Saturday, July 31, 2010

There goes the Judge: CA's scary court-closing epidemic

Next Friday I'm going to be the plaintiff in a small claims court trial -- at least that's the plan. But according to a judge who recently spoke before the Berkeley-Albany Bar Association, there's a rather good chance that I might show up for the trial but there might not be a courtroom left to hold it in.

Over a delicious luncheon menu of pan-seared salmon, sauteed asparagus, fruit tarts and Peet's coffee at
La Rose Bistro on Shattuck Avenue, a judge from the Alameda County court system spent an hour and a half laying out a series of hard facts and cold realities with regard to courtroom availability in California in general and in Alameda County in particular. "Currently," said the judge, "we are even considering holding trials in broom closets." I think she was joking, er, at least I'm hoping that she was.

"The status of Alameda County's courtrooms is abysmal," stated the judge. "The search for courtrooms has become desperate here. They are currently using the grand jury room, which has posts running down the middle of it. They've also been looking at hallways, a library and the probate examiner's office since the Broussard building has been mostly shut down. They are even moving people from Oakland courthouses down to Fremont and Hayward. There have been 23 moves in all." Fremont is a long freaking distance away from Oakland. It's closer to San Jose than it is Berkeley.

And courtrooms aren't the only thing now being 86ed in the CA court system. People are disappearing too. "As for money, 72 people have been laid off. Statewide, court personnel funding has just taken a 100 million dollar hit. There was a 2.6 million dollar budget hit for Alameda County alone. Courts are now being closed on the third Wednesday of every month. That's twelve days a year that we can never make up."

Then there's the mandatory furlough days. "In order to avoid more lay-offs, we've had to cut down people's hours. And next year's state and county budgets will be worse that this year's. Judges are considering voluntary salary cuts."

And California's court security needs are being effected as well. "We are trying to get enough sheriff's deputies to cover the courts. By consolidating courts, we have managed to free up two deputies however. But the Sheriff's office has also been financially hit. And then there was the cost of the Oscar Grant trial. And that has taken up a lot of sheriff's deputies as well."

So far, the number of judges has not been effected by the budget cuts, but who knows how long that will last. "And we need more self-help centers, not less. As the economy goes down, there will be a much greater need for self-help centers," and that need will not be met either. "California's unemployment is currently the highest in the nation."

By this time in the presentation, I had finished my salmon and was starting to hanker for dessert -- while the judge continued her sad litany of judicial wants and needs that were not going to get met. "We need more courtrooms. We're not going to get them. And we're not going to get any more judges either. And small claims court commissioners are being reduced for 16 to ten. Plus filing fees are going to be increased because we can't increase taxes."

As I finished up my berry tart and was vaguely considering the etiquette-related pros and cons of licking my plate, the judge continued. "This county's judicial system is definitely economy-driven. We want a courthouse out in the Pleasanton-Dublin area but realistically we don't have the money. We need more judges and more support staff. We are looking at every single dime being spent. Alameda County saw this coming and prepared for it but we are still running tight." Then the waiter served coffee. Yummers!

"We may be forced to move toward having regional courts instead of county courts," the judge concluded. "We've already consolidated the municipal courts with the superior courts. And court administration has already been centralized -- even its janitorial services."

So. What will be the answer to this immense problem? I wanted to suggest to the speaker that we might be able to use Judge Judy's courtroom when her court wasn't in session, but that probably wouldn't work out so well for her.

It appears that a goodly amount of taxpayer money that used to fund Alameda County's court and prison systems is being used to fund cool new court and prison systems in places like Baghdad, Kabul and Tel Aviv instead of here in Berkeley. Does this mean that the Middle East has all the money they want for their courtrooms -- whereas California courtrooms have become neglected and derelict? Yeah.

You cannot fund a trillion dollars worth of war in the Middle East and expect that money to come out of nowhere. And as a result of short-sighted congressional decisions to spend our taxes on the luxury of war in the Middle East instead of here in America for the last ten years, we no longer can afford to buy basic necessities here at home -- such as courtrooms.

It appears that the criminals of Baghdad, Kabul and Tel Aviv have a pretty good ride -- while the criminals of Oakland and Berkeley, due to our sad lack of courtrooms and judiciary personnel, are either having to wait for their trials in overcrowded jails that taxpayers must pay for or else are running around free in the streets.

I'd much rather spend our hard-earned money here at home and have criminals running free in the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine -- instead of having criminals running free in the streets of Oakland and Berkeley.

It just seems such a shame to spend a trillion dollars to tinker around with the Rule of Law in the Middle East -- at the risk of losing the Rule of Law here at home.

But enough about lamenting the loss of our courtrooms into the money pit of the Middle East. Let's think about other places where all our court-funding money has been drained off to in the last ten years -- into the pockets of bankers, Wall Street gamblers, global out-sourcers who have systematically destroyed America's manufacturing base, and, of course, those ever-present and greedy weapons manufacturers who trick us into paying them to kill strangers by the millions. Isn't it time to plug up those money sink-holes as well?

PS: Regarding my upcoming small claims court case this Friday, I may or may not be able to tell you what its outcome will be -- depending on whether or not there is still a courtroom available to hear my case in. Who knows? We may end up having to try my case in Kabul.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Believe it or not: Nancy Pelosi's speech to Netroots Nation

The water here in Las Vegas sucks eggs. My tea tastes like metal. And the sad thing is that the water power to the 27th floor of the Rio hotel is so weak that I have to run my bath water for 15 minutes before it becomes even warm -- let alone hot. What a waste of the Ogalala aquifer. It breaks my heart to see all that water go down the drain. But will I just break down and take a cold shower? Would you? Er, no.

With a shower or not, it was still time to go listen to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talk. Would she convince me that Congress isn't being run by special interests and theat she, Harry Reid and President Obama haven't sold out? Will they convince you? Let's see. Here are my quickly-typed-up notes -- from the front row. They may not be completely accurate, however. Blame that on my tenth-grade typing teacher.

When Nancy Pelosi came onstage, the first big question was whether her right-wing detractors were correct and she did have a face-lift. It was hard to tell. She does have a big smile. Maybe she was born that way?

"Pushing the gate open on healthcare was a big job but we did it. The leverage in Congress had to change from being in favor of the insurance companies to being in favor of the people. And we couldn't have done it without you." Without me? Am I finally getting some recognition? That would be nice.

But wait. Has Rush Limbaugh gotten a face-lift? Do I get the right to ask that about him? And what about Dick Cheney? How come I don't look as good at that age? "Because Cheney eats babies..." someone once said. But I digress.

OMG! They are gonna play a tape sent to us by President Obama! "We've been working hard for the past 18 months but I know that, for many of you, change hasn't come fast enough. But it took a long time to get here and it will take a long time to make it happen. But in ways large and small, we are working to make changes happen." Then the Pres showed a tape of Rachel Maddow listing all of this administration's accomplishments.

