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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Garden of Eden in the Sand

A small group of us attended a talk by

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Stocks Up Jobs Down

Isn't it telling that the stock market climbed back over 10,000 on the day that the national jobs report showed the highest level of unemployment since 1983? The New York Times reports that 1 out of every 6 U.S. workers is affected.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Kyrgyzstan - Base Hit!

I just finished reading "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins. He details the ways that mega-corporations like Bechtel and Haliburton work in lockstep with the U.S. government, the World Bank, and the IMF to control developing countries via enormous debt for mega-projects that are built by these companies and that benefit only a small segment of the populations.

I just finished reading "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins. He details the ways that mega-corporations like Bechtel and Haliburton work in lockstep with the U.S. government, the World Bank, and the IMF to control developing countries via enormous debt for mega-projects that are built by these companies and that benefit only a small segment of the populations.

I guess my radar was way up when I saw a scant two-sentence article in the SF Chronicle this week, saying Kyrgyzstan had granted the US an extension on our airbase in their country after telling us to leave a few months ago. Kyrgyzstan? It's one of those "new" countries from the former Soviet Union that most Americans (like myself) have not added to our mental globes.

I looked it up on Wikipedia and found that sure enough it is one of the poorest countries in that neighborhood. Also this article from the Encyclopedia of Nations, says the IMF is very involved in propping up its currency.

Nevertheless, in this case Kyrgyzstan may have found a product to sell to the highest bidder and maybe even reduce some of their debt. Seems that Russia recently gave them 1.3 billion to evict the U.S. The New York Times did a much better job than our Chronicle and recounted some details of what Kyrgyzstan got from the U.S. - which uses this base extensively in our war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I imagine that author John Perkins could rattle off several indicators that point to even more back-story on what leverage we used to get this agreement.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tie Dye leaves home

When Alex and Zac were nine or ten, we were talking about college. Alex asked me if I would take care of Tie Dye, our 2 year old tortoise shell cat, until they got back from college. I was tickled and touched that he assumed life would resume and be the same, with all of us living together again after "college."

Sixteen years later he knows that nothing stays the same. He and Zac have been on their own, in different cities, since they finished college a few years back. And Tie Dye breathed her last yesterday, almost exactly 24 hours ago, when she was euthanized.

Zac and Alex were her "pet humans" and they gave her all the love a little cat could purr up. I'd never adopted a tortoise shell kitty and was trying to steer the boys to a tabby or a black cat at the Humane Society. They said, "Dad, it's the personality that counts!" and that was it.

As I held her lifeless bony body yesterday, I looked down at the variegated orange, rust-brown, and yellow pallette of her fur and buried my face in her side, breathing in as much of her beauty as I could.

She had an uncanny ability to know when it was exactly 6 PM. She'd come get me wherever I might be in the house and tell me it was time for wet food with the exact same meow-tones. It was her favorite time of day and as sick as she got in the final week, she only missed the call one time. Yesterday, the vet left Sally and me alone with Tie Dye for a few minutes before the euthanization, while emotions took over. I noticed a bag of treats on the desk and grabbed some. Tie Dye perked up for the first time all day and gobbled down several. Her purr was mostly wheez at this point, but it was a sweet moment none the less. And it was just a few minutes past 6.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Regulating Banks

This American Life (my favorite radio show) produced a recent episode on the current economic meltdown, called The Watchmen. They explore who was supposed to be regulating the Wall Street companies before they collapsed and required trillions in taxpayer bailouts.

We all know now that mortgages were being handed out like handbills at a political rally or maybe more like credit card enticements we get in our daily mail - regardless of anybody's ability to pay them off. It turns out many jobless people were given a mortgage while the bank execs and jr. execs were swimming in bonus millions – soon to be joined by creative insurance companies like AIG. But who was watching the store for us depositors and taxpayers and regular people who work far from the financial sector doing little jobs like teaching, construction, nursing, and firefighting?

They trace down three regulating bodies that could have put an early stop to the whole thing, but didn't. One was the Office of Thrift Supervision. One was Congress which has committees overseeing the banks. One was the ratings agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's. ("Poor" must be some kind of joke for that firm.)

The Office of Thrift Supervision is funded according to the number of banks and holding companies that it regulates. When banks close OTS'ers lose their jobs. Congress members depend dearly on the campaign contributions from the banks they regulate. The ratings companies, it turns out, are also paid by the issuers of stocks and bonds that they rate. What's wrong with this picture?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Got Milk

I saw this list of "The 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948" on a blog called "Tagline Guru." He calls taglines the "haiku of branding."

