Saturday, April 26, 2008

The New China: Wall-to-wall smog

(Photo: Even out in the countryside, the air is polluted in China)

You've heard of that old expression, "In vino veritas"? In wine there is truth. Well guess what? There is truth in jet-lag as well. When one has just flown in from northeastern China, been in the air for 24 hours, hauled luggage all over three different airports and gone without sleep for two days, all the polite facades and social niceties of life tend to quickly fall away.

Here are some of the basic home truths that intense sleep-deprivation has allowed to sneak past the usual rational censors inside my brain:

1. I loved the Chinese. I loved China. And I was totally impressed by how it had gone from a feudal land of starving slaves and peasants to a country where no one is starving, everyone knows how to read and write and there are millions of cars. In fact, China today is like how America used to be -- where an enterprising young person can work his or her way up the economic ladder, like Horatio Algers or Horatio Hornblower or whoever that was.

2. All that nonsense you hear about Tibet being a miserable place before the Communists came and set it free? That's hogwash. You wanna know what Tibet was really like in the old days? Go to Bhutan. People in Bhutan are basically living the same kind of life now that Tibetans used to live one hundred years ago. Climb up some mountains. Poke your head into some monasteries. Talk with some smiling kids. And what will you find? That the Bhutanese are happy and that their spirituality, kindness and respect for themselves and others is practically palpable. Sure, the serfs of feudal China were miserable but why project that misery onto the Tibetans of the past? The people of Bhutan are HAPPY -- unlike most of post-modern America. One does not live by bread alone. Want to know what old-timey Tibet was like? Check out Bhutan. And you won't want to leave -- except maybe in the winter.

And when people complain about Tibetans viciously attacking the Han Chinese in Lhasa? Well. What are all those millions of Han Chinese doing there in the first place?

You gotta give the Chinese snaps for trying to help Tibet -- but there could have been better ways to do it than to kill off over a million Tibetans. "What's wrong with that?" you might ask. Here's the thing. If you kill a lot of people, like what has happened in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Wounded Knee, the Congo, Tibet, etc., you are gonna spawn a generation of vipers. Period. You cannot create a whole generation of war orphans without reaping the whirlwind. You simply cannot. When your brutal occupations create millions of Children of Frankenstein who have watched their mothers and fathers get blown up before their very eyes, then you can't just turn around and COMPLAIN when these children also grow up to be monsters.

3. China is covered with smog. Wall-to-wall smog. From Beijing to Shenyang to the Korean border, the air is thick with the stuff. How thick? So thick that the sun looks like a red-orange sphere in the sky -- if you can see it at all. When your plane lands in Beijing, you can't see the ground until right before the wheels hit the runway. I kid you not. Even out in the isolated farmlands of the northeast, China is wall-to-wall smog. That's scary.

4. I've written my freaking fingers to the bone since as long as I can remember. I've written articles. I've written blogs. I've written freaking books! And a million people, I bet, have read stuff written by me. And do you want to know how much money I've made from my writing in all of those years? Total? $35.15. Some really nice people helped me buy Kevlar to get over to Iraq with last year and that helped a lot. But it just isn't the same as getting an advance on a book contract.

On behalf of starving writers everywhere who devote their whole lives to their art without any compensation, I got this to say -- enough is enough! We want artist-in-residence programs. We want grants. We want some of that money that is now being poured onto the Bush-Cheney gravy train.

Instead of great writers, nowadays America just mass-produces gaggles of media hacks who sell their souls to the devil -- like what happened in Philly last week when so-called journalists who should have freaking known better turned a debate between two intelligent and well-qualified candidates into a talk-radio sideshow. And these journalists got paid big bucks for it too. Yet those of us who take writing seriously, write on serious topics and force our souls through the meatgrinder of creativity every single day of our lives get no respect -- and no money either. To hell with writing.

5. I once had a doctor of Chinese medicine tell me, "Jane, you have the rare ability to bring people good luck."

So I figured, "Gee, what if that doctor was right?" So even on the off-chance that he might be, I've traveled the globe like some Johnny-freaking-Appleseed, trying to bring good luck to our poor weary wretched be-nighted world.

So. What's my point? I'm sick and tired of living on rabbit food, watching every penny and saving like a miser so I can go out and bring people good luck. Screw it. You want me to bring you good luck? Then pay for my freaking plane ticket and hotel room your own freaking self!

"But, Jane," you might say. "That's just magical thinking." No it's not. Magical thinking is what they do in the Pentagon and the White House. They think that they can start another war with Iran and North Korea just like Germany did in 1939 when it deliberately started wars with Britain, Poland and Russia, and that the military and financial fallout isn't going to destroy America as we know it? Now THAT'S magical thinking,

6. And no more good luck from me for those top-of-the-chain-of-command sardines who run the press embed operation in Iraq. I've spent three whole years trying to get embedded in Iraq. I've been there twice -- and that's enough good luck for them. Unless they BEG me to come back and then offer to fly me over to Baghdad on Air Force One, I'm staying home. I can just call up the Combined Press Information Center in the Green Zone and bring the wonderful staff doing the grunt-work over there some good luck over the freaking telephone. But the muckity-mucks don't get nothing from me.

And, trust me, if there is any place that needs good luck, it's Iraq.

7. The Chinese may have a smog problem but at least they haven't been stupid enough to allow themselves to get screwed royally by Bush, Cheney and the neo-cons like us dumb-ass Americans have.

"Jane, you need to get some sleep now, before you start saying things you'll regret." Too late for that.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Special "Savo Island, the Movie" issue of my housing co-op newsletter

(Photos are of my son and his daughter actually living at Savo Island and of someone who might or might not be named Julia, holding baby Mena next to my infamous window)

What if Hollywood made a movie based on the dramas that go on every day at my HUD Section 8-sponsored housing co-op? What would that movie be like? Perhaps it would be called "Little Housing Co-op on the Prairie"? Or even "Harold and Kumar Escape to Berkeley". Let's just keep our fingers crossed that they don't have to call it "Nightmare on Stuart Street"!

But if Hollywood DID make the saga of my housing co-op into a movie, would it get rave reviews from the critics -- or not? Would Ebert and Roeper give it thumbs up or thumbs down? Let's watch as Robert and Tony express their opinions on this new flick.

"The acting wasn't so bad," said Tony, "but the screenplay was an embarrassment. This was some of the worst screenwriting that I've ever seen."

"I agree," replied Robert. "The script was totally unbelievable. How do they expect us to believe that a duly-elected group of co-op board members could actually be allowed to get THAT far off track for the entire 15-odd years that they controlled this co-op and still stay in office. I mean, c'mon."

"If I'd lived in a housing project like that where the interiors were falling apart, it looked like dog dookie from the outside and was facing eminent bankruptcy," said Tony, "I would have voted those board members out in the first 15 minutes -- not just wait around for 15 YEARS. And how do you expect me to believe that none of the other residents spoke up when HUD gave the board a 60-day notice to make all the necessary repairs to the units by June 16 or else lose their Section 8 program completely? Or even that any sane board members would let it actually get to that point?
That's crazy. That's messing with people's LIVES. That's bad screenwriting. Just watch this clip."

[Scene shows a desperate co-op resident, wringing her hands.] "If they take away our rent subsidies, I don't know what will become of me and my family! I bet that if HUD backs out and the place is sold, the first thing that the new owners will do is raise our rents to $2,000 a month in order to have the same market rate as the rest of the neighborhood."

[Resident sighs heavily and a tear silently rolls down her cheek.]

