Friday, November 30, 2007

Survivor Puerto Vallarta: I need advice on how to survive 16 days on a beach!

Every morning when I wake up, I say to myself, "What kind of good deeds can I do today?" And then I run through all the various possibilities in my mind. And those possibilities end up taking me off on the weirdest adventures. How the freak do you think I ended up in Iraq? Or as the world's most un-read blogger? Or a woman whose mission is to put Bush and Cheney in jail? Or even to attempt to be nice to my idiot neighbors and have patience with my greedy older sister (I totally FAILED on that assignment! Sorry about that. That woman just needs bitch-slapping. Nothing else will do).

My goal in life is to do at least one good deed a day -- as well as one half-hour of housework. I can do that. I got a timer now. I clean house like crazy until the bell goes off. But I digress.

"Life is a competition. The winners are the ones who do the most good deeds." I gotta win that competition! Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa are WAY ahead of me! I gotta catch up. If I could end world violence, get rid of nuclear weapons, lift the siege of Gaza, stop the politicized rape of women (or ALL rape for that matter), throw greedy lying connivers like Bush and Cheney in jail where they could spend quality time repenting their sins, put a monkey-wrench in globalization, end racism and genocide, give Iraqi farmers all rights to the oil under their feet and end global warming, I'd win the prize. For sure!

But in the meantime, I'm not doing so good. My get-up-and-go has got up and gone. And this morning the only good deed I could think of to do was to water the plants. "Jane, you need a vacation!" Iraq and that month spent in a former bantustan in South Africa weren't enough? "No, you need a REAL vacation." Who me? "Here's a special offer to fly to Puerto Vallarta for only $198. Think, Jane. Puerto Vallarta. Beaches. Tacos. Nightlife. Just DO it." So I did. I actually bought the freaking plane ticket.

Now what have I done?

Are there going to be any opportunities to do good deeds in Puerto Vallarta? And where do I stay? And what do I eat? I'm leaving December 4 and coming back December 20 and I've got $300 in my bank account and a sleeping bag. DOES ANYBODY OUT THERE HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS? I can sleep on the beach. I can eat tacos off the vendor carts. I can try to help out the Huitchol indians or work with the people who live in the city dump or offer a helping hand to the drunken tourists who get lost hopping between bars. I can walk instead of taking taxis. I can swim in the ocean instead of taking a bath. BUT WHERE DO I PEE!

Stay tuned for the first episode of "Survivor Puerto Vallarta"!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Regarding Stillwater v. Savo Island: Further proof of Board bias and an appeal for redress (Sorry, fellow blog readers, but sometimes I just gotta vent!)

Regarding my fair housing reasonable accommodation complaint against Savo Island Board members (B), (M), (H), (H2), (C) and (E) [aka the Board], I would like to point out yet another incident wherein this Board has demonstrated a consistent pattern of prejudice against me due to my status as a whistle-blower.

For approximately the last 11 years, the Board has demonstrated an obvious pattern of bias against me because of my activities as a whistle-blower. Due to this repeated pattern of prejudice and intimidation, I've learned the hard way to never bring matters of importance to me before this Board directly. At this time, I would like to offer an apology for my behavior but also to offer an explanation for why I have been forced to behave in this manner.

I cite the following incident as a small but typical example of how my behavior has been affected by the Board: At Savo Island's November 2007 Board meeting, I wanted to ask the Board if they would consider changing the December meeting date from the week before Christmas to the week after Christmas -- a reasonable request. But due to my feelings of personal intimidation by Board members in the past, I asked another Board member to make this request for me. However, that Board member did not come to the meeting and I was forced to ask for this option myself. The request was not even considered by the Board.

Had any other Board member made the request it most likely would have been acted upon immediately. For example, when (B) wanted to go to New Orleans before Thanksgiving, our November Board meeting was easily postponed unilaterally by (M), ostensibly on the grounds that there would not be a quorum available -- yet (M) apparently hadn't asked any other Board members if they would be available on the original meeting date. Apparently (M) acted unilaterally -- and was deceptive regarding his reason for such actions -- in order to accommodate (B). Yet the Board seemed not able to make a fairly similar decision to accommodate me.

This incident is just one small example of how this Board has acted consistently in a prejudiced manner against me and how their actions have consistently followed a pattern of bias against me -- even when the Board's actions are not in the co-op's best interests. And I am bringing this incident to your attention at this point in time to illustrate that, while I have sometimes acted in a manner over-stressing self-defense while dealing with this Board's actions against me, I am still routinely prejudiced against due to my whistle-blower status -- and that I am still, under law, entitled to HUD's review, reconsideration and redress regarding said actions by the Board.

In 2001, after enduring approximately five years of being consistently prejudiced against and attacked by this Board -- see attached timeline -- wherein my rent was raised illegally, I was tormented in Board meetings, I was fired from my position as Board recording secretary and threatened with eviction and even jail, I -- perhaps imprudently -- decided to ask for a loan to install a property-enhancing and disability-relieving window in my unit instead of asking for the window itself; knowing full well that I wouldn't get permission to install said window. I assumed from the Board's past behavior patterns that they wouldn't grant me this window, necessary because of my Seasonal-Affective-Disorder-related disability, solely on the grounds that it was me that was asking for it and not a member of the Board in-group. But I figured that the Board might possibly grant me a loan clearance and that would be a first step. I was wrong!

