Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Expo 2009: Tracy Kidder, Craig Ferguson, Ben something-or-other & Jeanette Walls

I wasn't going to go to the Book Expo in New York City this year because I didn't have the money, but I found a free airline ticket by accident, got a room at a youth hostel and here I am. Staying in a youth hostel is weird -- imagine five sets of bunk beds stuffed into in a very small room. Imagine the Berkeley Homeless Shelter -- only occupied by college kids instead of shopping-cart pushers -- and you pretty much have the idea. It took me forever to fall asleep last night because people kept coming in and going out and flushing the toilet and turning on and off the light. But, fortunately, nobody snored.

This morning, however, I woke up exhausted. "But you gotta go to the Authors' Breakfast on Saturday," said someone I'd met the day before. "They are gonna have Craig Ferguson speak." Craig who? But I still managed to drag myself off to the Jacob Javits Center, lured on by the thought of a free breakfast and free books.

And, actually, I was glad that I did.

Craig Ferguson was the moderator of an authors'' panel consisting of him, Tracy Kidder, Jeanette Walls and somebody named Ben something-or-other. Ferguson wasn't THAT funny but here's what he said: "I'm up here with all these real writers. They don't even have any fart jokes in their books." He had just written a book called "American on Purpose". He was originally a Scot.

"Now let's listen to Tracy Kidder," Ferguson continued. "He's smarter than me too. He's probably even smarter than the New York Times."

"I went to Haiti," said Kidder, "and published a book about Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health organization. Then he took me to Moscow's Central Prison, the slums of Lima in Peru and into the highlands of Haiti. It was the tour from Hell. But the optimism that I discovered on these trips gave me a wonderful sense of hope."

I can relate to that. I survived a youth hostel and am still doing fine -- for now. But when I get back home to Berkeley, I will definitely crash. I guess people do what they have to do when they have to do it. Maybe living in Hell makes one rise to the occasion? Perhaps some small good might come out of this current Great Depression if it serves as a catalyst to finally get Americans to rise to the occasion, touch bases with the day-to-day reality of the rest of the world -- and finally get real.

Kidder, through Farmer, got introduced to a man named Deo and he was so taken with the man's story that Kidder wrote a book about him, called "Strength in What Remains". I now own three free copies of the publisher's proof of this book, BTW.

"Deo was a Tutsi from Burundi and Rwanda, scraping out a living as a grocery delivery boy in New York City after fleeing the Rwanda genocide. And after years of homelessness, Deo was finally able to enroll in Columbia University in biochemistry and philosophy. I chose to write about him because he seemed like a more universal person than Paul Farmer -- an ordinary person forced to survive in the most dangerously incredible situation -- both in Burundi and Rwanda, and in New York City. I know that under these circumstances, I myself would never have survived."

Me neither.

"When I went to Deo's village in Burundi, he told me I would be perfectly safe -- as long as I didn't take notes in public, didn't mention the words 'Tutsi' or 'Hutu' and never never said the word 'genocide'." Apparently Kidder survived because he was here today.

"No one could blame Deo for not returning to Burundi -- but he did. And he continues to do so. By 2008, Deo had started a public health and medical center, where people come in staggering numbers because there is nowhere else to go for medical care. And also people want to come to see what Americans are like. Why did Deo go back? He said, 'because you HAVE to do something'."

I totally agree with that one. Each one of us HAS to do something to make the world a better place. We just have to. It's not up to Obama or the United Nations or the ACLU or Oprah. It's all up to us.

The next speaker on the panel was Jeannette Walls. "I am just a woman with a story to tell -- but telling that story has changed my life." She wrote a book about her grandmother called "Half Broke Horses".

"If somebody could read my stories, then they would know what it's like to be poor. And also one young man who never reads books was forced by his teacher to read my book, 'The Glass Castle' and he said, 'That's a fine white trash book'. I think he meant that as a compliment."

According to Walls, "People read stories for the emotional connection they offer. People all around the country have a passion to find out about themselves and that's why they read biographies," to see how other people might have handled problems similar to their own. "People who read my first book, 'The Glass Castle,' wanted to know about my mother. Why did she make the decisions she made? And they also wanted to know why people want the things that they do."

Based on all the questions Walls had received about her mother's POV, she wanted to write another book -- just about her. "My mom would tell me stories about her past, including stories about my grandmother, and then I sat down to write a biography of my mother, but whenever I wrote about my grandmother, it seemed to just happen that my grandmother's voice took over the story. My grandmother was born in a dugout on the banks of a riverbank in 1901. She was a tough old broad and she did what she had to to get by." And so, slowly but surely, Walls' new book about her mother was taken over by her grandmother's story.

Walls is hoping that her grandmother's story will be similar to the stories that belong to her readers -- or in my case, the stories of my own grandmother and great-grandmother. "And these people are looking for someone who had gone through the same things that they went through -- looking for someone like them." Or else looking for ways to stop being like themselves and move on?

"The response to my first book was a dream come true -- so much more than anything I had ever dreamed of. And my hope is that people will recognize their own story in the story of my grandmother as well," and that this book will be a best-seller also.

I can recognize my own story in Walls' story -- I wrote two books and I want them to be best-sellers too! But nobody buys my books, although I can never understand why not. Those are excellent books! I came to the Book Expo to get free books, sure, but also to flog my own books. But so far? No luck. There are thousands of people here, also trying to flog their books. I'm just another grain of sand on the beach here. But YOU could still buy my books! "Mecca & the Hajj: Lessons from the Islamic School of Hard Knocks" is the story of what it's really like to go on Hajj. "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips for Touring Today's Middle East" is the story about what it's really like to be in Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine. But I digress.

