Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stick it to the Man!

Life is good... if you're a pig!
Corporations in America resemble nothing so much as feudal overlords, skimming the cream off the milk pail of proletariat labor. Free market capitalism? It's a myth! A sick joke that, Lord knows, the corporate titans must surely chortle about as they gorge on their Volga River caviar. Marx called these creatures parasites, vampires feeding off the sweat of the people.

Examples abound: Remember back in 2005 when Congress passed legislation making it illegal to buy prescription drugs from outside the country? Junior peddled it as a safety measure, because, you know, all those Canadians were dying in the streets as a result of all those bad drugs manufactured up there. But, the truth was that US pharmaceutical companies were up in arms because their Canadian counterparts were selling drugs at lower prices, denying the US companies what they felt was their right to extort higher prices out of American consumers. Competition be damned! There was a pot of gold out there, and no north-of-the-border pill pushers were going to get in the way.

Or witness the vehemence with which health insurance lobbyists are fighting to kill any so-called "public option" in the new health care solution. They complain that a public option (which is, in itself, a compromise from the single-payer system that many advocate) would drive the insurance companies out of existence! They simply couldn't compete.

Or, on a more immediate level, Comcast, my cable television, internet, and home telephone provider, is currently pitching a new shtick to attract subscribers. It's a package deal. You buy all three services, signing a contract for 2 years, and you get the whole thing for $99/month. Well, I'm already signed up with Comcast for those 3 features, but I pay $127/month. I called them to say that I wanted to sign up for the cheaper deal and was told that the promotional only applied for new subscribers.

So, I said, "Well, what if I cancel all my subscriptions and then sign up again tomorrow? Can I get the lower rate?"

Reply: "The fine print on these promotional contracts is that the terms only apply to new customers."

Well, that's a bloody ripoff, and I let the poor shmuck on the other end of the line know it.

There is a myriad of other examples that a little research on the internet can readily illuminate, all indicating the same thing: our current system is designed to reward those at the top, and to keep them at the top.

I don't know about you, but this makes my blood boil. And that's why I take every opportunity I can to stick it to the man! Any time I can find a way to rip off an insurance company, corporate bank, or cable or phone company, I do it. From my perspective, it is not that I'm ripping them off. It's that I'm denying them the ability to extort money out of me in some petty way.

Examples: I once was involved in a fender bender in Portland. Totally my fault. I rear-ended the driver in front of me who inexplicably came to a dead stop in the middle of the Hawthorne Bridge. A heated conversation ensued and the other driver apparently got flustered by the --er --disappointment I expressed in his driving tactics. He ended up taking down my name incorrectly. When his auto insurance company contacted me to try to get me to pay up, I noted to myself that they had made a mistake, and that, in fact, they couldn't tie me to the incident. For the next six months, they called and wrote vaguely threatening letters, all addressed to a non-existent person with a name similar to mine. I gleefully took their calls and heaped abuse upon the callers, then hung up, laughing. Eventually, the calls and letters stopped coming. Joke was on them.

Then, there was the time I called to cancel my cable television subscription (it was another company, not Comcast). The caller registered my request and told me that a serviceperson would come out sometime in the next week or so to unhook my cable. Well, a week went by and nothing. Then, another week. Then, a month. Then, a year. All told, I got two years of free cable. Eventually, somebody wised up and came to unhook my cable. But they apparently knew better than to try and get me to pay for it. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed that they didn't at least make the effort. I would have enjoyed meteing out heaping helpings of scorn and ridicule upon them.

Let me be clear: I do not advocate stealing or petty theft from honest businessmen or credit unions, or ordinary citizens. And I think I'm accurate when I say that anyone who knows me considers me to be scrupulous and honorable.

Oink! Oink!
But when it comes to corporate parasites who milk us all, every month, for hundreds or thousands of dollars because we simply have no other options: stick it to 'em, people. God knows they're sticking it to us!

Monday, June 29, 2009

A child sees Neda die

A tragic crime unfolds on the tee-vee;
Sanguine rivulets from Neda's mouth, nose,
Flow freely; Astonished she seems, eyes wide;

A father's wail; scarlet pool, red as rose,
To mark the spot where bravely Neda died,
Until street cleaner hoses wash it free

From mem'ry; Hope, alas, is denied;
In America, we are feasting. Those
Faces faraway removed by degree.

Solemn youthful face, sitting at my side;
I'd spare him knowledge of these worldly woes,
This boy who cried to see the dying bee;

I bleed, as Neda's heart, for wizened youth;
His puzzled query, "But why did they shoot?"

*Thanks to Eugene for the inspiration.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Public health care option? Hell, yes!

The debate over health care reform is well underway, and one thing is perfectly clear: when it comes to influencing legislation, the health care insurance industry has a hell of a lot more pull with Congress (and especially the US Senate) than does the voting public.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on June 17th showed that 76% of respondents felt it was either "extremely" or "quite" important to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance." Seventy-six percent. That's a whole lot of support. You'd think that our elected representatives would be trampling each other to get in front of that parade.

Well, if you did think that, you'd be dead wrong. Here's why: all those billions of dollars that those of us who have health insurance pay in premiums every month, aside from paying for the yachts and private Lear jets of corporate executives, also pad the pockets of K Street lobbyists. And these lobbyists use that money to "lobby" (or, "bribe" as it is sometimes called) our congressional representatives.

Ostensibly, the objection to a public option for health care is that it is too expensive. But these protests generally do not make mention of the enormous costs associated with having 47 million uninsured persons in America who rely on emergency care as their sole recourse when they get sick.

