Sunday, December 24, 2006

The biggest threat to America: The nuclear bomb? No, the dollar store!

This holiday season I got a whole bunch of presents. "What did you get, Jane?"

"Much to my surprise, this year I got a lot of gift baskets." Why is that? Why are people suddenly giving gift baskets instead of the usual stuff. I'll tell you why. Because suddenly there is suddenly lots of things that are available to put INTO gift baskets. Because in the last six months at least FOUR new dollar stores have opened up in my neighborhood alone. These are big stores, all full of STUFF. Stuff that you just HAVE to have. And every single item in every single store costs less than a dollar. These new dollar stores make even Wal-Mart seem overpriced. And when Wal-Mart has become the new Saks Fifth Avenue, you know for sure that America is in BIG financial trouble.

I was just reading an article by James K. Galbraith that said, "So here's the big question: is the age of the dollar economy lurching toward an end? Are China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other big holders of T-bonds about to start a rush, or even a stately promenade, toward the exits?" Who cares about T-bonds, James, as long as China doesn't stop loaning us money so that we don't have to stop buying all that crap from all those new dollar stores; crap that we HAVE to have -- at least until our next garage sale.

I just LOVED all my new gift baskets. I got one with a gardening theme. I got one with a hand-towel theme. I got one with a ceramic puppy-dog theme. And one with a ceramic kitten theme too. Gotta have it!

But sometimes I worry that these dollar stores might just be the secret enemy weapon that will finally bring America DOWN.

PS: WHY am I being so hard on dollar stores? After all, the American public has been taught to consume. Over a hundred times a day, we are told to go out and BUY! We're addicts. It's in our blood. Only now shopping doesn't have to be so financially painful. Now, for the price you used to pay for a new car, you can now buy out a whole store!

PPS: How can we keep America safe? By just buying stuff manufactured here at home. Home of the Brave? Could we possibly become brave enough to do THAT? No.

On KPFA radio today, they had someone talking about measuring America's economy by more important things than just the gross national product -- like how many college graduates we have. And how many healthy babies, cello players, dentists, schools, happy children....
Sidetracked: How I never heard Malcolm X speak

I can't believe that I threw out the freaking program! 15 years ago I was cleaning house and I came across this drawer full of 1960s memorabilia -- out it all went. The anti-war memorabilia, the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll memorabilia and the civil rights memorabilia.

15 years later, I shrug when I think of those old Fillmore posters, the volumes of diaries detailing my People's Park days and my nights at the Apollo Theater. I did keep an issue of the Berkeley Barb, however -- the one with me on the front page naked from the waist up. But the one thing I really regret throwing out was the program for Malcolm X's funeral.

I also regret that I never went to see Malcolm X speak. In 1965, my friend Bill Tatum said, "Jane, you gotta go hear Malcolm X." But New York City was like a playground back then and there was always something going on and I got distracted -- Bob Dylan, the Four Tops, taking the bus to the March on Washington, bumming a ride on a chartered plane to the March on Montgomery, saving the Lower East Side from "urban renewal," taking the subway to the Cloisters, legal pharmaceutical-grade LSD -- until it was too late.

The only time I got to see Malcolm X was at his funeral.

I vividly remember trudging up to Harlem in the snow, walking through the canyon of buildings that framed Amsterdam Avenue in the hollow winter light. And on the rim of each building, as we mourners made our way up the canyon toward the funeral, were hundreds of New York City policemen in their long dark winter coats outlined against the pale February sky. And set up in front of each one was a machine gun -- aimed at us.

I don't remember much about the funeral itself. I know that Ossie Davis spoke. I remember the feeling of intense brotherhood and warmth and love for one another among the mourners and the feeling of terrible grief over our loss. But the indelible memory of that day for me was the deadly hostility of the NYPD for those of us brave enough to mourn Malcolm X.

Dammit. I should never have thrown that funeral program out. What was I thinking! The least I could have done was to donate it to our local elementary school -- probably the only school in the country with the name "Malcolm X". I guess I just got sidetracked.


Malcolm X's funeral: "Inside the Faith Temple of God" [I'm not in this photo. I was seated up in the balcony]:

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Earthquakes for Christmas: Global warming comes to Berkeley

Prologue: Holy Freaking Cow! Even as I'm typing this we just had another major earthquake! Hide the crockery! Dive under the tables! This is getting SERIOUS!

During the historic UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, I participated in similar FSM demonstrations at UCLA but it wasn't the same. There were only 12 of us. Sigh. So I was really pleased with myself when I moved to Berkeley in 1966. And I've been here for the last 40 years.

I just LOVE Berkeley. We got a ton of Nobel laureates, really good movie theaters that show meaningful films, only 10% of us voted for Schwarzenegger and almost nobody voted for Bush.

We also have the Hayward earthquake fault running right through the middle of Berkeley, only ten blocks from my house. And after 40 years of living right next to a major fault line, you don't have to win the Nobel Prize to know that earthquakes only occur during two seasons a year -- in the spring and in the fall.

"Why is that, Professor Jane?" you might ask. Let me get out my blackboard and chalk.

"Earthquakes are most common in Berkeley when there are sharp contrasts in weather," I said, expounding the famous Stillwater Theory of Earthquake Seasons. "When the nights are cold and the days are hot, the earth expands and contracts too rapidly, too much pressure builds up and Voila! We gots earthquakes. But this rapid expansion and contraction only happens in the spring and in the fall. Earthquakes, like strawberries and NFL games, have their own seasons."

"So why have we just experienced two rather large earthquakes in December, fool? Your theory is WRONG!"

Nope. My theory is still right. Why? Because, amazing as this may seem, the local earthquake seasons have actually changed. This is the warmest holiday season Berkeley has ever experienced. Sure, the nights are still cold but in the daytime I bike around town in my shirtsleeves. This extreme weather contrast in the middle of winter is highly unusual. Usually it's just cold during the day followed by cold during the night.

Earthquakes for Christmas? Global warming is here!

PS: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Hajj, Happy Buddha's Enlightenment, Happy whatever Hindus do in December, Happy Solstice. And if the world's religious leaders don't put their feet down about killing and war RIGHT NOW, the only religion we're gonna have left in a few short years is gonna be animism practiced in fallout shelters, huts and caves.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bottomless Pit: Jane's special "What-will-fill-me-up?" diet

I was NOT a breastfed baby. Would my life have turned out differently if some nurse at the hospital where I was born hadn't told my mother that it was unsanitary to nurse?

Who knows.

As soon as I was old enough to reach my hand to my mouth, I started sucking on the forefinger and middle finger of my right hand until I was seven years old and only stopped then because my parents promised to finally break down and be the last family on our block to buy a TV if I did.

But now I just over-eat.

What exactly causes over-eating? Hunger? Low blood sugar? Oral fixation? Moral weakeness, greed, addiction? Breast milk deprivation? Who knows. I only know that I have absolutely no will power when it comes to food and I hate that. I hate not having ANY control over food.

So. Last summer I started this part-time job working from 5 pm to 9 pm five days a week. It's a great job but it's sort of high-stress. And for some reason totally unknown to me, from the moment I walk in the door until the moment I leave all I can think about is food. For four hours every evening I become totally and uncontrollably orally compulsive. I become a bottomless pit of obsessive need for food. It's weird.

So after a month of observing this trend, I started making a list. And experimenting. Just exactly what WOULD fill me up? Here are the results of my experiment:

Day 1: Seven giant chocolate chip cookies (Did this fill me up? Yes)

Day 2: One and one-half pounds of Laura May's fabulous chocolate walnut fudge (Yes!)

Day 3: Five pounds of broccoli -- cooked (The answer to that one is a definite "No" -- not even coated with olive oil)

Day 4: Eight pieces of birthday cake including two corner slices -- somebody at the office had a party (Yes)

Day 5: Four and one-half pounds of ribs from Everett & Jones -- mild sauce, I'm a wimp (Yes)

Day 6: Endless numbers of carrots -- four hours worth (Absolutely not!)

Day 7: Nine bowls of oatmeal (Yeah, a little bit)

Day 8: Ten bowls of Cheerios (Okay but...what's for dessert?)

Day 9: Two and a half boxes of Girl Scout cookies -- left over from my trip to the United Houma Nation in February where they had extra boxes donated to help their Katrina rescue efforts which BTW are still going on in the bayous of Louisiana (One more box would have put me over the top....}

Day 10: Four pounds of spaghetti (Nope)

Day 11: 25 oranges (Not even close)

Day 12: Three quarts of ice cream -- Ben & Jerry's Strawberry Cheesecake (Yes, but another pint or so would have been better....)

Day 13: Twelve containers of Brown Cow apricot-mango yogurt -- the brand with the cream on the top (Sort of...maybe...a little)

Day 14: Three pumpkin pies (Yes -- and pumpkin pie is also a vegetable!)

So what did I learn? I learned that I CAN be filled up. But if anybody can suggest an easier way to do it -- one that is not so hard on my body -- please let me know. Eating this way is SO self-destructive. It makes me feel like a Cutter.

PS: Sometimes writing about the things that I worry about helps me to stop worrying about them. Does this mean that I will no longer be vulnerable to pumpkin pie? Stay tuned. I'll let you know tonight when I get home from work.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

OPEC & Apocalypto: We've got the early review...

Today I got an e-mail from NEWS MAX of all people, saying that OPEC has just dumped the dollar. Could this be true? That's earth-shaking news if it is! So I e-mailed my friend Joe Thompson who knows everything and he wrote back. "Yes, Jane, oil producing countries ARE shifting their oil income away from dollars and into euros, yen and sterling."

Joe went on to say that this was no big deal for OPEC because the U.S. only makes up 10% of the world's oil market. "It only makes sense for those countries to concentrate on the most widely circulated currency in their part of the world. And that's where the main OPEC oil market is -- European and Asian nations."

