Melinda Welsh

The Science of Happiness

With a wild grin and orange cowboy hat, flanked by women friends (her de facto bodyguards) in Johnny Cash-black and dark shades, the rail-thin blonde with the contagious laugh rolled up to the microphone and launched into her one-woman show Die Laughing With Cathy Speck.

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MOOCs: High-Tech Hype, or The Future of Education?

The room is dark and silent. Inside, a young computer scientist with a shaved head and intense blue eyes sits alone at a desk facing a pane of sound-absorbent foam. Above him a video camera points straight down at a high-tech tablet; his right hand is poised to scribble out code on its screen. Taped to the camera’s microphone is a yellow Post-it with one word scrawled on it—“ENERGY”—a curious message to the professor in his own handwriting.

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Doctors' Secret for How to Die Right

This story has been edited from its original publication, you can read the full story here.

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Meet California's Climate Heroes

Floods, droughts, wildfires. Rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines.

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Home Sweet Homeland

At age 19, Dale Maharidge took a month-long solo backpacking trip across Canyonlands desert in Utah and realized with a jolt that he was meant to become a writer. He forthwith moved to the town he considered most overflowing with untold stories: Sacramento, California. After living for three months out of his Datsun pickup, he got hired, in 1981, as a low-level cop reporter at The Sacramento Bee.

It was there, on assignment to cover breaking news – a trailer fire! – that Maharidge first was paired up with the photographer fated to be his professional collaborator for the next three decades. Michael Williamson, who didn't own a camera until age 18, somehow had managed to land a job in the newspaper's darkroom. The two rookie journalists met, in fact, while running side by side down the halls of the newspaper plant on their way to cover that first story together.

They haven't stopped running since.

For almost 10 years, the pair worked the paper's "poverty beat," focusing their words and photographs mainly on the stories of the dispossessed who lived along the river and hung out at local rail yards. (The term "homeless" was not yet in the vernacular; the pair was tracking the early signs of this new aspect of modern American life.) During the same period of time, they authored three books. One of them – And Their Children After Them – won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990. Another – Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass – helped inspire Bruce Springsteen's album The Ghost of Tom Joad. The pair left Sacramento in 1991, but since then have proceeded basically to do the same work nationally that they had begun locally.

And this month, there's more.

As the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day 2004 – in its current state of distress over issues of war, terrorism and the economy – Maharidge and Williamson have a brand-new work, Homeland, in bookstores. It chronicles post-9/11 America. Like their other projects together, Homeland attempts to chart – through feet-on-the-streets journalism – the trends in a restless America, especially in aspects relating to poverty, race and working-class people.

But Homeland is different; it comes with portent. In fact, thousands of miles and hundreds of interviews later, Maharidge believes he saw signs of something genuinely new and disturbingly un-American erupting in the homeland after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"What I was seeing was a new nationalism," Maharidge said point-blank. "The flags that sprouted after 9/11 cover a wound that's been festering for decades."

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Travels in a Complicated Cuba

I boarded a charter plane in Miami thinking a trip to Cuba would involve awesome beaches and a Cold War-, frozen-in-time-style society, where truths come only in black and white. Yes, simple would have been good; black-and-white would have made writing easy.

But as it turned out, Cuba is eight million shades of gray.

Between its battered economy, sympathetic social goals, lack of basic freedoms, proliferating prostitutes and cultural richness, the country turned out to be as complex as a logarithm.

What makes Cuba so muy complicado?

For starters, here is a country that thinks it's an idea -- i.e., socialism -- that teaches people to work according to their capacity and receive according to their needs. But mix lofty sensibilities like that in with the sunshine, the rum, a new tourist-dollar economy and El Commandante, Fidel Castro's long-standing game of jeopardy with a sworn enemy to the north, the United States, and you end up with a convoluted political cocktail.

The delegation I traveled with was fated to be among the last legally licensed "people-to-people" tours of the island by Americans. Sponsored by the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, our trip was educational in nature, with participants encouraged to learn about Cuba from its people. Last year, 30,000 Americans traveled to the island under this now moribund license. Another 30,000 traveled on religious or academic licenses, the kind that will still remain valid after the new law goes into effect; an estimated 50,000 traveled there illegally.

It cannot be overstated that, since 1959, Cuba has made huge gains when it comes to hunger (nobody in the impoverished country goes without food), literacy (all Cuba's children can read and write) and health care (everyone on the island has free medical care.) Embarrassingly, the island ranks better than the United States in the latter two categories.

But Cuba is ruled by a one-party government run by Castro -- a man who, at 77, has outlasted eight U.S. presidents. It has no free press, and people who criticize the revolution sometimes get thrown in jail, often for a very long time. Even stalwart supporters of Cuba had to take a step back from their hyperbole last spring when Castro threw 75 dissidents in prison with seemingly little provocation.

One has to wonder how long the high positives and troubling negatives can continue to coexist in Cuba. In fact, in these days in which globalization is all the rage and even China has opened its doors to the best and worst of American capitalism, many people believe the island represents the end-stage application of socialism in the modern world.

Yeah, but when my husband and I asked a toothless man on a random street corner in Havana what he thought about the future of his country, he told us socialismo would survive and delivered an on-the-spot lecture on Cuba's right to sovereignty and the difference between a people and its government. "Your president is a stupid man ... stupido," he told us. "But in my country, we understand that the people are not the same as the government."

A few weeks before leaving for Cuba, members of our delegation became worried when President George W. Bush held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, announcing moves to further intensify the 44-year-old, U.S.-sponsored economic blockade of the island. Basically, the embargo bans most U.S. trade with Cuba and prohibits most U.S. citizens from visiting the island. Though both the Senate and U.S. House subsequently voted to oppose Bush and cease enforcement of travel restrictions, their plan was not destined to win. Bush played hardball and threatened to veto, causing a backroom deal that tightened the travel ban and reinforced the end of people-to-people travel.

The news didn't stop anyone who had signed on for our journey. We gathered in Havana in late October at Al Capone's regular address in pre-Castro Cuba, the historic Hotel Nacional. We were ready to experience the country's beauty, ponder its paradoxes and learn what we could from its people.

The Curse/Boon of Tourism

Yamile Martinez, our guide, has deep brown eyes, a flashing smile and a love of much that is good about America. Fluent in English and trained as a teacher, the Cuban woman, 28, is fully modern with a passion for rock 'n' roll music and American movies. She is equally ardent about her country's heritage of revolution -- about how Castro and Che Guevara came down from the mountains and led the 1959 revolution that freed the peasants from the rule of Fulgencio Batista during the days when American mob boss Meyer Lansky and his pals ran the island as a Mafioso paradise.

Martinez was charismatic and resourceful. But she was clearly uneasy about her country's future and her own. Among other worries, she was preparing to be out of a job by month's end because of the end of people-to-people travel from America.

Like 11 million other Cubans, Martinez survived the Great Depression-like years of the "special period" during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The island was under an economic blockade from the United States and had come to rely on the giant communist country as its chief benefactor and trading partner. The demise of that government was nearly catastrophic for Cuba. "We had not enough food," said Martinez. "Electricity was scarce. There were no lights, no oil, no transportation."

But the Cubans made it through the downward spiral, more than partially because the government allowed the flow of U.S. dollars into the economy and decided to foster tourism. Indeed, almost 2 million people -- mostly from Canada and Western Europe -- have visited the island as tourists in the last two years. It's no wonder, given Cuba's beatific Caribbean vistas, multicultural zeitgeist and sen-surround musica salsa. Countless government-run or joint-venture hotels now line the island's world-famous beaches, especially to the east of Havana.

One weekday afternoon early on in our trip, we found more international tourists than Cubans strolling the decaying streets of La Habana Viejo -- Old Havana. As in much of the country, the sensual beauty seemed somehow mixed in with the squalor. Rebuilt apartment units stood next to dilapidated structures; stylish outdoor restaurants sat adjacent to thrashed tenements; brilliant murals loomed beside broken-down dwellings; and kids in tattered clothes played samurai warrior beneath towering spires in the magnificent Plaza de la Catedral.

Our delegation learned that tourism is an enterprise that comes with an almost surreal set of problems for a socialist state that touts egalitarianism.

For starters, the introduction of dollars created a dual economy in Cuba. The people who work in tourism -- from taxi drivers to hotel maids -- work for dollars, while professionals and others -- including doctors and teachers -- work for Cuban pesos. Thus, a teacher might make 250 pesos a month (about $10 American), though a hotel worker might make that amount in tips in a few days. It's true that Cuban citizens don't pay for fundamentals such as basic food supplies (all are issued ration cards), education (it's free, even at the graduate level) and health care (it's free and available) and that many don't pay for housing. Still, those who work for pesos often find themselves struggling. "Cubans won't die of hunger," one Cuban government official admitted frankly, "but they will probably go to bed without the foods they like to buy."

On one occasion, I struck up a conversation with a Cuban in his late 20s who turned out to be a trained marine biologist. He'd made only $9 per month as a scientist, he said. Now he sells cigars on the streets. "I needed the dollars," he said simply. Then he added: "If I could, I would swim to Florida."

The government is trying to offset this problem, by asking tourism workers to "donate" a portion of their tips for redistribution and by upgrading certain salaries, particularly for doctors. Still, the job incongruity continues. "It's very, very sad," said Martinez, citing lawyers and others she knew who had left professional careers to turn to hotel work.

Not surprisingly, tourism also has increased prostitution in Cuba. Men in our group reported frequent encounters with Lycra-clad jineteras, local women who troll the clubs or the ocean boardwalk called the Malecón at night, hoping to hook up with foreign tourists for food, clothes -- for dollar bills. At a midnight concert for the famous Cuban band Los Van Van, one fellow in our delegation was propositioned by two women -- "Are you alone?" -- who spelled out for him what services they could provide. In meetings with public-health officials, some doctors in our delegation were dismayed that the Cuban government didn't seem to be doing more about the potential for the spread of HIV and AIDS given the increasing number of prostitutes.

In his Rose Garden press conference, Bush claimed that prostitution was encouraged by the Castro government. But a Cuban-government official told us this was nonsense. Prostitution exists, he said, because of the desperation of the people and the battered economy.

"We are a poor country, and, yes, we have prostitution," said Julio Espinosa Aguilera, coordinator general for international relations at the Cuban National Assembly. He noted that there are plenty of prostitutes in America, too. Does that mean they too are encouraged by the U.S. government? "If we wanted to, we could end prostitution," he said. "But the solution is not to put these women in jail. The solution is to try to improve the country."