Other objections point to inefficiencies in the two government administered health care related programs: Medicare and Medicaid. Well, government could always be streamlined and made more efficient. However, having worked in private industry for over 20 years now, I can tell you that inefficiency, sloth, and shoddy workmanship are hardly the exclusive purview of government. The amount of money I have seen squandered in private industry is staggering.

(As a side note, Republicans, who claim to not believe in government solutions only compound the problem when they are in charge. Their belief that government can't work is self-fulfilling.)

If we are going to have a health care solution for the country, it must either be implemented by government or private industry.

But, what is the function of private industry? It is to make a profit so that the profit can be distributed among shareholders. Therefore, it is in the insurance companies interests to deny as many claims on health insurance as possible.

There have been reports of health insurance companies offering bonuses to claims adjusters for denying claims. (You can read one such report here.) That is, the more claims an insurance claims adjuster denies, the bigger his or her bonus. Why? Because fewer claims mean bigger profits! As long as the profit motive is part of health care decisions, abuse and corruption are going to be rampant.

Government, on the other hand, does not have the profit motive. A bureaucrat does not make more or less money by denying a claim for health care. A bureaucrat's salary is not dependent on the success or lack of success of a private enterprise. Therefore, decisions about people's health care are not made with an eye toward increasing profit for the corporate entity.

Note that this does not mean that we shouldn't pay doctors an excellent salary. Doctors, nurses and health-care professionals should get top dollar for their work. But insurance company executives? Shareholders? If we remove the profit motive from health care the cost savings will allow us to pay health-care professionals more.

Also, by removing the profit motive, it seems more likely that poorer communities will get better health care facilities. In Oregon, the facilities at smaller communities are often exceedingly poor. Why? Because private corporations do not see any profit in investing expensive medical equipment into communities that have no money.

In the end, it all comes down to this question: Should a person's access to health care be dependent on his or her ability to pay? In other words, are rich people entitled to better treatment and better health than poor people? Or, taking a step back even further: Are there people that matter and people that don't?

And this: bribed Senators (Democrats and Republicans) can obfuscate and protest all they want, but it seems that the public is clear about what it wants. These trying economic times have made everyone aware and fearful about their vulnerability. Shrieks about encroaching socialism and out-of-control government expansion don't convey the same dread as does the fear of a cancer diagnosis or a sudden, massive stroke.

Besides, President Obama's proposal is to include a public option to private health insurance. This option would compete with private health insurance companies. And every good capitalist welcomes competition. Right?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cinque Terre - Geneva (Pt. XVI)

Note to readers: This is the sixteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XV here.

A long day that started in a hotel in Naples, had seen me trekking along rural country roads and through the ruins of an ancient civilization, sprinting through a furious Mediterranean inundation, and negotiating the chaos of Rome's train station, ended in a quiet room in La Spezia. Someone told me that my destination, Cinque Terre, was but a mere 20 minutes further on, if I could endure. But I was here, in La Spezia, the hotel was before me, and judging by the looks I drew from passers-by, I surmised that my mien reflected the thousand-yard stare of the walking dead. A room. A shower. Crash.

Next morning, I arose late. I walked across the street to the train station and caught the train to Cinque Terre (CHINK-wah TER-rah). "The five lands," consisting of five Italian hamlets in the Liguira region.

Terraced orchards and vineyards
Although it was late October, the tourists were still thick. Rumors of a lack of accommodations abounded, causing me to rent the first room I was able to find, in the eastern most of the five villages, Riomaggiore. It was a cold, austere room with no hot water situated halfway up the steep paved street that led from the train platform. What did I care? After all this time, sleeping on trains, in hotel bars, a room was a room. I was glad to be in Cinque Terre.

Italian hamlet nestled in the coastal slopes
These five villages, accessible only by rail, or by sea, or by foot, are cut into terraces on the cliffs above the Mediterranean. West to east:  Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore.  In addition to the rail that ran from one to the next via long, dark tunnels, with trains running in either direction every half hour or so, there was a foot path that meandered through the slopes from Riomaggiore all the way to Monterosso.

Along the trail
I hiked along the footpath; saw the waves beating at the base of the rocky cliffs. Italians shook their heads and muttered at the mari tempestosi. I was not sure what to think about that. I'm from Oregon, my friends. These little ripples here on your Mediterranean wouldn't even register on the coastline of my home. When you stand on the beach in Oregon and see the colossi roaring in from the mighty (and misnamed) Pacific, you really do feel small, insignificant. This? This is a child's tantrum by comparison. But I mean no disrespect, miei amici. This little paradise you have cut into the hills is peaceful and beyond beautiful.

Mari tempestosi
 The trail was closed in places. There had been rain and there were concerns about mudslides. Very well. I hiked those portions that were open, and hopped the train where necessary. Although I was looking, and I made several failed attempts, I did not find anyone in Cinque Terre with whom to share the experience. Many tourists, even Americans, but they were all in their own cliques and, although friendly enough, had no particular desire to bring in an outsider. These were mostly travelers fresh in from the airport in Rome or Milan. Not Eurail backpackers. Fair enough.

Hiking along the Mediterranean
After a good, long day hiking, and an excellent repast of gnocchi and salad, I retired to my cold room with the cold water. Now, returned the anxious thoughts of future, past, and the significance of my own existence. What was it I had come to find here in Europe? Was I any closer to finding it? What awaited me on my return to America? To rainy, familiar Oregon? I still had no answers.

I spent one more day in Cinque Terre, writing postcards, hanging out. But now it was time to leave Italy for Switzerland. Next day, I caught the train out. Arrivederci, Italia.


