Tuesday, August 30, 2005

We lived on the Gulf Coast in 1977

I worked a construction job on Bay St. Louis in 1977. We lived in a trailer court right on the beach with a view of the water. This was only for a few months, but I remember that all the houses were gone, only the trailers. Up and down the beach highway we could see rows of cement house foundations -- but with no houses on top of them -- all gone from Hurricane Camille in 1969.

By 1977, all the debris had been cleaned up and the beach front boulevard looked nice and natural. I expect that since 1977 they had built it all back up again -- and now a direct hit!

I can imagine families stuck in their cars somewhere, wearing dirty clothes, no place to wash, living on cold snack foods, and being told that they can't go home -- trying to use the toilet in some filthy bathroom used by a hundred other people at a roadside AM PM minimart just to the north of the coast -- worrying about the family pets left behind, wondering if they should call the wife's brother who lives in St. Louis and they could stay there for a few weeks, except all they really want to do is go home, and trying not to think that their jobs are gone too.

It's miserable, but sometimes people rise to the occasion -- and giving a stranger a clean glass of water or a fresh, hot meal can be the greatest of miracles.

Here's a story I wrote about the time we lived on Bay St. Louis in 1977:

We Lived on the
Gulf Coast Once Before

We lived on the Gulf Coast once before. It was in the fall and winter of 1977, the year Eugene was born. We had a little rented trailer at Crain’s Trailer Court in Long Beach, Mississippi. I have to tell you about this because Pappy Crain was the world’s meanest landlord, he was a redneck’s redneck. They said he knew a lot of gangsters in New Orleans. He was getting pretty old, but he had a young wife who was fat and ugly and several miserable looking small children hanging about listlessly. It was rumored around the trailer court that Pappy kept one child tied up in a room and never let him out. He was a snaky old bastard.

A word about trailer courts: they are the aluminum slums of the New South. No more tarpaper shanties, not today. Just buy twenty or thirty trailers, line them up in a row, connect to septic tanks, gravel the driveway, add electricity and start charging rent by the week or the month. The place will fill up quickly with the upwards, downwards, and more to the sideways in mobility.

We fit that last category, being headed from one place to another. Actually it was Vicksburg, Mississippi, where we had moved from.

Our journey had begun in Chicago. Eugene had just been born. Tommy, my seven-year-old stepson, had come back to live with us after a long soap-opera child custody battle between Susan and her parents. Her well-heeled parents didn’t care for our careless lifestyle and had made things very difficult for her and me. We decided to go someplace where they wouldn’t come looking for us, and besides that Chicago was getting too tough.

I was out of work and couldn’t find a job. Somebody had stolen my car right out of the alley in the back of the apartment -- on a Sunday morning, after we had come back from church. Susan thought that Chicago was too scary for Tommy to play in the streets.

Well, my mother, who lived in the suburbs, bought a new car, and gave us her old 1967 Buick Electra, a car big enough to go camping in. We sold our stereo and a few other goods and hit the road.

We ended up in Mississippi because Susan is from Oklahoma and was used to rednecks. I was in my anti-intellectual mood and didn’t mind them either. And because the state of Mississippi did not have mandatory public education -- Susan wanted to teach Tommy at home. Finally, Mississippi was the last place on earth that her parents would expect us to move to -- we wouldn’t be found out.

We had a nice trailer, it was on the front row facing the beach. We could step out the door, cross the highway, and go beachcombing. We could look right out the living room window at the surf. It was an old trailer with real wood paneling that gave it a certain warmth.

The trouble was the living room windows which were those peculiar louvered models. And it was winter; the winds blew off the gulf and the louvered windows leaked like crazy. We covered the windows with cardboard and ruined the view.

I shouldn’t have done that -- block my own view -- it was the beginning of a string of bad luck. Years later I still regret it. I could have figured something else out, like hanging clear plastic vinyl. Anything but cardboard blocking out the light and casting a shadow over my family’s soul, ruining the only decent thing we had.

To make it short, after a while we got on the bad side of Pappy Crain and he ran us out of the trailer court and we got so scared that we didn’t stop running until we got to my sister’s house in Venice California, where we lived for six months and that is a story in itself that I will get to later.

At Pappy Crain’s we lived across the driveway from Ray Lloyd, the “lead man” on the pile driving crew out on the construction job where I was working. We were building this giant chemical construction plant for DuPont. It would be for the manufacture of Titanium Dioxide which is the pigment in white paint. Three thousand men worked there, erecting dozens of industrial strength buildings and large chemical-cooking facilities connected by miles of pipes. DuPont must make a lot of white paint because we were building a plant to make it by the railroad tankcar load, in vats the size of a house.

The plant was out in the middle of a large and pristine swamp on the edge of Bay St. Louis, some sixty miles east of new Orleans. The environmentalists didn’t want the plant there and made protests , but men came from hundreds of miles for the work, to live in the trailer camps, and to collect the high construction wages.

I had been working in a pallet factory in Vicksburg for $2.35 per hour. I was getting $3.50 per hour building this plant, so it was a lot better.

But it was winter and it was really cold working outside everyday. I was on the labor crew. Besides picks and shovels, we used gas-powered wheelbarrows, sort of a modern-day contraption which is hard to describe -- basically it was a three-wheeled cart and you didn’t have to push it with a heave and a ho. It went by itself and you just steered it, but the rest was plain old shovel work.

We wore a lot of clothes to work: long johns, knit caps under our hardhats, pounds and pounds of clothes. There were several of us from the trailer court who made the 15-mile drive to the worksite, leaving early in the morning before sunrise, driving by the edge of the bay, over a small country road that was built for quieter times -- the road was getting beaten to death by heavy truck traffic. I couldn’t hurry -- it was warm in the car, the warmest I would be all day.

And it was bitter cold at the site. This kind of inspires a man to keep on working. On a shovel crew you have to pace yourself, especially if you’re experienced, which is to say, getting older -- work hard enough to stay warm, but slow enough to last all day.

And besides that, you’re not going to work yourself to death for H.B. Zachary Construction Company with world headquarters in San Antonio, and enormous projects going on all over the world.

Everything came out of a computer, the whole project, down to every little nut and bolt. The computer was in a complex of temporary trailer offices, relaying commands and instructions down from one level to another until it got down to the area supervisor who was a human being that I saw walking around. I could tell who he was by the color of his hard hat. It was gold.

The carpenters wore red hardhats. They were liberals: they had two women working on their crews. Some carpenters had wire-rimmed glasses. Electricians wore blue hardhats. The cement crews were all black men and they wore grey hardhats. The electricians, carpenters and welders were all white.

We were the laborers, proud of our green hats. We were integrated, black and white together. Our foreman was a tall, fat fellow with glasses and a skinny nose. His name was Bob, I don’t remember that for certain. but I will not forget his one-gallon-size stainless steel thermos that he guzzled coffee out of. He used a cork for a stopper.

Serious workers only use stainless steel thermoses. A plastic quart-size thermos costs about $8, but they will break in a week. It would be awfully dainty of a fellow to own a plastic thermos. If you’re serious, get stainless -- it will last a lifetime. You could run over it with a truck and it won’t break.. The trouble is that they cost $35, which I didn’t have to spare.

But Bob, he was very serious -- one-gallon size and stainless all the way. He was a contented fellow in his way. Laborer is the lowest class of worker, so the labor foreman was lower than the other foremen. But Bob was still a foreman, so he didn’t have to work. He didn’t seem to have any envy for someone else. He didn’t lord it over us. He would even pitch in from time to time, and he didn’t care if anybody noticed. He acted friendly toward the crew and didn’t worry that we might abuse his authority.