"We're moving America forward,:" the President continued. "And that's the challenge we face in November. Keep holding me accountable. Change doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up. Let's finish what we've started."

At the news stand here, the Globe (a National Enquirer wannabe) is pushing a front cover story that Obama was actually born in KENYA. They are still pushing that story? Give me a break.

"Will we see passage of ENDA any time soon?" someone asked Pelosi.

"It's almost embarrassing that it took Congress so long to pass a bill eliminating hate crimes. We're very proud that we passed a repeal of 'Don't ask Don't tell' in the house. When we started work on hate crimes, it was 22 years ago and we're still against any form of hate crime."

Pelosi then encouraged us to be leaders in this field of ending all discrimination in this country. "We won the 'Don't Ask' repeal by 40 votes. That's a big majority." And there's an education bill in the works too -- the Promise Act. Good.

"Republican senators have held up many job-creation bills, so we never know what will go on in the Senate -- so we been pushing education bills into other bills as well. But we are still pressing for a comprehensive education bill."

Pelosi is also pressing for comprehensive immigration reform. "What is happening in Arizona shouts out for getting a comprehensive bill passed. We have to keep the heat on for that."

Protecting Social Security? "I am opposed to raising the retirement age. Here's the context. We must be fiscally responsible and subject our spending to harsh scrutiny and are moving on all fronts to remove the deficit. But talking about Social Security and the deficit is like between apples and oranges. To change Social Security in order to balance the budget, they aren't the same thing in my view. As we make it more solvent, it will have a positive impact on the deficit. But we support Social Security. Our senior citizens should know that. This is its 75th anniversary."

When Social Security was first implemented, Frances Perkins went to Pres Roosevelt and told him about her plan, and he replied, "You've convinced me completely. Now make me do it."

"We can do only so much maneuvering," Pelosi continued, "but we really do need outside persuasion. Just ourselves alone can't make this happen. If you want these changes to come, make us do it."

In 2008, the president was inaugurated and he called for swift action. One week and one day after that, this congress passed the recovery act that saved 1.6 million jobs. "And we are going forward, not going back. Our goal is to reduce the deficit, reduce taxes for the middle class and to create jobs around climate change."

The House passed the unemployment bill last December but the Senate held it up until now. "We have a whole list, all of it paid for, but they dropped all the job incentives and just sent us back the bare bones. They demanded cuts to this unemployment bill but then demanded 700 billion dollars in unpaid-for tax benefits for the rich. Thank God we made the bill retroactive. But how many people can wait the additional six weeks for that check to arrive? This delay was due to the obstructiveness of the Senate. But. We are going forward, not going back. Obama has created more jobs so far than Bush did during his entire eight years in office.

'Jobs are important but people need to see what the Republicans are doing about this. Nothing."

"We want more manufacturing in America -- as a way to develop more jobs in America. Where our manufacturing heartland had been, we must stop the erosion of these jobs. 39 Republicans voted against our 'Fairness to American Manufacturers' bill. Anyone can bid on contracts here in the US so we are trying to get some reasonableness on this. In China you can't bid on contracts if you are from outside the country. We need to do that here too. This is very exciting."

The House is also working on a bill that will differentiate between crack and powdered cocaine.

"When I became Speaker, my flagship interest was energy self-sufficiency and climate change legislation. This is not an issue the Senate can walk away from. It is a national safety issue, a health issue. We are either going to lead the world on this issue or be left behind. We have a moral commitment to pass this planet onto the next generation." Billions of dollars go out of the country each day because of foreign oil. The emissions continue. We have to continue this fight."

"Do you plan to challenge big money's special interests?" someone asked.

"No use bringing up a bill unless you can show strength. You can't show weakness. Get up and show Congress how much this is of interest to you. It's fundamental to a democracy. Make your voices known on this subject. We can maneuver and persuade and this and that -- but remember Pres Roosevelt. Citizens United was a horrible decision. Foreign countries can now be having a large influence because of this, because there is now no full disclosure. PEOPLE [not corporatists] need to be in charge of our government. So let's grab that ball and run with it. I like to show strength going to the floor. In 2006 and 2008, the leverage changed -- to the consumers. The finance bill was the most important financial change in decades. And the most consumer protection in history. The leverage has changed. And in health too. For instance, it's no longer a liability to be a woman."

Regarding energy? "The oil patch, coal patch, every patch in the world was coming against us. This next election is very important. We need to have no regrets -- that we took responsibility. One in fifty kids in America is homeless. We need to bring education and jobs to every level in America. Prosperity on Wall Street at the cost of jobs on Main Street? How dare they?"

Some Senators look with fondness on the Bush administration, according to Pelosi. "But we are not going back. We now represent the American middle class."

Someone asked Pelosi about the role of women. "Running for office is not for the faint of heart. It's all about power. Know your power. If you go out there to run, it's difficult. But know who you are and don't let anybody diminish your knowledge or experience. Women hold the key to our future. I was a mother of five kids in six years -- so I got a sense of discipline and organization that way. We need young women at the seat of power. Some may not chose to go the family route but whatever your path, do it. Your presence at the seat of power is very important. Know YOUR power. What you bring to it. There is a whole change in what your daughters can do now. Young girls can go on to do anything and everything. And it's their patriotic duty to step up."

Pelosi is inspired by the women who went before her. "I went to the White House for my first meeting as a representative of the Democrats. I had no apprehensions because I'd been there before. I was sitting at the table of power and I felt packed and jammed on my chair. Sitting on the chair with me was Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Stanton, [etc.] All on that chair. And I could hear them say, 'At last we have a seat at the table.' And then they were gone. My first thought was, 'We want more.' We all understand our responsibility to women. We have every difference among us that we can name -- but because we are different, we build a very strong fiber listening to each other. We all want to do great things for our country. We all strive for common ground. But if we can't get bipartisanship, if we can't get it, we are still not going back!"

And the speech was over and we applauded. But what did her speech mean? Did it mean that she is still a progressive and is merely being held back from creating a true American democracy by Republican fossils who regret that they can no longer live off of America's blood and sweat like the vampires they are (no wonder vampire flicks are so popular among our youth!) Or has Pelosi, like so many of our other legislators, sold out to the corporatists who think that they own America -- and probably do.

Time will tell. But for right now. Nancy Pelosi is pretty much all we've got standing between us and complete oligarchy and the total end of our American Dream. For this reason alone we may need to give her more support -- and more snaps.

And last night I went to the Rio Hotel's fake Mardi Gras celebration and caught two strings of beads from the krews. I would have caught another string but just as I reached out, so big young muscular guy elbowed me aside and snagged it for himself. Hmmm. Was he going to end up becoming a Republican senator too? More than likely. Edging out Social Security recipients is already his specialty it seems.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Decision time in Las Vegas: Governor Schweitzer or Big Brother?

I love watching Big Brother on TV. Why? Because all the lying and scheming, back-biting, greed and general nastiness that happens on the show reminds me of the way that Republicans tend to act. Watching Big Brother is definitely helping me to become a better progressive blogger.

