Larry Smith

The Inspiring Stories of Immigrants Coming to America - Told in 6 Words or Fewer

Editor's Note: Marrying the acclaimed immigration-themed ABC series Fresh Off the Boat with the New York Times bestselling Six-Word Memoir series by Larry Smith, Kingswell Press has just released Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America

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It Is Amazing What People Can Say in Six Words

"The exits were entrances in disguise."  -- Shannon B., writer,

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Marriage and Its Discontents

As men and women struggle to find a balance between careers and family, tradition and independence, lasting love and fleeting lust, they find few easy answers. "It's complicated," seems to be the best we can do when faced with the exigencies of the post-modern marriage. And yet the complaints sound very much the same: Women want their husbands to do more around the house and with the kids; men wish their wives were less involved with their every move, and both yearn for a few moments of peace, quiet, and yes, solitude.

And who better to shed light on this He said/She said discourse of marital confusion than two people married to each other. Daniel Jones and Cathi Hanauer are each editors of a collection of essays that explore the funhouse world of matrimony from the perspective of men and women, respectively.

Hanauer's "The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage" came out in 2003 and quickly became a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. Hanauer soon after challenged her husband to put together the masculine response to Bitch. The result: "The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom," which was released earlier this year.

At the core of both Bitch and Bastard are explorations of what writer Kevin Canty describes in his unflinching essay, "The Dog in Me," as a world where "something's come loose, something's come unglued ... we no longer feel quite comfortable in our roles, no longer quite fit the people we imagine ourselves to be."

AlterNet spoke to Cathi Hanauer and Daniel Jones from their home in Northampton, MA.

"The Bitch in the House" offers a startling window into the deep- seated anger that women struggle with in their everyday lives. What led you to this project?

CATHI: Bitch came from what was on the mind of my peers – those of us who were ambitious working mothers with young children and who were feeling overwhelmed by the juggling act their lives had become. We wanted to know: How are we supposed to do it all?

We were also trying hard to grapple with co-parenting; I felt disillusioned with the way it was turning out back then. So the book began to evolve into the story of my life and what I was going through right then. And the more I looked into that, the more I realized there was a story there.

What was this anger really about? Were all women feeling it, or just working mothers of young kids? So I expanded the book to include ambitious, thinking women of all generations (ages 24 to 67) in all situations talking about the choices they'd made – what was working and what was not, in this post-feminist, supposedly egalitarian society.

"Bastards on the Couch" is, of course, a response to Bitch. When did the alarm bells go off – when did you realize that a man's point of view was sorely needed?

DANIEL: One went off when a reviewer of Bitch said about a husband of one of Cathi's contributors: "He can't be trusted with simple tasks." I knew this guy. He was an Ivy League-educated man at the peak of his profession, Someone who coached his son's little league team, cleaned the house and helped out as much as he could. And yet he couldn't be trusted with simple tasks?

In the case of Bastards, a lot of guys I knew were thinking: Where and when did I become the bad guy? I'm more involved in my children's lives than ever before. I'm supporting my wife in her career choices. I'm trying to split our responsibilities down the middle. Yet somehow I've become the bad guy.

Often they aren't the bad guys so much as they're the most convenient recipients of their wives' frustrations. But also, traditional role models are hard to shake. No matter how enlightened we all try to be, many of us spent our entire childhoods absorbing the often more traditional roles of our parents. So it's not so surprising, to me at least, that we lapse into those roles every now and then.

A lot of the problems discussed in both your books are due to children and how they turn lives upside down. You come away feeling as though having kids is a bad idea.

CATHI: For women especially – but it applies for men, too – there's a maternal instinct that conflicts directly with ambition, or at least it seems to. It's something you don't face until you have a child. You can't understand the intensity of that dilemma, and the conflicts it can cause if you're a working woman until you become a parent.

Then begins the dilemma: Am I going to work or am I going to take care of my baby? And if I have to do both – or I want to do both – how can I find the time and the energy for it? The cliché that she has two full-time jobs is true. So suddenly she's completely overwhelmed, at least when the baby is young and if she has the sort of career that's unforgiving.

DANIEL: That's the great awakening for a lot of women these days. She's zooming along through college then into a career and on up the ladder. Then suddenly she's home with the baby and thinking: So how is this supposed to work? And then her husband's paternity leave ends – if he even gets one – and he heads back to work.

I think this is where the resentment begins for many career women. Not because she doesn't want to be with her baby, but because she's the one being tugged in two directions and he usually isn't. In his essay ["My Problem with Her Anger"], Eric Bartels says fathers may miss being with their children when they're at work, but they won't feel guilty because they are doing what they are programmed to do.

CATHI: Mothers give birth and are wired to be responsible for our children. It's not easy, especially if you're like me – a high-stress, high-energy working type – to try to calm down and run a family after 33 years. I was shocked at how hard it was; how much guilt and pressure I constantly felt. So, OK, in that sense kids are the problem –

DANIEL: – but only a problem because we love them so much.

In her essay, "Attila the Honey I'm Home," Kristin van Ogtrop describes herself and her husband as "partners in martyrdom." Is it ultimately a bad idea for both partners to have demanding, successful careers?

CATHI: No, I don't think so, but you need outside help, and you have to be a certain kind of couple who can live with it. Frankly, a lot of kids grow up with great nannies and do great.

I would never say that woman shouldn't have high-power jobs. A lot of women who have jobs like that have stay at home husbands. Remember, Jane Swift was governor of Massachusetts and when she had twins she had to step down. A man wouldn't have had to step down.

I grew up in the generation of women who really did believe we could do it all. But now that we've arrived I see how complicated it is. Not impossible, but complicated.

Kristin's essay was about a mother torn between her office and her home. It struck a nerve both with women who'd chosen to combine work and kids – who really appreciated it – and women who'd given up work to stay home, many of whom were bitterly angered by it. And that's interesting in and of itself. Her piece ran in Glamour, and one reader wrote in and said, "I hate you and your entire family.' Now, there's a happy stay-at-home mom. Not!

DANIEL: For a lot of power couples, the question of who leaves work earlier and goes home first is a sad one. It makes one person's career suffer; the kid becomes a career drainer. I find it an irresolvable dilemma with power couples.

How do you make it work in your own marriage?

CATHI: I'm not advocating a return to traditional roles, but that's partially what has happened to Dan and I. After twelve years of marriage, we realized that I do certain things better and that Dan does certain things better, and a lot of those things break down along traditional roles.

I go to the grocery shop, buy kids clothes, etc. What do I get in return – he's going to deal with the cars and the yard. But women are obsessed with who is doing more because they usually are the ones doing more. Women are constantly the ones seeing to the needs of everyone else.

DANIEL: That's because women think there is more to be done than there actually is.

CATHI: Or that's because men are able to artificially turn it all off.

DANIEL: Even when men think they're stepping up to the plate and doing their fair share, they are never doing it right. It always has to be done on the woman's terms

CATHI: This puts women in the position of the foreman – and they don't want to be the foreman – and makes them feel like bitches. And when they are angry, the first thing that goes is the sex.

If you were writing a piece right now about marriage through the lens of your own, what would you write about?

CATHI: I would write about traditional roles and the shift toward a more traditional place in our marriage and what is good and bad about that. How I've let go of some of my ideals and what I expect in return.

There's a certain level of politeness and decency that can get lost in those years where you are both struggling to do all these things, to be equals. I've come much more around to being a more traditional woman than I was five or ten years ago. There were years when I was struggling with being a woman, but now I embrace it more. And, in a way, now that I (do so), I expect Dan to behave in more traditional ways.

Dan writes about this very issue – being confused about what women expect from men – in his essay, "Chivalry on Ice."

DANIEL: Some of the lack of caretaking comes from being locked in competition with each other. It's like striking a balance between pure egalitarianism and reality. Men have become so disarmed by women's independence that they don't know what to do. Am I supposed to hail the taxi? Should I hold open the door? They just don't know.

What were the trickiest or most taboo topics for each of you to tackle?