Naturally I liked him. He had such an unashamed attachment to his thermos jug, such contentment, knowing that he would never run out of scalding-hot, sweet coffee.

When I saw him driving up in his pickup, I felt no anger or fear or resentment, no childish urge to misbehave or act defiant. I would have worked even harder for him except that would have helped Mr. H.B. Zachary to get even richer, and Bob didn’t want that anymore than I did.

I worked the pick and shovel crew for a while, and then they put me on pumps, which was a lot easier. We had to keep water out of the holes. Since we were working in what had been a swamp, water had a tendency to collect anywhere the bulldozers carved out a hole.

We set up gas-powered pumps by the holes. We took a flexible hard-rubber hose about twenty-feet long, with a round screen at the end to keep out debris, and ran that into the deepest part of the whole. Then we strung out rolls of canvas hose out the other end of the pump, maybe a long way, to a collecting pond.

That was it. Mostly we would lean against something convenient, holding on to a shovel for the sake of propriety, and watch the pump. As long as the pump was working we didn’t have to look busy when somebody important drove by on inspection. We got these tours from DuPont VIPs. They wore tan topcoats, three-piece suits, and honorary white hardhats.

It was a ritual. The cars halt. The VIPs emerge, peering closely at some equipment, striding manfully through a modest mud puddle, acquiring dirt on their shoes and hands-on experience, then quickly back into the car.

I kept an eye on how clean the water was coming out of the pump. Being an environmentalist myself, I felt compromised working for DuPont De Nemours et Fils. Imagine the intense chemical poisons this plant would produce. Think of the slick public relations work, the public tours, the press releases to convince everybody that Bay St. Louis would stay pure -- “the water will stay clean, we will never hurt the oysters, don’t be alarmed, we’re experts.”

But there I was on the inside. Hey, where was I supposed to work? Mississippi is full of little backwoods sweatshops, where they work you half to death on the minimum wage. Men came from all over the South to work for DuPont because the money was good.

And they tried to keep things clean too. Very neat and tidy. One of my co-workers got very seriously cussed at by a supervisor because had dropped a gum wrapper on the ground.

It was true, I never saw old coke cans or brown lunch bags on the ground. It was a clean place. I had the job one day of cleaning up after a truck spilled some oil on the ground. They told me to dig it all up and put it in the wheelbarrow, which I did, several loads of it. I was very conscientious to get it all, but then nobody explained to me where I was supposed to dump it, so I kind of left in a corner someplace where it wouldn’t show.

Still, the water we pumped out was clean, except for the mud. There was no oil sheen or strange smells.

Later we had to work nights on the pumps, when the whole work site was empty. I drove out about 10 p.m. The huge parking lot was empty. Walking through the gates was liking walking through a ghost town, brightly lit with white mercury lights. The site was the size of a town of 10,000 people, with streets, towers, rail sidings, warehouses, and offices. It was a chemical city, and not a soul in sight on a cold, lonesome January night.

There were three of us guys in the front seat of a pickup truck late at night with the motor running, the windows open a crack, and the radio on, a little small talk, a little coffee, whiling the night away. Sometimes the pump would clog up and we would have to go out into the cold, cold night and wade into the deep, muddy water to move the intake hose to a better position, or just to shake some junk off the screen. Anything more than 15 minutes was bad -- boy, that will wake you up at 3 a.m.

In all, it was a nice place to work. I only quit because of the trouble we had at the trailer park, when we decided to head to my sister’s house in California. I kind of enjoyed being part of a project with 3,000 men. It must have been that way when the pyramids were built, or the medieval cathedrals -- the mass, group feeling. We took some pride in our work, we enjoyed each other’s company, all out there in the swamp building a new chemical city.

But I started to tell this story about the work because I was thinking about Ray Lloyd on the pile driving crew.

He was the lead man. The lead man is part of the crew and so not above the others, but the foreman passes his orders along through the lead man, at least on a pile driving crew. I don’t know if this set-up is widespread in the construction business. It may have been set up just for Ray, as a way of taking advantage of his talents.

The pile driver makes a tremendous amount of noise. The piles are fifty feet long and weigh in the tons. When the crane lifts them up, they swing and sway in the wind, and some men work down deep underneath the equipment in the hole.

Ray had a tremendous loud, brass voice, even operatic, except it was ignorant and twangy. Since I was on the pumps nearby, I had plenty of time to observe Ray standing there at a strategic location midway between the crane, the pile driver, and the hole, bellowing out commands and making intricate hand gestures like a traffic cop -- truly a dramatic role.

When Ray hollered, everybody heard it, and he had great style. He only did half as much work as anybody else and only important stuff. You see, they had to find something for Ray to do. He wasn’t smart enough to be the foreman and actually understand the grand scheme of things. On the other hand he has much too tall and big and self-important to perform lesser labor. So they hit upon relaying commands as his special task.

Ray lived next door to us at the trailer park with his young wife and two kids. He had an older ex-wife and a teenage son. I would go over to his trailer at night for a game of chess. If I started winning and took his rook, Ray would start to get huffy and a little unhappy, maybe bark an order at his wife, or see something on the news and say, “why those dirty bastards...”

The room would start to blacken -- Ray had this subtle way about him. Besides, when he was happy, he was just a big teddy bear. So I would let him take a couple of my pieces. It made Ray feel better if he won.

We left Mississippi in January, 1978, on account of the fight I got into with Pappy Crain. It was Susan’s fault. She is a sweet tender woman, very true and loyal, and her heart is good; but sometimes her mind doesn’t work quite right.

We were very poor. I wouldn’t say it because it is so sentimental, but at Christmas we had enough money to buy Tommy a bike or to pay the rent for the week, but not both. Susan and I argued and she won. We bought the bike. It was a victory for the spirit of the season, but Susan should have realized that we needed to lay low with the landlord, a man who could have beat Scrooge himself at a game of poker.

Although she wanted to teach Tommy at home, it was driving her crazy having him around all day. She could not discipline him without getting right down and walloping the lad.

That wasn’t the problem. it was the oven -- it didn’t work. And she insisted that I had to talk to Pappy Crain about it and get it fixed. I wasn’t so sure. The trailer court looked like the kind of place that if the roof didn’t leak and the heat was on, you didn’t bother the landlord about any little thing.

But she pushed me into it, and I got Pappy Crain to say he would fix it. So he came over and shut the gas off to our trailer. Now Susan can get very paranoid, and besides Pappy was a scary guy. She started screaming at me because she thought Pappy had shut the gas off because he was mad at us. I tried to explain to her that he had shut the gas off only to fix the oven. But she kept screaming and telling me to do something and saying I was no good.

When she got like that I would be more scared of her than somebody like Pappy, even if he was with the Mafia. So I told him to turn it back on, and he said he wouldn’t, and I yelled at him, and he yelled back. And then I picked up a shovel and swung it at him and missed.

Jeez, that was stupid. He just walked off. The next day a really mean looking sheriff in plain clothes came to the door and told us we had 48 hours to get out and we did.

We sold our color TV and our Buick, gathered up our meager possession and our cat and bought bus tickets for Los Angeles. The bus driver made us put the cat off in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But there were some pleasant moments at that trailer court on the beach. Where else could we afford a home on the ocean? not Malibu or Cape Cod.

I used to cross the highway and stroll up and down the hard sand beach, gathering pieces of driftwood. Winter is the best time for driftwood collecting because the stormier weather washes up pieces and because there are fewer people on the beach looking for stuff. I didn’t gather branches or limbs, I preferred old boards.

