Category Archives: writing

A national crisis, hyperlocaled to Mount Airy

Notice: I am neither dead nor AWOL. Just busier than ever, with a suddenly-really-pending deadline, new blogging at Guernica, and reporting for Newsworks.org – the web portal of WHYY, my local PBS/NPR station.

Here is the very first story I ever pitched to WHYY’s Alan Tu, back in September, Given my background in sussing out tenant stories in Manhattan, I knew quickly that there had to be a story in our slice of the national foreclosure crisis. It’s a story about predatory lending, about neighborhoods, and about a pioneering legislator who figured out 30 years ago what to do about all this.

The story’s also a phoenix: it sat in the pending pile, right behind breaking news, until the city suspended all foreclosures AND I happened upon the perfect interview subject. I hope it absorbs and amuses some folks.

Now to my follow-up story, and to cutting my book manuscript by two-thirds.

the iPad: friend of the disabled as well as the Appleaddict

It’s now been nearly a week since I–and oh, about 300,000 others–became early adopters of Apple’s new tablet computer, the somewhat unfortunately named iPad. (I still wonder if any women were in the room when they decided on the name.)

You’ve probably heard more about it than you ever wanted to, even if you own one: in this one week alone, we’ve had videos of two-year-olds playing on the thing, articles like “The iPad is a gift to readers” (Salon) and “The 9 Worst Things About the iPad” (Huffington Post). So why am I writing yet another one?

More centrally: why did I, a freelance writer and editor with a super-limited budget, line up at the Apple Store on Saturday with all the hardcore Mac fanboys — who had, like me, “pre-ordered” the device?

Partly because the minute I heard about it, it felt to me not like a luxury item but a near-necessity.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a charter member of the Mac cult for just about 20 years, and am fully aware that it means I have spent more for computers than I should have. I am also one of those “laptop people,” not having used a desktop computer since about 1995. Limits on my vision , dexterity and agility–first from illness, then from age as well–have kept me keenly interested in tools that let me focus on my work and not the computer’s. And as a media professional, I’ve been keenly aware of the newer media spaces, not just “Internet-instead of newspapers,” but phones, game consoles, and social media.

When the iPhone came out, I was in the market for a new laptop and thought of buying the iPhone instead, since it’s a powerful computer in its own right. That fancy passed, but as prices came down I became a proud owner of an iPod Touch, and learned to love both its easy access to work (email, editing blog posts like this one) and its quick windows to the rest of the ‘net. (I swear, for example, that I read a lot more of the New York Times on that tiny screen than I ever did in print.)

The problem with the Touch? Remember the vision and dexterity problems I mentioned above? Even when I increase font sizes, it has felt severely limiting—especially given the admittedly beguiling multitouch interface, where you physically turn pages and place Scrabble tiles. I joke about it, have called it all occupational therapy. But when I first started hearing about the iPad, and heard it critiqued as “just a big iPod Touch,” I clapped my hands. You made me a big one?

And when I learned about the keyboard dock that could make typing on the thing a bit easier, I knew it might even be my next laptop. Sort of.

When I got in line at my local Apple Store last Saturday, I was completely convinced the line would be full of women like me, whose eyes are beginning to go and whose multitasking lives demanded a tool both pleasurable and with fewer demands on the body.

Of course, I was wrong: it seemed, at least at first glance, that only men between 25 and 40 were really itching to get their hands on the newest Apple media device. (Or else–and this was perhaps more likely–women like me were far too busy to deal with that wait-in-line thing and just ordered it for delivery.)

And yes, so far it’s a mixed blessing. Though still a quarter the weight of my MacBook, the thing is far heavier than you expect, being crammed with software and a honking huge battery. Programs whisper and quit on occasion. And that keyboard dock isn’t ready yet, limiting the amount of time I actually write on it (though I wrote about half of this post that way). But I’m already loving the reading tools (hello, Moby Dick and countless academic articles for the book I’m writing). And the rather excellent speakers mean that while I’m doing more major writing at home, I have a very good soundtrack. (It’s a book! No, it’s a newspaper! No, it’s a…..boom box?)

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. It’s way too early to know if I’ll end up regretting my decision to buy it so soon. I’ll check in as the year proceeds, as newer and even cooler and much cheaper products come out from Apple and its rivals.

In the meantime, I’m becoming a decent Scrabble player. And maybe I can get Stephen Colbert to give me his recipe for iPad salsa.

Originally posted at Women’s Voices for Change.