Riding the train to Milan, I met a young man from Romania. This fellow spoke English well enough, and decided apparently, that I was worthy of hearing his life story. A troubled fellow, this young man. He was in love with a young woman whom he had met in a brothel. He referred to her as his "girlfriend." He professed his love to her, offered to take her away from it all. She was reluctant, leaving him in a state of anxiety. But he seemed fully prepared to accept the role of tragic hero. Well, had I been ten or fifteen years younger, I would have recognized his nobility. Now, having had a failed love affair or two of my own, I could only manage a sympathetic smile. You'll learn, my friend. We all do.

The plan was to go to Interlaken, high in the Swiss Alps. But the notoriously unreliable Italian rail system caused a change in plans. Trains run late. I missed a connection in Milan and faced an eight-hour wait or the option of a 45-minute layover before the train left for Geneva. I chose the latter.

The ride up through the lap of the Italian and Swiss Alps was spectacular: high, green pastures, with spotted cows grazing on lush grass. Darkness descended too quickly, hiding it all in the black shroud of approaching winter.

Odile was on the train, too. Odile (open-minded, open-faced) lived in Geneva. Of course I noticed her. She was beautiful, unpretentious, and out-going. Like most Swiss, she spoke English, German, Swiss, French, and Italian. She was socially and politically aware and very, very smart. We chatted away the hours riding the rails through the alpine darkness and made plans to meet for dinner next day.

On arrival in Geneva I got a bed in the local hostel. There was the usual throng of Eurail travelers, including a family from Australia: a man and woman and their two young children. When asked about Geneva and things to see, they didn't have much to say. "There's not much here," said the woman. "We're leaving tomorrow."


The next day, I wandered around Geneva. I found one mildly interesting museum dealing with the Reformation: interesting only because of the hand-scribed books with the illuminated pages scrawled by monks some time in the dark period that came in the wake of Rome's fall.

 The UN Office in Geneva (UNOG) is here. It is the largest UN office outside New York. The huge bureaucracy spreads its numbing tendrils out into the city, moderating, lulling, inviting oblivion. Not much to see really.

The lake, Lake Geneva, was glorious, with its alpine backdrop. And the people were friendly, especially the Spanish restaurateur who gave me a complimentary glass of grappa. Do not gulp! Strong stuff. They say it is made from the residue of wine grapes: stems and leaves and such. I gamely finished the glass. Gracias, amigo. No, no más, gracias.

That evening, Odile did indeed come to the hostel and from there we went to a seedy bar where she showed me Geneva's sordid underside. We drank with prostitutes and ruffians. I dined on fondue and enjoyed the atmosphere.

But Geneva, I decided, had little to offer me. In the morning, I caught the train out. Alas, my camera stayed behind, victim of my negligence. Here's hoping that some Eurail traveler found it and made good use of it. On to France!

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

All eyes on Tehran: GOP tries for cheap political points

Takin' it to the streets
By now, of course, everyone with a television, radio or computer knows that something big is afoot in Iran. The images of streets filled with protesters defying the powers-that-be are awesome and inspiring. And, frankly, I'm a bit chagrined to think that those Iranians are showing more intestinal fortitude than did outraged but comfortable Americans who in 2000 placidly allowed our own election to be stolen. (We will be atoning for that sin for decades to come.) And, while we did come out in our millions to emphatically register our opposition to the invasion of Iraq, we passively melted away after Junior ignored us and pulled the trigger anyway. (We'll be paying for that for decades, as well.)

But what is happening in Iran, right now, is an amazing, and largely unexpected phenomenon. After Junior labeled the entire nation as a component of his juvenile "Axis of Evil" most Americans, in their intellectually-lazy way, assumed that Iran was full of Muslim terrorists strapping bombs to their bodies, beating their women, reviling all things Western. The brave demonstrators out in the streets of Tehran expose the lie of that particular piece of propaganda and add to Junior's sorry portrait as charlatan and demagogue.

It's never clear exactly what would best serve the interests of humanity at large in cases like this. But it does seem to me that if the demonstrators can bring about some real reforms to Iranian governance, that would probably be for the best. And, if that is the goal, President Obama seems to be playing it just about right.

For those that don't know, in 1953, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, committed the fatal sin of standing up to western corporate power by attempting to nationalize the oil industry in his country. His argument was that the profits of the country's vast oil reserves should go to the Iranian people rather than the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation, which was a British corporation of old-school imperialism. His reward for such effrontery was to be removed from power in a coup d'etat engineered by the CIA acting under the authorization of President Eisenhower. Mosaddeq was replaced by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, a Western-friendly authoritarian, who ruled Iran brutally until his own overthrow in 1979. (Remember the Iranian hostage crisis?)

Therefore, given the sorry history of US meddling in Persian affairs, the most destructive and potentially fatal step the Obama administration could take would be to issue forceful, vaguely-threatening statements against the Iranian mullahs or Ahmadinejad's government. If there is the perception that the demonstrations are somehow linked to American cloak-and-dagger manipulation, public sympathy within Iran for the demonstrators could quickly turn to hostility, the Iranian Republican Guard could be called in post-haste, and blood could run in the streets on a scale heretofore unseen.

Of course, Republicans in their eagerness to get some kind of leverage on President Obama are loudly criticizing his response, calling it "timid." I especially got a kick out of Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) who cautioned that, if Ahmadinejad were to prevail: "If we have a regime that doesn‘t have legitimacy, then—then—regimes like that tend to be more aggressive, tend to focus more on external threats." (Ahem. Bush? 2000 election? Axis of Evil?)