And so when a conflict arose Thursday night between me watching Governor Bob Schweitzer speak to the Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas or me hightailing it up to my hotel room to see if Matt or Monet would get voted out, I was torn -- that is, until Governor Schweitzer actually started speaking. And then I became riveted. A herd of elephants couldn't have dragged me out of my seat. The man is a born orator -- or at least the best raconteur that I've ever heard.

First the governor spent a slow and leisurely ten minutes telling us about his 112-year-old friend Walt. Then he told us all about how he won the 4-H competition at the county fair when he was nine years old. Then he told us in colorful detail about how his grandmother had come over from Ireland all by herself at the tender age of 17. "Her name was Hannah -- and she was the original Hannah Montana."

Unlike the kind of "country folk" who live in suburban tract houses outside of places like Houston, Atlanta and Nashville but still try to pass themselves off as rural cowboys and who listen to multi-millionaire Rush Limbaugh as he too tries to act "down-home," Governor Schweitzer has been a farmer and rancher all his life and actually is the real thing. And, even better, the governor doesn't have to build his own self up by putting other people down.

Governor Schweitzer wants the best for Montana -- and for America too. And he didn't need to sell out his American ideals and become a narrow-minded bigot or a cold-hearted compassion-challenged "me-first" scrounger or a greedy corporatist in order to get elected either. Go him!

However. Would the governor's true American values of honesty, integrity and hard work have won him a place in the Final Four on Big Brother? Probably not.

And when I finally did get back to my hotel room that evening, I turned on the TV in vain hopes of getting at least a tail-end glimpse of Matt and Monet on the block. Too late. But I did get to see a commercial paid for by Sharon Angle, a senatorial candidate here in Nevada. Angle looked like some sincere-but-seedy Sally Fields wannabe as she told a roomful of sweet-looking old people that government interference was ruining their lives.

Yeah sure, Sharon.

You say that you want to help all of America's old people by getting rid of MediCare and Social Security? And just exactly HOW is that going to help us? If you truly want to get rid of Big Government, then just get us out of those pointless and meaningless "wars" in the Middle East -- those bloody sink-holes that are eating our budgets and our souls alive. And you could also help us get rid of all those bailouts for bankers.

Then Van Jones spoke this morning and he said that progressive bloggers need to take the high road and set good examples for others by living up to America's highest ideals. What? You want me to stop bashing those lying corporatists, neo-cons and talk-show hosts who have stolen our country, our morality and our ideals? Me? Nah.

Well, maybe I MIGHT consider being just a little bit nicer. Because, after all, I do want to get into Heaven -- if for no other reason than because there won't be any corporatists, liars, bigots, hard-hearted "me-first" types or right-wing radio talk-show hosts in Heaven at all.

PS: I just stuck my head into a room where the "Afghanistan: Where do we go from here?" workshop was being held. "How many Al Qaeda operatives are there in Afghanistan right now?" the moderator asked.

"50 to a hundred."

"And we are spending one billion dollars a year in Afghanistan on capturing these 50 to a hundred Al Qaeda operatives?"

"That is correct."

Then another reporter in the media room commented that when the U.S. military offered to give arms training to Afghan women, 10,000 women showed up. Those women are truly pissed off at Afghan men. Maybe we should send Afghan women out to Kandahar instead of the Marines. Just a thought.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is Netroots Nation taking on the Israel-Palestine question? Er, maybe...

One of the most untouchable issues in America today is the Israel-Palestine situation. Whenever I blog about this subject, I seem to lose friends -- not to mention getting irate e-mails and death threats. No other issue in politics today seems to have such a third rail. But now things seem to actually finally be changing.

For instance, this is the first year that Netroots Nation has actually agreed to host an Israel-Palestine caucus, which I attended -- being very interested to see who would show up and also what their positions would be. Would we have right-wing rabbis screaming at us about Hamas rocket attacks? Would we have sad-eyed Palestinians in black and white checkered scarves mourning a homeland that they could never return to? Would there be confrontations or what?

But what we actually got were about ten participants, mostly from J Street. And we actually had a very nice talk. No one even yelled at anyone, not even me. But there were a hecka lot of issues to bring up and discuss. Too bad we only had the room booked for one hour.

"How can we make this issue less of a third rail so we can discuss it rationally and maybe even find some solutions?" was our first question. Good luck with that one.

"We need to talk about how Israel's behavior is effecting our own national security," was the next question. Okay. Let's talk. "Israel and some of the policy-makers there are actually starting to change their position on Hamas." But in which way?

"Israel is America's foothold in the Middle East," said an Israeli at the caucus. Ah. There's the crux. You can't exactly expect the Israeli power structure to behave itself when the American power structure does not. Torture? Land grabs? Illegal attacks? Even illegally dumping nuclear waste. Could Israel simply be copying the US's bad behavior? Er, yeah.

"The right wing in America does something very well -- they raise the cost of bringing this subject up, raise it to the point where the cost of discussing it becomes too high and the subject is then dropped. They change it into an emotional issue." But the Right is now finding this harder and harder to do. "For instance, J Street has now become suddenly cool. We now get about a bizillion new resumes. We have tried to move this issue away from emotionalism. For instance, when you bring up cap and trade, no one calls you anti-Semitic. We want to see it that same way regarding policies about Israel."

A rep from Media Matters was also at the caucus. "We are going to start delving into this area more -- so things really ARE changing." You mean that this area is finally becoming less of a third rail and that we can finally start discussing this issue intelligently? Yeah right.

"And what about the fallout from the flotilla?" I asked. "And what about dual American-Israel citizenship? Can we discuss that too?"

But just as I'm typing up the replies to my questions, Brad Friedman and John Fund walk into the media room and start arguing about Fund's speech against ACORN on Fox News. Fund was upset by Friedman's aggressiveness. But I'm upset because I'm trying to concentrate and write this I-P caucus stuff up before I forget it.

But no one seemed to want to discuss Israel's brutal treatment of the humanitarian aid flotilla where nine people were killed in cold blood and many more were beaten and tortured. And what about dual citizenship? If the spit hits the fan, will these American side with America's interests or with Israel's? No one wanted to touch that question either.

"The Right offers the illusion of facts," said another caucus participant. Not facts themselves -- but the illusion of facts." Then someone else added, "The urgency issue here is also being ignored."

And I'm still trying to ignore Friedman and Fund, who are now yelling at each other again. "Do you think it was right to secretly videotape the ACORN interview?" Friedman is asking. Do I think it is right for Israeli commandos to secretly videotape their illegal attack on the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza!

Back to the caucus.

"The Israel-Palestine conflict is now under slow burn, even despite the flotilla media coverage. It's like the environmental issue -- where if we wait until it's too late then it WILL be too late." Yes, an Israeli attack on Iran could start World War III. That would definitely heat things up.

