Thursday, July 19, 2007

THE WAR ON TRUTH: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Invasion of Iraq but Your Government Wouldn't Tell You

I was going to give up blogging forever because I was so sick and tired of having my country being lied to and disrespected by Cheney and Bush and blogging my fingers to the BONE to get justice done and still finding them living the Life of Reilly in the White House while I just got more and more discouraged and then my computer broke -- when I got the sweetest little e-mail from a reporter named Neil MacKay of the Glasgow Sunday Herald, asking me to write a blurb his book on my blog.

That's Glasgow, Scotland! How can you turn a Scotsman down? You can't.

"Jane," he wrote, "will you please review my new book? It's called The War on Truth: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Invasion of Iraq but Your Government Wouldn't Tell You. "

How can I turn down an offer like that -- especially in these crucial times when we are being lied to left and right. But what if Americans don't WANT to know the truth? Oops. Now we're REALLY in big trouble -- because apparently most of them do NOT want to know.

But for those of us who do want to know the exact gory details about how the Bush shuck-and-jive has destroyed everything that true American patriots hold dear, then you will really like this book. Why? Because it contains almost all of the true story -- as much as any human being can possibly discover without a CIA directive! -- regarding the mendacious events leading up to the war on Iraq. Here you can check out for yourself almost all the deceptions and untruths that our creepy neo-con "leaders" have tried so hard to suppress.

Ostriches, AVOID THIS BOOK! Everyone else? Please go out and read it -- so I can take a break from blogging my fingers to the bone and you can more clearly understand why Bush and Cheney belong in jail.

FYI, here's the blurb from the back cover: The War on Truth investigates all aspects of the lead up to the war in Iraq, its execution, and its aftermath. Neil MacKay contends that the public was systematically fed untruths in a manner that questions what kind of democracy we really have. MacKay, award winning investigative journalist for Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper has covered the West's intelligence agencies for many years.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Four more years!: Jeb Bush's new biography -- entitled "The Next Bush"

I was at the Oakland airport yesterday, waiting for a plane to take me off to an AIDS training course, when I saw a book that scared the [bodily waste] out of me! There it was. On the top shelf of Hudson News. In hard-cover yet. "The Next Bush".

Poor Rudy Gulianni, being led down the garden path to think that he might actually be the next neo-con Republican to steal the White House -- while all the time it is JEB that is being primed. Holy Cow! I was hoping to take a break from blogging once George W. was safely in jail but now it looks like I'll be spending the rest of my LIFE trying to get Bushes into jail. Let's see. There's Melvin and the twins and Laura and....

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Blind: Watching the Israel-Palestine eye-for-an-eye tragedy unfold

I am reading David Pratt's new book Intifada: The Long Day of Rage. Believe it or not, Pratt was THERE -- on the scene, on the spot -- for almost every single incident, battle, retribution, escalation and attack that the Israelis staged against the Palestinians during both the First Intifada and the Second Intifada. And Pratt was also there during almost ever single incident, battle, retribution, escalation and attack that the Palestinians staged against the Israelis as well.

With heart-stopping accuracy and literary GENIUS, Pratt makes his readers think and feel as if they too were there during every single moment of every bloody event. Amazing.

And after I finished the book, what did I learn? That's a no-brainer. That the crazy and irresponsible eye-for-an-eye escalation of this conflict has led -- tragically, needlessly, unnecessarily -- to the terrible end wherein both sides are now blind. Do you hear me? Morally, financially, personally and physically. Blind. What a waste.

Buy this book. Read it and weep. And then work in whatever way you can to stop the escalation of violence and war. Why? Because Israelis and Palestinians have clearly demonstrated for all the world to see -- and Pratt has recorded it -- what happens when violence, revenge and retribution guides one's policies. Everyone loses. There are no winners in this terrible game -- only survivors with no vision.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

America's Player: Has HUD just become a houseguest on Big Brother (Section) 8? (Part two of the series, "Drowning government in the Bathtub")

"My goal is to cut government in get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." -- Grover Norquist

I just watched the latest episode of Big Brother 8 on TV. This season have lots of skulduggery, surprises and backstabbing as usual but there's also a new feature called "America's Player". Here's how it works: America votes to tell someone in the Big Brother house to do something and they must do it.