Thanks for the clarification, Joe. It also doesn't make sense for OPEC to sell oil to the U.S. for dollars because by thus supporting the dollar OPEC is helping to feed the Bush war machine which then turns around and bites them in the [bottom], whereas OPEC can sell oil to Europe and Asia instead -- places where no one is all that interested in napalming OPEC members' women and children.

Okay, so the dollar is now officially on the decline -- but will it have a soft landing or a hard one? Who knows about that either. But if the dollar's value is going down rapidly, I'd better go out and start spending my dollars now while they are still worth something.

And then my son called me up. He must have read my blog -- the one where I was whining that he never called. "Hey, Ma," he said. "Wanna go to a movie tonight?" Sure! And let's go to dinner at the fancy Japanese restaurant too. If the dollar is gonna be valueless tomorrow, we might as well have sushi at Kirala now.

"What movie do you want to go see?" I asked.
"Apocalypto?" OMG. The dollar's coming to an end and the world's coming to an end too? Sure why not. The sushi was really good. The ginger beef was dry. And Apocalypto? The movie critic Richard Roeper's review of the movie was right -- Mel Gibson isn't particularly fond of Mayas or Scots or even early Christians. Mel Gibson is just fond of BLOOD! This movie had more blood in it than any movie I have EVER seen. But it was entertaining although a bit too heavy-handed in inaccurately depicting Mayans as blood-thirsty sadists. Aside from that, I'd give it two thumbs up. But only if you are completely NOT squeamish.

So. What does Apocalypto have to do with OPEC's assault on the dollar? It relates to the movie's opening quote from Will Durant, which went something like this: "Great civilizations can only be conquered after they have started to decay within." It wasn't so much that OPEC was fierce enough to conquer the dollar. It was that the dollar had already started to decay from within.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Holocaust: Who died & from what? Historians, put your thinking caps on!

With everyone all in a dither about the recent Holocaust summit in Iran, I thought that this debate regarding how many Jews died in the Holocast could be easily answered by using basic math skills.

All we gotta do to find out how many Jews died in the World War II Holocaust -- and, at a time of progress and enlightenment on a modern "civilized" continent like Europe, not even ONE of them should have been killed -- is to find out how many Jews were in Europe in 1933 (arbitrary year) and then subtract from that the number of Jews who immigrated or escaped Europe before it was too late. Then whatever number of unaccounted-for Jews we have left will be the sad tally of all those who fell as victims of the Holocaust -- whether as a result of war, starvation, gas chambers, overwork or whatever. Then you'd have your answer once and for all.

And part of that horrendous answer should be this -- that "war" is always a disaster and should be avoided at all costs because innocent people DIE whenever there is a war. And only sadists, greedy bastards and madmen profit from "war".

Someone just e-mailed me some interesting information. And if their statistics are correct, apparently 1,000,000 Jews died in the Soviet Union during World War II under Stalin's watch. Is that 1,000,000 being included in the Nazi death count? And did or did not Nazis kill these Jews? Or was it Stalin? Are the Nazis being blamed for something Stalin did -- not that the Nazis were saints. Au contraire. But the one with the worst press always goes down in history as the culprit and that miserable cur Stalin apparently must have had better PR than that miserable cur Hitler.

Have historians already explored the above-mentioned statistical and demographic possibilities of settling the Holocaust question once and for all? And, if not, maybe some Ph.D in some university somewhere could put his or her thinking cap on, do the math -- and send the answer to that guy in Iran.

And maybe we could finally -- once and for all -- learn the true lesson of that terrible Holocaust tragedy -- that killing human beings is barbaric, uncivilized and just plain WRONG.

The only way that the men, women and children who died in the Holocaust might not have died in vain is if we the living have finally learned something from their tragic deaths -- that thou shalt not kill!
Ungrateful whelps: Getting along with grown-up children is hard work!

Dealing with grown-up children is harder than dealing with toddlers. I swear. All I can say is that I am truly thankful that three out of four of my grown-up children now have jobs and none of them are still sleeping on my front-room couch.

My oldest child became a hermit. I hear from her regularly -- once every three years.

My second child went to a shrink -- and you know how that goes. "All of your problems are your mother's fault." Honorable Second Daughter then became so convinced that I was the Wicked Witch of the West that now she won't even let me see my own granddaughter.

However, when my father died eight years ago and left me $56,000, that didn't stop Honorable Second Daughter from begging me for the money. "Please," she said, nice as pie. "I need that money for a down-payment on my house." The money went directly from the probate judge to her bank account. Ha! Then she used the money to hire that shrink, the one who said, "All of your problems are your mother's fault...."

My third child, my only son, is a joy -- the kind of guy you want to hang out with and who is into interesting things and has a good heart, is handsome, talented and does good deeds on a regular basis. But unfortunately he is too busy to have time for me. "Sorry, Ma. I gotta hang up now. Gotta go." That's how our average phone conversation ends -- after approximately the first two minutes. Plus he always uses that special tone of voice with me that indicates he is only talking to me out of politeness. How do I know? I used to use that exact same tone of voice on MY mother! And of course I am always the one who initiates our calls. However, I don't dare just spontaneously sit down and dial him up on the spur of the moment -- for fear that he'll think that I'm not giving him enough space. I now time myself between calls. Once a month. That's it.

Then there's my youngest daughter, my baby. After learning all my mothering skills the hard way on the first three, with the youngest one I finally got all of it right. She and I were as close as mother and daughter could be. Enter the sleazy boyfriend. "You've got to choose between college and me," he began. Then it was, "It's either me or your job. One or the other has got to go." Next it was, "Me or your friends. That's final!" I think you know what's coming next. "It's either me or your mother." And I haven't seen my youngest daughter since.

I have always said, "The real reason for having children is so that you will have someone to come and visit you in the old folks' home." Yeah right. It looks like I'm gonna be eating the Jello and shuffling around in the walker all by myself.

I gave birth to those children. They should be kissing my feet. Ungrateful whelps.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Palestine, Iraq & sibling rivalry: The psychology of civil war & some probate advice

I love to talk about my evil sister Ann. I really hated her when I was growing up. I really loved my father -- and I really hated my sister Ann. "But Jane," said my psychologist friend, "you need to look more closely at what is going on here. You need to look at the bigger picture. You don't hate your sister. You hate your father." Ha! Don't give me any of that Freudian crap. I know who I hated. I hated my sister! She, not my father, used to beat me up all the time. She was a punk.

"Nope. Forget about Ann," insisted my psychologist friend. "You only hated her because you sub-consciously realized that hating your father was too scary." But that's just WRONG! My father spanked my sister for her own good. My sister deserved it! Whereas my sister beat me up only out of pure and simple malice.

Well, maybe she only beat me up after my father got done beating on her. But still.... I just KNOW that my psychologist friend was wrong.

But what if she was right? What if my evil sister only attacked me because she was all frustrated that she couldn't punch out my father but knew that she could beat ME up safely because I was a cowardly defenseless baby-doll-loving girlie girl wimp? Well, if that's true, then it totally explains all those civil wars in Palestine and Iraq.

Okay. Here's my reasoning. Picture the Bush pug-uglies as my father. Eeuuww. Scratch that. Picture them as SOMEBODY'S father (not mine!). Now picture the Iraqi Shias and Sunnis as this free-with-the-belt father's two helpless kids. And they hadn't just been sent to their rooms. They had been dragged out to the woodshed and administered Shock and Awe. So. Who are they gonna beat up in retaliation? The Bush bullies? They can't do that. But they CAN turn on each other and beat each other up. Psychology! Maybe Freud was right after all.

And of course the nasty bully neo-con "father" figures encouraged this sibling rivalry -- er -- civil war as a distraction while they stole the oil.

And now the same thing is happening in Palestine. Unable to fight the bullies who have been taking the world's largest hairbrush to their defenseless bottoms for the last 60 years, the Palestinians too have started to beat each other up -- much to the "father's" delight!

More than anything in the world, I wish I had grown up with a sister who loved me and who was my best friend and who watched my back. More than anything in the world, I wish I had a sister who I could just phone up and chat with and like. Instead I have a sister who, because I am now an adult and she can't physically beat me up anymore without landing in jail, finds other ways to beat up on me -- such as dragging me through probate court. But I get the last laugh. "Pop loved me best!"

I wish that the Palestinians and Iraqis could start also being loving sisters to one another. Hell, I wish we could ALL get along.

PS: Wanna know the story about how my sister dragged me through court? Here is an abridged version of it. I changed the names a bit to protect the innocent (me!) but the story is basically true -- and the lesson is crystal clear: Avoid probate court at all costs!

Ten Big Mistakes to Avoid Regarding Probate Court

December 8, 1998: With trepidation, I opened the large manila envelope from my sister Susan. I hadn't heard from Susan in years. She used to beat me up when we were kids and we had mutually avoided each other every since. I looked inside the envelope and a bunch of legal documents fairly sprang out at me. Words like "took advantage of my father's failing health" and "bloodsucker" and "appalling...allegedly...despicable..." flooded the page. "Absolute distortion of the facts...absolute fabrication of the truth," it continued.

I couldn't believe my eyes. My sister, who had conveniently been too busy to visit my father during the last years of his "failing health"and too busy to visit him in the hospital and too busy to help him dismantle his house when he was forced to move to a retirement home and too busy to visit him there...well. My sister and her lawyer-husband now had plenty of time to sue me for his estate. And it looked like they were going to get away with it too.

How did all this craziness come about? With the clarity of hindsight, I can now see exactly how. "I want you and your children to inherit my estate," my father had told me on his deathbed. Slowly and hesitantly he had asked me to write his wishes down, one by one. I wrote them down okay. But I didn't get them witnessed!

Both my father and I made some big mistakes regarding his estate. Please learn from our mistakes. Here are ten of them:

BIG MISTAKE 1: NOT MAKING A LEGAL WILL. If someone is in the hospital, even if someone is young and healthy and doing push-ups in the triathlon, everyone should have a will.