"There's a polemic of fear in Israel regarding Iran. Plus U.S. behavior since 9-11 has created the feeling that regarding the 'War on Terror,' anything goes. And Israeli policy-makers have followed that cue. So it's now like a piano falling from the sky -- the way that anti-Israel sentiments are building up in America. But if we don't continue this debate, then the child will continue to be spoiled." Yes. And America needs to be stopped from acting like a spoiled child too.

Then Friedman stalked out and Fund went on blogging. And I went back to writing up my notes.

"The Israeli government always justifies their actions by bringing up Gilad Shalit. But even Shalit's family is starting to feel that he is being used by the Israeli hard-liners."

"We need to change the frame of the debate," was the general consensus. Sure, but to what? To what is best for America, perhaps? And to what is best for Israel and Palestine too -- because someone around here has to represent justice and democracy and not just to be out there grabbing up land and selling useless piles of weapons and trying to get a jump on the next decade's resource wars. Oops. Too late. We are already engaged in the next decade's resource wars now.

Then our caucus decided to ask Nancy Pelosi a question when she speaks at NN on Saturday -- and the question that most of us finally agreed upon was this: "Do you support President Obama's view that a two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest and that U.S. leadership is essential to achieving that goal?"

Me? I just wanted to ask her what she thought of Bibi Netanyahu
's statement that he could make the U.S. do whatever he wanted it to do -- but that suggestion was shelved.

And then the caucus ended. Whew! And now that we've managed to solve all the problems of the Middle East, and Friedman and Fund are friends again (sort of), I gotta go run off to hear the next speakers.

Las Vegas: This place will be dead without cars

I finally made it to the Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas -- even after some [clumsy person] knocked my glasses off my head and stepped on them on the plane, forcing me to stumble blindly through the Las Vegas airport. But some kind soul directed me to a hotel shuttle and, well, here I am -- in what has got to be the car capital of the world.

On The Strip they have bunches of 50-story hotels but the most amazing buildings I drove by on the shuttle were the ten-story parking garages. Ten stories high and two blocks long, they were hotels for cars. Cars only. Only cars!

Twenty years from now, when the world runs out of oil, won't people be SO embarrassed about having spent so much of their capital and infrastructure investments on cars. And wars. And other disposable consumer goods that nobody really needed.

Then I got to the Rio hotel, got my room on the 27th floor, admired the view of all those freeways, wandered down to the casino floor to watch hundreds of people gambling, regretted that I didn't have the $54 necessary to attend the Chippendale show (just kidding) and tried to register for the convention.

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will be speaking here on Saturday. And they will have a lot of explaining to do. Why are Republicans still setting the agenda for Congress? Why are we still spending all that money that we don't have on all those stupid "wars" on the Middle East? And why are we still bailing out Wall Street but not Main Street?

Also Alan Grayson will be speaking here on Saturday as well -- that is if he survives the death threats he's been getting after Fox News stirred up all the wingnuts against him this week because he spoke out in favor of bailing out the jobless instead of the oligarchs. Sigh.

The keynote speaker tonight will be Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Plus I just scored a free ticket to the hotel's all-you-can-eat buffet.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Memories of Marcus: A sad Saturday in Berkeley

Every Saturday morning, me and my granddaughter Mena do pretty much the same thing. First we walk over to Sconehenge on Shattuck and buy Mena a carrot-zuchini muffin. Then we walk up to Whole Foods on the corner of Telegraph and Ashby and get some bacon and eggs from their "salad bar" breakfast buffet. For just two or three dollars, you can pick up enough bacon and eggs to keep you going all morning.

And then it's on to the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library for the toddler story time. Mena loves books. Plus they've got a great Lego table in the children's section.

After that we walk up on College Avenue to pick out a balloon at Sweet Dreams toy store. Today Mena wanted an orange balloon. "Watch out for trees," the sales clerk said. Right you are. Last week's balloon ended up getting popped by a balloon-eating tree.

Next we turn right on Russell Street, go to Nabalom Bakery, get a nice slice of cheesecake for only two dollars and listen to a jazz band playing oldies on a keyboard, ukulele and slide guitar. And then we walk back home down Stuart Street.

That's pretty much been our schedule every Saturday for the last year or so, rain or shine. But today was different. Today me and Mena were on a mission -- everywhere we walked, we collected flowers. Sorry, Stuart Street gardeners, but it was for a good cause.

After the library and the cheesecake and the walk, we went home, got some chalk and went over to write "I love you" on the sidewalk where young Marcus Mosley had been killed Friday night.

I've known Marcus since he was four years old. He used to play with my son Joe. Joe and Marcus were born just three months apart. Joe will turn 31 this October. Marcus will not. Hearing about Marcus's death was like a punch in the gut for me -- but it must have been so much more terrible and even a whole lot worse for his mother. I can't even imagine what it would be like to lose a son. I can't even imagine the anguish that his mother must be going through right now.

I remember Marcus when he was seven years old, playing football with Joe and Nigel out in the play area next to Nigel's home. I remember it like it was yesterday. And now Marcus is gone. Shot and killed in a drive-by. "Maybe Marcus was up to no good," someone said. I don't the freak care! I don't care if he was a saint or a devil or an avatar in disguise or whatever. I just want Marcus back here, back home -- and ALIVE.

Today at a benefit concert for Arnieville, Michael Parenti spoke about the tragedy of Marcus's death and equated Friday's waste of human life here in Berkeley with the daily waste of human life that is constantly going on all over the world -- as the oligarchs and corporatists who own America spend all our wealth on weapons, guns and instruments of death instead of on life. And Parenti is right.

Imagine a world where guns and weapons are no longer allowed to be manufactured and sold and promoted as being the best way -- the ONLY way -- to solve disagreements or settle feuds. What if mothers all over the world no longer had to cry out for their dead sons? What if the only loud, scary, popping sound we were to ever hear again would only be caused by Mena's balloon running into a tree?

What if all of us mothers in the world finally united together and said, "No more! Enough! Not one more mother's son more will ever have to die under the gun."

I think that Marcus would have liked that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cold & Hard: Spending the night in Arnieville

Mark Twain's autobiography is finally getting published -- almost one hundred years to the day after he wrote it. And from what I can tell after reading the book's advance reviews, Twain was also one hundred years ahead of his time, having apparently come back from the grave just in time to give us a much-needed warning about being wary of America's oligarchs and to nail today's corporatists for what they are -- greedy bastards.

And I think that it was also Mark Twain who said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

Me and my daughter Ashley stopped by Arnieville last night,
where disabled people are camping out in protest of Governor Schwarzenegger's callous cuts to their home-care workers' salaries. Arnieville has been set up on a traffic island on Adeline Street near Russell in Berkeley, right down the street from my apartment. "How's it going?" I asked some folks in wheelchairs who were sitting in front of the campsite eating dinner and chatting about stuff.

"It's going okay, considering the horrible mess that our state's finances are in," replied a blind woman. "And we've going to try to stay here until the State of California actually manages to come up with a budget." Yikes! That could take for-EVAH.