It also includes the most memorable jingles.

I knew most of them. Those marketing haiku's stuck in the wrinkles of my brain while so many significant memories, facts, conversations, and good jokes all faded like dreams in the night. Oh well, here's some of the ones I liked most:

4. Where’s the beef? (1984) Wendy’s

6. Think different. (1998) Apple Computer

7. We try harder. (1962) Avis

24. I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. (1966) Alka-Seltzer

48. Our repairmen are the loneliest guys in town. (1967) Maytag Appliance

67. We answer to a higher authority. (1975) Hebrew National

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pre-Father's Day Dream

Last weekend I flew down to San Diego and got to visit both my sons Alex and Zac and Sally's daughter, Hannah. Zac drove down from Santa Barbara to join us. My role as Dad with adult kids is still new to me, though the twin boys are now 26 and have been making their own way for several years. I'm not exactly clear on how they see me now, what they need from me now, what advice or worries to voice, what confidences to share. But what remains crystal clear, is the pure pleasure of looking at them. I can still feel a sense of miracle at their being at all and my visceral connection to their lives, and theirs to mine. yummmm.......

We played doubles tennis with one of Alex's apartment-mates, Sean. At this point, my main goal is to make a few good hits and most importantly, not to keel over, or spoil all the fun with a heart attack. It worked out pretty well, though there was a rebellious muscle in my neck, determined to spoil my illusion of being a 20-something too. Within a half hour after we stopped playing I couldn't turn my head right or left and had to turn my whole body to speak to someone throughout the Padres game we went to see with Hannah and Heather. I was all of 56 years old for that event.

The first night I stayed at Alex's apartment and he stayed at his girlfriend Heather's. He gave me his bed and Zac slept on a pad on the floor next to the bed. Before waking up the next morning, I had a long, convoluted dream that I've mostly forgotten. But there was a scene in the middle of it where my Mom showed up. She's been dead almost 30 years now and I almost never get an appearance from her in my dreams. It must have been triggered by how connected and happy I felt with Zac and Alex close by.

When we woke up I told Zac that I had a rare "Rochelle sighting" in my dreams and that I remember asking her to come to my backyard and see the flowers I'd planted that were all blossoming. Then the dream evaporated - as they do - in the welcoming breeze of the new day.

It wasn't until last night that the dream came back and grabbed my attention. While I'm no dream-specialist, it is clear to me that I wanted to show Rochelle her grandsons Zac and Alex who are in full blossom at age 26.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Show Me the Money!

In California we have come up over $24 billion dollars short for our upcoming budget year. There's a number of facts that would help me know where to make up the shortfall. Most of all, I'd like to see a list of Californians by income levels in one column and what they paid in taxes in the other column.

If there's a half million Californians making $2 million dollars or more and paying less than one million in taxes, then I know where I'd recommend we make up the entire shortfall. ($100K per person)

If there's 2 million Californians making over $200K and paying less than $50,000, then I know where I'd make up 20 billion dollars by charging each an additional $10K in taxes.

It makes no sense to have a huge gap between rich and poor if we aren't taking care of so many in our society – let alone closing the state parks.

If there's no such unreasonable gap......if everyone is already shouldering the collective load to a fair extent, then I'm as ready as any Republican to get out my red marker. I'd just like to see this financial information about personal wealth and what portion people have put in for the common good.

Doesn't that seem like one of the first things newspapers should put into their coverage of this budget crisis?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Squeaky Wheels vs. Community Vision

Just returned from a city council meeting in neighboring Mountain View where they will be voting later this evening on whether to allow a Day Worker Center to go forward with a relocation or to stop it in deference to neighbors who don't want it there. The neighbors protest that their property values will go down while crime and traffic will go up. They say it's a commercial enterprise that should not be allowed.

Hopefully, the council will follow the staff recommendations to let it go forward. The police studied the old location (lease ran out) and found no increase in crime over its five years there. The traffic director did a study and found no traffic problems will occur. There are numerous courses given at the site - like English as a second language. Meals and health care screenings. They've got the best volunteer landscapers of any nonprofit agency in the town.

