Thursday, October 28, 2010

Jane & Mena's big adventure: Our recent visit to Hello Kitty!

Sometimes you just gotta take a break from observing the ever-present world stage of human tragedy and go out and have fun! So last week me and my two-year-old granddaughter Mena went over to San Francisco to see Hello Kitty celebrate her 50th birthday. According to a recent 7-Live newscast, this event was to take place on Justin Herman Plaza at 1 pm, and consisted of a mobile Hello Kitty store, some free gift bags and an opportunity to get your photo taken with Hello Kitty herself!

So we popped onto the BART train and took off.

Was the event crowded? Yes it was. We got there two hours early and there were already at least 200 people standing in line. One woman said that she had left her house that morning at 6 am so that she would be sure to get a gift bag. And everyone there was a huge Hello Kitty fan!

Demographics? Most of the fans there were adults -- many of whom have loved Hello Kitty since childhood. And why not -- what's not to love? Guilty pleasure -- I love Hello Kitty too. Many Japanese-Americans and Japanese turned out for the event. And most fans were women. Me too. And so was Hello Kitty!

The prices of things for sale at the mobile store were a bit on the expensive side. A commemorative T-shirt was $35, a small plastic coin purse was $12. Small stuffed animals were $28. Plus it took forever to get waited on.

However, a good time was had by all and we made lots of instant friends while waiting in line to get our photos taken with Miss Kitty. "But what about the gift bags?" you might ask. Only 50 of them were given out, plus they gave the first 50 arrivals a number (written on their hands) so that there would be no cutting in line. Rats. But I did get a sneak peek at the gift bags even though we had arrived too late to actually score, and they contained stickers, a note pad, a pencil and a small coin purse. I want one!

The Hello Kitty "Small Gifts" 50th-birthday mobile tour was a really fun event, mostly because of all the enthusiastic fans that we met -- but also because we got to actually get our photos taken with a real, life-sized Hello Kitty. And she even patted young Mena on the head.

Moral of the story? Even a hardened reporter like myself can still succumb to "cute" -- and that advertisers and promoters still have us where they want us.

PS: Mena went as a witch for Halloween this year -- which reminds me of all the female Tea Party candidates who have been circling like sharks churning the waters during this election cycle: Sarah Palin, Meg Whitman, Christine O'Donnell, Carly Fiorina, Michelle Bachmann, etc. Remember back in the day when we women would have been honored and pleased to have so many female candidates running for federal office? I surely don't feel that way now.

PPS: Speaking of honor, Glasgow Sunday Herald war correspondent David Pratt has just written a very moving article entitled "There is never an argument to defend the use of torture". Pratt himself was tortured when he was reporting from Bosnia back in 1995.

"The gunmen who took me prisoner claimed to be Croatian militiamen, but were, in reality, little more than thugs and gangsters," wrote Pratt. "During my short captivity, along with other civilian prisoners, I was bound and beaten with rifle butts before being singled out one night to be shot. To this day, I’ve never really been able to figure out what then followed – a mock execution or simply a case of my captors, who were drunk at this point – making a cock-up of trying to kill me.

"The last I remember of that night, was kneeling with my hands tied behind my back looking down into a ditch where others lay twisted and lifeless. Then there was the sound of a pistol being cocked before being put to the back of my head. A second later, there was an empty click and some mocking laughter before a thump on the back of my neck sent me to oblivion into the ditch where I later regained consciousness lying alone among a heap of bodies."

The point that Pratt goes on to make is this:
"At the end of the day, real democracies don’t do torture. In today’s war on terror, far from being a necessary evil, torture is plain evil: a morally reprehensible act that is in itself is a form of terrorism.

"No matter how much we try to justify it as a means to an end, in fighting today’s war on terror, it simply can never be so. Those states that advocate its use are little better than those morally bankrupt thugs at whose hands I, along with countless others, suffered in Bosnia all those years ago.

"As the French Algerian author, Albert Camus, eloquently put it: 'Torture has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honor…even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honor serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad.'”

"What's a Kos?": Write about Palestine & get libeled & banned

(Photos are of some of the highly-recommended protective measures you might consider taking if you are planning to write on the Kos regarding injustice in Palestine.)

Last night I had been complaining bitterly to a friend because I had written a diary entry on the Daily Kos regarding injustice in Palestine and had gotten brutally libeled and then banned as a result.

"How come it's completely acceptable to write diaries on the Kos regarding injustice in America and everywhere else in the world -- but if you write about injustices happening in Palestine, you get libeled and banned."

My friend just looked at me in confusion. "What's a Kos?" he replied.

Well that certainly put things into perspective.

"The Daily Kos is a liberal internet website with over a million readers. It's famous."

"Never heard of it," said my friend. Whew.