The next speaker on the panel was Ben something-or-other, author of "The Accidental Billionaires". I can't tell you for sure because he didn't give us a free book, and also Ferguson mumbled the guy's name -- or else he said it in Scottish. "I got 195 rejections on my stories," said Ben, "probably because they all took place in bars. But then I started writing medical thrillers after one publishers told me to read John Grisham, and they sold well. And then I met some geeky kids hanging out in the Crossroads Bar in Boston and they all had tons of $100 bills. How did they get them? 'We're the MIT Blackjack Team.' So I wrote a book about that. I was a fiction writer who ended up writing a non-fiction book. Kevin Spacey was in the movie version, called '21'."

They made his book into a movie? They could make MY books into a movie too!

"Then I met a geeky gawky kid who had some friends who he said had invented FaceBook. One was a hacker on the FBI hacker list. But they all had wanted to meet girls through Harvard's Finals Clubs. But, instead, one friend hacked into the Harvard computer, hacked all the girls' photos there and used them to have a hot-or-not contest -- which ended up crashing all the computers on campus and also all the campus women's groups were mad at him. But then two more friends were trying to make a dating website and needed a geek. So he thought, 'What if girls put their own photos up.' So that's how they launched FaceBook." And that's the story that Ben's new book is about.

"These guys did it so they could make their own Finals Club. Then it all exploded -- and had one million members. Getting inside this process was amazing -- that two geeks from Harvard who couldn't get girls invented the most socially interactive activity in the world."

Then we finished our breakfast -- bagels and cream cheese and orange juice -- and snagged up our free book proofs and left. And I went out to look at the rest of the Expo. It's huge. I've already got 40 pounds of free books and I still have most of Saturday and all of Sunday left.

Then I went to a seminar of how to promote one's book through a blog book tour, followed by a seminar on how to use Twitter. "There are 32 million Twitter accounts. Think about the implications -- in countries where there are cell phones but no internet connections." But apparently you gotta have a cell phone to use it. That leaves me out.

"No, you can also Tweet from your computer too." But then the speaker riffed off into technical talk and I tuned out. Heck, I can't even keep up with my e-mail inbox -- let alone 32 million Twitters. Forget that.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bringing the war home: Alternatives to our military's new psychiatric wards

(Photos are of a painting of my father in his Navy uniform and me and my father after World War II)

I just heard from a reliable source that the U.S. military is currently building new psychiatric wards on several of its major bases here in America. The new wards are designed to provide treatment for the increasing number of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have "brought the war home with them". This is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the military is stepping up to the plate and taking care of its own.

The bad news is that we now have a noticeably increased need for facilities that can deal with our returning troops' Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal [including] violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat." As more and more veterans come home from the wars these days, we are seeing more and more cases of PTSD.

You know, being in Iraq is different from what most people think it might be like. One of the closest depictions of what it's really like in Iraq just showed up on the season finale of Gray's Anatomy of all places -- not the part where Arizona babbles on and on about how being in Iraq is keeping our country safe. That's pretty much bull-dookie. Many of the service guys that I talked with in Iraq know that Bush lied to them and that Shock and Awe was pretty much generated by Dubya's folly and lust for power and oil. Forget about that part of the show.

The part of Gray's Anatomy that did ring true about Iraq was the part when a young soldier with leg problems wanted his leg cut off so he could get a prosthesis and go back to Iraq and help out his buddies. "They are the only true family I know."

It's that feeling of being part of a family that keeps guys signing up for more tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that and the respect that they get from the people they work with over there. When you are in the U.S. military, you are given important jobs, you have responsibility and you get respect. One young lieutenant I talked with in Baghdad put it this way: "Over here, I have as much responsibility and authority as a CEO of a corporation. At my age, you can't get that kind of experience back home."

You can't? Why not?

When our troops come home, there should be more waiting for them than just a bunch of newly-built psych wards. They should have jobs waiting for them -- decent, meaningful jobs. And not only that but let's talk about keeping platoons together. When you work side by side with someone else who is a good worker, a bond of respect and trust is created. And if a military platoon learns to work well together like a well-oiled machine in Iraq, then let's try to keep that crew together back in civilian life too. Each member of the platoon can help watch the others' back in times of stress while dealing with a new reality that is so different from the one they have been used to for the last three or four tours of duty.

They call this a "post-traumatic" disorder for a reason -- because it doesn't show up until the "traumatic" part is over. So when our troops get back home, that's when they will need their buddies more than ever -- and they also will need our help as well.

Let's see. How else can we help returning vets to combat PTSD? Like I said, give them meaningful work, leadership positions, jobs that require skill and responsibility -- like the ones they had back in Iraq. Jobs like you and I wish that we had. And also let's give our returning service men and women veterans' perks, healthcare, decent housing, economic support. You know the drill. Give them the stuff that we all should be having ourselves too but don't because we're not neo-cons, stock brokers, bankers or Blackwater. And giving vets this kind of help will probably cost us less in the long run than building and staffing new psychiatric wards. Plus this is a good way to prove that we really are patriotic and DO support our troops.

And just to make sure I'd covered all my bases regarding how to help our returning troops, I even consulted Madam Jane, my resident psychic. "Hmmm," said Madam Jane. "Ten years from now, I can see our returned Iraq and Afghanistan vets living under freeways, frequenting drunk tanks and generally going the way that our Vietnam vets did -- unless we do something drastically different right now."

"Got any suggestions?" I asked.

"Yeah." And boy did she. "Let's take back a trillion dollars from that bailout we gave Wall Street, a trillion dollars from the bailout we gave those loser bank guys as a reward for mis-managing OUR money, and another trillion dollars from the bailout we're giving to the healthcare insurance middlemen who know jack-dookie about how to make people well -- and give all of that money to our vets instead. All of it. Vets who wore the uniform of our country deserve our tax dollars. Wall Street Ponzi schemers in lizard-skin loafers, business-school drop-out bankers and bureaucratic healthcare bloodsuckers do not."