"It's not so bad here during the day," said another woman in a wheelchair, "but at night it gets a bit heavy-duty." I can imagine -- you can't just take a hot bath, turn off the lights and pop into bed here. No pre-bed glass of warm milk and bedtime stories either. Plus you can't even turn off the street lights -- although the City of Berkeley has been kind enough to not run the sprinklers at 4 am. And the automobile, truck and bus traffic on Adeline Street goes on all night long, just five feet from your head.

"We do have a security team that takes turns keeping watch so it's fairly safe here, but sometimes I'm the only woman at night and it gets a bit gender-heavy on the masculine side. I wish that we had more women camping out," looking directly at me as she said this, hint hint. She also wished that the campers had more monetary donations so that they could pay for their wheelchair-accessible PortaPotty. That's probably not covered in the state budget either.

Then I went home and got to thinking. I gots bad knees.
I'm 21% disabled. Those people are doing this for my sake too. I should be out there camping with them! So I went back this evening and asked if I could stay too. "You can borrow my tent," said my daughter Ashley who used to be a Girl Scout.

And I could wear my warm flannel nightgown and my bunny slippers!

But then, as we sat there chatting with the protesters, fog started rolling in from across the bay, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and I started to chicken out. "And besides, Big Brother 12 is on TV tonight," I whined. So much for roughing it for a good cause.

So. Will I spend the night in Arnieville tonight? Or will I let people who are even physically weaker than me end up doing the heavy-lifting for all of us? Will I protest the injustice of having so much of California's tax money go to large corporations and rich people but not to the people who actually need and deserve it -- or will I just stay home snug in my bed and turn a blind eye to injustice like most other Californians seem to be doing?

Or will I bite the bullet, haul my sleeping bag out of the closet, be brave like the disabled people down at Arnieville (and Mark Twain), and nail these corporatists for what they really are -- greedy bastards.

PS: Yes, I finally did get up enough nerve to actually go camp out. Remember those baby chickens that I got at the county fair last week? Well, last night I looked at them and they looked at me and I swear I actually heard one of them saying, "And you're the one that's calling ME a chicken?" So I figured that I'd better put my money where my mouth is.

"You can sleep in that yellow tent over there, said a member of the security team when I arrived (chickenless) at 1:00 am in the morning last night, pillow and blanket in hand.

"And how's progress on the state budget coming along?" I asked. Not so good. And camping out didn't go so well either. The ground, like the Governator, was cold and hard too. Plus I'd forgotten my flannel nightgown and bunny slippers. I don't see how these disabled people do it.

Last night I slept in a yellow tent next to an empty wheelchair, some crutches and an artificial leg.

PPS: Country Joe McDonald is giving a free concert at Arnieville on Saturday July 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm. Please come to the concert. Please support Arnieville. Please donate air mattresses!

PPPS: You can also donate $$$$ to keep Arnieville alive (and representing other Californians besides just the oligarchs) by going to their website at

PPPPS: Does anybody out there want to adopt any baby chickens? Ones that I (almost) promise won't talk back?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why Europe will never let Iran get bombed...

Has Europe just been appointed Iran's designated driver? Is Europe going to keep Iran from getting bombed? And, more important, can Europe take away America's and Israel's car keys as well? Yes, yes, and yes.

Let's talk realistically here. The various corporatists and neo-cons who have seized control of the military decision-making processes in both America and Israel have been making a lot of strong noises lately to the effect that they really really want to attack Iran. Sober up here, guys! Get a grip. You seem to have carefully isolated yourselves -- and also your backup crew of citizen right-wingers -- from all too many of the realities and facts on the ground that are readily available to the rest of the world.

For instance, did you know that people in Europe view the Israel-Palestine situation from a very different perspective than most Americans do? Almost everyone in Europe has been pretty much disgusted by the American-backed Israeli neo-cons' failed 2006 invasion of Lebanon, its brutal 2009 invasion of Gaza and its recent viscous attack on the internationally-sponsored humanitarian flotilla to Gaza.

Knowing this, what makes Israel's and America's corporatist decision-makers think that Europe (and also Russia, China, etc.) is going to welcome an invasion of Iran with open arms? Not gonna happen!

Further, by isolating and restricting our major media to the point where it mainly prints opinions that corporatists in Washington want to hear, Americans and Israelis may be cutting off their own noses in order to spite their face with regard to Iran.

At this point, the media war for America's hearts and minds needs a serious reality check. Otherwise, Americans may find themselves once again swimming out into the deep end of the pool at their own peril -- just like what happened in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Won't someone please take our military-industrial complex's car keys away! They may think that they are sober -- but in reality they have drank far too much of the "Endless War" Kool-Aid and are in NO condition to drive. Europe knows this. But apparently we Americans do not.

It seems that if corporatists, neo-cons and right-wingers don't like reality, they try to make it disappear. And the main difficulty with this approach to reality is that we the people are getting suckered into situations that we might normally avoid like the plague. However, trying to convince Europe, Russia, South America and Asia to go along with these war plans against Iran may turn out to be a hard sell indeed.

And there's another major factor involved in this facts-on-the-ground equation as well -- unlike Iraq and Afghanistan (and to some extent Palestine), many Europeans, Asians, etc. have actually BEEN to Iran.

Who the freak went to Iraq before Shock and Awe? Hardly anyone. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not exactly some hot new tourist destination. And tourists hardly ever went to Afghanistan -- except for perhaps a few hippies with wanderlust back in the 1960s. But. What Americans and Israelis apparently don't comprehend or understand is that Iran is a major tourist attraction -- for both Europeans and Asians. Think Egypt and the pyramids. Think Taj Mahal. Iran is to Europe what the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China is to us. A major tourist hotspot!

So while a huge number of Americans still think that Iran is filled with sand and camel jockeys and harems, most Europeans and more than a handful of Asians have been there, done that. They know, for instance, that Tehran is the Paris of the Near East. They know that the ruins at Persepolis rival the ruins at Karnak. And they know that Estafan's grand palaces and mosques can easily compete with the coliseum and Vatican in Rome. And Europeans flock to Iran by the tens of thousands annually.

Europeans have been there. Americans have not. You can tell Americans ANYTHING about Iran and they will believe it. You can't tell Europeans diddly-squat about Iran -- because they have actually been there themselves.

For this reason alone, I'm willing to bet the farm that Europeans will never let Iran get bombed.

PS: And I've been to Iran too. Here's Part One of my report on the wonders of Iran. "Iran never disappoints."


Innocents Abroad: On the Road in Iran
October 8, 2008:
"I have no idea what to wear to Iran," I whined. I’d heard stories of women actually being executed there for not covering themselves from head to toe.

"Don’t worry about that," said an Iranian-American friend. "Just wear long sleeves, long dresses and a headscarf and you’ll be fine." But I don’t even own any dresses. Crap. This is going to be like dressing up for a trip to the moon. I’m totally out of my cultural depth.