For earnest, hard-working Cubans like Martinez, improvements are desired but seem distant. And the end of the people-to-people visits from the United States underscores just how far off Cubans might be. Some 110,000 Cuban-Americans still will be able to travel back and forth, under certain restrictions, to visit family members. But the type of educational travel Martinez specializes in is over on December 31.

"This is gonna be a very strong blow for us," said Martinez about the demise of the license. I was saddened later when she told me that she was considering hotel work herself -- cleaning rooms or waiting tables -- after the regular American visits soon come to an end.

Poor Healthcare For All

As you drive east out of Havana, revolutionary billboards demand your attention. "The Future Is In Your Hands!" urged one. "We Have And We Will Have Socialismo!" proclaimed another. Unlike American ones that sell products, Cuban billboards sell socialist standards: "Our Principles Are Not Renegotiable!"

We pulled into the city of Matanzas and met a tall, white-haired doctor who was far more subtle in his approach to socialism. Dr. Juventino Acosto had the sagacious style of an island Socrates. "My homeland is humanity, not just Cuba," he told our delegation sincerely before showing us around the community health clinic where he directs healing in a both "natural and traditional" manner.

The Clinica de Medicina Natural y Tradicional reminded me of just how poor this country really is. Though clean, the place was utterly dingy, with peeling paint and broken floor tiles. The halls were dark and lined with long, rickety park benches upon which patients sat waiting for treatment. In one examination cubicle, a single worn towel hung on a rusty metal hook. In the physical-therapy room, we found only one visible piece of equipment: an ancient, rusted-out exercycle.

Acosto seemed perfectly at peace with the surroundings, despite how far it all was from Western medical standards. He dispensed reassurance with a smile; clearly, he and his staff did their best with what was available. He explained how Cuban medicine had embraced alternative healing techniques, particularly from China, during the "special period" when it was difficult to get access to traditional medicines.

Overall, the past decades have seen a dramatic growth in the health-care delivery system in Cuba. In fact, since 1968, the island has jumped from having 6,000 doctors to having 67,000; from two medical schools to 22. Indeed, Cuba is so proficient at training doctors, that the government regularly sends crews of them off on international health missions.

But none of this encouraging news had prepared me for the gritty condition of a neighborhood health clinic in a poor country. As members of the delegation toured self-consciously through Acosta's facility, a group of about 20 sixth-graders appeared out of nowhere, wearing the uniform white blouses, maroon slacks or skirts, and neatly tied red scarves that Cubans of that grade routinely wear. They began to sing-clap-step their way toward us across the dingy room. After they treated us to a song about peace, Acosto led them in a question-and-answer session about the importance of exercise, hand washing and making good nutritional choices. "When your father goes to the store for meat, what do you tell him to buy instead?" Acosto asked. "Pescado!" shouted the schoolchildren in giddy unison. Fish! As it turned out, the sixth-graders attend the clinic once a week to learn about being "health promoters" and to sing to the sick.

A few days later in Havana, a lineup of Cuba's top doctors put some numbers on the clinic experience, spelling out the negative health impacts of the U.S. blockade on Cuba before 30 international journalists. Because the blockade doesn't allow a cargo ship to dock in the United States for six months after it has visited the island, other countries are discouraged from trading with Cuba, said one hospital administrator. Thus, antibiotics are difficult to procure; so are most medicines. Medical equipment is scarce, and replacement parts are rarely available. Computers are old. The island's Tropical Resources Center -- an internationally respected research facility on infectious diseases -- can barely get decent microscopes. Scientists and medical doctors are halted from going to conferences because visas from the United States are unavailable. The list went on and on.

Throughout the trip, our delegation was shown around many clinics, hospitals and medical schools, and regardless of Cuba's many complexities, at least one truth seemed plain and simple: The blockade is harming millions of real and regular people in this already poor country. "The policy of this country represents a crime against humanity," Bronston, a Sacramento doctor on our delegation, told me at one point. "Bush's further tightening of the blockade is an outrage."

A Less-than-free Country

Walk east down the Malecón, and you'll soon arrive at a large gray building surrounded by high metal fencing, locked gates and security checkpoints. The perimeter of this enclosure is well-guarded and surrounded on all sides by many dozens of uniformed, rifle-bearing Cuban soldiers.

One of them blew a whistle to get my attention as I approached the fence. He firmly instructed me to go back the way I had come -- to be gone from the area. I proceeded toward him anyway and started talking earnestly, in stunted Spanish, about how I was an American journalist and wanted to go inside the building. As the soldiers conferred about what to do with me, I asked one of them why there were so many of them gathered around this one building. "Porqué esta aqui?" I asked. Why are you here?

The soldier responded with deadpan incredulity: "Are you kidding?"

The forbidden place where we stood was not a prison or some secret lair of Castro. No. It was the U.S. Interests Section, our government's equivalent of an embassy in countries where we have no formal relations. The compound is seen by many Cubans as the Death Star of Havana. For some, it is the corporeal symbol of a government that wants to do them in. For others, the area is simply a dangerous place to be seen. Indeed, two different taxi-cab drivers actually refused to deliver me to the building, saying, "No, no, no," and then offering me walking directions.

Many of the 75 dissidents jailed last March in Cuba had attended meetings in this very building. They were accused of accepting funding from James Cason, the head of the U.S. Interests Section, and of collaborating with America's widely known efforts to promote dissent in Cuba. And it is true that the U.S. government basically has done everything in its power -- including invasion at the Bay of Pigs and an attempt to assassinate Castro -- to try to bring down the island's government.

But when the 75 were convicted in one-day trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Cuban government, the international press went wild. Human-rights organizations around the globe -- from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch -- condemned the jailings as well as the subsequent execution by firing squad of three boat-jackers who waylaid a ferry boat carrying hundreds of people in their quest to get to America. Even stalwart Cuba boosters -- including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago of Portugal -- went on record criticizing Cuba for these civil-rights abuses.

Speaking before our group, Joahana Dablada of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended her country's right to jail the dissidents. "[The 75 people] got money from a foreign government -- yours -- to overthrow our system," she said simply. "Your government wouldn't tolerate such a thing," she said. Neither would hers.

Later, I asked a Cuban urban planner about the arrest of the dissidents, and he agreed that it was all very unfortunate. But he ultimately blamed the blockade and the aggression of the United States. Our country was, after all, going to war in Iraq at around the same time as the arrest of the dissidents, he said. "We'll be glad to talk to people from your country about our human-rights record," he said, "once you [in the United States] get your foot off our necks."

Whether or not the dissent comes from economic stress, it seems clear that Castro has faced increased internal opposition lately. In 2002, a dissident named Oswaldo Paya orchestrated the gathering of 10,000 signatures on something called the Varela Project, which called for a national referendum to guarantee free elections and amnesty for political prisoners. Paya -- who spent time in a Cuban jail from 1969 to 1972 -- recently was nominated for a Nobel Prize by Czech President Vaclav Havel. Still, the Castro government largely has ignored Paya's initiative.

Asked about Varela, Aguilera -- the Cuban National Assembly official with a winning smile -- began by admitting that he also wanted improvements in Cuba in the area of civil liberties. But "the so-called Varela Project is dead," he said. According to him, Paya's effort was basically a public-relations stunt, a "manipulation of information" that was intended to help bolster the U.S. effort to bring down the Castro regime. He said Paya timed a release of a second batch of Varela signatures so as to coincide with Bush's Rose Garden speech. "We are an independent and sovereign country," said Aguilera. "We accept advice from all over the world. But the decision is ours.

"There's one condition," he said. "No conditions."

The words from Aguilera seemed familiar in sum and substance. Respect us, he was saying. We're willing to talk about anything, but we insist on our independence.

I spoke to plenty of other Cubans about freedom of speech throughout the trip. Luis Brunet, a director in the Cuban theater, told me flat out: "We don't have such problems in Cuba at the moment." When I asked a group of television executives from Channel 2 if their work was ever censored by the government, they laughed and said, "No, no." Many cited books and recent films -- like Strawberry & Chocolate -- that openly complain about the dismal economic conditions in Cuba.

In Matanzas, I met a Cuban News Agency journalist, Barbarita Bosio, and asked her if journalists in her country long for freedom of the press. "People think there is no freedom of speech here," she responded. "But I don't agree. ... Nobody tells me what I can or cannot write." The next day, Bosio wrote an article for her government-run news agency about what it was like to be interviewed by an American journalist about freedom of the press.

Generally, it was surprising to find that Cubans seemed to be in the information loop about American sports, culture and movies. One late night, my husband and I watched part of a Sacramento Kings game via satellite. When I told Cubans I was from California, they'd laugh and joke with me about our new Terminator governor. When I asked one 12-year-old girl to tell me who her favorite actress was, she proclaimed, "Oh ... Julia Roberts!"

Early on in the trip, a Cuban woman told me, "We Cubans have America in our heads." And my experiences along the way showed this to be true. But an unrestricted press does not exist in Cuba; freedom of speech is not present. Yes, Cubans can complain about their country and even its leaders -- but they'd better not organize a protest rally.

And make no mistake. The White House continues to use this as a key argument for maintaining the blockade and continuing travel restrictions to the island.

Cuba After the Ban

Right after Bush's Rose Garden announcement, the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a Cuba press briefing of his own. "The president is cooking up a crisis over Cuba," he said, recalling that U.S. troops had been sent to invade a tropical island once before, to overthrow nationals and "rescue" Americans so as to bolster a president's sagging ratings in the polls. "Cuba might be auditioned as a modern-day Grenada," wrote Jackson, referring to former President Ronald Reagan's island invasion in the 1980s.

But anxiety about a possible invasion from the United States seemed almost non-existent in Cuba. Sword rattling from the United States has gone on for decades, and Cubans seemed to think one threat was like the next.

The dire warnings I'd received about not talking to Cubans about certain topics turned out, of course, to be baseless. I was grateful for the candor many showed when answering difficult questions: What did they think would happen when Castro died? Are the institutions and ideas more lasting than the man?

Rumors of Castro's ill health abound. Indeed, Martinez saw the leader faint briefly during a speech under the hot sun in June 2001. However, his health is said to have improved since then, she said. Asked what she personally thinks will happen when Castro's reign as leader is over, Martinez looked away and choked back tears.

"It's not clear who will lead," she finally told me.

