Saturday, December 26, 2009

A visit to Murphys, California

At "Grounds" restaurant, Ted, Jess and Susan

Cathie and Pete

Jackie and Ted

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Obama Praises Copenhagen Agreement

A simple statement follows President Obama's appearance at the U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Already termed a "flop" and "failure" by many, the simple fact that 193 nations came together to address an issue (anthropogenic climate change) that, at least until the recent U.S. Administration change, had been largely regarded as "open to scientific debate", is remarkable.

Anyone who expected universal agreements and binding treaties from this single conference fails to understand the scope of the problem. This is just a first note in a long and difficult process.

But Bolivia's Evo Morales, who must be credited for illuminating the plight of indigenous peoples, rightly expressed moral indignation, labeling U.S. behavior "criminal", when Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. "pledge to contribute" to a $100 Billion international fund over the next decade to help developing nations cope with climate change. This, while we are devoting several trillions of dollars to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Related to this, a story on NPR yesterday spoke of the logistic nightmare of supporting the 30,000-troop build-up in Afghanistan. Much of the supplies will travel thousands of miles overland, by train and by truck, from the Baltic Sea to our troops in Afghanistan. Another report places the cost of delivering one gallon of gas to Helmand Province in Afghanistan at $400! Our tactical foreign policy decisions simply exacerbate the very problem we claim to be addressing.

Clearly, we still have a long way to go in realigning our priorities.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Lighten Up"

That's the advice from Jeff. (Thanks.)

He's right. I'll try. Actually, there is considerable cause for optimism. I am encouraged by the Obama Administration's engagement in climate talks, the return to multilateralism, the EPA officially recognizing CO2 emissions as a health threat, efforts to address the perpetual crisis in health care, renewed nuclear arms reduction negotiations, signals that the economy may be recovering and imminent job growth in new alternative-energy and more. This all stands in stark contrast to the stone wall these issues faced during the Bush years.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Gullible Squared

(Letter to the Editors)
Within days of President Obama announcing a 30,000-troop increase in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Gates testified before Congress that the force could grow "in the range of about 10%." The administration is also responding to Republican pressure to back off any time constraints on this “surge”.

For nearly seven years, our focus was The War in Iraq. For that period of time, it was obvious that our leadership did not regard al Qaeda as the primary threat to America. Now – though it has been seriously weakened – al Qaeda, like the phoenix, has suddenly re-emerged, ready to strike our Homeland and that of our allies. And worse, we have apparently just discovered the Taliban has designs to take over the world!

Dwindling public support (not “victory”) is forcing us to extract ourselves from Iraq, yet a cleverly-crafted marketing campaign has resurrected the ominous threat in Afghanistan. It’s all designed to keep the war industry mobilized, and profits flowing.

Can we not see the absurdity of these lies? We are being manipulated. Pure and simple.

It’s time to raise our collective voices and resist the American war machine and the dishonest motivations of our leaders.

Tim Campion
Santa Rosa, CA

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Vietnam Vet, Scholar Andrew Bacevich on Obama War Plan: “The President Has Drawn the Wrong Lessons From His Understanding of the History of War”

See Democracy Now show.

Republicans: Military-Industrial Mouthpiece

Since President Obama's address, I've had the opportunity to hear a half-dozen members of the "Republican Leadership" offer their critique of the President's speech. You have to admit, they speak with one voice. And it is a voice best described as that of the military-industrial complex.

To a person they criticize the setting of a date when the U.S. would begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, of course, they are critical that only 30,000 troops are being committed. (No mention of all the supporting forces this will entail.)

In defense of America's freedom, they say, there is simply no price too great. If we don't defeat al Qaeda, it will again strike The Homeland and our Allies. Victory over al Qaeda must be the nation's highest priority.

Is it necessary to remind Americans that for eight years the Republican Leadership led this nation in pursuit of its "highest priority" - and that appeared to be War With Iraq? They allowed al Qaeda to slip across the border into Pakistan, and Osama bin Laden to fade into the shadows. It was a conscious choice. From this, it must be clear al Qaeda is not the threat it has been portrayed to be.

In recent decades, we've seen the military-industrial complex's increasingly brazen efforts to maintain its raison d'être, fabricating bogeymen where there are none. The motivations have been so clear that, ultimately, we must question to what degree it is complicit in engineering the "War on Terror".

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Health care debate?

We could send one U.S. soldier to Afghanistan, or provide health insurance to roughly 80 American families. This is just one "opportunity cost" of our occupation of Afghanistan. (How many neighborhoods would that represent in your town?)

Imagine how many Afghans this would feed, clothe, house and educate!

Is it any wonder we are now financially - and morally bankrupt?

(The government estimates the cost of one U.S. troop in Afghanistan as $1 Million per year. Basic health care insurance is estimated at $12,000 per family.)

(Another) sad day for America

President Obama's "Way Forward" speech at West Point was the most empty rhetoric I've yet heard from our Commander-in-Chief.

His performance was utterly unconvincing. Unconvincing in its attempt to dispel the parallels with Vietnam, in portraying this as yet another campaign waged by a "coalition of the willing", painting the threat to our national security in vague broad brush strokes (employing the always-effective "mushroom cloud" imagery for good measure), expressing the naive belief that we have the resources and power to control the outcome in this region and once again displaying the unique American arrogance of presuming to dictate the fate of other nations. He presented his "solution" as if talking about a board game strategy. (Perhaps the cadets could easily relate to this.) It was pure pandering.

Everyone is talking about the various "audiences" Obama was trying to address. What the fuck is this, entertainment? Is it simply an American spectator sport? (The answer frightens me.)

The Administration of George W. Bush torpedoed this nation. Increasingly, the Obama Administration's attempt at damage control appears incompetent.

Tonight, I'm disgusted with my country and wondering "where can I go?" One consolation, however slight, is that for the past three years I have paid no Income Tax - I have avoided contributing directly to the war effort. Indeed, until we have extracted ourselves from these foreign exploits, there is little motivation to get back into the marketplace and start contributing.

Maybe I'll just join the fundamentalists in praying for Armageddon. May it arrive soon, be swift and painless. (Hmmm. Would "fire and brimstone" solve the Global Warming crisis, or only exacerbate it?)

How can the leader of an occupying nation receive the Nobel Peace Prize?

Are we living in some alternative "Looking Glass Universe"? As President Obama announces his surge of American troops in Afghanistan, raising their numbers to over 100,000 (with matching contingents of contractors and support personnel), should the Nobel Committee not balk at awarding the Peace Prize to our President? (I have written them to ask how they can in good conscience, justify such an honor.)

The down-trodden Conservatives are squealing with excitement as Obama is finally becoming a "War President" (though not "The War President" - nobody can take that distinction from George W.!)

As is necessary in times of war, the mainstream media is dutifully toeing the line, welcoming all the usual Administration spokespeople, speech writers and military consultants to explain (for the benefit of us slow-to-understand Americans) why this is the appropriate strategy.

Yet again we witness the "marketing of war and occupation" and it's enough to make one ill. Tomorrow the anti-war activists will be on the streets - trying to take back our country. (Sorry "Teabaggers", you're barking up the wrong tree.)

Were it not so tragic, the hypocrisy would be laughable. Americans threaten revolution if the government restricts their Second Amendment rights. Yet, we invade Iraq and Afghanistan, where those who resist our occupation are labeled terrorists and extremists.

What the hell are we doing, interfering in the internal affairs of these countries? Eight years ago, we (intentionally?) botched the attempt to apprehend a band of terrorists in Tora Bora, and now America owns two ravaged nations.

This is the ultimate irony: with over 40% of our treasure now invested in the military-industrial complex, America - a self-proclaimed "free nation" - is held hostage by its own "defense" economy. And we don't even recognize it.

Silly people. They actually want you to have your gun. For that matter, lots of them. It's what we do best. It's American as apple pie.

Endless war is what we do.

Monday, November 30, 2009

An Open Letter to President Obama from Michael Moore

November 30th, 2009 3:44 AM

Dear President Obama,

Do you really want to be the new "war president"? If you go to West Point tomorrow night (Tuesday, 8pm) and announce that you are increasing, rather than withdrawing, the troops in Afghanistan, you are the new war president. Pure and simple. And with that you will do the worst possible thing you could do -- destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you. With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true -- that all politicians are alike. I simply can't believe you're about to do what they say you are going to do. Please say it isn't so. Read more at "".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A few days ago, I read for the first time The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's powerful collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. I recall that Jessica had read it in school. As I sat in the "Flying Goat" coffee shop recording some notes from my reading, Jessica's friend Shannon came in and joined me during his lunch break. "Great book," he said looking down at the well-worn library copy on the table. When Shannon had to return to work, our mutual friend Chris, took his place. "Great book," he said. They too had read the book in school. It was encouraging that a glimpse of this "truth" about war had worked its way into the school curriculum.