"Do you have any IDEA what I would have to do in order to make that much rent per month? All of my family and half of my friends would have to come live with me just to help pay the rent. I'll have 20 people living here in a three-bedroom apartment! And if HUD gives me a voucher to move elsewhere? Get real. Most landlords don't take HUD vouchers anymore, I won't be able to find a new apartment, time runs out, the voucher expires and I'm screwed. This just can't be happening! What should I do! What should I do...." The camera then zooms out to show shots of broken plaster and leaky plumbing.

As the screen goes blank, Robert makes a face. "I couldn't agree with you more, Tony. The plot of this movie is just too unrealistic."

"And how about that whistleblower character who keeps putting out those newsletters that everyone just ignores? And did you see the way she just keeps her mouth shut during all of those board meetings? I find it totally unbelievable that in real life someone would actually sit through board meeting after board meeting for 15 whole years -- just sit there and say nothing while she is threatened, harassed, unjustly called terrible names and has her reputation trashed at a board meeting of an officially-registered State of California non-profit organization. And outside the meetings, she's been threatened with eviction, had her rent raised illegally and was even threatened with JAIL -- yet she still just sits there and takes it? If Julia Roberts had been playing that role, she would have at least cried."

"Here's another clip from the movie." [Scene opens at a board meeting where board member A's girlfriend is castigating poor Julia, calling her a liar and a fraud.] "Your son and his family don’t even live with you," claims the girlfriend. And her boyfriend agrees.

"I never hear them."

And another member speaks up too. "Her son lives down on 54th and San Pablo and not only that but her foster care license expired last year!"

Julia just hangs her head and remains silent. Of course her son's family lives with her! Don't they hear her son and daughter-in-law taking turns walking that colicky baby at all hours every night? And who in their right mind takes a tiny new-born outside in the middle of freaking WINTER just so the board members can see her out in the rain every day, standing around waiting to be noticed. And Julia's son hasn't lived on 54th Street for years now and her foster care license is current and....

Then board member B starts banging on the table with a nearby metal object and shouting, "Julia doesn’t need that window because she gets lots of light coming in from the west." Oh no. Not the WINDOW thing again. This board has been harping on that freaking window for over seven years now. That's harassment. That's bad screenwriting. Why does Julia put up with it!

"Are you referring," Julia mumbles, "to the light that travels through the three-story building directly behind me before it gets to my home?" Without that window, her unit is as dark as a cave. But the board takes no notice. They are on to the next slur.

"If Julia can go to Iraq two or three times," throws in board member C, "then she can’t be disabled." Julia has tons of doctors' documentation regarding her knee injuries. What right does bm-C have to question doctors? Does SHE have a medical degree too? No. Bad screenwriting.

But board member D isn't finished hatin' on Julia's window quite yet. "That window has caused so much structural damage that it could cause the whole building to fall down." Say what? The only structural damage in Julia's unit was caused when her roof leaked because this do-nothing board hadn't made roof repairs and water was cascading down the inside of the wall.

Then board member A jumps back in. "Julia needs to get rid of that window right now." And not wait until Julia's fair housing appeal is adjudicated? Isn't that illegal? But board member A persists. "She needs to get rid of it now, before she is allowed to move. And her son and his family don't qualify to stay in the unit because they haven't been on the lease for a year either. And her son has a job. I see him leaving for work all the time." So. Her son DOES live there after all? Make up your mind! "And I want to know if her son is reporting his income to HUD!" That is none of board member A's freaking business. And not only that, but bm-A is clearly indicating that he would willingly -- no, gleefully -- throw a struggling young couple and a three-month-old baby out into the streets in order to wreck havoc on poor sweet Julia. That's just TOO villainous to be realistic. Bad screenwriting once again.

But Julia just shrugs. This is clearly the first time that she -- or probably anybody else -- has ever heard of a one-year rule, although she HAD heard of a rule allowing no bilateral transfers. But board member B has already broken that rule with impunity a few months before. But consistency was never this board's strong point when self-interest is involved. Julia just shrugs again and sighs. And plans what to say in her next newsletter. After 15 years, one would think that the board would wise up and realize that every time they attack Julia at the board meetings, she valiantly fights back and defends herself in the only way that she knows how. So. Does that make the Pen mightier than the Board? "Not." Bad screenwriting once again.

Then the clip ends with board member E pointing at Julia vindictively and gesticulating wildly: "Evict her! Evict her!" she screams.

As the screen fades, Robert continues his critique. "Give me a break here, folks. This script just seems too contrived. It just doesn't feel genuine. And remember that other board meeting scene where they told Julia that she was spending too much time in the site office and the board didn't want her going into the office any more? Who would believe that any board member in their right mind would actually say or do something like that? Or even spend their time spying on her? Or that the board would actually ask questions about her son's income or if she had been raiding the site manager's files? The person who wrote this movie blew it here, Tony. What board members in their right minds would risk that kind of behavior? In real life, they would have been slapped with a lawsuit years ago -- or been accused of over-acting at the very least."

Tony nods in agreement again. "And if I lived in a housing project run by a board that was so inefficient that they haven't even raised the rents to cover costs and inflation in almost a decade, can't even get a re-hab off the ground after seven long years and has taken a very viable housing co-op and run it into the ground? Those directors would have been out the door in a heartbeat. Bad screenwriting. For sure."

"But the part I really found unbelievable," said Robert, "was where those two board members who work for another organization which has a history of trying to build condos in the area are still allowed to stay on the board. What if they are secretly scheming to let Savo fall apart so that HUD will abandon ship and the property can be sold to developers? Can you say 'conflict of interest,' boys and girls?"

"I agree," nodded Tony. "This movie could have been exceptional and outstanding if it had been written right -- like perhaps having it be a story of brave low-income families struggling to make the world a better place or using their co-op as a base to set an example of how to build a green project or organize a community for social justice or...."

"Or maybe even a love story where boy meets girl in a clean, happy HUD housing project. But the screenwriters in this movie just didn't do their homework. 'Little Housing Co-op on the Prairie' just doesn't ring true. No one would believe this was happening. It's a good thing that this movie is a fictionalized version. I'd really hate to live in that project if all this was true. Two big thumbs down from me."

"Me too."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Beyond Gettysburg: Consecrating the death of two Marines in Iraq, April 2008

Have you ever been inside of a jail? The electronic surveillance cameras watch you as your footsteps echo down the long cell-block hallway and the heavy metal door slides open at the end of it and you enter a sealed vestibule and it slides closed behind you.

Then another steel door opens in front of you, you step through it and find yourself in "The Unit".

Iraq used to be like that -- hardcore imprisonment. And then they had the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province and things got better. Living in Anbar stopped resembling living in San Quentin and life started to get back to normal. I know it did. I was there. Anbar province started to shed the look and feel of a jail.

And then on Tuesday, April 22, 2008, CNN reported, "A suicide bomber detonated a truck at an Iraqi police checkpoint near Ramadi Tuesday morning, killing two U.S. Marines and wounding 24 people, according to the U.S. military. The wounded included four Iraqi police officers and three children, according to senior Awakening leader in Anbar province."

Not very many people noticed this short mention of the death of two Marines in Anbar. What with the Obama-Clinton excitement in Pennsylvania and the news that former "View" co-host Star Jones was filing for divorce, it just seemed yet another minor incident in a country far away that had already endured over 4,000 other such "minor incidents". But I noticed it. And I called up a friend. "After approximately a year of peace and quiet over in Anbar, now Marines are suddenly getting killed again? What the freak is HAPPENING over there right now! That area was totally safe."

"Things are falling apart all over Iraq right now," my friend replied, "so it's not surprising that the insurgents in Anbar are stepping up their game too." NOOOO! Not Anbar. Not the Marines!