Many others were similarly emotional in their responses. Roberto, a bartender in Verdado, went into a long description of how his father had spent many years in jail for disagreeing with Castro and subsequently had moved to Florida, the hotbed of anti-Castro fervor in the United States. Roberto, who remains a Cuban national, made a discerning comment about his country's future when he told me somberly, "Castro is smarter than the others. But that whole generation -- in Miami and Cuba -- probably has to die before things can change."

Ultimately, if and when the blockade comes down, one wonders how Cuba will make a transition to a future of free trade and enterprise (Starbucks on every corner?) without losing the enormous gains it has made in areas like education and health care. Be careful what you wish for, goes the old saying, because you just might get it.

Yes, Cuba is muy complicado.

Members of our group were moved by their experiences in Cuba and returned to America with plans to follow up. All had become convinced -- even Hank and Carol Darlington, an adventurous Republican couple from Granite Bay -- that the blockade was wrong and should come down.

Meanwhile, Global Exchange, the group that organized our trip, is laying off employees because of the end of people-to-people tours, and is basically regrouping in its push to educate Americans about Cuba. Other organizations that specialize in such trips are likewise laying people off and shuttering offices.

The week we arrived back in the United States, the Bush administration began judicial proceedings against dozens of people who had visited Cuba illegally.

This imperious punishment of U.S. travelers and loss of people-to-people exchanges represents just how regressive U.S. foreign policy remains when it comes to Cuba. It's as if our political leaders don't want us to see this island in all its complexity -- its opportunities mixed in with its obstacles. It's as if they want us to believe some black-and-white version of things as approved in Washington, D.C., rather than exercise our freedom to travel and learn for ourselves.

Still, there is no doubt -- regardless of the stricter travel ban -- that many Americans will continue to enter Cuba. They'll go through third countries and hope they won't be noticed. They'll face huge fines if they are caught.

I remember Daniel, a fellow traveler from San Francisco whom we met briefly over tuna sandwiches at a lunch stand in Havana's crowded Verdado district. Asked why he came to the island at a time when American citizens were discouraged from doing so, Daniel grinned, hoisted his backpack and said he was there because of what Bush had just said in the Rose Garden. "I'm here," Daniel said, shrugging, "because I was told I couldn't come."

Somehow, the young American reminded me of the Cuban official with the winning smile -- Aguilera, from the Cuban National Assembly -- who had told our delegation that his country's sovereignty must be respected by the United States. In fact, Aguilera had sounded every bit as American as the backpacked traveler. Respect our independence, he'd said. The only condition is no conditions.

Melinda Welsh is a contributing editor at the Sacramento News and Review.

Kucinich Reloaded

The first time I met Dennis Kucinich was in 1978 on a tour of solar homes in Davis, California. The youngest person ever elected leader of a large American city, Cleveland’s mayor was a fast-talking, blue-collar, populist kid with a progressive vision for the future. He favored radical politics, renewable energy and something called economic democracy. The people who loved him called him “boy wonder.” The ones who didn’t dubbed him “Dennis the Menace.”

In college at the time, I remember riding around in the back seat of a friend’s Camaro with the famous boy mayor, talking to him about electoral politics and the future of the country. Secretly, I wondered how somebody so young could be so self-possessed, so utterly confident.

Fast forward to last week and the second time I met Kucinich. Now a Congressman from Ohio and co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus in Washington, D.C., he was back in town 25 years later – this time seeking support in his bid for America’s top job, a.k.a. the presidency. With no name recognition, almost no money and no real chance at winning, Kucinich – an unabashed leftist – barnstormed California anyway, like a New Age, one-man argument for the power of optimism. “We must be relentless in our hopes,” he told me in a private conversation just before he took the stage in Davis. “We cannot falter, especially in times when things seem to be moving so powerfully in another direction.”

To say Kucinich hopes for a miracle is an understatement.

Positioned squarely at the bottom of a field of nine Democratic candidates for the party’s nomination, many wonder what reason he could have for doing it. As it turns out, there is a reason. It has to do with guts and ego and doggedness and, ultimately, the desire to do positive works on behalf of regular people. It’s like when Morpheus in The Matrix Reloaded tells Niobe, “Some things never change. And some things do.”
Kucinich hasn’t changed. But he’s hoping the country might.

Dressed neatly in a black T-shirt and creased, green khakis that looked straight off the Gap rack, Kucinich strode back and forth on the stage of the community theater with a handheld microphone, preaching up a storm – can he get a witness? – and blasting the Bush administration for its wrongful war, assault on the environment, and shabby economics. The candidate moved hips-first, like they tell models on the runway to do. He exuded calm, but he knew how to work the crowd into a frenzy, too. A democrat from his home state put it this way: “He makes a lot of noise for a little guy.”

“The nation has become disconnected from its purpose,” Kucinich stormed to the cheering crowd of 400 faithful. “We must break this spell of war! We must get this country back on the path of peace!
No one at the event seemed there for conversion; they’d already joined the club. After a question-and-answer session with adoring audience members, Kucinich immersed himself, Kennedy-like, into the crowd for more well-wishes, handshakes and hugs. “The nation is at a transformational moment,” he told the crowd. “All paths seem to lead to war and destruction. But we can change the country starting from this time, this place, in this space.” To deliver that last line, Kucinich stepped unconsciously to the very apex of the stage, his feet quite literally balancing over the platform’s rim and a 4-foot drop-off. Was Kucinich worried about plunging head-first over the edge? Hardly.

From poor Catholic kid to vegan liberal
Kucinich was raised working-class Catholic, the oldest of seven children. His father was a Marine and a truck driver; his family struggled, even living out of a car for a while. When Kucinich graduated from college, he was the first person in his family – on either side – ever to do so.
Like many in his generation, he underwent a political awakening during the Vietnam War era. Pretty soon, he got the idea in his head that he would get into city politics. In 1969, Kucinich ran for city council and won. Soon, he earned a reputation for being smart, liberal, hard-working and stubborn as hell; it’s the same reputation he has today. Somewhere along the way, he became a vegan, too, because he came to believe in “the sacredness of all species.”
In 1977, he was elected mayor and inherited a giant mess. A previous administration had misspent tens of millions in bond funds, and the banks came to the young mayor in a power play, saying that unless he agreed to sell MUNY Light, the city’s municipal electric utility, the banks would call in the loans and send the city into default. “They were trying to blackmail me,” said Kucinich. Despite enormous pressure to sell the utility, Kucinich refused, and Cleveland went bankrupt. Everyone thought the boy mayor’s political career was over. Even he thought that.
But Kucinich prevailed. Even his harshest critics today admit that history has vindicated him, that he was right to refuse to sell MUNY Light. After a long hiatus, Kucinich returned to politics, first as a senator and then as a congressman. From Washington, D.C., he’s led successful crusades for his district. He has kept hospitals open, saved a steel mill and changed rail traffic in Ohio neighborhoods.
But it was in the aftermath of 9/11 that Kucinich unexpectedly came to inherit a national platform upon which to speak. In February 2002, Kucinich gave a talk in Southern California called “A Prayer for America” that struck a chord with millions. With most Democrats bowing down before Bush – thanks to his unprecedented popularity in the polls and for fear that they would be labeled unpatriotic if they criticized him – Kucinich’s prayer came across as a breath of fresh air.
When I finally read it, after about a dozen e-mails forwarding it along, I knew immediately that Kucinich had accomplished something special. The “prayer” – with its reflections on America’s role in the world community and its call for a reasoned response to the threat of terrorism – traveled around the world and back again on the Internet. He started getting requests to speak about his progressive vision of the future in communities all across the nation. Ultimately, it was that prayer that made him decide to run for president.
Characterized now by the mainstream media as a fringe candidate, somebody outside the Democratic norm, Kucinich doesn’t seem to mind. He and other candidates are accused of cluttering up the field, hurting the chance that Democrats can unite behind one candidate and actually mount a challenge to Bush. He responds that choice and debate are what the democratic process is all about. However, Kucinich has said he would not consider becoming a Green Party “spoiler” candidate (a la Ralph Nader) against a Democratic nominee. Though Kucinich claims he’s serious in his bid and intends to be president, the candidate is clearly there to do some “truth telling” on a national stage, to get progressive issues (like universal health care) out there on the table.
He supports a “single-payer, full-funded Medicare-for-all program.” Regarding the economy, Kucinich believes the Bush administration’s policies have been guided almost entirely by special interests. Tax cuts only further burden the economy, he said. If he were president, the North American Free Trade Agreement would be canceled, and so would the World Trade Organization.
Some are troubled by his changed position on abortion. After decades of voting anti-choice, Kucinich now has come around to saying that abortions should be “legal and rare” and that Roe v. Wade should be defended. He still says he believes on a spiritual level that life begins at conception, but he has said that his thinking on the issue has “evolved.” Certainly, part of that evolution had to do with Kucinich discovering what other one-time anti-choice Democrats, such as Al Gore, discovered quickly once they were on the national stage: that a liberal voting base will not stand for a candidate who doesn’t support a woman’s right to choice.

No cynic
It was before the speech, outside in the blazing sun behind the theater, that I got the chance to speak to Kucinich alone. I told him that we’d driven around together in a car 25 years ago, and he surprised me by saying he remembered that day. But then I asked what I’d really come to ask.
I remarked that so many people had been working for so long for progressive change – on issues from corporate responsibility to alternative energy to economic democracy. Was he as surprised as I that not much actually had been accomplished? “In some ways, we seemed closer then than we are now,” I said.
The question came because of something that had been drilling in my head ever since Bush took office, since the World Trade Center towers came down, and especially during the war in Iraq: Progressive-minded people seemed so often out of touch with what most Americans wanted, needed. What was the point in us talking to each other constantly, preaching always to the already converted? I told Kucinich I believed in the ability of individuals to make a difference, yes, but that I had grown weary of the beautiful-loser syndrome in which progressives seemed locked.
It was then that Kucinich began scolding me.
He admonished my cynicism, saying I shouldn’t go there: “When you lose hope, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that can stop us from achieving that which may be just a little out of reach right now.”
He referred to hope as an “imminent reality” – “a reality that is waiting to be called forth.” Indeed, one could say we called forth the right to vote for people who were not property owners, he said. We called forth the Emancipation Proclamation. We called forth the right of women to vote and the ability of young people to participate in the political process.
“Throughout our country’s history, there are moments when change happens,” he said, “and it seems to have happened all at once. But the truth of the matter is it came about because over the many years, people relentlessly pursued their dreams and hopes.
“My approach,” he said simply, “is to try to draw the reality a little closer.” Later, inside the theater, the congressman said it another way. Quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley from Prometheus Unbound, he spoke of “hope creating from its own wreck the thing that it contemplates.”
He’ll not be president in 2004, but how grateful I was to be reminded by Dennis Kucinich that countries can be transformed, that people have the power and that some things never change.
And some things do.