After presenting a detailed proposal and specifications for a possible window to the Board and then requesting a reasonable loan, the Board spent approximately an hour telling me why I should not get the loan and enumerating all the various personality flaws that they thought I possessed.

However, never in the course of that hour did the Board take the time and trouble to tell me that my window plan was unsatisfactory in any way, that I could not install the window or that I needed Board approval to install the window, leaving me with the impression that it was me that the Board objected to -- not the window or even the loan. So when I received an income tax refund, I had the window installed according to the specifications that I had presented to the Board.

Currently, the fate of my window is in the hands of a HUD Fair Housing investigation based on the Board's repeated denial of my documented reasonable accommodation requests. And apparently HUD itself is objecting to my window on the grounds that the Board had not approved its original installation.

HUD is basically saying that, no matter what, I shouldn't have put in the window without the Board's permission. But what I am saying is that I wish that HUD would reconsider the circumstances wherein that I made the decision to go ahead and install that window and, instead of telling me to destroy the window, look into the allegedly self-interested conduct and actions of the Board that drove me to act in this way. I am a good co-op member and would never even think of breaking co-op rules if I hadn't been driven to it -- and been given such glaring examples by this Board regarding breaking co-op rules (such as canceling elections for three years, giving lateral transfers to family members, circumventing downsizing, etc.) and their own tendency to bypass Board approval when it benefits one of them, such as the time a Board member's grown child was illegally moved into a unit without the Board's approval.

Another reason why I am appealing for redress at this time is because of another incident at the November 2007 Board meeting wherein the Board once again demonstrated their bias against me, and I would like to put this incident on record here as well.

With regard to Savo Island's re-hab project, this Board has apparently managed to stall it off for six (6) long years because apparently certain Board members didn't want their market-rate rents to go up. But now that two formerly market-rate members have made it known that they are currently on Section 8 vouchers instead, keeping rents as low as $700 below rent averages for this area seems to no longer be a matter of self-interest for them and so the log jam stopping the re-hab from happening has suddenly broken and another contractor has actually been selected.

After finally selecting a contractor, the Board's next step in getting the re-hab online again should have been to approve an Occupancy Agreement by December 6, 2007, but the Board balked at approving it because they allegedly hadn't had a chance to read the few new changes made to it over a month ago. So in order to move things along and get the re-hab back on track, I made a motion that the Board approve the agreement at the November 28 meeting with the provision that we retain the right to amend it at some future time.

My motion was not even seconded.

Within approximately five minutes of my motion having failed, (B) then proposed the exact same motion -- and it was seconded and passed. The difference between the two motions? None -- except that I had made the first one and (B) had made the second one.

Wherefore, I would like it duly noted by HUD that this Board has shown a consistent pattern of prejudice against me and that I would like the following redress:

1. That HUD experts investigate the stability of my window and, if their findings reveal that its presence is not causing structural damage, that said window be approved as a reasonable accommodation;

2. That instances of Board members taking actions without Board approval and in their own self-interest be investigated;

3. That a thorough investigation of this Board's harassment against me -- including five (5) executive sessions they have called in order to attempt to silence my whistle-blowing activities -- be instigated and that the Board be instructed in writing to cease and desist, without further retaliations;

4. And that each Board member be issued written directions from HUD that as Board members they must cease and desist from acting in their own self-interest and act in the interests of the co-op alone -- or else resign their positions.

I will be expecting to hear from HUD representatives regarding this matter no later than January 2, 2008 or I will be forced to consider legal action in order to protect both myself and the co-op.

Very truly yours,
Jane Stillwater, Savo Island Cooperative Homes, Inc. Board Member

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tales from behind the counter at the mall: Generation X-Box speaks up!

Geez Louise! Jobwise, things have really changed from when I was a twenty-something. Back then you got out of school, you looked for a job, you got a job and then you hung on to it for dear life. Well, actually, I didn't -- but other people did. Back in the 1960s, you could work for three months, save a bunch of money and go spend the winter in Mexico. But my friends held down their jobs like their lives depended on it. But, hey, I was ahead of my time.

Back in the 1960s, the pay was so high and the expenses so low that I could work a summer job for three months and make enough money to put myself through a whole year of graduate school with what I had earned. The tuition at UC Berkeley back then was $150 a year and my rent was $45 a month. And I lived on carrots, snack crackers and cheese and my biggest expense was my textbooks. Ah, Berkeley in the 1960s. I've never had so much fun before or since! But I digress.

Recently I talked with various young adults between the ages of 20 and 25 (aka Generation X-Box) about their employment situations. "What is the job market like?" I asked, being all into my deep-seated fears for the economy and all that. "Are you having trouble finding a job?" No, actually, they were not. Their answers really surprised me.

"I went to four job interviews at the mall last week," replied one of my research subjects. "And every one of them offered me a job." All of them? Really? And he rattled off a list of potential employers. The Gap. Old Navy. American Eagle. Adidas. Forever 21. Apparently these companies are always on the look-out for new employees who are young and hip and charming and can easily sell the product because of their looks. This guy fit the bill. He was a babe-magnet. If you're not a babe-magnet, I suppose you need not apply but still... Jobs are just right out there for the asking? Amazing. Retail sales must be doing better than I thought.