We used to have a player like that in the White House -- but that's obviously no longer true. Now "America's Player" at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is too busy trying to drown everything we hold dear in the bathtub to even think about doing what we tell him to do.

Take the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- HUD -- for example. Like the U.S. Constitution, the National Guard and FEMA, is its head also being held under the bathwater too long? Is more Big Brother intrigue going on here as well? Hummm. As Julie Chan is fond of saying, "Let's take a look."

A decade ago, HUD worked differently. If a Section 8 subsidized housing project developed problems, HUD dealt with them immediately. Audits were sent out. Miscreants were fired. HUD acted quickly. They knew what to do -- and within months, the troubled project was back on its feet again. However, things no longer work that way in the new HUD. Nope. This season it's a whole different show.

Suppose a Section 8 housing project in your town gets in trouble today. Apparently there is now a whole new sequence of events in the Big Brother house. According to a HUD insider I spoke with recently, here's the new scenario. "When a subsidized project gets in trouble these days, HUD simply waits around and does nothing. The project then implodes from within. The place falls apart. HUD then condemns it, gives vouchers to all of its residents, sells off the property to eager developers and HUD makes a ton of dough."

And what happens to the residents?

"They take their new vouchers out to dutifully look for new housing, can't find any landlords who will take them despite a diligent search, the vouchers expire and voila. HUD no longer has to subsidize that project."

"But wouldn't this be a good thing? Won't having fewer subsidized projects save money for American taxpayers?" I naively asked. Apparently not. For every project that is closed down, more homeless people are created and pretty soon America starts once again to acquire that "Great Depression" look that only the HUD Section 8 programs have prevented from happening all these years. So that's what we have been buying with all that housing subsidy money all this time -- the illusion that America was safely well-housed.

"Without HUD subsidies, the invisible poor of America suddenly become highly visible as millions of Americans hit the streets with their cardboard boxes in hand." And of course HUD manages to save a bundle. However, there's a catch -- we taxpayers never get to see this windfall because somehow it all magically ends up in Bush's Swiss bank account. Don't ask me how.

Perhaps the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials can offer us some clues as to how our money disappears. "In an effort to take back funding from the Section 8 program, it appears that HUD is intentionally over-funding some housing agencies while simultaneously under funding other agencies. Thus the over-funding is being returned to the Treasury Department, while creating shortfalls at the same time in other parts of the nation." What does this mean? Apparently it means that HUD projects have been deliberately overfunded so that the money can be taken back, sent off to the Treasury and recycled over to Halliburton.

The theme for this year's CBS Big Brother reality show is Alice in Wonderland -- and the White House is clearly following suit. Their plan for HUD definitely involves the theory of "One pill makes you small...." If something goes wrong on a HUD project these days, Alice will no longer be there to help out. Instead, the Red King responds to each crisis in the same manner that he responded to 9-11 and Katrina. "Let it happen". Humph.

It makes you wonder who exactly runs America now. The Red King? The Mock Turtle? Or the Mad Hatter?

And according to housing maven Lynda Carson, there's even more skulduggery going on in the Big Brother house -- enough to make us think that we too have taken bites out of Alice's mushroom. "HUD has intentionally been changing most of the rules and regulations in the housing programs very rapidly during the last three years, and many organizations cannot keep up with all the changes. Even with waivers for more time, many housing organizations and public housing agencies have major problems because of the funding cuts also occurring. And the result is that people get stressed out, and no one seems to know what the rules are anymore because of the vagueness of the rule changes, or changes that seem impossible to make." Perhaps Tweedle-dee is not so Tweedle-dum after all?