No one doubts with whom American sympathies lie, do they? President Obama certainly expressed hope and friendship toward non-militant Muslims with his ground-breaking address in Cairo earlier this month. The Republicans are just trying, in their laughably ineffectual way, to score political points. Thankfully, nobody is listening to them. We all have more important matters to deal with than the rantings of an extremist, minority party.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Today is Juneteenth

Today marks the 144th anniversary of the final death of the most hideous of Confederate institutions. Namely, slavery.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas to inform the citizens of that city of the truce that had occurred at Appomattox two months previously and of the surrender of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The Civil War was over. The Confederacy was resoundingly defeated.

Up to that point, there had been a minimal Union presence in Galveston and vicinity and as many as 250,000 persons were still living in bondage despite President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years previously.

This day, now commonly known as "Juneteenth," is commemorated mostly in African-American churches, but it is also an official state holiday in Texas.

Modern-day Confederates, who, in an utterly ironic historical twist, identify mostly with the Republican party, often speak of the Confederacy in nostalgic and honorable terms. According to these apologists, the Confederacy was all about state's rights and rugged individualism and proud regional heritage.

But the Confederacy was really about a propertied elite, a New World aristocracy, hoodwinking the indigent regional hoi polloi into believing that the Federalists were trying to equate them with the Negroes, were belittling their heritage, were disrespecting their God-fearing creed. All done to protect the "respectable" Old South gentility in their position of social and political dominance. All done to protect those fortunes made with the lash and the shackle.

It's the same tack they take today with their manufactured "Tea Bag" rallies and their shrieks of "socialism." Remember the sturm und drang that took place when the state of Georgia underwent the process of creating a new state flag to replace the old one in which the Dixie "Stars and Bars" figured prominently? Or how about Texas Governor Rick Perry suggesting that Texans, apparently still Confederates in spirit, might someday secede if the federal government is unresponsive to Confederate concerns?

In the end, people saw through it. The evil of slavery outweighed any faux-arguments for legitimacy that the Confederacy put forth. (Well, that and the whipping they received at Gettysburg in July of 1863.)

Smacking down the rednecks at Appomattox
Juneteenth, then, is a celebration of the ultimate exposure and defeat of evil. In the end, the liars and the hypocrites get what is coming to them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Suburbia: terminally-ill

Check this not-for-the-faint-at-heart video. It is well worth the effort for those concerned with the future of our civilization:

If you're like me, you find it somewhat alarming. It isn't that the revelations in this video are new. In fact, they've been around for a while. The video discusses evidence that the world is rapidly approaching, or may indeed have already passed, its capacity to produce oil (you know? "Peak oil" theory?) and then speculates on the repercussions that development will have on civilization.

This video looks to have been made several years ago, but the progression of world events has only made it more relevant. Last year's collapse of financial markets, the interminable death rattle of America's automobile manufacturing industry and its jetliner transportation system, the bankruptcy of government at all levels: these have all been predicted.

Next up on the death-watch list? Suburbia. The suburban lifestyle simply cannot function without access to cheap energy, mostly in the form of abundant, cheap gasoline. Gas to transport suburbanites to their jobs and to far flung markets that are supplied with goods manufactured or grown entire continents away.

Well, if James Howard Kunstler and the other experts in this video are right, that's all coming to an end.

And what will come after? No one can know, of course. But, as discussed in the video, the possible futures range anywhere from apocalyptic societal collapse, anarchy, and a new Dark Ages to a massive refocusing and reassessment of our society geared toward local production and government and reduced consumption.

Either way, there is going to be a period of time when there will be a whole lot of disillusioned, angry suburbanites struggling to find a new state of existence.

I can't find anything that sounds even remotely credible to counter the arguments and theories presented in this video. And therefore, it rings true. It's a frightening thought: the idea that we are being compelled to radically change our way of life.

We're in for a rough ride, but if one result of all the turbulence is a resurgence of local communities, with neighbors helping neighbors, and individuals engaged in meaningful productive work, growing food, providing useful services --well, that, at least, would be an improvement over what we have today.

In the end, I just try to fall back on my belief in the inherent goodness of people. What else have we got?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Living the dream

A quick sketch of two friends:

One is the father of two beautiful twin children and the husband to an amazing woman. He owns his own business, is his own boss, in a recession-proof industry. His family has just moved into an upscale house on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River. My friend is riding high on the cresting wave of life.

Well, I've been there.

My other friend is going through a divorce (his second) and is financially devastated as a result. He has a son from his first marriage and a beautiful, loving daughter from his second. He is doing his best, also, to care for an elderly parent who is starting to show signs of being unable to care for herself. My friend is near the bottom of a deep trough in the sea of life.

I've been there, too.

If there is one thing of which we can be sure as our little ships make their way across this vast ocean toward the Unknown Shore, it is that the voyage is going to have its ups and downs.

But, so often, we lose that perspective, don't we? Especially in our self-absorbed, ego-centric Western culture. That's why we hear about young, successful people in perfect health blowing their minds with drugs or succumbing to angst and despair and committing that final selfish act of retribution on the people who dared to love them.

Does it not suggest that there might be something fundamentally wrong with our society?

Smiling homeless woman in Ouagadougou, nursing two children

Other cultures seem less prone to this extravagance. That is why we see photographs of indigent seemingly desparate people smiling in spite of their poverty. Could it be that the further we are from the daily struggle for survival, the more inclined we are to partake in the luxury of angst?

Well, returning again to my two friends, I've had conversations with each of them about their current existential states. These are two men in very different circumstances, at very different points on the up-down sine wave of life.

But, you know what? Each of them, when commenting about his current condition, has given me the same answer. That answer? "Well, Dade, you know... I just got really lucky."

