bad fruits that want to infiltrate our country to pick our strawberries and mow our lawns, not to mention expanded enterprises such as building a fence around Mexico, maintaining a no-fly list numbering in the tens of thousands, and monitoring our phone calls to Europe. Why shouldn't the new citizens bear an extra level of responsibility for paying these bills?
And does the oath really provide enough proof that these wanna-be Americans will actually spray bullets and drop cluster bombs when we tell them to? In this era of high tech gaming, couldn't we put them through a few simulations and THEN decide if they can join our team? And these days don't we also want to know that they would be willing to waterboard enemy combatants we capture?
While we're beefing up our new citizen requirements, we might as well levy a small tax on them to modernize the old Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Surely we could get a sculptor to replace the book on her arm with an anti-aircraft missile launcher or some new Pentagon gizmo. Who reads books these days? Couldn't we replace the pedestal with something more security-oriented and hip? It's inscription is so 19th century......
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Sunday, May 04, 2008
photo from CBC News
Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD in 1938, died this past Tuesday. As inventors go, I'd rank him with Edison and the Wright brothers who brought us light and flight.
Thanks Dr. Hoffman for enabling me to see all the conventions of my life in the center of a Hostess cupcake I rolled in my hand. Thanks for giving me the lens to watch a pelican fly overhead and recognize its pitch-perfect line in the universe's poem. Thanks for empowering my ears to hear a stormy day bathe in sunlight as Layla poured out of the record player. I know you meant it for medicine and not for tie dyed frolics (let alone how the CIA used it), but I considered your invention the most amazing elixir under a throbbing sun for a transmigrant from Yeshiva.
Even though the terror-lined passageways multiplied over the years, I'll never forget the marlmalade skies. For those of us who can't get our legs into a lotus position or stop swatting at mental mosquitoes when attempting to meditate, you gave us a view from the mountaintop and a glorious taste of transcendence.
Last night we saw Young At Heart, a very entertaining documentary about a chorus of old folks whose repertoire is rock songs. The average age of these singers is 80, so as they belt out numbers from Sonic Youth to Springsteen, they also deal with memory lapses and mortality issues. One solos a Coldplay tune with an oxygen tank hooked into his nose.
There was one scene in particular, that makes this real-life documentary unforgettable. One morning - just before they are off to a gig at a prison - they find out that a member of their troupe has passed away the night before. They give a blistering performance, starting with Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" that utterly charms and disarms a skeptical bunch of prisoners in their yard. Before their last number, they reveal that one of their members has died and dedicate the song to him. As they sing Dylan's "Forever Young" the camera pans the audience one by one, and their emotions are visceral.
May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.
May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.
May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Yesterday I went up to Marin to see a play by the drama students at Saint Mark's School in Marin. They have an annual performance at the posh little Showcase Theatre near the civic center. My dear friend Jessica Sage has been the drama teacher there for the past eight years. I've seen a number of the performances, but this one was the last because Jessica resigned in order to travel for a couple of years with her partner Barry. They'll have a couple of lengthy stopovers when Barry performs for one Shakespearean company or another. Those gigs get set up a couple of years ahead. One might assume because they've lived in Marin - that they'll be traveling "first class" living off their inheritance or stock portfolios, but as lifelong theatre-people, cottage-renters, and artists, they'll be traveling frugal-class. They decided that the time had come to take a big leap or let those traveling dreams pass by. Barry is in his sixties. First major stop will be the solar eclipse in Siberia this August.
At the end of the play there was a standing ovation and the 8th grade actors were at the front of the stage bowing and pointing back to all the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade actors behind them who were part of the 60-kid ensemble in the musical we'd just seen. Then one of the 8th graders called up Ms. Sage to accept a boquet of roses. She walked up there with a somewhat sheepish, modest grin (that might have been practiced for this occasion). But a young boy from the back of the stage, barely visible due to his height-challenged fourth-grade stature, must have called to her. He was crying and wanted to hug her, knowing she was departing soon. Suddenly a gaggle of little ones were holding on to her and I saw at least one other who was crying. That's when Jessica started to sob, even as she tried to compose herself.