Madam Jane may just have a point here.

Economist Mike Whitney has also made some scary predictions recently. "Make no mistake -- we are selling off our future and the future of our children to prevent the bondholders of U.S. financial corporations from taking losses. We are using public funds to protect the bondholders of some of the most mismanaged companies in the history of capitalism, instead of allowing them to take losses that should have been their own. All our policy makers have done to date has been to squander public funds to protect the full interests of corporate bondholders."

So. How about that we "squander" our public funds to protect the full interests of our returning troops instead.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The special "Mentalist" issue of my housing co-op's newsletter

The other day a neighbor said to me, "Jane, your housing co-op looks like trash. What ever happened to all its plans for a re-hab?"

"Those plans have been killed," I replied.

In the new TV series, "The Mentalist," Simon Baker plays a detective named Patrick Jane (no relation) who uses his acute mental powers to track down killers by using his incredible abilitiy to detect who is telling the truth and who is lying. Boy could my housing co-op use him now!

For the last eight years, our plans to have this dump re-habbed have been stabbed in the back again and again and again. Who did it? Members of our board of directors keep telling us that it wasn't them. "We have alibis!" they cry. "It wasn't us." Or was it? We desperately need this re-hab. We need to know who is killing it. We need Patrick Jane on this case!

"Was it you, back in 2001," Patrick would ask the board members, "who fired the re-hab's first architect and delayed the project for years?"

"No, no, no! It wasn't us!" the board members would protest. "And besides, he needed to go."

"Was it you who refused to raise the rents that would have financed the re-hab -- because rent increases wouldn't have effected the Section 8 residents but would have effected you -- until HUD finally had to step in and FORCE you to raise them?"

"No, no, no! We didn't do that. It just sort of happened on our watch."

"Was it you who delayed the project for two whole years more because you weren't happy with the next architect's choice of building siding and you wanted to replace it with something inferior yet more expensive?"

"No, no, no! You must have us confused with some other board!"

"Was it you," Patrick might then inquire, "that fired the first project manager when he apparently tried to move things along, fired the first contractor when he allegedly requested an actual start date for the re-hab, and fired several property management companies when they apparently tried to get the re-hab off the ground -- thus delaying the re-hab again and again and again?"

"No, no, no! It was all their fault! We HAD to do it."

Aha! Now Patrick would be making the board members nervous. Now they would be starting to sweat!

"Was it you who sent out a notice to all Savo Island residents stating that the bank that was financing this re-hab had just backed out with 'no explanation,' even though you KNEW that the bank had stated its reasons to you clearly in black and white. 'Given the passage of time since this project was engaged, and the difficult economic realities of the transaction, we are not in a position to proceed with the financing of this loan.'

"No, no, no! We wouldn't lie to the residents. We'd never do that!"

"And is it you who are all buddy-buddy-pals with the City of Berkeley officials who apparently want to tear down Savo island and make a killing for developers by putting up high-rise condos here instead?"

"No, no, no! Why would we want to do that!"

"Was it you that seemed to do everything it could to stall this housing co-op re-hab for eight long years, firing management company after management company who tried to help Savo, blocking any progress and seemingly innocently watching as the re-hab slowly bled to death?"

"No, no, no! We're innocent, I tell you! Innocent, innocent, innocent!" And then Patrick James would smile his boyish smile, give us his secret wink and then tell us exactly who is not lying, who IS lying -- and why.

My letter to the editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet regarding my housing co-op

Dear Editor:

I live at Savo Island Cooperative Homes, Inc, a HUD-sponsored housing project here in south Berkeley, located right across the street from the Berkeley Bowl. There is a housing project similar to Savo Island in every city and town in America, all built in 1979 -- under the guidance of President Jimmy Carter. But that was then and this is now.

Right now, our little housing co-op is pretty much falling apart. The siding is falling off, the roofs leak, etc. "How come Savo looks so trashy?" a neighbor asked me the other day.

"Because HUD, our various management companies and several residents here have been trying to get the place re-habbed for over eight years now -- and every time we almost get the re-hab going, our board of directors seems to drop the ball." The latest nail in our re-hab's coffin was pounded in last week when our lending bank withdrew their offer to give us a re-hab loan. The bank officially cited their reason for backing out as being because of "the passage of time since this project was engaged." But perhaps the bank also withdrew because Savo's board had just fired yet another management company, this one being the 13th or 14th one the board has gone through, averaging a different management company approximately every two years. Never a good idea to change horses in mid-stream. And now Savo Island not only has to scramble around looking for another lender -- they also have to find another management company too (the one the board had lined up next has not been approved by HUD).

In addition, HUD has recently required that our board of directors be supplemented by two outside financial and/or housing experts. Maybe this will finally help get our re-hab back on track. But in the meantime Savo Island continues to look like it was built in 1879 instead of 1979, developers are apparently hoping our re-hab will fail so that they can swoop in and construct yet another Berkeley high-rise condo on this site, and our whole neighborhood is beginning to panic about what will happen here next. And I'm panicked too -- as the possibility of homelessness begins to stare me in the face.

So. What action do I want the readers of the Berkeley Daily Planet to take regarding this matter? That's easy. Please, please, PLEASE don't anyone tell Jimmy Carter what has befallen his wonderful fair-and-affordable housing dream for Berkeley.

Jane Stillwater
Berkeley, CA 94703

Monday, May 18, 2009

WTF is going on with Obama's healthcare plan -- and the 2009 Netroots Nation convention

I just got an urgent request in my inbox from President Obama himself, asking me to support his new healthcare plan. Sure, I'm in. But just exactly what IS this new healthcare plan? Nothing in Obama's e-mail describes it. Apparently I'm not even required to know what the plan even is. All I am required to do is just send in money to support it.