Years ago my father, Alexander Johnston, hired a lawyer to establish a trust and a pour-over will for his heirs (a pour-over will allows for anything not specifically mentioned in the main trust to "pour over" and become part of it automatically upon the death of the trustee).

"Here is the breakdown," my father told me. "Your sister Susan will be second trustee after I die. You will get 15%, Susan will get 25% and Betty (one of my older daughters and his favorite grandchild) will get 20%. The other grandchildren can have the rest".

"A trust is a good thing," I then explained to my younger children. "It sounds a bit more complicated than a will, but its principle is the same: Pop has money. Pop uses it when he's alive. Pop leaves what is left when he dies to whoever he wants to have it. And the sweetest, best part of it all is that, the way this trust is set up, we get to avoid probate". Avoiding probate? ALWAYS a good thing. Trust me on that one!

Pop had a will (well, technically a trust -- but it was the same as a will). It was legal and binding. So far so good.

Then last winter, my father gave me a call. "My last heart attack was a little too close for comfort," he said. "I've written a new will". This was a wise move. Writing a new will allowed him to give his money to his heirs according to his current wishes. "I've named you as executor," he continued, "but I'm not naming any specific heirs. I want you to just distribute my assets according to instructions I will give you later." This was our first big mistake. A will, to be legally valid, must name specific heirs, either in the will itself or in a codicil. A codicil is an addition or amendment to a will.

"This will is self-proved," Pop continued. "That means it was properly witnessed. Two of my neighbors witnessed it today." That was good. A will usually needed two witnesses and witnesses could not be beneficiaries. Even still, we should have had him hire a lawyer to check this will or we should have had him use a will form, available from Nolo Press or any stationery store. As it is often difficult for heirs to tell their parents what to do, I should have advised him about this -- but I didn't.

BIG MISTAKE 2: ASSUMING THAT RELATIVES WILL HONOR YOUR WISHES AND NOT TAKE YOUR HEIRS TO COURT. Pop continued to describe his will. "It has a no-contest clause and also has a clause giving anyone who claims I died intestate (without a valid will) the sum of one dollar. That will keep Susan and Jimmy from contesting it." Susan had stopped speaking to my father seven years before, when Pop had re-married. Her last words to him were, "If you marry her, who will put my children through college!" And now Pop was worried that Jimmy, his lawyer son-in-law, would try to contest his will. I didn't think that Jimmy would. I assumed that, even though they had feuded with my father, Susan and Jimmy would want to honor his wishes. That was our second big mistake. When money was involved, my father's wishes didn't matter; Susan stood ready to drag us -- and herself -- through probate hell.

BIG MISTAKE 3: ASSUMING YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER. Unfortunately, this is just not true.

Two nights before my father died, I got home from work and there were three messages on my machine. "You have to get down here. I need to tell you what to do after I die". He thought he might be dying -- but I didn't believe him, didn't want to believe him. Even though he was 85 years old, had lost over 75 pounds in the last year and was on oxygen and morphine, I still assumed he would live for another 20 years. That was our third big mistake.

The next day, a doctor called me at work. "Your father is dying," were his simple, honest words. I ran to the hospital.

Pop's breathing was labored and painful but, responsible man that he was, he still struggled to make it easy on his heirs by delineating his estate. "Here is my PIN code. And here is the combination to my safe. And don't forget to cancel Social Security and to call the Office of Personnel Management." All this talk of administrative stuff got me worried for a moment that maybe he might actually be planning to kick the bucket after all so I sat on the bed next to him and shamelessly begged him not to die. Then, slightly embarrassed and trying to make light of the situation, I asked him, "Hey, Pop! Do you see the tunnel? Do you see the light?"

"Forget about the light," Pop replied. "Let's get back to talking about the Bank of America." That caused me to smile. It was so typical of my father to try to care for his family even in the face of Death itself. My Pop was an opponent equal to standing up even to the Grim Reaper himself.

Then, miraculously, Pop rallied. I went home all happy, thinking the crisis was past and that Pop was on his way to getting well again -- or at least moving out of the ICU. Pop was gonna live forever!

BIG MISTAKE 4: NOT GETTING THAT CODICIL WITNESSED. That night, in the hospital, my father dictated a directive/codicil to me. It was five pages long. "Here is what I want you to do after my death," he told me. "These are the instructions you need to have, as my executor, to complete the instructions in my will," he told me. "Susan and Jimmy have their house," he told me. "I helped put their children through college. They will be all right. I want to give my money to you and then you can have a nest egg to retire on and can also help out your children." I wrote down his words and went home to work up a clean document from the rough draft he had dictated to me.

The next day my father signed the document but I still didn't think he was going to die and so made very little effort to get the document witnessed. "I can't witness it," the nurse on duty told us. "It's against hospital policy. Why don't you have it notarized?" I learned later that wills/codicils had to be witnessed, not notarized, and, anyway, I didn't do either because I simply did not think Pop was going to die even though he looked just awful. This was a very big mistake.

BIG MISTAKE 5: ASSUMING THAT PROBATE IS A PIECE OF CAKE. Several weeks before going into the hospital, Pop called me every night. "I'm transferring my investment account into joint tenancy with Betty," he said again and again. This was a very wise move for him to make. He explained joint-tenancy to me. "Any money or property placed in joint tenancy goes directly to the heir who is the joint tenant. And no one can dispute it after I die because no one can get access to it without that heir's written permission. And you won't have to go through probate either." Probate. There was that word.

"I want Betty to have my investment account and my car when I die," he continued, "and this is the best way to make sure she gets them. I just don't want anyone to have to go through probate." I still wasn't very sure what probate was or why we should try to avoid it. That was another big mistake. One should always avoid probate like the plague.

"What is a prooo-bait?" asked my youngest daughter Vanessa, then age twelve. I couldn't tell her. I didn't know myself. Didn't have a clue. I looked it up in the dictionary.

"Official proof of a will," I read, "Whatever that means." All too soon I -- and my whole family -- was going to find out -- in excruciatingly painful detail -- exactly what the word "prooo-bait" meant because suddenly and without warning, my father died.

The nurse called us from the hospital. "Your father is dying," she said. "He has pulled out all his tubes." How like my brave and wonderful father; to just get fed up with being hooked up to machines and tubes and pull them all out. Vanessa and I raced to the hospital but it was too late. My father was dead.

With courage I had no idea she possessed, Vanessa drew hearts on my father's hands and whispered in his ear, "This is so that when you get to heaven, God will know that you had been loved."

The shock of Pop's passing hit me like a thunder bolt. I was heart-broken, miserable and numb. I called my son Tom and my daughter Betty. And Betty called Susan.

BIG MISTAKE 6: HEIRS WHO GO OUT AND SPEND A LOT OF MONEY ON LAWYERS. If your heirs are forced into probate and the estate is less than $100,000, please advise your heirs -- from Heaven if need be -- to settle it by getting one of those Nolo Press probate self-help books and going Pro Per (In Propria Persona, which means representing oneself).

Directly after my father died, that creep Susan actually refused to sign the papers to allow my father to be buried. "Why should I?" she said. "What's in it for me? Give me $100,000 and I'll sign." Ha! The entire estate wasn't worth that much. Susan finally agreed to allow Pop to be buried but it was touch and go there for a while.

Then, less than a week after my father died, while we were still reeling from the blow, I got a big fat envelope in the mail from Jimmy. Inside it were a ton of legal documents. "Petition for Letters of Administration," said one. "Notice of Petition to Administer Estate and Petition to Establish Existence and Validity of Trust for an Accounting, for Hearing to Determine Location of Assets," said the others. These were fancy titles to documents that said, basically, "I am taking you to probate court to ask the judge to give me the authorization (and the money) to handle the estate's affairs. I want to be executor." I couldn't believe it. Susan was asking to be named executor. Pop had been dead less than a week and that creepy bitch Susan was already dragging me and my family into probate court!

Further, my so-called sister was alleging, in front of the world and his wife, that I had influenced my father on his deathbed and "taken control of his assets." That's a legalese way of accusing me of robbing our alledgedly poor defenseless old father blind! As if I EVER had any control over my father. And my sister Susan knew that was true better than anyone. How could she DO this to me? Now? With Pop hardly even cold in the ground? I was numb.

"Oh! No!" I cried, overwhelmed. "Not now, not so soon after my father's death. Oh no. Not now." Now not only did I have to deal with bureaucrats and morticians and cleaning out his apartment and notifying all his friends. I had to deal with my greedy idiot sister and also deal with -- and pay for -- lawyers. And she was forcing me into probate court.

I started calling lawyers. Three or four of the attorneys I talked to flat-out told me, "You can not file your father's will and codicil because of the lack of witnesses to the codicil. You must file the 1991 trust and pour-over will instead." That would give the evil Susan 25% of Pop's assets -- assets that he had wanted to go to us.

"But what about my father's codicil? What about his intentions? What about his wishes? Are they just to be ignored?" I cried. And cried. To no avail. Apparently, wishes and intentions and directives didn't count for diddly in a court of law if they weren't properly witnessed. I took the lawyers' advice. Another big mistake. If there are a bunch of wills and directives and codicils and the estate is worth less than $100,000, just buy one of those Nolo Press probate self-help books, file all the documents with the court and let the freaking judge decide.

In the meantime, Jimmy subpoenaed my father's bank records and God knew who else in search of Pop's assets. Things were getting mean and out of hand. We found out later Jimmy had even hired a private detective to trail me and Betty around. Legal bills began mounting up at an alarming rate. And all this hysteria had been triggered by an estate that was worth $60,000 tops.

I then interviewed approximately 14 other lawyers and each one had a conflicting view regarding how the case should proceed. The only thing they all agreed upon however was that we should give both themselves and my evil sister Susan big bundles of bucks.