So. How does this summer's Big Brother (Section) 8 series finally end? Who will be left standing? The Red King, the Mock Turtle and the Mad Hatter? Yeah. HUD, along with such other houseguests as the Department of Justice, the FDA and the FCC, have already been kicked out of the house. And even though both Congress and America's Player have not voted to evict HUD, it will be gone just the same. And since the cost of low, moderate and middle-income housing has been inflated over the last seven years by both the housing bubble and by the recent demolition of over 200,000 units of affordable housing, only Section 8 subsidies have been protecting the low-to-middle-income affordable housing market. And as these subsidies are being forced to leave the Big Brother house too, more and more people across the country will be living in shantytowns and hobo jungles instead. And "America's Player" will be screwed again.

You can't get more "Big Brother" than that!

No. Wait. Maybe you can. In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld stated that, "According to some estimates, we cannot track 2.3 trillion in transactions." And then he grinned like the Cheshire cat.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Drowning government in the bathtub, part one: Who killed off the National Guard?

"My goal is to cut government in get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." -- Grover Norquist

Dontcha just love murder mysteries? Someone is always dying under suspicious circumstances -- falling off a cliff, getting poisoned, drowning in a bathtub. But who would think that federal agencies could get drowned in bathtubs too? And who done it? That's no mystery: George W. Bush and the neo-cons.

Even Nancy Drew could figure that one out.

But what amazes me is why -- with one regulatory body after another turning up dead -- why are these killers still on the loose?

"The bastards! They killed FEMA!" Yep.

After the Katrina tragedy and FEMA's body floated ashore, nobody did anything to stop the killers from striking again. And then we found HUD's body buried in the back yard. The FCC's body turned up in Rupert Murdoch's pocket. The FDA's body was found bludgeoned to death on K Street . The EPA's body was discovered floating face-down in Lake Erie . And NORAD died a fiery death in September of 2001.

Bodies keep piling up here. Even Miss Marple is shocked. But the most shocking body of all to turn up so far is the poor mangled corpse of the National Guard. It too was discovered in New Orleans -- in the basement of the Superdome. And instead of the National Guard saving the day after the levee broke, we got stuck with Blackwater.

When trying to solve a mystery, its always worthwhile to look for a motive. But why would the serial killers in the White House want the National Guard dead? What would their motive be? Killing off regulatory agencies is one thing. But killing off the Guard? That doesn't make any sense -- unless of course you are planning a coup....

PS: "That's the end of your essay?" asked my best critic, my son. "That doesn't make sense. A coup? That's it? Could you be a bit more specific?"

"Okay, here it is, all spelled out. Bush just signed a statement saying that if there was ANY national emergency, then he would seize the reins of the government. But if Bush and/or Cheney did try to seize the government, it's pretty clear that the lower echelons of the military would not support them because, from what I could tell when I was in Iraq this spring, the average American soldier basically thinks that Bush is a joke. However, the desk-jockeys at the Pentagon WOULD support Bush if he decided to take over the government. He gave them their jobs, he pays their salaries, they're his guys. And Bush also has the Blackwater paramilitary mercenaries on his side." I hate spelling stuff out. Too many details! "But Bush and Cheney don't have to worry about the lower echelons of the military, because they are out of the way -- safely shipped off to Iraq . So if Bush does pull a coup, they would not be a factor one way or the other."

"But what does all this have to do with the National Guard?" asked my son.

"They would be America 's protection against a Bush-Cheney coup." And as we learned the hard way during Katrina, the Guard has also been shipped off to Iraq, leaving America alone and clueless. In the library. With Col. Mustard -- and the knife."

PPS: Recently Bush-Cheney henchman Rick Santorum actually made the following statement: "...while it may not be a popular thing to talk about right now, and I know public sentiment is against it, [the current neo-con presidential candidates] understand the importance of the national security of this country, and they also understand that between now and November, a lot of things are going to happen, and I believe that by this time next year, the American public’s going to have a very different view of this war, and it will be because, I think, of some unfortunate events, that like we’re seeing unfold in the UK."

So. Has Santorum inadvertently let it slip that another "national emergency" such as 9-11 is in the planning stage -- one that will create a justification for martial law? Blackwater-style?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Unemployed: The fate of Richmond shipyard's Black Rosie-the-Riveters the week after WW II ended

Recently I went on a tour of the wonderful new "Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park" in Richmond, California. This place is great! "We are trying to gather up America's memories of the war effort on the home front and save them all here for future generations to have access to," said a park ranger as we drove around the National Park Service's newest creation. Sure, this park is different from Yellowstone or Yosemite, but I found it to be as interesting, crucial to the history of America and important to preserve as any other national treasure.