But maybe this guy's experience wasn't typical so I interviewed someone else and got the same sort of answer. "I found a job at the mall six months ago with no problem. Then I worked for two months, slept on my friend's couch, quit that job, took two months off and then found another job." Amazing. No fear of job security at all!

"And what did you do between jobs?"

"I played Guitar Hero." Oh. "And smoked Newports. And drank a lot of Bacardi." Hey, that's better than doing nothing at all or joining a gang. And way better than Camels and Colt 45.

The third person I talked with did NOTHING all day. I mean NO - THING. How did he support himself? His parents. And some chick that he had picked up on MySpace. But this guy was the exception. Most of the Generation X-Box types that I talked with didn't want to sponge off of parents or girlfriends. They wanted JOBS. Jobs at the mall. They just didn't want jobs at the mall all the time. And they DEFINITELY didn't want jobs that interfered with their social life. But they did want jobs.

Then I interviewed some Gen X-Box gangbangers. Like the do-nothing guy, they didn't want jobs at all either. But I think that they too were exceptions. And I also interviewed some young go-getters who had gotten 110% on their SAT scores and were ready to put their noses to the grindstone for the rest of their lives or save the planet or something. But they weren't mainstream either.

Based on my sociological samples, it seems to me that Generation X-Box is into retail sales -- they want to work at the malls where they grew up. And retail mall outlets are into hiring them too, even if it's only for a few weeks or a few months. The retailers, from what I've heard, expect this sort of behavior, know that Gen X-Box has a limited attention span from watching too many sound bites on TV, and the retailers run their hiring programs accordingly. They conduct group interviews, hire en mass and treat their fledgling employees like cattle. But if you are young, hip and eye-candy for the opposite sex, you can apparently always find a job. And a couch to surf on. And life is good.

What's my moral here? That Generation X-Box is doing just fine. But I'm a bit worried about Generation X-Box in ten or twenty years from now when they are all puffy-eyed and paunchy and the retailers of all those flashy, trendy clothes don't want them no more because they got a whole new generation coming up behind this one to chose from.

What will happen to Generation X-Box when they are no longer in style? I don't know. But as a mother and grandmother, it is my job to worry about them. "Stick with one job, son," I keep telling them. "And take care of your health!" But did I do that when I was their age? Heck no. But if I had, my Social Security check would probably be more than $317 a month. But then I wouldn't have so many outrageous memories either. You gotta consider the trade-offs.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Family battles: They're like the Middle East wars in microcosm....

"I want to go back to the Middle East where there is peace and quiet!" I said. I can deal with people shooting at me. I just can't deal with my family! When someone tries to blow you up, you have a pretty good idea how they feel about you. But one never really knows what is going on in the hearts and minds of family members, does one?

In Gaza, the Israeli neo-cons are practicing what Augustin Velloso calls, "The Final Solution in slow motion". I'd love to go to Gaza. I could report on that. No problem. Anyone who systematically deprives women and children of food and medicine as part of a national governmental policy is a bad guy. The distinction is clear.

If you blow up women and children on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, you're a bad guy. End of discussion. I can wrap my brain around that.

And in Iraq, anyone who steals oil money, explodes a car bomb or kills women and children obviously has been going to bad-guy school.

But when it comes to spotting the enemy inside of one's own family, I'm lost. And I've always been lost. When my father got back from World War II with post-traumatic stress disorder and had nightmares for years, we loved him anyway even though he put us through hell.

When my older sister beat me up regularly, whose fault was that? Hers or mine? Maybe I was a brat? After all, she got good grades in school and had a freaking paper route. And after she grew up, this self-same older sister refused to sign the papers allowing me to bury my father until I promised to tell her how much money my father left her in his will -- even though she had refused to speak to him for the last seven years because he re-married. "If you marry HER, who will put my children through college," she whined.

When my mother and father lived together in the same small house for most of my childhood and didn't speak to each other all those years, whose side should I choose? Thanksgiving dinners were hell.

Then my middle daughter decided out of the blue that I was no longer worthy of seeing my granddaughter again. How can one deal with THAT?

On the homefront, we have family wars that are like the Middle East in microcosm -- only it's really hard to see who the real enemy is or who is trying to hurt you. One only knows that for some reason something inside of you is bleeding. And you don't know how to call a truce.

Send me back to the Middle East. Please! I can deal with all that. It's the family battles that seem to have no light at the end of the tunnel.

I can understand and deal with "war". It's a guy thing -- like football. I just can't understand and deal with my family!

PS: Feel free to donate to my "Return to Iraq" fund by going to PayPal at, clicking on "Send Money" and entering in the right box. I need to get some peace and quiet right now and Baghdad just might be the answer.

PPS: Here is a photo of my favorite family members.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

American Gangsta: Selling gold to our mothers & heroin to our kids

Just exactly how far will corporations go these days to make a buck? Sell deadly DDT to Africa on the pretext that it stamps out malaria when they know full well that it doesn't? Go for it. Drive America into bankruptcy by importing cheap stuff from Asia? Sure, why not. Market various wars in order to sell guns to the Pentagon? Okay by them. Profit is king. The sky is the limit. But we already know all that. That is old news.

But in these times of economic decline -- the dollar has dropped 63% in value in the last few years -- I want to focus here on something different and new. "Just exactly how far will a desperate American public go these days in order to save a few cents?" Pretty darn far. Yesterday, your intrepid reporter Jane went under cover to do some on-the-street research.