It’s like getting a free piece of wood, already washed by the waves, feeling salty and clean and refreshed. And a painted piece of wood is really good. Usually the painted piece is half-cracked and peeled, and contrasts very nicely with the grey-colored wood. The grain is often raised and fibrous; the edges are rounded and soft.

Beachcombing is a way of life, like surfing, fishing, or hanging out on the dock, watching the boats coming and going, watching the tide come in -- right there is work for a lifetime.

But we left the Gulf Coast and lived in Los Angeles for the next six months. Then, when Susan became pregnant with Eva, we left for the Skagit Valley in Puget Sound, where we lived for the next seven years.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Seven Columns from the Wilson County News

Seven Columns from the Wilson County News. The Wilson County News is a weekly newspaper published in Floresville, Texas, a small town one hour to the southeast of San Antonio. It has a circulation of 8,000 plus, making it the second biggest weekly newspaper in Texas. Elaine Kolodziej is the founder and editor of this paper. Twenty years ago Elaine took over a small shopper and just built it up year by year, increasing the circulation and advertising revenue and making the very difficult shift from free distribution to 100% paid circulation.

I like Elaine’s style. She’s 59, Catholic, a grandmother, always lived in Floresville, hasn’t traveled much, and married to a man named Al.

Her paper is conservative and locally proud in the Texas tradition. I bugged her for about four months to let me start a column in her paper – because I was looking for a strong editor to work with and that she is. Mainly, in the emails we kicked back and forth, and in reading her editorials, I discovered that I understood her very well. Geez, I can’t stand being confused anymore. Now the style of these columns is quite different than what I write for the Internet. That’s because I’m writing in a newspaper, in print, to a conservative audience in a small town in Texas.

My favorite is the one titled, “America is My Home” because it is so sentimental and you can get away with that in Texas – me talking about my Dad and the time he took me fishing. It brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it.

But the best one of these columns might be the last one titled “It’s Not About The Oil,” about a friend of mine, Eli Ben-Zaken, who lives in Israel and has a vineyard. He makes fine wine – well, read it:

Botswana – one African country that is not a disaster. Last week U.S. Rep. Ron Paul said that “government-to-government foreign aid doesn’t work and it never has.” I bet some foreign aid has worked somewhere – the Marshall Plan after World War II being one example, but by and large he’s right, especially when it comes to Africa. I would state it another way – you can’t send good money to a bad government and expect results.

It’s a fact that the African people are much poorer than we are. It’s also a fact that Africans love their own children just as much as we do, and when the full moon shines on Texas, that same moon is shining over the African land. Botswana is just to north of South Africa and almost the same size as Texas. Botswana is hot, dry and mostly flat with grasslands sprinkled with acacia trees that look much like a mesquite. In Botswana they suffer from droughts and their farmers look up at the stark blue sky and try to worry up a cloud burst – sound familiar? They raise cattle on huge ranches, and they raise cotton and peanuts where they can irrigate. It’s too bad they don’t have any oil, but they did get lucky in 1974 when they discovered the world’s largest diamond mine on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

Luck won’t make you rich for long. The amazing thing about Botswana is that they have a half-way decent government. They actually had a President who lost an election and stepped down from office to let the winning candidate take over – that’s talking my language. And the government sold the diamond mining rights to a large corporation – but unlike most of the leaders in Africa, they did not stick the money in their pockets, but dispersed it equally among all the citizens. Consequently their currency, the Pula, is the strongest in Africa. Pula is an African word for rain, because rain=wealth in their land.

The people of Botswana are much poorer that we are, but they have a future – they are headed in the right direction. They have a good tourist and safari business, because they have protected their wildest game lands and turned them into national parks.

Do you want to help the people of Africa? Take a safari in Botswana. It’s spendy all right. Counting airfare you’ll need at least $4,000, but you’ll have the vacation of a lifetime. Your money will be going into a good place and you’ll see Africa for yourself and be your own expert.

Short of that, you can learn a huge amount about Africa off the Internet. Just put Botswana into Google – pretty soon you’ll have an email buddy over there who can tell you all about it.

Also there are private agencies, faith-based and otherwise, in Botswana that deal with social and environmental problems – small outfits with a low overhead – places where your donation will have some mileage. I can recommend them if you contact me.

AIDS is a major epidemic in Botswana, but they have a health care system, private and public, that is making some progress – at least honestly confronting the problem.

Here’s the way I see it. If the people of Botswana can make their country a good place with a democratic government and the rule of law, then we can help them make it a better place. It’s not about guilt – that’s phony. Let the historians sort out the colonial past, and let us stay with the current problem. Our wealth did not create African poverty. Our government can send increased aid to Africa, but only if we get awfully picky about where we send it.

I have to say one more thing about Botswana, and you might thinking I’m stretching it – but if ever go there bring along your Dolly Parton and George Jones tapes because they really like American country music – I ain’t lying.

Do You Trust Bill Gates? Do you trust Bill Gates? You already do trust him if your computer runs on Windows. More than 90 percent of the world’s computers use the operating system that Bill Gates developed. That made him the world’s richest man, with a personal fortune valued at $46.5 billion. He built Microsoft from the ground up. His competitive drive and fierce desire to win left him with no personal life until he married Melinda French in 1994. Marriage being good for most men, Melinda helped Bill to broaden his outlook – there’s more to life than that darn computer, she must have said. And Bill, being the world’s richest man, felt like he was just running up the score at that point in his life. He could have taken up golf or learned to play the violin – challenging pursuits, no doubt, but not hard enough for Bill Gates. He determined that he would rid the world of some of the common diseases, such as malaria, dysentery and AIDS. Now, short of world peace, that’s about the hardest problem I can think of.

I trust Bill Gates. I don’t mean that he’s the most honest or most virtuous man I know, but I am very impressed by his competence and determination. I expect that if he sets a goal, even one as difficult as this one, then he might achieve it. I also trust him not to give his money away in a woolly-headed way. Gates worked for his billions, and he will only donate his money to those groups who will keep it working. No longer obsessed with profit, Gates, as a philanthropist, is obsessed with tangible results and he’s still keeping score. He’s 50 years old, in good health, and he has donated $21 billion so far to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to combat various diseases and to fund educational efforts. Almost one billion of that money has gone to fight against malaria – far more than the combined aid of all the world’s governments. Do you think he’s wasting his time? Do you think he’s become a misguided idealist?

Malaria was a scourge in the southern United States until the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when we built the Panama Canal and our government invested great effort in combating malaria and the other tropical diseases that were killing the canal workers. That knowledge was used, through public health money and private charity, to rid the United States of malaria.

American drug companies work on a free market for-profit system. The bulk of their research and development efforts goes towards the cure and prevention of heart disease and cancer – these are the maladies of prosperous countries. In short, they make pills for people who can afford to pay for them. That doesn’t make them the bad guys – but they have no financial incentive to find a cheap vaccine for malaria. So Gates put up the money, $168 million, and then arm-twisted Merck, a major pharmaceutical, to match that with another $50 million. I like that – you put enough Ph.D’s to work with their microscopes and they might come up with something.

Your children won’t get malaria and neither will mine. You might catch a dose of it from traveling in a tropical country, and it’s no picnic to suffer from that fever, but the doctor is at hand and you’ll get the medicine you need and you’ll recover.

But other people, African people, children you’ve never met in places you’ve never been, are being killed by this same disease. I know it says that the poor will always be with us and that we will always suffer from man’s inhumanity to man and that we need to take care of our own families first and foremost. But this is the challenge and the interesting thing about Bill and Melinda Gates – they’re not asking you for money because they already have it. They’re asking you – “What are you going to do about this?”