PBS commentator Ray Suarez once spoke in Palo Alto about the changing neighborhoods across the U.S. He asked how many folks had checked the value of their home recently and virtually all hands went up. He reminded folks that not many years ago, homes were purchased as places to live and not as an investment. The Mountain View neighbors don't want a commercial enterprise to locate among them, but it seems - at this point - each of the homeowners is more like a commercial enterprise themself.

Seems to me that living in a community means integrating social service agencies, schools, libraries, homeless shelters, and neighborhood serving retail with housing. Hopefully the council members will use their "community vision."

Monday, May 04, 2009

Ban Cluster Bombs

Here is a piece I wrote about cluster bombs that the San Jose Mercury News printed on Friday, May 1.

"Opinion: 40 years later, cluster bombs are still killing; ban them

By Elliot Margolies

Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 04/30/2009 08:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 04/30/2009 08:12:17 PM PDT

A multimedia exhibit I stumbled upon in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was deeply disturbing. Photos and narratives of people with prosthetics portrayed stories of hope and healing. What pained me was the realization that U.S. cluster bombs dropped on Laos over 35 years ago had caused these injuries. And those bombs continue to blow up as many as 300 Laotian villagers annually.

I am hardly unique in not remembering that our country bombed Laos daily for nine years in a secret campaign during the Vietnam War. Air Force records document over 500,000 bombing missions, dropping over 270 million cluster bombs.

A Defense Department report to Congress in 2000 said that 23 percent of cluster bombs did not explode when dropped in some test situations. That conservative estimate translates to 81 million "bombies" — as Lao people call them — lying in the forests and just under the ground in the rice fields and villages. Many look like yellow baseballs; they are filled with ball bearings waiting to rip a body apart.

In Xienghuang province, a heavily bombed area, there are posters in the schools and songs taught to students warning them not to pick up the yellow metal balls. It's not just the kids who need to be warned repeatedly. In impoverished Laos, many adults are tempted to look for scrap metal they redeem for cash. They buy handheld metal detectors and look for bomb fragments. As the price of scrap metal has gone up in recent years,
so too have the number of arms and legs blown off.

Since 1994, bomb-clearing squads have painstakingly cleared the land and have safely destroyed about a half-million "bombies." In that time, the U.S. has contributed $20 million toward the cleanup — far less than the bonuses awarded to AIG.

Those of us from Silicon Valley have a special connection because the cluster-bomb manufacturer is Lockheed Martin. But it turns out that we are at a pivotal moment when our voices could actually send cluster bombs into extinction.

The International Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 95 nations last December. These nations are destroying their stockpiles and they agree never to use or sell cluster bombs again. The Bush administration did not sign it. But there is every reason to believe that if Americans tell President Barack Obama it's important to us, he will review the treaty. In mid-February a coalition of 67 nongovernmental organizations led by Human Rights Watch sent a letter to him calling for a review. Now is the time to add your voice.

Meanwhile, there is a smaller but important step to take with our representatives in Congress. A bill before Congress will greatly limit U.S. use of cluster bombs in war, especially in civilian areas. Ask your representative in the House to co-sponsor HR 981. Both of our senators are already co-sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate.

Elliot Margolies lives in Palo Alto and recently spent a month backpack-traveling in Thailand and Laos. He wrote this article for the Mercury News. "

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Traveling Gray

(I didn't actually ride it as I knew I'd hurt somebody if I did.)

I wondered how traveling alone would go for me at age 56. (56?!) Before leaving, I worried about issues that never crossed my mind in my 20’s, when one, two, or three months a year, I would be “on the road.” Would I get claustrophobic and panicky on the long plane ride to Asia? (got a prescription for lorazepam) Would the heat be too much for me? What about the language barrier and having nobody to travel with? Would this whole “adventure” be an ordeal of loneliness? Never before had so much real estate in my backpack been devoted to pills. Diarrhea, constipation, nose sprays, malaria, sleeping, motion sickness…….oy.

Fortunately, from the moment I got into my seat on Japan Airlines – complete with a personal TV screen for movies and games, meal followed by snack followed by meal, I somehow knew anxieties would pose no problems. As it turned out, neither anxieties nor loneliness ever clouded my travel-days. Every morning I awoke excited, wondering what would unfold and who I would meet. I interacted with so many different folks though the majority of travelers were young. I left those thoughts of being a 56 year-old back at the birthday brunch we’d had two days before my departure. Nevertheless, there were a few times when my age hit me like an ice pack on a sore knee and gave me pause. In those hours, I remembered that at my corporeal “north pole,” there was a thinning crop of gray hair announcing my advanced “stage of life.”