One of the memories carved into the cement walkway of a monument dedicated to the Rosies read, "I'm 83 years old now. I would appreciate if you would check and find out that I was truly there and did my part to the end, and add my name to the women who did their parts also."

The park covers a big chunk of the city of Richmond itself. First we drove past the one-fourth-mile long Ford assembly plant where Rosie-the Riveters churned out tank and Jeep parts for the Pacific Theater. Then we drove over to the drydocks where thousands of ship parts had been put together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. "It took very little time to assemble a ship back then," said Ranger Betty. "The record was set when they assembled one complete ship in just four days and 18 hours. We built 447 ships here." She herself had been part of the original Richmond female workforce back in the 1940s.

We also drove by the USS Red Oak Victory, one of the many ships that had been assembled in the Richmond shipyard. It was now being restored. "And they have a museum on board and a pancake breakfast once a month to raise funds for the restoration." Wow. But are these pancakes genuine original-recipe Home Front pancakes? Or just made from a mix....

We then drove past childcare centers, health clinics, worker cafeterias, warehouses, homes and schools -- a whole city that had been built up around the Richmond shipyard. I looked at all the stuff that we drove by. It was like looking at a living museum. And I was impressed and awed. But two things really brought the whole war effort experience home to me and made it more real.

First, one ranger asked me what I myself remembered about World War II. Me? But I had been only a child.... And then the sight of all this home front memorabilia suddenly caused all these old memories to come flooding back to me and I started babbling. "I remember our victory garden and all the families who lived near the Coronado naval base in the 1940s and my mother and sister and I were part of this wonderful community of women whose husbands were stationed in the Pacific and my mother got a letter every day from my father telling us about Occupied Japan and how he was the first American some Japanese had ever seen and they thought he would have horns and we read his letters and we all thought how wonderful and heroic he was and then he came home and he was MEAN -- and ran our family like we were swabbies on the Bounty and...." And I never got over the memory of my father's nightmares and post-traumatic stress.

Today's military families probably experience the same thing that I did as a child -- you get all those wonderful phone calls from Iraq and you think your daddy is gonna come home and Make It All Better but when he actually does come back, he's got so many post-traumatic stress issues that he can hardly tie his own shoe laces and look for a job let alone be the "Ideal Father".

Second, Ranger Betty told me something that made me stop in my tracks. "During the war, thousands of African-Americans were encouraged to come to Richmond -- and they came here with high expectations, hoping to find the democracy that was forbidden to them back in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma." But unfortunately, segregation was also imported up from the south. "I believe that the great civil rights movement of the 1960s began here in the Richmond, Mare Island and Hunters Point shipyards and in Port Chicago."

But it was still the best of times for American "Negroes". But then the party suddenly stopped. "Henry J. Kaiser was a concrete and steel manufacturer. He was an industrialist, not a social worker. And when the war ended, that was that." And in the course of a week, the salaries and services that had made the Richmond Black community blossom and feel secure totally disappeared. Gone. Zero. Zip. Nothing.

Suddenly, approximately 80,000 African-Americans had no houses, no jobs, no childcare, no healthcare, no income and no backup. And they were stranded in Richmond, thousands of miles away from their roots. The instant disappearance of every single one of their safety nets was a crushing blow to the Black Rosies of Richmond and their families -- one from which the people of today's Richmond, three or four generations later, are still struggling to recover from.

Here we were, driving through the living history of the Richmond shipyard -- then and now. The factories and the monuments and the houses and the dreams from the historical period -- closely woven into the fabric of the desperation and slums of these Black Rosies' descendants -- forming a direct line from back in the day.

And someone else just pointed out to me that the same stagnation that had been suddenly thrust upon the city of Richmond in the weeks after World War II ended was also inflicted upon the Hunters Point shipyard area in San Francisco and around the Mare Island shipyards in Vallejo. And these places to this day are also still struggling with the dehabiltating results.