Is it gonna be a single-payer healthcare system? Will every uninsured sick person in America be covered? Will the premiums still be coming out of the pockets of small business? Will there even be any premiums? I don't have a clue.

However, according to consumer health advocate Donna Smith, Obama's healthcare plan is a non-starter. "You and me and every middle class, working person in this nation is about to start handing over more and more of their hard-earned cash to the private insurance industry, courtesy of our own elected members of Congress and our very popular President." Obama is finally gonna represent the grassroots people that elected him? Fat chance.

According to Smith, "We're going to be printing and providing money for insurance companies like no bail-out we've seen yet this economic crisis cycle. The healthcare legislation under design and so far under wraps for the American people is slowly being leaked via carefully staged forum and meetings and a few well-timed hearings and grand press announcements." But according to Smith, that small bit of information that is being leaked sounds kind of bad for us taxpayers.

"First," Smith continues, "no matter what percentage of your take-home pay it takes, you will be legally required to buy private health insurance. Second, if all you can afford is a policy that leaves you financially exposed to bankruptcy and foreclosure, then you will still be legally required to purchase that private insurance product. Third, should you fail to buy a policy, you will pay a fine." Been there, done that -- when they tried to take a mandatory $98 a month out of my $380 Social Security pay and I had no recourse except to start eating cat food until I could get a Medi-Cal supplement.

And, according to Smith, "In order to make sure every single American buys the private products from insurance companies and knowing some families won't make enough to afford what is offered, we'll all chip in and pay our taxes to subsidize those who cannot afford to buy the pricey plans." So. The insurance companies will still be screwing us bigtime -- only now we taxpayers also get to chip in to make sure that health insurance companies' profits from being totally unnecessary middlemen are guaranteed. Plus us original policy-holders still have to pay through the nose. Got it.

"Costs will be successfully shifted even more heavily onto the backs of America's middle class workers." And all we will get for our money is the solace and comfort of knowing that more insurance company middlemen are going to be able to build more McMansions.

All this talk of insurance company bailouts is depressing me. Let's change the subject.

Last Wednesday, I got an application to go to the 2009 Book Expo in New York City on May 29. I love the Book Expo! When I went to the one in 2008, I came home with 70 pounds of free books -- but that was in Los Angeles. How am I going to be able to afford to get to New York? Later that day, however, I was cleaning up my apartment and found a free round-trip ticket to fly to NYC on United Airlines. I'm there!

And then I saw an ad for this year's "YearlyKos" convention in August in Pittsburgh (except that now it's called "Netroots Nation"), so I hopefully began cleaning my apartment again -- but couldn't find any more plane tickets. So I applied for a scholarship to go to Netroots Nation for free, but they want people to endorse me -- so if you wouldn't mind, please click here and to vote for me to get a scholarship to go to the convention. Thanks.

But then I got to thinking about President Obama again and about all his frequent appeals to America's grassroots to vote for him and support him. That man OWES us! And maybe one way he could pay us back for electing him -- seeing as how he's not gonna be paying us back by giving us decent inexpensive healthcare or saving our homes or bringing our troops back from Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine -- then maybe he could finally open up the White House for tours again.

And if American citizens can finally start touring their own White House once again, then maybe if I give cleaning my apartment another try, I might magically find another ticket -- to fly me off to Washington DC. And if that happens, maybe I can also go to Capitol Hill and beg all those fat-cat Senators and Congresspeople to finally start doing their jobs, start representing the people who voted for them, stop handing out billions of dollars to blood-sucking health insurance companies who make their living off the corpses of cancer victims, and finally start voting to benefit the people who elected them.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A shotgun blast to the chin and other alternatives to Prozac

(Photos are of my friend Caleb, Ashley and baby Mena hitting the garage sales, Ashley demonstrating the location of the anti-depressant G-Spot, us getting lost on the freeway and ending up at Treasure Island -- and visiting my mother's grave)

Aside from Viagra, anti-depressant medications are among America's top-selling drugs. Why is this true? What, exactly, have Americans got to be so depressed about? We have the highest standard of living in the world. We own hundreds of thousands of flat-screen TVs. We have iPods. We have Disneyland!

Who knows why Americans are so desperately depressed that they have to constantly pop pills, over-eat, use illegal drugs, smoke, watch kiddie porn, abuse their credit cards and/or drink Jack Daniel's or Night Train just to make it through the day? I myself haven't a clue. Do you?

My friend Caleb Schaber was having mental issues after spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan, couldn't cope with his life, got prescribed anti-depressants, didn't have healthcare insurance, couldn't afford to keep up his prescription payments, withdrew too quickly from his meds and blew his head off with a shotgun instead.

Hundreds of people have jumped to their deaths off the Golden Gate bridge. Why? Why? Why?

Ever since I was a little tyke, I've always looked on the negative side of life. This makes me a good blogger, but not a happy person. And what do I have to be unhappy about (aside of course from the fact that my country has been falling apart economically and morally since Bush and Cheney stole the 2000 election and let 9-11 happen on their watch -- but are still not in jail)? Not hardly anything. I have a decent place to live, wonderful children and grandchildren and Social Security. Plus I live right across the street from the Berkeley Bowl -- fresh vegetables and organic lamb chops year round? Count my blessings!

No one is waterboarding me.

I'm not working in a sweatshop in Haiti.

I don't have cancer, Parkinsons disease or AIDS.

What is wrong with Americans? What is wrong with ME? Why can't we stop bombing far-away countries, stop taking anti-depressants, leave off the ice cream binges, stop importing cocaine from Columbia, join Alcoholics Anonymous and just get on with being happy?

PS: I think I may have just discovered the human body's G-Spot of anti-depressiveness. I should patent it! I'd make a mint. Cheaper than buying shotgun shells, more convenient than scoring a Prozac prescription every three months, handier than Shock and Awe, less disruptive then Columbine, more reliable than booze, less time-consuming than psychotherapy and less expensive than the Pentagon budget, Viagra and shopping!