BIG MISTAKE 7: ASSUMING THAT HEIRS CANNOT POSSIBLY REPRESENT THEMSELVES IN COURT. In the face of reality -- I could not afford to pay any more money to lawyers now that Jimmy had frozen my father's bank account -- I finally decided to go Pro Per. Scary. But it was better in a way. None of the 15 lawyers that I had talked to would say what I wanted to have said. They wanted to quote statutes. And in the absence of a valid will they all wanted to follow the State of California's probate laws and give half the estate to me and half the estate to my sister, leaving the grandchildren out of the picture entirely. But for me it wasn't just about the money although it really jerked my chain to give ANYTHING to Susan. For me, it was about having my father's wishes honored. And the lawyers I interviewed all wanted me to pay them at least $150 an hour for the privilege of handing half the estate to Susan. However, one lawyer I talked with did have the good grace not to take the case because "I would have to charge you $75,000 on a $60,000 estate".

So. What should I do? I still hadn't heard about the Nolo Press books but I had to do SOMETHING. Our court date was coming up. So I decided to take the offensive and become the "Petitioner" instead of the "Respondent" and, finding some online probate forms, I filed my own freaking Petition for Probate and my own freaking Petition to Administer Estate. Humph. And for good measure, I filed a supplemental petition that would allow acceptance my father's will; name me executor; show that my father's estate was rather small; and to establish that Susan and Jimmy had claimed my father died intestate so we could claim she was entitled to only one dollar. More than she deserved. Double humph.

I sat down and wrote out my own damned Petition. If I do say so myself, my "Wherefore" clause was a beauty (in a legal document, a "Wherefore" clause is the summation of the demands made by the Petitioner against the Estate and/or the Respondent, based upon all evidence presented in the body of the document). My Petition was a work of art with all kinds of exhibits. And I even had it filed by Fax and File, an attorneys' service that files your documents for you by fax to the court.

Susan and Jimmy fought back and filed their objection. Not surprisingly, their "Wherefore" clause basically called for transferring all Pop's assets to them. "When pigs fly," I said to myself. I no longer cared what kind of legal stuff they threw at me because I was Pro Per. "That means they can't blackmail me into giving them bunches of money by jacking up my legal bills," I told Betty. "They are going to have to spend lots of time on the case now, time they could be spending on their paying clients. It's not going to be as easy as they thought it was." And by this time, Susan and Jimmy had also discovered the truly small size of my father's estate.

"I bet that they are going to want to settle to our advantage," I predicted. A settlement is an out-of-court contract that ends a case in a manner satisfactory to both sides.

Little did I know that I had no idea what I was doing.

BIG MISTAKE 8: ASSUMING THAT GOING TO COURT WAS GOING TO BE EASY. As the date of the probate hearing approached, Betty and I worked on first things first - like planning what we were going to wear to Court. We settled on a French twist, a second-hand Liz Claibourne outfit and some Gucci knock-off high heels for me. Betty, who had rebelled as a teenager and become a yuppie just to annoy me, had an elaborate wardrobe to chose from, even genuine power suits. She and I exuded calm and confidence. We were ready for court! Then, on the day before the hearing, a lawyer friend of mine asked, "Have you called up the court's Tentative Ruling phone tape to see if there was a tentative ruling?" Ooops.

Gingerly, I took the phone and dialed. It turned out that a tentative ruling was called a "pre-grant" in probate court, and that, in the case of the Estate of Alexander Johnston, there was no pre-grant. This was a good thing. I would have been too late to oppose it if there had been one.

"Have you prepared an order?" my friend then asked.

"What's an order?" I replied.

"An order is wish list, like a `Wherefore' clause, that you give to a judge to sign -- to either grant one's wishes, or cross out what they didn't want to grant." Oh. I hurriedly designed an order, again asking for the moon.

Then at 7:00 pm on the night before we were supposed to appear in court, I got a call from the Clerk of Department 17, telling me about a whole bunch of things that were wrong with my Petition, fatally wrong things. Tearfully I called Betty. "The clerk said I didn't check the box to request probate; that I didn't arrange for a publication or prepare a Letters Testamentary request or file the original will. Jesus. We're doomed." So much for going Pro Per.

Betty comforted me. "Well, no matter what happens tomorrow, at least all the gut-wrenching anguish and suspense will finally be over -- for better or for worse -- and we can get on with our lives". Wrong again.

On the day of the hearing, we arrived at Department 17 at exactly 9:30 am. We went to check in with the court clerk. "Go down to the probate office one floor below," he said, "and check with the probate clerk".

The probate clerk read us the riot act. She gave us a print-out. "Here is a list of all the things you failed to do," she stated. I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then Jimmy stepped up to the counter and low and behold the clerk read him the riot act too. Yes! He had also made filing mistakes! And he was a real lawyer.

Properly chastised and quaking in our (high heeled) shoes (and nylons) Betty and I took seats on the opposite side of the aisle from Jimmy and Susan. And there we sat as case after case after case was called. A parade of lawyers and heirs went up to the bar and then left.

Finally, at 11:45 am our case was called. We were the last folks on the docket. The judge looked at our bright orange portfolio, looked at us, and frowned. Her face was an open book and the pages were clearly saying, "Why are you wasting my time?"

She then listed all the myriad things wrong with our filing. She, thankfully, also included a chastisement to Jimmy. "This case is continued for two months", she said. Boom. Just like that. The session was over and nothing was settled, nothing was proved.

"But Your Honor," I timidly spoke up. "What about the Estate's debts? What about the payments of my father's mobile home? What about his income tax? I have bills to pay, stuff to be taken care of. Jimmy has frozen all Pop's assets! Your Honor, we can't wait two months to take care of all that."

The judge considered me a moment and then said, "I am going to appoint a Public Administrator here". It sounded good to me: An impersonal referee to handle the Estate. Jimmy agreed too. Nobody told me it would cost "the Estate" $200 an hour. And nobody told me that once Public Administrators got a hold of your case, helpful and skilled as they may be, theirs was an appointment for life. And nobody mentioned that the Public Administrator, good intentioned as he might be, was too overworked to sell property, invest funds, pay taxes or anything else either. Another big mistake.

I continued to cancel Pop's credit accounts, cancel his retirement benefits, apply (or try to apply) for reimbursement of burial expenses from the Veterans Administration, send out death announcements, pay off creditors, write thank-you letters for condolence cards (none of which stuff our Susan volunteered to do. As usual. Although she might have done it if we had offered to pay her.)
I spent hours on the phone. At the Office of Personnel Management and Social Security, there were a lot of "Please press 1" messages and about a half-hour of wait time each time I called. Please be advised: There is a heck of a lot of paperwork and waiting time involved with death.

We then planned a testimonial dinner for my father, instead of a memorial. He hadn't wanted a memorial. The dinner was to be on his birthday. "Forget about the troubles," I told myself. "Today is the day we are going put all that court stuff out of our minds and simply celebrate how lucky we were to have had Alexander Johnston for a father and grandfather." Tom came up from U.C. Santa Cruz and all the relatives gathered: The Rotary Club was giving my father a testimonial dinner on this special day. "Thank you," I told them all. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart".

BIG MISTAKE 9: TRUSTING LITIGIOUS HEIRS. Betty, who could not afford to take bunches of time off work and fly up for L.A. once a month, called Susan and offered to settle for $22,000; a bargain. Susan said yes. Then Susan called Betty again the next day. "We want $3,000 more than you offered. And we want no costs." No costs meant that Susan would not have to pay lawyers, the Public Administrator or any of Pop's estate expenses. It was a sweetheart deal for her. Betty agreed to $25,000 and no costs just to be rid of Susan. But I was not willing to settle. I felt that Susan and Jimmy could not be trusted.

"Why should we give her bunches of bucks?" I asked Betty. "Where was she when Pop needed her? And besides, we'd be taking a bath on this one."

"But we still have to file an accounting," Betty replied. An accounting was an exact record of everything in an estate, where it came from and were it went to. The average lawyer charged $3,000 to do one. "And we still have to deal with probate which might possibly cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. If we could avoid all that, the settlement would be worth it."

I did not agree. "What if Pop's income tax needs large payments? What if he had large medical bills still to come?" I asked her. "The whole damn estate is only worth $60,000. Why should we give Susan a whole big chunk of that? We could be left with nothing. Nothing but bills."

"If," Betty replied, "we can walk away from all this with no more legal work and no more lawyer fees, then settlement is a good idea."

At 11:15 pm that night I was drowsily reading in my bed and suddenly, Vanessa burst into my room, tears streaming down her face. "Oh, Mom. I had the worst nightmare. I dreamed that Grandpa was dying and some hand with a knife in it kept stabbing him and stabbing him and stabbing him," she sobbed. "It was terrible. I tried to stop it but I couldn't. The hand just kept stabbing Grandpa." I held her and tried to calm her down. "I couldn't see a face" she wailed, "just this hand, stabbing and stabbing."

"It's going to be okay," I muttered. That's when I decided to go along with the settlement. However, I still didn't trust Susan so I also decided to file all the documents that the probate paralegal had recommended, including publishing my intentions in the paper, just to be on the safe side. Wise move.

One week later, I bought a copy of the Oakland Tribune from Fred's Market across the street from where I work. Eagerly I checked the classified section, under Legal Notices. Yes! There it was! My name in print. "Petition to Administer Estate: Jane Stillwater..." etc. etc. etc. The Public Notice deadline has been made. One more item to check off the list of things that must be done before our new court date on April 26.