As everyone on the progressive left must have figured out by now, I love the Marines, I'm a big fan of the Marines. And it's not just that they wear cute uniforms either. The Marines did an incredibly good job of bringing peace to the Anbar region in the last year or so. I am really proud of our Marines. Nation-building is just not their thing but they bit the bullet and went in there anyway and freaking built hospitals and police forces and schools. "Semper Fi!" And even when, the other night, that Marine colonel's daughter got voted off the Big Brother reality show, I was totally pissed off! "Sharon, we love you. Sharon, we love the Marines!"

And now, after Maliki went into Basra and stirred up a hornets' nest and Mosel is falling apart and Baghdad -- Baghdad's a whole other story. Sadr City is in flames. And the blowback from all this ill-timed craziness has finally hit Anbar. That's why the deaths of these two Marines are so important. It's not just that the deaths of two more soldiers doesn't matter for their own sake or the sake of their family's great pain -- they really, truly, achingly do -- but these two deaths also matter on a international-level strategic scale as well: That the fire has leaped out of the frying pan. Again.


Why can't the leaders of America, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc. freaking GET IT TOGETHER! How freaking long does it take to stop a freaking "war"? It's easy. You just take all that oil money back from Bush, Cheney and Enron, er, I mean, Exxon and freaking buy people off! You give $30,000 of their own money to every single man, woman and child in Iraq -- if they will promise to "play well with others". End of problem.

Two Marines died in Iraq this April. But it wasn't just Marines that died. It was also the hopes and dreams of the ghosts of the other 4,042 soldiers who have died in Iraq too -- hopes and dreams that they have not died in vain and that the incompetent leaders of this gruesome so-called "war" can finally put down their petty greediness and STOP THE KILLING. How hard can it be? Peace can be BOUGHT. Go ahead and buy it. Or else I personally will go out and kick all your butts.

You guys are hurting the Marines again now. And that's just not cool.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and started thinking about those two Marines -- and Abraham Lincoln. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Go, Abe!

The ONLY way that we can consecrate the deaths of these two Marines is to make sure that they have not died in vain. That's a pretty tall order. So let's get to work. And for starters, let's throw Bush and Cheney in jail. I wanna walk that long, echoing hallway down to "The Unit" and see for myself that the men that have caused this nightmare conflagration are there in their cells, finally appeasing the ghosts of 4,044 decent and good American fighting men and women.

It's time for us to make it perfectly clear to the people in the White House that they need to stop acting like those monkeys who have their hand trapped in a bottle while holding onto their nuts but can't figure out that the only way to get thier hand out of the bottle is to let go of their nuts -- before they bankrupt America, cost us our precious government by, for and off the people and starve us all to death because they can't let go of their nuts.

"....we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow this ground," said Abraham Lincoln. No, but we CAN demand that the greedy and treacherous men who maliciously, mendaciously and deliberately covered this sacred earth with the blood of OUR Marines get what they deserve.

PS: How do I know so much about jails? In my down-time from being a globe-trotting hard-hitting (unpaid) investigative reporter, I work in one.

PPS: I just applied for permission to embed with the Marines in Ramadi in May. I want to find out what the Marines are doing to counteract the insurgents' spill-over into Anbar from Baghdad and Basra. I bet the Marines have lots of interesting plans -- unlike Bush, Cheney and Maliki.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Notes from a massage table in China: It's time for world peace!

(photos are of the Shenyang train station waiting room, my masseur and dancing in North Korea -- which I missed)

When I got back to Shenyang after my four-hour train trip to the border between North Korea and China, I was really glad to see my sweet little hotel room again. After having lived in Room 811 for almost two weeks before going off to Dandong, returning here felt just like coming home. I practically hugged the bellhop.

"But Jane, you were only gone for two days," said my conscience. Yeah but it was a very intensive two days. Being busted by the Red Army for taking photos at a strategic military installation during a period of heightened terror alert really takes it out of one. Tourism can be exhausting!

So. Wearily, I trudged off to Room 811, my own little sanctuary in China, only to find that I'd been locked out! What?

"You haven't paid your bill," said the reception clerk. What! I was totally paid up -- for the whole last 12 days plus one day more! They can't do this to me. I'll protest!

"Attica! Attica!"

But nobody knows what that means any more even back in the States. In China, they didn't have a clue.

It's not so much that I minded giving my hotel more money. It's the principle of the thing. I had freaking LIVED there for 12 days. They knew me. I knew them. If they needed more money, they just could have asked. It's not like they couldn't locate me or nothing. In a 14-story building, I was the only non-Asian in the place. Trust me. I stood out.

But just when I was contemplating bursting into tears right there at the registration counter as my next strategic move in this loathsome chain of events, two members of the Delegation for Friendship Among Women walked into the lobby, back from their trip to North Korea.

"Oh, Jane," said one of the women, "we had such a wonderful time! On the last day we were there, they had a huge festival with 100,000 people dancing in the streets and we got to dance too. It was the experience of a lifetime!" Way to rub it in.

"We are about to go off for another massage," said the trip leader. "Want to come with us?" That would be yes.

"Please put my luggage in storage," I said to reception. "We'll sort this all out later. Right now, I've got a masseuse to catch!"

You have no IDEA how good that massage felt. But after the footbath in scalding-hot water and the 15-minute scalp massage and the 20-minute shoulder rub, my very essence of being started to break down and I started thinking, "Gee, I'm old, my body is a wreck, life is a struggle, why bother, it's time I was dead." Life is a struggle. I'm tired of struggling.

Then I thought of my granddaughter, baby Mena, and how she was so fresh and innocent and how over the years all she had to look forward to was life grinding away at her too so that she would eventually just end up like me -- old, tattered and disillusioned. And try as her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents all might, nothing we could do can protect her from this -- especially now, with the whole world going to Hell in a hand-basket thanks to a few national and corporate leaders with no shame, no limits and no sense of vision.

Silent tears rolled down my cheeks. The masseur silently wiped them away.

Then, after another 20 minutes of bodywork on my neck and upper back, I started to feel more optimistic and started remembering a prediction that some hypnotist made about me back in 1976 -- that I would live until the year 2030. 22 more years left to go! Screw it. Just screw throwing in the towel. I was gonna make those 22 years freaking MEAN something. "To hell with people who think that the reason for life is to torture and maim and be as mean and greedy as humanly possible. The real purpose and aspiration and greatness of the human spirit is to bring peace! I'm going to work for peace for the rest of my life!" And I almost grabbed up my clothes, jumped off the massage table and ran off to start writing my Noble Prize acceptance speech right then and there. But the masseur had just started in on my lower back and upper thighs and it just felt so GOOD. The speech could wait.

Plus before I became the next Mahatma Gandhi, I wanted revenge. So after the massage, I stomped back to the hotel, had it out with the reception clerk (it turned out that THEY owed ME $36!), grabbed my luggage and moved to the rival hotel across the street.

But revenge wasn't as sweet as I had thought it would be. "Goodbye, sweet little hotel," I muttered, shoulders slumped, as I trudged out the front door. "You've been my home for the last 12 days here in China and I will miss you a lot." And then I really DID hug the bellhop.
But I do gotta admit that the four-star Royal Hotel was a really nice substitute. A little money goes a long way in China....

PS: "Jane, you are getting your knickers all in a twist over nothing," someone said. "It is quite customary in China for guests to be locked out of their hotel rooms in order to alert them that their room rent is due." Yeah, but the front desk staff of this hotel had already locked me out three times before and after those first three times I had been all helpful, understanding and obliging -- but enough is enough. Four strikes and you're out! I gots customs too.

During the Great Depression in America in the 1930s, people who couldn't pay their hotel bills were unceremoniously given the boot. My parents were young adults during those hard times -- proud people who worked their fingers to the bone to avoid that kind of situation. And they had taught me well. "Always pay as you go, never go into debt, always pay your rent on time." And I always have. It's a matter of pride.