One night in a tiny Chiang Mai bar near my guesthouse, I got into a bar-side conversation with a British guy where everything out of our mouths sounded ultra-clever, astute and hilarious. Whether the subject was politics, music, or Bangkok, we had each other laughing and nodding emphatically. About an hour into it, he mentioned that he’d lived briefly in Santa Barbara when his dad got a teaching position at UCSB. I got quite excited, as I’d graduated from UCSB. I wondered what his dad had taught. Wouldn’t it have been wild if I had been his student?
“What year was it?” I asked.
“It was 1977.” he answered.
“Oh, I was already gone at that point. I graduated in ’74.”
“1974!! That was before I was born.”

That last reply did not get me laughing. Instead it got my brain wheels moving to a private space, wondering who my bar friend was seeing throughout our conversation. Was I like a professor colleague of his father’s or maybe an old family friend of his parents’ generation who is easy to talk to?

The last couple of days of my trip were in Bangkok, Thailand - from where my return flight would leave. I stayed near the ultra-modern Skytrain which could get me almost anywhere I wanted to go – what with some walking. It was also just off Sukhumvit Road which is lined with young prostitutes for probably a mile in either direction from the hostel where I stayed. It was unsettling to see the dozens of older white men who walked hand in hand or obviously in “relationship” with a Thai prostitute less than half his age and weight. You’d see a lot of these couples in the restaurants with nothing to say to each other. Often the girl might be on her cell phone while the older guy occupied himself with the details of the restaurant walls or ceiling. The arrangement in Bangkok was one in which the two would keep company for 12 or 24+ hours at a time. Even if there were no language barrier, many of these guys had to deal with the fact they had no communications skills. Most of them also avoided eye contact with tourist families and couples who were not in a “rental” situation.

On the plane from Vientiane to Bangkok, I was seated next to a pretty, blonde 28 year-old backpacker. She was engaged to be married, but decided to go traveling for awhile before planning a wedding. She hadn’t made a guesthouse reservation. She asked if she might come with me to see if my hostel had room for her. We ended up spending much of my final two days together, touring in the mornings and getting back together for dinner in the evenings, yakking and yukking up a storm. One night we were on the Skytrain and I caught our reflection in a mirror across from us. It gave me a start. There’s no question that there was an older man – albeit with a cool, celestial shirt and big smile punctuating his ancient skull – sitting next to a surfer girl. An image of those Sukhumvit Johns buzzed my brain before I could look away.

You may ask what does it matter if I appeared to be an older man; of another generation; not in his virile, dark, curly-haired prime? Does it change any of the enjoyable interaction I had with her, or any other young travelers I’d spent time with? Granted I’ve done a lot more aging than evolving as a man. Who has time to evolve when it feels that someone “in charge” leaned on the “fast forward” button on my life and forgot to let up? But I hope that at least a lot of other 50-somethings (and older) would understand, and not just my sad, paunchy cousins down below on Sukhumvit Road.

Coming back from a trek I did with a sister and brother from Canada.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bombies in Laos

One morning while in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I saw a flyer, advertising an art exhibit by or about handicapped persons. It appeared to be in walking distance, so I headed over to it. I went a bit off course and must have looked perplexed when a woman my age came by on her motorcycle and asked where I was going. She said she was a doctor and had time to take me there between meetings.

It turned out to be a campus of sorts where wheelchairs and prosthetic arms, legs, hands, and feet are crafted. There was also a gymnasium specifically for wheelchair sports. One single story building with a loft inside was the headquarters of COPE an organization that makes prosthetics - half of which go to people missing limbs blown off by bombs. There might be as many as 300 new victims a year in Laos - most of them hurt by cluster bombs they call "bombies". So who's bombing Laos? It was the U.S. throughout a secret campaign of nine years (1964 - '73) during our war against Viet Nam. It's estimated that 30% of the 260 million+ bombs that we dropped on Laos did not go off at the time. Most of these are cluster bombs and pineapple bombs, small enough to pick up in one hand. Filled with ball bearings that rip a body apart, they are designed to hurt people, not tanks or buildings. Dozens are released from a cannister as it falls to the ground and spread themselves over a wide area. Many end up just under the ground, only to be set off when a farmer hoes a rice field or a person digs a posthole for their home.