Now I had only to file the Letters, the Orders, the Proof of Subscribing Witnesses, and the Duties and Responsibilities. I knew about all this now because I had finally broken down and checked out Nolo Press's How to Probate an Estate from the library. It was the best thing I had done so far! I called Nolo up and told them so. "Thank God for Nolo Press! If only I had bought a copy of that book at the very beginning of this damn will contest -- or whatever the term for it is -- legal blackmail -- we wouldn't have had to be so stressed out." Now I was right on track. If the settlement fell through, which could happen considering my sister's track record, then we would be sitting pretty when the court-imposed deadlines arrived. What was that quote? "Most lawyers have suffered near-death experiences trying to meet court-imposed deadlines." I was beginning to understand what was meant.

I also called my step-brother Michael and his friend Helen. They had been at the hospital the night before Pop died. "Pop told you about signing the codicil didn't he?" I asked them.


"Then would you sign a Subscribing Witness form saying just that?"

"Of course". Good. Now hopefully we could get the codicil declared legal. If we didn't settle....

The Public Administrator finally allowed me to start working on Pop's taxes as it became more and more clear to both of us that he was not going to have time to do them himself. I then holed up in the Alameda County law library and searched the reference books for how to compose a trust accounting. I got three or four sources and patched them together into a mosaic cutout of a document. There was no clear-cut accounting form -- there are usually forms for everything -- that I could just plug into the document I was typing but finally I put together a pretty good document that supposedly had all the elements an accounting needed to have to be valid. Go me.

Then I started to work rounding up the documents I would need for the exhibits: Quitclaims, bank statements, escrow documents, etc. Betty reluctantly signed the accounting and I filed it. More and more she was becoming set on the settlement. "I don't have time to keep appearing in court," she said, "and I am willing to pay to get it all over with." I couldn't argue with that. But at least the accounting was filed. And it hadn't cost no $3,000.

Finally the day of the court settlement hearing arrived. Vanessa and I had a heated discussion on what to wear to court. We finally compromised. "You look lovely," I said as she modeled her sort of respectable knit cotton top and a scruffy-looking pair of wide-leg blue jeans.

After all the struggles and hesitations and preparations, I was finally reconciled, sort of, to settling: We grinded our teeth and appeared in court. But the settlement was not to be. Jimmy had forgotten to file Vanessa's Guardian Ad Litem papers! The case was continued for another two months. "Not again!" I cried out in anguish to the judge, "Can't you PLEASE just settle this case! Can't you please just settle it TODAY! I don't think I can stand another two months."

BIG MISTAKE 10: ASSUMING THERE IS AN END TO THE PROBATE PROCESS. "I have to go by the books," the judge replied, not unsympathetically, as she indicated with a wave of her hand a row of thick law tomes. Then, right there in the courtroom, I had a sudden, horrible epiphany. I suddenly realized that even the judge couldn't settle the damn case; that probate was forever. The judge couldn't stop it. Not even Susan and Jimmy had been able to stop it. And not all my consultations with lawyers and not all my hours and hours and hours of Pro Per efforts had been able to stop it either. Suddenly I realized that this case had taken on a life of its own; that probate was forever. The Estate of Alexander Johnston had suddenly, on April 26, 1999, become the probate case from Hell, damned to purgatory for eternity.

Sadly I left the courtroom, having finally realized that this case would go forever, that I would have to forget about the easy-way-out settlement, go back to good old Nolo Press and the law library and keep grinding out my Letters and Orders and Petitions until the end of time.

Then, as Vanessa and I slowly walked down the courthouse steps, I resolved to myself that if the law was taking this case so much further than even Susan and Jimmy had wanted to go, well, I would take it even further. That night, I lay on my bed thinking. Then I had an inspiration. "Vanessa!" I suddenly called to my daughter in the next room. "Get yourself a court dress. We're going to take this case to trial!"

Wise move? Big mistake? I'll tell you later!

Epilogue: With the help of an excellent referee who worked for the court, we finally settled the freaking case. I think, however, that my threat of going to court was a big factor in getting Susan to behave herself and not try to weasel out at the last minute again. Anyway, Susan got $23,000 and my father's Navy wall clock and I was awarded $56,000 because it turned out that Pop's estate had included a rebate from his deposit to the retirement home that we hadn't known about before. However, Betty talked me into giving my share of the settlement to her to use as a down payment on her house -- with the condition that when the time came she in turn would help Tom and Vanessa through college. I agreed to give up my claim and so the settlement went directly from the court to her instead of to me. However, it's been over six years now, Tom has long since graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz and Vanessa is now college-age but I have yet to see any offer of college aid or student-loan pay-back help. And who needs a retirement fund anyway.

And from the day that this case settled back in 1999 to today, I have never laid eyes on or spoken to my evil sister again. Let's hope this trend continues!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mecca & the Hajj: Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks, Episode One

Well, I promised the publisher of Straitwell Travel Books that I would serialize her latest book on my blog. So. Here it is. Mecca & the Hajj: Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks. And because the Hajj is happening in Mecca right now, you can read along and experience everything just as it is happening -- only a year earlier.

Straitwell Travel Books has asked me to send you an eppisode every so often. But if you can't stand the suspense, go out and buy a copy of the book yourself at or Barnes & Noble:

Mecca & the Hajj:
Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks
By Jane Straitwell

Chapter 2: Getting to Mecca

December 23, 2005, 10:30 am: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step," they used to say. Not any more. Now it begins with scoring a turkey sandwich to go at the local deli and hopping on a commute train to the San Francisco airport. "I'm going to Mecca, everybody!" I wanted to shout to the entire train. "I'm going on Hajj!" But I didn't. My fellow passengers sorta looked like they wouldn't really care.

"Call me before you leave for the airport," said my daughter Amy last night -- so I did. And woke her up. "Huh?" she mumbled after the sixth or seventh ring. "Oh. Uh." Yawn.

I'm all packed, and I've got all my stuff. The worst thing about traveling is getting everything prepared -- although getting laid off at work two days before I was to leave for the Hajj wasn't all that good either. But once you walk out the door, everything else is easy.

I wonder if the Starbucks at the airport is still selling their fabulous eggnog? I hope so, seeing that I will miss the entire holiday season at home.

11 pm: I got to the airport on time but had difficulties with my tickets once I got there. "You have a confirmed flight to Frankfurt and Jeddah today," the Lufthansa rep told me, "And your return flight from Jeddah to Frankfurt on January 10 is confirmed as well." That's good. "Unfortunately, however, your flight from Frankfurt to SFO won't be until January 22."


"Look at it this way. You'll get to spend over a week in Germany." In the middle of winter? Right. I hate my Hajj tour group organizer. He's had months to secure these tickets. Months. And now I've got nothing.

"But that's better than having to spend an extra week in Saudi Arabia," said the person in line behind me. Is it? I don't know. And at this rate, I may never get to Saudi Arabia to find out.

"Your travel agent covered up the return dates," continued the Lufthansa rep. "It says here you are scheduled to come back on January 15th. That's wrong." Why am I not surprised. The rep removed the sticker with the false information. "And I think they have blocked your return flight until you have made some sort of payment but I could be wrong." Good grief. Blackmail. I wonder if they plan to sell me into bondage if I don't cough up extra bucks.
But I finally was allowed on the plane to Germany and the in-flight movie was all about the Christmas spirit. Maybe that feeling that westerners call "The Christmas spirit" is also the spirit of Hajj -- and that "Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" is the Islamic ideal too. American "Christian" bigots just don't understand that.

One of the things I hope from the bottom of my heart is that this Hajj journey will give me that same spiritual feeling of good will. I'm just too hard-hearted, cynical and cold for my own good. How does one say "Bah Humbug" in Arabic? Maybe Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim will be in Mecca and the Spirit of Hajj Future will visit me and set me straight. I'd hate to think that I might spend the rest of my life being cynical and bitter.

On the plane, we had turkey with gravy and stuffing for dinner and chocolate Santa Clauses for dessert. We will land in Germany in two hours.

11:30 pm: My chocolate Santa melted and I ate it anyway and swallowed a piece of tin foil and got chocolate all over my fingers. "Don't get lost," Amy had told me about ten times when I phoned her from the San Francisco airport. But she forgot to say, "And don't swallow chocolate Santa tin foil." And don't end up having to get an emergency tin-foil-ectomy either.

December 25, 2005, 11:30 am German time: Standing in line for the flight to Jeddah, I was so jet-lagged that I made a complete hash of putting my headscarf on -- with about 50 Muslim women staring at me as I fumbled with the pins and got them all wrong. I finally switched to my "Muslim lingerie" that I got from one of my Muslim friends before I left home and that really helped -- it is a very wide headband that covers up all my hair in front.

Surprisingly, the headband and scarf soothes me and holds me together. Otherwise I would fall apart all over the floor of the Frankfurt airport. Not a pretty sight. I'm getting too old for jet lag and 11-hour flights.

9 pm, Saudi time: We sat on the Frankfurt runway for over an hour. "Technical difficulties, ladies and gentlemen." On this plane, there must be at least a hundred men dressed in large white towels, the official dress of male Hajj pilgrims. After we took off, I finally got some sleep. Then we flew along the course of the Nile -- outlined by ribbons of city lights as it wandered through the desert.

15 minutes out of Jeddah, the restrooms are completely wet from "wudu" water -- wudu is the sacred ritual water cleansing done before prayer times. One washes one's face, mouth, nose, ears, arms to the elbow and fingers and toes. Now all the men in white are chanting prayers prior to landing. This is one spiritual plane.

Jeddah is located on the Gulf of Something-or-Other and, as our spiritual plane approached that city, we saw ships and boats below us, their rows of lights stretching along piers and harbors much like in San Francisco or Sydney. Then there was Jeddah itself; well-lit, geometrically laid out and looking for all the world like Los Angeles. And as large as Los Angeles too. Lots of boulevards and freeways. Lots of cars.

11:30 pm: The hustle of the Jeddah airport was wonderful! "Where are you from?" asked the baggage handlers and the passport stampers and the officials. They were all very friendly and efficient. They were also all males (but cute ones). I finally connected with some members of the SuperHajj Tours group. There were ten of us and everyone seemed really nice. One young man instantly became our leader -- and boy did we need one!

"Where is the SuperHajj rep?" Ha. Plus every single one in the group had a horror story about their airline tickets. "Our tickets came the day we were to leave. And then we had to drive 700 miles to make our plane," said one Pakistani woman from Florida.

The Jeddah HAJ airport was amazing. "Apparently this is a special airport that is put up every year just for Hajj," said someone in our group. I took several photos of it. Can you take photos on Hajj? Is it legal? No one stopped me so far. But I do know that it's a crime to bring alcohol into Saudi Arabia or pictures of scantily-clad women. And will they accept U.S. dollars here.

"How much is that headband?" I asked a hawker at one of the booths at the airport.

"Five dollars."

"I'll give you three."

"No." I walked away. "Okay! Three dollars." I love to bargain. Now I am the official luggage-watcher while everyone else went off to get something to eat.

When everyone came back, I went off to try to phone home. "How much does a phone card cost?"

"100 dollars."

What! Get out of town! "I have ten dollars here."

"It can't be done." I then spent 45 whole minutes running around the airport, talking with everyone in sight. Finally one Saudi guy took me to a phone booth.

"You dial your number. You talk. You hang up when you are done. You pay the cashier." Boom. That's it? "That's it."

"Merry Christmas, Amy!" I told my daughter over the phone. "I'm here. I made it. I love Saudi Arabia. I love my group. I hate SuperHajj Tours. We've been here for two whole hours and are still waiting for someone to come meet us." Unbelievable. "Other than that, things are really going well. I'm glad I came."

One kind woman dressed in a full-kit headscarf and robe came over and asked me if I wanted to pray with her group. "Sorry. I can't. I'm supposed to watch the luggage while everyone else goes to find something to eat." Then my group came back, bringing me some sort of chicken taco thing that was really good -- but needed salsa.

December 25, 2005, 2:30 am: I think that I now know the Jeddah airport better than any other human being on the planet. It was six hours before one of the airport employees shoved us onto a bus heading for Mecca and then another hour before said bus departed. But we still felt that we were in good hands and that all those 20-something young Saudi men clad in floor-length white dresses (every guy in Arabia wears floor-length white dresses) who helped us at every point really knew what they were doing.

"You know," I told the lady next to me, "I bet SuperHajj Tours just let everything in Jeddah slide on purpose, knowing full well that the Saudi airport staff would take care of us no matter what and the SuperHajj guy could save a few more bucks that way." Punk.

The freeways of Saudi Arabia, like the freeways of Israel, look exactly like the freeways of southern California.

Chapter 3: Mecca

5:30 am: We are in sit-and-wait hell. Everyone else in Mecca is street-hiking off to morning prayers at the Kaa'ba -- the most sacred place in all Islam -- and we're sitting on a bus in front of the wrong hotel. The efficiency level has sank drastically since we left the airport. No one in our group has slept in over 48 hours. I am totally clueless as to how I am still holding body and soul together and I have to go to the bathroom and I'm hungry too. We must be half a mile from the Kaa'ba and the chances of us getting there by noon are zero. Zilch. Just another example of being thrown to the wolves by SuperHajj Tours.

Then this woman shows up and starts screaming at everyone -- the bus driver, the state Hajj agent and the hotel people. She curses them out in Arabic and in perfect English for at least a half-hour. Then I heard her yelling, "I am the group leader! I am the group leader!" We got a group leader? Finally? Then she says something I do not want to hear at all. "There are no more hotel rooms." Oops.

The muezzin is doing the call to prayer and thousands of pilgrims are streaming past us as we sit on the sidewalk with our luggage and we are too tired to move and I need to pee!

7:30 pm: Amy would be really proud of me. I got lost today. Twice. After sleeping like a rock until 3 pm, I finally made it to the Haram -- the huge mosque where the Kaa'ba is located.

"You need to circumambulate the Kaa'ba seven times when you first come to Mecca," said our tour leader who is also now my roommate along with her son and a woman from Mali named Yasmeen who says that she loves to cook. Our group leader's name is Alice, she is from Wisconsin and she is freaking nuts. She calls up the front desk, housekeeping, room service, etc. and screams at them. But she is also really, really funny. "I used to be a comedian," she said and sang a really funny song which kept us laughing, laughing, laughing. She ordered us a gigantic room service breakfast and she called the poor room service guys five times and yelled at them that they were late. She had them so flustered, we got two extra breakfasts -- which I saved one of and am now eating for dinner.

So I started off for the Haram. "Islam" translates as "submission" and I now understand why. Circumambulating the Kaa'ba was a very humbling experience. There were approximately 100,000 pilgrims crammed into the mosque. Outwardly they are there to begin their Hajj pilgrimage by circumambulating the Kaa'ba -- a huge three-story-high square edifice draped in black velvet embroidered with gold -- but it seemed to me that their ulterior motive for being there was just to smush poor sweet me. I gave up actually trying to touch the Kaa'ba because in that crunch of people, said act would obviously be hazardous to my health -- if not downright fatal.

At first, I thought I could do the seven circulations faster if I did them close into the area of the Kaa'ba. Not true. That inside track was almost at a stand-still, causing me to realize how insignificant I had become within the single gigantic amorphous living being that surrounded me, of which I had become but a single molecule or cell. One single person's life had started to lose importance within this massive sea of humans. That scared me. I bailed.

Looking for breathing room, I went up onto the second level of the Haram, a structure that surrounded the Kaa'ba and was meant to be in the Kaa'ba's service but in its own right was magnificent. Stretching over an area of at least ten city blocks, it was sculpted from marble equal to anything used in the Taj Mahal. And even though it was the Kaa'ba that took center stage at the Haram, the mosque itself was on a par with St. Peter's in Rome or Angkor Watt.

I never saw so many Indonesian Muslims in my life. Many of them looked really poor, like peasants. I wondered if so many of them came as a result of the tsunami -- that they had suddenly realized, "Life is short. I'd better go on Hajj."

For me, life is long and I don't want to be on Hajj if it means going for 48 hours without sleep. That was a bad idea. Worrying about how I'm going to get home is bumming me out. I was thinking, as the wheel of Hajj grinded away on me today, how insignificant I was within the whole world picture and how I always worry about everything all the time nowadays and never have any fun. I just keep worrying about life's next tsunami and don't enjoy the good stuff life has to offer -- like the Haram, Islam's Angkor Watt.

"Be here now, Jane," I told myself.

But I can't.

After the evening prayer at the Haram -- which was embarrassing because of the tendonitis in my knees which, in a sea of pilgrims prostrating in prayer, caused me to be the only person within a ten-mile radius who was standing up -- I got lost. "Lost Pilgrim Orientation Center," read a sign. Wow! A lost-and-found for pilgrims! Some guy was assigned the task of taking me back to my hotel and he looked really pissed. "Why am I having to deal with this stupid lost female?" was his attitude as he delivered me back to the hotel like I was a crate of cauliflower. Amy would have loved the concept of a "Lost Pilgrim" service for her mom, although I think what she really wants for me is an electronic monitoring device with a homing signal.

Back at my hotel room on the fourteenth floor, from our window I could look down upon at least 10,000 pilgrims pouring down the exit road from the Haram -- just one of many such streets. Mecca's streets are like spokes on a wheel, radiating out from the Kaa'ba and the Haram. The pilgrims streamed past our hotel and on down the hill to the other hotels or wherever the heck else they are all staying. And the main body of Hajj pilgrims haven't even arrived in Mecca yet. This is crazy.

I'm thinking that maybe I should go back to the Kaa'ba around 4 am when there might be less people there. Or else just watch it on TV. They broadcast the Hajj in Muslim countries just like they broadcast the Pope's Christmas mass in Italy. Or like Monday night football in America. Why not? The Hajj is definitely a contact sport.

11 pm: What a strange Christmas this has been. We -- the lady from Mali and I -- walked up the street next to our hotel, looking for some more Saudi tacos. "There's an international phone call center," I told Yasmeen. "I'm going to go call my children again." I told Amy about getting lost. "And the guy made the desk clerk sign for me just like I was a UPS package."

The street that our hotel is on is located only one block from the Haram mosque. On that block, we found three taco stands and a shop that sold dates. "Our hotel is only a four-star hotel," commented Yasmeen. SuperHajj Tours had promised her a five-star hotel. She had paid several thousand dollars more for her tour than I had. But I couldn't complain. The shower worked fine and after three days without one, I was happy.

Perhaps the Muslims are right about headscarves. Imagine if Muslim men were to get even the slightest glimpse of my hair! It would surely drive them all mad with desire. I mean, we all know how unbelievably sexy and erotic and alluring gray hair can be! I went through freaking hell today trying to keep my freaking Hajj Halloween costume on my freaking head. However, it's lucky for the Muslim men of Mecca that I did. If I hadn't, a possible 50,000 Muslim men would now have broken down and become blubbering idiots, wallowing in the unholy grip of lust for the rest of their lives because of my hair!

December 26, 2005, 6 am: Last night was almost but not quite a total circus. There are only four of us sleeping in this room but at least one of us was either coming or going all night long. Yasmeen left at 1:30 am to go pray at the Haram. Alice banged at our door at 2 am because she had forgotten her key. The son kept having nightmares. Alice was back out the door at 3 am, knocking for admittance at 4 am, back out the door for morning prayer at 5:30 am, dragging the son with her against his will. "No. I am not going," he said about 20 times but both he knew and I knew that he would eventually cave. I would have if I had been him. Nobody can stand up against Alice! She's fierce.

And whenever we finally got everyone in the room to sleep, someone would snore.

But outside my window, I could watch the thousands of pilgrims stream up and down our street like ocean tides. The tide surges in at prayer time, then goes back out again afterwards. But what is so impressive about everyone here is their incredible faith and belief. And I swear that three out of four people here look like lowly peasants. What sacrifices and struggles they must have made to get here? It must have been unbelievable. Hajj fee? Sacrifice fee? Hotel room costs -- unless of course they are sleeping on the streets. The cost of an airline ticket alone must have been nearly impossible -- and many of them would have had to get here by air.