CATHI: I had a hard time getting women to talk about money. Specifically, getting women to admit that they make more money than their husbands. If they do make more, women feel like it's a betrayal to say that publicly. Yet it is OK for a woman to say I'm not giving him sex.

DANIEL: And for men it's taboo to say: I'm not giving my wife sex. Less so than for women.

It's clear the dynamics of marriage have changed over the past few decades, but what about our conception of masculinity?

DANIEL: Masculinity has always been associated with power, and it's this power that men are losing in relationships, in marriage, and in the workplace. Manny Howard writes a wonderfully soul-searching essay ["Embracing the Little Steering Wheel"] about how his wife out-earns him by twenty times and how he's okay with this. He really is okay with it, but then at a certain point he wonders if he really is okay with it. Because what kind of a man is he when his wife, who controls the purse strings, is also able to call many of the shots in their marriage?

He senses that this inequality is what makes his marriage work, where his previous marriage failed because he and his wife were so equal and competitive. But how does this inequity affect his sense of manhood? It's all wrapped up in power and he knows it.

Likewise, Rob Jackson, who writes about being a stay-at-home dad for the past fifteen years. He never got a paycheck for more than $200 during this time and he concedes that this gave his wife a certain influence over the family that he lacked, even though he was doing all the grunt work.

For many men, I don't think the notion of masculinity has changed at all. It's just that they question their ability to be traditionally 'masculine' when they are in a position of weakness or financial dependency in relation to the women in their lives.

But is Rob really happy?

DANIEL: I think in Rob's case he really wasn't that ambitious, he didn't find what he was looking for in a career. Then he met a woman who was really ambitious, so they split things up a certain way. And once you get on that track, it's hard to go back. But he's clearly riddled with doubt throughout the piece. He feels good about the job he's done raising his kids, but at the same time he's embarrassed to go back to his hometown.

I wonder how close his feeling is to what women feel entering that kind of marriage today – a woman who probably went to college or even grad school and then thinks about going back to a college reunion and saying, "I'm a stay at home mom."

CATHI: Women today are so polarized. You have the working mothers, the non-working mothers, and the non-mothers. Instead of women being more or less "all in this together," as we were 30 or 40 years ago, we're all so insecure about what we're doing. We're constantly comparing ourselves to each other and coming up short. So you end up being – well, not enemies – but competitors instead of compatriots.

When the stay-at-home mother down the street is out all day with her kids while mine are in daycare so I can work, there's no way that can make me feel good. And when she sees me succeed in my work and bring home an income, well, I won't say how she feels, but I think she must feel something that's not pleasant.

So that's one more way we're no longer all in the same boat, with the same dilemmas and same joys. It's more complicated now.

Shock and Paw

Everything was going well until the kitty litter question.

We had been in the Petco for hours. Many hours. Enough hours that people began assuming my girlfriend and I were volunteers at KittyKind, the no-kill cat shelter that sets up camp in the massive pet store found on the northwest corner of New York City's Union Square. But we weren't volunteers -- we were just another decent, underemployed American couple trying to create a life together in a cramped apartment in the Lower East Side. And while we generally enjoyed that life, we knew it wouldn't be complete without the pitter-pat of little feet in our hall and on our heads in the middle of the night, fur all over our chic black wardrobe, and a litter box stashed in the shower.

I've been a cat owner for almost three decades. But as I walked into the Petco I realized that I've never actually gone shopping for one. My sister -- defying the no-pets clause my father put in our parents' marriage contract -- secured my family's first cat for a dollar at a school fair when she was in first grade. Pee Wee was a tough little dude until a mysterious fertilizer incident did him in. Next up: Daiquiri, a fancy indoor cat who arrived one happy afternoon, only to meet his demise in a freak flea bath accident shortly thereafter. A quiet period ended a few years later when I moved into an apartment in San Francisco where Woody was squatting. He was sweet and just a little crazy, so I kept him moving around with me for 12 years. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the cat world. Entering the matrix of KittyKind, it was apparent I did not. These people were different.

I quickly learned that it takes a special type of cat lover to volunteer at a no-kill shelter. They give up their time to hang out with cats that turn up sick, abused, unwanted or worse. A good day is when one of them traps a feral cat in a vacant parking lot and brings it in to be neutered. And at the end of the day, every cat needs to be shuttled off to the home where it's being boarded. Yes, boarded -- like little, furry exchange students.

These people are cat-obsessed, but then again so are we. In the months preceding the death of Woody -- one of the all-time great cats -- we found out to what lengths feline love would take us.

On Sept. 12, 2001, with the city reeling and acrid smoke hanging over our neighborhood, Woody got sick. Maybe it was all that gunk in the air in lower Manhattan, maybe he was entering month 11 of life nine, but all I know is that from 9/12/01 one previously perfect cat started throwing up like a freshman at a frat party. After numerous visits with our local, beloved vet, we decided that we needed to step things up a notch. Consulting New York magazine's much-mocked (until now) "Best NYC Vets" article, we located not just the best cat doctor, but the finest feline gastrointestinal expert in all of Manhattan. We had crossed over from garden-variety pet ownership into another realm: We had Jumped the Paw.

Dr. Evelyn Han was located in a sprawling animal hospital in the Upper East Side. The waiting room was a constant source of amusement, trauma and drama. Where else, after all, do you hear people trading stories about their cats' experience with dialysis? People would give us their phone numbers, begging us to keep them up to date on Woody's progress. The owner of the largest dog I have ever seen cheerfully explained to a terrified cat owner that the pooch was lunging at her equally terrified cat "because he loves cats -- we have two at home." Entire families sat nervously awaiting word on their Chihuahua. Here was a place where you could witness complete interspecies devotion. Turn on a digital video camera and you'd have a top-rated reality TV show, the waiting room for Emergency Vets on Discovery's Animal Planet.

Keep taking your cat in for more tests and emergency midnight hydration treatments and you have a bill that could feed a large family of Kurds. And in our case, you also have a dead cat. Dr. Han sent us a kind sympathy card adorned with line drawings of kittens. Woody ended up three feet under in the makeshift pet cemetery in my folks' backyard. A period of mourning began.

That period ended in KittyKind's corner of Petco, where a world of hopeful cats stacked neatly in metal cages awaited us. Each cat has a little index card with its name and other notable facts. "Monroe likes Whiskers dry food and bits of salmon." "Heather thinks the best place to bathe herself is in your lap." "Pierre may seem prickly at first, but once he gets to know you, this furry friend won't leave your side." "This gorgeous girl Regina Revidus (the Queen reborn) would rather be strutting her stuff on the runway, but will be a stylish addition to your life (note: she does not do well with other cats.") "Jimmy is five years old and has an extra toe."

On weekends, the place is packed with singles and couples, kids and parents, the young and the old, all looking to add a little fur to their lives. It all seems simple enough. There are lots of people standing around talking in little cat voices; there are lots of cats hoping to bust out of their cages. Supply. Demand.

What's standing between that 3-by-3 cage and cat vomit all over your carpet? The volunteers. And when it comes to the pussy, they ain't playing.

The volunteers can be divided into four classifications:

Alpha volunteers: The diehards. They run things. They rescue and name the cats (though some alphas find naming the cats sort of wrong because it pre-assigns a name, look, feel, and, naturally, personality to the cats). They decide who gets what cat and later deliver that cat to your home. They are all women.

Beta volunteers: They do some of the above, but with somewhat less intensity than the alphas. They are quick to chime in with advice -- from the best brand of dry food to organic hairball solutions. They receive birthday cards in the shape of a cat.

Zeta volunteers: They get nervous when you ask them a question, like, "Can I hold this cat," and direct you to an alpha or beta, trying their best to stay out of harm's way. They clean the cages. They hum a lot. These are exclusively gay men.

Dorothy: The lady adorned with a pair of fake cat ears who sits in a chair and yelps, "Pennies, nickels, dimes for the kitties! Pennies, nickels, dimes for the kitties!" She is maybe 100 years old and always wears a purple sweater. She is very present.

You'd think that the job of the volunteers would be -- assuming you don't look like the kind of person who would eat, torture, or molest a cat -- to move the animals along. Not so fast, Jack. First, we need to ask you a few simple questions. This is your interview.