After Chris and Shannon were gone, I opened up "Google Earth" and explored satellite images of the former war zone, including Chu Lai and the Song Tra Bong valley, the setting for O'Brien's writing.

40 years on, the remnants of massive American bases are still clearly evident; the giant air fields, port facilities and supply depots. Da Nang, Chu Lai, Cam Ranh Bay, Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa. Nature is slowly reclaiming some of these human-inflicted scars.

The next day, I went for a hike in Annadel Park. I often access the park via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Trail. At the entrance, a dedication reads:
We gave you our lives.
It is for you, the living
to give our deaths meaning.
We were young. We have died. Remember us.

This time, I paused before the sign. With emotions welling up, the only words that came were "what a waste."

Brother Jeff in Vietnam, circa 1968

I will never know what it was like on the ground in Vietnam. I will never know the horror that Tim O'Brien (or my brother Jeff) experienced while fighting "the spread of Communism." Or the terror rained upon millions of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians courtesy of our "military-industrial complex".

The closest I came was as a brief participant on the margins, aboard "the Number One Gunship in the Seventh Fleet". But even there, I witnessed war's utter waste, the absolutely mindless devastation that is unleashed under the feeblest of premises. I saw the insanity that the thrill of war begets. It was exemplified by our captain's insistence that we be the last ship to fire in the Vietnam War. One minute before the ceasefire went into effect, he ordered a final salvo from our five-inch gun. I stood by in wonder. Who might die for his vainglorious distinction?

Timtraveler aboard the U.S.S. Turner Joy (aka "Eternal Joy"), circa 1973. Photo by Drew Kampion.

And today, pursuant to some lofty-sounding but always vaguely-defined ideal, we send our children to do the very same dirty work. Our industry and economy, now so heavily invested and complicit in the war-making - its promotion, execution and reconstruction from the rubble - fails utterly to question or doubt the source of its largess. Industry has no morals.

These days, nearly everyone can agree "The American War" in Vietnam was, for all the foreign nations involved, an ideological proxy war and misguided exploit.

Yet why, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, is it so unclear? (How can it be that we are even debating this issue?) For anyone who really studies these wars, the parallels are astounding. The deceptions, propaganda, prejudices, corruption, covert operations and assassinations, the escalations - all born of the same greedy pursuit of resources, wealth and regional dominance. Only the technology has advanced - the sophistication (and cost) of the weapons systems we use.

Where are all the voices of those who know (because they have been there) the waste and life-long cost of war? Where are all the veterans of Vietnam and our subsequent illegal and unconscionable war-making campaigns? Why are we not keeping our children at home, in school, in honorable professions, creating instead of destroying? Have we relinquished hope of halting this juggernaut?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Feeding America's appetite for oil

Image from Wikipedia. Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant. The photographer notes: This is a picture of Syncrude's base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur - it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left.

It’s a Dirty Business — The New Gold Rush That Is Blackening Canada’s Name

by Ben Webster
Published on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 by The Times Online/UK

A giant mechanical digger gouges out a chunk of topsoil, grass and tree stumps, extending a neat furrow that stretches into the distance. Dozens of similar furrows run parallel with the regularity of a ploughed field.

Yet no crop could grow in the pitch-black surface exposed by the machine working 1,000ft below our helicopter. This is the edge of a fast-expanding open-cast mine in the Canadian tar sands, one of the world's most polluting sources of oil.

It takes only a few minutes to fly across the 200 sq miles (520 sq km) of mines, processing plants and man-made lakes of toxic water. But Canada has so far extracted only 2 per cent of a resource that it hopes will turn it into a global energy superpower.

BP and Shell are among dozens of oil companies preparing to raise production from 1.3 million barrels a day at present to 2.5 million by 2015 and 6 million by 2030.

Canada faces a dilemma as it prepares for next month's UN climate summit in Copenhagen. It wants to present itself as environmentally responsible but also wants the profits from the tar sands, which cover an area of Alberta's natural coniferous forest larger than England.

The sands contain 174 billion barrels of proven reserves, the world's second-largest reserves after Saudi Arabia. With improved techniques, Canada hopes to extract between 315 billion and 1.7 trillion barrels.

A Co-operative Bank study calculated that, even if all other carbon dioxide emissions stopped, fully exploiting the tar sands would still tip the world into catastrophic climate change by raising global temperatures more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Extracting each barrel of crude from the sticky mass of sand, clay and bitumen produces two to three times as much CO2 as drilling for a barrel of conventional oil. The tar sands boom faltered a year ago as the oil price fell below the $60 a barrel at which the extraction process is profitable. Now, with oil at about $80 a barrel, hundreds of fortune seekers arrive each day in Fort McMurray, the oil equivalent of a gold rush town. Read more

Two lanes are being added to the bridges from the town to the tar sands projects across the Athabasca River. The airport is planning a new terminal and oil companies have built four private runways to ferry workers to their sites directly. But the best indication of Fort McMurray's growth is the constant traffic jam. It can take an hour just to reach the highway from the suburbs that have sprung up in the hills around the town.

The average house costs C$600,000 (£340,000) , but that is well within the budget of truck drivers at the mines, who, with overtime, earn C$180,000 a year. Many workers fly in from depressed fishing towns in Newfoundland and save money by living in mobile cabins stacked four storeys high in clearings in the forest.

Jean Fournier, 64, a scaffolder working on a new processing plant, says that he has earned C$64,000 in the past four months - working 24 days on and four off. "That's three times what I could earn back home in New Brunswick. I've made enough money to build my own house and I'm retiring after six more weeks here."

He scowls when asked about Greenpeace's recent occupation of tar sands plants: "Greenpeace will make people starve by killing the economy. We all care about the environment but we need our jobs."

With winter temperatures of minus 40C, the 112,000 tar sands workers are more concerned with protecting themselves from the cold than the world from global warming. A comment article last week in the local paper, Fort McMurray Today, begins: "Where the hell is the global warming some people are so worried about?"

Syncrude, which operates one of the biggest mines, is working hard to improve its image and recently handed back its first piece of "reclaimed land" to the Canadian Government. Publicity photographs show imported bison and young trees, but when you visit you realise that this is less than half a square mile on the edge of a wasteland of mines and toxic lakes.

Syncrude no longer refers to tar sands, the name used since the 19th century, because it thinks "oil sands" sounds more positive. It describes the topsoil stripped away as "overburden" and the toxic lakes as "tailings ponds".

In April last year 1,600 ducks died after landing on an oil slick on one of Syncrude's lakes. It took a full year for the company and Alberta's environment agency to admit the scale of wildlife loss. To ward off another PR disaster, Syncrude has filled the lakes with orange scarecrows, known locally as bit-u-men.

Canada knows, however, that the biggest long-term threat to its tar sands industry is not dead ducks but international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the crude is exported to the United States, where several states are considering banning it because it is so carbon-intensive. America's dependence on tar sands is a sensitive issue in Washington, and Barack Obama's ambassador to Canada toured the mines last month and questioned the companies about their carbon emissions.

Alberta's latest proposal to rid tar sands of their dirty image is a C$2 billion subsidy for carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities. Shell plans to install CCS by 2015 at an upgrading plant but admits that it would reduce carbon emissions from its tar sands production by only 15-20 per cent.

Mel Knight, the energy minister for Alberta, which receives C$12 billion a year in revenue from its oil and gas industries, told The Times: "There has to be at least a hundred years of production in the oil sands and CCS will make this more palatable. My feeling is we will reach a steady state of five million barrels a day. The oil sands are critical [to] the global supply of energy. The world needs the energy and there's no alternative that we can see."

Shell plans to increase production from 155,000 barrels a day to 255,000 next year. BP is designing a plant with an initial output of 60,000 barrels a day, rising to 200,000 within a decade.

Canada has offered belatedly to cut its current CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 but wants to be forgiven for ignoring the target set at Kyoto a decade ago. Its emissions were 26 per cent above its 1990 levels by 2006: the Kyoto target was a 6 per cent cut.

Peter Lee, director of the environmental group Global Forest Watch Canada, said: "There is no place for oil sands in a low-carbon future. Canada is ignoring its global responsibility and betraying its promises.