The image of 500,000 airborne African and Indonesian peasants is staggering.

Speaking of airborne, I'm still very worried about getting home -- and also about having accidentally changed three other people's reservations at the San Francisco airport as well. How am I going to survive here for three more weeks?

Hopefully tonight will be more peaceful than last night!

3:30 pm: "My uncle and aunt are coming," said Alice. "They are here from Afghanistan." Near Kabul. When they arrived, I asked them how things were in occupied Afghanistan. They said things were bad there but not unbearable for them -- apparently they have relatives in the U.S. who send them money to live on. They were nice. Friendly and dignified. But they knew very little English.

Yasmeen and I got into a hot debate over whether women should be imams and both of us were madly searching through the Qur'an for quotes to bolster our case. This seemed to impress the uncle and aunt. And earlier in the day, Alice had given me a huge lecture on Islam. Between Alice and Yasmeen, I'm learning a lot about Islam.

After a while I got bored of the hotel room and wandered back to the Haram mosque. That place is huge. Ten city blocks square and consisting of three very tall stories, it is all carved marble arches and chandeliers and people -- many more people than yesterday. Today I couldn't even get to the Kaa'ba courtyard. "And this is just the beginning," said Yasmeen. "It's going to get much, much worse." Wow.

At the mosque, I got busted for taking a picture. I thought the attendant was going to confiscate my camera and throw me in jail and I was going to be bitch-slapped by a bunch of pissed-off Muslim ladies next to me but the muezzin made his call at the most precipitous moment and I was spared. At the very first opportunity after prayer, I slipped off and melted into the sea of people, camera intact.

I then took the "King Faud Escalator" to the roof of the mosque and watched the crowd circumambulate the Kaa'ba below me. From that height, it looked like a mass of animated jelly beans off on a mass migration.
I wish some members of the Bush bureaucracy were here. They might finally understand that by attacking Islam they are waking a very large sleeping dragon. Islam is like a huge force of nature.

"Muslims are patient and slow to anger," Yasmeen said. "We are told to give any person that you think has wronged you 70 excuses before you lose your temper. The U.S. had to napalm Fallugah before Muslims really seriously fought back in bulk. Bush is an idiot to antagonize over a billion people who are very serious about their faith. Picking on Allah is a sure-fire way to really piss them off -- no matter how many atomic bombs Bush has stockpiled."

December 27, 2005, 1 am: I stayed up all night talking at the hotel's restaurant. Well, maybe not all night, but we surely ate a lot. Fried fish and tomato-cucumber salad and Indian pastries. Conversation here is much more stimulating and on much more interesting topics than what I talk about at home. And the food is much more stimulating and interesting too -- especially compared to my cooking.

10:30 am: "How did you sleep last night?" asked Alice. I didn't. Nothing. People came and went all night long. Again. I myself coughed and fidgeted. "You need to pray at the mosque five times a day and you will have the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders," Alice told me.

Fine. But not today.

"The devil takes over your mind and doesn't let you get out of bed." Well, the devil won this round. "Maybe this is an obstacle to your meditation; to stop you from becoming a full person in the service of God." More than likely. But in any case, I'm totally incapacitated at the mere thought of spending the morning with 200,000 people. I can't face it. And my throat hurts. Cough, cough. This is worse than jet lag.

3:30 pm: We packed ourselves into the mosque for mid-day prayers. We wedged ourselves in between a mass of Pakistani women and a mass of Indonesian women in the Entrance Number Two stairwell (there are something like 95 entrances). I felt light-headed and miserable. "I swear, if one more four-foot-high Indonesian lady looks at me funny, I'm going to scream!"

Despite staying in a good hotel and everything, Hajj is truly an exercise in desperation. There are so many people here and they all want to complete their Hajj. There must be a million people here now and more Hajjis are pouring into Mecca by the minute. It's just on too vast a scale for me to digest -- and especially without any sleep. I want to go home.

11 pm: Another high point in the Hajj (see, it's not all just sweaty bodies clogging up the streets combined with lots of no sleep): The four ladies I met at the airport and me went off to hang out at the Haram for evening prayers and we were joined by one of the ladies' sister who actually lives in Mecca and dresses all in black -- from her gloves to the slit in her veil. Surprisingly, she and I really hit it off -- even though all I could see of her were her eyes.

"Come this way and we will get you a cup of Zam Zam water," she said. "Let me hold your shoes for you." She was petite and wraith-like in her mysterious black outfit and she and I slipped through the mosque hand in hand. She was really sweet.

The man who had taken over leadership at the airport asked me if I wanted to go on a preliminary trip to Mina and see Mt. Arafat. "Count me in," I said. Everyone who completes a successful Hajj journey is required to do everything the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) did and go everywhere he did when he went on the very first Hajj -- including a trip to Mina and Mt. Arafat. I figured that if I could get that obligation covered by this preliminary trip, then I'd stand a much better chance of successfully finishing my Hajj.

December 28, 2005, 5 am: I got a room all to myself last night! We had traded hotels and it was totally chaotic. Alice disappeared just when we needed her most. She had brought enough luggage to field an army and we were supposed to be out of our old hotel by 3 pm but at 6 pm, her luggage was still strewn all around our room. "Alice! You gotta forget about becoming the next Muslim saint and get our group to the next hotel!" I yelled at her in exasperation. She really is a dear but her organizational skills suck eggs. Are there Muslim saints?

Zam Zam water is from the holy well at Mecca. It's spozed to have miraculous powers and cure both mental and physical problems. "Take a bath in this and all your obstacles will be purified," said Alice. You can order ten-gallon plastic containers of it from the hotel. Then you pour them into the bathtub and bathe in it. But I'm here to tell you that Zam Zam water is cold.
And did I mention that I have a room all to myself at the new hotel? Alice's son was so cute. "Please come room with us! I'll miss you!" He and I had gotten into a story-telling contest. I told him about my weird past experiences and he ran the plots of various horror movies down to me. Plus he is a big James Bond fan. Last night he watched From Russia with Love and today I had to sit there and listen to the entire plot. Somebody needs to set that boy straight. Without Sean Connery, it's not really James Bond.

After a good night's sleep -- did I mention I have a room all alone? -- I felt more hopeful about finishing my Hajj. But I am still really unhopeful about ever getting a flight home.

No need to ever figure out which way is east in Mecca. You just turn toward the source of the muezzin's call.

First Alice and now the four ladies in the room next door to me have taken over supervising my spiritual progress. "Have you done Umrah?" they asked. Umrah is a series of rituals every pilgrim must perform when they first arrive in Mecca.

"Yes. I did the seven trips around the Kaa'ba."

"But did you run between the two mountains?" Oops. I forgot about that one. Apparently way back in the days of Mohammed (PBUH), a woman named Hagar ran between two mountains seven times -- I forget why -- and these mountains are now symbolized by two pillars inside the Haram.
"And did you cut a lock of your hair?" No. "And drink Zam Zam water?" Uh-uh. I was in trouble. The ladies went into a huddle.

"Because she is a new convert and as innocent and untaught as a baby, it is our duty and responsibility to put her on the right course." They took it personally that I had fouled up. "We will help you get it right." I love these ladies. They are totally sweet and spiritual and helpful. They are pure at heart. How often does that occur in people? The mere thought of these wonderful people being hated by "Christians" who don't even know them truly makes me sad.

Today I need to talk turkey with Salim, a new SuperHajj group leader who just arrived at the new hotel -- and who actually seems to be focusing on what he is doing. I need to get the flight situation resolved. But with a room of my own, it's actually possible that I could stay for the full Hajj without totally freaking out.

11 pm: I don't know how much I'll be able to write tonight because my cough -- almost everyone in Mecca has a cough -- is getting worse. Cough cough. I just took some cough medicine called Restyl that I bought at the pharmacy next to the hotel and I'm hoping it will put me to sleep if nothing else. How do you say "Nyquil" in Arabic?

In our group, there is a pharmacist and also a woman with a whole carry-on bag filled with medication. They also took me under their wing. "My husband is a doctor," said the Saudi woman who had come to visit her sister in the room next to mine. She had taken off her veil so I finally got to see what she looked like. She looked about 25 to 30 years old. But then her four daughters came in, and out in the hall were her two teen-aged sons. How does she do that? Young, slim, happy and totally in love with her husband after having six children? How does she do that! She must have a maid.
And the Saudi sister also brought a ton of food.

I told the ladies about my experiences at the mosque today. "I ran between the mountains seven times and asked some Pakistani lady who had a pair of scissors to snip off a lock of my hair, so you can check that off my list of Hajj obligations."

"But you still did it too late, Jane. You are expected to do it the moment you arrive in Mecca. You must make up for this failure. You will still have to sacrifice a goat." Oh. But I don't have any goats. Maybe when I get home I can go to the petting zoo? Eeuuww.

"Anyway," I continued, "by some miracle there weren't all that many people circulating the Kaa'ba so I tried to reach it and touch it." Usually your chances of reaching the Kaa'ba are about zero unless you want to risk your life getting crushed. "I got about eight inches away from the Kaa'ba but couldn't get my hand any closer. But just then my whole hand started shaking! I swear! The Kaa'ba is electro-magnetic! Then some pilgrims moved away and I was able to touch it. But the tingling went away. But then I pulled my hand back eight inches again and the tingling returned." The ladies liked my story.
"And my hand shook for five or ten minutes afterward." And the intense spirituality of that moment got through -- even to me.