The volunteers start with some softballs ("Q: Do you have windows without screens that the cat might jump through, careening down 30 stories to his certain death? A: No). Then it gets a little trickier (Q: How do you feel about declawing? A: Well, I did just blow $2K on a couch ... I mean, I feel it is wrong and inhumane and Alice Walker should put a stop to it"). They want to know if we'd be attentive parents. (Them: Do you work long hours? Us: No! We both lost our jobs recently! We're home all the time! No latchkey kitties here! Them: Excellent.) And then there's this:

Them: What are you thoughts on kitty litter?

Us: We like it.

Them: Uh-huh.

Us: But we don't eat it.

Them: How do you feel about clumping?

Us: What?

Them: Clumping? How do you feel about the litter that clumps.

Us: Oh, we don't like the clumping kind.

Them: Right answer. Why not?

Us: It's gross.

Them: It's toxic.

Us: We knew that.

Get a question wrong and you're in deep doo-doo. I suspect we could get a firearm with a lot less sweat.

Linda was a 30-ish woman with a kind way who spent a good half hour wooing and cooing at Hart, an adult cat with pretty brown stripes and a great personality. Most people show up looking for kittens, so Hart had scored and he knew it. He was on his very best behavior. "My last cat died a year ago," Linda told me, "and I think he'll be great." The president of the Hart Fan Club zipped through the interview portion of her adoption, filled out some forms, and was on her way.

"I'm so glad she's taking Hart," I told an alpha a little later.

"I don't know about that," she countered. "We had her fill out an application, but she was pretty rigid about only wanting to feed him dry food. How would you like to just eat cereal all day?"

I nodded slowly. I needed the alpha on my side.

How 'bout the kittens, I wondered aloud. Who got them? There were four kittens, and they were just a few weeks old. When they weren't sleeping on top of each other like strips of bacon still in the package, they were bouncing off the walls of their cages. Everybody wanted the kittens.

"I don't think anyone is getting the kittens," said an alpha.

How was that possible? This guy had too many roommates. That girl seemed immature. One couple had too many cats already.

"But," the alpha added without a hint of irony, "a mature couple like yourself would do well with the kittens." Great, we were the old guys at the rock concert. Except the rock concert was a cat shelter.

Later, I spied a young English couple and their two boys playing with a different set of kittens, a little older than the newborns, so I figured they had a chance. Mom was zippy and chipper. Dad was slumped in a seat in a leather jacket with a "No Blood for Oil" button, looking a little tired, disheveled and worried.

"Kittens and children are not always a good idea," said an alpha.

"Well, the woman nervously explained, "they have friends with kittens and they've done very well."

"There's a big difference between a supervised interaction and actually living with them."

The couple was terrified.

I had to help. When the alpha stepped away, I leaned in and told Mom about the clumping question. Her boys were shouting possible kitten names and picking out Play 'n Paw toys from across the aisle. She was grateful, giving me a little wink when the alpha asked her about litter. The Brits scored the kittens.

Three visits, eight hours, $175, one 25-minute conversation about the miracle of making cat food from scratch, 126 individual conversations with 42 cats in 3-by-3 cages and one home visit, and we scored too. Wayne and the Lady Bunny -- amazing siblings born four months earlier in the mean streets of Brooklyn during the worst winter in years under threat of Code Orange -- were home.

Now if they would just come out from under the bed.

Larry Smith has written for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People and other publications. This story was originally published on Salon.

The Ten Worst Enemies Of The Press

Across the globe, journalism remains under fire -- often times quite literally. In 1995, 182 journalists were imprisoned because of their work -- the highest number since the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists began its annual count in 1986. As a new report reveals, the leaders of China, Nigeria, Turkey, and Kenya are among 10 world figures identified as "Enemies of the Press." All are responsible for brutal campaigns against journalists and press freedom, as documented by CPJ in its ongoing monitoring of press freedom violations worldwide. The "Enemies of the Press" list is released annually on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. Heading the list for the second straight year is Abu Abdul Rahman Amin, the head of Algeria's rebel Armed Islamic Group, who claims responsibility for many of the 58 assassinations of journalists in Algeria since 1993."Each of these 10 men is actively committed to the eradication of the independent press," says CPJ executive director William A. Orme. "Scores of working journalists were killed, imprisoned, or driven into exile as a result of their direct or covert actions."Here's a look at CPJ's Dirty 10: 1. Abu Abdul Rahman Amin, leader of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. His insurgent faction has claimed responsibility for many of the 58 assassinations of journalists in Algeria over the past three years. Rahman Amin has threatened all secular journalists with death. "Those who fight with the pen," he proclaimed, "shall die by the sword."2. China's leader, Deng Xiaoping. China's nonagenarian strongman may no longer run his government on a daily basis, but his ruling philosophy -- "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- continues to serve as a pretext for the complete suppression of independent reporting. When it takes over Hong Kong in June 1997, Deng's regime is expected to muzzle one of the most vibrant and pluralistic news centers in all of Asia. As the man who ordered the June 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, which included the imprisonment of China's leading journalists, Deng is directly responsible for restricting the press freedom rights of more than one-fifth of the world's population.3. Nigerian President Sani Abacha persecutes independent journalists by ordering or encouraging editorial office bombings, seizures of periodicals and equipment, and the arbitrary detention of journalists, often without charges. One result is a steady stream into exile of the profession's best and brightest. For those who stay, the risks are great: in 1995 four journalists were sentenced by a secret military tribunal to 15 years in prison for reporting on dissident army officers accused of plotting the overthrow the regime.4. Turkey's Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz runs a government that at any given moment holds more journalists in jail than any other in the world. Yilmaz has done nothing to improve on his predecessor Tansu Ciller's dismal press freedom record. At the end of 1995, CPJ documented 51 cases of Turkish journalists who were then in jail simply for exercising their profession. Most were imprisoned for reporting that was allegedly sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. Despite international criticism, Yilmaz has so far chosen to retain and enforce the notorious Articles 7 and 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and Article 312 of the Penal Code, which effectively criminalize independent news reporting about separatist movements, army counterinsurgency tactics, Islamic fundamentalism, and other topics central to the country's political life.5. Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmonov. President Rakhmonov has overseen the systematic elimination of independent Tajik news media. The paramilitary forces he commanded during the recent civil war were responsible for many of the 27 death-squad killings of journalists between 1992 and 1994. All independent local news organizations have been forced to close, and hundreds of Tajik journalists are in hiding or in exile. The repressive Rakhmanov regime is wholly dependent on Russian military and economic aid.6. Indonesia's President Suharto. President Suharto has orchestrated a two-year-long crackdown on the country's independent press. After banning three leading newsweeklies in June 1994, his regime brutally suppressed demonstrations by journalists and others against the closures. Last September, the leader of the only independent journalists union, Ahmad Taufik, and his colleague Eko Maryadi were sentenced to three years in prison for publishing an unlicensed magazine and supposedly subjecting the government to "hostility, hatred, and contempt." At least 80 members of Taufik's union, the Alliance of Independent Journalists, have been fired from their jobs due to government pressure.7. Cuba's President Fidel Castro. Cuba remains the only country in the Americas without any independent publications or broadcasters. Reporters not employed by state media are not allowed to own or operate a computer or a fax machine. Independent local journalists who attempt to send news dispatches to clients abroad face such retaliatory measures as internal travel bans, overnight detentions, the harassment of friends and relatives, seizures of equipment, and threats of prolonged imprisonment.8. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. King Fahd uses his enormous financial and diplomatic clout to silence dissenting voices not just in Ryadh but throughout the Arab world. The Saudi press, though privately owned, is one of the most restricted in the world. King Fahd must approve the hiring of editors; he also can (and does) dismiss them at will. More disturbing still, the Saudi royal family has acquired the most important international Arab periodicals and broadcast outlets and uses its influence to suppress all criticism of its business interests and diplomatic entanglements.9. Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi. President Moi has declared war on the independent press and widened his net to include foreign correspondents. Critical coverage of Moi has been decreed a criminal offense, while newspapers and printers have been arbitrarily closed for publishing opposing viewpoints. Journalists covering the trial of human rights activist Koigi wa Wamwere were physically attacked by pro-government thugs. The government last year introduced a restrictive new press law, including government-mandated "codes of conduct" for journalists, only to withdraw the initiative in the face of fierce international condemnation.10. Slovakia's Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. In his latest assault on press freedom, the thin-skinned prime minister pushed through parliament an amendment to the Criminal Code that would imprison journalists and others found guilty of "spreading false information abroad." Since Meciar dismissed all but one of the 18 members of the state radio and television supervising councils in November 1994, the Slovakian broadcasters have become mouthpieces and apologists for the prime minister's increasingly autocratic rule. This backslide into repression bodes ill not only for Slovakia but for all of post-communist Central Europe.More information about press freedom in more than 100 countries can be found in CPJ's annual report, "Attacks on the Press in 1995," available on CPJ's World Wide Web site,; or contact the Committee To Protect Journalists, 330 Seventh Avenue, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10001; Phone: 212-465-1004; Fax: 212-465 956; Email:

Top 10 Censored Stories of 1995

Among the many gifts of the late 20th century is the information explosion. Chain generated dailies grind on, alternative weeklies grace well over 100 cities, talk, micro and public radio flourish, practically every one and their dog has a 'zine and, of course, there's the medium of the fin de siecle, the World Wide Web. Never before has so much information been so available to so many. Information consumes us. But to what end?The job of the media is to serve as the "Fourth Estate," to watchdog the three branches of government in a role essential to democracy. But does "The Media," in all its myriad forms and functions, get the job done? Do the truly important stories of the day reach the masses? Evidently not. As the team of researchers and judges at Sonoma State University's "Project Censored" rediscover each year, much of the news is, in effect, deemed unworthy by the media's most powerful outlets. Founded by Carl Jensen in 1976, Project Censored's distinguished panel of judges (see sidebar) reviews little known stories culled from a national research effort each year. While loyal readers of Public Citizen magazine or listeners of Jim Hightower's radio commentaries may be up on corporate welfare scams or NAFTA's broken promises, these outlets are mere chips off the media monolith.It with no small amount of irony that the abysmal coverage of the Telecommunications Act leads the list of censored stories this year. Ironic because the telecom bill received plenty of ink; censored because of the fact that the vast majority of the media failed to explore the ramifications of the bill for consumers and of encroaching monopoly control over our communications system. Rather, standard press coverage recycled the corporate party line about the benefits of increased competition and looked the other way as the lobbying blitz of the century propelled the bill through Congress.This was one story in a list of important of stories that examines such issues as the hidden costs of the health care crisis and the horrific state of child labor today -- stories that detail real effects on people's lives. Vastly and shamefully under-reported, these and other important stories of the hour are probably news to you too.Top 10 Censored News Stories of 19951. Telecommunications Bill ("Federal Telecommunications Legislation: Impact on Media Concentration," Ralph Nader, James Love, and Andrew Saindon, Consumer Project on Technology, July 14, 1995.) When the telecom bill was set to be passed, Vice President Al Gore called it an "early Christmas present for the consumer." The New York Times decried, "after four years of legislative struggle, there was one clear winner -- the consumer." And citing rare bipartisan agreement in the Capitol and echoing the misguided shout of deregulation, media across the land cheerleaded its passage. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 proved to be the cause for a nearly unified chorus of hoorays from Beltway shakers and mainstream media alike, praising a bill that would ostensibly lower prices and improve service for all our information needs by opening up the market to competition. But as those rare telecom critics who dissected the bill learned, the law was not created with consumers in mind. Bought and paid for by the very telecommunications conglomerates it is supposed to discipline, encouraging further monopoly and ultimately driving up costs to the consumer, the bill is nothing short of a travesty. While the mind-boggling density of the bill meant that few dared to decipher it, if the telecom critics are right, anyone who use a phone, watches TV, reads the newspaper, or listens to the radio will learn first-hand the consequences of the most sweeping changes in communications law since 1934. 2. Balancing the Budget ("Cut Corporate Welfare: Not Medicare," John Canham-Clyne, Public Citizen, July/August, 1995) Few economic stories dominated the news like the budget battle and its ensuing government shutdown in 1995. The mainstream media played into the hands of the politicians who posited the stalemate as a GOP v. Clinton scenario, complete with a political winner and a loser. The real losers, of course, were the many Americans left without work for weeks. The winners, as analysis by a broad range of groups across the ideological spectrum reveals, are the cash-rich corporations that remain on the government dole. While Congress called for a trillion dollars in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education, and social welfare in order to achieve a balanced budget by the year 2002, according to a study done by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, the books could be balanced without gutting programs for the poor and the elderly by tightening the reigns on what is commonly known as "corporate welfare." A wide range of subsidies, tax breaks, public property giveaways, and other policies benefiting certain companies or industries, corporate welfare costs taxpayers between $53 billion and $167.2 billion annually, depending on who's crunching the numbers. Why should Exxon be exempt from paying taxes on the $8.2 billion profits the oil company reinvests overseas? And how is it that U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for Campbell Soup's half a million dollar direct subsidy from the USDA to advertise the salty stuff abroad? As the media quibble over whose plan to cut Medicaid is more "fair," few are finding the answers to the hard questions that challenge the U.S.'s corporate welfare state.3. Child Labor Is Worse Today ("Working In Harm's Way," Ron Nixon, Southern Exposure, Fall/Winter 1995) Fifty-seven years after the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibited youth under 18 from working in hazardous conditions, child labor violations are happening more frequently today than at any time during the notorious 1930s. Some five million young people are reportedly in the workforce (the actual number is much higher), but as Ron Nixon reports, enforcement of the FLSA is lax, and lobbying efforts by a wide-range of business trade organizations "make reform nearly impossible." Farms, notoriously unregulated, are not eager to expose this problem, nor is the government, which cut investigations into child labor violations nearly in half from 1992-1994. Why does the government turn a blind eye toward the plight of its smallest victims? In a piece for Southern Exposure, Nixon followed the money and found that the National Restaurant Association gave more than $650,000 to 279 candidates in the 1994 election, with 73 percent going to Republican candidates. Since so many young workers are paid under the table and the government does not even gather data on workers below the age of 15, there is little information available, leaving many child labor violations unreported -- and unspoken. Nobody knows for sure just how many children remain in work situations that are detrimental to their mental and physical health. What is certain is that by the time a negligent company has been fined, and the media's interest is in turn piqued, the damage has often already been done.4. Privatization of the Internet ("Keeping On-Line Speech Free: Street Corners in Cyberspace," Andrew Shapiro, The Nation, July 3, 1995) If most Americans never hear another word about the Internet they won't be sorry. Yet one of the most troubling developments in cyberspace in 1995 yielded barely a peep out of the major media. While papers splashed (albeit important) ink on censorship amendment to the telecom bill, gradually, and quietly, the U.S. has been transferring large chunks of the Internet to corporations such as IBM and MCI as part of the government's plan to privatize cyberspace. "Speech in cyberspace will not be free if we allow big business to control every square inch of the Net," writes Andrew Shapiro in The Nation. "The public needs a place of its own." At risk is the heart and soul of the online world. An unregulated, largely non-privatized Internet may be a chaotic one, but it's the model that allows for the largest amount of public space and the widest range of opinions. Yet if companies continue to gobble up cyberspace at the current rate, the online world lose its community feel, evolve into a suburban version of what it once was. "If cyberspace is deprived of public forums," writes Shapiro, "we'll get a lot of what we're already used to: endless home shopping, mindless entertainment and dissent-free chat." While this may be the model that makes the power structure sleep well at night, it means that the medium of the moment would have indeed lost a real opportunity to help make democracy work.5. U.S. Plans to Spend Billions on Nukes ("U.S. Seeks Arms Ingredient As It Pushes Nuclear Pact," Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, May 1, 1995)The United States faces no Cold War military power, but it still maintains thousands of nuclear missiles to guard against a minimal threat. Such a vast arsenal is not needed to protect ourselves from the Libyas and Iraqs of the world, but the military continues to pump up its nuclear might. As the U.S. urges other nations to eliminate nuclear weapons, it plans on spending billions of dollars to improve its own stock. The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to resume production of a radioactive gas to enhance the bang of nuclear explosions, while the