"If we can't get it right in Canada, one of the world's richest countries, how can we expect developing countries to reduce their emissions?"
Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at Victoria University, British Columbia, and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: "If we burn the tar sands, we are effectively saying we don't owe anything to future generations."
Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Take down our 'Peace-Processing-Is-Us' sign and just go home"

All my life, it seems the Israel-Palestine conflict has been in the headlines. Weary of their perpetual childish antics, I am inclined to agree with Mr. Friedman.
Call White House, Ask for Barack

New York Times Op-Ed Columnist
November 8, 2009

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become a bad play. It is obvious that all the parties are just acting out the same old scenes, with the same old tired clichés — and that no one believes any of it anymore. There is no romance, no sex, no excitement, no urgency — not even a sense of importance anymore. The only thing driving the peace process today is inertia and diplomatic habit. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has left the realm of diplomacy. It is now more of a calisthenic, like weight-lifting or sit-ups, something diplomats do to stay in shape, but not because they believe anything is going to happen. And yet, as much as we, the audience, know this to be true, we can never quite abandon hope for peace in the Holy Land. It is our habit. Indeed, as I ranted about this to a Jordanian friend the other day, he said it all reminded him of an old story.

“These two guys are watching a cowboy and Indian movie. And in the opening scene, an Indian is hiding behind a rock about to ambush the handsome cowboy,” he explained. “ ‘I bet that Indian is going to kill that cowboy,’ one guy says to the other. ‘Never happen,’ his friend answers. ‘The cowboy is not going to be killed in the opening scene.’ ‘I’ll bet you $10 he gets killed,’ the guy says. ‘I’ll take that bet,’ says his friend.

“Sure enough, a few minutes later, the cowboy is killed and the friend pays the $10. After the movie is over the guy says to his friend, ‘Look, I have to give you back your $10. I’d actually seen this movie before. I knew what was going to happen.’ His friend answers: ‘No, you can keep the $10. I’d seen the movie, too. I just thought it would end differently this time.’ ”

This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel. It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no U.S. administration has ever dared to do: Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home. Read more

Right now we want it more than the parties. They all have other priorities today. And by constantly injecting ourselves we’ve become their Novocain. We relieve all the political pain from the Arab and Israeli decision-makers by creating the impression in the minds of their publics that something serious is happening. “Look, the U.S. secretary of state is here. Look, she’s standing by my side. Look, I’m doing something important! Take our picture. Put it on the news. We’re on the verge of something really big and I am indispensable to it.” This enables the respective leaders to continue with their real priorities — which are all about holding power or pursuing ideological obsessions — while pretending to advance peace, without paying any political price.

Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: “My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.”

Indeed, it’s time for us to dust off James Baker’s line: “When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.”

The fact is, the only time America has been able to advance peace — post-Yom Kippur War, Camp David, post-Lebanon war, Madrid and Oslo — has been when the parties felt enough pain for different reasons that they invited our diplomacy, and we had statesmen — Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, James Baker and Bill Clinton — savvy enough to seize those moments.

Today, the Arabs, Israel and the Palestinians are clearly not feeling enough pain to do anything hard for peace with each other — a mood best summed up by a phrase making the rounds at the State Department: The Palestinian leadership “wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations” and Israel’s leadership “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.”

It is obvious that this Israeli government believes it can have peace with the Palestinians and keep the West Bank, this Palestinian Authority still can’t decide whether to reconcile with the Jewish state or criminalize it and this Hamas leadership would rather let Palestinians live forever in the hellish squalor that is Gaza than give up its crazy fantasy of an Islamic Republic in Palestine.

If we are still begging Israel to stop building settlements, which is so manifestly idiotic, and the Palestinians to come to negotiations, which is so manifestly in their interest, and the Saudis to just give Israel a wink, which is so manifestly pathetic, we are in the wrong place. It’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional “peace process,” which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility.

If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Afghanistan: "War of Necessity"?

Two Wrongs Make Another Fiasco

Published in the New York Times: October 10, 2009

Those of us who love F. Scott Fitzgerald must acknowledge that he did get one big thing wrong. There are second acts in American lives. (Just ask Marion Barry, or William Shatner.) The real question is whether everyone deserves a second act. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of our great Afghanistan debate is the Beltway credence given to the ravings of the unrepentant blunderers who dug us into this hole in the first place.

Let’s be clear: Those who demanded that America divert its troops and treasure from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002 and 2003 — when there was no Qaeda presence in Iraq — bear responsibility for the chaos in Afghanistan that ensued. Now they have the nerve to imperiously and tardily demand that America increase its 68,000-strong presence in Afghanistan to clean up their mess — even though the number of Qaeda insurgents there has dwindled to fewer than 100, according to the president’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones.

But why let facts get in the way? Just as these hawks insisted that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror” when the central front was Afghanistan, so they insist that Afghanistan is the central front now that it has migrated to Pakistan. When the day comes for them to anoint Pakistan as the central front, it will be proof positive that Al Qaeda has consolidated its hold on Somalia and Yemen.

To appreciate this crowd’s spotless record of failure, consider its noisiest standard-bearer, John McCain. He made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D.
evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.

What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq. Read more.

Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term”
somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up.
As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.

He takes no responsibility for any of this. Asked by Katie Couric last week about our failures in Afghanistan, McCain spoke as if he were an innocent bystander: “I think the reason why we didn’t do a better job on Afghanistan is our attention — either rightly or wrongly — was on Iraq.” As Tonto says to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

Along with his tribunes in Congress and the punditocracy, Wrong-Way McCain still presumes to give America its marching orders. With his Senate brethren in the Three Amigos, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, he took to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page to assert that “we have no choice” but to go all-in on Afghanistan — rightly or wrongly, presumably — just as we had in Iraq. Why? “The U.S. walked away from Afghanistan once before, following the Soviet collapse,” they wrote.
“The result was 9/11. We must not make that mistake again.”

This shameless argument assumes — perhaps correctly — that no one in this country remembers anything. So let me provide a reminder: We already did make that mistake again when we walked away from Afghanistan to invade Iraq in 2003 — and we did so at the Three Amigos’ urging. Then, too, they promoted their strategy as a way of preventing another 9/11 — even though no one culpable for 9/11 was in Iraq. Now we’re being asked to pay for their mistake by squandering stretched American resources in yet another country where Al Qaeda has largely vanished.

To make the case, the Amigos and their fellow travelers conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda much as they long conflated Saddam’s regime with Al Qaeda. But as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post reported on Thursday, American intelligence officials now say that “there are few, if any, links between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan today and senior Al Qaeda members” — a far cry from the tight Taliban-bin Laden alliance of 2001.

The rhetorical sleights of hand in the hawks’ arguments don’t end there. If you listen carefully to McCain and his neocon echo chamber, you’ll notice certain tics. President Obama better make his decision by tomorrow, or Armageddon (if not mushroom clouds) will arrive. We must “win” in Afghanistan — but victory is left vaguely defined.
That’s because we will never build a functioning state in a country where there has never been one. Nor can we score a victory against the world’s dispersed, stateless terrorists by getting bogged down in a hellish landscape that contains few of them.

Most tellingly, perhaps, those clamoring for an escalation in Afghanistan avoid mentioning the name of the country’s president, Hamid Karzai, or the fraud-filled August election that conclusively delegitimized his government. To do so would require explaining why America should place its troops in alliance with a corrupt partner knee-deep in the narcotics trade. As long as Karzai and the election are airbrushed out of history, it can be disingenuously argued that nothing has changed on the ground since Obama’s inauguration and that he has no right to revise his earlier judgment that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity.”

Those demanding more combat troops for Afghanistan also avoid defining the real costs. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the war was running $2.6 billion a month in Pentagon expenses alone even before Obama added 20,000 troops this year. Surely fiscal conservatives like McCain and Graham who rant about deficits being “generational theft” have an obligation to explain what the added bill will be on an Afghanistan escalation and where the additional money will come from. But that would require them to use the dread words “sacrifice” and “higher taxes” when they want us to believe that this war, like Iraq, would be cost-free.

The real troop numbers are similarly elusive. Pre-emptively railing against the prospect of “half measures” by Obama, Lieberman asked MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell rhetorically last week whether it would be “real counterinsurgency” or “counterinsurgency light.” But the measure Lieberman endorses — Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s reported recommendation of 40,000 additional troops — is itself counterinsurgency light. In his definitive recent field manual on the subject, Gen. David Petraeus stipulates that real counterinsurgency requires 20 to 25 troops for each thousand residents. That comes out, conservatively, to 640,000 troops for Afghanistan (population, 32 million). Some 535,000 American troops couldn’t achieve a successful counterinsurgency in South Vietnam, which had half Afghanistan’s population and just over a quarter of its land area.

