Sleepless in Salvador

Farol da Barra, the view from my balcony

A half-block from my balcony was a lighthouse, a 75-foot tall structure that dominated my view. I photographed it at all times of the day — at sunrise, highlighted in gold, and sunset, in pink. I spent a lot of time standing on my 4th-floor balcony, gazing at it and the ocean beyond.

The lighthouse was a classic one, broad black and white stripes and a rounded top. It was built on top of a fort that dates back to the 1600s, and the fort was on a grassy park that juts out into the bay.

Just over a week ago, on a Friday night at 10 pm, the grounds were quiet. A couple of people were walking across the lawn under garish green spotlights that made them look bilious. Occasionally, a car or bus drove by.

If this was a park in Vero Beach, or Seattle, the lack of people would be normal. But it was not. I was in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.

The lack of people last Friday evening was terribly, eerily wrong.

So why was the lighthouse deserted? And why were the streets of the city deserted, as well?

To understand the answer, you have to understand this city with its vast disparity between rich and poor. The police receive salaries that put them closer to poor. Fifteen years ago, they went on strike, and they demanded hazardous duty bonuses. The government agreed, but then broke the promise and never paid them.

So on Thursday, the police went on strike.

When I first heard about it, on a sunny Friday morning, I didn’t understand the implications. I wondered what the striking police officers were doing – were they picketing, or just staying home that day?

With my limited Portuguese, it took me several days to figure out what the striking police officers were doing.

The most visible group of them, together with their families, occupied a legislative building, refusing to leave until their demands were met. Others did random acts of mayhem, like deliberately causing traffic jams.

Overnight, the murder rate doubled. Why? Because there were no police to stop the bad guys? Or – here is the shocking thought — because frustrated policemen become bad guys? In an interview reported by the Associated Press, a representative of the Homicide Department said that at least one third of the murders that occurred during the strike had characteristics of death squads, which include the participation of police and former police officers.

I watched a video on YouTube about an “arrastão,” a word that my dictionary translates as “trawling” or “dragnet.”

A group of rowdy people had just broken into a big store. First, they took the cameras and computers, valuable and small. When those were gone, they took expensive appliances, helping each other carry things like washing machines. Then small pieces of furniture. Eventually, they brought out entire beds, carrying mattresses on their heads.

What kind of people would be desperate enough to steal beds? No self-respecting looter (is that an oxymoron?) in the US would carry a mattress on his head down the street.

Newspaper headline reads, Two thousand armed soldiers arrive today in Bahia

The first night after the strike started was the worst. Thirty reported murders, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Out in the poor neighborhoods, our friends from Salvador say, most murders go unreported. The next day, the Army sent troops, and camouflage-colored trucks full of soldiers drove up and down the main streets. It made people feel a little more secure, but not enough. Ten thousand striking police could not be replaced by only 2000 soldiers.

One was stationed across from my balcony, by the lighthouse. I could see him from my balcony in the wee hours of the morning, a forlorn silhouette with an automatic weapon.

No sleep for the soldier, and no sleep for the people of Salvador. The city was like a tinderbox, ready to go up in flames any minute.

In the poor neighborhoods, people didn’t dare sleep, because there were not enough soldiers to go around. Residents had to stay inside their homes with their doors and windows locked. It was not safe for them to ride the buses, so many didn’t show up for work. In the center of town, businesses were closed and streets normally clogged with traffic had one or two cars on them. Schools postponed opening that week. We went out for ice cream, but the entire shopping mall was closed.

Over all this hung the fear that Carnival, a week away, would be canceled. Millions of dollars would be lost. It was unthinkable.

The lone soldier watches the lighthouse from across the street

For a visitor like me, staying in an upscale neighborhood, the peaceful and quiet streets made the strike seem surreal. The only indication of the danger was the US State Department’s warning that Americans should not go to Salvador. But we were already there.

The strike lasted for about ten days, and then, suddenly, it was over. They arrested the leaders and promised the policemen a pay raise later in the year. The police, back on the job, marched in formation down the street, and people cheered for them. The soldiers slouched, relaxed, in the back of their trucks, and made up the other half of the parade. People cheered for them, too. “Propaganda,” said our local friends.