Borrowing some Calvin Klein sunglasses and an American Eagle hoodie from the teenager next door and wearing my fake aluminum foil grills, I headed off to Hilltop Mall and scored bigtime. Bootleg DVDs! They ain't arresting Halliburton for committing multi-billion-dollar fraud against us taxpayers, but boy will they get on your case if you buy bootleg DVDs! Even as we speak, I'm sitting here trembling down to my bunny slippers in fear that the FBI is gonna bust down my door just for writing this down!

"Psst! Do you gots any...." Yes! And then the dude sold me the bootleg DVD of American Gangsta for a five-spot. My bad.

"The greatest city in the world is turning into a sewer. Everyone is wheeling and dealing...." screamed the hero in charge of wiping out drugs.

Some bootleg DVDs suck eggs, but this copy was good. So I sat back and watched Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe do their thing and clean up the heroin trade. Hey, I'm all inspired. I want to go clean up the heroin trade too!

Where to start? I know! I'll get an informant. "You wanna know about hop?" said my informant. "I ain't gonna tell you. They'd kill me." But then I bribed the kid with some left-over Hallowe'en candy and he spilled.

"No one used to do hop" -- heroin -- "on the street. Everyone used to do crack. But now everyone on the street's doing hop."


"Because it's cheap." Because it's cheap? Our babies are doing the hard stuff now -- because it's cheap? Hmmm. American children are doing whatever it takes to make their lunch money stretch through the week? Good to know. And exactly why is heroin so cheap nowadays? Ask our President [sic]. He'll tell you. There's a bumper crop of opium in Afghanistan this year.

"No child left behind."

And while we're still on the subject of the American economy, let's talk about gold. I'm a mom. I got one hundred dollars saved. I want to leave it as a legacy for my children. But with the dollar descending into the basement like a freight elevator at Macy's, maybe I should protect my investment and save it in gold instead of dollars? Sure why not. So I trotted down to the local gold seller to see how much gold I could get for $100. Well he TRIED not laugh.

"I can sell you a half-ounce Panda for $450." Are you telling me that for $100 I could only purchase ONE-EIGHTH of an ounce? You gotta be kidding. "Hey, these are hard times. The dollar's value is sinking so rapidly that I just had someone tell me that he tried to have CitiBank wire a money transfer to his bank and the bank refused to take it." It refused to take a wire transfer from CITIBANK? Why?

"Many banks are refusing to take wire transfers these days because when a transfer fails, it takes three weeks for them to get their money back from the Federal insurance program and that means that a bank loses three weeks of interest while they are waiting around to get reimbursed. All too many banks are experiencing major cascading cross defaults right now and you don't know which banks to trust so you trust none of them." I didn't know that.

"Maybe you might consider buying silver instead of gold," said the guy. Okay. What you got?

"You can get one Troy ounce of silver for $18." So I bought five silver coins. Hurray! My children's inheritance is protected. Their future is secured!

Or is it?

When I got home, I was listening to the radio and some other guy started telling me, "From core ice samples in Greenland, scientists have determined that the last ice age began when the temperature dropped 15 degrees in one decade." 15 degrees? "Yep. 15 degrees. And that sudden drop didn't allow that decade's winter snows to melt over the length of the summers and the permafrost kept stacking up all over the world so that the last Ice Age came about suddenly -- within the course of ten years!" Really? "Yeah. Really." And all this happened even without the help of greenhouse gases! It looks like silver -- or even gold -- ain't gonna help my children when that happens.

"So what should we do?"

"Stock up on canned food. Store up on firewood. Buy a warm coat." Hey, at least he didn't tell me to stock up on heroin.
  • PS: Here is a photo of the type of Ice Age that you don't want to avoid: Ciao Bella gelato! One of my daughters works there. And they gots a new pumpkin pie flavor to die for!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving and a photo of Pumpkin Pie taken near Baghdad....

Here is a photo of the Camp Stryker dining facility's famous pumpkin pie. Being naturally a pessimist, I tend to look toward the dark side of life and have to constantly keep reminding myself to look out for some of the things that we need to be truly thankful for -- such as a good book, enough food to keep us healthy and...PUMPKIN PIE!

Special "Why Bother?" issue of my housing co-op newsletter (and why endangering Section 8 is a bad thing)

"Jane," said a fellow resident of Savo yesterday, "you haven't put out any newsletters lately. What's up with that?"

I guess it's just my new "Why Bother" attitude. I just got back from spending three weeks in Iraq embedded in Al Ambar province with the Marines. We were in Haditha, out in the middle of nowhere, sleeping on cots, living in bunkers, without even a latrine. Eating goat with the sheiks and sitting in smoke-filled rooms with Iraqi Army generals trying to keep the momentum for peace talks going on. Coming back to Savo after that and listening to Savo Board members bicker over how they can keep their market-rate rents down at the expense of the co-op, move themselves around between units, get maintenance to do favors for them and plot out new and better ways to mess with me? It all just seems so petty. "Why bother."