Lieberman suggested to Mitchell that we could train an enhanced, centralized Afghan army to fill any gaps. In how many decades? The existing Afghan “army” is small, illiterate, impoverished and as factionalized as the government. For his part, McCain likes to justify McChrystal’s number of 40,000 by imbuing it with the supposedly magical powers of the “surge” in Iraq. But it’s rewriting history to say that the “surge” brought “victory” to Iraq. What it did was stanch the catastrophic bleeding in an unnecessary war McCain had helped gin up. Lest anyone forget, we still don’t know who has “won” in Iraq.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is poorer, even larger and more populous, more fragmented and less historically susceptible to foreign intervention. Even if the countries were interchangeable, the wars are not. No one-size surge fits all. President Bush sent the additional troops to Iraq only after Sunni leaders in Anbar Province soured on Al Qaeda and reached out for American support. There is no equivalent “Anbar Awakening” in Afghanistan. Most Afghans “don’t feel threatened by the Taliban in their daily lives” and “aren’t asking for American protection,” reported Richard Engel of NBC News last week. After eight years of war, many see Americans as occupiers.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Returning to Santa Rosa

Reorganizing one's little life. When I returned to Santa Rosa a week ago, I resolved to never rent a storage unit again. So, contained within my 250-square-foot apartment is my life's legacy. And there's still too much stuff! I know that when it's time to leave this world, if I haven't done so, someone else will have to deal with it all. Thus the motivation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

U.S. "Silent on Israeli Nuclear Arms"

Above, a "small" artillery-fired nuclear weapon test in the Nevada desert during the 1950s.

While, in advance of upcoming negotiations, the U.S. attacks Iran's "nuclear ambitions", it remains silent on Israel's nuclear arsenal, which former President Jimmy Carter acknowledges contains between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads. Israel has threatened to attack Iran's nuclear energy facilities, which according to former weapons inspector Scott Ritter (see below) comply with all UNIAEA mandates.

The following, published by "Common Dreams" October 3, 2009 originally appeared in "Al Jazeera English".
Barack Obama, the US president, has agreed to abide by a 40-year policy of allowing Israel to keep nuclear weapons without opening them to international inspection, according to a US newspaper.

In a report on Saturday, The Washington Times quoted three unnamed sources as saying Obama had confirmed to Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, that he would maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The incident reportedly occurred when the two met at the White House in Washington DC in May.

Neither Israel's embassy in Washington, nor the White House National Security Council would comment on the claim.

Avner Cohen, an Israeli expert and author, was quoted by the paper as saying that under the deal "the United States passively [accepts] Israel's nuclear weapons status as long as Israel does not unveil publicly its capability or test a weapon".

There is no official accounting of the deal, supposedly agreed in 1969 between Richard Nixon, then US president, and Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister at the time.

'Strategic understandings'

In an interview last week with Israel's Channel 2 media company, Netanyahu spoke of his confidence that Obama's recent remarks on a world free of nuclear weapons would not apply to Israel.

"It was utterly clear from the context of the speech that he was speaking about North Korea and Iran," the Israeli leader said.

"But I want to remind you that in my first meeting with President Obama in Washington I received from him ... an itemised list of the strategic understandings that have existed for many years between Israel and the United States on that issue.

"It was not for naught that I requested, and it was not for naught that I received [that document]."

Although there is no formal record of the understanding - nor have Israeli nor American governments ever publicly acknowledged it - some documents hint at an agreement between the two nations.

In 2007, the Nixon library declassified a July 19, 1969, memo from Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, that comes closest to articulating US policy on the issue.

That memo says "while we might ideally like to halt actual Israeli possession, what we really want at a minimum may be just to keep Israeli possession from becoming an established international fact".

© 2009

Former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter Warns Against “Politically Motivated Hype” on Iran Nuke Program

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Home stretch

Awoke at 3:20 a.m. Outside, it was still surprisingly mild, with winds out of the southeast. No sign of any storm. While I was sleeping, the rest area had filled with trucks and a few cars.

Refueled in Rock Springs at 6:30. The morning work commute was just beginning. It felt like a gritty "blue collar" town. Along this part of the I-80 corridor, daylight began to reveal an unpleasantly scarred and littered landscape. The arid landscapes, with their sparse and slow-growing vegetation offer little concealment of human impacts. Perhaps we don't appreciate the natural beauty in such landscapes, and so trash them. I don't know. The economy here looks quite poor. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand.

I was now heading into strong winds, the cold front rapidly moving in. There was now snow in the higher passes, white veils hanging from the clouds. As the highway turned southwestward into Utah, I felt the tension ease. Hopefully I would keep ahead of the worst weather descending out of the north. Crossing the mountains at Park City, the snow started falling steadily, though the roads remained good.

Exited the freeway west of Salt Lake City near the airport. A sign indicated a cluster of hotels. Surely there would be a coffee shop. But no. All I saw were hotels. No other services. Very odd. And what’s worse, the roads only seemed to lead me back to SLC. I was furious at being channeled back into the engineering tangle that is SLC’s crazy highway interchanges.

After about a five mile detour, I left I-80 at the Tooele exit. Here, there is a cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations. I stopped at McDonald’s to try some coffee from their “McCafe”. (Climbing out of the truck, I discovered several more of those obnoxious air freshener tags hidden behind the seats and removed the disgusting things. I thought I had found them all after renting the truck!) McDonald's charges $1.07 for a small coffee, which seemed reasonable. (And, I had to admit, it wasn’t terrible. Probably a product of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, VT.)

Listened to KRCL radio in the Salt Lake area. An interesting station. I had grown weary of the talk radio shows, all selling gold and investment, insurance and HR scams.

Once again, I stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats rest area. A much prettier day, with storm clouds covering Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front, and to the west, blue sky scattered with snow clouds.

I got out to take some pictures, but the frigid wind was whipping across the salt flats at probably 50 to 60 mph. Even wearing glasses, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds. Out here, goggles would be required. Quickly shot a photo or two and jumped back in the truck.

Around noon, I exited the highway at Wendover, just west of the Salt Flats. A billboard indicated there is a Starbucks inside the Wendover Nugget Casino. Parked in the casino's huge parking structure and struck out in search of coffee. After a big loop of the gaming floor, I found the Starbucks concession just off the lobby where I had entered. (Casinos seem to do this to me - overwhelm and disorient!) The young lady who took my order spoke with an Eastern European accent.

"Are you from the Czech Republic?" I asked.

She replied that she is from “the former Yugoslavia.” ("What brought you to Wendover, of all places?" The question remained unasked.) Though she misses her homeland, she said she likes living here in America.

Wendover straddles the Utah-Nevada state line. I thought I would explore all the gas stations to determine which state offered the lower price. (This is when it would be nice to have one of those "applications" which show the real-time price comparisons by state.) But in Wendover the price was $2.859, whether on the Nevada or the Utah side.

I had to stop to take a photo of the dramatic 10,704-foot Pilot Peak, crowned in clouds. Rising out of the high desert plain, it reminded me of the volcanoes I saw crossing from Bolivia to Chile.

Reached Elko after 1:00. Here I saw swallows flitting through the air and wondered "isn’t it time for their migration to Central or South America?" At a gas station, I watched from a distance as two motorcyclists, geared up for long distance travel, prepared to get back out on the highway. I sympathized with them – it’s a tough day for riding, especially if they’re eastbound. After refueling, I drove across the road to a Raley’s supermarket. After so much junk food, a deli sandwich sounded appealing. Bought a Panini and soda. It felt uncomfortable to be in this rather upscale market, representing the "world of affluence", and here I was, nearly penniless. (“I’m a jobless poser!")

Yet I watched the employees go about their chores and (though I’m sure it’s comforting to be working for such a solid employer,) it seemed so dreary. Near the door, I noted the Red Box video rental system in use here. I had first seen it in Waitsfield, Vermont recently, and have heard it’s taking a bite out of Blockbuster’s business. As I walked back to the truck, a light sleet or frozen rain was falling from a solitary cloud overhead.

Out "in the midde of nowhere", I passed the huge coal-powered Valmy Power Plant. Though hardly obvious, I'm sure there's a "sensible" reason for siting it here.

Crossing the country on I-80, I’ve encountered hundreds of miles of paving projects. Many in Nevada. It definitely has a cumulative effect and must become frustrating and stressful for long-haul drivers. I don’t know how they deal with it, especially if under pressure to meet a tight schedule. Driving single file in narrow lanes for miles on end is all-consuming and fatiguing.

Where the four-lane crosses dry lakebeds northeast of Fernley, small black rocks are laid out in the desert to spell out names and messages, a kind of harmless, movable graffiti. (I had also seen this at Bonneville.)

Nightengale Hot Springs is right along I-80, and it’s quite an odd vision, steam rising out of the landscape in many spots. A major industrial complex has been erected to capture some of the energy. (I passed a similar complex to the east, but at the time did not recognize its purpose.)

