Friday, April 28, 2006
As many no doubt noticed, I was recently hit by a powerful wave of reverse culture shock. The transition back to San Francisco has generally been easier than past returns to the States (to Georgia). San Francisco is an international city with a very large Asian population, so in many respects I didnt feel like I was completely in America.
However, all sorts of American cultural encounters have slowly built up... and about a month ago... Wham! I found myself in a REALLY foul mood. Two months of incessant rain didnt help matters. Nor does the news I pick up about Iraq, try as I might to avoid too much of it. Add the stress of moving to a new city... and well, the results werent pretty.
Im happy to say the worst seems to have passed. The sun is once more shining in San Francisco, my best friend is moving here today, the teaching gig is going amazingly well (not withstanding the usual bullshit that goes with all jobs), and Im slowly adjusting to some aspects of American culture again.
Of course Ill never adjust to the vulgarity or runaway capitalism, nor do I want to. But this city seems to have its fair share of folks who dont buy into all that... I finally connected with some last night at an art showing (a very trippy & interesting experience... for another time).
And finally, today, I got an internet connection in my apartment.. .which will open opportunities for teaching English over the internet (as a freelancer).
Its funny. When I talk to most travelers... especially first time travelers.. they always worry about the culture shock they'll experience in the new country they are visiting. That has never been a problem for me.
For me, its always the return that is brutal. But the worst seems to be over.
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Watch the movie "The Words Fastest Indian". It's a fantastic movie about travel
on a shoe-string budget, and motorcycles. It's based on the true story of a man
from New Zealand who travels half-way around the world to race his home-made
bike on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
At some point in the movie, an old Indian asks our hero:
"What you wanna ride that contraption for?"
He answers, "I suppose the reward is in the act of doing it itself."
Later he drops one of the best quotes in the movie:
"You live more in five minutes on a bike like this than most people
live in a lifetime."
Friday, April 21, 2006
"Trust yourself to react appropriately when catastrophe happens. Failure of nerve is really failure to trust yourself."
I didnt go abroad for the first time until I was 27. Id often thought about it, but never did it. Finally, I met a guy whod traveled to India. He filled me with tales of crowded markets, wandering sadhus, spices, chaos, colors. India seemed to me the mirror image of America... a place full of energy and color.
Somewhat hesitantly, I decided Id go to India. I had no money. Id never traveled. I knew nothing about India other than his stories. No matter.
When I got my student loan check, I promptly bought a ticket to Bombay. I lived off ramen noodles for the rest of the semester but I was thrilled. Next I bought a guidebook. I spent my impoverished days reading through it.. growing more excited each day.
But there were fears too. I had all the first-time-abroad worries. I worried about getting sick. I worried about not bringing something I would need.
More than that, I worried I wasnt up to the task. Would I be overwhelmed? Could I manage everything by myself? What if something bad happened and I was all alone.
Turned out that one of these fears did materialize. Two weeks after arrival in India, I became deathly sick. I eventually collapsed outside a fort in Jodhpur.... dehydrated and exhausted. A kind fellow-traveler got me into a rickshaw and told the driver to take me to the nearest hospital.
He took me to a hospital that had never had a foreign patient. My first challenge was to negotiate with the attendant. Though I could barely sit upright, he insisted that the doctor was not available and would not be for a long time. Panicked.. trying to stay conscious, I begged him. He said, "You must pay extra". In other words, I had to bribe him to call the doctor.
I was diagnosed with dysentery and stayed in the hospital for four days. The doctor spoke English and was very good..
It wasnt a pleasant experience. It wasnt "comfortable".
But everything worked out fine, as these things usually do. More to the point, I learned that I could indeed handle such a situation. I learned that my fears were mostly phantoms.
Nowadays, I dont usually bother with a guidebook... and I dont worry too much about "what might happen". In fact, the unexpected is the very best part of travel... why try to eliminate it.
The point is this- bad things might indeed happen should you take a big (or small) risk.
The thing is, you will handle it.
Alan Watts is right, failure of nerve is really failure to trust yourself.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Freedom rained down on my head
It mustve been about 3 am
Thats what theyre callin it … freedom
Unless youre on the receiving end
Freedom. Where are they when you need em?
Freedom. Youre human rights? You dont need em!
He went to war for the government
He came back with disfigurement
Now he needs some kind of treatment
They cut the VA check and his benefits?
Freedom. He went to war for their freedom
Freedom. Are they there when you need em?
We ask the men sitting on the hill?
They say its necessary to maim and kill
Theyre willing to send anyone
Except, of course, not their son
Freedom. We believed in their freedom
Freedom. Hmm. At what price freedom?
From the upcoming CD by the BENCHMARX
Joy Donut--Buzz--Herr Direktor--Monster--Tick
A local Kuala Lumpur band.... with a message-- and supported by Hobopoets, Freaks, Miscreants, Experimenters, And those generally unhappy with the state of things...
We play for food, beer, a good time, and to ruffle the feathers of those who need to be ruffled...
To be a BENCHMARXIST... send an e-mail to:
Check us out at:
YOU ARE EITHER WITH US OR YOU ARE AGAINST US!
p.s. I hope this is OK SKALD... I felt the lyrics were appropriate... as well as the unabashed, shameless self promotion!
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Some of the freest people Ive met are the street vendors and micro-entrepreneurs of Thailand. What wonderful people. What a wonderful lifestyle.
These are folks who "work for themselves" in the very best sense of that phrase.
People without a boss. Without timesheets. Who work when they want to; and dont when they dont. These are people who are not in a rush.... who are generally happy to share a drink and chat with their customers; who seem not to distinguish between work, play, and socializing.
Its not uncommon to find a vendor sitting on a blanket with a group of friends-- sharing a beer, food sprawled next to the goods for sale. Contrast this with America, where wage-slave employees are punished for talking to friends "on the clock"... where "efficiency" is God.
There is humanity in the Thai street vendors way of life... none in the American employee's. For the Thai, "work" is as much about camaraderie as profit. "Efficiency" is not a word one hears often in Thailand... on the street or in the office.
The same is true in India. Indian micro-entrepreneurs LOVE to chat. In fact, I often sensed they were disappointed with the "show me the money" mindset of their western customers. They seemed to delight in the process as much as the exchange of money... The invitation to the shop, sharing tea and shooting the shit, the long and elaborate display of goods, the humorous drama of haggling, the thanks and congratulations once the deal is concluded.
This is the kind of ease... the kind of humanity.. you find only among the free. No wage slave institution can reproduce it (nor do they want to). As an employee, work is a faceless, vulgar, dehumanizing affair.
But not so on the streets of many countries. In these places we gain a glimpse of another way... a small-scale, autonomous, pleasant means of "making a living".
Monday, April 17, 2006
Man, over the last couple hundred of thousand of years, has been conditioned by evolution to require certain outside parameters to experience a happy life: access to fresh air, beautiful nature (why do you think simply looking at it lifts the spirit), close and nourishing relationships with other people, a fair measure of physical exercise, etc.
The modern world, however, forces people into the most un-natural surroundings and forces them to live in ways not in tune with their ancient history: living, cut off from their peers and their natural habitat, in tiny boxes in concrete jungles, sitting still for eight hours a day doing work largely inconsistent with the much more physical "work" of their ancestors. The family structures that lent them stability have largely been disbanded over a false notion of freedom and women's lib, spread out over vast geographical areas or simply abandoned in pursuit of the false gods of money and success.
It is no surprise this makes people unhappy. The sad thing is most people are unable to realize even why they are unhappy and make the right changes to their life style.
The marketing machine jumps in on cue and exploits the unhappiness: hey are you unhappy? Buy this monstrous car, it will make you feel safer. It will make you feel better. Eat these psychopharmaceuticals. Or just eat, eat eat our salty sugary comfort food. Watch these bullshit shows. Buy buy buy buy buy. And all the while the true root of the problem lies unadressed, providing fertile soil for the bullshit marketing system for ever.
Will people ever wake up and start living again in a way consistent with their history, and experience true happiness?
In Germany, there is an ancient figure of speech: "Angst ist ein schlechter Ratgeber". "Fear is a bad advisor".
There is a great truth to this, hence it appals me to see most of todays world completely run by fear. Fear of terrorist attacks. Fear of evil drugs. Fear of real or imagined enemies. In America, the irrational fear of an unseen outside world most never even bothered to explore.
This fear is exploited, and it brings with it changes to the worse. Fear will never steer you to make the right decisions.
People are so chicken-shit these days, it makes me sick. They are afraid of having to look for another job, or maybe afraid of not finding one, so they put up with bull-shit at work that drives them to sickness and despair at the hands of despotic bosses. They are afraid of smut on the Internet, of the black man in the street, afraid of their shadow on the wall. They say to me "I could never ride a motorcycle, it's so dangerous! I need the safety of my Range Rover. I've got kids now, you know." Fear is the guiding motive in their lives, and it's making everything worse. Yet, in America, they call themselves the home of the "brave". True bravery is something else.
What ever happened to Churchill's old motto of "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?" Bravely accept the inevitable risks in life. Accept you might be killed in an accident, and ride with abandon, feeling the air blowing into your face, making you feel alive. Accept that life is limited anyhow and might end at any minute and commit yourself to living it to the fullest. Accept risk, forget fear, and move on.
Don't become a quivering bastard living in fear. There are too many of them already, all around you. And their collective pussy-footedness is ruining this world for everybody.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Just before dawn one August morning last year, a Sunrise, Florida, SWAT team moved into position outside its target. At a commander's signal, the team kicked down the front door and began its assault with paramilitary precision. Within seconds shots rang out, and within moments it was clear that the team had secured its objective and killed its target.
Was it a bank robber holed up for a desperate last stand? Was it a psychotic kidnapper barricaded with his hostages? Was it a tweaked-out ex-con with a grudge and an AK-47? Was it a foreign terrorist operative about to blow a landmark to smithereens? No. It was a 22-year-old bar tender who police had heard might be retailing small amounts of marijuana. He had a pistol permit -- a fact police knew -- and perhaps unsurprisingly, police claimed he went for his gun when a gang of masked, screaming, heavily armed men burst through his door in the pre-dawn darkness.
The Sunrise SWAT team left with the evidence: A couple ounces of pot, and a set of scales. And while Anthony Diotaiuto was dead as a result of the SWAT team's actions, not one of its members faced criminal charges or even departmental discipline. They had gone by the book, even if the result was a life snuffed out over a couple ounces of marijuana.
While the Sunrise incident was unusual in that it ended up with a young man dead, fatal outcomes are bound to happen when the aggressive tactics of SWAT are employed. There are numerous examples: Eleven-year-old Alberto Sepulveda killed by a SWAT team shotgun blast as he lay on the floor during a 2001 Modesto, California, drug raid.
Alberta Spruille, a 57-year-old New York City woman who died of a heart attack after a SWAT team with the wrong address threw flash bang grenades into her apartment. John Adams, a 64-year-old Lebanon, Tennessee, man killed by a SWAT team when he picked up a shotgun to defend himself and his wife from masked invaders who kicked down his door in the middle of the night -- another case of the wrong address. And on and on.
All of the incidents above are examples of paramilitary policing run amok. Whether they are called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams, Special Operations teams, Emergency Response Teams, or something else, paramilitary police units are now common throughout the country -- and are the stuff of fawning reality TV programming.
The heavily-armed, often black uniformed, helmeted, masked police squads look and behave as if they are chasing insurgents in the back alleys of Baghdad, and that is little surprise given their antecedents in military special forces units.
SWAT teams are designed for use and are arguably appropriate in limited, extremely dangerous circumstances, such as capturing armed, barricaded hostage-takers. But they are now widely used for run of the mill drug raids and other routine law enforcement work. In the last month, SWAT teams have been used to arrest seven Tibetan Buddhist monks on immigration charges (Carter Lake, Iowa), raid an apartment above a busy restaurant owned by the mayor only to find less than an ounce of marijuana (Denver), search for a missing woman in a well-publicized case (Orlando), and to conduct a routine drug raid on a house they managed to set on fire with flash bang grenades (Pompano Beach, Florida). A few weeks earlier, in late January, a Fairfax, Virginia, SWAT team shot and killed an unarmed optometrist under investigation for gambling when he walked out his front door. Those are just the examples that make the news.
Across the country, seven days a week, SWAT teams are kicking down doors on drug raids that don't make the news -- it's just business as usual. In a scene undoubtedly repeated across the country, in Huron, SD, last month, a multi-agency SWAT-style team investigating an apartment house where a multi-pound package of marijuana being surveilled by police had previously been refused, burst into one apartment with guns drawn, knocked the female inhabitant to the ground, handcuffed the male inhabitant for three hours while they searched the premises, and came up with a couple of marijuana pipes. It being South Dakota, police were also able to order the inhabitants to submit to drug tests and were able to charge them with "internal possession" of drugs based on those tests, so they didn't come up completely empty-handed.
"This is an under the radar, but truly massive phenomenon," said Dr. Peter Kraska, professor of criminal justice and police studies at Eastern Kentucky University and author of "Militarizing The American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and Police."
"Very few people understand the magnitude of what it means to have police go from enforcing the drug laws through traditional undercover operations to a paramilitary approach where they gather together in heavily-armed squads and conduct crude investigations using search warrants to get inside people's homes," Kraska told DRCNet. "This has not happened before in American history, except way back when the military was looking for contraband."
According to statistics uncovered by Kraska, there were some 3,000 SWAT team deployments a year in the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s, that number had increased ten-fold, to some 30,000 a year, and is probably near 40,000 a year now. The resort to SWAT teams has also spread from large urban police departments to such violent crime hot spots as Grand Island, Nebraska, Bullhead City, Arizona, and Eufala, Alabama.
"We now have a situation where even in small departments, more than 70% have a fully functioning SWAT team," said Kraska. "The question is what are they going to do with them? It's highly unlikely these small-town departments are going to run into a legitimate hostage or barricade situation, so the departments have to figure out a way to use the SWAT teams, something to use them for."
"I think this is an example of build it and then you have to find a use for it," said retired Detective Lieutenant Jack Cole, a 26-year of the New Jersey State Police veteran who is now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "SWAT tactics are appropriate when you have a life and death situation, but they are being used when they simply are not necessary. When I was a drug detective, one partner and I would go and arrest people when now they're calling in the whole SWAT team. Back then we did it better and did it quietly without people getting hurt. I worked narcotics for 14 years, and we never needed a SWAT team," he told DRCNet.
"This has all happened in a decade or so," said Kraska, "and it represents a fundamental shift in how police approach the drug war. In fact, it is the single most important indicator of them handling it as though it were a war as opposed to a drug problem. They are using teams modeled on military special operations squads, and even though they have different rules of engagement from the military, they are still using highly aggressive tactics for generally low-level drug use and dealing. SWAT teams place themselves and citizens in an extremely dangerous situation and not for justifiable reasons like a dangerous felon with a hostage, but for a few people smoking pot."
"Using SWAT teams to enforce the drugs laws is, in most instances, like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," said Cole. "It's not necessary and it's very expensive. That's part of the problem. Departments equip these people at great expense and train them and train them, and then the departments figure they should use them for something, but they are really only appropriate in very limited circumstances."
SWAT teams come dangerously close to crossing the bright line separating law enforcement from military operations, Cole said. "There is something about training a police officer to go to war that I don't like," he said. "We're police, not soldiers, but we've got these guys dressed in black from head to toe, wearing body armor and riot helmets, carrying superweapons -- and we're using them for drug raids and walking the beat. This is a real warlike mentality that we don't need as far as I'm concerned."
Many departments allow SWAT team members to hide their identities. "Why on earth do these departments allow their SWAT teams to wear ski masks?" Cole asked. "That's just horrible. It intimidates and terrorizes people, and it hides your identity so you can do anything you damn well want. What do you think happens to kids traumatized by a dozen masked, uniformed strangers charging into their homes with machine guns and laser search lights running across their chests? Why do the good guys feel they have to wear masks? They're treating American citizens as if they were enemy combatants."