PS: Here's a link to that diary entry that got me banned: Scroll down and read some of the libelous comments attached to it if you want an instructive lesson on why requesting justice in Palestine may be very detrimental to your health. I get called crazy, nutty, silly, a conspiracy theorist,
antisemitic, a piece of [dookie], hateful, whacked-out, loony, unhinged, etc. And someone even accused me of having twigs in my hair. Twigs in my hair? What kind of intellectual rebuttal is that?

These are the kind of almost-scary sleazy comments about me that I get all the time from various sleazy right-wing bloggers. But I certainly didn't expect anything like this kind of nastiness to be dumped over my head by the readers of the Daily Kos, purported to be a liberal blog with excellent progressive creds.

The Kos even has a weekly column that relates some of the libelous wingnut comments that have been sent to its editor. Perhaps the Kos might consider putting some of its own readers' libelous comments about me in that column.

And why didn't the Kos ban some of its more offensive commenters -- instead of just banning ME?

PPS: Here's a quote from an article from the New York Times entitled "Smothered by Settlements," regarding injustice in Palestine. How come the Times gets to write about injustice in Palestine without getting libeled or banned -- but I don't!

"....The only way to save the two-state solution is for the Palestinians to declare the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and to demand that the world community recognize it and its borders — as it did in the case of Kosovo.

"That would also mean supporting the right of Palestinians to struggle nonviolently to end the occupation of their state. Any future negotiations, therefore, would not be about the right of the Palestinians to have their own sovereign independent state, but rather about how to apply and implement that right.

This would be the true test of the state-building strategy of the United States and the donor community. It would be the real instrument to finally demarcate the difference between support for free Palestinian institutions in a sovereign and viable state, or footing the bill of occupation and using E.U. and U.S. tax dollars to maintain under various guises what will never amount to anything but an apartheid system denying Palestinians their human and national rights.

"If the world community turns its back on such a declaration of independence by using the well-worn and insulting argument that every step should first be verified with the Israeli government, then the message will be clear: Peace based on two states is no longer an option."

PPPS: Here's what Reuters reports regarding injustice in Palestine. Now we need to ban Reuters too?

"A senior U.N. official condemned attacks by Jewish 'settler extremists' on Palestinians' olive trees in the occupied West Bank and called on Israel to 'combat violence and terror by Israelis.' Robert Serry, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, also said he was alarmed that work had started on hundreds of new homes for settlers in the occupied territory since the end of Israel's settlement freeze last month.

"Serry was speaking to journalists on Tuesday while olive-picking with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the village of Tormos Ayya north of Ramallah. He said settlers had destroyed hundreds of trees in the village in recent weeks. Palestinians began harvesting olives across the West Bank this month. 'I am appalled at acts of destruction of olive trees and farmlands, desecration of mosques and violence against civilians,' Serry said.

PPPPS: And just like Google-Alert zombies have apparently taken over the Daily Kos, property developers seem to have taken over my beloved Berkeley. One of the few progressive members left on our city council, Kriss Worthington, is currently fighting for his political life. So iIf you have any money left over from trying to stop all those Shakespearean witches (Whitman, Fiorina, Palin, Bachmann and O'Donnell) from predicting a corporatist future for America, please donate it to Kriss!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Palestine & the Daily Kos: Dog whistles? Or Google Alerts

I started blogging on the internet the day after George W. Bush stole the 2000 election. That Repug skulduggery really ticked me off. And the two things that I have blogged about mostly (and have pissed me off the most) since then are corporatist America and Injustice. Following up on these two subjects, I have traveled the world, blogging from Iran, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Africa, Burma, Iraq, Las Vegas, Detroit, South Africa, Tibet and North Korea -- well not ACTUALLY from North Korea. They've got no internet access there.

And the diaries that I post on the Daily Kos are almost always written on the subjects of corporatist America and Injustice. (Well, sometimes they are about food. The Burma Superstar restaurant in San Francisco is fabulous, BTW. I just went there). And usually I'll get about seven to ten comments per blog on the subjects of corporatist America and Injustice in various places around the world, maybe 20 or 30 comments max -- except when I write about corporatist America and Injustice in Israel and/or Palestine. Then I get 200 or 300 comments on my diaries. Hmmm.

And in these comments (most of them negative and centering around personal attacks on my intelligence), many of these so-called Kossacks have accused me of using a "dog whistle" -- that is, using code words for my outrage at Injustice in Palestine and my outrage at corporatist America's role in perpetuating said Injustice.

How come nobody ever complains when I write about Injustice and corporatist America's role in, say, Cuba or Bolivia or China? Is it because they really like my so-called "dog whistles" there -- as compared to my "dog whistles" on I-P? Or is it because they never read the DK on a regular basis but only go there when signaled by Google Alerts? And only comment on my diaries after Google Alerts has told them that I have mentioned Israel or Palestine?