"It’s just not that big a deal," said my friend. But it is. All I ever wear these days are jeans and T-shirts. Jeans and T-shirts. That’s it. "Jane, get a grip. Jeans are made of cloth. Dresses are made of cloth. Same difference. You’ll do fine."

But still I worry. I’m not worried about going to Iran during a time-period where that idiot George Bush is threatening to bomb it and being there when the bunker-busters drop. And I’m definitely not worried about getting any tourist diseases over there. No, I’m all worried about clothes and I’m also worried about getting a ticket from the fashion police for looking like a dork.

"Jane," said my friend, "you went on Hajj and spent a whole month in Mecca. You visited Afghanistan. You even stayed on in Palestine. And you loved every moment. You’ll like Iran as well." Will I? I’m going to find out tomorrow. I’m leaving tomorrow for Tehran.

October 9, 2008: It’s 4:00 am in the morning, our jet plane is somewhere over Iceland, I just watched a re-run of a movie I saw last spring when I flew to China, I’m uber-tired and I’m stuck in a middle seat with no legroom – but other than that this has been a very smooth flight. I haven’t been reduced to total terror so far.

The man in the seat to my right – 35F – is from Monte Negro and he just gave me a capsulated rundown on the Serbo-Croatian war. "Serbs, Croats and Monte Negrans all speak dialects of the same language," he added, "but the people from Kosovo speak Albanian, which is a language unto itself."

"What’s Monte Negro like now?"

"We have a lot of beaches. It’s a tourist destination and we have hydropower and aluminum. Tito was in charge when I was a boy. There wasn’t all that much freedom of speech like there is now but we had excellent free education and healthcare." Trade-offs.

The woman on my left – 35D – was from India and remembered the days before the partition. "Hindu and Urdu are also similar languages," she said. I didn’t know that.

Both my seatmates had lived through civil wars. "I spent the entire duration of the Serbo-Croatian war in Russia," said the Monte Negran, "and the United States." Good thinking. Avoiding a war zone is always a good idea.

There’s a kind of fugue state generated by flying and I am now definitely in that zone. If I read any of what I wrote here later, will it make sense? Probably not.

After we landed in Frankfurt, a bus came out to our 747 and drove us for about a mile to the terminal, past a very long flight line. "How many wide-bodies do they have in this place!" I exclaimed to the Indian lady.

"Maybe 50?" Or more – all bearing the name "Lufthansa". Some were being driven from place to place like they were cars. Others sat parked in long parking-lot lines, like they were waiting around for their owners to get back from the mall and drive them home. "Aren’t they pretty!" someone said. Yes.

Then I trundled off to my free Sheraton Hotel dayroom, soaked in a nice long hot bath and slept for five hours. Heavenly – except for the dream. The dregs of society were down by the waterfront planning a wedding. One woman-man had a tongue made of metal and the end of his-her tongue had rusted off. Eeuuww.

Meanwhile back on the plane to Tehran…. We saw a lot of cartoons. "Why are we watching children’s shows?" said a member of our group that I had met at the Frankfurt airport gate lounge while waiting for our flight.

"Because Iranians love cartoons." Interesting. We watched Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Little Mermaid. Since when does the Little Mermaid pass the dress code?

There were two wonderful babies on the plane. More and more, I’ve been noticing wonderful babies – of all races, cultures and creeds. Maybe I just started noticing wonderful babies because of my wonderful granddaughter – or maybe more wonderful babies are being born because there is a greater need in the world now for wonderful babies than there ever has been before. Perhaps they will all grow up and save the world.

We have one hour and eleven minutes before we arrive in Tehran. Is it time to start putting my headscarf on yet?

I met up with the rest of my tour group at Gate 22 of the Frankfurt airport. They all seem very nice – three younger women, several women my age and a middle-aged couple. There’s supposed to be one more man but I haven’t met him yet.

"Do you have a copy of the itinerary?" I asked one of the women my age.

"Sure. We’ll be flying to the northern part of Iran and then driving back down south." Oh goodie! We’ll get to see a lot of the countryside and not just Tehran. "Yadz, Persepolis, Esfahan." Tourist hotspots and famous archeological digs. Cyrus and Alexander were here. I may have accidentally stumbled onto the trip of a lifetime – besides Egypt of course…and maybe India. Manchu Picchu? The Potola in Tibet? Shut up, Jane.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important announcement," said the stewardess. "All women are required to cover their heads so we ask you to put on headscarves before we land in Tehran." So I ran to the toilet area to put on my long skirt and coat-dress -- and the plane started rocking and the "return to seat" light started flashing and the stewardess kept saying, "Return to your seats," and there I was, halfway in and halfway out of my costume and bouncing around the toilet compartment and muttering "Oh crap!"

But when I got back to my seat, the Iranian men I had befriended on the flight all smiled and cheered and I was a big hit – except for the man next to me who got all nauseous and rang for the stewardess and was going to throw up – hopefully not because of me.

I’m so glad my daughter Ashley isn’t here. She’d laugh her head off at the sight of me in a skirt. But at least in all the excitement of me coming out of my cocoon as an Iranian butterfly, I forgot to be terrified of the turbulence.

After we got through customs, only our group was made to wait and wait and wait. "Sometimes they hold Americans at the airport for three or four hours – in revenge for all the waiting that Iranian citizens have to go through at American airports." But as we waited all alone in the now-deserted airport, I noticed that the immigration department computers all had Windows XP screen savers and we were waiting next to a Panasonic advertizing sign.

And then the customs police brought me a chair.

Boy did I misunderestimate the temperatures here. Once we got through customs, the fresh cold air hit us hard – freaking San Francisco weather. I’ve packed the wrong clothes.

"117 million people live in Tehran proper," said our new guide, "and an additional 22 million live in Greater Tehran. And the airport is one hour’s drive from the downtown ." We climbed onto the bus. It’s now 3:00 am, Iran time.

Our four-star hotel room had all the amenities – hot water, a bed, towels, sheets, cockroaches.

October 11, 2008: "Good morning!" said my new roommate. How does one civilly reply to something like that at 7:00 am after getting only three hours of sleep? I am so freaking tired.

I guess from my first impressions that the only difference between Iran and other places in Europe and America is that the women here wear headscarves and blouses that come down past their hips. But that’s about it. I could be sitting in any other hotel in the world.

"People in Iran are overly polite – that’s the big difference between Iranians and Americans," said our guide. "In that respect, we are more like the Japanese." Oh, and you CAN brush your teeth with the tap water.

"We just got word that we will not be meeting with a prominent ayatollah as planned," said our guide. "He is not feeling well."

Much to my surprise, everyone here wears western clothes and hardly anyone is in full Muslim drag.

"American dollars are getting stronger in Iran right now so you are lucky," said our guide, "and a lot of people here actually take dollars." And apparently inflation has hit here hard in the last year. "The price of eggs has doubled and housing costs three times as much." The inflation rate is around 500%. Wow. "Gas used to be 40 cents a gallon but now it is 40 cents per liter, and living in Tehran is very expensive. A lot of people work two or three jobs." The wives work as well as the husbands.