Myself and nephew Gino

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Right-wing terror continues

Are ya proud of yerself, Tom?

Tom Tancredo, the former US Representative of Colorado's 6th District, who, in true Republican form, loved to stoke up fear of immigrants (and especially immigrants of a Latino nature), must either feel proud or chagrined right about now.

Law enforcement officials in Pima County, Arizona, arrested Jason Bush (34), Albert Gaxiola (42), and alleged ringleader Shawna Forde (41) as a result of an investigation into a home invasion that left Raul Flores and his young daughter dead, and his wife wounded. Flores is rumored to have been involved in narcotics trafficking. Investigators speculate that the three accused killers were seeking money.

The trio is alleged to have dressed as law enforcement officials and to have forced their way into the Flores home. It is believed that, after exchanging gunfire with Flores and his wife, the accused killed the girl as a means of silencing a witness to their crime.

American "patriots" not letting Type II diabetes keep them from their duty

Bush, Gaxiola, and Forde have all been charged with first-degree murder. All are part of an anti-illegal immigration group based out of Washington state --a group loosely associated with the "Minutemen." You know? Those self-appointed yokels who drive out into the desert along the Mexican border with their binoculars and beer coolers, and pretend that they're "protecting" this country's sovereignty?

Other "Minutemen" groups have publicly condemned the murders and gone out of their way to distance themselves from the accused. Apparently, Shawna Forde is fairly well-known among the xenophobe crowd, and is widely acknowledged as being unstable. Fair enough.

But, tell me: when the rhetoric that has been thrown around by Tom Tancredo (check this video) and Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich is as vile and shrill as it has been, was it not inevitable that something like this was going to happen?

Hatred and fear are potent political weapons. The Republican scream machine has been blaring hysterically for so long that those of us who find it odious and ridiculous tend to forget that there is an element of society that actually believes it. And within that frightened and despairing element are unstable, fringe personalities for whom the election of Barack Obama and the turn away from so-called "conservatism" are sure signs that the end of the world is near.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Naples - Pompeii (Pt. XV)

Note to readers: This is the fifteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIV here.
I awoke the next morning and glimpsed Belgian Sten (accommodating, low stress) passing by the dorm room. A silent wave and he was gone. I arose, showered and decided that it was time to press on to wherever I was headed next. The previous night's partying in Rome saddled me with a dark cloud of anxiety: not so much hangover, but concern that I might be drinking too much. It was time to go. No farewells to my friends beyond that silent wave at Sten.

I grabbed a quick ride to the train station and caught the first train out. South to Naples.

Naples harbor
I arrived at a city very different from other Italian cities I had seen to that point. Naples was not so much a destination for tourists, but a straight-up no-frills city for workaday Italians getting on with the business of life on the shores of the Mediterranean. Naples, Napoli, is older than Rome, birthed into the world by enterprising Greeks some 800 years before whatever it was that happened in Galilee that got everyone so riled up.

Back in the early days of the Roman ascendancy, Naples made a stand against Hannibal and his elephants, preventing the marauding Carthaginians from penetrating the strong stone walls of the city. Centuries later, when Rome succumbed to the inevitable, Naples was as an islet, washed over by the rising and ebbing tides of Ostrogoths and imperial Byzantines. Even later, caught in the maelstrom of hopelessly complex European politics, Naples was a prized duchy, awarded first to this, and then to that royal house. In 1266, the Church stepped in. Pope Innocent IV crowned Charles I the King of Sicily.

Charles made Naples the capital of his short-lived kingdom, building the Castel Nuovo, which is, perhaps, its most prominent memorial. Today, Castel Nuovo is the site of an unimpressive museum with few exhibits. But I got a nice photo of the facade, so what the hey?

Castel Nuovo
I spent a lot of time wandering around the streets aimlessly, taking it all in. Naples was rough around the edges: feral dogs and cats, gangs of boys, 12 to 15 years of age, running around causing trouble, harassing people, knocking things over. They accosted a young woman, pushed her up against a wall, spit on her, then ran away. Italian curses were shouted back and forth. Curious.

I spent a lonely night in a relatively luxurious hotel. But I had no plans to stay beyond that night. My journey south from Rome was to see something else . . . an historical relic preserved by disaster. In the morning, I caught the train for the short ride south to Pompeii.


Lack of skill in la lengua italiana caused me to miss the stop for Pompeii. Queries made in Spanish, which Italians understood well enough, elicited Italian replies leaving me far at sea. I didn't realize that I had missed my stop until the train was underway and I glimpsed ruins falling away in the distance.

I rode anxiously for about 10 minutes before the train stopped again. I disembarked at a lonely, dilapidated platform in the middle of vast green fields. A highway ran back to the north, toward Pompeii. I spent a long moment considering, unsure whether it would be better to set off on foot, or perhaps await a train going back to the north.

But, after all, I was a relatively young man, still strong and not afraid of hardship. I cinched up the straps on the pack, hefted the guitar and set out. I got no further than perhaps a quarter mile when, sure enough, a train going north appeared behind me. There was no time to run back to the platform. Just grit the teeth and keep walking. Wave at the train as it passes.

I took long strides, and set my eyes on the high ground to the north. I stopped at a cafe along the way where curious, friendly Italians tried to converse with me. They didn't see many foreign travelers in their out-of-the-way cafe. I did my best to tell them my story. They seemed to appreciate the effort. I bought lunch from them and was grateful for their amiability.

Eventually, I got off on peripheral country roads and began to fear I was lost. At a crossroads was a small cottage, with an elderly man kneeling in his garden. He looked up and smiled. I posed my one word query, "Pompeii?" He nodded, rising, dusting the dirt from his knees, speaking rapidly, gesticulating. Not a word did I understand. He took me by the elbow, led me in one direction and pointed. "Pompeii," he assured me.