PS: One of the people on our tour was a historian and he asked me if he could see my father's letters that I had saved all these years. Sure. I was delighted that he was interested. So I went home and dug some of them out. Here's one describing Occupied Japan:

Dear sweeties,

Let's see. I think I told you about my flight to Tokyo. It was rough and I slept most of the way. Japan is beautiful from the air and the land is terraced right down to the water's edge and practically every available piece of land is utilized for something. Another interesting thing from the air are the fish farms. Sections of the ocean are fenced off into little oblong pastures and fish are planted and raised. Pretty cleaver since the ocean feeds them and all the fish farmer has to do is seine them out. These people are terribly poor and scavenge the sea for garbage and crates thrown overboard from the Navy vessels.

Tokyo and Yokohama, as well as other Japanese towns including Wakayama, are leveled masses of rubbish with nothing standing except a few stacks and vaults with safes strewn liberally over the landscape. I'll bet that Japan had as many safes per capita as L. A. has cars. They trust no one and rightly so since they cannot be trusted. In the Tokyo area, thirty miles of desolation stretches from Yokohama to Tokyo. Yet an unescorted sailor or soldier can get on the Tokyo express and ride from one end of Honshu to the other with nothing but polite hisses and bows as his due. Can you imagine a Jap soldier receiving the same treatment has they conquered us?

No one here can understand these people and no one wants to. The crying need and desire is to get the Hell out of here and let them have the place. Let them rebuild by themselves -- punishment enough. But before letting them rebuild, blow up all military and heavy industrial establishments and see to it that they are not rebuilt. Such is the desire of all men here.

Well that just about finishes my travel tour for tonight. Did I tell you about the Jap mimeograph machine I got in Tokyo? I'm going to bring it home as a souvenir -- probably my only one. There is no silk available and what there is sells at prohibitive prices. None of the junk they sell is worth carting home, but I'll get a few trinkets for the kids when I go ashore.

Before I close and go to my sack (a horrible word and too much used), I drink a toast -- of water -- and I love you. Honey, you play nicely with all of your little Friends and be a good girl at school. I'll be home and see you all before you know it.

Love, love and kisses from Daddy

PPS: Here's an e-mail I just received from Ranger Betty, self-described as "the oldest park ranger on the planet". I had written her asking if she would correct any errors in the draft of this essay. Here's her reply:

Great, Jane! Other than the fact that the Ford Assembly Plant is not one-half but one-quarter mile long, the rest is pretty solid. That "four days to assemble and launch a ship" is not quite right, though. Most took longer than that. The record was one ship that was completed in 4 days and 18 hours, I believe, but that was more the exception than the rule.

What Henry J. Kaiser accomplished overall, was the construction of 447 ships in just over four years. He was (as you correctly state) not a social reformer, but an industrialist with the mission to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them. This he did. The implications for the nation's social systems was accidental, but nonetheless powerfully effective in changing patterns of social behavior. What was set in motion by bringing "the South" to this area with all of its prejudices and racial bigotry accelerated social change to warp speed and brought on the next 20 years of tumultuous social change as whites and blacks were forced to confront the contradictions to democracy in a climate of economic and social upheaval created by the home front dynamics.

I'm so glad you came along, Jane. This is such a great story (stories), and we have a chance (through the creation of this national park) to encourage today's folks to go back and re-examine the times and learn from them. This can be "good" regression; to begin to replace the negative regression we're now seeing that is so disturbing. The rolling back of Affirmative Action and the recent Supreme Court decisions on Brown vs. Board of Education suggests the need to do just that.

PPPS: Here's the link to Ranger Betty's video on the role of African-Americans in the Richmond-area war effort: It's called "Lost Conversations".

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I need info about a possibly dangerous HUD policy change toward housing co-ops: My letter to the National Association of Cooperative Housing

Note: If you regularly read my blog, then you probably realize by now exactly how pissed off I am at my local co-op housing board. But I am starting to think that my local mess might actually be part of a bigger picture and I'm exploring the possibilities. HUD used to respond rapidly when things got messy at our co-op. They'd come in and clean things up. They don't do that no more. Why? A subtle way to "let it happen"? And drown the Section 8 program in the bathtub without having to allow a bill through Congress eliminating Section 8?