Here's what you do. Put your hands by your sides and then poke gently around with your fingertips until you feel a sore spot -- almost like you had a bruise there. Then press gently but firmly on that spot for a moment. For some unknown reason, this G-Spot of the mind releases endorphins directly into our brains.

"Jane, are you saying that going around clutching our thighs is a viable alternative to a multi-billion-dollar drug trade, our war-as-penis-enlarger federal budget and a pitcher of margaritas? That's crazy!" Maybe. Maybe not. Hey, it works for me.

PPS: I'm so sorry about Caleb -- a genuinely creative life wasted. Here's a wonderful memorial tribute to him by his friend Deb Prothero:

PPPS: Wanna see the quote of the day from my 2009 Franklin Planner? It's by Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful we must carry it with us or we find it not."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Israel, Iraq & Afghanistan: Winners and losers

(Photos are of blown-up people in Iraq and a former World War II Army barracks near San Francisco that is now being used as an artist's studio -- and, yes, that is baby Mena in the background)

I just got an interesting e-mail from the mother of a Marine stationed in Afghanistan. "I can't believe that Secretary of State Clinton apologized to Afghans for the recent air-strikes that killed so many civilians," she wrote, "when evidence is coming in now that most of those people weren't killed by us. They were either killed after the Taliban herded them into buildings and then set up operations on the roofs to make it look like the buildings were Taliban hideouts and thus turning the villagers into military targets -- or else the civilians were deliberately killed by grenades. The Taliban have a nasty habit of moving into areas that have just been hit by American air-strikes, blowing up as many villagers as they can and blaming the slaughter on American forces. And then they have the absolute gall to turn around and demand reparations!"

Is this true? According to the Associated Press, it is. "A senior U.S. defense official said late Wednesday that Marine special operations forces believe the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, who then loaded some of the bodies into a vehicle and drove them around the village, claiming the dead were victims of an American air-strike." And if this is true, who exactly is winning this type of "war"?

In Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been tortured, left homeless, deprived of education and/or blown to bits. And when called on the carpet about this by the world community, Israeli officials just look innocent, shuffle their feet and cry, "Who me? I'm just the victim!"

Who exactly is winning this "war" either?

And in Iraq.... Ah, Iraq. I have NO idea what is going on in Iraq these days because my court case against the Department of Defense has been sidetracked off into mediation indefinitely, I'm not allowed to talk about my case as long as it is in mediation -- and I'm not allowed to re-embed in Iraq as long as the case is in mediation. Which means that at this rate I won't be allowed to re-embed in Iraq for years possibly. Years.

In Iraq, the military is definitely winning their war -- against me!

And in America, weapons manufacturers seem to be the clear winners of these three wars, as over 50% of all government spending goes directly to the Pentagon, bypassing education, healthcare, infrastructure repair, The Boardwalk, Park Place and whatever else might benefit the common good.

All this new information is causing me to take a closer look at exactly who is winning and who is losing these "wars" in Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq.

It appears that violent people are winning these wars, no matter which side they are on. And rich people are winning.

And women and children and American taxpayers are clearly losing.

If you stop looking at these "wars" in terms of battles fought between boots-on-the-ground combatants and start looking at them in terms of who profits from them instead, you can see a whole different conflict going on -- and a whole new set of winners and losers. Cheney, Bush and the oil companies won bigtime in Iraq. Weapons manufacturers are winning bigtime in Afghanistan. And who is winning in Israel? Not your average Israeli or Palestinian. Those guys are all losers. They have all lost so much -- over 60 years of peace of mind for their families. It's only the guys on top there that have won.

Wouldn't you just, for once in your life, love to see some kind of "war" happen where women and children and taxpayers finally come up on top?

PS: Guess what? There are many more of us women and children and taxpayers than there are rich guys -- and there are even more of us than there are violent people. We are the majority. We CAN make this happen!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

"I got it for wholesale": Health insurance companies get cheaper prices than us

When recent Senate hearings on healthcare allowed fifteen different private health insurance lobbyists to present their various wish lists to Congress regarding which direction their corporations wanted American healthcare to take -- but did not allow even one representative of single-payer healthcare to even be present in the room let alone plead their case, my blood pressure went up. But I'm not alone. Almost every blogger, consumer advocate and small-business owner in the country right now is reaching a boiling point on this subject too.

And when thinking people everywhere began to juxtapose these lopsided Senate hearings next to the recent swine flu fiasco wherein the media went ape-dookie over the death of one person from the H1N1 virus while completely ignoring millions of possible American deaths due to lack of access to healthcare, this slick glossing over of the obvious lack of available and affordable healthcare in America became a national scandal and an international joke.

So. With so much pressure from angry Americans who are DEMANDING a single-payer healthcare plan that could save hundreds of thousands of American lives, how long do you think that Congress and the media are going to be able to hold out? Quite a long time, thank you. There's money to be made here. The people who Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Kos for short) calls America's "gatekeepers" are not gonna give all that $$$$ up just because it is good for Americans.

That pisses me off.

But you know what pisses me off even more? The fact that people who have no access to healthcare insurance at all -- the people who would be the most hurt by enormous medical bills -- are the very ones who are forced to pay retail for their medications, operations, doctors' visits and hospital stays -- while healthcare insurance companies can "get it for you wholesale".

You heard me.

I used to write legal settlement briefs for a living. The pay wasn't very good but writing a personal injury settlement brief was like writing a soap opera -- it was fun. And when I sent for the medical records of the poor long-suffering clients that I wrote for, I always received copies of their medical bills too. And guess what? Each bill would always list the amount of money charged to a client if the client didn't have health insurance -- or else it would list the amount charged to a client with health insurance. And the amount charged to clients WITH healthcare insurance was always considerably lower than that charged to the clients who obviously needed a financial break the most.