Throughout my entire life, I've never used credit, never borrowed from anyone, never taken out loans, never missed a rent payment and never went into debt -- except to my parents of course.

PPS: Another good thing that came out of this trip is that now I have learned all the exotic secrets of Asian massage -- so now I'm gonna set up shop. If anyone wants an exotic Asian massage from me, I charge $2 a minute and not only is it worth every penny, but all the proceeds will be donated a charitable cause -- my next attempt to embed in Iraq.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My recent e-mail to Leila Fadel, the McClatchy bureau chief in Baghdad (Yes, I'm still trying to get embedded!)

(Photo is of the VIP suite in Haditha, where I stayed while being embedded in October of 2007)

Dear Ms. Fadel:

I recently saw you on the
Bill Moyers show and hoped you might use your knowledge of the current situation in Iraq to help me get re-embedded in the Green Zone.

CPIC and the U.S. military have embedded me twice in Iraq during 2007 and I was promised a third embed in February of 2008 -- which was rescinded at the last moment by Lt. Col. [XXXX] of CPIC, leaving me helplessly stranded at the Kuwait airport Starbucks for days on end.

I truly do not understand why my embed was canceled, because the three different official reasons that CPIC gave me clearly did not apply to my circumstances: First, that I was requesting to go into a combat zone (why ELSE would I want to go to Iraq!); second, that I did not have enough readers (OpEd News has 615,000 readers and over 180,000 people have read my blog); and, third, that the Army could not afford to embed me (Yeah, right).

The only reasons that I can think of as to why my embed was rescinded are because I am a progressive journalist, am against the occupation of Iraq because its cost is bankrupting America, and had just written an article negative to John McCain. When I was embedded in Iraq last year, other journalists warned me not to say anything negative about the "war" effort in Iraq if I wanted to continue being embedded but I went ahead and reported what I saw anyway. Perhaps that might be another reason my embed was rescinded.

In addition, when I was at CPIC last April I was told, off the record, that the State Department had their eye on me and was monitoring everything that I wrote while in the Green Zone. Do you have any suggestions on how I can find out if the State Department had anything to do with my rescinded embed -- short of bugging Ms. Rice's office, that is!

I am hoping that you can advise me on how to get re-embedded or else how to find out the real reasons why my embed was suddenly rescinded. And if your bureau would like to do a story on this angle -- that progressive journalists are being systematically discouraged from coming to Iraq -- here are some e-mail addresses if you want to contact them [not included in this article while legal action is still pending. Sorry]. Thanks.

I have also brought a JAG Article 139 legal complaint against Lt. Col. [XXXX] in order to get my $1,780 in expenses back from the Army after they canceled my embed. This complaint has been denied by Col. John B. Hildebrand of the administrative law section of OSJA-Iraq and is currently on appeal.

I am also pursuing this matter in small claims court here in California as well. Let Judge Judy sort all this out!

Very truly yours,
Jane Stillwater

PS: Before I can sue the Department of Defense on the Judge Judy show, I need to serve the Army with a small claims document -- and to do that, I need to have the name of the Army's agent of service in California. Any suggestions about who this might be?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Crossing the Yalu River: The Red Army, the North Koreans and me

  • (Photos are of the Korean war museum, my concierge and driver, the kite, some North Koreans, the Great Wall and the blown-up bridge over the Yalu.)

    Yesterday was one strange day. This morning after breakfast -- which is included in the price of Chinese hotel rooms BTW -- I went into a huddle with my concierge. "I want to see three things while I'm here -- the western end of the Great Wall, the Korean war museum and the hydro-electric dam across the Yalu River," I said.

    I had heard that you could just walk across this dam and be in North Korea when you got to its far side and even though I'd theoretically already been in North Korea when I took the boat ride the day before, I still hadn't met any North Koreans while on North Korean, er, soil. So I still didn't really know if they were "evil" or not.

    Back at my hotel in Shenyang, I'd met several North Koreans and they had all been really nice. But who knows. Maybe GWB was right -- there's always a first time -- and on their own native soil perhaps they do change into evil monsters. Or maybe George had just been staying up past his bedtime and watching too much TV.

    When some nice North Koreans at my nice hotel in Shenyang were standing around the lobby with their luggage and getting ready to leave back to Pyongyang a few days ago, I said, "Wait just a minute," ran back to my room, snatched up that box of Girl Scout cookies I that had hoped to present to Kim Yong Il, ran back to the lobby and said, "Here. If I can't get a visa to North Korea myself, would you do me the honor of at least making sure that my Girl Scout cookies get there? Eat them in Pyongyang and think of me?" Then we all laughed and hugged.

    Anyway, back to Dandong. Now I know why the Zhong Lian Hotel got four stars! Their fabulous concierge set me right up with the hotel's driver and car and we were off for a day of sight-seeing. First, we drove out to the hydro-electric dam and I got a photo of me standing in front of this massive one-half-mile-wide dam, wearing my "Kriss Worthington for [Assembly]" T-shirt!

    Then my driver negotiated with some of the people in charge of admissions to let me walk across the dam and I bought my ticket. OMG! I'm actually going to do this, set an actual foot in North Korea. Then I walked across the freaking dam -- right up to the border checkpoint on the DPRK side of the Yalu River, 100 feet beyond its shore. I had actually set foot on North Korean soil, er, North Korean concrete.

    At the border-crossing kiosk, I looked right at the North Korean guard. And he looked right at me. No evil there. Check that one off my list. Then the guard motioned for me to turn around and I walked back across the dam.

    And then I got arrested. Again.

    It turns out that one is not supposed to take photos of the dam. It's written everywhere apparently -- in Chinese. And now the Red Army was on my case! What's with this? I'm a freaking 65-year-old grandmother. Why does everyone from China to America to Iraq want to pull rank on me? It must be my hair. I never COULD do anything with my hair.

    But the Red Army officers called in my passport number, checked with the concierge at the four-star hotel in Dandong and talked with my hotel's staff back in Shenyang. Apparently the gist of what was said was that I wasn't a terrorist or nothing -- just a klutz.

    "Delete! Delete!" said one officer, pointing at my camera. Sorry, Kriss. There went the photo of your T-shirt. But I hope you still win the election.

    After the business of deciding whether or not I was a terrorist spy in sensible shoes had been taken care of, I got to chatting with the Red Army officers and they were really nice too. And cute. I wonder if one of them would consider coming back to the States with me and marrying one of my daughters? Probably not.

    Next, the driver and I went off to the western end of the Great Wall but they wanted 100 yuan to get in so I just took a photo and bought a bag of hot chestnuts instead.

    Which reminds me. I still haven't bought any souvenirs for my family -- but that's not my fault. I haven't seen any trucker caps or T-shirts anywhere that say "Shenyang" or "Dandong" or even "Beijing Olympics". But, Aleena, I did manage to score you an actual North Korean rock for your collection. (Aleena works at the Ciao Bella gelato store in north Berkeley with my daughter Ashley so I gotta keep on her good side since I hear that the new flavor of the day is pineapple tangerine rum sorbet.)

    Then we went off to the Korean war museum, "The Museum Commemorating Stopping the American Aggression in Korea," that is. When I was a kid in the 1950s, we heard a lot about Harry Truman, General Douglas MacArthur and the Yalu River. And here I was. That Yalu is no petty stream!

    The museum was gigantic. It had war planes and field artillery in front of it. It was world-famous. It was located high on a mountain overlooking the Yalu. And it was closed. "Sorry, Ma'am. It's a Monday." But there was an older man outside flying a kite so we got to do that. And I actually took some photos without getting busted. And we toured a bunker that had been the head Chinese and North Korean generals' and strategists' main command post during the war. And I bought a DVD showing film footage of the war that had been taken by the Red Chinese side.