I've stopped writing about Israel-Palestine on the Daily Kos. The many names that I've been called when I do write on this subject make it just not worth it for me to write about it. Plus there are plenty of other places where I can write about Injustice and corporatist America's perfidious influence in I-P without alerting the "dogs". I don't need to deal with no stinking Israel-Palestine Google Alerts on the DK.

However I do still resent that my beloved Daily Kos is being flooded with commenters who apparently only read my diary when it pops up on their Google Alerts.

Dog whistles, my foot!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BoucherCon: David Baldacci, Martin Cruz Smith & 1,000 middle-aged ladies

I love to read -- and murder mysteries are my favorite things to read in the whole world. So when a huge murder-mystery writers' and readers' convention came to San Francisco this year, I just HAD to go. And BoucherCon didn't disappoint. For four whole glorious day, I got to absolutely wallow in the literary nuts and bolts of who-killed-who.

I got to ask Joseph Finder, a mega-blockbuster big-selling author who is also an expert on Afghanistan, "If you were to write a Who-Dun-It about Afghanistan, what would be the plot and how would you solve that particular mystery?"

Finder gamely replied, "I'd make it into a comedy of errors. The Afghan government is not doing what you think it is doing and everyone else is also being fooled." Yeah, especially the average Afghan and us taxpayers -- at this point, we seem to be playing the role of the corpse.

And I got to ask Martin Cruz Smith, "How in the freak did you learn so much about the inside workings of a Russian fish-factory ship?"

"Because I was no longer welcome in Russia at the time I wrote 'Polar Star,' I figured that I'd just go up to Dutch Harbor in Alaska and see if I could sneak onto a Russian factory ship there. Those ships are like a small floating piece of Russia. When I wrote the Russian government for permission to board one, they replied that there wouldn't be one up in Dutch Harbor for another four months. So, knowing the Russians like I do, I immediately hustled right up there. And I was able to get aboard one and even take photos and make notes. But when the captain found out that I had come aboard, I thought I was going to be in big trouble -- but instead he just asked me to join him for dinner." Cruz Smith is welcome in Russia now, BTW.

But most important of all, I got to ask David Baldacci a most burning question: "How come, if you have sold millions and millions of copies of books that expose the CIA as basically an above-the-law group of paid assassins -- and millions and millions of Americans have read your books -- then how come nobody in America seems to be trying to put a leash on the CIA?"

"I don't know why that is. But all I can do is to just keep writing and hope."

For two of the four days that the BoucherCon was in San Francisco, I was forced by circumstances beyond my control to bring along my two-year-old granddaughter Mena. I myself was completely enthralled by BoucherCon. Mena, however, was totally bored. Sure, she tried really hard to be a good girl for me -- but she's a freaking two-year-old after all. She can't even read Janet Evanovich yet let alone Laurie R. King, Lee Child, Rhys Bowen or Denise Mina (all of whom were there BTW -- except for Janet Evanovich, unfortunately. I would have asked her to autograph all 20 of her books, which I currently own most of).

When I first arrived at BoucherCon, I noticed that approximately three out of four of the murder-mystery fans in attendance were middle-aged ladies. "Aha," I thought to myself, "look at that! There are rooms and rooms full of possible grandmothers here! Surely I can get some sympathy for having had to bring along my granddaughter -- and maybe possibly even get some help." Sigh. What alternative planet had I been living on? These middle-aged-lady mystery readers were definitely NOT maternal.

And on the last day of the convention, they staged a fancy awards brunch in the Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom -- but I was still stuck with young Mena. What to do? I brought Mena along. She sat quietly through a seminar featuring Susan Dunlop and Robert S. Levinson on the subject of writing books set in San Francisco as opposed to writing books set in Los Angeles -- like the sweetheart that Mena really is. But when the time came for the super-finale fancy brunch, Mena staged one of those humongous uncontrollable scary melt-downs like only a two-year-old can.

So here's Mena, rolling around on the floor of the Grand Ballroom, kicking and SCREAMING!

And here's me, embarrassed beyond belief, trying to shrink into the woodwork and pretend that I've never seen this child ever before in my life.

And here's a whole ballroom full of 1,000 middle-aged potential grandmother types -- staring at me in HORROR, as if I personally had just bumped off Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, one (1) very kindly middle-aged lady did try to help, but by that time Mena was totally in wigged-out-semi-epileptic-craziness mode and practically bit her. OH NO!

At last some saintly waitress strode over and humanely handed me a cup of hot coffee -- and Mena wore herself out. "Can we eat now?" Mena asked prettily, in that totally innocent way that only two-year-olds who are just recovering from the fit of a lifetime can pull off. "I'm hungry, Gaia." I just be you are.