After talking with the ladies, I went back to my room and coughed a whole bunch more. I did a whole lot of coughing. It became totally obvious that I wasn't gonna make it through the night without major help so I got ready to trot off to the pharmacy down the block from our hotel for stronger stuff. However, the Saudi sister insisted that I take her two sons along as escorts even though the streets of Mecca are completely safe at all hours. But they were nice kids so I took them along anyway. And the pharmacy sold me the wrong stuff -- they sold me stuff to dry out my throat. My throat was already dry! Rats.

Although I had been completely shaken by the depth of my spiritual experience at the Kaa'ba today, it didn't last too long. So much for having a life-changing religious revelation. By evening, I was back to being my same old hard-shelled and cynical self that I had been before setting out on the Hajj. Only now I was $3,000 poorer and also had a bad cough.

Tomorrow we are going to try again to go to Mina and Arafat. Our ride couldn't make it today.

December 29, 2005, 3:15 am: By 1 am, I realized that the Restyl hadn't worked at all so I trudged off to the pharmacy to try to get something stronger. "It says on the label that this stuff is supposed to dry up my throat," I whined to the pharmacist. "My throat was already dry. I need something else -- that will suppress my cough." The pharmacist gave me a bottle of "Kafosed". I also picked up some more Kleenex and three boxes of cough drops and hopefully I was good to go. I gave the pharmacist money for the new cough suppressant but he refused it, which was honorable of him. After sending the money back and forth over the counter a couple of times, I finally smiled and accepted his generosity.

The cough suppressant worked for two whole hours but now I am back awake and sucking on cough drops -- which of course caused one of my teeth to start hurting. Welcome to more struggling for Hajj.

Tonight, the Saudi woman finished telling me the story about running between the two mountains. I had gotten it wrong. "One of the followers of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) had to leave his wife and small child there in the rocky barren desert between the two mountains and the mother ran desperately between the mountains looking for water. She ran between them seven times and on the seventh time, the Zam Zam spring appeared miraculously. Since that time, it has continued to gush profusely, feeding hundreds of millions of pilgrims with cool, pure water."

When I had done my Hajj obligation yesterday, I had run -- walked actually because only men are supposed to run and also because the place was jam-packed -- between the two mountains seven times. We were all trying to jam our run into the time allowed before the noon prayers started. I made it exactly down to the minute.

Since all the pilgrims in the mountain-run end-zone (maybe about two thousand of them) were all jammed together it was impossible to bow for the noon prayer, let alone kneel. I searched for some women to be with and there weren't any that I could possibly reach. Shrug. I lifted my hands to start my prayer when some rude chauvinist pig next to me started screaming, "Not here! Not here! No women here!" Geez Louise. That guy needed to go read up on the rules of Hajj where it says that you are supposed to be nice to everyone. And helpful. And kind. Oh well. See if I will share my cough drops with him!

After prayer, there was a Pakistani woman standing next to me, cutting off a small lock of her friend's hair to complete the run. "Cut my hair too?" I gestured and pulled out a small lock from my ponytail from under my scarf. She smiled and was very pleased that I had asked her. Snip. That section of my Hajj was done. I'll deal with the goat later.

Another strange thing happened while I was jogging between mountains. There was a whole contingent wearing clothes with "The Islamic Republic of Iran" printed on the back. (A lot of people had their country of origin printed on their garments. Most were from Indonesia, Turkey and Africa but some from Sri Lanka, India and Canada.) I stopped to talk with an Iranian woman because I was curious about Iran but the first words out of her mouth were, "Are you Shi'a or Sunni?" Heck, I don't know. It really bothered her that I didn't even know. "Sunnis are very bad people," she said.

"In America," I tried to explain to her, "all us Muslims stick together because all of us are under attack by that idiot George Bush." But she wasn't buying any of that from me. Then I remembered that I mostly went to an Iranian mosque back in California. Shi'a!

"Give me your phone number and I will send you some information about the Shi'ites." I told her I wouldn't be back to America for a while. I've already befriended the Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't need someone coming to wake me up on Saturday morning all the way from Iran.

The Saudi woman had given me a book on the Hajj and it has been very helpful. It said, "Those who help others to complete their Hajj will be quick to be rewarded by Allah." Goodie. I can tell that to the SuperHajj people if they try to guilt-trip me out of more money. "Being a Hajj guide is its own reward," I'll remind them.

10 am: With only two hours of sleep last night, I trotted off to the tour of Mount Arafat and Mina. Arafat was one of the most spiritual places I've ever been to -- one of those places where you can feel the presence of God. We stepped off our rented mini-van and into a huge tourist circus but you could still feel the vibes. "Want your picture taken on a camel, Hajja?" Yes!

Hundreds of buses spilling out thousands of Indonesian Muslims had already descended upon this holy place and there were still 11 days left before the actual day of Arafat. And apparently my fabulous scheme to be here early so I could fly home on January 10 wasn't gonna work for me. All four million Muslim pilgrims had to go to Mount Arafat on January 9. Period. Earlier or later was no good.

The temperature was really hot.

Then we drove off to Mina, about five miles away. See all those tents? We'll be staying there in a few days. Thousands and thousands of tents! Each tent holds 40 people. "And over there is where you throw stones at Satan." Let me at him! I hit Satan hard with three stones and a peanut.
"Take that, you evil fiend!" But you have to do it on a certain day or it doesn't count.

The Jamarat, consisting of three sets of pillars representing Satan, was located under what looked like a freeway overpass. "With four million people struggling to throw rocks at Satan," said a man in our group who had read up on the subject, "if you stop or turn in the wrong direction or try to go back, you could get killed. It's happened here before. I recommend that the women get a man to throw the stones for them." Three men have volunteered to do it for me. Hurray.

The temperature was really hot.

11 pm: Another adventure in Mecca. I was feeling really rotten today after no sleep last night -- and I made everybody around me aware of it too. Finally the Saudi woman told me about the general hospital right up the street from our hotel, on the way to the mosque. "Just go there and get your cough checked out." She had one of her sons take me up and show me where the entrance was.

At noon, I staggered up to the Haram for the mid-day prayer and could barely stand up. God, what a pathetic mess I was. Having survived having been jammed into the outside plaza along with 40,000 other pilgrims in saris and beards, I went back to the hospital -- and promptly got kicked out! Another Jane first.

Undeterred, I waded back into the line of sick and coughing men waiting at the ER reception counter -- and they started yelling at me. And not very politely either. And shoving in front of me and pushing me aside. Hey! This is my place in line! I was here first! Finally a really sweet intake clerk came out from behind his desk and whispered that perhaps I might want to try the women's clinic. Duh.

Near riot successfully avoided.

Apparently the Saudi woman's son had shown me the men's clinic entrance because that is where he usually went.

At the women's clinic, they took my name at the registration counter, moved me on to a bench in the hallway and then ushered me in front of a doctor -- female, veiled, fluent in English -- who peered down my throat. "You have bronchitis. Take this prescription and have it filled."

At the prescription desk, it was a madhouse. Old ladies in saris fought for position while a really unruffled veiled lady pharmacist grabbed prescriptions and handed back packets of drugs with amazing speed -- and I assume accuracy too. She got my prescription right. "Amoxicillin, Panadrex for pain and Dextrokuf for the cough."

"How much do I owe you?"

"No charge."

I was in and out of the hospital in less than 25 minutes and it was free. American health care system, eat your heart out. Yes, I know that our medical capabilities are five-star and our hospitals look like palaces. But if you can't afford them, you are shoot-out-of-luck.

Jane Straitwell lives in California and is the CEO of Straitwell Travel Books. She is currently editing a series of travel books on Australia, Tibet, China, Belfast, Cuba, New Orleans, the Caribbean, Egypt, Peru, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East including Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan and Dubai.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Putting America in peril: The deadly Toilet Bomb

Now that I've got your attention, you are probably asking, "Jane, what the freak is a toilet bomb?" Aha! You'll have to read through the rest of this story to find out.

Before I talk about the dangers of toilets, I want to talk about the dangers of sugar. Remember when we NEVER used to see ANYBODY weighing over 300 pounds? Maybe there was the fat lady in the circus but that was about it. Now you see 300-pound people everywhere. Every day. They are as much a part of American life as tattoos or redheads.

At Disneyland last month, I was truly dismayed. With my own eyes, I saw at least ten TEENAGERS who were so overweight that they couldn't even walk by themselves and needed to be shuttled around in carts.

What to do about it? I haven't a clue. Can I myself resist sugar and transfats? Not on your life! You shoulda seen me at the office Christmas party last week -- cake in one hand, chocolate ice cream in the other hand and mouth full of Santa Claus cookies while I went off in search of the eggnog. I had a sugar hangover for the next three days. And did I learn something from this experience? Hell, no. I'm ready for more!

You are much much much more likely to die from illnesses brought on by the consumption of excess sugar and transfats than you are from a terrorist attack. Furthemore, one can resist terrorist attacks. But who can resist sugar? Certainly not me. The holiday season is just starting and I've already gained seven pounds.

Okay. Here's where we finally come to the part about the toilet bomb. Recently I was reading an e-mail from with reference to that Russian spy with the unpronounceable name who had a particle of radioactive material -- I think it was plutonium -- slipped into his sushi. Which made me start to wonder, "Is plutonium that plentiful and that transportable?" If it is, then some terrorist could easily buy up some plutonium, drop it down some anonymous toilet, jiggle the handle and effortlessly irradiate an entire city's sewage system. "Flushed away!"

Would we then be required to show two forms of photo ID and go through a scanner every time we needed to go to the bathroom?

If I was a terrorist -- which I am not because I strongly believe that taking the life of a fellow human being is the absolute lowest thing anyone can do and is especially loathsome when done under the guise of "capital punishment" or "war" -- I'd use an even better way to kill off Americans! I'd stop wasting money stockpiling plutonium and start buying up sugar-coated breakfast cereal commercials aimed at children instead. Soon this diabolical terrorist plot would be killing off American kids right and left, but no one would even notice, no one would even care -- and I would never get caught!