    Then I popped onto a bus and went back to my hotel in Shenyang, which by now I totally viewed as my new home in China. So if you come to Shenyang for the soccer part of the 2008 Olympic games in August, please stay here at the Chilbosan. It's a wonderful hotel. And they will leave the light on for you.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Wrong Occupation: Why over-extending the war-and-oil business is a bad thing

(photos are of the Korean war museum in Dandong and some war products geared to the weapons industry's special market niche)

Don't get me wrong. I think that the Chinese should never have occupied Tibet. But, hey, come on. That happened back in 1959. Why are Bush and Cheney suddenly squawking about it now?

"Look at it this way," my friend Joshua just e-mailed me. "Bush and Cheney are oilmen and weapons manufacturers. That's what they do. And if your company makes half of its profit from manufacturing weapons and the other half of your profit from selling oil, then doesn't it make perfect sense to go out and start wars -- preferably on countries that have oil?

Sounds like a good marketing strategy to me.

"So Bush and Cheney, who have been weapons manufacturers and oilmen for decades, get themselves in a position to start wars for oil. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. And this is true even of self-proclaimed 'born-again' dogs."

Good grief! America shoulda seen this coming! If we had elected a piano player for President, we coulda figured that he or she would soon have all of America playing the piano. But if you get a weapons dealer and an oil manufacturer shoved down your throats, it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out which direction our country's gonna take.

Weapons and oil.

"Okay. So Bush and Cheney attack Iraq -- and their sales shoot right up. Then they get the brilliant idea that, if profits increased by invading Iraq, then they would freaking DOUBLE if they attacked Iran." That makes perfect merchandising sense. Maximize the bottom line.

But if peddling war and oil is their company's marketing niche, then why stop at Iran? You don't need a degree from Yale Business School to figure that one out. "Are you saying that Bush and Cheney might be using the Tibet occupation issue as a strategy to drum up a war with China?"

"Sure." If you want to swim with the sharks in business, you gotta think big. Declaring war on China? It doesn't get much bigger than that in the boardroom.

"But wait," I replied. "If war for oil is a good thing, why stop with China? Back in the 18th century, didn't colonists come to America and seize all this land from the Indians? So can't Bush and Cheney declare war on Texas, Oklahoma, California, Pennsylvania and Alaska and seize all their oil on the pretext of saving Native Americans from Occupation too?" I mean after the occupation of Iran, Iraq and China of course.

But guess what? I'm over here in China right now. And I'm here to tell you that an oil war with China is gonna be extremely difficult to win, no matter how many weapons get sold.

Perhaps it's time or Bush and Cheney to realize that it also makes good business sense to not over-extend.

PS: My friend Luan just e-mailed me with a good idea. "When you go to Dandong, sign up for one of those half-day tours which takes you out to a hydro-electric dam which the Chinese built over the Yalu River. It extends over onto North Korean soil. Then when you walk across the dam there, you will actually be standing in North Korea."

That sounded like a good plan, but when I asked around about taking the tour, I was told that security on both sides of the dam had been tightened up lately and tours there were no longer available.

Also one local resident I talked with at Peter's Cafe told me that, "The last time I went there, some North Koreans threw stones at me -- and I'm Chinese. So they would more than likely try to throw stones at you too." But that might actually be a good thing because I'm supposed to be collecting stones for my daughter Ashley's friend Aleena. She's an artist and uses sand and rocks from all over the world in her work. So if they throw rocks at me, then I wouldn't have to go through the effort of digging them up.

PPS: When I woke up this morning, my tongue was all coated -- which is a sure sign that one's intestinal tract isn't working smoothly. For example, when babies are just born, their digestive tracts are all new and never been test-driven and it takes them a while to get that system up and running, so until their systems learn to function right, tiny babies have coated tongues. And my tongue is coated too. I guess it's time to stop eating so much at my hotel's free breakfast buffet.

PPPS: I know that I complain a lot about not being able to speak Chinese over here and how no one here speaks English. "Why don't you just go buy a phrasebook?" someone just asked. But actually, I sort of like it this way because not being able to speak or read Chinese gives me a precious opportunity to talk with people. For instance, I met a girl on the train to Dandong who practiced her English on me and I never would have connected with her if I had just sat back and relied on phrasebooks. Plus she gave me the cutest little miniature teddy bear too. "To remember me by."

Yet another PS: While here in China, I've been reading Walter Brasch's excellent book, "Sinking the Ship of State". Brasch is a fabulous researcher and really nails GWB regarding a whole bunch of issues -- and entertains you while he's doing it. Almost every page contains the kind of information that should have put Bush in jail years ago.

With regard to oil, Brasch wrote that, "Subsidies to the nation's energy companies amount to about $14.5 billion. To keep the oil industry happy, the Bush-Cheney administration, loaded with former oil and energy corporation executives, has shoveled more than $8 billion in tax benefits to the nation's oil industries [in 2005]." That's not fair! Why them and not me! I want $8 billion in tax benefits too!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

North Korea from the flight deck: "Mission Accomplished!"

(Photos are of my internet cafe, the Strollers pub and the train station in Shenyang, and North Korea from a boat and North Korea as seen in the distance over a plate of BBQ shrimp.)

The other day, while walking along the street in Shenyang, I passed some guy speaking English and so immediately made a U-turn. This guy might be able to help me with my food problems. "You speak English!" I cried. Well, duh. "Can you please recommend any good-but-inexpensive restaurants around here?"

He and his wife then took me in hand and escorted me off to "Strollers," a British pub run by Chinese students who want to practice their English. You can practice on me! The entire menu, 15 pages long, was in both English and Chinese. No more stick-figure chicken for me. Food problem solved.

And my waitress even wrote out some Chinese phrases on a napkin for me to use on my upcoming trip to Dandong -- stuff like "Taxi driver, take me to the train station" and "How much does a ticket cost?" and "Which track does my train arrive on?" Yes, I'm still trying to get to North Korea but I've lowered my expectations. A lot. Now all I want to do is follow General Douglas MacArthur's example and get to the Yalu River.

Boarding the train to Dandong was everything I dreamed it would be -- like a 1930s Hollywood movie, only in Chinese. At least 20,000 people bustled around inside the vast hollow station. "Which track? Which train?" I handed people my notes.

"That way."

Then hundreds and hundreds of us all jammed onto the train. OMG, there are at least 300 people jamming into my car alone. I'll never find a seat! But I did. Every seat was numbered, even mine.

I had thought I might meet other American travelers on the train who I could ask about what to do in Dandong. But so far, since the moment I left my hotel room after checking my image in the mirror until now, I'm the only non-Chinese person I've seen. But everyone I've met so far has been extremely helpful. They would read the Strollers waitress's note, nod, smile and then push me along in the right direction. In all the time I have been in China, I have never felt threatened in any way (except, of course, for outside the American consulate, but that's another story.)

Good grief. I've only been on this train for 15 minutes and I'm already hungry. "But Jane, you already had breakfast at the hotel." I did? Sadly and with great reluctance and fond reminiscence, I ate the last energy bar in my messenger bag, the one that I had saved all this time from a Marine dining facility in Iraq.

What happened next? Lots of mountains, lots of farmland, lots of sheep. Four hours' worth of farmland, mountains and sheep. And train tunnels and factories and rivers.

Our first stop was in a large city that seemed to consist of about ten square miles of 10-story housing blocks. It looked like one of those Israeli settlements on the Palestine West Bank.

You gotta love trains. You sit by the window and get sudden intimate glimpses into the lives of all the people who live and work near the tracks. Did that farmer with the hoe use gloves or not? How old was that woman hanging out the wash? What's it like to plow a field with a mule? What's it like to live two hours by bicycle from the nearest general store? And was that farmer really listening to an iPod?

