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Jul 31st
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Columns - Opinion

He’s the First Bi-racial President

He’s the First Bi-racial President

So much was made about Barack Obama being the first African-American president, that more subtle—and more important—issues were ignored.

Obama, at 48, is decidedly not a Baby Boomer. He wasn’t part of the raging segregation debate of the ’50s, nor was he an adult during the tumult of the ’60s—black power, white rage, all the rest.

Obama’s election was instead a triumph of a new generation, one that is more comfortable about diversity than the generation that came before. Nowhere is that more obvious than the recent public discussion of whether the rude outburst by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican. A number of columnists, and no less an observer than former President Jimmy Carter, almost reflexively maneuvered themselves to an allegation of racism.

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Columns - Opinion

‘I’ve been living here since …’

‘I’ve been living here since …’

I wanted to be the first to write about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, but then I read these words from Dan Gillmor, former tech guru at the San Jose Mercury News and the author of “We the People,” a call-to-arms for citizen journalism.

Writing in his blog, Mediactive, Gillmor talks of 11 things he would do if he ran a news organization (No. 11 is: no more Top 10 lists.)

No. 1: “We would not run anniversary stories and commentary except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.”

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Columns - Opinion

All We Are is But Another Brick in the Wall

All We Are is But Another Brick in the Wall

Greetings from the Berlin Wall. The “Fascists Protection Barrier” (as the German Democratic Republic auspiciously called it) has been torn down. It will be 20 years ago this November when the Cold War got a tad warmer. When East and West Germany were finally united after more than a quarter of a century, divided by one of the most politically charged symbols of the 20th Century—the Wall. When this section of Berlin, surrounded by the Iron Curtain, was amalgamated once more with its fellow Berliners to become one of the most artistic, thriving cities in Europe. When people broke through the Wall, pecking at it, pushing it down by force of will, they flooded into the streets in a mass celebration to end all celebrations.