For instance, a doctor's visit would cost your average insurance-less schmuck approximately $60. But the same doctor's visit would cost your average health insurance provider only $35 -- or less. "I got it for wholesale!"

With or without the blessing of Congress and the media, just exactly how long is the American public going to tolerate either continuing to be fleeced by health insurance middle-men or else watching their loved ones sicken and die due to lack of access to healthcare? Just how long does Congress and the media think they are going to be able to keep a lid on this boiling pot? I think that P.T. Barnum has the answer to that one. "There's a sucker born every minute."

If we voters, consumers, sick people and Americans don't do everything that we possibly can to bypass the health insurance industry's "gatekeepers" in Congress and in the media -- and make our demands known with such insistance that even "our" government has no choice except to give us single-payer health insurance ASAP, then P.T. Barnum is obviously right.

Single-payer healthcare? It's an idea whose time has come. It's time for Americans to band together, bypass our Congressional and media gatekeepers and "get it for wholesale" ourselves.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Single-needle healthcare: Is high-tech acupuncture the wave of the future?

Maybe I'm becoming a hypochondriac, do you think? Lately, something always seems to be going wrong with my body. But have I been taking all this lying down? Sure, absolutely.

This morning, however, I resolved to get my body back into shape and went down to Oakland to get myself checked out at the local acupuncture school. Why not. For only $20, you can get a complete physical diagnosis and tune-up. They check the pulses in your wrists, look at your tongue, ask you a bunch of questions that your primary care doctor never has time to ask you, stick thin silvery needles into your arms and legs, give you some little brown pills -- and voila! You're back on the road.

"What can you find out about the condition of my body just by taking my pulses?" I asked the student who was unlucky enough to get stuck with me as his patient.

"Your pulses can tell me about the condition of all your organs," he replied. But then instead of taking my pulses Old School with his fingers, he whipped out his new Acer laptop and hooked me up to some elaborate hardware plugged into its USB port. Wow! Acupuncture's gone high-tech! The Yellow Emperor, father of traditional Chinese medicine, would be truly impressed.

And then right there on the computer screen were the results of the software's analysis of all my organs -- in graph form. "See how all those red, green, gray and blue bars go up from the baseline? That means that your liver, gall bladder, heart, lungs and kidneys are in pretty good shape. But see how that yellow bar there descends down from the baseline? That means that your stomach is not doing so well."

He could tell me all that -- and with all the illustrations, whistles and bells -- in less than ten minutes? Awesome.

"But aren't you going to take my pulses the old-fashioned way too?" I asked. I mean really. Who trusts a machine?

"No need to. These results look right to me." Yeah, but.... I'm paying twenty whole dollars for this exam. I want the whole nine yards.

"Actually," the student replied, "I don't even have to take your pulses at all. I can tell what your physical strengths and weaknesses are just by asking you ten questions." That's even more interesting. That means that you don't have to go to Taiwan and pay $1,000 for the high-tech machine. All you gotta do is ask ten questions.

"Okay. What are the ten questions?"

"First I ask if you have warm or cold feet."

"Cold feet. REALLY cold feet."

"That tells me that your heart is not circulating your blood as well as it might be. You might have something wrong with your heart."

Next question? "Do you sweat?" No.

"Sweat is the heart's blood." Who'd of thought of that. "When you sweat, your heart gets rid of toxins -- just as your body gets rid of its toxins through your blood." But I never sweat.

"Then exercise more." I can't! I gots bad knees. I hate exercise. And I run like a penguin.

"Then take saunas or steam baths instead." I could do that.

I never did find out what the significance of the other eight questions were because we ran out of time -- he asked me about bowel movements, urination, if I liked to drink hot or cold things, was I always thirsty or not...but he didn't get a chance to explain to me what my answers meant. Maybe next time I could corner him and grill him some more.

And then the student explained to me about how there was series of electrical meridians -- like an invisible wiring circuit -- that run through our bodies, and one of them connects my stomach and spleen to my eyes and toes and everything in between. "Your body's meridians carry electrical currents just like your blood carries oxygen," he explained, "and if one of the organs' electrical currents get blocked, it's as if that particular organ blew a fuse. So what we do is go in with needles to the places where each weak organ's 'fuse box' is located and get the currents flowing again."

And then he acupunctured me at six points on my stomach's electrical currency lines, mainly on my calves and feet. And then I passed out.

"Are you okay?" asked the student. "Would you like some chocolate? Would that help?" Chocolate? Do you got any? "Well, er, no, but...." Hey, they would have given me chocolate at Kaiser! But on the other hand, I would have had to have gone through days' worth of testing and thousands of dollars in costs at Kaiser -- or St. Joseph's or Mt. Sinai -- in order to get the same information I got from this student for twenty dollars and twenty minutes of my time.

PS: Don't make me get all fierce up in your face here yet again regarding America's crying need for single-payer healthcare -- and for single-needle healthcare too.

There is no reason in the world why we can't simply fire all those health insurance middle-men, go straight to the source, save billions of dollars and develop our own healthcare insurance system at half the cost. And acupuncture should be made readily available to everyone as well. Acupuncture is a good thing! And high-tech acupuncture is the freaking wave of the future! And goodness knows that the acupuncture school that I went to in downtown Oakland is churning out top-flight (both high-tech and low-tech) acupuncturists at an amazing rate -- so that every hospital in America can (and should!) have at least one acupuncturist on its staff.

PPS: One person in America has died from swine flu. Millions in America have died from lack of healtchcare. Why isn't the American media and the World Health Organization all over that story? If Mexican nationals living here and tourists who have just come back from Mexico are shunned and quarantined like they have the Plague, then how come health insurance executives and CEOs aren't treated this way too?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Sail along silver girl: It's Palestine's time to shine?