When we got back to our room on Friday night at 9 pm, people were starting to gather at the lighthouse. By 10 pm, the street along the waterfront was completely full, with thousands and thousands of people dancing. The traffic jam on our street stretched for blocks. At 11 pm, a samba band started playing and continued for a couple of hours. At midnight there were fireworks. When the samba band stopped, the noise level continued, with at least four DJs playing amplified pop music.

Were they celebrating the start of Carnival? Or the end of the police strike?

As the party started, I saw dozens of people carrying 30-pound bags of ice on their heads: Beer vendors stocking up their carts. The going rate for beer was 3 for 5 reis, or about a dollar a can. Most people had a beer in hand as they walked down the street. I lost count of the people – men and women – I saw going to the bathroom between the parked cars.

But to my surprise, no one was staggering, or fighting, and I never heard the sound of a bottle breaking. Even the drivers stuck in the traffic jam blew their horns happily, not out of frustration. It was just a big, noisy party. Very noisy. One of the noisiest I’ve ever experienced in my life!

That last night in Brazil, I stood on my balcony, listening to the throbbing sound and people-watching all night long. Sleep was impossible. No sleep for the partying people of Salvador, either. But I think the soldier finally got to sleep. That is, if he was not out partying, too.

These soldiers are looking across from the lighthouse at our building

During the day, soldiers were all over the lighthouse and the fort

A few days after the strike begins, the report on the negotiations is merely “no”

Meps at the entrance to the Farol da Barra (the lighthouse)

You can dress her up

Back in the 80’s, Sam Devlin designed a beautiful sailboat with classic lines. He named her Nancy’s China, a name I found strange but pretty.

I didn’t find out the reason for the name until decades later. It turns out that when the boat was designed, the public was up in arms about some extravagant china Nancy Reagan had purchased for the White House. And this lovely boat, a 15-foot trailerable, could be built for about the same amount as a single place setting.

This week, there’s been a bit of hullaballoo about Sarah Palin’s $150,000 campaign wardrobe. I’ve been thinking about that $150,000, and I can’t imagine spending that much on clothes in my lifetime, let alone in a month. Then again, I shop at the Salvation Army.

Anyway, going back to Sam Devlin, I think there’s an opportunity lurking in this silliness.

There are a few boats around here that cost about $150,000. Some of them look great, slightly maverick, but with lousy performance. If you’d like to buy one, we have the perfect name: Sarah’s Wardrobe.

Our boat is not eligible. Besides costing much less than $150,000, it’s not going to be launched in time for election day. And we had to pay for it ourselves.

Taking the law into your own hands

Every fall, around election time, the signs sprout like weeds in the median of Montlake Boulevard. Democrats, Republicans, ballot initiatives — hundreds of political signs of every color. And every year, Jeff drives along, indignant, and yanks them out, only to have them sprout again.

We were out for a sunny, relaxed evening of boating when Jeff told me about this. He’s a laid-back blues musician, but when he started talking about his crusade, his eyes flashed with real anger.

Why the crusade? Because the signs are illegally placed on the road right-of-way. Since no one will enforce this, Jeff takes the law into his own hands.

What is strange about this is that Jeff is not the only one. He’s just lucky that his tires are intact.

Three years ago, at a party, I heard the following amazing tale from another, completely unrelated Seattle friend. I’ll call him Floyd, because while he’ll tell the story to anyone over a beer, he doesn’t particularly want publicity.

In 2004, a four-by-eight-foot Bush-Cheney sign appeared beside a freeway north of Seattle. It stood on the grassy verge between the interstate and a small side road — smack dab in the public right-of-way.

Floyd drove past this sign every day, and like Jeff, it bugged him. He and several of his friends contacted the Department of Transportation, notifying them of the transgression and asking that the sign be removed.

The Department of Transportation took no action.

Like Jeff, Floyd decided to take the law into his own hands. But this wasn’t a sign you could just yank out of the ground. He purchased a cordless saw, and one evening, he drove out to the sign and cut it down. “The thing was huge,” he said. “It stood way over my head.”

Mission accomplished. But like Jeff’s signs, this one sprouted back like a giant weed.

Frustrated, Floyd drove back with his saw one Sunday evening. “Going back was definitely a mistake,” he admitted.

As he got out of his car with the saw, he was blinded by bright lights. Two huge men leapt out of a camouflage net, screaming obscenities at him.

Floyd’s first thought was that he could defend himself with the saw. Then he had second thoughts. “I thought I could take off somebody’s leg with this thing, and that would get me into real trouble!” He deliberately tossed the saw into the car and faced the enemy unarmed.

The two men advanced on him and began to rough him up. Both were over six feet tall, and Floyd isn’t a particularly tall or beefy fellow. He did the obvious thing: He ran. As he ran, he thought about his situation.

Since he was the one being assaulted, the smart thing would be to call the police. He stopped and pulled out his cell phone.

“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have kept running while I got the phone out.” Before he could make the call, his attackers caught up with him. Ouch.

They knocked him to the ground, tied his hands, and one of them put his heavy boot in the middle of Floyd’s back. It looked like a brutal beating was imminent. At that point, Floyd began screaming to attract attention, which annoyed and disconcerted his attackers.

“Go ahead. Call the cops,” they said.

When the police came, Floyd was tied up, face-down on the ground. “Am I under arrest?” Floyd asked. “Because if I’m not, you’d better untie me.” The policeman ignored the request.

“It seemed like the cop talked with the men forever, out of earshot, leaving me there tied up.” When the policeman came back, he arrested Floyd. He was unsure what to charge him with, and finally decided on something about defacing a political advertisement. “I’m not sure if I should impound your car. It’s not parked illegally, but…” the policeman said.

Floyd spent four hours in jail. When he returned to his car, all four tires were slashed. “Multiple times,” he said.

Floyd had his day in court, with mixed results. The sign was placed illegally, but it is also illegal to deface a political sign. Evidently, the two don’t cancel each other out.

Still, the judge and prosecuting attorney were sympathetic liberals, even if they couldn’t say so. According to Floyd, “At the final hearing, the judge joked, ‘Are you ready to do your volunteer service for the Bush-Cheney campaign?'”

Floyd’s community service involved planting trees in a park with some little old ladies, an activity he enjoyed. It was fitting punishment for cutting down an illegal weed. Still, he won’t be taking the law into his own hands like that again.

That’s OK, because I know Jeff is still on his crusade. I only hope that he’s keeping an eye out for camouflaged vigilantes, taking the law into their own hands, as he removes the political weeds in the public right-of-way.

Beaming a little sunshine on Cuba

If you could travel anywhere in the world next month, where would you go? If money was no object, if the season and weather were right, if you could take the time from your commitments and responsibilities, where would your dream destination be?

I have the money. I can take time off from my work. I have a passport, and I am free to leave the United States any time.

But my government says I am not free to go to my dream destination: Cuba.

I have wanted to travel to Cuba since I was a little girl. When my parents met, in Florida, the Cuban influence was strong. My mother had had a Cuban boyfriend in Miami, and she told me she had flown to Cuba to visit his family in the 1940’s. My father had a Cuban stepfather back then, too. It influenced my mother’s cooking; throughout my childhood, we ate arroz con pollo and picadillo regularly for dinner (check out the Cuban recipes section of mepsnbarry.com).

Shirley Schulte Branson in Cuba
Shirley, my father’s sister, in Cuba in 1956

On February 8, 1963, the Kennedy administration prohibited Americans from traveling to Cuba. In December of that year, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought to end the travel ban, saying it was “inconsistent with traditional American liberties.” The ban was not lifted until 14 years later, by the Carter administration in 1977.

I vividly remember my first trip to Key West in 1977. Over Christmas break, Mom and Dad and I drove over a thousand miles from our home in West Virginia. We sat in the Fourth of July café, and my mother drank Cuban coffee and reminisced. From the Fourth of July café to Havana was only 100 miles.

But we didn’t go. I don’t think we even discussed it. And Reagan imposed the ban again in 1981.

Last week, for the 15th time, the U.N. general assembly passed a resolution saying that the U.S. should end the embargo against Cuba. Three tiny countries voted with us — Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands — and 183 voted against us.

What a dope-slap. With the whole world against us, how can the U.S. continue to be so stupid?

If human rights are so important to us, why do we not have a travel ban on Burma? If communism is bad, why am I allowed to go to Laos or Vietnam? It’s just not logical.

It’s like those times when you get mad at someone, and you know you should get over it. But you are stubborn, so you stay mad. The U.S. should stop being stubborn. We should back down gracefully and eliminate the travel ban and the embargo.

Aesop wrote a fable that explains it. The wind and the sun were arguing about who could get a man to take off his coat quicker. The wind blew and blew and blew, and the man just pulled his coat tighter. Then the sun beamed gently down, and the man quickly removed his coat.

We should stop blowing on Cuba, and gently beam some sunshine on them. Who knows what positive change that might bring?

Over Christmas this year, Barry and I plan to travel someplace exotic. We’ve considered Belize, Hawaii, Spain, and India. The current contenders right now are Mexico and Portugal. But I’ll admit, deep in my heart, they’re second choices.


For a history of the economic embargo of Cuba, see the page on www.historyofcuba.com.

Memories of Brazil

Here in Seattle, it’s pouring buckets today. I turn up the heat, put on a pop CD called “Rouge,” and instantly, I’m transported to Brazil.

In my mind, I smell the tropical vegetation and the sea air. I feel the hot sun pouring down on my bare shoulders. I hear the upbeat sound of Rouge coming, not from my stereo, but from a battered truck driving down the street with huge speakers mounted on the outside.

These are the easy memories, the physical ones.

If it had been a simple beach vacation, most of the memories would have been like these. But it was not, and so, four years later, I’m still processing the rest.

That trip was the first of what would become Bahia Street’s small group study tours. There were seven of us, plus our guides, Margaret (of Seattle) and Rita (of Salvador).

We flew into Salvador, a city in northeast Brazil, and immediately we were whisked away to Arembepe (Air-em-BEP-ee), a small seaside town about a half hour down the road from the airport. We spent the evening on a veranda on the beach, drinking powerful caipirinhas and eating exquisite food — fried fish, tomato salad, and potatoes, presented on a stunning platter, lined with deep green leaves and accompanied by piles of ruby-red grated beets and neon orange grated carrots. We were getting to know each other as traveling companions, and that night, we told stories and laughed until we cried.

Beautiful and yummy food

That was the only part of my Brazil trip that could be called a “simple beach vacation.”

The next day, driving through the countryside and along the beach, I snapped hundreds of photos. I was captivated by barefoot children, thatched huts, and women carrying their laundry to the river for washing.

As we traveled, Margaret and Rita began to gently educate us about the implications of what we saw. It was picturesque, but it was poverty: The people I photographed all suffered from a lack of healthcare, education, and income.

Fishermen Thatched huts along the beach near Diogo

On our third day, I came down with an eye infection, and we stopped at a medical clinic. Even that was an education. We walked into a low concrete building, to a room with benches around the walls. Women sat there with their sick children, waiting for hours to see the doctor. We stood around, waiting, too. There was a lull, a momentary quiet that was broken by the sound of a child coughing. “Let’s go outside, ” Rita said. On the other side of the door, she shook her head. “That one’s going to die,” she said.

Over the course of the week, we learned a great deal about Brazilian systems, political, cultural, and socio-economic. Looking at the big picture, I could see how this poverty affects us all. Even someone in far-off, wealthy Seattle who doesn’t speak Portuguese.

It wasn’t all work and no play. We swam in the ocean and hung out at beach bars, thatched roofs on poles with cold beer. We took a canoe ride and spent a glorious day in dune buggies at Mangue Seco, a remote place with giant sand dunes and the largest palm trees I’ve ever seen. We hiked to a waterfall in the mountains and ate new and wonderful things like cashew fruit.

But we also passed roadside encampments, groups of families living in shacks of black plastic sheeting and scrap wood. They were part of Brazil’s Sem Terra movement, some of the country’s 1.5 million dispossessed, landless people.

Seeing the desperation of the landless people helped prepare me for the shantytowns. Both groups seem like refugees in their own country, eking out a living as best they can.

After about a week traveling the countryside, we arrived back in Salvador. Our briefings on the road had prepared me for the danger, the crowds, the shantytowns. And when we finally visited the Bahia Street Center, it all came together, and I could see where I fit into the picture.

The quote from Margaret Mead was brought home to me that day: “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Girls at the Bahia Street Center Girls at the Bahia Street Center

The last day of our tour was the Santa Barbara festival, an early December event celebrating the patron saint of firefighters. I was overwhelmed by the crowds, a human sea dressed in red, and the elaborate flower-covered palanquins bearing statues of Santa Barbara.

Woman in Santa Barbara procession Santa Barbara procession

We followed the procession to the fire station, where the emcee and a bishop were perched in a cherry-picker above the crowd. The emcee kept shouting over the loudspeaker, “Viva Santa Barbara!” and everyone would respond with a loud cheer. Suddenly, Rita grabbed us and dragged us back against the wall. They turned on the sprinklers from the cherry picker, and the crowd was drenched with holy water. Rita’s quick action kept our cameras dry.

Standing against the wall, I watched a woman go into a religious trance, her arms upraised and her eyes closed. Her red dress clung to her body, and the crowd milled and spun around her, thrilled with the drenching.

Woman in trance

Then the holy water shower ceased, and we headed out of the fire station. Although we had seen only blue skies and no rain since we arrived, it suddenly began to rain. “It always does that today,” said Rita.

In the African-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, Santa Barbara has a powerful equivalent, an Orixá, or goddess, called Iansã. I think she was responsible for the rain.

It was powerful experiences like these that I am still processing today.

I have not been back to Brazil yet. There are many other places in the world that I want to see first. But the lessons I learned in Brazil are lessons I take with me on all my travels, whether it’s a fishing village in Newfoundland or a native village in Alaska.

Things are not always as they seem. Look deeper. Listen. Get involved, stay a while, and gradually, things will reveal themselves.

A trip like this could change your life. It might lead you to improve the lives of others. And if you’re thoughtful and committed, it might change the world.


For more information about taking a Bahia Street study tour, e-mail me or visit the Bahia Street website. The next tour is scheduled for June of 2007.

From shock and awe to quagmire: 3 years in Iraq

A good friend of ours, Bill Brown, recently pointed out that the U.S. was only involved in World War II for 3 years and 10 months. In the years since then, Americans have not shown patience for any military action that takes longer than that. “Look at Korea, Vietnam,” Bill says. That may explain why Americans no longer support the war. If Bill’s theory holds true, we should see this war resolved by January of 2007.

Bill, who’s not a senior citizen but an early retiree like myself, hangs out regularly with a group of senior citizens at a coffee shop in Anacortes, Washington. They’re the kind of guys who go to the coffee shop every morning because after they retired, their wives just wanted to get them out of the house. So when the subject of the war on Iraq came up recently, Bill was amazed to hear vocal opposition from the elderly gents. The way he describes it, they’re right-wingers who probably supported the war initially, but don’t seen any reason to continue. They probably agree with the Australian protest organizer, Jean Parker, who said “Iraq is a quagmire.”

It’s been three years since the Bush administration launched the war on Iraq. In that three years, the coalition forces have lost over 2500 people, an average of just over 2 a day. The Iraqi people, on the other hand, have lost 35,000, an average of 30 a day — our soldiers haven’t just killed soldiers and insurgents, but also civilians and children.
Graph of Iraq war deaths 2003 to present
Imagine living in a country just a little bigger than California, but with fewer people. Not only are 30 people killed every day by bombs and guns, but countless more are injured and traumatized. And the United States is responsible.

There’s a group called Not in Our Name, whose pledge reads, “we believe that as people living in the United States it is our responsibility to resist the injustices done by our government, in our names.” It’s a simple message: Stop killing people on my behalf.

I’ve been pretty outspoken on this, since my first peace rally in 2001, before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. But now, it sounds like more people are beginning to agree. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll says that 57 percent of Americans believe the war with Iraq has not been worth fighting.

Around the world today, anti-war protestors are rallying, because it’s the third anniversary of the war. Demonstrations have been held everywhere from Sydney, Australia, to London and Tokyo. But what’s interesting are the protests here in the U.S. — but not the news-making ones in Washington, D.C. or New York or San Francisco.

What’s amazing are some of the 34 local listings found in and around the Seattle area. As expected, there are rallies and vigils in Seattle, but also in Bellingham, Olympia, and Tacoma. Then the list gets even more interesting.

Bellevue, just on the other side of Lake Washington from Seattle, has a reputation for being conservative. There are at least two protest events there.

Port Angeles is having a rally, to be held, fittingly, at Veteran’s Park. The folks in Port Orchard are going to rally with empty boots and signs. In Twisp, a group is gathering “to commemorate the 750,00 children we killed during the sanctions.” Twisp is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, population 909.

One of the more creative publicity stunts is the “Death of Democracy” funeral procession, in Vancouver, Washington. Their instructions say to “Wear black, at least on your upper half, and have gas in your car.” On the one hand, it’s likely to be seen by a large number of people. On the other hand, driving your car around protesting a war over oil is an oxymoron.

In Forks, the call is to “Commemorate the over 2,314 American military personnel killed; call for Peace & the end of the war; defund the war, defend our communities, fully fund the VA, end poverty, rebuild the Gulf Coast. Uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.” Forks is a little place in the middle of nowhere, kind of like Twisp.

Reading between the lines of the Forks announcement, these are a new kind of protestors. They may not have been out demonstrating before the war, but they’ve lost patience with it now. After three years, it’s time to end it and move on.

It was a mistake, and it wasn’t worth doing. As the war continues, I can only be more vocal in saying, “Not in my name.” Unless we end it, and we take responsibility and apologize for our mistake. Then I’ll be glad to help. Apologize to the families of those we killed? Yes, gladly, in my name.

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The gift of a memorable zucchini

When I was 17, a woman gave me a zucchini. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Why are you laughing? What’s so funny about a zucchini? Zucchini jokes in the summer are like fruitcake jokes at Christmas:

“Did you hear the one about the lady who grew the world’s largest zucchini? It was so big, it stuck out the hatch and she couldn’t lock the car. Then she stopped for some things at the drug store, and when she came back to her car, something terrible had happened. Somebody had left her the second-largest zucchini, too!”

Pumpkins, yellow squash, sweet potatoes — they all produce prodigious amounts, leading gardeners to force free vegetables on their friends. Even cucumbers, which look just as goofy, are not as maligned as zukes.

The problem with zucchini is it grows from a tiny edible blossom to a 10-pound lump of bland green flesh in about 24 hours. You have to watch it carefully, to make sure it doesn’t take over your garden patch, and possibly, the entire world. There’s an idea there…keep reading.

Barry’s grandfather, Percy, had a younger brother who was famous for his practical jokes. In hindsight, they were pretty funny, but they nearly started several feuds. Milton knew that Percy was extremely particular about his pickle patch, and that he always picked the pickles when they were tiny and would bring the greatest price on the market. So one day, Milton snuck in a large zucchini and tucked it amongst the pickle plants. It was worth it, just to see the look on Percy’s face.

When I got out of high school, I had a job going door-to-door collecting signatures and money for a grassroots lobbying group. After talking the person into signing the petition, usually a little guilt was enough to capture a donation as well. One woman, in a small town in Ohio, signed the sheet, and then she said, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Usually, that meant the person was going to find their wallet or piggy bank. I waited patiently.

To my surprise, she returned with a gigantic zucchini. “I don’t have any money, but please take this,” she said.

I was just a kid. I didn’t realize I’d been had. I thought she was giving me something of value. I couldn’t figure out why my supervisor and all my coworkers fell over laughing when I returned with this huge green log under my arm.

That night, my collection was dreadfully low, because after the zucchini, I couldn’t get any donations. I figured out that I couldn’t go door-to-door with a zucchini and a clipboard; at each house, I had to stash it in the bushes before ringing the bell. I mean, what would you do if a stranger showed up at your door, at the height of summer, with a huge zucchini under her arm? You certainly wouldn’t open it!

In hindsight, I wonder if it was a diabolical plan on the part of the zucchini-grower. Maybe she really despised my cause, but pretended to support it. She knew that anyone carrying a zucchini would be suspect to the rest of the neighborhood.

The more I think about her perfect strategy, the more I think I’m on to something. This summer, our military can foist zucchini on our enemies, whose neighbors will have nothing to do with them, leading to their eventual downfall. It’s a great way to get rid of unwanted zucchini, and it solves the problems of world hunger and world peace. We can even can print zucchini recipes on pieces of paper and drop them from airplanes over war zones. Even better, we can print zucchini jokes and drop them, too.

We could also drop the zucchinis themselves from the airplanes, but in order for it to be peaceful, we’d have to come up with little parachutes for them. Otherwise, people might mistake them for green bombs. And being hit with a falling zucchini could actually hurt.

If you think this is a great idea, then it’s time to start planning your “Victory Garden” now. World peace is going to require a lot of zucchini, and it’s up to us to provide it. Go ahead and plant lots of seeds, and then let’s sit back and watch the zucchinis take over the world.
~~~
For zucchini recipes, please see the mepsnbarry.com recipe page.

The Cajun Food Crisis

I was lying in bed last night, thinking about the devastation of New Orleans. Our five months there, just over a year ago, seem like yesterday.

Suddenly, my thoughts turn to mustard. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake.

What does this mean to the distribution of Zatarain’s Creole Mustard, my favorite condiment in the whole world? What about Tabasco? And Louisiana Fish Fry products? Will there still be Luzianne tea?

Forget about the strategic oil reserves. We have a Cajun food crisis.

The destruction of New Orleans’ infrastructure means not only houses are gone, but jobs. The people who worked in those factories, who lived paycheck to paycheck, have no paychecks now.

Where Barry and I lived, in a boatyard in an industrial zone, was surrounded by black neighborhoods. To the west were tiny houses, black folks trying to move up the ladder. To the east, on the other side of the canal, were vast tracts of subsidized rentals with weedy lawns and abandoned cars. We came face to face in the grocery store, the gas station, the post office. These are not people who could load their cars and flee north. They are the ones who were left behind, because they couldn’t afford a car or a bus ticket to get out.

I wonder what became of Darren, the young black felon we met at Mardi Gras. We’d made the mistake of parking in a desolate spot, and he followed us to our car, high on drugs and drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag. He showed us his scars — knife wounds, bullet entry and exit holes. He badgered us for a lift across town, but we refused, afraid we’d never be able to shake him. When the hurricane came, I doubt anyone would give him a ride.

These people can’t leave New Orleans and make a fresh start somewhere else. It’s been their home for generations. There are vast networks of siblings and cousins and grandparents, people who gather for barbecues, parades, and birthday parties. You can’t just pick that up and move it to, say, Peoria.

Lying there in bed, thinking about the upcoming mustard crisis, I thought of a way to help.

What we need to do, as a country, is help New Orleans reconstruct their economy. Forget tourism. When New Orleaneans finally go home, it’s going to be a smelly mess of garbage and rubble. Instead of jazz funerals, there will be mass burials. These folks won’t want visitors for a long, long time.

Instead, they’ll need to rebuild their factories and export stuff. Blues, gospel, and jazz music. Cajun, Creole, and Southern ingredients.

So run out today and buy a Henry Butler CD — poor Henry’s really got the blues now. Pick up some Zatarain’s Jambalaya mix, which we’ve seen for sale as far away as Alaska. Replenish your supply of Tabasco, Crystal, or (in our case) Melinda’s XXX hot sauce. Check your local grocery store for blackened spice mix, marinades, gumbo file, cornbread mix, and dacquiri mix.

This Monday, and every Monday, serve up red beans and rice to all your friends. Take up a collection for the relief effort. And remember: The more New Orleans products you buy, the more jobs you make.

The sky really IS falling

Looking back at the essays I’ve written for this site, I see a lack of controversial topics. It’s time to change that.

I am angry, I am sad, I am frustrated. My dream of early retirement, living on a boat and sailing around the world, is threatened. I thought all we had to do was work hard and save our money, and we could then enjoy it. Sure, there is turmoil in the world, but it shouldn’t affect us personally. I was wrong. It will affect us personally, and sooner rather than later.

Joseph Conrad described my awakening in his 1900 novel, Lord Jim:

“It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertbeless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.”

My awakening came about a week ago, on Monday. Barry and I had enjoyed a delightful retired day, visiting with friends. In the evening, we sat talking with Dave over a bowl of red beans and rice. From his pocket, he pulled a folded piece of paper, a printout from a laser printer. “Have you seen this?” he asked.

It was a page from somebody’s website, as evidenced by the lengthy URL printed at the bottom of the page. A technical-looking graph was centered under the unwieldy title of: “Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group — Oil and Gas Liquids 2004 Scenario.” Barry and I shook our heads, puzzled, but curious.

Back in the 1950’s, a fellow by the name of Hubbert figured out a way to model the production of an oil well. It looks like a classic bell curve. Each well starts out slowly, then produces more and more oil. Eventually, it reaches a peak and begins to decline. Interestingly, the model also works for a group of oil wells. So you can model the production of all the oil wells in a county. Or a state. Or a country.

The Hubbert model was applied to the whole U.S. oil and gas industry, and predicted that 20 years later, the top of the curve would be reached, and from then on, there would always be less and less oil and gas available in the U.S. In the 70’s, it happened, just as they said it would. I remember the lines at gas stations, schools closing to conserve heating oil, and Jimmy Carter lowering the thermostat and putting on a sweater.

But in the 1980’s, the U.S. became users of global oil, relying less and less on our own supply. We had no choice — here in the U.S., there was less and less available.

It’s been a long time since the 70’s energy crisis. Like many people, I became complacent. As long as there is plenty of oil in other parts of the world, and as long as the U.S. has the money to buy it, there should be no problem. Right?

Dead wrong.

You can use the Hubbert curve to model any group of oil wells, including all the oil wells in the whole world. That’s what Dave’s printout showed, the model for the whole world.

Dave took out a pen and marked a little “you are here” arrow. The year 2005 is right at the top. Like a roller coaster ride, we’re poised to tip over and start going down. Supplies will go down, while demand will continue to grow.

We sat around the table, talking about the implications, until late into the night. “Transportation’s going to be the first thing affected,” one of us commented, thinking of personal transportation. “What about transporting goods around the world?” I added. The discussion turned to the impending implosion of the airline industry. From there, one word came up: “Plastic.” We tried to imagine a world where the gas in your car has to compete with the fossil fuel used to make your plastic grocery bags. “Even food,” Dave pointed out, saying that much of it is fertilized with fossil fuels. Eventually we came around to the economic implications: No more fuel for growth in the stock market. Imagine a stock market that will shrink by five to ten percent every year.

I went about my business for the next few days, but the impending change was always on my mind. Why isn’t anybody talking about it? This is the end of an era, a paradigm shift beyond imagining. Does anybody know this is happening? Where are the news stories, the government statements?

The government knows. As Dave commented, “Why do you think Cheney’s energy commission is keeping their proceedings secret?” They know, but they’re afraid the public will panic. A blinding light bulb went on in my head. You mean to say the Iraq war really IS all about oil? Asked why the topic is getting so little press, James, a friend who is a journalist, says, “It’s not an exciting story. There’s no who, what, when, where, why.”

I was frustrated by this, and then I started getting angry. I’m angry because our culture is so wasteful, and I can’t do anything to stop the impending train wreck.

When I drive on the freeway and I see all the people commuting, one person per car, I want to shout the truth at them. “Ride the bus! Carpool! Get a bike!”

I’ve always hated stores that shrink-wrap the fruits and vegetables, so you can’t smell or feel them. Now, thinking of the wasted styrofoam and plastic wrap, I detest them. But I can’t stop people from shopping at Publix or Wal-Mart. I thought about standing in front of Wal-Mart with leaflets. I don’t think they’d let me do that for very long.

At the height of the dot-com boom, a friend of ours took a trip to Japan for the weekend. It was a total lark. He came back with a bunch of pictures of himself standing on Tokyo street corners, and a funny story to tell over beers.

But at what cost? His 747 burned gallons of jet fuel per mile. What if everybody on the plane was flying for a lark? Maybe I could accost people at the security gate and say, “Are you sure this is a necessary trip? Can’t you just do your business by phone or e-mail?”

I know everyone would accuse me of being Chicken Little. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! But it really is. According to www.peakoil.net: “A volatile epoch of recurring price shocks and consequential recessions dampening demand and price is now regarded as more likely, with terminal decline setting in and becoming self-evident by about 2010.” Buckle up, folks. We’re headed down on the roller coaster, and it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Newest Minority Voting Bloc

Studies show that the average indoor cat now lives to be 17 years old.
That means there are many exceptional cats living into their 20’s.

After her 18th birthday, I found my cat watching CNN and reading the
newspaper, preparing to make an informed decision. Although she’s
concerned that her vote may not count (this IS Florida, after all, where
minorities are discouraged from going to the polls), she plans to
register and participate. As evidenced by the following photo, she’s
eagerly looking forward to her first election.

Voting kitty