In Xienghuang province, where I'd just been, (the 2nd most heavily bombed area), there are posters and even songs in the schools instructing kids not to pick up the little yellow metal balls. It's not just the kids who need to be warned. With the price of scrap metal going up in recent years, many poor Laotians have looked for bomb scraps to redeem for money. There's been a big business in the kind of metal detectors you see people swinging in an arc along the sand at public beaches in the States. Besides the little bombies, we dropped 4 million king-size bombs and consequently there's a lot of scrap metal waiting to be harvested by entrepreneurial risk-takers.

Since 1994 there have been bomb clearing squads who painstakingly clear the land and have safely destroyed about a half million of them. That would leave about 77 million left to go. The U.S. has offered to send additional clearing teams, but the Lao government has turned down the offer. My understanding is that they would appreciate more funding to develop their own teams. So far our government has contributed $20 million over the 15 years since the clearing started. One and a third million a year is the kind of bonus that many of the VP's and CEO's in our infamous financial sector received annually.

The COPE building does house a very moving exhibit. It includes a life-size model of a typical dwelling you'd find in a Lao village and it is filled with metal hooks, pots, and bowls that have been fashioned from bomb fragments. There is a photo exhibit and narrative of a father who went fishing with his two sons and found a cluster bomb. He'd heard that you could catch many fish if you throw a cluster bomb against the water. Needless to say limbs were torn from his body as his experiment blew up. Fortunately his sons were behind a tree. The exhibit included a shelf full of defused bombs. It was disconcerting to find out from the COPE Coordinator, Jo Pereira, that many similar bombs on display shelves in restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies throughout the town of Phon Sa Van - where I'd stayed a few days - have not been defused. Some still contain white phosphorous.

At first there was a very young Lao woman who guided me through the various exhibits. It's overwhelming to view the photographs (none are graphic), the bombs, etc. without feeling deeply connected to it as an American. My guide was very kind and there were no anti-U.S. messages in the exhibit. But when you are surrounded by this painful reality that we never think of at home and that has been part of Laotian life these past 45+ years, it's impossible not to tear up.

Jo, the Project Coordinator, made some coffee and talked about her work. She's an expat from Britain committed to repairing bodies with prosthetics - one person at a time. With every new arm or leg an individual receives, a whole family is put "on its feet" again. Since it began in 1995, COPE has restored mobility to over 9,000 people.

At this point there are just a handful of countries that have not agreed to end the manufacture and use of cluster bombs. Jo was proud to have testified with some Lao friends just before Britain decided to sign. Still holding out are the U.S., Israel, India, and China. Listening to President Obama - in his first address to Congress - mention so many things that he would turn around from the very dark years of the Bush-Cheney administration, there is hope that this terrible business of cluster bombs will finally end in the U.S. and go the way of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture.

more information:
COPE parent org. -
United Nations Development Lao -

Bombs on display in Phon Sa Van

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Khoun Community Radio in Laos

The second community media center that I visited in Laos was in a little town in one of the poorest, most heavily bombed provinces by US forces during the Viet Nam War. Khoun Community Radio is the first experiment of its kind in Laos - a place where all the programming is authored and produced by local people. Much like the community media centers where I have worked, there are classes for the volunteer program producers and outreach to get more programmers.

Unlike our media center in Palo Alto, California, the programmers are mostly from the Hmong, Khmu, Lasu, and Laolum tribes that make up the town and nearby villages. Each tribe speaks a different language and has its own religious practices and musical roots. So the programming day is divided by tribe and language. There are more programmers in the dry season when the rice-dominated agricultural season is in hiatus.

The station started operating in October, 2007 with funding from the UN Development office and the creative energies of Xaisongkham, the only paid staffperson. Xai, a handsome twenty-something came on board in 2006 to develop policies, curriculums, and community relations. Unlike in Palo Alto, one of his first jobs was to get the area cleared of unexploded cluster bombs that are just under the ground before the three-room building could be constructed. They are up to 7.5 hours per day of programming - including lots of live call-in shows mixing music and talk, and pre-recorded/edited shows that cover community happenings. Call-ins are frequently for song dedications, but are sometimes about matters like a lost buffalo. There is no internet in Khoun City, so the radio is a much more important social networking tool. You can see the low-power transmitter at the top of a nearby mountain. It's powered by a solar panel.