If I am correct, then HUD could get VERY mad at me however. And this is NOT a good thing.

Here's a letter I wrote to the national housing co-op association. I'll keep you informed as to their reply:

Dear NACH:

I live at Savo Island Cooperative Homes, Inc., located in Berkeley, CA. It is one of many such housing co-ops that were built during the Carter administration. Ours was constructed in 1979.

I think that something is happening here that is beginning to disconcert me regarding HUD's newly-developed indifferent attitude toward several particularly blatantly self-interested actions taken by one or more of our Board members -- and I would like to know if other co-ops are experiencing the same sort of trend.

It appears that HUD's new policy toward our co-op is simply to let bad management practices by our Board of Directors go unchecked.

Here's what is making me suspicious: Approximately 12 years ago, I filed an informal complaint with HUD regarding how Savo Island's Board of Directors was postponing annual elections, moving their relatives into vacant units, breaking the bylaws, not collecting the rent, etc. HUD then took immediate action. Within months after I had filed my complaint and cited my evidence, HUD had staged a major audit of our property, the offending Board members were dressed down and the site manager was fired within 24 hours after the audit was complete. But now these same people are once again back in power at Savo and screwing up worse than ever. And I'm back to complaining to HUD about them once again.

But this time I'm getting a markedly different result.

12 years ago, Savo Island received immediate help from HUD. But now, 12 years later, HUD is doing nothing to help. Same situation, very different outcome.

In the last two years, I have done everything in my power to try and get help from HUD for the same problems Savo had 12 years ago -- as well as some new ones.
I've filed complaints, sent e-mails, left voice-mail messages, written letters, etc. about these new problems that are severely endangering our co-op. Our roofs are leaking, our siding is falling off the building, we have gone through at least 12 management companies and our Board members are only concerned with moving their relatives into the Section 8 units and keeping their own market-rate rents at 1993 levels.

I have practically begged HUD for relief on these issues. And what have been the results of all my efforts? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. N-o-t-h-i-n-g. Why? I keep asking myself why. Why are the results of my complaints so different this time?

Then last week I had an informal conversation with a HUD insider and she basically spelled it out for me. "Jane, you are wasting your time. HUD isn't going to do anything to correct the situation at your co-op. HUD is just waiting around for Savo to emplode." And with the current Board of Directors at the helm, that won't take very long.

"But if Savo goes bankrupt or gets condemned or whatever because the current Board isn't able manage their way out of a paper bag and are so filled with self-interest that they can't even see straight, then what will become of our co-op?"

"What exactly do you think will happen to two city blocks of prime real estate located in an upscale part of the Bay Area?" the HUD insider replied. "Frankly, the land that Savo Island currently occupies is worth a mint. HUD will sell it, the Section 8 residents will be given vouchers and that will be that."

I wonder how many other housing co-ops are going through this same experience now? And is this an informal, "drown it in the bathtub" way to dissolve the HUD Section 8 program without having to go through all the work of having to shove a bill through Congress?

Everyone knows that it is extremely hard to find landlords in the Bay Area who will take vouchers and eventually the vouchers will simply lapse, saving perhaps even billions of dollars for the Bush-Cheney administration -- but without them having to get a formal bill through Congress that would officially de-fund Section 8.

Please let me know if you have noticed if this is a national trend toward letting Section 8 housing co-ops be allowed to decay due to an informal laissez faire policy by HUD. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How I survived my 65th birthday: Dinner at Chez Pannise!

Good grief! Who would ever have thought that I would make it all the way to age 65 without accumulating grey hair, arthritis, a walker or a plot in the cemetery. I'm all proud of myself. But just to make sure that this landmark birthday was tolerable and that I didn't slip into shock anyway, I splurged and treated myself to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world -- Chez Panisse!