Yes, I'm quoting Simon and Garfunkel. "Like a bridge over troubled waters...." And this song somehow reminds me of all the people in both Israel and Palestine who are laying down their lives in nonviolent protest against the injustices that Palestinians -- both Muslim and Christian -- have had to endure for the past 61 years. And it's getting harder and harder to ignore these injustices -- it's been over four months since the slaughter at Gaza and still nothing has changed there, the cities still lie in ruin and still no aid is getting through.

And every day it is getting harder and harder to be a bridge over these troubled waters, to put one's body on the line and lay down in nonviolent protest against the growing arsenal of death machines that just keep coming and coming and coming at Palestinians -- simply because they were unlucky enough to be born in the shade of the ancient olive groves of Palestine .

Unlike Paul Simon's silver girl, Palestine's time has obviously not come.

If you look at a map of Palestine today, you will see only a few splattered ink blots and odd spaces depicting the present-day shtetls that are all that is left of a once-thriving civilization that has existed in Palestine for thousands of years. Troubled waters indeed.

Israeli neo-cons spend approximately seven million dollars of American taxpayers' money a day in order to play-act at being Cossacks and raid Palestinian shtetls, using white phosphorus bombs and F-16s and tanks instead of swords and horses. And the Palestinians fight back -- by making the best olive oil in the world.

"All your dreams are on their way. See how they shine."

White phosphorus in the night sky over Gaza does shine and shine and shine. White phosphorus exploding in the moonlight over Gaza is a beautiful sight -- like fireworks on the Fourth of July -- as it rains down death upon the sleeping orchards below.

"When darkness comes -- and pain is all around...."

Europe and America stood silently by when six million Jews and gypsies and protesters against injustice were slaughtered during the Nazi Holocaust. And now Europe and America also stand silent as a smaller, more intimate holocaust takes place over in Palestine -- not like the one that took place in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but more intimate, like Cossacks riding through shtetls on horses breathing fire -- white phosphorus fire.

Europe and America are sending aid to the dying people of Gaza -- and it is sitting and rotting in huge cinderblock warehouses in Israel. Americans and Europeans are happy -- they've done their part. They've given their money. They've brought the poor Palestinians medical supplies and baby formula and beans and flour and rice. And the food and the humanitarian supplies just sit in these warehouses in Israel and never get to Gaza. And the Israelis also are happy because they get to employ Israelis to mind the warehouses and receive monies for housing the aid workers and be all smug. "I will ease your mind." And the consciences of Americans and Europeans ARE eased. They have managed to appear to be doing something about this new, intimate holocaust -- but without really doing anything.

All I can say now to the people of Palestine -- and the people of Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and America too -- "All your dreams are on their way" -- and mine are too.

If I had my way, if all my wishes would come true, I will comfort you. "When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. I'm on your side..."

I'm on the side of everyone who longs for a better life for their family and who wants their children safe and who decries Cossack raids and concentration camps and man's inhumanity to man everywhere that it occurs -- be it in Israel or the West Bank or the Congo or even in America. But I must admit that I have a special place in my heart for the people of Palestine.

"Sail along silver girl."

PS: Here are some facts on the ground to back up Palestine's poetry of grief.

According to the Palestine Chronicle, "Israel and Egypt continue to enforce a deadly blockade on Gaza despite international condemnation. Gaza still awaits an international aid package for reconstruction nearly three months after Israel's 23-day attack on the besieged coastal sliver." Nothing is happening to help the Palestinians? Nothing?

"John Ging, Head of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, says none of the USD 4.5 billion package of reconstruction aid pledged in March has reached the impoverished region because of border restrictions. 'There is no prospect of recovery or reconstruction until we can get access for construction materials,' Ging told a news briefing during a visit to the EU headquarters in Brussels." NONE of it is getting through?

"'Billions of dollars were pledged for recovery and reconstruction and yet none of that can actually connect with those whose lives were destroyed,' [Ging] added. Israel continues to enforce its 21-month blockade of the Palestinian territory despite international outcries. This is while Egypt has also restricted crossings at its border with Gaza."


"Furthermore, Ging called on the international community to explore avenues in an attempt to come up with a productive and promising solution to the issue of border crossings and provide more access to goods and services for Gazans. 'Today the money is out there in pledges and the people of Gaza continue to subsist in the rubble of their former lives and the attention of the world has sadly moved on, which compounds the despair that people feel,' he commented."

Gaza, all your dreams ARE on their way -- they are on their way to a bunch of gigantic Israeli warehouses, where they will sit and rot forever.

"Three weeks of Israeli air strikes and a ground incursion resulted in the death of over 1,500 Palestinians and the injury of about 5,450 people in the Gaza Strip. Most of the victims were civilians. The carnage also inflicted more than USD 1.6 billion of damage on Gaza's economy."

Friday, May 01, 2009

An inconvenient truth: "Swine flu is less dangerous than regular flu."

After a friend of mine came down with a severe dose of some kind of terrible flu and I nursed him back to health, guess what happened next? Yeah, I got sick too. Really sick. "OMG, now I've got swine flu!" I whined -- in between trips to the bathroom.

But in my more lucid moments, I managed to do some research on the subject (as we all know, Google is the poor man's health insurance). Just how serious IS swine flu? I know that I am feeling like heck-warmed-over right now, but let's put this thing into perspective. According to my friend Joe Thompson who loves to send me statistics, within one year in America over 61,000 people will die of pneumonia. One out of every 20 who contract pneumonia will die. And since January of this year alone, over 1,300 people have died from ordinary flu. But only one person has died from swine flu.

Great. Now we have put this so-called pandemic into perspective. But does that make me feel better? No. So I trudged off to the local ER to get treated for swine flu -- or not. And they gave me a face mask as soon as I walked in the door. "Do you get many swine flu patients here?" I asked the triage nurse.