Witness to War

The people had been waiting forever for the bombs to drop.

So, when the first of them fell out of the sky over Baghdad on March 20, Charlie Liteky was as prepared as anyone. Jarred awake just after 4am on the fourth floor of the Andalus hotel in the eastern part of Iraq’s capital city, Liteky soon was patrolling the hotel corridors floor by floor, making sure everybody was awake and ready for what was happening.

The war was finally on.

“You could feel the shock waves,” said Liteky, a former priest and Vietnam War hero. “The explosions were huge; the noise was horrendous,” he said. Every time he heard a blast, he wondered how many more innocent people were dead.

Liteky, who returned just last week to his wife Judy and their San Francisco home, spent five months in Baghdad because he felt compelled to stand in solidarity with Iraqi civilians and be an eyewitness to a war he opposed. He was not embedded, he was free to come and go as he pleased, and he was independent (for the most part) of Iraqi government “minders.” His is the saga of one peace advocate’s experiences at ground zero as the war passed from preparation to invasion to occupation.

Like many watching on TV from America, Liteky expected more firepower to be used at the start of the war. “I was expecting more in the way of shock and awe,” he said. Soon, it became clear to him and others in Voices in the Wilderness (a Chicago peace delegation that has carried out nonviolent vigils in Iraq since 1996 to protest U.N. sanctions) that residential areas of Baghdad mostly were being spared by the U.S. bombing campaign. Still, there were stray hits all around the city. “The people suffered terribly,” said Liteky. Indeed, a group that tracks and verifies casualty rates estimates that between 2,200 and 2,700 civilians were killed in the war, along with about 140 American soldiers and more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers.

Between bombing raids, Liteky ventured out to visit sites where errant missiles had struck. He walked through demolished neighborhoods and heard horror stories about people who’d been killed or buried alive. He described sorting through the wreckage in one neighborhood where a missile had smashed four dwellings, turning them to rubble. At least three families were killed in that incident. One elderly woman had been trapped, and it took her horrified neighbors five hours to dig her out.

While visiting a hospital, Liteky saw a newly orphaned 12-year-old boy who had just undergone a bilateral amputation on both arms. Thirty percent of his body was burned below the neck. Liteky heard the boy ask the doctor, “Will I always be this way?”

Liteky offered his services to the doctor but was told the hospital didn’t need more help at that time; what it needed was medicine. Indeed, Liteky learned that during the war, surgery routinely was done at the hospital without the benefit of anesthesia.

Vigil at the Tigris

As the bombing campaign continued those first days, Liteky and a handful of others from his group determined to set up a vigil at the Al Wathba water-treatment facility located north and east of downtown Baghdad. The plant -- where flow from the Tigris River pours into various reservoirs for treatment -- supplies safe water for many in the city, with its population of 6 million. Because several treatment plants had been bombed by U.S. forces in the Gulf War of 1991, Liteky and the others decided they should position themselves there. “I felt that if that plant was bombed, that would be a war crime, and somebody had to be there to witness it.”

Within days, the other delegates decided to pursue other actions and returned to the hotel. Liteky -- the quintessential loner -- decided to remain and continue the vigil at the water facility by himself. Camped out in a small tent on a patch of dried-up lawn at the plant near one of its huge, 9-foot-deep treatment ponds, Liteky spent many days roaming the grounds alone on his bike, praying, visiting nearby bombing sites, cooking meals of eggs and squash, and listening to the war (mostly on the BBC and Voice of America) on a shortwave radio.

Early one morning, a firefight broke out outside the 12-foot walls surrounding the plant. Liteky couldn’t see much, but he heard automatic rifle fire, grenades and machine-gun blasts. A bullet whistled by Liteky’s ear close enough -- phhht -- for him to hear it. “The sound took me straight back to December 5, 1967,” said Liteky, referring to the day in Vietnam when, under intense enemy machine gun and rocket fire, he saved the lives of 23 men. This time, Liteky had no such mission. He laid flat on the ground for half an hour until the battle was suppressed, presumably by U.S. troops.

Another morning, as the bombing drew close to his environs, Liteky witnessed a large group of terrorized-looking women in traditional black robes running with their children into the compound near where he was camped. Unable to speak Arabic, Liteky could not ask what they ran from. He found out later that the women and children were family members of the men who worked in the treatment plant and were fleeing bombs that had landed too close to home.

Liteky kept up his vigil at the plant into the first week of April, a few days before the war was over. “Once it was clear they weren’t going to bomb it, I left,” he said. He felt relieved of that particular duty.

He returned to downtown Baghdad just as American troops were arriving, with their parade of Army tanks and Bradley vehicles. U.S. soldiers parked their tanks and uncoiled barbed wire at the intersections, including right outside the Palestine Hotel, and set up checkpoints. “The U.S. had absolute, unquestionable military superiority,” said Liteky. “They just moved right through. It was a cakewalk.”

Looting and Burning

Once Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and his government “minders” disappeared from Baghdad (“they just melted back into the population,” said Liteky) the onetime Medal of Honor winner became witness to a new phase of the war: the occupation.

Liteky said the ordinary Iraqi people seemed clearly relieved -- some were even jubilant -- once Hussein and his guards were gone. But relief quickly gave way to fear as it became evident that the United States had no plan for how to impose law and order after the war, he said. “They allowed looting to take place on a grand scale. This part should have been planned as meticulously as the bombing, but it wasn’t. And the people suffered a great deal because of it.”

The anarchy and chaos that prevailed during this period were as dangerous for people as when the war was going on. Everyone had guns. People were afraid to leave their homes. Shops were closed up tight. One member of Voices in the Wilderness, Michael Birmingham, was attacked and robbed by a group of seven men just a block away from the hotel. Liteky himself witnessed looting; he saw people hauling furniture, copy machines and computers out of buildings. Fortunately, he had left his bike at the water-treatment plant, so his one possession of value could not be stolen.

Once the looting died down, Liteky initiated a personal campaign that involved talking one-on-one to the U.S. soldiers who, almost to a person, told him they were there to liberate the Iraqi people. “They were well-mannered, well-spoken,” said Liteky with honest admiration. “They were just kids. I began to feel for them because they were doing what they thought was right. I’d had the same mind-set in Vietnam. I’d accepted the just-war theory, too.”

Liteky decided he would write the soldiers an open letter to make the point that the war was immoral and illegal. His plan was to compose the letter, make a lot of copies and hand it out at checkpoints to the soldiers. Because he couldn’t find a working copy machine in Baghdad, Liteky joined a convoy and made the dangerous trek to Amman, Jordan, for the purpose of making 100 photocopies. The treacherous road between the two cities -- compared often to the lawless highway seen in the movie “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” with its hundreds of old tanker trucks scattered on the roadside -- had become the site of increasingly fierce highway robberies. But Liteky’s caravan made the passage, coming and going, without incident.

Back in Baghdad, Liteky began the hand-to-hand distribution of his letter to soldiers. In the document, Liteky introduced himself and his cause. “As a veteran of an ill-fated war, in the waning years of my life, I’d like to share some reflections on my country’s attack on Iraq,” he wrote. The U.S. government “claiming liberation of the Iraqi people as a just cause for a war that killed thousands of innocents is hypocrisy at its worst,” the letter continues.

Liteky said the soldiers did not react negatively to him or to the letter. “One soldier told me the next day he’d read my letter and found it very interesting,” Liteky said. Another soldier told him: “I agree with you 100 percent.” (Find the letter here)

By the time he was readying to leave Iraq for good, said Liteky, the situation in Baghdad was deteriorating -- with little media remaining to cover the development. Electricity was only partially on in the city, and the water supply in huge swaths of Baghdad was contaminated. Food supplies were running out. Liteky was approached for the first time by older men on the streets, who made desperate motions with their hands to their mouths to say that they needed food, that they were starving. “It was really sad to see,” said Liteky. “Basically, I think the U.S. is very good at destroying things but not good at creating things.”

Now that Liteky is back home, he plans to continue his activism -- to speak, to write and, as he says, to “confront the power” for the cause of peace. “So much of the violence in the world is coming from the U.S.,” he said. “I want to work here now with others about addressing the violence that is right here.”

Having spent much time during his Baghdad stay working as volunteer at a Mother Teresa orphanage, Liteky stopped in at the place last week to say goodbye. “I wanted to visit the children one last time,” he said with emotion. Liteky was surprised and touched when the Mother Superior at the orphanage gave him a special farewell gift, a beautiful, pearl-white string of rosary beads. Liteky, a former Catholic priest who now considers himself a member of all faiths -- “a member of the universal church,” he says -- accepted the rosary. He holds the beads sometimes now so as to better remember the war, the soldiers, the children ... the lessons he learned from his sojourn to Baghdad and back again.

The Junk-Food Wars

Chomp down on a Big N' Tasty with Cheese.

Make that a Double Whopper with a side of Biggie Fries, or, instead, why not a Western Bacon Cheeseburger with Great Biggie Fries! Better yet, think outside the bun: Order a Double Burrito Supreme or maybe a Super Supreme Stuffed Crust Pizza. To wash it down, how about a large or extra-large soda or even a 52-ounce X-treme Gulp?

Because we think young. And we deserve a break today.

Don’t bother us: We’re eating.

Everyday, hundreds of millions of people across the globe and in Sacramento purchase literally billions of such items -- brand-named in the enthusiastic language of fast foods -- and consume them happily and often in super-sized quantities. Americans spend about $120 billion a year on the stuff. Ultimately, in three short decades, this style of eating has transformed the American diet by making inexpensive, tasty meals easily available to pretty much all of us, anytime and everywhere.

In the process, fast food also has helped revise the population’s health forecast -- and not in a righteous way. Most of these food products are high in fat, loaded with sugar or both. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to recognize that this simple fact, coupled with an increasingly TV-watching and sedentary public, has fueled what has become a major public-health crisis in America, an epidemic of fat. A particularly chilling report from the Center for Disease Control described obesity as having “spread with the speed and dispersion characteristics of a communicable-disease epidemic.” Just last month, that same organization found that the number of overweight adults had increased from 56 percent to 65 percent of the population. Some 25 percent of all American kids are now viewed as overweight; 15 percent of them are considered severely overweight or obese.

The fact that kids are at risk has caused a public stir -- in Sacramento and across the country.

Parents are coming to realize they’re raising the most overweight, unfit, unhealthy generation of children in American history and are beginning to get anxious. Hospital costs related to childhood obesity have more than tripled in the past 20 years, and obese and overweight children are turning up at medical clinics with health problems that used to be limited to people their parents’ age: high cholesterol, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and even heart disease. In California, a Public Health Institute study found that only three out of 10 adolescents were getting enough physical activity, twice as many adolescents were in heavier weight categories than would be expected, and the risks were highest for low-income and African-American and Latino children. And the numbers keep climbing to super-sized proportions.

What’s a public-health advocate to do?

Declare war.

Right now, some of the very groups who targeted the tobacco companies are gearing up to go into combat once again -- this time against junk food. Instead of Big Tobacco, this fight will be waged against Big Food. Individuals representing nonprofit and government agencies in Sacramento are gathering information with which to arm the grassroots activists in the struggle.

The early battles, they say, will be fought in the schools because of the serious dangers to kids’ health and because that’s where the government has some control.

Last year in Sacramento, the state Legislature passed SB 19, the comprehensive bill from Senator Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, which aimed to increase physical exercise for kids and limit the availability of junk food in elementary and middle schools. Meanwhile, efforts to target on-campus sales of soda -- with its high-calorie, no-nutrition content -- seem to be a high-level priority for public-health organizers around California. When the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District announced a little more than a month ago that it would ban the future sale of soft drinks on campus, many people saw the decision as a consequential victory, an early warning shot across the bow of Big Food.

Of course, the food industry does not plan to take any of this lying down -- not with billions of dollars at stake. Powerful organizations such as the National Soft Drink Association (representing soda giants such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (the world’s largest association of food and beverage products) have fought legislation both in Washington, D.C., and here in Sacramento that would regulate the marketing or sales of fatty foods and sodas at schools. The food industry is prepared for battle. Several manufacturers have formed a coalition that’s reportedly set to roll out an ad campaign depicting health activists as “food police” who want to tell you and your family what you can and can’t eat. Also, some of the junk-food giants, such as McDonald’s and Frito-Lay, are making wise, pre-emptive moves by modifying their foods to contain less of a harmful fat.

But, so far, none of this has deterred the health advocates who have lobbied school-board members. Further legislative actions are being considered. How-to manuals are being written. Conferences are being planned. Even Ralph Nader, wanting in on the ground floor of this health-related activism, made headlines in Europe last spring for referring to Big Macs as “weapons of mass destruction.”

Make no mistake: The junk-food wars are coming.

But advocates have their work cut out for them. The sale of such foods and drinks can be lucrative for schools, and students, the supposed victims in this battle, don’t want their parents to get their way in banning junk food. One Sacramento school-food fight provides an example, and advocates say such fights will occur on campuses all over the country soon. It’s notable that at this particular institution, Folsom High School, the parents have a champion: a food-services director who seems not at all uncomfortable on the front lines of battle.

The famished lunch-goers were presented with bright-colored banners, bountiful fruit bowls and display cases full of food choices as they entered the restorative, nutritious world of chef Al Schieder. Welcomed by the ultra-inviting aroma of freshly baked pizza and calzones, the diners also were attracted by the visual allure of homemade pasta, taco salads and just-rolled sushi; and the sumptuous offerings of southwestern burritos, muffuletta sandwiches and veggie rice bowls. The kitchen’s prep team and servers wore bistro-style uniforms with red aprons and black-and-white, checkered hats. The chef paced through the kitchen, briskly checking details, inspecting provisions and joking with the staff.

But Schieder’s dining establishment was no courtyard cafe serving trendy Midtowners. It was the Folsom High School cafeteria. Chef Schieder’s customers were teenagers -- with their boisterous voices, vibrant energy and colossal backpacks -- who had just escaped fourth period.

No standard school cafeteria fare there. No mystery meat with gross gravy. No instant mashed potatoes with squishy peas. No Jell-O with bananas. No syrupy soda. No way.

As director of child nutrition for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, Schieder has fashioned menus for his district that are as healthful as they can be while still accomplishing the difficult task of attracting young eaters. “We taught nutrition on the one hand and fed them French fries with the other,” Schieder said. “It had to change.” Schieder said his meals cost $2.50 each (he serves 7,000 of them district-wide every day) and always include milk and fruit. Though advised by many that no school cafeteria could survive without food à la carte and snack foods, Schieder dumped the fries, 86’d the Doritos and dispensed with the Twinkies and soda. Instead, he emphasized new and healthful recipes that all were within USDA guidelines. The kids insist on pizza (no kidding), so he fashioned a nourishing pizza. The cafeteria started pulling in crowds, and the district, which used to lose about $200,000 each year on lunches, netted more than $300,000 in the 2001-2002 school year under the new healthful and tasty regime.

Of Hungarian descent and armed with European training in hotel and restaurant administration, Schieder once owned four restaurants in the region, all called Pasta Fresca. He sold his business during the 1990s out of a desire to work more-regular hours and spend more time with his family. So, he took the school job, and his success has attracted fame for him and the district. He has been written about in Food Management magazine and other trade publications for his vision and success. At last count, administrators, food directors and child nutritionists from 50 school districts -- including many in the Sacramento region -- had toured his environment in hopes of learning about his healthy school meals.

But trouble soon brewed near Schieder’s kitchen, and then it bubbled to the top.

Just across the grassy quad, in the shadow of the complex that houses his healthy cafeteria, lurked a junk-food lover’s paradise. Known as the Snack Bar, the place sells students a wide assortment of junk food -- the very stuff Schieder won’t allow in his cafeteria. The junk-food outlet caused a half-dozen parents to show up at a recent Folsom Cordova school board meeting. They came armed with statistics about childhood obesity and how students need good nutrition to do well in school and athletics. Basically, the parents declared war on the student Snack Bar and said that too many students consume its offerings instead of Schieder’s well-balanced meals. Indeed, on a recent Friday, students lined up seven deep at noontime to buy soda and jumbo-sized bags of chips at the Snack Bar. Presumably, for some of the students, the Pepsi and snacks constituted lunch.

When you’re talking about the Snack Bar at Folsom High School, you’re speaking the language of Bob Jarman, the school’s student-activities director, an affable administrator and a 28-year employee of the district. Jarman, who arranged for the school to enter a 10-year contract with PepsiCo in 1998, makes no apologies. He explained that the soda company installed vending machines on campus, furnished the Snack Bar with fountain equipment and installed various scoreboards and marquees on campus valued at $131,000. Now, each year, the student body receives a 35-percent commission on the gross revenue from all vending machines. In the 2001-2002 school year, the arrangement, along with the revenue from other snack sales, netted a sizable profit of about $55,000 for Folsom High School’s student-body activities, including athletics, music, choir, clubs and drama productions.

But the complaining parents do not seem to care about the money. Besides, they think the extracurricular programs could be funded in other ways. Vicky Berends, a Folsom parent who works with a health-advocacy group called Project LEAN, attended the school-board meeting to voice her concern that the Snack Bar was pulling kids away from Schieder’s healthful school lunches. “They sell Ding Dongs, Doritos, 20-ounce Pepsi and Skittles,” she said. “Just why are we doing this? I think we need to follow in the footsteps of L.A. Unified and Oakland and eliminate soda outright.”

Parent Cynthia Mulcaire told the board she understands that kids don’t want the junk food banned. “They want choice,” she said. “Of course they do. They’re kids! But its not right for the schools to erase everything we try to do at home around developing good eating habits.” Another Folsom High School parent and former school-board member, Susan Goodman, said she wants action on the matter without delay. “I would like to see them ban soda and junk food outright. We tell [the kids] not to do drugs, not to drive at 80 miles an hour ... why don’t we have the guts to tell them we won’t sell junk food at school?”

The board took the safe road after the parents’ presentation and decided to gather more information before considering action. But the parents aren’t likely to let the board off that easily. Board member Jim McGowan said he’s sympathetic to the issue but that “money sure is tight.”

But Folsom High School students aren’t so wishy-washy. They straight-up don’t like what the parents are up to.

When the school bell sounded, Jarman got ready to begin his leadership class, located in a schoolroom just adjacent to the disputed Snack Bar. The room quickly filled up with 48 clamorous teenagers, most of them elected school leaders who briskly arranged themselves at group tables with Buffy-like cool. Today’s class would consist of talking with a reporter about nutrition, childhood obesity and -- especially -- about the controversial Folsom High School soda sales and Snack Bar. The students seemed already aware that some parents were getting set for battle, and, almost uniformly, the students disagreed with a soda ban.

“Part of being in high school is growing up and making decisions on your own,” said one young teenager, Amanda. “We all know that soda isn’t healthy, but they shouldn’t take away our right to choose.”

Another student got general applause from the roomful of teens when she basically called out the parents. “If parents get their way in revoking the Snack Bar, that would be outrageous!” said Nikki. “The kids will do it anyway. ... You can’t compare soda to tobacco; soda will not kill you.”

Carbonated water and 10 teaspoons of sugar. The basic ingredients of a regular-sized soda--as revealed in a 1999 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- may surprise regular drinkers of the beverage. But Mark Lemieux, nutrition services director for the sprawling Sacramento City Unified School District, knows exactly what’s in the beverage. “It’s just sugar and water,” he said. “It’s not a wise food choice.” Yes, nutritionists know that soda and other sugary drinks, such as Kool-Aid and Hawaiian Punch, can leave kids wired and fill them up with calories that have little or no nutritional benefit. Some studies even indicate that soft-drink consumption may leech calcium from kids who are barely getting enough as it is.

But awareness of the ingredients doesn’t necessarily make Lemieux -- or plenty of other school food directors, for that matter -- favor ditching soda contracts. From the corrugated, warehouse-type offices behind Hiram Johnson High School that house the SCUSD’s Nutrition Services Department, Lemieux answered questions about what he and other administrators carefully refer to as “the soda issue.” He reminded a reporter that the 80 school cafeterias in the Sacramento district operate outside the regular school budget. Like all such cafeterias, these ones get no funding and must bring in all the dollars that they spend. Basically, the cafeterias must be run like independent businesses, he said, further making the crucial point that the sale of soda provides 50 cents profit on the dollar and that “the sale of milk and juice provides half that.”

“Our position is we’d like to remove sodas, but we’re very concerned about the financial impact. ... [Public schools] are not the end-all-be-all to solving childhood obesity in this nation.”

A bit of background: 20 years ago, kids drank two times more milk than soda. Today that’s reversed. Soft drinks are big business and generate more than $50 billion in annual sales in the United States alone. The changeover from milk has come about, in large part, because of “pouring rights,” a soda-marketing strategy launched in the mid-1990s that targeted schools for exclusive contracts. Sometimes referred to as corporate sponsorships, the contracts usually involve large lump-sum payments or donations to schools in return for exclusive rights to vending machines or cafeteria sales. A percentage of the profits is churned back into the schools to help food-service departments break even or, as is the case at Folsom High School, to fund student activities. Something like 250 school districts across the country have signed such soda contracts.

Sacramento Unified is not one of them. In 1999, the SCUSD turned down a controversial $2 million PepsiCo contract that would have given that soda company exclusive rights to sell its products in vending machines and in cafeterias on Sacramento campuses. However salient, that victory was not all it was cracked up to be in the local media, say local nutrition experts. Despite turning down the district-wide exclusivity contract, most of the middle and high schools still sell soda based on individual arrangements with one of the two soda giants, PepsiCo or Coca-Cola. Roseville Joint Unified School District signed a $1.2 million contract with Pepsi a few years back. All the high schools and most of the middle schools in the San Juan Unified School District have individual contracts. El Dorado Unified School District has a six-figure, multi-year soda contract, and Grant Unified School District remains on a long-term contract with Coca-Cola. And, despite Schieder and his healthy cafeteria, Cordova and Folsom High Schools both have long-term contracts with Pepsi.

SCUSD board members convened a nutrition task force two years ago, and the district’s school cafeterias enacted certain reforms as a result, such as offering three fresh fruits and a salad bar in almost every school in the district. But the sodas remain. According to Lemieux, SCUSD soon will consider whether its wants to adopt a policy on the soda issue one way or the other.

“On the surface, it looks like a small issue, an easy one,” said Lemieux, shaking his head. “But it isn’t. There are lots of ramifications. When you remove an item that generates revenues, you have to consider the consequences.”

But fear of losing revenue didn’t stop the Los Angeles district.

That city’s school board, representing the second-largest district in the country, with 730,000 kids, voted unanimously in late August to ban the sale of soda in school cafeterias and student snack bars. This, despite the student-raised point that kids have come to rely on their soda “pick-up,” as one sophomore put it, just as much as parents and teachers seem to rely on their morning coffee boost. Nevertheless, starting in 2004, vending machines at LAUSD may offer only water, milk and beverages that contain at least 50 percent juice. The board also set up a task force to look into mitigating the loss of soda funds. The action followed similar ones by about 30 smaller districts in the country and state, including Oakland Unified School District, which enacted a junk-food ban that went even further. But the LAUSD ban has been seen as crucial because of the size and influence of the district.

“L.A. was a watershed moment,” said Dan Hackman, a policy analyst for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “It was remarkable and important. It’s absolute proof that there’s a momentum building to create a healthy school environment.”

On the broader policy front, Senator Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, decided to tackle the soda-in-schools issue by introducing the Childhood Obesity Prevention Bill to go after schools’ soda sales during the last legislative session. Despite the various permutations it went though, Ortiz’s bill, SB 1520, never could get enough votes and died a beleaguered death last spring. The bill was fought off aggressively by organizations including the powerful National Soft Drink Association, whose members felt that SB 1520 was not the solution to childhood obesity. “It is too simplistic to say that if we just ban or restrict certain foods in the diet, then our children will be healthy, and obesity will go away,” said Sean McBride of the NSDA.

But many people do want the government in their lives if it can help them solve serious problems. A year ago last summer, during one jampacked Capitol hearing on the subject of childhood obesity, Senator Escutia announced her bill, SB 19. It sets nutritional requirements for certain foods sold at elementary and middle schools and provides grants of between $4,000 and $25,000 to school districts to develop policies on nutrition and school-based physical activities. Though it drew strong opposition from a coalition of food and beverage companies, this bill passed through the fires of the Legislature and will be enforceable beginning in January 2003.

One moving moment at that hearing was when a 17-year-old named Jessica testified that the lunch choices at her Sacramento high school were hamburgers, buffalo wings, French fries, chicken nuggets and pizza. Her weight at the time of the hearing was in the 200-pound range. “I have class at 7:30 in the morning,” she said, “I usually go to McDonald’s and get breakfast there. After classes, I grab the closest thing -- chips and soda -- then I’m off to a club meeting.”

As it goes for Jessica, so it goes for millions of other schoolchildren.

The 30-second spot opens with a soft lens on an adoring yuppie father cooing over his innocent, gurgling infant. Next, comes a woman’s voice-over -- presumably the voice of the child’s mom. “There will be a first step,” she intones, “a first word ... and, of course a first French fry.” The scene fades to the golden arches and a French fry bowed into the shape of smile.

“The first French fry,” as the commercial became known in marketing circles, ran in prime-time during the widely-watched 2002 Winter Olympics. The commercial was interspersed with a similar one that featured Ronald McDonald successfully calming a wailing infant when its dad couldn’t manage the trick.

Public-health advocates went ballistic.

“Here we have skyrocketing childhood obesity, and McDonald’s is targeting kids!” said Gary Ruskin, director of a group called Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader spinoff organization. Health advocates decried the message that kids could begin eating fast foods at an early age. As advocates are well aware, it was tobacco advertising to the young that finally swayed Congress to increase regulation in that industry about three decades ago.

In his recent bestseller, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser details how the industry spends billions on mass marketing, with kids as a prime target. Maybe this is why, he writes, the golden arches are more widely recognized around the world than the Christian cross. It doesn’t help that in many schools, fast foods are synonymous with school lunch. In fact, a survey of California high schools in 2000 found that 95 percent of them sold à la carte fast foods from big-name franchises such as Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Meanwhile, kids in 12,000 schools across the country -- 180 of them public and private schools in California -- now are required, thanks to corporate donations of video equipment in classrooms, to watch a 12-minute Channel One television program every day that contains two minutes of commercials from companies including McDonald’s, Hershey, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, KFC, Frito-Lay, Domino’s and the like.

Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, published a book this year named Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. The book explores her view about how the food industry uses the political process and unfair marketing methods to influence what people eat. The amount of purchasing power children have is huge in American society, she wrote, with kids from 6 to 19 now making $485 billion worth of purchasing decisions a year.

“It is no wonder that food companies view schoolchildren as an unparalleled marketing opportunity,” said Nestle, who also wrote at length about the caloric downside, given the obesity epidemic, of the food industry’s current marketing strategy to super-size food items (i.e., increase portion size, especially of fries and sodas) in order to super-size profits.

Nestle’s more academic Food Politics and Schlosser’s journalistic Fast Food Nation became a sort of one-two punch in the junk-food war that provided ammunition and a rallying cry for public-health advocates to go to battle. Both authors suggested that the parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Food are too obvious to overlook.

“For a long time, it was smoking,” said Melissa Guajardo, a nutrition project coordinator based in the peaceable, creek-side West Sacramento offices of the Health Education Council. “That campaign taught us a lot,” she said. Like other people in her field, Guajardo -- a slight, deliberate woman -- is cautious with the tobacco analogy and understands the risk of oversimplifying when it comes to causes for obesity, for which the cure often requires a total lifestyle change involving both food and exercise. “With food, it’s not so direct as with tobacco. You can’t make the same biological connection. But there are similarities.”

Hackman, the policy analyst, said he sees parallels to tobacco, too. “There’s a whole industry that makes a lot of money contributing to the problem” by promoting high-fat, high-sugar foods, especially to children, he said. “They’ve created an environment that makes it difficult for kids to make a healthy choice. ... How many ads promote cool, hip orange consumption?”

Hackman added, “Schools are an important first place, an important first step. But this is a multi-year, multi-stage battle.”

Indeed, the fight against fast food already has moved into one court (in a case in which a man is suing McDonald’s because he alleges it caused his obesity), in tax-law proposals (a Yale psychologist made headlines a few years back by calling for a “Twinkie tax”) and, of course, in the realm of fast-food marketing aimed at young kids (such ads already have been banned outright in Sweden and Norway).

California’s Project LEAN, the group that was instrumental in the recent LAUSD victory, will release a how-to manual for citizens, parents and public-health educators soon based on the group’s victory in Los Angeles. The manual will be about how to get soda out of schools.

The group’s thinking is that where California goes, the rest of the country will follow.

However, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, with its annual U.S. sales of $460 billion, will do its best to see that this doesn’t happen. The GMA regularly lobbies Congress and state houses against legislation that would restrict campus vending machines or schoolchildren’s access to snack foods in any way. The GMA lobbied in Sacramento against passage of Escutia’s SB 19 and Ortiz’s SB 1520 and issued a statement last month that the LAUSD soda ban is “counterproductive in the fight against childhood obesity.”

Another development worth noting: Many food-industry giants, ostensibly seeing the writing on the wall, have taken steps to make their foods healthier, if not healthful. Soon, McDonald’s will launch a new method of cooking fries that contain 40 percent less “trans fat” oils, which are believed to be an extremely harmful type of fat. Frito-Lay, the maker of snack chips including Doritos, recently announced that it would eliminate this type of fat from its products and offer more reduced-fat snacks.

But, at Sacramento Unified’s Nutrition Services Department, regardless of his concern about losing soda revenues, Lemieux laughed when asked where he thought this food battle would go. “I think non-nutritious foods will be prohibited in California, and it will slowly spread across the country,” he predicted in a quick decree.

Public-health advocates would love to agree.

But, as noon approached at the Folsom High School cafeteria, and yet another throng of starving “Lunch B” teenagers hustled into their uniquely healthful eating space, Schieder weighed in about the inevitability of a junk-food war and the wave of school bans on soda. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Change is always difficult in an established environment. ... But it’s coming. The storm is coming.”

As the teenagers line up for Schieder’s meals with milk, they’re likely oblivious to the forces swirling around them -- far more worried about their fifth-period geometry test, where they left their jackets, what they’ll wear to the Friday night dance. Surely, they have no idea that their generation has more at stake than any other in the childhood-obesity epidemic and the outcome of the junk-food wars. Certainly, they are unaware that their presence in this particular cafeteria at this particular point in history is, in many ways, an experiment on behalf of the wars’ combatants.

Can places like this help teach children how to choose to eat healthier? Schieder shrugged, sure of the answer.

“It has to start somewhere,” he said.

But, in Jarman’s fourth-period leadership class, the teenagers had another idea about choice. Of the students present, the vast majority thought that they, especially once they reached high school age, should be free to decide whether they want to drink soda or eat junk food. “This is not a school issue,” said Kirsten, to the hum of approval from her peers. “It’s a home issue. This is about the habits you develop at home and take into your life.”

Still, two teenagers -- both student athletes -- spoke up with a dissenting view. “If I were Surgeon General, and dealing with [childhood obesity] was my objective, I’d dynamite the Snack Bar and the vending machines,” said Matt, a wrestler. “I’d just get rid of everything.”

The class exploded in unpremeditated laughter.

Melinda Welsh is a contributing editor at the Sacramento News and Review.

Prisoner of Conscience

The loudspeaker crackles on and the call goes out across the prison yard for inmate No. 83276-020 to report to the administration building. Within minutes, a lanky man in khakis with white hair and clear blue eyes enters the interrogation room. The prisoner is tanned and wears an unexpected beard. He has the large hands of a working man -- powerful and full of intent.

The door is closed behind him and locked from the outside. A guard peeks in from an adjacent room through a glassed-in security window. The federal prisoner asks at once if the warden will "monitor" the interview as anticipated and advises a reporter that, if so, he intends to object because this would constitute a violation of First Amendment rights. The prisoner, ever ready to do battle for what he believes is a just cause, readies for a confrontation with the warden.

But when his keeper shows no interest in witnessing the session, the prisoner’s tension is releaved and he takes a deep breath. "In truth," he says, "life in this level of security is not much worse than military boot camp."

Charlie Liteky should know. He is now serving a one-year prison term in Lompoc Federal Prison near San Luis Obispo after being arrested for leading nonviolent protests against a Pentagon-funded school he claims violates the human rights of poor people in Latin America. And Liteky is certainly no stranger to the military. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam as an army chaplain and, for an exceptional act of valor, was awarded this country’s highest medal.

"I’m trying to help create a nonviolent world and to do so a person must face violence ... and death if necessary," writes the ex-priest in a prison diary that is read on-line by tens of thousands of religious people and peace activists across the country, including many here in Sacramento. It is no surprise to find Liteky’s journal writings full of references to Gandhi and Martin Luther King -- both of whom died fighting for justice and standing up for the poor, no matter what the personal consequences.

Liteky pens the diary entries while standing on a creaky metal folding chair in his cell, leaning across a bunk bed that serves, for now, as his desk. He doesn’t have it too bad at Lompoc. He lives in the "minimum security" section and gets along with most of the men. There are 300 of them here, crammed into two warehouse-like buildings. "I liken it to submarine living," says Liteky, who turned 70 years old in prison back in February. Thanks to the diary, Liteky remains active in the cause, able to communicate his thoughts and experiences despite his prison locale.

"Charlie is my hero," gushes Sacramento’s Barbara Wiedner, a lifelong peace activist and friend of Liteky’s who sends him books and corresponds with him regularly in prison. "He has proven with his life that he is a hero."

Still, in Liteky’s presence, one can’t help but wonder what the word "hero" means and whether the word "crazy" might be a more accurate way to describe this man for his seeming willingness to do anything, including risk his life, for what he perceives to be a just cause. And for choosing, through his actions, to spend so much time in prison among criminals and convicts instead of out in the free world, sharing his passions with wife and friends. After one of his arrests for civil disobedience, a government prosecutor questioned Liteky about his life’s choices and remarked on his tendency to take the protesting "too far." One can’t help but wonder, however, if Charlie Liteky has yet to take things as far as he intends.

The dense jungle of the Bien Hoa Province in 1967 sets the stage for an exploration of how this man turns his beliefs into action.

The air was thick that winter morning near Phuoc-Lac, 35 miles northeast of Saigon. The Vietnam War was heating up and Chaplain Liteky and other members of the U.S. Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade set out early on patrol and tramped through mud and brush on a mission to check out a mortar site.

Suddenly everything exploded. The brigade marched unknowingly into the edge of a Viet Cong battalion whose 500 men were so well dug in as to be invisible. "They stunned us," says Liteky. "Nobody knew they were there."

The enemy opened machine gun and rocket fire on the leading 15 men in Liteky’s group and almost every one of them went down. A few died immediately, but most did not. The shock arrived, the pain moved in. Blood streamed from the men’s chests, legs, arms. Then the screaming began.

At first, Liteky did like the rest of the unwounded men and hugged the ground, praying not to get caught himself in the fusillade of fire. But then -- moved by compassion or courage, or both -- he jolted into action. Eyewitnesses on that day say Liteky rose from the ground and began moving through hostile fire toward the wounded. He crawled to them, knelt by their mangled bodies, presided over their agony. He administered last rites to the dying. "For some reason I didn’t get hit," he says.

One wounded man became entangled in the dense, thorny underbrush. Liteky broke the vines and freed the man, ignoring the intense gunfire. He lugged the man away to a clearing nearby. Another man was too heavy and badly wounded to carry, so Liteky rolled onto his back, placed the man on his chest and carefully, as if in slow motion, crawled the man back to the clearing using elbows and heels to push himself along. He returned to the action again. At one point, said a witness, Liteky crawled to within 15 meters of enemy machine guns so as to "place himself between the enemy and the wounded men." For most of the day, Chaplain Liteky did not carry a weapon, though he wore fatigues and looked the part of a soldier. "I did stop and pick up a gun," he remembers, "but then I remember thinking -- that would be a helluva way for a priest to die! So I put it down."

Later, when medevac helicopters arrived on the scene, Liteky reportedly stood up in the face of small arms and rocket fire and directed the helicopters into and out of the area. Captain Donald Drees, the company commander, told the military press that "Charlie Liteky inspired 50 men to hang on that day in the face of the most intense fire I have ever witnessed."

The siege at Bien Hoa went on for eight hours. Liteky, who had not been wounded during the first three hours of the fight, was eventually hit and sustained shrapnel wounds in the neck and foot. All told, Liteky saved 23 men that day.

For his actions, Liteky received the Congressional Medal of Honor. This medal is sacrosanct--less than 4,000 people have ever received it; only 150 of them are alive today. In November 1968, in the East Room of the White House, President Lyndon Johnson placed the medal around Liteky’s neck, saying, "Son, I’d rather have one of those babies than be president."

Today, Liteky is nonplussed about his actions on December 6, 1967. "I don’t think we should even be awarded for compassionate action," he says. "It’s just part of being a decent human being."

Being a decent human being, after all, is why Liteky became an army chaplain in the first place. It’s also why he joined the priesthood. After a youth spent skipping school and rebelling against his career military father, Liteky eventually straightened up and got an education. He decided to do the toughest, most honorable thing he thought a young man could do in life, and this meant joining the priesthood. In 1960, he joined up with the Missionary Servants Of The Most Holy Trinity, wore a collar and did God’s work on the East Coast for six years. When the call went out for religious men to volunteer for duty in Vietnam, Liteky was glad for the opportunity to serve. At that time, he believed in the war; he believed the American government was right in wanting to fight communism.

After training at a military base in Fort Benning, Georgia, Liteky went "in-country." He stayed for one tour, then extended it by six months. After the action at Bien Hoa, he returned home, then volunteered to go back again for yet another tour.

From his prison home, Liteky seems ready to talk about the politics of Vietnam and the protest movement that arose to try and stop an unjust war. But he’s uneasy talking about his day of heroism and the courage and the fear and the medal and what any of it might mean about his character.

"All I can say is ... death did not hold much fear for me that day. Even now, being in here ... it doesn’t make sense for me to fear death."

When Liteky arrived home from his second tour in Vietnam, he had another battle on his hands -- the celibacy aspect of his priestly vows. Among other things, he carried guilt about the fact that, while a priest, he’d lost his virginity to a prostitute in Saigon. "I struggled with it," he says of his promised celibacy. "It was the biggest internal struggle I’ve had in my life. To have vowed oneself to God, then say 'I can’t do it!’ " Liteky ended that struggle in 1975 by deciding to leave the priesthood. After spending the next six years in what he calls "the grand world of women," he met his soul mate and future wife, Judy Balch.

The two were fixed up on a blind date in 1980 and shared dinner and conversation. The following Sunday, Liteky showed up without notice at Judy’s church, St. John of God in San Francisco’s Sunset District. "He didn’t tell me he was coming," says Judy, who had been a nun for 13 years before leaving the order. "I remember being aware of him being there -- and just the electricity of that. He knew this church was an important place for me so it was just amazing to me what he was saying by showing up there."

The pair began dating in earnest and immediately recognized that this was the Big One for them both. Tall and slender with short-cut auburn hair, Judy did not know about Liteky’s medal and war heroism until several months into their relationship. Eventually, the former priest and former nun married at St. John of God on October 22, 1983.

Where Liteky is spontaneous, Judy is measured. Where the husband is eager, Judy is earnest. Liteky prides himself on thinking like a common man, while Judy can’t help but come across as more of an analyst, an intellectual.

Liteky credits his wife with his transformation into a political activist; she’s also the one who first got him focused on Central America. A longtime proponent of social justice, Judy urged her husband to start making the political and economic connections. Liteky began to listen to the stories of the refugees coming up from El Salvador. He started reading everything he could get his hands on regarding U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

Once in a while he would attend a protest rally with Judy but he’d usually respond with frustration. "I wasn’t impressed," he says of the demonstrations he attended. "All these people shouting and marching around not doing anything. ... I just didn’t think it was enough!"

Soon Liteky traveled to Central America with a group of Vietnam veterans and heard more firsthand stories from people whose families had been disappeared or tortured with the complicity of the U.S. government. "We all came to the same conclusion -- that we were exploiting the people just like in Vietnam."

When Liteky returned home, something turned over in him. "The idealism that I had as a youth … the pledge of allegiance and America the Beautiful and the Declaration of Independence -- to have that idealism shattered and realize that we’re no more than an empire trying to maintain ourselves -- it made me sick to think of this kind of hypocrisy."

Wanting to make a dramatic statement about what he had learned, Liteky took center stage at a press conference held at the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall in Washington, D.C., in July 1986. He renounced his medal, as well as the $600 a month veteran’s pension he was otherwise earmarked to receive for life. He left the decoration at the wall with a letter he wrote to then-President Ronald Reagan: "I find it ironic that conscience calls me to renounce the Congressional Medal of Honor for the same basic reason I received it -- trying to save lives." It was an opening salvo from a man who was to become more and more willing to go to great lengths to bring attention to his cause.