What’s Going Right in Iraq? Fourteen Marines died in western Iraq last week when their troop carrier was blown up by a huge roadside bomb. The vehicle burst into flames and flipped over. Only one Marine survived the attack. Most of the dead were from the same reserve unit, the Third Battalion, 25th Marines, based in Brook Park, Ohio, near Cleveland.

These were not the only American deaths in Iraq last week but this one hit me hard. I felt helpless, frustrated and mad – not mad at anyone, just mad. My life is good. I go to work, I enjoy the summer weather, and I’m looking forward to the weekend when I can relax on the beach. I have a family, good friends, good health, and a decent income. I’m grateful for all this.

But the difference between my life and those military families back in Ohio – it’s too great. I can’t imagine how they’re feeling. And those service people in Iraq, facing danger, homesickness and terrible heat and me just fiddling with the barbecue in the backyard. I get frustrated watching the war on TV or reading about it in the newspapers, so I need to do something.

I could bake cookies and send packages, but I don’t have that skill. I could be an armchair general and send the President a detailed memo on how to conduct the war, but I somehow I think George Bush already has plenty of advice. I could engage in debate and discussion with those who oppose the war effort – that’s a good thing to do, but only when I have the patience not to call them idiots.

No, what I do – it’s a small thing but it matters – is study the history of the Middle East. That’s it. I read books and it gets very interesting. For instance, the Americans are certainly not the first army to occupy Iraq. You can start with Alexander the Great, who conquered Mesopotamia in 331 B.C. He died a young man, but his generals ruled Babylon for many generations and introduced the teaching of Greek culture.

The Roman Emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 112 A.D. But the next Emperor, Hadrian, realized it was too much trouble and too far away from Rome. So he evacuated Babylon and left it to the Persians. Well, how do you say “cut and run” in Latin?

But the real doozies were the Mongols. Genghis Kahn’s very own grandson, a real nice guy by the name of Helagu, invaded Mesopotamia in 1258 A.D. with several hundred thousand horsemen. They did not stop to give out candy to the children. They had no plans to restore democracy or rebuild the infra-structure. They were just bad. They burned Baghdad to the ground. They put women and children to the sword. They built hills of skulls and severed heads as a means to terrify the people. They destroyed the irrigation works to prevent farming.

The people of Iraq remember the Mongols and their savagery. They also remember Alexander the Great who ruled fairly. “Iskander” is the Arabic way to say Alexander and it is still a name of honor in their country.

In fact Mesopotamia has been invaded many times, and the country has been ruled by many people, and known by many names. Today we call it Iraq.

The best place to start reading is with the books of Bernard Lewis. He is a widely respected Middle Eastern scholar, a strong supporter of our Iraq policy, and a frequent adviser to the White House. He writes his books in a popular style, not for professionals. Try What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East or The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

If the War on Terror matters, if it’s important for American armed forces to occupy Iraq, then it’s good to know why we are there. Learning the history of that country – the culture, the riches, the wars and disasters – helps to make sense of things. I think everybody can do something. What are you doing?

America is My Home. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. One year my parents took the family on a vacation to California – driving across the country with five kids in a 1956 Buick. I don’t know how they put up with us – we used to fight to get a window seat. Dad had a great deal of patience, although he did threaten to put us all up for adoption in Nebraska.

We saw Yellowstone, Yosemite and Disneyland. We swam in the Pacific Ocean, and then we saw the Grand Canyon on the way home – going back to Chicago on Route 66 when it was two lanes of blacktop.

We stopped at a motel in Arkansas and the next day Dad hired a boat and a guide to float down the White River and fish for rainbow trout. My big brother got to go with him, but my Dad said there wasn’t room enough in the boat and I couldn’t come. That was the saddest day ever in my life. I didn’t act up, but I had tears running down my ten-year-old face – just about the coolest fishing trip of all time and I couldn’t go.

Dad was soft-hearted and he knew he had made kind of a problem, leaving me behind, let alone my three sisters and Mom. Poor guy – he had just about finished three weeks of showing five kids the best and grandest scenery in the U.S.A and all he wanted to do was go off for the day and catch some fish.

He deserved that much and we knew it. Later on, when I was fourteen, I got that special fishing trip, just me and him in northern Minnesota and I caught a smallmouth Bass on a fly rod, and that was the happiest day ever in my life.

Dad owned a small business, but he had national customers – from the West Coast to the East Coast, all around the Midwest and in the South too. Dad took us on other driving vacations around America and those trips formed in me a kind of attitude – that America is my home, and not just one part of it. He never said that Chicago was better than New York. He never said the Midwest was better than the South. In a small way he favored Missouri because he grew up there, but he had friends in almost every state and a kind word for the local scenery wherever that might be.

I am the same way. I love the whole country from one end to the other. I understand regional pride and some good-natured rivalry, but I am disturbed by this Red StateBlue State talk, that we are a divided nation with cultural differences, that California is better than Texas or vice versa, or that New York City is the worst place in the country – or else it’s the best place. I’ve been to Manhattan. New Yorkers are as friendly as anybody, except when they’re in a hurry, which is all the time. And people from Boston are much smarter than the rest of us, but they can’t help it if it’s true. People from Missouri are stubborn. Texans have done a little bragging. This is all just fun, but I don’t want it to go any farther than that.

The differences between Americans are debatable. Try to look someone in the eye, not getting mad, and just say, “I don’t agree with you.” That’s respectful. That’s how one American talks to another. Heck, I don’t agree with anybody. I saw a man the other day with an unusual number of tattoos, and I did have the urge to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that he had scribbled an inky mess all over his body. But I just smiled – my social tolerance was being tested.

I’m not from a Blue State or a Red State. Mr. Lincoln said, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” He enforced our Union. He settled that question. We are not going our separate ways.

Will Wal-Mart Always Be on Top?
Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest business with annual sales of more than $250 billion. When you get that big, you have critics. Labor activists call Wal-Mart a low-wage sweat shop, small local merchants are threatened by the competition from Wal-Mart’s legendary low prices, and those of us with “better taste” just think Wal-Mart is tacky.

I look at the history of business in America, and I don’t worry about it one way or another. What about IBM? They used to call it “Big Blue” back when IBM had close to a monopoly on the mainframe computer business. And the critics cried, “IBM is taking over the country. We better do something about IBM’s monopoly before they control everything.”

Didn’t happen. Instead we got the PC and the Apple personal computer in the 1980s. These new computers were smaller, cheaper, and very easy to use, and pretty soon they were in everybody’s home and office. IBM didn’t take over the country because some smart competitors came up with a better idea. One of those competitors was Microsoft and the Windows operating system developed by Bill Gates. Gates became the richest man in the world and Windows runs on 90 per cent of the world’s computers. Monopoly! Bill Gates will control our minds and take all our money! Stop him before it’s too late!

Won’t happen. Bill Gates is not the only smart man in America. Somebody will have a better idea. I use Windows on my computer, but I’m not married to it. I just switched from Internet Explorer, the Microsoft browser that almost everybody uses. I’m trying out Mozilla Foxfire instead. It’s a new product. Maybe it’s better than the one from Microsoft – I’ll let you know.

Let nature take its course in the business world. The time was if you bought a car it was made in Detroit by General Motors, Ford or Chrysler. The Big Three owned the car market well into the 1970s. Along came the Japanese models – Toyota, Honda, and Datsun – funny-looking little cars, but they ran and ran and ran and hardly needed fixing and people started buying them. We beat Japan in the war, and they turned around and beat Detroit in the car business. I’m a holdout myself. For me it always had to be a Ford, but I finally broke down last year and bought a Toyota and it runs really good.