"Grazie," said I. And I say it again, now, a decade later. "Grazie, signore." A mile or so down the road, I came upon Pompeii.


Unearthed ruins
Cruel Vesuvius buried Pompeii on August 24 in the year 79AD. But she was preserved under a blanket of ash in all her glory, awaiting discovery some 1600 years later. Now she is a genuine archaeological treasure, overrun by feral dogs and photo-snapping tourists. Here, more than anywhere else in my far-flung travels across the former Roman Empire, did I begin to sense what it must have meant to be a Roman in those days.

Street in Pompeii
These streets were broad and well paved. Houses were well built, with plumbing and fixtures for oil lamps. All the plundered wealth of Egypt, Palestine, Iberia, and Greece, accrued by conquering legions made life for Roman citizens luxurious, even decadent.  Especially when contrasted with the lives of northern barbarians in their dark, untamed forests.

Cavi Cani

I followed a tour through the ruined city; saw a tiled mosaic on the threshold of an ancient dwelling, warning "Beware of Dog" in Latin. I wandered through the house of two bachelor lawyers who loved their pornography, as evidenced by the artwork still preserved on their walls.

Ancient fresco

An unearthed sports arena, a public square, a temple, an aqueduct. It was impossible to ignore the similarities between these pampered, live-for-the-day ancients and today's television-watching pizza-eaters. Were Romans as blithely unaware of the opulence, the excess in which they existed?

Pompeii loved her sports
There was some forewarning of trouble in the days before Pompeii's destruction. The wealthy folks packed up and headed for safer ground . . . perhaps visiting relatives in Rome, or making a stay at the vacation home in Sicily. But they left behind their slaves to guard the houses while they were gone. And the poorer folk had no resources with which to make their escape.

Left behind
 The eruption rained searing ash and poisonous gases on the town. Vesuvius spewed her fury like a venomous oath. Those who remained in the city died where they fell, their lifeless figures giving testament to the end of the line for Pompeii.

Cruel Vesuvius looms behind
Just as I made my way back to the platform to catch the train north to La Spezia, a sudden black-cloud squall raced up from the sea and unleashed its angry, lashing rain, drenching all in seconds, causing everyone to run for shelter. A mild recreation of the scene that must have occurred nearly two thousand years before. But not cold rains back then. Rather, scorching, choking ash.

I made shelter and the train. Behind me, the plaster cast forms of ancient underclass remained, still recalling that terrible day.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Right-wing lunatics: They are everywhere

In the wake of yesterday's shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, it now seems that the recent report issued by the Department of Homeland Security which warned of the threat of domestic terrorism posed by right-wing extremist groups may be right on the money.

When the report was released, right-wingers screamed bloody murder, trying to portray the report as "propaganda" aimed at vilifying supposedly legitimate "conservative" critics of President Obama. Michelle Malkin, the unhinged right-wing harpy, called it "The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives."

Well, they can whine and cry and beat their breasts indignantly, but I'll tell you, the stuff I've read and seen since President Obama won the election last year has me worried.

Check out what Rush Limbaugh said: "If al-Qaida wants to demolish the America we know and love, they’d better hurry because Obama is beating them to it."

Or check what Shep Smith, of Fox News(!) said about the emails he receives daily:

Or take a look at these comments I've seen on "conservative" blogs (and, believe me, these come from some of the more mild web sites):
  • "I would say [Obama] is more on the Satan’s side then on God’s side."

  • "Obama deceitfully hid his Muslim background and schooling and his agenda."

  • "...it's entirely possible that, instead of signing up with blackwater, I could choose to exterminate some of America's enemies right here at home." [This one was directed straight at me!]
As I tried to point out yesterday, with the ugly rhetoric that has been flying around for years --rhetoric that, in my opinion, is a symptom of a desperate realization by right-wingers that they are forever losing their political dominance --it was only a matter of time before incidents like those in Wichita and Washington occurred. I fear that this is only the beginning.

Remember when Republican presidential nominee John McCain tried to quell the ugly flames that were raging at his rallies? McCain saw it back then, and, to his eternal credit, tried to thwart it, even arguably to his political detriment. In fact, I think responsible Republicans (and, yes, there are a few) are very uneasy about what is happening out there.

The right-wing riposte to my concern will, of course, be that the rhetoric directed at Junior Bush and Big Dick was just as bad, just as inflammatory, as the stuff that they are spewing. But it's simply not true. There were no claims that Junior was secretly an agent of a foreign enemy. There was no conjecture that the Bush administration was deliberately trying to destroy the country. Or, if there were, such claims were limited only to obscure nooks and crannies.

And, of course, there were zero ideologically-based murders committed by anyone that could be identified with the political left.

Let's see what happens in the wake of these attacks. Will prominent Republicans like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford or baton-twirling Newt Gingrich or cadaverous Senator Mitch McConnell call for a toning down of the rhetoric? Or will they follow the lead of Texas Governor Rick Perry, and succumb to the temptation of nailing down a rock solid political base in the hopes of engineering an electoral majority from a divided and tormented nation?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More right-wing terrorism

Racist cockroach

Today, James Von Brunn, an elderly white supremacist, went into the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and opened fire with a small caliber rifle. At least two persons, besides Von Brunn, himself, suffered gunshot wounds. One of the victims, a security guard at the museum, died this afternoon.

Von Brunn was arrested in 1981 for entering the headquarters of the Federal Reserve Board with a shotgun, claiming he had planted a bomb, and threatening to take hostages. He was later convicted and served six and a half years in prison.