Then there are the train songs running through my head. "Daddy, what's a train...." and "Railroading on the Great Divide, nothing around me but Rockies and sky...." and "The 2:19 took my baby away...." And what's that song about the prisoner listening to the train go by? Hey, that's ME on that train!

"Taxi?" asked a very old man with an honest face in front of the train station in Dandong.

"Sure." And he lead me to a three-wheeled bicycle and off we went to the only four-star hotel in Dandong. But they must have seen me drive up on the bicycle -- either that or they saw the holes in my jeans or my favorite pair of worn-out shoes or else maybe they just didn't like ME -- and started treating me like dirt, like I couldn't afford to be there so why was I wasting their time. And they tried to over-charge me too.

"Wait a minute!" I said, smiling through gritted teeth. "If you guys expect to charge me $100 a night, then you gotta be NICE to me." I know my rights!

But just then the concierge came up and didn't treat me like Rodney Dangerfield -- no respect -- so things went well after that. "I'd like to go to North Korea," I said. "How do I do that?"

"A tourist visa takes seven days to go through but you can take a boat ride and actually be in North Korea in the next 15 minutes." Works for me. So after months and months of struggle and angst, I was finally gonna complete my tour of the "Axis of Evil"! Sort of.

So the concierge took me across the street to the Yalu, put me on a boat and I got so close to the DPRK shore that I could almost reach out and touch it! Now if only I was wearing a flight suit on the deck of this boat, I coulda said, 'Mission Accomplished" in style!

I got to North Korea! I did it! Shut up!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dear Ashley and Joe: Your poor sweet mommy just got arrested in China...

(Photos are of the North Korean consulate and some other unnamed consulate paid for with American tax dollars)

I woke up early this morning and decided to go off and take some pictures before breakfast. The air was chilly but the sky was clear and it was a beautiful day in Shenyang so I walked along singing "Here comes the sun." And it's all right.

But it wasn't.

I took pictures of some spring cherry blossoms and some shops and alleyways and the North Korean consulate and the Russian consulate next door to it. Good. Now I'll have more scenic photos to e-mail back home. And then I took a photo of the American consulate. And then all hell broke loose.

"Halt!" a rent-a-soldier type in a green uniform screamed at me in Chinese. I tried to ignore him and keep walking but by then I was surrounded by five or six more green rent-a-soldiers, all yelling, pointing at my camera and pointing at me. OMG. This can't be happening!

The soldiers kept yelling stuff like "Stop right there!" and "Hand over your camera!" and "I think we got us a terrorist spy here, caught in the act!" and "20 years in the gulag for her!" At least that seemed to be the gist of what they were saying in VERY expressive Chinese.

I'm screwed. I'm screwed. I'm screwed.

"English? Does anybody here speak English?" I blubbered. "I'm an American and this is MY consulate," I cried, trying to sound brave -- but it came out more like a whine as I took turns pointing at the consulate and pointing at me. Then the soldiers all went into a huddle to discuss strategy and while they weren't looking, I seriously actually considered swallowing my camera's memory card, but as quickly and surreptitiously as James Bond I managed to pocket the card instead. Hey, I gots photos of my grandchild on this card! My mission? To protect baby Mena's image at all costs!

Then the Shenyang police arrived. I wonder if Chinese jails have orange jumpsuits. Orange isn't a good color for me....

Then the head rent-a-soldier borrowed a policeman's cell phone and called up someone at the consulate. "What should we do with this grandmother ring leader terrorist criminal?" I think he said in Chinese.

"Send her to Guantanamo," must have been the reply. But cooler heads prevailed and the police officer in charge took a more realistic view of things apparently. I guess he knew what real criminals looked like and, frankly, I didn't fit the profile -- not many job opportunities for senior-citizen crooks.

"Where is your passport?" he asked.

"Back at the hotel." So they frog-marched me off to a patrol car and then to my hotel, and it was all totally embarrassing to have the entire staff of the hotel see me dragged through the front door in chains.... Well maybe not in chains. But it was still very embarrassing. And how was I going to explain to my children that they can't even let me out of their sight for one moment before I'm causing international incidents. I can just hear Ashley now. "What are we going to do with you, silly Mommy...."

Anyway, the nice police officer put me on the phone to someone at the consulate with a Chinese accent but at least he spoke English. "Are you a professional journalist?" he grilled me.

"Nope. I honestly can't say that I am. At least nobody's ever paid me so far..." But then it was my turn to ask questions. "Is it illegal to take photos of the consulate?" I asked. "Do I need a lawyer? What are they charging me with? What's your name?"

"Uh, er.... No it's not illegal. It's just that your timing was wrong."

"You mean that if I had taken a photo during the afternoon, I wouldn't have been arrested?"

"Well, no, but...."

"So it IS legal to take photos of the consulate...."

"Ma,am, there's been a misunderstanding. We are sorry to have troubled you. You are free to go."

Whew. Now I won't have to send an e-mail to my kids saying, "Dear Joe and Ashley: Your poor sweet mommy is in jail in China...." and I won't have to go off on the run and be pursued by Interpol or nothing. Whew.

PS: Is there a moral to this story? Yes. But perhaps you are thinking the obvious -- "Don't take photos of American embassies, Jane." No, that's not it. There is a deeper moral than that. It's time for us to reconsider our basic American embassy policies themselves.

American embassies and consulates used to be guarded by the US military. We don't do that no more -- apparently because foreign national rent-a-soldiers are cheaper to hire, are less of a target, can relate to locals in their own language and can free up more American soldiers to try and make an omelet out of Bush and Cheney's broken eggs in Iraq.

Some of the more obvious disadvantages of hiring locally-based rent-a-soldiers are, first, that although our embassies are supposed to represent America abroad, you can hardly tell them apart on the outside from the other embassies guarded by similar locally-based rent-a-soldiers unless you are familiar with our blast-wall architectural style and can pick out the American flag.

Second, America's consistent robber-baron/globalization approach to other countries in the last 150-odd years appears to have created such an "us versus them" mentality abroad that our embassies are definitely not popular hangouts for the locals and/or beacons of freedom and hope. Rather, all too often they are seen by the locals as symbols of globalization's economic boot on their necks.

And, third, whenever us American citizens come to our embassies for aid, we immediately run into a language barrier between us and the foreign-based guards. For instance, I couldn't understand what the rent-a-soldiers were asking me today and so I didn't respond. What if they had seen me allegedly ignoring their commands and then shot me? It would have been a misunderstanding but I still would have been dead. Without language skills, knowledge of cultural cues and adequate training, these rent-a-soldiers, while sincerely trying to perform their job of guarding our consulates and embassies to the best of their ability, still tend to treat even US citizens like terrorists.

But then American citizens are also treated like terrorists at home as well. You think not? Then you obviously haven't read the Patriot Act.

PPS: I'm really tired of hearing Americans whine about what a daunting power China has become. And who made them so powerful? The American consumer and American corporations. Shenyang is one of the industrial capitals of China, with manufacturing hubs in abundance. But do we have even one steel mill located in America? Probably not.

I'm an American patriot -- and what "globalization" has done to my country makes me sick. We need to stop giving corporations the same rights as citizens, teach our children industrial skills, buy locally and stop allowing the globalization mafia to use our fine military men and women as enforcers to go out and break third-world countries' kneecaps for their own fun and profit -- at the expense of ours.

"Gee Jane, no wonder you got arrested."

Wetback: Can I sneak across the North Korean border without getting caught?

(Photos are of a housing project in Shenyang, me and Linda at a tomb shrine, the women's delegation and me, Carol at the tomb's parade ground, getting our massages, celebrating at a banquet and getting our ear wax removed.)

For months now, I've been trying to get a visa for North Korea. I've tried every legitimate angle I can think of including filing my visa application several months ago, joining an authorized tour group, applying at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea consulate here in Shenyang, having people call the DPRK on my behalf and just simply standing around and looking pathetic whenever possible. I've exhausted every single legal channel I can think of.

Maybe it's time for me to become an illegal immigrant!

Now I'm starting to see how all those illegal immigrants from Mexico feel. You try all the legal ways to get into the US, you wait for months, nothing works and so you swim the Rio Grande. Maybe I should try to swim the river between North Korea and China? Will I need water wings and a plastic inner tube or what?

And does the DPRK also have a "Migra"? OMG, they will be able to tell that I'm not a North Korean! I'm screwed.

"Jane," e-mailed my friend Collin, "don't even think about trying to go to the DPRK on your own. They will catch you and put you in jail." You mean like they do with illegal immigrants back in the States?

Even though swimming the river between China and North Korea would make a great story, even I am not that stupid or desperate -- yet. But, just in case my last frantic attempts to obtain a visa fall through by Saturday, I have developed a secret Plan B. Don't tell no one but here it is:

Yesterday I was wandering around through the back streets behind my hotel all lost and confused and trying to find the North Korean consulate again and street-hiking through block after block of what looked like public housing units build back in the days of Chairman Mao, when I suddenly rounded a corner and saw -- rows upon rows of coiled barbed wire all over the street, guards on patrol everywhere and blast walls. Hey, I know that architectural style! This must be the American consulate! And it was.

"Do you think that you could help me get a visa to North Korea?" I asked the consul's representative once I'd gotten through the guards, gates, body scans and X-ray machines -- but like I said about the Kuwait consulate staff, once you get through all that security, American diplomats are helpful, intelligent and nice.

But they aren't miracle workers. No help with the DPRK visa for me.

"But I do have a suggestion," said the rep. "Why don't you take a trip to Dandong on the China-North Korea border? It's only a four-hour drive from here. Then once at Dandong, they have boat tours and while you are out on the river enjoying yourself, you would actually, technically, be in North Korea -- if only for a few minutes. And then at least when you get back home you could say that you've been there -- legally." Hmmm. I could be a wetback only without getting wet. Sounds like a plan!

PS: I also want to tell you about the other six people in the tour group I was supposed to travel with and who are currently in North Korea (without me!) I totally enjoyed meeting them and their story is wonderful and unique.

"We call ourselves the
Delegation for Friendship Among Women and we've been traveling together and visiting different countries since 1970," Mary Pomeroy told me. "We've been to 34 countries so far, including Iraq, Libya, Argentina, Albania, Bhutan and Bangladesh."

Mary's daughter, Jill Christiansen, has been going on the tours with her mom since 1973, back when Jill was a teenager.

Then I met Linda Hoeschler, a retired computer analyst from St. Paul, Minnesota. And I have a picture to prove it too.

Beth Fluke sat next to me at lunch. She owns a retail store in Philadelphia called "
Dandelion" that sells jewelry designed by Guatemalans and Native Americans. "How are the primaries coming in Pennsylvania?" I asked her.

"Clinton is supposed to be in the lead but everyone I know is voting for Obama. However, the mayor of Philly has endorsed Hillary because Obama had endorsed his rival during the 2006 election campaign."

Sylvia Sabo had an interesting story. She was the wife of a long-time Minnesota Congressman. "What was that like?"

"At election time every other year, he used to campaign door-to-door every day and stand in front of supermarkets on weekends. It was hectic. And I almost didn't get to come on this trip because my husband retired in 2006 but we couldn't sell our house in DC until just last week." So the housing slump has effected Congressmen too.

I loved all of these women, but I really enjoyed spending time with Carol Whitmore. She teaches school in Texas -- but not just any school. "We have an entire town peopled by special-needs adults. They run a nursery, a cafe and a gift shop. It's called
Brookwood." That's inspiring. Then she showed me an album from her daughter's recent wedding. I'm a sucker for wedding photos.

Then all of us trooped off to a massage parlor for an amazing massage treatment that lasted two and a half hours. We were all put into this one little room and worked over from head to foot by professionals -- take your mind out of the gutter, not THAT kind of professional! Anyway, they pounded us with hammers, soaked our feet in boiling water, lit candles and used our ears as candlesticks in order to draw the wax out of our ears and would have walked on our backs if we had let them. It was a very bonding experience -- and it only cost $25 each.

My massager guy was not really very talented but boy was he enthusiastic. He was like someone who really wanted to learn the piano but didn't really have the ear for it. So he put in a lot of effort. At first I just wanted him to go away and stop poking at me. But after an hour or two, it just simply felt really good.

When the six women got onto their bus to drive off to the airport without me, I was really sad. I would miss them. These six women have been traveling together for years, trying to bring peace and friendship to the world. Go them!

Here's their itinerary. I'm totally happy for them that they got to go to the DPRK. But, darn it, it shoulda been me doing all this cool stuff too!

"Wednesday -- Dinner at the Hotel Koryo in Pyongyang.

"Thursday -- Visit to home of President Kim Il Sung and Arch of Triumph built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925-1945. Lunch. Visit to the Kimilsungia flower festival and the Mangyongdae Children's Palace school of the arts. Leave hotel for Youth Soiree.

"Friday -- Go to Mount Myohyang. Mountain climbing. Lunch. Visit farm and Buddhist temple.

"Saturday -- Visit the USS Pueblo and the Sinchon War Museum. Lunch. Visit National Women's Organization. Lunch. Dinner.

"Sunday -- visit Panmunjom Demilitarized Zone, concrete wall built by the U.S. to divide North and South Korea. Lunch. Dinner.

"Monday -- Meet with government representative to discuss US/DPRK relations. Visit Central Historical Museum. Lunch. Visit Kunchaek University of Technology, Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, children's school and Pyongyang cultural exhibition. Dinner.

"Tuesday -- All-day visit to a farming co-op and rural community. Farewell dinner."

Geez Louise! I can't believe I'm missing all that food!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

North Korea or Bust; Me, my Shenyang hotel and

(Photos are of my hotel room, its view and the entrance to a Manchu tomb)

If you want to get a press pass to either the Republican or Democratic convention this fall, you have to apply for it through the congressional press office before April 15. This means that I won't be getting vetted for media credentials by the parties themselves. This is a good thing. I don't think either party likes me all that much.

The Republicans don't like me because I think they are wimps. They let the Bush-Cheney neo-cons use slime, name-calling, dirty tricks and lies to steam-roller over their principles, patriotism and "family values" and allow these fast-talking con-men to steal their party's very soul. Wimps.

And the Democrats don't like me because I think that they are wimps too -- afraid to think outside the box, call themselves liberals and get on with representing the working class and saving the world.

Anyway, in order to get a press pass to the two conventions, one apparently needs to have "authority" from Technorati. Nobody else has ever given me any authority. Why should Technorati start now?

And what exactly IS Technorati? I googled it and found out. And guess what? It turns out that I actually do have authority with Techorati. And my "authority" is the number 305,278. Sounds authoritative to me.

And now I'm over in northeastern China, but not getting any authority over here either. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is still refusing to give me a visa.

I was supposed to leave for North Korea yesterday with a tour group that arrived in Shenyang two days ago, spent a day sightseeing around at the tombs and palaces and a museum devoted to the Revolution and then happily toddled off to the airport without me, with their DPRK visas in hand. And here's me, stranded at my hotel without a visa, sadly waving goodbye.

I've been here in Shenyang for five days and I've spent most of those five days bugging various officials regarding my visa request. Now whenever anyone who has anything to do with granting visas sees me coming, you can just see them thinking to themselves, "Oh, no. Here comes Jane again. Where can I hide!"