A 6:30 p.m. stop at the Boomtown Chevron near the Nevada-California border. Gas is $2.899. It's getting painful! Added only about 5 gallons, just enough to get over Donner Pass, perhaps to Auburn and, hopefully, lower prices. The sun had just slipped behind the Sierra, so driving would be easier (until darkness presented new hazards.)

Immediately upon crossing into California, serious highway construction begins. It is one of the most treacherous construction zones imaginable. Jersey barriers are set up to channel traffic into single lanes – the narrowest lanes I’ve ever seen on a freeway. Still, traffic was moving around 60 mph. It was harrowing, as the road wound up through the Truckee River Canyon.

The only consolation was the fairly light traffic. Aware of the project, many motorists must be using alternate routes.

At the Truckee California Agricultural Inspection Station, a young officer directed me to open the box and then asked a few questions about what I was carrying. Nothing living back there, I was free to go.

Highway repairs continued in long stretches over Donner Summit and down the western slopes. I was appalled at the inadequate safety measures used to separate traffic from the construction zone. In one area, where the concrete roadway is being replaced, the two-foot-thick slabs have been cut out, leaving a precipice and gaping hole just a few feet from traffic. Reflectorized plastic cones and drums are all that separates moving vehicles from disaster.

In areas they weren’t working, the old pavement is terrible and I don’t see how they can finish the work before the snows arrive.

At the Dutch Flat rest area, I stopped to try and call Henry and Charlene. I was relieved to find payphones, but it turned to aggravation when I found I couldn’t use my calling card. Instead, a recorded message directed me to dial a number for a “rate quote”. (The last time I called for such a "quote", it was nearly $20 for what should have been a $1 call.) The few remaining pay phone providers prey on those who are often least able to pay.

Stopped in Auburn at the In-N-Out restaurant. Next door is a Holiday Inn Express, so I walked over to see if they had pay phones. Now, even hotels have removed them, but the clerk was kind enough to let me use the desk phone to call Henry and Charlene. I reached their voice mail and left a message that I would arrive in Santa Rosa around 11:00. If they were not around, that was fine. I’d come back tomorrow (and find a place to camp tonight – though I wasn’t quite sure where. Perhaps Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.)

Decided against the hamburger after all. I've been eating "constantly", and (since these restaurants are so abundant in California) I couldn’t use the excuse that I may not have another opportunity to have a “Double-Double Animal”.

From Roseville onward, traffic grew noticeably more aggressive and I could feel the tension rising. Speeding cars wove in and out of lanes (much like I would often drive in my BMW sedan!) The roads, the traffic, the sprawling metropolis and dwindling natural impressions – all this led to a “rude awakening”. I was beginning to pine for the rural tree-covered landscapes of Vermont. Just as my arrival in Vermont had triggered an emotional urge to turn around. A slight panic. ("This may be hopeless.")

Reached Fairfield around 9:45. Another rude awakening: the Shell station selling gas for $3.099! ("This can’t be true!") And to add insult to injury, as soon as I initiated the transaction, the pump started talking, followed by a TV commercial for “CSI”. I shut it down almost immediately, adding just enough gas to get me home. "Fuck you, Shell!”

The road work continued to amaze me. ("Stimulus dollars" at work!) Highway 12 west of Cordelia is being widened. The Carneros Highway is undergoing a major widening from highway 29 to the Sonoma County line. In Sonoma, highway 12 north of town, out to Boyes Hot Springs, is now lined with quaint old-fashioned metal lamp posts. (I'm amazed that something so frivolous could be funded in these tough times!) Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley has also been widened, perhaps with the intention of creating a center turning lane.

Pulled up to Morita’s house at 11:00. No one was home, but on a hunch, I found a key to the granny apartment under the door mat. Moved only a few essentials inside this evening.

Soon after, Henry and Charlene arrived home. They were returning from Sacramento, and were also shocked by all the construction. Though I urged restraint due to my "odoriferous emanations", Charlene gave me hug. "We knew you'd be back!" They said it seems "just yesterday" that I left. I learned that Jessica had just vacated the apartment earlier in the day! We didn’t talk long, because all were tired.

On the counter, a wrapped plate of home-made cookies and a “welcome home” card from Cooper Cleveland put a smile on my face.

A shower, the first since arriving East Aurora, felt wonderful.

On the Nevada-Utah frontier, the dramatic 10,704-foot Pilot Peak stands crowned with clouds. This image reminds me of the string of volcanoes dotting the altiplano along the Bolivia-Chile frontier.

Bonneville Salt Flats on a clear day. A cold north wind was blowing about 50 or 60 mph, making it difficult to see without goggles.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More fun with talk radio

(8:30 a.m. "Panera Bread Bakery-Cafe", north of Des Moines, Iowa.)

People here are so nice and clean-cut, "All American"! Smartly-dressed professionals on their way to work. Lots of blonde hair. I was a bit surprised to hit rush hour traffic on I-80 well north of the downtown area. Big city blues. I don't like being reminded of what many in our society have to endure.

Delighted to learn Panera offers free wi-fi and plug-ins, so that encouraged me to retrieve the computer from the truck, and indulge in a couple of pastries and some decent coffee. Again, there is no rush to move on, so perhaps I’ll do a little catching up here. The restaurant is fairly large and the numerous computer-users scattered about do not encroach much (though the log-in screen advises us to be considerate during the lunch hour, and to not occupy the large tables.)

From being in the driver’s seat so long, I still feel a swaying motion and a slight dizziness, reminiscent of coming ashore after being on a ship.


This morning, I awoke in the dark, uncertain how long I had slept. It could have been minutes or hours. But I was awake, so there was no point going back to sleep. Dressed and crawled out of the box. Went into the visitors’ center to use the bathroom, wash my face and brush my teeth. A wall clock showed it was almost 6:00 a.m. I had slept perhaps three hours. The vibration and noise from all the nearby parked trucks, their engines running through the night, made it difficult to rest. (Such an amazing waste of energy!) First light on the horizon, Venus high in the eastern sky. I paused to read an historical marker telling the story of the nearby Amana Colonies. Back out on I-80, I was surprised by the heavy truck traffic at such an early hour.

Trying to reach Des Moines, I nearly ran out of gas. I hadn't anticipated the countryside being so sparsely populated. Fortunately, I found two gas stations standing all alone about 20 miles east of the city. The BP station offered gas at $2.59, while the “Kum and Go” just up the road offered it for $2.25. (It seemed crazy, but I guess you pay extra for BP's ANWR lobbying efforts.) The gas tank sucked up over 30 gallons.


I couldn't resist tuning into the Christian Nation once again. The preacher says “I hope God will save me.” What kind of a god would save some, but not others? A loving god? "He" sounds a bit corrupt to me. As though he might be open to bribes. The folks at “” claim President Obama is “terrorizing” the country. (I think these critics should spend a bit of time in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Perhaps they would then better understand the term.)

On the Mike Gallagher Show, I learned about "", created by Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney, two of our most enlightened and unbiased champions of "freedom"! The same lineage that brought us The Unnecessary War in Iraq. Without the psychological weapons of fear and panic, conservatives are impotent. Both Mike Gallagher and Dennis Prager spoke on their broadcasts about losing a loved one recently and how they are dealing with that loss. They use the loss to generate sympathy in service to their agenda, and in so doing, cross a moral line.

And then I listen to Rush Limbaugh, who now comes across as merely irrelevant and hateful. “El Rushbo” claims that with Obama, “it’s all about him.” The pot calling the kettle black? He talks mockingly of “Our Supreme Leader, Barack Hussein Obama”. I listened to Rush for three hours (well, about half of that was cheesy commercials targeting a gullible audience with various scams.) For someone who has been doing this so many years, Rush seems remarkably uninformed. Perhaps it has something to do with the old adage “we have two ears and one mouth that we might hear twice as much as we speak.” In Rush’s case, he clearly speaks much more than he listens.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t want to be a trucker. (Occasionally I have thought "it would be fun.") The delays due to road paving are wide-spread and aggravating.

Each crossing of the U.S. reveals more windmills – dramatically more.

75mph speed limit in Nebraska!

At exit 314, I stopped at a remote “Dairy Queen”. Ice cream sounded good. (Seems I’m indulging every instinctive whim on this journey!) As I sat in the cab with my chocolate-dipped soft serve, taking in the pleasantly warm and breezy afternoon, I thought “this is pretty good!” (Definitely better than the “creemees” I had in Vermont.)

Out here in the Midwest, I hear many radio ads for Monsanto, touting new and more productive “Round-Up Ready” seeds.


The “talk radio” jocks are quite a tag-team, all ripping on Obama, all covering the same talking points, with almost identical scripts. Each expresses outrage that President Obama would travel to Copenhagen to lobby the IOC for Chicago as the 2016 Summer Olympics venue! “Where are his priorities? Why isn’t he here fighting for health care?" (Would that be the health care overhaul you’re doing your damnedest to torpedo?)