Boeing had a monopoly on the commercial jet market until AirBus came along from Europe and took half of it away. Boeing screamed about the subsidies AirBus received from the governments of England and France, but the airlines don’t care about that. They only want to buy the best jet they can get for the least amount of money. That’s business.

It goes on like, even back to the railroads in Texas one hundred years ago. Back then you paid the railroad to ship your cotton or wheat to market and you didn’t argue about the price. The railroads made a lot of money – until Henry Ford began manufacturing cars by the millions and people found another way to bring their goods to market.

I used to get my oil changed at Wal-Mart. That’s a thirty mile round trip where I live, but it only cost $18. Then one day I came for an oil change and there was a long line and a forty-five minute wait. I didn’t like that. Now I get my oil changed here in town. It costs $24 but they also wash the car and vacuum the inside and I never have to wait. I skip the thirty-mile drive to Wal-Mart – that’s more than a gallon of gas, and gas isn’t getting any cheaper.

Wal-Mart always wins on the lowest price, but we also shop for value, for service, and for convenience. Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest business today, but I bet you that ten years from now it won’t be. The history of business in America shows the dominance of one business model only to be replaced by a newer, more competitive model. So I won’t join the Wal-Mart critics, I will just let nature takes its course.

It’s Not About the Oil. The war on terror is not about the oil. It’s not about weapons of mass destruction or America’s power to rule the world, and it’s not about Christians fighting Moslems – it’s about Eli Ben-Zaken, a friend of mine who lives in Israel.

Ben-Zaken was born in Cairo, Egypt, where his family had roots for many generations, but the Jews were kicked out of Egypt when Israel declared independence. Ben-Zaken became a refugee as a small child. His family moved to Italy where he grew up. He attended college in England and then settled in Israel as a young man. He first found work as a chicken farmer. Later he opened a restaurant in Jerusalem, which was successful.

But he didn’t like the quality of the local wines he served at his restaurant. Being an enterprising fellow, Ben-Zaken thought he could do better, so he bought some acreage and planted grapes and made his own wine. His first vintage was in 1992, consisting of two barrels, but the quality was very good, and the wine connoisseurs began to seek him out.

He built up his business, and bought more land and planted more grapes. He sent his son, Ariel Ben-Zaken, to study winemaking from the masters in France. He hired his son-in-law, Arnon Geva, to supervise the field crews. He dug out a cellar from the rocks and aged his wines there in oaken barrels.

He named his vineyard Domaine du Castel – the place of the castle -- because it was located near the ruins of a castle built 900 years ago by the Crusaders. The vineyard is in the Judean Hills, 15 miles from Jerusalem, at an elevation of 2,000 feet. The higher elevation protects the grapes from the scorching summer winds and the stony soil is perfect for growing grapes of several varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Domaine du Castel now sells 8,000 cases of wine per year and has an international reputation.

Eli Ben-Zaken, past 60 now, has never been active in Israeli politics. He is a family man and he runs a business. “My purpose is to make a good glass of wine.”

The peace and prosperity of Eli Ben-Zaken’s vineyard is what this war is all about, and our enemies are the people who say that Ben-Zaken has no right to exist – no right to exist!

Forget about the Sunnis and the Shias and the Kurds in Iraq. Forget about Hamas and Hezbollah on the West Bank, and all the factions and quarrels of the Middle East. Forget about the quarrels of Israeli politics between the Labor party and the Likud party and where the boundaries should be between the Palestinians and the Jews, and whether the settlers should stay in Gaza or leave. Just think of my friend Eli. He has a vineyard and he makes wine. He is a good steward of the land. He pays fair wages to his workers. He is free to practice his religion as he chooses. He is free to criticize his government. He is free to succeed or fail in his enterprise.

This is what we protect and defend. How the struggle goes and whether we fight with weapons as we do know, or hopefully negotiate across a table – it’s the same goal – that other people in the Middle East might have the same freedoms and responsibilities as Ben-Zaken has now.

This struggle is not about imposing American values on the Middle East. Ben-Zaken has a great respect for America but he has his own culture and language. He does not wish to imitate American life. Domaine du Castel is his home in the Judean Hills and he is willing to share it with other people.

Like many Israelis, Ben-Zaken says, “I can’t worry too much about the future. Because I am a pessimist I keep my passport in order and my bags packed. I have been a refugee before and I know it could happen again. But because I am also an optimist I am planting more grapevines and believing that Domaine du Castel will still be here for my grandchildren.”

For me, my wish is that soon I can travel to Israel and visit my friend. He says he makes a good glass of wine. I wish to taste it.

Murray Hamilton needs to prune his cherry tree

Murray Hamilton needs to prune his cherry tree,
the one by his garage. It’s too big. I saw it yesterday driving down Caledonia Street past his house. It's beautiful, in perfect proportion, but it’s too big. He said to come and look at it, he’s tired of paying the Arborist $500 for a tree trim.

Murray has a lot of trees in his yard. I think what he needs is some flowers, some perennials. Being a guy, he hasn’t thought of that. He has maintained his shrubbery and lawn quite nicely, even the two big dogs – the dogs have their own dog yard. The fence got a fresh coat of shellac. Everything is under control.

But that’s going to change. My proposal is to introduce dis-order – if he hires me to do some garden work. After all he just got married so his life is going to hell anyway. This is a beautiful woman he married. All the guys say so.
Murray doesn’t have a chance.

Now he must “listen.” I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. Women want attention. Why? Why don’t they just cook and clean and smile? Then they want to have their own lives, which is fine as long as you don’t have to hear about it.

Murray’s going the way of all flesh – he’s becoming a better man, and God help us.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Best of Shipwreck

The Best of Shipwreck. I wrote these passages on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum. I founded a thread in the Chat Room and named it Shipwreck. It quickly became a vehicle for my own passages with daily listeners – Cielo from Israel, Moonbow from Australia, Snowy from the Netherlans, Wales Woman from Alaska, Eco from Sweden, and Clau for Chile – the wide world all over.

I wrote sixty posts. Here are a half-dozen that might be worth reading.

This is important. Last night I was throwing bricks at the raccoons who live in the redwood tree next to my garden house where I sleep. The nerve of those nasty rotters. I was mad. I don't normally throw bricks at people or at animals -- because it is wrong and because I might be caught and be punished.

But last night, I came out of the cabin to take a leak on the bushes, and those nasty hoodlum raccoons were just staring at me, not six feet away. Their insolence! Their lack of respect! Any decent animal would run away and hide at my approach.

The pile of bricks lays by the door. I picked one up and hurled it at the raccoon. I aimed well too. I darn near hit him, but all he did was move back again like Na-na-na-na can't catch me! I was ready to go nuclear after this. I kept hurling the bricks, one after another, about a dozen. There were bricks all over the yard. But the raccoon never moved more than six inches to get out of the way -- little creeps! I don't like raccoons. I went back in the cottage and fell asleep.

I lost my shirt. It's the white and rusty-brown summer shirt that my daughter bought for my birthday last year. It has become my favorite shirt, but I can't find it. I never lose anything. People think I am not possessive because I own so very few things. But I am very attached to the things that I have -- I like to remember where everything is, and I can't find my shirt -- my best shirt.

My second best shirt is the old blue-checked long sleeve shirt, that is so old and soft from extra washing. It is a comfort rag at this point and falling apart. I gave it to Nora, the seamstress, to repair. She will turn the collar and put patches on the sleeves -- This shirt is too precious to throw out, and I am really glad to have a good seamstress.