Me, my son Joe, his significant other Laura, their unborn Baby New Year and my youngest daughter Ashley all trooped off to the restaurant. Here's the menu:

Monday, July 2 $50

-- Little gems lettuces, golden beets, and house-cured pancetta
with herb vinaigrette
-- Poulet à la broche: Soul Food Farm chicken stuffed with garlic
and sage; with green beans, savory, and corn custard
-- Royal Blenheim apricot tart with noyau ice cream

My birthday was actually July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, but they were closed on that day so on July 2, we got all dressed up fancy (I was actually NOT wearing jeans), popped into Joe's car and drove across town. And what happened next was both magical and weird.

First off, it turns out that we knew the waitress. She had gone to school with my daughter Ashley and they had been in the same school play during sixth grade at Willard Middle School. Then we all gushed about the good old days for a while and how sad it had been when their drama teacher, the wonderful denise brown, had died suddenly. Then the waitress brought us shot glasses full of something white and creamy. "What is it?" I asked.

"Cucumber, yogurt, cumin, coriander and olive oil."

"But what's that crunchy taste?" Our waitress called over the salad chef to explain it to us. And he actually came to our freaking table!

"It's konjai -- black mustard seeds." Then we got the actual salad. And we gushed about that. Chez Panisse can make a WICKED salad and they are famous for them -- justly so.

"Hey, this stuff on top tastes like bacon bits," said Ashley. We asked the salad chef what it was.


"What's that?"

"Bacon bits." And the baby tomatoes were so actually tomato-ish that it brought back memories of the days when a tomato actually tasted like a tomato. The vinaigrette was excellent. The beets gave it a taste variety. Every salad needs a variety of textures and tastes.

"Hey," said Joe, "There's an aphid on my plate!" Then we all took a look at the aphid and sure enough there it was, happily crawling around on the edge of the plate. Joe got out his video camera and videotaped it. Ashley whipped out her cell phone and took its picture. Then we watched it do laps around the edge of the plate. It seemed to want to determinedly trudge on forever but by its third lap we got bored.

Do you think that we should tell the waitress?" I asked.

"No," replied Joe. "It just proves that the lettuce was organic."

"Maybe that's where the crunchy taste came from," added Ashley. We all rolled our eyes.

Then Joe and I split a glass of excellent red wine. In very fine glassware. "This is is even as good as 2-buck Chuck!" I exclaimed. Laura wanted to taste a sip too but we all yelled "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome!" at her and rolled our eyes. Again. Major eye rolls are a Stillwater family tradition.

"But I only wanted a sip," said Laura who is actually a totally conscientious pregnant person. Oh okay. The wine was good and the salad had a good after-taste and the bread was good and the butter was better.

"Do you want still water or sparkling water with your dinner," asked the waitress.

"Stillwater!" we all replied. Meanwhile Ashley was eye-ing the steak knife. "This is a really good knife." But we persuaded her not to steal the silverware. Then they brought us the main course.

"The green beans are perfect and the corn custard is to die for but the chicken is not all that good," I said.

"Ma, you have been expecting too much from that chicken," replied Joe philosophically. "That's just the nature of chicken. It's hard to mess it up but its also hard to make it really good either. It's the dynamic, Ma. Chicken can only be taken so far." Chicken dynamics? Okay. But the sage leaves under the skin gave it lots of flavor and the sauce was good. Chicken dynamics?

In the meantime, Ashley was DETERMINED to try to eat her drumstick with her new friend the knife. But not me. I wanted easy access to every bite of that chicken. This was a fifty-dollar chicken! To hell with the knife.

"Would you like coffee or sherry with your dessert?" asked our waitress. Do you have to pay extra for it? "Yes." Sigh. I bet they make really good coffee but we were already over the budget on the wine. And Ashley then informed us that 10% of everything we drink gets backwashed. Eeuuww.

Ah! The dessert. With a candle in mine to celebrate my birthday. I made my usual wish, the old Buddhist favorite, "May all beings attain the Pure Land in this lifetime." Apricot tart. Handmade ice cream. Yes yes yes. Then, for a thoughtful final touch, the waitress brought us a small plate of wild strawberries and pistachios rolled in cocoa paste. We almost ate them all up before we remembered to get a photo of them. The bill came to $263 but we had saved up. You only turn 65 once.