"Obama has only met with General Stanley McChrystal once!" (The outrage!)

Laura Ingraham employs the “America in Decline” tagline for her show. And (Michael) "Savage Nation's" tagline: “Twilight Zone of American culture.”

Sean Hannity refers to all the “czars” in the current administration. He (erroneously) describes the health care bill as carrying an “abortion mandate”. He asks his audience “aren’t you horrified? Isn’t it sinful?"

(Like all the others,) John Gibson asked how Obama could go to Copenhagen. But Gibson focused on a different angle of attack. A “YouTube” video is now "going viral”. It apparently shows a Chicago student, Darien Albert, being beaten to death. Showing appropriate outrage, Gibson asks “shouldn’t Obama instead be going to Chicago?”. And he then rolled out Chicago's murder statistics. Just to emphasize the point, the audio from the beating was replayed over and over again. It was sadistic, using the violence to serve himself and his agenda.

Of course, they all had a field day with the arrest in Switzerland of Roman Polanski. (And we all know Lefties love and defend Roman!) Polanski symbolizes the immorality of Hollywood's Liberal Elite.

These shrill and hysterical voices berate President Obama every hour of the day. He can do absolutely nothing right. He is a complete failure, and must go. It is simply amazing that anyone voted for him!

They are all hateful. And yet each claims to speak for the values of a “Christian Nation”. They exemplify duality: free to say anything they want, and be completely contradicted by their actions. There is no accountability here. These are the same people who played cheerleader to an illegal war in Iraq that killed over 100,000 people and sank this nation.

As if to proudly proclaim their hypocrisy and absence of ethics, they personally read product advertisements, offering personal endorsements, no doubt in exchange for free goods and services. It is difficult to tell where the show ends and the commercial begins. Unless they’re lying (which would be incredible,) it seems each of these characters is not immune to a little harmless graft.


At Sydney, Nebraska, I passed the world headquarters of “Cabela’s” outdoor shops, and finally the flat landscape slowly gave way to rolling hills. Winds from the south or southeast made driving today fairly easy. (Like the song,) the skies were cloudless all day.

Crossing into Wyoming, I was greeted with sparse pine forests and rough pavement.

Throughout today, I felt a slight twinge when seeing eastbound motorcycles. I wish I were out there. A couple days ago, given the rough weather, I was not so envious of the few bold riders I had seen.

How refreshing to occasionally turn back to NPR programming. I listened to the “World Café” program a few times during this trip. It was nice to hear some new musical voices (including the bands “The Flaming Lips” and “Camera Obscura” which I found enjoyable.)

Reached Cheyenne around 7:00 p.m. Refueled ($2.179/gallon) then pulled over to the “Sonic Drive-in” that had closed just as I arrived here last time. I learned it wasn't really worth the effort. The food is barely passable.

The weather forecast warned of a cold front moving in and bringing snow to higher elevations and to Western Wyoming. I decided to camp at a rest stop in Elk Mountain Pass. This way, if snow did move in, my escape would at least be downhill.

After 5,000 miles, I am just learning how to drive these trucks. (Yes, I'm a little slow.) Shifting into “drive 3” allows me to maintain momentum on the uphill grades.

Monday, September 28, 2009

East Aurora to somewhere in Iowa

Stood in Priscilla’s kitchen this morning, imagining looking for work in the California wine industry again, and no doubt, at my age, facing a harsh reality.

Outside, Priscilla pointed to the turkey vultures above, migrating southward. We realized that when I passed through last time, she had pointed them out to me as they migrated northward. Like these scavengers, I'm following a seasonal migration. Kathy called to ask “have you seen the weather forecast???” A strong storm was moving into the area.

In no hurry, I left Priscilla’s house at 11:00 a.m. But I passed on East Aurora's breakfast attractions: Taste, Starbucks, Tim Horton’s. Traffic kept me moving. “Lake effect” rain was soon pelting the truck, and strong gusty winds pushing it around the road and destroying fuel efficiency. At Hamburg, I became disoriented in heavy rain, construction and a circuitous approach to the Thruway. The worst weather was right along the Erie shoreline. It was quite a buffeting.

The usual heavy truck traffic on I-80 (the New York State Thruway) also provides a challenge. Since this small Penske van's throttle seems to be governed at 75 mph, trying to pass a big rig can be frustrating and difficult. And there are some very bad drivers on these roadways!

As I skirted the lakeshores, I envisioned the satellite image: a river of cold air sweeping down from the northwest and arcing around a low pressure trough sitting over the Great Lakes. Southwest winds along Erie changed to west winds south of Lake Michigan, to northwest winds in Western Illinois. (And in Western New York, thunderstorms were moving from east to west, probably dropping into the vortex of the trough.)

Listened to “Family Radio” for a while. It all sounded like children’s stories – fairy tales.

Running low on fuel, I left the Thruway short of the Pennsylvania border. A fuel sign directed me to a now-abandoned station. I was briefly furious, then reminded myself “it’s all part of the experience.” Following an alternate route, I crossed into Pennsylvania, and soon came to a gas station. The detour was fortuitous – the price of gas dropped 25 cents a gallon in Pennsylvania.

My focus today was to make a beeline for the Mississippi River. From my vantage point along the I-80 corridor, I can’t see what anyone finds attractive in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. I need mountains, and an ocean nearby!

Exited in Sheffield, Ohio to stop at the Cracker Barrel. I wasn’t particularly hungry but saw this as perhaps the last opportunity to dine at one of these restaurants. At 3:00, it was pleasantly quiet, with mostly seniors in the dining room. Ordered the Marionberry (my receipt said “blackberry”) Pancakes and coffee. A notation on the menu caught my eye: “all natural syrup”. What happened to “real maple” syrup? (I had just been talking to Steve at Stowe Maple Products about how Cracker Barrel had been doing the maple syrup industry a service by offering the real thing at their restaurants.) So I asked the server for a side of syrup, just to see what’s up. The syrup is now 55% maple and 45% cane syrup. (It's from Maple Grove Farms of St. Johnsbury, VT – a division of B&G Foods.)(This reminded me of my shock at picking up a "honey bear" at a grocery, only to find in reading the fine print that it was "honey flavored syrup". Another of the many subversive uses for government-subsidized corn syrup!)

Gas in Ohio only $2.279. But I also have to consider the steep highway tolls. Still, New York seems to be the most expensive – high gas prices and high tolls.

Heard the reference to “Michiana” again – the border region between Indiana and Michigan.

Listened to NPR quite a lot today. I found it refreshingly soothing. I had heard it piped in at Stowe Maple Products. But other than that, I've been away from it for six months. I was struck by the sense that the voices all sounded noticeably older.

In the Chicago region, picked up the Moody radio network once again and listened to the Christian programming for awhile. Amazingly divisive. Instilling fear. It’s fascinating, the things that go together: protectionism, xenophobia, hatred, ignorance and scam commercialism. A discussion show focused on Sharia law being introduced into Western countries. (They claim) “there are places in England where Sharia replaces the law!”

Driving at night for the first time in this truck, I found the headlights were out of adjustment, and pointing down at the pavement a short distance ahead. I found that to provide a safe illumination, the high beams were necessary. But this led one trucker (out of the hundreds) to become quite irritated and indignant when I passed him, and he insisted upon dogging me for miles, following close behind with his high beams (and with my governed engine, my only escape was to pull over and let the idiot pass. Of course, I would eventually catch up to him on a grade, pass, and he would repeat his assault.)

I finally pulled into a rest stop west of Iowa City and let the asshole go on his merry way.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A stop in East Aurora

At Charlie and Joanna's Holland, NY house, Cousin Kathy harvests elderberries for pie

Priscilla demonstrates her efficient harvesting technique

Priscilla checks the pH of her elderberries

Back in East Aurora, Kathy cooks up some steaks and dogs, while Charlie hides in the shadows


Awoke around 9:45 this morning, thinking it much earlier. The room was darkened, the sky overcast and a light rain still falling. This place is QUIET (especially compared to Waterbury.)

Went downstairs and found Kathy and Priscilla drinking coffee at the kitchen table and browsing through packages of photos from our 1999 Europe Trip. It's hard to believe it has been ten years since I played "Rick Steves", leading a group of family and friends through Europe! They seemed to have such vivid memories, compared to my rather vague or non-existent memories of that adventure. (Fortunately, I kept a journal.)

Kathy remarked that Priscilla had cleaned the house so much, that I should periodically call to warn her I’ll be passing through in a few days.

In the rainy afternoon, we took a ride in Priscilla’s new car out to Holland to visit Charlie and Joanna’s house and pick elderberries for pie. I am amazed at the work Charlie has done restoring an ancient house they purchased out of foreclosure. Charlie and Joanna seem to be leading an enviable lifestyle, working hard, enjoying a variety of experiences, appreciating all they have. Very solid “kids”. Out back, besides the elderberry thickets, they have a prolific pear tree which Charlie says produces great tasting fruit. For some reason, I declined to sample the pears.

After touring the house, we stayed on for a while, watching the Buffalo Bills-Patriots game.

Returning to East Aurora, we enjoyed leftovers for dinner. Not just any leftovers. Sautéing sliced steak with mushrooms, Kathy made excellent Philly-style sandwiches.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Farewell to Vermont

Randall Street landscape - Jeff's house in the background

Sewer replacement and repaving of Randall Street has provided "entertainment" the past couple months. I won't get to see the final result until I return - someday.

Jeff accosting his defenseless neighbor Wanda

Jeff, Wanda and "Ginger"

Alarm set for 7:45. Over breakfast, I worked on some notes from the last couple days. Jeff joined me around 9:15. I was planning a 10:00 a.m. departure.

Off at 11:15, after stopping over to say good-bye to Wanda.

A perfect day for a drive! (“Stunning”, as real estate agents might say.) Not a cloud in the sky until I crossed from Whitehall to New York, and then just puffy cumulus. The ride down Vermont 22A was gorgeous. After a very late start to the growing season, the farm stands are finally beckoning with their abundance. It’s very tempting to stop, but I didn’t want to dally. As I drove, I began to find a few surprises Jeff had hidden in the cab: beef jerky, “Special Dark” pretzels, DVDs I had intended for him to watch, and even Drew’s debut video, “Harry Monument”, which has become a family joke…I mean classic.

The New York side seemed a big step down, aesthetically. It felt “trashier”. The Fort Anne Booster Club was out in traffic trying to collect coins. Getting out on the interstate, I suddenly felt what a confined world I’ve been in this past six months.

Cresting the Adirondacks, I could see far to the west, hazy brownish-tinged high cloud above the layer of cumulus clouds. A sign of changing weather.

By Syracuse, I was into the rain. Per Jeff’s instructions, I left the Thruway at the Pembroke exit and went south past Darien Lake to New York route 20A. Near Kathy’s home (west of Warsaw) I was appalled at the number of huge windmills now lining the ridges. What a blight this is fast becoming! Individual landowners may benefit from leasing their property to the utilities, but for most others around, they don’t see “money”, they just see (and hear) the scarring and industrialization of their rural landscape.

Arrived in East Aurora at 7:15, after exactly 8 hours’ drive.

Later I wrote this update to Jeff:
You would have gotten soaked on the bike! (Though there were a few bikers out there.) But the ride down through Vermont was gorgeous! The clouds started as soon as I crossed to New York.

Kathy, Becky, Priscilla, Charlie, Nancy (who lives behind Priscilla) and Priscilla’s friend Joanie from Connecticut (now back in E.A.) were all here for dinner. Kathy made layered salad, twice-baked potatoes and barbecued steaks – you should have been here!

The truck may have some transmission trouble. I’ll try to get a better sense of it over the next leg of the trip.

Enjoying the peace and quiet for a change?

Thanks for all you have done for me. Especially Harry Monument, Special Darks and Beef Jerky!

I might leave tomorrow, but more likely Monday.

As “usual”, Priscilla had the middle bedroom prepared for me. Everything very tidy. Outside, a light rain fell. And again I found from the upstairs I was able to connect to a open wi-fi signal, so that provided some comfort.

Kathy insisted upon sleeping on the sofa, which she is too accustomed to doing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Packing up

I lay awake for hours last night, my mind pondering the upcoming return trip to California and reflecting upon how, for the past five years, I’ve had little notion of what lies ahead. In the present circumstances it feels more apparent than ever. (This contrasts with years in offices, where a "to do list", daily calendar, and on-going projects offered a false sense of predictability.)

Other than visualizing a stop in East Aurora, I have thought little of the trip across the country. (Where others might plan such an excursion in great detail, in our family, we just tend to jump in the car – or truck or motorcycle – and take off.)

I was scheduled to pick up the truck at 9:00 and when my alarm went off at 7:30, Jeff also awoke, grumbling about being forced to get up so early. I had suggested several times that he accompany me to East Aurora on his bike, but that pressure was apparently sufficient to purge the thought from his mind.

Though the owner of the South Barre Penske dealership had assured me that together we’d find a way to load the motorcycle on the truck, I learned he was now “called away”, leaving a young woman to run the office and me to figure things out without their assistance. But last night, Jeff took me over to the nearby Vermont State complex to point out a small loading dock we could use.

So, instead of riding the motorcycle to Penske, loading it and going to the camp from there, Jeff would take me over to pick up the truck and we’d return to Waterbury to load the bike (and wine that I had stored in Jeff’s basement.) It would use up quite a bit more fuel, but I saw little choice.

The truck rental was a simple matter. I used Jeff’s “AAA” card to get a 10% discount, but then reluctantly opted for the insurance, which brought the total back up to $1,200. (Jeff again reminded me of his own rental experience, in which part of his moving van's box was destroyed in a drive-through lane. So he insisted I take the insurance option, even offering to buy it as a “going away gift”.) As we inspected the truck, he suggested checking all the lights. A good idea, as we then found the left headlight burned out. The agent had to call in a mechanic to fix it. Fortunately, he lived only minutes away, and the truck was soon ready.

Back in Waterbury, loading the bike from the dock was a simple matter. The comedy started when we disagreed about strapping the bike into the truck. Jeff wanted me to use an extra “Canyon Dancer” tie-down system he has. I summarily dismissed such a notion. “I don’t need it!” (I didn’t want any more “stuff”.) But I later realized I was rejecting his offer of help (something I do quite regularly) and this is unkind. He was clearly perturbed by my insistence that I do everything “my way”. Used four tie-downs to attach the bike to pad eyes in the forward bulkhead and side walls. I claimed that once the truck is fully loaded, the bike will be so packed in, “it won’t be going anywhere.” Still, Jeff said I should have used the “Canyon Dancer”. Next, we loaded my wine collection (which fortunately is diminishing.)

Jeff had offered to help load the truck up at the cabin, but my repeated rejection of his assistance left him a bit dejected and detached. As he was making some breakfast, I said I was heading up to the camp and would be back in “about 30 minutes”. A slight exaggeration.

This was the only part of the trip I was concerned with, as the bike and wine could indeed shift in the back of the truck, so I took it very carefully. A spectacular day, blue sky, puffy clouds, crisp, cold, and Autumn color washing the mountains. (“Are you sure you want to leave?”)

Just missed the lunch crowds in Montpelier. There are a few things that really annoy me about Vermonters. They have this habit, when driving down the highway and having the right-of way, of suddenly stopping and insisting that a motorist who is waiting to pull out into the highway go ahead of them. And they do this no matter how much traffic is on their tail. Absent-minded courtesy at the risk of a pile-up. Another peeve is the way pedestrians in Montpelier just step out into the street, assuming traffic will stop. Often they don’t even appear to look!

Stopped at the post office to collect mail, leave a forwarding address (which, I was told, is now done on-line) and turn in my P.O. box keys. Though all the culverts were being replaced on Minister Brook Road, Hampshire Hill Road was in decent shape, so there was no problem getting up to the cabin.

Backed the truck up to the cabin steps. Noted the electric meter reading: just over 10Kwh. I think that’s all we have used since buying the place in 2004! The cabin air was still foul from the rodent infestation. My loading of the truck was a bit haphazard. There was considerably more space than I required and I just needed to assure there would be room to make up a bed at the back of the box.

Left a few things behind: a new electric hot plate (which didn't get much use), some old dishes and flatware, (former owner) Jerry’s tools, a wooden kitchen chair, two folding lawn chairs, some bath tissue and two containers with about seven gallons of water (in case anybody needs the toilet).

It took a few hours. Vacuumed up all the debris from the rodents, left the windows slightly cracked (to let the place "breathe"), then left. Pulled the truck down the driveway, then stopped to take a couple parting photographs. I also took some shots of the foliage out on Hampshire Hill. Nature was putting on such a show, it was difficult to leave.

Now, I was no longer concerned about the load shifting. Picked up a bottle of lemonade at the Worcester store, and headed down the road. Good timing again, as I passed through Montpelier around 3:00 – before commute time.

Jeff was still home – he took the day off. He had just received a letter from the IRS saying that he owes over $2,000 and was trying to figure out why. We sat around for a while, eating cheese and crackers, then I talked him into walking over to The Reservoir for dinner. On the way, we briefly visited with his neighbor Wanda. The road crews had knocked down her phone line, leaving her out of touch with her family. I was a bit sad that I wouldn’t be around to see Randall Street paved (only to enjoy all the construction pandemonium.)