Now Lance Armstrong puts in this kind of mileage before breakfast. But for me, who has never come to terms with the idea of tight cycling shorts, 160K seems rather a long way. And as I found out, it is. 
With my command of German language being what it isn’t, asking for directions, should I get lost, would prove to be a hopeless task. That, and my second-hand, rather classic bicycle with its flat tires is almost a California cruiser if not for the fenders and utilitarian basket on the back for groceries. For most Berliners bicycling is not a sport. It is a way to get to the grocery store, the brothel, the club, the doctor’s office. That said, my good ride is best suited for short rides through the maze of Berlin’s excellent bike paths and failing that, public transportation network of subways and trains, not some long-ass tour through the city, through the vast hinterlands of Berlin—a city as flat and spread out as Los Angeles.
Beginning at the Brandenburg Gate, where scene after scene of throngs climbing over the wall or enthusiastically tearing it apart by the same tool (hammer) of communism happened, seemed like the proper place to start. Joined by my 71-year-old German mother-in-law, who has lived all those years in Berlin, we headed through the middle of the city, guided by bricks laid in the street where the Wall once stood.
After Unification, the city took rapid steps to put its past behind it. The city is, of course, well-practiced in this. The former “Death Strip” with its barbed wire, double walls, guard towers and shoot-to-kill orders for anyone trying to escape to the West, suddenly became appealing land for developers. Soon enough we rode into the midst of Potsdamer Platz, with high-rise buildings, shopping centers and posh apartments built atop Hitler’s bunker—exactly the kind of thing the communists had always warned their people about.
Then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used to describe Berlin as “the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze Berlin.” 
Even though it’s been only 20 years, it’s hard to imagine a wall, much less a fence, dividing Berlin. It all seems the figment of someone’s absurd imagination. The once austere Eastern sections of the city are now more desirable and vibrant places to live than the former West. Artists were the first to take advantage of the cheap (or non-existent) rents and, predictably, they gentrified it.
By the time we reach the Eastside Gallery, the longest section of the Wall still standing, I’ve dubbed my cycling companion, Mauer (wall) Mama. Part of this comes from her ability to navigate the complicated streets. The other part is she was a judge who presided over many court cases to decide who owned the land, homes or buildings after the Wall fell.
This section of the Wall is a mile-long art gallery. On the other side, next to the river, are a beach, reggae and techno music spilling out of beer gardens atop the former no man’s land. Unthinkable paradise back then, but Mauer Mama tells me nobody in Berlin thought it possible a wall could ever be put up. How could anyone divide a city of four million with its complicated infrastructure trains, roads, streets? 
Yet that is exactly what happened on “Barbed Wire Sunday,” Aug. 13, 1961. While Berlin slept, the Wall went up nearly overnight. Suddenly people were cut off from work, school, their family. Stories abound of lovers, one living in the East, the other in the West, not seeing each other again for 30 years.
The next day I set off alone, riding 60 kilometers along the Wall’s former path through farmlands, nature preserves, and finally ending up in an industrial section far to the north of the city. Only about 12 feet of the Wall is left along this section and aside from the wide “death strip” slowly being overtaken by trees and brush, it’s difficult to decipher the historical border. Called the Mauerweg (Wall Way), the trail mostly follows the old patrol roads. When the imagination works overtime against the monotony of pedaling through this overgrown history, I often think I hear the bark of guard dogs, the sound of tanks, or, arriving at a lone guard tower swallowed by trees, the command to halt.
But it is only the song of birds now, the rustling of grass, the hum of tires, the clank of a loose fender. This is simple clean recreation with nary a threat of being mowed down by machine guns, though that would make for a slightly improved form of extreme cycling. Instead, I have been allowed plenty of time to dangerously ruminate on borders, fences and the like, whether they keep us in or keep us out or whether they establish limitations or dictate the paths we take.
On this tour of the Wall I can’t help but be grateful I can freely go in all the directions this ratty bicycle can take me, coupled with the hope that other dividing walls—Palestine and Israel, North and South Korea for example—will one day be mere bicycle paths. Berliners, both former Easterners and Westerners I’ve managed to talk to along the way, say they thought the Wall would never come down. Now they have a hard time remembering where it was.
So tomorrow, I’ll head out with Mauer Mama for the final leg. From the map it looks like more farmland on the left, suburbs on the right. Some things never change.

photos by bruce willey

Columns - Opinion

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun…. and all is not right

Just a few days after the official start of summer, while much of the nation sweltered under a heat wave, the House narrowly passed what was largely regarded as a “landmark” climate change bill. The Waxman-Markey Bill, which would limit carbon dioxide pollution and require the use of renewable energy is due to take effect two and a half years from now—despite what would seem an existential urgency for all humankind in the most dire terms possible.

With their heads in the sand and their sunburned asses in the air, 212 congressmen voted against the bill including 44 Democrats. (Only eight Republican members of the House voted for the bill, but let’s applaud their bravery.) Yet for most climate scientists, the bill is an utterly, undeniably watered down version of what needs to be done—about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a wet towel—and will do little to halt what we are doing to the planet. Nonetheless, it is a start.

Sitting outside in Big Pine near the melt waters of the Palisade Glacier, the Sierra Nevada’s biggest piece of ice, I read the transcripts from the House decision on the Internet. While I read the arguments coming from the floor of the House, I pondered my split second of geologic time on this earth sandwiched between a thin crust separating me from the hot magma below and the thin, delicate atmosphere protecting me from the coldness of space, the searing atomic rays of the sun. I also mused how much the Palisade Glacier has shrunk since first walking on it twenty years ago. At the rate it’s going I’ll be lucky to depart this earth with a shred of ice left.

One thing, though, about the climate change debate stood out loud and clear. Representative Paul Broun of Georgia stated that climate change is nothing but a “hoax perpetrated out of the scientific community.” His remarks were met with a loud applause. This, coming from a state whose capital city gets the not-so-flattering moniker “Hotlanta.” Well, Mr. Broun and others, wait till your Southern climate is more like Panama without the ocean influence. It will come far sooner than you think if MIT scientists are correct in surmising that Illinois will be more like East Texas, New Hampshire like South Carolina. The climate is rapidly sliding south.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among the climate science community that humans have, and are, contributing to climate change, the impulse within the media, within our elected officials, within ourselves even, is to find an ever-dwindling fringe voice of global warming skeptics, or contrarians. The truth, to put it simply, is too much to take—even though we know that many of these climate contrarians are funded directly or indirectly by the oil industry and other carbon-based industries.

But you don’t even need the world’s top climatologists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who have been issuing dire warnings that life on earth is being adversely affected by warming for years now, to understand the reality of the situation. Just step outside to witness the rapid melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, small islands being swallowed by rising seas, or the fact that the last nine out of 10 years were the hottest on record since 1860. The harbingers are here and they are way scary.

We need to realize sooner rather than later that the threat from terrorism is nothing in comparison to the global terror of a warming planet. That the real Jihad doesn’t issue forth from a Madrassa or training camp in Pakistan but from a coal-fired smokestack, from the rear of our cars, from our way of life. And by this implication we are all terrorists on a suicide mission, carbon strapped to our bodies like bombs.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified in 1988 before congress that he was 99 percent sure that human-induced global climate change was happening. Since then his language and urgency have matched the threats caused by dangerous carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. (If Hansen’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the same scientist who made headlines after he accused the Bush Administration of suppressing scientific research on global warming. “It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States,” he said, regarding the muzzling he has received by his government employer.)

Hansen more recently called on chief fossil fuel executives to be “put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature.” He also called (in a recent New Yorker article) freight trains carrying coal, “death trains.” Our language and consciousness addressing the problem must change too, in accordance with the problem. If we don’t, the next generation will look back on this critical time in our planet’s history and see the Sen. Broun’s, the ExxonMobiles, the Hummer owners, all those who stood by and did nothing, in the same way we look back at Nazi war criminals.

Maybe if the language of global warming were as precise and hardboiled as the facts, we would be more apt to act. Maybe it would be more difficult to create a false sense of security, a protective barrier between the overwhelming scientific evidence and our need to be sheltered from such a dire predicament. There’s simply too much at stake to be in denial. And to those that voted against the climate change bill, applaud yourselves. Each clap is the thunder of global terrorism writ large on our very survival, our precious lives.

With their heads in the sand and their sunburned asses in the air, 212 congressmen voted against the bill including 44 Democrats. (Only eight Republican members of the House voted for the bill, but let’s applaud their bravery.) Yet for most climate scientists, the bill is an utterly, undeniably watered down version of what needs to be done—about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a wet towel—and will do little to halt what we are doing to the planet. Nonetheless, it is a start.

Sitting outside in Big Pine near the melt waters of the Palisade Glacier, the Sierra Nevada’s biggest piece of ice, I read the transcripts from the House decision on the Internet. While I read the arguments coming from the floor of the House, I pondered my split second of geologic time on this earth sandwiched between a thin crust separating me from the hot magma below and the thin, delicate atmosphere protecting me from the coldness of space, the searing atomic rays of the sun. I also mused how much the Palisade Glacier has shrunk since first walking on it twenty years ago. At the rate it’s going I’ll be lucky to depart this earth with a shred of ice left.

One thing, though, about the climate change debate stood out loud and clear. Representative Paul Broun of Georgia stated that climate change is nothing but a “hoax perpetrated out of the scientific community.” His remarks were met with a loud applause. This, coming from a state whose capital city gets the not-so-flattering moniker “Hotlanta.” Well, Mr. Broun and others, wait till your Southern climate is more like Panama without the ocean influence. It will come far sooner than you think if MIT scientists are correct in surmising that Illinois will be more like East Texas, New Hampshire like South Carolina. The climate is rapidly sliding south.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among the climate science community that humans have, and are, contributing to climate change, the impulse within the media, within our elected officials, within ourselves even, is to find an ever-dwindling fringe voice of global warming skeptics, or contrarians. The truth, to put it simply, is too much to take—even though we know that many of these climate contrarians are funded directly or indirectly by the oil industry and other carbon-based industries.

But you don’t even need the world’s top climatologists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who have been issuing dire warnings that life on earth is being adversely affected by warming for years now, to understand the reality of the situation. Just step outside to witness the rapid melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, small islands being swallowed by rising seas, or the fact that the last nine out of 10 years were the hottest on record since 1860. The harbingers are here and they are way scary.

We need to realize sooner rather than later that the threat from terrorism is nothing in comparison to the global terror of a warming planet. That the real Jihad doesn’t issue forth from a Madrassa or training camp in Pakistan but from a coal-fired smokestack, from the rear of our cars, from our way of life. And by this implication we are all terrorists on a suicide mission, carbon strapped to our bodies like bombs.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified in 1988 before congress that he was 99 percent sure that human-induced global climate change was happening. Since then his language and urgency have matched the threats caused by dangerous carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. (If Hansen’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the same scientist who made headlines after he accused the Bush Administration of suppressing scientific research on global warming. “It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States,” he said, regarding the muzzling he has received by his government employer.)

Hansen more recently called on chief fossil fuel executives to be “put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature.” He also called (in a recent New Yorker article) freight trains carrying coal, “death trains.” Our language and consciousness addressing the problem must change too, in accordance with the problem. If we don’t, the next generation will look back on this critical time in our planet’s history and see the Sen. Broun’s, the ExxonMobiles, the Hummer owners, all those who stood by and did nothing, in the same way we look back at Nazi war criminals.

Maybe if the language of global warming were as precise and hardboiled as the facts, we would be more apt to act. Maybe it would be more difficult to create a false sense of security, a protective barrier between the overwhelming scientific evidence and our need to be sheltered from such a dire predicament. There’s simply too much at stake to be in denial. And to those that voted against the climate change bill, applaud yourselves. Each clap is the thunder of global terrorism writ large on our very survival, our precious lives.

Columns - Opinion

A Deeper Need for the Print Newspaper

A Deeper Need for the Print NewspaperThe story line is a direct one: newspapers are dying. Big city dailies? Dying. Small-town papers? On their way. Free dailies? Hovering over the abyss.  If indeed newspapers are critically ill, their fate has to be one of the most heavily covered stories of this or any century. Did the railroads get this kind of treatment? Did blacksmiths get to read daily about how nobody is any good with an anvil anymore? Were there daily accounts about how nobody wants ice delivered to their door anymore?
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Columns - Opinion

Big Toys, Small Boys

Big Toys, Small Boys

The louder the noise the smaller the equipment

Let’s get one thing priapically straight: Men who ride extremely loud motorcycles have extremely small penises. The louder the bike, the smaller their naughty bit. Though the empirical evidence of such a correlation is scant at best, the phenomena have gone beyond the reaches of urban myth.

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Columns - Opinion

Meat-free: The Way to Be?

“You’re saying you never feel like sinking your teeth into a big slab of meat? Don’t your primal instincts ever kick in?”

This was the response I received after trying to explain the dangerous environmental implications of a meat-eating diet to my omnivorous younger sister.

I didn’t bother responding with my opinions on animal-eating instincts because she was missing my point entirely. I wasn’t talking about instinct, desire or human habit. I was presenting a cold, hard case for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle that had nothing to do with personal health, animal rights or other reasons people often associate with vegetarianism.

 

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Columns - Opinion

The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild

Art Boy and I were cat-free for over two years. We lost our little Zoe when she was only 12, and decided not to torment our surviving cat, Sheena, then 18, with a new kitten. Let her live out her days in peace, that was our motto. Without rambunctious Zoe around, our household felt very old, although our remarkable, people-frendly, tortoiseshell Sheena, even in her dotage, was as lovable as any dozen kittens. (Just ask anyone who ever met her at Open Studios.) We wanted Sheena to live forever, and, as agreeable as ever, she tried her best. But after nearly 20 years in our family, she let us know it was time to let her go.

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Columns - Opinion

Your Money Or Your Life

Your Money Or Your Life

As if we didn’t have enough to make us crazy, along comes Michael Moore’s Sicko, to remind us of yet another way in which corrupt U.S. politics of the last 40 years have failed to deliver on the once-cherished American Dream. You remember the American Dream; it used to be in all the movies. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Liberty and Justice for All. Baseball, apple pie, and a chicken in every pot. (Not to be confused with pot in every chick: that was the Aquarian Dream, but that’s another story.)

The current administration likes to bandy about words like “freedom” and “justice” as if it actually understood what they meant. (As in Operation Iraqi Freedom, code name for war of aggression, a grim piece of Newspeak that would flummox Noah Webster.) In our Constitution, a document ignored at best, but more often subverted by the present regime, laws are enacted to secure the access of we, the people, to what our Founding Fathers considered inalienable rights, among them the right to life and liberty. It’s this primary right, life, that underlies Sicko, the basic condition without which all other rights are moot.

Life can only be sustained by reasonably good health. But the health and welfare of hard-working citizens whose labor fuels the national economy and whose taxes keep politicians in Hummers and junkets to Cancun, the continuing health of we, the people, is not a high priority to our leaders. The health care system is left to privately owned drug companies, hospitals, and so-called health insurers. Their business is profits, not actual care, and nobody needs Moore to tell us what a big, thriving business it is. If you don’t believe it, just try getting sick.

Better yet, don’t get sick. It’s daunting enough trying to arrange basic coverage when you’re perfectly healthy, especially if, like Art Boy and me, you are self-employed and pay for your own insurance. Every year, we go through the same danse macabre. Our insurance company arbitrarily raises its rates. Art Boy sits down with the rate sheet and switches us to whatever plan offers the lowest rate increase, for the least heinous sacrifice of benefits. The company gets wise to our little game (or figures we’re wise to theirs), and, within six months, arbitrarily raises our rates again.

American health care only works as long as you stay healthy. (By “works,” I mean maintains the illusion that the person paying into the system may one day receive quality care and/or financial coverage for the exorbitant sums paid in every month.) Should you be unwise enough to suffer an actual illness or injury, you’ll find out just how uncovered you really are. Moore’s film is full of horror stories about Americans who paid for health insurance all their working lives, only to be denied payment for critical services as soon as they had the nerve to actually need them. How often do you read about fundraisers held for people stricken with catastrophic illness or injury whose families can’t otherwise afford the treatment to keep them alive? Like the bandidos of a thousand westerns, the system demands you choose between your money or your life.

And where is the U. S. government while the health/drug/ medical industry is cheerfully fleecing its citizens? Right where it always is, lining up for its share of the profits. (The present administration just can’t say “no” to a tall, rich and handsome corporation with a big portfolio.) There’s something alarmingly wrong with the moral compass of a government that makes health care a luxury for the few and punishes its own people for getting sick, treating them like guilty schoolchildren trying to get away with something. Maybe they expect us to practice faith-based health care. Or maybe they just don’t give a damn. It’s a big country, so what if a few thousand of us kick off now and then? There’s always more where we came from.

Once upon a time, we Americans were the plucky idealists who invited other, less compassionate nations to send us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses. Now we lag behind the many western nations (Canada, Britain, France, to name a few) that already provide universal health care to their citizens as a matter of common sense: freed from fear of crippling medical debts, people have a chance to fuel the economy with busier, more creative, and longer working lives.

No wonder the whole world is laughing at us. Our politics are ridiculous, our leaders are scoundrels, and we do nothing about it. Maybe we don’t even notice. We live in a culture that keeps us too doped up on American Idol, too plugged in to our iPhones, too paralyzed by crushing debt, and too terrified of everything else to ever poke our collective head out of the foxhole and sneak a peek at the rest of the world. That’s the way our leaders like us: scared, barefoot and ignorant.

Universal health care is possible if we pay attention and demand it: in the media, in the voting booth, in the streets. Until then, other, more enlightened countries will keep sniggering at us behind our backs. If laughter really was the best medicine, we’d all be cured.

 
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Best of Santa Cruz County

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