PS: I also scored a bunch of free books. And, what is even more important, I learned the names of a whole bunch of new mystery authors that I had never even heard of before. Prior to this convention, I had thought that I either knew about or had actually read most murder-mystery authors, but BoucherCon showed me that I only knew the tip of the iceberg.

PPS: The next BoucherCon will be in St. Louis in 2011. I would really like to be there because I totally loved the San Francisco BoucherCon. And so did Mena. I think.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Higher standards: What if Afghanistan was like Palestine?

One of the biggest gripes that the corporatists who rule Israel (sorry -- nobody uses the term "neo-con" any more) have expressed lately is that so many Americans are now siding with Palestinians instead of with them. "And also how come you never hold any other countries in this region to the same high standard that you demand from us," they complain. "Just look at the civil rights abuses in the Arab countries in the Middle East. How come you never get on their cases too?"

Okay. Here goes. Now I'm gonna get on Afghanistan's case.

First of all, one of the major reasons that we don't get on Afghanistan's case as much as we get on the case of the corporatists currently ruling Israel and Palestine is that who the freak even KNOWS anything about Afghanistan?

What if we knew as much about Afghanistan as we know about Israel and Palestine? What would we think about Afghanistan then? Would our standards for Afghanistan be as demanding as our standards for Israel? And would we require the same solutions to problems in Afghanistan that corporatist-controlled Israel now comes up with? Hmmm.

What if it was as easy to travel to Afghanistan as it is to travel to Israel (or even Palestine) right now? Would we be getting as much correct information from eye-witnesses about what is going on in, say, Helmand, as we now get regarding what is going on in the West Bank? (Gaza is a different story. No one is allowed to go there. Not many people know what is going on in Gaza.) But who the freak ever travels to Afghanistan these days?

I myself have been trying to get to Afghanistan for the past three years by embedding with the U.S. military there -- but with no luck. And do you know how hard it is to even GET to Afghanistan if you go there on your own? First you gotta come up with big bucks to fly to Dubai. Then at the Dubai airport you gotta get up at the crack of dawn to get in line at the Ariana Airlines check-in counter and elbow your way through a crowd of hundreds of Afghans who are, like you, also trying to get to Kabul. There are hundreds of people in the "stand-by" line, including you. Plus they don't call Ariana the "Inch Allah" airline for nothing. Last time I flew Ariana, we landed in Tehran instead of Dubai -- by mistake.

Flying into Kabul, you can still see ragged old airplanes and broken-up tanks lining the runway from back in the day, back from the Afghanistan-USSR war. And the airport's baggage claim area? Craziness. Yes, even getting to Afghanistan is a big pain in the [bootie]. And once you are there? It's not like they have grand hotels and tourist information bureaus at the airport -- or even in town. And then you get mobbed by determined beggar children on Chicken Street -- or perhaps even blown up. The ATM machines there are fortified with barbed wire, blast walls and checkpoints. Kabul is NOT Tel Aviv!

We all know that Afghanistan was brutally occupied by the United States under Cheney and Bush back in 2001, with lots of bombings and killings of civilians in a gigantic take-over that was pretty much illegal -- no matter what the occupiers claimed. But the same thing happened to Palestine approximately 63 years ago. It was the exact same thing. So. What will Afghanistan be like in 63 years? Will there still be all that military occupation going on there like in Palestine today? And will us taxpayers still be paying for this occupation 60-odd years from now the same way that we now pay (and pay) for the occupation of Palestine? Yeah? Yikes!

In this respect, Palestine and Afghanistan are already very much alike -- both of them have become military money pits that American taxpayers can't seem to climb out of.

And there are other ways that Israel-Palestine is as bad as Afghanistan. In both Afghanistan and Palestine, money is being spent on weapons instead of medical care and schools. But, in that respect, America is pretty much as bad as Afghanistan and Palestine as well. You can't make huge profits on medical care and schools-- either there or here, not like you can selling weapons!

But enough of that. Let's get back on-topic. How else can I get on Afghanistan's case for being worse than Israel-Palestine? Well, I gotta admit that Palestine's resistance fighters are pretty much wimps compared to Afghanistan's Taliban. What if Palestine had radical Taliban-style insurgents fighting its occupation like the Taliban now do in Afghanistan? The Israeli corporatists who now run the Israeli government should thank their lucky stars that Palestinians are more patient and tolerant and not that violent and mean.

However, if the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine keeps going the way it has been going for the last 60-odd years -- with land theft and torture and aerial bombings of homes and unjustified civilian deaths and destruction of civil rights and huge concentration camps -- Palestinians may finally get desperate enough to become like the Taliban too. And, from what I can tell, the Taliban seem to be winning in Afghanistan.

But in some ways, corporatist Israel-Palestine is actually worse than Afghanistan. What if Afghan Christians were persecuted and killed like Palestinian Christians have been persecuted and killed for the last 60-odd years?