The eighth graders each wanted to say something to her and they took turns telling the audience about Jessica's influence on their lives. Some have been in her classes all eight years. One called herself a "drama geek" who always tried to have lunch near Jessica. Another talked about Jessica's impending "epoch journey" and thanked her for preparing them for their own parallel "epoch journey" into high school. Jess was totally unprepared for their heartfelt remarks about how she'd given them courage and made them able to perform and dream about acting.
I was so proud and so happy she was witnessing these testimonies about her impact. What a reward for her high-energy years of work in the acting trenches. Not many folks who invest so much in their jobs get to hear that from the people they've touched and changed.
It was wonderful to see the really talented kids perform and sing so well. They knocked our socks off with their unexpected skill levels. But what is even more amazing is to see the performances of the kids who appear to be shy or gawky - taking big risks on stage with pubescent voices and bodies they no longer control. When these kids belt out their lines and their songs, you know that there was some magic worked by a drama teacher who believed in them and got them to believe as well.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Last week a mystery was cleared up for me. It was revealed that the Defense Department had sent two nuclear bomb detonation devices through the mail to Taiwan even though Taiwan had only purchased battery-related devices for some US made helicopters. When the Taiwanese realized what they'd received, they notified our Defense Department. "Whoa! We just want to spy on and straif our dissidents. We don't want to nuke their whole home town!"
You've got to figure when a department the size of our Defense Department is fulfilling the number of weapons-related orders that it handles every year, mistakes are bound to happen. Even though I've yet to get some book other than the one I've ordered through Amazon, book titles are no doubt a lot easier to keep straight than all the different kinds of missiles, tanks, and helicopter gunships that we sell, let alone all their parts.
That clears up the confusion I felt when I received a box about a month back, from our Defense Department. I'd filed a freedom of information request about titanium tipped warheads and was expecting some thick files. Imagine my surprise when I cut through the packing tape and found a warhead itself! I can just picture that humongous warehouse with shelves just full of every which kind of cluster bomb, landmine, and waterboarding apparatus. It's probably as big as five Walmarts and probably underground somewhere in Idaho, with sub par florescent lighting. I can just see how some overworked federal employee grabbed a little warhead when he meant to grab the operation manual that was probably sitting right next to it.
At the time, my neighbor thought it might have nothing at all to do with my FOIA request, but instead was in lieu of the $600 stimulus package I'm due to get. He surmised that what with the bailout of the banking system a few weeks back when Bear Sterns went belly up, dollars are in short supply. He said it made sense that some of us might receive in-kind goods rather than cash. I told him I'd have been happy with an iPhone. That would be a lot easier to sell on Craigslist than a nuclear weapon.
Boy was I wrong about that. Within a half hour of posting it on Craigslist, I'd received a dozen emails from all over the place. And folks were offering more than my $600 asking price!
Now I recognize that the whole thing was just a bureaucratic mistake. Wish I had thought of that before I sold it to the guy with those mirrored sunglasses.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Sally and I got a major addiction to HBO's, "The Wire." "True d'at!" The writers' strike opened up some TV time for watching DVD's of this incredible series that revolves around street crime and politics in Baltimore. There are so many compelling characters and several thematic levels that can be chewed on and digested. Yummy! What an incredible study of institutions and the ethics confronted (and usually discarded) by the players in each of those institutions.......law enforcement, street gangs, the dockworker union, city hall, and the schools. There are a number of heroes, but none that wear ten gallon hats and ride white horses. Some of them are even drunks, thieves, and killers. There's also many more folks who are just milking their respective institution, or trying to increase their power within it, or hold on to what they've got. It's such a dead-on reflection of the characters we see in our 9-5 lives. We've just finished Season 4, watching two hours on many nights and dealing with a little less sleep.