Von Brunn posted some particularly hateful and disturbing writings on white supremacist web sites, recently. Some of his choice quotes include "Today, on the World stage, White men are LAUGHED AT, their women taken, raped, and bred by stronger men," "America is a Third-World racial garbage-dump..." and, of course, "Heil Hitler!"

Or, how about this scholarly piece from Van Brunn's manifesto?
"Approval of inter-racial breeding is predicated on idiotic Christian dogma that God's children must love their enemies (a concept JEWS totally reject); and on LIBERAL/MARXIST/JEW propaganda that all men/races are created equal. These genocidal ideologies, preached from the American pulpits, taught in American schools, legislated in the halls of Congress (confirming TALMUDIC conviction that goyim are stupid sheep), are expected to produce a single, superintelligent, beautiful, non-White "American" population. Eliminating forever racism, inequality, bigotry and war. As with ALL LIBERAL ideologies, miscegenation is totally inconsistent with Natural Law: the species are improved through in-breeding, natural selection and mutation. Only the strong survive. Cross-breeding Whites with species lower on the evolutionary scale diminishes the White gene-pool while increasing the number of physiologically, psychologically and behaviorally deprived mongrels. Throughout history improvident Whites have miscegenated. The "brotherhood" concept is not new (as LIBERALS pretend) nor are the results -- which are inevitably disastrous for the White Race -- evident today, for example, in the botched populations of Cuba, Mexico, Egypt, India, and the inner cities of contemporary America." --Kill the Best Gentiles, James Van Brunn
Charming, eh? I took a gander through some of the web sites that published his "work" and let me tell you, there are some very dark corners on this internet thing. I don't recommend that faint-hearted persons go fishing. There are some very twisted minds out there.

There have been a number of these horrifying incidents, lately. Not all of them are necessarily motivated by racial hatred. There was the shooting at the Unitarian Universalist Church last July. There was the murder of Dr. Tiller in Wichita, Kansas less than two weeks ago.

It seems to me that these terrible acts are symptoms of the terminal illness that is destroying the hateful coalition that the Republican party has cultivated with their "Southern strategy." The plebs of that alliance are losing their influence and they know it, and they're lashing out in the most ugly of fashions.

In deference to the anonymous poster that comments on my blog, let me mention the shooting that occurred at a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, and explain why I don't believe that it is an indication of a dangerous trend. The shooter, in that case, was a recently converted Muslim who claims he was acting in retaliation toward the US military for its supposed crimes. But there are no prominent voices on the so-called "left" that espouse such a position. Keith Olberman does not claim that the military is destroying the country. Rachel Maddow does not refer to Dick Cheney as a murderer. There is no one in the United States that is publicly glorifying this murder.

On the other hand, take a look at the rhetoric that is regularly spouted by prominent media voices like Bill O'Reilly, who referred to Dr. Tiller as "Tiller the Baby-Killer." Or, how about Alan Keyes, former Republican presidential candidate, who said of President Obama: "We are either going to stop him or the United States is going to cease to exist"? How about the "pro-life" (how's that for a misnomer?) groups that are hailing Scott Roeder as a hero? Or Texas governor Rick Perry hinting at secession?

This country is heading for a very dark and dangerous place at a particularly perilous time. Economic turmoil, a potential pandemic, smoldering fires threatening global conflagration. The first thing we, in the United States, had better do, is figure out what to do about the fanatics in our midst.

Note to readers: I have amended this post with an extended quote from Mr. Van Brunn's writing to better illustrate how I believe he is an indirect product of Republican demagoguery around xenophobia and racism and the mischaracterization of liberal policy. I hope this will address the questions of the anonymous poster who commented yesterday.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The terrorists win?

Closing down

Check this:
The family of slain abortion provider George Tiller said Tuesday that his Wichita clinic will be "permanently closed," effective immediately. --Huffington Post, June 9, 2009
Bad news.

Don't get me wrong. I don't even have a position on abortion. But I've got a position on terrorism and political intimidation: It must be confronted. It must be defeated.

I can't blame anyone associated with Women's Health Care Services, Inc. in Wichita, Kansas, or any other similar facility for being worried, even afraid, after what happened to Dr. Tiller. But if Dr. Tiller's murder does result in the closure of the clinic, it sets a dangerous example for any right-wing (or left-wing, for that matter) freak who is contemplating violence as a means of bringing about social change.

Imagine some lonely, fever-brained redneck out there in Stickville, USA, nursing his bitterness, hating all the people out there in the world who seem happy and blissful and completely unaware of his anguish. His world is slipping away and he is afraid. To Mr. Redneck, Scott Roeder might seem like the lucky jackpot winner. Because, in the redneck world, Roeder will now be revered and celebrated among the people with whom Mr. Redneck identifies. Roeder exacted vengeance on the Damned; Roeder found a way to close the clinic.

Roeder, himself, in an interview with The Associated Press, said "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal."

I hesitate to mention it, but recently I had an implied death threat directed in my vicinity by one of these right-wing primitives. It is hard to gauge the threat, since it was delivered in the form of an internet post. But I have alerted people around me (including the Portland Police).

It's easy for me to speak bravely about refusing to shut up when the "threat" is more than likely just the rantings of some frustrated and ignored hillbilly. But for the people that worked at the clinic in Wichita, the dread and foreboding has been validated by Dr. Tiller's murder.