"So. Guys. Which was your favorite part of the meal?" I asked. "I truly loved the salad and thought it was the highlight -- with the possible exception of the aphid."

"Why you all the time hatin' on the aphid!" said Ashley. Her favorite part was the salad too. Everyone agreed that the salad was primo.

"And I liked the tart," added Joe. "It had a good aftertaste." And just as we were walking down the steps to the garden in front of Chez Panisse, our waitress came running after us and gave us all a hug. "Happy birthday!" It was the perfect ending to a perfect birthday dinner. And as we left, a fire truck and ambulance came roaring out of the night and parked next to the restaurant. "Do you think they are going to Chez Panisse?" I asked.

"If they are", someone replied, "that would be giving a whole new meaning to the term 'food to die for'!" We all laughed. The food had certainly been heavenly. Except for the chicken. But Shhh! Don't tell Joe.

PS: Ashley accidentally deleted all the pictures she had taken of the dinner so I'll try to get Joe to put his video of our gourmet celebration on YouTube -- especially the part with the aphid race.

PPS: Here are photos of somebody else's dinner at Chez Panisse, just to give you an idea (But they didn't get to have any gourmet aphids like we did):

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Bachelor--Baghdad: Why 12 determined women want to marry this man!

Remember that television series called The Bachelor? First there was the Bachelor--Paris. Then there was The Bachelor--Rome. Well, the producers of this show need to seriously consider having next season's episode entitled "The Bachelor--Baghdad". It'd be an instant overnight success. Why? Because the women of Baghdad would go NUTS to be on this show.

I can see the commercial for it now. "Stay tuned for the next exciting season of The Bachelor when we travel to Baghdad to meet 12 beautiful ladies, all competing for the heart of one man." Then the camera pans to 12 of the most beautiful, intelligent, personable, charming women anyone has ever laid eyes on.

Next the camera gives us a close-up of The Bachelor--Baghdad. Yuck! The guy has pimple scars. The guy is a nerd. And what's more, he's missing half an ear and his left foot! What gives? Apparently after all those hunky Middle Eastern guys who looked like Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, Kaysar from Big Brother All-Stars and Sayid on Lost were killed off by Shock and Awe, by the civil war in Iraq, by various insurgents, militias, religious nuts and local mafia dons and by the "Surge", this guy is practically all that is left. "We tried to find a hottie for this role," said the producer, "but honestly. In all of Iraq, there are almost no men still left alive and in one piece between the age of 13 and 45! Casting was a bitch."

However, what this show may be missing in manly qualities, it more than makes up for in babes. "They have killed off so many of our men over here," morned Fatima, a college graduate with a post-doc in brain surgery and winner of the Miss Congeniality trophy from the latest Miss Universe contest, "that we women are DESPERATE. Our biological clocks are ticking away and there is only one man left for every 25 women in Iraq! Women follow men down the street around here. Even the sperm banks are mobbed. My mother tells me that I HAVE to get married in order to fulfill the customs of my country. But to whom? And how?"

Luckily, The Bachelor--Baghdad is now offering these women some hope that at least one of them will finally find a man. Good for them. Let the games begin. But should we make the ground rules for the women of this show be the same as the ground rules that almost everyone else in Iraq seem to be following? "You are allowed to use torture, depleted uranium, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Strykers, IEDs, F-16s, beheadings, car bombs, electric drills, Blackhawks, spy drones, knee-capping and sniper attacks, ladies. However, suicide vests will not be allowed." Sorry about that. Sometimes the truth hurts -- but suicide vests are SO hard to accessorize!

I've got a good suggestion. "Everyone needs to stop killing off the young men of the Middle East!" Duh. No more assassinating Palestinians. No more dropping bombs on Afghans. No more shooting at, blowing up and/or beheading Iraqis. Please, guys! Give the women of the Middle East a chance!

And here's a hot recommendation for next season's episode: The Bachelor--China! Join in the excitement as 12 lucky ladies from Baghdad travel to rural western China where the ratio of males to females is rumored to be as high as 100 to one!