What if Afghan refugees, like Palestinian refugees, were never allowed to return to the place where they were born, to their childhood home -- never ever again?

And what if Afghanistan were to suffer a bloody and brutal occupation like Gaza's, with tanks and bombs and guns giving children nightmares every night? Oops, too late. In that respect, Afghanistan already has.

So. When Israeli corporatists whine that we get on their case more than any other country in the region, now they won't be able to complain about that particular issue any more -- because I just got on Afghanistan's case!

PS: This week, Israeli corporatists came up with yet another weird thing to complain about. Israeli corporatists have now started complaining about JEWS. Yep, you read that right. The Anti-Defamation League, an American organization that is highly influenced by Israeli corporatists and tends to follow their party line to the letter, has just condemned "Jewish Voice for Peace" for being antisemitic! Huh?

According to Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast, "...the ADL has also shown itself willing to smear human-rights activists when it thinks Israel’s interests demand it. It is in this context that the organization’s misguided new report on the 'top 10 anti-Israel groups in America,' which includes Jewish Voice for Peace...has to be understood.

"The ADL’s list also includes The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition that aims 'to change those U.S. policies that sustain Israel's 40-year [sic] occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and deny equal rights for all.' Among its member organizations are the American Friends Service Committee-Iowa, Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA." What? Quakers and Unitarians are now antisemitic too?

So. When is the Israeli corporatist government finally going to give up its assault on Muslim and Christian Palestinians' civil rights and also their paranoid fear that Americans like me are all out to get them? Perhaps this will happen someday soon -- but only if Israeli corporatists finally lose power in Israel, so that normal Israelis can finally stop worrying about all this corporatist intrigue and start getting on with their lives.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sarah Palin & the Dalai Mama: Two very different speakers come to Silicon Valley

The other day, me and my family all piled into my son Joe's car and drove down to San Jose to see the Dalai Lama in person. Not surprisingly, there were approximately15,000 other people there who had gotten the same idea as us. The San Jose Convention Center was jam-packed and sold out.

Have you ever tried to assemble almost your entire family at one time and in one place? Frazzling. But we did it -- because all of us really wanted to go see the Dalai Lama. And driving to San Jose, getting lost a whole bunch of times and searching for parking within walking distance was even worse -- especially with two-year-old Mena on board.

"Quick! Take a picture of the Dalai Lama with your cell phone," I ordered my daughter Ashley -- who immediately got busted by an usher for taking unauthorized photos and almost got her phone confiscated too. Oops.

"There's Pierce Brosnan," said my son.

Then Mena ran away from us, hunkered down under an exhibit table in the lobby and had to be dragged out screaming by a security guard. Then, once inside the venue, she immediately tore down the main aisle toward the front, yelling, "Dalai Mama! Dalai Mama!" like she was some kind of long-lost sacred rinpoche reincarnation finally about to be reunited with her mum. And she almost made it too -- but a security team stopped her at the third row.

And I myself spent a goodly amount of time searching the venue for elevators and coffee -- I don't do so good with stairs these days and am probably the last person in my generation to succumb to the lure of caffeine addiction.

But finally we were all seated and the Dalai Lama started to speak -- but I have no idea what he said because the sound system was lousy. "Humility, peace, love and compassion," is my closest guess. Who knows. But by the time he finished speaking, all 15,000 of us audience members clearly felt like we'd just been calmed, soothed, mellowed out and given the gift of great hope. It was a truly awesome moment, well worth every hassle.

And as we drove out of the parking structure after this extraordinary and inspiring experience, I spotted a big poster near the exit that read, "Next Event -- Sarah Palin". And we were all immediately struck by the contrast in messages between the speaker we had just heard and the speaker to come. On this singular afternoon, the "Dalai Mama" had fired us all up with his universal message of peace, love and hope -- and yet there, surrounded by the very same air that the Dalai Lama had just breathed, Sarah Palin would soon be trying to fire up people with her mean-spirited messages of violence and hate.

I will NOT be taking young Mena to go see Sarah Palin.

PS: I just read where only 1,200 people showed up at Sarah Palin's event. Ha!

PPS: I dearly love the Daily Kos but writing there on the subject of Israel and Palestine can be truly tricky -- because if you cross a certain invisible line regarding that subject, Kos readers will really yell at you (a lot):

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Durango-Silverton Steam Train & postal workers who pay for war

I just had the honor of riding the Durango-Silverton stream train. Wow! And just before the train pulled into to Silverton, I got into a discussion with a former mailman, another railroad buff. "My father worked in the post office," I told him, "back in the old days when everyone still sent out Christmas cards. During the whole month of December, Pop was always at work -- but it's not like that any more since they invented the internet."

"I myself was forced to quit the post office early," said my new railroad enthusiast friend, "because of knee injures from walking my route for so many years." Yeah but -- why didn't you just get your knees treated? Doesn't the Post Office still have workers comp programs to deal with that kind of stuff? Apparently not.