The Justice Department had better do something about this. If Roeder's crime is perceived as successful by those who might admire him, there will only be more such murders.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Skipping stones

If every stone on riverbank desired the farther shore,
Where stones endure in silence, contemplating evermore:

Some would choose a soaring arc, would clack-clack abruptly
And fall to sleep unwetted, never penetrating the fearful mysteries
Beneath the water;

Other stones, impelled by lesser arms, would pull up short
Gulping deeply, noisily splashing, in the eager dive for oblivion;
Tragic remembrance;

Most stones, I do imagine, a middle path would choose,
Skipping over the ever-moving surface, to glimpse at the dark riverbed,
But more often sky;

If I were stone on riverbank desiring farther shore,
A path through air and water would establish my rapport;

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Rome (Pt. XIV)

Note to readers: This is the fourteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIII here.

From the serenity of Siena I ventured to the birthplace of modern Western civilization, the Eternal City of Rome. As the train approached, more and more passengers came aboard. I met Jan, a fellow American, on the ride down. Jan (sweet, solitary), it occurred to me, was a person very deserving of love who would make any man very happy if he would only give her a chance.

We spoke to each other as if castaways, sending messages in bottles. "I think it would be good to be married," said she. "But how to get there from here . . .?"  She shook her head, bewildered. I understood. We made tentative plans to tour the Vatican together on the next day. But when we got to Rome we were swept apart by the anarchy of the city, by the teeming hordes of tourists. I hope it all worked out for you, Jan.

Rome's Termini station was a beehive of flittering humans. People were running in every direction. To get to the hostel, the only hostel in all of Rome, I squeezed onto a subway car as tightly packed as any sardine tin. I'd been warned about thieves and pickpockets, but the car was so crammed I could not turn around to see the people behind me, let alone determine if they were going through the pockets of my pack.

I made it with nothing stolen. I arrived at the crowded, bustling hostel, full of young people from all over the world all occupying bunks in big, austere dorm rooms. There I met Wilma from Holland. Wilma (warm, smiling) whom I immediately befriended, took me with her on a walk along the traffic-mad streets of Rome to a hole-in-the-wall pasta place where I dined on the best gnocchi I had ever tasted. There was a football game on the tube, Rome versus someplace, and the crowd at the restaurant was loud and boisterous, until the Rome team lost. Then it was sullen silence. Even our waiter was downcast.

But Wilma was so warm and friendly that drunken, surly Italians made not a mark upon my spirit. We had a great time.

The next day I set off to Vatican City. A model of efficiency in the midst of chaotic Rome. There, I found well-kept streets, well-behaved traffic. Not like Roman boulevards where the lanes were defined by the number of cars that can fit side by side so long as no more than 2 wheels protruded onto the sidewalk.

Booty ransacked from Egypt
A long, slow river of humanity queued up, flowing into the labyrinth of the Vatican museum. All along the way, signs promised the Sistine Chapel just ahead. But first, have a look through the amazing collection of pilfered art from Egypt and Greece and Turkey and a thousand other lands.

Emperor Claudius
Along the way, I saw sculptures of Roman emperors, including reluctant Claudius, the grandchild of Emperor Augustus, who purportedly yearned for a return to the Republic. Alas, Claudius, with the hindsight of some two thousand years of history, I tell you, your dream was a mirage. The inevitable tide of human events had outstripped your antiquated yearnings. Republic perhaps, is the pupa from which the heartless imago of Empire emerges.

Michelangelo hints at the Glory
The culmination of the day in Vatican City came when I beheld it: the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo spent four years of his life on his back painting this, perhaps the single greatest human tribute to the Glory of God. From 1508 to 1512, Pope Julius II spurred him on with promises of Heaven, with threats of Hell.

The Final Judgment

Well, if this work does not redeem us when comes the Judgment Day, brothers and sisters, then we are lost. Michelangelo put our best foot forward. Something is shaken inside when you see it. A profound disquiet descends and the world in which we live seems washed-out and faded.

Sten, Wilma, yours truly, Kristin, and Jason
That evening I returned to the hostel where again I encountered Wilma. My Rome-touring travel family was completed with the addition of Belgian Sten (accommodating, low stress), Kristin (fearless, pert) from Portland, Oregon, whom I would meet again years later on the streets of my home city, and Jason (wise beyond years) who had ridden his bicycle to Rome from faraway Amsterdam, who had camped on the battlefields of Verdun, and swore he'd seen the ghostly presence of solemn, sad soldiers in the moonlit night.

Site of Roman depravity
Away, now, from the solemnity of the Holy. We were on to see the works of mortal man standing atop his sandcastle of civilization. It all began with Rome. And there went we to the Colisseum.

Romans erected it sometime around 70AD. It was capable of seating some 50,000 Romans, an ancient pacifier along the lines of today's television. The Senators and the Emperors knew well how to keep a prosperous and bored populace from becoming restive. Bread and circuses! Bread and circuses! Super Bowls and free 2-topping pizzas from Pizza Hut!

And, if it meant the butchering of slaves, social outcasts, and frightened animals? Well, Roma locuta est, causa finita est.

Americans clowning around in the ruins of Caligula's Palace
After the Coliseum, we walked around the ruins in the area: Caligula's Palace (what tales might those stones tell?), the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. So much to see, so much to experience. I was overwhelmed by history deep as the wisdom of any holy prophet.

As the soft Italian night descended, we fell to drinking. There were many people, many travelers and tourists in the cafes. In the bars. We reveled along with them. The night was gentle and warm, like the Mediterranean. In the company of newfound friends, I found that I was quite drunk by the time I climbed into the taxi to return to the hostel. Drunk on beer and friendship and Michelangelo's befuddling genius. And on the epochal experience of, for one brief moment, joining my voice to the song of the Eternal City.
Ave Roma!

To be continued...