The guards at the North Korea embassy know me by sight. The clerks at the North Korea travel agency are helpful but firm. "We can't do anything for you, Jane." The personnel at the North Korea airline office are really friendly and nice but the bottom line is that they are not allowed to put me on a plane without a visa. I've learned a lot about North Koreans just by trying to get a visa. They are truly polite and friendly. But definitely know how to stand their ground.

As I was standing in front of the DPRK embassy today, I met some Christian Koreans from Australia who were going there to deliver food for the children, and they offered to talk with the consulate on my behalf. I totally appreciated that they would do that for me but doubted they would get a response.

I somehow got the embassy's inside phone number and gave them a call. Their answering machine said, "Leave a message," in Korean. Or maybe it just said, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Apparently North Korea's visa-granting committee only meets once a week in Pyongyang and they aren't scheduled to meet until next week. But next week will be too late for me. My flight back to California leaves on April 17.

This whole thing is SO frustrating. I've come all this way for nothing. North Korea is just over the freaking border from me but it might as well be on the moon. How frustrating. And this is the exact same way I felt in February at the Kuwait City airport when I was SO close to Iraq but the US military wouldn't let me in there either. What is WRONG with me? What is wrong with them? "Jane, you just don't have the authority." Crap.

I'm really sorry for bugging you with all this whining, guys, but nobody in Shenyang seems to speak English or I'd whine to them instead. Never mind. I'll whine to them anyway, English-speaking or not.

Also, it's been so very frustrating regarding my love of story-telling, knowing that 7,204,000 people live in this city, that each one of them has a story and that the glass wall of language is keeping me from finding out what they are. I saw an old dude wearing a Chairman Mao uniform yesterday. What is his story? Or the punk rocker girl with the spiked hair and chains? I bet that she's got a story. Or, of the thousands and thousands of Chinese I've seen here in the last week, only one of them was pregnant. And I bet all these teenage boys at the internet cafe have stories too. And the woman who sells me stick-figure chicken....

Why do I want to go to the DPRK so badly? To hear DPRK stories too. I don't want to go there to be able to praise their government for being so wonderful or condemn it for being so bad. I just want to hear people's stories. What is it like to be Kim Yong Il? What is it like to be a man on the street? Are there things they are doing there or ways they live that have been successful or that have failed? Can they teach me anything about their lives that will help me to better live mine?

Do they have any "authority"?

And will they give me some if they do?

Maybe that is why I try to travel so much -- to learn what other people all over the world do or don't do that makes them better people, that gives them "authority" -- moral authority.

That's what I hate most about Republicans -- and some Democrats too. They sold their moral authority for shekels -- no, they gave it away for free -- to a small un-American band of fast-talking con-men who then stole their rights, their ideals and their moral justification as well.

And I've got no "authority" here at my hotel either. What's with that? They keep looking at me like I'm going to run out without paying my bill. "We need another deposit from you," they say every day.

"But I gave you one yesterday!" I whine. Oops. They forgot. If only I could speak Chinese I'd be able to tell them, "Stop doing this to me. I'm a person of authority! I'm number 305,278!"

PS: If ANYONE out there reading this has ANY authority with anyone in the DPRK, now is the time to make your move! The last plane to North Korea that I can take and still get back to Shenyang by April 17 leaves here on Saturday. If I'm not on it, visa in hand, I won't be able to go and will just have to sit around Shenyang for the next seven days.

PPS: I seem to have a love-hate relationship with my hotel. Sometimes I feel like that little girl in the children's book who lived in a hotel too. Like Eloise, I appear to be here for the duration.

"We are going send a fruit plate up to your room tonight," said the assistant manager. How sweet. Every time I think that I really hate this hotel, something else happens to make me love it.

Two nights ago, some newlyweds kept me up all night listening to them fight. She sobbed, he cajoled. But last night I slept like a baby. Three nights ago, some drunks down the hall started banging on doors at 3 am. But yesterday the dining room staff pulled my chair out for me, brought me coffee without asking -- even though I would have preferred tea -- and smiled.

This morning the freaking elevator was broken and I had to hobble down EIGHT FLIGHTS of stairs on my poor painful knees, one step at a time and mumbling, "Ouch, ouch, ouch, that really hurts!" all the way down. And crying and cursing this hotel.

But when I came back to the hotel from the internet cafe a few hours later, there was the doorman, waiting for me, to show me how to take the service elevator up to my room.

For the past five days, I've been continually accused of not paying my "deposit". Three times they have actually gone so far as to change the locks on my door so my key card wouldn't work. "You owe us money," they grumble. But every time I think that I'll just pack my bags and move to the hotel next door, the assistant manager sends me fruit. The doorman smiles. The elevator mechanic apologizes for the inconvenience. And, feeling like the little girl in the storybook, I realize that, for good or for bad, this hotel is my home. And I smile and stay another night.

China is like that -- the good and the bad. And America is like that too. And most people also are like that as well -- not perfect all the time but perfect just enough of the time to make you smile.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Lost in Shenyang: A palace, Guitar Hero and a two-hour massage

(Photos are of the palace library, me as an empress, a sleeping video-game player and breakfast at my hotel)

I was supposed to meet my tour group yesterday but they didn't show up, leaving me scratching my head and thinking that I might have gone to the wrong city. Is there another Shenyang in China that they might have gone to instead? Or perhaps a parallel universe? And then I got locked out of my hotel room because they thought I was trying to sneak out without paying the bill. But I wasn't! Honest. They just couldn't understand my English. Money talks, however, and they finally gave me back my luggage. Whew.

At 6 am this morning, I decided to go see if the internet cafe was open. Ha! This place never closes. This place has three stories of internet terminals, charges 50 cents an hour and is jam-packed 24/7 with teenagers playing video games. Just look around. There are teenage boys asleep on the keyboards everywhere, after having spent a raucous night playing Guitar Hero -- or whatever its Chinese equivalent is.

"What are we going to do today?" I asked my tour leader.

"We are going to go to the North Korean consulate, get our visas, tour the city of Shenyang by bus, go to the old imperial palace and get a two-hour massage." And food!

Who'd a thought that Shenyang had historical significance but it does. "This was actually the home base of the Manchu dynasty," said our tour guide. "At first the Manchus were Tartars, sweeping over the steppes with Genghis Khan. Then they built the palace you see here...." Yes, I finally found my tour group and now we were touring a palace that apparently was a prototype for the Forbidden City in Beijing.

"In the 1600s," continued our guide, "the Manchus formed the Qing dynasty and changed China's capital from the old Han one at Nanking to a new one here." Shenyang used to be the capital of China? Cool!

So if I'm going to be stuck here instead of being allowed into North Korea tomorrow, it won't be the end of the world. But so far it's looking bad for my visa to the DPRK.

"The DPRK consulate has lost your visa application," I was just told. "It will be impossible to get you a new one in time. A committee has to meet to approve it and they won't be meeting again any time soon."

That's the bad news. The good news is that my hotel serves free breakfasts and all this time that I was starving and living on stick-figure chicken, I coulda just gone down to the buffet.

I went down to the buffet this morning -- and they everything from stir-fry to Cocoa Puffs.

It's consoling to know, however, that the DPRK officials are really trying to help me get my visa. But after dealing with the American military bureaucracy regarding getting embedded in Iraq for the last three years, I'm afraid that I know how these bureaucracies work. First you gotta go up the chain of command. Second, you gotta have time. My plane back to the States leaves on April 17, so time is in short supply. Keep your fingers crossed for me, guys. Shenyang is historic and interesting, sure, but North Korea is even MORE historic and interesting. Sorry, Shenyang, but it's true -- except of course that Shenyang has a palace, a two-hour massage and Guitar Hero!