Today I am wearing my least favorite shirt. It is a vaguely blue plaid short-sleeve shirt, a cotton blended with a touch of polyester (I hate polyester) -- This shirt was a gift from Tony Wolffe, because I stayed at her house in Ohio last year. She loves to give people presents and she gave me this shirt. Normally I wouldn't wear anything with polyester, but Tony is a sweetheart, so her shirt is all right.

My final favorite shirt is the expensive finely blue-checked Burberry that my Mom gave me in 1995. She died in 1996. This is the last shirt she gave me. I almost wore it out, but now I won't wear it. I just keep it to remember her love.

No Croutons on Salad. I talked with my kids on the phone, one hour for each one. My daughter, 26, is wondering whether to go to Chile for a three-week vacation -- or save money and only go to Mexico. She called me three times yesterday to hash out her options and I was bored with the whole thing and feigned interest.

Then I called my son in Boston -- long talk. He dumped a soda on his laptop -- that will cost him $500 for the repair, and his little summer vacation money is gone, although he wasn't feeling too sorry for himself. You can still go to the beach, I told him. Also he got a bad grade in his first semester of graduate school. This was not interesting to me either because he always gets bad grades. He has a great mind, but the actual output is not so hot. The teacher always love him because he is such a good and interesting fellow -- so he always gets through his course with a middling grade. Nothing has changed.

It's the August doldrums. I don't care about anything. This morning at the coffee shop, they tried to serve me coffee in a glass cup. This is so wrong, although it's not actually vile. Coffee should be served in a white or light-colored cup because the white, or say a nice ivory-tone, gives a pleasing contrast to the dark, rich coffee color. But a glass cup is inherently wrong for serving coffee and there will be no discussion about this.

The barista gave me a strange look, after I told her that a glass cup will not do. I fumbled an excuse -- I said, I don't like croutons in salad either.

You see, I'm an easy-going guy, undemanding in so many ways -- but there's just a few things that need to be said, and it's not my personal taste, but a matter of grave importance. I do not have time to explain the wrong-ness of croutons in salad at this point. Just take my word for it.

On the Beach. "On the Beach" That was the great movie from the 1950's about the end of the world from nuclear explosions. It was set in Australia, starring Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner(incredibly sexy). They played Waltzing Matilda and then they all died under the radioactive clouds. It was so sweet and sad.

I only thinks of this because of so many Australians on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum and then I spent the day on the beach yesterday. See how the mind works?

I don't think the end of the world is much of a problem. My saying is "If there's no solution, then there is no problem." The problem is what's in front of me today, the rest is up to Heaven.

Now, ahem, playing Beach Blanket Bingo with JoAnn was extra fun, our day on the beach, nuzzling like baby seals, peering at rocks, and basking in the sun. The fog came in and everyone else disappeared. We ate a picnic lunch. It was quite good all around. I found out her last name and that she is Italian.

Does this mean pasta with extra special sauce? (I'm using food as a metaphor here)

Okay, Okay, it's Monday morning, no more dreaming, I must to work go.

She Called. She called last night and said she was having deep thoughts. I said to her -- good!

I had not been having deep thoughts when she called -- I was having very petty thoughts about all the people around me who do not appreciate what a wonderful and important fellow I am. I was in a complete dither.

But the timing was perfect. In an effort to overcome petty anger, I purchased a bottle of red wine, I then constructed a cheerful fire in the camp and poured myself a glass. It was getting a little better. Just exactly then is when she called. Deep thoughts. She said it was a little scary. I re-assured her.

Then her deep thoughts met my angry petty thoughts and things smoothed out pretty good.

In other news: My seamstress -- everybody should have one -- repaired my favorite blue-checked shirt. She turned the collar and put invisible patches on the sleeves. It feels so good to wear.

Why Men Don’t Go To Yoga. My yoga teacher asked me why men don't go to yoga class, because most of the time I'm the only guy in the class and otherwise it's all women. I told her, "Men don't go to Yoga class because there's no equipment and you don't keep score."

And then I stopped going myself. Too many "ladies in leotards" preening and stretching. If I begin even looking at their bums -- well then there's no point in going at all -- no equanimity.

Still there would be more men in the class if dunja, the teacher, did not make these belittling remarks -- bad habit of hers. She's a very bossy, very directive teacher -- that's not a problem -- you get a really good workout -- but then she spoils it with some snide remarks and then she wonders why the men don't come.

So I haven't been going -- except I ran into Bob this morning and he said he was going. I'm not so busy today. I have had lots of good stretchings of emotions going up and down this week -- so a yoga class would be a good way to bring it all home. --- Bless you all.

She Said No. I went to see the girl friend. We had a wonderful time, walking around, looking at her garden, fixing dinner -- and then premium couch time with her and the kittens while we watched a movie.

She fixed me a bed on the floor and I spent the night. In the morning she volunteered that she couldn't make love to me because she was still in love with her ex-husband. Did I just hear a woman saying No? It sounded like music. What does No mean? She didn't say No to some guy walking down the street -- but she said it to me in a very tender way. Kind of a melting No.

Then she baked a blueberry coffee cake for breakfast, and I told her about the plans I'm making -- she is a very good strategic thinker.

I noticed that she is energetic and a bit fiery. This is a woman who could lose her temper. Mama!

It Keeps Getting Better.
It's all these stupid rules that you read in the books of wisdom -- they always say that you can't hold on to things because it's always changing -- who made up this rule? -- I would like to know that, because things are going well for me right now and I would strongly prefer that they continue to go this well for at least a few weeks or even longer, maybe all the way until Christmas.

Good work at Nora and Fred's garden. Good food and good sleeping at the houseboat under the Yew tree. Good writing for my newspaper column, and good love from my girlfriend -- last night I was writing silly love poems.

And I'm not supposed to hold on to this?

My lunch: two hard-boiled eggs with salt, pepper and mayonnaise, small salad with Italian dressing, soup of chicken and rice. I ate this while reading the Wall Street Journal, which had an interesting article about lobster fishing in Maine.

Reading; I have the fifth Harry Potter book ready to go, but I have paused (recently reading the first four for the first time) because I need to read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

My children's names are Eugene and Eva -- but I shorten that to Eu and Ev. Eugene is a Greek name. Eva is a Hebrew name.

Dry itchy skin -- reported last week -- all gone. The doctor recommended an over-the-counter cream -- that helped. Plus I doused the infected area (a fungus it was) with Vinegar. I think it's the vinegar that really helped.

Awful Girl Friend Stories.
My kids think that worst girl friend I ever had was either Rosana or Laura -- they have a point. Rosana was quite fat -- that wasn't the problem. She actually had a very nice figure with excellent proportions, it was just a great deal wider than some other ladies. I liked her figure, she was all extra. That wasn't the problem. The problem was her obsessive, neurotic talk about her weight, and her diet, and how she didn't look right. I was made to suffer for all the men who had abused her previously, and all I wanted to was have fun. I used to beg her, "Rosana, can we have fun now? Do we have to talk about this?"

Then I moved from the Seattle area to Boston, and Rosana and I wrote each other (before the age of email) these wonderful, scathing, insulting letters --such lovers we were, the letters were actually the best part. All this about 15 years ago. I spoke with her six months ago -- she is still quite a pumpkin.

So there was Rosana, and I'm the first guy who ever loved her for being fat, and she wouldn't let me. After that I had an affair with a married woman who was also an alcoholic -- really smart. Of course I had a good reason -- me and Louise were both lapsed Catholics and we had to get our revenge on the Pope for stulting our adolescent sex lives. And that worked. I'm getting along fine with the Pope now.