The first stop on our tour was the archeological museum, built in the 1930s as part of a plan to stop the looting of archeological treasures by western collectors. "This museum covers the period of the fifth millennium BC to the seventh century AD – the pre-Islamic period."

Iran is four times the size of Iraq – which is the size of California. "Iran is approximately one-fourth to one-third the size of the United States, excluding Alaska. The name ‘Iran’ is derived from the word ‘Aryan,’ the people who migrated down from the area which is now Russia. Our national history starts from around 1900 BC, when the Aryans came and subjugated the local people. Cyrus the Great is a descendant of the original Aryans." And they call all white people Caucasians because that’s the area where the Aryans originally came from, so Americans, European and Iranians all come from the same stock.

"Iranians are basically Caucasians – but because we are located at such a geographical crossroads, we have all kinds of ethnic diversity too." Aryans, Semites and even Mongols. Then we saw a lot of paleolithic stuff at the museum. That stuff was OLD.

"There’s a museum in Chicago that has more Persian antiquities than this one," said one tour group member. Still and all, this stuff is nice. Plus it gives us a taste of what we have to look forward to at Persepolis – lots of statues of impressive-looking bearded guys.

I didn’t see many statues of women here. "The role of women in the Middle East has always been secondary, not just since Islam." I guess that’s right. With a few notable exceptions, Jewish women were secondary to their men in the Middle East back in biblical times, and even look what happened to Mary Magdalene when she stepped out of her place -- she got called a whore.

Back on the bus, we passed two churches on our way to a ceramics museum. My idea of a good museum is one that has places to sit down. This one had lots of chairs.

"These necklaces date back to the fourth millennium BC." Even then, human beings appreciated art. I gotta start appreciating art too. Human beings create art – it’s what distinguishes us from beasts. Less bombs, more art. Let’s spend the Pentagon’s budget on teaching people to paint, draw, write and play the violin instead. Iran and Israel could have a battle of the bands. May the best poet win. There is a peaceful quality about museums. Then I accidentally sat in the museum guard’s chair – but he was extremely gracious about it.

What’s next? Lunch. "We are going to one of a chain of restaurants that serve traditional Iranian food." Mostly stews. Ours was a stew composed of extract of pomegranate, walnuts, vegetables, dried lemon and kidney beans, served with plain rice. Then we got to talking about fast food. "People here really like fast food – burgers and pizza."

"Is there a McDonalds?"

"No, but we do have Coca-Cola." So much for sanctions. I had a Sprite. Someone else had a pseudo-Red Bull. My Sprite can said, "Canned under authority of the Coca-Cola Company."

Apparently traditional Iranian food includes chicken pasta salad. "And this dish is fried onions, tomatoes and lamb." Then the shish kebob came! And dates and macaroons for dessert. "Is lunch or dinner the main meal of the day?" I asked.

"Every meal is the main meal of the day." My kind of people.

Then we got into a discussion about headscarves. There are advantages and disadvantages regarding the treatment of Islamic women. "We sacrifice some things yet we also receive more respect," said one Iranian woman. In one way I like the headscarves because they grip my skull and keep my brains from rattling around in my head.

When people found out that Americans were at the restaurant, it took on a festive atmosphere as diners from other tables came over and offered us food. "Try this yogurt. Try these olives!" Sure. I wonder what the poor schmucks who think Iran is such a horrible place are doing right now? Probably just stuck at home at McDonalds.

I can see the direction this trip is going in. Once I get back from Iran, I may never have to eat again.

"Next we are going to the jewelry museum. An 18th century corrupt shah was so busy with his harem that the Afghans were able to invade. But then a new shah came to power and kicked the Afghans out and got back the treasury that the Afghans had seized – plus a lot more." That’s where we are going now – to view the gold and gems once owned by this shah. I’m definitely up for looking at gold.

"The jewels exhibited here," said our guide, "are priceless." Imagine a huge underground vault filled with hundreds of thousands of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, gold and other shiny stuff – worth trillions of dollars.

"Are any of the people who owned this still alive?"

"No, all of them are dead." There’s a moral here – that even a treasure-house full of jewels won’t make you immortal. Deep, huh.

"Do any of the current Iranian state leaders wear any of these jewels?"

"They wouldn’t dare. Their reputations would be ruined." But there were so many thousands of diamonds that they just seemed like rhinestones, paste and glass beads after a while.

"Diamonds used to be the most valuable stone," said our guide, "but they are still mining diamonds – whereas there are no more rubies left to be mined and so now rubies are five times more valuable."

Then we went off to buy Islamic dresses. Islamic dresses basically look like overcoats. We all had fun trying them on but the ones that were stylish cost over $50 and the cheap ones didn’t fit at all and were ugly. I finally found a black cotton one for $25 that wasn’t too bad, if a little bit tight. Hey, it had pockets. I look like a sausage. But it was fun shopping for it and I can always move over the buttons.

October 12, 2008: My roommate and I really get along well outside our hotel room but once in our room we (politely) fight about everything – what time to set the alarm for, whether or not to open the window, what speed to set the air conditioning on, when to turn out the light and even where to put the toilet paper roll. Weird. Plus she snores a lot and I certainly don’t want to be the one to tell her that.

Right now, all my extra money is going to the hotel’s internet cafĂ©. The Iranian government denies me access to and but gives me access to That’s strange. All three sites offer the same articles and all three sites worked their little hearts out to prevent Bush from attacking Iran. I submitted an appeal to whoever manages this kind of stuff to unblock the sites.

I wonder what we are going to do today? I need to buy some T-shirts. I packed five skirts and dresses that I will never use but not enough T-shirts to wear under my manteau (that’s what they call these overcoat dresses here).

Our hotel is one block away from the Petroleum Ministry. That probably contains more gold than the jewelry museum.

"In a few minutes we are going to pass the former U.S. embassy. You are not allowed to take photos." But mostly it was just a view of a wall, you couldn’t see the embassy itself, nothing strategic. But I figured it was okay to take pictures of the wall. It had lots of anti-American phrases and murals that had been done back in the 1970s and were now almost the only place in Tehran that you could see anti-American slogans. "Iran will outlast the American superpower," said one section of the wall. At this point that might not be very hard to do. The reports on BBC News this morning about the American economy were really bad.

Then we drove through the old Armenian quarter. It looked like the Lower East Side of New York City.

"Tehran is 4500 feet above sea level. The population went from 3.5 million in 1978 to 17 million now, creating a population boom as people streamed into Tehran searching for jobs and creating large ghettos and sections of poverty. Plus over a million people died in the Iran-Iraq war, which also affected Tehran because people came here to be safe."

To the east of the city, high mountains suddenly rise. I know that the mountains are in the east because I always carry a compass – but you know that I still always manage to get lost.