"No, it's not like that any more. In the past few years, the Post Office has been throwing people off workers comp left and right. If you are injured on the job and you work for the postal service, you are basically [screwed]." That fits the pattern of how too much of America's money is getting vacuumed away into the pockets of oligarchs, out-sourcers, corporatists and supporters of unnecessary foreign wars instead of being used to take care of much more urgent business here at home.

Maybe it's my imagination, but doesn't it seem like every single cent that the federal government saves by cutting down on services to us taxpayers goes straight into the pockets of weapons manufacturers, corporate welfare queens, advocates of "globalization" and Wall Street? The next time you get a letter in your mailbox, think about how many injured and maimed postmen are being sacrificed on the altar of greed.

But I digress. Let's get back to talking about steam trains.

The Durango-Silverton train is rated as one of the top ten steam trains in the world -- and that's an obviously well-deserved rating. Not only is it totally fun to be riding on a genuine old-fashioned steam train, but this small-gauge railway meanders through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. Pristine wilderness. Clear air that smells like honeysuckle and pine trees. Sparkling streams. The whole Deep Nature enchilada.

Riding this train also reminded me of James Howard Kunstler, a well-known author who writes about stuff that will probably comprise America's future once our current "cheap oil fiesta" is over. And here's what Kunstler says about trains:

"People are talking about building a high-speed railway these days but that's not going to happen -- if for no other reason than that we can no longer afford to lay the required new track. However, what we do need to consider is our current rail system in the face of increasing oil scarcity. As we face the increasing destability of America's suburban living arrangement, we HAVE to come up with better public transit."

And guess what? According to Kunstler, our original railway tracks are still there, just waiting to be utilized to our advantage. And according to Kunstler, all we need now to get this efficient rail transportation system up and running is more rolling stock.

"When we bailed out General Motors, we should have told them that one of the conditions of the bailout is that they've got to build rolling stock too. Dick Cheney even tried to eliminate Amtrak. We are in the twilight of Happy Motoring right now and nobody realizes this. We've got to stop pretending that we can keep running America the way that we have up until now. We've got to stop being crybabies, put our shoulders to the wheel and do what needs to get done."

I'm all in favor of bringing back the railroads!

And then when I finally did get to Silverton after three and a half hours of railroad heaven, the big steam engine pulled into a delightfully authentic old-time mining town that sported three (3) different ice cream parlors. I owed it to myself to sample each one. And the one with the sign in front of it that read "chocolate-covered insects" got my vote.

But then, just before I was about to hit the road to Grand Junction on the Million-Dollar Highway, someone told me that I had missed a fourth ice cream parlor in Silverton. Wait! Stop! I gotta go back!

PS: I don't really usually live on ice cream all that much but sampling the ice cream parlors of The West has been a rare vacation treat for me, despite the fact that, in real life, I live only seven miles away from the legendary Fenton's yet rarely go there.

However, I just read where New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently trying to ban sodas and other unhealthy soft drinks -- ones that are well-known to cause obesity and diabetes -- from squatting on the list of real foods that you are allowed to buy with food stamps.

That makes good sense to me. Why should our government be paying for junk food of the worst type? But apparently it's not that obvious to others. It seems that Mayor Bloomberg is meeting with a whole lot of opposition from soda manufacturers' lobbyists -- and the FDA appears to be supporting the soda manufacturers on this one. Say what?

PPS: The high, narrow, winding, cliff-hanger road between Silverton and Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway because, according to the local legend, it cost a million dollars a mile to blast it out of the Colorado Rockies back in the day.

PPPS: While riding this wonderful train, I also got to sing my favorite U. Utah Phillips song. "Railroading on the Great Divide...nothing around me but Rockies and sky!"

ere's the rest of what James Howard Kunstler had to say about the future -- during a talk he recently gave at Books, Inc. in Berkeley:

"Tonight I want to catch you up on what's been happening since I first wrote 'The Long Emergency'. We are now witnessing a progression of fiascoes in our culture. Here in America, we can't even generate a consensus as to what is happening to us now -- let alone act on it. Delusional thinking is everywhere, not just in the Sarah Palin class.

"There are three forces at work here in America now. First there's the financial fiasco -- banking, government spending, the financial market and investment schemes -- which may put us out of business even before the oil crisis, which is always going on in the background." Oil is the second force at work.

And the third force at work on creating chaos in our future, according to Kunstler, is climate change. "Climate change is effecting our food production. We now have the lowest grain storage in recent history. And repercussions from this shortage will generate geo-political anger and resentment.

"Oil, financial problems and climate change all have their effects, but when these forces enter the political realm, they transmogrify into rants on unrelated topics like Jesus, Nascar, etc. And then we end up with issues that are nuts."