Our favorite Waterbury restaurants, Alchemist, Arvad’s and The Reservoir were all doing a lively business tonight. There was a 20-minute wait at The Reservoir. Impatient as usual, Jeff suggested he’d rather drive to Williston than wait.

“Oh, that makes a lot of sense. You’d rather drive twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back, rather than wait twenty minutes here?”

“Yes. At least I feel I’m doing something…”

So we walked back to the house to retrieve his car. It was a frigid evening.

“I’m getting out of here just in time!” He laughed at my being such a “woos”.

We arrived in Williston and the signs were not good: the Longhorn parking lot was full, people crowded inside the lobby. The Texas Roadhouse lot was jammed, with guests overflowing outside, waiting for a table. We went inside and checked on the wait. Twenty to thirty minutes. The din and chaos were enough to turn us away (though we did grab a couple free bags of peanuts on the way out.)

“Well, it was a nice drive!” And it was: one of those inky orange-blue-black Autumn twilights. A transparent atmosphere with a first quarter moon hanging low in the southwestern sky. We were now committed to The Reservoir.

“Let’s not hit a deer. That would be a double insult.”

Back in Waterbury, there was a fifteen minute wait for a table. While I waited, Jeff drove around looking for the perfect parking spot. Unlike the other restaurants, The Reservoir offers an open floor plan that’s good for people-watching. And there were many young and attractive women for us codgers to admire this evening! The hostess was fun to watch. Jeff liked her “ample behind”. (The lecher! Unlike me.) I saw many others more to my taste.

We had the same waitress who served us once before. She’s sharp and attentive, and that made all the difference in the experience. I ordered Newcastle Brown Ale and a “Mt. Philly Sandwich”. Tasty! Jeff went for a burger (which again came out too rare.) A long, leisurely meal. We both enjoyed it. And though they were busy, the atmosphere was relatively quiet. Perhaps their building is better insulated than other dining establishments.

At the house later, Jeff again mused over his tax returns. He finally recalled that he was originally refunded too much money. The agency finally caught their mistake. So Jeff was not too upset, except for the fact they now wanted to charge almost $200 in interest. Unacceptable.

Tired from insufficient sleep last night and today's exposure to the elements, I retired before midnight. But I soon remembered it was Susan’s birthday and went downstairs again. Jeff made a call to Whidbey Island and, receiving Drew and Susan's voicemail, we left a silly “happy birthday” message.

Vermont "experiment" concludes

All packed up, I say "good-bye" to my little cabin

Autumn colors are just beginning to come to Hampshire Hill

A taste of things to come

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A ride around Northern Vermont

The clouds had cleared out, leaving a clear blue morning, fresh and moist. Two more days here, but I start today just the same as I always do. In a few days, this dream will have ended.

Out front, a small backhoe was digging up the road again, apparently to install lateral sewer lines. Why they didn’t do this when they were laying the main line, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the contractor’s way of padding the project cost. It definitely appears inefficient. (And the constant noise is aggravating.)

I announced to Jeff that I was going to take a ride out to Caspian Lake. He had suggested it. Steve and Robin at Stowe Maple Products had also suggested it and last night there was a biography of Wallace Stegner on TV. It mentioned his love for his Vermont home at Caspian Lake. So, I decided there were enough signs – I should go.

I was so eager to get away from the construction tumult that I didn’t consider carefully what I should wear. I left with only my mesh (summer) riding jacket, and after several miles I began to have doubts that it would be warm enough.

A cold front had come in from the northwest, and the temperature continued to drop throughout the day. Drove up route 100 through Stowe and on to Morrisville. Took 15A to highways 15 and then 16. The autumn color was coming on strong, and was particularly dramatic when contrasted with dark green foliage that had yet to turn.

The area around Wolcott and Hardwick was particularly scenic. With increasing elevation, the temperature dropped, the wind increased and I could feel my core temperature falling. The physical size of Vermont is such that it takes less time than expected to arrive somewhere and things are smaller than I envision from looking at a map. Such is the case with Caspian Lake. I actually drove past it going north, thinking “that probably wasn’t it – it was too small!” But when I reached Craftsbury Road, I stopped and pulled out the road atlas. Indeed, I had passed Caspian Lake. It was very pretty, but not nearly the upscale enclave I had expected.

I continued on to Craftsbury Common, which Jeff had suggested is an “artsy” community. There I found the small Sterling College campus and young people walking the main street, looking out of place in this remote and rural community. I was on the lookout for a coffee shop, a place to warm up. I turned onto the Common Loop and pulled up abreast of two young women walking towards me. I asked about a coffee shop. One answered that they worked at the college and so didn’t need coffee. They said Hardwick would have the closest coffee shop.

I self-consciously didn’t want to seem too forward, so I kept my helmet on, even though I long-ago recognized it is rude to converse through the helmet. One of the women I found quite attractive. She remarked “you have a beautiful motorcycle…” to which I replied “I didn’t have much to do with it.” (Taking a cue from Jeff – that’s what he tells people who compliment his taste in motorcycles.)

I asked about the college and the curriculum. They only have 100 students and focus on the environment, outdoor activity and leadership. I mentioned being from California and the pretty one said she had some “pseudo-family in Napa”. “He drills wells.” I didn’t recognize the firm name. The longer we talked, the more uncomfortable I became (having the helmet on and all – but it was too late to take it off.) So, I had to move on.

Drove back towards Caspian Lake, analyzing what had just occurred. It was a pleasant treat to meet these young ladies, but it was clouded by my lack of consideration and discomfort. Had I been more at ease, and thinking less of myself, who knows where the conversation may have gone, and what I might have learned. Take a lesson!

This time, I drove the perimeter of Caspian Lake, over half of it on gravel roads. I was disturbed to find just one public access point. The entire remainder of shoreline is private property. “Hang the rich!” There are many homes and parcels for sale. Maybe the rich are hurting? Maybe they’re growing old and dying. It seems criminal for this little gem to be reserved for the privileged. That’s what I hate about the Eastern U.S.

The thought of being on the “return trip” helped psychologically counteract the cold. I thought of stopping at the Stowe Coffee House, and that “warmed” me. Returned to the Wolcott area and tried to find an appropriate angle for a photograph of the foliage. Took some side roads, and wandered a bit, but finally gave up the effort.

Outside of Morrisville, I stopped at the Green Top Market for a cookie (and a glance at the always-attractive clerks.) On to Stowe. Settled into my usual window seat with my coffee, seven-layer bar (plus one for Jeff) and my computer. Thawed my body.

Before leaving, I walked over to say good-bye to Richard, the Stowe blacksmith. His assistant directed me to his downstairs office. Through the window, I could see Richard curled up under a blanket on the sofa. Decided not to disturb him.

Next stop, Stowe Maple Products. I wanted to thank them again for doing the trade of maple syrup for wine. Steve was alone, and bottling up 3-ounce maple syrups. He had no customers so I grabbed a couple light fancy syrups from the shelf and started asking questions, picking up the conversation from a few days ago. He’s a wealth of knowledge, having done this much of his life. He gave me the two bottles for $10, well under the retail price. Finally, after over an hour, I said I better let him get back to work. But then I had another half-dozen questions. He seemed to welcome the company. When a customer arrived, I took the cue and said good-bye. But then out at the bike I noticed the camera and decided “I need a picture!” So, I went in to take some pictures as a couple of more customers arrived (and they too brought out their camera.) “You’re a celebrity!” I told Steve.

Steve maintains just under 10,000 taps (all connected to tap lines) and this produces around 3,000 gallons a year. Prices on the bulk market can be around $30 a gallon. (About 70% of Vermont’s production is sold in bulk.) He said the chain-sawing of fallen trees is the most difficult aspect of the job. He said he walks every inch of the tap lines, starting in November, repairing and replacing as needed. The plastic tap heads are replaced every year.

Returned home before 6:00, Jeff arriving a short time later. He had taken his bike to work.

He heated up breaded chicken fillets and instant mashed potatoes for dinner. It’s amazing. I think the only non-processed foods in his house may be two potatoes, and a couple garlics and small onions that are months old. And of course, all this processed food is increasingly consolidated into just a few major corporations. This led me to research aspects of the food chain tonight: General Mills, Pillsbury, Diageo, Nestle, Unilever and Campbell’s. It is time we start miniaturizing our food chain again.

Tonight, we watched TV for hours. I’ll be relieved to return to a world without television. It’s enjoyable at times, but the temporal pleasure is not worth the outrageous "opportunity cost".