"Actually no," he replied. "We get several people a day coming in with flu symptoms and we test them, but so far no one has tested positive." There were only eight people in the waiting room and only two of us had been handed face masks. It's hard to breathe with this on.

Then I sat around the waiting room for an hour and watched a History Channel segment on gangs. "It's all about protecting the lucrative drug trade," said the TV. "They're going to do whatever they can to keep the money flowing in." In case you might be wondering why swine flu is being hyped as this horrible death machine but pneumonia, a proven killer, is not? Could it be "all about protecting the lucrative drug trade" -- and keeping the money flowing in at all costs?

Then I saw the doctor, described my symptoms to him and whimpered a bit more. He said to take Pepto Bismo, stay hydrated, eat healthy and wait it out.

"Flu is a virus then?"

"Yes. There have been several anti-virals developed to combat HIV that might be used to treat it, but mainly you just wait it out." I didn't know that. "And just in case you do have swine flu, remember that swine flu is milder than regular flu." I definitely did not know that!

"But do I -- or do I not -- have the swine flu?" I asked. So the doctor pulled out some sterile swabs and took samples from my nose.

"We send them off to the State of California for testing and you'll know the results in a few days. It might be five days because of the weekend." If this is really a super-emergency, five days is a long time! Plus if this is really a national crisis, then why aren't the state lab guys working on weekends? "And if you do have swine flu, they'll come to your home and ask you who you have been in contact with and try to figure out how you got exposed to it. There is a seven-day incubation period so it would have to have been someone you have been around approximately seven days ago."

Then I went home and drank plenty of liquids.

After undergoing this bit of involuntary research on flu symptoms, I have been forced to come to the painful conclusion that this whole swine flu pandemic scare is both a hype and a hoax -- and that our media, our politicians and corporate America have failed the American public yet again in their efforts to scare us into giving them our money, just like what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, and in the savings and loan debacle and the AIG bailout.

America is a democracy ruled by us? What democracy? Apparently we are being played like a fiddle. Again.

PS: Regarding "protecting the lucrative drug trade," Dr. Joseph Mercola, medical consultant on CNN and ABC News, has this to say:

"According to the World Health Organization's Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response site; as of April 27 there are:

109 laboratory confirmed cases in U.S. -- 1 death (reported by CDC as of April 30)
26 confirmed cases in Mexico -- 7 deaths
6 confirmed cases in Canada -- 0 deaths
1 confirmed case in Spain -- 0 deaths

Additionally, nearly all suspected new cases have been reported as mild. Personally, I am highly skeptical. It simply doesn't add up to a real pandemic. But it does raise serious questions about where this brand new, never before seen virus came from, especially since it cannot be contracted from eating pork products, and has never before been seen in pigs, and contains traits from the bird flu -- and which, so far, only seems to respond to Tamiflu. Are we just that lucky, or... what?

"Your fear will make some people VERY rich in today's crumbling economy. According to the Associated Press, at least one financial analyst estimates up to $388 million worth of Tamiflu sales in the near future -- and that's without a pandemic outbreak.

"More than half a dozen pharmaceutical companies, including Gilead Sciences Inc., Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and other companies with a stake in flu treatments and detection, have seen a rise in their shares in a matter of days, and will likely see revenue boosts if the swine flu outbreak continues to spread. As soon as Homeland Security declared a health emergency, 25 percent -- about 12 million doses -- of Tamiflu and Relenza treatment courses were released from the nation's stockpile. However, beware that the declaration also allows unapproved tests and drugs to be administered to children. Many health and government officials are more than willing to take that chance with your life, and the life of your child. But are you?

"Remember, Tamiflu went through some rough times not too long ago, as the dangers of this drug came to light when, in 2007, the FDA finally began investigating some 1,800 adverse event reports related to the drug. Common side effects of Tamiflu include:


All in all, the very symptoms you're trying to avoid. More serious symptoms included convulsions, delirium or delusions, and 14 deaths in children and teens as a result of neuropsychiatric problems and brain infections (which led Japan to ban Tamiflu for children in 2007). And that's for a drug that, when used as directed, only reduces the duration of influenza symptoms by 1 to 1 ½ days, according to the official data."

PPS: I just got my letter to the editor published in the Berkeley Daily Planet! Now I'll be famous for sure! AMAZING PLACE

Editors, Daily Planet:

I went to the April 22 Berkeley City Council meeting to see if I could snag some of that Obama stimulus package money for Savo Island Cooperative Homes, the South Berkeley housing project where I live. And as I sat there for over two hours while waiting my turn to ask for money to repair my home, I was forced to listen to speaker after speaker, all of them asking the council for money. And after listening to all these speakers describe all kinds of projects geared to make people’s lives better and realizing how many of these helpful and wonderful projects are funded by our city, it suddenly hit me. Berkeley is truly an amazing place.

Some of the worthwhile groups helped out by our city are a foster agency called A Better Way, Lifelong Medical Care (they fixed my teeth!), the Berkeley High School Bio-tech program, Berkeley Boosters police athletic league for kids, Strawberry Creek Lodge senior housing, BOSS assistance programs for the homeless, an Alzheimer’s center, a program to help deaf children, I forget what all else. If you had sat there for over two hours, you would have been amazed too.

Earlier this week, I had gone to a People’s Park anniversary event, and had thought to myself, “Those days are long gone. Berkeley just isn’t like that any more.” But after listening to all the wonderful people speaking up for their wonderful groups that help all sorts of people here in Berkeley, I suddenly realized that Berkeley hasn’t changed all that much after all.

Berkeley is still a wonderful, caring place—a place that takes great pains to make sure that those in need are taken care of and that we Do The Right Thing. I was very proud of my city tonight.

Jane Stillwater