Both of us agree on our most favorite character: Omar. He's rips off drug dealers for his income. But he operates with a strong sense of ethics and he speaks like a poet. Plus he's fearless, even as he's hunted by just about everyone.
Wish there was an Omar t-shirt I could wear. Better yet, we could print up a bunch and sell them from a shopping cart rolling through the streets like another character, Bubbles, does. Only Palo Alto streets don't have many customers walking around outside, and I doubt the joggers would stop.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
I still haven't found any answers, but in a well written and researched book, called "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans", by Jean Pfaelzer (2007), I found out about vicious cruelties to Chinese residents in Washington and California justified by some of our highest courts. There are dismaying parallels to events today.
In late 1885, the mayor of Tacoma, Washington, led a mob of 300 into Chinatown one night and forced everyone out of their homes and marched them out of town, forcing them to leave their businesses and belongings. The Chinese brought it to court, citing the U.S. government's Burlingame Treaty which made it illegal to deprive Chinese immigrants of the same privileges in respect to residence as others in our country. The mayor's lawyers cited the Dred Scot case of 1857 that allowed slave owners to fetch their slaves who escaped to free territories because slaves did not enjoy the same rights as citizens. The mayor's side won - just like Bush's side won against the prisoners of Guantanamo who thought they'd have the right of habeus corpus and a civil trial as prisoners of the United States. I guess the "supreme" in "Supreme Court" refers only to power and not wisdom or justice.
In San Jose, California, near where I live, the first statewide anti-Chinese convention was held in 1886, attended by anti Chinese clubs and the Anti-Coolie league. In 1880, the California legislature had made it illegal to hire a Chinese person. Ranchers, growers, and canneries were forced into mass firings. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only the nationality has changed. But in San Jose, the Chinatown neighborhood was burned down six times and rebuilt seven. San Jose passed ordinances limiting Chinese laundries and fireworks. They posted police in doorways of Chinese owned businesses to discourage would-be customers. When two drunk men shot at and assaulted a Chinese man in 1879, they were each fined $10.
Monday, February 18, 2008
photo by Trudy Rubin
Just finished the book, "Three Cups of Tea," the story of former mountain climber, Greg Mortenson whose life took a radical turn when tribal villagers in Pakistan nursed him back to health in 1993 following a harrowing attempt to scale K2, a Himalayan peak. He told them he wanted to build a school for their children and that he'd return to do so. First he went back to Berkeley, California where he lived a hand-to-mouth lifestyle picking up night shifts as a nurse-paramedic, living in shared apartments and sometimes out of his car & storage locker. He made a list of rich and famous people and wrote fundraising letters, amassing about $20 for his efforts.
Eventually he succeeds and the school is built, but there are all kinds of riveting and entertaining stories along the way - as Mortenson wends his way through inter-cultural and actual minefields. His integrity and purpose draw people to him on both sides of the world and though he continues to live on next to nothing, he finds ways to build school after school in villages throughout Muslim Pakistan and Afghanistan where none existed before, and where girls and education were never imagined in the same sentence. The story takes on another dimension as he sees the beginnings of what became the Taliban and Al Queda as well as the aftermath of the US war in Afghanistan.
Read new articles on Greg's blog.
For me it was more than an inspiring, well-told story. I loved that he started out typing letters that got him nowhere. And that he was doing it from the Berkeley haunts I know so well. It made it all so real and accessible. Sure, there are many ways to view "Dr. Greg" in a transcendent "hero" category. His skill set alone - mountain climber, nurse, language-learner - put him in a unique niche. But instead, he could have been a Greyhound bus rider, a writer, and a great cook and somehow engaged with people from another walk of life and decided to make a dream come true for them (and him). As the book goes on, Dr. Greg becomes larger than life in terms of his dedication, asceticism, and bravery, but at the outset he's someone we've all known or almost been. Perhaps the momentum of his work carried him into a more mythical level of "hero-person," but the ingredients that generated his life path are not secret ones. They just usually get moved further back on the shelf.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
My birthday was January 17th and I happened to catch a short feature called "Today's Almanac" on KALW, the smaller NPR station in San Francisco. I don't remember ever hearing it before as I don't often tune to KALW. But I found out about some very cool people whose birthday I share....