"We are now going to a palace complex that belonged to the former shah. The closer you get to the mountains, the more expensive the neighborhoods get." Lots of 20- and 30-story condo towers – with helicopter pads on their roofs. "A two-bedroom condo in this area goes for a million dollars. There is a lot of construction going on and, unlike in the USA right now, housing is still a lucrative business here."

Iran has 30 provinces but Tehran is the most popular place to live at. "They are trying to transfer the capital to Esfahan to lower the congestion here but that move is still in the works." Then I got the sneezes from all that air conditioning last night.

"You can find the best-paying jobs in Tehran but you have to spend more to live here."

Then we passed through a lovely tree-lined boulevard. "It is not allowed to cut down trees in Iran. There’s a $20,000 fine. This street is the Champs de Elysees of Tehran."

We passed some Starbucks wannabes here, only they had changed the name to "Starcups". Many brand-name stores are coming to Iran now, such as Versace and Baskin Bobbins. "Tehran is not an ancient city, only about 200 years old." We will try to see three palaces today. King Reza, the founder of this dynasty, had four wives. And his son, the last Shah, had three wives. The last shah had 18 palaces but we are only going to see three of them. And after the palaces, we are going to go shopping at Nordstrom’s."

Tourist buses were lined up at the palace entrance and little girls in lavender cupcake uniforms sat on the steps of one of the palaces and said good morning to us in English. Third graders.

Then I tripped over nothing, fell flat on my face and screwed up my left ankle. Crap. It really hurts. I feel like a horse that needs to be taken out and shot. "Are you okay, Jane?" No. But, hey, I tripped on the same path that one of the cruelest dictators in the whole world used to walk on daily.

Next we went to a museum for the paintings of Mahmoud Farsachian. My initial reaction was "kitsch" – but technically well-executed kitsch. I’m such a snob. I couldn’t have possibly drawn or painted any of his stuff. Would I hang any of his work in my home? Sure. I’ve already inherited about 20 other kitsch paintings from my mom. These would fit right in.

Then we found a restroom with options besides a squat toilet. And the men’s side was cleaner than the women’s, giving me a whole new respect for Iranian men. Men’s rooms in America suck eggs.

Then we went off and got our photos taken in ancient Persian dresses while sitting in front of a Cinderella-style carriage that used to belong to a shah. I think. And then we toured the last shah’s palace with a group of Korean tourists and the women in the group wore the most beautiful headscarves, all covered with sequins. The shah had a lot of fabulous Persian rugs.

Then we went off to the Black Palace which is now an art museum. Lots of stairs, no chairs.

"These are paintings of Persian nobility from the 17th century." I’d hang any one of these in my home any time. I loved them. Who ARE these people? And where do they shop?

One portrait showed two young men, six young women and an old lady, fondling each other. "Back in those times, relations between women were not uncommon and were considered normal." Why not? There was probably nothing else to do in the harem.

And that was our day, spent flitting through the palaces of the former shah. Back on the bus. "About 60 years ago, you wouldn’t see any houses around here, only lawns, gardens and trees."

Time for lunch.

We drove up a winding street up on the hillside of the poshest part of town. "That home there costs 25 million." Dollars. This is the Beverly Hills of Tehran. "Here is our restaurant." Men sat outdoors on carpets. We sat outdoors too, under trees, in a garden – but not, thankfully, on the floor. Barley soup, eggplant anti-pasta with dill sour cream – just for starters. I’m already full. Lamb kebabs, chicken, potatoes, dates and tea.

Then we went off to an upscale mall. Not quite Rodeo Drive – but close. "Don’t think of this as window shopping," I told someone in our group. "Think of this as anthropology!" Exploring how the Tehran upper class lives. Incredibly stylish ways to wear black dresses of course, but also Dior, Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton, Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Mont Blanc, D-Squared and Elle! I was all in a daze.

I also found an ATM machine at the mall. Good. I was running out of money and had $200 less than I thought I had. But my card was rejected. "This machine will not accept your card."

"Where can I get money?" I asked one of our guides.

"There’s no place that you can get money from America here." Wow. The banking and credit system has gotten THAT bad? The dollar has sunken that low? "No, it’s just that there are no commercial ties between Iran and America." Tell that to Coca-Cola and Tommy Hilfiger.

"What about Western Union?" I’d seen a Western Union sign near our hotel.

"Yes, you could do that." But how?

"No tourist has ever been killed here in the past 200 years," someone said. Good to know -- but not surprising. Tehran is an extremely civilized town. I wonder, however, if any tourists have ever died of starvation due to access to an ATM machine. And I also wonder if I will have enough money to be able to buy a soccer jersey for Ashley or a doll for baby Mena. And maybe a small Persian rug for Joe?

One Iranian explained the gas situation to me. "We don’t have that many gas stations here so there are always long lines. Some people get up at 3:00 am to buy gas. And it’s rationed too. And if you don’t have a ration card, gas costs four times as much."

Then we went off to a carpet museum. I’m assuming that they have a bathroom.

"There are two different types of carpets: Tribal rugs and urban rugs." They showed us a rug from 500 BC. Awesome. A whole museum full of carpets. I wonder how many people went blind weaving these rugs?

"Urban rugs are more valuable if they are perfect but flaws in tribal rugs are acceptable, even expected." Persian-type knots, natural dyes. "144 knots per (something, I didn’t hear what, perhaps inch?) is the highest amount you can get." And it is illegal to import Chinese rugs into Iran. Then we looked at the rugs themselves. They were stunning, impressive. But I still like my little prayer rug better. It’s been in my purse since 2005, followed me everywhere, been around the world with me, kept me company. Just like the nomadic rugs.

Next stop – the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring an exhibit by art instructors in some of the local colleges and design schools. Nice building. Nice exhibit. My feet hurt. Can I go back to the hotel and use the internet yet?

"None of this stuff is political," someone commented, "and none of it reflects the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war." I get the opinion that almost everyone in Tehran is trying to forget it.

The sofas in the museum are incredibly soft – but hard to get out of. So I sat in the one by the door, waited for someone in our group to walk by and pull me out of the sofa, and listened to an Iranian Muzak version of "Sketches of Spain". I used to listen to Miles Davis’s version of that in college back in 1963. I’d play it again and again – that and a whole ton of Joan Baez – and now I am sitting here listening to it in Iran.

Then we went off to a park where I saw the first man I have seen since I got here who was wearing a thobe -- the traditional Middle Eastern white nightgown worn by men. "That isn't a typical Persian item," said a guide, "and, also, Tehran is such a new city that everyone here wears Western garb except the mullahs. That man was probably a Pakistani."

This park actually has park benches! Whew! And we also found a bunch of Nautilus-like exercise machines. And I got to sit down on the stationary bike.

Speaking of exercise, someone here told me that, "The girls in Iran eat very little until they get married and then after that...." The day after the wedding day they say goodbye to their diets.

(To be continued when I get back from the Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas)