Friday, December 26, 2008

Back to the Land

During this past Thanksgiving, an aunt told me that there had been a "back to the land" movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that my grandmother, unhappy in her role as a mother and housewife
in the Texas community where my grandfather was teaching, caught the fever and convinced my grandfather to pick up the family, move back to New England and buy a farm.

There was nothing romantic about the reality of farm living for my grandparents or their children. They did not have a lot of money, and the farm was old and needed lots of work. It was drafty and poorly heated in the wintertime, and in the summer, a small pond would form in the back if the stream that runs through the cellar was not kept clear of debris.

Still, preserving the farm and the land around it became my grandmother's passion after my grandfather died. She was a reader and must have been very well-informed about not only the geological history of the land and the non-human life forms that thrive there, but the story of the people and the land, as well.

Products of the Land

William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation, his decades-long account of the Pilgrims in New England, described the land the Pilgrims encountered as "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men." In fact, however, the Indians of coastal New England, though decimated in population by European diseases by the time the Pilgrims arrived, had built numerous villages surrounded by cultivated fields and had burned the forests and fields elsewhere to make game hunting easier. In addition, "wild strawberries carpeted many of the burned-over glades. In the spring, 'herrings come up in such abundance into their brooks and fords to spawn that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them.' Huge turkeys ran in flocks of four and five hundred. Migrating ducks blotted out the sun when they rose from a pond ..."* Recent settlers would have also found abundant wood for construction and heat -- the forests in England, by this time, had been largely felled to build ships (2,500 per vessel) and to turn into charcoal to stoke furnaces.

I have never found wild strawberries growing on the farm, but blueberries, elderberries, and wild grapes are common. My grandmother gathered all of those and turned them into jams, or, in the case of the grapes, wine as well.

Every February, my grandmother also tapped the silver maples on the land for maple syrup -- a tradition that my aunt continues. It's easy to tap maple syrup -- just hammer a nail into the trunk of tree and hang an empty plastic milk carton from the nail. But the process of rendering the thin, clear sap into a dark, viscous, and flavorful syrup is time consuming and requires lots of stove-top space and ongoing heat. Above, you can see a bottle of my aunt's maple syrup (and the winter stockpile of wood in the garage, with a clearing for the trap door to the cellar through which the stream runs).

As to wild game birds, I see few ducks on the farm, but there are plenty of geese. In the photograph to the right, my aunt had wandered off to get a stick for her dog during a walk this past summer. But her dog had his own idea. The second my aunt's back was turned, he stepped right into the water of this artificial pond -- two fields over from the farm -- in hot pursuit of fun. The Canada geese stayed in the water, swimming away from him as much as they could, and then finally took off and flew over to the next pond. In the photograph to the left, you can see a roasted goose. My hosts on December 25, back here in San Francisco, served this goose. Geese were traditionally served for Christmas dinner until replaced in popularity by domesticated turkeys, according to my Joy of Cooking. Presumably my grandfather would have hunted wild geese during his years growing up on a Maine farm and during his years on the Massachusetts farm, but I don't know.

* Everyday Life in Early America, by David Freeman Hawke, 1988, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, p. 13

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Keeping Up With the Car Bailout Talk

Ok, as of today, the 2008 Winter Solstice, the auto industry is still teetering on the brink of insolvency, though lame duck President George W. Bush threw it a lifeline recently. That lifeline is a grant of $13.4 billion now, with another $4 billion to come in February if necessary. Bush is tapping the TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, more colloquially known as the bailout of Wall Street and the financial institutions, which Congress approved in October, to fund the auto industry.

Meantime, Newsweek has done a story on the link between Republican congressmen and women (especially southern ones) and the their resistance to bailing out Detroit-based auto design and manufacturing companies. What's the basis of their resistance? Why, foreign auto companies, especially Toyota, have a number of factories in southern states that employ tens of thousands of workers, NON-UNION workers, mind you ...

And yet, Toyota's sales are also down ...

Folks, are we screwed or what?

Last night I went to a winter solstice celebration (we do that kind of thing in San Francisco, a refuge for the unconventional, the pentagonal pegs among us who just do not fit into round holes and celebrate the holidays the way the rest of the world does). At one point the hostess made sure we all had unlit candles, turned off the lights, and the music, and started a lovely ritual to usher in the increasing daylight in the days, weeks, and months to come. One at a time, she invited us all to say what we wished for in the coming year. She lit her candle first and started, taking my own wish: to be able to travel nearly anywhere in the country via public transportation.

Thanks, Terry!

Her wish will not be the answer to all our economic and environmental woes. But it will certainly be a beginning.

I'm thinking now of two major, 20th century public works projects in the so-called free world that supposedly began the process of lifting nations out of periods of economic malaise -- the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. I know that president-elect Barack Obama is thinking along the lines of the New Deal now, thinking really big. But as he moves forward, I hope he brings back that campaign word of his -- change -- and starts getting the nation ready for huge changes, necessary changes in the way we live. That's because change is going to be necessary if we're going to save the planet and the principals so vital to democratic society -- transparent government, and political and artistic freedom of expression. In fact, a December 21, 2008 editorial in The Huffington Post suggests that Obama may in fact be contemplating change, planning to commit "industrial policy," though schizophrenically at best.

Coming soon: Steven Chu and Ray LaHood ...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beavers Return

1) The Big Pond
2) The beaver home
3) A beaver dam
4) The beaver "kitchen"
5) A paw print

Years ago the big pond in the woods was shallow and nearly dry. But that began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when beavers returned and successfully reestablished themselves, building homes and dams, and restoring the pond. Their return has been centuries in the making.

According to William Cronon, in his study of colonial New England land use practices, Changes in the Land, Native American practice, prior to the arrival of Europeans, had been to trap only as many beavers as were needed for personal use and for trade with tribes that lived south of the southern-most area of beaver habitation. But that changed when Europeans arrived. Early towns that were established along rivers such as the Connecticut (Hartford and Springfield) and Merrimack (Chelmsford) had originally been trading posts where Europeans transacted with Indian trappers – now in possession of firearms – for beaver pelts to feed the European continent where beaver caps had become a fad. Within a few decades of the founding of these trading posts, by the mid-1600s, the beaver population had been so severely decimated that the trade in beaver pelts dropped considerably. Other animals, such as turkeys, deer, elk, and bears, were also overhunted and went into decline. The drop in the deer population was so precipitous, in fact, that in 1694, Massachusetts enforced its first closed hunting season, and in 1718 it banned deer hunting for three years.

Now, however, with the current increase in the depth of the water, other wildlife has come. For a few years during the 1990s, Great Blue Herons built huge nests in the branches of dead trees that stuck out of the pond, and when I was wandering through the woods this past summer, a White-Tailed Deer and I encountered each other, not 30 feet apart. The deer, a doe, was still as a statue for a moment, and then she turned in a flash and bounded through the trees, to where I don’t know. These woods are small, just a few acres, but I suspect that deer, coyotes, mink, fisher cats, weasels, and other creatures are right around me every time I walk through them.

In fact, I have heard coyotes at night, my aunt has seen fisher cats, and my uncle stumbled upon a nesting mother turkey and her newly hatched young when he was out haying this past summer. I also took a photograph of my foot next to a large paw print in the woods, not far from where the deer and I had an encountered each other. Perhaps a black bear print – as a mother bear and her two cubs had been sited near these woods not too long ago.

Cronon discusses the decline in numbers of animals in a chapter called “Commodities of the Hunt.” It’s in the middle of his book. In other chapters, he goes on to discuss the felling of the forests and fencing of the land. His last chapter is called “The Wilderness Should Turn a Mart.” In this chapter, he starts to confront the contradiction in sustainable living and capitalism, and concludes that “the colonists’ economic relations of production were ecologically self-destructive.”

Our current relations to production are probably also self-destructive – but humankind has been able to artificially extend the human population carrying capacity of the planet, probably temporarily, through fossil fuel inputs into the soil, among other means. It's nice to imagine that the farm that my aunt and uncle are now working can become a role model for more sustainable living, but I'm not sure that's possible unless massive numbers of people voluntarily agree to change the way they are living on the planet -- and to accept declines in their standards of living.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ongoing Saga of the Auto Bailout

Yesterday the House of Representatives approved a $14 billion bailout of the domestic auto industry, largely along party lines. The original bill had some good stuff in it, especially a provision that would prevent the auto makers from suing states that have passed laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. It also had some kind of unrelated rider that had to do with the original $700 billion bank bailout that was passed earlier in the fall ("As an amendment to the auto rescue plan, the House approved a measure that would require banks receiving assistance from the Treasury’s $700 billion economic stabilization program to detail new lending activity each quarter." -- The New York Times. See story here.)

But the part about the lawsuits got struck as a part of a compromise, and then the whole thing got trounced today by Senate Republicans.

And thus nothing has changed. The issue remains one of Democrats versus Republicans and some other stuff, or something like this: Democrats support maintaining a suicidal way of life/industry, but they disguise the issue as one about jobs; Republicans support union busting disguised as industry restructuring.

In the meantime, the sales of hybrid vehicles are plunging along with gasoline prices, and that is not good for the planet or any of the life on the planet.

People do need jobs and people also need benefits. But the kinds of jobs we have and the way we become entitled to benefits need to change.

Tim Redmond, the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, suggests that now is the moment for a public works project on the lines of the New Deal, except MUCH bigger. The New Deal, was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed during the Depression -- we all learned that in history classes when we got to World War II and realized how absolutely effective our collective efforts (in the form of government) could be at pulling the nation out of economic malaise. This current nationwide, from-coast-to-coast, public works project needs to start with a comprehensive study to determine the best ways to produce and distribute healthy food, create truly livable communities, and transport people and goods -- with less energy. And if it is determined that certain sectors of our economy need to be bailed out -- for example, our public transportation sectors -- then by all means, let's bail them out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Changes in the Land

My grandparents left Texas in 1950 and bought a farm in New England where both of them had centuries old roots. We know that the farmhouse and barn, built in a marshy wetland, were started before the American Revolution and completed afterwards.

My grandfather died in 1978. At that time, other farm families that had been in the area for generations could no longer farm profitably or chose to sell out and make what money they could by selling to developers. My grandmother, however, a biologist by training and naturalist by practice, decided to take advantage of state law and turn her land into a conservation trust. She did this in cooperation with other local farmers, and by the time she passed away in 1997, she had put the land into a conservation easement that would exist in perpetuity.

The photograph on the left is of one nearby subdivision within walking distance of the farm. The photograph on the right is of the path through the woods that Eagle Scouts created sometime in the 1990s after the conservation trust had been created.

According to the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, subdivisions such as the one on the left are going to be the slums of the future as they are energy intensive and unsustainable. However, my uncle, a retired biologist who now works the farm with one of my mother's sisters, is the first to admit that the farm, as it is currently run, is not sustainable either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Do I Detect Collusion?

We all know about the CEOs of the Big Three auto companies flying on their corporate jets to Washington, DC to beg Congress for a bailout of $25 billion. Congress sent them back empty-handed. So what did they do next? They came back (driving hybrid cars) with a plan and asked for more -- now they want $34 billion!

I object. For one thing, it seems to me that the three companies are colluding, which strikes me as bordering on a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890) and other laws that outlaw conspiracies in restraint of trade. Second, they messed up.

Here's a link to a New York Times editorial with a list of recommendations:

... For starters, [Congress] must demand that the three companies’ top executives resign. Only new management can enforce the deep cultural change needed to overhaul the industry. And, it must impose real, enforceable environmental rules. The European Union is aiming for a fleetwide fuel-economy of 50 miles per gallon in 2015. In the United States, Congress last year enacted a target of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Experts say that Detroit’s automakers could achieve 43 m.p.g. by then even without technological breakthroughs. If the companies were willing to make smaller cars, they could achieve 50 m.p.g. Congress could consider demanding that Detroit simply phase out S.U.V.’s and vans by a certain date. ...

But I hardly think this New York Times editorial is going far enough. The auto companies have failed to adjust to realities of peak oil, global climate change, war for oil, and habitat destruction. They have failed to start producing more environmentally sound products (like buses and bikes). Any "bailout" plan should actually be part of a much larger plan -- a New Deal for Economic Recovery and the Environmental Health of the Planet -- that addresses the destructiveness of our current way of life. Such a plan would include revenue for the construction of affordable and appealing housing in whole, livable communities near transit, complete with parks, schools, retail, services, community gardens, and jobs. It would also include funds for nearby farmers to cultivate homegrown healthy produce. (Sorry, small farmers just can't do this on their own right now -- the competition from big agribusiness is too fierce.)

And the term "bailout"? Personally, I agree with the calls for the nationalization of the transportation industry at the same time that we nationalize the health care industry and move to a single payer system (hey, if you want to maintain your own, private health insurance, no one will stop you).

Here's Democracy Now! coverage of the bailout matter from December 5, 2008.

Here's a Common Dreams story on bailing out of the fossil fuel economy from December 3, 2008.

How do we give people incentives to stop driving and get on board with the changes that are necessary? Here's an idea from a Sierra Club activist: tax everyone at the gas pump steeply (like 10 percent for starters and then go up) and then give everyone (even people who do not have cars) something like a $600 annual rebate. This rewards people for not driving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Summer 2008 -- a New England Farm


For many decades, this farm was a dairy farm. By the time the farm came into my mother's family, there may have been on average 20 dairy cows -- Holsteins, Jerseys, and Guernseys, among other types -- named after the places where they had originally been bred. Every morning, they would gather at a fence across the street and wait for my grandfather -- who had been born and raised on a farm in Maine -- to escort them into the back of the long end of the barn. Once inside each cow would dutifully take her place at her designated stall. My grandfather fed and milked the cows and then transferred the milk into large steel casks that were lowered into a cooler in the milk room. (The milk room is the small, stone addition to the right of the original red barn.) A distributor would pick up the milk and take it to a local dairy processor.

Running this farm was a very labor intensive venture for my grandfather and the rest of the family. I don't know if my grandfather ever hired helpers, but I doubt that he ever took a vacation during the nearly 20 years that it was an active farm. In the late 1960s, he sold the cows -- I remember when some of them were being herded onto a truck taken away -- and went back to his first profession, teaching.

Richard Heinberg, among others, has suggested that in response to peak oil (the end of cheap petroleum upon which our way of life now depends), that food production will hopefully go through a process of decentralization and re-localization. In his November 2008 MuseLetter, he addresses the issue of food and farming.

This farm is on typically rocky New England soil, and I don't know too much about its history prior to the arrival of my mother's family in 1950. I doubt that it was ever self-sustaining, but if current practices are any indication, the people who farmed it over the years probably brought it close to a self-sustaining operation -- with the help of neighbors.

I also do not know about its future, and whether or not it will be a center for the re-localization of food production, as these are matters that are not under my control.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Summer 2008 -- This Old House

Revolutionary Era Farm House
These rooms are part of a Massachusetts farm house. Construction on the house was started before the American Revolution and completed afterwards. It would have been at one time an all purpose home where the occupants would have raised their own chickens and cows, and perhaps pigs and sheep. Over one hundred acres of rocky fields, woods, and wetlands are a part of the farm also. The fields have been used, over the years, for a combination of growing hay to feed cattle and for sale to other farmers, and for grazing livestock.

Before central heating was installed, fireplaces and iron stoves would have provided all the heat. Fireplaces and stoves are still part of the heating system. An annual project every summer and fall is collecting firewood from the woods, chopping it up, and stacking it for the winter.

One hundred and fifty years ago, most Americans were agrarian, farmers working the land for a living. With the advent of mechanized farming, made largely possible by the utilization of fossil fuels for agriculture, only a small percentage of Americans still farm. It's been suggested, that as supplies of fossil fuels diminish, more and more people will return to farming. That may be so, but it leaves me with some worries -- the vast majority of us have lost the farming skills that humankind has carried around with it for thousands of years.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lowell, Massachusetts -- Water Works and Women's Labor

Scenes from Lowell

The system under which young, farm women were recruited into the Lowell Mills was called the "Waltham System," based on the first center to consolidate all aspects of the transformation of cotton into cloth in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts. While work beyond the home was not conventional for most New England women of the era, it was acceptable for young women to leave their farm families for several years before settling into marriage. The labor of young men, on the other hand, was needed on the farms.

Some of the women who went to the mills for work produced a paper trail of their experiences. Perhaps the most famous chronicler of the lives of the mill girls was Harriet Robinson, who published Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls, in 1898, and who, in 1836 at the age of 11, was a leader in a strike at the mills. Here she writes:

... In 1831 Lowell was little more than a factory village. Several corporations were started, and the cotton mills belonging to them were building. Help was in great demand; and stories were told all over the country of the new factory town, and the high wages that were offered to all classes of work-people -- stories that reached the ears of mechanics' and farmers' sons, and gave new life to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farmhouses. ... The stagecoach and the canal boat came every day, always filled with new recruits for this army of useful people. ... The widow came with her little flock and scanty housekeeping goods to open a boarding house or variety store ... Many farmers' daughters came to earn money to complete their wedding outfit, or buy the bride's share of housekeeping articles. ...

She goes on and adds that women with past histories came to start their lives anew in anonymity and that the daughters of urban privilege came for the adventure, as well as women with children who sought to disappear behind the machines they operated and thus escape abusive marriages.

Over the decades, however, with increased immigration, due in part to the potato famine in Ireland and revolutionary turmoil in Central Europe, labor became more and more expendable, and the practice of hiring primarily Yankee farm girls and other women died down.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Summer 2008 -- Lowell, Massachusetts

My mother’s roots are in the northeast, mostly New England. She was born in Connecticut, and in 1950, after some years in Texas, her parents bought a farm in Massachusetts and moved the family there. The farm is still in the family, close to historic downtown Lowell.

This city is famous as one of the places where the American Industrial Revolution began. It was there that Francis Cabot Lowell and some fellow entrepreneurs decided to experiment with the consolidation of all aspects of the manufacture of cloth in one center. They pooled their talent and capital and started building water-powered factories along the Merrimack River. They oversaw the construction of canals for transportation (the Merrimack is rapid and rocky at some points), and started the practice of hiring young farm women who would be housed in dormitories and overseen by older women until they left, usually for marriage.

Lowell as an industrial center began to decline over a century ago, as industrialists moved their centers of production to places of cheaper labor.

Now, many of the Lowell Mills have been restored as museums or retails shops and incorporated into the National Park Service system.

Electric Cars Do Not A Game-Changer Make

Wow. People still just don't get it.

Ok, I'll admit, I'm about to head back to the East Coast for the grand Thanksgiving get-together at my extended family's farm in New England. But I know that I need to reduce my carbon footprint and restrict my movement (I'm getting there: I live in San Francisco and call anything on the other side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge "California" at best, and the equivalent of different universe at worst).

But here's a Reuters story quoting San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom about how he feels badly driving a hybrid. The point is, he wants to switch to an all-electric vehicle.

To me people switching from regular ICEs or hybrids to electric cars is like George W. Bush giving up golf during times of war.

Electric vehicles may be good as a transition to NO vehicles at all (or more realitistically FEWER vehicles). But how much coal would we need to extract from the planet, how many new nuclear plants would we need to commission (money-losing investments -- they would be public works projects at best), and how many LNG plants would we need to erect to transition from over 200 million vehicles in the United States alone now powered by gasoline to electric vehicles? And given the warnings about global climate change, how much time would we have to get there?

Here's a link to one of my favorite articles, one that I have posted in this blog before, The Road to Nowhere, about the fallacy of alternative-fuel vehicles (and electric vehicles ARE alternative-fuel vehicles, as long as the electricity plants are powered by anything other than petroleum).

Electric cars just do not a game-changer make. We need people to accept the reality that there are limitations to what they can have and where they can go. I know that's hard. It's hard for me, for goodness sake. But I know it.

What might be a real game-changer? Following the advice of expert planners who are telling us we need to create affordable -- and appealing -- housing where the jobs, parks, transit, schools, and retail already exist. And that ex-urban communities need to stop including wide streets and bountiful parking in their zoning regulations.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Revolution Will Be on the Streets

A New Transportation Deal for the Nation?

I participate in an email discussion group in San Francisco called "Car Free Living." Most of the participants are transportation wonks who ride bicycles and/or walk and then gather on the first Wednesday of every month at popular local watering hole to discuss transportation policy.

Right now, people are talking about the auto bailout, Barack Obama's choice of transportation appointees, and the fact that Henry Waxman (D-California) usurped John Dingell (D-Michigan) as chair of an important house committee that oversees energy matters.

Here's a link to President-Elect Obama's "Change" webpage regarding transportation:

If I were serious about change, I'd be thinking of nationalizing the auto industry (or at the very least, putting it into a receivership, as Michael Moore, below, suggests), and creating a New Transportation Deal for the nation with the very serious goal of reducing our energy use and sprawl. Moore, a child of auto manufacturing country himself, says the following:

"We're going to put the companies into some sort of receivership and we, the government, are going to hold the reigns on these companies. They're to build mass transit. They're to build hybrid cars. They're to build cars that use little or no gasoline.

"We're facing a national crisis, not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of the polar ice caps melting. There's only so much oil left under the Earth. We're going to run out of that, if not in our children's time, our grandchildren's time."

Does Henry Waxman's replacement of John Dingell as the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee signal revolutionary change (because that's what we need)? Let's hope so. We all know that newspapers run stories about the demise of the auto industry alongside stories about global warming -- and yet rarely, does the content of the stories overlap. The story on Henry Waxman in today's San Francisco Chronicle is an exception, as the environment and clean air do get mention.

Meanwhile, the president-elect is keeping a low profile regarding the automobile industry's desire for a bailout, and suggesting vague job creation programs that include rebuilding roads and bridges and the manufacture of alternative-fuel cars. But there is no mention of expanding public transportation or building affordable housing in our cities or elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Should the Auto Industry Be Bailed Out?

Subsidizing the Auto Industry v. Union Busting

The pundits on this matter seem to be torn between the Democrats who are allied with the unions representing the workers and the Republicans who, in this particular instance, are salivating at the opportunity to union bust. See former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's op-ed in the New York Times today here.

Search as I do, I can find very few people talking about the auto industry crisis as an opportunity to create a long-term transportation/community building plan for the nation that addresses environmental ills caused by our way of life. I found Mark Brenner on Democracy Now! on November 12, calling for a game changer:

MARK BRENNER: Well, look, Michigan’s lost over 350,000 manufacturing jobs in the last eight years, most of them in the last three years. Unemployment has already hit ten percent in Flint; it’s nine percent statewide. There’s no question that the impact of the free fall of the auto industry has really decimated, and it’s going to continue to decimate, the state and the region.

So, you know, from my perspective and I think from most of the perspective of the labor movement and hopefully the whole progressive community, there’s no question that something needs to be done. The question is, what do we do? And I think, here, we really need a game changer. ...

Read the transcript of this show here.

Yet I'm still waiting for someone to very specifically link the automobile industry to planetary demise, but perhaps people are afraid to go there. Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and budding environmental justice superstar, came close to this on Sunday, November 16 at the San Francisco Green Festival, but he avoided suggesting that Americans and others divorce their cars (or at the very least get separations). Scroll down in this story to see what Van Jones had to say.

There are people weighing in on the current battle between John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with environmentalists siding with Waxman, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing to take sides. But it just feels like, three years after Katrina, no one is really tackling these issues.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

July 27, 2008 -- Lowell

Scenes from the
Lowell Folk Festival

My sister and her family attend the Lowell Festival every year. This festival is as good as any in San Francisco or any other large city -- in fact, maybe it's even better because the crowds are small.

Musicians, singers, and dancers come from all over the nation and the world to perform. Two of the women in the top photograph eventually stepped down onto platform in front and danced. The people on chairs in the lower platform are actually dancing, also.

July 26, 2008 -- Out of Boston

The Lowell Commuter Train

From North Station in Boston, I took the Lowell train. Usually, I don't go all the way to Lowell, instead disembarking at an earlier stop where my sister picks me up.

Thanks, sis.

It's usually an uneventful train ride through mostly working class towns outside of Boston and through wetlands areas with ponds overlaid with water lilies -- and those are scenes that you have to imagine because I did not take pictures.

This station in the picture -- and others like it that ring Boston -- is a commuter station. People come in the morning and park their cars, pay a parking fee, and take the train to Boston's North Station to get to their jobs. This particular station is also Grand Auto Theft Central, as my sister discovered many years ago when she and her husband first moved not too far away, and someone heisted her little, used Toyota that she had bought just for the commute from their house to the station. When she filed her police report, she found out that there is a lot of auto theft at this station.

Boston has an old and well-built up system of commuter lines to outlying communities. There is a debate in the San Francisco Bay Area about whether or not to extend BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to outlying suburbs so that people can forego their personal cars in order to get to work. I think the planners with these ideas are thinking about reducing congestion on the roads leading to jobs, but others of us are thinking about the environment and social justice issues.

Because here's the thing: while it's true that many people have been forced out of San Francisco and other dense communities by the high cost of housing, the people who live in the communities that BART is being extended to tend to be middle class. BART, a rail system, is very expensive to operate, especially compared to buses. People who live in the denser communities such as San Francisco and Oakland argue that BART should not be extended to the suburbs because that will induce sprawl and because BART is so expensive to build and operate. They say that instead, BART should rely on shuttles to get people in the suburbs to BART connections and that the region as a whole should concentrate on constructing affordable infill housing in parts of the region that are already transit rich. Doing anything less, they argue, is a subsidy for the middle and upper classes at the expense of providing better public transportation for poorer people.

But the conventional wisdom is that middle class people in the suburbs have some kind of aversion to buses. So we're back to extending BART. At the very least, parking at the BART commuter lots should not be free. Parking should NEVER be free, in fact, according to Donald Shoup, UCLA professor of Urban Planning.

Back to commuter rail in the Boston area: I depend on it for my travels and am very happy that it exists. I just wished that my family members lived closer to the stations than they do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

July 26, 2008; 7AM -- Finally, The Big Dig

The Big Dig

Once I got from South Station to North Station, I had an hour or so to spare before my next train to my sister's town near the New Hampshire border. Tired and grimy as I was, I decided to wander outside with my luggage and take some pictures.

Above are two photographs of the famous (or "infamous") Big Dig bridge. Boston Garden and North Station are to the left.

This bridge is a work of art (one that was decades in the making, from conception to completion), but what for? At a cost of $14.8 billion, the public officials who let this project move forward should have been required to take into consideration climate change (they knew about that back in the early 1990s, no one can say they did not) from increased vehicular traffic. And they should have been required to weigh the cost-benefits of simply connecting North Station to South Station versus the financial and environmental expenses of the Big Dig. Someone said to me this summer with a certain amount of hyperbole, "It would have cost an additional $30 billion to connect North Station to South Station."

Perhaps ... But I think the costs of connecting two transit hubs to each other will eventually pale in comparison to our delusions about endless cheap energy to fuel our current way of life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

July 26, 2008; 7AM -- Arrival in Boston

Getting Around in Boston

At 10 pm on the night of July 25, I boarded a train from Washington, DC to Boston. The train was filled to capacity when we left, but by the time we arrived in New York City, I was able to stretch out on two seats and sleep. We arrived at Boston's South Station at about 7 am the next morning. From there, I needed to get to my sister's house near the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire. For people like me, who do not own cars and who resist the expense of cabs, getting to her home can be an ordeal.

But the trouble starts even before I leave Boston proper. Amtrak travelers coming from the west and south, as I did this past summer, arrive at Boston's South Station (or Back Bay, but I never get off there), and air travelers arrive at Logan Airport. Once I get to South Station or Logan Airport, I need to get to Boston's North Station in order to get out to my sister's town (or the towns where other people in my family live). And you can tell by looking at this map that Boston's major transit hubs -- South Station, North Station, and the airport -- are not conveniently connected to each other for users of mass transit.

If I arrive by plane, I land at Logan Airport, and take the shuttle to the Blue Line, and the Blue Line to Government Center where I change to the Green Line, and the Green Line to North Station. I have to remember to the get on the right Green Line trolley -- the Haymarket one does not go all the way to North Station.

If I travel across country by train, I arrive at South Station, and have to take the Red Line to Park Station where I transfer to the Green Line, and the Green Line (destination Lechmere or North Station, but not Haymarket) to North Station.

And none of that is easy.

Invariably with several pieces of luggage in hand, I negotiate the turnstiles and stairs to the Red Line, the second set of stairs up and then down at Park Station where I always transfer to the Green Line, and the elevators and ground-level walkway to North Station.

But if you are a car traveler, why you have the Big Dig. ... See next entry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bailing out the auto industry

Since the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday, November 4, and the election of Democratic majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the media has been talking about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plans to meet with representatives of America's Big 3 automobile companies and the unions that represent the auto workers. There have been hints that she wants to craft a bailout plan for the Big 3 car industries. See the following links:

Market Watch story.

Financial Times story.

Reuters story. story.

Detroit News Story.

Pelosi has said that conditions of the bailout should include a commitment on the part of the automobile industry to design and manufacture fuel efficient cars. But will that be enough to combat global climate change and prepare the nation for a world in which there is inevitably less energy and what is available is increasingly expensive? We doubt that at Car-Free Talk.

Today, Amy Goodman, on Democracy Now!, interviewed a guest who responded to the plans for a bailout of the auto industry by calling for a transportation plan and a 'game changer.' We agree. You can read the transcript by copying and pasting this URL into your search engine:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Day Four, Part Two -- Change, anyone?

Union Station, Washington, DC

What will happen now?
I was eager to contemplate the Bush administration transgressions against democracy when the train got to Washington, DC -- the efforts to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which restricts the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, the creation of the Northern Command -- a new center for military operations in North America -- and the deployment of the 3rd Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat unit from Iraq to the United States to fulfill the military requirement at USNORTHCOM. Sounds like someone is getting ready for martial law to me.

Amy Goodman, on Democracy Now!, pointed out in her October 7, 2008 show that the brigade that had been stationed in North America had just "spent three of the last five years in Iraq in counterinsurgency." "It’s a war-fighting unit, [and] was one of the first units to Baghdad," she added. In fact, it took part in the battle of Fallujah. "That’s what they’ve been trained to do. And now they’re bringing that training here?" she asked rhetorically.

The Posse Comitatus Act remains intact on paper, but the Bush administration has been quite successful at undermining so much of the rule of law and the US Constitution that it must have felt it could easily blur the line between civilian and military law enforcement if it ever felt the need to. Remember, at the behest of the administration, the telecommunications giants engaged in illegal monitoring of people's electronic communications, and even the New York Times did not have the courage to expose the collusion between the telecoms and the administration -- at least not until after the 2004 election. And then instead of beginning impeachment proceedings against members of the administration who ordered the spying, Congress acquiesced and passed the FISA Amendments of 2008, giving the telecommunications industry immunity from civil suits for its illegal spying.

And how did the telecommunications giants thank Congress? By footing the bill for a good part of the Democratic National Convention in Denver this past summer.

Ok, so we're getting a new president, Barack Hussein Obama, who ran on a vague platform of "change" and "hope." But Obama himself voted for the FISA Amendments ...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day Four, Part Two -- Virginia

Paralleling the Blue Ridge Skyline in Virginia

I'm burning the midnight oil right now, working on the campaign of a local candidate. We've got a set of them here in San Francisco, three or four or five individuals (if you take in the second and third rankings in our ranked-choice system) who have self-identified as "progressives" -- including the fellow whom I'm working for.

To me, progressive means believing in our collective effort to battle social and environmental degradation and lift the human spirit. It also means recognizing that there are real material limitations to our lifestyle -- and we are fast approaching some very serious ones such as limits on the energy, water, and soil resources of our planet. The implications for the collapse of an one of those resources is ominous. In my mind, anyone who self-identifies as a progressive should at least be open to learning about the disasters we could and do face as a species because of these limits. And I'm pretty sure that the candidate I am working for is.

Back to My Travels and My Thoughts
Once we left the state of West Virginia, our train began to travel parallel to the Blue Ridge Skyline. I could not see those mountains from the train, but I found the rolling fields and horse farms of Virginia beautiful nonetheless. This photograph does not capture the beauty of what I saw from the train window.

There is one author that I read, James Howard Kunstler, who writes bleakly about the future of humankind as the collapse we are now experiencing economically worsens and begins to encompass resource collapse. He suggests that rural parts of the nation -- especially the gun-loving South, including Virginia -- could descend into a Mad Max kind of violent chaos.

Another author, Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, suggests ways to avert chaos. He believes that if we successfully transition away from the energy and resource-intensive lives that we are now leading that the future will find more of us leading traditional agricultural lives, more like the lives led by the Amish.

It's a bucolic utopian dream that many of us have. In fact, on this trip, I was on my way to the farm, the place where my mother moved with her family when she was a teenager and that is now owned and run by one of my aunts and her husband. Though my aunt and uncle now derive great joy from their farming, it was no utopia for my mother or her sisters. You will see pictures shortly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Day Four, Part One -- Becoming a Nation of Torturers: the Background

West Virginia Mountains.

George W. Bush made his way to Washington, DC surrounded by individuals -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Cheney's lawyer David Addington, among others -- who scorned democracy and who longed to concentrate power in the executive branch. When five members of the United States Supreme court ruled to stop the Florida vote recount in 2000, they had their chance ...

Among the various laws and treaties that Bush and members of his administration immediately set out to scrap (or at the very least undermine) were the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972.

One month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, on October 12, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo to all the federal agencies saying that if there were a ‘sound legal basis’ for resisting FOIA requests, the Department of Justice would defend those agencies. ‘Sound legal basis’ was undefined.

Then on November 1, 2001, George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13233, gutting the Presidential Records Act. This act is a post-Watergate Act that restricts public access to presidential records for 12 years after a president leaves office. For twelve years after leaving office, presidents have exclusive access to their papers. They can use them to write and sell their memoirs (and use the proceeds to pay of legal fees as in the cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton). At the end of twelve years, however, those papers — which were generated with public funds by public servants – were to belong to the public.

But Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been aides to Gerald Ford when Congress passed the Presidential Records bill. At that time they urged Ford not to sign it, but he did. Now, both were back in Washington, DC, in the administration of George W. Bush. In addition, the 12-year limit on the records of President Ronald Reagan – and Vice President George H.W. Bush – was almost up. The papers of Reagan and Vice President Bush, including any documents relating to the Iran-Contra scandal, would soon be in the public realm.

Then the attacks of September 11, 2001 happened. A once widely- scorned president became a hero, and the balance of power shifted to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington and others who were determined to undermine the legislature and concentrate power within the executive branch.

Executive Order 13233, according to Bill Moyers and guests on the April 5, 2002 episode of the show Now with Bill Moyers, suddenly placed new obstacles in front of historians, journalists, and others seeking access to the archives of the Reagan administration. The new executive order says that anyone who wants access to the records of former presidents – and vice presidents – has to hire a lawyer and go to court to get access to those records. The former presidents, vice presidents, their family members and their children, on the other hand, will be defended for free by Department of Justice lawyers.

Once Bush, Cheney, and others had effectively weakened the FOIA and the Presidential Records Act, they turned to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This treaty bound the United States and the former Soviet Union to an agreement in which neither side would attempt to build defenses against incoming nuclear missiles (except in limited ways around centers of government), based on the concept that mutually assured destruction in systems without defenses – and the fact that neither side could actually conduct a true test of such a system due to the risks of failure – ensured mutual deterrence. But now it was time to scrap this delicate agreement. In December 2001, Bush abided by the language of the treaty calling for a six month notice to the other party and told Russia the United States would cancel the ABM Treaty – and June 2002 he did so.

While this did not actually happen until after September 11, 2001, the plans were in the works to do this beforehand. Remember how Ronald Reagan wanted to build a protective shield that became known as “Star Wars” – or Strategic Defense Initiative?

Next: the Geneva Conventions, the Conventions on Torture, and the U.S. Torture Statute …

My train trip is now two months behind me, and it's campaign season. Sarah Palin has given many of us a good laugh, but I am scared. She appeals to too many people, and I don't trust them to use reason as opposed to emotions when they go to the polls. Watch this YouTube video.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Day Four, Part One -- Shame on this nation.

West Virginia

"Drill, baby, drill!"

That's what Rudy Giuliani chanted at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Here's the link to the text of his speech in the Los Angeles Times: Drill, baby, drill!

Americans are not entitled to the earth's natural resources at the expense of the rest of the planet and future generations, contrary to what Republicans are telling them -- yet Obama's platform is not much better: "As president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. ..." Here's the link to the text of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Clean coal? Safe nuclear? They do not exist.

Above is a photograph of the mountains of West Virginia. Here's a link to coal industry plans for these mountains: Mountain Top Removal.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, 30 minutes north of coal-mining country. One (or more?) of the Molly Maguires was supposedly hanged in what was the schoolyard of one of the places where I went to middle school. The Molly Maguires were a group of Irish miners who wanted to organize labor in 1870s, when organized labor was illegal.

By the time I was growing up the miners were unionized, but they lived a dilemma -- on the one hand, they depended on mining for work and for the energy to power their (and mine) lifestyles. On the other hand, their profession was destroying their communities -- and, we now know, the planet. Here's a link to some photographs of a former mining town in my county, Centralia, Pennsylvania. It's now a ghost town due to mine fires that still burn.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day Four, Part One -- Take Me Home Country Road

The New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia

Our Trailways bus arrived in Indianapolis at about midnight. We disembarked and walked through the train station, past a concession stand, and up some stairs to the train whose departure we had missed in Chicago. Friendly conductors hustled us onto the train, families with children and individuals with special needs first. When I finally got on, there were not so many seats left. There was an empty one beside a well-dressed teenage boy, but in the seats directly in front of him were an older woman next to another teenage boy who was dressed in Goth black and chains. I had seen both of these people on the other train – and knew they were not traveling together.

Being as old as I am, I pulled ranked on the Goth. I leaned over him and suggested firmly that he sit in the seat in back and that I sit where he had been sitting, next to the older woman. He said, “Ok,” and got right up as if he knew better than to resist.

For me, it turns out that was a good move. I never caught this woman’s name, but when we both awoke the next morning, in the hills of West Virginia and alongside the New River, I found out that she had been living and working in Hawaii doing social work with foster children for many years. Recently, she had retired, and she and her daughter had returned together to her family’s native Nebraska to care for her elderly father. She was a quilter and told me that she and her social worker co-workers in Hawaii had given a quilt to every child in their care. She had also recently been involved in the Hillary Clinton campaign, but had resigned herself to the Democratic Party nomination of Barack Obama for president. He would win, she thought, if they didn’t kill him first, as they had Mel Carnahan and Paul Wellstone ...

The train in West Virginia traveled through the Appalachian Mountains, alongside the New River, through Charleston, Montgomery, Prince, and a number of other small, anonymous towns. The mountains – long and verdant – were similar to the ones in which I had grown up in Pennsylvania. But the New River valley through which we traveled was narrower and deeper than anything from the part of Pennsylvania that I come from. In fact, there was some kind of tour guide or train buff then aboard making announcements and pointing out sights of interest.

We were in coal mining country, and at one point we passed the West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Not long after that, the guide told us to look outside and up quickly – so that we could get a view of the New River Gorge Bridge. Again, it passed by us so quickly that I did not have time to take a picture. But it’s the same bridge as the one pictured on the quarter for the state of West Virginia.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Day Three, Part Two -- A Change of Plans

Illinois, Just east of the Mississippi River

We traveled through Nebraska and on to Burlington, Iowa. When we finally crossed the Mississippi River, we were nearly four hours late.

By this time, I was tired and feeling pretty grungy. I was also concerned about missing my connection in Chicago -- I was booked to get on a train bound for Washington, DC, and then to change to a train for Boston in Washington, DC.

An announcement came over the intercom that people booked on the Cardinal & Hoosier State rail line were to get off the California Zephyr (bound for Chicago) in Galesburg, Illinois, and get onto a Trailways bus bound for Indianapolis. I checked my itinerary and realized that that I had a reservation for this line. At this point I also realized that way back when when I had originally booked my reservations that the booking agent had routed me on a route I had never taken before -- a southern route through Cincinnati, northern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and western Virginia. Then in Charlottesville, Virginia I would hook up with some other train and continue on to Washington, DC. This all to get to Boston, Massachusetts.

Suddenly, my travel excitement returned. I had never been to Kentucky before, and I would be traveling through the mountains of southern West Virginia, where I had never been, and then parallel to the Blue Ridge Skyline in the state of Virginia proper. I was not disappointed.

Rain storms had whipped through the midwest in early summer, and the water levels were still extremely high when our train crossed the Mississippi and traveled into Illinois. In fact, on the return trip, I saw a whole village virtually submerged in water, only the roofs visible. I remember this same region was hit in 1993 by devastating floods.

Extreme weather?

Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But if we don't know, why are we taking chances?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

More Links ...

For bicyclists, a widening patchwork world
As oil prices rise, U.S. lags behind two-wheeled boom in rest of world

Peds, bikers, joggers out in full force to enjoy first Sunday Streets

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Montana Governor Schweitzer Speaks at the DNC Against Petrodictators

Former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant, near Denver

Governor Brian Schweitzer, of Montana, might as well have screamed from the podium at the DNC in Denver yesterday: Stop driving cars!

Think about it: the human population has exploded (largely due to fossil fuel inputs into the soil) and humanity has taken over habitats that were formerly uninhabitable before we learned how utilize fossil fuels -- first coal, and then oil and natural gas -- on industrial scales. But since 1859, many geologists think we have used up about half of the world's petroleum reserves (and that includes its tar sands in Alberta and Venezuela). And besides that, we're dealing with global warming from burning all these fossil fuels on a massive scale. And contrary to what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says, natural gas IS a fossil fuel ...

Some of my friends and family members recommend reviving nuclear power as a transitional energy source until we get our solar, wind, and hydrogen systems in place. I don't know where Gov. Schweitzer is on nuclear, but I know just about all the other Democrats are caving to the siren call of the nuclear power industry. However, to me reviving nuclear power is just another way of externalizing environmental problems onto future generations.

My proposal is daunting, but don't think we have an option: move.

That is, move close to your place of work, move into smaller houses, move into just two or three rooms of your house during the winter, move in with other people, move on bicycles and your feet, move to a farm and learn how to grow food, and so on. But move. What other realistic options do we have?

Here's a picture of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant outside Denver. I took this picture from the train on the morning of August 7. And here's the link to a press release about environmental problems created by the plutonium-processing plant.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Train Travel v. Air Travel

North Station; Boston

There's a discussion going on in an online a group that I participate in, Carfreeliving. It's about the efficiency of train travel, and it's bringing out the true train fanatics in us. It started when one guy linked this story about Amtrak and its efficiency compared to travel by plane:

The conclusion of this article was that with driving and flying down due to high fuel prices, Amtrak ridership is up, making Amtrak nearly 18 percent more fuel efficient than flying. That was disappointingly low to the person who posted the story, so someone else came on and excerpted a British study on rail travel that arrived at the following conclusions:

* Electrified trains performed better than diesel trains (Amtrak, except in the Northeast Corridor, runs diesel trains, and North American trains are almost twice the weight of their European counterparts)
* electric trains generally performed better than buses
* Buses and trains performed significantly better than private cars or airlines
* The Eurostar (a high speed train) consumed more energy than conventional intercity trains; however the Shinkansen (a Japanese high speed train) was more energy efficient than British intercity trains, despite its much higher speeds.
* The number of passengers on board makes a huge difference in efficiency; however, buses and trains with 20-40% of seats occupied still far outperformed airlines with 70% of seats occupied in grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre.

The study is in PDF format and you can see it here:

The fellow who posted this item went on to talk about the precision needed in the tension of the wires for electric trains, and welding and curvature of train tracks and the relationship between those factors and energy efficiency.

We're all trying to figure out how to live lightly on the planet and reduce our carbon footprint. At least the people participating in the online discussion and I are. Eventually, even most trains will probably become obsolete as we are forced to reduce the amount that we travel all together.

That's the Big Dig bridge behind the "Downeaster" Amtrak train in the photograph. But more on the Big Dig and the rest of my train trip later.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day Three, Part One -- The First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law

Eastern Nebraska
I didn't take any pictures of this part of the trip -- going to the East Coast or coming back. It just isn't very remarkable, though some would say it is beautiful in its own way. Flat, endless fields of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, what-have-you, with the train tracks paralleling the Platte River. Something like that. Strangely, if you Google "Eastern Nebraska Farmers," the first thing that comes up on the list is "Environmental Epidemiology of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in Eastern Nebraska." What's that all about?

Anyway, I traveled coach, as I always do, and on my second night, from Denver to eastern Nebraska, I had two seats to myself, which meant I could stretch out a little. I awoke the next morning around 7 or so and made my way to the dining car for breakfast. In the dining car, the crew members take your name or give you a number (from Chigaco west, the crew members treat you like family and tend to take your names -- and sometimes they even remember your names). And they seat you with others, southern family style.

On this particular leg of the journey, I was seated across from a large, middle-aged man with a bushy beard and long, kinky, graying blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. The word "peace" was printed across his t-shirt. (A Dead Head, I thought to myself.) Next to him was a very ordinary, middle-aged woman. Next to me was a middle-aged man with short, curly brown hair.

You know how first encounters are. Before you get talking, you look at these strangers with a combination of suspicion and disdain. And then you start talking and you all realize how great you all are!

That is exactly what happened with me, "Charlene," her husband "James," and "Don." Ok, so I thought James was a Dead Head, right? Turns out he and wife, Charlene, were both Lutheran ministers from rural, western Kansas. Don was a sculptor.

As we got talking, Don made it clear that he believed that the conspiracy to attack landmarks with planes on September 11, 2001 went beyond Al Qaeda. He suggested that we all watch the documentary Zeitgeist.

I have never seen this documentary, but I think I know what its theme is: some kind of connection between the Bush family, Dick Cheney, Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda to ensure that another Pearl Harbor happened to the country, putting Americans in a state of shock and fear, so that Cheney and others could pursue a decades-long desire to consolidate power in the executive branch and launch a "Pax Americana" on the world, one in which a few multi-national corporations would own most of the world's resources and control most political power.

But I confess I'm not totally convinced. If 9-11 was the result of a broad conspiracy, then why the need for two legal memorandums, one issued by the United States Department of Justice and the other by the Pentagon, to pave the way to the supposedly legal practice of torture on members of Al Qaeda and/or of the Iraqi insurgency? I don't get it. If Al Qaeda is the ally of Dick Cheney, then why torture its alleged members? Maybe someone out there can illuminate me a little more.

James, who was quite verbose, described him and his quieter wife, Charlene, as Christian socialists serving Christian fundamentalist congregations whose members read the Left Behind series. I get messages about those books in my spam box, but never knew what they were until James and Charlene explained them to me. James told us they are about Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and rapture.

Ok, everything I know about Christianity I learned from Jesus Christ, Superstar -- yeah, the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. And rapture? Rapture means two things to me: 1) laughing really hard because of some unexpectedly ironic punch line; and, 2) orgasm. Need I say more?

James's own opinion? The Left Behind series has totally misrepresented the Bible and the Book of Revelations. Nowhere in the Bible is the word "rapture" mentioned, he said.

I asked James rhetorically, "Do Christian fundamentalists see any difference between their own belief in 'rapture' and the beliefs of some Muslim fundamentalists that 72 virgins will await them in Heaven when they die a martyr's death?"

We moved on to a discussion of the 2000 election. I said that Al Gore should have stood up on the night of the election and said, "I won," and he should never have backed down. I said that five members of the United States Supreme Court wanted George W. Bush to be president -- and they made him president. Charlene added that she couldn't believe that my representative, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is blocking impeachment efforts. You know that's what they (the Republicans) would be doing if it were the reverse situation and they had the majority in both chambers of Congress, Charlene said.

Someone speculated about Obama's pick for VP. Hillary Clinton? Naw ... probably a tough guy, I suggested, mentioning Jim Webb, the Virginia Senator who is a Vietnam War veteran, though he opposes the Iraq War. Don mentioned Bill Richardson, but we didn't think he had any vote-getting value other than coming from a swing state. None of us predicted Joe Biden.

Carbon Footprints
We talked about the "high" price of gas. I came right out and said, "I'm for that." Don concurred, adding that Americans should be paying at least what they pay in the rest of the world -- $6, $7 per gallon or more. James and his wife seemed to agree -- but I'm not sure. James mentioned a parishioner who has big car which she bought out of fear, though James tried to reconnect her to her faith ...

Not being a faith-based thinker, he lost me there.

Lost Opportunities
We all agreed that September 11, 2001 was a lost moment. We have never explored why the attacks happened, letting George W. Bush lower the level of discourse to "They hate our freedom." Certainly, the 9-11 participants were brainwashed. Al Qaeda recruited and served -- and recruits and serves -- giving passion and meaning to life in otherwise repressive cultures. What hope for self-realization do you have, after all, if you are some kind of non-conformist born in Saudi Arabia? But here's the other thing: we are an occupying force, and we have had military outposts there protecting our access to oil for decades. And if some nation, say Australia, were occupying our own land, wouldn't we be similarly resentful?

War Crimes
Charlene then brought up the concept of war crimes. I showed the three of them my copy of The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer. James mentioned that Jane Mayer had recently been on The Daily Show, with John Stewart.

Thinking of the passive complicity of most Americans in the crimes of the Bush administration, I added that our nation needed to go through the self-examination and cathartic processes, similar to what Germany and South Africa went through after their periods of darkness. James mentioned "truth and reconciliation." I mentioned something that a friend of mine has been researching in San Francisco -- the possibility that American towns and cities could bring war crimes charges against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and others. The people of Brattleboro, Vermont, in fact, have passed a resolution directing their town attorney to investigate bringing war crimes charges against these guys. And people in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family has a summer compound, are investigating bringing war crimes charges against Bush and others.

The U.S. Constitution
We discussed the Constitution and how it needs to be refined, at the very least. James started with the Second Amendment, mentioning that we already have the "well-regulated militia" part in place in the form of our local and state police forces and our national guard. I added that the Constitution says virtually nothing about the vice president -- which is how Dick Cheney has been able to get away with defying Congress when Congress attempts to get him to testify or turn over documents or something. I went on and mentioned treaties -- the Constitution, through the Supremacy Clause, requires the Senate to ratify treaties negotiated by the executive branch and designates ratified treaties the law of land, making each one of us, as citizens, bound to abide by treaties our nation has adopted. But nowhere does the Constitution say that the Senate must sign off on the abrogation of treaties. That needs to be fixed. (The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had an abrogration clause that George W. Bush used when he ditched that treaty in June 2002.)

The First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law
We sat there long after all the other diners had left -- and finally one of the crew members swept by us and in a friendly manner indicated that we really should get going so that they could get ready for lunch. Before we departed, we thought we should give a title to our discussion. I can't remember if we came up with anything as a group, but on my own, I came up with this: the First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law.