I don't understand these people who are "wounded and wary." I mean these singletons who have had bad experiences in love and so must be very cautious and must make great effort to be emotionally self-sufficient. God forbid we should ever need one another -- that is the modern mantra. But I reject it entirely.

I follow the commandment of love and know that we are here on earth to belong to one another. Love is wounding and sometimes fatal, yes?

the usual problem

Everything is just going to hell around here. The usual problem of being broke -- what really depressed me is taking a look at my journal. I stopped writing my journal a few years ago and I never read it, but just once last week I took a quick peak at something I wrote 14 years ago. What depressed is seeing that I have the same stupid problems today that I had 14 years ago. Nothing has changed. Every effort and every struggle has served only to keep my in my present position. Goals that I had set -- never achieved. No wonder I never read my journal.

Then, to sort of climax my misery, I get a phone call from Precious, my ex-wife. I haven't heard from her since early June. Her life is falling apart badly. She is from Zimbabwe. So many of her relatives have died. A phone call from her means that somebody else has died in her family -- people who were my in-laws, people I got to know very well from living with her family.

So she calls. Uncle Milton is dead. Aunt Molly also died, but that was two months ago. Now her daughter, Maureen, has died too. I never liked Aunt Molly. She was a large, ugly and brutal woman, very much unloved by one and all. She made a living selling boiled cows feet at the local beer garden. She lived in a tiny room in back of her father's house. Aunt Molly, if she ever spoke to me, it was only to ask for money. But I am still very sad to hear that she passed away.

Her daughter, Maureen, age about 30, was also a stocky and broad woman, but quite lovely, and did not inherit her mother's foul expression. Maureen was sweet and nice. Precious, my ex-wife, who is 39, spent many hours taking care of Maureen when Maureen was a baby. Precious did the bulk of her mothering chores when she was 7 to 12 years of age. As she said, "I carried Maureen on my back," literally. So Maureen is dead.

Uncle Milton died. He was the third of four brothers. Lovemore Peter was the first-born son and Precious's father. Lovemore Peter was murdered two months ago by government thugs in some dispute over a cow -- basically Lovemore Peter had the cow and the government thugs wanted to eat it..... That was the message from a previous phone call from my ex-wife saying "My Father died, he was killed."

The second son is Smiley, who I liked very much. He is healthy and doing fine as far as I know. The third son was Milton. Milton was very small and slight and almost surely he was gay. A very pleasant man who once had worked as a graphic artist, but mainly did anything he could find.

It was the deterioration of Zimbabwe's economy that killed Uncle Milton. There being no work and no food in Zimbabwe. Milton travelled to Johannesburg to find work as an illegal immigrant. He lived in the Hillbrow section of Johannesburg, which is notorious for its violence. Milton was set upon by robbers and seriously injured. He lived for some time after in the hospital, but finally he died.

What did Aunt Molly and Maureen die of? I learned long ago not to ask. I respect my wife's family. I would not tell them that they have a disease. It is for them to tell me. So they just died.

In fact this is the truth to a large extent. Africans often just die. It's a soul sickness. They just die of their feelings. And so I am very afraid that Precious will die too, as she has been getting sicker and sicker and her voice is getting quieter, and I know she is thinking that she can join her grandfather and grandmother, and her mother and her father, and Aunt Winnie and Aunt Janet, and Maphuto and Veronica and Christopher and Ndlovu and Ndlovu's wife -- all died.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday morning

It's about love and work. Frog Hospital is changing from an email newsletter to a blog. My final Frog Hospital newsletter, numbering 174 in a series going back five years, was titled "Throwing Up the Hands." It was about recent events in Africa. It was also about the best Frog Hospital newsletter I ever wrote. That issue is posted below.

But the technical difficulties involved in my own invented format of an email newsletter were just getting to be too much -- so I am joining the blog world.

The other post is a promotion for my landscaping business. Help! I need work.

In this new format I repeat promises I've made before -- I promise not to waste your time or to write in a self-absorbed manner. And it's always about love and work.

Thank you very much,

Fred Onions

Thursday, August 25, 2005

LaConner Landscapes

(image placeholder) LaConner Landscapes

Landscape Gardening
(image placeholder)

Environmentally focused, specializing in natural, high quality products and design reflecting our customers specific needs and desires.

Design, Installation and Maintenance that suits your dream and fits your budget.

Fifteen years experience, and still learning. Some of the smartest people we ever met are our own customers.

Overhauling your garden is one of our specialties. Have things gotten out of control? You can’t see the garage anymore because of the blackberries, and your little new Azaleas are being choked by crawling Ivy. We can put it back in shape, and put you back in charge of your own garden.

Got neighbor problems? Your flowering cherry tree grows over their fence and they keep hacking off the limbs? Or they have a 12-foot laurel hedge and they haven’t trimmed it in ten years and you can’t see the sun set anymore. Well, LaConner Landscapes has great experience in peaceful compromises and neighborly harmony.

Organic? Almost always. We know a hundred ways to solve problems with pest and weeds without resorting to strong chemicals. However it’s your decision – we can put powder on the roses, or put some Roundup on those weeds that poke in the cracks of the driveway – if you wish.

Do you know exactly what you want?
Then we’ll do exactly what you want.

You’re not sure what you want?
Well, we’re going to listen. If you have some hopelessly vague vision, we can help you flesh it out.

Have a dream, but don’t have the money? We have tricks you never heard of, and the best trick is TIME, because if you want a $10,000 garden, the best way to get that is to invest $1,000 every year for ten years.

Patios? Fences? Gates? Stonework?

Remember – it’s fun to go sailing or play a round of golf, but  the money you put into your garden is an INVESTMENT that will keep growing and increase your property value.

Fred Owens


By Fred Onions

--First a message to Jack Person: Thanks for the check, but I can’t find your email address on my list. Please contact me so I can credit your account.

-- We are now entering the Era of Old Men Falling off Motorcycles. It may not happen this year, but you can see it coming, fellas – the last ride.

-- Napa del Norte is the new name for the Skagit Valley. It’s catching on. LaConner will be re-named Carmel de Fuca.

-- Baseball update. The White Sox have 60 wins, great pitching, great base-running and lousy hitting. This is a classic Chicago team. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals also a have a classic team with big hitters and a big lead in the National League. But the great baseball guru, Kwami Taha, says it doesn’t get serious until August 15. Taha also suggests a long shot to watch -- the Florida Marlins, but he would not confirm the rumor that the Marlins keep a secret, voodoo shrine to Orlando Cepeda in the back of their dugout.

-- Karl Rove doesn’t matter. He’s over-rated, he’s not an evil genius, he’s just another scalawag from Texas. I address these remarks to the Democrats, “You drove Trent Lott out of his position as Majority Leader, and he was replaced with Bill Frist. Did that make you happy?”

-- Now the essay begins.

Throwing up the Hands

Throwing up the hands – it’s a gesture. It does not indicate surrender or despair. It does not mean bewilderment. It just means – well, it’s a gesture, so if you could just visualize this writer throwing up his hands. The topic is Africa.

It’s too easy to find bad news about Africa on the Internet – mainly from the BBC and from the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian. In just two days I picked out these items.

Female Circumcision. Ninety-eight percent of the women in the African country of Djibouti are circumcised – the highest rate in the world. It is a practice that involves cutting away a girl’s inner labia and clitoris, and sewing the wound together, leaving a tiny hole for passing urine and menstrual blood. Despite medical evidence that genital mutilation puts women at risk of infection, pain and complications during childbirth, social pressure is such that most mothers opt to circumcise their daughters.