Just like our U.S. public access media centers, Khoun Community Radio grapples with the need for ongoing funding and offers short public service announcements to local businesses. Unlike our centers, some fees get paid in rice. Unlike our centers which were established by Congress to provide a forum for free speech (though the law falls short of some free speech guarantees), in Laos, the formerly Communist Pathet Lao government keeps a wary eye on the program content. Programmers know not to criticize the government and are told not to speak badly of any other tribe or religion. An official from the Ministry of Information sits on the Board of Directors.

Xai will soon be leaving Khoun Community Radio for a grad school program in Australia for which he was awarded a scholarship. His replacement will be Soukkhy, a young woman who moved into Khoun City's only guesthouse on the day of my visit. Soukkhy confided how nervous she is about trying to fill Xai's shoes. She has no I-T background and was working at a privately owned mining company. After six happy years there, she just felt she wanted to do something new and something for community development. Xai will train her, and with her quick wit and intelligence, she will be an excellent successor, but that day she was facing a very unknown future without any friends nearby, and she expressed her doubts to me. I told her of numerous station directors I've known in the U.S. who came to it without a tech background and who built thriving community media centers.

With college educated activists like herself and Xai starting to run programs like this one, the older Ministry of Information and Culture officials and the government as a whole are destined for some profound changes as well in the coming years.

More information:
Station Blog

"@ My Library" in Laos - community media & learning

Most of my career has been spent working in the nonprofit field of community media - and public access TV channels/media centers. The incredible, recent success of YouTube and similar sites for user-generated video notwithstanding, I have frequently felt that I chose the road less taken and it didn't really lead anywhere special. Public access cable TV channels are surfed over like shopping channels by most people for reasons I have examined and tried to overcome a hundred-thousand times over the years, with some "hits", and many more misses.

On my trip to Laos, I visited two non-profit media projects that are making a difference and feature some of the best ingredients of community media.

The first was called "@ My Library" in Luang Prabang, Laos. Started by Carol Kresge, an expat from Connecticut, around five or six years ago, it has evolved from a library geared to youth who don't have the same access to books that we take for granted in the West. Over time about eight computer stations have been added to the cozy space where people can pull up a chair and a set of headphones to study English, play educational games, or learn computer applications. Most recently, the center has added some digital cameras that can be borrowed. A few have now become adept at Adobe Photoshop and one twosome created a movie 30 seconds at a time, using the video setting on a digital still camera, and then editing all the segments using the Movie Maker application. There are over 1,000 book checkouts a month and 25,000 hours of computer usage per year. It's a place that has changed lives who - as adults - will probably change Laos.

I met a 19 year old monk in Thailand who asked me to deliver a message to his teacher in Luang Prabang, Laos. One afternoon, I located the correct wat (monastary) in Luang Prabang and readily found the teacher's 17 year old brother - a novice monk. After we found his elder brother and delivered the message, he asked what I wanted to do next as his afternoon was free. I told him I'd seen a flyer for "@ My Library" and he immediately guided me there. As soon as we arrived he obviously felt at home and went straight for a computer and a set of headphones. It looked a bit incongruous with the headphones on his shaved head and the saffron robe completing his attire, but no more so than stumbling across an outstanding community media center in Luang Prabang, Laos.

For more info on "@ My Library": (photo gallery) (to donate)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thailand Laos Village Schools

In my 20's, going "on the road," was a guaranteed source of inspiration, punctuated by full impact encounters, and intriguing coincidences. I wasn't so sure if it would generate the same rewards three decades later, or if I might get sidetracked by neuroses and bodily distractions I've collected over the years. Two days after turning 56, I took off for a solo, 25-day trip to Thailand and Laos, cashing in my airline "infrequent flyer" mileage. It went by in a flash and delivered all the best goods of the antecedent, longer trips. You know the magic is working when you wake up each morning full of enthusiasm for whatever will unfold and the unknown people you will meet. Having spent my "career-years" in the non-profit sector, I included a number of visits to various projects that I either found by "googling" beforehand or by walking around in the towns I visited. The next few blogs will detail some of those project visits.

Before I left the U.S., I made contact with a guy living in Mae Hong Son, Thailand - a picturesque little town near the border with Myanmar. He is trying to get a "community service" project off the ground that will bring supplies for young students at remote schools in the hill villages close to the border. He saw me as a potential link to funders or to an agency that could act as a fiscal agent for donations and grants. I started to receive some rambling emails from him that answered just a couple of my questions and that implied we would spend several days together. I drew some boundaries on our upcoming time together and hoped for the best, knowing that we'd be bringing supplies to two school sites.