feds contemplate two other options on how to throw away taxpayers' money: Build either an unsafe nuclear reactor at the aging, leaking Savannah River, S.C., plant or erect an untested, theoretically feasible huge particle accelerator. Career Pentagon and DOE bureaucrats are pushing for the nuclear reactor, which would be the first new one ordered since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, and a favor that may turn into further back-scratching in the future.6. Radical Plan from Newt Gingrich's Think Tank to Gut FDA ("Agency under attack: Newt Gingrich's foundation has a radical plan to gut the FDA and rely on the drug industry to police itself," Leslie Weiss, Mother Jones, Sept./Oct. 1995) We've heard about the laptops, we've heard about the orphans, but another less widely-known scheme of House Speaker Newt Gingrich is to gut the main organization safeguarding public health in America. Gingrich has called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the "number one job-killer" in America, and its head David Kessler a "thug." But the agency maintains that title is better than being a person-killer, a possibility if important food and drug controls are relaxed. Gingrich's scheme is to allow private companies to speed through their own internal testing and receive a rubber-stamp approval from the weakened FDA. What's more, Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation, heavily funded by the drug industry, wants to limit the liability of the pharmaceutical companies when they rush their overpriced, unsafe drugs and medical devices to the market. 7. Russian Injects Earth With Nuclear Waste. ("Poison in the Earth: Nuclear Roulette for Russia," William J. Broad, New York Times, Nov. 21, 1994) Like toxic crumbs under a communist rug, the former Soviet Union (now followed by Russia) conveniently ferreted its nuclear waste into the ground for decades, perhaps figuring that the problem would simply go away. But many of Russia's disposal sites are located near rivers, and the contaminants have leaked beyond projections and spread in one of the Cold War's most deadly legacies. The total amount of waste tossed out is 60 times greater than the radioactive release from Chernobyl. The good news? The waste may be rendered less harmful as it decays, though of course that process is a best-case scenario and may take decades. If the waste leaks to the surface, the radioactivity may spread through the world's oceans and prompt a global rise in birth defects and cancer deaths. Yet as the media continue to train its tunnel vision on Boris Yeltsin's health, the resurgence of Communism and Zhiranovsky's latest rantings and ravings, a toxic reality that affects millions of Russians continues.8. Medical Fraud Costs the Nation Billions Annually ("Medscam," L.J. Davis, Mother Jones, March/April 1995) What have we learned in the long wake that followed the failed Clinton health care plan? We know this: We are in a health care crisis -- or not -- depending on who you ask. Critics of further government intervention in the medical industry argue that the government's role in health care is already out-of-control, but what is less widely known is that medical fraud ravages the health care industry, funneling off unknown sums ranging in the billions. The one trillion dollar annual health bill each year is 14 percent of the U.S. GDP, with estimates of fraud ranging from $31-$53 billion. The crooks range from hospital executives pushing phony costs to taxicab drivers lying about driving the elderly to a hospital. All the while, doctors are submitting false and outrageous bills to insurance companies, often for work that was never done. Because the government has been slow to investigate complex and hard to prove white-collar crime, the crooks have had a head start. Ironically, while every dollar of taxpayer money spent on investigating medical fraud yields a $72 return, there are only 125 federal investigators now on the trail of the medi-scams. Budget cuts mean that number is being cut down even further. With little investigation on the part of the government or the media, these scams will continue to run rampant. The only ones who aren't confused about the health care industry, it seems, are the crooks. 9. Chemical Industry Fights for Toxic Ozone-killing Pesticide ("Campaign Against Methyl Bromide," Ann Schonfield, Earth Island Journal, Summer, 1995) Not only is methyl bromide a great killer of pests and aid to agriculture, it's listed as one of the most dangerous toxins and is a major cause of ozone depletion in the earth's atmosphere. While chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a much better known, methyl bromide is at least 50 times more destructive to the ozone layer. The Clean Air Act banned methyl bromide beginning in 2001, and the international Montreal Protocol is moving to phase out the chemical too. But agri-business is fighting the decision tooth-and-nail. Farm managers, however, may not be as mad as their underpaid, non-union field workers and nearby residents most vulnerable to the central nervous system damage, heart disease, and reproductive harm associated with this deadly substance. Organic -- less dangerous and less publicized alternatives -- of course exist, with many European countries phasing methyl bromide out. The U.S. is the most lucrative market for the poison, the one nation where the opportunity to sell out the future still exists. But if American sales shut down, there's always the unregulated opportunities to poison the less-developed nations, with no EPA to sound alarms. 10. NAFTA's Broken Promises ("NAFTA's Corporate Con Artists," Sarah Anderson and Kristyne Peter, CovertAction Quarterly, Fall 1995; "A Giant Spraying Sound," Esther Schrader, Mother Jones, January/February 1995) Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and the scores of grassroots anti-NAFTA activists were right: Two years after NAFTA's narrow passage, the 200,000 new jobs promised by the trade brokers are nowhere to be found, pollution has increased in Mexico, and workers across the border are spraying more toxic pesticides on fruits, vegetables and people then ever. Most hypocritically, the same CEO's who promised more jobs in the U.S. as a result of the deal have actually carried out layoffs in spades. The worst of the lot is probably USA*NAFTA, a huge coalition backboned by Fortune 500 companies which helped push through NAFTA by waging a self-serving lobbying campaign wrapped in false patriotism. Despite several recent reports in the past year documenting the results of NAFTA's first two years, USA*NAFTA has hailed NAFTA as a winner for the American people, ignoring the brutal realities of job loss and environmental havoc. "During the past two years," write Sarah Anderson and Kristyne Peter in CovertAction Quarterly, "that flag [of patriotism] has proved to have an exceptionally slick Teflon coating. The group has suffered neither negative publicity nor political disfavor, despite NAFTA's miserable results." SIDEBAR: 15 Other Censored Stories in 1995* Giant Oil Companies Owe U.S. More Than $1.5 Billion* 180,000 Patients Die Annually from Treatment in Hospitals* Congress Wants to Take the Money and Run* The Gulf War Syndrome Cover-up* Rebirth of Slavery in Sudan* Fiberglass: A Deadly Carcinogen That is Everywhere* Small Arms Wreak Major Worldwide Havoc* Scientific Support for Needle Exchange Programs Suppressed* Solving the Nuclear Industry's Waste Problem with Taxpayers' Dollars* ABC Spikes New Tobacco Expose* New 3 Rs: Reading, Writing and Reloading* Cures in the Rain Forest* Dioxin: Still Deadly* U.S. Trails in Maternal Health* E. Coli Kills 500 AnnuallySIDEBAR: Project Censored Judges The judges who selected the top 10 under-reported news stories are Donna Allen, founding editor of Media Report to Women; Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley; Richard Barnet, senior fellow, Institute for Policy Studies; Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director, The Center for Media Education; Susan Faludi, journalist/author; George Gerbner, professor of communication and dean emeritus, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania; Sut Jhally, professor of communications and executive director, The Media Education Foundation, University of Massachusetts; Nicholas Johnson, professor, College of Law, University of Iowa; Rhoda H. Karpatkin, president, Consumer Union, non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports; Charles L. Klotzer, editor, St. Louis Journalism Review; Judith Krug, director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association; Frances Moore Lappe, co-founder and co-director, Center for Living Democracy; William Lutz, professor, English, Rutgers University; Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D, economist and columnist, King Features and Pacifica Radio; Jack L. Nelson, professor, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University; Michael Parenti, Ph.D., author and lecturer; Herbert I. Schiller, professor emeritus of communication, University of California, San Diego; and Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, president, D.C. Productions.The 1995 Project Censored Yearbook, Censored: The News That Didn't Make the News and Why (Seven Stories Press) is now available in bookstores nation-wide. The Project Censored Web site can be found at http://

The Way We Were

Bras cause cancer. Cigarettes don't. Jerry is dead. The Web is alive. Congress is dumb. America is pissed. The militias appeared on Nightline, and the Unabomber got published in the Post, without the benefit of journalism school or even a decent outfit. It was a chaotic year, yet one that still somehow found the time to be the anniversary of everything, including Hiroshima, the U.N., and the Grateful Dead. The mainstream media may have doled it out daily, but the alternative press got the straight dope on the matters that mattered. Here's a look at the stories from the alternative press that caught our eye, tickled our fancy, and got us busy.HOPE, RAGE & MILITIA MADNESS When a bomb went off in Oklahoma City killing hundreds on April 19, 1995, the militias became the alternative press' story of the year. While the mainstream media had summarily ignored this story, the alternative press was way ahead of the curve -- a sentiment not lost on Detroit Metro Times investigative reporter Beth Hawkins, who became the star of the hour. Taking a lead from a story published earlier in the Northern Express, eight months before the explosion, Hawkins profiled the Michigan Militia in her now famous "Patriot Games," a prescient look at the rage that catalyzed the Michigan Militia and liked-minded souls across the land. Hawkins led the Metro Times in compiling a special militia supplement which included "Damage Control" her own follow-up story on the Michigan Militia. She wrote: "The bodies of the victims ...were still twisted in the wreckage when the Michigan Militia started its toughest tactical exercise to date: damage control." The good work by the alternative press was anthologized by the Institute for Alternative Journalism as a book of readings, Militias in America, 1995. Indeed, anger was one constant in the mercurial months of '95. There were the Angry White Males, who found time between blowing things up to repeal affirmative action laws, a scenario Donnell Alexander described in the Sacramento News & Review: "If you're black in 1995, you are most likely on the bad end of a blowout. Media functionaries and power this losing battle the shrinking middle class. But to that one-third of the poverty-stricken U.S. black population who still haven't quite gotten over that bad case of slavery (as well as their multitudes of brethren who've only transcended poverty on a technicality), this development reads as incidental genocide." Not to be outdone were certain Angry White Women. Village Voice writer Jennifer Gonnerman revealed the agenda of the media-savvy Independent Women's Forum. "The group's mission," she explained, "is to dismantle many of the programs feminists have long fought for, including affirmative action and a federal response to domestic violence. With a national advisory board that includes economics expert Wendy Lee Gramm and Lynn Cheney, the group's clout is growing fast, especially with Republicans controlling the national agenda." Then there were the million or so "Angry Black Men" who weren't actually marching in anger, but in peace and harmony, looking for community-based solutions as well as a little help from their governmental friends. In These Times' Salim Muwakkil reported on the historic gathering with a personal touch in "One In A Million," offering: "The huge gathering shocked many Americans into recognizing that an enormous racial rift still divides the country....Ultimately, the march contains critical lessons for American progressives. The unity so much in evidence at the event served as a striking counterpoint to the fractious political history of black America." It was the opinion of the Bob Doles and Bill Bennetts of the Beltway that the culture of Hollywood is to blame for many of our nation's troubles; some beg to differ. In "Bullets Over Hollywood," LA Weekly writer Greg Burk asked: "What if movie violence is good for you? Those who want to curb it had better be prepared to ban Shakespeare, Grimm and the Bible first. And after they've done that, they had best stand back, because the symbol will be gone, but the urge will still be there." While the leaders of the Free World extolled the virtues of family values, they looked foolish as the press dug into their own dysfunctional family affairs. In "Bob Packwood and the Culture of Complacency" (found in the Village Voice), Karen Houppert and Jennifer Gonnerman examined one of the most embarrassing scandal of the year with an eye uncommon in the mainstream media. Here, they revealed media that "seemed not to notice the most valuable gift the diaries had to offer -- a sustained peek at the larger context in which Packwood operated. ...The diaries and documents are a rare window on the world of Washington power, the culture of complicity that makes Packwoods possible." The truth hurts, as Ken Silverstein revealed in "The Ten Dimmest Bulbs in Congress," one of the most popular stories of the year. "Identifying the ten most dimwitted members of Congress was a difficult task," wrote Silverstein. "To do so, I canvassed several dozen sources -- liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican -- on Capitol Hill. Seven freshmen and one sophomore won a place on the list. Thanks to the sheer brute stupidity of these newcomers, world-class contenders like New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato and California Representative Bob Dornan didn't even come close to making the final cut." MIXED MEDIA The media landscape got smaller and smaller as consolidation conspired to shrink the scope of voices and choices at an unprecedented pace. In "Merger Mania" Boston Phoenix writer Dan Kennedy explained: "The word of the moment is 'synergy,' and it's bandied about by moguls such as Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin to describe how their television shows and movies, networks, TV and radio stations, magazines, and books can be used to increase their powers of promotion exponentially." While the fat cats get fatter, Kennedy stressed the importance of independent voices. One place they are to be found is online, where life continues to get bigger and bigger. What does this new world look like? San Jose Metro writer John Whalen offered an excellent tour of some of the best examples of publishing on the Internet in "Around the Web in 80 Clicks." He wrote: "The World Wide Web promises a revolution in personal publishing and communications as revolutionary as Gutenberg's printing press. Autonomous modes of self-expression -- good, bad, beautiful and ugly -- are pouring onto the Web with amazing speed. At its best, the Web has fostered a slew of bright, independent e-zines which are thriving as online, homemade alternatives to the Time-Warners, Rupert Murdochs, and Disney-Cap Cities/ABCs of the world." But why and how should the wannabe Web-sters take the plunge? In one of the best of many overviews of the medium, Eastsideweek reporter Roger Downey's "Untangle the Web" offered a beginner's guide to hooking up and surfing like a pro. While many got connected, others got disenchanted with all this so-called "progress," citing the pitfalls of technology -- its false sense of democracy, the increasing number of computer-related injuries, and "smut" on the Net. Yes, even the Luddites had their day, as discussed in an East Bay Monthly profile of Silicon Snake Oil author Clifford Stoll, who advises I-way junkies to tune out, log off, and get a life. The Unabomber took a less conventional route to publishing his ponderings on technology and society -- and found that freedom of the press belongs to those who threaten to blow it up. In the aftermath of the publishing of the Unabomber's manifesto, cyberjournalist Brock Meeks examined the government's accidental Unabomber PR machine, writing: "A stunning transformation is taking place. Thanks to FBI Director Louis Freeh and his merry band of trigger happy goons, the Unabomber is making a status leap from Freddie Kruger to folk hero." The biggest technology story was probably the least glamorous. Way back in July, before the dueling lobbies upped the ante with prime-time TV ads which only muddled an already confusing issue, Christine Triano's "Telecommunications Breakdown" advised: "If you use a phone, watch TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, you are going to be affected by a remarkably little-scrutinized piece of legislation now weaving its way through Congress. The problem: the Telecommunications Act of 1995, promoted as replacing regulation with competition, contains buckets of goodies for everyone -- except consumers." At press time, the House and the Senate have reached agreement on a somewhat better version of the bill, which should be inked by the president soon.THE SPIN DOCTORS Whether it was lousy telecom bills or sketchy science, there was more than the usual dose of spin doctoring fed to the public. Commentary on this culture of deceit took many forms. Excerpts from John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's book detailing the shameful ways of the PR industry, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You." arrived just in time for the cigarette industry's latest salvo (they said they didn't know the stuff's bad for you). ABC apologized; 60 Minutes pulled out; and the tobacco giants' co-optation of the press continued, leaving an already distrusted media looking less like Fourth Estate watchdogs and more like second-rate chickens, as described in a column by media critics Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen. They wrote: "For decades, network TV news shows have been interrupted by commercials. Now, they also get interrupted by apologies. And with each on-air apology -- usually prompted by a corporate takeover -- network news dies another public death." Meanwhile, in "The Designer Cigarette Smokescreen," Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan deconstructed the cigarette company's efforts to "go alternative" with hipster ad campaigns and big company butts masquerading as the product of little guys. The usurpation of "hip" was popular on Madison Avenue as well. Baffler editor Tom Frank, writing in the Chicago Reader, offered his analysis of the "selling" of "hip": "Sometime in the recent past, hip was transmogrified; what used to be a style of resistance has become the official philosophy of corporate America, from the ponytails and pierced noses of the cyber-boardrooms of California to the madcap tie-snipping and convention-squashing of Madison Avenue. You can see its effects every week in the new generation of business magazines like Wired, and in the new generation of goateed, rule-breaking entrepreneurs celebrated by Forbes." Will it be hip to be square again in '96?ON DRUGS Damn those entrepreneurs -- it seems that cheap thrills, and good drugs, are getting more expensive all the time. One of the most popular drugs of '95 was not a drug at all, but "Herbal Ecstacy," the organic high with the funny spelling, easily obtained by anyone with a telephone and a credit card. In another one of the most popular stories of the year, Alma Garcia took one for the team, selflessly road-testing and dissecting Herbal X in Albuquerque's Weekly Alibi. While the writer (who earlier co-penned the infamous "From Weird to Eternity: Three Days in the Life of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson") got high with a little help from her friends, the Boston Phoenix's Al Giordano dug up the straight dope on the legalization of marijuana movement from the likes of Camille Paglia, Tom Robbins, P.J. O'Rourke, Terence McKenna, and Allen Ginsberg.THE ANNIVERSARY OF EVERYTHING The U.N. celebrated its half-century of supposed glory, while the Bosnia war raged on. Somewhere between pomp and circumstance, G. Pascal Zachary pondered the legacy of the bomb in "Hiroshima at 50," a piece which appeared in the Riverfront Times and a dozen other papers. He noted: "Fifty years later, the U.S. remains the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons in war. The question of why is passionately debated today by those who see Hiroshima as a symbol of American morality. But just what kind of symbol isn't always clear." Minneapolis City Pages' Monika Bauerlein tied a number of anniversary themes together as she considered our responsibility to the past, its hold on the present, and the legacy of one's birthplace in "The Things We Carry: Notes on Memory and History." The Grateful Dead's 30th Anniversary was well noted in weeklies in the month preceding Jerry Garcia's death. In a graceful 30th-year tribute to Garcia and Co., Steve Silberman wrote: "The Grateful Dead are on the road again this year, and that ain't news. It's no glitzy, grab-the-bucks, 'hell freezes over' reunion tour, to be enshrined with a battery of MTV and VH-1 appearances, a quick turn on Letterman, and the cover of Interview. It's just 30 cities and 70 shows or so, load in, make the people happy, and load out: business as usual." The one-year mark of the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman approached to find a world mesmerized by bloody gloves and racist cops. But the Sacramento News & Review's "John Doe' used the occasion to pen a personal essay about his own battle with violence in "The O.J. In Me: An Anniversary Of Violence." It was one of many ways in which the alternative press explored domestic violence in the year of O.J. BRAS AND OTHER KILLERS While O.J. was cleared, bras remained on trial. In "Fatal Fashion?," Valley Advocate reporter Mark Anderson examined a study suggesting a link between bra-wearing and breast cancer -- the constriction bras place upon the breast can restrict the normal function of the lymphatic system in and around the breast. Deconstructing the social ramifications of women's underwear for the Twin Cities Reader, Cherie Parker's "The Booby Trap" offered a personal and political stroll in the land of lace and padding. Finally, in the "Shape of Things to Come" In These Times' Katharine Greider found out how on the heels of the success of the Wonderbra, the fashion industry has been revving itself up to redesign the female body from top to bottom. "I have seen the future," she laments, "and friends, it's scary."

Bonfire of the Insanities

SOMEWHERE OFF A DESERT HIGHWAY By the time the bustling Interstate 80 greets sleepy Route 447 in a remote pocket of Northern Nevada, the memory of Reno has faded fast. In the battle between the devil and the desert at this crossroads, the desert clearly has won. The town of Gerlach, population 460, may not be the best of the booty, but as 447's source of civilization before the Black Rock Desert takes charge, its meager offerings are much appreciated, and much in demand. Somewhere off this desert highway, thousands of urban primitives are flocking through this town on their way to attend the 10th Anniversary of the Burning Man, a cyber-fed festival of arts and culture that would take a team of sociologists to figure out; though by now the townsfolk of Gerlach have a pretty good idea what to expect. ÒI see a lot of people expressing themselves," says Deputy Sheriff Bennett. "Being very individual and having a good time -- having a really good time.Ó Gerlach is the physical, if not necessarily spiritual anchor of the Black Rock Desert, an expansive alkaline plain often called the "playa." Each Labor Day, it becomes a pit stop for many of modern society's most unusual creations, the 4,000 or so people who join a human barbecue known as the Burning Man. It's an annual outing that was invented to be described. A mesmerizing mish-mash of hippies, moshers, mothers, anarchists, motorheads, pagans, and partiers, they have come to breathe deeply, dance naked, paint bodies, make pasta, celebrate summer, build community, and erect a 40-foot man. They build chaos out of nothing, and community out of that. And by the weekend's close, they will burn the Man to a soul-satisfying crisp. What binds this group? Not much, save for a sense of adventure, at least some level of dissatisfaction with what the rest of society has to offer this weekend, and a huge man born 10 years earlier and bred of wood and neon. "ItÕs really nice to go to a place where no one cares what car you drive,Ó says one woman from Los Angeles. ÒI came for the community aspects," offers Jeff Hansen, editor of the 'zine X and employed by Chrysler in Detroit. ÒItÕs like Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, only you donÕt have to fast,Ó says Lila from Florida, a grandmother on vacation and visiting her family who decided to come en masse. Or, as Michael Gerbus, a builder from Reno, explains: "The Burning Man symbolizes all the old crap of this last past year. You just take that energy and watch the Man burn up with it.Ó For five days, this four-story figure sits silently over an ephemeral experiment in 20th-century survival. During the Black Rock Arts Festival, aka, the Burning Man, a city will organically grow, sprouting a daily newspaper, numerous micro radio stations, dozens of small businesses, nightly entertainment, and no lack of Web sites. Some describe the Burning Man as a mirage. But this guerrilla culture that grows out of nothing is no soothing vision in the desert Ñ it is a dizzying Fellini-esque spectacle. And it will evaporate as quickly as it bloomed.DOROTHY PARKER, FIRE BREATHERS & YOU It should come as no surprise that many who hear about the Burning Man assume that it is either a neo-hippie gathering or a Satanic ritual. There's some of that, but those are only parts of what founder Larry Harvey calls "a vast petri dish in which you are growing a culture." From this culture, which has brought with it plenty of topsoil from the respective motherships (fresh-ground coffee beans don't grow from this desert floor), springs mini-themes and mini-festivals. One group recreates the Algonquin Room -- roundtable, formal attire, dry martinis and all; Crux productions out of Brooklyn recreates NYC with a scaffolding, beggars, and a wall to spray graffiti on; the Tiki Camp doles out tropical drinks at competitive prices; the "Flaming Man" and "Burning Woman" provide alternatives to the Man proper; And yes, Shakedown Camp transports you to a Grateful Dead concert, if that should be your cup of tie-dye. Cruising around the playa feels much like surfing the Internet (itself an integral part of the planning and reality of the event; see sidebar). You bounce, jab, and fly aimlessly through the great unknown. You may not always like it, and may be lost, but if you just keep moving you're bound to find something else. Don't like the all-night rave or mid-day rugby game? Try the hot springs a few miles to the west. Unhappy with the beer bash you stumbled upon? Head toward McSatan's and the desert's only fry cook will serve you beef on a bun. Bored with sloshing in the mud with naked people? Go read by the light of the neon lit man -- wherever you go, there you are. The desert truly has a lot to give. BEEN THERE, BURNED THAT That the Burning Man has its roots in San Francisco is no surprise to anyone who's spent some time in the Bay Area. Seeds that grow as wildly as this just couldn't have blown in from Montana. The story of why the Burning Man was brought to the desert Ñ and why 4,000 people felt compelled to join him Ñ begins on a beach in San Francisco. In 1986, artist and landscape designer Larry Harvey built an eight-foot wooden man. His plan? To burn this neo-pagan offering, with a little help from his friends, in celebration of the Summer Solstice. The fire attracted a few onlookers. The following year, the Man grew to 20 feet, the crowd to 80 people. By 1989, more than 300 people had come to burn the Man, and a number of television stations appeared to film it. Motivated by the police, who by 1990 would no longer allow the Man to burn on the beach, Harvey moved the ceremony to the desert. By this time, urban anomalies such as the San Francisco Cacophony Society and Survival Research Lab had gladly joined the mix -- chaotic arts and culture groups who would come to serve as both instigators and overseers of the party on the playa. "Essentially the formula was there in the germ," explains Harvey, whose thoughts always seem one step ahead of his words. "It was a small group. We invested our labor and energy in making this figure and we lit it on fire and were spellbound by the force of the flame. That still essentially is at the heart of this event." That may be true, but as the "event" grew, the Man has become more of an excuse than a reason for most to journey to the desert. With so much going on, even the Big Guy is bound to get lost in the shuffle, which irks some of the purists. There's talk that Harvey is not happy with the Man's dwindling significance and will up the ante and build him even bigger in 1996. Others mutter that frat boys and other spectators are spoiling what was once a sacred immolation. While the place isn't exactly being overrun by jocks sporting "Absolut Burning Man" t-shirts, the critics have a point. And yet, the Man, in a very real sense, provides a point of reference for the whole weekend -- a combustible constant among a dizzying array of variables. He might be the light by which you find your way back to your tent; or the place where you meet friends to share nitrous oxide or a good story; the Man stands there -- stoic and calm by day, illuminated in blue and red like a grand prize on a boardwalk by night. He is, at least to some extent, the reason you dragged your sorry ass out to the desert. And yet the meaning of the Man remains intensely personal. "When people come to me and ask 'what does it mean?,' I turn it back to them,Ó says Larry Harvey. ÒIt means entirely what you put into it and what you take out." Ritualistic burning, or sacrifice (depending on your mood), has roots in the collective history of civilization and fuels memory in the mind of everyone who has ever discovered how much fun it is to set stuff on fire. While some dance naked through one of the weekendÕs many spontaneous fire rings for the simple reason that they can, others deconstruct the meaning of the Man and the festival. ÒThe march to burn the Man is modeled on a Roman jubilee,Ó offers Steven, who acquisitions books for a special collections library in Berkeley and is a Burning Man veteran. ÒNo it's not,Ó counters his friend. ÒItÕs clearly Celtic.Ó ÒPseudo-Celtic,Ó says another, without a hint of irony. A fifth in the party rolls his eyes, lighting a cigarette with the nearest available flame. He too has his reasons for being here, not the least of which is a desire to see lots of bare-chested crunchysomethings. But by now he's tired and has no use for such Burning Man masturbation and slips away to his tent to sleep. At times too intense for words, at times as slow as the heat is thick, another day on the playa has ended.MARCHING TO SEE THE MAN On the last night, the Man summons all the pilgrims across the desert to do the thing that they came for: they are going to burn the Man. Night has fallen and the Dionysian energy that permeates the weekend starts to turn into something else. "Burn down the Man, burn down the Man, burn down the Man" is the hypnotic chant of the masses as they march like an angry mob on the way to a stoning. Celebration, turned ever so slightly, becomes bloodthirst. But you march. The pull of the crowd takes you with it as you descend upon the Man. The posturing about "creating one's own experience" is now meaningless as primal sounds of percussion and the skyward call of air raid sirens stir the crowd into a fantastic frenzy with only one thing on its collective mind. And with a final howl and one last dance, the Burning Man is set on fire. For a brief and strangely invigorating moment, it seemed like it either had to be him, or us. Some 12 hours later, the last ash will have blown into the wind and the continuous drumbeat that has been the pulsating heart of this makeshift town will finally stop. The Black Rock Desert seems big again. No longer bound by a mysterious likeness of themselves which they dressed in neon and then smoldered to nothing, the creatures of the Black Rock will leave the desert. They return to the lives they abandoned briefly. Some will ask themselves if they are better off today than they were five days ago. Others will turn left out of Black Rock City, head north or south on Route 447, and leave it at that. SIDEBAR 1: The Burning Man In Cyberspace Contrary to popular belief, not all of the souls who journey to the Black Rock Desert are cyber-savvy. Still, the Burning Man Festival has an excellent relationship with the Internet, with plenty of net buzz infusing the Man before, during, and after the festival. There's little to no advertising of the event, so cyberspace proves to be one of the most effective frontiers for getting out the word. "This year the Web sites are a much more coordinated effort by the organizers," explains Cynsa Bonorris, a professional Web master and one of the creators of Burning Man 1995 (, a Web site organized by the Well, a Bay Area-based conferencing system. "One of the primary points of the site was to get more people interested who might not even have heard of the Burning Man." Besides dispensing the ABCs of the Burning Man, this and other Web sites give the festival an on-going afterlife. "We wanted the site to be inclusive for the whole community of people who are interested in Burning Man, and wanted to leave things open enough so that people had room to be creative," says Bonorris. "We really want people to post their own stories and pictures after they go home.Ó Like all good Web sites, the Well's offers lots of links to other related sites, many of which dig deeper and weirder into the cult of the Man than it does. One of the best is the Burning Man Archive ( which features back issues of the Black Rock Gazette (the daily paper that's only published during the festival), Burning Man 'zines, background information and tips for desert survival, and, of course, first-person accounts and photos of going to see the Man. And yet, as expansive and as freewheeling as the cyber-side of the Burning Man Festival proves to be, even the spontaneous poetics of the Web can't truly prime you for what you will see if you make the journey to the Black Rock desert.SIDEBAR 2: The Media Circus During this 10th year of Burning Man, there's plenty of talk of the "selling out" of the Man as the masses descend upon the Black Rock desert. Many, naturally, blame the media. There's lots of grumbling upon a rumored appearance by MTV (which never materializes), but the reality is getting to the Black Rock Desert is simply too much of a hassle for the casual observer. Still, a well-executed media plan and general interest in something this strange mean that plenty of local television stations, SPIN magazine, Canadian TV, and CNN, among others, cover the event. Even as organizers pose an "aw-shucks" attitude toward coverage of the Burning Man, press relations are mighty slick for a desert operation. A press tent has been set up -- a small motor home with a few beach chairs in front -- which makes life easier for reporters trying to find order out of chaos. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I'm taken to the hut by someone who thinks I'm with SPIN. I tell my host who I am and she gives me a media kit and puts me on the interview schedule. I'm also informed of the rules surrounding the media, basically: 1) Don't obstruct the Burning Man himself with lots of flashes and video equipment; and 2) Generally, don't be a pain in the ass. Hanging out at the press nerve center the morning I arrive is Dan Perkins, the creator of the cartoon "This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow," and Jonathan Lethem, a novelist and host of a weekly real-time chat show on HotWired, the online arm of WIRED magazine. A guy in cut-offs straggles by and says he's from the Discovery Channel's Web site. If there's a "press pool" to be found, this is it. "We're just earnest about communicating with people, we're not shy about that," says Larry Harvey, the founder of the event. "It's easy for us in a way because to cover the story you have to immerse yourself in the environment, so we've always got good press because they have a good time. Even if they are working, they are stirred by what's going on. It's hard to be distant from this experience -- it's essentially about a media experience." True enough, and the credo of this media-savvy bunch, to borrows from Scoop Nisker's famous line, is probably: "If you don't like the media, go out and make some yourself." Self-made media abounds in Black Rock City. There are at least five micro radio stations, the most popular of which is "Radio Free Black Rock," which plays acid jazz, no-bones-about-it country, classic rock, and a host of sounds which cannot be categorized. Meanwhile, the Black Rock Gazette is the official newspaper of Burning Man, though this year brings upstarts challengers like the 'zine Piss Clear. In an introductory note, Piss Clear's androgynous editor Adrian Roberts explains: "With the increasing amount of "fluff-journalism" that the officially-sanctioned, Burning Man approved Black Rock Gazette tries to pass off as "news," it becomes obvious that alternative media are sorely needed."

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