News of what this former war hero had done resonated in the press across the country and caused a new awareness in Liteky and his wife. It was the first time they realized that his heroism during the war could focus substantial media and public attention on their cause.

In the fall of 1986, Liteky made another bold move. In the tradition of Gandhi, he and three other veterans -- George Mizo, Brian Willson and Duncan Murphy -- began a water-only, open-ended fast on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It was to bring attention to how wrong they believed the U.S. government was in pursuing a foreign policy in Central America that undermined democracy and punished the poor. Liteky stated outright that he was willing to die for this cause.

Judy did not, at first, support her husband’s spontaneous choice to begin the fast. In fact, when Liteky announced what he was about to undertake to his friends at St. John of God, nobody liked the news. Liteky’s own brother Pat called him "nutso" for considering starving himself to the death. Another parishioner pointed out that Liteky was being selfish, that his act could mean tremendous suffering for his wife. Somebody else accused him of arrogance, saying, "Who do you think you are? Gandhi? Or do you think you’re Jesus Christ?" Liteky responded no, he was just trying to be the best man he could be.

But there was no changing his mind. Eventually, Judy decided she had no option but to honor her husband’s choice to fast, so three weeks after Liteky stopped eating, she joined him in D.C. The pair spent their afternoons on the expansive steps of the Capitol, facing the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. They spent hour after hour talking with the veterans and others passing by about the cause. "It was a most remarkable time," Judy says.

The fast grew long. On their 47th day without food, Liteky and Mizo, the two who had begun the fasting earliest, were near starved to death. Letters poured in by the thousands begging the men to take food. The New York Times and Washington Post covered the story; Dan Rather talked about the veterans on the evening news; Phil Donahue promised them a forum on his talk show. Supporters tried convincing the men that the media attention meant the fast had worked. They urged them to take food and live on to fight another day. Also, Judy was aware that if the men took the fast to its ultimate conclusion, he would not be the first to die. "Charlie knew George would go first," she says, and he knew he had the power to stop this.

Ultimately, the men decided to end the fast. On the evening of October 17, 1986, a group of 500 supporters gathered to break bread at midnight with Liteky and the other veterans at a Mass and celebration on the steps. Judy gets tears in her eyes now recalling that evening’s events. "People were moved to want to be with these men," she said.

The fast was over, but the protests were not.

In the fall of 1988, Liteky journeyed to the Guatemalan Embassy. With a handful of others, like a scene from a movie, he chained himself for more than a week to its front gates, protesting the U.S.’s support of a Guatemalan military government that was well-known for human rights violations against the country’s poor and peasant class. That action was dramatic, but "it didn’t get much story," says Judy. "No press took that anywhere."

On Independence Day 1990, Liteky came up with yet another idea for getting attention for the cause of changing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Flag burning was a hot-button issue at the time, so Liteky made a huge American flag banner, scrawled peace messages between the stars and stripes, and took it to the Capitol steps on the Fourth of July. At an event staged for the press, he read his "citizen’s declaration of independence," hung his flag upside down and proceeded to burn it. He fully expected to be locked up for desecrating the flag that day, but nobody arrested him, nobody seemed to care.

"You can’t say all his actions work out as dramatically as he might have imagined," Judy says with a smile. "I’ve watched him do these protest actions for 20 years. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t."

It was later in 1990 when the Reverend Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, invited Liteky to focus his protests on a Defense Department-funded institution called the School of the Americas (SOA). Based in Fort Benning, Georgia -- ironically the same town where Liteky had undergone his Army training and across the river from where he’d attended seminary -- the SOA was a school designed by the Pentagon to help foreign soldiers and officers fight communism in Latin American countries.

Peace activists documented how, during its 54-year history, the SOA had readied over 60,000 Latin American troops in commando tactics, military intelligence, psychological operations (such as torture), and advanced combat skills (such as assassination). Among others, the SOA was the alma mater of notorious Panamanian military "strongman" General Manuel Noriega and the late Roberto d’Aubuisson, the man credited with planning the 1980 assassination of El Salvador’s much-loved Archbishop Oscar Romero.

During the early years, the campaign to shut down the SOA was so small as to be minuscule. After staging a few protests that didn’t get much attention, core members of the group -- Liteky, his brother Pat and Bourgeois -- trespassed in 1990 onto the grounds of the school, illegally entering the SOA museum’s "hall of fame." The protestors proceeded to squirt red paint (signifying blood) from baby bottles up onto the portraits on the walls. Liteky was arrested for destroying government property and was given a "permanent ban" -- forbidden by the U.S. government to ever return to the base. In 1991, Liteky did his first real jail time for this act of trespass -- six months in a federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

But the prison experience did not stop him. Far from it. Going to prison actually became a way for Liteky and others to draw attention to the cause. So, despite the ban, Liteky was to return to the SOA again and again over the following years. Sometimes he’d be arrested. Sometimes he’d be held and released without arrest. One time, Liteky thought he was sure he’d be arrested at the SOA for climbing a tree and unfurling a banner, but instead the police arrested the people who had gathered below the tree to support him.

In the late 1990s, and as a result of the early actions by Liteky, Bourgeois and others, the SOA Watch movement began growing in earnest. The activists started holding an annual protest march around the Thanksgiving holiday in memory of six Jesuit priests who were murdered at that time of year in El Salvador by men who were trained at the SOA. By 1997, the annual protest drew 2,000 demonstrators. Last year, the number surged to 12,000, with celebrities like The West Wing’s Martin Sheen getting arrested. The effort to close down the SOA had become the center of a significant nonviolent protest movement in America.

It took Liteky several months in his garage to construct the symbolic coffins that he and others carried in the November 1999 demonstration to signify the death of innocent civilians in Latin America. Liteky led thousands of protestors to "cross the line" -- many carrying the coffins -- and enter the SOA grounds on that November day. He was arrested then and again in December doing this. He was given the maximum sentence: two misdemeanor counts of trespassing; two six-month terms to be served consecutively in Lompoc Federal Prison, starting last July.

Has Liteky and the SOA Watch movement made a difference? Yes and no. As the ranks of the protestors grow, so too do the number of representatives in Congress who support efforts to stop the Pentagon’s $20 million a year funding of the school. In 1999, the House of Representatives voted 230 to 197 to cut $2 million off the SOA budget. But a joint Senate/House conference committee later overturned that vote.

And last December, while Liteky sat in jail, the SOA was officially "closed," then re-opened under a new name as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. No one doubts that this happened as a result of the protests. School authorities say the new name symbolizes a new "human rights" emphasis at the institution, but Liteky and others claim the name change is cosmetic at best, and that students of the school are still being taught the same old tactics. Indeed, a February 2000 Human Rights Watch Report in Colombia implicates seven recent SOA graduates in 1999 crimes including kidnapping, murder, massacres and the setting up of paramilitary groups.

Ultimately, the sacrifices made by Liteky and others have not yet had their desired effect. The school remains open.

It should come as no surprise that Charlie Liteky’s intensity and dogged sensibilities have taken a toll on his marriage. In fact, he and Judy have spent long stretches of time apart over the past decade. A math teacher, Judy earned most of the couple’s income while her husband worked as an activist or served jail time. At one point, the pair moved to Washington, D.C., to spend more time together and be "closer to the action," but Judy says her husband found himself constantly drawn back to Fort Benning.

"The actions were always pulling us apart," she says. Judy found herself alone much of the time and in a part of the world she wasn’t familiar with. She missed her friends and her church. Ultimately, she made the decision to return to San Francisco regardless of whether her husband would follow.

Judy lives now in a small pink home in that neighborly section of San Francisco that borders the city college. The place is cozy with comfortable couches, a bountiful garden and brightly colored art everywhere. Two cats -- JoJo and Ceci -- roam the place. The man of the house resides here in spirit only.

When the judge handed Liteky the one-year sentence, it was a time of reckoning for the marriage. In the late spring of 2000, Liteky returned home to the pink house for the months before he was to report to prison and settled into the simple joys of living with Judy. The couple spent quality time with each other, connected with old friends, visited old haunts. On the verge of being separated for a full year, the Liteky’s rekindled their union.

Since July 2000, Judy has made the day-long trek to visit her husband at Lompoc one weekend per month. To say Charlie Liteky looks forward to these visits is an understatement. The prisoner doesn’t hesitate to tell a reporter that he’ll probably "get restless" once out of prison and go back to fighting for the cause. But ask him his immediate plan of action upon release and he says: "I think first God will give me a little time with Judy. ... We are very different and we approach things very differently. But when our two approaches are brought together into a unified view of life, then it’s balanced, it’s beautiful."

Indeed, talk to anyone in the Sacramento SOA Watch movement and they’re bound to wax eloquent about the Litekys and what is perceived as their model union. "They’re a wonderful couple," says Wiedner. "They’re extremely dedicated." And Janice Freeman, who was arrested and banned from the SOA last fall along with other Sacramento activists, describes the Litekys as the ideal couple. "They spend a great deal of time apart, but they work for this common cause," she says. "I find them both remarkable. Their lives are a statement."

If that is so, perhaps the statement would be this: Liteky’s wartime heroism cannot be questioned. And his devotion to protesting injustice, especially surrounding U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, is equally clear. But his stubborn penchant to take things further than most makes it difficult to determine if this man is a hero or a fanatic, lunatic or a sage. And what of a married couple whose passionate concern for the poor -- however shared -- often finds them apart, adrift, alone.

"I see Christ as a very loving person who basically preached love," says Liteky, when asked to describe his life philosophy. "And it seems to me that if one grows in that, then the oppression of poor people becomes heightened. You see it more clearly and feel it more deeply. And your reaction to it comes out of love ... and in perfect love, there is no fear."

Perfect love and no fear. Perhaps Charlie Liteky longs now for that exact combination -- for the clarity of compassion and lack of fear he felt that day in the Bien Hoa Province, where he won a medal that was retrieved after he renounced it and today sits in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Liteky himself would like to be a part of history, to die a martyr’s death for the cause of justice. He has referred many times -- in person, in his diaries and in court -- to the nobility of dying in prison. At his pre-trial hearing before the Lompoc sentencing, Liteky even told the judge that he would like to die in jail. He quoted Thoreau, saying prison is "an appropriate place for a protestor to die."

It is a kind of death reserved for the brave, for the faithful, for those few who manage, with their lives, to line up what is in their nature with what is in their hearts and minds. It is a death reserved for patriots, saints and holy men. Flawed and extraordinary, perhaps Charlie Liteky is one of these.