Howard Zinn

One of the things that makes me personally sad about Zinn leaving us when he did is that I’d hoped, when Ain’t Marchin’ was published, to introduce him to Garett Reppenhagen (left), president of Veterans Green Jobs and former president of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The latter had told me, when I interviewed him two years ago, that Zinn’s People’s History had been a catalyst for him. “I walked into this cool bookstore in Colorado Springs,” Reppenhagen told me, “and I said I’m a high school dropout and probably going to Iraq. What do I need to know?” In addition to recommending John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (also an excellent choice), the bookstore clerk insisted he buy the Zinn. A sniper who was at that moment stationed in Bosnia, it took some time, he said: but afterwards felt changed forever.

Now it turns out that Zinn wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that, since another young vet from the previous Iraq war, Jeff Paterson, also credits him. Jeff, the tireless and inhumanly tall coordinator of Courage to Resist, tells about discovering Zinn in Asia in 1989:

At the time, I was a 20-year-old Marine artillery controller becoming disillusioned with what I was seeing stationed in Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea. Reading “People’s History” was certainly an unknowing step I took towards later refusing to fight in Iraq in August 1990. It enabled me to see my individual actions as a part of something much larger—yes, even larger than the Marine Corps.Within a matter of weeks in late 1990 and early 1991, nearly a hundred Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors pledged to refuse to fight—most eventually did time in stockades and brigs. Twice as many service members publicly spoke out against the Gulf War at anti-war protests and rallies—sometimes to dozens, sometimes to 200,000 people. However, unless you were there, or have read a recent edition of “People’s History”, you wouldn’t know any of that ever happened.

Maybe the book will make a small contribution toward lifting that national amnesia, at least a little. Meanwhile, see Jeff below with Michael Wong, a former Army medic who deserted after he learned about My Lai, spent years in Canada and then worked in exactly my job in San Francisco. Watching them interact makes me feel a little unstuck in time.

(Cross-posted, of course, at I Ain’t Marching Anymore.)

Matt Taibbi: “The entire economy was a fake”

The latest Rolling Stone piece from Matt Taibbi, our Tiresias of Wall Street, was horrifying enough for Halloween (as Susie Madrak points out),  with its latest details of how it all came down. It also gave the best summary I’ve seen of the whole Dantean reality created by it all.

Back when I was writing for Chelsea Now and trying, at the height of the bubble, to figure out how it all worked (and wondering whether I needed an MBA), my colleague Albert Amateau told me a story. I was getting headaches trying to sort out how it could all be legal that the air above your building, the years until you die, were all being “monetized” at such a rapid pace. A few years ago, said Al, he’d been offered a chance at a job writing for a newsletter entirely about derivatives, those malleable catalysts of much market hysteria. It didn’t work out, said Al, one of the best craftsmen in the business, but it told him that people like he and I had wasted our talents studying literature and poetry. It was people on Wall Street that had learned how to really make money with fiction.

Taibbi agrees:

If you squint hard enough, you can see that the derivative-driven economy of the past decade has always, in a way, been about counterfeiting. At their most basic level, innovations like the ones that triggered the global collapse — credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations — were employed for the primary purpose of synthesizing out of thin air those revenue flows that our dying industrial economy was no longer pumping into the financial bloodstream. The basic concept in almost every case was the same: replacing hard assets with complex formulas that, once unwound, would prove to be backed by promises and IOUs instead of real stuff. Credit-default swaps enabled banks to lend more money without having the cash to cover potential defaults; one type of CDO let Wall Street issue mortgage-backed bonds that were backed not by actual monthly mortgage payments made by real human beings, but by the wild promises of other irresponsible lenders. They even called the thing a synthetic CDO — a derivative contract filled with derivative contracts — and nobody laughed. The whole economy was a fake.

Oliver Stone got it right the first time, though many took his movie as a spur to enter the casino: I can’t wait to see what the new movie says.

Writing about war, frankly, is far more straightforward, with bodies you can see even though the good and bad guys are sometimes far more blurred.

Why I’ll be the First Amendment this Halloween

Illinois prosecutors must be getting really desperate. Their own governor has already declared a moratorium on executions, after all. Bur targeting journalism students is really beyond the pale.

First page of the Bill of Rights, the first of which is?

First page of the Bill of Rights, the first of which is?NYT via Raw Story: "Lawyers in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that in their quest for justice in the old case, they need every pertinent piece of information about the students’ three-year investigation into Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney’s conviction is being reviewed by a judge.

Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.”

RawStory adds:

The suggestion that students were encouraged to find evidence of wrongful prosecution even if there were none has raised alarms among some legal experts, who wonder whether Cook County prosecutors may be trying to discredit the project that has caused embarrassment for numerous prosecutors over the past decade.

“They’re either trying to undermine the investigation, or they’re trying to undermine the entire project,” Don Craven, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, told the press last week.

That settles my Halloween costume. I’m wearing tha judge’s robe I used to impersonate a dead Habeas Corpus last year: this year, it’ll be a bleeding First Amendment.

Yeah, I’d call it “loyal opposition”

leyte hospitalGuernica Magazine did, anyway. Go look — some of it may look familiar if you’ve been there before, but if you keep reading you might be surprised. (Left is one of the images they didn’t choose.)

And on my shiny new Ain’t Marching blog, I talk a little about letters it has already prompted from families of soldiers. I hope they’re not the last.

” ‘Did you kill anybody?’ The answer we were told to write was no”

coffee_strong_logoI’ll write more this weekend about the situation at Fort Lewis, which should concern us all and has already got the attention of Amnesty International. But looking at GI Voice, the newsletter of the Fort Lewis GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong, I was gobsmacked by the following cri de coeur from a young Marine.

The writer, Allen Huck, knows exactly what’s going on. His note speaks to everything we’ve come to understand about soldiers, and these wars. I reprinted in full in case someone who reads this can help. (Feel free to contact Allen directly via Coffee Strong.)

It was “Marine Corps Policy”, I guess. Before leaving Kuwait, we were handed out forms to fill out. Awful things…Did you see a dead body? Did you kill anyone? Did you participate in any sort of war crimes? Ridiculous questions. Especially, since we were never really informed of what exactly war crimes were. Maybe I did. Those thoughts continue to haunt my daily life, and my dreams.

On our return to Kuwait, we were given strict instructions on how we were to fill out these forms.

“Did you see a dead body?” – The guided answer was no.
”Did you kill anyone?” – The answer was also no.
”Do you feel you need immediate help and/or counseling?” – Absolutely not.

The questions went on. And of course, the answers were almost always “no.”

Perhaps this is the reason that PTSD is so rampant as a result of this conflict. Had we been given the help we so sorely needed, perhaps the homeless rates, drug use, domestic violence, and completely shattered lives would not be so rampant. Maybe not, but it sure couldn’t have done additional harm.

When I returned from Iraq, I was forced to fill out one of these questionnaires. I told the truth, and as a result, it disappeared. When I returned home, I went to my commend, and asked for mental health counseling. But in the Marine Corps, requests for mental health were simply not asked for. And so it was denied. As a result of that, I was separated from the Marine Corps indefinitely. I was ostracized by nearly everyone in my unit as “crazy”, which was the most horrible stigma one could be given. I was immediately kicked off base, my ID card was confiscated, along with my base vehicle stickers.

Essentially, I was banned from the Marines for requesting help.

Later on, I received phone calls stating that I was UA (the Marine Corps’ AWOL), and MP’s came to my house to take me into custody. Just about three or four months ago, I received a call that said I was reactivated, and was on the roster to be re-deployed.

My unit was 4th LSB H&S Co. Located at Ft. Lewis.
Their Address is: Fort Lewis
H&S Co(-)4th LSB
Bldg 9690, Box 339500
Fort Lewis, WA 98433
Their Phone is: 253-967-2477

Any help would be greatly appreciated, as they have now refused to take my phone calls, and will not return my letters. My name is: Allen Huck.

To anyone who is willing to help in calling, writing, or anything of the sort, I would appreciate it. This is happening to other good soldiers, and we cannot allow this behavior to continue.

Roman Polanski: The 1970s Are Over, Thank God.

! CML07pride This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970’s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.

But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?

I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was fifteen years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.

Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.

My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was fifteen, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film. and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: it can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.

This week, I was floored as news reports kept saying that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened; at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”

I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.

Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,”

Continue reading

operation pink slip, first draft

Another blast from the past: from an invasion whose memory is mostly now buried under those now bleeding our soldiers.

Thinking about it now, I’m struck how how Bush I’s 1989 “Operation Just Cause” set the template for his son’s Iraq actions —  a former CIA “asset” run past his pull date turned Public Enemy #1, just like Osama bin Laden. Rachel called it “Operation Pink Slip.”

We need to watch for that now, with Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan.

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)