Last month, six whole years after I installed a window in my unit, a Board member actually went down to the City of Berkeley permit office and turned me in for not having a building permit! So I took all the necessary papers down to the permit office and told them that I hadn't realized that I needed a permit to install a residential window. They said they would give me a retroactive permit, end of problem. But then at the very end of the process, they discovered that I didn't own the building -- the Board did. So they fined the Board for not having the permit. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, guys. Now Savo has to pay for the permit and the fine. And the Board still wants to shingle over my window. And it's been almost a year since I filed my fair-housing suit regarding said window and we are still getting it mediated but HUD says I'm not allowed that window because the Board didn't approve it. Of course they didn't approve it! Since when has the Board approved anything that didn't directly benefit them????

"Why bother."

Another resident is thinking about applying for a lateral transfer here at Savo due to disability needs. "But Jane, that's illegal according to the bylaws." Nope. Not any more. The Board set a new precedence when it voted to allow one Board member to score a lateral transfer even in spite of the bylaws. So now if they allow a Board member to have a lateral transfer but deny one to you, then you have grounds for a lawsuit. What's with this Board? They apparently can vote themselves lateral transfers and all kinds of other perks yet they won't vote to allow me to have a window installed or approved? "Why bother."

The November Board meeting was just postponed because, according to a notice they sent out, "there wasn't a quorum". But nobody I talked with on the Board had been asked if they could make the meeting or not. But it turns out that the meeting had actually been postponed because one Board member had wanted to go off to New Orleans that week. But this is actually good news. This Board member had been so disabled previously that she had required a new disabled unit and now she could go off jet-setting. Thank goodness for this Board member's miraculous recovery! Hey, I'm disabled too. Should I get a disabled unit also? "Why bother."

You shoulda gone to the last Board meeting. Lots of yelling and screaming. Good grief! And one Board member actually had the nerve to complain that new residents at Savo don't want to attend the meetings? WHY BOTHER.

As for status of our re-hab? At the last Board meeting, they were actually discussing the need to find a new contractor. At this late date? And at the meeting before that, they were arguing because we haven't paid our new project manager, who is threatening to quit in disgust. The re-hab was scheduled to be completed in 2003. But guess what? We're no closer now than we were back in 2001. And I hear that the bank is fining us for the delay and possibly even planning to back out of the loan. I guess that they too figure, "Why bother."

And at the September meeting I made a motion to raise market-rate rents based on recommendations from HUD and our latest management company, but nobody even seconded it even though Savo is deeply in debt. Apparently the market-rate Board members don't want their rents going up so the rest of us will just have to suffer. Should we complain about the roofs when they leak this winter and there is no money to fix them and we have to use black plastic garbage bags to cover the leaks? "Why bother."

And other Board members who receive Section 8 are over-housed at HUD's expense but do said Board members volunteer to downsize so that other families who desperately need housing here at Savo can move in? No. "Why bother."

And I just got an e-mail from a HUD expert who said, "One other thing I heard is that the co-op has failed the last two HUD inspections. This is not good. It puts HUD in a position where they feel something needs to be done. As far as I know, the only thing HUD could actually do to punish the co-op is to eliminate the Section 8. That would be a disaster to the lower-income residents but who seems to care?" Actually the market-rate Board members seem to care a lot. From what I have heard at Board meetings, they would just LOVE to see Savo lose Section 8 -- so that they could tell all their friends that they now live in garden apartments and not in "The Projects". How embarrassing that must be! Everyone in America knows that status is more important than helping low-income working families avoid homelessness. Without Section 8, America would look like some third-world shanty-town country overnight. But why bother worrying about that.

So. As you can see, nothing I say or do at the Board meetings or in my newsletters makes any difference. The Board members keep on doing exactly what they want to do with Savo Island no matter what I say or do. Hence the lack of a newsletter these past few months. "Why bother."

PS: I'm still looking for someplace to house-sit. I've gotten lots of wonderful offers but I'm looking to house-sit someplace that's WARM! And has lots of windows....

PPS: The photo above shows an example of the type of outfit one should wear when planning to attend a meeting of our Board.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Does Madam Jane predict future disaster?: Call me at 1-800-AFTER-THE-FALL

Recently I hung out with some members of an Oakland street gang and read their palms. Much to my surprise, most of them had really long lifelines. Apparently even members of Oakland street gangs have long futures in front of them. Except maybe Marcus. And Andre. And.... But the rest of them are pretty much good to go. This is really good news!

Why am I so delighted about this? Because lately I've been extremely pessimistic about the signs I'm seeing everywhere regarding what is gonna happen next for the human race -- and not just to Oakland street gangs. To me the freaking future has been looking really bleak. There seems no way that we can avoid another world-wide Great Depression. The dollar is in a tailspin. According to Chuck Butler at Kitco's Dailly Pfennig, banks across the world are now struggling with negative balance sheets. "Here's the roster of writedowns this week, and this week alone... HSBC $3.4 billion, Bank of America $3.3 billion, Bear Stearns $1.2 billion, and Barclays $2.7 billion... UBS is rumored to announce a $7 billion writedown, when they do get around to announcing..."

And one of my hipper friends just informed me, "I heard that Brazilian supermodel Gisele has refused to get paid in dollars and is insisting on getting paid in euros instead." That's scary. "And in his new rap video, Jay-Z is flashing a large stack of euros instead of a large stack of dollars." Okay. The dollar is going down. Depression is on its way and it won't be the kind that you can just medicate with Prozac. Got that.

We also now have a leader in the White House whose only goal in life apparently is to make himself the world's first trillionaire at the taxpayers' expense and to blow up as many people as possible in the process. Will he blow up you and me too? Follow his pattern so far. Logically, the answer to that one is "Yes".

Regarding education, things are also looking bleak. Are you gonna be able to afford to send your little cutie-pie off to college? Probably not. The dumbing-down of America is well under way -- not to mention the dumbing-down of Africa and the Middle East. That is already a done deal. You don't need a palm reader to know that. Will there be ANYONE left by the year 2050 who can even read and write? Well, maybe a few. For example, a few people could still read and write during the Middle Ages. Some monks in monasteries or something like that.

Healthwise? OMG. Don't even get me started on that one. And I'm not just talking about sucky insurance plans either. I'm talking about plagues and radiation poisoning and stuff like that. Bad stuff. Let's change the subject.

And did I already mention war? There'll be lots of war in the future. Wars on every continent. Wars on every block. Good grief! The shoot-out has once again become our dispute-resolution tool of choice. And it will only get worse.

And no oil. Everyone knows there will soon be no oil. That's a given. And pollution and global warming competing with global cooling. "The Earth is hurtling toward a warmer climate at a quickening pace," according to a recent Nobel-Prize-winning U.N. report that warned of "inevitable human suffering and the threat of extinction for some species." And the seas rise and weather becomes totally freaky and the carbon rate in the air gets higher than it's safe to breathe and we're all be just riding bicycles -- if we're lucky. Whew!

Madam Jane predicts that there are a million ways that the human race, both collectively and individually, are gonna be in Big Trouble in the next few decades. "But Jane, is there any GOOD news?" Yeah sure. According to a book I'm reading right now, microbes will be able to survive. Did you know that there are microbes that can live in nuclear waste, seven miles under water and in the vents of volcanoes? No matter what happens to humans in the the future, at least we know that MICROBES are good to go.

"But Jane, will the human race be totally wiped out?"

Surprisingly no. Like what will happen to the gang members of Oakland, there WILL be loses -- but not all of us will be Going Down. Madam Jane makes the following prediction: "Somehow a lot of us will somehow manage to get through all of this chaos in one piece." How? I don't know. And what will life be like for us humans in a decade or two? More than likely, things will be just horrible -- Americans living like aborigines or cavemen while dreaming of Paradise Lost. But what's my point? Some of us will still be alive.

And where there's life there's hope.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pilgrims' progress?: Do Iraqis feel safe enough to go on Hajj this year?

When I was in Iraq last month, I came up with this brilliant idea for determining a barometer of just how stable the situation in Iraq is by checking out how many people actually felt safe and comfortable enough to attempt to go on Hajj this year.

For those of you who are asking yourselves, "What in the world is Hajj?" it is a holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca at a certain time each year wherein perspective Hajjis follow the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) by circling around the Kaabah, spending a day on the Plain of Arafat, spending a night at Muzdalifah, camping out at Mina and throwing stones at the devil at the Jammarat. To be considered a Hajji or a Hajja, one has to complete all these tasks during a specific time in the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Completing Hajj is one of the five sacred requirements of Islam. This year's Hajj, if I have interpreted Google correctly, is scheduled to take place between approximately December 8 and December 29, 2007.

Two years ago, there were hardly any Iraqis going on Hajj. According to one Iraqi Hajja I talked with, "Iraq at that time was a nightmare. We couldn't even leave our houses -- let alone go all the way to Mecca. When I went that year, there were very few other Iraqis on Hajj. It just wasn't safe."

Last year, Hajjis from Iraq had a really hard time of it too. According to Reuters, "Gunmen opened fire on two buses of Iraqi pilgrims returning to the Shi'ite city of Kerbala from the haj at Mecca in neighboring Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, killing 11 and wounding 14, officials said. The governor of the mainly Shi'ite province of Kerbala, Aqeel al-Khazali, blamed the apparently sectarian attack in the Nukhaib district of mainly Sunni Anbar province on 'false' reports on Tuesday by Sunni community leaders that returning Sunni pilgrims had been kidnapped in the desert." Going on Hajj was still a pretty iffy proposition last year.

But what about this year? Did Iraqis think it might be safe enough now to give it a try? I asked around -- and opened a whole new can of worms!

The first people I asked were the neighbors of an Iraqi police lieutenant whose home had been destroyed by a suicide bomber. "We can't go on Hajj! We are just poor farmers and do not have any money. We can barely feed our families as it is. But even if we did have the money, we would give it to the lieutenant's family to help them have something to live on instead." Can they do that? Apparently they can. Later on, someone told me that giving the same amout of money to charity as it would take you to go on Hajj is an acceptable substitute to fulfill one's Hajj obligation when going on Hajj presents too difficult a challenge. And apparently these people had a whole BUNCH of challenges. Poverty, danger, grief. God was obviously going to write a note giving them an excuse on this one!

Another Iraqi said that he just wasn't all that religious. "I'd rather go to Baghdad -- or America." America as the new Mecca? Not! The guy obviously hasn't been there lately. He would probably end up working at a McDonalds doing double-shifts-plus in order to be able to come up with the rent for an apartment in East Oakland that he would still have to share with ten other guys.

The next person I asked about Hajj clarified things for me even more. "Jane, there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world," he told me, "and if all of them descended on Mecca at one time -- even if only the adults came -- it would be chaos." I could see his point. The whole country would probably start to tilt to the west. There are already three to five million pilgrims arriving there each year as it is now.

"So the Saudi government is forced to limit the amount of visas it issues to each country, based on their population. I think the amount is 10%. So America is issued visas for 10% of its population -- so that every American Muslim has a solid chance of going on Hajj. But for we Iraqis? 10% is not very much, considering maybe 60% of the population would like to go. So. A visa to Mecca is a very important commodity."

"So how does the government of Iraq decide on how to give the visas out?"

"Theoretically, they are supposed to only be distributed to people over 50 years of age -- assuming that the younger Muslims will have a chance to go later, when they are older. But in actuality, Jane, most of the visas are given to Shias. We Sunnis don't really stand a chance. My father has applied for a visa every year for the last five years and he's got nothing. If you are connected, you get a visa. If you aren't, you don't."

"But what exactly happens next, once you DO get a visa? How do you get there? Is it safe?"

"Once you get your visa, you go to a travel agency and buy a package tour. Most tours get there by air. There are a few buses across the desert but most pilgrims prefer to fly. But there again you have the same problem. Most travel agencies are run by Shia." Hummm....

Then I interviewed the Lion of Al Ambar, my favorite go-to guy. "To me," he said, "it doesn't matter if we are Sunnis or Shia. We are all Iraqis. And that is the most important thing to me. We must all work hard to restore the rule of law to Iraq."

And finally, last but not least, I heard from one man who had already been on Hajj -- and he was truly outspoken. He did NOT mince words. "9-11 was done by the American government but Saudis were accused of it and Afghanis, Iraqis and all Muslims are being punished for it.," he stated emphatically. "Two countries and two peoples have been destroyed and the freedom of all Muslims have been curtailed even in their own homes for 9-11, a crime America has committed and it's been blamed on the Muslims. Yet all the guilt the 'good people' see is the loss of American boys and girls and the loss of the American tax money. Hey, you do not need Ahmadinejad to make Americans afraid. If you really are worried about another 9-11 happening, all you need is to make the American government feel that the American public is waking up or there is a slim chance that could it could happen; then the government will do it again to keep them busy enough not to think about the government crimes inside and outside the USA! So please stop trying to waken the Americans. Let them keep hating everybody for crimes that they, the Americans themselves, have committed. They are not all that naive or stupid, but they enjoy thinking that they are superior and hating the others for being their victims. At any rate, please stop trying to wake them up and save us, the Muslims, the pain of yet another crime or set of crimes against us for no wrong we did other than having oil and being Muslims. Please, Jane, please!"

Whew. That's a tall order. Maybe we could start by making every candidate in the 2008 presidential race and all members of Congress go on Hajj this year so that they could get more insights about Islam and how the vast majority of Muslims are upright and moral; people you would be proud to know; definitely not terrorists. I can see it all now -- Jeb Bush and Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, all camping out at Mina and throwing stones at the devil. Works for me. But I digress.

Getting back to my original question, "Do Iraqis finally feel safe enough to go on Hajj this year?" I wish I could offer a more concrete answer but my core sample just wasn't adequate enough to clearly say yes or no. But I did learn that many Iraqis are worried about corruption as an issue, that the poverty level in rural Iraq is high and that many Iraqis seem to have other things to worry about rather than Hajj right now -- clean water, functioning schools, sewage treatment, rebuilding their communities, etc. But it still will be interesting to see how this year's Hajj journey plays out in Iraq.

And perhaps the Saudis could make an exception to their visa limitations and issue more visas to Iraqis, especially Sunnis. God knows that Iraq can use all the help it can get.

PS: I'm currently trying to re-embed and return to Iraq. This time I would like to embed in the Baghdad Red Zone so that I can see what is going on there. And I would also like to embed in Afghanistan. And if I do get a chance to go to Afghanistan, it will be interesting to see how many Afghans will be going on Hajj this year too. And speaking of national groups going on Hajj, did you know that the most well-represented group there is composed of Indonesian young ladies?

"Why is that?"

Because in Indonesia, it is customary to go on Hajj before getting married so these girls are truly FIERCE about completing their Hajj. It's sort of like an episode of The Bachelor -- Mecca as they stridently compete for the right to marry once they get home.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

When I was in Iraq, I saw small shoots of hope and positive progress springing up there as the Iraqis, with the help of many dedicated and enlightened members of the US military, worked really hard to try to put the pieces of their poor country back into place. And then I came back to America -- only to find that the cold, clouded atmosphere of "Bomb them back to the Stone Age" still prevails here.

Back in the USA, I realized that what is actually happening in Iraq has nothing to do with what people here preceive is happening in Iraq.

Everyone here seems to have his or her own agenda regarding Iraq. The media seems to put the emphasis on "war" and its bloody bomb-throwing aspects because that's what sells air-time.

The neo-cons in the White House milk Iraq for all it is worth as a grand excuse to tax-and-spend. They have stolen the name of "Conservative" and gone off on a tangent of elaborate spending and international meddling that should make any true Republican angry enough to chew nails -- but doesn't.

And the Progressives here appear to hate Bush and Cheney so much that they seem to actually WANT Iraq to stay a bloody mess just to prove that Bush and Cheney have failed. Guess what, guys. You can have your cake and eat it too. It's okay to acknowledge that Iraq might actually be recovering from Shock and Awe -- even in spite of the White House -- but at the same time it's also okay to send Bush and Cheney to jail!

Back in the USA, I have also been feeling extremely frustrated that the main goal in life for all too many of our leaders in Washington is to try to blow other people up -- and so I wrote the following satirical attempt at black humor in an effort to vent. However, upon re-reading my efforts this morning in the cold light of day, I came to the sad realization that many of the people who might be reading this simply won't comprehend that it's a satire and will even start cheering me on. "Yeah, those evil Vermonters! Let's do it! Bomb them now. Let's keep America safe!"

Have our forefathers' great dreams of a brave American Republic finally degenerated down to this? Have our so-called leaders now become no better than the "terrorists" that they claim to eschew? That's pathetic.

PS: If anyone anywhere wants me to speak on the subject of Iraq, I am ready, willing and able! And I have photographs too.

Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, China, Vermont: Let's just bomb ALL their nuclear plants!

Why stop with just bombing Iran's nuclear facilities? Pakistan is falling apart and everyone knows that Pakistan, unlike Iran, actually does have The Bomb. We gots the capability. Let's zap them now. End of problem.

And what about Israel? They got the bomb too. Plus they are aggressive sons of birches, can't seem to keep themselves from attacking their neighbors. Let's drop a few bunker busters on THEIR bomb-making plants.

And everyone knows that Iran is a member of the Axis of Evil. Push the red button. Let's stop talking about it and "Just do it". A picture is worth a thousand words. Ahmadinejad has got to be stopped.

Russia has the bomb too. And Putin just can't seem to keep his mouth shut. A few surgical strikes and he's toast. He won't retaliate. Not him.

What about China? It's just common sense. Bomb them before they bomb us. Do you really want another 9-11? It could happen if we don't get to them first!

Fallout? Nuclear fallout? No problem. Americans will just take extra baths. That stuff washes right off.

Vermont? There's hecka lot of troublemakers living in Vermont. And they gots nuclear capability too. Let's bomb Vermont. And Texas? Conservatives down there are starting to complain too much about the neo-con tax-and-spend budget. And California...and Detroit..and central Florida.... We got a plan!

America is so lucky to have strong leaders in the White House right now and a Congress that follows their lead.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Just looking for a home: From Baghdad to bag lady....

The day I got back from Iraq, I received a really strange phone call. "Hi, this is Angie. We're filming a movie over in San Francisco tomorrow, we're doing a scene that requires an actor to play the part of a homeless bag lady and someone recommended you...."

Oh boy. It's come down to this. I just step off the plane from Iraq and does anyone contact me because of my superior reporting, my fabulous insights into what is going on over there, my brilliant ideas about how to bring about a relatively happy ending to the tragedy of Shock and Awe or to even offer me a distribution tour for my book? Heck no.

The only person who phones me is someone looking for a bag lady! Life is strange.

So I get out my garbage bags, my broken 1970s glasses, my mismatched gloves with the fingers worn out and my shopping cart, un-braid my hair that hasn't been washed since Haditha, shuffle on over to Frisco and present myself on the set.

"Would you please step aside," the assistant director asks me politely, "we're filming here. But we'll be done in a minute and you can have your place back." She smiles at me apologetically like she is really sorry to have bothered this poor homeless broken-down creature. Yikes! Do I look THAT bad?

"No, hey, it's me. Jane?"

So the assistant director goes and sits me down next to the fountain at the UN Plaza, near City Hall. So I figure that while I'm waiting to be called for my big scene, I might as well panhandle. Somebody has to finance my trips to Iraq. Hey, don't laugh. In just 20 minutes, I got a quarter, two nickles and a dime.

Then guess what? You are NOT going to believe this. I can hardly believe it myself. Up walks this rather good-looking middle-aged man and he actually tries to pick me up! Sheesh. No one ever tries to pick me up when I'm dressed normally. Maybe I'm on to something here! The chic new Bag Lady look. But I fight off the urge to get taken for cocktails. I got work to do here!

Anyway, my big scene finally arrives and I am so fiercely homeless and pathetic that when it's over, the entire crew breaks into applause. Then I stumble back home muttering about life's ironies -- that nobody in America wants to hear about Iraq any more but there's always a place here for homeless bag ladies.

PS: In real life, I really AM in need of a home. Currently I'm living with my son and his Significant Other who are expecting a baby on New Years Day and, while they are very gracious about me living with them, it's hard on all of us because they're all lovey-dovey and nesting and stuff -- and I'm not.

So if anyone out there on the planet needs a house-sitter in the near future, please let me know. Just e-mail me at and put "House-sitter wanted" in the subject line. I'm available. And I even come with my own shopping cart.

PPS: Wanna see my big 30 seconds of fame? The movie is called "Coming Home" and is supposed to be playing at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2008.

PPPS: I had a dream last night that mortar rounds hit and took out one side of the Oakland Coliseum -- right in the middle of a Warriors game. And I woke up with the realization that all the bad things that have happened In Iraq can happen here too. America too can turn into a failed state where death stalks every corner and Americans are forced to flee to Canada for safety in the same way that Iraqis now flee to Syria and Jordan.

OR. The good things that have happened recently in Iraq can happen here too -- wherein the people themselves at a very basic level rise up and say, one by one, "We are sick and tired of all this killing and death. Stop it now or answer to us."