Anton Checkov, the great Russian "slice of life" story and play writer;
James Earl Jones, the actor who played Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope;
Muhammed Ali, the Champ
Al Capone, Chicago gangster
Benjamin Franklin (of course I knew that already; his b'day is written on many calendars)
I wish I could have attended some of their birthday parties.
P.S. Two major earthquakes and the patent for the San Francisco cable car happened on Jan 17. January is named for Janus (Ianuarius), the god of the doorway.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
My dad turns 80 this April and last weekend I watched a videotaped interview I did with him ten years ago. My brothers want me to make a video for his birthday party. The party will be part of a full weekend which, of course, includes a Sabbath in an Orthodox setting. Family gatherings that fall on Jewish holidays, or even Sabbath, always cause me a lot of anxiety and apprehension - especially when Sally and my sons are coming too.
But the tape draws me in completely. I never watched it before. He talks about starting out in business with only a religious Jewish high school education, borrowing money to buy a kosher butcher shop in a little town he'd probably never been to - Peoria, Il, after working in the Chicago stockyards for three years. Marrying my mom as teen agers; paying $37 per month for a basement apartment as newlyweds; discovering that he could sell ad specialties with only catalogs in hand and starting "SelMor Advertising"; finding investors and buying a couple of machines to print ads on giveaway plastic items; ("The Graduate" with its immortal line about "plastics" had a special meaning for me.) Somehow, it's easy to see my dad as a young man braving a largely unknown world - just a few layers beneath the wrinkles and white hair of this later version. Stories pass by so quickly in retrospect, like the pages of a thick novel blown over to the final chapter outside in a sudden breeze.
It touches me deeply to hear of his early years. The story of a young man wanting to make a life....wanting "to become a man" as he says in the tape. A story so universal and far removed from our father-son dynamics.
Stories became nearly impossible to exchange across the chasm between my secular life and his orthodox life, a gulf that widened over 35 years as we traveled different trajectories. But this early chapter from an age- as young as my sons are now- is a time-warped-sort-of-bridge.
Tomorrow, I turn 55, and the connected, compassionate feelings that Ab's "young man stories" have imparted feel like a wonderful birthday gift one day early......or 35 years late depending which way the breeze is blowing.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Two years ago we received a holiday card from the Wolf family. The three of them were pictured on their front stoop in a wide shot that showed Lou's new prosthetic leg. The caption read, "We've got a leg up on the new year." Lou had his leg amputated months earlier following a sudden blood clot problem that occurred during a long flight from Southeast Asia back to the states. Lou is not the type to let major surgeries and life changes keep him down, and before long he was asked to mentor other amputees at Walter Reed Hospital and Army Medical Center in his hometown, D.C. (There is some irony there, since Lou was a conscientious objector in the early 60's and edited a magazine that, for decades, reported on CIA operations and "dirty business" throughout Latin America.)
Over Christmas and New Years 2007, the Wolf family joined us for a vacation at a small, eco-tourist resort 90 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, called Mar de Jade. Lou gave demonstrations of how his new computerized prosthetic could adjust itself for stair climbing etc. and Lou was determined to walk without assistance on the very uneven unpaved grounds, though he had to be caught a couple of times before hitting the ground. He asked my sons, Alex and Zac, if they might be willing to help him fulfill a dream of his. Could they help him swim in the ocean?
So, one morning, they hired a fisherman to take them out in his little boat. They helped Lou into the boat and then over the side and the three of them swam together for awhile, in what Lou described as a "peak experience." Lou was smiling ear to ear at lunchtime, while his wife wore an expression of tolerant relief.
With another new year upon us - a time for resolutions and wishes - I'm hoping to see a lot of Lou's optimism and uncomplicated resolve - in myself, my family, and friends - to take the steps toward what we see in our best dreams and hopes.