When the squat, bouncy propeller plane dropped me off at the little airport, it wasn't long before all my fellow passengers had made their way out of the facility and into town. Apparently, my internet friend had forgotten my arrival info. All the tuk-tuks and taxis were gone. A thick, friendly woman about my age rode me into town on her motorcycle, dropped me at my guesthouse (motel) and rode by my "host's" house to tell him I arrived. A few minutes later he knocked on my door, along with two associates.

He was a retired American who has lived in Thailand for about 25 years - beginning with his Viet Nam war service - stationed in Thailand. He then worked for Chevron in the states and returned to Thailand when his contract was bought out. Right away he told me he had the shakes from tying one on the night before and needed to drink some beer during our morning meeting. We headed over to a restaurant where he could tell me more about his work and his plans over his beers and my coffee. I'll call him "Down the Hatch" since the beers were followed by shots of whiskey and more beers throughout the day. One of his associates was a formerly high ranking, retired Thai military man who I'll call Mr. Sir. The other was a devoted assistant and driver for Mr. Sir who still does undercover work and could not be named. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" met way back during the war years and they share a deep affection for each other.

We drove 55 kilometers into the mountains skirting the Myanmar border and first-gearing a long ways up a very narrow unpaved, extremely vertical stretch to reach a very remote, impoverished Lahu or Shan village. Miraculously I did not get car sick and did not even take a Dramamine when far smoother, straighter rides have made me sick back home. (Did the little white string bracelet that an old monk tied round my wrist in a Chiang Mai temple, have anti-nausea properties?) "Down the Hatch" was not so fortunate, and regurgitated a bit into his baseball hat. We passed by a couple of military checkpoints where teen-age soldiers were on the lookout for "illegal aliens" or drug runners from Myanmar.

The school building was just a room with no desks and a couple of pictures on the wall. All the kids stood in lines just outside the school room, waiting patiently for the blankets and school supplies that Mr. Sir handed out and stepping forward one at a time to be measured for a coat and shoes to be brought on a subsequent trip. When a child was given his or her blanket, they bowed in thanks and brought it to one of the mothers standing nearby. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" also met with a young woman they've hired ($30 per month) to help the teacher with the younger kids who need their diapers changed etc. Many of the kids were coughing even though the weather is great. The villagers said they suspected one girl had malaria, but Mr. Sir said we'd get in trouble if we took her to a hospital without first letting the government health officials come to the village to see her.

Almost no teenagers or men were in sight. Allegedly, they were either tending an opium crop or smuggling it in from Burma. There seem to be no other job opportunities or agricultural options on those hilltops. As we drive to a second village Mr. Sir passionately tells me that education of the children is the single best hope for getting them away from a life involved with opium. The second village is less remote, even though we must walk across two bridges composed of side-by-side bamboo poles. Lots of villagers come across the bridges to carry the supplies from the back of our pickup truck. These kids appear much better off, if also more rambunctious. Their village is closer to town on lower, flatter ground that allows for fields of crops. They just got a water filtration unit the week before from another agency that targets Burmese refugees.

Again, "Down the Hatch" stands to one side while Mr. Sir does all the interacting with the children and the teachers (one teacher and three assistants for about 100 kids). As little confidence as "Down the Hatch" instills as the "face" of this would-be enterprise - as a team they definitely get supplies to places that need them. And even though a grander vision for economic alternatives is needed for these remote villages, every can of sardines, every pencil and notebook, and every blanket is really needed by these children. I feel very lucky to have been part of this field trip with them and hope that I might be able to steer some $ their way from my affluent environs in Palo Alto.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy Birthday Michelle Obama!

Happy Birthday Michelle Obama,
I'm celebrating my birthday today as well and it is one of my favorite birthdays because of the feelings I have about you and your beautiful family about to become our country's "first family." I'm so proud to be represented by you and your husband and have never felt so strongly before an inauguration. I am celebrating my 56th with a Lonely Planet style trip to Southeast Asia (my first time) and have packed two Obama T-shirts. I know they will lead to many great interactions. I assume you know we share our birthday with Muhammad Ali, Ben Franklin, and even Al Capone (Chicago connection)! Wishing you your best year ever!