Kunstler then gave climate-change issues a closer look. "In the last two years of the Aspen environmental forum, all they want to talk about are nifty alternative ways that you can run cars." No one there seems to be trying to wrap their brains around a possible car-less world, which Kunstler seems to think is going to have to happen next, whether we want it to or not. "And if you can't count on these people, experts in their fields, then who can you count on? One man I talked to there simply wants to convert the whole American car fleet over to electricity." That's not going to solve this problem because electricity mainly also depends on cheap oil. We have to prepare ourselves for a car-less world -- and we have to do it ASAP.

Another big problem right now in America, according to Kunstler, is the disappearance of capital. "Car loans, jobs, incomes, etc. are going way down, and as a result, motoring becomes more of an elite activity. When you can't even afford to keep your beater running -- there's going to be major resentment here too."

Kunstler then reviewed the sorry state of our highway infrastructure and the need to get our railroad passenger rolling stock both geared up and repaired -- as a more efficient form of public transportation. "We currently have an elaborate road hierarchy that is stuplifying, but even with stimulus packages, our roads are going to hell very rapidly. That infrastructure deterioration is going to be another major problem [regarding the use of cars]. And nobody in the higher-ups is even realizing this."

The bottom line of Kunstler's talk was even more scary. "We've got to stop pretending that we can keep running America the way that we have so far. We can't. For instance, techno-grandiosity causes us to think that we are going to be able to run high-speed rail systems. That's not going to happen either. We're also too broke to do that. And in five or ten years the airlines will be done as well. We are in the twilight of Happy Motoring and nobody even realizes this. We just keep saying, 'Give us some magic so that we can keep doing what we are doing.' But now is not the time for crybabies and nuts. We need to do what we need to do. But will we? No. There's a remarkable increase of delusional thinking instead."

Kunstler than signed copies of his latest book, The Witch of Hebron, which is a sequel to his other books on the subject of "What Happens Next" -- including World Made By Hand and The Long Emergency.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

America then & now: Mesa Verde, Van Jones & Big Oil

I just went over to see Mesa Verde today, a dream come true for me. My parents went to Mesa Verde on their honeymoon back in the 1930s and when I was a kid I used to look at their photos taken during that time and dream that someday I too would go there. And now I'm actually here! But the descendants of the people who built Mesa Verde are not -- not here. They are gone.

So. Where did they go? What happened to the Anasazi, the old-timey Ancient Pueblans? Rumor has it that they had to leave here because of various adverse changes in climate, including a severe drought and a mini-ice age. "Climate change drove them out," said a ranger. Now does that sound familiar or what!

I once wrote a sci-fi novel about Mesa Verde -- about how the folks there had to leave due to threats from neighboring raider-warriors and from man's inhumanity to man. But then, in my book, the refugees from Mesa Verde became immortal and lived in the stars for centuries and only returned to Earth 5,000 years later -- after some of its radioactivity had worn off. And will that happen to us too -- a repeat of the Mesa Verde story? Let's hope not.

Anyway, back at the real-life Mesa Verde I got to go down into a sacred ceremonial pit at Spruce Tree House -- which was totally cool and spiritual and mind-bending. Then I bought a whole bunch of souvenirs at the gift shop and ate traditional fry bread. I did it! I was actually there! And Mesa Verde lived up to all of my expectations too. But now I gotta go home and revise my novel.

The Ancient Pueblans apparently had to leave their homes because of climate change -- but what did they know? Not much. They were just pre-Colombian farmers from before the age of The Weather Channel. However, modern mankind knows a lot more about climate change than they did and we also know how to stop it from snowballing before it's too late. BUT. Will we act in time? Will we actually do what we know that we have to do in order to save the planet? Or will we too, like the Anasazi, be forced to leave our abandoned cities (and suburbs) behind?

I'm tending to be kind of pessimistic here.

"But, Jane, why are you being so negative about our ability to stop climate change?" you might ask.

I can instantly tell you why. "Because of California's Proposition 23." That's why. "And because of Van Jones." Van Jones, Obama's former Green Energy Czar? Yes, THAT Van Jones -- the alternative energy expert that was positively pilloried and crucified by Big Oil last year. Jones is one of the few men today actually standing up to protect us modern-day people from a deja vu re-play of what happened at Mesa Verde.

The other day, Jones gave a talk in Berkeley about the disastrous consequences for all of us Americans if California's Proposition 23 passes. Here's my almost-accurate recreation of that talk. Either read it and weep -- or read it and go out and DO SOMETHING!

"We need to make sure that people hear the truth about this state proposition. This isn't about us losing jobs in California like the TV commercials in favor of it would lead you to believe. It's about Texas oil trying to take on Silicon Valley." Why Silicon Valley? Because people in Silicon Valley are trying to develop a huge new alternative energy program right now and this intention has got the guys from Big Oil running scared.

"It isn't as if the Texas oilmen who are sponsoring this proposition are crying their eyes out because people in California don't have jobs." Remember the Texas oilmen who ran Enron? They weren't trying to help Californians either. They just saw us as suckers. And the same thing appears to be happening here.

"They claim that they are sobbing now, 'boo-hoo,' because they have to spend 20 million dollars just to give those poor Californians some jobs." That's just not true. Big Oil could care less about us -- us suckers and marks.

"Less than two years ago, both McCain and Obama agreed on one thing -- that we need to prevent radical climate change. The only common ground between both parties was that we had to do something about global warming. So. What happened?" Jones asked. "Special interests decided to knock out Silicon Valley -- by lying to us." And by lying about Van Jones too.

I've known Van since 2001 when we worked together to plan Robert Treuhaft's funeral (Bob was a founding member of the Lawyers Guild, co-wrote "An American Way of Death" with his wife Jessica Mitford -- her biography, "Irrepressible," just came out BTW -- and Bob was my boss for a few years. But I digress). Jones is a good guy. I believe what he says. And I recommend that you believe him too.

"For the past two years, we've found that [lobby-based and Republican-based] lies to us have gone uncontested -- and so these lies grew. And now we find ourselves fighting these lies, even here in California. And the politics of hope are now fighting the politics of fear -- even here."

You want politics of fear? I'll give you politics of fear! If we don't stop the
Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Weapons, etc. corporatists who now pretty much run America in their tracks ASAP, we're all gonna end up like the folks at Mesa Verde: Wandering, homeless and DEAD. And our grandchildren will be dead too. Is that scary enough for you? Apparently not.

"And in 2008, we connected the politics of hope to one man -- Barack Obama. And if he doesn't live up to your expectations, you blog against him. You Tweet against him. But. Hope started much earlier than 2008. Hope didn't start with political superheroes." Hope started with us.

"Then came Katrina." And the mask was stripped away and we saw just how uncaring the Bush dynasty really was. "And in 2006, something broke and something decent and honorable and good started moving in America. And that movement inspired Obama. But let's get this clear. Obama may have inspired us -- but you inspired him first. Obama is one of the most inspirational people on this earth -- and YOU inspired HIM." Go us!

"Then when you came home from the victory parties in DC, you expected change. But here's what we learned together in the past two years. They assassinated hope back in the 1960s when they assassinated John and Bobby and Martin and it has taken all these years to bring it back. But we need MORE than hope. We need change." Go you!

"When you see someone on television with flat abs and you think, 'I could look like that,' that's called hope. But when you actually go to the gym and work out? That's called change.

"Do we actually mean what we say when we talk about hope and change? Who are we as a movement?" And what kind of movement are we? I wanna be a movement that expedites the evolution of the human race into something we can be proud of -- not just an evolution into even more and better types of war, greed and hate.

"This is our summer of crazy climate. We had one-third of Pakistan under water. We had one-eighth of Russia on fire. Call anyone on earth and ask them if they have seen crazy weather this year and they will say that they did. This is for real. Al Gore's predictions have already come true."

Then Jones talked more about what us liberals need to do next.

"Was Obama's campaign a movement or a moment? The answer is in our hands. It's a 'moment' if you give up, if you walk off the field, if you cover 98 yards and then quit. Or you can keep running with the ball."

But, for me, this was the most important part of Jones message: "These people are not spending 20 million dollars on their Proposition 23 campaign because you have no power. They don't spend 20 million dollars on losers and nobodies. They don't have all these crazy people all shouting on cable TV because you are nobody."

If they had American voters in the bag and under their thumb, they wouldn't have to spend billions on campaigns, shock jocks and right-wing nuts like Limbaugh, Palin and Beck!

"You may think it doesn't matter what you do or don't do. This is what they hope you will think. There's a lesson to be learned from the BP oil spill, when BP made 62 billion dollars in profit yet someone decided to not spend $500,000 on safety, just to save money. And a decision based on greed created a completely catastrophic disaster. And one lesson to be learned here is that that you have no idea who you are and what your power is." Think of all the millions of dollars worth of ads that BP has run to try to convince you that they are a good company and that your gut feelings are wrong.

"And you don't have to go back to the New Deal or the 1960s to find your glory. One small act based on love can result in a huge positive outcome" -- just as one small act of greed had such a negative effect. "Now is the time for action."

Screw the corporatists! Screw Big Oil! Let's show our power! Let's speak up now -- before we too end up like those poor schmucks at Mesa Verde.

PS: Back in 2005, I turned the first chapter of my sci-fi novel about Mesa Verde into a play and posted it on YouTube. Fabulous acting! Fabulous script! I deserve a Tony award! (Or not.) In any case, here it is:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4: