Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Movies I Saw this Year

I should make a serious disclaimer before giving this list. I live in the middle of the state of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. This means many things, but what it means to my movie-watching possibilities is this: I cannot watch almost anything when it comes out in the US. So, lots of great movies haven´t made it here to this city of 370,000. Sadly. But, that said, I did see some great stuff.

So, without further ado, at the behest of Nicole, here is my list:

10. Coraline. Directed by one of Tim Burton´s disciples, this very creative work of animation is weird and fun on various levels. As A.O. Scott wrote in an article for the New York Times, the story focuses on how home and the concept of coming home, as did so many movies this year, and when the main character gets tired of her family and life at home, she enters a world that fascinates while scaring the hell out of the most jaded viewer.

9. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. A documentary that revolves around what happens to fame for dries up all too quickly. And the mundane sets in. Directed by an avid fan of the Canadian heavy metal band that toured at one time, many moons ago, with the likes of Judas Priest, Bon Jovi and Anthrax, this is the story of love for something that seems like it will never love back. The stars, the two founding members of the band, are great to watch doing what we all try to do: not give up.

8. The Cove. I love documentaries, and The Cove loves back. It plays out like a crime thriller, but the plot is anything but played out. A group of environmentalists, techies, and thrill-seekers, do everything and anything to get into a place that no one in Japan wants to think about: a cove where dolphins are being butchered in cold blood, and sold as meat. The leader of this A-team, ironically, started the Flipper series that was immensely popular years ago. His sheer dedication to the cause is worth watching.

7. Disgrace. Based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee, this disturbing look at post-apartheid South Africa is a tour de force by John Malkovitch. He plays a college professor whose life is made up of cozying up to students and taking them back to his empty home, after divorcing his wife. One of these victims is a black student whose boyfriend finds out, and threatens to expose and/or beat the hell out of Malkovitch. So, fearing reality, he runs off to see his lesbian daughter, who lives in the middle of the country. There, life, in all its messiness, follows.

6. Departures. This film, which came out in Japan in 2008, actually won last year´s Best Foreign Picture Oscar. But it came out in the US, and Brazil, this year, so it counts on my list. It, like many movies from the Far East, is the story of family, and lacks much action. It makes up for it in real emotion, something that is never going to come out of a CGI-based blockbuster. The story centers around a guy who finds a job working for a very demanding boss sending people off to the next world. He learns how to help not only to reduce the suffering of those who are left behind, but to be proud of a job that is one of the least-wanted in Japan.

5. Sugar. The Dominican Republic, for anyone who knows anything about baseball, is a land of milk and honey for Major League scouts. It has, for years, exported more great players per capita than pretty much anywhere else. But, as in anything, only a few make it to the top. Sugar, one of the top prospects of the moment, is sent on an odyssey around the States, until he has to make a decision about whether this is all worth it.

4. District 9. As one review wrote: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

3. Gomorrah. The most un-Hollywood mafia drama ever made. Based on the investigative journalism of a Naples writer, who is now under witness protection. Life in and around the Camorra, Naples tentacle-like network of organized crime. Fascinating.

2. The Hurt Locker. As the movie says, for many: war is a drug. Sadly. The story of a US bomb Iraq. Not lacking in drama, obviously.

1. Inglourious Basterds. Any movie directed by Tarantino will draw varied critiques, and for good reason. Anything the overbearing diva directs is self-promoted and media-driven to death. That said, this film is a work of revisionist art. Whether it is the crisp and fast dialogue, the over-the-top action, or the wild plot, it does not disappoint. If you have held off from checking this out, give it a chance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Healthcare Crisis: Part I, Healthscare

Below is a true story of healthcare. Names have been changed for purposes of anonymity.

Sifting through the Guatemala travel guide, I thought I might visit Tikal, the ancient ruins in the northeast part of the country, though the book alleged the trip might take eight hours by bus. Do I have that kind of stamina in a “chicken bus?” Copan, in Honduras appeared closer via the map and Dominga and I were investigating that possibility. Though, Honduras held symbolic and very real danger to Juliette, her best friend murdered there in 2001, just before September 11th, so I lightly peddled that with a whisper only hinting it might be a possibility. I left for Guatemala in three days, nearly frantic to learn Spanish, sit at the foothills of volcanoes in Antigua, and sip dark roasted coffee in the cool, sunny air from a Guatemalan roaster. My former colleague and good friend Dominga volunteered her time in “Guaty” and helped me find housing, she was the reason I decided on Guatemala instead of Peru or Chile or even Argentina. Guatemala is also cheap by any standard used in the Spanish speaking world, excited and desperate to leave the states I was walking on air to leave Jersey City. That was until Tuesday night.

Juliette, happy for me to finally abscond on a trip out of the country to improve my Spanish kept to herself and did not let on that something might be afoot, until fright, and insurance malfeasance brought it to the forefront. Tuesday night, November 3rd she looked nervous and angry and needed to vent. “I can’t do this.” she screamed. “What” I said as I shut-off Keith Olbermann. “Nothing, forget it.” “Tell me!” I said. “I am worried about the procedure.” Both of us uneasy, trying not to discuss this subject I said, “Why?” “Because it is surgery and it is scary! I don’t know where to go for the surgery or if insurance is even going to pay. I am overwhelmed!”

In early October Juliette entered UMDNJ, Jersey's premier medical center for her the first mammogram of her life. The pleasantries of aging and turning 40, she took these measures seriously. Only one year before Juliette travelled deep within New Jersey, near her hometown, for a routine eye check-up and found herself on a gurney undergoing emergency eye surgery. We thought she might go blind in the only eye in which she had vision. Thankfully, the eye stabilized, but it was scary and I thought Juliette might be experiencing PTSD and I needed to help.

At the hands of healthcare technicians during the mammogram they shoved her boobs into the machine like an animal. “Please be still” they told her. “Don’t move” as if they were preparing her for the abattoir. She left, somewhat humiliated, but not unlike millions of women in our lagging healthcare system, a system that punishes women frankly, for being women. She received a call, a few days later, the test proved “inconclusive.” “What does that mean?” she asked on the phone to the caller, a technician of some sort. “It means nothing,” she says dismissively, “except you have to come back in the office for another look; we need to do it again.” “Great” Juliette said, at least this time I won’t have my period!” Juliette, back on the train toward Hoboken in late October while I obliviously planned a getaway as far away from health insurance as might possibly be, the poorest country in Latin America the next week.

This time, however they held her in the machine while the radiologist stuffed her boobs back in there, edging closer, focusing a little more intently. They focused on the right breast; clearly called into the office not because the tests were “inconclusive” but instead shades of a “gathering of cells.” “There is a problem area, I see,” the Radiologist indicated. “It makes me curious.” “Well,” Juliette thought to herself, “your language is making me curious.” Juliette anticipated in the waiting room, as she gathered her belongings another “technician” ran after her frenzied before she left.

“We need to do an ultrasound,” she announced to her. “When?” Juliette asked. “Right now! Stay where you are.” Please undo the gown and stick your left boob out please.” she heard not ten minutes later, yet again. This was indeed a cattle call. Instead of being curious, this time he was worried. “You see this area that has a group of cells or in the medical field we call a mass.” As Juliette heard the words ring through her ears the Radiologist said, “You need to see a surgeon right away.” Juliette failed to mention any of this to me when she arrived home.

She left in a dizzying fright. Exactly a year ago she was told she might and likely will go blind until we fought to get the best care money might buy. The diagnosis changed quickly. One year later here we are again. She downplayed the new procedure, in the healthcare field called a “biopsy” as we discussed Antigua and all the fun I will be having in Central America. Juliette didn’t say the word “biopsy” until Tuesday night when she nearly lost her mind.

On Monday her personal physician discussed with her the need to have a stereo tactic needle biopsy all new words in her vocabulary. She recommended a doctor in Hoboken that she thought treated her patients “well.” Juliette called them Tuesday morning. “We don’t take Healthnet,” she said abruptly. Juliette mentioned to her, “Actually we are changing insurance on December 1st, to Oxford. Does that matter?” “Yes, we do take Oxford,” the rude young lady stated. “But, you may have a pre-existing condition now, so you want to check with your insurance company. You might not be able to get the procedure right away; it could take six to nine months.” She hung up the phone without a response. Juliette now in her own tizzy called her personal physician back.

“Don’t wait until December 1st, it is better to do this quickly. You want to find a center that takes both health insurances,” her doctor told her somewhat anxious. She called breast centers, in Hackensack, other parts of North Jersey, some of which took one insurance, but not the other, some took no insurance catering to a more “suitable clientele.” I called one myself after the frenzy. “We don’t take insurance,” they told me smugly. "Our clients submit to their own insurance companies. We focus on healthcare.” “Oh.” I said, ready to lay into her with all the fury of every uninsured American, my words worth the 40 million of us. I hung up the phone without a word.

This is where Juliette found herself on Tuesday night as I sifted through the Guatemalan travel guide. She explained to me, “It is a surgery.” The radiologist told her that about 20 percent of these procedures turn up to be cancer. I said, “What?!! Cancer? Who said anything about cancer?” Wednesday morning I decided Central America will wait, we need to find Juliette a place for this procedure. Juliette found it that morning calling every place she “googled.” St. Vincent’s, the hospital of her birth built a brand new Cancer Center in New York City. First, however I called American Airlines and “postponed” the trip. I called Dominga who understood, but we were both a bit disappointed. I told her, “Tomorrow I have to bring Juliette’s films to the St. Vincent’s Cancer Center.” I hung up the phone and whispered the C word to myself letting out a giant sigh, “cancer.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sub-Prime Debacle

This short video explains the subprime mess very eloquently. How regular people weren't to blame, but were assuaged by predators in the banking industry built only to make the next buck as fast as possible. It is unforgivable and disgusting.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice. A day I like to refer to as the shortest day of the year. I celebrate it mainly because I know the light in the sky will start to lengthen. Thankfully. I always felt, however it doesn't make sense that the shortest day of the year is the first day of Winter. Why would the shortest day of the year (this is only in the northern hemisphere) and the sun's "daily maximum position in the sky" is the lowest be on the first day of Winter, the Winter Solstice?

In astronomical terms the term solstice refers to the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, the great circle on the celestial sphere that is on the same place as the earth's equator. This occurs inthe northern hemisphere during Winter Solstice when the sun shines over the Tropic of Capricorn. The earth spins on an axis as it rotates around the sun. The axis is tilted 23.5 degrees toward the plain of its rotation. Because of the orbit, the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun receives more direct sunlight.

Winter Solstice is actually only a moment in time, "an instant in time." In many cultures it is known as mid-winter, not the beginning of winter like we know it here. Since winter is not a scientifically established fact it begins differently in many cultures. The Celtics begin their Winter calendar on November 1st, which seems to make sense. The temperature has reached the teens here in New Jersey and our weekend blast this weekend, with a Winter Blizzard on December 19th, which technically here in the states is before Winter would be a pre-winter blast. I don't think so. This is midwinter dammit!

Something I also found fascinating is the Julian Calendar established Winter Solstice as December 25th beginning in 45 BC, in all of Europe, but it fluctuated because of the calendar and moved three days every four centuries. It was changed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII because the calendar was changed and it moved to December 21st, though it varies a bit. Is this the reason Jesus was said to be born on December 25th? Many European solar calendars still celebrate December 24th as the eve before the Winter Solstice. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Look at the Celtic Cross which represents Christianity's triumph over paganism. This may be another manifestation.In many cultures, especially pagan cultures Winter Solstice is a celebrated event of magnificent proportions. Stonehenge in England and New Grange in Ireland place both axis on the Summer Solstice (Stonehenge) and Winter Solstice (New Grange).
New Grange is in County Meath Ireland and is over 5,000 years old. It is more than 500 years older than the Great Pyramids and predates Stonehenge by 1000 years. Did my fucking tour guide not want to show us this? Many places have been built like it since, I seem to remember many pagans travelling somewhere in the north of Maine to celebrate. New Grange is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world and the most famous of all Irish prehistoric sites. It was built in such a way that at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice a narrow beam of sunlight illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of a long passageway.

This year Winter Solstice will occur exactly at 12:47 PM today, December 21st. Enjoy the pagan holiday.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Naomi Klein at Copenhagen

Listen to Naomi Klein at Copenhagen describe just what is occurring in Copenhagen and "global warming" that is not debatable. I think the debate on healthcare, bailouts, Afghanistan and now Climate justice is re-energizing the left after being blindsided by the mirage of Obama. We will never achieve anything through trust in our politicians. It is about a people's movement.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chicken Reform

I said it the other day, and I feel the need to repeat it: the public does not yet understand that the government is about to order people to buy health insurance, with their own money. Yes, the government is about to order people to cough up hundreds of dollars a month each.

When the Republicans start using their toxic message-machine magic on this, and the public starts to understand that they are being ordered by the government to cough up a huge amount of money every month, Democrats had better have good hiding places, because things are going to get really bad out there.

This is the kind of policy that results when "centrist" Democrats give in to to the demands of Republicans and big corporations and the top 1% of the wealthy. Instead of just taxing the wealthy and corporations at reasonable rates and using the money to provide We, the People with health care -- thereby vastly improving the economy for ... the wealthy and big corporations -- they instead come up with a scheme to order regular people to pay for health insurance because they don't already have it because they can't afford it. - Dave Johnson - Open Left

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day 5, Scotland

Six-fifteen came as early as it sounds, actually 6:07 am to be exact. We put our bags outside our hotel door by 6:15 am. Ughh! I snapped this beautiful photo of N. about 6:23 am as we scurried to try and have some breakfast. She screamed in horror. For some reason, I was wide awake, laughing, learning to stay away from the eggs and sausages, I grabbed some yogurt and granola, in my opinion a very good decision. We learned we weren't the only people having trouble sleeping, many a bus traveller told me of their bouts that morning, popping Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM or stronger. Ok, I guess we aren't alone, however both of us did actually sleep in a beautiful and comfortable room. After all, five hours is five hours.

We boarded the bus, yes at the ungodly vacation hour of 7 am, but none of us would be able to sleep, the first stop only an hour away, a tour of Medieval Chester, England awaited us, a mere two miles from the Welsh border, many of us protesting that we cannot at least step over the border. I swear N. started to chant: "I am not going to make this." On the way, I thought that soon I will be in Scotland, nearing the end of the day, a place I heard about my whole life, the place my grandmother was born. My great grandfather fought for the French in World War I, was killed in 1915, only a year after nana was born. My great grandmother, alone with five children sent her oldest daughter, Jean and Ina (my grandmother) to America and our American story was born. Today, on this bus I would enter Scotland for the first time, a near spiritual experience, searching for our family's story.

But, not yet, first we toured medieval Chester, quite frankly the best part of the trip so far. The tour guide's accent was melodic, she pointed out the Chester Cathedral, dating back centuries and even more impressive in my opinion was the Roman amphitheater, recently discovered dating back to the 1st century, well before the English rooted the Romans out of England, passing the torch of skulduggery and oppression to the English. Case in point, our tour guide kept close to the vest a not so subtle lowly opinion of the Welsh maligning them with wit and humor. She pointed out the Chester clock faced in three directions, but not Wales because: "We won't give the Welsh the time of day." "Ok, so that's how it's gonna be?" as my friend Liz might say.

Chester was delightful and charming, nonetheless, a beautiful tiny city in the English countryside. I took a few pictures of the clock and the shops and the architecture of this darling little city, of course once N. took control of the camera the photos stopped. Probably a good thing, since toward the end of the trip we were choosing which pictures to save on our digital camera, eliminating the Chester amphitheater. Before departing I ran to the Welsh coffee shop, since we were told "Englanders won't step foot in there." My kind of place, I thought and acquired me a coffee for the ride to Grasmere, William Wordsworth's hometown on the way to Scotland.

Grasmere was cute and we actually ate a nice little meal here, N. stuck to the soup and I chomped a great sandwich, pretty impressive since we hadn't had much of a meal outside of London yet. Although, N bought a dessert, some sort of fudge or cake concoction that tasted neither like fudge nor cake and ended up in the waste basket. We toured the town afterward and looked in the shops and it remained pretty impressive sitting at the bottom of beautiful foothills, we took several pictures and even made a trek to Wordsworth's grave. It stilled the long day on the bus awhile and we enjoyed ourselves through the lake country.

Back on the Bus I trembled at the notion we were headed to Scotland, part of the land of my ancestors birth, deep within the Scottish highlands. When we crossed over into Scotland, my heart jumped, Robert yelled to everyone to "get out your passports ladies and gents." I knew he was kidding, Scotland still swears her allegiance to the British crown, though not without some tension as we were about to find out. We stopped first at a woolen mill, the first in a long line of woolen mills. I looked up my family name, Barnes, and as it turned out the name Barnes, is a derivative of Burns and is part of the Campbells of Argyle, a bloody, marauding clan who single handedly saw to it that the Macdonald clan would not survive. Yikes, with no thanks to my ancestors the Macdonalds did survive. Robert said: "This is why today you can't get Campbell soup in a MacDonalds." Pretty funny stuff Robert.
It took another hour to arrive in Edinburgh, we arrived almost at dusk. We were excited to finally be at our destination and in my opinion, I anticipated Edinburgh as one of the highlights of the trip. She did not disappoint, she is beautiful, stunning really and N. immediately put her side by side with Paris as her favorite city. Though the sun was setting you could see her beautiful architecture, different than London, a soot covering all of the buildings giving it a rusty feel, a working city with beauty. In the morning we planned a long exploration. But, for tonight we needed some food and Scottish ale.

Our group now, fully in the mood for some new culture set out for "The Tass." She lay a block from our hotel that overlooked Edinburgh Castle. We might have been in a dream it was so beautiful, on the "Royal Mile." The Tass is everything we wanted it to be, a little Scottish Pub with Scottish music about ready to begin, we ordered pints, mine straight out of Glasgow. After a long day on the bus, it was just what the doctor ordered. We also ordered meals, most of us fish and chips. N. ordered the mac and cheese and I ended up with Shepherd's pie which was actually decent, a little too salty, but it made me thirstier. Mmmmmmm. We listened to some genuine Scottish music, though my American counterparts were a bit too rowdy for some of the patrons. "Stupid Americans." I know I heard someone say.
Our group bonded that night through taking pictures of one another drinking ale and sharing our stories. "How long have you and N. been married?" A. asked us. "Too long!" we both said at the same time. We told them our story of not wanting to be married, no one seemed to understand, but it didn't matter we were all so merry. We scurried off, passed the Royal Mile and went to bed, asleep in Scotland a return to the homeland. I looked out our window in the hotel, a view of Edinburgh Castle where my great grandfather's service with Blackwatch is memorialized. I heard the bagpipes in my mind playing at his funeral almost 100 years past. "Sleep tight til morn." I said.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Back on the Bus, Day Four, Bleinheim Palace and Jacked up Potatoes

Day four came early, 7 am to be exact. I woke up in the middle of the night again, but instead read my new book: "Slavery By Another Name" one of the most brilliant and heart breaking books I have read in some time. It explains a lot about what we don't know that happened after slavery, that quite frankly it never really ended. We ran to breakfast, after placing our bags outside our door, for runny eggs, sausages that make you sick and more "brown toast." At least the coffee has caffeine.

After breakfast we boarded the bus for a trip to the England countryside, Bleinheim Palace, where the Duke of Marlborough lives and where Winston Churchill was born and on to William Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford Upon Avon. On the bus at 8 am I thought, "sleep will come easy." Not so fast. From the moment we left our hotel in downtown England, our tour guide Robert began the "tour." Every piece of landmark would be described to us, which would be interesting if I wasn't fighting for sleep. Before we boarded, however we looked on the door to see where we were "assigned" to sit. Almost the front row, "we hit the jackpot" I screamed to N. She glared, "not now."

The ride to Bleinheim Palace was quick, just to the northwest out of London near the beautiful town of Oxford which we skirted, onto Woodstock where the palace lay. Though I was tired I couldn't sleep and listened to the description of many sites we were seeing on the way, where Manchester United plays, horse farms, nothing exciting. Two friends in front, however had a beautiful map and I commented on it, "Dawn" and "Sue Ann." They were older (obviously), but spry, seemingly new to retirement, they told us they had just been to Tanzania and loved every minute of it, "we love to travel." We asked them what they did in London on our last day. They went to the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, a couple of other museums, went back to the hotel to change, immediately set out for dinner, onto Piccadilly Circus in the theater district and saw "Billy Elliott" the musical at a "magnificent theater." "We didn't want to leave" they ranted. N and I thought to ourselves, "damn, these retirees have some energy." We were barely standing at 8 o'clock. I whispered to N, "I think they might be liberal -- I hope" with a sense of awe, almost begging for someone to talk to about our world. N smirked, rolled her eyes and said: "maybe."

We arrived at the Palace before 10:00 am, "the facilities are on the right" Robert proclaimed, an echo that would reverberate for 11 more days. Like sheep we all rushed to the bathroom, like school children we tried to be the first in line. We entered Bleinheim Palace shortly thereafter, and were told to look around the grounds before entering the actual palace. It was stunning, a magnificent landmark with beautiful grounds. N. commented, "well if you want to know what Versailles looks like, this is pretty close." In Paris we were unable to visit Versailles because of the train strike. We flashed our cameras, took hundreds of pictures amongst ourselves, though N was being quite conservative with the digital camera. Winston Churchill was born here, which I found a little shocking. Arguably, Britain's greatest Prime Minister was also born into royalty? Bleinheim is the Duke of Marlboro's residence, first built in the early 1700's as a gift from Queen Anne to Sir Churchill (Winston's distant ancestor) as a gift for his heroics in the War of Spanish Succession against the French. Winston Churchill is a nephew of one of the Dukes. The Duke and Duchess still live here today.

We entered the marvelous structures, which were visually stunning, the very cool art on the ceiling as you passed through the large doors, viewed many a monument to Sir Winston Churchill, a self-guided tour, it seemed hundreds of people, and scores of tour buses descended upon the Palace within minutes. Some of the rooms were jaw-dropping, marvelous looking, opulent, but a glorious past of thievery from Europe and its own people, a monument to feudalism. Impressive nonetheless, we took a glance at the current Duke and Duchess, gloriously throwing parties and overseeing horse and dog shows. Gag. N. and I went outside to the gardens which were also beautiful, some Italian gardens that were off-limits and we sat and rested, took pictures and laughed at the absurdity of being stuck with 22 unknowns, our family for two weeks. So, far four people are nice, 20 more to discover. As we walked toward the cafe and gift shop, a woman approached with a dog in the gardens, I looked at N., " What's up with this lady, you think they allow dogs in here?"

She passed us and smiled at us, impeccably dressed, and attractive. She walked the dog to the end of the garden, we stopped noticing her and sat on a bench, but when the dog peed all over the bushes, we stopped and were incredulous. Then, it hit me: "That's the Duchess of Marlborough, sweetie. I saw her in one of the pictures. This is her fucking house!" Eloquently I spoke. "You're right," N whispered much more serene in her viewing of a royal family member. A descendant of Sir Winston Churchill and a descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough. It was hard not to be impressed. N and I seemed to be the only one that noticed, she passed us again with her beautiful Golden Retriever and smiled at us, understanding we knew something was up, though not another soul in the gardens did. The tourists around her taking pictures as she strolled gently through the gardens of her own home, oblivious to the Duchess walking among them. Back on the bus we headed out.

Next stop was Stratford upon Avon, quite the name of William Shakespeare's home. Kind of like the town in Massachusetts near where I grew up, but life times away, called: "Manchester By the Sea." Here is where we stopped for lunch, excited we were given a couple of hours alone to explore, we searched for a lunch place for a while as we strolled the town square, we noticed the food seemed to be getting worse as we travelled north, the alcohol more available. After 20 minutes we settled in a little place, that was very busy, and disorganized. Their specialty: "Jacket Potatoes." The impression I interred from these potatoes was how many different kinds of food can you pile on the top? Cheddar cheese, bacon, sour cream, anything you put your hands on, shove it on top. We started referring to the delicacy as "Jacked Up Potatoes" which seemed appropriate. We strolled around the town, had some very good ice cream, but were less than impressed, a bit of a cheesy stop along the way. N and I ended our tour of William Shakespeare's hometown at a Belgian coffee shop, read the paper and relaxed before departing for the Welsh border in Shrewsbury.

Shrewsbury was beautiful, breathtaking really, our residence for the night was at a former school for the blind on a beautiful piece of land in the lake district of England, we felt like we were royalty and were treated that way. The rooms were beautiful and gracious, but as we found out we wouldn't be spending much time in them: Bags out at 6:15, breakfast as fast you can stuff it down your throat, and bus leaves at 7 am. "Are they fucking kidding!" was my response. N's response was more subdued, but her eyes alarmed, "I'm not going to make it," she seemed to say as she looked at me. "I can't do this," she would say several times over the coming week. We placed our bags in the room that we spent only ten hours in and quickly walked the beautiful grounds, went to the bar and ordered a Bulmers cider, our drink of choice for the next 11 days, we shared a pint calmly on the grounds of this comforting Shrewsbury hotel. We sat at tables overlooking the grounds, a serene pond immediately staring at us, next to a couple from Dallas, we aptly dubbed them: "the Dallas Connection." They were wary of us, we were wary of them, so we sat at the next table and exchanged pleasantries. "Beautiful, isn't it?" "Gorgeous." "What a nice night?" "Tru Dat" I almost exclaimed to break the monotony. We tried to stir up conversation to no avail so we slowly enjoyed our Bulmers, N enjoying it as much as me.

Our other 20 cohorts soon joined us, they looked at the "Dallas Connection" and looked at us, and invariably everyone chose the "Dallas Connection" table, couple after couple, "Uh-oh," I whispered to N. "We might be shut out." Then, an older couple, a sort of May-December couple sat down. He was 91, she was in her early 60's probably and they were so pleasant, from Los Angeles as, "Coast people, just like us." He was a theater professor, dressed so dapper, she was very attractive, with a regal and familiar air about her that she was somebody. I said this to N., "She seems like she is from good stock" as my mother used to say. We had a nice conversation with them and we nicknamed them "John Huston and his midnight flame." All in all, it was a very pleasant drink by the beauty of the night in England. Called to dinner, we saw our friends Paul and April, dove for their table with another couple sitting there, and introduced ourselves; they were from Massachusetts, Red Sox fans. We have to have something in common, right?

I speak to the gentleman mostly before the dinner arrived, he was a lawyer, I tell him I am one too. We smile, "U.S. Marine Corps" he tells me. Uh-oh. "I work for the Public Defender," I spout out. A pause, I stab the tension with a question, "What do you practice?" It turns out, his long career began in the JAG corps, at many oversees bases, wherever they sent him. Recently, he was in Iraq early just after the invasion in 2003 to help set-up the sovereign government of Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority; he oversaw the writing of the new free zones of Iraq, meaning pure capitalism, one of the only places in the world that this was practiced. He helped write the legal system of the new government and when that was done, he departed. A liberal he is not, but I was enthralled, and as a military man, he was respectful and kind. He also helped repatriate Haitians found on the high seas between Haiti and Florida, until the U.S. abandoned them and he oversaw their re-patriation in other countries, Suriname, Guatemala and El Salvador. I told him I did appellate work and he liked that and wanted to do that himself.

Suddenly, I hear April at the table ranting about Obama, "he is wrecking the country." I saw that I was needed in this conversation, she had been trying to get us to show our hand where we were, "these young people." "He is sending the country into socialism." "He is not a socialist!" I said incredulous, but respectful. "He is trying to---" she interrupted, "well I don't know one person who supports him, where he is going." N. looks at me, I see her out of the corner of my eye. "I support him." It seemed not just our table quieted, but the entire room, eerily silent, all eyes on this "young" 41 year old. "In fact, it was so important to me, I quit my job to work for him in Florida, registering voters and helping people vote. After the last eight years of horror we have seen I am going to give him a chance. He isn't perfect by a long stretch, but after Bush he is certainly welcome." I heard rumblings, grumblings about "be careful what you wish for." It was freedom though, finally I said what is on my mind. The U.S. Marine Corps Colonel echoed my opinion about the last eight years, weary of Obama, but understood he said to me privately.

We were back to our meals which were wonderful, April laughing and goofing off, N. speaking to Paul about his ex-wife, "the love of his life" who died suddenly of a heart attack eight years ago, tears in his eyes, N. and he shared a beautiful moment. After he found April, however he found love again, April who is a pistol, most certainly has a story and she intrigues me like no other, how she talks about her children with such pride and joy. I spoke to the Colonel, who actually lives in D.C., his wife in Massachusetts, they have two kids and it seems, though they never said this, they were "working things out." His wife, annoying, but as they say in Boston "wicked smaaht" with a harsh Boston accent.

N. and I walked the grounds of Shrewsbury after dinner, not wanting to go to bed, unapologetic in taking this tour, we finally felt, "this might be ok." It might test our spirits, our psyche, and we might need rest afterwards, but these Republicans are kind of interesting, not hateful and maybe we might show them liberals aren't so bad. Off to bed, it was nearly 11:00 PM and we needed to be up at the crack of dawn to embark on our next adventure in medieval Chester.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day Three, London Calling

Sleep on Day 2 lasted until 2 am. We slept for five hours, but at 2 am I am wide awake joined by N. We are giddy, laughing at anything, silly, I try to read, but can't. Barbara Ehrenreich, my political soul mate keeps my interest for a little while, but instead I turn on the television and alas, the Europeans have magic on the teley. The Wire, the single greatest television show to ever grace the small screen is on the BBC. We watch as Michael turns the tables on Snoop and becomes a killer. By 4 am Nicole is asleep and I am back to Barbara. I finally fall asleep at 5 am and am awake at 6:30, realizing I will not be successful at sleep, I shower for the first time in Europe. We rush down to breakfast at 8:30 and most everyone has already eaten. We see April and she is so glad to see us, we have already become best friends. "I thought you had gone and abandoned the Tour. Thank God."

We sit down for breakfast, "coffee or tea?" "Both," we answer, tea for N and coffee for me. "Toast?" Yes, I answer. "White or Brown?" "Excuse me?" I say though the question is familiar. I answered this question, brown or white toast the first time at Cafe Rio, I am not sure what I said because I didn't understand, though I ended up with a white bread sandwich. She sees us pause and she says, "mixed?" Yes, exactly. Before the mixed toast is brought to the table I explore the buffet style breakfast, scrambled eggs, sausages, fully cooked tomatoes (?), their bacon - our ham and a whole host of fruit. Nicole sticks to the cold cereal and I go for the hot. Average, but on the whole not terrible, the coffee is decent and I am somewhat satisfied. Am I desperate? The mixed toast arrives and indeed it is white toast or brown toast, your guess is as good as mine just what the brown toast is made out of, I stick to the white. We rush to the tour bus waiting outside.

We enter the front of the bus, which is the opposite side you enter in the states, we say hello to Robert, unsure if he is happy to see us, we continue on, as I pass seat after seat I notice, there is no one on this bus without grey hair, row after row of elderly folks, "is this elder hostel" I ask myself. When we booked the tour, we could have booked a "55 and smiling tour," but of course chose another tour. Are the rest 65 and smiling? We enter the last seat behind our new friends on tour, we sit, me by the window, N stares in at me with a wry smile, without saying a verbal word she says: "Well, look what we got ourselves into." Are we being ageist? No, I don't think so, we aren't like that after all, we don't want to be the odd people out, the different ones, stand out because after all, we stand out in our lives enough. I peruse the bus and say to Nicole, "I think I saw someone up there who might be 50!" This doesn't displease her. But, our friends Paul and April sit by us and we smile at them, newly retired they are by all intents and purposes in our median age group. And by all measures wonderful people.

We are told by Robert after entering the bus, tomorrow there will be assigned seats because we don't want people hogging the front seats, it is getting worse, we are being treated like kindergartners. "So please all of you check your assigned seat tomorrow before boarding the bus." In horror, I think does that mean N and I might not sit together? Of course it doesn't mean that, but I am still horrified, and when I feel rules begin to cramp me, I begin a vicious rebellion. Uh-oh is N's only response. "Please control yourself." Before Robert departs, we are told "tour guides request that you tip, so please do so at the end of the tour." She greets us with a "brilliant" English accent and are instructed we will be seeing London and Westminster, the tour will end at the "Tower of London" and a viewing of the "crown jewels" of which I have no interest whatsoever, nor am I sure what exactly she is talking about. I don't admit this of course out loud until later, to N. I am excited to see this marvelous city, however. A city I have heard about since "London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady."

We pass by Westminster Abbey, view Big Ben from a far and stop for a photo, we stop at Buckingham Palace and pass by Trafalgar square, of which N and I vow to come back to, to see the National Gallery. The architecture is overwhelming, hailing from the states the term old has a different meaning. William the Conqueror declared himself the King of England in the 11th century beginning England's dastardly deeds on the planet and commenced the construction of the famous "Tower of London." We see the famous people who were tortured and executed here and do visit the "crown jewels" a pretty amazing sight. We watch a video of Queen Elizabeth II crowned as the Queen in 1953 as a young girl, Paul turns to me and says: "I remember this on television as a kid" It was a world wide event." The Royal family fascinates me, why the English would rather be "subjects" rather than "citizens" confounds me. But, after visiting here, one begins to understand their perspective. They can no more abandon the Royal family than we can abandon our Constitution. We take several pictures of the Thames, the Tower Bridge and are ready to move on to Trafalgar Square.
Before walking to Trafalgar Square, we enter a 7/11 type store for some British candy, N goes bonkers for this stuff, for good reason I might add. I sit by myself for a while and worry about the tour, "what were we thinking?" I thought about doing it ourselves, but that would have taken some planning, time of which neither of us had, so we went with the tour, but I am worried if I can handle these AARP Republicans. After a photo stop, I decided to wander into a coffee shop, I talked to some of the locals, making conversation, ordered myself a latte, just to see if Cafe Rio is the norm in tasty lattes. N. came running after a couple of minutes, "the bus is leaving, hurry up!" Again, the rules, "this is not good." I try and justify myself to the tour guide.

The rest of the day we visit the National Gallery, a similar feeling I had at the Louvre. We are viewing nothing, but original paintings by the masters, I am a bit awestruck. The Italians of course are the best, but N is partial to the French. She still will not admit to me she is a francophile! We eat a very good lunch at the National Gallery, I am exhausted and tell N we need a nap. We decide to walk home through Picadilly Circus, an appropriate name for Broadway, the Times Square of London. It is just as ridiculous, but the architecture is splendid, so how bad can it be?
We nap, are blown off by our corporate lawyer landlord who we were trying to meet for dinner. We thought we might receive a nice flavor for the local scene somewhere, but she blew us off, so we are on our own for the evening. We'll see if rent is on time in October. We roamed the streets of Fitzrovia, Soho, Bloomsbury, the Public Gardens, Marleybone and on to the West End, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant that was not so good, N knew it, but she was too tired to tell me. After all, I ordered Beef Stroganov, what kind of Lebanese restaurant serves Beef Stroganov? The neighborhood felt like those cheesy restaurants by NYU, not very good, but popular with people who don't know New York.

We struggled afterward to find dessert in London, in New York there are countless dessert options on every corner, hell in Jersey City and Hoboken they are everywhere, but in London if you want a pint throw a dart, if you want a piece of cake, take the Chunnel to Paris! We found a little chain restaurant serving crepes and it was decent, but by this time all we really wanted was a bed. We roamed a bit more, thought about jumping on the tube for the last time, but decided to walk home, dream about our assigned seats on the bus and whether the next two weeks of our lives will be a mistake. Tomorrow, our luggage has to be at the door by 7:00 am, breakfast is at 7:15 and we need to be "back on the bus" at 8:00 am to be at our first stop in the morning. Did we really choose this?

The People's Senator

Bernie Sanders answers the question, what is wrong with American capitalism? He responds with an overview of what a social democracy is about and what that might look like here in America. Senator Sanders is the people's Senator, easily my favorite politician working today. I haven't been a true democrat for a long time and after working so hard for this President and Congress and watching them wash their power down the drain, I am not calling myself a democrat any longer. I am a Social Democrat.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day Two, "Mind the Gap"

Denial sets in, "who put someone else's clothes in my luggage?" Why would they do that I think to myself at first, seriously contemplating how my bag is full of someone else's belongings. Then, horror, I took someone else's bag, amazing it took that long, it probably should have dawned on me at the airport. How did I take another passenger's bag? The bag was right on top of N's. Well, I guess that explains the missing name tag I mimic. By the time N emerges from the bathroom I admit maybe I was a bit careless. Eye roll. We search through the bag and there is nothing in there, not a phone number, a residence tag, not a clue whose bag this could be. By the looks of the clothes it looks like this person could be as old as the folks on our tour.

It was September 11th at home, eight years after one of our greatest tragedies, N and I were in law school together, getting to know one another, eight years later we are spending that anniversary in London about to partake on a quest for luggage. We moved into action and called downstairs and asked for "Robert" our tour guide. "Who?" is the response. "Never heard of him." Click. So much for British hospitality. We dress and need to find Robert. As I am dressing I remember an article on Common Dreams stating how security conscious the Brits are now, cameras everywhere, in the top three countries with the U.S. and Israel. I stole someone else's bag, I could be in a British prison by sundown. Then, we started to mimic Tobias on Arrested Development "Oh no, not the Bobbies." We may be delirious.

We find Robert where we left him in the corner of the Grafton Hotel waiting on tour folks to check in. We tell him: "I have someone else's bag." It fails to register with him. "Why?" "I took it at the airport." "Why, did you not see it was not your bag?" Using two negatives which felt particularly accusatory. Failing to see how this is relevant and obviously trying not to encourage criticism I ask him if he knows the number of Continental airlines? "No." Do you know the number of Heathrow airport? No. Do you have the number of Baggage claim? No. "Do you know anything?" I say to myself, just like in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He appears baffled by us, why are we so crazed, he seems to be telling us to relax with his body language. "Why don't you wait until the lobby clears out and then ask one of the clerks to look up the number for you." We look over our shoulder, two bus loads of people entering the lobby, barely able to hear our own conversation, people streaming in and out of the hotel, N and I look at each other and realize we are alone on this. We were hoping he would have answers, he has none and we abandon him. We find an Internet connection and look up the number to Continental airlines easily and are back upstairs within ten minutes with a number in hand in need of a phone.

Again, he says "wait until the lobby clears out." Ahhh. No, I say. And I am not sure I am acting like a neurotic New Yorker or just an American with "can do spirit" but I ask a roaming clerk if there is a phone I can use. She is nice, young and attractive, especially with that British accent. She comes back and says "no there isn't." Suddenly, she is not so attractive, obnoxious with a condescending accent. But, someone sees my disappointment, the lobby beginning to clear out and says: "you can use this phone." Thankfully, I call Continental, they give me a number for Heathrow airport, central number, I call them and they give me a number for baggage claim, "now we are getting somewhere." Someone picks up and tells me to call back in ten minutes, "I don't know anything." That seems to be going around.

Robert tells me to relax, have some fun you're in London" in an unfamiliar Irish brogue. N indicates rationally 'we have a responsibility to get that bag back to the person who owns it." Robert about to respond, realized the rightness in this statement nods, "yes that is true." I declare irrationally, "I'm not going on the tour without my bag!" Robert is silent. I call the number back and am given another number to lost or stolen bags. Robert calls, realizing we aren't going away and leaves his number, telling them he is a tour guide and I have two very nice young people (both of which aren't true) who need to talk to someone about their missing luggage.

He says, "give them 45 minutes to call back. Don't worry, they will call back." I am not sure he thinks they will call back, but am positive he could use 45 minutes away from us. I realize this and say to him, "ok, we'll go for a walk and get something to eat and come back." N doesn't like this strategy I can tell, but I am already walking out the door and she has no choice. We walk outside, we are near the University College of London, Regents Park, the College of Westminster, Notting Hill Park and all we can do is roam and stew. N. is thinking "have you no sense?" And I am thinking using Robert's strategy, "relax." We roam down some nice streets and peruse nice apartments in London, suddenly we are upon a cute little cafe, Cafe Rio. I say: "I'm hungry, feel like something to eat?" "Yeah, I do."

We sit down, order some food from a nice young waitress and realize this is a bustling street in Fitzrovia, London. People of all ages, creeds, colors and religion walking down the streets. I contemplate suddenly, "I like London." It is a world class city with a world class culture, I eat my English breakfast and enjoy a great latte. Even N., with her Italian palate is happy, we discuss events with seat mates, one Brit yells out: "you idiot!" We look at him, "does he know about the luggage" I think to myself. A balding, polite looking man, as we look at him, we hear a screech of a car and a bike messenger almost hit, the cyclist keeps on without missing a beat. The Brit apologizes profusely for his outrage, "but these damn bikes" the second time we hear this criticism in a few hours.

I enjoy my latte without a care in the world and feel for the first time I am on vacation, the sun shines upon my face through the London clouds and I sit back and close my eyes, N. happy not to discuss anything at the moment. "I like this place" I say. N. reminds me we should probably get back and see about our luggage, and it finally dawns on me why she is so upset, much of her stuff is in my large bag of luggage. Though, it is obvious she is also enjoying the London streets and the sun. I say to her as we pay our bill to the nice ladies inside: "you know we are going back to the airport, right?" The anxiety is back, we may be going on a two week trip with no luggage. My luggage with the Swiss crosses could be in Switzerland. Who knows? If someone made a similar mistake (is someone really that dumb?) then we are in trouble.

We march back to Robert who has no answers, but seems thrilled with the idea he can save us some money, instead of a 50 pd. ride to the airport we can take the tube, the stop literally steps from the hotel. And we are off to the "Underground" instead of the "subway" we are reminded. I like subways, a lot. I loved living in D.C. with the Metro, living in NYC with the subway and even New Jersey with the PATH and lightrail. When we travelled to Paris the Metro was a highlight, though the train operators were mostly on strike, I loved jumping on and off. The tube is much like the Metro in Paris, smaller and efficient and since it took us and hour and a half to get from the airport to the hotel, it obviously goes far and wide in the London city limits.

A friend told me before leaving, don't forget to "mind the gap" on the Tube. It is everywhere in the Underground, on the platform, in the cars and on the speakers, "mind the gap" before you depart. Only one transfer, we transfer at Leicester Square from the northern line to the Picadilly line, last stop, terminal 4 Heathrow airport. We sit down on the tube, I look around N directly in front of me, finally she smiles, more like a "what is wrong with you" smile, but at least it is a smile. We helped one another figure out the tube crossings, tried to pay with a credit card to no avail, but found a clerk ready to help, NYC this isn't, there are actually people in the booths.

The tube is a look into London's heart, the underground beating life into the city; as you sit, you hear every European language spoken and many other world languages, this is the European economic center. The tube is calmer than the subway in New York, people seem more relaxed, but no less cosmopolitan and chatter is heard easily as we make our way toward Heathrow. I hear a woman from Sardinia ask how to get to her street, a street I forget, many Londoners help, but none know. Finally, a large man tells her how to get there,excitedly, because it is his neighborhood, he seems eastern European and attempts to flirt with her, she allows it, but they go their separate ways, she a lawyer and he an art collector of some sorts. Another young woman speaks on her cell phone, she is mixed race and seems aware of her cell phone use, talks quietly as I try to hear the particulars of the conversation to no avail. We arrive at terminal 4 Heathrow and cross our fingers for a successful journey, it is nearly 5:15 PM London time and I can see N's patience waning. That bag is my savior.

I approach the first man I see, the airport empty ten hours after our arrival. He points me to a phone. "Pick it up and someone will answer." I pick it up and sure enough someone answers. "Name?" A shuffling, a pause and muffling short conversation. "Door to your right, come through." N and I hightail it to the doors and tentatively I enter, N following me. It is Customs it seems, a baggage claim monitor, "were you told to come through here?" "Yes." Ok, empty your pockets, shoes off, jacket off and go through the metal detector." She doesn't want N to come with me, but N talks her way through, much more convincing under pressure than I am. I carry the bag through with me and a large man in uniform approaches me.

"Well, that is an exact replica in'it? he says in a rough British accent. "Yes," I turn to N see, I seem to say, I am not crazy. "Do you have my bag? "Of course" he says. We breathe, in minutes we are sitting at a Starbucks at Heathrow with my Swiss crossed bag, we order a water, three hours of sleep in 36 hours and we are exhausted, relieved we have our belongings. Even a Starbucks at this point is not reviling. The man in uniform made me open the bag before we left his presence. The Tube only steps away, we board for the ride home, travelling the length of England's largest city again and return to the hotel. No pub tonight, just sleep, but first we must eat.

We wanted to go out to Brick Lane for Indian food, but not a chance we would make it. We walked around Fitzrovia and wandered around for a while and ended up at a vegetarian Indian restaurant. It was very good and cheap, if your paycheck is in Euros, but of course ours is not, we are paid in U.S. dollars, quickly becoming the toilet paper of currency. We consult two Brits next to us on our tip, nicely they explain the process, "ten percent only if the service is good. Really you should only leave a couple of Euros." We take her advice, no passing off wages from business to consumers here, not yet anyway. Though, England seems quite capitalistic. Off to bed, tomorrow breakfast is at 8 am and a tour of the city at 9. Vacation begins tomorrow.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back on the Bus: Day One, Arriving in London

The trip began when N arrived home, she insisted she work the last day we were leaving. Ugh. "They will survive without you" I told her. This isn't exactly true since they fired all of the temps while she was gone, but it sounded like good advice, no? In this economy nothing is certain, all the more reason we needed to get out of here I thought, just for a while, leave capitalism behind and see how the social democrats live. Already, today is the one year anniversary of my "push out" of Legal Services, part of the reason we scheduled it on this day. We were already packed, waiting for Budget Limo to call, beep or whatever they do so we can be picked up and taken to Newark and flown to London.

Two hours before I placed two cold glasses in the freezer and at 3 PM they were ready. I opened my new favorite beer, Blue Point Blueberry Ale and we toasted our vacation, my 40th birthday, N's soon to be 40th birthday, our "honeymoon" and our eight years together. We were headed to the UK and Ireland, my ancestors homeland, on a tour, a risk yes, for sure, but we didn't really want to work ourselves, we wanted to be taken care of, so we found and booked a trip. "Show up" in London they said and we'll do the rest. Perfect.

The flight was non-eventful. 6:22 minutes in the air, not bad, and a good selection of all kinds of movies, from "Casablanca" to "Little Miss Sunshine." I watched them both. I can't read on a plane, hardly so I distract myself from the fact that we are travelling at 500 mph at least, 40,000 feet in the air and travailing the jet streams. Reading doesn't help. Humans versus nature, I think and both are pretty amazing. As we took off out of Newark, I saw the sun beginning to set over the horizon that seemed to stretch toward Michigan, I looked at Nicole and said that same sun will be rising in six hours over the horizon while we land in London, which when we did seemed to rise over Amsterdam. "That doesn't seem possible" she lamented.

We de-boarded the plane, and were immediately placed in a never ending line through customs. I was still excited. This was day two already. This is how the tour rolls. Day one is take off, day two is landing though, only seven hours the older. Technically, it was September 10th when we took off and September 11th when we landed, so it is hard to quibble. In customs we met a nice couple, Paul and April, older, retired, N saw the CIE tour bag and she asked them if they were there to join us. I told Nicole to leave the tour bags at home, "I won't be caught dead with them" I said. Sure enough, they were from Pennsylvania, but as April put it, "she is a Jersey girl and always will be." They were nice and we got along swimmingly, little were we to know, they would be the youngest couple on the trip, the closest in age to us. April said a couple of things about Obama, that he was trying to kill her with the death panel, but we ignored it, we were not there to talk politics. Eesh. We did agree that the banks were a bunch of money grubbing, scum bags so that was nice. So much for not speaking politics.

After Customs we grabbed our bags, N's bag one of the first down the baggage chute, mine seemingly on top of hers. No name tag, N said: "it must have fell off on the way down." "Whatever," I said, "let's go get our bus to the hotel, I need a nap." N couldn't agree more. We hopped on the bus as it was leaving Heathrow, though we were the first to sign up, they nearly left us there. Not a good start, N was none too happy, and lucky she was there to question them or we might still be there. We got on the bus, exhausted I started to feel a bit queezy, it was already 8:30 am, 3:30 am New Jersey time and I needed a bed. The driver, in his cockney accent pointed out points of interest in London, but they all appeared to be pubs, nothing eventful on the way from Heathrow to our hotel. He was jovial and we were not.

The driver, however boarded 20+ people in the bus and all of them seemingly getting off before us. Each stop occurring in downtown London, I was screaming inside, what the fuck?! I faced south as he drove and started to feel I may need a vomit bag, what to do? I undid my seatbelt so I could move a bit and it helped. Finally, mercifully we arrived at our destination, we met our tour guide in the lobby and we checked in easily enough, nearly 10:00 am now and I am barely standing up, at this point I am capable of robbery, mayhem, maybe even manslaughter if I don't get some sleep soon. "Robert" our tour guide asks me where my name tag is on my large Swedish looking bag, I brush it off and say, "it must have fell off in transit." He nods ok, tells us about a welcome drink at 6 PM and Nicole, me, April and Paul are off to our hotel rooms for a nap.

I sacked out quick, double beds, N happy so I won't snore on her. Nice. I wake up at 1 PM London time, a three hour nap and I am ready to meet the beautiful London streets. I moan, groan and say to Nicole: "we should probably rally" and be off. N wakes up pretty quick, agrees we should see London. She stumbles over me into the bathroom, a pretty nice hotel in downtown London, next to some beautiful pubs. I am really excited to see one of the world capitals, off for some pub food maybe, a pint. I slump my huge bag on a luggage table, the swedish crosses looking at me. I open it, still groggy from the plane, the long morning and the nap, I search for my stuff, but only find unfamiliar baggage. "Sweetie," I say, "where's my stuff?"

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rescission: Reason #127 We Need Universal Healthcare

The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing back in June entitled "Terminations of Individual Health Policies by Insurance Companies." The hearing examined the practice of "post-claims underwriting," which occurs when insurance companies cancel individual health insurance policies after providers submit claims for medical services rendered.

The Committee conducted an investigation into the
practice of health insurance rescission, and the results were alarming. Over the past five years, almost 20,000 individual insurance policyholders have had their policies rescinded by the three insurance companies who testified today: Assurant, UnitedHealth Group, and WellPoint.

Some of these answers are quite shocking.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Protest Outside the Home of Mayor Cammarano

Above is a video of a proteste outside of Mayor Peter Cammarano's home. I copied it from Hoboken 411 the site that covers the protest with the same zest they cover everything: like a vacuous, pee brained Hobokenite. I have not seen this many people gathered in Hoboken since the bars let out Friday night at 2:00 AM. Maybe people in Hoboken really are fed up with their government and they really want a change. The video is a bit crazy and the voters/citizens take it out on a Cammarano supporter.

I knew Cammarano a little bit, I first met him when I helped out with the Menendez campaign and he was so "pumped" for the campaign I knew there was something wrong with him. I said to him: "Menendez?" "Why are you here then" He said. I said the same reason I always support the Democrats because I don't want Republicans to win." He looked at me funny. He asked me what I did. So, I told him I am a prisoner reentry attorney helping to ease prisoners back into society. He looked at me like I had three horns on my head (it is part of the reason I like saying that). The rest of the attorneys looked at me funny too. He wasn't alone.

From then on, however I knew he was just another politician like the rest. He certainly had talent and was smart enough. I saw him at political meetings/voter protection meetings and everyone knew he was gearing up to run for Mayor. He was usually full of shit and said things to just be part of the conversation. He never recognized me though we worked together several times and we had several conversations. But, he would act like he knew me. I usually said something snarky and he just ignored me. He supported Clinton and I was one of the big Hoboken Obama supporters. No one in Hoboken liked that until Obama won and then all of a sudden everyone was a big Obama supporter from the beginning.

A friend of mine always told me: "Wait. He is going to get his. The Guy has skeletons." Turns out he was right. I don't think there is any question he should resign. He is innocent until proven guilty, surely, but there is a difference between being found guilty of a federal crime and doing something morally repugnant. Unless the government is lying through their teeth this guy took bribes and acted like a complete asshole. Whether the government has enough is a question, but the people of Hoboken already have and have had enough.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Several Politicians Arrested in New Jersey

According to

Several North Jersey politicians were arrested this morning on Federal Corruption charges. The suspects included newly elected Mayor of Hoboken, Secaucus Mayor, Dennis Elwell, Jersey City Deputy Mayor, Leona Baldini and Jersey City Council President, Mario Vega. Several Rabbis and politicians from New York were arrested as well.

Looks like Cammarano's career just came to an end. More on this as it becomes available and hopefully an insider look at what happened.

Update: Below are videos of the men and women brought in and arrested for bribes and corruption. Harvey Smith, a New Jersey Assemblyman and recent mayoral candidate charged with taking $15,000 in bribes for building projects.

An Assemblyman and the Mayor of Secaucus arrested for $10,000 cash bribes

Louis Manzo, another unsuccessful Mayoral candidate in Jersey City and his brother arrested for $27,500 cash bribes for the campaign.

Leona Baldini, the deputy mayor charged with $20,000 cash payments

Other mayors in Ridgefield, NJ and Rabbis across New Jersey and Brooklyn charged with issuing the bribes and money laundering.
Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega, Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini, and Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt are led into FBI building in Newark

Cammarano, the newly elected Mayor of Hoboken is charged with cash bribes of $25,000 including a cash bribe of $10,000 last Thursday!
Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell led in handcuffs into FBI building

If one thing is clear, the corruption and bribery charges just made it tougher for Corzine to get elected. But, someone who has appeared in local politics in Hoboken, NJ - everyone knows this goes on and no one will do anything about it. For our state to change and for the Democratic party to change, to a party that is interested in progress and the people this had to happen. The question is this enough? Or is a political hit job?

I am not sure, but it seems obvious much of these officials are going down.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rachel Corrects the Record

After a tangle with Pat Buchanan Rachel corrects the record on race. What Pat Buchanan mouthed is shameful.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What Was Once Racism is Now Political Dialogue

Pat Buchanan was on the Rachel Maddow show last night which I missed. So, the first thing I did on the web this morning is see what was said. It is long and Rachel really allows him to say what he wants, and what he says is that "white people are discriminated against in the United States" to paraphrase.

I think it is important to hear because this is why the hearings on Sonia Sotomayor were important because the Republicans were playing to these fears of "white working class people" that they are the aggrieved not people of color who have been discriminated against for 400 years in this country. It exposes the very real fear of many Americans about the election of Barack Obama and this Supreme Court nominee. Buchanan makes no bones about saying it out loud. Twenty years ago this would have been called racism. Today, in 2009 we have leaped back so far this is political dialogue.

For the record, I attended CUNY law school in Queens, NY easily the most diverse law school in the nation based on race, ethnicity, gener and sexual orientation. It isn't even close when you do the comparisons. The value of that classroom, to hear the voices of so many who are underrepresented in the mainstream dialogue will serve me for the rest of my life. Without it, I almost attended many other law schools, I do not know if I would have learned the same breadth and depth of knowledge and experience, in my opinion the most important part of being a lawyer is empathy, just as Barack said that he wanted in his choice for the Supreme Court. Empathy can bring down nations, cultures, my professor of Political Communication from Salem State theorized it is the very thing that brought eastern Europe back into the fold.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Criminalizing Poverty: "We Get the Government We Deserve"

Two National Homeless advocacy groups singled out Los Angeles as the meanest city in the United States for the criminalization of poverty and homelessness. It's so called "Safer City Initiative" punishes people for having a roof over one's head. Instead of criminalizing torture or say widespread theft of the American pocketbook via banks, financial institutions and Congress, we punish poor people and the homeless, for what? Being poor. Welcome to disreality. To the right is tent city in Orlando.

Some of the other initiatives that serve the national interest are making it illegal to sleep or sit on a sidewalk, prohibitions against begging or god-forbid panhandling, selective enforcement of loitering and jay walking sought to put homeless behind bars making it more difficult to find a job once released. The Ten Meanest cities in order based on this study are: (some may surprise you)

1) Los Angeles
2) St. Petersburg, FL
3) Orlando, FL
4) Atlanta, Ga
5) Gainsville, FL.
6) Kalamazoo, MI
7) San Francisco
8) Honolulu
9) Bradenton, Fl
10) Berkeley

Four Florida cities, yikes. All warm climates outside of Kalamazoo. What's going on there? And cities that are perceived as "progressive" such as Berkeley and San Francisco that have some of the more draconian measures against homeless are on the list. When I visited San Francisco for the first time it shocked me how many homeless were on the streets and how mean the daily papers were about it. I guess progressive doesn't mean kindness to the poor anymore.

It always struck me as ridiculous that our policies regarding the homeless were so counterproductive. It hit me while living in Hartford, CT while I was working in a homeless shelter, a place I ate my meals five times a week with mostly homeless men, and women who usually had children in tow, many of which had a mental incapacity, that we make it illegal to beg for money or even a meal, yet it isn't illegal to be poor. In fact we like poor people, more to go around for the rich. Now, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in 70 years what is our solution for the poorest of the poor? Jail time. I am thinking this is where the heads of banks belong, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez for you know - stealing money from the public trust and fucking war crimes.

What singles the debate out the most for me is the provisions in the LA budget which is spending 6 million a year to pay for 50 extra police officers who patrol "Skid Row" while budgeting just 5.7 million for homelessness services.

L.A.'s motto might as well be: "Poverty is a crime and we seek to prosecute." Maybe California doesn't deserve a bail-out. Maybe we are all exactly where we should be, the country completely defunct and out of control, the oligarchs in control of the purse strings, and we are angry that a Puerto Rican Supreme Court nominee who climbed her way out of the Bronx to the Federal Bench said she thinks she might make a better decision than white men on a court of law because of her background. Is that really in debate anymore? As Professor Jenny Rivera, one of Sonia Sotomayor's many fedral law clerks used to say to us at CUNY: "Wake up people!"

It was remarked to me on the phone the other night, my mentor giving me advice on a job search: She said: "I am tired of always being disappointed in our leaders, we should all be in the streets, but in the end you know, we get the government we deserve." Tough to disagree with that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A New World Order

I have lived in Brazil for the last five years. The experience has been, to say the least, enlightening. I have begun to understand a country that is in many ways very similar to the US, but in others, completely different. Brazil is a power in South America, and one of the world`s emerging powers, but is still a developing country. It has been a colony like the US, but has nver really outgrown some of its colonial past. Inequality, one of the developing world`s banes, is still huge in Brazil.

But things are changing. One of those things, which most of the world up until now has lived on, is a certain economic dependence on the US. A poor country like Brazil would provide raw materials in exports, and import about everything else. The exchange was not very even-handed, and the big economy, namely the US, would name its price on everything from coffee to rubber to sugar.

Writing in Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stieglitz discusses how the Thirld World may view the future of their relations with the US. As he writes: In much of the world, however, the battle between capitalism and socialism—or at least something that many Americans would label as socialism—still rages. While there may be no winners in the current economic crisis, there are losers, and among the big losers is support for American-style capitalism...Colonialism left a mixed legacy in the developing world—but one clear result was the view among people there that they had been cruelly exploited.

Stieglitz makes a startling point when he describes how many of the same people who were put in charge of dealing with the crisis in Asia in the 1990s are now trying to get the US out of the huge hole it got itself into...a hole created by the same policies that the US hel over countries like Argentina and Brazil. The hypocrisy is not going unnoticed around the developing world.

The contrast between the handling of the East Asia crisis and the American crisis is stark and has not gone unnoticed. To pull America out of the hole, we are now witnessing massive increases in spending and massive deficits, even as interest rates have been brought down to zero. Banks are being bailed out right and left. Some of the same officials in Washington who dealt with the East Asia crisis are now managing the response to the American crisis. Why, people in the Third World ask, is the United States administering different medicine to itself?

Many in the developing world still smart from the hectoring they received for so many years: they should adopt American institutions, follow our policies, engage in deregulation, open up their markets to American banks so they could learn “good” banking practices, and (not coincidentally) sell their firms and banks to Americans, especially at fire-sale prices during crises. Yes, Washington said, it will be painful, but in the end you will be better for it.

It isn`t as if all of these countries don`t want to America back on its feet. They have seen, as he writes, 200 million of the world move into poverty as a direct consequence of the crisis. But what they aren`t so keen on is the need to revert to some American-led paradigm in the future. And they are already changing the way they do things. From China to Brazil, countries in the developing world are taking concrete steps to de-link from the US, and create their own power structures.

As Stieglitz writes: We are no longer the chief source of capital. The world’s top three banks are now Chinese. America’s largest bank is down at the No. 5 spot. The dollar has long been the reserve currency—countries held the dollar in order to back up confidence in their own currencies and governments. But it has gradually dawned on central banks around the world that the dollar may not be a good store of value.

These steps are not what really worries Stieglitz, however. As he writes, he is more concerned about ideas. These countries may just give up on any concept of market economy: The former Communist countries generally turned, after the dismal failure of their postwar system, to market capitalism, replacing Karl Marx with Milton Friedman as their god. The new religion has not served them well. Many countries may conclude not simply that unfettered capitalism, American-style, has failed but that the very concept of a market economy has failed, and is indeed unworkable under any circumstances. Old-style Communism won’t be back, but a variety of forms of excessive market intervention will return. And these will fail. The poor suffered under market fundamentalism—we had trickle-up economics, not trickle-down economics. But the poor will suffer again under these new regimes, which will not deliver growth. Without growth there cannot be sustainable poverty reduction. There has been no successful economy that has not relied heavily on markets. Poverty feeds disaffection. The inevitable downturns, hard to manage in any case, but especially so by governments brought to power on the basis of rage against American-style capitalism, will lead to more poverty. The consequences for global stability and American security are obvious.

If, as he writes, there is not faith or trust in the overall system of trade and interconnectedness, or some some sense of shared values, things will not get better. If the US preeaches anti-protectionism, but puts made in USA clauses in proposals, nothing will improve. Countires around the world will close their doors to each other, and according to Stieglitz, democracy itself will be the next victim: In the developing world, people look at Washington and see a system of government that allowed Wall Street to write self-serving rules which put at risk the entire global economy—and then, when the day of reckoning came, turned to Wall Street to manage the recovery. They see continued re-distributions of wealth to the top of the pyramid, transparently at the expense of ordinary citizens. They see, in short, a fundamental problem of political accountability in the American system of democracy. After they have seen all this, it is but a short step to conclude that something is fatally wrong, and inevitably so, with democracy itself.

Brazil, in a specific example, exports only about 12% of its goods to the US. It has suffered much less than other countries around the world. It seems to have learned lessons that the US taught, but never took to heart. How can American companies, and its government expect the world to take anything that comes with made in USA at face value?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Our Lady of the Blessed Tree

In Limerick, Co. Ireland thousands of people have flocked to a tree stump asking authorities not to remove it. Why? Because they think the Virgin Mary is in it, or is actually it, I can't figure out which. It is on the grounds of a church, mind you, which could make it more possible? The local parish priest, however advised people "not to worship a tree." Sound advice in my opinion.

But, the parishoners are not taking it. Over 2,000 people have signed a petition not to remove the "blessed tree." Noel White says, "nature has a funny way of showing it up and letting it be a freak of nature...but surely whatever it is - it is a good thing to have so many people coming out to pray, especially young people saying the rosary in the church. "Maybe it is our Lady's way of getting us back to the church," he finished.

The Limerick Diocesan response is one of incredulity it seems, "While we do not wish to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything leading to superstition. A vigil was held in the evening for the blessed tree. We were not planning on visiting Limerick on our visit to Ireland. We might have to change that and see "Our Lady of the Blessed Tree."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Are Governors Doomed to Fall?

I have never read the book Freakonomics, but I got to thinking about what the book is about (I've heard). The book, from what I gather, links seemingly unconnected realities, creating or attempting to prove a causal link between one and the other. For example, people who eat low-fat diets are more likely to commit murder.

So, in light of the endless list of governors, such as the back-in-the-media Sarah Palin, I began to wonder if there would bew any way to link the demise of certain individuals to the fact that they made the decision to run for governor and then, somehow, got elected. In other words, the question I would like to know the answer to is this: is there an unusually high percentage of governors who have been forced to resign or been involved in some scandal when compared to other public positions, especially in politics?

Does being governor have the potential of ruining your life? Or is it just that, especially recently, and especially in the God-fearing GOP (but not only...remember New Jersey's own McGreevey hiring his Israeli boyfriend and then having his world explode?), governors just don't know how to avoid getting themselves into a whole heap of trouble?

Is there any governor who is immune to this epidemic of ineptitude and infamy? Is being governor contagious? All I know is that if I am in a statehouse in the next few months, I sure as hell will be wearing a mask. Forget swine flu...the real thing to worry about is getting to close to a governor.