Quaint. What am I supposed to say? “Whatever floats your boat?” or “Who am I to judge the customs of another people?” Am I supposed to be non-judgmental?

56 killed in tribal raid -- 22 of them were children who died in their school uniforms. It was an old-fashioned cattle raid. The Boranas invaded and attacked a Gabra village. This was in northern Kenya, some hundreds of miles from Nairobi. The attack was in reprisal for Gabra raids on Borana villages. This has been going on for centuries.

Another quaint custom, only now they have semi-automatic weapons.

Also 56 killed – it’s the same number, only a coincidence – but 56 killed and 30 seriously injured when a bus plunged over an embankment in the Asmara district of Eritrea. The bus, “which police believe may have been overloaded,” slipped off the road and down a ravine.

I’m shocked – an overloaded bus in Africa? How unusual. And was the driver dead drunk or merely semi-drunk? If I was driving an overloaded bus with bald tires and poor brakes down a twisting mountain road, I would drive that bus very, very carefully, because I know how to drive. Africans don’t know how to drive. South Africa, which is advanced enough to keep credible statistics, has a traffic fatality rate more than five times greater than in the U.S. One only has to observe truck drivers quaffing beer at a roadside rest area to confirm this.

In Zimbabwe, Basic Goods Vanish as Crisis Deepens. Add to what has been in short supply – gasoline, bread, cooking oil, milk – but add to that soap. Although sometime bread is in short supply even though they have the flour. The reason? There is no fuel for the gas-powered baking ovens. Do not underestimate the informal resourcefulness of African people – their ability to make do, but even so they are living on fumes, while the government continues to tear down houses, stores, and factories, while children are kept from school, while people go hungry and begging.

And to that list of shortages add chlorine to purify the municipal water supply – the water is becoming dangerous to drink in the cities that once had plentiful, cheap potable water for everybody. And now, no soap, and this among the cleanest people I have ever known. Africans are cleaner than Europeans. They smell better, they dress better and they look better. It is pitiful to think they are scarce of bathing supplies.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is going begging to China. Mugabe has an insane hatred of white people that will last until his dying day and may that be soon. Currently presiding over the world’s fastest shrinking economy, Mugabe is leading a delegation to China on July 29 basically to beg for money from his masters. Mugabe has also made deals with the government of Iran, exchanging Iranian oil for mining concessions in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe goes hat in hand to Iran and China. This is nuts. If colonialism was the problem, then independence is clearly not the solution. It would be better to bring back the British – they have mastered the worst of their racism and they are actually good at doing things. The saddest thing about Robert Mugabe is that he hates something that no longer exists – the virulent racism of the 19th century European.

Bono Moves the World with LiveAid concerts for Africa and High-powered Meetings with Bush and Blair. Bono cries, “Double the Aid.” But the African leaders are proud. One Nigerian leader said, “Africa’s image is that of a child. We are infantilized by this campaign. It echoes the condescension of 19th century missionaries who came to Africa to save us from ourselves. All Africans share a bitter memory of discrimination and oppression by colonial powers. What is most hurtful is the arrogance of the Europeans who automatically assume their superiority. We in Africa are considered to be no more than another species of animal in a vast game reserve.”

But it is not condescension, it’s the truth. Africans are not good at government or economy. Wishing they had this competence will not make it so. What are Africans good at – music, athletics, sculpture, and adornment. By adornment I mean what Europeans and Americans call fashion, except that fashion is not a minor art in Africa, it is the equal to any important European art form, and so I call it adornment – meaning clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, and hair style, including that for both women and men, including the past and the present day. Africans are better at this.

Or athletics. It is not condescending for an African to say, “White Men Can’t Jump,” because it’s the truth. That was in the movie of that name, but Woody Harrelson who played the white character opposite Wellesley Snipes in that movie quickly shot back, “You’d rather look good than win.”

“Looking good” is African mastery. “Winning” is European competence. Everybody is good at something. Sexuality, for instance. The lurid fascination that Europeans have for African sexuality indicates European inferiority. Africans do it better, do it more often, and do it more kinds of ways. Africans know what they are doing, and it is natural to take pride in what they are good at. That is not condescension.

It is a cruel twist of fate that Africa is suffering from a massive epidemic of sexual disease, namely AIDS. It cannot be that they will accept teaching on sexual hygiene and technique from their inferiors – the Europeans. Again, this is not condescension, it is the truth. Only Africans can know how to change this. Besides that, it is much too personal – Africans are embarrassed by all this scrutiny.

But it’s different with the economy and the government. Bring back the British, please. They can’t cook and they sure can’t dance, but they’re good at lawmaking and administration, diesel mechanics, and computer software. I would not double aid to Africa as Bono urges, I would bring in people from Europe and Asia, and in several millions, middle class people with modest amounts of capital, with skills and education. I would only require that these new immigrants must learn to speak the local language – this would screen out those few looking for cheap household servants.

But it will never happen. These were the very people, the 4,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe, who were evicted from a country they were born in. I have seen those farms, back in 1997 – they were so beautiful and productive. There was good food. There was good water for everybody. The children went to school. Everybody could read and write. The forest – outside the plowed farmland – was verdant and abundant with wild game. There was one rich white bastard and 300 to 500 farmhands per farm. The rich white bastard was the one who knew how to farm, and the farm fed its own people, and the farm fed millions in the capitol city of Harare, and the southern capitol of Bulawayo, and the farm exported food to neighboring countries. And it could have been better. It was easy, back in 1997, sitting by the swimming pool of the rich white bastard who owned the farm, to devise a critical appraisal of his operation. Since he had a swimming pool for his own family, how come the farm hands had to walk one-fourth a mile to the only tap for their household use? Why didn’t he run a pipeline over to the village, instead of making the women carry water every day?

But it was good water, and it flowed 365 days of year, because the rich, white bastard knew how to maintain the pump.

Now the squatters have invaded the farm. They ran off the rich, white bastard. Someone stole the pump. Instead of walking one-fourth a mile to get clean water, the village women walk a half-mile to a sometimes muddy stream.

Throwing up the Hands

The hardest thing to read was this report by Cathy Buckle about the environmental destruction across these farms. The fences torn down, the forest burned, and the game slaughtered by poachers – all gone. Read her account at

African Tears or http://africantears.netfirms.com/index.shtml

You would think I have no hope, that I am become hard-hearted and bitter, immune to suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do fear that most of Bono’s LiveAid will go to the kleptocrats in African government – the descendants of the chiefs who sold their own people into slavery. In a subsequent essay I will describe some small-scale, low overhead operations in southern Africa that I find worthy of support – conservation projects and community groups.

I close with a note from a friend, a man with a lifetime of experience in southern Africa - - I call him the Great White Hunter behind his back. He said, “Botswana works because it is the size of Zimbabwe with only 1.2 million people and has diamonds – with foreigners managing the mining operations (ex-white South Africans) and mainly white people managing the Safari operations and the flights, etc…almost all on contract so the locals do not feel that the white man is part of their country…..Actually I do not support humanitarian causes. Humanitarian causes just aid the plague of people sweeping across the globe which is slowly, but surely destroying everything in the natural world. I only give money to causes that aid the opposite side of the equation – the Nature Conservancy, Peregrine Fund, Audubon Society, etc.”

I don’t agree, but just like I started this essay “somewhere between blue, gay Canada and the United States of Jesus.” I finish by saying that I have moved away from Bono and closer to the old African hand because his sympathy is less dramatic but far more genuine.

God Bless Africa.

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